A Movement History from a Systems Advocate
This piece is the second in the blog series, “Dreaming Up a More Liberated Future” which will explore how we (as a country, and as a movement to end gender-based violence) have prioritized expanding and strengthening punishing systems over helping strategies, the impact of those choices on survivors of trauma and their communities, and how we can do better.
The conversations we are having today about alternatives to the criminal legal system for responding to sexual and intimate partner violence have been part of our movement since at least the early 70’s. It is a conversation that has evolved over the years, and one that needs serious focus and resolve to move beyond conversation to collective action. Calls to defund police have created quite a stir, and have pushed us to imagine something different — but what?
Back in January 2002, the Ms. Foundation convened a roundtable discussion, “Uneasy Allies: A Critical Examination of the Relationship Between the Anti-Domestic Violence Movement and the Criminal Legal System,” which explored the relationship between the women’s anti-violence movement and the criminal legal system. As a result of this meeting, a document was produced the following year called “Safety and Justice for All: Examining the Relationship Between the Women’s Anti-Violence Movement and the Criminal Legal System.” Many of the issues raised in this conversation and document remain relevant today — nearly 20 years later; some have moved past conversation into practice.
These movement leaders raised questions like: “How do we keep vulnerable individuals, especially women and children, safe and yet hold batterers and sexual violence offenders accountable without calling for longer, more punitive sentences?” and “When does reliance on the criminal legal system become over-reliance? How much reliance is acceptable? At which point are we over-reliant on the criminal legal system? What are effective alternatives for women and children’s safety both within and outside of the criminal legal system? What, if anything, of the criminal legal system do we want to maintain? What parts of the legal system do we want to dismantle, modify, or replace? If we believe that the criminal legal system is not the answer to the problems of sexual and intimate partner violence, what should we replace it with? What are the alternate visions of advocates promoting reduced involvement of the criminal legal system?” These questions raised in that 2002 roundtable conversation are ones I, as an advocate, continue to think about and grapple with today.
More recently, the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance signed onto a statement (Moment of Truth) condemning police violence, acknowledging over-reliance on the criminal legal system, and calling for bold moves aligned within a larger context centralizing peace, liberation, and justice for all. I agree with the content of this statement, and while I fully embrace all that it expresses, I believe we still need to get serious about answering some questions – such as “What could our engagement with the criminal legal system look like as we transform?”
My most predominant question is this: “What do I, as a woman, a lesbian, a survivor, an advocate, want from my government and my community in the form of protection from and accountability for those who commit violence or engage in coercive control against me, or another?”
When I begin with this question, then the answers begin to evolve. For starters, I do not want someone to commit violence against me or another – so that leads me to invest in the work of primary violence prevention. This is work I value and that, to me, leads us down the path of safety, equity, justice, and liberation. When all people are and feel wanted, loved, valued, cared for and nurtured, they tend to thrive, feel empathy towards others, and avoid engaging in violent, coercive behavior. When people feel in control of their lives, have a sense of agency, and have their basic needs met, they are much less inclined to commit violence or feel the need to exert dominance over another.
Primary prevention work means building healing-centered organizations and communities, seeking equity for all, eliminating structures that oppress, and teaching youth and adults to value themselves, the environment, and all living creatures. It means creating opportunities for accessible housing, education, childcare, healthcare, and meaningful sustainable employment and work, and examining systems of domination and control and replacing them with practices of curiosity, cooperation, and collaboration. These are efforts that our movement has embraced, and that we are committed to investing in and working towards.
People who experience harm engage in a range of responses. One might call the police. If I were harmed and called the police, I would hope they were kind and understanding. I would want them to address the danger I face; to recognize that I had been harmed, validate that, let me know where I can seek help, and act within their authority to hold the person who harmed me accountable. Much of the work with law enforcement has been to try and gain this type of response.
Early on in our movement, a typical response from law enforcement was to tell the “offender” to “just walk it off,” or for both parties to separate and “cool off.” Sometimes well-intentioned officers tried to mediate between the parties. Sometimes families intervened to help victims, seldom condemning the actions of the perpetrator and sometimes even aligning with their actions. Victims reached out to places of worship, often getting blamed for the violence; schools and other community systems ignored or blamed those harmed and left little place to turn except the system whose job it is to protect and serve.
While reforms may have led in some situations to safety for survivors and accountability for perpetrators, in most it represented a huge loss of agency, re-victimization, and inconsistent measures of accountability. It was like jumping on a moving train to escape horrible living conditions and being carried away to an alternate reality with a whole new set of horrible living conditions. The criminal legal system is one of the systems that our movement invested in – and it has felt like that moving train. Reforms have felt like one step forward, two steps back. We keep working at it, and take solace in small achievements, telling ourselves that more time, more resources are worth it if it can bring about the changes we envision.
In the late 1970’s and 1980’s, advocates for battered women and sexual assault survivors shared horror stories of victims who had reached out to law enforcement for protection and not received it. In too many cases, victims were blamed for causing the violence they experienced. In 1983 in Torrington, Connecticut, an officer stood by while Tracy Thurman’s husband beat and kicked her until she was unconscious and ultimately permanently disabled; Thurman sued the town of Torrington and the case made national headlines. Shortly thereafter, states began instituting mandatory arrest statutes, mandatory minimums, and other criminal sanctions designed to address violence.
In 1995, then-Virginia Attorney General Jim Gilmore, a member of the Virginia Commission on Family Violence Prevention, proposed a mandatory arrest statute in Virginia. This was a turning point for our state’s victims and advocates, many of us still trying to convince our communities that this violence did in fact happen to people in their towns. Though we longed for change, we were wary — we knew these policies were not working as intended in other states. Advocates responded with an alternative – a presumptive arrest for the primary aggressor (changed to predominant aggressor a few years later) law, accompanied by additional funding for domestic violence programs and shelters, increased resource access to victims, a mandate for law enforcement agencies to develop policies that supported victims and to inform victims of available services, and training for law enforcement on implementing these new policies. These didn’t just focus on arrest but offered a more comprehensive approach — expanding access to services for survivors and improving pro se civil options like protective orders. This legislation went into effect in Virginia in 1997 and has been the law since then.
It’s now twenty-four years later. Some law enforcement agencies have significantly changed their responses to domestic and sexual violence, and many individual officers have dedicated their careers to improving this response. However, many still refuse to follow their own policies, and we are still pushing law enforcement agencies to adopt new policies and train their officers on them. During the 1990’s, there were strong community teams dedicated to improving community response to domestic and sexual violence in Virginia, though we have recently seen a drop in this approach. This is the approach that creates opportunity for real change within communities and reimagining how we do our work here could offer possibilities to bringing about transformative change.
Stay tuned for “Sexual and Domestic Violence Agencies and Law Enforcement, Part 2 of 2: Where We Are and Where We’re Going.”
Ruth Micklem is the Action Alliance’s Community Initiatives Manager. As a trainer and passionate advocate of justice for more than 35 years, Ruth has worked with law enforcement officials, prosecutors, judges, magistrates, corrections personnel, elected officials, and community advocates across Virginia to improve the community response to sexual and intimate partner violence. She believes that active engagement and relationship building, combined with truth telling and collaborative problem solving are key to creating a world where justice and equity exist. Ruth also advocates with constant gentle (sometimes not so gentle) pressure, tenacity, and effective strategic planning in bringing about change that shapes an effective community response and sustains a thriving community for everyone.
The first blog in the series, “Dreaming Up a More Liberated Future” can be found here: “Punishment is Not Accountability.”Read more news