In light of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, DePaul hosted “Lessons in Self-Defense: Women’s Prisons, Gendered Violence, and Antiracist Feminisms in the 1970s and ’80s” on Oct. 16.
The event comprised two feminist speakers, Emily Thuma, assistant professor in the Department of Gender Studies and Sexuality at the University of California, Irvine, and Mariame Kaba, the founding director of Project NIA — a grassroots organization aimed at ending youth incarceration.
The speakers, who had never met before the night of the event, aimed to demonstrate the history of the anti-incarceration, anti-violence, and feminist movements, how they are tied together, and how we can attempt to relight the fuse that led to the powerful protests of the 70s and 80s.
According to Thuma and Kaba, a pivotal division between now and the ’70s and ’80s is that society no longer has — or more sensibly, is no longer attempting to find — the perfect poster child who can be the face of the movement.
Back in the late ’70s, the catalyst that brought the activists together was Joann Little. Little, a 20-year-old African-American and the only woman in the South Carolina jail at the time, killed a white prison guard in order to escape after he attempted to rape her. When she was tried for murder even though it was clearly act of self-defense, she became the face of the anti-incarceration and feminist movements, bringing collaborations together from an array of activist organizations. The public chaos and anger surrounding the case of an African-American woman was unprecedented at the time.
“It was a very educational process for people who were paying attention,” said Political activist Nkenge Touré.
One of Thuma’s and Kaba’s goals is to generate the same amount of attention surrounding Little’s case for that of Marissa Alexander, an African-American mother from Florida who is being tried for aggravated assault.
The arrest occurred after Alexander fired a warning shot at the wall to stop her estranged husband from attacking her after he threatened to kill her. This happened just nine days after Alexander gave birth to a premature child.
According to freemarissanow.org, Alexander’s “estranged husband, Rico Gray, has been arrested for domestic violence twice and previously landed Ms. Alexander in the hospital after beating her.” Alexander was tried and found guilty, but then appealed the conviction in 2013. Florida State Attorney Angela Corey is now bringing the case back to court, and Alexander will face a mandatory 60-year sentence if found guilty again.
Little and Alexander’s cases help exemplify exactly why Thuma and Kaba aim for the abolishment of prisons. Each holds very little faith in the criminal justice system as it has a history of disproportionately chastising minorities.
Kaba said a better name would be “criminal punishment system, or, at best, criminal legal system. (The criminal punishment system) is not justice. That’s punishment and revenge.”
The speakers both failed to directly answer the question, “If not prisons, then what?” While they were adamant that prisons were wrong and that, as Thuma said, “putting people in cages is an inherently violent act,” they were unable to give any alternatives to the incarceration system in place now.
Thuma and Kaba tried to show the students that facing an unjust system does not necessarily mean one is facing an unchangeable system. Kaba hoped the speech would inspire students to start trying to make a difference.
“There’s a lot of talk about what’s not going on and very few about what is happening. Find your alderman. Find that person. Get off your ass and do something,” Kaba said.