This March, for Women’s History Month, the Ms. Blog is profiling Wonder Women who have made history—and those who are making history right now. Join us each day as we bring you the stories of iconic and soon-to-be-famous feminist change-makers.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Ms. Click here to get a copy!
As children we are taught that we have a right to defend ourselves. As media consumers, we applaud characters who fight back against systems and people that oppress them. As a nation, we enter into violent conflict whether the threats are actual or merely perceived. And yet, take one look at our justice system and it quickly becomes clear: Self-defense is a justification that seems only to work if you’re wealthy, white, male or a guest star on The Good Wife.
Just such a glaring double standard takes center stage in blair dorosh-walther’s new documentary, Out in the Night, which chronicles the past eight years in the lives of the New Jersey 4—Venice Brown, Terrain Dandridge, Renata Hill and Patreese Johnson. They’re a group of queer African American women who, after an altercation with a street harasser, found themselves steamrolled by the justice system and dehumanized by the media, the newest casualties in a long-running history of casting lesbians in the role of violent man-haters, regardless of the truth.
The unbelievable series of events began on a summer night in 2006 when seven friends from Newark, N.J., most in their teens or early 20s, went to New York City for a night on the town. Just before 2 a.m., a man directed a sexually suggestive comment at Johnson. When she told him she was a lesbian, his comments turned aggressive, including threats of sexual violence and homophobic slurs. The man pursued them, and the confrontation turned physical. At some point during the fight, Johnson pulled out a small knife, a gift from a brother who had hoped it would help his 4-foot-11-inch sister protect herself, and stabbed the man in the stomach. A few minutes later, fight over, everyone, including the man, walked away.
But a few minutes after that, the women were arrested. In the harrowing coming months, facing charges ranging from assault to gang assault to attempted murder and potential prison sentences of up to 25 years, three of the women pled guilty in exchange for shorter sentences, but Brown, Dandridge, Hill and Johnson stood firm in their innocence, insisting that they defended themselves against a very real threat. The problem? The man’s testimony differed significantly from theirs. Despite security footage suggesting he was more than a passive victim, he claimed he was viciously attacked for politely greeting a woman.
dorosh-walther’s documentary introduces us to the women behind this story, who each convey a charm, spirit and wit in stark contrast with their uphill battle against law enforcement and a legal system intent on their guilt. Through an intricate web of courtroom testimony, security camera footage, interviews with lawyers and the police, and media coverage, the film reveals a troubling web of intersectional injustice.
Black, female, lesbian, working-class: “It was the perfect storm of their multiple identities,” says dorosh-walther. “The prosecutor and judge and police just didn’t believe the women.” Nor did the media: “The first article that really hit me was The New York Times’ article [“Man Is Stabbed in Attack After Admiring a Stranger”]…This isn’t a tabloid paper. It’s a national paper. It’s one of the more reputable papers. Why was he an admirer? What man is an admirer to a woman that he doesn’t know on the street at 2 a.m.?” Then again, the Times’ misleading headline seems tame when compared with increasingly sensational ones in the months following: “Girls Gone Wilding,” “Lesbian Gang Epidemic?” and “Attack of the Killer Lesbians.”
While the film’s representations of the machinations of the media and the intricacies of the legal system are equal parts compelling and horrifying, the portraits dorosh-walther paints of each of these women are the most striking element of the film. Comfortable in their skin and profoundly genuine, all four women light up the screen, the accounts of their experience so deeply honest and unadulterated that it’s easy to imagine, when they turn to the camera, that they’re speaking frankly with a good friend. And no wonder: dorosh-walther spent seven years wrapped up in these women’s lives. That kind of dedication shows.
Throughout the film, dorosh-walther highlights both the women’s vulnerability and their strength, while never losing sight of their humanity. As of last year, all four friends have been released from prison—having served sentences from one to six years—but, even now, it’s not an easy road. With a felony on her record, Hill has trouble maintaining employment and finding adequate housing for herself and her family.
Still, they’re all doing the best that they can, Johnson says, “even though the system crippled us a little bit by not giving us as much hope or resources…to better our lives.” Hill, who was tackled and choked by the man during the altercation, asserts that while no one else can advocate for you, the process of filming the documentary has shown her what kind of backing she has in her community and beyond: “As we started doing more and seeing the responses, we realized that we really have people that are fighting this with us. We had that support, which makes it a lot—I can’t say easier, but possible.”
Despite the women’s resilience, the fight for equal treatment under the law is a long one, and dorosh-walther cautions that growing support around the issue of same-sex marriage shouldn’t lull us into complacency: “I fear that once there is marriage equality in all the states, people are going to think that everything is OK. What this case highlights is that LGBT folks of color, particularly, are vulnerable to violence on the street and to law enforcement that just doesn’t believe them.” Having spent the longest time in jail, Johnson is at first pessimistic—“I don’t think that they’ll ever accept us”—but then she relents: “I do believe the world is trying to change, but it’s going to take a lot of people that are in certain positions that can make that happen, [to] speak up.”
Until then, let the story of the New Jersey 4 serve not as a cautionary tale, but one of women fighting back against an oppressive system.“To me, this was a pocket of resistance,” says dorosh-walther. “People find one leader and focus on them and they’re the leader of this giant movement or revolution, [and so we forget] that there’s always pockets of resistance happening every day, and people are not recognized for them. …This was a pocket of resistance where they stood up for themselves without apology. I respect that they still feel very much unapologetic and that they had the right to defend themselves and their bodies.”