Jun 25 2012

“Losing the Movement:” Black Women, Violence & Prison Nation

Last week, I was privileged to organize an event for a project that I am affiliated with called Girl Talk. As part of the event, my friend, the brilliant Dr. Beth Richie spoke about her new book “Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation.” I can’t recommend the book any more highly.

Beth suggested on Thursday that the book is to some extent autobiographical, in part tracing her personal involvement as an activist in the anti-violence against women and girls’ movement. In reading the book, I found my own story also represented in the history that she illuminates through her research.

Today, I want to focus on one key aspect of the thesis that Beth advances in the book. She contends that the “success” of the anti-violence against women and girls’ movement in passing legislation and gaining public legitimacy was in large part due to the increasingly conservative political climate that was emerging in a parallel way. That conservative political climate emphasized a “law and order” and “tough-on-crime” approach to addressing social problems.

Beth pointed out in her talk that many activists within the anti-violence movement (particularly women of color and queer people) spoke out about the fact that increasing criminalization would adversely affect certain populations. Their voices, however, did not win the day.

I’ve written on this blog about my own disillusionment and then subsequent exile from the anti-rape and anti-domestic violence fields. My story is by no means unique. Beth does a really terrific job in Arresting Justice of tracing “the evolution of the anti-violence movement as it transformed from a radical grassroots social movement to an institutionalized set of social services that relies heavily on the remedies offered by the legislative process and the criminal legal system (p. 101).”

She maintains that this transformation has had particularly detrimental impacts on the lives of poor and marginalized black women:

“This conceptualization of the anti-violence movement as evolving from within and adapting to a prison nation situates the understanding of the experiences of Black women from disadvantaged communities who experience male violence within the context of conservative political ideology and punitive public policy where institutionalized victims’ services cannot reach them (p.101).

The book cites the example of Tiawanda Moore as one that is illustrative of “the broader context of a prison nation.” Unfortunately, cases like Moore’s fall outside of the purview of the current mainstream anti-violence movement. I can personally attest to this fact.

Regular readers of this blog know that my friend and colleague, Melissa Spatz and I, took up the cause of Ms. Moore through the Chicago Taskforce on Violence against Girls and Young Women precisely because the local mainstream anti-violence movement was absent in advocating against the injustice of her prosecution. Beth argues convincingly in Arrested Justice that we, as anti-violence activists and organizers, won the mainstream while losing the movement. Her assessment is spot on. Melissa and I both found it incredibly dispiriting that so few activists in the mainstream anti-violence field in Chicago offered any support for Ms. Moore as she endured her ordeal.

One of the invaluable contributions of Beth’s work in Arrested Justice is that she theorizes a “Violence Matrix.” The “Violence Matrix” offers a black feminist analysis of male and state violence. I think that this will be very useful to those of us who want to first understand and then eradicate violence against black women and girls. The matrix can help all of us to make better sense of how violence can play out in black women’s lives in multiple contexts.

Below I am sharing a chart that Beth made available to us during her talk on Thursday which lays out the concept of the “violence matrix.” If you use it or re-post it, please make sure that it is properly cited and credited. Also, you can find a detailed explanation and analysis of the “violence matrix” in chapter 5 of Arrested Justice. I wish that I had more time to delve more deeply into Beth’s argument and into the book but alas work calls. I encourage anyone with an interest in anti-violence work, the PIC, feminism, racism and women’s issues to read this book.

The Violence Matrix (by Beth E. Richie, PhD)

Physical Assault Sexual Assault Social Disenfranchisement
Intimate Households Direct physical assaults by intimate partners or household members, victim retaliation Sexual aggression by intimate partners or household members Emotional abuse and manipulation by intimate partners or household members, forced use of drug and alcohol, isolation and economic abuse
Community Assaults by neighbors, lack of bystander intervention, availability of weapons Sexual harassment, acquaintance rape, gang rape, trafficking into sex industry, stalking Degrading comments, hostile neighborhood conditions, hostile or unresponsive school and work environments, residential segregation, lack of social capital, threat of violence
Social Sphere Stranger assault, state violence (e.g. police), gun control policies Stranger rape, coerced sterilization, unwanted exposure to pornography Negative media images, denial of significance of victimization, degrading encounters with public agencies, victim blaming, lack of affordable housing, lack of employment and health care, mistrust of public agencies, poverty

Surrounding the Violence Matrix is the tangled web of structural disadvantages, institutionalized racism, gender domination, class exploitation, heteropatriarchy and other forms of oppression that locks the systematic abuse of Black women in place.  Responses need to be developed that take all of the forms of abuse and all of the spheres within which injustice occurs into account.

From: Richie, Beth E. Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation. New York: New York University Press, 2012.  Do not duplicate without proper citation.