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Cierra Finkley and the Radical Act of Self-Defense

Imagine if people of color, en masse, suddenly decided to defend their humanity, by any means necessary.

Thursday morning brought some welcome news to those who value Black lives and the rights of women, when Dane County prosecutor Ismael Ozanne announced that the State of Wisconsin would not be pursuing charges against 24-year-old domestic violence survivor Cierra Finkley “at this time.”

Finkley had an active order of protection against her ex-boyfriend, and had contacted police three times for assistance on the day that she was finally forced to defend her life, and the life of her child, with deadly force. Like Marissa Alexander, who had also sought protection from the state before taking action in her own defense, Finkley had made every effort to save herself and her child through official legal channels. But as many abuse survivors know all too well, orders of protection often aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

After all, there are already laws prohibiting the battery, rape and murder of one’s partner. An abuser’s established indifference to such laws, and law enforcement’s general lack of regard for the lives of women of color make attacks on women who are fleeing abusive partners a social norm, rather than an aberration. Women of color who reject this norm have historically been punished for their unwillingness to nonviolently submit to the fate that our social hierarchy would readily consign them to.

The act of defending even one life that has no social or political value is, in fact, revolutionary.

Like protesters whose tactics displease the power structure, women of color who violently defend their own lives are commonly viewed as stepping over the line. In our society, those who face abuse, or even death, at the hands of those with more power than themselves are expected to politely appeal to systems of authority to recognize that their lives have value. When authorities refuse to answer those calls, and proceed with legislative and judicial action that confirms that there is no safe harbor for us within this country, the marginalized are still lectured by those who are not affected and told “violence is never the answer.”

Despite the irony of this statement being so pervasive in a country that uses violence to solve problems with the same frequency that a student of calculus employs a calculator, it is a steady cultural refrain in the United States, and one that supports writer and organizer Mariame Kaba’s contention that, in this culture, Black women are seen as having “no selves to defend.”

As society turns its back on the astronomical number of missing and murdered Indigenous women, both in the United States and Canada, and allows for the frequent arrest of victims alongside their abusers, our options, as women of color who are subjected to violence, are not promising. Neither the structures nor the values of this society protect us, and yet we are criminalized for acting outside of those structures to save our own lives.

Whether in response to CeCe McDonald’s defense of her life against a transphobic attacker or to Cierra Finkley’s refusal to let her ex-boyfriend inflict further harm on herself or her child, the state continues to reinforce its unwritten mandate that marginalized people cannot act outside of its prescribed solutions when faced with danger, even when those measures are empty or inaccessible. This refusal to accept the idea that people of color have a natural right to defend their survival is a function of the status quo in the United States, and as any honest analysis of policing in this country would indicate, our law enforcement entities do not exist to enforce laws. They exist to enforce social norms and maintain the stability of our country’s social, political and economic hierarchy.

Imagine if people of color, en masse, suddenly decided to defend their humanity, by any means necessary. It is an idea that this power structure simply cannot tolerate, whether it manifests itself in the case of individuals or an entire movement. The act of defending even one life that has no social or political value is, in fact, revolutionary, and the state has always been threatened by all things revolutionary.

But on Thursday, the power structure was forced to bend. “This is a victory for the people,” said Young Gifted and Black organizer Alix Shabazz. “We don’t trust the criminal justice system to bring justice for Black women,” Shabazz added, “but we know that without the people putting pressure on his office, the DA [Ismael Ozanne] would not have made the present decision.”

Cierra Finkley had wrenched herself from the hands of one abuser, only to fall into the hands of another.

The Young Gifted and Black Coalition doubtlessly played a major role in the prosecutor’s about-face in Finkley’s case. By rallying around Finkley and her family, and assisting with legal representation, Young Gifted and Black saw to it that Finkley’s story didn’t fall through the cracks of a system that does not value the lives of Black women, and demonstrated that grassroots opposition can gain ground in the fight for abused women who choose survival. As Shabazz wrote in Truthout in August, “There is no doubt that the power of the people and the watchful eyes of the media influenced the judge’s decision to deny the prosecutor’s $100,000 bail request.”

The prosecutor’s decision can also be seen as a victory, in a broader sense, for the #SayHerName movement – a protest and social media phenomenon that has emerged from the larger movement for Black lives. Lifting up the names of Black women and girls like Sandra Bland and Aiyana Jones, organizers around the country have fought back against the erasure of the state violence that Black women face. And while Finkley was not directly defending herself against police violence when she stabbed her ex-boyfriend, she was acting in the face of the state’s indifference to her survival and devaluation of her life. When the state’s passivity and indifference gave way to the violence of incarcerating an abuse victim, and threatening her with 60 years in prison, Finkley’s victimization was compounded.

Cierra Finkley had wrenched herself from the hands of one abuser, only to fall into the hands of another.

But the pushback of #SayHerName and groups like the Young Gifted and Black Coalition, as well as the momentum of efforts to defend Marissa Alexander, have created a new climate of resistance – one where the state may actually be held accountable for its enforcement of social and legal norms that assign no social or political value to the lives of women of color.

This resistance has taken many forms, from the fight to see Dante Servin, the Chicago police officer who killed Rekia Boyd, discharged from his position, to the defense of women like Finkley, who are likewise victims of the state’s devaluation of Black life. Calls for accountability have grown louder, and those words have been matched with action.

Efforts to defend the lives and safety of women have reshaped themselves numerous times over the course of feminist movements in the United States. From the national movement to free Joan Little, who killed a prison guard who was sexually assaulting her, to the pursuit of carceral solutions, such as mandatory arrests in cases of domestic violence, the tactics and philosophical grounding of such efforts have often veered in very different directions.

While the movement to free Little could not have been more conscious of the connectivity between state violence and the general oppression of women in our society, subsequent attempts to leverage law enforcement as a solution to violence against women have actually harmed those who are most vulnerable within this system. Women of color, without “selves to defend,” are too often jailed alongside their abusers, or subject to punishment for stepping outside failed judicial mechanisms to protect themselves. Unsympathetic members of the public often declare that women who resort to violence “had other options” – referring to laws that provide them with no functional safety, and that have the potential to put their own freedom in peril.

From a radical period of organizing, when defense committees rallied around women who used deadly force against their would-be killers and rapists, to carceral feminism’s disarming of such efforts – we have seen our defense, as a political pursuit, both flourish and falter over time. But there is a new energy in play in these struggles, amplifying the voices of advocates who have gone unheard for years, and echoing the calls of women and non-binary people around the country who are demanding that we recognize that the violence we experience as people of color isn’t hindered by the state, but reinforced by it.

Groups like the Young Gifted and Black Coalition, Love and Protect and Project NIA are making the criminalization of self-defense in marginalized communities a wider subject of discussion. From direct action to added media attention and art exhibitions, efforts to bring about a cultural shift around issues of self-defense are well underway. And with groups like Black Youth Project 100 rallying communities under the banner of #SayHerName, and demanding accountability for state violence against Black women, and a structural analysis of the violence committed against people of color that centers law enforcement as a source of community violence, rather than a solution, arguments against carceral feminism have gained added momentum.

In Chicago, I have recently been involved with the formation of a community that would not exist without this momentum. Lifted Voices is an action-oriented community group grounded in the political, cultural and personal defense of women and non-binary people of color. Militant in tone, it is an organization that recognizes that we live in a society whose structures and norms were created in opposition to our well-being, and that have always continued to function as such. With weekly self-defense classes, we hope to build both culture and community around the idea that our lives have inherent value, and that we have a right to defend ourselves against interpersonal violence without apology.

The energy propelling the creation of groups like Lifted Voices is long overdue and essential to our survival and self-actualization as oppressed people. As Lifted Voices cofounder Crystal Vance Guerra recently wrote, “Direct action can take many forms but it should always be rooted in the understanding that violence is destructive and self-defense is creative.” There are no official avenues through which one can dismantle a power structure that maintains the oppression of a people. Such avenues must be created in the realm of resistance, as no power structure would ever willingly permit their creation.

Thus, we must exist in functional opposition to the violence imposed on us, fighting for the freedom of those who save themselves, denouncing the state’s participation in our oppression and being prepared to defend our lives from those who would act out the violent norms of our society.

While I have no more desire to see any person killed or harmed any more than I wish to see anyone incarcerated, I am grateful for the survival of Cierra, Marissa and all those who fight back, and I am deeply grateful for the efforts of groups like Young Gifted and Black, and everyone who is pushing for a world that recognizes that the lives of women of color matter, and should be defended.

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