by Virginia Velez
From March 14 through 17, 2002, “The Color of Pain” conference, sponsored by “Incite! Women of Color Against Violence” was held in Chicago’s University of Illinois. Panels and workshops were focused on the laws and policies that punish entire families in general and women of color in particular for the “crime” of being poor. Incite was formed by women of color who are mobilizing to end all forms of violence against women of color and our communities, and has groups throughout the U.S.
Approximately 1,200 women of color attended. The most moving statements made in the Opening Panel were by Kemba Smith, a Black woman who had a 24-1/2 year sentence before getting clemency from Pres. Clinton. Kemba said she had never seen so many different groups of women of color gathered in one place except for prison. Women of color are divided, systematically, so that all communities of color are weakened. Think of how prisons do not work to improve relations between Black and Latino groups, even though it would make the work of prison guards easier if there were no conflicts between those groups. The conference made it clear how powerful women of color can be when they are united: Blacks, Latinas, Native Americans, Arabs and Asians working together to help themselves and each other.
There were white women there, organized into a group called “The Allies Committee”. They recognize their privilege as white women in a racist society, and are working to support the advancement of the Incite movement. The tools used to oppress people of color have a negative impact on all women (except the richest and most privileged white women) and all poor people. Incite recognizes that institutional racism against people of color has become more intensely focused on women as of late, because women are the glue that holds communities together.
Women of color are increasingly solely responsible for their families, as well as the earnings and political strength of their communities. Women of color are the lowest paid and most overworked sector of society, but are the target of racist policies in the institutions of “welfare” and the legal system. The Allies Committee recognizes that these practices “trickle down” to white women living in poverty as well, simply because the laws cannot state they are against people of color. The laws and regulations in the “welfare” system are designed to punish the poor, because the majority of people of color are poor. As more and more women are forced to illegal means of earning the money to sustain their families because, legally, they earn less than men and are the sole supporters of their families, the numbers of women of color, particularly in prisons and jails throughout the nation, are steadily increasing.
One workshop called “Policing Motherhood” focused on the policies that punish women who have addictions by exerting pressure on those women to stop having children. We at CCWP recognize that this is growing problem for women prisoners who were addicts at the time of their arrest, as they are often forced to use long-term contraception as a condition of parole. Organizations like C.R.A.C.K. (Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity, yes, they spell Community with a “K”) collect money to pay addicted women $200 to have sterilization procedures or use long-term, harmful birth control products such as Norplant, Depo-Provera or an IUD. They spend not one cent on recovery and rehabilitation services for women and mothers. C.R.A.C.K. targets Black and Latino communities with billboards and flyers. One billboard reads “Don’t Let a Pregnancy Ruin Your Drug Habit”! This panel also pointed out all the dangers in the long-term birth control products. The damage of using Depo-Provera became so clear that it had to be taken off the market, but only after tens of thousands of women of color and women with addictions had been misled and encouraged or forced to use those products for months, if not years. We learned how to organize against C.R.A.C.K. in our neighborhoods, and were given a comprehensive packet to work against C.R.A.C.K. with concrete information and lobbying tools. The packet and presentation were put together by the Incite Committee on Women, Population and the Environment.