Art collaboration by Mazatl/Dignidad Rebelde, courtesy of the Free Marissa campaign.
Yesterday, the legal team supporting Marissa Alexander announced that she will take a plea deal for criminal charges stemming from her firing a warning shot at her abusive husband in 2010. Supporters of Alexander have argued that the incident is case of self-defense against an abuser. But in Florida, the same state where George Zimmerman successfully argued the right to Stand Your Ground (and won), a court denied Alexander's attempts to use that defense.
Under the terms of the plea deal, Alexander’s 1,030 days behind bars will count as time served. She will spend another 65 days in jail and the following two years on probation. This also means that the charges of aggravated assault are now on her permanent record. But at least she will not continue to face the threat of sixty years behind prison walls.
Photo of Marissa Alexander courtesy the Free Marissa campaign.
Marissa Alexander is not the only woman of color to be criminalized and prosecuted for defending herself. Prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba points out that the United States has a long, shameful and little-known history of criminalizing women of color who defend themselves, some of which she captures in No Selves to Defend, a 50-page anthology (and an accompanying exhibition in Chicago) to benefit Marissa Alexander. No Selves to Defend includes CeCe McDonald, a young trans woman arrested for defending herself against an attack on the street and sentenced to 41 months. But the inclusion of violence against trans women and/or their criminalized self-defense are often not part of larger discussions on domestic violence.
This past Friday, women of color took to twitter to talk specifically about violence against all women of color. Organized by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, the discussion on the hashtag #ColorofViolence4 is the first of a series of monthly twitter power hours to talk about the issue in the months leading up to INCITE's Color of Violence conference in Chicago this March.
"The twitter power hours are intended to first create a more marked INCITE! community presence online for women of color, gender non-conforming, and trans people of color, and our communities," said INCITE!'s media coordinator Claudia Garcia-Rojas, via email. They’re also meant to get people talking about the big issues about race, gender, and violence. “These issues range from pushing forward prison abolitionist work to addressing interpersonal violence dynamics in our relationships and communities to imagining how we can incite transformative possibilities beyond the state."
That twitter power hour did spark discussions about these issues. As someone who frequently writes about violence against women, and its role as a pathway to women's incarceration, I was especially excited to see one of these first questions INCITE tweeted out was, "How do we talk about violence against women of color without falling back on state "solutions"? How do we talk to survivors who push state responses?"
I was eager to hear how women of color, many of whom had been doing anti-violence and/or anti-prison work for years, dealt with the issue. I wasn't disappointed.
No Selves to Defend creator Mariame Kaba works in many ways in which she works to abolish prisons while providing concrete support to people currently ensnared in the legal system: she is the founder of Project NIA, a Chicago organization which works to abolish youth incarceration, and a member of the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander. In the past, she has talked about coming to prison abolition after organizing to end violence against women—and witnessing the shift from ending violence to managing violence as movements became more professionalized. So I was especially excited to read her posts on the hashtag. "Well first, I would never tell a survivor/victim that they shouldn't rely on state systems for support," she tweeted. "A big part of being victimized is lack of self-determination. So people need to do what they need to do to survive."
Lauren Chief Elk is an organizer and co-founder of the Save Wiyabi Project, which addresses violence specifically against Native women. She's also been a vocal critic of carceral feminism. On Friday, she pointed out ways in which the mainstream anti-violence movement has refocused the issue to look at violence as a personal problem rather than as a political and institutionalized issue.
She was not alone in this critique. Police responses to interpersonal and intimate violence in communities of color have not gone well for women of color, as reproductive justice advocate Dorothy Roberts pointed out:
This is only a short smattering of the thought-provoking discussion. Sad to have missed it? Don't cry. Not only can you read the archives under the hashtag #ColorofViolence4, but there will be another discussion next month.
"We hope that these twitter power hours serve as teach-ins where the conversation is shaped by those who participate,” Garcia-Rojas says. “Through the #ColorofViolence4 hashtag we also hope to carve out a digital space where women of color, gender non-conforming, and trans people of color, and our communities can continue to come together to share, strategize, connect, and build together."
Finally, if you find yourself wanting more (or wanting to be in the same room as these amazing women of color), INCITE! is marking 15 years of anti-violence organizing with a real-life conference in Chicago at the end of March. "It will highlight emerging strategies and new frameworks that focus on ending violence without relying on policing, mass incarceration, restrictive legislation, and other systems of violence and control,” says Garcia-Rojas.
As Marissa Alexander's case demonstrates, survivors of color are often re-victimized by the legal system. But let's not think that this is the case of one bad apple (or one bad prosecutor). Instead, while concretely supporting her, women of color have also argued that her prosecution is symptomatic of the way the legal system treats domestic violence survivors, particularly Black women and other women of color.
Related Reading: Remembering the Black Women Killed By Police.
Victoria Law is a freelance editor and writer. She frequently writes about intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance. She enjoys reading dystopic fiction to escape the realities of the U.S. prison system.