What do a nineteen-year-old lesbian from New Jersey, a 23-year-old trans woman in Minneapolis and a 31-year-old mother in Florida have in common? All three were attacked, all three fought back and all three were arrested. All three are currently in prison while their attackers remain free. Oh, yes, and all three are black women.
Marissa Alexander is a 31-year-old mother of three. She is also a survivor of violence at the hands of her ex, Rico Gray. In 2009, Alexander obtained a restraining order against Gray. Learning that she was pregnant, she amended it to remove the ban on contact between her and Gray while maintaining the rest of the restraining order.
On August 1, 2010, nine days after Alexander had given birth to their daughter, Gray attacked her in her own home. “He assaulted me, shoving, strangling and holding me against my will, preventing me from fleeing all while I begged for him to leave,” Alexander recounted in an open letter to supporters. Alexander escaped into the garage, but realized that she had forgotten the keys to her truck and that the garage’s door opener was not working. She retrieved her gun, which was legally registered, and re-entered her home to either escape or grab her cell phone to call for help. “He came into the kitchen … and realized I was unable to leave … he yelled, ‘Bitch I will kill you!’ and charged toward me. In fear and a desperate attempt, I lifted my weapon up, turned away and discharged a single shot in the wall up in the ceiling.” Gray called the police and reported that Alexander had shot at him and his sons. Alexander was arrested and charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Alexander attempted to invoke Stand Your Ground, but a pre-trial judge ruled that she could have escaped her attacker through the front or back doors of her home. During her trial, the jury was not allowed to see several letters, written by Gray’s former wives, girlfriends and in-laws, that recounted his history of abuse, including pistol-whippings, beatings, stripping them of their clothing and super-gluing door locks on them. Several letters also recounted instances in which Gray called the police after he had attacked them, claiming that they had attacked him. (In one instance, Gray stabbed himself with a fork and asked his younger son to tell the police that his girlfriend had done it.) In a sixty-six page deposition, Gray admitted to abusing all five of the women with whom he had children, including Alexander.
Instead of taking these facts into consideration, prosecutor Angela Corey added Florida’s 10-20-LIFE sentencing enhancement, mandating a 20-year minimum sentence when a firearm is discharged.
Not an Anomaly: Race, Gender and the Justice System
Alexander’s case is not an anomaly. Other women of color have defended themselves only to find the legal system more eager to prosecute and punish them than their assailants.
In August 2006, nineteen-year-old Patreese Johnson and six friends from Newark, New Jersey, took the train to New York’s West Village, a neighborhood historically known for its LGBTQ friendliness. As the women walked down the street, they were sexually propositioned by a man named Wayne Buckle. Buckle followed them, threatening to rape them and then physically attacked, choking one, ripping hair from their scalps and spitting on them. The women defended themselves and, at some point, were assisted by two unknown men. During the altercation, Buckle was stabbed. The women were arrested while the men left the scene.
All seven were black lesbians. In addition, three were masculine-appearing. “Their treatment [by the media and legal system] has been reflective of what they look like,” noted one supporter who needed to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals at work. Johnson agrees, writing recently, “Me being black and young, the jury, judge and DA’s minds was already made up.” (Letter, July 18, 2012.)
Police refused to credit the women’s statements, those of other witnesses and, ultimately, that of Buckle himself, who stated that the two men were responsible for stabbing him. Both the media and the prosecution framed them as a “lesbian wolf pack” and “killer lesbians.” Both media and prosecution also played on racialized fears around gang violence: Although none of the women had ever been in conflict with the law, media and prosecutors described them as a “gang.” In addition, neither the judge nor the prosecutor differentiated between the charge of “gang assault” (two or more people acting in concert to cause injury) and gang membership.
Three of the women accepted plea bargains and served six months; the remaining four – Venice Brown, Terrain Dandridge, Renata Hill and Patreese Johnson – became known as the New Jersey Four; they pled not guilty. They received sentences ranging from three-and-a-half to eleven years in prison.
Upon appeal, charges against Dandridge were dismissed while Brown and Hill were granted a retrial and subsequently accepted plea agreements. Johnson’s sentence was reduced from eleven to eight years. She remains in prison today. Dwayne Buckle was never arrested nor charged for attacking the women.
As reported last year in Truthout, 23-year-old CeCe McDonald, a young black transgender woman, and her friends were walking to the grocery store in Minneapolis when she was first verbally harassed, then physically attacked by the white patrons standing outside a bar. During the attack, a bar patron smashed a glass into McDonald’s face, slicing her cheek. As more people joined in the attack, Dean Schmitz, who had instigated the verbal harassment, was stabbed and later died in the hospital. McDonald was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. The woman who smashed glass into McDonald’s face was never arrested or charged.
During pre-trial motions, the judge ruled against McDonald’s ability to introduce evidence showing that the attack against her was motivated by her race and gender identity: Both Schmitz’s swastika and his three previous convictions for violent assault were ruled inadmissible. The judge also refused to allow an expert witness to testify about the pervasive and systemic violence faced by trans people on a daily basis. (Letter from CeCe McDonald, July 19, 2012.)
Faced with second-degree murder charges, a hostile court and the possibility of twenty to forty years, McDonald pled guilty to second-degree manslaughter due to negligence and was sentenced to forty-one months in prison. “She [also] has to pay for her attacker’s funeral,” noted Billy Navarro of the Minnesota Transgender Health Coalition and a member of her support committee. (Interview, July 26, 2012.)
These cases – and their verdicts – reflect an all-too-common reality in the United States: When women, particularly women of color, defend themselves, they often find themselves assaulted twice – first by their attacker, then by the legal system. The zealous prosecution, as well as the lack of charges against their attackers, reflects the pervasive and socially sanctioned violence against women, particularly women of color and the prevailing notion that women should not fight back. “Me being female, I wasn’t supposed to fight back,” Johnson noted. (Letter, July 18, 2012.)
“People Were Outraged and Wanted to Get Involved”
Shortly after the New Jersey Four’s arrest made headlines, FIERCE (Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment), an LGBT youth of color group in the West Village, organized efforts to secure lawyers, raise money for legal expenses, attend the trial, write letters and send care packages to the women while they were in prison. In California, queer people of color formed the Bay Area NJ4 Solidarity Committee, which created a web site to provide up-to-date information about the women’s appeals, helped fundraise and stayed in contact with the women throughout their ordeal. Both groups continue to support Patreese Johnson during her incarceration.
In Minneapolis, those who worked with trans youth took note of McDonald’s arrest. “It was clear immediately that she needed a lot of support,” stated Navarro. Within the first weeks, supporters secured lawyers and formed the CeCe McDonald Support Committee. They publicized the case, gathering over 15,000 signatures and dozens of letters from organizations and prominent individuals worldwide demanding that the charges against McDonald be dropped. They then presented these to the prosecutor’s office.
The Committee continues coordinating public support during McDonald’s incarceration. Recently, despite McDonald’s prescription and court order to receive twenty milligrams of hormones, prison staff were administering only six milligrams. Supporters from around the world flooded the prison with phone calls demanding that McDonald receive the full twenty milligrams, forcing the prison to follow the prescription order.
“The support from everyone everywhere keeps me motivated,” McDonald wrote in a recent letter. “It showed that people care not only about these issues that are so easily ‘swept under the rug’ by society, but about how I am doing and keeping me afloat.” (Letter, July 19, 2012.)
Women of Color, Self-Defense and Public Support in the 1970s and Today
In 1974, two men took Inez Garcia from her California home into a nearby alley. There, one man raped her while the other blocked the exit. Garcia later shot and killed the man who had blocked her escape. She was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.
Her case attracted extensive support, especially from those in the women’s movements. Many were outraged that Garcia had been arrested while her rapist remained free. Supporters publicized her case at concerts, political meetings, church services and any venues where they might find potential sympathizers. They packed the courtroom, where the judge instructed the jurors not to consider the rape. Garcia was convicted and sentenced to five years to life in prison.
Supporters continued to publicize her case, tying it to the larger issue of a woman’s right to defend herself against assault. They approached feminist lawyer Susan Jordan to take over Garcia’s defense. Jordan appealed the case and had the conviction reversed because of the judge’s instructions not to consider the rape. At the retrial, Jordan made rape an integral part of the case; Garcia was acquitted. “There was a change in consciousness going on in the country. We rode the wave of it,” Jordan reflected in a 2007 interview. (Interview with Susan Jordan, June 18, 2007.)
The cases of Marissa Alexander, Patreese Johnson and CeCe McDonald, while more well-known than those of many other women of color trapped in the legal system for fighting back, have not achieved the same level of support that Inez Garcia received three decades earlier. Why not?
“The groups that came together [around the NJ4 case] were grassroots queer groups of color,” recalled a supporter. “The larger LGBTQ organizations are fighting for gay marriage, not what youth are going through. And people are scared of women who stand up for themselves and fight back.”
Katie Burgess, director of the Trans Youth Support Network and part of McDonald’s support committee, has a similar opinion: “CeCe is at the intersection of multiple oppressions. On the local front, we saw people come together around the issue like never before – social workers, insurrectionary anarchists, lawyers, youth, GLBT people of color groups came together and built coalitions. But of course, racism still exists in LGBT communities. Homophobia and transphobia still exist in communities of color. Sometime people don’t want to recognize the whole picture.” (Interview, July 30, 2012.)
Navarro agrees that racism and transphobia kept many away: “CeCe doesn’t get the same level of support because most people see someone that they’ve been taught to be afraid of, not someone’s daughter.”
However, both Burgess and Navarros acknowledge that the support McDonald received dramatically affected the outcome of her case. “CeCe being a young African-American trans woman living in poverty made them [the prosecution] think that she didn’t have the resources to defend or advocate for herself,” Navarro stated. “Not until just before the trial did they realize how much support she had.” Navarro also noted that McDonald was offered several plea bargains and, with each plea bargain, the amount of time diminished. (Interview, July 26, 2012.)
Both Johnson and McDonald recognize that support needs to extend beyond their individual cases to address the broader issues of race, class, gender and the justice system: “I would hate to think that the law is going to continue putting our women in prison for defending themselves,” Johnson wrote recently. “Support me by making a change, starting with one’s self. It’s not really about me; it’s about women overall.” (Letter, July 18, 2012.)
McDonald has similar thoughts: “The real issues are the ones that affect all prisoners. People should get involved in changing policies that keep people in prisons, like exclusion from employment, housing, public assistance,” she wrote. “These are just a few things that will keep people out of prisons and lead to the dismantling of these facilities.” (Letter, July 19, 2012.)
While the legal process is over for both Johnson and McDonald, Alexander has not given up. Her first husband, Lincoln Alexander and her sister Helena Jenkins, have formed the Committee to Free Marissa Alexander. Groups and individuals have come together in Florida and across the country to continue the campaign for her freedom.
As seen with CeCe McDonald and the New Jersey Four, support can make a difference. As McDonald stated, one month after her sentencing, “I didn’t let this incident diminish me. Instead, it made me grow mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Not just for myself, but for my friends, families and supporters who tell me that my struggle against discrimination and me defending myself give them hope and motivation to be strong, to fight for their beliefs and to be the people they want to be instead of hiding or conforming. So this isn’t just for me, it’s for all of us!” (Letter, July 19, 2012.)