Yet the state, and many citizens, use them as proxies in the fight to protect systems of privilege and oppression.
Walter Scott may have been running from Officer Michael Slager, who shot and killed him on April 4, because he was afraid of going back to jail for failure to pay child support. Kim Brooks tells her own story and yesterday she told the similar stories of other women who have been arrested for leaving their children in the car while running into a store for just a few minutes. Lenore Skenazy, writing for Reason.com, follows the case of the Meitivs, who have recently been investigated by Child Protective Services and left with a charge of “unsubstantiated neglect” of their 10- and 6-year-old children for letting them go to and return from a local park together, but without adult supervision. ()
These may seem like unrelated situations, and they are certainly do differ in the ways that race, class and gender intersect in each story. Walter Scott was a black man, living hand-to-mouth, whose imprisonments for failure to pay child support nearly guaranteed he would remain unable to pull himself out of poverty. Kim Brooks is a white, married, professional woman who was able to avoid a conviction because she had the support of her family and a good lawyer who got the prosecutor to agree not to pursue the charge if Brooks would go to a parenting class and do community service. The Meitivs are a white married couple living in Silver Spring Maryland, who are practicing what is now called “Free Range Parenting,” which makes it a thing, but which used to just be called parenting, something that lots of people did with a certain degree of reasonable worry but without the paranoia that parents are supposed to take on today. Today Walter Scott is dead, Kim Brooks is about to release a novel, and the Meitivs are filing a lawsuit, after the police picked up and detained their children when they were walking home from the park once again.
Despite those dramatic and important differences, there is something that unites them, and that is the use of the state, and specifically the criminal justice system, to police our conformity to gender role expectations. When we jail destitute men for failure to pay child support we are using the state to enforce the expectation that men are financial providers. When we link women’s receipt of public assistance benefits that any needy family deserves to their willingness to allow the state to collect child support on their behalf, we are also using the state to enforce the expectation that fathers are providers while mothers are caregivers. And when we arrest women (with or without the presence of husbands) for letting their children wait in safely locked vehicles, or allowing them to walk home alone from a playground, we are are enforcing the expectation that a mother must never let her child out of her sight.
Of course, while the state is policing gender, it is doing so while at the same time enforcing cruel, systematic injustices of race and class. Walter Scott knew that cruelty, and so do all the other men, many of them Black, whose job prospects have been decimated as they’ve tried to work themselves into positions that would allow them to provide the very support the state demands. Black mothers confronting poverty also face conflicts with the state when they try to provide for their children. Shanesha Taylor, a homeless Black Arizona woman, spent ten days in jail last year and lost custody of her children because she let them sit in the car while she interviewed for a job. After her situation went viral on social media, the state ultimately offered to drop the charges against her if she attended parenting classes, substance abuse classes, and set up an education trust fund for the children. (Taylor was rearrested after failing to use tens of thousands of dollars donated to her cause to set up those trust funds.) Mothers are supposed to care about their children’s education, but only as much as their class affords them, as Tanya McDowell, a homeless Black mother in CT, learned when she was sentenced to 12 years in prison (suspended after she serves 5) for using her son’s babysitter’s address instead of her own when registering him for kindergarten.
These are not isolated cases. They are indications of a systematic policing of gender layered on top of a state interest in maintaining racial and class inequality. If the state cared about the interests of children it would adequately fund and equitably distribute such essential services as housing, health care, education, and a clean environment. If concerned bystanders really cared about the interests of children, they would act with compassion toward the children, seek out the parents if possible, and only call the police as a last resort. Despite claims that policies or actions are intended to serve the “best interests of the children,” it is clear that instead they serve the interests of what bell hooks so long ago labeled the neocolonial white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, buttressed by for-profit prison corporations, municipalities that rely on fines and court fees as sources of operating revenue, counties whose population counts are inflated by prison populations, and an economy that depends on the exploitation of a large poor or near-poor population to fill low-wage, unstable, dead-end jobs.
It’s not about the children. It’s about maintaining inequality and oppression. That’s never in the interests of the children at the heart of the story.