Ending Violence Against Women: What if Police, Prisons, and the State are not the Solution?

Kwantlen Polytechnic University. March 22, 2018

By Jeff Shantz

It should be evident that police are not the solution to ending violence against women. Police are major sources of violence against women. From sexual, physical, emotional violence they inflict every day on marginalized women, including sex workers and street involved women, to the high levels of domestic violence among policing as a “profession” to the numerous cases now coming out publicly of sexual harassment within police forces and against women officers the connections between policing and violence against women are clear and substantial. With this in mind there is a need to think about social responses to the issues that go beyond and pose alternatives to policing.

This discussion was advanced at the “Ending Violence Against Women” event organized and hosted by the Kwantlen Public Interest Research Group and hosted at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. The event was facilitated by activist Kalamity Hildebrandt of the PIRG at Simon Fraser University. Key among the alternatives are notions of transformative justice that change systems of violence, inequality, and injustice rather than offering a limited focus on individuals.


Hildebrandt began by suggesting that they see much hope in the transformative justice approaches being developed and put forward among racialized feminist groups in the United States. These include anti-racist and prison abolitionist groups such as Black Lives Matter. The discussion began by identifying various forms of violence against women: physical; sexual; emotional; harassment; psychological abuse; and control, intimate violence—and more. These are tools of sexism and patriarchy, but not exclusively (they are also tools of exploitation and racism).

Indeed, these tools are used in various ways within all forms of oppression. Hildebrandt suggested that oppression consists of sets of logic that divide people and set up power hierarchies between them. As police do in constructing “bad guys” and other means of stigmatization.

Some women wield them against other women—as in carceral feminist approaches criminalizing sex work, for example. Hildebrandt called out a particular type of feminist analysis that is anti-sex work and/or anti-trans or which says only CIS women and girls can be counted in violence against women.

Oppression harms some people so that other groups can benefit. This relates to the unearned advantages of privilege within hierarchical systems.

Policing is Violence

After examining diverse systems of oppression, Hildebrandt asks: “What are people taught is the proper response to oppressive violence?” The answer, of course is: “Call the cops.” Hildebrandt noted that even victims are showered with guilt when they choose not to call the police. They are said to be contributing to the problem or “letting the bad guys get away with it.”

Yet police can and do harm victims as well as those who have done harm as well as “third parties” like children, for example. This can also include the use of border agencies to deport people and child welfare services to take children. Immigration officials can come after people who have been harmed as well as those who do harm. Laws, police, prisons, all do harm.

Here Hildebrandt asks about the experiences of women. “What happens to women going through those state systems?” Well, in part it depends, of course, on the class standing and racialized identities of women within an unequal and racist system of white supremacist capitalism.

So Hildebrandt asks: “Why might people not trust the police? Which women especially?” Answers are wide ranging: colonial racism; poverty; histories of psychiatrization; migrant status; Indigenous women; sex workers; trans women.

It bears emphasis: Police are a source of violence rather than a solution to it. And they inflict violence on communities as well as individuals. Not only is it a failure to protect and serve, but police are actual, active, perpetrators of violence. And that includes sexual violence. The discussion touches upon public strip searches, removing women from their homes without clothes on, sexual assaults by police, and more.   

Hildebrandt speaks explicitly against what has come to be called “carceral feminism,” an approach that calls for police intervention, criminalization of sex workers and sex work, etc. For Hildebrandt, this is a feminism of the most privileged women who have faith in the system ad turn to police to address issues the do not like (whether socially harmful or not). This is, they note, the most dominant funded version of feminist work. For Hildebrandt, there is a need to create new processes of justice in our day to day lives.

Transformative Justice

This is the need for transformative justice. Hildebrandt asks: “What are tangible and practical things that people have tried to bring this about?” Answers range from: accountability processes in collectives; conversations around consent; developing skills for intervening positively in cases of violence; skills for responding in different and unexpected situations of public violence.

It was acknowledged that we do not have opportunities to think about or prepare for responding in those situations. We need to be able to practice and rehearse things to see how we react and how we feel in situations that can be frightening. In terms of accountability we need to learn to receive negative feedback and to give it.

Transformative justice requires also taking on directly, and tearing down, systems of oppression. It is not only about building close relations in a community. We need groupings of people we can trust and rely on in specific contexts (of being harmed or doing harm). We need personal embodied experiences to connect to larger movement work and contexts of social change.

We have learned inhibitions that tell us someone else is better equipped to deal with challenging situations. We often do not realize that we have the ability to deal with situations. And this leads to defaults to authorities, who want us to feel helpless and inadequate.

On the whole this was a useful start to thinking about issues, of oppression, violence, etc., and our responses to them in ways that do not reproduce oppression and violence. The police and policing are about violence and the reproduction of violence. We can ad must do better. And we must develop alternatives in transformative practice. The organizers of this discussion, KPIRG, should be thanked for putting this on at KPU. Hopefully it will be the first of many building on crucial issues of transformative justice as social justice practice.