Thursday, October 19, 2017

Controlling Bodies: An Interview with Author-Activist Andrea J. Ritchie on the Intersectionality of Policing, Black Women, Women of Color, Queer and Trans Communities

By Sikivu Hutchinson

From The Humanist 

In her groundbreaking new book, Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, Black lesbian activist attorney Andrea J. Ritchie builds on Angela Davis’ vision of feminist abolitionism to provide a commanding analysis and indictment of the gendered regimes of power and authority that shape the U.S.’ carceral state.  Ritchie documents the emergence of contemporary police departments in eighteenth century slave patrols.  She powerfully unpacks the nexus of sexual violence and policing—a cornerstone of white supremacist control over Black bodies during slavery.  Beginning her book with a short overview of the role race, gender, and sexuality played in colonial occupation of Indigenous lands, she underscores the degree to which heterosexist gender binaries informed the terrorist origins of American nationhood.  Throughout the book, she critiques commonly held views which center Black masculinity in discourse about and policy reform on the U.S.’ policing regime.  She also calls out mainstream civil rights organizations for failing to address the intersection of police violence and sexual violence with respect to Black women.  Ritchie faults the hetero-normative respectability politics that inform much traditional civil rights discourse privileging straight Black male victimhood.  In this regard, “controlling narratives” about gender, sexuality, race, disability, and age have always shaped the way Black women and girls and women of color are treated by law enforcement.  These controlling narratives, coupled with a multi-billion dollar militarized police apparatus that diverts social welfare from communities and schools, makes law enforcement a grave public health threat to communities of color in general and to trans, queer, gender non-conforming and cis women of color in particular.  Ultimately, “white supremacy demands such complete control of Black women and women of color that it takes very little to perceive us as out of control”. Given these realities, it doesn’t matter how much “implicit bias training police receive or how many police reforms” are put in place.  As Ritchie argues, this regime of “complete and total control” means the only feasible solution to the police state is abolitionism.

Andrea Ritchie (By W.C. Moss)

Question number five in the interview was provided by activist and organizer Yuisa Gimeno, of the Freedom Socialist Party.

1.     At the beginning of the book you discuss personal experiences with police sexual assault and harassment which made you conscious at a very early age that police are not protectors. You also emphasize throughout the book that there is no national data on sexual assault and rape committed by law enforcement.  Certainly, mistrust of the police, and fear of police targeting men of color, have contributed to low rates of sexual assault reporting among Black women.  How does this “Catch-22” strengthen the police state and undermine attention to Black sexual violence victims?  Sexual violence against Black women has been part of the global historical fabric since 1492.  Historians have placed this within the context of the diaspora, Reconstruction and Jim Crow.  Police officers’ response to violence in the community is part of this seamless web.  This plays out in how police sexual violence remains unseen in the broader movement.  The International Association of Chiefs of Police has said that law enforcement doesn’t see communities really clamoring for action around these issues.  How are we as movements that challenge police and state violence—particularly in this reinvigorated moment of struggle around state violence—continuing to abandon Black women who experience violence at the hands of the state in the same way we continue to abandon individual Black women who experience violence in the community? The question of individual Black women coming forward and telling their stories is important but the answer is obvious.  If the people you’re told to report to are the police and they are the ones raping you then obviously the incentive to do that is quite low.  In the book, I talk about women who do come forward and are re-victimized and are put on trial for the violence that has been perpetrated against them, while the officer who assaulted them is not held accountable.  I think we need to shift away from the question of why aren’t women coming forward; or why aren’t we collecting the data, to what are we doing about it?  There is research showing that police get caught in an act of sexual violence every five days! And, of course, that is just those that get caught.  People in law enforcement acknowledge it and call it law enforcement’s “dirty little secret”.   So now it’s really on us to put the lie to statement by The International Association of Chiefs of Police and start demanding action on it.

2.     You reference numerous cross-generational, regional examples of Black women who have been murdered by law enforcement.  What role do toxic cultural constructions/notions about Black femininity and respectability play in state violence against Black women?  These controlling narratives inform every police interaction and shape how Black women and girls are seen in any given situation. I drew on Black feminist theories and applied them to police interactions.  For example, there was a case where a twelve year-old Black girl stepped out of her house and police officers who were responding to a complaint about three white women engaged in prostitution proceeded to arrested her.  The arrest of this young twelve year-old reinforced controlling narratives associating Black girls with prostitution; narratives that are as old as this nation. The police charged her with resisting arrest and assaulting an officer.  Georgetown University recently came out with a study about how these narratives age Black girls and make them seem older than they really are. A twelve year-old child was construed as a physical threat.  That was an example to me of how deep these narratives run and how they control every police encounter with Black women and girls.

3.     On page 40 you note that, “Actual or perceived deviation from gender and sexual norms has served as a basis of criminalization since the colonial period…constructing a gender-normative nation.”  Your book puts a much needed spotlight on the specific ways queer folk of color are dehumanized by draconian policing policies.  How do homophobia, transphobia and misogynoir inform the way trans, queer and gender non-conforming folk of color are treated in the criminal justice system? It ends up being an amalgamation of these controlling narratives.  For instance, when police are interacting with Black trans women they are acting on these controlling narratives that frame Black women as engaging in prostitution and being sexual deviants.  They are also reading gender non-conformativity as deviant and engaging in criminalized sexual conduct; as well as being mentally unstable, fraudulent, deranged, and threatening.  For example, this consequence is manifest in the case of Tawana Johnson where police arrested her for walking around because they perceived her as “being a potential prostitute”.  They called her the wrong pronoun, labeled her a “faggot”, and assaulted her. That’s how that controlling narrative merged into a single incident.  The trans community came out to support Tawana but the local civil rights community did not. While mainstream civil rights organizations conceded that they did not agree with law enforcement’s response they also said “we do not agree with who she is”.  Trans youth are often kicked out of school for defending themselves. They are pushed out by criminalization and gender non-conformativity. Trans youth are under constant surveillance by police on the streets.  When I was researching the Amnesty International report in L.A. in the early 2000s, many trans folk expressed the fear that they can’t exist on public streets and that there is nowhere to go without cops surveilling and harassing them. Police officers routinely target women who they think the Black community won’t stand up for—i.e., those who are poor, mentally ill, in the sex trade—both queer and cis, who don’t conform with Black bourgeois respectability politics.  That is how Daniel Holtzclaw gets away with assaulting at least thirteen Black women and girls.  Holtzclaw was not challenged by any major civil rights organization.  With respect to mainstream civil rights organizations, it’s one thing to make that central to your agenda rather than just sending out a press release.  They are not taking up the issue of police sexual violence as central to their platform because it requires standing with women, trans and not trans, that are not conforming to their notions of respectability politics.  Even though there is more conversation about police sexual violence now than there was twenty years ago people are still writing books that exclusively explore policing through the lens of Black men’s experiences, period.  We need to be serious about examining police sexual violence through the lens of Black queer experiences, Black trans experiences, and Black cis women’s experiences.

4.     You discuss the connection between military violence and police violence, occupation, colonialism, and racialized gender violence toward Indigenous women.  Native and Indigenous women have some of the highest rates of sexual violence in the nation yet are routinely “invisibilized” when it comes to mainstream discussions about “proper victims” of sexual assault.  What are the dynamics of state violence toward Indigenous women with respect to federal imposition and jurisdiction on Native lands?  There is still the notion that it’s about an infringement on sovereignty.  Indian nations don’t have the power or jurisdiction to hold folks who come on Indigenous land accountable for sexually assaulting Indigenous women.  Once it gets to the federal level it’s not their “priority”.  Their “priority” apparently is prosecuting someone who has an ounce of weed in D.C.!  This is a legal problem of jurisdiction that was set by the Supreme Court and needs to be overturned.  People have been trying to figure out how to overturn it by legislative means for some time but I think ultimately it requires more than a legislative shift, it requires us to confront the epidemic of sexual violence and state violence against Indigenous women.  This is not a relic of a distant past that can be “addressed” by commemorating Wounded Knee and historical instances of assault and rape and genocide.   

5.     What would you recommend government agencies and community groups do to grapple with these issues? What do you think are some initial concrete steps?  I just released a report that outlines policy changes municipalities can make to reduce criminalization and deportation and increase safety for Black women, girls, gender nonconforming folks and fem(me)s: . Ultimately, the first step for both policy makers and community groups is simply to expand their understanding of profiling, policing, police violence, and criminalization to incorporate an analysis of the experiences of Black women, girls, gender nonconforming people; when developing agendas for reform, simply ask yourself how this will play out for women/in the contexts where women tend to come into contact most with the police. If you don't know, ask women of color who are directly targeted by police, seek out the input of organizations who work with them.