October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM). Rather than diving deep on the issue, I’m sharing some resources at the bottom of this post and spotlighting a woman who is currently caught at the intersection of abuse and incarceration: Marissa Alexander.
From Free Marissa Now:
Marissa Alexander is a proud African American mother of three, a loving daughter and sister, she has earned an MBA, she’s a woman of faith, and she’s a survivor of domestic violence. In 2012, Marissa was sentenced to twenty years in the Florida criminal correctional system for defending herself from her abusive estranged husband. Nine days after giving birth to a premature daughter, she fired a single warning shot upwards into a wall to halt her abusive partner during a life-threatening beating. Despite the fact that Marissa caused no injuries and has no previous criminal record, and despite the fact that Florida’s self-defense law includes the right to “Stand Your Ground,” she was arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated. Her sentence was set at 20 years in part due to the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Marissa successfully appealed the trial, overturning the guilty verdict on 9/26/13. On 11/26/13, Marissa was finally released on bond and is currently under house arrest. Her new trial is scheduled for 12/8/14.
Domestic violence is a complicated problem, and some of our go-to “solutions” are not working, particularly for women of color. Recently, Alex Campbell of BuzzFeed wrote a deeply moving and disturbing piece called Battered, Bereaved, and Behind Bars about how the criminal justice system fails victims of domestic violence. In it Campbell writes:
Domestic violence advocates say these cases signal a deep misunderstanding of what it means for women to be trapped in abusive relationships. Many such women fear alerting authorities, because doing so can provoke their partners to extreme violence. Moreover, authorities often fail to protect battered women and their children. Advocates also say that imprisoning these women serves little purpose and deprives any surviving children of their mother.
Campbell goes on to describe numerous cases where child abuse laws have been leveraged to imprison women who, themselves, are victims of violence in the home. His article is intense, and difficult to read, but it demonstrates how our demand for heavy carceral accountability frequently falls upon women and not the men doing the abusing.
There have been several public awareness campaigns about Marissa Alexander’s case. About a month ago, Thirty Seconds or Less conducted a campaign for Marissa Alexander called #Marissa418 that includes 30 second spoken testimonies, thoughts, and ideas about how we can do better by survivors. Concurrently, the hashtag is raising consciousness about abuse and incarceration. By Their Strange Fruit has a summary of the #Marissa418 effort:
The criminalization of blackness is a disastrous and ongoing legacy of our society. It is actively killing and maiming our sisters and brothers, and the massive events in Ferguson have demonstrated the great lengths we will go to in protecting this tradition.
It is in this context that Marissa Alexander is currently fighting for her freedom in Florida. She was sentenced with 20 years in prison after having fired a warning shot into the air to avoid an attack from her ex-husband. In stark contrast to George Zimmerman, Alexander was denied a ‘Stand Your Ground‘ defense. She has been granted a chance at a retrial, but she faces an expensive and grueling uphill battle.
I’ll be posting more details here in the coming weeks from myself and other voices. But in the meantime, @KilljoyProphets is organizing a series of opportunities to speak up and take action. In particular, there is a call for Christian voices to “proclaim good news to the poor…to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18). Thus, it’s rallying cry: #Marissa418.
Recently, South Carolina has been in the news for a similar case, where a victim of domestic violence, Whitlee Jones, has attempted to use a “stand your ground” statute to defend herself against prosecution in the death of her live-in boyfriend. The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the Castle Doctrine (the idea that a person should be safe from violence in his/her own home, and therefore has a right to defend their “castle”) prevents the Stand Your Ground statute from being applied in a domestic violence situation. Nicole Flatow writes:
Recently, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that this provision could not apply to fellow occupants of the home, in a case involving roommates, although that ruling was since withdrawn and the case is being re-heard this week. The Stand Your Ground law contains a separate provision that authorizes deadly force in self-defense against grave bodily harm or death in another place “where he has a right to be.”
When we talk about domestic violence, we can’t ignore the fact that abuse happens at intersections. It yells out on the corner, and pushes its way around a home. For women like Marissa, restraining orders aren’t enough. There are no safe places. We can’t talk about intimate partner violence without talking about the patriarchy that upholds it. We can’t talk about vulnerability and being “at-risk” without talking about the racism that perpetuates it. We can’t talk about justice without questioning our justice system and it’s inability to address these problems through mass incarceration, where victims of violence are frequently caught up in the dragnet. Feminist Audre Lorde said, “We do not lead single issue lives.” It’s time for us to deal with all of it.
There are plenty of details at the Facebook page or website for Free Marissa Now about how you can get involved in raising awareness, including opportunities to offer financial support for her legal defense, or information on how to write a note of encouragement to Marissa. Learn about Marissa’s case and then decide how you’ll use your voice this month.
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, please contact your local authorities, the National Domestic Violence Hotline (which also has resources for safety planning), or look at these resources for more information (both sites have an escape button that will redirect the webpage):