Guardian Op-Ed: Domestic violence, a Latina feminist perspective

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By Myrna Melgar

Myrna Melgar is a Latina survivor of childhood domestic violence, a feminist, and the mother of three girls. She is a former legislative aide to Sup. Eric Mar.

Eliana Lopez is my friend. I have asked for her permission to put into words, in English, some observations, thoughts and insights reached during our many conversations these past few weeks about her experience with San Francisco's response to the allegation of domestic violence by her husband, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi. We hope this will lead to a teachable moment for law enforcement and anti-domestic-violence advocates about cultural sensitivity — and will lead to honest discussions about the meaning of empowerment of women.

We hope that Eliana's experience, and our shared perspective, will prompt some analysis among feminists, advocates, and the progressive community in general about the impact of the criminalization of low-level, first offenses of domestic violence on this one immigrant woman — and the implications for all immigrant women and other women of color.

Eliana Lopez came to San Francisco from Venezuela with hope in her head and love in her heart. She decided to leave behind her beautiful city of Caracas, a successful career as an actress, and her family and friends, following the dream of creating a family and a life with a man she had fallen in love with but barely knew, Ross Mirkarimi.

Well-educated, progressive, charismatic, and artistic, she made friends easily. She and Ross seemed like a great match. Both were committed environmentalists, articulate and successful. They had a son, Theo. As they settled into domestic life, however, problems began to surface. The notoriously workaholic politician did not find his family role an easy fit. A bachelor into his late forties, Ross had trouble with the quiet demands of playing a puzzle on the floor with his toddler or having an agenda-less breakfast with his wife. Ross would not make time for Eliana's request for marriage counseling, blaming the demands of job and campaign.

On December 31, figuring that the election campaign was over and Ross would have a little breathing room, Eliana broached the subject of traveling to Venezuela with Theo. Ross's emotional reaction to her request led to the argument that has now been repeatedly documented in the press — and for which he was eventually charged.

According to Eliana, the context of what happened between them on December 31 actually started much earlier. Ross grew up as the only son of a single teenage mother of Russian Jewish descent and an absent Iranian immigrant father. Pressured by the opposition of her family to her relationship with an Iranian Muslim, Ross's mother divorced his father by the time he was five. Ross was raised on a small, nearly all-white island in New England, with no connection to his father. When he had the opportunity, Ross traveled to Chicago, where his father had remarried and built a new family with two sons. Ross's father turned him away. In Eliana's analysis, Ross's greatest fear is that his painful story with his father will be replayed again with Theo.

Eliana's version of what happened next has never wavered. She went to her neighbor Ivory Madison, as opposed to anyone else, because she thought Ivory was a lawyer and could advise her if her troubles with her husband resulted in divorce. Documenting Ross's reaction to her request to take Theo abroad would be ammunition — targeting his greatest fear. Making the video was Madison's idea, and Eliana agreed to it, thinking that it would be useful to her if a custody dispute ensued. But in Eliana's mind, the video was her property, her story.

Eliana insisted that Ivory did not have her permission to share the video or the story with anyone, that she was not in any danger, and that she was working on her marriage with Ross. Unbeknownst to Eliana, by the time Ivory called the police, she had already shared the story with Phil Bronstein, then the editor at large of Hearst Newspapers, the publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Let's stop for a moment to consider the question of the empowerment of women. The disempowerment of Eliana began on a very small level when her husband grabbed her by the arm during an argument. It was exponentially magnified by the neighbor in whom she confided, who decided that Eliana's strongly held desire to handle her problems with her husband herself was inconsequential. The disempowerment of Eliana was then magnified again and again, by the police, the press, the district attorney, and finally even anti-domestic-violence advocates.

How did it come to be that a system that was intended to empower women has evolved into a system that disempowers them so completely?

Unquestionably, there are women in deeply abusive relationships who need assistance getting out, who may not be able to initiate an escape on their own. Eliana's relationship with Ross did not even come close to that standard. Yet in the eyes of Ivory Madison, Phil Bronstein, District Attorney George Gascon, and even the Director of La Casa de las Madres, once her husband had grabbed her arm, Eliana was simply no longer competent and her wishes were irrelevant.

In other words, an action done by a man, over which a woman has no control whatsoever, renders the woman incompetent and irrelevant, and empowers a long list of people — most of whom are male — to make decisions on this woman's behalf, against her consistent and fervently expressed wishes. No one in the entire chain of people who made decisions on Eliana's behalf offered her any help — besides prosecuting her husband.

Eliana was only consulted by the district attorney in the context of seeking her cooperation in relation to the criminal charges against her husband. Eliana never gave her input or assessment in the situation, was never consulted about the plea agreement.

Now the disempowerment of Eliana has taken an even more sinister twist. In an opinion piece published in the Chronicle, Ivory Madison's husband, Abraham Mertens, charged Eliana with intimidation for allegedly pressuring his wife and himself to destroy the video that Ivory conceived and recorded of Eliana's moment of distress. The same day, Mayor Ed Lee announced that he was suspending Ross as sheriff, and the charges, as written up by the City Attorney, included the Mertens accusation. This had the effect of silencing and disempowering Eliana — but this time, she is being threatened with criminal prosecution. The victim has somehow become the criminal.

Mertens, the mayor, the D.A., the city attorney, and the newspaper editor are all men. All men acting on behalf of a very educated and articulate woman who has repeatedly, passionately, asked them to give her her voice back. And for that they are threatening to criminally prosecute her.

Kathy Black, the director of La Casa de las Madres, called Eliana twice. At the same time, Black and other domestic violence advocates were calling on Ross to step down, raising money to put up billboards, and mobilizing for the anti-Ross campaign, trying him in the press. Seeing all this, Eliana never trusted Black's motives and never took the call. Had Eliana thought assistance would be available her and to Ross without a threat to her family and livelihood, this all would have been a very different story.

During Ross's initial preliminary hearing, Eliana Lopez famously told judge Susan Breall "this idea that I am this poor little immigrant is insulting, it's a little racist." And yet, what middle class, successful, educated Eliana was exposed to is exactly what we as a city have forced victims of domestic violence to face by our emphasis on criminal prosecution.

In San Francisco, we concentrate on saving victims from domestic violence situations. Our efforts in communities of color, immigrant communities, and teens is geared to make sure that victims get away from their abusers.

It's inarguable that women in dangerous situations need to be provided options to get out. But concentrating on these alone — rather than on the array of options that are needed in less severe cases — is the equivalent of treating disease at the emergency room. In fact, this approach undermines prevention efforts because it puts women in the position of choosing between seeking help through counseling and therapy to modify the behavior of their partners — or exposing them to criminal prosecution. It has the unfortunate outcome of disempowering women, particularly low-income immigrant women and women of color, whose economic realities, position in society, and relationship to law enforcement both real and perceived is very different than for white middle-class women.

It's not hard to see that, for immigrant women and women of color, exposure to law enforcement is perceived as dangerous. Many immigrants fear law enforcement based on their experiences with repressive regimes in their own countries. In the past couple of years, the mandatory referral to federal immigration authorities has created panic and fear of police in immigrant communities across America. Immigrant women, already on the edge economically, face the real threat of the loss of their partner's income if the partner is accused of a crime and the boss finds out. Many black women understandably doubt the criminal justice system's capacity to treat black men charged with any crime.

So here is the challenge to domestic violence advocates and progressive folks who care about women: A more progressive approach to Eliana and Ross's particular situation, and to domestic violence in general, would be to work on emphasizing early, non-law enforcement intervention and the prevention of violence against women in addition to the necessary work of extricating women from dangerous situations.

Professor Laureen Snider at Queens University in Ontario has argued that criminalization is a flawed strategy for dealing with violence against women. Snider argues that feminists and progressives have misidentified social control with police/governmental control. In other words, we are substituting one oppressor for another — and glossing over the fact that in the judicial system, poor people of color fare worse than white middle-class people. We have punted on the hard work education, and of shaping and reshaping men's definitions of masculinity and violence, of the social acceptance of the subjugation of women, of violence against children. We have chosen to define success in the fight against domestic violence by women saved from horrible situations and incarceration rates for their abusers — rather than doing the difficult work of community and individual change necessary to prevent violence from happening in the first place.

Putting up billboards in Spanish telling women that domestic violence is never a private matter might make people feel like they are doing something useful, but it will do nothing to help Eliana, and it will do very little to prevent domestic violence against women in the Spanish-speaking community.

My own experience with the community's response to domestic violence was very different from Eliana's. My father was physically abusive. The most violent period of my life was during high school in the 1980's, shortly after we had immigrated to the United States from war-torn El Salvador. Our economic realities and shaky legal situation placed a level of stress on our family that made violence an almost daily occurrence.

I ran away from home, and eventually got connected with the services offered through the Redwood City YMCA. We entered family counseling, and the intervention was successful — my father was able to stop his violent behavior and our family survived. Had the police intervened, my father would have likely been charged, very possibly deported, and the whole family would have been sent back to El Salvador — back to the civil war.

In the case of my family, in which violence was a severe, everyday occurrence, there was a successful intervention. In Eliana's case, which was limited to her husband too forcefully grabbing her arm, the family was destroyed and it will take years before the victim and her child will be able to (maybe) put their lives back together.

I challenge the progressive community and anti-violence advocates to reexamine this criminalization-heavy approach and its impact on my friend Eliana's family, but also to examine how it affects all victims of domestic violence in San Francisco, particularly women in immigrant communities and women of color who rightfully have a distrustful relationship with law enforcement. Although it might make some feel better, all of this energy and effort spent demanding Ross Mirkarimi's resignation only serves to reinforce the dominant model of criminalization — to make an example out of him. It won't help Eliana, and it won't help people suffering from violence in their intimate relationships.

Myrna Melgar is Latina survivor of childhood domestic violence, a feminist, and a mother of three girls. She is a former legislative aide to Sup. Eric Mar.