Police have fatally shot at least 620 people in 2017. According to Fatal Encounters, a database that tracks police shootings, at least 2,902 people have been killed by police in the three years since Darren Wilson shot and killed Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Many of the victims names and final moments have been emblazoned in our memories: The deaths of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Walter Scott, who were all killed by officers, played on an endless loop on social media. But what about Rekia Boyd? Pearlie Golden? Tyisha Miller? Korryn Gaines? Gabriella Nevarez? Their names and stories haven’t resonated as deeply because police violence has largely been framed as a Black man’s issue.
In her groundbreaking book Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, Andrea J. Ritchie examines police violence through the lenses of Black women, women of color, trans and gender nonconforming people, people with disabilities, and sex workers. It’s a continuation of the work she’s been doing for over 20 years as a police-misconduct attorney, organizer, and researcher-in-residence on race, gender, sexuality, and criminalization at the Barnard Center for Research on Women. After coauthoring the #SayHerName report—which ignited a global movement to bring light to the names and legacies of Black women who have been killed by police—Ritchie’s book is another important and necessary intervention.
We discussed her work as an organizer, Black women telling stories as a form of resistance, and how Invisible No More will change the world.
I’ve never read a book like Invisible No More, which made me both thrilled that the book exists and sad that there isn’t a canon of similar work. What prompted you to take this research about police violence against Black women and women of color and turn it into a full-length project?
I started documenting [police violence] back in Toronto in the ’90s when I was part of this process for auditing police responses to sexual violence. More and more, we were hearing stories from women about police officers committing the sexual violence. So we started documenting those stories for the purpose of changing policy in Toronto, but in that process, I started realizing that Black women and women of color were talking about this, but no one else was. It wasn’t part of the larger conversation post-Rodney King, post-Amadou Diallo, and it felt almost like being in an alternate universe. How is this not part of this larger conversation? How are these stories happening in our communities to the women who are leading movements around police violence and accountability, and are going unheard, unseen, and unacknowledged?
As I discuss in the book, documenting and finding these stories kind of became an obsession. If I saw one in a newspaper article, I would clip it out. I have boxes of printouts, clippings, and newsletters where the whole newsletter is about, for instance, Minneapolis communities uniting against police brutality, and there’s only one case involving a Black woman in it. As I wrote in an article for Color of Violence: The INCITE! Anthology in 2006, I started collecting these stories and identifying some themes that I’d started to see. Jill Petty, who was an editor at South End Press at that time, said, “Girl, there’s nothing else out there like this. You have to write this into a book. You have to write it, and you have to write it now.”
I signed a contract with South End to write it, but then got distracted with actually doing the work, like writing Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States. Then, South End unfortunately went under, so it took me a while to pick [Invisible No More] back up again and find a new publisher. When I started back on it in earnest in 2014, I couldn’t believe there still wasn’t another book out there. I assumed that in the interim, while I was litigating cases or organizing or doing policy advocacy, someone would’ve written it. No one had, so it felt like I’d been carrying this baby for 11 months and it just needed to come out [laughs]. So I just pushed it out.
As I read the book, I immediately thought about At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power and the parallels between your work and Rosa Parks’s activism around sexual violence. Do you think sexual violence and police violence are interlinked? Why do we continue to overlook the link between the two?
I am so incredibly moved and honored both by what you just said about my documenting of sexual violence being reminiscent of what Rosa Parks did and by what Angela Davis said in the book’s foreword: She compared the book to work of Ida B. Wells and William Patterson, and noted that there’s a power in collecting stories. That is an important thing to do, and I feel deeply honored to be in that tradition and have made a contribution to it.
What I love about At the Dark End of the Street is that it unearths that storytelling among Black women around these issues has been a kind of resistance for so long. Parks documented sexual violence, not only by people in the community, but also by police. Those same women were organizing around rape by community members and police officers in very similar ways. I learned from reading that book and other texts that for women in those communities, those two things were part of the same issue. That’s [also] outlined in books like Beth Richie’s Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation. Many of those communities became invested in policing as the solution to sexual violence. Then, by necessity, there became a code of silence around the sexual violence police officers were committing.
In the Civil Rights era, there was no illusion that the police would protect Black women from sexual violence. That was clear. It was also very clear that the police were committing it, facilitating it, and enabling it. Over time, as the women’s movement really pushed for more investment in policing as a response to sexual violence, it became harder for people to come forward because that then undermines the whole notion that police are the solution. That became very clear during the Daniel Holtzclaw case in Oklahoma City. When the case first broke, women from OKC Artists for Justice reached out to local anti-violence and sexual assault activists to say, “Hey, you need to take this case. Join us in lifting up these issues and support these survivors of sexual violence by a police officer.” The initial response was we can’t really get involved because of our relationships with law enforcement. That’s a snapshot of what’s happened over the past 30 years. Our investment in police as a response to violence has deepened, especially around sexual violence and domestic violence. It has meant silencing the things that would call [that commitment] into question.
I’m so glad the book offers so much history. It almost creates a continuum or a timeline so people understand that police violence didn’t just start happening in 2012. You spend so much time in the book looking at the war on drugs. How would you say the war on drugs, specifically, fueled violence toward women of color and Black women by police officers?
The reason I spent so much time on history is because it repeats itself. There’s so much in terms of historical tropes about Black women’s bodies as inherently criminal and inherently deviant that plays out in the context of the war on drugs. It’s particularly relevant because the current administration wants to ramp the war on the drugs back up as it was in the ’80s and ’90s. The key about the war on drugs is that it really drove dramatic increases in incarceration rates for Black, Latina, and Indigenous women. For a period in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the rate of incarceration of Black and Latina women increased by 800 percent. For a lot of the last three decades, the rate of growth of women in prison, disproportionately Black, Latina, and Indigenous, has outpaced that of men by many folds. The war on drugs is really pivotal in that.
It’s been part of the conversation, but we haven’t really examined the police interactions that drive that. We start the conversation when women show up in court to receive a mandatory minimum sentence or when she’s giving birth in prison in shackles or she’s experiencing sexual violence in prison, but we’re not really looking at the police interactions that are driving that. That’s one of the contributions that I hope the book will make because those police interactions are already intensifying in our current political climate.
What do you think about senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker proposing legislation that would give women in prison access to more humane treatment, like getting free menstrual products and not being shackled while giving birth? Do you think that’s a step in the right direction? After that, what’s the next step?
I think a critical step is to stop women from winding up in prison in the first place, which means aggressively resisting, blocking, and countering this trend of ramping the war on drugs back up. It would mean coming out in very strong opposition against, for instance, the memo Jeff Sessions put out about charging people to the max and going hard on marijuana offenses. It would mean really challenging every initiative that would drive women into prison, whether that’s the war on drugs, broken windows policing, the Muslim ban, or internal policing tactics that reflect that kind of Islamophobia. It’s really pushing hard to stop the front end of mass incarceration, policing, and criminalization, and that’s not easy politically.
It’s much easier politically to be like, “Oh, women in prison should not have to give birth in shackles.” Of course that’s true. Of course it’s inhumane. Of course it’s reminiscent of slavery. Yes, this notion that people don’t get basic, human dignity in the form of pads or tampons or underwear or bras or things that are required to take care of yourself and maintain dignity in prison are huge issues. But they’re politically easy, and I think we need to push folks—especially senators Booker and Warren—to take up the challenge of some of the harder issues, like front-end criminalization.
The section of your book about sex work is incredibly important. As people’s thoughts have evolved around policing and state-sanctioned violence, there’s still a large mental block around sex work, even among people I know who are very involved and aware. How integral was it for you to include that in your book? How do we shift perspective around sex work so we can see it as a part of this conversation about policing?
I’d say it’s policing of prostitution because some forms of sex work are legal, like phone sex or dancing, for instance. [Prostitution] is one of the primary sites of police profiling, racial profiling, gender profiling, and police violence, including sex violence, against Black women and women of color. That’s an unexamined area in the conversation around police violence and mass incarceration. For me, there was no way to write about this without centering that. I think this is an arena where, similar to domestic violence or sexual violence, mainstream white women’s movements and anti-violence movements are making the same mistakes. They’re saying, “We’re going to rely on police to ‘protect’ people in this industry by punishing them in this case.” Therefore, we can’t look at or talk about the abuses that take place because the amount of power we give police officers in that context gets used to extort sex, threaten to take children away, and abuse women in the sex industry. It felt essential to include that.
I really wanted to include it in a way that helps people in our community see it that’s a part of racial profiling and the police violence that we’re talking about. Then they can start to shift the attitudes that you’re referring to where there’s a lot of blame, a lot of shame, a lot of stigma, and, frankly, a lot of violence in our communities against Black women who are or are believed to be involved in the sex trade. Of course, there’s also an epidemic of transphobic violence against Black trans women. To the extent that we can shift the analysis and the conversation to see that their experiences are part of the larger experience of Black communities being racially profiled, targeted, beaten, abused, and killed by police. My hope was that we could see that common ground and use that to challenge the transphobia, misogyny, and whorephobia that lives in our communities.
It’s definitely there and thriving, unfortunately. There’s a striking line midway through the second chapter that says, “Men are the main protagonists on all sides of the equation.” Is the erasure of women of color and Black women in the police-violence narrative purposeful? If so, why?
Part of it relates to what we were just talking about. If we call out sexual or transphobic violence by police, then we will also have to look at how it manifests in our own communities and how our own communities contribute and perpetuate that. That’s something that’s not required when we’re talking about police shooting an unarmed Black man. That doesn’t require us to confront things in our own communities that are about other forms of violence that we’ve internalized. That’s part of the issue. Generally speaking, our communities are part of larger communities that privilege male experiences, male voices, and male leadership. When I say that, I mean they privilege nontransgender, nonqueer male leadership, and that translates into conversations about policing and mass incarceration.
I love that you spoke about privileged cisgender, heterosexual men in the narrative because the section of your book about Ferguson delves into how women in that movement are not singular-issue folks. They’re forcing the narrative expand to include so many different things. Do you think social media has been integral in that process?
No doubt. Whose Streets [opened Friday, August 11th]. I’ve only seen the trailer so far, but I encourage people to see it. What you can see from the trailer is the role that Black women and girls played in the leadership of that movement. That’s certainly what we know from talking to people on the ground, in the streets. That was a really powerful moment: Black women on the front lines were like, “We’re out here for Mike Brown, all day and all night, but you are also going to have to pay attention to the ways that the cops are sexually harassing us, sexually assaulting us, abusing us, locking us up because it’s happening right in front of you, right on TV, right in front of people who came to Ferguson in solidarity, and we’re not going to let our voices be silenced anymore.”
That was a huge inspiration for many of us, and has produced a shift in our movements. That changed the course of history in ways that I’m deeply and profoundly grateful for. I hope we all are. I think social media played a huge role because when I was documenting newsletters and pieces here, there, and everywhere, whether that got into the mainstream conversation was mediated by the mainstream media and the organizations that were getting that information. So, for instance, the NAACP was taking testimonies about police violence in America in the years after Rodney King was beaten. There are testimonies in there from Black women talking about police violence. Some of them are documented in the book. The NAACP didn’t lift those up as part of the central narrative, and continued to talk about this as an issue about Black men almost exclusively.
We no longer are dependent on someone else filtering that conversation because we can post directly to social media. We can say this is the case, this happened, and this is the campaign we’re mounting around it. We’re calling it to people’s attention. Now the response may still be disproportionate, but no we’re taking over the power of telling the stories and demanding action directly.
What shifted to allow #SayHerName and a heightened awareness on Black women and women of color in the movement of police violence? Even five years ago, this conversation wasn’t a national one. What happened to make it so?
I would credit people like yourself. Your article is cited in the book as one of the many voices that rose up after Ferguson that said we can’t continue to have this conversation in the way that we’ve been having it. We just will not accept it. Black women writers, thinkers, and activists are insisting that this conversation will be different than it has been for the last few decades. It’s going to include Black women and girls. That created space for #SayHerName. In full disclosure, I coauthored [the] #SayHerName [report], and I helped organize that vigil, but that doesn’t mean anything. There are many vigils and events that I’ve helped organize over the years where I left feeling angry and frustrated because they didn’t mention, center, or focus on Black women and girls.
For years, it was hard for me to get people to say Black men and women when they were talking about police brutality. So, it was life changing for me to walk away from a vigil feeling whole. In the book, I go back and forth from feeling like the tide has turned, things have shifted, and we’re never going back to a time where we had conversations in a way that were exclusively about cisgender, heterosexually framed men. And then, I realized that vigil was one in the last three years, and it has not been replicated. There were two national days of action to end state violence against Black women and girls that were led by Black Youth Project 100 and Black Lives Matter, and those were amazing, historical moments, but they’re not happening every day. They’re not happening every month or even every year in the same way that other conversations are happening.
So, what I’m concerned about is that we’re not looking at larger issues of racial profiling, policing, and mass incarceration through the lens of women’s experiences. It’s not considered part of the regular conversation. It’s still considered an interesting take, an interesting side meeting, or an interesting rally that we’ll do every once in a while for #SayHerName, but then we’re going to go back to the regular conversation with the regular subjects. The New York Times will review three new books about policing that all focus on the experiences of Black men, and then there’s another book about women that becomes part of a different conversation. Until they’re all part of the same conversation, we’re still going to be fighting an uphill battle to understand these phenomena of police violence and mass incarceration through a lens that reflects all members of our communities. That’s our next step.
I hope so. When you think about all of the organizing work that you’ve done over the past 20-plus years, do you think that we have made headway with centering Black women and girls in conversations about police? In the next five, ten, fifteen years, where do you hope the conversation goes next?
There’s absolutely no doubt that we’ve made headway. #SayHerName was not possible and wasn’t happening 20 years ago. A national day to end police violence against Black women, girls, gender nonconforming folks, and femmes just wasn’t happening 20 years ago. Three of us might have tried to organize it, but it wouldn’t have happened in 30 cities across the country. The degree of understanding and attention that Black trans women have insisted on in terms of their experiences with police violence is a testament to the work of people like Ms. Major on through current leaders like Raquel Willis. They’re even documenting and lifting up Black trans women’s experiences with policing and police violence, which has to be acknowledged.
We’re now hitting a wall of okay, we’ll say Sandra Bland’s name in our list of people who’ve been killed by police. We will say maybe say Black men and women when we talk about experiences with police violence. But our analysis of the problem isn’t going to extend to really reflect those experiences. Our demands aren’t really going to shift to reflect those experiences. And we will continue to largely talk about the issues in the way that we’ve been talking about them. That’s where we really need to push to the next level beyond visibility to understanding these issues through the lenses of women, homeless people, people with disabilities, trans folks, and gender nonconforming people. Only then will we have a complete understanding of the full measure, scope, and form of state violence, of anti-Blackness in this country, and of white supremacy in this country. Only then will our resistance be on the behalf of all Black lives.