#SayHerName–Police Violence Against Black Women and Girls: An Interview with Andrea J. Ritchie

In today’s post, Jenn M. Jackson, writer and doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago, interviews Andrea J. Ritchie on her new book Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color (Beacon Press, 2017) and #SayHerName week of action, which begins today. Ritchie is a Black lesbian immigrant whose scholarship, advocacy and organizing has focused on policing and criminalization of women and LGBTQ people of color over the past two decades. She is the author of Invisible No More, and 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. She is currently Researcher in Residence on Race, Gender, Sexuality and Criminalization at the Barnard Center for Research on Women and was a 2014 Senior Soros Justice Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @dreanyc123 and at @InvisibleNMBook.

Jenn M. Jackson: Invisible No More is important for a number of reasons. One of which is its writing against a history of erasure of Indigenous, Afro-descendant and Black, and immigrant women whose stories are rarely recorded with respect, truth, and honor to the subjects who lived them. You say as much at the opening of the first chapter when you mention that the history you “learned in school rarely mentioned” these experiences. How has mainstream history obfuscated these experiences? To what end and for what purpose?

Andrea J. Ritchie: Generally speaking, historical narratives leave out the systemic sexual violence inherent to the logics, policies, and practices of colonialism and chattel slavery, and the ways in which gender, sexuality, pregnancy, and parenthood are wielded as weapons of punishment and exclusion. “Ungendering” and projection of deviant sexualities are both part of the process of dehumanization, enabling colonizers and slaveholding societies to claim moral high ground while engaging in forms of gender-based violence that would otherwise presumably be intolerable to a “moral” society. Defining and policing the boundaries of the category of “woman” around white womanhood to exclude Indigenous and Black women and immigrant women ultimately renders them invisible in larger historical narratives, particularly when the categories of “Black,” “Indigenous” and “immigrant” are implicitly gendered male.

These erasures are compounded when it comes to policing by persistent perceptions of state violence as something that happens exclusively or primarily to men, who are framed as both the primary subjects of and resisters to colonial, racial or national oppression, while any harm to or resistance by women and gender nonconforming people is characterized as identical in form but lesser, collateral to that of men, or non existent. As a result, women’s experiences of policing and criminalization and resistance become unworthy of historical study or mention, particularly when those writing our histories are also men.

Thankfully, scholars such as Angela Y. Davis, Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, Andrea Smith, Saidiyah Hartman, Sarah Haley, Talitha LeFlouria and Deborah Gray White, to name just a few among many, have mobilized Black and Indigenous feminisms to excavate women’s histories of state sanctioned violence. Siobhan Sommerville and Clare Sears, among others, have explored immigrant women’s histories of policing and criminalization. Thanks to them we know, for instance, that the origins of mass incarceration are as much in the desire to control Black women’s bodies, labor, sexuality and resistance as Black men’s.

Jackson: Early in Invisible No More, you connect the extermination and mass genocide of Indigenous people to the rapes and violations of Black enslaved women to the conditions facing Chinese and Mexican immigrant women whose bodies were deemed “hypersexed” and “super feminine.” What are the connections between Black women’s and other women of color’s experiences with colonialism and empire? How can we understand Black women’s experiences with police violence as a part of a larger system which includes police violence against other women of color?

Ritchie: Invisible No More submits that it is critical to honor the historic specificities and unique logics driving what might on the surface appear to be very similar perceptions of Black women, Indigenous women, and other women of color rooted in colonialism and slavery, while simultaneously exploring shared experiences of police violence as fertile ground for solidarity and resistance.

For instance, the ways in which Native, Black, Latina and Asian women’s bodies are pathologized and discriminatorily policed are premised on controlling narratives of women of color as inherently promiscuous, simultaneously exotic, sexually deviant and insatiable, morally bankrupt, and universally available, which were developed in service of colonialism and imperialism. But each of these narratives is rooted in colonial and capitalist logics specific to particular times and contexts, advancing particular interests. For Indigenous women, such narratives served to advance genocide and removal of Indigenous peoples to establish a settler state, which ultimately requires the disappearance of Indigenous women – as evidenced by the reality of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. For African descended women, they served as justification for systematic rape and forced child bearing in service of increasing the population of enslaved people, and continue to manifest through high rates of sexual violence, control over Black women’s reproduction, and pathologization of Black women’s parenting. For Asian and Latina women, narratives of unregulated sexuality and reproduction underpin ongoing practices of exclusion from the U.S. and sexual violence by U.S. military forces at the border and overseas. Because the logics driving these narratives are different, they play out differently and have different impacts that cannot be flattened into one singular “woman of color” narrative.

Nevertheless, there is a possibility of organizing across these historical specificities around the enforcement of prostitution laws, for instance. The promise of examining Black women’s experiences in relation to other women of color lies in the potential for joint resistance to shared realities such as pervasive sexual harassment and sexual violence by police persistent profiling and racial disparities in prostitution arrests equivalent to those seen in stop and frisk, for instance, and the ongoing ban on immigration for anyone who has ever engaged in prostitution.

Demilitarize the Police, Black Lives Matter. (Photo: Johnny Silvercloud, Flickr)

Jackson: Last month, Chikesia Clemons was brutally assaulted at an Alabama Waffle House by police officers for requesting plastic utensils. During the assault, her top shifted below her chest, exposing her breasts to the entire restaurant and to the patrons who were recording the altercation. Like your book tells us, police interactions themselves may be sites of sexual violence. You suggest that the best way to challenge these issues is through resistance. What does that resistance look like? 

Ritchie: First, resistance requires us to recognize that not all police violence looks the same – we cannot just insert women’s experiences into a frame created exclusively around those of men, and advance “universal,” one-size-fits-all solutions. Policing of Black women often involves some element of sexual humiliation – whether it is the strip searches and cavity searches of Black women that are routine features of drug law enforcement, often accompanied by sexual commentary, and reminiscent of the examination of the breasts and vaginas of African-descended women on the auction block, the entitlement police officers feel to comment on a Black girl’s body as she enters her school, the presumption that a Black woman standing on the corner must engaged in prostitution, wholesale indifference to reports of sexual violence made by Black women, or sexual predation by police officers like Daniel Holtzclaw targeting Black women and girls. This means we have to develop and rely on different methods of identifying and describing the problem. While sexualized police violence against Chikesia Clemons and Charnesia Corley, for instance, was captured on video by bystanders and dashcams, more often than not it takes place in ways that are invisible to bystanders because they occur in private places, and are not tracked through official documentation in the same ways that, for example, use of force is.

Resistance looks like talking about sexual violence by police officers as part of the regular repertoire of police violence that plagues Black communities – targeting Black women, trans and gender nonconforming people, and men, and validating the experiences of survivors of police sexual violence in the same ways as members of our communities who experience what is more conventionally understood to be police violence. Resistance looks like focusing on the kinds of interactions where sexual violence by police taking place – traffic stops, youth programs, responses to calls for assistance, policing of drugs and prostitution – and engaging in aggressive prevention, detection, and intervention, which often involves taking the police out of the equation altogether. It looks like demanding that police departments adopt and effectively enforce policies explicitly prohibiting sexual harassment and assault of all people officers come into contact with. Most importantly, it means making sure that survivors have what they need to heal – supportive communities and movements, and, if they choose to, a place to report police violence that doesn’t require them to go to the very same institutions that harmed them to obtain accountability.

Jackson: What is so critical about this project is how it gets at the politicization of public space. Specifically, when you detail the experiences of Black, Latinx, and Asian trans women and men who report the risks of “walking while trans,” it becomes clear that just existing in public, walking, going to a local store, represents a risk for the communities at the center of your project. You mention that decriminalizing prostitution, in these circumstances, is not enough. What is enough?  What must be done to dismantle these processes?

Ritchie: Fundamentally, as has been made so patently clear of late through a series of incidents in which Black women were targeted for “golfing while Black,” “AirBnB’ing while Black,” “napping while Black,” etc., we need to challenge, confront and dismantle deeply entrenched notions that Black women’s mere presence, speech, and protest of mistreatment in public spaces is – in and of itself – a threat that officers meet with physical or even deadly force. Similarly, we need to challenge the notion that the presence of Black women and girls, trans and not trans, represents an inherently sexualized threat that must be contained through profiling, police violence, and punishment. Until we are able to successfully deconstruct these narratives, police will use whatever laws are available to them to enforce them by violating and criminalizing Black women – whether it’s “disorderly conduct,” “lewd conduct,” “obstructing the roadway,” “assault on a police officer,” a school uniform violation, etc.

Jackson: The #SayHerName week of action, like Invisible No More, stems from a movement-based call to recognize that police violence in the United States is racialized and gendered. Not only that, there are unique forms of policing and violence enacted on trans and cis Black women and gender nonconforming people that are sanctioned by social norms and state-based institutions that are intimate and unavoidable. How, through our resistance, can we build a world that operates otherwise? A world that reflects the ethos of your project?

Ritchie: We need to move beyond mere visibility of individual Black women’s experiences of police violence to ensuring that Black women’s experiences drive our analysis of racial profiling, police violence, mass incarceration, and gender-based violence. This will mean looking more closely where we are already looking to see how Black women are affected – through use of force against pregnant people, for instance, or through higher rates of police killings when unarmed. It will also mean focusing on different forms and sites of racialized police violence and criminalization, like the policing of prostitution, poverty, or child welfare. It will also mean challenging perceptions of Black women proliferated and acted on by police – and that many of us have internalized, particularly with respect to Black women at the margins of our communities, such as Black women who are trans or gender nonconforming, or who are in mental health crisis, or who are involved in the drug or sex trades.

Ultimately, examining and resisting all forms of violence against Black women and girls through a Black queer feminist lens, as BYP100 calls on us to do through the #SayHerName week of action, requires us to gain a deeper understanding of how state and interpersonal violence operate in relation to each other in Black women’s lives, and to radically reimagine our visions of safety and the means we devote to achieving it. If our resistance is focused on actually producing genuine safety from both police, state, intimate, and community violence for all Black women and gender nonconforming people, then we will be closer to the world that Invisible No More hopes to contribute to building.

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Jenn M. Jackson

Jenn M. Jackson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago where she has also received a graduate certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies. Jenn’s research interests include Black Politics, news media and public opinion, social movements, and gender & sexuality. Follow her on Twitter @JennMJack.