Domestic Violence Survivors and Allies: We Won’t Be Silenced

In an unfortunate coincidence, Ross Mirkarimi, San Francisco’s sheriff who was convicted of a domestic violence-related offense and suspended from official duty–successfully argued for his reinstatement during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which ends today. The commentary around the Mirkarimi case, as well as around the sheriff himself, misrepresents domestic violence agencies’ everyday work. The success of these misrepresentations depends upon alleging cultural and racial disconnects while underestimating a survivor’s recognition of abusive holding patterns.

The Mirkarimi case is an anomaly, one in which domestic violence advocates are involved not on behalf of the survivor–usually our only priority–but rather as caretakers of system-wide protections on behalf of the entire community’s safety. This attention to the system, and the removal of the sheriff, was conveniently painted as a privileged, ill-informed and opportunistic attempt to “save” the victim who didn’t want saving. The sheriff, speaking to KQED host Michael Krasny the day after the reinstatement, remarked about domestic violence advocates: “The narrative that [my wife] has not fallen into is what’s bothered them, which is why I think they’ve intensified their attacks.”

The sheriff’s wife had stated during the arraignment in January, “I’m not a little poor immigrant.”

Indeed, she is not. Fitting survivors into a particular narrative should not be the job of any true domestic violence advocate. We are not in the business of changing survivors, but rather changing the circumstances for these survivors so they have the opportunity to make informed choices along the way. My colleagues and I strive to provide domestic violence survivors a careful ear about what is most important to them, while also reminding them of their legal rights and prioritizing safety for the entire home—including the child who hyperventilates every time the abusive parent starts getting upset, the husband who threatens murder-(then)-suicide or the girlfriend who warns she is ready to “snap.” Every day I witness the tireless efforts of DV advocates supporting diverse women, of color or not, immigrant or not, English speaking or not, documented or not.

Indeed, a survivor is the best judge of her situation–the level of danger, the possibility of leaving, the repercussion of reporting, the process of recovery. Any client coming to a domestic violence agency should receive resources and much-needed breathing room to figure out what is best for her and her family.

In the Mirkarimi case, the wife wasn’t a client of any DV agency. That doesn’t mean that DV groups do not apply a victim-centric approach to her case. But it does mean that we need to reevaluate the sheriff’s statements, such as, “And yet to this day, nobody from the domestic violence agencies … has ever reached out… [to] the very person they claimed to defend, the very person that they have tried to use.”

The sheriff discounts the very premise of DV agencies: Rather than being victim-chasers, we exist to serve women who choose to report to us, who choose to reach out. We don’t go calling on anyone who is unfortunate enough to have her name, much less photograph, listed in the newspaper, with details that are necessarily private and often embarrassing.

Most insidiously, the Sheriff effectively insinuates that if you report abuse, you run the risk of being used by agencies that take advantage of your vulnerabilities.

People like Mirkarimi don’t think survivors are smart enough to understand that the activism (including the billboard “Domestic Violence is Never a Private Matter,” refuting the sheriff’s statement to the contrary) regarded the sheriff’s suspension because he is thought unfit to oversee correctional facilities or to monitor batterer-intervention programs. The activism was not against the choices of the sheriff’s wife, even though her privacy was necessarily implicated, given the circumstances. To be clear, anyone questioning her choices has little understanding of DV and should not be confused with the advocates who work with women in similar and worse situations every day.

That this sheriff is back on the job, to oversee and police the very type of crimes he is convicted of committing and for which he has shown little reform himself, is a concern for all people. Efforts to divide the Mirkarimi issue on gender or race lines are regrettable and dangerous. Communities of color and victims of gendered crimes have long called for accountability of police officers and sheriffs.

The criticism Mirkarimi received was due to the position he chose to hold and the actions he chose to commit. Now we, survivors and their allies, choose not to be silenced or confused or coerced into fearing avenues of support.

Photo via Flirkr user zappobang licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

Comments

  1. Dear Mallika, I applaud this article! I am a domestic violence survivor and today I decided to end my silence and tell me story. I am hoping that anyone that is dealing with it/dealt with it can try to overcome the pain when the physical pain is gone.
    You can read my story here: http://yourejustadumbass.wordpress.com/2012/10/31/death-of-my-former-self/
    I hope this brings any reader strength and understanding.

  2. Nancy Lemon says:

    Excellent comment, and very timely. I agree that the issues presented by this case go way beyond whether Ms. Lopez wanted her husband charged with a crime. It is unfortunate that she and others reinforced stereotypes that “real” battered women are always helpless, passive and poor. As a long-term domestic violence activist and member of many progressive organizations, I have been dismayed by the efforts of Mirkarimi to depict this situation as a political attack on himself from the right. As I wrote in my expert declaration for the SF City Attorney’s office in this matter, Mirkarimi’s actions and words are typical of unreformed batterers. He is on domestic violence probation for 3 years, though he insists that the crime he is guilty of is not a domestic violence crime. His lack of understanding and accountability is the problem we now face in his holding the position of top law enforcement officer of SF.

    • Erika McDonald says:

      Nancy Lemon failed to mention that she was paid over $14,000 for her “expert declaration.” Nice work if you can get it.
      As a San Francico resident who was forced to pay Ms. Lemon, I would love to know why she failed to disclose this financial conflict of interest in her comment.
      By the way, I have NOT been paid for my activism.

  3. Erika McDonald says:

    The article states that domestic violence advocates
    “…exist to serve women who choose to report to us.”
    Hmmm. Then why did Kathy Black and Beverly Upton hold a press conference calling for Sheriff Mirkarimi to resign? The alleged victim NEVER asked for their help. Nor did she get any. So, why were these folks trying to fire Sheriff Mirkarimi before he was even charged?

    The article claims that advocates “…have long called for accountability of police officers and sheriffs.” This is laughable. The same “advocates” who were trying to overturn the election of Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi gave campaign contributions to Chris Cunnie. Cunnie, a former head of the Police Officers Association, believes cops should be able to kill with impunity. Ask him about Sheila DeToy, a 17 year old girl who was shot and killed by an SFPD officer. Cunnie not only defended the murderer, but hissed at people in public hearings who were calling for police accountability.

    I recently met with the local President of our Commission on the Status of Women. She was uninterested in hearing about a violent crime committed against me – a crime in which I was denied justice by the highly paid officers of the SFPD.

    Don’t get me wrong here. I DO respect Ms. Upton and Ms. Black and their work. They have a right to speak out. After taking a close look at domestic violence in San Francisco, however, reputable sources have pointed out that most DV cases in SF are not even prosecuted.

    That is what we should be focused on fixing, instead of political gamesmanship.

    • I believe that you are confusing the two separate issues addressed in this article, by mistakenly referring to these acts of advocacy as an uninvited attempt to help a victim. Calling for a Sheriff’s resignation who just beat his wife is a community call to action to take a stand against the very controversial conflict of interest that exists when a person in an authoritative position of trust, power and responsibility to protect the people of the community acts or behaves in a manner completely contradictory to the ideals he is entrusted to represent. In this case, these ladies were taking a stand for the entire community, to protect everyone’s safety because if the person in charge of responding to, and dealing with perpetrators and victims of violence is himself a perpetrator of domestic violence; we can hardly feel safe that he will respond appropriately when we need his protection. Wow. What they meant by stating that they assist victims who seek their help was exactly that. They were not trying to assist a victim who didn’t want help. Do you understand the disconnect here?
      Also, how can you say that advocates claiming to ha e long called for the accountability of law enforcement is laughable??? If you are referring to the fact that the law enforcement response to domestic violence is years behind, hasn’t improved, and they are not trained in the dynamics if domestic violence and they most of the time fail miserably at helping the victims at all, you’re right. But how us this a failure of the advocates?? Just because advocates call for, scream for, beg for change, doesn’t mean that the lame police departments and Kane judicial system is going to respond appropriately. Wow. You seem a bit resentful and aiming it in the wrong direction. Slow down and read it again.. There is so much lacking in the community response to domestic violence, we need support not further criticism and attacks. Wow, so it sounds as if people are going to excuse the Sheriff’s violent behavior and trust him with their own lives as well? Suit yourself. But misogynists don’t have much compassion for other people’s wives or girlfriend’s either., I’m just saying..

  4. Myrna Melgar says:

    There are some important issues left out of your analysis Ms Kaur. It is important to at least acknowledge them if we are going to heal the rift in this community. Let me start by stating that the notion that domestic violence survivors and their allies are all on the same side of thid debate is false. And understanding the reasons for this is crucial for the anti-DV movement and for San Francisco.

    You state that it anti- DV advocates help women who chose to reach out to you – which Eliana did not- that you are not “victim chasers”. And yet the inherent dynamic that this particular case created is that the advocates stepped in to speak for THIS PARTICULAR woman, in a visible, public, political way – orchestrated and funded by political opponents of the accused perpetrator. As a feminist – I do sympathize with Eliana’s also publicly stated complaint of feeling totally silenced and disempowered by a group of folks who did, in fact “fit her into a particular narrative”.

    Another very important piece left out of your analysis is also crucial and you barely acknowledge it: Most of Sheriff Mirkarimi’s supporters are people of color: black people, and latinos. This is not because we are all mysoginist or lacking an understanding of the seriousness of domestic violence. In fact, many of us are survivors (myself included). Poor Black and Latino communities oftentimes do not see criminalization as the answer to the problems in our communities. This does not mean we don’t see those problems as serious – it means that we see criminalization as bringing a whole other set of problems.

    Lastly, there is no greater avenue for getting women out of oppression – including violence – than economic self-sufficiency. Ironically, the folks who are financing – to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars – the campaign against Sheriff Mirkarimi – are the folks who support local policies counter to the interests of low income people and people of color.

    Acknowledging other people’s perspectives, experiences, and political realities is the first step towards productive dialogue and resolution. I am pointing out that the folks who disagree with your perspective, many of whom, like myself are also feminists and women of color, also have something to say.

    • The only reason why criminalization brings a whole new set of problems is because there is no accountability for perpetrators of DV. It is because everyone still treats DV with indifference, they aren’t properly trained, they don’t provide the needed protection, they don’t follow through with required arrests, they don’t properly charge perpetrators with restraining order violations; they don’t take it seriously.. I have been experiencing 10 years worth of injustice at the hands of law enforcement inadequacy, court clerk corruption, commissioner gender bias, intimidation, ignorance of the law, absurd rulings in which the law is not even remotely adhered to. My entire life has been compromised, my safety undermined, my children subjected to violence and abuse, and failures to protect them repeatedly, and now I have just suffered the combined abuse of my perpetrator and the family court’s support and assistance in draining me financially of everything I had, as well as the deterioration of everything I had going for me because instead of recognizing the abduction of my children, and the false allegations of neglect in a desperate attempt to deceitfully gain custody as the insidious and intentional acts of abuse that they are, the court failed to apply the family code which dictates a rebuttal presumption against granting custody to perpetrators of DV. This biased commissioner consolidated my 10 year history of DV case with my perpetrator’s petition for custody, made HIS case the “lead” case, and catered to his obviously fabricated b.s. for 6 unnecessary months, making me drive 340 miles each round trip, missing school, unable to file documents in a timely matter with the court, etc. etc., I am beside myself having experienced the absolute blatant disregard of the venue, the disregard of the law, the history, the circumstances, the constant catering to the whims of this pathological liar, and the complete failure to even remotely resemble “equal justice under the law.” The court transcriber changed the transcripts to words that were not spoken, and left out a crucial statement, which aided his case and hindered mine, the court clerk refused to log a proof of service of restraining order from the police department, they ignored his constant violations of visitation orders and my restraining order, and it was as if I was on trial; being held to answer to every insane accusation that this perpetrator made. This is so mind boggling to me I don’t know who to turn to. I’m exhausted and frustrated with the whole thing right now but need avenues of seeking restitution and justice and a judicial review. I was forced to withdraw from my classes,it’s my tuition, financial aid, and loan money, it’s been a completely unjust upheaval of my life during which I suffered severe losses as compared to him, who didn’t spend a dime, didn’t have a job or school to miss, had nothing to lose, no license, nothing going for him, so why did we even bother wasting time considering what the law already states he can’t have?? It’s like they give him every consideration possible, and inconvenience me as much as possible. It’s an outrage!!!

  5. Ross Mirkarimi committed male violence against his female partner and despite that being a crime Mirkarimi has been reinstated as a law enforcement officer.

    So a criminal is now responsible for enforcing the law!! Given Mirkarimi has not accepted he is accountable for committing male violence against a woman, I have no doubt Mirkarimi will do nothing whenever his police department receives reports that yet another male is subjecting a woman or girl to male violence.

    This is reality of living in a Male Supremacist System – wherein the male perpetrators are ‘innocent’ and the female victims are ‘the guilty ones!’

  6. Katherine says:

    I am currently in a domestic violence safehouse in the same community my abuser lives. I want desperately to get back to my family in Georgia but it seems no one offers service for transport. I am in so much fear each day that he will find me here. Is there a way to travel nationally as a domestic violence survivor to a safehouse near my family. I feel so isolated and alone.

    • Dear Katherine,

      DV can indeed be very isolating – being in a shelter even more so! Pls try to discuss any feelings of sadness with you Advocate/Case Manager. Often they can help link the client to support groups or other activities that create joining. Maybe there is a “church” (any house of worship you relate to) nearby that is safe to attend – this can be a great place to get “people-contact” and a sense of connection without obligation to discuss heavy material or face potential judgment. A sense of isolation can often lead to behavior that ultimately increases isolation (staying in one’s room all the time, not talking to others, not engaging in counseling options, etc). It is important one takes strides to care for one’s self however difficult that may be in order to keep the internal strength needed to save money or get the resources that support longer-term plans.

      Possible solutions to help pay for travel… (though not super easy):

      a. Victims of Crime compensation will sometimes pay for relocation. This is likely after any required court proceedings and safety dependent. You’d need to work with their shelter advocacy program and the local DA’s office to see if they qualify for VoC benefits.
      b. Shelter advocates would be able to help you locate local agencies–including Salvation Army–that might have a small amount of funds to assist you.
      c. Shelters sometimes have it where clients use their time in shelter to save $$$ to put toward the cost of travel (rather than trying to pay for an apartment) – A 1 way ticket may not be more expensive than the security deposit for an apartment. Also sometimes, there are remote family members who can help contribute to this…

      All the best.

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