“Self-Defense” For Whom? The Not-So-Curious Case Of Marissa Alexander

Originally published in the JHU Politik on February 23, 2014.

While our country’s all-too-frequent mass shootings over the past few years have invigorated discussion about guns and self-defense, the perspective of those affirming Second Amendment rights has often been scrutinized. Some critique raced and classed fantasies about defending one’s home from specific kinds of invaders; others question what need those who dominate this discourse truly have to defend themselves against state oppression. The latter is particularly intriguing as it is of course those with the least societal power in this country—people of color, the poor—who are the most susceptible to violence, with more to fear from the state and from their fellow citizens. What does the right to arm oneself mean for a black man, so often stereotyped as a threat—like Jonathan Ferrell, shot dead by police after knocking on a woman’s door for help after a car crash, or Jordan Davis with his “loud music” and Trayvon Martin with his infamous hoodie and bag of skittles? And what does the freedom to buy a gun mean for a Muslim, the association of whom with destructive weaponry continues to this day, fueling hate crimes and the NYPD’s socially erosive mass surveillance of Muslim communities? Meanwhile, the same city’s stop-and-frisk program harasses and humiliates these very people while groping them for weapons (blacks and Latinos comprise 84% of stops although the NYPD’s own data reveals that whites have been twice as likely to carry drugs and guns).

But there’s more. Have you heard of Marissa Alexander?

Marissa is a mother of three who fired a single warning shot at a wall to defend herself from her husband’s life-threatening abuse; after 12 minutes of jury deliberation she was found guilty of aggravated assault and sentenced to 20 years in prison due to mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Marissa caused her husband no injuries, and her husband has a well-documented record of domestic violence. Marissa tried to invoke Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law—the same law that helped George Zimmerman walk free after actually committing murder—but a pre-trial judge disallowed it. In the words of Marissa herself: “If you do everything to get on the right side of the law, and it is a law that does not apply to you, where do you go from there?”

It matters that Marissa Alexander is a black woman; her case lies at the intersections of race and gender in the experience of the US criminal justice system. Stand Your Ground laws yield greater racial disparities than the justice system as a whole already does regarding whose killings are found justified. Furthermore, 85-90% of all incarcerated women in the US have a history of being victims of domestic and sexual violence. Prospects are worse for black women specifically: less than 17% of black female survivors of sexual assault will call the police, fearing they’ll be further victimized by cops or courts; black women are murdered by men at a rate 2.5 times higher than white women; and black women are imprisoned at a rate almost three times that of white women.

Looking beyond statistics, Marissa’s case is not an anomaly. A quick list of other women of color in America who have been arrested for defending themselves: Lena Baker, Inez Garcia, Joan Little, Dessie Woods, Yvonne Wanrow, Patreese Johnson and six friends she was with when attacked, Sara Kruzan and Centoya Brown—both sex workers who killed their pimps—and Jewelyes Gutierrez and CeCe McDonald, who as trans women were already far more susceptible to fatal violence. But when American society seems to embrace the right to self-defense, how can this be?

Kerry McLean of the National Lawyers Guild argues that although sexism is certainly relevant in Marissa’s case, “it would be irresponsible to ignore the role that race has played. I do not believe that Marissa would be treated so harshly if she were not black. It is as if the basic concept of self-defense doesn’t apply to her. Marissa was victimized by [her husband] and then again by the criminal justice system… Marissa’s case and many others demonstrate how black women and other marginalized groups are likely to be blamed when they defend themselves from violence.” With historical context for this assertion, Mariame Kaba, founder of Project NIA, reminds us, “there was a time in this country when it was presumed that black women could not be raped. The idea was that they were naturally promiscuous and that their bodies were inviolate… This idea has carried over, I think, to the concept of ‘self-defense’ as applied to women of color. If black women’s bodies can always be violated and if black women are easily killable, then the notion of self-defense can never apply. Black women do not have a ‘self’ worth defending.”

To understand what’s happened here, we must move beyond any abstract framework of rights and critically examine how such systems are raced, gendered, and classed. Many of Marissa’s supporters have asked: where is the National Rifle Association to proudly declare this case—as they so often do—a perfect example of why Americans should own guns? Marissa’s gun was legally registered. What greater illustration can there be for the right to bear arms in self-defense than a woman who may only be alive because she was a gun owner—who didn’t even take another’s life? If they are indifferent to this matter, then what exactly are they arguing for?

Additionally, Marissa’s case has been neglected by both mainstream feminist organizations and civil rights organizations—though this is hardly surprising given the historical marginalization of women of color within feminism and anti-racism efforts. Also, these movements’ dominant forms have liberal inclinations, and the push for greater gun regulation is generally associated with political liberals and Democrats. However, liberals and NRA-supporting conservatives alike must seriously reconsider the way they understand and make arguments about gun rights. During the #31forMarissa letter-writing campaign launched during Domestic Violence Month last October, Mychal Denzal Smith wrote, “I hate guns. All of them…I hate the gun that shot a college classmate of mine at a party…I hate police guns…I hate the gun that killed Trayvon Martin…I hate the gun that killed my big cousin Demetri…I hate the gun you fired that landed you in jail. But I thank God you had it.” Smith continues, “We failed you, Marissa. We fail women like you every day. You wouldn’t have needed that gun if a man never put his hands on you, or the state believed your life was worth protecting…I hate guns, but more than that, I hate the necessity of guns. You wanted to feel safe. You deserve that.”

Thousands of people across the country called and wrote to Florida State Attorney Angela Corey—the same prosecutor from the Zimmerman and Michael Dunn trials—urging her to drop the charges against Marissa. Despite how the previous “guilty” verdict was overturned by an appeals court last September on the basis that Marissa was deprived of a fair trial, improperly burdened to prove she fired in self-defense—presumed guilty until proving herself innocent—Corey still decided to prosecute with a re-trial. Marissa remained in prison until November 27, 2013, when she was released on bond, for which she has to pay $500 every other week; she is now under house arrest, tracked by an ankle monitor costing another $105 per week. Her new trial is scheduled to begin on July 28, 2014.

“Ms. Alexander has been victimized twice—once by her abusive ex-husband and again by the state of Florida, which has stolen nearly three years from her life for an act of self-defense that injured no one,” said the Free Marissa Now Mobilization Campaign in a statement to the press. This past February 10th was the third anniversary of Marissa’s incarceration and was accompanied by a “week of action” by the Campaign to raise support for this case and awareness about violence against women (for more information or to donate to Marissa’s legal fund, visit freemarissanow.org). As inspired as I am by this ongoing collective action, outside of this alliance the issue is still utterly neglected. In a country that claims to cherish self-defense and equality for women and people of color, such indifference is shameful and revealing. However, the right direction is clear: we must challenge these systems that devalue black and brown lives and reaffirm that women like Marissa do have selves worth defending.

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