Not A Black And White Issue

Not A Black And White Issue

by E. Assata Wright


I’ve never gone through what I went through that night,” says Bebe Matan. “I have no experience with cops and precincts. It’s all a nightmare. That was the first time and the last time I call the police.”

Matan’s “nightmare” began on March 23 when she got into an argument with her husband, Deonarine. When the dispute escalated to physical violence – he allegedly slapped her – their son, Martin, interceded on his mother’s behalf, and Bebe dialed 911. The Matan family and the New York City Police Department disagree on what happened after officers from the 102nd precinct arrived at the family’s home in Queens. What is clear is that Officer Christopher Romanski shot the husband once in the abdomen and Deonarine died from his wound later that night. It is also clear that Bebe, 38 and a Guyana native, was probably abused twice that night: once by her husband, and then again by the criminal justice system she turned to for help.

Since the 1991 beating of Rodney King, several high-profile incidents, such as the alleged sodomizing and assault of Haitian Abner Louima, have put police brutality in the national spotlight. But it is the dozens of unpublicized, less notorious cases, like the Matan incident, that fuel the growing grassroots movement against police misconduct. From national conferences on police brutality to anti-brutality marches, community activists are making this issue a top organizing priority. Even some Black and Hispanic officers are beginning to break ranks with their white colleagues and are calling for the dismissal of racist cops who brutalize Latinos and African Americans.

The June 1994 death of Nicole Brown Simpson also helped to bring domestic violence to the forefront of public policy debates. Local organizing around this issue began in the early 1990s and later culminated in the Violence Against Women Act, which Congress passed as part of the 1994 Crime Law. The Act stiffened penalties for a number of violent crimes against women, including rape and assault, and allocated federal grant money to state and local government efforts that curb domestic violence through the criminal justice system. Since passage of the Crime Law, states have passed tougher domestic violence measures and have reorganized courts and police departments to better fight this problem. Absent from each debate, however, is how domestic violence and police brutality intersect – and sometimes collide – in the lives of Black women and Latinas.

“The Black women and Latinas we work with don’t call the police because they are not always sure what the outcome will be.”

It is estimated that more than 42,000 women in New York State (half of those in New York City alone) are abused each year. The recent changes in state and local domestic violence laws have put an emphasis on police and court intervention. But with mounting complaints of police brutality in several Black and Latina communities, abused women in these neighborhoods are put in a precarious position. To be protected from their abusers, they are encouraged to call the cops, but for women of color this means relying on the same police department they believe holds their communities in contempt.

“The Black women and Latinas we work with don’t call the police because they are not always sure what the outcome will be. They believe they have to make a choice,” says Shirley Traylor, executive director of Harlem Legal Services. “They believe if they call the police or invoke the intervention of the criminal justice system, the offender is very likely to be mistreated in some way. They feel they’ve exposed the offender to some larger danger and this has an impact on their decisions.” As police brutality and domestic violence are elevated within the grassroots organizing and public policy arenas, they threaten to further overshadow battered women of color caught between the two movements.

Although they may be more hesitant to seek police protection, I Latinas and Black women are at least as vulnerable to domestic abuse as white women. The New York City Department of Health released a report last March which found that between 1990 and 1994 there were 1,156 female homicide victims aged 16 and older. 52 percent of these victims were Black, 29 percent were Latina, and 16 percent were white.

The Poverty = Violence Controversy

Of the women who were killed by a husband
or boyfriend, three-quarters were Black or
Latina and two-thirds lived in New York’s
poorest neighborhoods. This finding led the
Health Department and some researchers to
conclude that poverty causes violence and that
poor women of color are more likely to be
victims of domestic violence than white women.
Domestic violence advocates who work exclusively
with Blacks and Latinas reject this controversial
conclusion, which goes against the long-held
assumption that abuse effects women of all races
and classes more or less equally.

They agree, however, that domestic violence is
exacerbated by poverty. Middle class women have
more of a possibility of leaving an abusive
relationship by accessing a number of private
resources available to those who can pay. Poor
women, by contrast, are far more likely to rely on
public resources, which would include the network of
social service agencies, charity organizations, and
the police. The agencies and charity groups,
notoriously underfunded and understaffed, often
cannot meet the needs of every woman who comes
to them for help; many women are put on waiting
lists or turned away. For the women who use these
services, then, actually leaving the abuser may not
be immediately possible. Living with the batterer
and using the police as the first line of defense may
be the only option available.

The Health Department, which conducted the study by reviewing Medical Examiner’s reports, had only cursory information on the victims’ history with domestic violence, and not every murder was committed by a husband or boyfriend – some were committed during other disputes or robberies, for instance – but the report concluded that in murders with “identified motives, women were victims of intimate partner homicide more than any other homicide.”

The study also reveals that strategies for addressing the problem of violence against women need to be different from those aimed at homicides committed against men, which the Health Department carefully noted. Furthermore, the report implies that strategies for addressing violence against women of color need to be different from those which target the needs of white women – a fact the department failed to comment on directly. “With only empirical data, the Health Department doesn’t offer suggestions on where to go from here,” says Gail Garfield of the African American Task Force on Violence Against Women. “What strategies, especially for the Black community, [have they] put in place, or plan to put in place, in response to the data?”

The Health Department has yet to focus on the unique experiences of battered Black women, and so specific programs that take their needs into account have not been developed. In 1994, New York City implemented a one-strategy-fits-all approach to domestic violence that places a heavier emphasis on police and court intervention. New York State passed a domestic violence prevention act that same year. The new city and state policies and laws are consistent with federal guidelines outlined in the Violence Against Women Act.

Congress allocated $1.6 billion over six years to the Act, much of which will be passed on to state and local governments to fund their own domestic violence initiatives. One of the most striking aspects of the law is the link Congress made between funding eligibility and law enforcement. There are two pools of money available: state formula grants and discretionary grants. The Justice Department, which oversees the formula grant program, stipulates that states must use 25 percent of the money for law enforcement, 25 percent for prosecution programs, and 25 percent for nonprofit, non-governmental victim service programs. The remaining 25 percent is discretionary, and can be allocated to any or all of the 3 program areas. To receive discretionary grants as part of the Encourage Arrest Policies Program, applicants “must certify that their laws or official policies encourage or mandate the arrest of domestic violence offenders when there is probable cause or when a protection order has been violated.”

The mandatory arrest policy is particularly problematic for Black women because, as Garfield points out, they are more likely to fight back and protect themselves when being abused. In cases where a woman hits her abuser, she can be arrested along with the attacker. This dual arrest policy has been highly controversial, in New York and elsewhere, and currently there is legislation pending in the state assembly which would curtail this practice.

The new state law gives battered women greater access to criminal courts and strengthened orders of protection. In the past, such orders were issued only in family court. The new law, however, makes it possible for a woman to get a protection order from a criminal court. Now, if the batterer violates the order, the woman can lodge a criminal complaint against him. Previously, if a batterer harassed a woman with threatening phone calls or letters he was charged with a misdemeanor and hardly ever given jail time. Abusers were charged with felonies only after they physically injured the woman. Additionally, a few offenses that were once considered misdemeanors are now classified as felonies, increasing the severity of their potential punishment. Offenses that were already considered felonies now carry longer sentences.

Advocates fear that these initiatives, although well-intentioned, are undercut by a failure to address racism in the criminal justice system, and as a result may have disastrous effects on Black and Latino communities in general, and in particular on battered women in those communities. Women know the impact of these sentencing policies could potentially be devastating, especially in a community like Harlem, where a disproportionately large number of men already have at least one felony conviction. In the aftermath of the federal Crime Law, mandatory sentencing measures, and “three strikes and you’re out” legislation, offenders today will receive longer, stiffer penalties with each new conviction, and Blacks and Latinos know these laws hit their communities the hardest.

Traylor, whose clients have experienced “severe” abuse for years, notes that most Black women and Latinas who turn to Harlem Legal Services for assistance seek protection orders in family rather than criminal court for fear their husband or boyfriend will end up with a conviction. The women, she says, “are not at all sure they want the offender to be arrested and then face a jail term. They really want to know what we can do legally to help prevent the abuse.” They are not interested in any available legal remedies that would include criminal prosecution.

“Women have expressed those kinds of conflicts to me as well,” says Byllye Avery, founder of the National Black Women’s Health Project. “But that’s when I say to women, You’re not thinking about you. You’re thinking about him. But is he thinking about you when you’re being battered?’ See, that’s us taking care of everybody else.”

“Sure there are inequities in the law,” Avery (whose late husband was a police officer) continues. “That’s part of the reality. But what are you going to do? Keep them out of jail so they can continue to beat on you? Doing that is not going to make him stop.” In fact, she says, it will only “give them permission to keep abusing you,” and before long, abusers come to “expect” this kind of support from their victims.

In this context, many battered Black women and Latinas may protect the abuser from jail even if it means risking their own safety. In a 1996 report on police brutality in New York City, Amnesty International found that between 1993 and 1994 there was a “substantial” increase in the number of Blacks and Latinos who were shot or killed while in police custody. Advocates point out that while women want protection from their batterers, they don’t want him beaten by cops, or worse, killed by them. At least four domestic violence calls to 911 over the past 18 months resulted in deadly confrontations between cops and the alleged batterer. Two nights before cops shot Deonarine Matan in Queens, Donald Davidson was killed by Bronx police who responded to a domestic dispute at the home of Davidson’s daughter, Adrienne Matthews. In June 1996, Steve Excell was shot by police in Jamaica, Queens after he allegedly beat his wife, Sharon, with an electrical cord. Bronx Officer Vincent Guidice was killed when he responded to a domestic dispute between Anthony Rivers and his girlfriend, Gloria Virgo.

There may be other repercussions to calling the cops. A woman may be conflicted about sending a man away if she has children with him or if he is the family’s primary wage earner. The specters of the Single Black Mother and – if she is likely to need public assistance in the man’s absence – the Welfare Queen weigh heavily on a woman’s conscience. There could also be unintended consequences for the other members of the family. If there is evidence of illegal activity, drug use or dealing for example, the woman could be arrested herself and the children could be placed in foster care. The desire to keep the family together may supersede the need to be safe. “Well-meaning public policy can sometimes have an adverse effect, because it is not thought out in the context of how this may impact upon Black women’s lives,” says Garfield. “So, it can have the opposite effect of what it was intended to do.”

Fortunately there is now an effort underway that will, if successful, ease this dilemma for Black women by giving them other alternatives. Under Garfield’s leadership the African American Task Force on Violence Against Women received a $145,000 grant (one of a handful awarded to nonprofit organizations) from the Justice Department’s Violence Against Women Grants Office to develop a “community defined” response to physical and sexual abuse of women in Central Harlem. Working with residents, service providers, churches, elected leaders, and the private sector, the task force plans to build community-controlled programs that will help abused women and their families, and raise awareness about the problem. Garfield expects to have a set of recommendations ready to be implemented and tested within a year, and hopes these programs can serve as a model for other communities of color in New York and elsewhere across the country.

“We’re not telling Black women, ‘Don’t call the police. Don’t use criminal justice solutions.’ But we want to figure out how we can create other solutions that might be more productive for us and our community,” says Beth E. Richie, professor of public health at Hunter College and a member of the task force. Currently, the group is surveying the community, through town meetings and focus groups, to learn what services and programs Harlem residents would like to see implemented or expanded. Because the task force is in the early stages of this survey process, Garfield says it would be premature to comment on what their alternative solutions might entail. Richie, however, says she expects that people will say the community needs more counseling services and programs for men who batter, in addition to more shelters.

One piece of the task force’s strategy will be to get community groups and service providers to incorporate domestic violence education and prevention into their ongoing work. For example, “If a group is doing ‘youth empowerment,’ we’ll ask them to make sure that includes girl safety,” Richie says. “Since we know many battered women are living on the streets because they left abusive homes, we’ll ask advocates for the homeless to deal with that issue as a part of their work.”

Ultimately, Garfield, Richie, and their colleagues want violence to Black women to strike the same raw nerve within the community that police brutality hits, a task they know will be difficult. Police brutality – the not-too-distant relative of Southern lynchings – is consistent with the type of racially motivated violence the community feels comfortable organizing against. Violence against women is rarely addressed unless it can also be placed in a racial context. The difficulty with this stance is that it changes the focus from brutality against women to black/white racism.

Ten years ago, Tawana Brawley received community attention and succor because she claimed she was raped by six white men. Other high-profile victims, whose accusations had more merit than Brawley’s, have pointed the finger at Black men and received far less support from their community, which in these cases tends to doubt their claims of abuse, siding instead with the attacker. Boxer Mike Tyson and the late rapper Tupac Shakur – both convicted rapists – are widely regarded as victims of the criminal justice system and women who “were asking for it.”

Then consider the case of Girl X. A nine-year-old black resident of Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green housing project, Girl X was raped, beaten, strangled, blinded, and then forced to swallow gasoline in a stairwell last January. Although the child (whose real name has never been released) survived, she was unconscious for a month and may never regain her eyesight. Despite the hideous nature of the crime, community leaders remained silent for weeks following the incident and condemned the attack only after a local columnist publicly embarrassed them in print for their inaction. In the end, the community was moved less by Girl X herself than by the lack of media attention she received in comparison to JonBenet Ramsey, the white Colorado girl who was murdered in December 1996. In other words, the community chose to focus on racist media outside the community rather than the gender violence within it; racism was the issue, not sexism.

Incredibly, when convicted sex offender Patrick Sykes, 25, confessed to police he raped Girl X for “sexual gratification,” some in the community said he was a victim. A radio station poll found that while Black women felt relieved after his arrest, men believed Sykes was innocent and his confession coerced by the police. The cumulative effect of cases like these is that Black women’s experiences with violence are overshadowed by those of Black men. Similarly, the interests of battered women can be suppressed by community concern for incarcerated men. Traylor says she has seen this happen to her own clients.

“When the women go back to their community they are punished for raising their claims by their own family members and by the neighborhood. It’s really the impact of racism on the community, and how it internalizes itself and plays itself out,” she says. This punishment can take several forms. Some families may not offer material or emotional support when the woman tries to leave the relationship, refusing to give the woman a place to stay or to help with child care while she finds a job or new home. Even if relatives provide some material help, the women may be silenced by their families and told not to discuss the abuse.

The founders of the task force have already experienced the community’s wrath firsthand. The organization grew out of the so-called “homecoming celebration” held for Mike Tyson after his 1995 release from prison. Calling themselves African Americans Against Violence, Garfield and other activists held a rally to oppose the celebration and raise awareness about the kind of abuse of which Tyson was accused. Opposition to the rally was bitter and came mostly from other Black women. Rally organizers realized the community has ignored this issue for so long that it could only be addressed through an ongoing, grassroots effort, and so the task force was launched. “We have to shift political consciousness to include the issues of women,” Richie says. “It’s consistent with the history of community self determination to say, We’ve got to end violence against women. We’ve got to get empowerment zone money. We’ve got to figure out whether or not we want Barnes & Noble in Harlem. We’ve got to make sure some money for job corps comes back into our community. And our kids need summer jobs. All those things are part of the same ideology. We have to re-immerse the rhetoric into something that’s radical. And I think the Black community in Harlem is a wonderful laboratory for that because there are still folks there who talk about the need for community development.”

E. Assata Wright is a freelance journalist based in Jersey City, New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The Village Voice.