Hid­den vic­tims of state vi­o­lence get voice

Toronto Star - - CANADA - Shree Parad­kar

If you are asked to pic­ture po­lice bru­tal­ity against Black peo­ple, chances are you’ll imag­ine po­lice shoot­ing Black men.

You might imag­ine Black men lined up fac­ing the wall, hands raised.

You might think of Black men be­ing beaten up in jail. You might know names such as Michael Brown, Fred­die Gray, Da­fonte Miller and Andrew Loku. If you gen­er­ally keep up with the news, you might even men­tion Sandra Bland, the Black woman who was found dead in a Texas jail cell in 2015.

If you’re asked to de­scribe vi­o­lence against women, you will likely talk about do­mes­tic abuse and sex­ual as­sault at home or in the work­place.

In this sce­nario, where would you fit po­lice vi­o­lence against women of colour that takes place with fright­en­ing reg­u­lar­ity not on share­able video clips, but out of sight, in back al­leys, in ve­hi­cles, be­hind mil­i­ta­rized lines and even in the women’s own homes? Nowhere, is the an­swer. Theirs are the sto­ries lost in a vac­uum of a dual aban­don­ment, sto­ries seen in­dif­fer­ently by pa­tri­ar­chal sys­tems and sto­ries ig­nored by white fem­i­nism.

When Mon­treal-born An­drea Ritchie, the Black ac­tivist, lit­i­ga­tor and pol­icy ad­vo­cate, took on the mon­u­men­tal task of re­vers­ing this erasure and ren­der­ing vis­i­ble this facet of po­lice vi­o­lence, she tapped knowl­edge span­ning cen­turies across cities in­clud­ing Toronto, Mon­treal, Chicago, New York, Los An­ge­les and Bal­ti­more.

The out­come is In­vis­i­ble No More: Po­lice Vi­o­lence Against Black Women and Women of Color, a 240-page book rich with com­pelling de­tails that de­mand, as Ritchie says, a rad­i­cal re­think­ing of our vi­sion of safety.

Ritchie first be­came aware of po­lice vi­o­lence against women of colour dur­ing the Oka Cri­sis near Mon­treal in 1990 when the Kanienke­haka (or Mo­hawks) con­tested the con­ver­sion of their an­ces­tral lands and burial grounds into a golf course.

“I learnt with hor­ror about ver­bal, psy­cho­log­i­cal, phys­i­cal and sex­ual abuse by po­lice and army of­fi­cers against women lead­ing block­ades and fight­ing for their land,” she writes.

Later, in the early 1990s, the Rod­ney King case in­formed much of the dis­cus­sion of po­lice vi­o­lence when Ritchie lived in Toronto.

But there was also Sophia Cook, the Black Ja­maican woman who had missed her bus and caught a ride in a car that was then al­leged to be stolen. Toronto po­lice shot her while she was still sit­ting, leav­ing her par­a­lyzed.

Then there was the story ex­ten­sively cov­ered in the Star, of another Black Ja­maican woman, Au­drey Smith, who was vis­it­ing rel­a­tives in Toronto in 1993. She was stand­ing on a Park­dale street corner when she was ap­proached by two po­lice of­fi­cers who then strip-searched her on the street in view of passersby be­cause she “looked like a drug dealer.”

“There was out­rage and there was cov­er­age, but it didn’t be­come iconic in the same way (as King), and it didn’t in­form our anal­y­sis of the prob­lem of po­lice vi­o­lence in the same way,” Ritchie says.

Her own work orig­i­nated in the af­ter­math of the land­mark Jane Doe case brought against the Toronto po­lice force in the late 1980s over rape. Jane Doe’s set­tle­ment re­quired that the city of Toronto au­dit how it in­ves­ti­gates and re­sponds to sex­ual as­sault. Dur­ing that au­dit, women came for­ward with sto­ries about how po­lice them­selves were per­pe­trat­ing sex­ual as­sault.

“And while there were some an­tiv­i­o­lence agen­cies . . . who did re­spond to that chal­lenge of pick­ing up that as a cen­tral is­sue of their work, the main­stream women’s move­ment at the na­tional level did not pick that up.” Why not? There was a con­flict of in­ter­est. Ritchie says the main­stream move­ment had “con­sciously de­cided to in­vest in polic­ing and crim­i­nal­iza­tion as the so­lu­tion to vi­o­lence against women.

“So that pro­duces some very un­com­fort­able si­lences when you point out that the po­lice are per­pe­trat­ing vi­o­lence against women.”

For white women, the con­cern is about po­lice non­re­sponse to vi­o­lence. For women of colour, po­lice re­sponse is the prob­lem — too many cases where of­fi­cers re­spond­ing to do­mes­tic vi­o­lence calls sex­u­ally as­sault the per­son who called for help, strip searches and cav­ity searches, crim­i­nal­iza­tion around sup­posed wel­fare fraud, the way child pro­tec­tive ser­vices po­lice moth­er­hood of women of colour, and how pros­ti­tu­tion is po­liced. (Each of this is un­packed in the book.)

“If you look at how . . . colo­nial armies treated In­dige­nous women . . . how en­slaved women were treated by slave pa­trols and how im­mi­grant women were treated by the first ur­ban po­lice de­part­ments, you see a con­tin­uum . . . some of th­ese sto­ries could be hap­pen­ing to­day or in 1823, they’re not very dif­fer­ent.”

In retelling their ex­pe­ri­ences and draw­ing a pat­tern of vi­o­lence, Ritchie es­tab­lishes an im­por­tant sol­i­dar­ity be­tween Black women, In­dige­nous women, im­mi­grant women and trans and gen­der-non-con­form­ing peo­ple of colour, all of whom are crim­i­nal­ized for dif­fer­ent rea­sons but meet with the same out­come.

Th­ese bleak ex­pe­ri­ences churn­ing out at high vol­umes cry out for rad­i­cal so­lu­tions. “If you look at the prob­lem through a man’s lens,” says Ritchie, “maybe you think ‘Let’s de­crim­i­nal­ize drugs,’ or ‘Let’s stop card­ing’ or ‘Let’s stop one piece of the sys­tem.’ When you look through women’s lens, you see how per­va­sive the prob­lem is . . . then you start think­ing, ‘Wait a minute. Is this ac­tu­ally pro­duc­ing more vi­o­lence or more safety?’ ”

Her ap­proach is to look at root causes.

The cur­rent re­sponse to every so­cial prob­lem is to send in a po­lice of­fi­cer — whether it’s a men­tal­health prob­lem, home­less­ness, poverty, fights in the school yards, noise prob­lem with the neigh­bours.

“Very few peo­ple have paid at­ten­tion to the po­lice in­ter­ac­tions that start those chain re­ac­tions, that lead women to be stand­ing in a court­room to be sen­tenced to manda­tory min­i­mum of 40 years for a first time drug of­fence or to lose her child be­cause she’s in for the rest of her life.

“Count­ing po­lice vi­o­lence in the over­all equa­tion of vi­o­lence and redi­rect­ing re­sources. That’s what I’m ad­vo­cat­ing for.” Shree Parad­kar writes about dis­crim­i­na­tion and iden­tity. You can fol­low her @shree­parad­kar

“Some of th­ese sto­ries could be hap­pen­ing to­day or in 1823, they’re not very dif­fer­ent.” AN­DREA RITCHIE AU­THOR


Mon­treal-born An­drea Ritchie, au­thor of In­vis­i­ble No More, trav­elled across North Amer­ica to tell the sto­ries of women of colour who have suf­fered vi­o­lence at the hands of po­lice.

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