Have you heard of Marissa Alexander? If not, it’s time you did. Her case is one that, as advocate Sumayya Fire puts it, “…should send a chill down the back of every person in this country who believes that women who are attacked have the right to defend themselves.” Marissa, a mother of three who lives in Jacksonville, FL and has an MBA, is facing a mandatory 60-year prison sentence for firing a warning shot into the wall when her estranged husband was beating her. She is currently under home detention after appealing and overturning a guilty verdict for three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (Marissa was arrested and charged with aggravated assault despite the fact that she injured no one and Florida’s self-defense law includes the right to “Stand Your Ground.”) If she is convicted in her new trial, which is set to begin December 8, 2014, she will serve a mandatory 60 years in prison. For firing a warning shot at a known, admitted abuser who was beating her and threatening to kill her.
If this case makes you want to say, “WHAT?”, you’re not alone. It sounds outrageous, and so it is. But Marissa’s case is not occurring in a vacuum. Black women experience high rates of intimate partner violence: 41.2%, to be exact. And these women are often treated unfairly—or even re-victimized—by our cultural and legal systems. Many responders to calls about intimate partner violence, required by the Violence Against Women Act to make an arrest at the scene, arrest the victim as well as the perpetrator. As Victoria Law explains in an October 2014 article for Truthout, “…race, class, gender identity, and immigration status leave certain women more vulnerable to violence and…greater criminalization often places these same women at risk of state violence.”
Examples of that state violence include Officer Sergeant James B. Johnson, a former guard at the Kentucky Correctional Institute for Women who was charged with 25 counts of sexual abuse and served no prison time, and Daniel Holtzclaw, an Oklahoma City police officer charged with raping eight black women, who has an online support system that has raised thousands of dollars.
Marissa’s case exists within this framework. She is one of those 41.2% of black women who are victims of intimate partner violence, and she was arrested on the scene, then denied Stand Your Ground as a defense. The group Free Marissa Now is raising both awareness and money to fight this injustice—on their website, you can find a Timeline for her case, resources and fact sheets, and an opportunity to donate. You can also hear Nikky Finney read “Flare,” a poem she’s written in support of Marissa. Ms. Finney states that she wrote the poem “…because of my outrage that I still live in a country where it seems as though black women are still having to defend themselves about defending themselves.”
We need to use our outrage as fuel for change. Check out Free Marissa Now to help.