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Marissa Alexander and the Price of “Freedom”

If the normative assumption that white lives are valuable, while black and brown lives are disposable, were concretely undermined, the entire power structure, such as it exists, would be destabilized.

On a cold night in November, many of us stood outside police headquarters in Chicago awaiting news that would cause a great deal of pain in our communities. Those of us who had organized an emergency response to the announcement of the grand jury’s decision in the Darren Wilson case never expected an indictment. And while I don’t believe that the punitive nature of our judicial system offers even the potential of justice, I know that each non indictment and acquittal of a murderous police officer is yet another painful reminder of who matters in this system, and who does not. From the very beginning, it was clear that another reminder was pending in that case.

What most of us didn’t see coming that day was another reminder in the form of a resolution in the case against Marissa Alexander.

Forced to choose between an absurd admission of guilt, and the possibility of spending decades in prison, Marissa chose to accept a sentence of 65 days in the Duval County Jail (after having already served nearly three years), and two years of probation. Marissa’s movements will be greatly restricted upon her release, and she will be forced to wear an ankle monitor, at her own expense. Why is this sentence being imposed on Marissa, a mother with no history of violence, who fired a warning shot in self defense?

Because she is a black woman who had the audacity to defend her own life.

Throughout this country’s history, the white power structure has consistently punished people of color who have defended their own lives. From prison sentences and lynchings to the destruction of entire communities, acts of self defense have always carried penalties for black and brown Americans. This violence, of course, is rooted both in an awareness of the harm inflicted upon black and brown bodies, and an ever present fear of reprisal. Just as plantation owners feared slave insurrections in the Antebellum south, whites who continue to benefit from systemic racism fear their black and brown neighbors. After hundreds of years of oppression, and with millions imprisoned in a highly racialized, profit driven prison industry, white people continue to fear black and brown liberation. While largely unstated, that widespread fear continues to drive public policy.

If the normative assumption that white lives are valuable, while black and brown lives are disposable, were concretely undermined, the entire power structure, such as it exists, would be destabilized. Thus, devaluation isn’t simply a reality. It is a violently enforced reality. And in a society where the lives of black and brown people are assigned little value, our freedom is assigned even less.

In Marissa’s case, her act of self defense, which harmed no one, was a crime against the power structure. A black woman raising a weapon to assert the value of her own life is an affront to the social, political, and economic hierarchy of our society. The marginalized cannot be allowed to push back against harm, ever, because the harm done to them is so ubiquitous that the larger white consciousness cannot fathom the consequences of a larger push back. Of course, wide reaching efforts to assert the value of black lives, in recent months, have largely taken the form of peaceful protests, but even those protests have been characterized as acts of war by the enforcers of state sanctioned racism.

The reason for that mislabeling is clear: liberation and the overthrow of oppressive systems begins with the assertion that we have a natural right to defend ourselves and our people against violence and oppression. Such an assertion threatens the very fabric of oppressive systems, which is why the system must make an example of those who resist the societal limitations and routine violence imposed upon them.

And thus, Marissa Alexander had to be punished. She had to be held up as a reminder that it is unacceptable for any black person to take drastic action in defense of their life or liberty, under any circumstances. For attempting to free herself from the oppression and violence of domestic abuse, Marissa was forced into the oppressive and violent grip of the state. She had to accept an unjust deprivation of liberty, and upon her release, will continue to live her life under state surveillance – surveillance she must pay for out of her own pocket.

Like an escaped slave dragged back to the plantation by a slave catcher, Marissa has been horribly punished, and will only be allowed to move under the watchful eyes of those who’ve asserted ownership of her life and freedom. She has been held up as example for all those who might likewise deem themselves worthy of defense and protection.

Fortunately, she has been held up as an example by others as well. Following the long tradition of forming defense committees around women whose cases are representative of the state’s perpetuation of violence against women of color, many activists and community members have taken up Marissa’s cause. Through teach ins, exhibits, fundraisers, and online dialogues, her supporters have raised awareness about her case and what it represents, and with Marissa’s release date only a week away, they are very close to covering the cost of Marissa’s home monitoring. Such efforts give me hope that resistance will not, in fact, be silenced by the brutality of state reprisal and incarceration, for as long as we continue to love and protect one another, and live in resistance to the harms imposed upon us, there is always hope.

For Marissa, survival and freedom from abuse have carried a heavy price, just as living in a less brutal state of confinement will carry a hefty price tag, but she is alive, and she is loved. Let’s remind her that we are grateful for her life, and value her freedom, by lifting the financial burden of home monitoring from her shoulders. Let’s remind everyone that no one should have to pay a price for life or liberty.

Our value as human beings is self evident, even if the state seeks to deny it.

UPDATE: As of January 20th, the cost of Marissa’s home monitoring device, for the entire two years of her probation, has been covered.

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