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Before and After Sandra Bland: Andrea Ritchie on Black Women’s Experiences With Police Violence

Black women have been rendered invisible in discussions about state-sanctioned violence.

Public awareness of police brutality is growing, spurred by stories about individual Black men who have been murdered by police across the country. But Black women and women of color have been rendered largely invisible in discussions about state-sanctioned violence, even though they too are targeted and killed by police officers. What can we learn from their experiences of injustice, and from their resistance and activism? Black lesbian police misconduct attorney and organizer Andrea Ritchie, co-author of Say Her Name: Resisting Police Violence Against Black Women and Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States, takes on these issues in her forthcoming book, Invisible No More, due out next spring. With Women’s History Month still fresh in our mind, we caught up with Ritchie to ask what to expect in her eye-opening account.

Describe for us what your new book is about.

Invisible No More is the first book to comprehensively tackle women’s experiences of racial profiling, police brutality, and gender-based forms of police violence, such as sexual assault.

It puts the cases of police violence against Black women that exploded into the national consciousness within the past year — Sandra Bland, McKinney, the assault at Spring Valley High, and the rapes of more than a dozen Black women that led to the conviction of Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw — into a much broader context. Invisible No More will provide readers with context around the historic and present-day patterns and paradigms of policing and punishment that produced these encounters — they’re neither isolated, nor rare.

Invisible No More centers Black women’s experiences — straight and queer, trans and not trans, both because that is the community I am from and as a contribution to the Black Lives Matter movement — and extends beyond them to those of Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, Arab and Middle Eastern women, identifying shared and distinct experiences informed by unique historical and current relations of power.

The working title, Invisible No More: Racial Profiling and Police Brutality Against Women of Color, operates on several levels. The book renders visible women’s experiences of racial profiling and police violence, as well as forms, patterns and contexts of policing women experience that are rarely discussed. It also uncovers the decades of research, activism, and organizing by Black women and trans people, Indigenous women and Two Spirit people, and women and trans people of color that have helped to bring us to this present moment of unprecedented attention. Last, but not least, it highlights the currently invisible ways that bringing women’s experiences of policing from the margins to the center of movements against police brutality and gender-based violence can and should expand our analysis, organizing strategies, and visions for change.

How did the idea of writing this book come together?

It’s been in the works more than a decade. When I wrote “Law Enforcement Violence Against Women of Color,” an essay which appeared in The Color of Violence: The INCITE Anthology, first published by South End Press in 2006 and scheduled to be reissued by Duke this summer, I realized I had so much more material than could fit in a single chapter. Members of the South End editorial collective, including the anthology editor, Jill Petty, who is now a Senior Editor at Beacon, immediately saw the potential and necessity of expanding the article into a full-length book. We signed a contract and then … life happened.

I got pulled into organizing and advocacy around women’s experiences of policing on the ground, and at the national and international levels. I worked to resource local efforts to document and highlight women’s experiences of policing by compiling the INCITE! Organizer’s Toolkit on Law Enforcement Violence Against Women and Transgender People of Color. I spent a significant part of the past decade documenting, litigating and advocating around the experiences of women and LGBTQ youth of color and people involved in the sex trades, where a great deal of gender- and sexuality-based policing and police violence takes place. I served as Director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center, then founded and coordinated Streetwise and Safe from 2009-2014. I brought impact litigation successfully challenging the New York City Police Department’s practices with respect to treatment of trans and gender nonconforming people, partnered with Women With a Vision and the Center for Constitutional Rights to successfully challenge the sex offender registration requirement imposed by the State of Louisiana’s crimes against nature by solicitation law, and sued the New York City police department on behalf of over a dozen women and trans people whose rights had been violated. I also embarked on a number of writing projects, including co-authoring Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States, A Roadmap for Change: Federal Policy Recommendations to Address the Criminalization of LGBT People and People Living With HIV, and Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women.

Sadly, in the interim, all of us suffered a tremendous loss when South End closed its doors in 2013. But movements are as much about relationships as they are about institutions. I was lucky when, as I was looking for a new publisher, Jill reached out to see if I was interested in bringing the book to Beacon. I am so incredibly grateful to be working with her again to bring the book to life.

There have been many times over the past eighteen months, as the national movement and conversations around racial profiling, police violence, and mass incarceration have swelled, when I wished that the book was already out, to provide background to the women’s cases that are finally gaining national attention, to serve as a resource to the movement, and to share examples of how centering women’s experiences changes the conversation and organizing strategies. But ultimately, it will be a better book for having marinated this long!

You collaborated with Kay Whitlock and Joey Mogul on Queer (In)Justice. Does your new book dialogue in any way with Queer (In)Justice, and if so, how?

I had a similar experience working with Kay and Joey on the policing chapter of Queer (In)Justice as with the essay for the Color of Violence: I had way more material than could fit. So this will be an opportunity to engage more deeply in discussions around racialized policing of gender and sexuality. It’s also a chance to extend the conversation from Queer (In)Justice to include non-queer and non-trans women, while highlighting the ways experiences are linked and distinct across gender identities and sexualities within a broader spectrum. I’m also looking forward to expanding Queer (In)Justice’s discussion of the archetypal, criminalizing controlling narratives that inform women’s interactions with police.

This will be the first book to cover police violence against women of color. How much previously existing literature on this topic is there?

You would be surprised both at how little and how much material there is. Over the past eighteen months, I’ve been deeply inspired by — and grateful for — the explosion of conversation by and for Black women in the blogosphere around Black women’s experiences of policing. There are many more activists, academics and journalists writing about this issue now than ever before.

There’s also a fair amount of historical material, and some earlier academic research scattered throughout a number of different sources and disciplines.

Annanya Bhattacharjee wrote a seminal report in 2001 called “Whose Safety: Women of Color and the Violence of Law Enforcement,” later republished as an essay in her anthology Policing the National Body. There was also an article in Zero Tolerance: Quality of Life and the New Policing transcribing a conversation among folks at the Audre Lorde Project in the late 1990s that was really instrumental to my own evolving understanding of the issue. And of course, there’s my essay, the INCITE! Toolkit and the Say Her Name report. These are some of the most comprehensive treatments of the issues to date. Much of the research and writing that was done before 2014 has largely been invisible in the current conversations, so part of the work of this book will be to bring this material forward into the current conversation.

At the same time, relatively little has been written about women’s experiences within the broader literature on racial profiling, policing, and mass incarceration. The bulk of the reports, articles, and books still focus almost exclusively on the experiences of Black men and men of color, or on generic “Black communities” or “communities of color.” These approaches don’t pay particular attention to or even incorporate women’s experiences, and still frame the issue in male or generic terms.

So the process of writing this book involves drawing on my own research, organizing and litigation experience over the past twenty-five years, doing some investigative journalism and a bit of detective work, combing through social science literature, law review articles, books and reports on the subject — as well as YouTube videos, websites, Twitter — to find the stories, research and analysis that is out there, to pull all the pieces together into a comprehensive picture that will spark and support proliferation of broader and deeper conversations.

Why hasn’t there been much written at this length on police violence against women of color before?

That’s the million-dollar question. I have always been struck by the fact that I was, until recently, one of a relatively small group of Black women and women of color writing, speaking and agitating around women’s experiences of policing on a regular basis. I often describe the experience as feeling like speaking underwater, whether in meetings, to the media, at conferences — it would be like I’m talking, but nothing is registering. And if I wasn’t at the next meeting, or in the next conversation, or at the next conference, women’s experiences of policing would fall off the agenda — literally and figuratively — and any gender-specific or inclusive analysis or recommendations would immediately disappear or be deprioritized. Now it feels like I am at least talking above water. While some folks still aren’t listening, and are continuing to have the conversation in the ways they’ve been having it, there are more and more voices lifting up women’s experiences of policing, and more and more receptivity to arguments that they need to drive the conversation and solutions. It doesn’t mean that we are all the way there, but we’ve come a long way.

I think people want simple understandings of issues. Police violence is most simply understood when framed along one axis — race — with one prime subject, and state violence in the U.S. has primarily been understood through a male lens. Conversely, violence against women is usually framed as private violence against non-trans, non-queer predominantly white women. It’s long past time to complicate those conversations.

I also think that placing women of color at the center of the conversation produces discomfort. Confronting police violence against women requires us to confront our complicity in similar forms of violence perpetrated within our communities, whether it’s domestic or sexual violence or homophobic and transphobic violence. I think it also calls into question our investment in law enforcement as the solution to violence, which explains notable silences among mainstream women’s organizations around police violence against women.

But, we’re going to have to get uncomfortable in order to get free. And that’s ultimately the conversation this book seeks to contribute to.

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