The Personal Is Political: Marissa Alexander, Black Women and The Law

Today Marissa Alexander, a mother of three and a repeated victim of domestic violence, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in what can only be described as a farce of a legal proceeding. 

Alexander was convicted and charged with the crime after firing shots into the wall of her Jacksonville, Florida home after a physical altercation with her husband, Rico Gray, who has been previously arrested for attacking her and has admitted to subjecting other women to physical violence. Her account of the incident follows: 

[Gray] assaulted me, shoving, strangling and holding me against my will, preventing me from fleeing all while I begged for him to leave. After a minute or two of trying to escape, I was able to make it to the garage where my truck was parked, but in my haste to leave I realized my keys were missing. I tried to open the garage but there was a mechanical failure. I was unable to leave, trapped in the dark with no way out. For protection against further assault I retrieved my weapon; which is registered and I have a concealed weapon permit. Trapped, no phone, I entered back into my home to either leave through another exit or obtain my cell phone. He and my two stepsons were supposed to be exiting the house thru the front door, but he didn’t leave. Instead he came into the kitchen that leads to the garage and realized I was unable to leave. Instead of leaving thru the front door where his vehicle was parked outside of the garage, he came into the kitchen by himself. I was terrified from the first encounter and feared he came to do as he had threatened. The weapon was in my right hand down by my side and he yelled, “Bitch, I will kill you!” and charged toward me. In fear and desperate attempt, I lifted my weapon up, turned away and discharged a single shot in the wall up in the ceiling. As I stood my ground it prevented him from doing what he threatened and he ran out of the home. Outside of the home, he contacted the police and falsely reported that I shot at him and his sons. The police arrived and I was taken into custody. 

While Alexander’s husband claimed that he shot at her and his sons, she only fired a single shot in the ceiling. In any case, under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law (a statute made famous by the Trayvon Martin case), she was completely entitled to do so because she felt a reasonable threat. Under that law, “a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if be or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony. ”

In this case, Alexander was attacked first and, based on previous altercations with her husband, had reason to fear for her life. Her situation is exactly the kind of situation that “Stand Your Law” is designed to protect - that of a battered woman.

So why did the law fail her? The judge’s rejection of the “Stand Your Ground” argument seems illogical. In the ruling, the judge wrote that there was “insufficient evidence she reasonably believed that deadly force was needed,” and her behavior was “inconsistent with a person who is in genuine fear for his or her life.” To this first point, I offer in rebuttal the long history of domestic violence between Alexander and Gray. To the second, I can only imagine that the judge has never attempted to step into the shoes of a battered woman. Walking away from a man although he has laid hands on you is not as simple or easy as we would like it to be, particularly if said man is the father of your children. While the state sees in black-and-white, it is a judge’s job to see the gray and attempt to reconcile it with the law.

Because of another controversial Florida statue called 10-to-20, firing a gun during the commission of a crime warrants a mandatory 20-year minimum sentence. With these rigid gun laws in place, the judge was forced to issue a severe (and unjust) sentence to Alexander. 

Like the Trayvon Martin case, there has been a lot of talk about racial undertones in the trial of Marissa Alexander. While critics in both cases have been accused of reading racial bias where there is none, I beg to differ. My argument partially stems from the "crooked room” explanation of American black women’s standing that Melissa Harris-Perry offers in her acclaimed book Sister Citizen. Because of the stereotypes that are continually attributed to black women, we stand in a crooked room. Even when we think we are standing straight, in reality, we are only standing upright in relation to the orientation of that room. In other words, stereotypes can affect us although we are unaware. These stereotypes influence how black women are treated by the state as well as society as a whole.

For black women, the personal is always inherently political because government and media have continually invaded every aspect our lives. For the latest incarnation of this maxim, look to the plethora of news articles that bemoan the single black woman or the plight of female black obesity without taking care to either look at the statistics or the voices of these women themselves in context.

In Sister Citizen, Melissa Harris-Perry offers three stereotypes of black women: lascivious Jezebel, submissive Mammy and angry Sapphire. It is the stereotype of Sapphire that emerged in those Florida courtroom proceedings and prevented the court from seeing Marissa Alexander as a victim. Prosecutors attempted to frame her firing of the gun as an act of anger instead of fear. When Sapphire rises, she must be put down. In the case of Marissa Alexander, whose actions were perceived as stemming from anger and resentment, the law put her in her place by sentencing her to 20 years in prison.

Through Marissa Alexander’s trial, we can see the way in which popular notions of black women perhaps affected its outcome. I think that we can reasonably conjecture that had Marissa Alexander been a white woman, this case might have ended far differently. Broadening my argument from black women to black people as a whole, we are left to speculate about whether or not “Stand Your Ground” is being applying differently for blacks and whites. While George Zimmerman has been permitted to use that defense in a case with far more sketchy details , Marissa Alexander, a victim of domestic violence, has been denied that right.

Her legal team intends to appeal the ruling. We can only hope that the court of appeals will see that justice is served this time around.