Hidden victims of state violence get voice
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.