(Content Note: This article contains descriptions of anti-Black and ableist police violence.)
Reproductive justice is often solely framed around birth control and abortion access, but it’s also deeply tied to ending police violence and the damage it causes Black families. Sitting at this intersection are mothers who play a preeminent role in the movement against police violence—because motherhood never ends, even with the loss of a child.
According to Monica Raye Simpson, executive director for the women of color-led southern-based reproductive rights organization SisterSong, the connection between reproductive justice work and ending policing can be seen in how police violence both tears apart existing families and steals the children that Black parents already have.
“A big tenet of our work is to be able to parent the children that we have in healthy and safe environments,” Simpson said. “And if our environments are being plagued by police violence, state-sanctioned violence, [or] vigilantes who feel like they need to take the law into their own hands, that is not creating a safe environment for our children.”
Simpson said SisterSong’s approach to reproductive justice is far more expansive than many reproductive justice organizations because it includes “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” One of the biggest threats to safely parenting Black children and seeing them grow to have families of their own is police brutality and violence.
Research analysis by the Children’s National Hospital revealed that Black children are six times more likely to be shot to death by police than their white peers. The vulnerability of Black children as targets of police violence represents a clear overlap between reproductive justice and ending police brutality. But Simpson points to how mainstream, white-led organizations traditionally reflect a narrowly defined approach to reproductive justice that primarily focuses on abortion and access to contraceptives. As a result, the roles that issues like racial equity, economic justice, and an end to police violence play in achieving reproductive justice get ignored.
Nowhere are these connections more apparent than in the actions taken by Black mothers whose children were victims of police violence. For mothers like Maria Hamilton, the energy they once used to protect their children often becomes channeled into the never-ending work of keeping their memory alive and fighting to prevent other parents from experiencing the pain of losing their children. After Hamilton’s son, Dontre Hamilton, was murdered by Red Arrow police officer Christopher Manney in 2014, she founded Mothers for Justice United, an organization that serves the mothers of children who have been lost to state violence and also advocates for the end of police violence. The 31-year-old Dontre had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was sleeping on a bench in Red Arrow Park when employees at a nearby Starbucks called the police. Officers visited Hamilton twice that day, finding both times that he was posing no issue. A third and final visit was made by Manney, who arrived at the scene alone. Manney beat Hamilton with a baton and shot him 14 times when Hamilton began to struggle.
Mothers for Justice United employs a peer support model similar to those used to help individuals who are seeking to overcome addiction or live with mental health-related issues, where people gain support and guidance from others who have undergone similar experiences. For mothers whose children are slain by police, the aftermath is in part shaped by a “constellation of losses” that can extend beyond the loss of their children, including the loss of one’s home, employment, trust in their community, faith, and friends who may grow “tired of our grief.” Mothers often too find themselves managing those losses while also having to correct the public record about their child—victims who are often vilified by local police, other community members, and all too often, the media.
Hamilton has personal experience leaning on the shared strength of other mothers whose children were victimized by police. In 2018, she established Dontre Day, an annual gathering of Dontre’s supporters, family, and friends at the site of his death to remind the community of why his life must be remembered and how his story can now serve as a catalyst for real change around both policing and approaches to mental health. According to the Milwaukee Independent, Hamilton was surprised by the arrival of Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, at the vigil. The mothers since have grown to be confidants, offering support to one another as they cope with impacts of their losses and the toll taken by their work.
Organizing amongst mothers with children who have been killed by police or who have been otherwise impacted by the criminal legal system has been an ongoing movement in the U.S. for years. For example, Mothers Reclaiming Our Children (Mothers ROC) was founded in Los Angeles in 1992 as a response to the increasing criminalization of Black and Latinx youth. The group quickly gained a reputation for being a powerful network of advocates and providing support for one another in the form of social relationships, lawyer referrals, and help navigating the system. The group also pushed back against the negative perceptions often held against those impacted by the criminal legal system by highlighting their humanity. Mothers ROC members would pack Los Angeles County courtrooms, often wearing “proper” or “respectable” attire as a way to communicate the values held by Black and brown families targeted by the system and debunk commonly held stereotypes about their communities.
Simpson says that the intersection between reproductive justice and police violence also extends beyond how that violence denies children the opportunity to grow up and prevents families from creating safe environments for their children to thrive. This violence also robs people of the opportunities to care for their children and denies them the possibility of creating future families by taking the lives of parents and parents-to-be. George Floyd, Atatiana Jefferson, Rayshard Brooks, and Daunte Wright were all parents whose children lost their care and support when their lives were ended by police brutality. Breonna Taylor had hopes to become a mother. In Christmas of 2019, less than three months before her death, Taylor had tweeted, “I hope next Christmas I have a kid so I can be super excited today like y’all.”
The work of organizations like SisterSong and Mothers United for Justice exists in part because police violence has clear effects and consequences for achieving full reproductive justice. Access to abortion, birth control, and communities free from police violence all impact the human right to self-determined family creation. And just as a lack of access to abortion and birth control can prevent families from building safe and healthy lives for themselves and their children, ongoing police violence also destroys families’ futures and steals their potential.
“I just think that these people’s lives are being taken and the ability for them to live the lives that they want, to create the families that they want, are ended because their lives are taken or they are hugely impacted because [a loved one’s] life has been taken,” Simpson said. “So that’s why it’s important for us as a reproductive justice organization to be on the front lines of [ending police violence] and to make people understand the connections of the work.”