On Marissa Alexander and the Consequences of Black Women Protecting Ourselves

by Raisa Habersham

Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist, writes ever so poignantly on the inconveniences being black and woman can have: “There are all kinds of infuriating reminders of my place in the world—random people questioning me in the parking lot as if it is unfathomable that I’m a faculty member, the persistence of lawmakers trying to legislate the female body, street harassment, strangers wanting to touch my hair.”

This quote perfectly sums up how often people feel entitled to the black female body. And how often everyone else is given rights to the black female body, except for black women.

This is true when discussing the complexities of Marissa Alexander’s case, the Florida woman charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to 20 years in prison -- the mandatory minimum sentence in Florida. She recently accepted a plea deal lessening her sentencing to three years, but Alexander will only serve 65 days as her previous time served in jail before and during her trial counts toward her sentence.

Initially, Alexander sought the “Stand Your Ground” defense. She was denied and was originally offered a three-year plea deal, which she refused, and opted to go to trial. The circumstances surrounding Alexander’s case are even more confounding when juxtaposed with George Zimmerman’s trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teen he killed in 2012 as a self-appointed neighborhood watchman.

According to a deposition given by Alexander’s estranged husband, Rico Gray, she was in the bathroom when he attacked and threatened her over text messages sent to Alexander’s ex-husband. Gray continued attacking Alexander as she tried to escape multiple times. She eventually ran to the garage, grabbed her gun, and fired a warning shot at him. Gray also admitted to abusing Alexander on several prior occasions.

Zimmerman, like Alexander, used Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law which states: “An individual has no duty to retreat from any place they have lawful right to be and may use any level of force including lethal if they reasonably believe they face imminent and immediate threat of serious bodily harm or death.”

Now, I don’t have a legal background, but based on the accounts given, I think Alexander was well within her right to stand her ground. But what is perhaps most damning when comparing the use of the law by Alexander and Zimmerman is it sends a clear message that black female victims aren’t allowed to protect themselves—even with a current law stating otherwise.

Further, the sentencing perpetuates the idea that black women aren’t allowed to be victims. Katherine Cross wrote in an article for RH Reality Check: “Women are so often expected to be perfect victims. If we are raped, we must be upper-middle class, or honors students, or devoutly religious, preferably white, caught unaware in the midst of innocent activities by a perfectly rapacious and evil attacker.”

The “perfect victim” myth perpetuates the idea that self-defense shouldn’t be an option for black women as they must fit an acceptable societal standard before acting. In Alexander’s case, it could be viewed that simply choosing to defend herself disqualified her from being a “good little victim.” She was expected to take it—as black women are often expected to do in their personal and professional lives as Gay alluded to in her book.

This also perpetuates the idea that black women’s lives are invaluable by a society drenched in protecting the accused (or in this case the abuser). Gray’s past girlfriends sent letters in support of Alexander’s allegations of past abuse, but initially none were allowed to testify. (Girlfriend’s were later allowed to testify for the defense.) By prohibiting these women from telling their stories, the justice system intentionally silenced them from speaking up against injustices toward them. And thus, silenced Alexander as a victim of domestic violence as well.

This outlook is particularly detrimental considering black women suffer from intimate partner violence at a higher rate than other women. According to a 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 44 percent of black women have been the victim of intimate partner violence, with 41 percent reporting physical violence was the cause. While Alexander was able to plea down, most women who defend themselves using deadly force enter the prison system.

Even more insulting is Marissa Alexander now has to bear the brunt of explaining to future employers why she has a felony record for defending herself when her attacker gets to walk freely—even with multiple accounts of abuse to his name. When you consider how forgiving society has been of past and recent abusers, it’s quite clear that to our criminal justice system, black women’s lives don’t matter.

And it seems the only crime Marissa Alexander committed was being a black women.

Raisa Habersham is an Atlanta-based freelancer who has written for USA Today College and AllDigitocracy.com. In her spare time, she likes to post Facebook updates about her younger siblings’ plots to ruin her life.

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