Marissa Alexander is a Black mother of three and a survivor of domestic violence from Jacksonville, Florida. She was prosecuted and threatened with 60 years in prison for defending her life from her abusive husband. She spent three-years behind bars and, beginning January 27, 2015, she is serving a sentence of two years of house detention while being forced to wear and pay for a surveillance ankle monitor.
Nan-Hui Jo is also a survivor of domestic violence who was convicted of child abduction after fleeing her abusive partner with her young daughter to her home country of South Korea. She has been incarcerated since July 2014, and has spent the last 3 months in immigration detention awaiting deportation proceedings. She has not seen her daughter since her arrest, and now faces the possibility of permanent separation from her.
Alisa Bierria, a member of the Free Marissa Now Mobilization Campaign and a member of INCITE! and Hyejin Shim, an organizer with the Stand with Nan-Hui Campaign and a member of Korean American Coalition to End Domestic Abuse (KACEDA) came together with Mimi Kim and Emi Kane of INCITE! to reflect on the common political ties between two women of color surviving the intersections of domestic violence, the U.S. carceral system and immigration control.
MK: Thanks everybody. I just wanted to start with the question, how did you first get involved in working on your specific campaigns? Alisa, I’ll start with you.
AB: I heard about Marissa’s case in 2012. She was one of those rare domestic violence cases that received mainstream media attention. She is based in Florida and unsuccessfully tried to invoke the Stand Your Ground law, which had a high profile due to the law’s influence on George Zimmerman’s acquittal after he murdered Trayvon Martin. So the public juxtaposed Zimmerman’s acquittal with Marissa Alexander’s 20 year mandatory minimum sentence. I was watching that play out and thinking about it in the context of other self defense cases—specifically, Cece McDonald in Minneapolis and the New Jersey 4—Black women who were attacked and, because they defended their lives, they were prosecuted and incarcerated. I started making some phone calls to investigate, and I learned that there was a beginning coalition of people around the country who were trying to get a campaign off the ground. [This amazing team included Sumayya Coleman, African American/Black Women’s Cultural Alliance; Helen Gilbert, Radical Women; and Aleta Alston Toure, New Jim Crow Movement.] So I started slow, but then it got fast! The more time builds, the more you committed you become, just to see it all the way through.
MK: What was it that first struck you and made you think that “I really need to get involved in this?”
AB: It’s really rare that domestic violence victims who are prosecuted for anything have a national profile because domestic violence is not politically interesting to most people. They think of it as a social service problem or some kind of pathology issue. It was such an opportunity to talk about domestic violence, Black women, the prison industrial complex and self-defense on a national level.
The #BlackLivesMatter call to action began in the shadow of the horrific murder of Trayvon Martin. Because Marissa’s case was often juxtaposed with Trayvon’s (and Jordan Davis’) murder, it received national attention, yet we weren’t really seeing a lot of gender analysis at that time. Also, for years INCITE! had been identifying these intersections that Marissa Alexander’s case was demonstrating so clearly, and it just became such an opportunity for us to show how the analysis was playing out in this woman’s case. This woman who some people actually knew about.
MK: Hyejin, how did you first get involved with the campaign to free Nan-Hui Jo?
HS: I got involved because of KACEDA, a small group of Korean women organizing around domestic violence. In the spring, we heard about the case from a former member who lived in Sacramento. There had been some organizing happening in the Korean church community for her. By this time she’d already gone through one trial that resulted in a hung jury. We learned that a retrial was about to begin—and that the situation was bad. She’d been incarcerated since July. She was denied bail because she was deemed a flight risk, was issued a no-contact order with her daughter, was under an ICE hold and had lost all parental rights. So there was really a sense of urgency when we started organizing. Her trial began on a Friday, and literally that week we began mobilizing. Another KACEDA member wrote a press release and I started making calls to figure out what was happening, kind of like you did, Alisa. I put a call out on Facebook to ask for help and said, look, there’s this domestic violence survivor who is being charged with kidnapping for fleeing abuse with her little girl. She’s lost all custody and has been in jail for the past 8 months. And she’s facing deportation. Come over tonight at 6. And people actually came! It all snowballed from there.
MK: I know that you also work with other domestic violence survivors in your work at Asian Women’s Shelter. I was wondering how this moved from being a case that you’d get on a crisis line to something that turned into a campaign. It sounds like it happened pretty quickly.
HS: I didn’t view this as a case where I’d be someone’s domestic violence advocate. At that point it was clear that what was needed most was not case management. What was needed was organizing. I didn’t feel like it was actually most useful for someone to be helping out in a direct services capacity, with prescribed roles and boundaries, especially because this person was being targeted so aggressively in an unpredictable and quickly-escalating situation.
The work that Free Marissa Now did, and the work that Black women and women of color have been doing around domestic violence and criminalization for decades, made it apparent that this was connected to a larger pattern of survivors being targeted by the system. They are targeted by a racist, sexist system for their survival strategies, particularly with the idea that a survivor must always be a perfect victim. There’s this belief that a domestic violence survivor must always be the victim of crime, and the abuser is always the perpetrator of crime. So in a way there’s not that much room or analysis about what happens when the survivor is actually considered the “perpetrator of a crime,” even in the anti-violence movement. Instead, we’re taking cues from the state to tell us who real “victims” and “perpetrators” are. In this case you had “domestic violence experts” like the district attorney saying that this was not a domestic violence case. So then what? We needed to organize.
MK: Alisa, I see you nodding. It seems like what Hyejin was saying was resonating for you, as well. Do you want say a little more about that?
AB: Yeah, I’m thinking, “Thank goodness that Hyejin was on the other line,” because I have found it rare for folks who are in direct service organizations to have the capacity to imagine a response outside of the usual paradigm of either direct services or pro-criminalization. It’s so drilled. Those of us who work in the field, it takes such a significant capacity to do some paradigm shift in your own mind to say, “This is actually more of a community organizing project; she needs a big push for support and let’s go make a Facebook page.”
Domestic violence organizations were actually pressured by State Attorney Angela Corey to not publicly support Marissa Alexander. So, there’s not only an imagination problem but also a real material problem, because people are worried about their funding. One argument was that groups couldn’t risk their funding to support one person when they have this whole other group of victims to support. But my pushback was, well, who gets to be part of the larger set of victims that they’re serving? It’s not just about Marissa not having support, it is also about any survivor who is being prosecuted having access to full support. As long as organizations make choices based on what Angela Corey or other prosecutors want, they’re never going to have autonomy in terms of who they support. There will always be this barrier to services for survivors who are more vulnerable to criminalization—that is to say, Black women. It’s so important to not only understand the ways that court system and police and prisons are impacting survivors of domestic violence, devastating people’s lives and so on, but also the ways that many service organizations are prevented—or prevent themselves—from supporting criminalized survivors.
MK: Hyejin, did you see anything like that in the case of Nan-Hui Jo?
HS: There were some domestic violence orgs that were very reluctant to get on board, or who acted like they were sympathetic as individuals but said they couldn’t be sympathetic as an organization. So people were saying that they felt for her, but they couldn’t and wouldn’t do anything about it.
MK: What do you think were some of the factors they perceived as barriers?
HS: I can’t say more on dynamics between this district attorney and these domestic violence organizations right now, but I do wonder if the reliance of domestic violence orgs on the DA to prosecute batterers and thus legitimize domestic violence work is a barrier.
AB: There’s this powerful fear of punishment. If an organization has funders or donors that just want to “do good,” meaning they want to donate to a domestic violence organization but they don’t want to give money to an anti-deportation project, for example, that organization is scared to look too radical.
MK: How much do you think Nan-Hui’s and Marissa’s incarceration was a factor in some of our expected allies stepping away? Is there a reluctance because of a notion that they might not be deserving in some way because of their criminalization?
AB: I was on a conference call early on in the Free Marissa campaign. There was a woman on the call who is Black and known as an anti-violence expert. She asked if Marissa was really a “genuine” survivor of domestic violence because she had heard that her husband had received a black eye from her. She didn’t ask about the context of that injury—which came about as a result of self-defense—she went straight to, “Is she telling the truth?” I couldn’t even speak. Because if we’re in a situation where this person—who should be the easiest ally in the world—is saying this really problematic stuff on this call, I don’t know how we’re going to win. So I think we had to fight for allies. Allies did not come easy. I think we had to convince people.
MK: Hyejin, do you have anything that’s comparable so far?
HS: It’s been lucky that I’m working currently at a domestic violence shelter in SF, which has some more progressive allies. The case is not in our county, and I think that makes it easier for us to be more visible in our support. But one question that comes to mind is, what if it was the other way around? What if this was a campaign to prosecute a batterer instead? It’s just interesting to think about. Who would find that politically safe, safer than this campaign to free a survivor? And why? Just think about domestic violence organizations and the commotion around Ray Rice.
MK: To go along those lines, there has been some attention paid to Nan-Hui’s abusive ex-partner in this case. What are some of the ways that people have talked about him?
HS: It’s funny because in court, the DA was talking about him as someone who’d really cleaned up his act. Like, so he hadn’t been that responsible in the past and yes, there was that one time he got violent… but you know, he’s a veteran, and all he wants to do is be a good dad now. And, in the DA’s closing remarks, he said Nan-Hui was clearly the better parent all along, more competent, mature and responsible. But also that she was also manipulative, vengeful, and too competent, essentially, to be a real victim. There was just a lot of focus on characterizing her as just another sneaky Asian immigrant trying to cheat the system. He called her a “tiger mom” too. Her attempts to survive with her baby through abuse and an immensely confusing legal system were all looked at through this lens of racist criminalization.
MK: I think it’s interesting how they raised “tiger mom” as a stereotype that many people are now familiar with now—and the stereotype that people could associate with an Asian woman. How did you see stereotypes with Marissa Alexander play out, Alisa, in terms of Angela Corey or the people that were trying to detract from sympathy for her situation?
AB: The biggest pattern that we saw was this idea that she was too entitled—too entitled to live, too entitled to take control of her life. There was definitely blaming her for being in the abusive relationship to begin with. She’s not considered entitled to defend her life because of this notion that she created the conditions for this to happen in the first place. Also, that attitude works seamlessly with the narrative about “uppity” Black women, especially in the South. Marissa Alexander did not know her place. The rhetoric Corey used was not coincidental. Her office circulated this ugly handout to state politicians because some seemed sympathetic to Marissa’s case. It said on the top, “The truth about Marissa Alexander,” and included Marissa’s mugshots at the top and rhetoric about why she should be incarcerated. So there is this very intentional, very racialized framing they used to support the prosecution. Corey politically benefits if the person she is prosecuting could never be understood as a “victim,” so she had her own agenda. It wasn’t just to be racist in general, but to achieve an end.
Corey also constantly exploited the children for the sake of her argument. There were children in the home when Marissa’s husband attacked her and she defended herself, and there was a concern that they could have been hurt in that encounter. Angela Corey had this habit of saying, “Those children – those boys – those Black boys, those young Black boys, were endangered by this woman who acted out of anger.” So it was really interesting how she co-opted the rhetoric around violence against Black boys to argue for the prosecution of this Black woman. It happened again in the final hearing when Marissa was finally released from prison to serve a two year term of house detention. The prosecutor put one of the children on the stand, he read a statement that seemed clearly written by that office and, in that statement, they invoked #blacklivesmatter! They totally co-opted it. So the child said, “Doesn’t my Black life matter?” and it was heartbreaking, devastating, enraging, and it made me want to throw my computer out the window.
MK: I know this isn’t the first time you’ve been talking together. Can you talk a little bit about how you found the connections between these two campaigns?
HS: From the beginning, I thought of Marissa. One, because it’s so recent, and two, because it was such strong organizing I saw on behalf of a survivor who was being criminalized. I went to the INCITE! conference this past year and saw that there was a Free Marissa Now session, and thought, “I have to go to that!” So, we got there really early because we were so excited. And as people were sharing the lessons learned, challenges, and the values that guided the organizing—the ways that y’all described Marissa and holding her humanity intact instead of letting her become just a political symbol—so much of what you shared really resonated with me. And I had been feeling very isolated before that. A lot of our analysis and the ability to do the work was made possible by yours. The connections were obvious, and it was also important to note the real similarities and differences. They were prosecuted similarly and anti-violence “allies” responded similarly. Yet Nan-Hui and Marissa are racialized and gendered in very different ways, and they were aggressively targeted accordingly—one for twenty years, the other for indefinite detention and deportation. There was a lot to share.
AB: We were so excited to meet y’all at COV4. I had heard about Nan-Hui’s case because within 48 hours, three friends sent me urgent emails about it. I was like, “Ok, I got it, Nan-Hui Jo.” And then we met – and I was like right! The famous Nan-Hui Jo, I know who she is! So it was moving to meet y’all, especially along with members of the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander. And I’d had a little bit of conversation with Nadine Naber in Chicago who’s working with the Justice for Rasmea Odeh campaign – which is, again, another kind of ballgame. But it is kindred in that it is a freedom campaign for a survivor of sexual and state violence. So it’s true—both cases are different in very important ways, certainly in the ways they’re racialized and gendered. And the geographic politics are really important as well. But I was also disturbed about the ways that they were similar. The fact of the pattern, the fact of the structural problem feels clearer and more urgent. Knowing that there was this powerful campaign going on, and knowing that we weren’t alone, was grounding. It situated our work in a different kind of way. So it was wonderful to meet y’all.
MK: The people that often get forgotten in these cases – is the children. I’ve been struck by the ways in which Nan-Hui Jo might be elevated but her daughter is like the secondary character. But she has obviously suffered so much and still is because of the ways that she’s lost her mother. Can you talk about that a little bit?
HS: It’s been deliberate to keep her child out of it, out of respect to Nan-Hui. But, of course, there’s a huge way that this child is being impacted. She’s on a plane with Mom coming to Hawaii one minute, and the next her mom gets arrested and is whisked away. And she won’t see her for another year or more… and now she’s in an environment where none of her caregivers are Korean or speak the language. What we’d heard in court was that the child had suffered a lot in those first months of transition, and couldn’t communicate with anyone except her bilingual therapist. She missed her mom. She was having panic attacks.
On the bright side they recently started contact through supervised phone calls, but sadly they can’t be in Korean. But of course, one thing that does get erased about domestic violence is how it impacts children, too.
MK: And she’s with the father right now?
HS: Yes, he has full custody.
MK: Did she have a relationship with him before her mother was detained and incarcerated?
HS: Not since she was less than one year old. She’s six now.
AB: I think women victimized by domestic violence are disproportionately punished if they have children who are harmed. Look at the case of Tondalo Hall — her boyfriend seriously injured their child and he was sentenced to 2 years in prison. Then they prosecuted Tondalo who received a devastating 30 year sentence. We have this idea that mothers are privileged when it comes to family court, and I really want to push back on that because I constantly see mothers being intensely punished. Particularly domestic violence victims.
MK: Alisa, could you reflect a little bit on the impact of the organizing on Marissa’s life and on social movements that are important to you?
AB: We noticed that October is the month where there’s all this anti-police brutality action happening and it’s DV awareness month. And we were like, “Oh! What a coincidence.” So we put together this handout that showed how domestic violence is a state violence issue using the analysis and the statistics. We distributed copies to our base and we urged people to make copies and bring them to DV awareness month and anti-policing events. And I think that that tradition should continue. I think we were able to identify opportunities, but you know, it wasn’t always easy. That said, so many people organized across the US and around the world to free Marissa, including making art, direct action, letter writing, fundraising, prayer circles, a caravan, coalition building, media advocacy…people really put their hearts and minds into this project.
MK: Same question for you, Hyejin? I know it’s a different situation for you—we don’t know if there will be something to celebrate and things are looking very difficult. But what do you think, right now. What are some impacts you’ve had on Nan-Hui Jo’s life and also on the larger movements?
HS: I think that with Nan-Hui… she has definitely seen a tangible difference since we’ve started organizing. And that has to do with the support that she feels from everyone, but it also has to do with gaining some real wins resulting from the organizing. Those wins include getting her some amazing legal representation for her immigration and criminal cases. She is also feeling seen and taken care of in a way that she wasn’t before. Before I know she was feeling very much isolated.
Though it’s still really hard, she says she doesn’t feel as lonely as she did. In the beginning she felt deeply afraid and alone. We’ve also formed a close relationship. I think it’s love and connection that will help get you through hard times, so I’m happy to be able to support her in multiple ways.
I’m not sure what kinds of larger impacts this might have, but my hope is that people will be able to make the connections more easily than they used to, and have a point of reference for people in our communities actually caring about domestic violence and criminalization. And I think one legacy of the Free Marissa organizing is that we don’t feel as alone. I see Marissa’s release, even with the terms that it’s on, as nothing short of a miracle. And I know this kind of miracle does not happen without so much work. These kinds of campaigns are incredibly time/resource intensive, and very emotional. So I hope that next time—because it will happen again—that there’s just more of a support network. That we are more aware of each other than we used to be. That the next time this happens we are more ready.
AB: Yeah. I also think that we have a lot of work to do to connect with other defense campaigns. There are a lot out there. One of the things we’ve been talking about is organizing a meeting with these organizers to do next steps. To do a more formal debriefing and visioning process of what comes next. I would really look forward to building on the solidarity of these two campaigns with many others.
HS: Yeah, absolutely. Another thing I want to add is that I think people do not see the ways that state violence can actually be leveraged as a way to abuse someone—that it is an extension of the domestic violence. It does count as abuse to intentionally criminalize your former partner in retaliation for self defense. It is violent to advocate for your ex-partner to receive the maximum sentence and get deported. The courts do not exist for “victims” alone. And in this case, her abuser is very much seen as the victim. Abusers sometimes make an effort to report the person they’re abusing for child abduction, domestic violence, or child abuse charges first, to retaliate, ruin their credibility, and reinforce a dynamic of control. It’s not some completely extraordinary thing. I work at a shelter; we know that sometimes batterers do these things to survivors we are actually housing. So I wish that part was more clear for people—that domestic violence doesn’t simply end with two people separating.
AB: Right. And these prosecutions extend domestic violence into the state and then the state legitimizes domestic violence. So…who’s the batterer? The batterer is the batterer, but now the batterer’s agenda is played out or taken up by the state, and the state is the batterer. And then it gets even more tricky when you look at things like mandatory policies. Mandatory arrest, mandatory minimums. Now it’s not even the judge, police officers or prosecutors, it’s just “the state.” Somebody somewhere passed a law, and now I have to go to prison for 20 years. There’s agency with no agent.
MK: Can we end with some words of appreciation for each other and the work of these campaigns?
HS: I have nice things that I want to say all the time. I appreciate how open and generous y’all have been, with both support and sharing your experiences. Organizing can feel very territorial at times. It’s been really great to just talk and bounce ideas around with you, and to think more about the future too. When this campaign ends, and it will end, and hopefully she’ll be free and here with her child… when it ends, all these problems we’ve talked about will still be there. And individual campaigns for everyone are just not possible. So what do we need to change so we’re not doing these fifteen years later?
AB: Right, I completely agree. So looking forward to figuring out how to strengthen that network and see how that can transform anti-domestic violence organizing in general. Thank you for saying all those nice things! I think it’s so important that the campaigns are independent from non-profits. And I think that might contribute to some of the openness that you’re talking about. I think it’s important to map the ways in which the campaigns are not institutionalized, which creates some level of freedom, even though having no staff is hard because they are, indeed, labor intensive. I think the Stand With Nan-Hui campaign has been brilliant, I’ve learned a lot from y’all. In addition to the question about what impact our work has had on existing social movements, we can also reflect on the movement that we built. Build on our own terms, with our own politics that we advanced, and with the base that we made. I’m excited about the potential impacts on social movements that I think the campaigns have created or can create in the future. So thank you so much for your political work.