Gender glaringly absent in police violence debate

Every year in the Bay Area, an event called Urban Shield offers SWAT training, war games and a military-grade weapons expo to police departments and other first responders. While the event is funded under the guise of furthering the war on terror, protesters maintain Urban Shield encourages excessive, violent policing more broadly.

Because so many victims of excessive policing are people of color — and because the fatal shootings that make headlines are only the most extreme example of racially biased police abuse — protests overlap substantially with those related to racial injustice. This is undoubtedly warranted, but there’s another factor at play that’s not being discussed.


Nearly 90 percent of police officers are male, nearly all officers who shoot and kill civilians are male and the “warrior instead of guardian” mentality of some law enforcement is directly related to our culture’s narrow conception of men as strong, unemotional and often violent (shorthand: “toxic masculinity”).

The notion that men are being socialized dangerously is not new, yet conversations around it rarely overlap with conversations around race and excessive police force. They need to. We must connect these dots in order to solve this problem.

Toxic masculinity was explicitly cited in coverage of the Orlando tragedy and in deconstructing mass shootings like Santa Barbara. It’s been a staple of conversations about rape culture, brought to the forefront of our collective consciousness most recently by the case of Stanford rapist Brock Turner.

The film “The Mask You Live In” outlined some side effects of our narrow definition of masculinity, such as boys and men committing rape, domestic violence and other violent crimes. In her book, “Men Explain Things to Me,” Rebecca Solnit asked: “What’s the matter with manhood? There’s something about how masculinity is imagined, about what’s praised and encouraged, about the way violence is passed on to boys that needs to be addressed.”

Solnit largely focused on how masculinity can be dangerous for women in her book, though. While also warranted, this perhaps explains why the connection between harmful gender norms and excessive police force is oft overlooked.

Complex societal narratives can be easier to articulate with binary (“this” or “that” with no in-between) thinking. It’s easier to discuss white supremacy hurting black people, or toxic masculinity hurting women. But gender issues are inherent in male violence, even when it’s other men who die as a result. And whether or not we can grasp the complex consequences of humans holding more than one identity, white supremacy and toxic masculinity hurt us all — especially those who end up without the right to live.

Not all men are dominant and unemotional and not all police departments are militarized and excessively aggressive. But police — particularly in the Bay Area — are a real-life fraternity. Violence and other troublesome qualities are all too common and often contagious. Unfortunately, that stems from gender norms deeply embedded in our culture.

We should not be teaching our sons, much less those meant to protect and serve civilians, that domination and aggression are acceptable, much less expected and oh-so-often unpunished. And we should not have real-life fraternities in the first place, especially built upon a dangerous conception of masculinity.

Progress won’t come from merely replacing troublesome masculinity with a broader or perhaps “more feminine” version, though. We must instead question sweeping notions of gender altogether. In fact, gender binaries are only useful at the moment because they serve as a shortcut to groups — like the real-life fraternity that is law enforcement — in which problematic qualities are most evident.

These qualities will be on full display next weekend at Urban Shield. This year, the event is being held in Pleastanton, because nothing says pleasant like police violence and because Urban Shield was already pushed out of Oakland by protesters. A statewide mobilization against the new location is being organized, largely by black-led groups like the Anti-Police Terror Project.

Once again, focusing on racial injustice as we protest excessive police force is more than warranted. But we cannot overlook the role narrow gender norms play in all this violence. Masculinity can be lethal. When we talk about warrior cops, we must also talk about what supposedly makes a man.

Alyssa Oursler is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.

Alyssa Oursler

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