Feb 11 2014

Guest Post: On Marissa Alexander and the Politics of Defenseless Defense

I read a version of this post as a working paper. I was browsing the internet and came across it. I wrote to the paper’s author who graciously shared her work. After reading it, I asked if she’d allow me to post a version of her paper on this blog. She agreed and below is an edited version of her argument.  I am grateful to Jasmine for allowing me to share this post with you. Don’t forget that this is the week of action to free Marissa Alexander. Details are here. Also, if you can, please donate to her legal defense here.

On Marissa Alexander and the Politics of Defenseless Defense[i] 

by Jasmine Montgomery

This is my life I’m fighting for. This is my life. And it’s my life, and it’s not entertainment. This is my life. If you do everything to get on the right side of the law, and it’s a law that does not apply to you, where do you go from there?

Marissa Alexander spoke these words in a 2011 interview shortly after her sentencing. For a long time, they were the only access a public confronting the injustice of her case had to Alexander’s voice, thoughts, suffering, and resistance to the denial of her right and her truth — from the rejection of her pretrial motion seeking immunity from prosecution through the appellate court’s affirmation of the pretrial judgment and reversal of the trial judgment and the subsequent, months-long struggle over her pre-trial release. It’s from a position of believing and listening to Alexander that our political mobilizations to defend and free her, to advance an analysis of relations and structures of power that produce vulnerability, and to imagine a world transformation in which racial justice is possible take flight.

by Jawaan Burge (2014)

by Jawaan Burge (2014)

Alexander’s statement itself is the expression of a knowledge and politics in excess of the liberal reforms its various reproductions have been used to support. In this statement, Alexander is not asking to be identified as an innocent victim who has been treated unfairly by a fundamentally or even potentially just criminal legal system. She is instead fundamentally questioning what can be done in a society that originated as a slave democracy — a society whose foundational violence produces the structural position of blackness, which is constituted by and as indefensibility. There are two sides of the law: the right and the wrong; and Alexander has always been captive on the wrong side. No matter what she did, the law did not apply to her.

No matter the volume of officially documented evidence of abuse, or the active injunction of protection against domestic violence. No matter the “normative value” of her marital status, socio-economic status, and educational attainment. And no matter Alexander’s own recounting of the violence she experienced and the fear she felt on that day and many others, the judge overseeing her pretrial hearing reasoned that there was “insufficient evidence that the Defendant reasonably believed deadly force was needed to prevent death or great bodily harm to herself,” because Alexander did not show visible signs of serious bodily injury and her actions — re-entering the house with a gun rather than exiting through the front, back, or garage door — were “inconsistent with a person who is in genuine fear for her life.” No matter the lack of evidence disputing Alexander’s claim that she could not have safely exited her home; or the fact that Stand Your Ground explicitly stipulates no duty to retreat.

Feminist critiques of Stand Your Ground argue that while the statute might protect women who defend themselves against stranger attacks outside of the home, it actually makes women who experience domestic violence more vulnerable by precluding the possibility of a justifiable self-defense against a person who has a “right to be” in or is a  “lawful resident” of a home — unless the person who stands her ground has an injunction for protection which can serve as a history of violence, as evidence of fear. We see in both the law’s writing and in its application the continuous practice of forcing victims of intimate partner abuse to meet largely impossible burdens of proof, to produce legible, empirical evidence of physical and psychological injury, which is then calculated and most likely dismissed and used to do further violence. This pattern is evident in Alexander’s case.

What is also clear from her case is that antiblack valuations of worthiness and unworthiness underwrite the law’s regulation of gender violence. We perhaps see this mostly clearly in the prosecutor, Angela Corey’s, fantasies of black criminality and pathological black childhood vulnerability; her twice-successful construction of Alexander as aggressor; and the palpable enjoyment she is taking in pushing the law’s proceduralism to the limit and terrorizing Alexander, her family, and her supporters in the name of victim’s rights. During the trial, the prosecution successfully argued that not only was Alexander unharmed and unafraid, but she was angry, the aggressor. Alexander’s charge for domestic battery four months after she fired the warning shot was used as evidence of her rage and her power over Rico Gray in order to discount the violence she experienced and to undermine her claims of being afraid. If she were really afraid, the prosecution maintained, she would have figured out another way to escape.

Marissa Alexander was constructed in the trial as the angry, aggressive, irrational and irresponsible black woman who is mentally and physically strong to the point of invincibility, presumed to be privileged and protected. This essential black woman cannot be a victim. She chooses violence. Provokes violence. Commits violence. Affirms violence, and her intimate, structural relationship to violence. She is the opposite of a victim — not the proper subject of domestic violence protections, but in fact the threat those protections defend against, the thing imagined as doing the threatening. She is the figure at the foundation of legal calculations and cultural assumptions about what a victim looks like, does, and shouldn’t do; what a victim deserves; and what a victimizer deserves.

Black feminist activism and thought — in their analyses of this problem — continuously return to the site of racial slavery, circling around the experiences of female slaves in order to understand the historical and structural production of patriarchalized female gender as a racial entitlement effected and maintained through its violent foreclosure to slaves and their descendants: who are defenseless against the violence of the law and indefensible to the law, guilty until proven guilty; who have no selves to defend, no ground to stand, no standing to claim, no body, no honor, no innocence capable of being protected. Perfected by reform after violent reform, the effect of the law’s regulation of violence is and has always been the silencing of black women and girls who experience violence; the justification of abuse; the disavowal of injury; the denial of redress; the replication of harm through erasure, silencing, and [re]telling; the surveillance, discipline, punishment, and killing of black women and girls who fight back and speak out and black women and girls who do not.

Still following Alexander’s question, it is from this structural position — of a community captive on the wrong side of the law — that we might refuse the law. It’s through the affirmation of blackness as an offensiveness which can never be productive to law that we might imagine “where [we] go from there”: a new-place that does not exist within this law, within this society, or within this world. A no-place where justice is.

The symbolic significance of black protest against injustice, then, is not to argue that black life is defensible, as defensible as nonblack life. Marissa Alexander’s question pushes us to think about what a different political imagination might be around a category of offense without defense

[i] I take this language from Sora Y. Han’s forthcoming book, Letters of the Law: Race and the Fantasy of Colorblindness in American Law; and I thank Sora for helping me begin thinking through Marissa Alexander’s question.