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Self-defence is no offence: Free the New Jersey Four!
Claudia Priori
issue 41
Winter/Spring 2009

August 16, 2006: Seven young women from New Jersey are attacked on a night out on the town in Greenwich Village, a traditionally safe place for young working class people and the queer community. They are minding their own business until they’re accosted by a man, Dwayne Buckle, who hurls insults at them and makes suggestive remarks. When they walk away, he pursues them and initiates physical violence by spitting at them and flicking a cigarette at them. On video footage from a nearby shop, the man is seen grabbing and pulling out large patches of hair from one of the women. When Buckle ends up on top of her, choking her, Patreese Johnson is seen aiming a small knife at his arm to stop him from killing her friend. The video captures two male bystanders running over to help the women and beating up Buckle. At some point, he is stabbed in the abdomen.

Deemed a so-called “hate crime” against a straight man, every possible racist, anti-woman, anti-gay and anti-youth tactic was used by the entire legal system and media. Everything about them, from their unfeminine gender expressions to their body structures, was twisted and utterly dehumanised for the public and the jury — plus the fact that they lived outside of New York, in a working class and Black New Jersey city. What were they doing in the up-and-coming area being gentrified for tourism, anyway? They were made out to be a “lesbian wolf pack” hunting for trouble.

After a hellish year-long trip through the legal system, three of the women, Chenese Loyal, Khymesha Coates and Lania Daniels, all accepted plea bargains in 2006 and were sentenced to six months’ incarceration followed by five years’ probation. A plea bargain allows the accused to negotiate a reduced sentence by pleading guilty. The other four were convicted of assault crimes and given shocking prison sentences in April 2007. Terrain Dandridge (20) was sentenced to three-and-a-half years behind bars; Venice Brown (19) five years; Renata Hill (25) eight years; and Patreese Johnson, who is only 19, was sentenced to an unbelievable 11 years. Terrain, originally sentenced to three and a half years, had the charges against her dismissed after she had already served almost two years. She was immediately released and remains the only one of the seven without a felony conviction.

In October 2008, a retrial was granted on the gang assault charges against Renata and Venice, and they both got out on bail after serving more than two years. On February 3rd 2009, Venice Brown accepted a plea bargain of attempted gang assault with 26 months to serve, plus five years post-release supervision. Unfortunately, this means Venice is still stuck with a felony conviction. However, she is no longer at risk of more prison time.

On March 18th 2009, Renata accepted a plea bargain to reduce the length of her sentence and turned herself in on May 4th, as per her plea agreement. She will serve an additional year-and-a-half sentence. She is still fighting for custody of her seven-year-old son. Patreese’s sentence was reduced from 11 to eight years “in the interest of justice,” but not overturned. Assistant District Attorney Lanita K Hobbs is demanding that Renata be returned to prison, or face another trial.

What’s really behind the women’s convictions? Their audacity to defend themselves! Our laws dictate that women behave as victims. Even worse, in the eyes of our lawmakers and watchdogs of our morals, the women are lesbian, young, African American and workers. These victims of crime were arrested, convicted and given heavy sentences for being who they are and standing up for themselves.

The Radical Women Manifesto states that “the vast majority of women find their job skills and advancement opportunities compromised by the unchanged, decreed female role of breeding, sexual service and private domestic labour.” So lesbians don’t have much to offer capitalism. They can’t be relied on to breed future generations of workers. Lesbians’ domestic arrangements upset the nuclear family needed for breeding and caring for the workforce. They’re not much good for sexual services, either. And, as the New Jersey dykes courageously proved, independent women can’t be controlled. They set a bad example, especially to the next generation.

The length of these gutsy Black lesbians’ prison terms further demonstrates the highly political nature of this case and just how racist, misogynist, anti-gay, anti-youth, anti-worker and vindictive the U.S. “justice” system truly is. Just how many ways can you be kept down? The same number of reasons why we must say: “No justice, no peace!”

Contact details for Renata and information about a documentary in progress on the case of the NJ4 can be found on the film website, The Fire This Time.