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The Woman Who Stood Her Ground

May 22, 2012

Her name was Marissa Alexander.  She went into her estranged husband’s house, thinking it was empty, to retrieve the rest of her clothing.  The husband was “estranged” because he had a long history of abusing her.  He was there; they got into an argument; she said that he tried to kill her; she said she feared for her life when she went to her car and got her gun.  She came back in and fired a “warning shot” into the wall, which ricocheted into the ceiling.

She got 20 years.

From the Palm Beach Post:

Marissa Alexander had never been arrested before she fired a bullet at a wall one day in 2010 to scare off her husband when she felt he was threatening her. Nobody got hurt, but this month a northeast Florida judge was bound by state law to sentence her to 20 years in prison.

Alexander, a 31-year-old mother of a toddler and 11-year-old twins, knew it was coming. She had claimed self-defense, tried to invoke Florida’s “stand your ground” law and rejected plea deals that could have gotten her a much shorter sentence. A jury found her guilty as charged: aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Because she fired a gun while committing a felony, Florida’s mandatory-minimum gun law dictated the 20-year sentence.

Did I mention that Marissa Alexander is black?

When the news of Trayvon Martin‘s shooting came out, I wanted George Zimmerman to be prosecuted for murder.  I still think he murdered the boy.  But at the same time, I thought the “stand your ground” law that Zimmerman tried to claim protection under was a good idea on the whole.  I thought, what about women who are threatened by their abusive boyfriends?  Shouldn’t they be able to fight back?  I knew that when your opponent in a fight is larger and/or stronger, that generally means you have to be the one more willing to kill or maim.  I thought that “stand your ground” would help domestic abuse victims.

A law based on the general principles of “stand your ground” still might, but what I hadn’t reckoned on was the reasoning behind the law.  Which is the same reasoning that caused Marissa Alexander to be arrested right away, while George Zimmerman was only charged after a huge public outcry.  And the same reasoning that created Florida’s mandatory minimums.

It’s racism of a very specific and common type.  If you’re white and female, you’ve probably grown up with it.  It’s every white male’s favorite bogeyman: the young black male from a poor neighborhood who goes about seeking who he might devour.

George Zimmerman’s father got pissed that people were saying his son was a racist, defended him by saying his son was Hispanic and grew up in a multi-racial family.  But so what?  Two of the cops who murdered Sean Bell in a rain of 50 bullets were black.  The key is who the victims were: young black males, unarmed but still automatically suspect.  Assumed to be out to cause trouble of some kind, to some law-abiding stranger: robbery, rape, whatever.

That same image must have been in lawmakers’ heads when they crafted Florida’s mandatory-minimum law.  According to Sunshine State News:

When asked about the Alexander case, Republican Victor Crist of Hillsborough County, who crafted 10-20-Life when he was serving in the Florida House, said lawmakers never had anybody like Marissa Alexander in mind when they passed the bill. “We were thinking about the punk robbing a liquor store who has a gun and pulls it out and either threatens to shoot or shoots somebody while committing a crime.”

Perhaps most telling is the controversy over “stand your ground” within the Florida state legislature.  Senator Chris Smith (Democrat, black) said the law could actually make it harder for domestic violence victims to legally defend themselves:

“An invited guest is considered a ‘resident’ under the law,” he wrote in a recent analysis. “This means that as soon as a woman invites her ex-husband to pick up their children at her home, she is powerless to defend herself, even if she holds sole title to the property. Given that most attacks happen at home, by relatives or individuals known to the victim, this loophole in the law is unconscionable.”

Meanwhile, Senator Don Gaetz and his son, Rep. Matt Gaetz (Republicans, white) wrote an op-ed claiming repeal of “stand your ground” laws would hurt women.  These were the examples they gave:

Consider an elderly woman in a dimly lit parking lot or a college girl walking to her dorm at night. If either was attacked, her duty was to turn her back and try to flee, probably be overcome and raped or killed. Prior to “Stand Your Ground,” that victim didn’t have the choice to defend herself, to meet force with force.

You see the problem, right?  Typical white male thinking, this stranger danger bullshit.  My dad (Democrat, white) used to pull the same crap when he was trying to get me to stay home at night instead of going out to clubs.  The young guy, the stranger, who’d attack me in the street–race never mentioned, but he just happened to hang out uptown.  Since age 17 I’d had these recurring nightmares where my dad was trying to rape me–I was supposed to ignore those though.  I was also supposed to be polite to my upstairs neighbor, who’d been accused of molesting a “mentally disturbed” teenage girl under his care, but the charges were dropped, and of course he was white and middle-aged and dressed well enough and was friendly to the neighbors and could afford to live in our doorman building.

Now compare the bullshit with the reality.  According to the National Institute of Justice:

Violence against women is primarily partner violence: 76 percent of the women who were raped and/or physically assaulted since age 18 were assaulted by a current or former husband, cohabiting partner, or date, compared with 18 percent of the men. It is therefore imperative that strategies for preventing violence against women should focus on ways of protecting women from risks posed by current and former intimates.

Marissa Alexander’s case fit this profile, the profile of most violent acts against women.  George Zimmerman’s case fit the fantasy profile, the young black thug attacks random innocent stranger profile.  That’s why one got 20 years for a shot that hurt no one and the other nearly got away with murder.

It’s a classic example of the ways in which racism, classism and sexism intertwine, all to the benefit of violent men.  Think about it: what would domestic abusers do if they couldn’t make their victims more afraid of strangers?  If they couldn’t convince police and lawmakers to pay more attention to the guy in the street than to them?

The sexism comes in when you consider how the prosecutor argued that Alexander should have just run out of the house when she was attacked.  The “stand your ground” law reads as follows:

A person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.
— Chapter 776.012,
Florida Statutes

Apparently it doesn’t apply to women though.

CNN gives Alexander’s description of the event.  Judge for yourself if you would “reasonably believe such force is necessary”:

On August 1, 2010, she said her husband, Rico Gray, read text messages on her phone that she had written to her ex-husband. She said Gray became enraged and accused her of being unfaithful. “That’s when he strangled me. He put his hands around my neck,” Alexander said.

She managed to escape his grip but instead of running out the front door of their home, she ran into the garage, she said, to get into her truck and drive away. Alexander said that in the confusion of the fight, she forgot to get her keys and the garage door wouldn’t open, so she made a fateful decision. “I knew I had to protect myself,” she said, adding, “I could not fight him. He was 100 pounds more than me. I grabbed my weapon at that point.”

She went back inside the house and when Gray saw her pistol at her side, she said he threatened to kill her, so she raised the gun and fired one shot. “I believe when he threatened to kill me, that’s what he was absolutely going to do. That’s what he intended to do. Had I not discharged my weapon at that point, I would not be here.”

Also consider the actions and words of her estranged husband Rico Gray:

Gray admitted to a history of physical abuse. In a previous incident, Alexander said he beat her so severely she ended up in the hospital and he ended up in jail. “He pushed me, choked me, pushed me so hard into the closet that I hit my head against the wall and passed out for a second,” Alexander said.

In a deposition for the case against Alexander, Gray backed up much of his wife’s story. “I told her if she ever cheated on me, I would kill her,” he said during the proceeding led by a prosecutor for State Attorney Angela Corey’s office and his wife’s defense attorney.




One Comment leave one →
  1. May 25, 2012 3:10 pm

    Sarah this is a very comprehensive coverage of the case.

    She has a FB support group at:

    We do our best to keep up with the news on the case there. There are petitions, contact numbers and/or emails and addresses for Marissa Alexanxer + Angela Corey + James Daniel + Kevin Cobbin + Lincoln Alexender + Countless State Reps + Various other people who could be contacted to help with this.

    Two letters written by Marissa to her supporters are also there.

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