“It is not as though women of color have been completely absent from the narrative of police brutality until now. But more often than not… they have been typecast solely as grieving mothers and family members,” Andrea J. Ritchie writes in her book, Invisible No More: Police Violence against Black Women and Women of Color.
Ritchie does recognize the important role of the mothers of black victims of police brutality, mentioning, for example, the plight of mothers of police torture victims in Chicago, who succeeded in prosecuting the culprit, police commander Jon Burge.
In her book, the activist-turned-author recalls some of the most emblematic cases of relatives of male victims who went on to become advocates for what is now known as the Black Lives Matter movement.
One of the most harrowing stories she mentions is that of Diamond Lavish Reynolds and her four-year-old daughter. The woman and her little girl “were in the car when an officer killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop as Diamond recorded the interaction on video… Diamond, like so many others before her, went straight from the precinct where she was held for hours after the killing to a protest demanding justice for Philando,” Ritchie writes.
Ritchie expresses great gratitude and admiration for women like Reynolds, but the novelty of her book is its focus on black women as victims of law enforcement´s brutality and abuses of authority.
Perhaps because the police violence against black women results in death less often than violence against black men, the media seldom focuses on it.
Black women are the victims of systematic abuse by police, even as they “struggle for answers and accountability” following the murder of loved ones. In 2012, a woman named Patricia Hartley stood by as police officers killed her grandson Ramarley Graham. When she screamed in terror, a police officer pushed her and said, “Get the f**k away before I have to shoot you, too.” Hartley was then interrogated for many hours, without an attorney in the room. “When Ramarley's mother, Constance Malcolm, went to the station to demand answers and secure her mother's release, she was tackled to the floor and assaulted by police officers,” Ritchie recounts in Invisible No More.
After the incidents in Ferguson made headlines around the world, new black women leaders emerged, and the stories of women who had suffered at the hands of police officers, and an unfair system, finally came to the foreground. The women Ritchie describes in her book were, finally, becoming more visible.
Black women, trans, and gender-nonconforming people suffer systematic police sexual violence and racially motivated neglect while in custody. In an emblematic case, Charnesia Corley was pulled over for an alleged traffic violation in Texas and had to endure an inexplicable and humiliating 11-minute vaginal search because one officer claimed he had “smelled weed.” Although there was video of Corley's interaction with the police officers, a court dismissed all charges against them.
Sadly, black women deal with this kind of thing all the time. For Ritchie, Corley's case is an example of how the war on drugs is waged “on the bodies of black women.”
One of the most valuable contributions Ritchie has made to justice and equality in North America is the creation of an interactive database. The result of ten years' legal and research effort focusing on police violence against black women, the database is an invaluable tool for anyone interested in understanding this prevalent problem.
Ritchie's research began in Toronto when she first became aware of violence committed by police against vulnerable women, especially sexual violence. “I think one of the issues is that many have a narrow definition of police violence and see it as just physical violence like beating or shooting someone. But sexual assault is also violence,” she has commented.
For the activist, this type of sexual violence is a “hidden epidemic,” because it goes largely unreported. Ritchie believes that social media has empowered victims because even when the mainstream media fails to report on this type of violence against black women, they can now speak out on platforms like Twitter or Facebook.
Black women and LGBT community members are at-risk groups for police violence.
As people committed to justice, police transparency, and accountability, we must start paying more attention to the plights of the more vulnerable populations.
What happens to a black trans woman who is picked up by police for solicitation or drug possession?
How do officers treat the mothers, sisters, wives of men they have just shot, just because they were black?
Victims of police sexual assault or any other kind of violence deserve justice; their voices must be heard. According to the New York Times, between 1980 and 2014, “the rate of growth in the number of women in prison outpaced that of men by more than 50 percent,” and black women are sent to jail twice as often as white women.
Black women and LGBT individuals who have been wrongly incarcerated, or subjected to police violence can sue police departments, to receive the damages they rightly deserve, and to get the bad cops involved off the street.
Law enforcement is there to protect us, not to strip search women “looking for drugs,” based solely on the fact that they are black. There is no justice without equality. Unfortunately, in our legal system, paraphrasing Orwell, some individuals are still “more equal than others.”
Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color by Andrea Ritchie is available from Amazon.