Jailed for Self-Defense: How the Criminal Legal System Fails Survivors of Color

October 1st marks the start of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. For me, it also marks four Octobers since I was arrested for attempting to defend myself against an abusive partner. I grabbed a knife to scare him off, and he wrapped his hand around the blade to pull the knife out of my hand. When the police came, he ran outside and said, “She stabbed me.”

We were both arrested: He was arrested for simple assault, and I was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon. He showed off his bleeding palm as proof that I had stabbed him, and I was silent, afraid that I was responsible. I spent a full night and the next day in jail, being teased by officers: “You’re the one who stabbed your boyfriend, right?”

We were both released the next day, with no charges, but I learned an important lesson: the right to self-defense does not extend to people who look like me.

And so a month later, when he hit me in the face, I didn’t react. Four months later when he choked me and threw me into a table, I didn’t fight back. Because I knew that women of color are viewed as having no selves to defend.

I’m lucky that I spent only 14 hours in jail. Not like Marissa Alexander, who was incarcerated for three years in Florida for firing a warning shot when her husband threatened her life. Or Gigi Thomas, who is still incarcerated and facing murder charges here in DC for the actions she took to save her own life.

For women of color, the issues of gender-based violence and police brutality are not separate; they are completely intertwined. We are victimized first by our abusers and again by a legal system that views communities of color as criminal and arrests women of color for fighting for our lives.

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It happened again to 15-year-old Bresha Meadows. Her abusive father terrorized Bresha and her family. She tried reaching out for help and reporting the abuse. She tried to find a safe way out. But the system failed her, and she was forced to take matters into her own hands. She killed her father to protect her life, and now she’s in jail awaiting a hearing on October 6th. In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, CASS is organizing a letter-writing event at Potter’s House this Sunday at 5pm.

Join me on Sunday to write letters to the prosecutor and ask him to #FreeBresha!

For more stories of women and girls of color jailed for self-defense, check out the anthology No Selves to Defend.