How the Criminal Justice System Uses Domestic Violence Programs Against Native Women
The struggle for sovereignty and the struggle against sexual violence cannot be separated. Conceptualizing sexual violence as a tool of genocide and colonialism then fundamentally alters the strategies for combating it. Currently, the rape crisis movement has promoted strengthening the criminal justice system as the primary means to end sexual violence. Rape crisis centers receive much state funding, and their strategies consequently tend to be state-friendly: hire more police, give longer sentences to rapists, etc. There is a contradiction, however, in relying upon the state to solve the problems it is responsible for creating. Native people per capita are the most arrested, most incarcerated, and most victimized by police brutality of any other ethnic group in the country.
Given the oppression Native people face within the criminal justice system, many communities are developing their own programs for addressing criminal behavior based on traditional modes of regulating their societies. However, as James and Elsie B. Zion note, Native domestic violence advocates are often reluctant to pursue traditional alternatives to incarceration for addressing violence against women. Survivors of domestic and sexual violence programs are often pressured to “forgive and forget” in tribal mediation programs that focus more on maintaining family and tribal unity rather than on providing justice and safety for women.
Rupert Ross’s study of traditional approaches for addressing sexual/domestic violence on First Nations reserves in Canada notes these approaches are often very successful in addressing child sexual abuse where communities are less likely to blame the victim for the assault. In these cases, the community takes a pro-active effort in holding perpetrators accountable so that incarceration is often unnecessary. When a crime is reported, the working team that deals with sexual violence talks to the perpetrator and gives him the option of participating in the program. The perpetrator must first confess his guilt and then follow a healing contract, or go to jail. The perpetrator can decline to participate completely in the program and go through normal routes in the justice system. Everyone affected by the crime (victim, perpetrator, family, friends, and the working team) is involved in developing the healing contract. Everyone also holds the perpetrator accountable to his contract. One Tlingit man noted that this approach was often more difficult than going to jail:
First one must deal with the shock and then the dismay on your neighbors faces. One must like with the daily humiliation, and at the same time seek forgiveness not just from victims, but from the community as a whole. . . [A prison sentence] removes the offender from the daily accountability, and may not do anything towards rehabilitation, and for many may actually be an easier disposition than staying in the community.
Elizabeth Barker notes along similar lines that the problem with the criminal justice system is that it diverts accountability from the community to players in the criminal justice system. Perpetrators are taken away from their community and are further disabled from developing ethical relationships within a community context. Ross notes: “In reality, rather than making the community a safer place, the threat of jail places the community more at risk.”
Since the Hollow Lake reserve adopted this approach, 48 offender have been identified. Only five chose to go to jail, and only two who entered the program have repeated crimes (one of the reoffenders went through program again and has not re-offended since). However, these approaches, notes Ross, often break down in cases where the victim is an adult woman because community members are more likely to blame her instead of the perpetrator for the assault.
Many Native domestic violence advocates I have interviewed note similar problems in applying traditional methods of justice to cases of sexual assault and domestic violence. One advocate from a tribally-based program in the Plains area contends that traditional approaches are important for addressing violence against women, but they are insufficient. To be effective, they must be backed up by the threat of incarceration. She notes that medicine men have come to her program saying, `we have worked with this offender and we have not been successful in changing him. He needs to join your batterers’ program.’ Traditional approaches toward justice presume that the community will hold a perpetrator accountable for his crime. However, in cases of violence against adult women, community members often do not regard this violence as a crime and will not hold the offender accountable. Before such approaches can be effective, we must implement community education programs that will sufficiently change community attitudes about these issues.
Another advocate from a reservation in the midwest argues that traditional alternatives to incarceration might in fact be more harsh than incarceration. Many Native people presume that traditional modes of justice focused on conflict resolution. In fact, she argues, penalties for societal infractions were not lenient—they entailed banishment, shaming, reparations, and sometimes death. This advocate was involved in an attempt to revise tribal codes by reincorporating traditional practices, but she found that it was difficult to determine what these practices were, and how they could be made useful today. For example, some practices, such as banishment, would not have the same impact as today. Prior to colonization, Native communities were so close-knit and interdependent that banishment was often the equivalent of a death sentence. Today, however, Native peoples can simply leave home and join the dominant society. In addition, the elders with whom she consulted admitted that their memories of traditional penal systems were tainted with the experience of being in boarding school.
Since incarceration today is understood as punishment, this advocate believes that it is the most appropriate way to address sexual violence. She argues that if a Native man rapes someone, he subscribes to white values rather than Native values because rape is not an Indian tradition. If he follows white values, then he should suffer the white way of punishment.
However, there are a number of difficulties in pursuing incarceration as the solution for addressing sexual assault. First, so few rapes are reported that the criminal justice system rarely has the opportunity to address the problem. Among tribal programs I have interviewed, an average of about 2 cases of rape are even reported each year. Complicating matters, because rape is a major crime, rape cases are generally handed to US Attorney, who then decline the vast majority of cases. By the time tribal law enforcement programs even see rape cases, a year might have passed since the assault, making if difficult for these programs to prosecute. Also because rape is covered under the Major Crimes Act, many tribes have not even developed codes to address sexual assault as they have for domestic violence. One advocate who conducted a training for southwestern tribes on sexual assault says that the participants said they did not need to develop codes because the “feds will take care of rape cases.” She then asked how many cases of rape have been federally prosecuted, and the participants discovered that not one case of rape had ever reached the federal courts. In addition, there is inadequate jail space in many tribal communities. When the tribal jail is full, the tribe has to pay the surrounding the county to house its prisoners. Given the financial constraints, tribes are reluctant to house prisoners for any length of time.
But perhaps most importantly, as sociologist Luana (Salish) notes, incarceration has been largely ineffective in reducing crime rates in the dominant society, much less Native communities. “The white criminal justice system does not work for white people; what makes us think it’s going go work for us?” she asks.
The criminal justice system in the United States needs a new approach. Of all the countries in the world, we are the leader in incarceration rates—higher than South Africa and the former Soviet Union, countries that are perceived as oppressive to their own citizens. Euro-America builds bigger and better prisons and fills them up with criminals. Society would profit if the criminal justice system employed restorative justice. . .Most prisons in the United States are, by design, what a former prisoner termed “the devil’s house.” Social environments of this sort can only produce dehumanizing conditions.
Similarly policing under tribal control or under the control of the BIA is not necessarily an improvement, as can be attested to by the countless charges of police brutality by BIA or tribal police. Two examples:
March 1994: Washington, DC: Complaints against BIA police
American Indian children in Montana have a name for the reservation police: terminators. Tribal leaders say that’s how bad a reputation the Bureau of Indian Affairs has for law enforcement. “The common sentiment is the cops are the enemy of the people,” said Clara Spotted Elk, who heads a special law enforcement committee for the Northern Cheyenne tribe in Montana. BIA fails to adequately train and supervise reservation police and disregards complaints about brutality and other misconduct, she and other tribal leaders told the Native American affairs subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee Friday. The House panel called the hearing after The Associated Press reported last year on 17 brutality complaints against BIA police in five Western states. The complaints, filed since 1990, involve charges ranging from beatings to spraying suspects with chemical Mace.
The committee watched a brief videotape, disclosed in the AP series, in which a BIA officer slammed a woman’s head into the wall on the Wind River reservation in Wyoming. The woman had been arrested for disorderly conduct. Under questioning from the panel, a BIA official insisted the incident did not constitute police brutality.
December 6, 2002, Montana: The entire police force on the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation was placed on probation by the Chippewa Cree Business Committee, apparently because of allegations of police brutality.
In addition, as a number of studies have demonstrated, more prisons and more police do not lead to lower crime rates. For instance, the Rand Corporation found that California’s three strikes legislation, which requires life sentences for three-time convicted felons, did not reduce the rate of “murders, rapes, and robberies that many people believe to be the law’s principal targets.” In fact, changes in crime rate often have more to do with fluctuations in employment rates than with increased police surveillance or increased incarceration rates. Concludes Steven Walker, “Because no clear link between incarceration and crime rates, and because gross incapacitation locks up many low-rate offenders at a great dollar cost to society, we conclude as follows: gross incapacitation is not an effective policy for reducing serious crime.” Criminologist Elliott Currie similarly finds that “the best face put on the impact of massive prison increases, in a study routinely used by prison supporters to prove that ‘prison works,’ shows that prison growth seems not to have `worked’ at all for homicide or assault, barely if at all for rape…”
Relying on the criminal justice system as the primary approach toward ending violence does not address the reality of police and other forms of state violence in Native communities. Some recent reported examples in the United States and Canada include:
September 2000, Saskatchewan. Police officers in Saskatoon, took a Native man, Darrell Night, and put him in a police car, drove him far from the city’s downtown and dropped him off to walk home in freezing weather after taking away his coat. He survived, and on telling his story, it came out that police officers had regularly taken Native peoples out into the cold with no warm clothing, leaving them to freeze to death. The police would then blame their deaths on alcohol. Two other young aboriginal men did not survive such incidents—their bodies were found separately in the same area as Darrell Night.
Constable Dan Hatchen and Constable Ken Munson of Saskatoon city police were charged with police brutality, but were put back on the payroll during the trial. The Saskatchewan police commission ruled last Friday they deserve to be paid, because the two officers have been co-operative and honest throughout the investigation.
In Saskatchewan, aboriginal people make up 11 per cent of the population but close to 74 per cent of the inmate population in provincial jails and 61 per cent of inmates in federal institutions. Saskatchewan conducted a $2 million on its own aboriginal justice inquiry. The president of the provincial association of police chiefs has now acknowledged publicly police from across Saskatchewan are alleged to have taken aboriginals and abandoned them in remote areas. The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations says a total of 316 complaints were received.
1999. Calgary. An First Nations woman and her son (Connie Jacobs and Ty) were shot to death by police who called to respond to a domestic violence incident.
2002. Winnepeg. Nahanni Fontaine, an employee of the Southern Chiefs’ Organization, reported that there were three boys asleep in a house when police burst in and started beating them and then called for more help. “There were 16 officers in that little house for three youth,” she said. “The youth were taken outside, were handcuffed, were stomped in the face, were kicked in the stomach, were choked.”
January 30, 2003. South Dakota. A judge in South Dakota sentenced a former police officer for the Oglala Lakota Tribe to life in prison for raping a woman and her daughter. Tancrede Hamel, 28, pleaded guilty to the rapes. He has a prior conviction of raping a girl on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Feb 26, 2003 - Minneapolis. A group of American Indians [including a pregnant woman] who said they were beaten, falsely imprisoned and terrorized during a raid of their home have filed a federal lawsuit against several Minneapolis police officers. According to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, six relatives and two friends who were in the home at the time claim that their race and location in one of Minnesota’s roughest neighborhoods led police officers to mistreat them. Officers had obtained a warrant based on information that residents were selling drugs. No guns were found by officers at the home and none of the eight plaintiffs has been prosecuted for a crime in connection to the raid, the lawsuit said.
- The plaintiffs say the raid at the Little Earth Housing Project lasted over three hours and as many as 15 Minneapolis police officers were involved. Wayne Long Crow said he was sitting in a bed with his hands in the air when one officer struck him in the head with the butt end of a rifle, tearing open his scalp. Another plaintiff, Harold Groskruetz, said two officers slammed him into broken glass on the floor, cutting open his head. After he was handcuffed and bleeding, one of the officers kicked him in the head when he complained about the treatment of his wife.
- Two people were arrested after police found crack cocaine in a toy box. The lawsuit states that officers conducted a full search of the home and turned up nothing until another officer arrived and searched the toy box. The lawsuit accuses the officer of planting the drug. Each plaintiff is seeking damages in excess of $50,000.
January 2003 - Minneapolis - Two unknown Minneapolis police officers are accused by witnesses who said they manhandled an American Indian man before leaving him and a woman outside in freezing temperatures. Two residents of the Little Earth housing complex in south Minneapolis have told community leaders and police investigators that they saw two officers drag the man and woman from the back seat of a marked squad car late Friday night. Those witnesses said they saw officers assault the man in a parking lot before leaving him unconscious after midnight. The temperature was 2 above. “They left them out to freeze,” said Ellie Webster, executive director of Little Earth Community Partnership.
She also said that off-duty officers who took the man to a hospital later told a Little Earth security supervisor that someone had urinated on the man’s upper torso and head. The man and woman are homeless.
The charges are similar to those a decade ago when two Indian men who were drunk were stuffed into the trunk of a Minneapolis squad car to be taken to a detoxification center. In 1995, Charles Lone Eagle and John Boney were awarded $100,000 each by a Hennepin County jury after jurors found that officers Michael Lardy and Marvin Schumer violated their human and civil rights. The officers said they put the men in the trunk as the quickest way to get them medical attention.
June, 2001 - Cleveland. An off-duty Cleveland police officer shot and killed 20-year-old Joseph Finley, who was Cherokee and Seminole. The Cleveland police are accused of covering up the shooting that happened in June 29, 2001. Reportedly, Officer Toomey, 36, found Finley in his garage and, assuming he was a burglar, warned him repeatedly not to move, according to police. When Finley jumped up, Toomey shot him in the chest, abdomen, back, arms and legs. The coroner said Finley died of about 14 gunshot wounds; three were in the back.
November 1997 - Plymouth, Massachusetts: The United Indians of New England have an annual protest in Plymouth, MA at Thanksgiving. In 1997, the march erupted into violence when the police attacked the demonstrators with pepper spray in an attempt to halt the march. 23 protesters were arrested, who then filed suit against the police for brutality. Lloyd Gray (Onondaga) stated that he was pepper sprayed and his head was bashed into the ground. Eventually, the protesters reached a settlement whereby the protesters dropped the suit in return for a $135,000 donation that was made to the United Indians of New England as well as an agreement to let the protesters to continue to have their annual marches.
October, 2000 - Sioux Falls, South Dakota: Yankton Sioux tribal members are complaining that Wagner Police Chief Ed Zylstra used excessive force while arresting an American Indian homeless woman. They say Zylstra threw Sharon K. Gullikson to the ground in the middle of Main Street, handcuffed her, then yanked her up by the cuffs, cutting her wrist. Gullikson was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
It isn’t the first time the police chief and the city have been at odds with the tribe. In April, tribal members accused Zylstra and his officers of racial profiling - stopping tribal members based solely upon their race. Zylstra and the city denied the charges. They say they were stopping tribal members to serve outstanding warrants. Several of those who witnessed Gullikson’s arrest last week say the woman did nothing to provoke Zylstra.
“He grabbed her by the wrist and slammed her wickedly, right to the concrete,” said Larry Weddell, who watched the arrest from across the street. “She landed on her face and chest. Dust flew up when she hit. He kneed her in the back, put the handcuffs on her, then jerked her off the ground by the handcuffs. “She never attacked him. She wasn’t trying to get away or assault him. There was no need for this attack. What he did was totally uncalled for.”
Gullikson said she went to the Wagner Food Center, a local grocery store, then shopped for earrings in a pawn shop, buying a pair for 25 cents. As she was walking in front of James Drug, she saw Zylstra drive up but kept walking until he honked the horn. She said Zylstra told her she was under arrest for trespassing and panhandling at the grocery store. “The next thing I knew, I was face down. My glasses broke, and my head hit the pavement,” she said. “He kneeled on my kidney. At night, it ached for a while.” Gullikson said Zylstra jerked her to her feet by the handcuffs, cutting her wrist. “I’m scared of him. A lot of homeless people are scared of him. They’re scared of getting hurt,” she said. “I didn’t do anything to deserve it. I’ve never done anything myself to deserve such hatred from him.”
July, 2000 - Lake Andes, SD: A simple assault charge was filed against a Lake Andes police officer accused of choking a 12-year-old American Indian boy in a city park on the Fourth of July. He was allowed to keep working. Ben Cournoyer and two 11-year-old friends admit they were spray-painting profanity on picnic tables, which brought Atwood to the park. The three have been charged with vandalism. The three boys and three adult witnesses say a lecture from Atwood turned physical when he grabbed Ben by the neck and lifted him up off the ground. “He grabbed me around the neck, choked me, and lifted me up by my neck. I was barely on my tippie-toes,” said Ben, a seventh-grader from Lake Andes.
June 1999: Minneapolis: The St. Paul City Council unanimously agreed Wednesday to pay $92,500 to settle a police brutality lawsuit filed by a Minneapolis man who alleged that two officers handcuffed him, sprayed him with a chemical irritant and dumped him in the snow near the Minneapolis border.
The council, without debate, also agreed to pay up to $30,000 for attorneys’ fees and costs, ending the suit before its scheduled trial next month. City officials acknowledged that the officers violated police policy when they didn’t take Michael Greenleaf (Red Lake Chippewa), who was intoxicated, to a hospital after spraying him with a chemical irritant in the incident on Nov. 15, 1997. Greenleaf, 38, also was put in jeopardy after the officers left him outside when it was 20 degrees and he was wearing only a light jacket. The police officers also made racist epithets during the incident. [St. Paul Will Pay $92, 1999 #1423]
In addition the innumerable incidents of police brutality involving Native peoples, , Native peoples, including Native women, are over-represented in prisons and jails. Native women are 35% of the women’s prison population in South Dakota while only 8% of the women’s population in South Dakota.
The premise of the justice system is that most people are law-abiding except for “deviants” who do not follow the law. However, given the epidemic rates of sexual and domestic violence in which 50 percent of women will be battered and 47 percent will be raped in their lifetime, it is clear that most men are implicated in our rape culture. It is not likely that we can send all of these men to jail. As Fay Koop argues, addressing rape through the justice system simply furthers the myth that rape/domestic violence is caused by a few bad men rather than acts which most men find themselves implicated in. Thus, relying upon the criminal justice system to end violence against women may strengthen the colonial apparatus in tribal communities that furthers violence while providing nothing more than the illusion of safety to survivors of sexual and domestic violence. As the London based Women Against Rape states:
The prison sentences imposed for rape and sexual assault are often very low relative to sentencing for other offences. It is plain that these very low sentences can endanger women, and also tell potential rapists that rape and sexual assault are not serious crimes in the eyes of the Law. it is equally clear that longer prison sentences are no solution to the tragic problems women have with the courts and the police, and no solution to the causes of rape. An increase in punishment does not satisfy demands for women’s safety. A generalised call for heavier sentencing has traditionally been the way in which politicians have spares to be doing something about rape, without spending any money on rape prevention, or showing any genuine interest in the protection of women. In fact long sentences are often advocated for reasons which have nothing to do with women’s safety.
Sexual violence is a fundamental attack on Indian sovereignty, and both Native and non-Native communities are challenged to develop programs that address sexual violence from an anti-colonial, anti-racist framework so that we don’t attempt to eradicate acts of personal violence by strengthening the apparatus of state violence. Nothing less than a holistic approach towards eradicating sexual violence can be successful. As Ines Hernandez-Avila states:
We must imagine a world without rape. But I cannot imagine a world without rape, a world without misogyny, without imagining a world without racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, historical amnesia and other forms and manifestations of violence directed against those communities that are seen to be “asking for it.” Even the Earth is presumably “asking for it”. . .
What do I imagine then? From my own Native American perspective, I see a world where sovereign indigenous peoples continue to plunge our memories to come back to our originality, to live in dignity and carry on our resuscitated and ever-transforming cultures and traditions with liberty. . .I see a world were native women find strength and continuance in the remembrance of who we really were and are. . .a world where more and more native men find the courage to recognize and honor—that they and the women of their families and communities have the capacity to be profoundly vital and creative human beings.
Gender Violence and the State
Women of color generally speaking live in the dangerous intersections of gender and race. Within the mainstream anti-violence movement in the United States, women of color who survive sexual or domestic abuse are often told that they must pit themselves against their communities, often portrayed stereotypically as violent, to begin the healing process. Communities of color, meanwhile, often advocate that women keep silent about the sexual and domestic violence in order to maintain a united front against racism. Therefore, the analysis proposed in this chapter argues for the need to adopt anti-violence strategies that are mindful of the larger structures of violence that shape the world in which we live. That is, strategies designed to combat violence within communities (sexual/domestic violence) must be linked to strategies that combat violence directed against communities, including state violence (e.g., police brutality, prisons, militarism, racism, colonialism, and economic exploitation).
The traditional or mainstream remedies for addressing sexual and domestic violence here in the United States have proven to be inadequate for addressing the problems of gender violence in general, but particularly for addressing violence against women of color. The problem is not simply an issue of providing multicultural services to survivors of violence. Rather, the analysis and strategies around addressing gender violence have failed to address the manner in which gender violence is not simply a tool of patriarchal control, but also serves as a tool of racism, economic oppression, and colonialism. That is, colonial relationships as well as race and class relations are themselves gendered and sexualized.
Within the context of colonization, racism, and class oppression, sexual and domestic violence do not affect men and women of color in the same way. However, when a woman of color suffers abuse, this abuse is not just an attack on her identity as a woman, but on her identity as a person of color. The issues of colonial, race, class, and gender oppression cannot be separated. Women of color do not just face quantitatively more issues when they suffer violence (e.g., less supportive media attention, greater language barriers, lack of support in the judicial system), but their experience is qualitatively different from that of white women. Hence, the strategies employed to address violence against women of color must take into account their particular histories and current conditions of violence.
Beyond the Politics of Inclusion and Cultural Competency
As the anti-violence movement has attempted to become more “inclusive,” attempts at multicultural interventions against domestic violence have unwittingly strengthened white supremacy within the anti-violence movement. That is, all too often, inclusivity has come to mean that the “domestic violence model” which developed largely with the interests of white middle-class women in mind should simply add a multicultural component to it. Anti-violence multicultural curricula are often the same as those produced by mainstream groups with some “cultural” designs or references added to this pre-existing model. Most domestic violence programs servicing communities of color do not have dramatically different models from the mainstream except for “community outreach workers” or bilingual staff. Women of color are constantly called upon to provide domestic violence service providers “cultural sensitivity programs” where we are supposed to explain our cultures, sometimes in 30 minutes or less. Even with longer trainings (e.g., 40 one-hour meetings), only one or two of those hours are devoted to “cultural diversity.” The naive assumption is that “the culture” of people of color is something simple, easy to understand, requires little or no substantive engagements with communities, and is homogeneous. Furthermore, those people who are marginalized within communities of color, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) or queer people, sex workers, or addicts, are often marginalized within these “cultural” representations.
Of course, many women of color in domestic violence programs have been active in expanding notions of “cultural competency” to be more politicized, less simplistic, and less dependent on the notion of culture as a static concept. However, cultural competency, no matter how re-envisioned, is limited in its ability to create a movement that truly addresses the needs of women of color because the lives and histories of women of color call on us to radically re-think all models currently developed for addressing domestic violence.
An alternative approach to “inclusion” is to place women of color at the center of the organization and analysis of domestic violence. That is, what if we do not make any assumptions about what a domestic violence program should look like, but instead ask: What would it take to end violence against women of color? What would this movement look like? What if we do not presume that this movement would necessarily have anything we take for granted in the current domestic violence movement? And in fact, Beth Richie suggests we need to go beyond just centering our analysis on women of color. Rather, she suggests: What if we centered our attention on those abused women most marginalized within the category of “women of color?” This is of utmost importance because it is within this context, she argues, that we must ultimately “be accountable not to those in power, but to the powerless.”
Beyond The Shelter System
In “Disloyal to Feminism, ” Emi Koyama suggests some of the possible ramifications of locating women of color, particularly women of color who have been criminalized by the state, such as sex workers, at the center of our analysis and work. Koyama notes that some of the components of what we now see as integral to a domestic violence program would not necessarily be a strategy we might want to continue to adopt. In particular, she critiques the “shelter system” as mirroring the abusive patterns of control that women seek to leave in battering relationships and isolates women from their communities. Thus, as Isabel Gonzalez of Sista II Sista (a young women’s community-based organization in Brooklyn, New York) argues, the domestic violence shelter system is often modeled on a similar pattern as the prison system - where women’s activities are monitored and policed, and where they are cut off from their friends and families. In fact, some shelters have gone so far as to conduct background searches on clients, having them arrested if they have outstanding warrants, despite the fact that these outstanding warrants are often the direct result of escaping abusive relationships. As Jael Silliman notes, many anti-violence activists in other countries do not rely on shelters as their primary strategy to address violence. Rather than assume that the absence of a shelter system is a sign of “underdevelopment,” perhaps there are strategies that they use that we can learn from them. (See Recommendations below.)
When we center women of color in the analysis, it becomes clear that we must develop approaches that address interpersonal, state (e.g., colonization, police brutality, prisons), and structural (e.g., racism, poverty) violence simultaneously. In addition, we find that by centering women of color in the analysis, we may actually build a movement that more effectively ends violence not just for women of color but for all people.
The Need to Anchor Violence against Women in Larger Systems of Racism, Colonialism, and Inequality
The anti-violence movement has always contested the notion of home as a safe place because the majority of violence that women suffer happens at home. Furthermore, it is the notion that violence happens “out there,” inflicted by the stranger in the dark alley, that makes it difficult to recognize that the home is in fact the place of greatest danger for women. Ironically, however, the strategies that the domestic violence movement employs to address violence are actually premised on the danger coming from “out there” rather than at home. That is, reliance on the criminal justice system to address gender violence would make sense if the threat was a few crazed men who we can lock up. But the prison system is not equipped to address a violent culture in which an overwhelming number of people batter their partners unless we are prepared to imprison hundreds of millions of people.
Furthermore, state violence in the form of the criminal justice system cannot provide true safety for women, particularly women of color, when it is directly implicated in the violence women face as described previously. Unfortunately, the remedies that have been pursued by the mainstream anti-violence movement have often had the effect of strengthening rather than opposing state violence. Thus, for example, the anti-sexual/domestic violence movements have been vital in breaking the silence around violence against women and providing critically needed services to survivors of sexual and domestic violence. However, these movements have also become increasingly professionalized around providing services and, consequently, are often reluctant to address sexual and domestic violence within the larger context of institutionalized violence. As a case in point, many state coalitions on domestic/sexual violence have refused to take stands against the anti-immigration backlash and its violent impact on immigrant women, arguing that this issue is not a sexual/domestic violence issue. As the immigration backlash intensifies, many immigrant women do not report abuse for fear of deportation. However, it is impossible to seriously address sexual/domestic violence within communities of color without addressing these larger structures of violence, such as militarism, attacks on immigrants’ rights and Indian treaty rights, the proliferation of prisons, economic neo-colonialism, and institutional racism and homophobia. Consequently, it is critical that those interested in combating sexual/domestic violence adopt anti-violence strategies that are mindful of the larger structures of violence that govern our world
As a case in point, increasingly, mainstream anti-violence advocates have demanded longer prison sentences for batterers and sex offenders as a front line approach to stopping violence against women. However, the criminal justice system has always been brutally oppressive toward communities of color. In 1994, for instance, one out of every three African American men between the ages of 20-29 was under some form of criminal justice supervision. Two-thirds of men of color in California between the ages of 18 and 30 have been arrested , Six of every then juveniles in federal custody are American Indian. Two-thirds of women in prison are women of color.
Prisons serve to disguise the economic hardships of these communities because prisoners are not included in unemployment statistics. They then serve to exacerbate these problems within the same communities. In addition, when prisoners are relocated to prisons outside of their community, they are counted in the populations of the prisons when the state allocates its resources by population. Thus, the imprisonment of mass numbers of people of color leads to the draining of resources from communities of color to the primarily white rural areas where prisons are located.
The 13th Amendment expressly permits the slavery of prisoners. Uncompensated prison labor is a multimillion dollar industry. A large percentage of the goods and services we receive are the result of prison labor. Prison labor then undercuts unionized labor, forcing more people of out of jobs and into poverty and thus more vulnerable to committing crimes of poverty. Companies that profit from exploitation of prison labor include: TWA, McDonald’s, Compaq, Texas Instruments, Sprint, Microsoft, MCI, Victoria’s Secret, IBM, Toys R Us, AT&T, Eddie Bauer, Nordstrom, Honeywell, Lexus, and Revlon.
Public funds are diverted directly from public education and social services to prison construction. Since education is one of the more effective preventatives of future incarceration, essentially some youth are being tracked toward higher education and others are being tracked into prison. In 1992 there were more Black men in prison that in college.
Prisoners become seen as non-persons, deserving of any type of abuse or enslavement. They generally lose the right to vote. Eighty percent of experimental drugs are tried on prisoners. Women in prison are routinely sexually abused with no recourse for justice. Prisoners lack adequate nutrition, medical care, much less do they receive anything rehabilitative. The denial of media access to prisons ensure that this abuse continues unnoticed by the public.
Three out of four women in prison are mothers who routinely lose custody of their children while in prison. Eighty percent of imprisoned women have children and of those, 70% are single mothers. When men of color are imprisoned they too are prevented for fulfilling familial responsibilities and thus prisons effectively prevent communities of color from raising physically and psychologically healthy children.
In addition to suffering the brutalizing effects of prison, Native prisoners are also finding that the State uses incarceration to seize their tribal trust funds that are guaranteed to them by treaty rights. The Native American Project of Columbia Legal Services (CLS) and the Colville Confederated Tribes have filed suit against the state of Washington for seizing trust fund disbursements from tribal members since 1997.
Under such conditions, it is problematic for women of color to go to the state for the solution to the problems that the state has had a large part in creating. Consider these examples:
- An undocumented woman calls the police because of domestic violence. Under current mandatory arrest laws, the police must arrest someone on domestic violence calls. Because the police cannot find the batterer, they arrest her and have her deported. (Tucson)
- An African American homeless woman calls the police because she has been the victim of group rape. The police arrest her for prostitution. (Chicago)
- An African-American woman calls the police when her husband who is battering her accidentally sets fire to their apartment. She is arrested for setting the fire. (New York)
- A Native woman calls the police because she is the victim of domestic violence, and she is shot to death by the police. (Alert Bay, Canada)
In fact The New York Times recently reported that the effects of the strengthened anti-domestic violence legislation is that battered women kill their abusive partners less frequently; however, batterers do not kill their partners less frequently, and this is more true in Black than white communities . Thus, ironically, laws passed to protect battered women are actually protecting their batterers!
In addition, as Beth Richie (1996) notes in her study of Black women in prison and as Luana Ross (1998) describes in her study of incarcerated American Indian women, women of color are generally in prison as a direct or indirect result of gender violence. For example, they both document how women of color who are involved in abusive relationships are often forced to participate in men’s criminal activities. In addition, in one study, over 40 percent of the women in prison in Arizona were there because they murdered an abusive partner. Thus, the criminal justice system, rather than solving the problems of violence against women, often re-victimizes women of color who are survivors of violence. In her study of Native American women in prison, Luana Ross discusses how the criminal justice system actually criminalizes the attempts of women of color to resist and survive violence.
When we center women of color in the center of anti-violence organizing and analysis, we also see how the strategy utilizing state violence (i.e., relying on the police and the criminal justice system) to curb private violence ultimately fails all women. Reliance on the criminal justice system takes away our sense of collective power to address violence ourselves. This leaves women feeling disempowered and alienated. It also promotes an individualistic approach toward ending violence such that the only way people think they can intervene in stopping violence is to call the police. Community accountability strategies require collective action. If we ask the question, What can I do?, then the main answer will be to call the police. If we ask the question, What can we do?, then we may be surprised at the number of strategies we can devise. Ultimately, violence will end only when our communities believe that domestic violence should no longer be tolerated and we are empowered to make non-violence a reality.
Increasingly, domestic violence advocates are recognizing the limitations of the criminal justice system. It is this recognition that gave rise to the joint statement by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence and Critical Resistance on “Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex: Interpersonal and State Violence against Women of Color.”. This document critiques the reliance of the anti-violence movement on state violence as the primary strategy for eradicating violence against women in general and women of color in particular. Since this statement was developed, many prominent advocates and activists have signed it, including the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
However, in critiquing the current mainstream strategies against domestic violence, the question becomes, what are the strategies that can end violence against women? Unfortunately, many of the alternatives to incarceration that are promoted under the “restorative justice model” have not developed sufficient safety mechanisms for survivors of domestic/sexual violence. “Restorative justice” is an umbrella term that describes a wide range of programs which attempt to address crime from a restorative and reconciliation rather than a punitive framework. That is, as opposed to the U.S. criminal justice system that focuses solely on punishing the perpetrator and removing him (or her) from society through incarceration, restorative justice attempts to involve all parties (perpetrators, victims, and community members) in determining the appropriate response to a crime in an effort to restore the community to wholeness. As described previously in this chapter, these models have been particularly well-developed by many Native communities, especially in Canada, where the sovereign status of Native nations allows them an opportunity to develop community-based justice programs.
These models seem to have much greater potential for dealing with “crime” effectively because if we want perpetrators of violence to live in society peaceably, it makes sense to develop justice models in which the community is involved in holding him/her accountable. Under the current incarceration model, perpetrators are taken away from their community and are further hindered from developing ethical relationships within a community context.
The problem, however, with these models in addressing sexual/domestic is that they work only when the community unites in holding perpetrators accountable. However, in cases of sexual and domestic violence, the community often sides with the perpetrator rather than the victim. So, for example, in many Native American communities, these models are often pushed on domestic violence survivors in order to pressure them to “reconcile” with their families and “restore” the community without sufficient concern for their personal safety (see below).
In addition, the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network (AWAN) as well as Native American domestic violence advocates have critiqued the uncritical use of “traditional” forms of governance for addressing domestic violence. AWAN argues that Native communities have been pressured to adopt “circle sentencing” because it is supposed to be an indigenous “traditional” practice. However, AWAN contends that there is no such traditional practice in their communities. Moreover, they are concerned that the process of diverting cases outside a court system can be dangerous for survivors. In one example, Bishop Hubert O’Connor (a white man) was found guilty of multiple cases of sexual abuse of Aboriginal women, but his punishment under the restorative justice model was to participate in a healing circle with his victims. Because his crimes were against Aboriginal women, he was able to opt for an “Aboriginal approach” - an approach, AWAN argues, that did little to provide real healing and accountability for the survivors. In addition, Goel cautions that using sentencing circles among Aboriginal Canadians without understanding the whole history on which they are based, can lead to greater problems for battered women. She argues that restorative justice principles can be used, but not with domestic violence, until Aboriginal (and Native American) women are returned to their original status of equals with men, a set of social relations that were systematically eroded under colonization.
Also of concern is that restorative justice models proposed by its advocates to address domestic violence have a tendency to locate this models almost solely within the criminal justice system, as can be seen by the limitations of the important anthology, Restorative Justice and Family Violence . There are reasons why this tendency happens - many domestic violence advocates argue that this models only work if they are backed by the threat of incarceration should the perpetrator not act in good faith. However, the problem with such an approach is that it can actually strengthen the criminal justice system with all its inherent racism rather than challenge it. Prison abolitionist Stanley Cohen argues that alternative models are typically co-opted to serve state interests, increase the net of social control, and often lose their community focus as they become professionalized . Indeed, the history of prison reform indicates time and time again that minor reform programs actually strengthen the prison system and increase the number of people who fall under its purview. For instance, women religious reformers in the 1800s advocated reforms for women prisoners being kept in the same brutal institutions as men. These reformers imagined women prisoners not as “criminal, fallen women” deserving harsh treatment, but as “sick” or “wayward” women in need of a cure or proper retraining. They fought for the establishment of sex-segregated “reformatories” rather than prisons to provide women the guidance they needed to fulfill their domestic roles. As a result, great numbers of women suddenly found themselves in the criminal justice system receiving domesticity training.
As Luana Ross points, the outgrowth of this ideology as that women often find themselves in prison longer than men until they can prove they have been “cured” Simply adding restorative justice to the present criminal justice system is likely to further strengthen the criminal justice apparatus, particularly in communities of color that are deemed in need of “restoration.” In addition, as will be discussed later on in this book, a continued emphasis on simply reforming the criminal justice system takes us away from considering grassroots, political organizing strategies that have the potential to address the roots causes of violence.
We face a dilemma: on the one hand, the incarceration approach for addressing sexual/domestic violence promotes the repression of communities of color without really providing safety for survivors. On the other hand, restorative justice models often promote community silence and denial around issues of sexual/violence without concern for the safety of survivors of gender violence under the rhetoric of community restoration. Thus, our challenge is, how do we develop community-based models of accountability in which the community will actually hold the perpetrator accountable? While there are no simple solutions to violence against women of color, it is clear that we will not develop effective strategies unless we stop marginalizing women of color in our analysis and strategies around both racial violence and gender violence.
Recommendations: Structural Change, Social Change
Today, increasingly more community-based organizations are developing strategies to end domestic violence that do not primarily rely on the state. These interventions are not largely based in what are typically known as “domestic violence” programs, and hence they often do not receive sufficient attention for their innovation and creation. In addition, because these models attempt to get at the root causes of violence, they do not offer simple panaceas for addressing this problem. However, this work does suggest some possible directions that the anti-violence movement could take in eradicating violence, including sexual and domestic violence.
A simple question all domestic violence advocates must ask themselves is: What is our primary goal? To develop solid domestic violence programs or to end domestic violence? While we may say that our goal is the latter, most work is geared towards the first goal. Providing services to survivors is important, but services in and of themselves will not stop domestic violence. Thus, it becomes critical that we create more space to ponder the second goal: to end domestic violence in communities of color. If we do, some directions we might take could include the following strategies.
1. Develop interventions that address state violence and interpersonal violence simultaneously.
One model intervention is that of Communities Against Rape and Abuse (CARA) in Seattle. CARA began monitoring incidents of police brutality in Seattle. They found, the majority of time, that those police officers involved with brutality on the job did so in poor neighborhoods of color where they were responding to domestic violence charges. As a result, CARA began organizing around the issue of prison abolition from an anti-violence perspective. At a prison abolition film festival in 2002 that they co-sponsored with Critical Resistance, they outlined their philosophy in the program book
Any movement seeking to end violence will fail if its strategy supports and helps sustain the prison industrial complex. Prisons, policing, the death penalty, the war on terror, and the war on drugs, all increase rape, beatings, isolation, oppression, and death. As an anti-rape organization, we cannot support the funneling of resources into the criminal justice system to punish rapists and batterers, as this does not help end violence. It only supports the same system that views incarcerations as a solution to complex social problems like rape and abuse. As survivors of rape and domestic violence, we will not let the anti-violence movement be further co-opted to support the mass criminalization of young people, the disappearance of immigrants and refugees, and the dehumanization of poor people, people of color, and people with disabilities. We support the anti-rape movement that builds sustainable communities on a foundation of safety, support, self-determination, and accountability.
What is also significant about CARA is the manner in which they have followed Beth Richie’s mandate to organize around the women of color who are least acceptable to the mainstream public. In particular, they began a campaign against “Children Requiring a Caring Community” (CRACK), which pays women (and some men) who are substance abusers to be sterilized and focuses primarily in recruiting women from poor communities of color. CARA’s organizing framework emphasizes how an organization that targets substance abusers necessarily targets survivors of violence. Furthermore, CARA is unique in organizing specifically around women with disabilities. In the CRACK campaign, for instance, they address the manner in which the success of CRACK is dependent on the notion of “crack babies” as being “damaged goods” because they may have disabilities.
2. Emphasize base-building approaches that see domestic violence survivors as organizers or potential organizers rather than simply clients.
Long-time activist Suzanne Pharr argues that one of the ways in which the domestic violence movement fails to be a violence reduction movement is that it focuses on providing services to “clients” rather than seeing survivors as organizers or as potential anti-violence organizers. Because they become focused on providing services, those involved in the anti-violence movement tend to be professionals who may or may not be interested in truly challenging the larger norms and structures of society that give rise to violence. In addition, they miss the opportunity to significantly increase the number of women involved in the anti-violence movement on a grassroots level by refusing to see survivors as organizers rather than clients.
One organization that focuses on base-building (recruiting people who are not currently activists to become activists) is Sista II Sista in Brooklyn, N.Y. This organization of young women of color addresses violence against girls in the neighborhood committed both by the police and other members of the community. Sista II Sista created a video project documenting police harassment after one girl was killed and a second was allegedly sexually assaulted and killed by the police. In addition, it has recently created a community accountability program, called “Sisters Liberated Ground,” to organize its members to monitor violence in the community without relying upon the police. One of the ways it increases its base of support is by recruiting young women to attend freedom schools that provide political education from an integrated mind-body-spirit framework that then trains girls to become activists on their own behalf.
3. Develop community accountability strategies that do not depend on a romanticized notion of “community” and ensure safety for survivors.
As Pharr’s previously described analysis suggests, the success of community accountability models will always be limited as long as survivors are seen as “clients” rather than as organizers. Furthermore, community accountability models will be limited in their success if they do not happen in the community itself.
One such group that has developed a model for accountability within communities is Friends Are Reaching Out (FAR Out) in Seattle, an organization which works with queer or LGBT communities of color. The premise of this model is that when people are abused, they become isolated. The domestic violence movement further isolates them through the shelter system, where they cannot tell their friends where they are. In addition, the domestic violence movement does not work with the people who could most likely hold perpetrators accountable - their friends.
This model begins with encouraging people to have conversations with their friends to build connections in an ongoing relationship so that it is less likely for people to become isolated. Many times, when people begin a relationship, according to FAR Out, they put their friendships to the side. If a person ends up in an abusive relationship, s/he is more likely to become isolated, making it difficult to resume friendships. FAR Out’s model is based on developing friendship groups to make regular commitments to stay in contact with each other. In addition, these groups develop processes to talk openly about relationships. One way abuse continues is that we tend to keep our sexual relationships private. By talking about them more openly, it is easier for friends to hold us accountable. In addition, if a person knows s/he is going to share her/his relationship dynamics openly, it is more likely that s/he will be accountable in the relationship.
Perpetrators will listen to the people they love before they will listen to court mandated orders, contends FAR Out. In addition, given the homophobia in the criminal justice system, involving the criminal justice system is not generally workable in queer communities. What has made this model work is that it is based on pre-existing friendship networks. As a result, it develops the capacity of a community to handle domestic violence.
At the same time, as previously mentioned, it is important to critically assess these community resources for their accountability to survivors of violence. Sometimes it is easy to underestimate the amount of intervention that is required before a perpetrator can really change his behavior. Often a perpetrator will subject her/himself to community accountability measures, but can eventually tires of them. If community members are not vigilant about holding the perpetrator accountable for years and not assume that he is “cured”, the perpetrator can turn a community of accountability into a community of enablement. For instance, L. reports that she was involved in a community accountability strategy in which the community’s strategy what to refuse any physical affection to an individual until this person learned proper boundaries. This individual was one who was willing to be held accountable, yet, according to L., who took her several years of constant vigilance on the part of the community before this person was ready to resume physical contact.
4. Expand our definition of community.
Given the high-level of mobility in geographically-based communities, the challenge is how do we develop accountability structures when people can so easily leave communities, or when these communities may not really exist. Thus part of establishing community accountability processes may involve developing communities themselves.
In addition, it is important to expand our notion of community to include communities based on religious affiliations, employment, hobbies, athletics, etc, and attempt to develop strategies based in those communities. For instance, one man was banished from a community for committing incest. However, he simply moved out of that area. But because he was a well-known academic, the family held him accountable in the academic community by making sure that when he gave academic talks in different communities, his history of incest was exposed.
Traci West’s Wounds of the Spirit is very important in this regard as it looks to church communities as possible sites for building strategies of accountability. What is particularly noteworthy is West’s attempt to locate at least some crisis intervention services within community structures (in this case, the church), rather than separately constituted agencies that often force women to leave their communities (or in the criminal justice system). Her approach also involves communities holding social service agencies accountable to those communities.
5. Build transnational relationships in the fight to end violence against women.
Currently, the mainstream domestic violence model in the U.S. is exported to other countries as the model for addressing violence. This export is based on the notion that the U.S. is the enlightened country on this issue. However, in many countries where reliance on the state is not an issue or a possibility, other organizations have developed creative strategies for addressing violence that can inform the work done in the U.S. Masum, a women’s organization in Pune, India, addresses violence through accountability strategies that do not rely on the state. The members of Masum actively intervene themselves in cases of domestic violence by using such non-violent tactics as singing outside a perpetrator’s house until he stops his abuse. They report they have been able to work on this issue without community backlash because Masum simultaneously provides needed community services such as micro credit, health care, education, etc. After many years, this group has come to be seen as a needed community institution and, thus, has the power to intervene in cases of gender violence where their interventions might otherwise be resisted.
Another model is from Brazil which has a strong “Movement of Landless People” (known as Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurail Sem Terra or MST). This movement is based in networks of families which claim territory that is owned privately, but is not bein