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Protecting Black Women is Abolitionist
I ended the essay Abolition, Tory Lanez & Meg thee Stallion:
Whenever a Black woman is the victim of abuse at the hands of a man, no matter what the circumstances, she will be made to answer for her own pain and turned into either the butt of the joke or a villain. People become contortionists to hold trial against Black women for the harm they suffered to determine the myriad of ways they were both to blame and deserving. Ask Tina Turner, ask Anita Hill, ask Michel’le, ask Karrueche Tran, ask Keke Palmer, ask me.
Abolition isn’t just abolishing prisons and leaving the world as is. In order to have a world without prisons, we must rid ourselves of the harm we pretend to use prisons to address. To do that, we must not only address the root causes of that harm, but also the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors preventing us from employing alternatives to incarceration and reimagining justice. Meaning, it’s insufficient to imagine a world without prisons where women don’t have to feel relieved Tory Lanez was convicted because men wouldn’t be awaiting an acquittal to weaponize against them, without also acknowledging why that’s not the world we live in.
Imagining an abolitionist future requires us to contend with the present reality that our world not only refuses to protect Black women, but it also violently lashes out if Black women try to protect ourselves.
I’ve never referred to myself as either a victim or survivor of domestic violence because once you do, it becomes central to people’s assumptions about you and what you must believe or be triggered by. Those assumptions don’t usually line up with my reality, as I’m a woman who became a defense attorney after it happened, and I have no special hatred, hang-ups, or qualms with people accused of domestic violence or with representing them. So, on the few occasions I have mentioned my experience, it’s been just that—a mention—offered up in a heavily diluted manner that (admittedly) usually centers and humanizes the man who abused me, only to (1) rebut the assumption that as an abolitionist, I’ve never experienced crime and would feel differently if I had; and to (2) assert that I wholeheartedly believe the involvement of the criminal system couldn’t make me or him whole. Nor could it prevent another woman from experiencing the same harm.
I’ve never actually told the story; especially not for the purposes of sharing what happened to me; because I didn’t see how such a deeply personal pain could be relevant to the whole. But when people couldn’t understand why so many Black women were relieved when Tory Lanez was convicted, when they couldn’t understand why we felt so strongly about how Meg was being treated and the certainty in which we knew she and other women would be mistreated in the aftermath of an acquittal, I realized that what they’re missing is reality.
The reality that what happened to Meg is not an anomaly; that every day, regular Black women and girls experience a microcosm of what the world did to Meg—and there’s no reimagining a world without prisons without reckoning with that.
This is how I, like so many Black women, know what it’s like to protect a man who attacked you, risked your life, and somehow still be made the villain in one of the most traumatic experiences of your life.
On April 25, 2014, I was a 20-year-old junior at Ohio University in Athens, OH, living off-campus with my then-boyfriend, whom I’d been with a year and who’d recently joined a historically Black fraternity solely because I had introduced him to the members and paid his dues when his white mother refused. That night, my sorority was throwing a joint party with his fraternity. At the party, a fight broke out between his and another fraternity. The fight was quickly resolved for the other participants, but not for my boyfriend. He ran down the street and returned with a paddle he’d apparently recovered from the trunk of his car and tried to further escalate tensions despite being sorely outnumbered. I was friends with the men he was trying to fight so I begged them to spare him, and they agreed. My friend and I then dragged him down the street where he continued to argue with us because he wanted to return to the fight. But to the police driving by, it looked like he was fighting with my friend, so they stopped to ask her if she was ok. She said she was, but he started arguing with them about why they were stopping and questioning him, so they handcuffed him and put him in their backseat.
I spent at least 30 minutes pleading with the police to let him go and surprisingly, they eventually agreed, on the condition that he apologize. I then spent another 20 minutes pleading with him to apologize to them and assuring him that I knew he shouldn’t have to apologize but promising to lament and unpack it together once they let him go and I got us home safe. Eventually, he begrudgingly apologized. The moment the police uncuffed him, he darted down the street to his parked car. The police had given me his car keys because he was too drunk to drive so I followed slowly behind him to the car, accompanied by my same friend the police had assumed he was fighting with, and one of his fraternity brothers.
I vividly remember pulling up to our apartment building because it was raining, and he jumped out the car before I’d brought it to a complete stop, and I had on a pair of Reebok Kamikaze’s I remember watching get muddied as I followed behind him as he ran through the wet grass. I kept those shoes; I still have those shoes.
Once inside the apartment, he didn’t go to either of our two bedrooms, and instead threw himself onto the couch in the living room and began to yell at me for “wanting him to go to jail!” I remember being flabbergasted. I’d literally just gotten done talking this man out of handcuffs, out of the police car, and out of the criminal charges they’d been ready to slap him with, and there he was telling me I want him to go to jail. Which, looking back on now as a criminal defense attorney, I wasn’t half as outraged as I deserved to be, because I’d never encourage anyone to talk to the police or to believe they could talk the police out of making an arrest they’d already made. It was the rare exception to the rule, and he didn’t appreciate it. I decided I’d had enough. I’d spent a year being tortured by his episodes and undiagnosed issues and that was my limit. I said to him, “you know what, I’m done” and I left him on the couch and went to our bedroom, which was down the hall at the back of the apartment.
I changed into a large navy blue Tweety Bird shirt and I got in bed. I kept that shirt; I still have that shirt.
Shortly after closing my eyes, I heard him running full speed down the hall, but it was so fast, before I could fully open my eyes, his hands were around my neck. That was the first time I truly experienced a man’s strength. I was scratching at him, trying so hard to get his hands from around my neck and I remember the exact moment the panic set in, when I realized that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t loosen his grip. He stopped choking me just long enough to be able to grab me by my braids and fling me violently across the room. When he did that, he ripped multiple braids from the front of my scalp.
When I landed, I tried to run and he grabbed me, tearing my shirt. He pulled me back down to the ground and started kicking me in my head. I don’t remember exactly how many times he kicked me, but I remember telling the doctor who told me I had a concussion that I lost count after the 36th kick. I do remember that while he was kicking me, he was calling me by other people’s names and screaming messages that seemed meant for whoever he seemed to be seeing instead of me.
At some point, the neighbors must’ve heard me screaming and crying for him to stop and called the police. The knock at the door startled him momentarily enough to give me an opportunity to run towards it. I opened it expecting to see our friends who’d walked us to the car and planned to drop by because they were concerned about how he was acting. Instead, it was the same police officers I’d convinced not even an hour earlier to release him. Our friends I initially expected to see, arrived moments later. They were with me as I sat on the floor in nothing but that torn up Tweety Bird shirt, with braids visibly missing, crying and pleading with the police not to arrest him (again). I even told them to arrest me in his place. Whilst this is happening, I can hear him in our bedroom screaming at the officers “fuck that bitch” in reference to me, the woman protecting him to her detriment.
I called his mother to help me convince the police not to arrest him. He was Black—biracial—but Black. But his mother was white. I put the phone on speaker so she could talk to the police. She told the police to arrest him and they did. As they hauled him out the apartment, he begged them to “please let me talk to my girl.”
When he called me from jail, he cried about hurting me and disappointing himself because as a Black man, he’d always promised himself he’d never go to jail. I understood and I told him how that understanding was precisely why I’d begged them not to arrest him in the first place and why I wouldn’t proceed with a case against him. Then I met with some of his fraternity brothers and his only friend, who’d come to our apartment to check on me and offer their condemnations of him because everyone knew what he did, they knew exactly who he was. I mean, two of them had witnessed many of the night’s events. Still, I begged them not to ostracize him, and to instead get him help.
His mom drove over two hours down to our apartment and told me I’d “brought this out of [her] son” and it was my fault he’d attacked me because it was childish of me to tell him I was done with the relationship when he’d accused me of wanting him to go to jail. Mind you, this is a woman who’d physically ran from him in a mall in Dayton months earlier and warned me that I needed to decide if I could be with him because he was “looking at her like he wants to beat [her] ass.” She told me that my name wasn’t on the lease and that the order of protection the court would impose regardless of what I wanted meant we couldn’t be together despite living together and having no other place to go, so she put all my things in garbage bags and threw them outside. This was the weekend before finals, so I went into my finals week homeless, traumatized and exhausted, on my friend’s couch. Exhausted, because I wasn’t allowed to go to sleep with a concussion.
Despite that, upon the advice of his attorney, I wrote a leniency letter to the court explaining that he was an amazing person who was troubled but needed therapy and mental health treatment, not criminal prosecution. I took the bus with money I didn’t have to get the letter notarized and submitted to the court. His mother and his fraternity brother called to criticize me for acknowledging any fault on his part and saying he needed mental health treatment in the letter. I didn’t know how else to write a letter supporting him without totally invalidating that he had attacked me.
I refused to cooperate with the prosecutor and ignored every call until they were forced to dismiss his case and the order of protection. It was about a month or so between his arrest and the case’s dismissal. I know, because I couldn’t see him, but I spent that time doing everything I could to protect him and I remember the weight of the depression I sank into when his fraternity brothers and my sorority sisters—the same people I’d begged not to ostracize him—had instead decided, to ostracize me.
When he was released from jail after arraignments, one of his fraternity brothers who barely knew him, didn’t like him, and who I’d known for years, sang to him “bet you can’t wait to cut that bitch off.” They laughed about how it wouldn’t have happened if he’d been with my light-skinned sorority sisters he’d apparently tried getting with earlier in the night he attacked me. They provided him physical shelter to cheat on me at their homes. People I’d been friends with for years, who’d taken me to the hospital and sat with me when the doctor told me I had a concussion, shrugged their shoulders and told me they didn’t believe he attacked me because despite the fact that he never denied what he’d done to me and always appeared profoundly hurt, ashamed, and traumatized by the whole experience when he spoke to me; while his case was open, he either denied, minimized, or allowed his friends’ conspiracy theories to fly, because he was afraid of going back to jail.
They painted him as light-skinned, small and nonthreatening man vs. a big dark Black woman who must be secretly violent and adversarial. I was a 5’2” woman who was asleep when he, a 5’9” man, began choking me with all his strength. Instead of being a victim of domestic violence, they called it a “toxic relationship” and painted a picture of “mutual violence” where we simply had a violent relationship where I must’ve attacked him, and he just defended himself. I’ve never put my hands on him or any other man, and I was asleep, but that didn’t stop them from constantly implying that I must’ve been the aggressor and raising new hypotheticals about my complicity and justifications for what he’d done.
One of the worst lows I’ve ever felt was hearing someone say he attacked me and hearing people who’d stood in my house as friends, respond “well… you know she’s big” and then erupt into laughter at the implication that my weight meant I couldn’t be a victim.
I never imagined I’d feel gratitude to still have the shirt and shoes I wore the night he attacked me. I’d never fathomed that for my sanity, I’d need to look at that ripped Tweety Bird shirt and the mud on those shoes just to be sure that something I lived through happened to me, because people would gaslight me so violently.
I know many people roll their eyes when they hear “protect Black women” because they perceive it as a self-indulgent rallying cry from a whiny interest group, rather than a cry for help from who Malcolm X described as the most unprotected, disrespected, and neglected group of women on the planet. I’m not trying to convince anyone that they should protect Black women, I’m illustrating how I know that we are not, even when we’re the first person to protect our abusers.
We cannot live in a world without prisons, where Black women don’t breathe a sigh of relief when a Black man is convicted for abusing a Black woman, where Meg isn’t forced to rely on the criminal system, if we refuse to offer Black women protection anywhere else.