This piece is the first of a three-part series on Truthout exploring the intersections of domestic violence, race, the criminal legal system and the case of Marissa Alexander.
In 2010, Marissa Alexander shot a warning shot at the wall in order to scare Rico Gray, her estranged, abusive husband. Marissa was a 29-year-old mother, who had just given birth to her youngest daughter prematurely, nine days earlier. For trying to protect herself, she was sentenced to 20 years in prison. In her upcoming retrial, Florida state prosecutor Angela Corey is seeking to imprison Marissa for 60 years. As Mariame Kaba says, black women have “no selves to defend,” speaking to the idea that black women’s bodies can always be violated and easily killable, and that the notion of self-defense can never apply.
In Marissa’s case, we see a combination of intimate partner violence and state violence that so often sets a double-trap for black women. Black women who defend themselves are often punished for it – the principle of “no selves to defend” is enforced by the state.
A 2000 US Department of Justice report showed that African-American women experienced intimate partner violence at a rate 35 percent higher than that of white women. “In 2007, African-American female victims of intimate partner homicide were twice as likely as white female homicide victims to be killed by a spouse,” according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. A study conducted in 2002 by Tufts University found that 40 percent of African-American women report coercive contact of a sexual nature by age 18, as cited by the American Bar Association. The same study found that the number one killer of African-American women ages 15 to 34 is homicide at the hands of a current or former intimate partner, and that only 17 percent of African-American women survivors of sexual assault report the assault to the police.
So how do Marissa Alexander, domestic violence and criminalization all intersect? The Free Marissa Now Campaign released a fact sheet titled Repeal Mandatory Minimums: A Racial Justice and Domestic Violence Issue, which provides information on how women are often coerced into engaging in illegal activity such as drug selling by their abusive partners, and because of mandatory minimum sentencing laws for certain crimes, women are imprisoned for long periods of time, 10, 20 or more years. Judges cannot take their history of abuse into account when handing out sentences; they are bound by mandatory minimums. Florida’s 10-20-life mandatory minimum sentencing law is the reason Marissa is in prison, despite the fact that she had no prior criminal record, was a licensed and registered gun owner, and harmed no one when she fired a warning shot to protect herself from her estranged abusive husband.
According to the Sentencing Project, in 2011, black women were incarcerated at 2.5 times the rate of white women. The Center for American Progress reported that 85 to 90 percent of women in prison have a history of being victims of violence prior to incarceration, including domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and child abuse. Women’s experiences of abuse, and the criminalization of their survival strategies – along with poverty and punitive criminal laws and welfare policies – increase their risk of incarceration. Low-income women and women in poverty sometimes have to turn to criminalized activities in order to make ends meet, from selling food stamps, to selling drugs or sex work. In the last few years, we have seen states try to pass laws requiring mandatory drug testing for people applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
While the battered women’s movement did a great job in bringing the issue of intimate partner violence into public consciousness – moving it from being thought of as a private family matter to a national issue that can affect all women, creating laws and policies, and domestic violence hotlines and shelters – the resulting reliance on the state, particularly law enforcement, to address and end intimate partner violence hasn’t positively affected all victims. For black women, other women of color and poor women, the involvement of the state can lead to disastrous results. Mandatory arrest laws that result in both victim and perpetrator being arrested, child protective services removing children from mothers because they’re victims of intimate partner violence, nuisance laws leading to women being evicted from their homes for calling the police too many times on their abusive partners, and women being imprisoned for defending themselves against abusive partners are just some of the ways that state involvement in addressing intimate partner violence actually causes further harms to victims.
Marissa’s case is illustrative of how relying solely on law enforcement to end violence against women is ineffective. Instead of receiving help and support from the state, Marissa was incarcerated for three years (she was released on bail in November 2013), separated from her children, and faces the possibility of 60 years of imprisonment. Activists working with Free Marissa Now, Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander, and other organizations have done a tremendous job of linking her case to structural issues of reproductive justice, mass incarceration, state violence and the value of black life. From Free Marissa Now’s Black Women’s Lives Matter principles, “Black women’s lives matter. They have the right to value their own lives and fight for freedom.”
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