[Pnews] Does Our Belief in Women's Stories of Sexual Violence Extend to Survivors Behind Bars?
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Dec 4 11:02:45 EST 2017
Does Our Belief in Women's Stories of Sexual Violence Extend to
Survivors Behind Bars?
Victoria Law - December 3, 2017
In 2005, 26-year-old Paris Knox was living in Chicago with her
13-month-old son. Her relationship with her baby's father, Malteeny
Taylor, was characterized by violence and abuse. During their time
together, he not only hit her but, even with others present, pulled her
by the hair down the street and smacked her to the ground
On May 21, 2005, Taylor attacked Knox in her home. She defended herself,
an act that ultimately resulted in his death and her arrest. At trial,
witnesses testified that Knox and Taylor's relationship was "tumultuous"
that arguments frequently escalated to verbal and physical abuse.
Nonetheless, the jury convicted Knox of first-degree murder and she was
sentenced to 40 years in prison.
The recent increased media attention and public rallying behind
survivors of sexual abuse have largely centered around white
women, particularly celebrity white women.
In 2017, after 13 years behind bars, Knox's conviction and 40-year
sentence were vacated due to ineffective assistance of counsel. She was
transferred from Logan Correctional Center, one of Illinois's two state
women's prisons, to Chicago's Cook County Jail, where she remains while
she awaits a new trial. Bail has been set at $500,000. To post bond and
secure her pretrial freedom, family members and friends would need to
pay $50,000, a price tag that they cannot afford.
Believing Black Women -- or Not
The recent increased media attention and public rallying behind
survivors of sexual abuse have largely centered around white women,
particularly celebrity white women. Although the "Me Too" campaign was
created by Tarana Burke, a Black woman
particularly for women of color, the recent conversations have, by and
large, omitted Black women and other women of color. In the few
instances when their accusations /do/ hit headlines, their experiences
are often dismissed
their words discredited
Black women are disproportionately impacted by both domestic and
Black women behind bars are rendered even more invisible, and their
experiences of violence remain either ignored or blatantly disbelieved.
In 2005, the jury chose not to believe evidence of domestic violence and
convicted Paris Knox in the death of her abusive ex-partner. Twelve
years later, at a time of heightened media attention and public outcry
against sexual harassment and abuse by famous white men, Knox has the
chance at a new trial. But will her experiences of violence and abuse be
believed this time around? Or does the newly increased public
consciousness around sexual assault cease to matter when the survivor
herself is incarcerated and on trial?
As noted previously on Truthout
women are disproportionately impacted by both domestic and state
violence. The 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey
that approximately 4 out of 10 Black women have experienced rape,
physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their
lifetime. The Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American
Community noted that while Black women are 8 percent of the country's
population, they account for 22 percent of intimate partner homicide
all genders) and 29 percent of all female victims of domestic violence
homicides. In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found
that Black women are more than twice as likely to be killed by their
At the same time, Black women are disproportionately incarcerated. In
2013 and again in 2015, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that the
imprisonment rate for Black women was twice
<https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p15.pdf> that of white women.
However, no national agency keeps track of how often domestic and state
violence intersect -- for Black women or for anyone else caught in the
criminal legal system. In 1977, a study from Cook County Jail found that
40 percent of women charged with murdering their partners reported that
these partners had been abusive. Each woman had called police at least
five times; many had already separated in an attempt to escape the
abuse. Over two decades later, in 1999, the US Department of Justice
found that nearly half of all women in local jails and state prisons
<http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=837> had experienced abuse
before their arrests. No nationwide statistics have been released since
Will the current increase in attention to women's experiences of sexual
harassment and violence mean a shift in policy and practice toward
criminalized abuse survivors?
"I certainly hope so," said Holly Krig, the director of organizing of
the Chicago-based grassroots group Moms United Against Violence and
At the same time, she worries that the stories that have been
highlighted by mainstream and social media -- of mostly white celebrity
women -- might reinforce notions of what a victim looks like: notions
that exclude survivors who are women of color, trans, poor and/or have
past histories with law enforcement.
Thirteen Years of Separation
Knox's mother, Debbie Lisa Buntyn, only met Taylor twice. The first time
was when Buntyn was in a residential treatment center. "He looked down
on me because I was a recovering addict," she told Truthout.
The next time she met him was when Knox was about to give birth. "She
had to have a C-section," she recalled. "She wanted me in the room with
her because that was her first child. He got mad at her about that."
Buntyn didn't allow Taylor's displeasure to prevent her from being with
her daughter and welcoming her grandson into the world.
That was the last time she saw Taylor, who was never present when Buntyn
visited her daughter and baby grandson. Knox never told her mother about
the abuse. If she had, says Buntyn, who already disliked the man, she
would have urged her daughter to leave him.
Knox's silence is a hallmark of domestic violence. Those experiencing
abuse are often reluctant to talk about what's happening for a number of
reasons, including fear of escalated violence, as well as fear of being
judged or pressured to end the relationship.
For Black women experiencing abuse, there's also a heightened fear of
the criminal legal system. Mariame Kaba is a co-organizer with Survived
and Punished <http://www.survivedandpunished.org/>, a national network
focused on ending the criminalization of survivors of gendered violence.
Since her early years in the domestic violence field, Kaba has seen
Black women whose stories of violence are believed and who have been
able to obtain restraining orders and orders of protection. However, she
has also seen the additional hurdles facing Black women -- hurdles
caused by the reliance on a legal system that disproportionately polices
and incarcerates Black people.
"One of the big things I've seen is the idea that they don't want to
have their partners arrested or jailed," she told Truthout. "That fear
is heightened for Black women because there are so many Black men
churned through the criminal punishment system
<https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p15.pdf>." Black women may refrain
from calling the police -- or even disclosing abuse to others -- out of
a sense of racial solidarity or fear of being seen as a "race traitor."
At the same time, Kaba points to another prevalent fear: that calling
the police may result in a survivor being arrested and criminalized, a
fear that often comes true
places with mandatory arrest policies. At the same time, they must
overcome the continued notion of Black women as "Jezebel-ish people,"
stemming from antebellum notions of Black women as promiscuous and
therefore justified targets of sexual violence. "It influences what we
see today," Kaba noted.
In November 2005, Buntyn got a call from her daughter. Knox had been
arrested for Taylor's death. "She been locked up ever since," Buntyn said.
Knox's arrest and subsequent trial garnered little, if any, media
attention. Neither Krig nor Kaba, who was living in Chicago at the time,
remember seeing mention of Knox in the local newspapers. The only
mention was a brief paragraph buried in the August 13, 2005, edition of
the Chicago Sun-Times; the article characterized Knox as an
ex-girlfriend angry about the lack of child support payments.
During Knox's first trial, Buntyn was in a residential drug treatment
center. She was not allowed to stay in touch with family or friends, a
common policy for intensive inpatient treatment programs. "There's a lot
of things you can't do while you're in recovery," she explained. By the
time Buntyn finished the program, her daughter had already been
convicted, sentenced and sent to Dwight Correctional Center, the state's
former maximum-security prison for women.
Because of her own conviction history, Buntyn needed to request
permission from the prison's superintendent to visit her daughter. On
June 14, 2012, after five years of being unable to see her daughter,
Buntyn received permission.
By then, Buntyn was undergoing a series of surgeries -- a knee
replacement, a hip replacement, a rebuilt ankle and a metal rod in her
leg, all of which rendered her unable to travel the 80 miles from her
Chicago home to the prison. While she was recovering from these various
operations, Dwight was closed
Knox and more than 1,000 other women were moved to Logan Correctional
Center, 100 miles further west (at least a three-hour drive) from Chicago.
"I wasn't able to see her until she was put in Cook County [Jail in
Chicago]," said Buntyn. Even then, she could not hug or even touch her
daughter -- the jail's visits are no-contact, so mother and daughter
were separated by a thick plastic window. Buntyn's limited mobility
makes it difficult to walk down the long hallway leading to the visiting
room and so, since that first visit, mother and daughter have
communicated by phone.
Still, Buntyn attends every single one of her daughter's pretrial
hearings, wearing a purple t-shirt that reads "Free Them All" made by
the Chicago-based abolitionist group Love & Protect. "Every time she has
a court date, I'm there," she said. But courtroom appearances allow no
hugs or even communication. Courtrooms prohibit defendants from talking
to or even waving to people in the gallery (the seating area for the
"When she comes out, she sees me standing there," explained Buntyn.
"Then she stands before the judge and they say something, then they take
Mass Organizing Sees Victories for Incarcerated Survivors
Advocates are hoping that the new state's attorney, Kim Foxx, who has
been hailed as a progressive prosecutor
is the first Black woman to hold the office in Chicago
will take Knox's experiences of abuse and violence into consideration.
Should Foxx's office choose to charge Knox with second-degree murder,
with a penalty of four to 12 years in prison
the 38-year-old (who has already served 13 years) would be able to walk
out of prison and begin rebuilding her life.
Krig notes that Knox's first conviction, in 2007, occurred five years
before mass organizing pushed Marissa Alexander -- and the issue of
defending one's self against domestic violence -- into national
headlines. Alexander, a mother of three living in Jacksonville, Florida,
was initially sentenced to 20 years in prison after firing a warning
shot at her abusive ex-husband. A judge denied her attempts to argue
Stand Your Ground as a defense, a stark contrast to that of George
Zimmerman, who successfully argued Stand Your Ground as a defense for
fatally shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Alexander's case garnered
mass outrage as well as mass organizing
After her initial conviction was overturned upon appeal, Florida
prosecutors offered her a plea bargain
time served for her 1,030 days behind bars, another 65 days in jail, and
two years of house arrest.
Though general awareness about domestic violence has increased,
the number of criminalized survivors does not seem to have decreased.
"Because of that organizing, people had an understanding of domestic
violence and a context for what had happened," Krig noted. "Organizing
built enough support to pressure the prosecutor so that she had no
choice but to offer a plea deal."
That increased awareness around domestic violence has had ripple effects
that have reached from Jacksonville, Florida, to Chicago. For example,
Krig also worked on the defense campaign for Naomi Freeman, another
Black mother living in Chicago. As reported previously on Truthout
Freeman was charged with first-degree murder in the death of her abusive
In 2015, partnering with the Chicago Community Bond Fund
<https://chicagobond.org/>, organizers with Love & Protect
<http://loveandprotect.org/> (formerly the Chicago Alliance to Free
Marissa Alexander), Lifted Voices <https://liftedvoices.org/>, MUAVI and
members of Freeman's family were able to raise the $35,000 necessary to
post bond for Freeman, enabling her to spend her pretrial waiting period
with her children and to give birth to her third child, with whom she
was pregnant when she was arrested, outside of jail.
In 2016, sustained community organizing
<http://www.assatasdaughters.org/byeanita> ousted state's attorney Anita
who had waited over a year before charging Chicago police officers in
the shooting of Laquan McDonald but immediately pursued first-degree
murder charges against Freeman and other abuse survivors. In August 2017
Krig and other advocates set up a meeting with several state's attorneys
working under the newly elected Foxx to discuss the cases of Freeman,
Knox and Caress Shumaker, another Black woman charged in the death of
her boyfriend who had been abusive.
"We talked about the context of domestic violence," Krig said. "We
talked about Marissa Alexander's case, which they heard about, even
though it happened in Jacksonville, because of all the organizing around
it. It provided them with a context to look at the cases we were talking
Other abuse survivors who had been criminalized in the past also
attended the meeting and shared their personal stories -- stories that
Krig feels had a direct impact on how these attorneys viewed the cases.
Within months of that meeting, prosecutors dropped the charges against
Shumaker and reduced the charges against Freeman to involuntary
manslaughter with a sentence of 30 months of probation and no prison time.
Kaba is hopeful, but also cautious, that the increased attention around
sexual violence will trickle down to Black women caught in the criminal
"It's hard for me to see what's currently happening transforming the
criminal punishment system, a system that is set up to oppress women and
gender non-conforming people," Kaba said. She noted that anecdotal
evidence points to the fact that, though general awareness about
domestic violence has increased in recent years, the number of
criminalized survivors does not seem to have decreased.
"I believe the way to gain people's freedom is through mass
participatory defense campaigns," said Kaba, noting that the full force
of the legal system comes down on abuse survivors who are already
marginalized. Criminalization reduces even further the resources they
can access. "As organizers, we have a lot to do to bring attention to
their experiences, to bring resources and to challenge narratives," she
Knox's family, as well as Krig and other organizers, are hoping that
their organizing will push the state's attorney to extend increased
understanding of abuse and violence to Paris Knox. Her next court date
is December 20.
"Paris has already spent 13 years in prison. That's 13 years too long,"
stated Krig. "She's not a danger to anyone. She never was. She acted in
defense of her life, which everyone should have a right to do. But for
her, it resulted in a first-degree murder charge and a 40-year prison
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