Why Criminalization Won’t Stop Gender-Based Violence

For a long time, the night that I was arrested was a source of shame for me. That night, my partner at the time was drunk. He was banging on the front door of the apartment we shared, and I was holding it closed. I ran to the kitchen, grabbed a knife, and ran back to the front door — threatening him to make him leave. But he shoved his way in and grabbed the knife out of my hand, cutting his own palm when he wrapped his hand around the blade. I heard someone outside say that they were calling the police. He came toward me. I grabbed another kitchen knife. Then he pulled out his phone and called the police, too, telling them that I had a knife. I felt foolish and afraid. I put the knife down. When the police arrived, they arrested both of us.

At CASS, we’ve been having discussions about our position to oppose the criminalization of street harassment because of the way the criminal legal system disproportionately impacts marginalized communities and fails the people most at risk of sexual harassment and assault: women of color and LGBTQGNC people.

And while I wish there could be a solution as quick and easy as “call the police,” I know that it’s not that simple. I know that a recent Urban Institute study shows that many homeless LGBT youth in New York City engaging in survival sex — youth in need of support and services — have been abused by NYPD officers and that the abuse has taken the forms of verbal harassment, physical and sexual assault, and refusal of help. I know about the sex abuse to prison pipeline, showing that girls, specifically girls of color, who have experienced sexual violence as children are more likely to end up behind bars as a result.

I know about my own experience: In 2012, I spent a night in a D.C. jail cell next to the cell where my abusive partner snored. I was awake all night, ashamed for what I’d done and feeling that I was just as guilty as him. When we were released the next day, I believed him when he said, “It’s you and me against the world.” My night in jail reinforced the idea that I was to blame for the abuse, and it made me sure I’d never leave.

But I look back now, two and a half years out of the relationship, and I have heard the stories of women like Marissa Alexander who went to prison for firing a warning shot to scare off her abusive husband and Meagan Hockaday who was shot and killed by police because she was holding a knife during a domestic dispute, and I know that the criminal legal system is not a viable option for support or justice for women of color like me.

I also know that, while my white, male, and abusive former partner may never spend more than a night in jail for each assault he commits, an innocent black man in the same city can’t even stand in front of a bank and hold the door open for someone without being subjected to excessive force by the police.

Criminalization won’t stop gender-based violence because the system was not designed to protect and serve the people at greatest risk. Instead, many argue that prison feeds our culture of violence.

For black and brown bodies who are most likely to be objectified, abused, and policed, the only solace we can offer is our support and our work to create long-term change in the movements to end sexism, racism, and violence.


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