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Grassroots Defense Committees Support Criminalized Survivors of Violence

The criminal legal system in the United States forces survivors to choose between their freedom and their lives.

Only 5 percent of sexual assault perpetrators are ever arrested -- while most women in prison are themselves victims of abuse.

Part of the Series

Bayley Pitts believed that she would receive help when she went to the police as a teenage victim of sexual violence at the hands of her biological father. She did not — and now, Pitts faces the prospect of losing her mother, Wendy Howard, to the same system that failed to protect either of them. In an interview with Truthout, she wonders, “Why are you taking my mom from me? The one who protected me from all this? That’s not fair.”

Many survivors of domestic and sexual violence argue that the criminal legal system in the United States forces them to choose between their freedom and their lives, often criminalizing women, trans and gender non-conforming people for acts of self-defense and limiting their rights to bodily autonomy. This pattern most heavily impacts survivors of color. It is part of the larger constellation of patriarchy, white supremacy and settler colonialism in which the prison system is rooted.

Pitts told Truthout that the backstory to her mother’s criminalization was a long history of abuse by Pitts’s father. Howard had managed to separate from her partner after surviving years of violence, but some of her children still wanted to have a relationship with him.

Pitts, who is now 19, described a common scenario in which she and her siblings did not necessarily have all of the information about why their mother preferred to keep a distance from her ex. They were also affected by cultural pressure for both mothers and children to allow a father to be involved, Pitts says. “I think if you want your kids to be raised without a mom or dad, or maybe you’re getting, ‘Oh, you can’t do that. Because, you know, they need a mom, or they need a dad, or it’s not fair.’ You know, I think there’s a lot of pressure overall…. I think it’s really hard as a mom to say, ‘No, sorry, you’re not having a dad in your life.’”

Yet the history of abuse in the family was severe. In addition to abusing Howard physically, sexually and verbally, Howard’s ex-partner also sexually abused two of her daughters, Pitts and Miranda Frost.

The family tried multiple times to report the abuse, Pitts explained, but when she and her mother reached out to the police for help, they did not receive any support. Frost also reported her abuse, but said in a previous news interview that her report was dismissed because of insufficient evidence.

Pitts says that she was raised to trust the police. “I thought when I told someone, especially law enforcement, there would be help for me directly right there,” she said. “I would feel protected and helped and like the bad guy was gonna get caught.”

Instead of the help and safety she was expecting, Pitts said, the police told her to go back to the house and try to entrap her father, by wearing a mic if possible.

Cynthia Zimmer, the district attorney in charge of the case, claims — like most other DAs — to be a strong advocate for crime victims. Yet, according to Courtney Morris, an organizer with the Wendy Howard Defense Committee, no services have been offered for Howard’s daughters.

“I think that through this, that has been probably one of Wendy’s largest grievances, is that they never reached out to Miranda or Bayley,” said Morris. “They came forward with their stories. Which was so brave, to go into the public view and say, ‘This is what happened to us,’ which has been so difficult, but this family has been committed to advocacy. And not once did the county ever reach out to Miranda and Bayley to say, ‘how can we get you some support services for what you’ve been through?’”

“This system failed us here,” Pitts said. “And they don’t want that to be out.”

The trial for Wendy Howard is scheduled for August 29, 2022. Along with first-degree murder, Howard has been charged with a gun enhancement. According to Defending Self-Defense, a community-based research report by Survived & Punished, it is common for women like Howard to receive such sentencing enhancement charges, since “women who defend themselves from men in the context of domestic violence are more likely to do so using weapons like guns and knives than men who commit domestic homicide.”

Truthout was not able to speak with Wendy Howard because she has been prohibited by the judge from speaking publicly about the case.

Wendy Howard’s family is hardly alone in its experience. When Pitts first came forward about her abuse, she says that her social media was “flooded” with other survivors saying that they had been abused by parents, family friends and neighbors. Pitts said she received messages saying, “I wish someone would have believed me. I wish my mom was as brave as your mom and stood up for me.”

Prison Is Gender-Based Violence, Not Protection From It

Many people believe that the state tries to protect victims of gender-based violence, in part because public disinformation campaigns are so constant. District attorneys run on campaign platforms of protecting victims of domestic violence, and copaganda like Law and Order constantly portrays police, courts and prosecutors as having a deep desire to stop sexual and domestic violence and do everything in their power to protect survivors of gender-based violence.

Unlike on TV, only 5 percent of sexual assault perpetrators are ever arrested. Meanwhile, most women in prison are themselves victims of abuse. Research indicates that between 60 and 94 percent of women are survivors prior to entering prison. The violence continues behind bars. A random sample of 130 women in the Central California Women’s Facility found over 80 reports of sexual harassment and assault at the hands of guards, and dozens of reports of physical violence; all of the women reported being routinely addressed by correctional officers as “bitches,” “hos,” and other disparaging terms, including over the PA. Transgender prisoners are victimized inside prison at nine or more times the rate of other prisoners, and the system is racially biased against women of color, particularly Black and Native women, who are more likely to be incarcerated and more negatively impacted by mandatory arrest laws for domestic violence.

The reality, says Alisa Bierria, is that “the relationship between gender-based violence and the carceral state is one of alignment, they are integral to each other rather than in opposition.” Bierria is a co-founder of Survived & Punished, a national coalition that organizes around participatory defense campaigns and works to support and decriminalize survivors, with the ultimate aim of abolishing gender-based violence, policing, prisons, and deportations.

In its recent report, Survived & Punished highlights that self-defense is “an ongoing practice of survival.” One way that survivors continue to defend themselves after criminalization is by telling their own stories and “affirming the truth of their experience of violence.” Placing a gag order on survivors like Howard is yet another way that the state continues to negate her ability to defend herself.

Morris says that one of the goals of participatory defense campaigns is to highlight the fact of criminalized survival, namely that “it is so unfair that a person should be in a position to choose between their life and their freedom, and why that is just a story that is hit on repeat with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.”

Participatory Defense Campaigns Grow From Survivors Supporting Each Other

Some hope can be found, however, in participatory defense campaigns: mass, grassroots organizing campaigns that are focused on demanding freedom for and providing material support to individual people who have been criminalized.

In We Do This ’Til We Free Us, renowned abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba notes in the struggle toward an abolitionist future, it is necessary to focus on the needs of people currently experiencing the violence of the prison industrial complex. “Opportunities to free people from prison through popular support, without throwing other prisoners under the bus, should be seized,” she writes. The logic of an abolitionist participatory defense campaign is to show that what is happening to a particular individual targeted by the criminal legal system is something that happens regularly, rather than being an exception.

Participatory defense campaigns may focus on one case at a time, but the connection and solidarity between campaigns — particularly the way that survivors support and are inspired by each other — is also a hallmark of the organizing tactic.

Wendy Howard, for example, is not just a strong advocate for herself, but is also engaged in support work for other survivors.

Howard’s defense campaign began with her family, who immediately began organizing against the injustice of her charges, according to Pitts. But after Howard was released a few months later — once her bail was reduced from $1 million to $500,000 — she began to connect with other criminalized survivors.

Morris says that Howard came to meetings and events in support of other imprisoned people, not to share her own story, but simply to be an activist. “I think that Wendy had a lot of preconceived notions about the types of people that would be incarcerated. And then she was incarcerated. And the people that she was with helped her keep her head above water during that time.”

In a news interview shortly after her release on bail, Howard told a reporter from a local ABC affiliate of the support she received inside the jail. “Those girls mean everything to me and I will never forget them,” she said. “They were a huge support system for when I was in there and I don’t know if I would be standing here as strong as I am without them.”

Pitts talks about how her mom is “really, really, really into advocating” and “has all of these friends who you know, were in jail, or they’re out of jail now. And she spends all her time like making stickers for them, and coloring books, and cards.” Morris adds that Howard has “just been really dedicated to system-impacted people since she got out, so she stays in touch with a lot of people on the inside and out,” including offering rides to people being released and staying in touch with people’s families. “I think that’s why in her own campaigning, she developed a ‘this is all of our fight’ [mentality] because it’s not just about her own self-advocacy, it’s about how structurally harmful that system is.”

One goal of participatory defense campaigns for survivors, Bierria says, is “helping us to make this shift in common sense when it comes to how the systems treat survivors.” As an organizer, Bierria says she has heard countless times from survivors who believed that they had a right to defend their own lives and are shocked that they are being targeted for prosecution. “It’s so painful to hear survivors say, you know, ‘I believed in the system, I thought it would protect me and here I am, in prison for the rest of my life,’” she said. “Defense campaigns want to make this truth about carceral punishment — that it is an anti-survivor structure — we want to lift that up and spread that word as far as possible. And I think that that is an important strategy towards feminist abolition.”

Defense campaigns also engage people directly at the local level “to participate in the practice of freedom,” Bierria said. These campaigns do not ask people to just take in the disturbing news and then go back to their lives; they ask people to participate in changing the outcome. “It’s about connecting people to a sustained, regular practice,” she went on — whether that’s a big action, or a small one, like following Survived & Punished to find out what legal fundraiser they can support each week.

People involved in the Wendy Howard Defense Committee, which for legal reasons is completely separate from Howard herself, are engaged in fundraising for her legal defense fund, circulating a petition demanding the Kern County DA drop all charges against Howard, sharing information about Howard’s case and ways to support her on social media and with their networks, and giving press conferences about their activities. The committee also uplifts and shares information from other defense campaigns, like that of Tracy McCarter and Leah Eggleson (who was recently found not guilty on all charges except for unlawful possession of a firearm).

The ultimate goal of the Wendy Howard Defense Committee is to have the charges dropped. This would allow Howard to remain at home with her children and grandchildren, where Pitts tells Truthout that her mother loves making roller skating videos with her grandkids. And then, many committee participants will move on to supporting the next participatory defense campaign, until everyone is free.

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