Why is Marissa Alexander serving 20 years in a Florida prison for firing a warning shot while Trayvon Martin’s killer walks free? No doubt it is because she is African American and female, in a system that demonizes women who fight back!
Alexander is a mother of three from Jacksonville who survived several severe incidents of domestic violence by her husband, Rico Gray. She was in the process of separating from him, but on Aug. 1, 2010, nine days after giving birth, she went to their home and was attacked again.
Gray trapped Alexander and threatened to kill her. After unsuccessfully trying to escape, she grabbed her gun and fired a warning shot that injured no one. Gray called the police, who arrested Alexander.
In a sworn statement, Gray admitted he was the aggressor. He later recanted, but his three domestic violence arrests, plus statements from previous girlfriends, show him to be a serial abuser.
Alexander was denied a Stand Your Ground defense. Outrageously, the judge ruled that if Alexander feared for her life, she would have somehow fled. She was convicted of three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Alexander can gain release in one of several ways — via an appeal, a clemency ruling, or legal reform. To win her freedom through any of these avenues will take a bold national movement.
Race and gender bias. Three women die each day in the U.S. from abuse by a partner. Yet women who kill their attackers are more likely to be convicted than others charged with homicide, and their sentences are typically longer.
And the “justice” system is doubly rigged against women of color. Black women encounter immense bigotry. Racist stereotypes paint them as hostile, immoral and aggressive; many judges and jurors just don’t believe they acted in self-defense. Black women are twice as likely as white women to be convicted for murdering abusive husbands.
Undocumented immigrants, meanwhile, lack even a minimum of social standing and rarely report abuse for fear of deportation.
In the 1970s and ’80s, feminists and race liberationists went to bat for survivors of racial and sexual violence charged with crimes. They won freedom for Black, Chicana, and Indian women including Delia Alaniz, Inez Garcia, Joan Little, and Yvonne Wanrow.
Today, however, the war on women that has stripped away so many rights and services undermines the ability to fight back.
Sumayya Coleman, co-founder of Free Marissa Now and national organizer of the African-American/Black Women’s Cultural Alliance, asked this writer, “If you get 20 years for defending yourself, what does that say to victims? Let them beat you, your life means nothing.”
Alexander is also a casualty of Florida’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which decree a 20-year sentence when a gun is fired during a felony. Prosecutors decide whether to word charges in a way that triggers mandatory minimums. These laws are used to jail massive numbers of people of color.
The problem is not isolated to Florida. In 2011, over 6.9 million people in the U.S. were behind bars or on parole or probation. Over 60 percent of prisoners are people of color. Profits also prime the prison pipeline. In 2010, the two largest private prison companies brought in over $2.9 billion.
“We are fighting to end genocide and mass incarceration,” says Aleta Alston-Touré, Free Marissa Now leader and regional director of the Southern Freedom Movement. She told this writer, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest. Liberation is based on actions.”
Enough is enough! Marissa’s family and friends and some Jacksonville activists have been defending her since her arrest. But the case became nationally known when she was sentenced in May 2012.
As a socialist feminist organization, Radical Women (RW) felt strongly about coming to Marissa’s defense. RW issued a statement in June 2012 and helped start the Pacific Northwest Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander.
The alliance is a multiracial group with outspoken Black women in the leadership. They have taken Marissa’s cause to community groups, churches, marches, rallies, and festivals. They co-sponsored a Mother’s Day action demanding affordable childcare, an end to domestic violence, funding for social services, and other needs of women and children.
Radical Women and the Pacific Northwest Alliance also helped launch the national Free Marissa Now campaign (FMN) in cooperation with Marissa and her family. Other founders include the African-American/Black Women’s Cultural Alliance, INCITE!, the New Jim Crow Movement, and the Southern Freedom Movement.
FMN hosts conference calls in which people around the country develop joint campaigns. FMN generates publicity, reaches out to potential endorsers, organizes educational events, raises funds, petitions online, and explores legislative reforms. Over 50 groups have endorsed, including the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, National Congress of Black Women, and the National Conference of Black Lawyers.
FMN urges people to write Marissa so that both she and prison officials know the extent of her support. Marissa says, “I’m so very blessed to have some of the most extraordinary people and organizations who are committed to supporting and encouraging me in every way. ... Truly I couldn’t begin to express to you how much I appreciate your wonderful letters.” See freemarissanow.tumblr.com for info about writing to her.
The stark contrast between Alexander’s sentence and Zimmerman’s acquittal ignited more outrage in July 2013. Florida groups held a six-day Walk for Dignity from Jacksonville to Sanford demanding the resignation of State Attorney Angela Corey and Alexander’s release. Marissa’s supporters took part in protests of the Zimmerman verdict, responded to a new wave of media interest, and brought her case to commemorations of the 1963 March on Washington. Sept. 14, Alexander’s birthday, was a national day of rallies and events demanding her freedom.
The pressure is having an impact. Florida State Senator Dwight Bullard has publicly urged the governor to pardon Alexander.
Contact Anne Slater, national president of Radical Women in the U.S. and a member of the Free Marissa Now campaign, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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