Ms. Sophia was not exaggerating. She was not overstating her point or poetically embellishing when she expressed to Ms. Celie in Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple, that “A girl child ain’t safe in a family of men.” Because the appalling truth is that they are not. Women and girls, especially Black women and girls, more times than we acknowledge, are unsafe and at-risk around men. Therefore, it is not liberal arts hyperbole or lightly veiled misandry to declare that the presence of men, across the globe, is oftentimes a menace to women’s overall welfare and safety—especially those with whom they share close proximity. A close reading of the statistics for domestic violence bears this disturbing fact. According to the Violence Policy Center’s “When Men Murder Women: An Analysis of 2013 Homicide Data”, in 2013, 1,615 women were murdered by males in single victim/single offender incidents. That means roughly three to four women are killed by their (ex) partners a day. And according to the CDC, an astounding 4,774,000 women in the U.S. experience intimate partner violence every single year. Violence against women is a global health crisis and we as a society are failing to create preventive measures against this shame. And since we are failing in our preventive efforts, women and even young girls, are being unfairly punished and incarcerated for violently protecting themselves against the men in their lives. This is a growing injustice. I assert that we need to listen closely to organizations like the Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project and offer nationwide clemency and grace for women who have had to use violence – and even murder – against their (ex) partners for their freedom and safety. If we do not start having a nuanced more complex interpretation of the protective measures women take against their abusers, we will continue to create a society that helps men abuse women with glaring impunity.
Bresha Meadows is the case in point. Bresha is the daughter of Brandi and Jonathan Meadows. Brandi Meadows and Jonathan Meadows were married for 21 years. They had a wedding. They had children. They had a roof over their heads. From the outside, their life resembled a healthy home. But inside their abode, Jonathan allegedly fostered a living purgatory. Tyrannized by physical and mental abuse, Brandi and their family existed in overbearing anguish. This anguish was so severe that Brandi Meadows filed a civil domestic violence protection order against Jonathan, stating, “In the 17 years of our marriage, he has cut me, broken my ribs, fingers, the blood vessels in my hand, my mouth, blackened my eyes. If he finds me, I am 100 percent sure he will kill me and the children.” Brandi later dropped the protection order after he promised to no longer abuse her, a common occurrence in a relationship poisoned with domestic violence.
Other family members were aware of the intimate violence in their relationship. Martina Latessam, Bresha’s aunt and a detective in the Cleveland Police Domestic Violence Unit remarked,
I understand that there [was] mental abuse, physical abuse, psychological abuse, emotional abuse. The kids didn’t get, you know, hit—that was my sister Brandi who got that—but those kids had to watch that, including Bresha. They had to sit there, and he did cuss at them and call them names… My sister Brandi was abused, pushed around and punched and smacked and kicked, while all of her children watched. And it did take a toll on [Bresha]. [Bresha] did run away. And she, you know, told me about it, and she expressed great fear for herself and her family.
But there was little intervention from authorities while Jonathan was continually subjecting them to daily injury. That is until Bresha Meadows, their 14-year-old daughter (now, 15 years old) decided to take the law into her own hands and protect her family. On July 28th, as her father slept in his bed, Bresha took a .45 caliber, semi-automatic handgun and shot him directly in his skull.
In the eyes of the law, this is aggravated murder; but, for Brandi this was her daughter’s desperate act of liberation. While speaking to Fox 8 Cleveland after Bresha’s arrest, Brandi said, “I’m sorry, Bresha. I love her. You’re my hero. She helped us all. And she’s my hero, our hero. And now we need to move forward and have us a better life.” Brandi calls her daughter her “hero” for freeing their family from the terror and misery in which they lived. But the law so far does not see Bresha in similar light. The law considers her a criminal, a murderer, someone deserving of punishment and imprisonment and the prosecution has yet to decide on whether to try Bresha as an adult or child.
The Bresha Meadows Freedom Campaign and their 10,000 signatures disagrees with the prosecutors and rightfully believes she should not be tried at all. They argue,
Bresha Meadows is a child survivor of domestic violence who just turned 15 while incarcerated at the Trumbull County Ohio Juvenile Detention Center. Bresha is charged with aggravated murder for defending herself, and her family from a father who had a long history of abusing them. We demand that the Trumbull County Ohio Prosecutor’s office drop all charges against Bresha Meadows and release her immediately.
I am in full agreement with the Freedom Campaign. I also agree with scholars like Joanne Belknap who write about the deplorable statistics of women who are incarcerated for defending themselves against their abusers. I agree with scholars like Stephanie Crumpton who argue that violence against women – especially Black women – is too deeply ingrained in the psyche of this society, so the very notion of protecting them is almost inimical to the daily function of the law to which I am referring.
I believe that dropping all charges against Bresha is the correct moral response. In fact, I believe, dropping all charges and releasing Bresha is the only moral response. The habit of imprisoning survivors for protecting themselves against their abusers must stop. It must cease. It must end. We need a world where the voice and complaints of an abused victim are not drowned by laws that ignore their grievance. We need laws that protect and listen to women from the unsafe men harming them. And outside of the law, because of its practical insufficiencies, we need to watch and listen to women around the world who explicitly say they fear for their lives and are being abused by men who appear safe to the rest of society. Lastly, we need to keep a close, caring watch of women who show signs of living in fear, abuse and shame. If we do not, we will never rid ourselves of a world where intimate partner violence is not only tragic, but normal, usual and intricate. Bresha does not need prison. She needs help. Her freedom campaign accurately states,
As a child impacted by extreme violence, Bresha needs a safe and supportive environment to heal and rebuild. Bresha should be released immediately and not have to endure the re-traumatization of prosecution and incarceration. If Bresha is tried as a youth, she risks rampant abuses in the juvenile system, including a high chance of isolation in solitary confinement. If Bresha is tried as an adult, she risks direct transfer to an adult prison in Ohio. Young people incarcerated in adult prisons face horrifying rates of sexual and physical violence. If convicted as an adult, she faces the possibility of spending the rest of her life in prison. Even if Bresha is acquitted of all charges, once she’s prosecuted as an adult, any future charges will track her into the adult system.
They are correct. She should not be tried at all. I think there are more responsible, more productive ways to respond to this event that do not include a false application of retributive justice. That response would be another heinous injustice experienced by this family, especially this child.
Through the reports, which include the testimony and response of her mother, I argue that Jonathan was killing his family into killing him. What I mean is, Jonathan created and cultivated the conditions of this tragedy through his rampant terrorizing and verbal threats. Bresha Meadows, therefore, should be given grace, should be evaluated by the law as someone defending herself through an act of Necessity, as someone whose mens rea was conditioned by the fright of inevitable death and the experience of constant rampant abuse. Therefore, instead of criminal charges, what she needs now, desperately, as opposed to incarceration, is productive psychological counseling and treatment for severe post-traumatic stress. Bresha (and her family) need psychological attention and help, not a conviction from the courts. In fact, it is the courts, it is our law and authorities who need convicting for such a callous response to this ordeal and every ordeal like it. Black women are disproportionately punished for defending themselves in this society against domestic and family violence. Marissa Alexander is just one example among multiple women who were punished for merely defending themselves against their abusers. In Marissa’s case, no one was killed, yet she was punished for merely sending warning shots, warning shots that should have came from authorities in the first place.
As a theologian, I am fully and unequivocally against oppressive violence, and I am slow to condemn those who use force and violence to attain freedom. Morality is never neat and the law is scathingly imperfect. But the statistics and reports are not propaganda. The statistics tell too many unwritten and ignored stories of women harmed and murdered by their partners. That is why we need grace and clemency for victims and survivors who use violence, even justifiable homicide, for their safety. These atrocities are not cold, calculated killings. These people are not cold blooded murderers. These are women at the end of their ropes who see no other way of escape, no other means of a new life, no other avenue for which to take flight than through the death of their abusers. These are women trying to live and live safely. Bresha, as a little girl, was one of them. That is why she needs to be released immediately. And she needs a life, a childhood, the one that was taken from her by a man who was killing her and her family. So please, sign the petition demanding her freedom. Make disruptive noise on her behalf and behalf of every woman and child who need clemency and grace. And listen to women when they say they are in trouble. Listen closely, because a life – may urgently – depend on it.
Jamall Andrew Calloway is from Oakland, CA and he is a PhD student in Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. He received his Masters of Divinity from Yale Divinity School and his Bachelors of Arts in interdisciplinary humanities from Tougaloo College in Jackson, MS. Jamall writes about faith, resistance and hope in the face of evil.