[Pnews] Does Our Belief in Women's Stories of Sexual Violence Extend to Survivors Behind Bars?

Prisoner News 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" 
<http://www.illinoiscourts.gov/R23_Orders/AppellateCourt/2011/1stDistrict/September/1083019_R23.pdf> and 
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 
<https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/11/the-glaring-blind-spot-of-the-me-too-movement/546458/> and 
their words discredited 

      Black women are disproportionately impacted by both domestic and
      state violence.

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 
<http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/31178-black-domestic-violence-survivors-are-criminalized-from-all-directions>, Black 
women are disproportionately impacted by both domestic and state 
violence. The 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey 
<http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/NISVS_Report2010-a.pdf> found 
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 
<https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/66/wr/mm6628a1.htm?s_cid=mm6628a1_w> than 
white women.

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 
<https://www.facebook.com/Moms-United-Against-Violence-and-Incarceration-282859508528500/> (MUAVI). 
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 
<http://www.incite-national.org/sites/default/files/incite_files/resource_docs/2883_toolkitrev-domesticviolence.pdf> in 
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 
general public).

"When she comes out, she sees me standing there," explained Buntyn. 
"Then she stands before the judge and they say something, then they take 
her out."

    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 
<https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/kim-foxx-bid-unseat-anita-alvarez-cook-county/Content?oid=21359641> and 
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 
<https://www.thenation.com/article/why-marissa-alexander-still-being-punished-fighting-back/> -- 
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 
legal system.

"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 

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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