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Does Our Belief in Women’s Stories of Sexual Violence Extend to Survivors Behind Bars?

Does our notion of victim go beyond white celebrity women?

(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)

In 2005, 26-year-old Paris Knox was living in Chicago with her 13-month-old son. Her relationship with her baby’s father, Malteeny Taylor, was characterized by violence and abuse. During their time together, he not only hit her but, even with others present, pulled her by the hair down the street and smacked her to the ground.

On May 21, 2005, Taylor attacked Knox in her home. She defended herself, an act that ultimately resulted in his death and her arrest. At trial, witnesses testified that Knox and Taylor’s relationship was “tumultuous” and that arguments frequently escalated to verbal and physical abuse. Nonetheless, the jury convicted Knox of first-degree murder and she was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

The recent increased media attention and public rallying behind survivors of sexual abuse have largely centered around white women, particularly celebrity white women.

In 2017, after 13 years behind bars, Knox’s conviction and 40-year sentence were vacated due to ineffective assistance of counsel. She was transferred from Logan Correctional Center, one of Illinois’s two state women’s prisons, to Chicago’s Cook County Jail, where she remains while she awaits a new trial. Bail has been set at $500,000. To post bond and secure her pretrial freedom, family members and friends would need to pay $50,000, a price tag that they cannot afford.

Believing Black Women — or Not

The recent increased media attention and public rallying behind survivors of sexual abuse have largely centered around white women, particularly celebrity white women. Although the “Me Too” campaign was created by Tarana Burke, a Black woman, particularly for women of color, the recent conversations have, by and large, omitted Black women and other women of color. In the few instances when their accusations do hit headlines, their experiences are often dismissed and their words discredited.

Black women are disproportionately impacted by both domestic and state violence.

Black women behind bars are rendered even more invisible, and their experiences of violence remain either ignored or blatantly disbelieved. In 2005, the jury chose not to believe evidence of domestic violence and convicted Paris Knox in the death of her abusive ex-partner. Twelve years later, at a time of heightened media attention and public outcry against sexual harassment and abuse by famous white men, Knox has the chance at a new trial. But will her experiences of violence and abuse be believed this time around? Or does the newly increased public consciousness around sexual assault cease to matter when the survivor herself is incarcerated and on trial?

As noted previously on Truthout, Black women are disproportionately impacted by both domestic and state violence. The 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found that approximately 4 out of 10 Black women have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. The Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community noted that while Black women are 8 percent of the country’s population, they account for 22 percent of intimate partner homicide victims (of all genders) and 29 percent of all female victims of domestic violence homicides. In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Black women are more than twice as likely to be killed by their partner than white women.

At the same time, Black women are disproportionately incarcerated. In 2013 and again in 2015, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that the imprisonment rate for Black women was twice that of white women.

However, no national agency keeps track of how often domestic and state violence intersect — for Black women or for anyone else caught in the criminal legal system. In 1977, a study from Cook County Jail found that 40 percent of women charged with murdering their partners reported that these partners had been abusive. Each woman had called police at least five times; many had already separated in an attempt to escape the abuse. Over two decades later, in 1999, the US Department of Justice found that nearly half of all women in local jails and state prisons had experienced abuse before their arrests. No nationwide statistics have been released since then.

Will the current increase in attention to women’s experiences of sexual harassment and violence mean a shift in policy and practice toward criminalized abuse survivors?

“I certainly hope so,” said Holly Krig, the director of organizing of the Chicago-based grassroots group Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration (MUAVI). At the same time, she worries that the stories that have been highlighted by mainstream and social media — of mostly white celebrity women — might reinforce notions of what a victim looks like: notions that exclude survivors who are women of color, trans, poor and/or have past histories with law enforcement.

Thirteen Years of Separation

Knox’s mother, Debbie Lisa Buntyn, only met Taylor twice. The first time was when Buntyn was in a residential treatment center. “He looked down on me because I was a recovering addict,” she told Truthout.

The next time she met him was when Knox was about to give birth. “She had to have a C-section,” she recalled. “She wanted me in the room with her because that was her first child. He got mad at her about that.” Buntyn didn’t allow Taylor’s displeasure to prevent her from being with her daughter and welcoming her grandson into the world.

That was the last time she saw Taylor, who was never present when Buntyn visited her daughter and baby grandson. Knox never told her mother about the abuse. If she had, says Buntyn, who already disliked the man, she would have urged her daughter to leave him.

Knox’s silence is a hallmark of domestic violence. Those experiencing abuse are often reluctant to talk about what’s happening for a number of reasons, including fear of escalated violence, as well as fear of being judged or pressured to end the relationship.

For Black women experiencing abuse, there’s also a heightened fear of the criminal legal system. Mariame Kaba is a co-organizer with Survived and Punished, a national network focused on ending the criminalization of survivors of gendered violence. Since her early years in the domestic violence field, Kaba has seen Black women whose stories of violence are believed and who have been able to obtain restraining orders and orders of protection. However, she has also seen the additional hurdles facing Black women — hurdles caused by the reliance on a legal system that disproportionately polices and incarcerates Black people.

“One of the big things I’ve seen is the idea that they don’t want to have their partners arrested or jailed,” she told Truthout. “That fear is heightened for Black women because there are so many Black men churned through the criminal punishment system.” Black women may refrain from calling the police — or even disclosing abuse to others — out of a sense of racial solidarity or fear of being seen as a “race traitor.”

At the same time, Kaba points to another prevalent fear: that calling the police may result in a survivor being arrested and criminalized, a fear that often comes true in places with mandatory arrest policies. At the same time, they must overcome the continued notion of Black women as “Jezebel-ish people,” stemming from antebellum notions of Black women as promiscuous and therefore justified targets of sexual violence. “It influences what we see today,” Kaba noted.

In November 2005, Buntyn got a call from her daughter. Knox had been arrested for Taylor’s death. “She been locked up ever since,” Buntyn said.

Knox’s arrest and subsequent trial garnered little, if any, media attention. Neither Krig nor Kaba, who was living in Chicago at the time, remember seeing mention of Knox in the local newspapers. The only mention was a brief paragraph buried in the August 13, 2005, edition of the Chicago Sun-Times; the article characterized Knox as an ex-girlfriend angry about the lack of child support payments.

During Knox’s first trial, Buntyn was in a residential drug treatment center. She was not allowed to stay in touch with family or friends, a common policy for intensive inpatient treatment programs. “There’s a lot of things you can’t do while you’re in recovery,” she explained. By the time Buntyn finished the program, her daughter had already been convicted, sentenced and sent to Dwight Correctional Center, the state’s former maximum-security prison for women.

Because of her own conviction history, Buntyn needed to request permission from the prison’s superintendent to visit her daughter. On June 14, 2012, after five years of being unable to see her daughter, Buntyn received permission.

By then, Buntyn was undergoing a series of surgeries — a knee replacement, a hip replacement, a rebuilt ankle and a metal rod in her leg, all of which rendered her unable to travel the 80 miles from her Chicago home to the prison. While she was recovering from these various operations, Dwight was closed; Knox and more than 1,000 other women were moved to Logan Correctional Center, 100 miles further west (at least a three-hour drive) from Chicago.

“I wasn’t able to see her until she was put in Cook County [Jail in Chicago],” said Buntyn. Even then, she could not hug or even touch her daughter — the jail’s visits are no-contact, so mother and daughter were separated by a thick plastic window. Buntyn’s limited mobility makes it difficult to walk down the long hallway leading to the visiting room and so, since that first visit, mother and daughter have communicated by phone.

Still, Buntyn attends every single one of her daughter’s pretrial hearings, wearing a purple t-shirt that reads “Free Them All” made by the Chicago-based abolitionist group Love & Protect. “Every time she has a court date, I’m there,” she said. But courtroom appearances allow no hugs or even communication. Courtrooms prohibit defendants from talking to or even waving to people in the gallery (the seating area for the general public).

“When she comes out, she sees me standing there,” explained Buntyn. “Then she stands before the judge and they say something, then they take her out.”

Mass Organizing Sees Victories for Incarcerated Survivors

Advocates are hoping that the new state’s attorney, Kim Foxx, who has been hailed as a progressive prosecutor and is the first Black woman to hold the office in Chicago, will take Knox’s experiences of abuse and violence into consideration. Should Foxx’s office choose to charge Knox with second-degree murder, with a penalty of four to 12 years in prison, the 38-year-old (who has already served 13 years) would be able to walk out of prison and begin rebuilding her life.

Krig notes that Knox’s first conviction, in 2007, occurred five years before mass organizing pushed Marissa Alexander — and the issue of defending one’s self against domestic violence — into national headlines. Alexander, a mother of three living in Jacksonville, Florida, was initially sentenced to 20 years in prison after firing a warning shot at her abusive ex-husband. A judge denied her attempts to argue Stand Your Ground as a defense, a stark contrast to that of George Zimmerman, who successfully argued Stand Your Ground as a defense for fatally shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Alexander’s case garnered mass outrage as well as mass organizing. After her initial conviction was overturned upon appeal, Florida prosecutors offered her a plea bargain — time served for her 1,030 days behind bars, another 65 days in jail, and two years of house arrest.

Though general awareness about domestic violence has increased, the number of criminalized survivors does not seem to have decreased.

“Because of that organizing, people had an understanding of domestic violence and a context for what had happened,” Krig noted. “Organizing built enough support to pressure the prosecutor so that she had no choice but to offer a plea deal.”

That increased awareness around domestic violence has had ripple effects that have reached from Jacksonville, Florida, to Chicago. For example, Krig also worked on the defense campaign for Naomi Freeman, another Black mother living in Chicago. As reported previously on Truthout, Freeman was charged with first-degree murder in the death of her abusive boyfriend.

In 2015, partnering with the Chicago Community Bond Fund, organizers with Love & Protect (formerly the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander), Lifted Voices, MUAVI and members of Freeman’s family were able to raise the $35,000 necessary to post bond for Freeman, enabling her to spend her pretrial waiting period with her children and to give birth to her third child, with whom she was pregnant when she was arrested, outside of jail.

In 2016, sustained community organizing ousted state’s attorney Anita Alvarez, who had waited over a year before charging Chicago police officers in the shooting of Laquan McDonald but immediately pursued first-degree murder charges against Freeman and other abuse survivors. In August 2017 Krig and other advocates set up a meeting with several state’s attorneys working under the newly elected Foxx to discuss the cases of Freeman, Knox and Caress Shumaker, another Black woman charged in the death of her boyfriend who had been abusive.

“We talked about the context of domestic violence,” Krig said. “We talked about Marissa Alexander’s case, which they heard about, even though it happened in Jacksonville, because of all the organizing around it. It provided them with a context to look at the cases we were talking about.”

Other abuse survivors who had been criminalized in the past also attended the meeting and shared their personal stories — stories that Krig feels had a direct impact on how these attorneys viewed the cases. Within months of that meeting, prosecutors dropped the charges against Shumaker and reduced the charges against Freeman to involuntary manslaughter with a sentence of 30 months of probation and no prison time.

Kaba is hopeful, but also cautious, that the increased attention around sexual violence will trickle down to Black women caught in the criminal legal system.

“It’s hard for me to see what’s currently happening transforming the criminal punishment system, a system that is set up to oppress women and gender non-conforming people,” Kaba said. She noted that anecdotal evidence points to the fact that, though general awareness about domestic violence has increased in recent years, the number of criminalized survivors does not seem to have decreased.

“I believe the way to gain people’s freedom is through mass participatory defense campaigns,” said Kaba, noting that the full force of the legal system comes down on abuse survivors who are already marginalized. Criminalization reduces even further the resources they can access. “As organizers, we have a lot to do to bring attention to their experiences, to bring resources and to challenge narratives,” she said.

Knox’s family, as well as Krig and other organizers, are hoping that their organizing will push the state’s attorney to extend increased understanding of abuse and violence to Paris Knox. Her next court date is December 20.

“Paris has already spent 13 years in prison. That’s 13 years too long,” stated Krig. “She’s not a danger to anyone. She never was. She acted in defense of her life, which everyone should have a right to do. But for her, it resulted in a first-degree murder charge and a 40-year prison sentence.”

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