Marissa Alexander was recently granted a new trial—but not everyone’s convinced that she will ever get a fair one. Alexander was sentenced to 20 years for firing a shot during an altercation with her husband, Rico Gray, who had twice previously been arrested for domestic abuse against Alexander.
Alexander was denied immunity under Florida’s Stand Your Ground defense, and the case drew a lot of parallels with the George Zimmerman trial. Zimmerman, who was found not guilty of the killing of Trayvon Martin, was tried by the same Florida state prosecutor, Angela Corey.
Alexander’s sentence was overturned because of flawed jury instructions, but she still hasn’t had a bail hearing. Now, a group of supporters are organizing to stop prosecutor Corey from moving forward on the case, and they are asking the state drop the charges against Alexander. I spoke with Mariame Kaba, who is the founder and director of the restorative justice organization Project NIA. Kaba is working to help free Marissa Alexander—as well as highlight the need to understand black women’s basic humanity.
There’s a petition out asking that Marissa Alexander not be retried. Why?
That petition originated from the Free Marissa Mobilization Campaign. It basically asks the state of Florida to drop the case altogether, and not refile charges against her. She’s already spent three years behind bars, three years that most of us think she shouldn’t even have to have served. We don’t want them to move forward with a new trial. We want them to dismiss all the charges, and we want them to free her now.
Some supporters might want a new trial and think justice can be served in that way. Why isn’t that the solution for you?
I’m going to speak for myself on this one, and not for the campaign. In the first place, she had the right to protect herself; she had the right to stand her ground. We don’t think she should have been prosecuted in the first place. And when she was prosecuted, the evidence warranted the jury to come back with a not guilty verdict. But none of those things happened. We’re at the point now where I personally don’t believe that the justice system can actually deliver justice. It’s incumbent on the state to not go back to trial. Even if the jury instructions are given in a different way, the judge has already made the determination that she can’t rely on Stand Your Ground in a retrial. Self-defense is once again off the table. She’s already had so much of her life taken away for the last few years. It’s time to set her free.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and a group of people has kicked off the #31ForMarissa letter writing campaign. Can you tell me more about it?
Every single day this month, we publish one letter that’s written by a man to Marissa. These letters either discuss that man’s own experiences as having been a witness to domestic violence, or they reach out to her in empathy and solidarity. Our interest in trying to get those letters out was to dramatize how domestic violence operates in people lives, to talk about her particular case, and to make a push to free her. But also, to do something that doesn’t get done enough, which is to bring men to the table. Having men take an active, vocal role in talking about intimate partner violence, in talking about it in respect to a black woman, and to show real solidarity for what happens to her, and what is happening to so many other survivors of domestic violence. I have to admit that initially, I was skeptical that many men were going to write letters. And it’s been wonderfully heartening to see that men are taking real initiative and interest in doing so.
What do you think is the most important thing to keep in mind about the Marissa Alexander case?
Marissa is a black woman, and we need to be really clear about that in this case. We’re not seen as potentially violable, we’re not seen as people who can be victimized too often. We’re always seen by everybody—including sometimes even in our own communities—as not being able to feel pain or be abused, and not being real “victims.” What we’re trying to do here, with Marissa, is asserting very clearly and specifically her humanity. We want to make it clear that we do feel pain. Making it clear that the continuing criminalization of black women is completely unacceptable, immoral and despicable.
My own personal sense of heartbreak has been around the notion, in this case, that Marissa couldn’t be afraid, that she couldn’t feel fear, and that the jury couldn’t believe that she was afraid. That’s deep. And that’s why having another trial feels to me like a recipe for disaster—because I don’t think her humanity is taken into account. I don’t think people think that black women can feel scared, or that we have the ability to feel pain.
There are deeper cultural things, as well as structural oppression issues that we need to talk about in real ways. Those #31ForMarissa letters might not seem too profound, but the ability for people to empathize with black women is revolutionary. For [the letter writers] to affirm Marissa’s humanity, and understand her fear, and understand she is feeling pain is a huge thing. And it’s big part of this case.