Since the mid-March madness of those senate judiciary Republicans who voted no on reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) because it would extend a few more U-visas to abused immigrant women, cover people in same-sex relationships and enhance funding for community-based programs that directly address people of color, I’ve been suffering from an acute case of cognitive dissonance.
I don’t think any sane person could argue that since it passed in 1994, VAWA hasn’t done a lot of good. It has indeed funded and facilitated the work of thousands of people who shelter, counsel, advise and advocate for victims of intimate partner violence. Its most recent iteration addresses sexual violence, a necessary step given the prevalence of this form of harm. I also believe that VAWA represents and seeds a cultural shift away from the blatant acceptance of violence against women. Without a VAWA, Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) wouldn’t stand on the House floor and talk about how she’d been sexually abused, raped and beaten. She wouldn’t have declared that “violence against women in this country is not levied against just Democrats but Republicans as well. Not blacks or whites or Hispanics but against native people as well. Not just Christians or Muslims and Jews but non-religious people—atheists. Not just rich people or poor people but middle-class people. And not just against heterosexual women but homosexual couples. It knows no gender. It knows no ethnicity. It knows nothing. And I’ll tell you: violence against women is as American as apple pie.”
Still, I have to say that in its funding and implementation, this (previously) bipartisan legislation has also made law enforcement its priority—a scary prospect for the systematically criminalized massive that includes black and brown, poor, undocumented and LGBT folks.
Back in 2000 before radical conservatives successfully soaked the media, public and legislative bodies in tea, Angela Davis laid out some still-essential, still-relevant theoretical questions about VAWA:
On the one hand, we should applaud the courageous efforts of the many activists who are responsible for a new popular consciousness of violence against women, for a range of legal remedies, and for a network of shelters, crisis centers, and other sites where survivors are able to find support. But on the other hand, uncritical reliance on the government has resulted in serious problems. I suggest that we focus our thinking on this contradiction: Can a state that is thoroughly infused with racism, male dominance, class-bias, and homophobia and that constructs itself in and through violence act to minimize violence in the lives of women? Should we rely on the state as the answer to the problem of violence against women? …
The major strategy relied on by the women’s anti-violence movement of criminalizing violence against women will not put an end to violence against women—just as imprisonment has not put an end to “crime” in general.
I should say that this is one of the most vexing issues confronting feminists today. On the one hand, it is necessary to create legal remedies for women who are survivors of violence. But on the other hand, when the remedies rely on punishment within institutions that further promote violence—against women and men, how do we work with this contradiction?
To her point, the VAWA version that Democrats, major anti-violence advocacy organizations and their allies are currently fighting for includes a random amendment from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) that provides for “an alien’s [sic] third drunk driving conviction to be considered an aggravated felony, and thus a deportable offense for purposes of the Immigration and Nationality Act.” It also includes a five-year mandatory minimum for aggravated sexual assault. From the fatally flawed War on Drugs, we know that mandatory minimums don’t serve folks of color very well.
So my question, which is not a rhetorical one, is this: How can we, in real time, push for the much-needed resources VAWA provides without criminalizing the very groups it seeks to serve?
Of course we can’t let allow Republicans who proudly rejected this critical bill on grounds that it gives undocumented women, people of color, and LGBT folks too much help to win. It would be a crime to let them turn VAWA into another installment of what polite media call the culture war and I call the same old white supremacist patriarchial dog whistles.
But in our fight to secure the bare minimum that VAWA represents, we all have to speak up about the new-old ways people of color might be penalized by certain provisions.
Visit 4vawa.org for the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women’s breakdown of the current bill.
For a prison-abolitionist take on VAWA and criminalization, read this Rainbow Times op-ed by Black and Pink founder Rev. Jason Lyndon.