Beyond Bars

Community-Based Responses to Gender Violence

By Vanessa Huang Dec 21, 2004

 Before Misty Rojo moved out to escape her husband’s battering, he told her he would rather kill her than see her with someone else. After 10 years of this kind of abuse, Rojo feared for her life and bought a gun. She moved into her own home, sleeping every night with a knife under pillow, she says. But her next-door neighbor was another battered woman. Tormented by nightmares of her past and the constant sound of beatings from the house next door, Rojo snapped. She shot the woman’s batterer.

Rojo is now imprisoned at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla and is a board member of Justice Now of Oakland, California, an organization that works with women inside jails to end violence against them and stop their imprisonment. Like Rojo, many of the women identify as survivors of both interpersonal and state violence. They say they often face random beatings from prison guards, cavity searches that amount to sexual assault, and verbal abuse. Unlike Rojo, many of these women are not violent offenders.

“As the prison system works now, I’ve seen so many ideas, lives and spirits just totally squashed by the bureaucracy and by the total abuse and dehumanization that goes on within these walls. It’s time we learn to stand up,” Rojo says, speaking on a Justice Now CD called “The We That Sets Us Free: Building
a World Without Prisons.”

Creating safety and freedom from violence, these women argue, might ultimately mean abolishing prisons to imagine alternative ways of holding those who harm accountable.

“The experience of prison often creates the same set of problems around violence that women have already experienced in their personal relationships. The most obvious example that has made us think about that connection is the strip search and the cavity search, which, if the perpetrator of the strip search or the cavity search did not wear the uniform of prison authority, that act would most certainly be described as sexual assault,” says Angela Davis on the Justice Now CD.

“It seems to me that we have to begin to think about the state as a perpetrator of violence against women, and understand the connections between intimate violence, private violence, state violence, prison violence, and military violence.”

Transforming Communities, Transforming Justice

The anti-violence and anti-prison movements have not always shared a friendly history. In many instances, the anti-violence movement has contributed to the buildup of the prison industry by advocating for legislation punishing gender violence and hate crimes, while the anti-prison movement has been accused of failing to analyze how gender operates in state violence and deprioritizing gender violence in the free world. In response, anti-prison group Critical Resistance (CR) and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence collaborated in 2001 and 2002 to write “Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex,” a call to more unified action.

Around the same time, CR, Justice Now and local anti-violence groups began participating in a series of Bay Area conversations hosted by Generation Five (G5) of San Francisco. G5 focuses on ending child sexual abuse through transformative justice responses to interpersonal violence. “It’s not only about intervention in individual incidents,” says Cindy Wiesner, community organizer at G5, “but also about changing the conditions that allow for child sexual abuse to happen.”

Last June, G5 convened 35 activists representing a dozen organizations as part of a National Transformative Justice Working Group. The group is developing transformative justice approaches to support survivors’ healing and their safety, create community-based accountability and nurture the role of bystanders in the healing and accountabilityprocess. The group has also been exploring how to support localized alternatives that respond to how particular communities are targeted by racism, classism and other forms of oppression.

In the last three years, the more radical parts of the anti-violence movement, with support from the anti-prison movement, have started working to create tangible community-based responses to interpersonal violence.

Communities Against Rape and Abuse (CARA), part of the national working group, has been testing the waters in Seattle, Washington since 2001. “We didn’t always have a position on the prison industry. When we started, we were just focusing on organizing against rape and violence in marginalized communities that did not necessarily go to rape crisis centers or battered women’s shelters,” says Alisa Bierria, program director of CARA, also of INCITE. Even then, CARA was already unofficially organizing toward alternative ways of holding aggressors accountable. Many of the women they worked with, after all, turned to family and friends over police and shelters.

CARA then created its Safety Project to develop community-based accountability strategies. Over time, demanding accountability has meant organizing collectively to name the problem, build relationships with the survivor’s and/or aggressor’s social networks, identify specific actions the aggressor should take and mobilize to transform values that support rape culture.

In one situation, CARA supported a group of young women organizers who had been sexually assaulted by a male co-organizer. Because of the women’s demands, he was removed from his position and entered counseling with support from friends. The group also started sponsoring trainings on sexual violence throughout its national chapters.

In another situation, CARA built one-on-one alliances with women in a youth organization whose male mentor, also a well respected organizer against state violence, had been accused of sexual harassment against young women he mentored. After two years of frustrating conversations and resistance from the aggressor’s peers, CARA found a sympathetic insider and the aggressor resigned from mentoring young women. In this case, participants in the process are still working to hold him accountable for his actions and to transform his community’s values and political agenda to actively connect gender violence and state violence.

Others collaborating with G5 and the national working group are also beginning to move critique into action. Raksha, a South Asian family violence direct service organization in Atlanta, Georgia, launched Breaking the Silence last year to complement its state-funded services. This project is informed by how the PATRIOT Act, deportations and a state-wide ballot allowing police to enforce immigration laws have targeted the local South Asian immigrant and refugee community.

“We have to think about the impact law enforcement has had in our communities,” says Priyanka Sinha, community education director at Raksha. “People don’t feel safe; our families have been broken up. These options are sometimes more frightening than the violence happening in our families.”

G5 also trains people to support transformative justice approaches through its yearly Community Response Project. One participant, a psychologist in a children’s agency, recently organized a successful community-based response to child sexual abuse. Instead of calling Child Protective Services (CPS), she first contacted the child’s extended family to create a plan to support the child, hold the aggressor accountable and support the aggressor’s rehabilitation. Afterwards, she called CPS to report what happened (child psychologists are “mandated reporters”)—but also pitched the plan she and the community had created. CPS found it acceptable and stayed out; so did the criminal justice system.

Another project participant, SistaIISista of Brooklyn, New York, conceived the idea for Sistas Liberated Ground in 2003. Inspired by Latin American models where poor women facing interpersonal violence built safety while divesting from state institutions, Sistas Liberated Ground is working to build power within the group’s collective of young working-class black and Latina women. Part of the project includes mapping a geographical zone where the community does not tolerate gender violence—and when it happens, SistaIISista forms circles to support the survivor and confront and make demands of those who harm (depending on the survivor, this often includes stopping the violence, apologizing and making reparations).

Mimi Kim, a member of G5’s national working group, launched Creative Interventions this fall in Oakland, California. The project supports women in creating community-based interventions in domestic and sexual violence. Kim is also collecting, analyzing and sharing stories of alternative responses that have successfully ended interpersonal violence through a Stories Collecting Project.

Even with all the criminal justice system’s problems, Kim says, “I would not want to be in a position to criticize someone who wants to use the criminal justice system because right now, no alternatives exist. The point of opening up and creating these alternatives also means creating a world that is very different from this one. If kids grow up seeing that abuse gets stopped by someone right next to them, if we create subsystems where people know that if they’re violent, it’s not going to be tolerated—we’re going to create a whole different way of living in this world.”