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An Anti-Rape Movement Without Police

A case out of Wisconsin reveals how fragile—and superficial—coalitions between anti-violence organizations and police really are.


When a domestic violence organization in Wisconsin put up signs reading “Black Lives Matter,” they did not know that it would lead to a backlash from police and the loss of a $25,000 grant to provide services. Embrace is the only domestic violence program for four counties, including part of a tribal reservation; in one county, the group’s five law enforcement partners all withdrew.

The organization also lost two board members: the county sheriff and the county’s health and human services director (after the county supervisors voted for her resignation from the board). Both acknowledged this was over Black Lives Matter. “We were some big supporters of Embrace, and we felt that they were not supporting law enforcement and taking the side of some of the anti–law enforcement out there,” Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald told Wisconsin Public Radio, which broke the story.

The law enforcement backlash against Embrace comes after an open letter signed by 47 sexual assault and domestic violence state and territorial coalitions, which publicly questioned the movement’s reliance on the criminal legal system. In the letter, in support of Black Lives Matter, the groups called themselves and the broader movement out for failing to listen to Black feminists and others who have long cautioned against partnering with the carceral state in their fight for justice for survivors. “We must be responsible for the ways in which our movement work directly contradicts our values,” their letter states.

Police retaliation against anti-violence groups that speak out against police violence is becoming a pattern. Two coalitions that signed the letter faced law enforcement fallout to varying degrees, reports Melissa Jeltsen at HuffPo. The state sheriff’s association in Nebraska asked the coalition there to withdraw its signature (it did not), and in Idaho, the state Chiefs of Police Association, Sheriffs Association, and the Prosecuting Attorneys Association withdrew support from their state’s coalition because it signed, too.

After what happened with Embrace in Wisconsin, the interim executive director of Wisconsin’s state coalition, End Domestic Abuse, told HuffPo, “To me, it sounded like they were declaring war on Embrace, none of which is good for victims and survivors.” (That state coalition also signed the letter.) Embrace serves a majority white population across four Wisconsin counties, and according to its annual report, “15 percent of all survivors served in-person by Embrace were Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC).” When others turn their backs on programs like Embrace, that’s who will most likely face the consequences.

Police are not rebelling. By withdrawing their partnership and weaponizing their power, they are demonstrating the kind of discretion that has long defined their role in anti-violence work: the power to say who deserves protection and who does not.

If you’ve ever worked at or got services from a program like Embrace, you’ve probably encountered a graphic called the “Power and Control Wheel.” It’s a tool for understanding the different forms abuse can take: threats and intimidation, controlling money, isolation. But the graphic also seems to indict itself in the context of policing and domestic violence. The abuse tactics it describes—confinement, deprivation, dehumanization—are the hallmarks of the American criminal legal system.

By its own standards, this system routinely fails to protect us from sexual violence. Only 5.7 percent of reported rapes end in an arrest, and less than 1 percent result in a felony conviction, according to an analysis of federal crime data by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. Police can also be perpetrators themselves. As Andrea Ritchie, author of Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, has cited, sexual misconduct is the second-most-common form of police misconduct. It is hard to imagine that any domestic violence program that reported similar data for its own staff would be allowed to operate.

While we are now witnessing policing divest from anti-violence work, some activists in the anti-rape movement have been calling for a divestment from police for more than 40 years—just about as long as there has been a movement. In 1977, three members of Santa Cruz Women Against Rape—Robin McDuff, Deanne Pernell, and Karen Saunders—published “Letter to the Anti-Rape Movement” in the magazine off our backs. When the organized movement began, they wrote, “we were critics of the police, the courts, and the hospitals, the institutions that traditionally dealt with rape victims.” Within five years, they continued, the movement had shifted: They were now joined by groups that prioritized “getting rapists off the streets” by collaborating with the criminal justice system. They opposed this, the women wrote, in part because “no matter what our intentions are, the system is racist through and through.”

The letter, reprinted this year by organizer and educator Mariame Kaba, is both prescient and frustrating. The movement is still wrestling with the criminal legal system. In Wisconsin this September, the Embrace board debated a statement on these issues. What should it call what police did to Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man who was shot and seriously injured by police? The board rejected “attempted murder” and chose simply “shooting.” The statement also read, “Racism, police violence, sexual violence, and domestic violence all have the same root causes, and they interact and compound on each other both in society and within the survivors we serve.” Forty-four years ago, the Santa Cruz Women Against Rape letter told the movement, “We cannot turn our backs to the racism of the system when a Black man is being prosecuted and not expect that same racism to be used against Joann Little.”

Little, an incarcerated Black woman, was charged with murder in 1974. After a prison guard sexually assaulted her while threatening her with an ice pick, she later testified, she fought back and fled the jail. She didn’t know the wounds were fatal. She turned herself in. A grand jury indicted her on first-degree murder, a capital offense in North Carolina. Little’s case demonstrated how the carceral system was itself a place marked by sexual violence, how women—especially Black women like Little—had no right to self-defense, including in confined and surveilled settings where police were ostensibly there to protect them.

But Little would become “the first woman in the United States to be acquitted for wielding deadly violence to protect herself from rape,” as Emily L. Thuma writes in All Our Trials: Prisons, Policing, and the Feminist Fight to End Violence. The Free Joan Little Movement became “a common cause among antiracist, feminist, and leftist organizations at the regional and national levels,” from the Black Panther Party to the National Organization for Women, the Socialist Women’s Caucus of Louisville to the Triangle (North Carolina) Area Lesbian Feminists. The most reluctant to join were local groups of white feminists; out-of-town white women working in tandem with Black-led groups helped bring some on board, like the local NOW chapter. There is a history of working to build such alliances in the movement. Organizing to free Joann Little, Thuma writes, drove “the emergence of an expressly anticarceral feminist agenda in the 1970s.”

We may be seeing that agenda’s resurgence: What does an anti-rape movement without police look like? The fallout in Wisconsin revealed, beyond the contradictions of law enforcement’s interventions in violence, the superficiality of those alliances—which could apparently collapse under the weight of a few Black Lives Matter signs. “The time and energy that is now used to develop a good working relationship with the criminal justice system agencies … could be much better spent,” reads the 1977 open letter to the movement.

Instead, they wrote, the anti-rape movement should invest in its own work, “developing practical alternatives that deal with both the systems and the roots of sexism and violence.” Today, that work—in contrast with programs that include law enforcement as partners—is still under-supported. This crisis with Covid-19, when the state’s systems of care have been overburdened or uninterested, has made focusing on community-based responses all the more a matter of survival. That’s what this debate has always been in the anti-violence movement: not a theoretical divide over whether to call the police, but the very real dangers of what can happen once that call is placed.

* This article originally misstated one county’s withdrawal from partnerships with Embrace.