An excerpt adapted from Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color by Andrea J. Ritchie (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with Permission from Beacon Press.
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.
The power of women of color who have all too often been thrust into that role cannot be overstated. Mothers of children whose lives were stolen by law enforcement ― including Iris Baez, Kadiatou Diallo, Mesha Irrizary, Harriet Walden, Margarita Rosario, Hawa Bah, and, more recently, Gwen Carr, Lesley McSpadden, and countless others ― have moved mountains and led movements in the name of justice for their children and family members. In Chicago, mothers came together to demand attention and organize around the plight of survivors of torture at the hands of Chicago police commander Jon Burge, contributing to a successful movement for his prosecution and for reparations to his victims. Over a dozen families partnered with Communities United for Police Reform, including members like the Justice Committee, to win appointment of a special prosecutor for police killings in New York State. Mothers Against Police Brutality groups exist across the country. Siblings and other relatives too have organized to obtain justice ― sisters, such as Maria Moore, who has ensured that Kayla Moore’s dignity and the full complexity of who she was is respected in the struggle for justice in her case; brothers, such as Martinez Sutton, Rekia Boyd’s brother, who is one of the few Black men who has tirelessly organized around a case involving a Black woman; the powerhouse Cynthia Howell, the niece of Alberta Spruill and founder of Families United for Justice; and daughters, such as Erica Garner, who has consistently spoken truth to power in her father’s name, have been fierce and dedicated leaders in movements for police accountability. Chosen family, too, have come together to honor the memories of trans community members like Mya Hall.
“We often overlook the violence that family members face as they struggle for answers and accountability.”
Women who have lost partners to police violence ― such as Nicole Paultre Bell, whose fiancé, Sean Bell, was killed in a hail of fifty bullets by the NYPD on their wedding day—have also been powerful advocates. As I was finishing this book, I was haunted by the story of Diamond Lavish Reynolds and her four-year-old daughter, who 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. And, like so many others before her, she had to pick up the pieces after her loved one’s death without many resources or support.
Yet we often overlook the violence that family members face as they struggle for answers and accountability. For instance in 2012, Graham’s grandmother, Patricia Hartley, witnessed police officers kill her grandson Ramarley Graham in front of her in their home. When she cried out, Officer Richard Haste pushed her into a vase, telling her to “Get the f**k away before I have to shoot you, too.” Patricia was immediately taken to the police station and interrogated there for seven hours without an attorney present. 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. She later said, “There’s nobody standing up for us mothers. We standing here, we have to fight for justice.”
How did the experiences of Black women and women of color become more visible in the wake of Ferguson? What made this historical moment different? Though similar challenges to the erasure of women’s experiences of state violence had been made before... we faced an uphill battle, pushing back against the overwhelming weight of a narrative centered around straight, cisgender Black and Brown men, attempting to raise women’s experiences with virtually no resources or air time. This time, no doubt a combination of factors played a role in increasing visibility, foremost among them the emergence of a new generation of Black women leaders on the front lines and in the leadership of the post-Ferguson movement who forcefully pushed back against male-dominated groups and narratives... For these young women, intersectionality is a given in organizing in ways it was not in the 1990s or even in 2009, when Oscar Grant was killed. The advent of social media played a key role: Previously when women came forward and spoke at rallies, public hearings, investigations, and community meetings, their stories went unheard, filtered out of the conversation by mainstream media and racial justice organizations. Now we can post our stories and organizing messages directly, no longer dependent on intermediaries to lift them up. Whatever the factors contributing to the opening, now that we have seized the moment, the challenge is to continue to push past resistance, continuing invisibility, and silences to firmly seat gendered experiences of racial profiling and police violence at the center of our analysis.
It is also time to push past the challenge of visibility to analysis and action. How does centering the experiences of Black and Indigenous women, women of color, immigrant women, and Muslim women change the conversation? What does a holistic resistance to police violence look like? How do our experiences shape our organizing strategies, our policy demands, our litigation and legislative advocacy?
The Vision for Black Lives, the policy platform collectively developed in 2015 and 2016 by dozens of organizations that make up the Movement for Black Lives calls for an end to racialized gender policing and police abuses of trans and gender-nonconforming people, accountability for and prevention of police sexual violence, and an end to the fees, fines, and bail that keep women in police custody, there to be assaulted or die of racially motivated neglect. It urges decriminalization of drug and prostitution offenses ― two of the top pathways to policing, criminalization, and prison for Black women and women of color ― and demands reparations for those who have been targets of the war on drugs and the enforcement of anti-prostitution laws. Perhaps most importantly, the platform calls for “investments in Black communities, determined by Black communities, and divestment from exploitative forces including prisons, fossil fuels, police, surveillance and exploitative corporations.” It sets forth a bold vision for Black liberation and the liberation of all peoples that can be further developed and guide us as we step into treacherous times ahead.
Andrea J. Ritchie is a Black lesbian immigrant and police-misconduct attorney, and a 2014 Senior Soros Justice Fellow, with more than two decades of experience advocating against police violence and the criminalization of women and LGBTQ people of color. She is currently Researcher-in-Residence on Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Criminalization at the Barnard Center for Research on Women and the coauthor of Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women (AAPF, 2015) and Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States (Beacon, 2011). She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and Chicago.