Why We Need to Focus on How Black Women Are Harmed by Police Violence

Two years after Sandra Bland's death, the specific impacts of police brutality on women of color remain understudied and underreported. With her forthcoming book, "Invisible No More," Andrea J. Ritchie is working to change that.

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Jul 13 2017, 4:44pm

Photo by Elijah Nouvelage via Getty

Last month, Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old black mother, called 911 to report a burglary. When Seattle police arrived, they shot and killed her. Lyles' killing, the latest example of death at the hands of law enforcement, sparked outrage and renewed calls to end police violence.

Today marks the second anniversary of the death of Sandra Bland, who died in police custody after being brutally arrested during a routine traffic stop. Lyles and Bland are just two of the countless women who have experienced violence, and death, at the hands of law enforcement.

Andrea J. Ritchie has spent over 20 years organizing in movements to stop police brutality and end mass incarceration. She has seen how movements and media repeatedly overlook and ignore law enforcement violence against women and trans people of color. In her forthcoming book, Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, Ritchie is breaking that silence, chronicling the various ways that women of color, particularly black women, experience police violence—and the ways that they have organized to resist and stop this violence.

BROADLY: According to the FBI, in 2013, 73 percent of all arrestees were male. Some might use those statistics to argue that there's no need to focus an entire book on women and policing. Why is this book necessary?
Andrea Ritchie: That's exactly why I wrote this book. It's important to lift up the ways in which black women and women of color are, in fact, part of the larger conversation around racial profiling, police brutality, mass incarceration—sometimes in places where we're already looking. For instance, if you look more deeply at those FBI statistics, you would see that between 2010 and 2014, the rate of arrest for drug offenses for women increased, while it decreased for men. What's happening in those arrests? What's driving those arrests? How is that contributing to mass incarceration?

There's this notion that, because numbers are smaller, they can't tell us anything about police brutality, racial profiling, or mass incarceration. But Angela Davis said quite eloquently in the 80s that, just because of the number of black women incarcerated were smaller than the numbers of black men, that didn't mean their experiences didn't have something to teach us about larger pattern of racial injustice and white supremacy in America. That still holds true today.

How many women are killed or brutalized by police each year?
We don't know because no one collects this kind of information. Police departments are not required to report this. All we know is what we're able to glean from media reports, lawsuits, and instances where the officer responsible for killing someone is criminally prosecuted, and often that story is not reported. So it's not possible for us to estimate how many black women and women of color are killed every year by police.

But a focus on police shootings as the benchmark of what constitutes police violence is part of what contributes to the invisibility of black and brown women's experiences of policing and police violence. There are many ways—starting from sexual harassment, or refusal to respond to calls for help, or failure to protect from sexual violence—that are definitely forms of police violence experienced by women, that are not documented in the same way, that don't get the same kinds of media attention, that often take place in the privacy of homes or clinics or social service agencies or other private locations where there aren't cop-watching cameras.

The numbers are not where the story begins and ends. Rather, the real, lived experiences of black and brown women with policing and criminalization are where we should be looking.

Photo courtesy of Beacon Press

Tell us more about other forms of police violence that are specifically gendered.
Police sexual violence is a primary example. No one collects data on police sexual violence. Again, we're limited to what gets reported in the media. Only one-third of sexual assaults that occur in this country are ever reported to anyone, much less to law enforcement. That number is likely substantially lower for sexual assaults perpetrated by the people you're supposed to report to.

Every researcher, including law enforcement themselves, say that the stories we hear are just the tip of the iceberg, and this is a systemic problem that takes place across the country.

We don't talk about giving birth while black in the same ways that we talk about driving while black, yet the pervasiveness of racial profiling that takes place in that context is as entrenched as it is in terms of driving. There have been many studies of arrests of pregnant and birthing women showing that black women are up to ten times more likely to be referred to child welfare for actual or suspected drug use during pregnancy than white women, despite equal uses of drugs across race.

"Black women and women of color have been talking and organizing about this for centuries."

A form of sexual violence that is prevalent and rarely discussed is when police literally conduct unlawful, unconstitutional, and degrading searches to assign people a gender based on anatomy. It's never documented, so we have no idea of the frequency. We have to rely on the stories of people who come forward. That kind of police violence is likely to increase with the kind of trans discrimination laws around the country because, for instance, if someone accused someone of being in a bathroom that the law claims they shouldn't be in, this is part of how it's policed—by conducting these searches to check people's anatomy.

Though there are many horror stories of police violence, you also chronicle resistance and organizing against police violence. Talk about some of that organizing.
What's been invisible is our resistance and our struggles. Black women and women of color have been talking and organizing about this for centuries.

The campaign to free Joan Little [a black woman who killed the white jailer who raped her in 1974] was certainly a watershed movement in which the women's movement, the Black Liberation movement, and the civil rights movement came together to say, "This is a manifestation of racism, white supremacy, and patriarchy that must be addressed and vindicated."

I was part of a workshop in 2016 where we did a timeline of state violence against black women and forms of resistance. There was a whole period in the 80s and 90s where there was a lot on the timeline. Many of the younger organizers in the room were like, "Wow, we had no idea that that happened." For many folks, it felt like 2014 was when the conversation about black women and girls, women of color, and policing started. They were excited to see the resources and tools from that period that they could access and use.

What changes are needed so that this violence doesn't keep happening?
We need different responses to domestic violence or mental health that don't involve the police. There are studies that show up to half of police killings involve responses to people in mental health crises. We could cut police killings in half by having a different response to mental health crisis.

We could stop the War on Drugs. We could develop alternative responses to drug use that involve decriminalization, support services that people identify they need, and a public health approach to drug use that is problematic (which is a small percentage of drug use). We could get rid of things like broken windows policing, which increases police contact and opportunities for abuse. We can chip away at pieces of the system and look at places where women are particularly vulnerable, like decriminalizing prostitution and [fixing] how police are involved with child welfare enforcement.

Ultimately, the message of the book is that we're really going to have to rethink what we mean by policing and safety and how we achieve safety. I think Charleena Lyles' case is an example of why we have to do that. In her case, she was calling about a burglary. She was calling about the thing that we think police are there to do—address violent crime—and she wound up dead. We need to think more deeply and more intently as a society about how we're going to achieve safety and if there's any role for policing as we currently know it. We have to focus on what will make women safe.