Why Police Violence Against Women of Color Stays Hidden

Data show more Black men are killed at higher rates than women, but police-misconduct attorney Andrea Ritchie says that doesn’t tell the whole story.
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Rayshunda Guiden, a cousin of Charleena Lyles, cries while listening to another family member speak during a protest and rally in honor of Lyles on June 20, 2017 in Seattle, Washington. Officers from the Seattle Police Department shot and killed Lyles, a pregnant mother of four, on June 18. 

Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images.

When you hear the words “police brutality,” here are some images that come to mind:

An unarmed Black man being beaten or fatally wounded. Rodney King. Mike Brown. Terence Crutcher. Eric Garner. Freddie Gray. Tamir Rice. White police officers caught on video, and President Donald Trump “joking” last week about police officers not using enough violence.

What may not come to mind are Charleena Lyles, Breaion King, Mya Hall, Sandra Lee Circle Bear, Chaumtoli Huq, Vanessa “Sioux Z” Dundon.

In her newly released book, Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, police-misconduct attorney Andrea Ritchie calls out police violence against Black, indigenous, Latinx, Asian, Middle Eastern women, who are cis, trans, lesbian, or gender non-conforming, identifying broader patterns of racialized policing of girls in schools on the streets, disability and mental illness, nonconforming gender lines, sex work, and even motherhood.

Although national data show more Black men are killed at higher rates than women, Ritchie says, those numbers don’t tell the whole story. “The number counts are in kinds of police interaction, traffic stops, street stops, and police killing, but there are no numbers counting police rape or police sexual harassment or unlawful strip searches. These are also acts of police violence.”

And while police violence against women of color is increasing—through broken windows policing, zero-tolerance policies, deportation, child protective services, the war on drugs, and the war on terrorism—public resistance is also increasing. In Invisible No More, Ritchie documents this violence but also the acts of resistance to it, and possibilities for reform.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Zenobia Jeffries: You talk about “affirmatively” inserting women’s stories into the conversation of police violence. How do you think that could end the practice of police violence?

“Police are not performing the function that we say they’re performing, which is protecting people from violence.”

Andrea Ritchie: I think it helps make it clearer that police are not performing the function that we say they’re performing, which is protecting people from violence, and that rather it’s about policing bodies.

Behind the expansion of police has been the notion that we have to protect women, we have to protect kids, we have to protect LGBT people, we have to protect victims of trafficking … this sort of notion that we need more police to protect more victims.

We think of police as being there to protect the vulnerable or protect people who are targeted by violence. If you show police officers consistently—where Black women, women of color, or LGBT people of color are concerned—ignoring violence, telling people that they deserved what happened, assuming that they’re a threat, that they committed the violence, or perpetrating violence against them, then the myth that they’re about protecting victims of violence or vulnerable people starts to unravel.

And we get a clearer picture that actually they don’t change their stripes when they’re responding with violence. They’re still policing race, they’re still policing gender, they’re still policing sexuality, they’re still policing poverty. They’re saying victims of violence who are outside of a very small group—middle-class White women who are not trans—are not deserving of protection.

Jeffries: You use the term “racialized policing of gender and sexuality” throughout the book. What does that mean?

Ritchie: Race is kind of a dominant paradigm of how policing happens in the United States. Race controls that. And within that, things play out differently along the axes of gender, sexuality, sexual orientation, gender identity.

“We can’t only focus on fatal shootings and excessive force. We have to address things like police sexual violence.”

What I was trying to get at with the term “racialized gender violence” is sometimes people think when I talk about policing of gender or sexuality, this is a separate conversation from the conversation about racial profiling or racist police violence. What I was trying to make clear with that term is that within racial profiling, within racist police violence, there are ways in which that manifests that target women, queer, and trans people uniquely.

Jeffries: Should there be gender-specific reforms? What do they look like?

Ritchie: If we are pursuing reform of police departments, then we need to make sure those reforms address the gender-specific forms and context of police violence. For instance, if we’re going to try to reduce the harm of policing, then we can’t only focus on fatal shootings and excessive force. We have to address things like police sexual violence.

Over half of 36 of the top 50 police departments in the United States have no policy whatsoever telling police officers that sexual harassment and sexual assault on duty against members of the public is not allowed and is grounds for discipline. All departments have policies saying you can’t sexually harass your fellow employees, because that’s required by federal law. But those policies rarely say you can’t sexually harass or assault members of the public.

You talk to police officers or officials, and they say, “Well, duh, that should be obvious.” Well, it should be obvious that you shouldn’t shoot a fleeing person in the back of the head, but you still have a policy about that because the Supreme Court tells you that you should. So, there are a lot of things that should be obvious that the departments specifically emphasize because officers do them.

So, that is a gender-specific reform that would be easy for us all to add to our agendas, our Campaign Zero agenda. And it is in the Movement for Black Lives platform. At a minimum we should be telling our police departments that they must take action to prevent, detect, hold officers accountable for police sexual harassment and sexual violence. And then putting programs in practice to make sure the policy is followed.

“A lot of police violence happens to women in the context of responses to mental health crises.”

Prevention is also about taking the power that police officers have over women to extort sex from them. So, decriminalizing prostitution would make it much harder for a police officer to say, “Give me a blow job or I’m taking you in for prostitution.” That particular criminal charge is going to get you kicked out of public housing. It’ll get you denied jobs. It’ll get your children taken away from you. It’ll start a whole chain reaction. It’ll get you deported even though it’s a misdemeanor, because it’s a highly stigmatized offense.

And then looking at policies and how police respond to violence—and respond to calls for help generally—is another context. A lot of police violence happens to women in the context of responses to mental health crises. So, in many ways it’s having a gender-specific reform, or at least a gender-responsive reform, to figure out other responses to mental health crises that don’t involve the police.

Jeffries: You mention in your book the organization CAHOOTS in Eugene, Oregon, which dispatches mental health care workers to a home instead of police officers. Do you see something like that working in an urban setting or large city?

Ritchie: We’ll never know until we try, and I don’t see why not. And if it doesn’t, it’s because of pervasive perceptions of people of color who have mental health crises as [being] 10 times more dangerous and 10 times more threatening, [as well as] historically rooted perceptions of people of color as already kind of deranged.

Jeffries: You talk about reforms, but also about reimagining a world without police. Ideally, many would want to eliminate police. Do you really see a United States of America where policing does not exist? Or is the answer reimagining how policing exists?

Ritchie: I can’t see it. But it’s sort of like an Arundhati Roy quote that says, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet morning, I can hear her breathing.” So, I don’t know what that world looks like. But I’ve seen glimpses of it in, for instance, places like the Allied Media Conference safety, [where] teams try to hold the space safe for the people who are there without calling the police when conflicts erupt and who are finding other ways of supporting people through conflict in transformative ways.

And I think it’s also about moments when we ask ourselves questions about how we can do things differently.

“We need to really build institutions and strengthen our muscle of resolving conflict among ourselves.”

An example that I often use is this: There was an incident on a New York City bus where a young woman was being sexually harassed and assaulted by a guy. And everyone on the bus handed her a cell phone to call the police. And I was like, “What if everyone on the bus had just figured out a strategy to deal with it right then and there instead of calling in someone who is armed and was going to treat both of them in particular ways based on race and gender?”

What if they had just gathered around the guy and said, “This is not how we treat women. Why are you doing this? Where did you learn this? Let’s think about different ways of appreciating women in our lives.”

And others had come around the woman and said, “How can we help you? How can we support you? What do you need?” And the bus had become a community that responded to that situation.

I feel like we can start to build those things out. In a community where there’s a noise problem, how do we not call the police for noise complaints, which can result in people dying from being shot by the police. How do we resolve those kinds of disputes together?

Our minds have been trained for our default response to anything [to be] to call the police. Including people who have fights with each other who call child welfare service on each other.

We need to really build institutions and strengthen our muscle of resolving conflict among ourselves. Those are the things that I hope we can breathe life into. And I think that will turn into a different way of dealing with harm and violence.

“That space—the Women’s March—has actually created room to talk about police violence against Black women and women of color.”

Jeffries: You mention anti-violence movements and advocacy organizations that don’t address police violence against women of color, trans, LGBT. Have you seen that the Women’s March has addressed these issues that you talk about?

Ritchie: The three women who serve as the leaders of the Women’s March are anti-police brutality activists. Linda Sarsour, in particular, has been an amazing advocate for survivors of police brutality—as well as those who didn’t survive. They particularly lift up women’s experiences and LGBT experiences.

So, I feel like there’s hope there. I’m watching America Ferrera talking about police violence against women at the Women’s March. I feel like that space—the Women’s March—has actually created room to talk about police violence against Black women and women of color that hasn’t existed on a national stage. It’s because of who’s involved, because of this moment, and because of all the activism on the ground that has now built up to something that can no longer be invisible that can no longer be ignored.

This moment is a tremendous opportunity to address this issue on a national level. And the more intersectional the state’s approach to violence is—the ways criminalization and immigration enforcement are becoming more intertwined in the current political climate, Islamophobia in law enforcement and immigration enforcement are becoming more intertwined in the current political climate, the War on Drugs, the war on women’s sexual reproduction and gender freedom, and the war on trans people—it just offers so much more opportunity for intersectional resistance.

“Policing and criminalization offers an opportunity to break down those silos and to see the connections and to start fighting together in ways that make us more unstoppable.”

And so there’s just now so much more opportunity, and people are stepping up.

To see that in Texas targeting trans people’s use of public bathrooms and the right to choose or not to choose to have a baby and what to do when you’re pregnant are related. People are starting to see that and fight together on that basis. That’s the opportunity that this moment presents.

It makes our movement stronger. The people who are fighting used to be very siloed in their fights. I think policing and criminalization offers an opportunity to break down those silos and to see the connections and to start fighting together in ways that make us more unstoppable.

Jeffries: At the end of each chapter, you have a section on acts of resistance. But throughout the book there’s the theme of the “controlling narrative” of racism and White supremacy that historically guides how policing is done in communities of color. How does centering women of color’s experiences on racial profiling and police violence expand our understanding of the operation of White supremacy and inform our understanding of gender-based violence and its relationship to state violence?

Ritchie: I felt a lot of pressure to come up with a 10-point plan, so my last line in the book is, “I don’t have a 10-point plan.” But I felt a lot of pressure to come up with solutions to those pervasive structural issues. The book shows more of the face of White supremacy. We have to be able to see the entire face in order to deconstruct it.

People ask me often what I learned from writing the book. Mostly, it was the responsibility to think about the question that you just posed. I feel like for a long time in my work, I’ve been like, “My lane is pointing out the problem, and as a lawyer, trying to push back the state and hold it off, while other people dream the new future.” That’s still true, but I’m realizing that if I’m really about reducing this harm and advancing a different world, then I have to learn within the skill set that I have to do both. And that I have to be thinking about how to deconstruct those narratives in daily conversations, practice, work, narrative-shifting, world-shifting transformative ways, because that’s part of pointing out, part of dealing with the issues that I raise. And I think that’s true for all of us.

Jeffries: What immediate impact do you hope the book will have?

Ritchie: I really hope it’s going to change the way people think about police, about racial profiling, about police violence, about mass incarceration. I really hope it’s going to not just give people another list of names, another bunch of stories, another set of nightmares, but it’ll just really change the way people think about those issues.

That they will never again think about racial profiling—not just without thinking about Sandra Bland, as one case—but thinking about all the Black women and women of color who experience racial profiling, not just at traffic stops, but while giving birth; not just in arrests, but in the criminalization of how they care for their children. And not just in police shootings, but in police sexual violence. And that that will expand how we fight.