I’ve been thinking a lot today about Marissa Alexander, the woman who could be incarcerated for as long as sixty years for firing a single warning shot in the direction of her abusive husband. Today she is back in court, again, requesting immunity under “stand your ground” in light of new evidence of her husband’s abuse. The shot most certainly not heard around world injured no one and may well have saved her from further abuse at the hands of a violent man. It has not, however, saved her from abuse at the hands of the courts. In 2012 she was convicted of aggravated assault and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Marissa Alexander had given birth a week before the incident, her husband had beaten her up during her pregnancy, and she had a court injunction that was supposed to keep him away from her. She also had a license to carry a concealed weapon, was trained in using the weapon – and, it bears repeating – no one was hurt.
At the time of her trial and verdict the Court denied her right to use a gun in self-defense under the “stand your ground” law in Florida. The contrast to the ruling in the case of the death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman seemed a clear demonstration of how racism, even in our era of “colorblindness” (see Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow) permeates the law enforcement, judicial and penal systems.
But today when I read her message to her three children who are growing up without their mother, I’ve been thinking more about Marissa Alexander’s gender.
For the past six years I’ve spent a great deal of time with women in the Boston area who had been incarcerated in Massachusetts. Studies consistently show that the about 70% of women drawn into the correctional system have been targets of physical and sexual violence (Meda Chesney-Lind has written powerfully about this issue.) In my own observations this estimate may actually be on the low side. Furthermore, having been in prison sets women up for further abuse and assault. As “ex-offenders” they lose their eligibility for government-subsidized housing and as a consequence are likely to become homeless. In fact, a 23 city report by the United States Conference of Mayors confirms that domestic violence is the primary cause of homelessness for women (www.usmayors.org). Women who are homeless or insecurely housed are vulnerable to assault on the streets, and, with few alternatives available, may move in with a man who is – as several women I know put it – “sketchy” which puts them at even greater risk of intimate partner violence.
Why – despite efforts our society has put into helping victims of violence – do Marissa Alexander and so many other women continue to suffer intimate partner assaults, abuse, sexual exploitation, and rape? The Violence against Women Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton on September 13, 1994, increased penalties for repeat sex offenders, trained law enforcement officers and established the National Domestic Violence Hot Line. We have police, social workers, psychologists, battered women’s shelters, rape crisis hot lines, mandatory reporting requirements – surely these should have, or at the very least, could have solved the problem of violence against women. We have public proclamations that raise awareness of childhood sexual abuse, date rape and domestic battering. But the culture of violence that endangers women, children, and many men has not changed; rates of gender violence have not declined; and men who rape or abuse women are unlikely to be charged with a crime, if charged they are unlikely to be convicted, and if convicted are unlikely to serve significant prison time (more on this in the National Violence Against Women Survey).
I’m not a fan of guns and I’m not a fan of “stand your ground.” I am, however, a fan of commonsense and fairness. So I am puzzled by the heavy punishment meted out to Marissa Alexander when, in courts and domestic violence programs throughout the country, women are repeatedly told that their “problem” is that they don’t stand up for themselves. I have seen and heard this again and again: The messages conveyed by correctional as well as welfare and therapeutic institutions draw links between women’s sexual victimhood and their criminalization; they are told that the same character flaws are the cause of both; and the character flaw that is emphasized above all other is passivity, not “standing up for yourself,” “letting him do this to you.” All of the women I have come to know have been sent to therapeutic programs because they were assaulted (the assaulters rarely are sent to therapy). And the women spend many hours each week watching television shows that feature pop psychologists who harangue women for not getting up and leaving a violent man (regardless of whether or not women have a place to go.)
Last month I wrote an article for Salon telling the story of Gloria, a woman in her forties who had suffered lead poisoning as a child; as a consequence she has struggled with literacy throughout her life and has rarely been able to obtain or hold a job. At the time I met her she was homeless and struggling to survive on $700 / month from Social Security. A year later she received subsidized housing – one room in a boarding house. Shortly after moving in she allowed her former boyfriend to stay with her for a few days – even though the rules of the boarding house do not allow overnight guests. But just out of jail, her former boyfriend had nowhere else to go. Days turned into weeks and months of escalating intimidation, humiliation and abuse. He locked her in her room, broke her phone, and threatened to report her to the housing authority for letting him stay with her. Afraid she would be evicted and back out on the streets, she tried to appease him. In any case, she knew of various other women who had called the police on a violent boyfriend or husband only to find that a restraining order cannot keep away a violent man – and especially a violent man who is even angrier because the police have been called on him.
Exactly three responses to that article were posted. All criticized Gloria for being a victim.
Response 1: “Or….how about women stop putting themselves in situations where they need a man around to take care of things? When women stop offering themselves up as victims, the people around them will have no choice but to respect them. When women stop making babies with any idiot they meet at the bar and start taking responsibility for themselves, they’re less likely to need someone for survival. They won’t need to take the beatings and rapes because they feel like they have no alternative; there is ALWAYS an alternative.
None of this is to say that prison reform isn’t HIGHLY needed for many of the reasons pointed out in this article (particularly the job points), but that’s a separate topic from women who allow themselves to be vulnerable to men who just use them over and over again. He was a creep before he went to prison, as he was going to prison and while in prison. What makes her think he’s going to be any different when he gets out? We’re rarely talking about men who were sweet and pleasant and loving prior and just “turned bad” in prison.”
Response 2: “Agreed entirely. Though many will accuse you of victim-blaming for what you’ve just said.”
Response 3: “Well, so be it. I see this way too often with my female relatives. If you stick around for someone’s abuse, then that’s on you. It’s not up to anyone else to save you from yourself or from the monster of a man you claim to love even though he keeps abusing you. Maybe it’s easier to take a beating than to take actual meaningful steps to change your life? The bottom line is this: no one can control someone else’s actions. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are, their behavior is their behavior. If you don’t want to be around that, then it’s up to you to make a change, not expect the other person to change. And if you have yourself on a good path and you’re working on finding better housing, a better job, a better daycare for your kids, etc., then go about your business and leave the man behind.”
While victimhood may sometimes elicit sympathy, in much of mainstream American culture “victimhood” is denigrated as an indulgent, foolish or weak choice. Victim blaming is made explicit when the victim is accused of having brought her suffering on herself by hanging out in the wrong places, wearing the wrong clothes, or marrying the wrong man. A corollary of victim blaming is that one can refuse to be a victim, a claim that seems to suggest that individuals have a choice in the matter.
The focus on the character flaws of individual perpetrators and victims draws attention away from the economic, racial and gender inequalities that are the foundation for a great deal of violence and abuse. Gloria was vulnerable to abuse because she grew up in a racially segregated ghetto with substandard housing and poor enforcement of anti-lead laws. She was vulnerable to abuse because – in this age of mass incarceration – far too many Americans (disproportionately Black men) spend years in the hate-filled incubators of violence we call prisons. And, like Marissa Alexander, she was vulnerable to abuse because she is woman in a society in which gender-based violence is interpreted as idiosyncratic, ignorant and aberrant rather than a manifestation of broad and ongoing economic, social and political inequalities.
So, what was Marissa Alexander supposed to do? Submit to abuse and be blamed for being a victim? Fire a warning shot to prevent further abuse and risk prison for being a perpetrator? Wait for the police to help when there already was a restraining order that wasn’t keeping a violent man away? There was no good choice – and that, in a nutshell, sets out the case for understanding violence against women as a systemic problem and not merely the bad choices of a few bad apples.
I will write more about Gloria and other criminalized women in future posts. Keep a lookout for my forthcoming book based on my five year study: Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jails, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility (University of California Press.)