On the Caging of Bresha Meadows: What Does Justice Look Like?

Bresha MeadowsFourteen-year-old Bresha Meadows has been caged for killing her abusive father, but who should really be held accountable? (Photo courtesy of Martina Latessa)On Monday morning, the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative attempted to deliver more than 6,000 signatures to the Trumbull County Prosecutor’s office, in Warren, Ohio, on behalf of a national coalition petitioning for the freedom of Bresha Meadows. The group was turned away by a deputy, but re-emerged on Tuesday to show support at a pre-trial hearing.

Bresha Meadows is a child accused of killing her abusive father with his own gun, while he lay sleeping. The mere thought of what might drive a young girl with a warm smile, who loves animals and music, to pick up a gun at 14 years old and take her own father’s life should terrify us all. And we should want accountability for that nightmarish turn of events. But who is it that should be held accountable for the death of Jonathan Meadows?

As a child living in an abusive household, Bresha had done everything children in her situation are taught to do. She had reached out to trusted adults and authority figures. She had voiced her fears to those who might have offered protection. She had even run for her life — only to be sent back home by police.

Acting within the law, what was Bresha to do? Wait and hope that her mother wouldn’t be murdered, or that she herself wouldn’t be killed by a father who, at times, angrily pointed a gun at his own family?

As a Black child who bore witness to her mother’s unsuccessful efforts to leave her father, Bresha was forced into an early acquaintance with the realities of domestic violence in the US. Abused women — particularly women of color — are rarely offered realistic paths to freedom from abuse, and are routinely denied access to the most basic of assistance.

Thanks to Bill Clinton’s efforts to toughen up the image of the Democratic Party, “welfare reform” has led many women to stay with abusive partners, rather than strike out on their own, without adequate financial resources.

As outsiders, there’s much we don’t know about exactly what kept Bresha’s mother Brandi locked in a dangerous relationship. We do know that abusers psychologically ensnare their victims and instill a great deal of fear. We know that Brandi took out a restraining order in 2011, stating at the time that she was certain her husband would kill her if he found her. We know that she was at much greater risk of being killed by her abuser, simply because he owned a gun and that 75 percent of the women who are killed by an abusive partner in the US are killed while attempting to leave or move on with their lives.

We know that once women have become trapped in a cycle of violence, we as a society don’t offer many exits.

As I have dedicated time and thought to telling Bresha’s story of late, I have been haunted not only by her case but also by the thought of how many young survivors I’ve known who could have been where Bresha is now — or could yet be. People don’t often announce to the world the crimes they might have committed, if things had happened just a little bit differently, but in truth, most of us probably know someone who could have wound up doing what Bresha did. But when a trigger isn’t pulled, these stories often go untold.

So why don’t we entertain these thoughts or conversations?

Because it’s hard. And because we feel guilty. Because we know we can do better and it’s easier to react with shock on a case-by-case basis than take responsibility for conditions we’re all too aware of in communities all around us — conditions that continue to trap both adult abuse survivors and their children in cycles of violence that they may or may not survive.

Some members of Jonathan Meadows’ family have stated that they want Bresha punished and have made public calls for “justice” in this case. But what does justice look like in a moment such as this? Knowing what we do about Bresha’s life and circumstances, and all that she did to save herself and her mother prior to her father’s death, we should at least know what justice doesn’t look like in this case.

Justice isn’t Bresha being charged as an adult, in a world where she was at the mercy of adults who couldn’t help her figure out how to save herself or her mother without stepping outside the law.

Justice isn’t Bresha being tried as a juvenile. The criminal punishment system has nothing to offer this child that even resembles justice.

But rejecting these carceral measures does raise a larger question: In a moment such as this one, what does justice look like? And can we be bold and brave enough to allow this moment to propel us to envision it? Can we be culturally accountable for Jonathan Meadows’ death? Can we acknowledge that this did not have to happen and that the blame for this nightmare does not rest at the feet of a frightened, 14-year-old child? Can we contemplate what it must have taken for her to even consider pointing a gun at her own father?

Can we carry the names of living breathing women and girls with as much ferocity as we carry the names of fallen men?

Everyone who has carried a sign or shared a link declaring Black Lives Matter: This is a life you can help save. Bresha is still with us. She is at a tragic, statistical disadvantage as a young Black girl, thrust into the criminal punishment system for a defensive act. She has been charged with murder, but she could still grow up free from the violence of her past and live a self-determined life. But this system is at odds with that outcome and if we want a different one, we are going to have to rally around her. And if we want accountability, we are going to have to hold ourselves and the system accountable for all that it didn’t do for Bresha, and all that it won’t do for abused young people everywhere who won’t pick up a gun but are in need of a reckoning.