The State vs. Ms. X

This was not an anomaly

Composite image of a prison wall with two cars driving in front of it, each only shown in part
Maria Gaspar, Rift, Rupture, Split. 2021, digital photo. 26 × 36". Courtesy of the artist.

On Monday, February 12, 1979, one of Chicago’s top-tier television stations, WMAQ-TV Channel 5, aired an explosive story about the city’s police department. The department was no stranger to controversy. Several officers had recently been convicted of extortion and others had been accused of spying on Mayor Richard Daley’s political opponents, while Daley had actively stymied the Department of Justice’s effort to integrate the police force. But in this instance, the police’s principal violation was a different kind of crime against the public: perpetuating both gendered and sexual violence.

“It could happen to any woman,” announced the news anchor Jim Ruddle at the start of the segment. “To your wife, your sister, your daughter.” Across the city, officers were detaining and strip-searching women who committed nothing more than minor traffic violations. “The police call it ‘processing,’” Ruddle continued. “But for the women... it’s a nightmare.” Using the now-canonical discourse of intimate partner violence“it could happen to anyone”the channel’s special investigative team Unit 5 painted the police as abusers stalking and assaulting Chicago’s women.

The newscast was structured around anonymized interviews with women victims, many of whom had been strip-searched at Belmont-Western, the nineteenth-district police station perched on the North Branch of the Chicago River. Ms. X spoke of driving to visit her sister when she lost her way. She pulled up alongside a cop car at a stoplight and asked for directions. The officers observed that she did not have a city registration sticker and that her license plate was improperly affixed. They asked Ms. X for her driver’s license. She didn’t have it; she had left it in another purse. When the officers asked her to follow them in her own car to the nearby Belmont-Western station, she complied. At the station they detained her in the lockup facility. They did not formally arrest her.

On arrival, according to Ms. X, station personnelan officer and a woman police aide, colloquially known as a matronasked her to strip. Ms. X protested: she had only forgotten her driver’s license, and the officers had no reason to believe that she was a danger to anyone or that she had committed other crimes. The personnel were undeterred. “These ladies have the right to search you any way they want,” she recalled a man cop saying. “And if you don’t cooperate, we will go out and get six men to come in and hold you down while they do what they want to, while they search you however they feel necessary.” Ms. X relented. The cop left and four matrons entered Ms. X’s cell and asked her to undress. Then they asked her to stand in a variety of positions and expose herself. (Ms. X described the account in excruciating detail, but I won’t, to avoid what Hortense Spillers calls the “pornotropic.”) Though she found all the poses egregious, one in particular made her balk. “I wouldn’t do that for a doctor,” she said in her interview. The matrons then held her down, denuded her, and performed a cavity search. Their search was fruitless: they found no drugs and no weapons. Ms. X confessed she was “still frightened” even though the incident had taken place almost two years earlier. “Did you feel that it was almost like a rape?” her interviewer asked. Ms. X did not hesitate to reply. “Sure I did. Wouldn’t you?”

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