5 Reasons Feminists Should Join the Fight for Justice in Ferguson

To put it bluntly, I’m extraordinarily disheartened by the failure of the grand jury in Ferguson to indict Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown. The only thing that could be any more frustrating than the sheer will of the state not to prosecute Darren Wilson, is discovering that one’s allies aren’t all that invested, either.

Ferguson is about all of us, and Ferguson is about more than one incident. These are five reasons it’s well past time for feminists to pick up the Ferguson mantle.

1. Reproductive Justice is About the Right to Parent

Via FreeQuency
Via FreeQuency

My fight for reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy do not end at the point of childbirth, insemination, conception, or any point betwixt or between. I want reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy on demand, and without apology. Yes. Because of slavery in the United States (I refuse to apologize for invoking the legacy of terror that was American slavery), a tradition that extorted Black women’s bodies as breeders, “bellywarmers”, and objects of white male and female desire and derision, deciding to parent is just as revolutionary a choice as deciding not to.

Beyond slavery, we, as Americans, have an unfortunately rich rhetorical and cultural history of rendering Black women in the popular imagination as hypersexual, sexless, and/or emasculating beings, with little complexity beyond those strictures. Thanks to the collusion of racism, sexism, and classism, these unwarranted tropes even steer national policy, and serve as the subtext of laws that regulate the wombs of women of color. But Black and Brown women parent despite the affronts on their single parenting (think: Moynihan); despite the affronts on their parenting in the face of relationship violence outside of their home country (think: Congressional resistance to expand the 2013 provisions of the Violence Against Women Act); despite the affronts on their parenting while poor (think: “welfare queens”).

For these reasons, especially, it’s unthinkable that we would further encumber the parenting experiences of people of color. No parent should have their right to parent – their choice to parent – arbitrarily and unexpectedly interrupted or terminated because of state violence – violence that is all too often driven by the very same racist/sexist/Other-ist norms erected in the American subconscious. Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown, Sr. did not deserve that.

2. Racism Is a Feminist Issue

via Greg Lilly
via Greg Lilly

She may not have intended to do so, but during some of the earliest battles for suffrage, Sojourner Truth is one of many Black women who reclaimed a space for Black women suffragists in the face of what could have been – and perhaps, would have been – the erasure of Black women’s fight for the vote and Black women’s fight for their own human rights in the 19th century. Truth declared, “And ain’t I a woman,” recognizing then that women’s fight to vote was not and should not be an inherently “white” enterprise, nor an essentialist one. Before the language existed, Truth applied an intersectional framework to call out the movement’s willingness to accept the investment of her labor, while at the same time brazenly disengaging the fight when the filter of race was applied. Plainly put, where the women’s movement was concerned, Truth called out their white privilege, and at the same time refined the argument for a sex-conscientious revision to the standing laws of the land.

Whether we care to admit it or not, the undercurrent of race in the Ferguson proceedings actually serve to remind us just how intrinsically tied race has been to the evolution of feminist theorizing.

Unfortunately, it’s because of the legacy of institutionalized racism that the demographic and political dynamics of Ferguson, Missouri can be replicated all over the country. Likewise, in contemporary feminist fights to raise the minimum wage or stop the evisceration of abortion clinics by TRAP laws (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) around the country, without fail, the narrative devastates women of color and low-income women the most. The substance of the feminist movement is amplified by the experiences of these women, precisely because of intersectionality – an inherently revolutionary feminist principle attributed to Kimberlé Crenshaw.

That said, it would behoove us all to put our intersectional and critical analysis to work here in the case of the Ferguson grand jury decision, the issue of excessive force, and the international movement that declares Black and Brown lives matter.

3. Fighting State-Sanctioned Violence is Part of Feminist Herstory

Vintage political cartoon from the Silent Sentinel riots, in which none of their attackers were arrested.
Vintage political cartoon from the Silent Sentinel riots, in which none of their attackers were arrested.

Around this time of year in 1917, the Silent Sentinels, a group of women who adamantly fought for women’s right to vote, held a pop-up protest of President Woodrow Wilson. Please note, this bastion of women’s suffragists “illegally” chained themselves to the White House gates and obstructed traffic. On this occasion, they endured attacks from angry mobs who disagreed with their fight, yet the women were arrested and tortured while their attackers went free.

Not only could and should the Silent Sentinels serve as a springboard for robust feminist dialogue and organizing around the contemporary fight to end mass incarceration and reform the American prison system, but it should serve as a case study in state violence.

State violence is what’s happening right now in Ferguson and across the country. State violence favors “Otherness”, and it is altogether rabid when the object of that violence is a Black or Brown body.  The notion that being an officer imbues impunity under the law is of tantamount importance in understanding why ongoing demonstrations across the country and around the world have been fueled by the grand jury’s no-indictment decision. This is why I’m blocking roads and disrupting business as usual.

Yet, vigilante elements like the Oath Keepers and the Ku Klux Klan, have emerged to capitalize on racial tensions under the guise of keeping peace. That their physical presence can go unchallenged, while the threat of protesters’ rage precipitates the declaration of a state emergency is concerning. In fact, it represents a rhetorical form of state violence.

Fellow feminists, dig out the parallels in this fight.

4. Justifying Police Brutality Sounds A Lot Like Victim-Blaming

via Joshue Sinn
via Joshue Sinn

“What were you wearing?” “What did you say to offend them?” “Why were you alone? Why were you in the wrong place at the wrong time?” “You should have known better…” “Why didn’t you fight back/defend yourself/surrender?”

Just as we would discourage the re-victimization of a sexual assault survivor, we must be willing to resist blaming those who have been victims of police and state violence.

Tamir Rice was 12 years old at the time of his two-second murder by Cleveland police just weeks ago. That did not preclude his second death-by-media in the afterlife. Tamir’s “behavior” – and subsequent death – were blamed on his father’s history of domestic abuse, and his mother’s drug problem. Tamir, a sixth-grader, apparently looked like he was 20. Race and gender again collude to undermine our recognition of Tamir as a victim. Instead, this Black male child’s murder is not only justified, but further, charged to his own indiscretions, which are all the more provocative because of how we render Black masculinity, no matter what age.

Immediately following the death of Michael Brown, the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown emerged to illustrate just how race filters our understanding of “true” victims.

Under the right circumstances, feminists call that “slut-shaming.” Let’s not forget our principles now.

5. Women Die from Police Violence, Too

via Elvert Barnes
via Elvert Barnes

Women are victims of excessive and lethal force, too. Know their names.

Rekia Boyd, 22, deceased. Tarika Wilson, 26, deceased. Aiyana Stanley-Jones, 7, deceased. Miriam Carey, 34, deceased. Yvette Smith, 47, deceased. Tyisha Miller, 19, deceased. Sharmel Edwards, 49, deceased. Shantel Davis, 23, deceased. Shereese Francis, 30, deceased. Pearlie Golden, 93, deceased. Maria Godinez, 22, deceased.  Kathryn Johnston, 92, deceased. Gabriella Navarez, 22, deceased. Eleanor Bumpers, 66, deceased. Tanisha Anderson, 37, deceased. Aura Rosser, 40, deceased. Karen Cifuentes, 19, deceased. Yanira Serrano-Garcia, 18, deceased. Marlene Pinnock, 51, beaten. Sandra Amezquita, 44, pregnant, beaten. Denise Stewart, 48, dragged naked from home. Brenda Hardaway, 21, pregnant, beaten. Mayra Lazos-Guerrero, 25, pregnant, intentionally tripped by officer. The 13 sex assault victims of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, youngest age 17.  Cleveland, Ohio 15-year-old, sexually assaulted on video by an officer. Florida 20-year-old raped by a Boynton Beach police officer.

This list doesn’t begin to account for the gravity of the problem, but it certainly deserves your energy, your feminist engagement, and even your outrage.

We can’t deny it, we can’t talk around it. Ferguson is a feminist issue. Tell me in the comments, fellow feminists: why is this fight your fight?

It’s Clear: In Ferguson, Resistance is the Only Option

feature image via peoplesworld.

This is what it looks like when you must defend your right to exist.

Today, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon announced what exactly law enforcement will do when the grand jury delivers a decision to indict – or worse – not indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson for the murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown. In advance of presumed “unrest,” Nixon was expected to – and did – announce a reactivation of the National Guard to “support” response from the local unified command. That unified command includes the St. Louis County Police Department as well as the Missouri State Highway Patrol, but it does not include the Ferguson Police Department.

The longer the decision takes, and the more surreptitious the state’s briefings with local law enforcement become, the more certain it appears that the grand jury will not indict Wilson. Nixon’s remarks all but ensure that there will be more of the very hyper-militarized response that launched domestic protests onto global radar in the first place.

In anticipation of the grand jury’s decision, the Don’t Shoot Coalition, made up of multiple activist organizations on the ground issued their own Proposed Rules of Engagement which include a call for law enforcement to disallow crowd control equipment like armored vehicles, rubber bullets, rifles, and tear gas. But it doesn’t stop there. A full read of the list offers telling and terrifying insight about the tactics employed by the state to dispel and discourage the growing movement. Other notable demands call on the government not to tap protesters’ phones without a warrant; not to contact employers or publish private information to intimidate protesters; to allow media and legal observers to do their jobs without fear of arrest; and not to artificially inflate bail as a means of detaining “leaders” within the larger movement. At today’s news conference, there was no indication that the Governor or any heads of local law enforcement intend to adopt those rules.

Further, the tone and overall conduct of the state under Nixon’s leadership have been nothing short of discouraging. Since the August shooting death of the African American teen, Wilson, a white officer, has been virtually M.I.A., save his testimony before the Ferguson grand jury. The grand jury has been deliberating over evidence since August 20, during which time, at least five criminal cases had to be dismissed because Wilson – a primary witness – “wasn’t available” to appear in court. In that time, Bob McCulloch has had total control over what evidence the grand jury hears and does not hear as the prosecuting attorney in the case. There have been well over 100,000 calls for McCulloch to recuse himself, including from St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, but Gov. Jay Nixon stood by this questionable character, further stoking the ire of those residents whose interests and safety he still seems unwilling to protect. The residual leaks of evidence in the case, added to rhetoric from the Governor about his refusal to tolerate those “vandals” and “criminals” who only bring “ugliness” upon his state with their, apparently, unjustified rage, project an utterly oversimplified narrative onto protesters in this movement.

Knowing it may be too much to ask that Missouri law enforcement agencies treat citizens humanely instead of treating them as “enemy combatants,” organizers are employing every method possible to preempt further infringement of the people’s civil and human rights. Civil disobedience and direct action trainings have been underway to teach participating protesters how to fight back peacefully. Understanding that the risk of direct action could give officers an excuse to escalate response, activists have prepared for every possible threat to their constitutional right to resist.

Today and thousands of miles away in Geneva, Switzerland, Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown, Sr. testified before the United Nations that their son’s death at the hands of law enforcement is symptomatic of larger human rights abuses carried out by the United States – most often – against defenseless black and brown bodies. The family of Michael Brown, HandsUpUnited, the Organization for Black Struggle, and Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment submitted testimony to the 53rd Session of the United Nations Committee Against Torture which will convene through the end of November. There, activists from cities across the country are calling the UN’s attention to gross violations of the body’s convention against torture.

The United States has been a signatory of the anti-torture treaty for 20 years. According to the ACLU, this week’s review of the US’ torture record is the first since President Barack Obama took office in 2009. Against the backdrop of torture practices carried out at Guantanamo Bay and secret facilities overseen by the CIA, the problem of police brutality and excessive force emerge as a peculiar brand of militarized aggression reserved, not for (alleged) war criminals, but the disenfranchised within US borders.

In addition to the Ferguson contingent, the brother of Rekia Boyd, and activists from Chicago-based We Charge Genocide are testifying before the UN about patterns of the Chicago Police Department’s reckless use of force in their city. According to WCG’s presentation to the UN, between 2009 and 2013, more than 75 percent of all police shooting victims in Chicago were black. Black residents are also 10 times more likely than white residents to be gunned down by Chicago PD. But greater than all this, WCG reports that of 1509 complaints of excessive force, only 2 percent resulted in any kind of penalty.

In Boyd’s case, the unarmed 22-year-old woman was an innocent bystander, struck by a Chicago Police officer who was firing at another unarmed man.  While Boyd’s family received a $4.5 million settlement, prosecution of the officer was repeatedly delayed. Dante Servin, the officer responsible for the shooting death, will only go to trial at the end of this year.

The American Civil Liberties Union report to the UN includes even more torture abuses on the part of the US that constitute a clear violation of the international convention. Their 93-page report reminds the UN of its own previous “concerns” about “the excessive and lethal use of force” per the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

The entire delegation of intergenerational activists, largely coordinated by the US Human Rights Network, are ultimately calling on the UN to facilitate revision of US policies and patterns of practice that feed this state violence.

Against the backdrop of torture practices carried out against alleged war criminals at Guantanamo Bay and secret facilities overseen by the CIA, the problems of police brutality and excessive force emerge as uniquely local crises of hyper-militarization employed against the nation’s own citizens.

Whether at the level of the vote (despite illegal ID checks) or the hope of international intervention, the masses are employing every possible means of counter-engagement to defend their right to existence and belonging as a part of this country – and at every turn they are met with opposition.

At best, it’s incredibly ironic that on Veterans’ Day those US citizens sitting before the UN are demanding the right to have their personhood affirmed globally because this nation – still – refuses to respect their personhood locally. The Double V campaign of World War II sounds like a gimmick, but it was an attempt to respectfully and civilly acknowledge the sheer lunacy of calling on soldiers of color to defend their country against some global boogey man when they had no rights the boogey man at home was bound to defend.

So, who really deserves the right to rage?

Robert McCulloch won’t say when the grand jury will deliver a decision, but as far as many activists are concerned, the deal is already done. In Ferguson and beyond, the only option that remains is to continue to resist.

The Words to Action Newsletter  from @deray and @netaaaaaaaaa has consistently listed ways allies and activists can support on-the-ground action in St. Louis County. 

#FergusonToGeneva Click here to learn more about and to support the Ferguson trip to Geneva.

Support Livestreamer @Rebelutionary_Z by donating money or purchasing supplies.

Bail Fund Donations. Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) have a bail fund to assist protesters. Click here to donate. According to organizers, the police are aiming to deplete the current bail fund by making the bail of any arrested protester $1,000, the legal limit. Please help.

ArchCityDefenders. This is the group of lawyers providing legal assistance to arrested protesters and assisting with legal strategy related to the protests. This is also the group that has led the work on the fines and fees issue in Missouri. Learn more and support them.

Ferguson Digital Archive. Washington University has led the creation of a digital repository aiming to “preserve and make accessible” content related to the killing of Mike Brown. Submit or review material.


HAPPENING NOW: #RJat20 Conversation Celebrates 20 Years of Reproductive Justice Work and Its Future

Reproductive justice advocates are currently convening in Chicago, where the Reproductive Justice Leadership Summit & 20th Anniversary Celebration is happening, led by SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. We’re following the conversation on Twitter via #RJat20. Here are some snippets!


From the Inside Looking Out: I Went To a Domestic Violence Course for Convicted Abusers

Last year I attended a domestic violence class. Everyone in this class was a convicted batterer. I remember thinking that if my zip code had fallen just a few miles away from my apartment at the time – if I had even bothered to call the police – my former partner might have ended up in that room. But then what? Would this reform him? Could it have “fixed” us?

via Shutterstock
via Shutterstock

The entire class was warned about my encroachment. No one would outright say it, but everyone’s chief concern was that I might exploit these boyfriends, husbands and ex-lovers. Bash them. Denigrate them. All of the above. After all, if you end up in this class, it’s because a judge in a courtroom sentenced you to be here.

It was always my intent to write about the experience. In fact, I expected to pen some fiery invective about how abusers get to skate through the criminal justice system while survivors are left haphazardly defended by flimsy protective orders and little-to-no other recourse. But this is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.

More than 30 states and the District of Columbia have standards for batterer intervention programs. This course can be in addition to, or in lieu of, time spent in jail. Now, if this seems too light a sentence, you should know – at least in this class – offenders aren’t exactly being coddled for the 16 to 22 sessions they spend in this course. The safety of the victim is the first priority. They really might stand the chance of being reformed.

The Curriculum

Valerie Collins, Branch Chief of the CSOSA (Court Services & Offender Supervision Agency) Domestic Violence Unit in Washington, DC shared that accountability is a key tenet of this coursework. Many communities implement a curriculum called the Duluth Model. Based in Duluth, Minnesota, the program gives a considerable amount of attention to personal accountability.

So when I asked Ms. Collins about student resistance, she was quick to confirm it exists. “Oh yes, in the beginning,” she told me. No one likes being there because they have to remember why they’re there.

What’s more is the name of the course. Ms. Collins said a lot of men would be more comfortable saying they were required to attend “anger management” over “domestic violence” class. This makes the course incomplete without a thorough examination of race and gender norms.

“We work closely with the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American community, because the Duluth model is great, but it’s from Duluth, Minnesota.” Cottman said cultural sensitivity is critical in these courses. This is especially important in this region, where a significant number of arrestees in domestic violence cases are African American males. A student has to deconstruct how their attitudes about violence and intersectional identity – their “blackness,” their “masculinity” – have been informed by their own community and by the culture at-large.

The Class

It’s important to note that there were no scarlet letters to be found in that classroom. There were no signs or cautery brandings to tip off current or future significant others that their dear, sweet mates might be under this kind of construction.

In this class, each participant solemnly shared whether any flags were raised in the previous week. If there were no flags, it meant no major outbursts or triggers were tripped that week. Power and control – key themes of the course – remained in their proper bounds.

The first man to report a flag had cheeks like a teddy bear. I couldn’t help but think, if this were grade school, he and I would have probably been friends on the sole premise that our chipmunk jawlines belie us. From the story he shared, an unnamed “she” created problems for his family that week. She said this. She texted him that. She showed up uninvited here. She sent a family member to challenge him there. It’s a frustrated monologue about how this “she” got under his skin. He shifted in his seat, eyes rolling about how this estranged woman pushed him – not physically, but emotionally – closer to the brink of a meltdown.

His retelling of events brought him to the point of palpable irritation, until a single phrase tumbled out, yanking everyone to life. “Man, I don’t even care if I go to jail!”

A record scratched somewhere in the Universe.

In no time, Mr. Cheeks was hammered with a string of questions and comments from the rest of the group. Why is she still calling you? Why are you still responding to her? Man. There’s something you aren’t telling us…

The level of honesty was incredible, but Ms. Collins tells me this is the result of weeks and weeks of re-education. I had the luxury of being with veterans who were comfortable rigorously engaging another male peer.

The facilitator jumped in to refocus the group. “What’s one of the positive things [Mr. Cheeks] did?”

Someone answered. “He showed up.”

No matter how brilliant and full of bravado Mr. Cheeks’ testimony was, he wouldn’t participate if he didn’t really care. While the course is tied to a participant’s probation and parole, it is possible to miss classes. But an escalation in threatening behavior could result in unfortunate consequences, like losing one’s freedom. Freedom is still a very real commodity here.

The facilitator walked through the process of identifying and then defusing one’s triggers. These kinds of activities may help the group broaden their emotional vocabulary and get to the root of an abuser’s proclivity to react with anger, which can feel like the only gender-appropriate tool available to deal with a wide range of more complex emotions like fear of abandonment or helplessness. These activities also help the group identify other patterns of behavior that are misuses of power and control.

“People tend to think the batterer needs to deal with whatever their childhood issues are, or that this was a bout of anger, or maybe alcohol was involved – so all of these other factors rather than personal accountability,” Cottman says. With every tool dispatched, the facilitator repeatedly emphasized to participants that they have the power to choose what happens next. These tools include paying attention to physical cues like an increased heart rate, taking a “time out,” creating a safety plan before a volatile situation approaches, and identifying and naming triggers with one’s partner.

The (Less-Than) Happy Ending

The facilitator encouraged the studentsto remember that these tools take time to develop. But while that may be okay for the batterer in the long run, the road to rehabilitation can prove most trying for the person on the receiving end of violence. The very people these men hope to reform for could even unintentionally work against their rehabilitation – mates, family, and friends alike. From DCCADV’s experience, there is little reinforcement of the lessons learned in class once a student returns to the community.

The class was almost over before I realized how incredibly valuable these coping mechanisms are for everyone – not just the accused. Not just abusers.

But are domestic violence classes working? Nobody knows. Cottman and Collins said the data simply doesn’t exist.

Could these men go on to batter again? Yes. They could. In some cases, they do.

So, what’s the point?

DCCADV regularly takes calls from people who want to stop being abusive. “They know something is wrong with their behavior,” Cottman said. Many people who have abused are actually trying to make these tools work with little reinforcement outside the classroom walls. That doesn’t mean they represent accused batterers everywhere. It does, however, suggest that there are no easy villains when we talk about domestic violence.

No man in that room invented intimate partner violence. But a focused attention to pros and cons of comprehensive batterer intervention could prove a tremendous help in reducing domestic violence and sexual assault.

WATCH: Anita Sarkeesian Talks #GamerGate on DemocracyNow!

feature image via Anita Sarkeesian

This morning, Anita Sarkeesian appeared on DemocracyNow! to talk about #GamerGate and the incredibly violent threats she’s received because she dared to deconstruct the representation of women in video games. Sarkeesian and DemocracyNow! host Amy Goodman talked about how such volatile attacks play into a broader culture of online intimidation that discourages meaningful feminist critique and silences would-be critical voices in the movement to end gender based violence – rhetorically or otherwise.

Just last week, Sarkeesian canceled a public speaking engagement at Utah State University when local law enforcement said they would not screen attendees for concealed weapons, citing other events where Sarkeesian appeared despite similar threats. “We need to take all of these threats seriously. There’s a sort of sentiment that online harassment is not real, that we shouldn’t take it seriously,” Sarkeesian told Amy Goodman. Someone claiming to be a student at the university, and using the moniker “Marc Lepine,”  threatened to kill Sarkeesian, faculty, and students in an attack similar to the 1989 massacre carried out against female engineering students at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique if the event went forward.  But the incident was only the latest in a string of intrusive and increasingly physical online threats against women that have prompted the FBI to step in.

This summer, a poll found that of the quarter of Americans who are harassed online, 57 percent are women. Of that number, young women under 35 were twice as likely to experience harassment, and nearly half reported sexual harassment.

Have you ever been harassed online? Share your story in the comments section.

Inverted Flags, a Blood Fountain, and a Fist: Reading the Symbols of #FergusonOctober

This weekend I was in Ferguson, Missouri.

young sisters

You may have even heard me in your car, talking to St. Louis Public Radio about why I, too, converged on the city for the Ferguson October Weekend of Resistance; why it’s so important – across race, ethnicity, zip code, language, age, or physical ability – to connect the dots that form the picture of our shared struggle.

This weekend was a heady experience, but it was also extremely sobering. I watched a St. Louis County officer in full riot gear idly swing his baton the first night I spent in Ferguson. An overhead helicopter thoroughly surveilled our march, blinding protesters even after we’d dispersed. No longer had we gotten back to our host’s home before police sealed off the block, checking IDs, permitting no one entry or escape. But I wasn’t looking for proof of young people’s right to rage in Ferguson. I didn’t need to join a 26-hour carpool to find evidence of a police state in the US. (We’ve had them in my city, too.)

This weekend was about anchoring a movement, and there are three very distinct moments set on a loop in my mind. For me, they characterize just a few of the ways this fight is different. Like many said this weekend: Ferguson October is our generation’s Freedom Summer, and the symbols and character of this movement are uniquely and distinctly ours to claim.

The Inverted American Flag

Taken By Jessica Johnson
Taken By Jessica Johnson

Something you may not catch in your live-stream viewing of events in Ferguson is the persistent appearance of upside down US flags. It’s not a mistake. Throughout the weekend, in fact, I spent a great amount of time reveling in just how simple and powerful that symbol is.

In her book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, Melissa Harris-Perry retells the story of Parnell Herbert. Herbert is a New Orleans, Louisiana native and a survivor of Hurricane Katrina. During the wholesale horror of the storm’s aftermath, Herbert marveled at the number of African Americans who had large US flags in their homes. Herbert asked, “Why did the survivors begging for help from the US military forces feel it necessary to wave the American flag, as opposed to a white sheet or blood stained towels?”

In the book, Melissa Harris-Perry discusses how the waving of the flag functioned as a “specific claim of citizenship and belonging” on the part of black Americans who were wholly and rhetorically dispossessed by the mainstream media as “refugees.” Never mind the history of black people in this country – in that moment, we were refugees.

People of color were further disowned then degraded, renamed “looters” and “rapists,” setting off a pattern of character-assassination by so-called official sources and agencies of authority – behavior that, by now, is all too familiar to the family of Michael Brown, and countless other families who’ve lost loved ones to state aggression.

But if the use of the flag during Hurricane Katrina represented a plea for recognition as fellow Americans and citizens, so ordained by the bloodshed and legacy of American slavery, then this flag – the Ferguson October flag – is something much different. I understand this flag to be a moment of clarity. I identify this as a remix. This is young people of color recognizing that even if the state never respects our humanity, the state can never render us extinct. And yes, I said “extinct.”

So many allies, despite their good intentions, fall short of embracing all the evidence. While pointed critiques of the numbers have emerged, the Poynter Institute fact-checked black homicide per “legal intervention.” According to Poynter, “A 2002 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that the death rate due to legal intervention was more than three times higher for blacks than for whites in the period from 1988 to 1997.” Given the lack of more recent data, it’s no wonder the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement attempted to update the numbers.

Dred Scott Way and The “Fountain Filled with Blood”

Old Courthouse in St. Louis, Mo. (Jessica Johnson)

“This space is a moment in a continuum! This moment was consecrated in blood!”

This is what Montague Simmons, the head of the Organization for Black Struggle, shouted down to the crowd. Saturday morning, on the way to Kiener Plaza, we marched down Dred Scott Way, onto Chestnut Street, and past a red-dyed fountain, located just steps away from the Old St. Louis Courthouse where the case of Dred Scott was heard.

In April 1846, Dred Scott and his wife filed suit for their freedom having lived in free territory for nearly a decade, but as the “property” of slaveholders. The case was ultimately decided by the US Supreme Court in 1857. In a 7-2 split, the majority ruled that “neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people nor intended to be included.” If it still wasn’t clear, Justice Roger B. Taney made it crystal: “But it is too clear for dispute that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this Declaration.” (emphasis added)

Bottom line: Free territory or not, Dred Scott and his wife were property. Subhuman. Inferior. Yet, despite the more than 150 years separating our generation from his, no amount of time or distance could erase that legacy from the courthouse backdrop of our gathering. “This space is a moment in a continuum!” Simmons said it for Dred Scott. “This moment was consecrated in blood!” Simmons said that for us.

The red fountain behind us was supposed to signify the St. Louis Cardinals’ playoff-run. Instead, it struck an incredibly dissonant chord with our reason for gathering. That fountain, Dred Scott, Mike Brown, special-edition Darren Wilson playoff jerseys, Vonderrit Myers, Kajieme Powell, and the notion of legal lynching all breached their respective silos, adding to the sense that while some communities grieve, others are permitted to continue with business as usual – maybe even “inside baseball” as usual. While young activists are jailed for demanding justice of their body politic, Darren Wilson, the officer who killed an unarmed teen, continues to walk free. Yet, we’re the only ones asking: how can this be?

A Mirror, Tears & A Raised Fist

Friday night, to symbolize all the lives lost to police brutality, a group of young men carried a mirrored casket to a line of waiting officers at the Ferguson Police Department. At the front of the crowd, an elder shouted at the restless officers, “This is what you have wrought!” He pointed at the shimmering casket. “We bring you this coffin to show you your reflection in the death and the suffering and anguish and pain and grief of our community,” he said. “Look into the mirror,” he shouted. “We are human too. You are not the only people who get to be human.” At that moment, the first line of officers in uniform disappeared. A second line of officers in full riot gear took their place. Apparently, that’s the kind of response this elder’s impassioned plea elicited.

The next night, Lesley McSpadden, the mother of Michael Brown joined our march back to the Ferguson Police Department. Her presence certainly seemed to de-escalate officers’ response, but before we started the trip, the family paused to express their thanks for the continued outpour of support. Someone called out, “We got your back, Lesley!” To which, a worn out Lesley McSpadden silently raised a clenched fist and smiled.

Lesley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown pictured at left (Jessica Johnson)
Lesley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown pictured at left (Jessica Johnson)

I would have understood if she decided not to march that night. The loud chants upon her arrival, “We are Mike Brown!” could have been too much to bear. For the family of Vonderrit Myers, there is still a long road to a triumphant fist. Myers’ family grieved freely before the crowd, sharing in their fresh loss. Like Lesley McSpadden, Syreeta Myers’ son was 18 at the time of his death. He was “no stranger” to police. In fact – as if to corroborate his guilt, perhaps even justify the reason he was shot at 17 times – it’s widely reported that Myers was wearing an ankle bracelet when he was killed.

Taken by Jessica Johnson
Families of Michael Brown, Vonderrit Myers at Ferguson October Rally in Kiener Plaza, St. Louis, Mo. (Jessica Johnson)

While Lesley McSpadden’s grief will never fully be extinguished by this moment, Syreeta Myers’ has already seen people attempt to nullify her sorrow, reminding her that her son was “no angel.” It’s worth it to unpack how Vonderrit arrived here, but to even engage in that conversation feels like the work of an apologist. This is why it’s so incredibly important that Ferguson protested for Vonderrit Myers, too.

Today, Rebecca Rivas at the St. Louis American live-tweeted a press conference held to address the police-involved shooting death of Vonderrit Myers. The attorney for the shooting officer, Brian Millikan commented that his client, who was off duty at the time of the shooting, “did not initially see a gun. He saw Myers holding his waistband. He was obligated to take action.” Rivas tweeted, “Asked if police chase after every man who has his hands on his pants, they said they know the difference of men pulling up pants and holding gun.”

That’s why respectability politics have no place in this movement. Where the civil rights movement needed the perfect victim, this movement will fight for your right to exist, period. Vonderrit Myers was human, too. That is enough.

This weekend was incredible, but it was bigger than a simple protest. What we’re witnessing is the beginning of a movement that isn’t borrowed from yesteryear, or manifesting in a vacuum. The terms of this movement are being defined by this generation in a way that could only come from this generation. These symbols are not definitive markers endorsed by the people doing the work, but they are a testament to the spirit of Ferguson October. I’m so sorry we have to unite under such grave circumstances, but I’m so nourished by what I just experienced.

People from every imaginable background are coming together to challenge oppression because of a simple premise: We are human, too.

Russell Wilson Wants Us All to #PassThePeace to Survivors of Domestic Violence

This week, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson announced the launch of his new effort called the “Why Not You Foundation.” Writing for Derek Jeter’s new player-exclusive platform, Wilson said the Foundation will raise funds and awareness for worthy causes – the first of which is domestic violence.

The first initiative of the Why Not You Foundation will be Wilson’s “Pass The Peace” call to action in support of survivors of intimate partner violence. “The idea behind Pass the Peace is simple,” Wilson wrote. “It’s a promise. I’m sharing my love for you. I want to take care of you. I am here for you.”

Borrowing from the art of peer pressure cause marketing, the campaign calls on participants to challenge a friend to Pass the Peace by making a minimum $2 donation to The National Domestic Violence Hotline. (In his Facebook video challenge debut, Wilson challenged Justin Timberlake and Derek Jeter to Pass the Peace.) And for the moment, Wilson’s good-guy image will help the National Football League cushion its tone-deaf response on domestic violence and sexual assault. (Just look up the hashtag #PassThePeace to see how well this is already working.)

The impressive feat is not so much the fact that it’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month and an NFL player is launching a domestic violence campaign, but that a much deeper silence could be breached thanks to this precedent.

As far as I’m concerned, Wilson really didn’t need to throw his sins on the altar to write the piece. He didn’t need to prove some sort of “right” to speak or care about domestic violence.  Hence the reason I find the Players Tribune, perhaps, equally as impressive as its first senior editor: with The Players Tribune, Derek Jeter has created an unfiltered space for athletes – regardless of the League – to speak freely. How powerful and affirming is that? During this time, when advocates are fighting to erase the silence that allows intimate partner violence to flourish, it’s an amazing thing to learn that a forum has been created to engage and unbridle a demographic like this.

via Adam Kryzer
via Adam Kryzer

Writing about the vision behind The Players Tribune and his recent retirement from Major League Baseball, Derek Jeter articulated how media scrutiny can stunt athletes’ ability to really express themselves. “I’m not a robot,” Jeter wrote. “Neither are the other athletes who at times might seem unapproachable. We all have emotions. We just need to be sure our thoughts will come across the way we intend.”

When so many people want to believe the fight to end domestic violence and sexual assault is somehow about penalizing and punishing males, an innovation like this in such a prototypically masculine space is nothing short of revolutionary. This rips the veil that would otherwise maintain the illusion of the one-dimension professional athlete, and it gives permission for – wait for it, wait for it – DIALOGUE.

Now we actually get to discuss things. With athletes!

There can be an exchange of ideas. With professional athletes!

There can be an identification of new problems, new solutions, new alternatives, methodologies, and approaches to finding culture-shifting solutions to the issues of domestic violence and sexual assault – with the role models and culture makers and superheroes we deify as professional athletes.

Giving high profile quarterbacks a mic to sound off about why they support survivors of domestic violence could be sending shockwaves through some Pop Warner Little Scholars League right now – and that is absolutely what this larger movement is about. So thank you for Passing the Peace, Russ. And thank you, Derek Jeter, for creating this safe space for professional athletes to commune.

This really could be a gamechanger.


To Pass the Peace and learn more about the campaign, text WNYPassThePeace to 41444 or visit www.whynotyoufoundation.com.

GALLERY: Inside the White House Launch of the “It’s On Us” Campaign

Today, the White House announced the official launch of “It’s On Us,” a media initiative seeking to end campus sexual assault and shift campus cultures into seeing sexual violence as unacceptable. The Feminist Majority Foundation is a campaign partner, so we were in attendance as the President, Vice-President, and various activists and advocates spoke out in support of the campaign.

Here’s a glimpse into what happened!

It's On Us
Lynn Rosenthal (far left), White House adviser on Violence Against Women, led a panel of experts who shared best practices in instituting anti-sex assault and intimate partner violence interventions. From left: Lindy Aldrich, Deputy Director of the Victim Rights Law Center; Sage Hill, student leader from Old Dominion University; Neil Irvin, Executive Director of Men Can Stop Rape; and Andy MacCracken, Executive Director of the National Campus Leadership Council.
It's On Us
“It’s On Us” Reception
It's On Us
Valerie Jarrett, Senior Adviser to the President and the Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls opened today’s launch with a few remarks.
It's On Us
Vice President Joe Biden discussed the startling statistics pointing to little, if any, decrease in relationship violence among teens and young adults in the time that the issue has been tracked. Today, he and President Barack Obama stressed the need for full engagement by women and men in the fight to end sex assault and intimate partner violence.
It's On Us
Full crowd turned out for the White House’s official launch of the “It’s On Us” campaign.
It's On Us
Attendees file in for the start of the “It’s On Us” launch.
It's On Us
President Barack Obama called the act of sexual violence more than a crime. He said it’s “a civil rights violation.” The President and Vice President called bystander intervention the “responsibility” of every person.

Go to ItsOnUs.org to sign the pledge to do all you can to end sexual assault and support survivors.


If The NFL Isn’t Afraid of Losing Women, They Should Be

I’ve had a lot of troubling conversations over the last several days. They’re always about Ray Rice.

via Keith Allison
via Keith Allison

Sometimes these conversations are about the sanctity of football as a masculine space. They’re about why such hallowed grounds ought not be sullied by the woes of women being KO’ed in elevators. (At which point, I roll my eyes.)

On occasion, these conversations have presented mind-numbing and essentialist “facts,” like the “fact” that non-black women are inherently submissive, and the “fact” that black women – perhaps, even, black women like Janay Palmer – invite punching, spitting, and dragging because we ceaselessly “mouth off” at black men. (At which points, I’m amazed to say, I have not proceeded to literally jump off of a cliff.)

Sometimes, these diatribes have taken brief detours to engage in some extended victim-blaming at Janay Palmer’s expense. (At which points, I transform into She-Hulk.)

But too many of these conversations have returned to one central theme: black men’s impending doom at the hands of black women. Because, after all, black women’s sole aim in life must be to collude with the state to bring black men down.

I regret that Janay Palmer ever had to go through this. I also regret the fact that Ray Rice believed spitting and punching his then-fiancée were appropriate forms of communication. But as revealing and personally torturous as this experience has been, especially for this couple, I’m really glad the NFL screwed this up. Make no mistake: Listening to the cacophony of wails coming from the formerly closeted and proud misogynists I call friends and family is equivalent to nails on a chalkboard or, better, ammonia in my eyes. But the National Football League’s gross failure to properly respond to this situation has forced a necessary and important debate – one that would not have happened if they’d made the right call.

That’s why the NFL is scrambling to kiss and make up. The impact of this moment really could change that intangible, unwieldy beast called “culture” for the better. After all, roughly 44 percent of all professional football fans are female. (And the NFL just ticked many of them off.) More than 55 percent of all American women are faithful NFL viewers. (And the NFL just ticked many of them off.) In 2013, the NFL reported a 76 percent increase in spending on women’s apparel over the previous three years. (But the NFL just ticked them off.) And female NFL fans are 10 percent more likely to socialize during a game than their male counterparts. This is behavior advertisers love. (But I’m not sure if you’ve heard, the NFL probably just ticked a lot of them off.)

That’s why Erin Gloria Ryan says boycott. Now. The aggregate total of women’s dollar impact on the NFL makes the idea of any organized campaign against the League much more than an idle threat in feminist-only circles. The sports gods have ears.

In 2011, ESPN.com reported that the NFL took great pains to grow a larger female fan base. Marketing data suggest the economic weight of the female fan is enormous. “A female consumer is a consumer for life,” according to IMRE marketing manager Meghann Malone. “They’re the ones more likely to become brand loyalists.” Malone told ESPN that there is advertising gold in connecting with the female demographic – a demographic that makes 70 percent of all “important family decisions.”

“When we talk about women being the decision-makers, I think a lot of people don’t realize that’s cars, stocks, electronics – things people might not associate women making the decisions about,” Malone said.

FOX Sports’ Katie Nolan, host of “No Filter,” may have called a boycott of the NFL impractical, but even Nolan’s proclamation that a boycott wouldn’t erase the issue of domestic violence in the NFL is evidence enough that there may be some hand-wringing.

“A boycott would just remove the critical thinkers from the NFL conversation, and leave the League to continue making billions of dollars with even less accountability,” Nolan argued. The web commentator said she regretted not asking Roger Goodell why he would risk isolating women when the League is working so hard to “penetrate new markets.” Fearing backlash from FOX, the reporter said she reasoned it wasn’t her “role.” So, instead of supporting calls for a boycott, Nolan proposes more women, like herself, at the “big boy table.”

“Women in sports television are allowed to read headlines, patrol sidelines, and generally facilitate conversation for their male colleagues. Sometimes, they even let us monitor the Internet from a couch,” she said while playing up a graphic of her own reduction to smiling, sidebar Web tosser.

Aware of the apparent complicity her position could serve, Nolan asked the necessary rhetorical questions many female fans are likely asking themselves: “How do I reconcile my values and beliefs with my love for a sport that has an ongoing issue with domestic violence? How do I support a commissioner who needed to see a video of a man punching a woman in the face in order to realize it’s unacceptable–a leader whose governing decisions appear to be based on a bro-tastic Internet meme?”

But even though she won’t go as far as female divestment, the fact that Nolan is asking the questions at all, challenging the sidelining of women in the League and in sports reporting at all – and doing all this from the inside of FOX Sportslandia – is even kind of a big deal in it’s own right. It signals that a broader cultural uprising is already taking root within this monumental sports regime.

There are other serious propositions on the table, too: The National Organization for Women has called for Roger Goodell to resign, and CREDO Action is demanding the NFL implement a zero-tolerance policy (since they’ve already failed to enforce the newest one). On Tuesday, the Black Women’s Roundtable requested an emergency meeting with Roger Goodell to discuss the League’s hollow move to establish an all-female “advisory group” to address the issue of domestic violence. The League failed to add a single woman of color to the board, whose sole raison d’etre is to advise an overwhelmingly African American NFL about an issue that overwhelmingly impacts African American women.

In a matter of days, brands have come out of the proverbial woodwork to criticize the NFL for its response to domestic violence and allegations of child abuse. According to the New York Daily News, Anheuser-Busch, Pepsico, McDonald’s, Campbell’s Soup, and Visa are all chiming in about the NFL’s abhorrent behavior. In the last 48 hours, CoverGirl has come under attack because they have yet to sever ties or hurl stern words at the League. The lesson is clear: women, the demo most likely to be impacted by domestic violence, are too big of an economic force for this issue to go unaddressed.

Under no circumstances does the NFL have a monopoly on domestic violence. But American football is akin to a popular religion in the United States. Sundays are a sacred time of week – not because of blue laws, but because of the holy gridiron. NFL games are, often, the most-watched television in a ratings year. If this is where the sacrifice must be made, so be it. If this is what it takes for us to change the culture of domestic violence in the US, let it be.

The NFL should feel the weight of this moment – along with every sport, every sports network, every collegiate league, and every Little League. They should all have to confront the humanity of an entire sex and face consequences for not taking gender-based violence and relationship violence seriously – not just because they fear female inclusion, or state-sanctioned consequences, but because they’re forced to learn more fluent and fluid masculinities.

I hope every league is as afraid of women as they should be.

The Next Step In Ferguson: What You Can Do, And Why It Still Matters

I met Erika Totten last week at the second DC town hall for Ferguson in as many days. Slightly star-struck, but not wanting to gush in my clumsy way, I simply confessed to her that I’d seen her just about everywhere these last few weeks, working to raise visibility and further organize for Ferguson.

She told me she’s a stay-at-home mom with past lives in marketing and advertising. I asked her how she came to be so involved. She’s been on the ground in Ferguson. She was front and center at the National Moment of Silence. She was on the microphone pleading for support at the town hall the evening before. This night, she was leading a breakout session about facilitating organizational involvement in local efforts to support Ferguson.

Then, she told me, with expression that exceeded her words: this just got to her. And I believe I know exactly what she means.

via Elvert Barnes
via Elvert Barnes

Her response matched the breadth of my fears and the depth of my rage over Ferguson. Fear, because I’ve had “the talk” with my young adult brother about how he and his friends should police themselves in public, so maybe law enforcement won’t. Fear, because my youngest cousins are “getting shapely,” and I know full well that street harassment isn’t restricted to civilian ranks. Then rage, because this kind of violence is so particularly directed, overwhelmingly ignored, and addressing it invites a peculiar brand of raced victim-blaming.

I have no connection to Ferguson, Missouri beyond my identity. It’s hard to put words to how and why this situation creates such palpable psychic trauma for all who bear witness of the American black experience. Nevertheless, it does. There is nothing anyone can do to bring Michael Brown – or any other victim of police brutality – back from the dead.

But the emotional energy bursting from this moment is exactly why I’m so inspired by Erika Totten.

She’s one of the dedicated and legion activists that are turning this tragedy into an opportunity for strategic and focused movement. Not because of organizational leadership, but simply because inaction and hesitation aren’t options she’s willing to settle for.

While media coverage begins to fizzle, the city of Ferguson, the people of Ferguson, and the people who support them are moving on–but not from this moment.

On the contrary, the people are meeting material and emotional needs created in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death, but sustained and exacerbated by a perpetually tenuous relationship with the state. That relationship between the governed and the seat of government is not unique to Ferguson, Missouri. This is how and why a leaderless mass is emerging to fill in the gaps, and it’s a movement anyone can join.

This is what anyone can do right now:

If there is any good that can come from such heart-wringing pain as what has happened in Ferguson, it’s this: the people are paying attention. Let’s make sure we’re all taking action, too.

QUIZ: How Much Do You Know About the Equal Rights Amendment?

Women’s Equality Day commemorates the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which granted women the right to vote. This landmark Amendment institutionalized every person’s right to participate in the electoral process regardless of sex, and it led to the still-ongoing push to advance another crucial amendment for women’s rights: the Equal Rights Amendment.

This Women’s Equality Day, get in the Amendment-making spirit, and test your knowledge of the ERA. The movement to ratify the ERA is gaining more momentum than ever, but what do you know about this important effort to finally cement equal rights under the law – for all – for the first time ever in the United States Constitution?

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#FreeMarissa: Why Prosecution for Domestic Violence Goes Wrong and Why Marissa Shouldn’t Bear the Brunt of It

Let me start by saying this: My experience with domestic violence in no way matches the brutality that so many people have experienced. Even this many years removed, I find myself debating whether the fact that “it could’ve been worse!” invalidates every action before I was abused.  (And even now, I struggle to use active phrasing.)

But I can absolutely understand and relate to the calculating one must go through before taking any action to stop an abuser from being abusive. (This is to say nothing of the work required to piece yourself, your psyche, your person, your sense of power, and your sense of self-efficacy back together – let alone that of any dependents or any other primary responsibilities.) And that’s why I find Marissa Alexander’s story so enraging.

I’m frustrated by the fact that so many steps were followed. So many attempts were made to do things decently and in order – and yet, still, Marissa could face up to 60 years in prison for firing a warning shot. She suffered abuse and hurt no one, but now she’s the criminal. How does that happen?

A little like this.

The Road to (Not) Reporting

In an open address to the public, Marissa recounted the night her husband, Rico Gray, shoved and strangled her, trapping her in the restroom. The full court deposition from Rico Gray may be the last piece of public evidence documenting Gray’s philosophy of violence and his interpretation of his own masculinity. Gray was arrested twice before on charges of domestic violence including an event that hospitalized Alexander.

What’s appalling is that this record has worked against Marissa Alexander.

We know that many victims of domestic violence don’t report. In the very specific case of cisgender black women in intimate relationships with cisgender black men, even thinking about reaching out to law enforcement carries with it the added trepidation that one is committing cultural treason – as well as activating an often lingering distrust for the justice system at-large.

Because of the overrepresentation of black and brown bodies in the prison industrial complex, the very real and legitimate fear of adding to that crisis is the first of many de-prioritizations many people may make when negotiating their batterer’s comfort over their own personal safety. That social pressure to uphold some greater commitment to the plight of The People before indulging in complicity with The State feels more noble than snitching on a lover. (Never mind if there are children involved. The guilt lent to black mothers who dare – against all odds and socioeconomic outcomes – to single parent is forever immortalized and fossilized in the writings of E. Franklin Frazier and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.)

via Daniel Arauz
via Daniel Arauz

Another hesitation to report stems from the very real probability that law enforcement. once involved, could also fumble a domestic violence call. According to The Advocates For Human Rights’ Stop Violence Against Women Project, police families are two to four times more likely than the general population to experience domestic violence. Not every aggressor in incidents of intimate partner violence is male. But the matter of officer-involved domestic violence has reached enough of a tipping point that internal crisis management in local police and sheriff departments has become as necessary as an external strategy to combat domestic violence.

In a small study conducted by at the University of South Florida, Lindsey Blumenstein researched whether “traditional police subculture” influenced police domestic violence in the form of physical assault or psychological violence. There were 250 Central Florida officers contacted across several different departments. Of the 90 officers who responded, 75 were male. Blumenstein found that “officers who adhere to aspects of the traditional police subculture are more likely to engage in psychological domestic violence.”

Though Blumenstein recognized the limited scope of her research, she encourages further research on the impact of law enforcement culture on attitudes about domestic violence. What’s more, the study raises important questions about how local law enforcement can conscientiously combat domestic violence when some of their first responders could be batterers themselves.

While I’m sure #notallofficers are so easily tainted, the public can only chastise problem law enforcement so far as the law will allow. Officers can only be held responsible for enforcing domestic violence laws that exist, and they can only be held to training they’ve been given.

As of 2008, 22 states and the District of Columbia have mandatory arrest provisions; 22 states have provisions of discretionary arrest; and six states have a policy of preferred arrest. In 2007, as part of a working paper on mandatory arrests, Harvard University fellow Radha Iyengar found that states with mandatory arrest laws had homicide rates that were at least 50 percent higher than states without these laws.

“In some cases, victims may favor an arrest, but fear that their abusers will be quickly released,” Iyengar wrote in the New York Times. “Many victims may avoid calling the police for fear that they, too, will be arrested for physically defending themselves.”

The state of Florida, Marissa’s state, has a discretionary arrest provision. This means, a law enforcement officer “determines upon probable cause” that an act of domestic violence has been committed. According to Florida state statute, “the decision to arrest and charge shall not require consent of the victim or consideration of the relationship of the parties.” But heaven forbid that same officer’s judgment should be clouded by Blumenstein’s “traditional police subculture.”

But Marissa’s case goes beyond all of these obstacles. Eventually, Marissa Alexander reported.

Protective Orders That Don’t Protect Anyone

Marissa Alexander had a protective order in place against Rico Gray. But protective orders (should) come with a few cautionary tales.

via Steve Rhodes
via Steve Rhodes

Just this year, an article in Rhode Island’s Providence Journal suggested that filing for a protective order may be a reliable predictor of domestic homicide because of a frequent failure by police officers to enforce them. In her application for a protective order, Evelyn Burgos wrote that she knew what her ex-boyfriend was capable of. “I’m scared he may be waiting for me hiding someday, to hurt me, or that he may try to break in,” she wrote. Two weeks later, her ex shot and killed her and her 25-year-old daughter in the presence of her sons and three-year-old granddaughter.

In a separate incident, Mayra Cruz was murdered by her ex-boyfriend just a day after the local sheriff’s department reported to the court that they could not find the offender to serve the order.

Since 2000, applications for restraining orders have preceded 20 percent of the domestic violence-related homicides occurring in Rhode Island. That number includes the stabbing deaths of two abusive men slain by women in self-defense.

But it’s not just Rhode Island: last summer in Prince George’s County, Maryland, Michael Anthony Johnson was sentenced to 115 years in prison for threatening to rape and kill his ex-wife and her daughters. Johnson’s ex-wife filed a protective order against him after he engaged in stalking and threatening her; he even posed as his ex-wife using fake online profiles and led a constant flow of strangers to her home for sex. Johnson managed to violate the same temporary injunction 56 times before local police arrested him.

When Intervention Programs Erase Data

Following the path of least criminalization, many states also offer lower-level DV offenders the option to enroll in a batterer intervention program. More than 30 states and the District of Columbia have set standards for batterer intervention programs which are designed to help rehabilitate the offender.

While the actual sessions can be a promising approach to changing systemic behavior, there is no data monitoring whether these programs work, or how they can be improved.  For example, is batterer intervention an appropriate tool for Rico Gray? What measurable impact can it have on an admitted abuser who’s said things like “I got five baby mammas, and I put my hands on every last one of them except for one.”

Furthermore, an aggressor’s attendance is not promised, nor is recidivism unlikely. In some cases, a court may accept an online certificate as proof of completion. When a court system fails to demand more of a convicted DV offender, it’s hard to believe they’re sincerely interested in producing rehabilitation. In many ways, they simply make it harder for advocates and activists to gauge the real impact of domestic violence intervention on their communities.

What All of This Means for Marissa Alexander

via Steve Rhodes
via Steve Rhodes

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, only about 25 percent of all physical assaults, 20 percent of all rapes, and one-half of all instances of stalking by an intimate partner are reported to the police. Only one-fifth of victims reporting an injury from intimate partner violence actually go on to seek medical attention. There are 18.5 million mental health care visits resulting from intimate partner violence. Fear of reporting and the defective laws, training, and enforcement that justify those fears all warrant our keen attention and civic engagement.

Marissa Alexander did her part for the justice system that she’s supposed to be able to believe in, and she defied those odds to protect herself and her family. She reported the violence. She got the protective order. As if for good measure, she took a hospital visit for her abuser. So what exactly was her next move supposed to be? What other burden of proof should she have endured next? The state of Florida has been incorrigibly negligent in its duty to protect, serve, and defend not only Marissa Alexander, but so many other victims of domestic violence. It’s time for Governor Rick Scott, State Attorney Angela Corey, and the state of Florida to do their part and drop the charges against Marissa Alexander.


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