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Social Media and Marissa Alexander: Freedom Mobilization and Victim-Blaming

Social media has been used as an incredible tool for mobilization on behalf of Marissa Alexander.

Justice for Marissa Alexander protest in Oakland, July 20, 2013. (Photo: Steve Rhodes)

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Social media has been a powerful tool in building support and raising funds for Marissa Alexander’s defense, while providing creative ways to discuss domestic violence and self-defense, particularly among black women.

This piece is the third story in a three-part series exploring the intersections of domestic violence, race, the criminal legal system and the case of Marissa Alexander. The first is in the link above and the second is here.

The trial of Marissa Alexander – the Florida mother facing 60 years in prison for firing a warning shot against her abusive husband – is approaching on December 8, 2014.

A large part of the mobilization for Marissa’s freedom is happening via social media, where it ties in with broader discussions about violence against black women – both domestic violence and state violence. Through hashtag campaigns, an online store, fundraising and creative efforts – such as an ongoing Twitter campaign in which tweeters upload videos of themselves reading Nikki Finney’s poem, “Flare,” about Marissa Alexander – activists have been drawing attention to not only Marissa’s case, but the core issues that have allowed it to play out as it has. The campaigns encourage people to think about the ways that black women, as victims of domestic violence, have been historically denied rights to self defense.

And so, while social media platforms are useful spaces for conducting freedom campaigns, they – particularly Twitter – have also served as forums for open discussions of the victimhood of black women.

Twitter has also served as a vehicle for basic facts: Since most mainstream media have ignored Marissa Alexander’s case, much of the news about it has been publicized through social media. The conversations sparked by this publicity have oftentimes been productive and contributed to movement building. They have called into question stereotypes of who is seen as “vulnerable” and who traditional media outlets produce as “real victims” of violence.

Sometimes, though, loud, blatant and explicit forms of racism and gender-based stereotypes have been blasted throughout social media in response to the facts about Marissa’s case. In real time, we are watching conversations that challenge the idea of black women as victims. In these conversations, people often use victim-blaming language that directly implies that Marissa and other domestic violence survivors are inherently responsible for their own assaults.

People who would have possibly not known about Marissa’s case, if not for social media, are being made aware of her unjust criminalization – but they don’t always assess it as “unjust.” I have seen statements such as, “Why did she stay?” Or, “Why did she marry him if there was a history of abuse?” These types of questions are used to make survivors of domestic violence appear like they are not “real” victims. In fact, they are made to appear like perpetrators or even complicit in their own violence.

Some of the discussions of domestic violence and intimate partner violence on social media also reveal another dominant cultural tendency: They lack any acknowledgement of black women’s pain.

While groups in Chicago and elsewhere were mobilizing for Marissa’s freedom last month, the nation was circulating the video of Janay Rice being explicitly attacked by former Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice. In an article in Ebony, Damon Young calls reactions to this video “explaining it away.” Many people attempted to “explain away” the assault of Janay Rice, even though there was considerable evidence, through videotape, that she was in fact a victim, not a perpetrator. Similarly, in the case of Marissa Alexander, considerable evidence shows that Marissa endured abuse at the hands of her estranged husband – and he himself admitted this. Yet these assaults can be “explained away,” in a world where dominant narratives do not give black women the status of victim.

Conversations that cast doubt on Marissa’s right to defend herself become a simultaneous justification of assault against black women. They deflect from the fact that Marissa – along with so many others who’ve been in her place – was in fact a survivor and not a perpetrator. In addition to flat-out victim blaming, this refusal to acknowledge black women’s pain shows up in questions about how much Marissa was abused, or how severely – as if, when it comes to women of color, it is appropriate to ask, “Was her pain bad enough?” Even with overwhelming evidence like a videotape or an abuser’s testimony, black women are still not seen as “real” victims by dominant forces.

This refusal to acknowledge victimhood has harmful effects in and of itself. “Explaining away” or denying domestic violence further criminalizes and punishes women, particularly women of color, for violence that has been perpetrated against them (including violence by the state).

However, a very particular moment in the United States, as it relates to domestic violence, is here. With the publicity around Janay Rice, major institutions like the National Football League (NFL) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) have been forced to address issues of domestic violence due to pressure from social media. The NFL, especially, has seen a major push through social media activism to address its lack of policy for issues of domestic violence among players. Issues of domestic violence are playing out on the stage of national athletics, as well as in a courtroom in Jacksonville, Florida, for Marissa Alexander. Although it brings out all kinds of responses – some of them counterproductive – this is still a moment that can be seized to raise much-needed awareness and draw attention to the movements that are already happening.

As October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Free Marissa Now, the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander and various other groups are immersed in a “Keeping Marissa in Mind” campaign, drawing attention to Marissa Alexander’s case – as well as the “cases” of all women of color, who are not seen as victims of violence with rights to defend themselves.

Social media has been used as an incredible tool for mobilization on behalf of Marissa Alexander. It has also been used as a medium for “explaining away” domestic violence. It is up to us to continue to mobilize, building our own narratives and speaking out about black women’s pain, as we work toward Marissa Alexander’s freedom.

For more information on what you can do to help Marissa, please consult the Free Marissa Now Mobilization Campaign’s website to Get Involved! For further information on how to develop a prisoner defense committee, to support people involved with the criminal legal system, please consult the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander.

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