(De)Criminalizing Teen Girls in Sister Souljah’s THE COLDEST WINTER EVER

It is currently legal for police officers in New York City to rape people that are being held in custody. This topic gained attention recently after an eighteen-year-old woman, known as Anna Chambers, spoke out on Twitter about her case against the NYPD during September of 2017. Two plainclothes officers raped Chambers while she was handcuffed in a police van. The officers claim that they had consensual sex with her. When questioned about the article in the penal code that details sex offenses, a spokesperson clarified “it is against department policy to have sex on duty [but] the law does not preclude consensual sex between an arresting officer and a person in custody.”

Though it seems obvious that an imprisoned person cannot consent to sex with their imprisoner, it is not surprising that the law would protect police officers by simply not calling their actions rape. When police violence is called policing, people assume that their behaviors are acceptable. As Angela Davis explains in her book Women, Race, and Class, “in the United States and other capitalist countries, rape laws as a rule were framed originally for the protection of men of the upper classes, whose daughters and wives might be assaulted” (172). Rape laws are not necessarily designed to stop rape, but rather to decide who gets to even claim rape.

Teen girls are uniquely vulnerable to threats of sexual mistreatment involving law enforcement. Andrea Ritchie addresses the marginalized experiences of teens through statistics and narrative in her book Invisible No More—Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color. Though data is limited, “a national study of officer arrests for sexual misconduct between 2005 and 2011 found that […] one half targeted minors” (Ritchie 109). Since these experiences often evade popular culture, the public generally does not know most states do not criminalize police raping people in custody. Issues of representation add to the reasons people generally do not know how many teens are being assaulted by police.

And those numbers only address the actual arrests. One can only imagine how many instances of rape occur each day across all demographics. With American culture listening more (though not always listening well) to the stories of rape victims, it is important to seek out other ways people discuss the complexity of going up against the prison industrial complex as an underage, most often not white, girl. Sister Souljah’s bestselling novel The Coldest Winter Ever serves as a unique source in this topic. Her book is set in New York City and follows 16-year old Winter Santiaga during the 1990’s as she struggles to survive after her father’s incarceration. She is also incarcerated by the end of the book. The Coldest Winter Ever narrates the challenges that come along with being young, black, and female in contemporary America. Sister Souljah’s use of literary realism confronts both the intangibility of sexual assault by police and rising rates of female incarceration. It flips being targeted by police to exposing the police to a large community of readers. Winter’s experiences prioritize the traditionally silenced voices of girls.

Sister Souljah’s book is known for presenting rigid dichotomies, like rich and poor, White and Black, and right and wrong, to challenge people’s sense of justice. In “A Hip Hop, Afro-Feminist Aesthetic of Love: Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever,” Stephanie Dunn suggests that “we may surmise that [Winter’s] fate is just punishment” (51). Megan Sweeney looks at the book’s popularity within the prison system in her essay “’Keepin’ It Real’: Incarcerated Women’s Readings of African American Urban Fiction.” She recounts how incarcerated women use this genre to reflect on their own personal choices. Sister Souljah has also written extensively about her intentions for the book. She hopes that it “could become responsible for thousands of teenagers, women and men, staying out of prison because they read the book and now understand that truth of the drug deathstyle.”

But, for me, there are still some lingering questions that go beyond bad choices: does Winter truly deserve to be incarcerated? Does anyone? Who really gets justice? More than anything, and to recycle Angela Davis’s question in Ava Duvernay’s documentary 13th, what does it mean to be a criminal in this book? Winter’s choices ultimately reflect her circumstances. She is stuck between pretending to be older to stay free from foster care while still being too young and immature to care for herself. Constant threats of both imprisonment and rape address the doubled oppression that girls of color, especially, face during their daily life. Rather than criminalizing Winter, The Coldest Winter Ever critiques the sexist, racist, and pedophilic system she navigates.

Winter has been socialized to see value in her attractiveness. Though she is used to getting attention from men, it’s different when it’s from a predatory officer inside of a prison. While making a solo visit to visit her incarcerated father, she “wasn’t there in the waiting room ten seconds before some armed corrections officer picked me out of the huge waiting room crowd of women […] He had a confident smile on, like he was Ziggy or something. Both of his hands rested by his gun” (Souljah 223). This CO takes pleasure in seeing Winter take orders like a prisoner. Meanwhile, she takes note of his threatening body language, including hands that rest comfortably near a gun. She can only use this fictional space to criticize him. That posture reflects his awareness of his narrative power too, especially in a prison.

He really calls her over to try to talk to her, but he veils it in his police work by ordering her to come to him. He proceeds to use an emotionally manipulative sequence of pickup lines, as if he is approaching her on the street. Ritchie explains that, “sexual violence by the police just becomes part of a seamless web of sexual harassment, assault, and violence” that girls and women face each day (110). It is “simultaneously ordinary and out of the ordinary” (Ritchie 110). In line with that paradox, the CO’s aggressive approach is designed as an insult:

He said, “Now, let me guess which one of these losers you’re here to see […] I can’t understand it […] I see it everyday. Y’all get all dressed up to see these animals who can’t do nothing for you. You ride one train, two trains, a bus to see these fools […] a brother with a good job and benefits can’t get a play? So how ‘bout it, cinnamon? […] Pass me your number. I’ll call you as soon as I get off. I’ll take you to lunch, dinner, breakfast […] Wherever you want to go.” I wanted to scream on this asshole but he had a gun. (Souljah 223-4)

He dehumanizes her father, thinking he is her boyfriend, shames her for visiting an incarcerated person, and then infantilizes her with a nickname — all before showing his complete and immediate romantic availability. Though ordinarily Winter may curse somebody out for talking like that, she could not because of the threat of imprisonment and/or rape and/or death. He gets the most lines here, but publicizing his private dialogue makes him look like an asshole with a gun.

Winter is selected again later while she is alone in a clothing store. A store worker accuses her of stealing and wants to search her. Stop and frisk procedures like this one, which stem from the war on drugs, target black girls and women like Winter in unique ways. Ritchie explains, “while at one time the perception was that women were less likely to be stopped or searched by police on the streets, officers’ tactics shifted over time to proactively engaging in public strip searches” (Ritchie 52). And the person doing it to Winter is not even an officer. This store worker only needs to use the threat of law enforcement to assault her himself. He says, “‘listen, miss, here are your options. You can cooperate with me, or I can get the police involved’” (Souljah 237). He knows that police presence would add the risk of imprisonment to her already present fears of rape and/or death with him. He reminds her of that when she says she wants to leave. He tells her again, “‘I can still get the police,’ he threatened. ‘They can get a warrant and search you […] thoroughly. I can make you sit and wait for them to get here’” (Souljah 240). Though he tries to identify with police practices, he also claims to be able to protect her from their violence. The power of his threat is the public knowledge of police violence against black girls.

It is important that they relocate to a back room in order for the store worker to remain in control. It makes sense that policing and sexual harassment would be so intertwined because, like police work, “by its very nature, sexual violence is hidden away from public view, witnesses, and cop-watching cameras, making it more likely that complaints will be deemed unsubstantiated” (Ritchie 110). Winter describes the purposefully private assault below:

This bastard, whose hands couldn’t stop shaking, ran over the center of my back, right down along my spine. Facing me, he then ran his two hands from my shoulder blades right over each of my titties, cupping them a bit […] “Take off your skirt.” […] I looked down at this man’s little hard dick poking through his pants. (Souljah 240)

His instructions to her are an attempt to make Winter seem complicit. Having her take the skirt off feeds into the fantasy that she wants to have sex with him. It gets her involved. Part of this prejudice against her stems from the fact that “viewed as ‘loose women’ and whores[,] Black women’s cries of rape would necessarily lack legitimacy” (Davis 182). Being seen as “unrapable” is part of what motivates the assault. Winter’s only defense is, again, to narrate his actions and note the weapon(s) being held against her.

Ironically, it is a woman security officer whose mere presence frees Winter from that back room. The presence of women’s bodies continue to be a site of unresolved tension while Winter is incarcerated later on. Here, too, the goal is survival. She confesses:

Naked wasn’t nothing to me. I done seen thousands of breasts and hundreds of asses by this time. It was almost the same as seeing someone fully clothed. In the beginning, I would try to cover myself up. But surprise searches in the middle of the night would have sixty chicks standing side by side, butt-naked, then squatting for a rectal inspection. We are naked in the wall-less shower. Naked in the bing, naked, naked, naked it meant nothing. (Souljah 423)

Her use of the double negative “wasn’t nothing” and repeated “naked, naked, naked” actually suggests that nakedness does matter to her. But her reading of prison searches shows how people get socialized into seemingly normal violations of personal space. Hyper-visibility in in prison is a direct reflection of racialized and gendered social invisibility. These searches also “constitute ‘state-sanctioned sexual assault,’ rendering sexual violence an inherent part of policing […] Cavity searches are often justified on the basis of deeply racist, ‘sexist, culturally based belief’ […] that women are capable of carrying drugs and weapons inside their cavities, and do so regularly” (Ritchie 121). People are thus stripped of their sense of shame in exchange for compliance.

It only took a few months after the 2017 Chambers case for New York City to criminalize police raping people in custody, but more imprisonment will never solve issues of mass incarceration. Changing that law is a necessary effort towards surviving within the current system. But it does not challenge systematic racism, sexism, and exploitation. It does not question the impulse that police have to assault vulnerable people. And, most importantly, it does not confront the psychological trauma that victims of police violence face within the prison industrial complex. Notice that Winter never reflects about these situations. Instances of sexual assault are so deeply rooted in her life that none of them stand out to her as especially traumatic or legitimate. The missing emotional reflection invites concern over the discomfort that girls and women have in their own bodies, especially in terms of the guilt and shame associated with sexual assault.

*This essay was originally published by HJAAPP*

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