Lesson from Detroit

As Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color wends its way into the world after living in my computer, countless boxes in my apartment, and in my heart and mind in various forms for the past decade, I find myself in Detroit for the annual Soros Justice Fellows conference. It feels like I am in the best possible place for this moment.

We are here, in part, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Detroit Rebellion of 1967 – which has me reflecting on the role police violence against Black women – often invisible in the retelling – played in sparking the uprising, and ongoing resistance to police violence in the Motor City. At the time of the rebellion, Detroit’s occupying force was known for physical and sexualized violence against Black women as well as men. In 1964, they smashed Barbara Jackson’s face into a doorframe during a prostitution-related arrest, breaking her teeth and permanently damaging her face. In 1965, they shot another Black woman sex worker to death during an arrest. The night of July 23rd, 1967 was no different – when officers raided the “blind pig” (after hours club), the degradation to which they subjected Black women patrons is cited by historians as one of the sparks of the uprising. Later, when police arrested Jackie Lee Murdock, officers ripped off her top and groped her breasts as she was being booked at the police precinct. The National Guard’s killing of 4 year-old Tonia Blanding as they shot blindly into a house prompted further outrage.

Being in Detroit also has me thinking about the 1998 police killing of 79 year-old great-great-grandmother Cora Bell Jones, shot point-blank in the chest by Detroit police officers responding to a drive-by shooting outside her house. Partially blind, diagnosed with Altzheimer’s, and reacting to a militarized invasion of her home, she was trying to intervene as police pepper sprayed her daughter, who uses a wheelchair, when she was killed. I wrote about Cora’s story over 10 years ago in Law Enforcement Violence Against Women of Color, an essay in the recently re-released INCITE! Color of Violence Anthology, and it has haunted me ever since – as have the words of an investigating officer, who justified the shooting by simply saying “a shot was fired and it went where it was directed.”

The same is true of the 2010 killing of Aiyana Stanley-Jones, a 7 year-old girl who would have turned 15 just a few weeks ago if her life had not been stolen by police during a botched raid, shot as she lay sleeping on her couch. Her death, eerily reminiscent of Tonia Blanding’s, continues to prompt protests and demands for justice from her family.

And it has me thinking about the raid of another after hours bar, Power Plant, that I learned about when researching Amnesty International’s 2005 report Stonewalled. In the early morning hours of March 2nd, 2003, Black trans and queer folks were forced to lay face-down on the floor for hours with their hands bound behind their backs as dozens of Wayne County sheriffs’ officers stormed the establishment, guns drawn, laser sights on, and proceeded to kick, slam and heap racist homophobic and transphobic verbal abuse on patrons in a variation of the policing tactics that sparked the ‘67 rebellion.

And about Shelly “Treasure” Hilliard, brutally murdered in 2011 after police who had arrested her for possession of a small amount of marijuana pressured her into serving as an informant — and then blew her cover, setting her killing in motion  – and the movement to demand justice in her name documented by Detroiter dream hampton’s Treasure: From Tragedy to Transjustice.

And about how laws and “jokes” targeting trans people continue to fuel the epidemic of deadly violence, including police violence, against Black trans women.

And about Aura Rosser, killed by police in Ann Arbor, just 45 minutes away, just minutes after responding to a domestic violence call, and the fierce resistance mounted by Ann Arbor activists following her death.

Perhaps most of all, it has me thinking of everything Detroit has taught me over the past decade this book has been in the making about resistance, and about the necessity and joy of dreaming the world we want to build even as we fight the world that is. The Allied Media Conference has been a place I have returned to every year over the past decade that it has been rooted in Detroit, to replenish my hope, to have my mind blown and expanded, and to deepen my relationships with a community of dreamers, visionary organizers, and creative geniuses. It is where I met Grace Lee Boggs and learned about her visionary legacy, and was introduced to the work of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, founded by members of the Black Panther Party, which simultaneously works to fight police violence and build Peace Zones for Life. The AMC has also played host to numerous workshops and network gatherings focused on police violence against Black women and criminalization of survivors of violence. Detroit is also where Emergent Strategy and Complex Movements, two visionary strands of future creation that have expanded my imagination about what is possible, were born. And it is where I was reminded during a visit to the Boggs Center yesterday that we are simply at one moment in a long arc of history and struggle.

Invisible No More is a book about where we are and have been. In the spirit of Detroit, I look forward to the conversations about where we are going, and how we will get to a world free of police violence – and all forms of violence – against Black women and women of color.