‘They Used Deadly Force to Subdue Her’

Photo by Bosc D'Anjou via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

LitHub has an excerpt of Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, by Andrea J. Richie, just out from Beacon Press.

Titled “Mental Illness is Not a Capital Crime: On the Disproportional Impact of Police Violence on Women of Color,” the chapter addresses the devastating impact law enforcement’s common misconceptions about women of color can have on the women’s safety, especially when mental illness is an added factor. Police officers often are misinformed about mental and physical disability, and because of that, tend to be violent toward women who aren’t dangerous.

At least half a dozen cases of police shootings of Black women documented in Say Her Name, the report I coauthored with Kimberlé Crenshaw, arose from police interactions with women in actual or perceived mental health crisis: Shereese Francis, killed in New York City in March 2012; Miriam Carey, shot in Washington, DC, in October 2013; Pearlie Golden, shot in Hearne, Texas, in May 2014; Tanisha Anderson, killed in Cleveland in November 2014. Although no official statistics exist, based on my experience tracking cases over the years, it appears that police responses to mental health crises make up a significant proportion of Black women and women of color’s lethal encounters with police. As was the case for Eleanor and Deborah, these encounters often reflect police perceptions of Black women as volatile and violent, portrayed, in the words of historian Sarah Haley, as “daft,” “imbecilic,” “monstrous,” “deranged subjects,” “lacking essential traits of personhood and normative femininity,” to be met with deadly force rather than compassion, no matter their condition or circumstance.

Indeed, disability — both mental and physical —is socially constructed in ways comparable to, and mutually constitutive of, the construction of race and gender. As disability justice and transformative justice activist Mia Mingus points out, women of color are already understood as “mentally unstable,” regardless of whether or not they are actually “disabled.” “This kind of racialized able-ism inherently informs how police (and society at large) interact with Black and Indigenous women, and women of color.” Actual or perceived disability, including mental illness, has thus served as a primary driver of surveillance, policing, and punishment for women and gender-nonconforming people of color throughout US history.

Scientific racism has been fundamental to conceptions of mental health and disorder. According to Vanessa Jackson, the first asylums for “lunatic slaves” were created in response to a case of a Black woman found to be insane after she allegedly killed her child. Indeed, resistance to slavery was pathologized as mental illness inherent in African-descended people. The same resistance-equals-insanity trope was projected onto Indigenous people. In her pamphlet Wild Indians, Pemina Yellow Bird, a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes and psychiatric survivor activist, describes how, from 1899 to 1933, Indigenous people who resisted reservation agents, refused kidnapping of their children to Indian Residential Schools, or violated laws that criminalized traditional spiritual practices were sent to the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians in Canton, South Dakota. There, “Indian defectives” were incarcerated and subjected to torture and physical, cultural, and spiritual abuses.

Read the excerpt