Jazmine Headley and the 'Slow Violence of Everyday Life'


On Tuesday afternoon, elected officials in New York City gathered in front of City Hall to denounce the violent arrest of 23-year-old Jazmine Headley, which had happened the previous Friday while she and her 1-year-old son were waiting at one of the city’s public assistance offices. Headley’s arrest was captured in a hard to watch video taken by a bystander; in it, you can see a swarm of security guards and police officers surrounding her as she sits on the floor clutching her son Damone, repeatedly calling out, “They’re hurting my son!” before an officer ripped the one-year-old out of her arms. At one point, an officer takes out a bright yellow taser and waves it around at the people watching in horror.

In the days that followed, the consequences had continued to compound for Headley, who did nothing to provoke the reaction of the Human Resource Administration security guards and NYPD officers except, perhaps, commit the sin of being black and in need of childcare assistance and a place to sit. The Brooklyn district attorney had dropped all charges against Headley, but as of Tuesday afternoon, she was still being held, without bail, at Rikers Island, the city’s jail, as a result of an outstanding warrant related to a credit card fraud case in New Jersey.

At the press conference, the city’s public advocate Letitia James, who is soon to become the state’s attorney general, pointed out that all of this had started as a story about a woman and her child needing a seat. “The answer to this should not have been the police. The answer to this should have been a chair, plain and simple,” James said.

That line, repeated by others on Tuesday, seemed to suggest that solutions to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future were readily at hand. The reality, though, is less clear-cut. If Headley’s arrest has highlighted yet again the ways that black women are criminalized and abused by the police, it has also highlighted a different sort of brutality, what Kaaryn Gustafson, a professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Law who writes frequently on the criminalization of low-income women, described to me as the “slow violence of everyday life.”

It is this violence—of poverty, of the indignities forced upon poor and working-class women in order to obtain the basic necessities of life—that haunts and informs the video. Headley, after all, was compelled to go to the Human Resources Administration office after her childcare voucher, which she depended on in order to go to work and care for her young son, was suddenly and without warning discontinued. (According to her attorney, she simply stopped receiving the check.)

Taking a day off from her job, Headley then was forced to wait for hours, sitting on the floor with her son in the overcrowded center. That experience is the norm: in 2014, a report issued by the Urban Justice Center’s Safety Net Project documented major issues at Human Resource Administration centers throughout the city, from hostile treatment from staff, especially security personnel, to long wait times, to extreme disorganization. Far from flaws in the system, they were in fact, the report’s authors asserted, “designed to frustrate and deny New Yorkers in need.” The “waiting environment,” they noted in what now feels like an understatement, “can be very unpleasant for those with children.”

When I spoke with Helen Strom, one of the report’s co-authors, she described New York’s byzantine public benefits system as “punitive.” “These issues have been rampant and pervasive for decades,” Strom told me. (As early as 1962, the Moreland Commission on Welfare, in an extensive study on New York’s public assistance programs, wrote that “observations in the offices and evaluation of the handling of clients ascertained from case records reveal an attitude of annoyance and disregard of the human factors, and in many cases almost an ‘adversary’ rather than a ‘helping’ relationship.”) Under the Clinton administration, the already hostile system also became more adversarial, almost as an institutional premise, toward people in need; federal “welfare reform” served to merely cut the number of people who received assistance, shrink already meager programs, and compound suffering. According to the Safety Net Project, from 2007 to 2014—the height of our most recent economic recession—the number of New Yorkers receiving any sort of public assistance dropped by more than 11.4 percent. (Meanwhile, in a sign of increasing need, SNAP and Medicaid usage went up.)

Headley’s arrest, far from an aberration, is the outcome of two systems that work in concert to punish low-income women, particularly black women and mothers. Consider the case of Shanesha Taylor, a homeless mother in Arizona who was arrested in 2014 after leaving two of her young children in a car during a job interview because she was unable to find childcare. (Her children were unharmed; Taylor was sentenced to 18 years probation.) In the Nation, prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba pointed to Taylor’s case as an example of the ways that in the U.S., “black mothers have been and continue to be disproportionately punished and controlled in various ways,” the result of “criminal, legal, and child welfare systems [that] work together to police and control black women’s bodies and families.”

“We see violence when it is so out of the norm that it becomes visible,” Gustafson told me. But the ambient degradation of the system itself often remains out of sight: “People being stuck in situations where they have little agency, where they’re economically up against a wall, where they have very little time, very few resources.”

On Tuesday evening, after a judge granted her attorney’s request for Headley to be released, she was freed from Rikers and is now with her family. She has received an outpouring of support since her Friday arrest, from offers to represent her free of charge on her outstanding misdemeanor arrest in New Jersey (those charges have since been dropped), to the creation of an online fundraiser to help Headley pay for childcare and other expenses, which has raised almost $30,000 as of Wednesday morning. “I just want to thank everybody and all the support that I have been getting in New York and all the great people who have been supporting me,” she said after her release. “I haven’t gotten to read all the articles and just all the great things and all of the love, and I am accepting it. And I am just so grateful to everyone, and I am just happy to be free, and I just need to see my boy.” The city’s social services commissioner Steven Banks has promised to launch a “thorough review” and to better train HRA security guards and police officers. NYPD commissioner James O’Neill has said the body cameras of the NYPD officers involved will be scrutinized.

The “slow violence” Gustafson referred to is a term that was first coined by the Princeton scholar Rob Nixon to describe the often-unacknowledged forces driving environmental destruction and climate change. It is, he wrote, that which “occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.” Like the destruction wrought by a hurricane, the brutality of the police response to Jazmine Headley has captured our attention and our outrage. But what will the response be to the hours she spent waiting, and the countless hours so many other women will be left to wait?

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