BLOT spoke to author of I Rise Marie Arnold about why it’s important to shed a light on police brutality in fiction and why black females deserve to be more than a side character.
Sometimes the topics we read about aren’t just works of fiction. They’re real, they’re tough and they’re people’s lived realities – police brutality is one of those.
Around 1,000 civilians are killed each year by law-enforcement officers in the United States, with research from Nature showing black men are more than twice as likely than white men to be killed by police during their lifetime.
What is police brutality?
According to Britannica, police brutality in the United States is defined as: “The unwarranted or excessive and often illegal use of force against civilians by U.S. police officers.
“Forms of police brutality have ranged from assault and battery (beatings) to torture and murder.
“Some broader definitions of police brutality also encompass harassment (including false arrest), intimidation, and verbal abuse, among other forms of mistreatment.”
And the issue disproportionately affects people of colour.
Britannica says: “Notwithstanding the variety among groups that have been subjected to police brutality in the United States, the great majority of victims have been African American.
“In the estimation of most experts, a key factor explaining the predominance of African Americans among victims of police brutality is anti-black racism among members of mostly white police departments.
“Similar prejudices are thought to have played a role in police brutality committed against other historically oppressed or marginalised groups.”
According to Nature, black men who were fatally shot by police were more than twice as likely to be unarmed.
The murder of George Floyd
The conversation surrounding police brutality was amplified following the murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020.
George, a 46-year-old black male, was murdered by Derek Chauvin, a 44-year-old white police officer, in Minnesota.
The murder was deemed an act of police brutality, as George told police officers “I can’t breathe,” over twenty times whilst Chauvin held his knee against George’s neck for several minutes before his death.
The aftermath of the murder reinvigorated a public debate across America about police brutality and racism, with countless protests and calls for the police to be defunded.
People marched as part of the Black Lives Matter movement – which campaigns for freedom, justice, equality and an end to racism.
In April 2021 Derek Chauvin was convicted of George Floyd’s murder and, on 25 June, he was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison.
A problem close to home
The issue might be commonly associated with America, but the UK is not excluded.
A 2023 report, ‘I can’t breath’: Race, death and British policing, found Black people are seven times more likely to die than white people following the use of restraint by police.
The inquest found the British policing system works against delivering accountability that appears blind to the evidence and where racial discrimination was not addressed meaningfully as no death of a Black person following police custody or contact has led to an officer being disciplined for racism.
Shedding a light on police brutality – and those trying to turn the lights off
There are a number of fiction books which shed light on the topic of police brutality, including Marie Arnold’s I Rise, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed.
But, unfortunately, books addressing the issue – whether works of fiction or fact – have been targeted by a wave of book bans that have hit the United States in the past few years.
According to PEN America, a non-profit organisation that celebrates free expression, over 2,500 different book bans were enacted in schools across 32 US states during the 2021-2022 school year.
And 21% of those on the most banned list tackle the issue of racism.
“Fiction has a way of getting us to face things we normally would not”
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is one of America’s most banned books. The book centres on 16-year-old Starr who’s world is shattered when her childhood best friend Khalil is shot at the hands of a police officer.
Released in 2017, the book has appeared on The American Library Association’s annual list of the ten most challenged books three times and has been banned from libraries across the country because it was thought to promote an “anti-police” message.
And I don’t know about you – but it seems to me that those responsible don’t want there to be an open conversation about their wrongdoing.
Marie Arnold: I Rise
Whilst I Rise hasn’t been the victim of book bannings yet, some anticipate it’s only a matter of time.
One reviewer on GoodReads wrote: “You can bet your bottom dollar it’ll soon be banned in the more backward corners of the USA, just like Judy Blume.”
The book offers a daring insight into the reality of everyday racism that black people face in America, as well as police brutality.
14-year-old Ayo’s mother founded the biggest civil rights movement to hit New York City in decades. It’s called ‘See Us’ and it tackles police brutality and racial profiling in Harlem. Ayo has spent her entire life being an activist and now, she wants out. She wants to get her first real kiss, have a boyfriend, and just be a normal teen.
When her mum is put into a coma after a riot breaks out between protesters and police, protestors want Ayo to become the face of See Us and fight for justice for her mother who can no longer fight for herself. While she deals with her grief and anger, Ayo must also discover if she has the strength to take over where her mother left off.
Issues addressed: inequality, systemic racism, police violence, and social justice.
BLOT spoke to Marie, 45, about why she decided to write about police brutality and why when she wrote the book she spent just as much time crying as she did writing.
Q1. Why did you choose to write about the issues of police brutality and race in your book, I Rise?
Marie: “Reports of police brutality have become so commonplace, I felt like it was something I needed to address in my own small way.”
Q2. Did anything you wrote in the book draw from personal experiences?
Marie: “The major events in this book were made up but the smaller daily acts of racism were not. I once lost a receptionist job because they didn’t want someone with locs to greet their guests.”
Q3. Why do you think it’s important that the issue of police brutality is written about in fiction?
Marie: “It gives us a chance to understand each other better. I think fiction allows us to find humanity in ourselves and in others.”
Q4. The book is written through the eyes of Ayo. Why did you choose to amplify a female voice in the book?
Marie: “I didn’t choose Ayo. She chose me. She came to me fully formed. My job was to stay out of her way and let her tell us her story.”
Q5. You’ve said previously that you centre your books on girls of colour, why is it important to you to do this?
Marie: “I think girls of colour are often pushed aside and relegated to side characters. I wanted to do projects where girls of colour are fully formed, multilayered people.”
Q6. Police brutality is stereotypically linked to incidents surrounding males. Why did you choose to focus on the experience of females in your book?
Marie: “I think female voices are important to have on this topic. Girls have a lot to say and stories they need to tell. It’s up to us to give them a chance to do just that.”
Q7. What is the community in Harlem like in real life vs how it’s presented in the book?
Marie: “In the book, I put a lot more poc in Harlem. In real life, gentrification has changed the face of Harlem.”
Q8. The portrayal of the love and friendship between mother and daughter is very strong in the book. Why did you think it was important to do this?
Author of I Rise, Marie Arnold. Photo: Vanie Poyey
Marie: “I wanted to show the beauty of black mother-daughter relationships. It’s an important bond that isn’t always reflected in the media.
“My mum and I are very close. She made sure we could speak Haitian Creole so she could scold us in two different languages! She agreed to let me try the arts although every Haitian parents wants Doctors – thank you mum.”
Q9. What is one thing you hope people take away from I Rise when they read it?
Marie: “An appreciation for young black kids who are forced to walk between two very tricky worlds: being a teen and being a person of colour.”
Q10. How long did it take you to write the book? Was there any aspect of it which was particularly challenging for you to put on paper?
Marie: I was writing this in the midst of the George Floyd protests. I was watching art imitate life and I spent just as much time crying as I did writing.
Q11. What do you think is the most important message in I Rise?
Marie: Kids of colour want to be seen and heard. They need to know that they matter.
Q12. How would you describe I Rise in three words?
Marie: Hard. Honest. Hopeful.
Q13. Do you think authors writing books about issues, such as police brutality and racism, helps to reduce the stigma and open up the conversations about them in the real world?
Marie: That is my hope.
Q16. The book has been praised for offering such a realistic portrayal of some of the issues surrounding social justice and racism. How does that make you feel?
Marie: There are so many people out there lending their talents to tell stories about people of c. I’m honoured to have the chance to add my little contribution.
Q17. Why do you think it’s important that social issues are written about in fiction?
Marie: Fiction has a way of getting us to face things that we normally would not. It can often be an entry point to starting meaningful dialogue.
Q18. Are you working on anything new at the moment that we should be excited about?
Marie: I have a middle grade book coming out called A Place To Shine about a pair of siblings who find a home in an unexpected place. The issues we address are adoption and the foster care system.
And whilst you might not be able to attend a protest, or feel that you can make a difference to the issue of police brutality, the power of reading books about other people’s lived experiences should never be underestimated.
As journalist Samira Ahmed said, “we must read to resist”.
If you liked this post then read Think piece: is discrimination necessary in works of fiction? Or Why the rise in LGBTQ+ romance novels is important next.
Marie was born in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti and came to America at the age of seven. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York alongside her extended family. Marie enjoys creating stories full of adventure, and wonder, which center on girls of color. When she’s not writing, she’s adding to her insanely long Netflix queue and trying not to order pizza. She lives in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of The Year I Flew Away and I Rise.
Yasmin is a third year journalism student at The University of Sheffield, specialising in feature writing. She has previously written for the Sheffield Tribune and women’s magazine Pick Me Up! She is particularly interested in how mental health issues are portrayed in fiction.
Favourite genres: Romance, Crime and Thrillers.