Note: This is an edited version of a slightly longer and personal essay.
It was July 1994, and all I remember are snatches of television footage and newspaper clippings discussing the murder/suicide in Oaktree apartments. The murder victim was M.F., and her murderer and suicide victim was her boyfriend and father of her two toddler boys, A.W.. I was eight years old and much of that summer is a blur in my memory.
Their deaths were the end result of his years of abuse. While it’s sobering to read news accounts of his abuse, I’m not surprised by what I learned. The number one killer of African American women between the ages of 15-34 is homicide at the hands of a current or former intimate partner. The loss of life is always tragic, but especially when it is at the hands of another person. Violence against women by both intimate partners and the state (violence that reinforces each other) is entrenched into the fabric of our country. Nadia Ezeldeine was murdered by her abusive ex-boyfriend, who also killed himself, at her workplace in Chicago. The elaborate system we have of DV courts, restraining and no contact orders, hotlines, and shelters couldn’t help Nadia. The court system refused to grant her a restraining order against her ex because her fear of his reaction gripped her so thoroughly, rendering Nadia unable to travel to court herself; she sent her sister instead.
During the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander’s (CAFMA) recent event, “Where do we go from here?,” Mariame Kaba made excellent points about not relying on police to address harm that we can address as a community. She asked the audience to imagine how the actions that happened in May 2010, which lead to Marissa Alexander facing 60 years in prison, (for firing a warning shot to scare her husband who was attacking her) could have been prevented, had community members been empowered to hold Rico Gray, her abusive husband, accountable for his harm. Another salient point Mariame made is that in our current model of addressing intimate partner violence, it’s women who are always told to leave their homes, not the men who are abusing them; it should be the other way around. What kind of difference would that make in the lives of victims/survivors, that instead of them leaving their home to face the uncertainty of life without their abusive partner, healing could take place in the comfort of their home and community, not isolated in a shelter, where no family or friends can know where they are.
I often wonder what could have prevented the awful events of that fateful July day in 1994. Demand that A.W. vacate their home until he received help? Encourage him to enter rehab for his drinking? Maybe even hours or days of someone just talking to him, helping him figure out the root cause of his abusive behavior? Communities across the country are modeling transformative justice responses to violence and harm, and in imagining what a society without violence against women would like, in addition to thinking about the harmful systems that need to be destroyed, we also need to create new systems that places the needs and healing of survivors at the center, and holds people accountable for harm in a non-punitive way.