By Brian Prowse-Gany and Joyzel Acevedo
There was Eric Garner, a father of six who was placed into a chokehold by the NYPD for allegedly selling cigarettes without a tax stamp, and whose pleas of “I can’t breathe” were ignored until his death. There was Mike Brown, an eighteen-year-old who was fatally shot a total of 12 times by an officer responding to a robbery in progress. And there was Freddie Gray from Baltimore, who was arrested for allegedly possessing an illegal knife and later sustained deadly injuries to his spine in a police van that caused him to slip into a coma.
These are just a few of the household names Americans know when it comes to deadly interactions between black Americans and police officers, but what doesn’t garner as much attention are the stories of women of color. Perhaps the best-known female victim of police violence, is Sandra Bland: Originally stopped on a highway in Texas for failing to use a turn signal, the interaction escalated, with the officer involved threatening to use a taser, then removing her from her car, throwing her onto the ground and later arresting her. Three days after her arrest on July 13, 2015, Bland was found dead by hanging in her cell at Waller County Jail.
Groups like Say Her Name, a social movement founded in 2015 to bring awareness to black female victims of police brutality, brought Bland’s name to the forefront of the media conversation surrounding police violence and are trying to do the same for other black women whose experiences struggle to make it into the mainstream.
Andrea J. Ritchie, a police misconduct lawyer and an activist whose work crosses more than two decades, knows this frustration all too well: Ritchie was living in Canada when a judge acquitted the Los Angeles police officers involved in the 1991 police beating of taxi driver Rodney King. Around that time, two women in Canada had also experienced police violence: Sophia Cooke was shot in the back by police while riding unarmed in the passenger’s seat of a car, and Audrey Smith was stopped on a street corner and subjected to a strip search because she “looked like a drug dealer.” There were protests surrounding all three cases, but Ritchie was bothered by the lack of press around the two women’s stories. “It seemed like the rest of the world was mostly talking about Rodney King, and not about Audrey Smith and Sophia Cook.”
Ritchie felt alarmed. “For me, as the daughter of a black Jamaican woman, those cases particularly struck me because it felt like they could have been my mother, my sister, my cousin, my aunt, my grandmother. So it felt equally important to me to talk about all forms of police violence.”
It was that disconnect that led her to researching and compiling countless stories of police brutality against women of color for her most recent book, Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color. “The media is obscuring, or maybe not giving enough attention to, things like sexual violence by police officers or other forms of violence that are uniquely gendered,” she states.
According to the Washington Post, black Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police officers than white Americans. Pointing to an American history of violence against women of color dating as far back as slavery and further into the Colonial era, Andrea says this kind of invisibility — and violence — is nothing new in the U.S.
“For many years, rape of indigenous women or black women wasn’t seen as a crime at law. It was systemically perpetrated through Colonial violence and through chattel slavery,” she argues. “Violence against black women, ripping them away from their children, sexual violence, forced pregnancy were instrumental, central; they were part of the institution of slavery. Sexual, fatal and physical violence were instrumental and central to genocide of Indigenous peoples. Sexual, physical and fatal violence were instrumental against immigrant women, [which] was instrumental to establishing and maintaining this country’s borders.”
“That’s been invisibilized in the story of how the U.S. was built, essentially on gender-based violence and racialized violence and Colonial violence,” she asserts. “Violence … has been invisibilized throughout most of this country’s history, so it’s not surprising that police violence would also be invisibilized.”
Police brutality toward women of color can involve not only physical violence, but sexual violence as well. “Some research shows that every five days, a police officer is caught in an act of sexual misconduct,” says Ritchie. “That’s a pretty frequent number. And those are just the officers who are caught: Researchers, many of whom are also former law enforcement officers, current law enforcement officers … will tell you that those numbers of officers who are caught is just the tip of the iceberg, because most sexual assaults are never reported to anyone in the first place.”
According to Ritchie, most police officers know about the violence that some of their colleagues are perpetrating, and they simply don’t report it. A study conducted by professors from Illinois State University and the University of California showed that in 40 percent of sexual misconduct cases, officers had up to 20 complaints of sexual assault before they were held accountable for their actions. “If the person that we are saying is supposed to be the protector of women and children — the police officer — is perpetrating violence against women and children, then that calls into question our whole vision of safety and the means we devote to achieving it.”
While those gendered police brutality statistics are alarming, what is equally worrying for Ritchie is that there are so few to begin with: “There exists no national database collecting this data. … We have no idea how many more women were killed by police where we don’t know the police were the killers or where the news media just didn’t deem it worthy of reporting and therefore it didn’t make it into the databases. … [And] that should be part of the routine reporting that law enforcement agencies have to do as part of the accountability for the tremendous amount of money that is being spent on them every single year. There’s $100 billion every year that is spent on law enforcement in this country. At the very least, we should know how people are being killed and raped and otherwise abused with that money.”
Ritchie believes tinkering with the system in hopes of preventing further gendered police brutality is a lost cause. An example she highlights is of officers who were attempting to assist 34-year old Decynthia Clements. As her car caught on fire, she stepped out and gasped for air — which is when she was fatally shot with two bullets to the head by police. Bodycam footage later revealed the officers actually were discussing various less lethal means of force they would use against her if a problem occurred while approaching her car. “In [the] seconds when she opened that car door,” says Ritchie, “all of that training evaporated out of the window and was replaced with these perceptions of black women as inherently threatening, animalistic and dangerous, even in their greatest moments of need.”
“I feel like the answer is not to give police officers more training,” she says, “but actually to just come up with a different response altogether.”
“I think that once you start seeing the ways in which … racial profiling against women of color and criminalization of women of color has seeped into so many aspects of our society, then I think that calls into question the systems that we’ve created and that we promote as safety. We start to see that policing is leading to more violence against women of color, less protection, complete lack of protection of women of color.”
Ritchie believes that the first step toward change is to create a new perception of what safety means. “My goal is for us to really put the safety … of women and girls of color at the center, and then build our notions and visions of safety around making it safe for us. Then, I think the world will be safer for everyone.”