In 2015, Charnesia Corley was pulled over for allegedly running a stop sign in Texas. A group of Harris County police officers subjected then-20-year-old Corley to a humiliating 11-minute vaginal search on the side of the road. Her suspected crime? An officer claimed he smelled weed in her car.
The whole encounter was caught on video, but this August a grand jury dismissed charges against the officers. While conversations around state violence seem to center on fatal encounters between black men and police, Corley’s ordeal is indicative of the type of violence women of color face.
“Not only is that completely violating, degrading, and unconstitutional, but that is also a common practice in the context of the War on Drugs and how it’s waged on the bodies of black women,” says Andrea J. Richie, a longtime police violence activist. “Unfortunately, with Jeff Sessions declaring all-out war on marijuana and wanting to go back to the worst of the War on Drugs, unless we resist we’re likely to see more of that.”
Corley’s case was just one of the hundreds of instances Richie, a police misconduct attorney and researcher, unearthed during her 10-year investigation of police violence against women of color. The results of her findings are available in an interactive database, which includes more than 330 cases of sexual, physical, and fatal violence spanning several decades. The instances are also the basis of her new book, Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color.
Richie is a black lesbian organizer who has advocated extensively for women and LGBTQ people of color caught up in the justice system. She is the co-author of Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States, and the reports, “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women,” and “Stonewalled: Police Abuse and Misconduct Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People in the United States.” She is a researcher-in-residence on race, gender, sexuality, and criminalization at the Barnard Center for Research on Women.
Recently, I spoke with Richie about her new book, why she created her database, and what’s changed since Rodney King.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get involved with this issue in the first place?
Long before I became a lawyer I was an anti-violence activist and was on the board of a shelter for domestic violence survivors and homeless women. As part of that I was asked to participate in a review of the city of Toronto’s police responses to sexual violence.
We just kept hearing about police committing sexual violence and hearing about the kinds of violence police commit against the survivors of violence. At the same time there was a fairly robust conversation about racial profiling and police violence that was sparked by the Rodney King incident in the United States. There were similar conversations in Canada, but no one was talking about those women’s stories.
I think one of the issues is that many have a narrow definition of police violence and see it as just physical violence like beating or shooting someone. But sexual assault is also violence. Why don’t many see that as police violence as well?
We’re just conditioned to look at policing issues through the narrow frame of the experiences of [straight, cisgender] black and brown men, and to see the standard for police violence to be physical or fatal violence. So we’re not seeing the police violence that disproportionately impacts other groups of people.
Also, sexual violence continues to be a stigmatized topic and a hidden epidemic. According to the Department of Justice fewer than a third of sexual assaults are reported to anyone, so imagine how much lower that is for sexual assaults that are perpetrated by the people you’re supposed to report them to. If the only option is to report sexual assault by a police officer to the police, most people aren’t going to do that.
Additionally, if social movements talked about it more, if the Campaign Zero platform mentioned it, I think people would feel safer coming forward knowing a movement was behind them. Black women have always talked about it and organized around these issues. But if mainstream groups put it on their platform that this was an issue they cared about and showed up for black women, then more women would come forward.
What made you want to focus on this topic in Invisible No More?
It’s a book I’ve been writing for 10 years. I wrote an essay in 2006 for an anthology called Color of Violence, published by [activist publishing house] Incite, and the editor of that anthology said, “Girl, you need to turn this into a book.” I signed the contract that year and was ready to start writing it, but I got distracted by actually doing the work—providing services to survivors of police sexual violence, challenging some individual cases, and bringing impact litigation.
When I had the opportunity to write a report on the issues and collaborate with Kimberlé Crenshaw and the African American Policy Forum to do it, I looked around and was like, “Wow, there’s still no book out there about this? Let me get on it.”
Have you seen any improvements in the way the issue of police violence is treated in the last two decades?
There’s been a dramatic increase in visibility since Ferguson. Since Ferguson, black women across the country said, “We’re not going to talk about this issue anymore like we have in the past.” I was out of the country when Mike Brown was killed and when I came back I was going to write a blog post about how I mourn for Mike Brown and his family, but we’re still only talking about this issue as it affects black men. I went online to see what the conversation was and was pleasantly surprised that several people had already written that piece.
Part of the change is also about social media—we didn’t have to rely on other people to filter our messages out, which has always been the problem. In the hearings post-Rodney King, women came forward and spoke about their experiences with police violence. In the Commission on Civil Rights hearings after Amadou Diallo, women came forward. It’s just no one reported their stories. What happened post-Ferguson is that we just started doing it ourselves.
You created a database in conjunction with the book. Why?
By the time I wrote the book I’d been accumulating information about cases for the past 10 years, and in the process of researching the book, thanks to social media, I found out about many more. I couldn’t include them all in the book and every time I had to cut one I cried. So I promised myself there would be a place for them to live, even if they didn’t make it into the book.
Also, the thing about books is at some point they’re finished, meanwhile these cases keep happening. I wanted people to be able to have a space to put them where we can find them. I also wanted to help us do more research into the different types of violence. A lot of the sites now focus on fatal instances and there are, without a doubt, fewer women who experience fatal encounters with police. But I wanted to create something that might look at some of the violence women might experience that may be less than fatal but matter as much.