We know police brutality is scarring and killing people of color. We know mass incarceration is hurting us. But I want to know how oppression happens. Show me how. Then maybe I will know how to disrupt it in the most effective ways.
—Ana Muñiz, “Police, Power and the Production of Racial Boundaries”
I read this passage as I sat on the dock at the Blue Mountain Center in upstate New York, having returned to this book some five years after I had put it aside when South End Press, its original home, closed its doors. As I finished the manuscript, I repeatedly returned to Muñiz’s question, because it pressed me to do more than simply catalogue police violence against Black women, Indigenous women, and women of color and demand that it be given the attention it is due. It pushes us to try to understand it, to examine it from all angles, look where we haven’t before and mobilize what we learn to deepen our analyses of racial profiling, police brutality and mass incarceration, and expand them along the axes of gender, gender identity and sexuality alongside race, ethnicity, religion, class, nation, immigration status and disability. Muñiz’s question prompts us to ask more: What do the stories and statistics in these pages tell us about anti-Black racism, colonialism, White supremacy and the ways they manifest? What do they show us about gender and gender-based violence? What gaps do they expose in our thinking and actions? And, most importantly, what can they teach us about how to disrupt police violence? What do they reveal to us about the world we want to build? While “Invisible No More” cannot offer answers to all these questions, I am hopeful that it will push new conversations forward.
For a long time, I would struggle with people—including friends, comrades and colleagues—who would say, “But the numbers of women killed/stopped/arrested/incarcerated/deported are just objectively much smaller, a fraction of the numbers of men. So it’s natural to focus the conversation on where there is the greatest volume, to say that stop and frisk, or police violence, or mass incarceration target Black and Brown men, because it is, in fact, true.”
While it is in fact the case that fewer women are killed, brutalized by police or incarcerated, a focus on police killings and more egregious uses of physical force elides women’s more frequent experiences of less lethal violations, like sexual harassment and assault, which go undocumented. Additionally, “stops” of women are likely underreported because police make contacts with women in contexts where there is no record if no arrest is made, or at least not one that is reported in stop data, such as prostitution enforcement; welfare checks; responses to calls about domestic violence, sexual assault or “hate crimes”; mental health crises; or child-welfare enforcement. Having also internalized narratives of what a “stop” and its target look like, police likely underreport stops of women because they may not think of encounters with women as “stops” in the same way as they do stops of men. Police may also have disincentives to record stops where they are sexually harassing, assaulting or extorting women. Police contact with women also tends to take place in locations away from public view—and cameras—such as homes, clinics and public hospitals, welfare offices, public housing. The combination of these factors and more makes police interactions with women less visible, not only in the numbers but also in the public eye.
These realities require, at a minimum, that we collect and analyze data in ways that will make women’s experiences more visible. Forms of police violence uniquely or disproportionately experienced by women, and contexts in which women come into contact with police more frequently, need to be subject to greater scrutiny. We also need to change the way information about police interactions is reported. Research on policing and mass incarceration continues to focus on racial disparities for men, to the exclusion of women. At best, data analysis compares the experiences of “Blacks” to “Whites,” without further disaggregating by gender and race, much less by immigration status, disability, among other races and ethnicities, or in ways that render Indigenous experiences—and dramatic disparities in rates of police killings and incarceration of Native women—visible. We need to find ways to make visible and understand police interactions with women of color, and to challenge what Angela Y. Davis terms the “tyranny of the universal,” in which, in the words of Barbara Smith, “all the women are White, all the Blacks are men, and some of us are brave.”
In the end, beyond the numbers, the stories and patterns described in this book matter because the lives and experiences of Black women, Native women and women of color matter. It is not a distraction to raise them. They merit equal time and have much to teach us about gendered manifestations of racism. In 1998, Davis wrote, “The relatively small number of African-American women drawn into the system should not relieve us of the responsibility of understanding the encounter of gender and race in arrest and incarceration practices.” Since then the numbers have only grown, as have the numbers of Latinx and Native women in prison. Today, women of color represent the fastest-growing jail and prison populations. This reality only increases our responsibility to better understand the processes that contribute to it, because, as Davis wrote in 2013, when we look at the experiences of women, including trans women, in the prison-industrial complex, despite the relatively small numbers, “we learn so much more about the system as a whole than we would learn if we look exclusively at men…about the nature of punishment writ large.”
When we focus on women’s experiences in the places we are already looking and expand our frames to incorporate different forms and contexts of police contact, more women come into view, as do more forms of violence and more impacts on communities of color. For instance, expanding our focus to police sexual violence enables us to see greater numbers of women of color affected by police violence and to recognize the use of sexual violence by police against women, gender-nonconforming people and men of color to establish and enforce relations of power. Attending to police violence against women of color, in all its forms, thus opens possibilities for genuine and deeper solidarity among men and women, among cisgender and transgender and gender-nonconforming people, among women of color, among movements against police and gender-based violence, and for reproductive justice and immigrant rights. It also offers fertile ground for building alliances between Global North and South by framing human rights violations against women not as “horribles” that happen elsewhere, fueling anti-Muslim/anti-Black/Orientalist logics justifying a never-ending machinery of war, but as tools of subjugation used against communities of color within the United States and around the world.
Additionally, as Davis also pointed out, the criminalization of women takes place in ways that are more complicated than for men, and “has had more to do with marking certain groups of women as undomesticated and hypersexual,” beyond the bounds of womanhood. This gendered process of dehumanization drives police violence against unarmed women and girls who simply question police actions, express frustration with their treatment by police, or engage in a dispute with a white person. In these interactions, criminalizing narratives eliminate the possibility that a Black woman, Indigenous woman, or woman of color can be entitled to protection, demand to be treated with dignity, stand up for a family member, or just be angry or have a bad day. Instead, controlling narratives developed in service of colonialism and White supremacy transform women of color into a caricature, an implicit threat justifying violent responses. If our behavior does not line up with that of a compliant Mammy, a noble (and submissive) Indian princess or a “China doll”; if we are instead read as Sapphire, a “savage squaw,” a “dragon lady,” a “hot-tempered” and volatile Latinx or a “terrorist,” then we must be subjugated with brutal force, regardless of what we are actually doing. As Alexis Pegues, who served as a research assistant for this book, pointed out during one of our discussions, White supremacy demands such complete control of Black women and women of color that it takes very little to perceive us as out of control—particularly in combination with gendered perceptions that women are always out of control. Consequently, the minute a Black woman or woman of color questions or doesn’t obey commands, police respond as if they have been physically threatened. These narratives also inform the sexualized profiling of women of color as “prostitutes,” presumed subjects of sexual access and violence, arrest and punishment. Given these realities, no matter how much “implicit bias” training police receive or how many police reforms we achieve, these perceptions will continue to inform police interactions with women of color because they are proliferated and reinforced daily to perpetuate existing systemic relations of power. We therefore have a responsibility to understand and challenge them in order to dismantle the systems of power that produce them. …
Our charge is to envision and build a world without police, and without the values that produce policing and punishment. It is a world premised on what Angela Y. Davis terms “abolition feminism,” a world “based on radical freedom, mutual accountability and passionate reciprocity. In this society, safety and security will not be premised on violence or the threat of violence; it will be based on a collective commitment to guaranteeing the survival and care of all peoples.” Unfortunately, there is no ten-point plan to get there, but each of us can contribute to the conversation, dreams and visions we need to find the way.
Let’s get free.
Excerpted from “Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color” by Andrea J. Ritchie, available now. Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.
Andrea J. Ritchie is a Black, lesbian, immigrant and police-misconduct attorney, and a 2014 Senior Soros Justice fellow with more than two decades of experience advocating against police violence and the criminalization of women and LGBTQ people of color. She is currently researcher-in-residence on Race, Gender, Sexuality and Criminalization at the Barnard Center for Research on Women and the coauthor of “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women” (AAPF, 2015) and “Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States” (Beacon, 2011). She lives in Brooklyn, New York and Chicago.