My colleague said this at a meeting yesterday. I first heard it at our conference last year when the incredible Alissa Bierra was talking about Marissa Alexander. Hearing that sentence again stopped me in my tracks. It is so powerful. Especially in light of the story of Korryn Gaines who was recently shot and killed by police in her own home, in front of her five year old son. (On a tangent, did it not occur to the police that perhaps they should come back another time? Does failure to appear in court really warrant a death sentence?)
But back to that phrase. For years in the domestic violence field, we have struggled to say what we want vs. what we don’t want. We don’t want abuse. We don’t want coercion. We don’t want assault. But that phrase is a gift. It is part of our end goal. It is the way.
Home should be a place of liberation. An absence of violence is not enough. You should be treated with respect by those who proclaim to love you (and those who are “sworn to protect”).
Home should be a place of liberation. You can have opinions in your home. You can disagree about things and have a voice.
Home should be a place of liberation. It should be a place where you can be who you truly are. If you are different from your family (for example a gay or trans teen), you should be loved fiercely.
Home should be a place of liberation. That is what I want. For me. For you. For all of us.
What do Trayvon Martin and Marissa Alexander have in common? The Stand Your Ground law, a Florida prosecutor named Angela Corey and, heartbreakingly, no justice. Trying to figure out the legal technicalities and how they collided with race and gender in Florida sends me spinning.
Growing up in southern Virginia I have felt the sting of anti-Semitism from middle-school classmates who called me “Jesus-killer” to adults who felt uncomfortable working with Jews. As a white, Jewish woman I was taught skepticism and understanding of how rules and laws don’t play out the same way for everyone. I observed people in power bend rules and laws to their liking. Whether it was school policy that wouldn’t let me make up a test if I was absent for a Jewish holiday or bank lending practices that prohibited my family and my African-American friends from buying homes in certain neighborhoods.
In neither the Zimmerman or Alexander case was their history of domestic violence taken into account. For Zimmerman, this meant that his documented history of abuse was not admissible in court. Even worse, the legal system didn’t consider if his past abusive behavior was an indicator of possible future violence and take steps to address that, such as taking his guns away.
For Marissa Alexander the past history of abuse from her husband also didn’t count in court, but the outcome was very different. She was denied the use of the Stand Your Ground law in her defense, and was sentenced to 20 years. And she’s not alone. We know that it’s way harder to get justice if you’re a black woman dealing with domestic violence. I asked one of my daughters what she thought of Marissa Alexander and her prison sentence. She said “She didn’t hurt anyone—no one got hurt. She was trying to defend herself. I don’t understand it.”
In my job, I work every day to help create a better world for my children, and yours. I am inspired by Move to End Violence’s call to “create a world that is safe, loving and respectful of everyone’s inherent human dignity.” I can’t give up even when I see how broken our system is. Really, what else am I living for?
Marissa Alexander fired a “warning shot” into the wall of her abusive husband’s house because she feared for her safety. She was charged with 3 felony counts of assault. She argued that she was protected by Florida’s “stand –your- ground” law, but the judge and jury disagreed. She was arrested the day of the incident and is now serving 20 years in prison.
People often say things like, “there ought to be tougher domestic violence laws,” or “why doesn’t she just call the police,” or “she should get herself a gun for protection.” Marissa’s story is the sad reality of why those things don’t always work. And it’s exactly why those of us who do this work get so frustrated with that kind of advice.
It’s pretty clear that Marissa Alexander was abused. Even her husband admits that he was abusive on multiple occasions. She had good reason to fear this man. And she was angry. Apparently, this anger is what got her convicted. The jury couldn’t reconcile that she could be angry AND fearful when she fired that warning shot. The lack of understanding about domestic violence in this case is shameful.
But this story also highlights how even laws that seem clear, can be interpreted in different ways. Even though no one was hurt; even though she had been threatened; even though she thought she had the right to “stand her ground;” Marissa was charged and convicted of felony assault.
The systems that we have in place to address domestic violence do not always work. We cannot rely on the police to always do the right thing. We cannot rely on a jury to serve up justice when they don’t understand the dynamics of domestic violence. The problem is messy and the solution is not cut and dry. Yes, improving our domestic violence laws is a good thing, but what’s really going to help women like Marissa is for us all to realize domestic violence is our problem to solve―not the police, not the justice system, not the women being abused.