Culture & Conversation Violence

The Paradox of Black Women and Police Violence: A Q&A With Andrea Ritchie

Laura Huss

In her new book Invisible No More, Ritchie points out that Black women have been on the forefront of organizing against police and state violence, particularly against Black men. So why is it so hard to recognize that they and other women of color are targets of such brutality?

When Andrea Ritchie was a young teenager, she fled street harassment and turned to police, who leered at her. About a year later, she was sexually assaulted by an officer after seeking shelter in the police station while waiting for her morning train. Her experiences of being violated by police officers didn’t stop there, but they were the beginning of her understanding that police are not necessarily here to protect her or women of color like her.

Ritchie—co-author of the Say Her Name report on police brutality against Black women and researcher-in-residence at the Barnard Center for Research on Women—briefly tells her own story for the first time in her new book Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color. It begins the book, which documents police mistreatment of women such as Sandra Bland and Charleena Lyles, and digs deeper to outline the systemic realities behind such violence.

As scholar and activist Angela Y. Davis notes in the book’s foreword, “[Ritchie] asks us to consider what the vast problem of state violence looks like if we acknowledge how gender and sexuality, disability, and nation are intermeshed with race and class.”

Rewire spoke to Ritchie about how the experiences of women of color are sidelined in conversations about police violence, the media’s roles in changing or reinforcing common narratives, and how police violence is a reproductive justice issue.

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Rewire: You begin the book by telling personal stories of your own experiences being assaulted by police. Why did you start the book off that way and tell these accounts now?

Andrea Ritchie: [It often seems] that many of the women who have led and are leading movements around police violence don’t talk about their own experiences. Instead, they center the experiences of loved ones who are generally [male] sons or partners or parents. … In the mainstream narrative, the expectation and the reality is that groups like Mothers Against Police Brutality, women who lead movements against police violence, and Black women or women of color researchers and scholars who write on police violence tend to focus on the experiences of Black men and men of color, and particularly those who are not framed as being trans men or queer men.

One premise of the book is that Black women, women of color, and trans women do talk about police violence as it affects them personally and as it affects other women members of their communities.

The challenge is to illustrate the roles that Black women and women of color have historically played leading movements against state violence and for social justice, but also the ways in which our own experiences aren’t at the center of movements that we lead. And so [telling my story] was my response to the challenge myself.

I often ask women who are standing up and talking about issues of police violence because they’re worried for their male children about whether they might be worried for themselves? Or for their daughters? Or for female members of their family? And if not, why not? What does that say about how we participate in the project of making our own experiences invisible?

Rewire: Your book intertwines stories of police violence with accounts of resistance to it. Despite the fact that most history has parallel resistance, not all accounts are written this way. Why was this structure important to you?

AR: It was important to me for a few reasons. One is that I think equally invisible to the instances, context, and forms of police violence that Black women and women of color experience has been our own and broader formations of resistance to it.

I did an exercise at an institute in the process of writing the book where we did a timeline. People participating knew about [post-Ferguson] iterations of anti-police violence activism, organizing, and resistance to racial profiling and police brutality. But [they wanted to] hear about how people were organized around police violence against Black women during the civil rights movement, about indigenous women’s resistance to colonialism from 1492 onward, and about the resources that had been created by women in the ’80s to resist police violence. So it felt important to counter invisibility of resistance in the same way that it was important to counter invisibility of violence.

This was also important to make the book readable. As I say in the introduction, I struggled with how much violence to include, how graphically to include it, and how to try and present three-dimensional pictures of people so that it didn’t turn into pornography of abuse and violence that you can sometimes see on the internet without context.

Rewire: With this in mind, what are the questions you asked or ask yourself to determine when using certain imagery or details might do more harm than good?

AR: I worked with a writing coach, and we talked about what it means to really write from a position of radical honesty. If the book is about making visible what has been hidden and made invisible, even as it’s been happening right in front of our face, then we’re going to have to make that leap together of having to actually look at it in all its painful reality.

In order to do this, I asked myself every day: Is the way that I’m describing this incident honoring the person who experienced it? Is it honoring their family members? Is it telling the truth about the violence they experienced in a way that doesn’t reproduce it? Is it telling the truth in a way that isn’t one-dimensional, that doesn’t reduce them to that moment in their life and eliminate or strip away every other part of their life and humanity?

Rewire: How has the media has played a role in shaping the narrative of police violence against Black women and women of color and keeping it invisible?

AR: The narrative is that police violence is something that happens to Black and Brown men. …. To the extent that there was or has been coverage of Black women and women of color’s experiences, it was sort of this one-off thing until recently. That even happened with Sandra Bland. No one said this is part of the epidemic of racial profiling in this country, this is how women experience “driving while Black,” and this belongs in the larger context of conversations around racial profiling or mass incarceration. But that is changing.

The media plays a huge role, particularly when there is no official data on any of this. Almost all of the social science research and police violence databases rely largely on media accounts. So if the media’s not covering the story, then it’s not getting into the sort of quantitative analysis that’s happening. People are mostly studying police violence based on what [journalists] write.

Rewire: Have there been any recent moves to increase data collection on police violence that you noted is lacking in national data?

AR: It hasn’t really changed much. There’s also data that no one’s collecting right now—for example, police sexual violence. When I was finishing the book, I had the opportunity to testify before President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Ultimately, it recommended that the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which regularly does a survey of people living in the United States about their contact with the police, add questions about police contact that may have involved sexual harassment or sexual violence. Before the change in the administration, it was the plan to add those questions to the next iteration of the survey happening next year.

Beyond that, I’m not aware of any efforts to start collecting data on an official level. I’ve been urging the New York Civilian Complaint Review Board to accept complaints of police sexual violence and adjudicate and investigate them in-house instead of referring them to the police, which is what they do currently.

But we also need to be careful about new data collection. Most places collect data on race and gender of people in pretty much any police interaction. Sometimes people want to add data collection around sexual orientation and gender identity so that we can have more information about the experiences of queer and trans women and gender non-conforming people.

I’m actually against doing that. Particularly in the current political climate, we should not be creating government records of people’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. [As President Donald Trump’s tweet proposing a ban on transgender people in the military demonstrates], the government is fully intending to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It doesn’t make sense to give them additional information that they can keep in a database to further enable them to do that.

Also, the process of collecting that information in any kind of criminalizing setting is inherently coercive. Suddenly a police officer is asking you whom you sleep with or whether you’ve always identified as your current gender. Giving police officers a pseudo-legitimate reason to be engaged in that kind of behavior in the name of data collection perpetuates the kinds of abuses that we’re trying to stop.

Rewire: Although you write that our current criminal justice systems are broken and need a full reimagining, you don’t name the abolition of police as the goal in the book. Why?

AR: We need to radically re-examine our notions of safety and the means we devote to achieving it. That’s why I didn’t name abolition of police as the endpoint, because I think there’s so much more.

We have to figure out how we keep people safe from the kinds of violence they experience in their communities, including gender-based violence. And how are we doing it in a way that isn’t reproducing policing in different forms and that is geared toward transformation and accountability and not purely toward punishment? It’s about us thinking about the whole package of what we need to be doing; it’s about radically transforming society.

Critical Resistance co-founder Rachel Herzing, whom I quote in the book, has been influential to me in terms of how I think about policing overall. She says our goal shouldn’t be to improve how policing functions but to reduce its role in our lives. The lesson I learned particularly from INCITE!, an organization that has been foundational to my political development, is the question that we should really be asking ourselves is “What would make women of color safe?” and then proceed from there.

Rewire: What’s the connection between police violence and reproductive justice?

AR: There’s been a conversation about police violence and policing as a reproductive justice issue in the post-2014 period. This has been percolating in Black feminist communities. And, to the extent that it’s made it into the mainstream, it’s been more about police literally interfering with a mother’s ability to parent their children because they never know when their children leave the house whether they’ll come home or wind up dead, in jail, or beaten by police. That makes policing and police violence very much a reproductive justice issue.

It’s just not the only way.

Whether it’s police literally reaching into your pockets and taking out your birth control and using it as evidence that you intended to engage in prostitution. Or whether it’s the way Black motherhood is policed through the kinds of child welfare policing highlighted by scholars like Dorothy Roberts and by activists who have been talking about how women’s pregnancy and parenting is literally criminalized in ways that are about controlling women’s reproduction and bodies. Also looking at police violence against Black and indigenous mothers and pregnant people in a larger history of control of reproduction in the interests of colonialism and chattel slavery. When it became no longer valuable to white society to produce Black children as property and as part of chattel slavery, then society became about not producing Black children and targeting Black people’s pregnancy, childbirth, and childrearing. A similar system of control has happened for native people’s pregnancy and reproduction.

So there’s so much more there for us as reproductive justice activists to really delve into and explore.

This interview, which was conducted via phone, has been edited for clarity and length.

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