Friday, July 15, 2016

Don't Leave Women Out of the Conversation on Police Brutality

By Kelsey Jones

Last week, in the span of less than 48 hours, two black men—Philando Castile and Alton Sterling—were killed by law enforcement, reigniting protests across the country against police brutality. Thousands of men, women, and children marched in the streets, and millions more shared their grief and outrage over social media.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement, which was started by three women in July 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, has been at the heart of the push to end police brutality since its inception.

Although the #BlackLivesMatter movement itself has made a point of recognizing the specific experiences and intersections of police brutality and gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation, much of the media portrayals and public perceptions label police brutality as an issue facing black men exclusively.

Women are primarily discussed as fearing for their sons and husbands, which is an important reproductive justice issue. But without the acknowledgement of black women’s specific experiences with police violence, this framework isn’t telling the whole truth.

“I think any conversation about police brutality must include black women,” said Marcia Chatelain, a professor of history at Georgetown University, in an interview with Dissent magazine. “Even if women are not the majority of the victims of homicide, the way they are profiled and targeted by police is incredibly gendered.”

The African American Policy Forum released a report last year detailing police violence against black women. The list of names is long, and their stories cross lines drawn by age, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, and location.

As the report says, “The erasure of Black women is not purely a matter of missing facts. Even where women and girls are present in the data, narratives framing police profiling and lethal force as exclusively male experiences lead researchers, the media, and advocates to exclude them.”

This week marks one year since Sandra Bland died in police custody after being arrested at a traffic stop. She was originally pulled over for failing to use her blinker to switch lanes, and the officer eventually pulled her out of the car after she declined to put out her cigarette and demanded to know why she was being arrested. She was found dead in her jail cell three days later, sparking national outrage after a video of the arrest surfaced.

#SayHerName, a campaign to increase visibility of black women who are victims of police violence, was chanted at protests and rallies across the country. Sandra’s death was a sobering reminder of the vulnerability of black people and the necessity of an inclusive movement.

But the public uproar surrounding Sandra’s death was an outlier to the countless other stories that have been underreported, or not reported on at all. We cannot exclude these women from the discussion on police brutality, race relations, and systemic oppressions. When we #SayHerName, it must carry the weight of every woman who has experienced, and who will experience, injustice at the hands of law enforcement.

Meagan Hockaday and Janisha Fonville were both shot and killed in 2015 after officers responded to calls of a domestic dispute and domestic violence, respectively. Within the span of a few months, videos surfaced of two teenage girls, one in Texas and one in South Carolina, who experienced excessive force by officers. Rekia Boyd was shot and killed by an off-duty officer after he confronted her and her friends for talking too loudly. And the list continues.

Women—especially transgender and queer women—experience the same systemic oppression and violence that black men face. But what makes black women’s experiences distinct is the perceived power dynamic between men and women and the threat of sexual violence.

For instance, Daniel Holtzclaw, an Oklahoma City police officer, raped and sexually assaulted at least 13 black women—ranging in age between 17 and 57 years old—in the neighborhood he patrolled, targeting women he believed would be less likely to report him or press charges.

Black women experience police violence at a rate almost identical to that of black men, but aside from a handful of cases—Sandra Bland being one of them—those acts of violence do not always spark the same public outcry.

In order to recognize the purpose of Black Lives Matter and create true systemic change, the media, and culture writ large, needs to afford the harassment, assault, and shooting of black women by police officers the same outrage and outcry as that accompanying the deaths of black men.

Because black women’s lives matter, too.


Kelsey Jones is a volunteer at Legal Voice and a junior at Washington State University. A current sports journalist and aspiring social justice lawyer, she spends her time volunteering for organizations that support her interest in the intersections of gender-based violence, reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ rights.

Photo credit: Johnny Silvercloud | Creative Commons

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Unpacking United States v. Bryant:
When Does Federal Protection of American Indian Women Become Overly Paternalistic?

By Rachel Kuenzi

In United States v. Bryant, decided unanimously last month by the United States Supreme Court, the Notorious RBG heralded a victory for American Indian domestic violence survivors, demonstrating respect for tribal court criminal procedure.

Michael Bryant had over one hundred tribal court convictions, including several misdemeanor convictions for domestic assault. Between 1997 and 2007, he pled guilty to five occasions of domestic violence charges. Bryant contended that because he did not have representation during the tribal court proceedings, those convictions should not count toward a heightened sentence in federal court.

However, his Sixth Amendment claim citing his right to counsel fell flat. The Supreme Court reaffirmed that at least two prior domestic violence convictions adhering to correct tribal court procedure are sufficient to escalate a third charge to a new crime – a felony, punishable by up to five years – created by the 2005 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

This decision reinforces the message that repeat offenses of domestic violence in American Indian communities is a serious crime, and upholds the severity of repeat offenses as outlined by VAWA, which was created with input from many tribes. With nearly 46% of American Indian and Alaska Native women experiencing physical violence by an intimate partner, repeat incidents of abuse can result in escalation and can even be fatal.

While this case sends positive messages with regard to the severity of domestic violence, as well as respect for the independence of tribal criminal procedure, it poses questions about tribal sovereignty over substantive law. Should American Indians rely on Congress to police domestic violence within tribal communities, or is VAWA overly paternalistic? Is this acceptance of “uncounseled” convictions lowering the bar of criminal legal protections for tribal members? Does this decision reinforce over-criminalization of tribal members and should tribal law instead focus on restorative justice?

Passionate responses to these questions may come out in upcoming months from American Indian communities and domestic violence organizations, so be on the lookout. For now, let’s celebrate the rare moment when the Supreme Court sided with victims of domestic violence.


Rachel Kuenzi is a legal intern at Legal Voice and a rising second-year student at Georgetown University Law Center. She is a Public Interest Fellow dedicated to alleviating intimate partner violence and day dreams about founding a domestic violence advocacy theater troupe that includes pro-bono legal services for victims.

Photo credit: Jay Galvin | Creative Commons

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Corporate Feminism:
Empowerment Cannot Be Bought

By Kelsey Jones

An ad on my Facebook feed encourage me to join Lean In, advertised as a non-profit organization designed to “empower all women to achieve their ambitions.” The organization stemmed from a book by the same name written by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

Scrolling down my feed, I caught another advertisement, this time for Aerie’s #aerieREAL campaign against photo shopping and the use of thin models.

The feminist movement has been at the forefront of the push for women’s rights for decades, but it’s increasingly also becoming something that companies wanted to plant their own stake in.

While that fact alone proves the power of the feminist movement, it is also a tricky tightrope to walk: using an intersectional political movement to sell products to a specific subset of women versus actually supporting feminism and its ideals across class, sexuality, and racial lines.

Empowerment has long been associated with something that women need: to be empowered in education, in the workplace, in the home. And now, companies are advertising products to help make that possible, as if the right beauty product and a little confidence is all it takes to solve sexism and systemic discrimination in education, in the workplace, and in the home. These messages, paired with catchy, viral-worthy phrases, contribute to the rising prevalence of hashtag feminism.

For instance, one of the most popular ads during last year’s Super Bowl featured several young girls demonstrating what they thought it meant when the producer asked them to run or throw like a girl. It was produced by Always, the feminine product company owned by Procter & Gamble.

The premise of the commercial was profound. It brought to light the insidious nature of common phrases like “You throw like a girl!” being used as an insult. But after challenging the viewer to redefine what it means to do something “#LikeAGirl,” Always flashed the brand logo and encouraged women to buy their product.

Companies like Always do have large audiences, especially when the commercials air during an event like the Super Bowl, so it's heartening to see these issues be raised at all. But juxtaposing a product with a powerful message dilutes the message, especially when the motive is to boost the company's own bottom line and pad the pockets of its largely white, heterosexual, male CEOs. The watered-down feminism of these "empowerment" campaigns—such as ones from Pantene and Secret—is even more apparent once you consider the fact that women generally pay more for the same beauty and hygiene products, thanks to the "pink tax."

The problem is not that the companies are taking feminism and putting out their own social campaigns crafted around their interpretation of it. The problem is that many of these campaigns are still aimed at selling a product. More often than not, that product is marketed in a way that says, “Look, if you buy this, you will be empowered.”

It is the hypocrisy of creating a commercial to break down gender stereotypes while producing other commercials for those same menstrual products with blue liquid to simulate blood and extra coverage to prevent the undesirable leak.

As companies move away from sexism and degradation marketing towards the adoption of feminism for profit, the goals of the movement and the companies becomes muddied. Feminism is a political movement. The misappropriation of such a movement for profit is deplorable.

Companies are not alone in the adoption of what has been deemed corporate feminism. Organizations like TED and Makers regularly hold conferences aimed at empowering women, but at a prohibitive cost—the TEDWomen conference in San Francisco this October costs $2,495 to attend. A price tag like that generally attracts a primarily white, wealthy, heterosexual women audience.

Furthermore, the talks come from a range of speakers, but many of them leave the audience with a feel-good positivity that side-steps some of the real issues facing the movement. The TEDWomen conference Jessica Valenti attended in 2014 didn’t have any mention of abortion access; when asked why, conference co-host Kelly Stoetzel said that abortion did not fit into their focus on “wider issues of justice, inequality and human rights.”

Feminism began as women gathered in small groups at houses across the country. They picketed, protested, and demonstrated in front of corporations and the government. They demanded their rights as citizens of this country.

When corporations and organizations lose sight of that history in favor of dollar signs, they limit the movement as they shave off the parts they deem undesirable or unmarketable.

Empowerment cannot be bought. The term in and of itself is empty; empowerment is almost always discussed by those who hold the power. Companies should be welcome to participate, but feminism should not be a marketing prop. Feminism and empowerment should not be a pastime for wealthy white women to discuss at expensive conferences.

Feminism is still political, not commercial.


Kelsey Jones is a volunteer at Legal Voice and a junior at Washington State University. A current sports journalist and aspiring social justice lawyer, she spends her time volunteering for organizations that support her interest in the intersections of gender-based violence, reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ rights.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Punishing Women for Abortion Hurts All Women

By Sara L. Ainsworth and Jill E. Adams
Members of the SIA Legal Team

Overzealous prosecutors, judges, lawmakers, and yes, even presidential candidates, have been threatening to undermine the abortion right by punishing women for having abortions. Let’s be honest, even when politicians say they don’t want to use the weight of the legal system to punish women for having abortions that isn’t the full story, because women are already being arrested and jailed for self-induced abortion and unintentional pregnancy loss.

The Self-Induced Abortion (SIA) Legal Team, of which Legal Voice is a member, has spent the last year exploring the criminalization of abortion, and we have found at least 17 arrests or prosecutions involving self-induced abortion. Several of those arrests, especially the most recent, were of women accused of using medication—the drug misoprostol—to terminate their own pregnancies.

Sweeping in Those Who Experience Unintended Pregnancy Loss

Of course, for every person who gets caught up in the legal system for an intended pregnancy loss, there will be another ensnared for a pregnancy loss that was not intended.

As the Guttmacher Institute reports, “The mere existence of medication abortion is providing some legal authorities reason to conduct fishing expeditions to go after not only women who have clearly terminated a pregnancy, but also women whom they suspect have done so.”

This idea—that people who terminate their own pregnancies should be arrested and jailed—also affects people who suffer a pregnancy loss or a poor birth outcome. In a tragic example, Melissa McMillen, a young woman in Washington State, gave birth unattended at home to a baby who was either stillborn or died immediately. Hemorrhaging and alone, having hidden the pregnancy from family and friends, she put the baby’s body in towels and did not call for help. None of this is, or should be, a crime in Washington—and yet, Melissa was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to two decades in prison. One of the things the prosecutor argued at Melissa’s trial was that she had considered an abortion during the pregnancy. So, ambivalence about a pregnancy—something countless pregnant people experience—was used to argue that Melissa was a murderer.

Two members of the SIA Legal Team, Legal Voice and National Advocates for Pregnant Women, along with the ACLU of Washington and the Birth Rights Bar Association, filed an amicus brief in this case, explaining that decision-making during pregnancy is constitutionally protected, and that to prosecute someone for the outcome of an unattended birth endangers all pregnant people. After all, childbirth sometimes happens in taxis (and now Ubers), on planes, and when the pregnant person is alone.

Impacts of Criminalizing Self-Induced Abortion

If the justice system is allowed to criminalize self-induced abortion, unattended childbirth, and pregnancy loss, we know who it’s going to hurt most: people of color, people living in poverty, and immigrants. The majority of people prosecuted in relation to their own pregnancies are women of color, who are also more likely than their white counterparts to suffer poor birth outcomes. Between worse birth outcomes, heightened exposure to state agents, and racist or xenophobic stereotyping, it's no surprise that immigrants, people of color, and those struggling to make ends meet will be under the greatest scrutiny and suffer the deepest impacts of this trend in criminalization.

But, in truth, this targeting of women who self-induce their abortions harms everyone by nullifying the right to abortion entirely for growing numbers of pregnant people in the U.S. A Texas Policy Evaluation Project report concluded that as many as 100,000 women in Texas have already attempted to end their own pregnancies outside the formal healthcare system. For decades now, global data have demonstrated that highly restrictive laws do not reduce the abortion rate, they simply relocate the site of abortion care from the clinic to the home.

The Real Face of Self-Induced Abortion

In a nation where abortion is a protected constitutional right, and caring and courageous abortion providers continue to work in the face of unrelenting opposition, why do some people end their own pregnancies? There are hundreds of lived experiences that may push someone away from the formal health care system or that may pull them toward self-directed care. With abortion clinics closing, women are traveling farther and paying more for abortions and attendant costs, like travel, overnight accommodations, and childcare. All told, securing an abortion can cost some half a month’s pay, which is prohibitively expensive for many families.

Resourceful women and their loved ones have and will continue to find ways to end pregnancies outside the formal healthcare system. While the thought of home abortion may conjure up gruesome images of pre-Roe coat hanger abortions, the current reality is one of safer, less invasive means. More often than not, women use traditional herbs or misoprostol, which is far safer and more effective than many self-induced abortion methods of the past.

Safe home abortion will be a positive experience for some, occurring in a private place through effective means while accompanied by a loved one. For others, particularly people living in poverty, immigrants, and people of color who are disproportionately arrested for pregnancy-related crimes, the self-induced abortion experience may be shrouded by the fear of jail or deportation.

A woman who cannot afford an abortion or access an abortion clinic may turn to the Internet to research less expensive alternatives to clinic-based care. Rather than accurate information about how to procure reliable medications, proper dosage, and likely side effects, her search might turn up headlines about Purvi Patel, Jennie Linn McCormack, Kenlissia Jones, and other women arrested and jailed for allegedly ending their own pregnancies. What is this not-so-hypothetical woman to do? She’s decided—for whatever reason—that it’s better for her not to have a child. She doesn’t have insurance coverage for an abortion, doesn’t have money to pay the costs out of pocket, and doesn’t want to go to prison for taking matters into her own hands. That’s why we created the SIA Legal Team—to expand access to reliable information about ending one’s pregnancy, and to halt criminalization of women who do so.

The Future We Envision

No one should face prison time for the outcome of a pregnancy—intended or unintended. Rather than arrest and jail people who have self-induced their abortions, we should work to make abortion more affordable, more accessible, and less stigmatized. Pregnant people deserve access to the full panoply of provider-directed and self-directed abortion care options, along with the freedom to choose the setting and method right for them―without fear of going broke or getting locked up.


Sara L. Ainsworth is Advocacy Director at Legal Voice; Jill E. Adams is Executive Director of the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice and Chief Strategist for the SIA Legal Team, a consortium of organizations using law and policy tools to ensure people throughout the U.S. can end their own pregnancies outside of the formal health system with dignity and safe from the threat of arrest for themselves or anyone who assists them.

Photo courtesy of bekassine

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Real Reason Washington State Failed to Pass a Bill to Protect Sexual Assault Survivors

By Martha Burwell

Legal Voice has been fighting, and winning, some tough battles for women’s rights in the Washington State Legislature. But when this year’s legislative session ended in March, the very popular SB 6151 that would have improved protections for sexual assault survivors was left unpassed. This left bipartisan supporters saying, “Wait, what just happened?”

What happened was not at all what you would have expected. But let’s start at the beginning.

Currently in Washington State, if someone is a victim of a sexual assault, they can, understandably, get a protection order to help keep their attacker away from them. This is called a SAPO, or a Sexual Assault Protection Order, and it only applies in non-domestic violence cases. The problem is that SAPOs only last a short two years, unlike other types of protection orders.

When nearing the end of the second year, the survivor has two options. First, they can let the SAPO expire, giving them the extra stress of not having legal protection to keep the perpetrator away from them. Alternatively, they can go back to court, through an often re-traumatizing process, and renew the protection order. This includes filing paperwork, and taking time off during a weekday to go to court. It likely includes seeing the perpetrator in person, and hearing about their behavior over the past year or more. It includes reviewing, again, whether the survivor should be protected, which may include the details of the assault. And often, it includes the cost of a lawyer. It is an exhausting, unfair burden to bear. Unsurprisingly, survivors will often move away, find a new job, or leave school to get away from the perpetrator, rather than endure this process.

But even if they do choose to go through the work and stress of renewing the protection order, it is again only valid for two years. They would have to repeat this process over and over, every two years, if they wanted to continually be protected from the person who assaulted them. And each time, there is no guarantee that the extension will be granted.

SB 6151 was meant to lift this burden. Instead of having a two-year expiration date, it would allow courts to issue SAPOs for longer periods of time—even permanently—so the survivor would not have to keep going back to court on a two-year schedule. They could rest just a bit easier, and get on with their lives.

This bill passed unanimously in the Washington State Senate during the 2016 legislative session. At a time when the Legislature can be sharply divided on partisan lines and no party controls both houses, that is no small feat. When everyone agrees on something in a starkly divided political world, it is clearly a commonsense idea. Unanimous votes in this setting are a rare and precious thing.

The next step was for the House of Representatives to confirm the bill. It was expected to sail right through, given the popularity it had in the Senate.

But they did not pass the bill. So, what happened? What went wrong?

Enter the National Rifle Association.

After the Senate approved the bill, the NRA lobby began to protest that if someone had a SAPO against them with no expiration date, this would restrict their gun ownership for life. And this, they simply wouldn’t have.

But here’s where the problem lies—their claim was not true.

As the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs clearly states in their Sexual Assault Protection Order guide, “a SAPO cannot order the offender to surrender any guns or weapons.”  

It’s that simple. This bill had absolutely nothing to do with firearm ownership.

It is true that Washington law requires a court when entering any type of protection order must require a person to surrender firearms if there is clear and convincing evidence that the person used a firearm in committing a felony, or previously committed an offense making him or her ineligible to possess a firearm. 

But that is a separate issue from whether a survivor is entitled to a sexual assault protection order.  And frankly—should there be any question that a person should be required to surrender firearms in cases where they used a firearm to commit a felony, or are already prohibited by law from owning a gun?

In short, the NRA didn’t do their homework. It appears they were confusing this bill with the law passed in 2014 that put restrictions on gun ownership of those who have domestic violence protection orders—rather than sexual assault protection orders—issued against them (which also passed unanimously, it should be noted).

Surely, some Washington State Representatives must have been notified of this? Yes, they were. But when the NRA raised its voice, too many of our lawmakers got cold feet. Rather than standing up to and correcting the NRA, they stalled the bill to avoid the bullying of the long-standing firearms lobbyist organization.

All of this comes back to the sexual assault survivors, who we have let down. The NRA has ensured that, for now, they must still carry the burden of renewing the protection order every two years.

Legal Voice and their allies have publicly decried the Legislature’s failure to pass this bipartisan legislation, and have affirmed their commitment to see the bill through in the 2017 session. But what can we do about it? Email or call your Representatives, and let them know that you won’t stand for this kind of interference, and that when this bill comes around again in the next legislative session, you expect them to support it. This sounds like a small thing—sending an email or making a two-minute call—but it’s actually incredibly important. If many of us show our support, and give them a strong reason to vote in favor, we can help give them the courage to stand up to the NRA and support sexual assault survivors.


Martha Burwell is a gender equity consultant, researcher, and writer based in Seattle. You can see her explorations into intersectional feminist topics on her blog EqualiSea: The pulse on gender equity in Seattle and beyond, or say hello on twitter @EqualiSea.




Photo courtesy of Patricia Feaster | Licensed under CC by 2.0