#Blacksexworkerslivesmatter: White-Washed ‘Anti-Slavery’ and the Appropriation of Black Suffering

by Robyn Maynard
Originally published at The Feminist Wire, republished here with permission.

Art by Robyn Maynard and Jessica MacCormack

Claiming to be a modern-day anti-slavery ambassador is a highly profitable cause, one that is increasingly popular in Hollywood circles. Most recently, hundreds of celebrities endorsed an open letter to derail Amnesty International’s draft policy to decriminalize consensual adult prostitution. The letter was written by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women International (CATW), a U.S-based anti-prostitution lobby group who frequently lobbies for the criminalization of the sex industry while using the term interchangeably with “contemporary slavery.” Indeed it has developed into, quite literally, a ten-million dollar industry; it has become common-place to see organizations seeking large-scale donations for some take on a “movement to re-Abolish slavery.” Yet if fighting the supposed legacy of slavery is this popular of a social cause, how is it that crowd-funding remains one of the only means of fundraising by families of Black persons killed by the police? In what some are calling the Age of Ferguson, an era where police killings of Black men, women, and children are institutionalized and enshrined in law in the same way that slavery once was, the question must be asked: how legitimate can a ‘new’ anti-slavery movement be when the legacy of the transatlantic slave-trade is a living, breathing horror for anyone living with Black skin in the Americas? And what does this say about the value placed on Black lives that fighting ‘slavery’ is only popular when it is whitewashed of any Black-led struggles for justice?

For anti-prostitution campaigns pushing for the criminalization of the sex industry, ‘slavery’ has been decontextualized from Black struggle and repurposed to describe the multiplicity of workplaces where sexual services are exchanged consensually and for remuneration, such as strip clubs, brothels and massage parlours and on the street. As a black woman with experience in the sex industry and as a long-time outreach worker with both street-based and indoor sex workers in Montreal, this rhetoric has always troubled me. Mobilizing slavery in this way has always seemed a deeply disrespectful appropriation of Black suffering, disrespectful both to our deceased ancestors and to our still-endangered lives as Black folks.

But by hijacking the terminology of slavery, even widely referring to themselves as ‘abolitionists’, anti-sex work campaigners have not only (successfully) campaigned for funding and legal reform; but they do so without any tangible connections to historical or current Black political movements against state violence. Indeed in pushing for criminalization, they are often undermining those most harmed by the legacy of slavery. As Blacks persons across the Americas are literally fighting for our lives, it is urgent to examine the actions and goals of any mostly white and conservative movement who deign to be the rightful inheritors of an ‘anti-slavery’ mission which deigns to abolish prostitution but both ignores and indirectly facilitates brutalities waged against Black communities.

What is this ‘New Anti-Slavery’ Movement Devoid of Black Solidarity?

It is not only CATW that appropriates the anti-slavery narrative. Politicians, highly influential and well-funded international NGO’s, women’s groups, high-profile celebrities and Evangelical and Catholic organizations across Canada and the United States regularly and repeatedly invoke Black suffering under chattel slavery in a push to criminalize the sex industry. Canadian Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament Joy Smith frequently invokes ‘modern slavery‘ to pass legislation criminalizing sex work in Canada. This is part of a broader anti-prostitution movement that self-identifies as ‘abolitionist’, nominally assuming a direct lineage with those who fought and opposed chattel slavery. Vancouver women’s organization Vancouver Rape Relief explicitly link their own efforts to criminalize all forms of prostitution to the anti-slavery movements in 18th century West Indies, the United States and Canada; and go on to place themselves as modern anti-slavery ambassadors, claiming their role in “a new international abolitionist movement [which] has recently emerged.” Joy Smith directly parallels her work to the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. Writer and sex worker Maggie McNeil has pointed out in the Washington Post, the use of the historically and emotionally loaded term ‘slavery’ is deliberate and not accidental: activist group Demand Abolition openly state that they strategically use the word slavery as a stand in for prostitution in order to garner popular support.

Slavery Without the Slaves?

Anti-prostitution and right wing government agencies frequently repeat the (rarely cited) statistic that sexual slavery is the ‘third largest world economy’, yet these claims have repeatedly been demonstrated to be baseless. The oft-repeated statistic that the average of entry into the sex trade is 12-14 in North America have been categorically debunked since they are based on studies which excluded adults,[1] to the point of being excluded as evidence in the Ontario Superior Court by Justice Susan Himel. Even those horrific instances of conditions that could arguably be called ‘sex slavery’ are not definitive of the entire sex industry; despite anti-prostitution advocates’ frequent but inaccurate claims to the contrary. In Canada the only large-scale national peer-reviewed study investigating the topic found that most women working in the sex trade do not consider themselves victims, let alone could they be considered slaves by any legal categorization. Working conditions in the sex industry, like in many unregulated or criminalized industries, can be far from ideal, and indeed can be coercive and even violent in many instances. Yet ‘slavery’ is an empirically inaccurate description of the sex industry as a whole; only made possible by misrepresenting facts and conflating sex work and sex trafficking statistics to drum up support to criminalize prostitution.

Using ‘Abolition’ to Promote Human Rights Abuses

Though they invoke slavery and abolition, neither the money raised nor the visibility of prohibitionist movements goes towards the Black-led movements against continued state violence. In borrowing this narrative, these ‘abolitionists’, who, as I have argued elsewhere are more rightly termed prohibitionists, exploit Black suffering to provide emotional weight to their own cause.

Not only is Black suffering appropriated and evacuated from so-called ‘new abolition’, but this movement is being used to champion a pro-criminalization movement which has been documented to harm those it purports to support. After much lobbying, Canadian prohibitionists championed a recently passed federal legislation intended to eradicate the sex industry in the name of ‘protecting vulnerable peoples’, (officially the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act). Sex workers, racial justice and human rights advocates across the country fiercely opposed this legislation, however, because it continued to criminalize sex workers and their necessary safety practices both directly and indirectly. Hailed as an ‘abolitionist victory’, the law continues to criminalize street-based sex workers, even though a nearly-identical law was recently struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada as unconstitutional because it put street-based sex workers lives in danger[2] and left sex workers vulnerable to police abuse. Incidentally, street-based sex workers are disproportionately Indigenous, Black, and trans women. One recent application of this new ‘rescue’ law saw Quebec-based ‘abolitionist’ group the Concertation des luttes contre l’exploitation sexuel (CLES) call (successfully) on the police to increase surveillance and enforcement of sex work locations during Montreal’s June 2015 Grand Prix; another saw 11 migrant sex workers deported in an Ottawa-based sting in May of this year. In the wake of both empirical evidence and consultations with sex workers demonstrating the harms caused by criminalization, UNAIDS, and the World Health Organization have come out in favor of decriminalization of the consensual exchange of sexual services for money, in order to better support sex workers’ multifaceted struggle against human and labour rights abuses, including violence at the hands of law enforcement, and vulnerability to contracting HIV/-AIDS.[3] For the same reasons, hundreds of sex worker organizations around the world, notably in post-colonial nations across the continent of Africa and the Caribbean islands, continually advocate for decriminalization. Criminalization, regardless of its purportedly benevolent intentions, places sex workers in harm’s way, and invoking black slaves who lived and died fighting for their humanity to this purpose is an abuse of history.

Robbed of Our Narratives: Black Slavery and Abolition Are Not Metaphors

Yet it is simply false to parallel the entire sex industry to an economic, social and political system based on the full subjugation of one race to another, wherein Blacks in the United States and Canada were systematically chained, raped, beaten, branded, used, and disposed of by their white slave owners under the trans-Atlantic slave trade and plantation economies, categorically deemed subhuman for hundreds of years. For too long, Black communities have been robbed of our bodies, languages, and innovations, and here we are also robbed of our own historical narrative.

How is it that a quintessentially pro-criminalization movement is called ‘new abolition’ when it works directly against efforts taken to combat anti-Black policing and Black incarceration? Abolition is an important part the Black tradition; Black ex and runaway slaves played a crucial role in the formal abolition of the institution of slavery in the Americas, and were without question the original abolitionists, alongside white supporters. The significance of those Black slaves that escaped and fought for abolition cannot and must not be abstracted into mere metaphor, for the purpose of evoking strong emotions against prostitution, or any other means of working, trading, surviving or thriving.

Abolition belongs not only to Black history but also to contemporary Black-led struggles against incarceration and policing. The words of formerly incarcerated ex-Black Panther Angela Y. Davis on her involvement with anti-prison activism demonstrate this lineage clearly:

I choose the word `abolitionist’ deliberately. The 13th Amendment, when it abolished slavery, did so except for convicts. Through the prison system, the vestiges of slavery have persisted. It thus makes sense to use a word that has this historical resonance. (Davis, (1996: 26).

Though it goes ignored by the Hollywood, white-feminist, and Evangelical-church-based version of abolitionism, there exists a vibrant contemporary Black, indigenous, and women of colour-led abolitionist movement against the prison-industrial complex; pushing instead for a transformative justice which does not rely on law enforcement; INCITE!,TGI Justice, and #BlackLivesMatter are only a few. In their push for criminalization, anti-prostitution advocates under the borrowed term of ‘abolitionists’ are taking the space that rightfully belongs to grassroots Black-led/allied abolitionist movements against the prison industrial complex and the ongoing lived effects of slavery. And they do so while promoting practices that harm Black communities and Black organizing efforts against law enforcement.

Criminalization is No Friend to Black Women: #Sayhername #Blacksexworkerslivesmatter

It is not arbitrary that many Black feminist writers and racial justice activists advocate and organize to create anti-violence measuresbeyond the state, and are less likely than our white feminist counterparts to push for more policing to ‘protect’ us. The most significant violence Black communities face is still at the hands of the state. Black (and Indigenous) communities always bear the brunt of criminalization, be it via laws against sex, drugs, or even inhabiting public space. Indeed the Black inmate population at federal institutions in Canada has grown by nearly 90 per cent since 2003, the result of unapologetic police profiling, hyper-surveillance, and harassment, experienced by the Black population in every Canadian and American city. Recently, #BlackLivesMatter has made some gains in highlighting the erasure and silence of the state’s silent War on Black Women. Profiling, and indeed police murder of Black women is less mediatized, but it is no less a reality; as black feminists and others continue to point out, notably here and here. Still, our lives (and our deaths) are accorded little value in the Americas.

Where do the pro-law enforcement strategies promoted by these ‘anti-slavery advocates’ leave Black sex workers, and Black cis and trans women more generally? In the context of unchecked anti-Black racism, more police on the streets and surveillance of indoor sex work locations inevitably means more abuse of Black women and Black sex working women at the hands of the police, particularly trans women. The Ontario Human Rights Commission found that many Canadian Black women were profiled because “they were assumed to be prostitutes [by police] because they were in a car with White men who was assumed to be a customer.”[4] Black women who sell or trade sex are specifically targeted by law enforcement; the Red Umbrella Project based in New York recently documented that Black defendants in Brooklyn made up 94 percent of charges on the offense of “loitering for the purposes of prostitution.” Where there is profiling, already a form of harm, there is abuse and violence, and sex workers have been documented to experience high rates of sexual assault at the hands of the police.[5] The violence of the criminal justice system is most notably silenced when it involves Black transgendered sex workers; as tragically exemplified by the recent death of Mya Hall, a black transgender sex worker killed by police, and near media silence. Black sex workers too often live in fear of losing their children, fear losing of their only source of income with which they support their families, and sometimes fear losing their lives.

#Realabolitionnow – Our Abolition Movements Are Not Over

The abolition of ‘formal’ slavery was accomplished, but the abolition of its horrific legacy is far from over, and so abolition cannot rightly be borrowed to enhance the popularity of the political causes of celebrities and highly-funded NGO’s. Though ‘abolition’ has been appropriated, I do not intend to easily surrender the legacy of Black slavery and abolition to those who would abuse it. Co-opting the horrors of Black slavery in order to push for increased policing of women’s (often Black and cis and trans women’s) workspaces and bodies is dangerously misinformed: the harms wreaked on Black women’s bodies by hundreds of years of racist policing and imprisonment stand for themselves. The legacy of the abolition of slavery belongs to those who are still living (and dying) in its wake; there is no place for an ‘abolitionism’ that organizes for more, and not less, law enforcement, in a context in which hundreds of thousands of Black lives have been lost to law enforcement or vigilantes in the United States and Canada in recent decades.

It is only in allying ourselves to end the state’s war on Black women, including trans Black women and Black sex working women, and for an end to Black suffering, can we truly deign to call ourselves abolitionists. To fight the modern legacy of slavery, we must be part of fighting, and not contributing to Black suffering.

[1] For more information on Canadian prohibitionist’ misuse of statistics including ‘age-of-entry’ see John Lowman’s Brief to the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs on the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act.

[2] Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 S.C.R. 1101.

[3] World Health Organization: “Violence against sex workers and HIV prevention” 2005; UN AIDS, UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work, 2009.

[4] Report of the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System. Toronto: Queen’s Printer for Ontario, December 1995.

[5] A 2007 report for the United Nations brings forth a 2002 Chicago-based study that found that 30% of exotic dancers and 24% of street-based sex workers who had been raped identified a police officer as the rapist.   Approximately 20% of other acts of sexual violence were also committed by the police. This study was entitled In the shadows of the war on terror: Persistent police brutality and abuse of people of color in the United States A report prepared for the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, published in December 2007 and written by Ritchie and Mogul, DePaul College of Law Civil Rights Clinic, 28.

IMG_6299-2Robyn Maynard is a Black feminist writer, activist, and most recently, a brand-new mama. She is a full-time outreach worker Stella, a by-and-for sex workers service and advocacy organization in Montreal. She is a frequent media commentator on the harms caused by the criminalization of sex work and the harms of systemic racism, and her voice has been featured on CBC, CTV, the Globe and Mail, the Nation, Maisonneuve Magazine; she also recently testified before Canada’s Parliamentary Justice Committee on the new prostitution laws. For nearly 10 years she has been part of grassroots efforts against police racism and brutality in Montreal and she is a co-founder of Justice for Victims of Police Killings, a group of family and supporters of people killed by the police across Canada.

Ecohybridity – Love Song for NOLA

#‎Ecohybridity‬ ‪#‎NOLA‬ Mourning the missing and the lost, and the 100,000 Black folks displaced who haven't been able to make it home. This is the levee that was breached in 2005. Photo by Puck Lo

#‎Ecohybridity‬ ‪#‎NOLA‬ Mourning the missing and the lost, and the 100,000 Black folks displaced who haven’t been able to make it home. This is the levee that was breached in 2005. Photo by Puck Lo

New Orleans-based black feminist artists & organizers recently curatedEcohybridity – Love Song for NOLA,” a visual black opera set in various New Orleans neighborhoods.  The visual opera marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and looks at issues connected to disaster capitalism, spatial inequities, the prison industrial complex, and privatization from a Black feminist lens.

An article about the opera can be found on ColorLines. Excerpts are below.

Artist and Ecohybridity creator, Kai Barrow:

Opera was originally a people’s form that would go from community to community. It was a way to articulate what was going on through art. But somewhere along the line, it became an elitist form, and poor people of color were locked out of the medium. But our conditioning right now, how we’re managing to exist, is opera in its largest sense. It’s comedy, it’s tragedy, it’s all of these different parts.

S. Mandisa Moore-O’Neal, a New Orleans native and Echohybridity writer and performer:

Right now is such a tender time for so many of us in the Gulf who have roots and history in this place. As a local black feminist, rebuilding and resistance looks like rendering ourselves visible over these last 10 years and well before. [It means] telling the complex stories of black women and girls—trans and not-trans, of course—on our terms, in our voices.

More about EcoHybridity here:



Marissa artwork by Molly Crabapple; Nan-Hui artwork by Dillon Sung

Free Marissa Now and Stand With Nan-Hui: A Conversation About Parallel Struggles

Marissa Alexander is a Black mother of three and a survivor of domestic violence from Jacksonville, Florida. She was prosecuted and threatened with 60 years in prison for defending her life from her abusive husband. She spent three-years behind bars and, beginning January 27, 2015, she is serving a sentence of two years of house detention while being forced to wear and pay for a surveillance ankle monitor.

Nan-Hui Jo is also a survivor of domestic violence who was convicted of child abduction after fleeing her abusive partner with her young daughter to her home country of South Korea. She has been incarcerated since July 2014, and has spent the last 3 months in immigration detention awaiting deportation proceedings. She has not seen her daughter since her arrest, and now faces the possibility of permanent separation from her.

Alisa Bierria, a member of the Free Marissa Now Mobilization Campaign and a member of INCITE! and Hyejin Shim, an organizer with the Stand with Nan-Hui Campaign and a member of Korean American Coalition to End Domestic Abuse (KACEDA) came together with Mimi Kim and Emi Kane of INCITE! to reflect on the common political ties between two women of color surviving the intersections of domestic violence, the U.S. carceral system and immigration control.

MK: Thanks everybody. I just wanted to start with the question, how did you first get involved in working on your specific campaigns? Alisa, I’ll start with you.

AB: I heard about Marissa’s case in 2012. She was one of those rare domestic violence cases that received mainstream media attention. She is based in Florida and unsuccessfully tried to invoke the Stand Your Ground law, which had a high profile due to the law’s influence on George Zimmerman’s acquittal after he murdered Trayvon Martin. So the public juxtaposed Zimmerman’s acquittal with Marissa Alexander’s 20 year mandatory minimum sentence. I was watching that play out and thinking about it in the context of other self defense cases—specifically, Cece McDonald in Minneapolis and the New Jersey 4—Black women who were attacked and, because they defended their lives, they were prosecuted and incarcerated. I started making some phone calls to investigate, and I learned that there was a beginning coalition of people around the country who were trying to get a campaign off the ground. [This amazing team included Sumayya Coleman, African American/Black Women’s Cultural Alliance; Helen Gilbert, Radical Women; and Aleta Alston Toure, New Jim Crow Movement.] So I started slow, but then it got fast! The more time builds, the more you committed you become, just to see it all the way through.

MK: What was it that first struck you and made you think that “I really need to get involved in this?”

AB: It’s really rare that domestic violence victims who are prosecuted for anything have a national profile because domestic violence is not politically interesting to most people. They think of it as a social service problem or some kind of pathology issue. It was such an opportunity to talk about domestic violence, Black women, the prison industrial complex and self-defense on a national level.

The #BlackLivesMatter call to action began in the shadow of the horrific murder of Trayvon Martin. Because Marissa’s case was often juxtaposed with Trayvon’s (and Jordan Davis’) murder, it received national attention, yet we weren’t really seeing a lot of gender analysis at that time. Also, for years INCITE! had been identifying these intersections that Marissa Alexander’s case was demonstrating so clearly, and it just became such an opportunity for us to show how the analysis was playing out in this woman’s case. This woman who some people actually knew about.

MK: Hyejin, how did you first get involved with the campaign to free Nan-Hui Jo?

HS: I got involved because of KACEDA, a small group of Korean women organizing around domestic violence. In the spring, we heard about the case from a former member who lived in Sacramento. There had been some organizing happening in the Korean church community for her. By this time she’d already gone through one trial that resulted in a hung jury. We learned that a retrial was about to begin—and that the situation was bad. She’d been incarcerated since July. She was denied bail because she was deemed a flight risk, was issued a no-contact order with her daughter, was under an ICE hold and had lost all parental rights. So there was really a sense of urgency when we started organizing. Her trial began on a Friday, and literally that week we began mobilizing. Another KACEDA member wrote a press release and I started making calls to figure out what was happening, kind of like you did, Alisa. I put a call out on Facebook to ask for help and said, look, there’s this domestic violence survivor who is being charged with kidnapping for fleeing abuse with her little girl. She’s lost all custody and has been in jail for the past 8 months. And she’s facing deportation. Come over tonight at 6. And people actually came! It all snowballed from there.

MK: I know that you also work with other domestic violence survivors in your work at Asian Women’s Shelter. I was wondering how this moved from being a case that you’d get on a crisis line to something that turned into a campaign. It sounds like it happened pretty quickly.

HS: I didn’t view this as a case where I’d be someone’s domestic violence advocate. At that point it was clear that what was needed most was not case management. What was needed was organizing. I didn’t feel like it was actually most useful for someone to be helping out in a direct services capacity, with prescribed roles and boundaries, especially because this person was being targeted so aggressively in an unpredictable and quickly-escalating situation.

The work that Free Marissa Now did, and the work that Black women and women of color have been doing around domestic violence and criminalization for decades, made it apparent that this was connected to a larger pattern of survivors being targeted by the system. They are targeted by a racist, sexist system for their survival strategies, particularly with the idea that a survivor must always be a perfect victim. There’s this belief that a domestic violence survivor must always be the victim of crime, and the abuser is always the perpetrator of crime. So in a way there’s not that much room or analysis about what happens when the survivor is actually considered the “perpetrator of a crime,” even in the anti-violence movement. Instead, we’re taking cues from the state to tell us who real “victims” and “perpetrators” are. In this case you had “domestic violence experts” like the district attorney saying that this was not a domestic violence case. So then what? We needed to organize.

MK: Alisa, I see you nodding. It seems like what Hyejin was saying was resonating for you, as well. Do you want say a little more about that?

AB: Yeah, I’m thinking, “Thank goodness that Hyejin was on the other line,” because I have found it rare for folks who are in direct service organizations to have the capacity to imagine a response outside of the usual paradigm of either direct services or pro-criminalization. It’s so drilled. Those of us who work in the field, it takes such a significant capacity to do some paradigm shift in your own mind to say, “This is actually more of a community organizing project; she needs a big push for support and let’s go make a Facebook page.”

Domestic violence organizations were actually pressured by State Attorney Angela Corey to not publicly support Marissa Alexander. So, there’s not only an imagination problem but also a real material problem, because people are worried about their funding. One argument was that groups couldn’t risk their funding to support one person when they have this whole other group of victims to support. But my pushback was, well, who gets to be part of the larger set of victims that they’re serving? It’s not just about Marissa not having support, it is also about any survivor who is being prosecuted having access to full support. As long as organizations make choices based on what Angela Corey or other prosecutors want, they’re never going to have autonomy in terms of who they support. There will always be this barrier to services for survivors who are more vulnerable to criminalization—that is to say, Black women. It’s so important to not only understand the ways that court system and police and prisons are impacting survivors of domestic violence, devastating people’s lives and so on, but also the ways that many service organizations are prevented—or prevent themselves—from supporting criminalized survivors.

MK: Hyejin, did you see anything like that in the case of Nan-Hui Jo?

HS: There were some domestic violence orgs that were very reluctant to get on board, or who acted like they were sympathetic as individuals but said they couldn’t be sympathetic as an organization. So people were saying that they felt for her, but they couldn’t and wouldn’t do anything about it.

MK: What do you think were some of the factors they perceived as barriers?

HS: I can’t say more on dynamics between this district attorney and these domestic violence organizations right now, but I do wonder if the reliance of domestic violence orgs on the DA to prosecute batterers and thus legitimize domestic violence work is a barrier.

AB: There’s this powerful fear of punishment. If an organization has funders or donors that just want to “do good,” meaning they want to donate to a domestic violence organization but they don’t want to give money to an anti-deportation project, for example, that organization is scared to look too radical.

MK: How much do you think Nan-Hui’s and Marissa’s incarceration was a factor in some of our expected allies stepping away? Is there a reluctance because of a notion that they might not be deserving in some way because of their criminalization?

AB: I was on a conference call early on in the Free Marissa campaign. There was a woman on the call who is Black and known as an anti-violence expert. She asked if Marissa was really a “genuine” survivor of domestic violence because she had heard that her husband had received a black eye from her. She didn’t ask about the context of that injury—which came about as a result of self-defense—she went straight to, “Is she telling the truth?” I couldn’t even speak. Because if we’re in a situation where this person—who should be the easiest ally in the world—is saying this really problematic stuff on this call, I don’t know how we’re going to win. So I think we had to fight for allies. Allies did not come easy. I think we had to convince people.

MK: Hyejin, do you have anything that’s comparable so far?

HS: It’s been lucky that I’m working currently at a domestic violence shelter in SF, which has some more progressive allies. The case is not in our county, and I think that makes it easier for us to be more visible in our support. But one question that comes to mind is, what if it was the other way around? What if this was a campaign to prosecute a batterer instead? It’s just interesting to think about. Who would find that politically safe, safer than this campaign to free a survivor? And why? Just think about domestic violence organizations and the commotion around Ray Rice.

MK: To go along those lines, there has been some attention paid to Nan-Hui’s abusive ex-partner in this case. What are some of the ways that people have talked about him?

HS: It’s funny because in court, the DA was talking about him as someone who’d really cleaned up his act. Like, so he hadn’t been that responsible in the past and yes, there was that one time he got violent… but you know, he’s a veteran, and all he wants to do is be a good dad now. And, in the DA’s closing remarks, he said Nan-Hui was clearly the better parent all along, more competent, mature and responsible. But also that she was also manipulative, vengeful, and too competent, essentially, to be a real victim. There was just a lot of focus on characterizing her as just another sneaky Asian immigrant trying to cheat the system. He called her a “tiger mom” too. Her attempts to survive with her baby through abuse and an immensely confusing legal system were all looked at through this lens of racist criminalization.

MK: I think it’s interesting how they raised “tiger mom” as a stereotype that many people are now familiar with now—and the stereotype that people could associate with an Asian woman. How did you see stereotypes with Marissa Alexander play out, Alisa, in terms of Angela Corey or the people that were trying to detract from sympathy for her situation?

AB: The biggest pattern that we saw was this idea that she was too entitled—too entitled to live, too entitled to take control of her life. There was definitely blaming her for being in the abusive relationship to begin with. She’s not considered entitled to defend her life because of this notion that she created the conditions for this to happen in the first place. Also, that attitude works seamlessly with the narrative about “uppity” Black women, especially in the South. Marissa Alexander did not know her place. The rhetoric Corey used was not coincidental. Her office circulated this ugly handout to state politicians because some seemed sympathetic to Marissa’s case. It said on the top, “The truth about Marissa Alexander,“ and included Marissa’s mugshots at the top and rhetoric about why she should be incarcerated. So there is this very intentional, very racialized framing they used to support the prosecution. Corey politically benefits if the person she is prosecuting could never be understood as a “victim,” so she had her own agenda. It wasn’t just to be racist in general, but to achieve an end.

Corey also constantly exploited the children for the sake of her argument. There were children in the home when Marissa’s husband attacked her and she defended herself, and there was a concern that they could have been hurt in that encounter. Angela Corey had this habit of saying, “Those children – those boys – those Black boys, those young Black boys, were endangered by this woman who acted out of anger.” So it was really interesting how she co-opted the rhetoric around violence against Black boys to argue for the prosecution of this Black woman. It happened again in the final hearing when Marissa was finally released from prison to serve a two year term of house detention. The prosecutor put one of the children on the stand, he read a statement that seemed clearly written by that office and, in that statement, they invoked #blacklivesmatter! They totally co-opted it. So the child said, “Doesn’t my Black life matter?” and it was heartbreaking, devastating, enraging, and it made me want to throw my computer out the window.

MK: I know this isn’t the first time you’ve been talking together. Can you talk a little bit about how you found the connections between these two campaigns?

HS: From the beginning, I thought of Marissa. One, because it’s so recent, and two, because it was such strong organizing I saw on behalf of a survivor who was being criminalized. I went to the INCITE! conference this past year and saw that there was a Free Marissa Now session, and thought, “I have to go to that!” So, we got there really early because we were so excited. And as people were sharing the lessons learned, challenges, and the values that guided the organizing—the ways that y’all described Marissa and holding her humanity intact instead of letting her become just a political symbol—so much of what you shared really resonated with me. And I had been feeling very isolated before that. A lot of our analysis and the ability to do the work was made possible by yours. The connections were obvious, and it was also important to note the real similarities and differences. They were prosecuted similarly and anti-violence “allies” responded similarly. Yet Nan-Hui and Marissa are racialized and gendered in very different ways, and they were aggressively targeted accordingly—one for twenty years, the other for indefinite detention and deportation. There was a lot to share.

AB: We were so excited to meet y’all at COV4. I had heard about Nan-Hui’s case because within 48 hours, three friends sent me urgent emails about it. I was like, “Ok, I got it, Nan-Hui Jo.” And then we met – and I was like right! The famous Nan-Hui Jo, I know who she is! So it was moving to meet y’all, especially along with members of the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander. And I’d had a little bit of conversation with Nadine Naber in Chicago who’s working with the Justice for Rasmea Odeh campaign – which is, again, another kind of ballgame. But it is kindred in that it is a freedom campaign for a survivor of sexual and state violence. So it’s true—both cases are different in very important ways, certainly in the ways they’re racialized and gendered. And the geographic politics are really important as well. But I was also disturbed about the ways that they were similar. The fact of the pattern, the fact of the structural problem feels clearer and more urgent. Knowing that there was this powerful campaign going on, and knowing that we weren’t alone, was grounding. It situated our work in a different kind of way. So it was wonderful to meet y’all.

MK: The people that often get forgotten in these cases – is the children. I’ve been struck by the ways in which Nan-Hui Jo might be elevated but her daughter is like the secondary character. But she has obviously suffered so much and still is because of the ways that she’s lost her mother. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Courtesy of Nan-Hui Jo

Courtesy of Nan-Hui Jo

HS: It’s been deliberate to keep her child out of it, out of respect to Nan-Hui. But, of course, there’s a huge way that this child is being impacted. She’s on a plane with Mom coming to Hawaii one minute, and the next her mom gets arrested and is whisked away. And she won’t see her for another year or more… and now she’s in an environment where none of her caregivers are Korean or speak the language. What we’d heard in court was that the child had suffered a lot in those first months of transition, and couldn’t communicate with anyone except her bilingual therapist. She missed her mom. She was having panic attacks.

On the bright side they recently started contact through supervised phone calls, but sadly they can’t be in Korean. But of course, one thing that does get erased about domestic violence is how it impacts children, too.

MK: And she’s with the father right now?

HS: Yes, he has full custody.

MK: Did she have a relationship with him before her mother was detained and incarcerated?

Not since she was less than one year old. She’s six now.

AB: I think women victimized by domestic violence are disproportionately punished if they have children who are harmed. Look at the case of Tondalo Hall — her boyfriend seriously injured their child and he was sentenced to 2 years in prison. Then they prosecuted Tondalo who received a devastating 30 year sentence. We have this idea that mothers are privileged when it comes to family court, and I really want to push back on that because I constantly see mothers being intensely punished. Particularly domestic violence victims.

MK: Alisa, could you reflect a little bit on the impact of the organizing on Marissa’s life and on social movements that are important to you?

We noticed that October is the month where there’s all this anti-police brutality action happening and it’s DV awareness month. And we were like, “Oh! What a coincidence.” So we put together this
handout that showed how domestic violence is a state violence issue using the analysis and the statistics. We distributed copies to our base and we urged people to make copies and bring them to DV awareness month and anti-policing events. And I think that that tradition should continue. I think we were able to identify opportunities, but you know, it wasn’t always easy. That said, so many people organized across the US and around the world to free Marissa, including making art, direct action, letter writing, fundraising, prayer circles, a caravan, coalition building, media advocacy…people really put their hearts and minds into this project.

MK: Same question for you, Hyejin? I know it’s a different situation for you—we don’t know if there will be something to celebrate and things are looking very difficult. But what do you think, right now. What are some impacts you’ve had on Nan-Hui Jo’s life and also on the larger movements?

HS: I think that with Nan-Hui… she has definitely seen a tangible difference since we’ve started organizing. And that has to do with the support that she feels from everyone, but it also has to do with gaining some real wins resulting from the organizing. Those wins include getting her some amazing legal representation for her immigration and criminal cases. She is also feeling seen and taken care of in a way that she wasn’t before. Before I know she was feeling very much isolated.

Though it’s still really hard, she says she doesn’t feel as lonely as she did. In the beginning she felt deeply afraid and alone. We’ve also formed a close relationship. I think it’s love and connection that will help get you through hard times, so I’m happy to be able to support her in multiple ways.

I’m not sure what kinds of larger impacts this might have, but my hope is that people will be able to make the connections more easily than they used to, and have a point of reference for people in our communities actually caring about domestic violence and criminalization. And I think one legacy of the Free Marissa organizing is that we don’t feel as alone. I see Marissa’s release, even with the terms that it’s on, as nothing short of a miracle. And I know this kind of miracle does not happen without so much work. These kinds of campaigns are incredibly time/resource intensive, and very emotional. So I hope that next time—because it will happen again—that there’s just more of a support network. That we are more aware of each other than we used to be. That the next time this happens we are more ready.

AB: Yeah. I also think that we have a lot of work to do to connect with other defense campaigns. There are a lot out there. One of the things we’ve been talking about is organizing a meeting with these organizers to do next steps. To do a more formal debriefing and visioning process of what comes next. I would really look forward to building on the solidarity of these two campaigns with many others.

HS: Yeah, absolutely. Another thing I want to add is that I think people do not see the ways that state violence can actually be leveraged as a way to abuse someone—that it is an extension of the domestic violence. It does count as abuse to intentionally criminalize your former partner in retaliation for self defense. It is violent to advocate for your ex-partner to receive the maximum sentence and get deported. The courts do not exist for “victims” alone. And in this case, her abuser is very much seen as the victim. Abusers sometimes make an effort to report the person they’re abusing for child abduction, domestic violence, or child abuse charges first, to retaliate, ruin their credibility, and reinforce a dynamic of control. It’s not some completely extraordinary thing. I work at a shelter; we know that sometimes batterers do these things to survivors we are actually housing. So I wish that part was more clear for people—that domestic violence doesn’t simply end with two people separating.

AB: Right. And these prosecutions extend domestic violence into the state and then the state legitimizes domestic violence. So…who’s the batterer? The batterer is the batterer, but now the batterer’s agenda is played out or taken up by the state, and the state is the batterer. And then it gets even more tricky when you look at things like mandatory policies. Mandatory arrest, mandatory minimums. Now it’s not even the judge, police officers or prosecutors, it’s just “the state.” Somebody somewhere passed a law, and now I have to go to prison for 20 years. There’s agency with no agent.

MK: Can we end with some words of appreciation for each other and the work of these campaigns?

HS: I have nice things that I want to say all the time. I appreciate how open and generous y’all have been, with both support and sharing your experiences. Organizing can feel very territorial at times. It’s been really great to just talk and bounce ideas around with you, and to think more about the future too. When this campaign ends, and it will end, and hopefully she’ll be free and here with her child… when it ends, all these problems we’ve talked about will still be there. And individual campaigns for everyone are just not possible. So what do we need to change so we’re not doing these fifteen years later?

AB: Right, I completely agree. So looking forward to figuring out how to strengthen that network and see how that can transform anti-domestic violence organizing in general. Thank you for saying all those nice things! I think it’s so important that the campaigns are independent from non-profits. And I think that might contribute to some of the openness that you’re talking about. I think it’s important to map the ways in which the campaigns are not institutionalized, which creates some level of freedom, even though having no staff is hard because they are, indeed, labor intensive. I think the Stand With Nan-Hui campaign has been brilliant, I’ve learned a lot from y’all. In addition to the question about what impact our work has had on existing social movements, we can also reflect on the movement that we built. Build on our own terms, with our own politics that we advanced, and with the base that we made. I’m excited about the potential impacts on social movements that I think the campaigns have created or can create in the future. So thank you so much for your political work.


Chicago, June 28: Freedom Beyond Occupation & Incarceration

Freedom Beyond Occupation & Incarceration
An Afternoon with Angela Davis & Rasmea Odeh

Sunday, June 28th, 2:30pm
University of Il. Chicago (UIC)
750 S. Halsted St, Student Center East
Illinois Room, 3rd Floor
Chicago, IL


Organized by:
The Rasmea Defense Committee
Black Lives Matter Chicago
Black on Both Sides
Black Youth Project 100
Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression
Coalition to Protect People’s Rights
Committe Against Political Repression
Committee to Stop FBI Repression
Southside Together Organizing for Power/Fearless Leading by the Youth
U.S. Palestinian Community Network
We Charge Genocide


Facebook event page:


BWM521UPDATE: A regularly updated list of actions across the US can be found HERE. So far, actions are currently organized in Chicago, ILNew York, NYColumbus, OHOakland, CAMiami, FLNew Orleans, LALouisville, KYLexington, KYAnn Arbor, MIIndianapolis, INCharlotte, NCSeattle, WAAsheville, NCMinneapolis, MNAustin, TXNashville, TN

Black Youth Project 100, Ferguson Action, and #BlackLivesMatter have called a

National Day of Action to End State Violence Against Black Women and Girls:

THURSDAY, MAY 21, 2015

 JOIN in mourning the lives of Black women and girls lost to police violence, and in lifting up the voices, experiences and demands of Black women targeted by police!

Black women – queer and not queer, transgender and not transgender – are killed, beaten, profiled, and harassed by police across the country in many of the same ways as Black men, whether it’s “broken windows policing,” “driving while Black,” or the “war on drugs.” For example:

  • Racial profiling studies analyzing the experiences of Black women separately from those of men of color conclude “for both men and women there is an identical pattern of stops by race/ethnicity.”
  • In New York City, racial disparities in stops are the same for Black women as they are for Black men: over the past 5 years, over 50% of stops of women were of Black women, and 55% of stops of men were of Black men. According to the 2010 Census, only 27% of New York City’s population is Black.
  • Data recently released by the Missouri Attorney General’s office shows that in Ferguson, MO, more Black women drivers are stopped than any other group.

Black women also experience gender and sexuality specific forms of profiling and police violence – including sexual violence and assault by police, profiling for prostitution-related offenses, and police violence against pregnant Black women and mothers. For example:

  • One study found that sexual assault by police is the second most commonly reported form of police misconduct.
  • Another found that the majority (76%) of victims of on-duty police sexual misconduct are adults, but almost a quarter (24%) of reported cases of on-duty sexual misconduct involved minors.
  • According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 38% of Black transgender people who had interactions with police reported harassment, 14% reported physical assault, and 6% reported sexual assault.
  • A New York City study found that found that up to 2 in 5 young women reported sexual harassment by law enforcement.

It’s time to break the silence around Black women and police violence – because #BlackWomensLivesMatter!

Join the National Day of Action!

Here are 5 things you can do in your area:

  • Talk to 5 friends or host a kitchen table conversation about Black women and policing – for ideas, check out this workshop:
  • Hold a vigil or a gathering focused on Black women in your community who have been killed or harmed by police
  • Conduct a “know your rights” training for Black women using this brochure:
  • Call your Congressperson and Senator and ask them to sponsor and pass the End Racial Profiling Act of 2015 (H.R. 1933/ S. 1056), which for the first time would ban profiling based on gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation in addition to race, national origin and religion!
  • Call or go to your local police department or City Council and give them a list of demands on behalf of Black women – check out the demands below!

Join the conversation on Twitter using hashtags #SayHerName #BlackWomensLivesmatter #BlackWomenMatter #AllBlackLivesMatter

Some things you can push for your local police department to do to prevent police abuse of Black women:

  1. End “broken windows” policing practices, including laws used to criminalize homelessness and poverty
  2. Enact and enforce a “zero tolerance” policy toward sexual harassment and assault of members of the public by police officers;
  3. Stop profiling us! Adopt and enforce a ban on officers confiscating or using mere possession or presence of condoms as evidence of any prostitution-related offense;
  4. Adopt and enforce a policy requiring officers to respect Black women’s gender identity and expression in all police interactions, searches, and police detention and explicitly banning officers from profiling people based on gender identity or expression or searching people to assign gender;
  5. Ensure that use of force policies clearly prohibit use of TASERs and excessive force on pregnant women or children;
  6. Enact and enforce policies requiring police to make every effort to identify kinship care for children of parents taken into custody before contacting child protective services.

For more organizing ideas, check out INCITE!’s Organizer’s Toolkit on Law Enforcement Violence Against Women of Color and Trans People of Color:
Palmcards and brochures available here: and here:

Questions? Looking for more resources?

Contact Andrea Ritchie, Soros Justice Fellow at:



Self-Defense Panel @ COV4!

Do women of color have the right to defend themselves from violence?

Join INCITE! at the convergence, Color of Violence 4, in Chicago, March 26, 2015, and witness a historic discussion between Renata Hill (of the New Jersey 4), Cece McDonald, Yvonne Wanrow, and Marissa Alexander, facilitated by Mariame Kaba, member of the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander.  All panelists have been prosecuted and incarcerated for defending themselves or their families from sexual violence, domestic violence, transphobic violence, and/or racial violence. 

More info: