by Ewuare X. Osayande
Right now in Florida there is a person serving a 20 year sentence that claimed the controversial Stand Your Ground law as defense. No, I am not referring to George Zimmerman, who is yet to stand trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin, who remained free without charge until a national outcry erupted. I am talking about Marissa Alexander, African American mother of three. Her crime? Discharging a warning shot into the wall in her home that killed or wounded no one with a gun she had a license to own and use.
Her case is one of the most egregious acts of state-sanctioned injustice to appear in the past year. It represents not only the failure of the justice system to exact justice on our behalf as a community, it also represents the failure of a Black leadership that has up until now remained on the sidelines and watched as the system has railroaded this sister.
Why has there been such silence on the part of the “Black Triumvirate” of Sharpton, Jealous and Jackson? Earlier this Spring, the Rev. Al Sharpton was said to be looking into the case. Why haven’t we heard from him? Or them? Or any of the other so-called Black leaders that lifted their voices to call national attention to the killing of Trayvon Martin? Why haven’t we heard President Obama weigh in with “Marissa could be my wife” or “Marissa could be my sister”?
Is it because she is a woman? The overwhelming majority of cases that galvanize the attention of Black leadership from the grassroots to the elite are cases where the victim is a Black male.
Is it because her attacker is a Black man? When it was discovered that George Zimmerman was not as white as many first suspected, that didn’t seem to deter or diminish our communal outcry. But, in this case, could it be that the lack of outcry is due to our unwillingness to come out against “one of our own”?
Is it because she used a gun? Historically, mainstream Black leadership has had a real problem with notions of self-defense and the use of violence. But this case even further complicates that claim in that we are not dealing here with a case of a Black person defending his or her life against some random Confederate flag waver. This is the case of a Black woman defending herself against an abusive husband.
If any of these questions can be answered affirmatively (which I believe they all can), then this means that we are dealing with a leadership that is overtly biased in determining what cases merit their concern and, thus, our collective outrage and mobilization. It suggests that their investment for securing justice on behalf of the Black community is selective and protective of Black manhood even and especially when it comes at the lived expense of Black women.
Ultimately, the onus is on us as a community. The truth is that Black leadership didn’t get behind the Trayvon Martin case until the Black community blew up social media with our justified outrage. If we pushed them to use their prestige to Alexander’s behalf the way we did with Martin, they would have no choice but to act.
As a community and culture there is a way that we have given short shrift to cases involving injustice against Black women. We place a heavy burden on Black women in cases of sexual and/or physical abuse when the accused perpetrator is a Black man. That is a contradiction that only weakens us morally even as it strengthens a racist justice system that is hell-bent on not delivering equal justice under the law to our community. In cases like this, our lack of outcry – due to our own proclivity to patriarchy – gives the system a pass that only comes back to bite us.
When you look into Marissa Alexander’s case, you find a woman who is a victim of sustained marital abuse. And, if you have a heart, you realize what many women, and Black women in particular, already know – there are very few safe spaces in our local communities to which battered women can turn to get the help they desperately need. That lack of help and support leads to cases where women, in circumstances similar to Alexander’s, find themselves behind bars for taking the lives of their abusive husbands. Yet, in Alexander’s case, she did not take the life of her now ex-husband Rico Gray, though she could have given her experience shooting at the gun range with her father. This was not the first attack Alexander suffered. There was a clear history of routine abuse. At the time of the incident in August 2010, Alexander had recently given birth to their daughter. The months leading up to the birth saw Alexander beaten by Gray so badly that she was hospitalized while pregnant with said child.
That she feared for her life when she returned from the garage to retrieve her keys with gun in hand should be as clear as the ink on the protective order she had against him just the year before that was still in place the day of the shooting. His claim of being the victim here is insulting. We are talking about a man who has gone on record as stating that were it not for the presence of his two boys he would have tried to kill her himself. He has confessed to saying to her that day, “If I can’t have you, no one can.” The presence of his sons did not stop him from barging into the bathroom and threatening her life. This is a man who went on to confess that violence toward women is his way of life. “I got five baby mammas, and I put my hands on every last one of them except for one. … The way I was with women … they had to walk on eggshells around me.” During the 2010 deposition he went on to confess to punching women in the face, choking and tossing them around. This is a man who changed his testimony three times before Alexander faced a jury. Yet the judge did not allow Gray’s past abuse toward women admitted as testimony against him.
How is it that Alexander is the one in prison and not this man?
Angela Corey, the prosecutor tasked with prosecuting George Zimmerman last month, is the prosecutor in this case. For those that think that her tough stance in this case is indicative of how she will handle Zimmerman, think again. What this does indicate is her systemic bias against Black people as Florida’s state attorney. According to Congresswoman Corrine Brown, no Black person has successfully used the Stand Your Ground defense in the state. Corey has stated that Alexander had the chance to escape. I thought the point of Stand Your Ground was that a person did not have to flee but could use deadly force when being attacked or under threat of attack. In fact there is a 1999 Florida State Supreme Court ruling that states that “a woman attacked by her husband in the home they share does not have to flee.” There is a clear bias here as to who gets to claim such defense.
Marissa Alexander is a victim and survivor of abuse, and when she decided she’d had enough and took appropriate measures to defend herself, the state stepped in and abused and victimized her some more. She is now facing 20 additional years of trauma for trying to protect her life. According to state statutes she must wait ten years before she can ask for clemency from the governor. We don’t have to wait another minute. The same way we raised our collective voices and moved the state to act on behalf of Trayvon Martin should be the way we mobilize ourselves now for Alexander’s freedom. It is absolutely harrowing that we have to go to such lengths to procure justice for members of our community. But if we don’t, then the hopes of us ever securing a more just system are slim to none. This is the challenge of our generation. If we are to rise to it, it will mean dealing with the biases that exist in our communities. It will mean creating safe space and sustained support for battered and abused women without judgment or ridicule. It will mean no longer positioning Black women between the proverbial rock and hard place of a culture that sensationalizes violence against women and a religious ethos that counsels battered women to remain and renders prayer as primary remedy.
Ewuare X. Osayande (www.osayande.org) is an activist and author of several books including Misogyny & the Emcee: Sex, Race & Hip Hop.
For more information on Marissa Alexander’s case, please visit: http://www.justiceformarissa.blogspot.com/