In 2010, Marissa Alexander, a mother of three from Jacksonville, FL, was violently attacked by her abusive, estranged husband. Just nine days after giving birth, Marissa’s husband strangled her, and tried to prevent her from escaping her home. Marissa was able to make it to the garage where her car was parked but could not open the garage door. Trapped, she retrieved her permitted gun from the car and re-entered her home where her husband lunged at her, yelling, “Bitch, I will kill you.” At that moment, Marissa fired a single warning shot upwards into the wall, causing no injuries, but saving her life.
Although her husband freely admitted that he attacked Marissa and other women, Marissa was arrested and charged with three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. She was denied Stand Your Ground immunity around the same time a jury used Stand Your Ground as justification to acquit George Zimmerman for murdering a Black teenager, Trayvon Martin. Prosecuted and found guilty by a jury that deliberated for 12 minutes, Marissa was sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison. Marissa, who defended herself against her abusive husband, now had to defend herself against a system that punished her for surviving violence. She is just one of thousands criminalized for surviving gender violence.
In early 2013, the national Free Marissa Now (FMN) Mobilization Campaign was launched. FMN was volunteer run and collaborated with Marissa and her mother, Mrs. Helen Jenkins. FMN modeled how an anti-domestic violence grassroots campaign could organize across movements without relying on funding that controlled our work. It operated on principles of love for our communities, accountability to Marissa and our base of support, peaceful protest, and self-sufficiency. The campaign educated communities about the intersections of domestic violence and criminalization, and cultivated a strong base of grassroots supporters.
Strategies included launching a website that shared grassroots art and organizing resources; ongoing press engagements; organizing events in various cities; bridging communication between Marissa and her supporters; producing opportunities to take individual and collective action; and publishing educational materials such as fact sheets and policy papers. FMN also outreached to faith communities, legislators, universities, and others to build coalitions. Strengthened by an active and broad base of support allowed FMN to meaningfully influence public discourse about Marissa’s case and the criminalization of survivors generally. That broad base was crucial as we brought our demands to meetings with the Office of Violence Against Women, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and various Florida-based politicians and organizations.
In December 2013, Project NIA and Love & Protect (formerly known as CAFMA: Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander) hosted its first fundraiser in Chicago for the Marissa Alexander Legal Defense Fund. In February 2014, Marissa supporters convened an art party to create hundreds of buttons, t-shirts, canvas bags and more. Brown & Proud Press created and donated Free Marissa zines. Project NIA donated hundreds of posters. The Free Marissa Store officially launched and was run out of the home of CAFMA co-founder Ayanna Banks Harris. CAFMA co-founder Mariame Kaba leveraged her social media following to solicit donations from Marissa supporters worldwide. The store and diverse forms of support that came in through CAFMA and the national Free Marissa Now campaign provided tremendous material and emotional support for Marissa. Moreover, it catalyzed a larger movement for Black women and women of color harmed by gender violence and criminalization.
In the midst of a highly visible campaign that raised $125,000 for Marissa’s legal defense, Marissa’s legal team successfully appealed the guilty verdict. In response, the prosecutor threatened to triple the original sentence into a 60 year mandatory sentence in a new trial. Because of this manipulative and violent threat, Marissa was coerced into a plea deal of 3 years behind bars (which included time served, but meant she had to return to prison for another 65 days) and 2 years in house detention while being forced to wear and pay for a surveillance ankle monitor. Marissa Alexander was finally freed on January 27, 2017.
Since the campaign to free Marissa, new defense campaigns have been launched and existing campaigns amplified, including organized efforts to free other criminalized survivors like Nan-Hui Jo, Kelly Savage, Ky Peterson, Cherelle Baldwin, Eisha Love, Ny Nourn, Yazmin Elias, Naomi Freeman, Alisha Walker, Bresha Meadows, and so many more. During the #StandWithNanHui campaign, organizers from SWNH and Free Marissa Now campaign connected and shared strategies and experiences. Shortly after the SWNH campaign, organizers from FMN, SWNH, CAFMA (now known as Love & Protect) and California Coalition for Women Prisoners started the national organizing project, Survived and Punished, to build a larger movement to support survivors and abolish gender violence, policing, prisons and deportations.
Why Create a Defense Committee?
While no survivor’s situation is simple, criminalization further complicates ways out of abuse, harm and trauma. Criminalization includes policing, prosecution, trial, incarceration and deportation, and fighting against criminalization requires extensive resources, support, and collaboration. Survivors, particularly low-income, Black, and immigrant survivors, often do not have access to the quality legal support, money, or community support they need to successfully fight their criminalization.
Defense committees are a way that survivors and their supporters can build collective power towards freedom. A defense committee is a group of people that come together for the common goal of supporting and freeing a survivor. They may help recruit lawyers, raise money, provide emotional support, create art, launch (social) media campaigns, and organize communities to show up to court dates. Some defense committees use organizing tactics to pressure prosecutors or other targets on the case to drop the charges against a survivor.
Defense committees might decide to organize broad-based support (national or international), to secure the survivor’s freedom. At their best, defense committees can serve a much larger range of purposes than a legal team or a domestic violence advocate acting on their own. Sometimes, advocates and attorneys can be pushed to provide more types of support, but engaging advocates to increase their direct support of criminalized survivors can require time-consuming and long-term effort. Defense campaigns allow for all of a survivor’s needs to be considered, not just some. They also make space for there to be a diversity of strategies that can make huge impacts on the outcome of a case. Defense committees can help educate the public about the impacts and intersections of racialized criminalization and gender violence. Our favorite defense committees consistently make connections between individual cases and the broader forces and impacts of criminalization, including making connections between existing freedom campaigns.
Reprinted with permission from #SurvivedAndPunished: Survivor Defense as Abolitionist Praxis, a collaborative toolkit created by Love and Protect and Survived and Punished.