Carceral Feminism: A Critique by Nour Naas

Carceral Feminism: A Critique by Nour Naas

On the early morning of April 20, 1989, Trisha Meili’s injured body was discovered in Central Park. Meili, who is white, had survived a violent rape and beating. In a matter of days, five Black and Latino teens — Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, and Korey Wise  — confessed to being present at the rape. Their confessions were extracted only after more than 30 hours of coercive interrogations by police officers and by prosecutor Linda Fairsten who, at the time, was the head of the sex crimes unit at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.

Fairstein, long celebrated as a champion for women’s rights, was a strong proponent of what we know today as carceral feminism, which relies heavily on policing, prosecution, and punishment as a means of tackling violence against women such as domestic abuse, rape, and sexual assault. As the prosecutor in the Central Park 5 case, Fairstein helped facilitate the wrongful conviction of these five boys of color. Indeed, as Anne Gray Fischer conveyed, Fairstein “perpetuated a long 20th-century American legal tradition of violently punishing black and Latino men in the name of the protection of white womanhood.” 

Years later, while serving a 33 year sentence on unrelated charges, Matias Reyes confessed to Meili’s rape. The Central Park 5 subsequently had their convictions vacated in 2002.

The case of the exonerated five captures so much of what is wrong with carceral feminism. In her groundbreaking book, Decriminalizing Domestic Violence, lawyer Leigh Goodmark argues that criminalization primarily “benefits those who feel safer as a result of interventions but are immune from most of its costs: people who don’t share children with their partner, people who are no longer in relationships with those partners, people who don’t rely on their partners in any way, higher-income people.” To be sure, it is uniquely upper class white women, such as Meili, who are able to reap the benefits of carceral feminism — and these benefits necessarily come at the expense of poor people and communities of color. 

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) epitomizes this increased reliance on carceral punishment as a means of acheiving justice for victims of gender-based crimes. In fact, VAWA was an extension of the notorious Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, a $30 billion piece of legislation, and the largest crime bill in US history. The bill expanded police and prison budgets, employing one hundred thousand new police officers and providing nearly $10 billion to prisons.

At its core, VAWA promotes an ever-increasing carceral approach to violent gender-based crimes. In her book, Goodmark highlights how VAWA’s carceral tone became more pronounced since its inception. Indeed, when the legislation was first passed in 1994, the bulk of its funding was funneled into prisons and police departments; as of 2013, only 15 percent of VAWA’s grant funds go toward social services even though, as Goodmark has cited, “repeated studies [show] that housing is the single greatest need identified by people subjected to abuse.” VAWA woefully neglects the economic and social safety nets which are paramount in enabling victims to leave their abusers, and to actually survive. 

In 1978, Shelley Fernandez, an administrator at San Francisco’s La Casa de Las Madres women’s shelter, testified to the US Commission on Civil Rights on this very issue. She stated: “We need money for teaching sheltered children, bilingual and biculturally. We need money for the day-to-day operation of shelters, ongoing rent, food, furniture, clothing, remodeling, upkeep, and paid staff. We need money for supplemental housing because we are already full.” 

Ignoring these demands which called for state financial support of community organizations geared toward helping victim-survivors of gender-based crimes, carceral feminists have, instead, pushed for mandatory arrest policies which require law enforcement to make an arrest when responding to a domestic violence call. Mandatory arrests have been shown to lead to greater fatalities, with research showing that victims are 64 percent more likely to be killed if their partners are arrested instead of being warned and permitted to remain in the home. In many cases, domestic violence homicides occur in homes which police have frequented multiple times. A study in California also revealed that mandatory arrest policies increased arrests of men by 60 percent and arrests of women by 400 percent. In spite of this, today, at least half of all states enforce this policy.

Carceral feminists conveniently turn a blind eye to the fact that women are currently the fastest growing segment of the incarcerated population, and that low-income women of color are disproportionately represented in US prisons. An overwhelming majority of incarcerated women had suffered interpersonal violence prior to their arrest. In fact, as many as 90 percent of women who are incarcerated for killing a man were battered by that same individual. 

Proponents of carceral feminism ignore the ways in which racialized disparities leave certain communities particularly vulnerable to violence at both the individual and institutional level. Gender-based violence does not occur in a vacuum; systemic factors involving racism, sexism, and poverty all work together in ways which exacerbate the likelihood of abuse occurring in marginalized communities. In Frantz Fanon’s masterful work, The Wretched of the Earth, he illustrates how the afflictions of colonialism on a people will inevitably lead them to seek relief from the muscular tension that is a result of colonial domination. Often, as Fanon cites, the first phase of this relief manifests as interpersonal violence — i.e., “fratricidal struggles” — between the colonized. This concept can certainly be extended to situations involving domestic and sexual violence. 

Still, in recent years, feminist activists have proliferated the “everywoman” myth which asserts that domestic violence and other gender-based crimes impact all women equally, regardless of race, class, or immigration status. Though perhaps well-intentioned, this claim is simply not true and, as University of Illinois professor Beth Richie notes, “the assumption of ‘everywoman’ fell into the vacuum created by a white feminist analysis that did not very successfully incorporate an analysis of race and class.” 

Take, for example, the fact that Black and Indigenous women face the highest risk of domestic violence homicide. Or the fact that increased collaboration between the criminal system and immigration enforcement has left undocumented victims of sexual and domestic violence with little to no options on how to proceed for support. Studies have shown that domestic violence reports to the police have substantially declined among undocumented women out of fear of themselves or their partners being deported. Further, it is imperative to acknowledge how poverty and domestic violence share a corresponding relationship. Multiple studies have revealed that the lower a couple’s income bracket is, the higher the chances are that a partner will engage in intimate violence. Carceral feminism necessarily reduces systemic violence to individual problems and does not acknowledge the fact that police and prisons are themselves sources and sites of violence. 

For example, Derek Chauvin, the police officer who murdered George Floyd, responded to a domestic violence call in 2008. Upon arriving on scene, he knocked down the bathroom door where an unarmed Ira Toles was hiding, and subsequently shot him twice in his stomach. Chauvin’s response to the domestic violence call ultimately left the victim in extreme distress and left Toles severely wounded. Rather than facing accountability for his actions, Chauvin was awarded a medal of valor.

These examples illustrate how deeply flawed our thinking is whenever we conflate punishment with accountability. Carceral feminism criminalizes individuals for their actions, rather than investing in solutions to the epidemic of violent gender-based crimes. Because carceral feminism frames gender-based violence as transgressions against the state, rather than against victims themselves, the needs of victim-survivors are routinely neglected. Feminist activist Lola Olufemi critiques this approach for its “individualistic response to harm —  it locates the problem in the body of the ‘bad’ person rather than connecting patterns of harm to the conditions in which we live.” Though it is not a solution, criminalization has proved to be the default response to these issues. This unyielding commitment to a carceral state is entrenched in the belief that violent crimes against women happen in isolation.

If we truly care about ending patriarchal violence, it is crucial that we confront our own attitudes about justice, and to imagine what it can look like outside of a punitive context. Employing policing, prosecution, and punishment in an effort to attain accountability obstructs our own responsibility to achieve the economic, racial, and social justice which are fundamental to the eradication of patriarchal violence, and which would facilitate the safety and self-determination of all survivors.

In Defence of Black Violence

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Originally Posted in Daily Maverick
By Mbuyiseni Ndlozi I Economic Freedom Fighters
South Africa
What do you do when colonial power forms an iron wall with black bodies which you must go through to fight the system? What do you do with house nigger collectives who take up arms to kill the revolutionary, to beat the back community into line? This question is even more crucial today, when our state is run by a black collective which presides over colonial property relations and massacres blacks to protect these colonial properties, than when apartheid managed them directly.

When Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) commander-in-chief Julius Malema arrived to give an address at the Tshwane University of Technology main campus in the wake of the 2015 Student Representative Council elections, the South African Students’ Congress (Sasco) disrupted the meeting, arguing that the EFF had not booked the venue. In all radical traditions, and in keeping with the spirit of the Freedom Charter, opening the university to radical and diverse views is a significant part of its own transformation. Rather than trying to police access to university premises, Sasco should have, in keeping with radical traditions, listened to what Malema had to say then taken to the stage to robustly argue the points.

Instead, in front of the police and campus security, Sasco members assaulted their way into an EFF public meeting, pushing towards the stage where Malema was about to give his address. Malema said: “Fighters attack.” The result was that ordinary students, as well as EFF members, pushed back and managed to shove Sasco members to the fringes. Relegated to the outskirts of the large crowd, Sasco members then resorted to throwing stones, injuring both students and journalists alike. Still, the police arrested no one.

Many painted this event as “black-on-black violence”, saying Malema’s call for fighters to attack showed a lack of black consciousness. In this piece I will argue that this is a debilitating statement to make to black activists; that they must not defend themselves when attacked by other blacks because they hold a different political view. It denies the right to violent self-defence for activists of decolonisation; in fact they are advised to “run away”.

This argument says that when engaged in the struggle for decolonisation, or the liberation of black people, you must never be violent to other blacks. This is because the objective is to unite blacks, thus, when they attack you run away. This is flawed on many levels, the least of which is that it treats blacks as homogeneous and this goes against all of Steve Biko’s work on the black condition and how we must engage in the politics of decolonisation.

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[Events] This Week the Bay Area is All About Black Liberation

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Schedule of Events: Tonight – Tuesday, Feb 17th – Tuesday Feb 24th

*Tuesday Feb 17, 7pm: “The Militarization of police, Islamophobia and the Black Community” with Dhoruba Bin-Wahad”:

Screen Shot 2015-02-17 at 4.00.08 PMJoin us for a discussion with brother Dhoruba Bin-Wahad a former Black Panther Party & BLA member and political prisoner who has been on the frontlines of struggle for liberation since the 1960’s up to the present day. Also speaking will be Kalonji Jama Changa of the FTP Movement based in Atlanta. This event will be at the Oakland Islamic Community Center and open to Muslims and non-Muslims alike and we would request all to wear modest clothing inside the Masjid.

This event will also be on Huey P. Newton’s birthday and the same week as the 50th anniversary of the assassination of El Hajj Malik Shabazz and the legacy of both of these freedom fighters will be discussed along with the topic: “Militarization of police, Islamophobia and the Black Community” Continue reading

Frantz Fanon – Excerpt from Wretched of the Earth


From Frantz Fanon – Wretched of the Earth

“Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world is, obviously, a program of complete disorder. But it cannot come as a result of magical practices, nor of natural shock, nor of a friendly understanding. Decolonization, as we know, is a historical process: that is to say that it cannot be understood, it cannot become intelligible nor clear itself except in the exact measure that we can discern the movements which give it historical form and context. Decolonization is the meeting of two forces, opposed to each other by their very nature, which in fact we owe their originality to that sort of substantiation which results from and is nourished by the situation in the colonies. Continue reading

Note From Revolutionaries of Color II

Davis, California. Reposted from DavisAntiZionism

“At whatever level we study it… decolonization is quite simply the replacing of a certain ‘species’ of men by another ‘species’ of men.Without any period of transition, there is a total, complete, and absolute substitution.” -Frantz Fanon

“Indeed our words will remain lifeless, barren, devoid of any passion, until we die as a result of these words, whereupon our words will suddenly spring to life and live amongst the hearts that are dead, bringing them to life as well.” -Sayyid Qutb

Sayyid Qutb on trial in 1966 under the Gamal

Sayyid Qutb on trial in 1966 under the Gamal

We, the anti-Zionists and radicals (of color), organized to take over Dutton Hall at the University of California, Davis on May 15, 2013, the 65th anniversary of the Nakba, in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. The administration, Zionists on and off campus, and local media have tried to misrepresent what took place that day, and this is why it is necessary that we send a clear and direct message. Continue reading