Curing the Pandemic of Gendered Violence

It’s a truism that domestic violence victims suffer twice: at the hands of a partner and from a criminal justice system that’s supposed to protect them but usually doesn’t. Indeed, such victims who dare defend themselves often land in the clink, as if they’re the criminals. That’s why radical feminists who long labored against domestic abuse, advise women NOT to dial 911. Because the cure is worse than the disease.

And the disease is pretty awful, as documented in Abolition. Feminism. Now. by Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Erica Meiners and Beth Richie.  This new book lays out the systemic oppression and abuse of minority women and children not only by the police and courts, but by the foster care system and a so-called child protection bureaucracy that criminalizes, inter alia, mothers sleeping in the same bed as their infants! Can you imagine any government agency prosecuting a white middle-class mother for nursing her newborn in bed – or using such a routine, beneficial practice as an excuse to steal the infant from its family? Such a bureaucracy is in fact an icy sarcophagus for maternal love. So it’s no surprise that for the authors of this new book, everything – police, courts, prison, child “protection” bureaucracy – has got to go. And they make their case convincingly.

Gendered violence is not some marginal annoyance. It is widespread –but regarded slightingly in the wider culture because its victims usually are seen as marginal. It’s on a par with homelessness, a problem that’s always there and lacks an easy fix. The fact that domestic abuse has roots in a social chasm so deep and dark that contemplating it is dizzying consigns the problem to the political wilderness. No politico aims to restructure society. Besides, who would benefit? It’s not as if domestic abuse victims or homeless people are senators after all. But revolutionaries are different. And when they say let’s smash the prison industrial complex, including those parts of it that supposedly aid battered women, they mean it.

“Turning to punishment agencies and tactics of social control will not protect women and others harmed by gendered violence,” the authors argue. Citing examples, they show how the state “coopts seemingly radical tools and languages, and sometimes entire organizations in the service of legitimizing state violence.” Such cooptation occurred with “restorative justice” activism. This book describes how those activists were crowded out, as criminal justice mainstreamed their movement and began paying restorative justice experts for their services. “Many of these positions can now only be filled by someone with expensive certifications and credentials,” the authors write.

Underlining the systemic nature of the problem, this book discusses impoverished mothers who lose custody of their children, if, for example, rats are detected in their apartments, when, the authors argue, it’s the landlord who should be penalized. That’s the problem with the petrified reasoning of “the system.” It has things backwards. The question is, what to replace it with? For without these official structures of punishment and control, how to cope with “the pandemic of gender violence?”

On that the authors are less precise. “We hold people accountable and believe that people can change.” This is fine, but lots of wife-beaters don’t want to change and have no intention of doing so. What then? My guess is that these activists would work to extricate the person from such an abusive relationship. For that, community mental health organizations and domestic violence shelters come into play. Not prosecutors and police, whose relationship to minorities in general and battered minority women in particular is murderous, to say the least.

The term “safe spaces” pops up in gender abuse discussions – if communities can provide such havens to victims, that helps greatly. The emphasis is on the safety of the victims, not the punishment of the perpetrators, because of “the ideological connections between state violence, street violence and interpersonal violence, a conjunction at the heart of all the work of abolition feminism.” These radicals want to banish the state altogether, not least because it enforces a hierarchy of “worthy” victims.

“The legitimate victims of gender and sexual violence,” the authors write, characterizing official views, “could not be a sex worker, a queer person, a woman of color and certainly could not be an incarcerated person.” That leaves white, financially secure, heterosexual women not in jail. It excludes what may very well constitute the majority of gender abuse victims. Such an approach, such a frame of mind is worse than useless, because it devalues the lived reality of so many people.

Unfortunately, dialing 911 is easy. It’s what lots of desperate people do, even though they may know that cops are not mental health professionals and that when they arrive on the scene, they may very well kill the person who telephoned. But in truth, a gender abuse victim who calls the cops, probably in extremis, ignores such common sense.

So until there’s an alternative, as quick and easy as an emergency phone number, victims will doubtless continue to make the error of calling the police. But an alternative, whatever it may be, is what we need. Something a person suffering harm can resort to in a flash. Something that won’t, in turn, inflict new harm.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Hope Deferred. She can be reached at her website.