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.

 

Comments

Posted by GuesttoGuest on Mar. 30, 2012 @ 6:39 am

A beautiful batterer-enabling screed. Compliments to the Guardian for letting this contributor show at length how clueless some people can be.

It takes me back to 30 years or so ago, when the police and prosecutors brushed aside reports of domestic violence. They weren't stupid; they knew these women were being beaten. But the victim would usually come in later and ask that the charges be dropped. And why should she not? The batterer was her meal ticket. If the prosecutor pressed forward anyway, the case was difficult; juries did not like to convict on domestic cases.

But then the anti-battering lobby began to raise the consciousness of law enforcement. It became clear that, if anything was to be done, the criminal justice system had to be involved. As far as I know, there is not a shred of evidence that Mirkarimi had plans to take part in counseling or therapy, until he was on court probation and had to do it.

Our Latina feminist reveals that she grew up in an abusive family, but that her father got help and eventually resolved his problem. She hasn't the faintest idea that, perhaps, his desire to get help was driven by the realization that, if he did not deal with the situation, he and his family could be deported.

Posted by Guest Michael Mahoney on Mar. 30, 2012 @ 11:45 am

So I guess her basic message is, if you're an immigrant or woman of color, and your partner shows signs of aggression toward you, don't go to the police. Isn't this the same anti-snitch mentality that has lead to dozens of gang murders across the city? Sorry, but I am a progressive. I believe in non-violence. Apparently, Mr. Mirkarimi finds it necessary to grab and bruise people to get his point across. He may call himself a progressive, but he is a controller. And his wife is an apologist for him.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 31, 2012 @ 4:31 am

I agree that the legal approach to domestic violence can be seen as disempowering to women (assuming the victim is female, not always the case). However, domestic violence victims often cover for their abusers, and while it could be argued that they have a right to keep coming back for more abuse, when children are involved it becomes a different matter. While the points made in this article do seem valid, domestic violence policy was not a hot button issue for progressives in this city until a "solid progressive ally" fell into the cross hairs. And now the Guardian is telling us that domestic violence in a home with a child is none of the public's business, even when a major law enforcement official is involved. Contrast that to when Newsom had an affair with his campaign manager's wife, and the Guardian ran several op-eds on the ethical implications, even reiterating Chris Daly's baseless claim that Newsom had a coke problem.
BTW I voted for Mirkarimi, and never for Newsom, but the conflicting responses from progressives still smack of hypocrisy.

All that being said, DA Gascon certianly has a conflict of interest in this one, and probably should turn over prosecution to the Attorney General, as he properly did in the domestic violence case of assistant DA Sanaz Nikaein.

Posted by myklValentine on Mar. 31, 2012 @ 12:00 pm

The real issue is the election losers are using this minor DV incident to overturn the election. Eliana never called the police. She says Ross is innocent. The legal system is now victimizing Theo, Eliana & Ross.
I lived with a violent women for 13 years.
I learned what post partum psychosis (PPP) is,... the hard way.
She beat me frequently, but I knew it was because she was going insane , from having 4 miscarriages, 4 kids & 4 abortions. I never called the police. I wanted to save our marriage.
I finally met Dr. Joel Wallach, "Dead Doctors Don't Lie", who showed me how to save our marriage by supplying her brain with the minerals she lost with each pregnancy. Minerals cured her PPP.
This attack on Ross is an attempted Coup.
We can't allow slick right wingers to use this DV ploy to over turn an election.
Paul Kangas

Posted by Guest Dr Kangas on Mar. 31, 2012 @ 5:49 pm

The real issue is the election losers are using this minor DV incident to overturn the election.
Eliana never called the police.
She says Ross is innocent. The legal system is now victimizing Theo, Eliana & Ross.

I lived with a violent women for 13 years.
I learned what post partum psychosis (PPP) is,... the hard way.
She beat me frequently, but I suspected it was because she was going insane , from having 4 miscarriages, 4 kids & 4 abortions. I never called the police. I wanted to save our marriage.
I finally met Dr. Joel Wallach, "Dead Doctors Don't Lie", who showed me how to save our marriage by supplying her brain with the minerals she lost with each pregnancy. Minerals cured her PPP.
This attack on Ross is an attempted Coup.
We can't allow slick right wingers to use this DV ploy to over turn an election.
See the movie: "Bad Seed" to understand.
Paul Kangas

Posted by Guest Dr Kangas on Mar. 31, 2012 @ 6:06 pm

"Eliana never called the police." No, but Ivory Madison did with her permission, just to get information.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 01, 2012 @ 4:58 pm

The victim isn't the only person who can and should call in the cops if a crime is witnessed. Any public-spirited person would do that and, in this case, that person was Madison. But it could just as easily have been you or I.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 01, 2012 @ 5:24 pm

This article clearly shows how "do-gooders" took over Eliana's life.
The "atty" Ivory Madison, had a duty to keep Eliana file secret. She breached her duty. Why? Because she is an atty & "knows better" than some non-white woman.

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

Now all the DV feminists do everything they can to destroy Eliana's family.
None of the DV fems are married or are in relationships with men.
Most blame men for their mental illness.
Eliana wants the DA & DV fems to stop destroying her live. Now atty Madison is helping the SF City Attorney to prosecute Eliana for not wanting atty Madison to turn her file over to the police.

Posted by Guest Dr Kangas on Mar. 31, 2012 @ 6:37 pm

I find it ironic that MM is claiming that EL has been silenced by the media and the police, yet has taken on the roll of spokesperson herself. While I understand that she had EL's permission to do so, this editorial functions more as a vehicle to sensationalize this case further than as a means of protecting a friend. Where is EL's actual voice?

I am also vexed that she publicized EL's opinion of RM's fears: "In Eliana's analysis, Ross's greatest fear is that his painful story with his father will be replayed again with Theo." This is a clear violation of RM's privacy, and only adds fuel to an already roaring fire.

Others have been equally irresponsible. As a lawyer, Ivory Madison has a clear obligation to respect attorney-client privilege. EL approached IM specifically to build a case should a divorce and custody battle ensue. Money need not change hands to invoke attorney-client privilege, and IM publicized the video without EL's consent if the editorial is accurate.

In my opinion, it misses the point to debate whether domestic violence is a public or private matter, as it is clearly both: a just society invokes policies and remedies to protect its citizens from harm, but it does so in a way that ensures that the family unit is harmed as little as possible. There must be a threshold at which an incident within a personal relationship comes under public scrutiny, and in my opinion, this incident did not reach that threshold.

Posted by Matt D, Oakland on Apr. 01, 2012 @ 10:35 am

optimally for the divorce. She needs RM in that job because the alimony will be much higher if he's making 200K pa.

Both Ross and Eliana have self-serving agenda's so it's harly surprisingly that they both dodge, duck and dive around this issue.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 01, 2012 @ 11:21 am

"As a lawyer, Ivory Madison has a clear obligation to respect attorney-client privilege."

Ivory Madison isn't a lawyer and never claimed to be.

"...IM publicized the video without EL's consent if the editorial is accurate."

This editorial is not accurate. Madison kept the video away from the police until they got a search warrant.

"There must be a threshold at which an incident within a personal relationship comes under public scrutiny, and in my opinion, this incident did not reach that threshold."

Who makes that determination? What mechanism should be put in place to, above all else, prevent further abuse?

Posted by Guest on Apr. 01, 2012 @ 4:56 pm

Ivory Madison defines herself as a non-practicing lawyer on her Linkedin profile, and has a JD.

I don't know how the determination should be made, but it should not be made by an individual or group of individuals with a conflict of interest. Our society cannot discern the difference between public "space" and private "space", and "your business" and "my business".

Posted by Matt D, Oakland on Apr. 01, 2012 @ 9:07 pm

Thank you for this article. I'm so sick of ultra liberalism throw in the baby out with the bathwater. That man man a mistake, and yes should maybe even loss his job, but if the women doesnt want to press charges and would things out in counseling what right is it for the courts to choose for her? That case would of never led to a conviction. Ross made many mistakes, not fighting for his family and the bogus witch trial was a big one.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 01, 2012 @ 5:59 pm

I was pleased to read Myrna Melgar's perspective on the Ross Mirkarimi matter. Her analysis struck me with particular force since I wrote a column recently about man who got into a fight with his girlfriend and went to jail for breaking a plate.

http://www.salon.com/2012/03/08/i_broke_a_plate_in_the_sink_and_got_arre...

Many readers claimed to be able to read between the lines and see that the male in the couple was clearly an abuser. My take on it is that it's a bit more complicated; domestic violence exists but so does a whole spectrum of poor, ill-advised and stupid behavior that is not criminally, merely criminally stupid; couples sometimes work things out in ugly ways but a disproportionate law-enforcement response can be counterproductive and harmful. Sometimes you need a cop. Sometimes you don't.

I particularly like how well Ms. Melgar showed how the woman in the matter, supposedly the important party, the one everyone is trying to protect, is the one who ends up disempowered.

Posted by Cary Tennis on Apr. 02, 2012 @ 6:40 pm

thank you Myrna for a very thoughtful reflection on this matter.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 03, 2012 @ 6:53 am

this article has so many issues..which one to comment on.
1) it is sad that the victim is being criminally charged.
2) sounds a little political why he is being charged- this kind of thing happens al the time..and it is dismissed

Posted by Guestmarilyn on Apr. 04, 2012 @ 12:24 pm

I am a woman of color and I have never seen race or ethnicity matter less than in officer-involved domestic violence. Count the colors of the rainbow of humanity: http://www.lanejudson.com/OFFICER_INVOLVED_FATALITIES.htm

Posted by Cloud Writer on Apr. 06, 2012 @ 1:03 am

It's time SF DA decides to STOP dropping the charges of women who report crimes against them. TO often a women reports a serious crime from a husband/boyfriend only to find the charges dropped.
Now the DA wants to spend our dollers to destroy this family that want's to work it out in a private matter. How many women have broken bodies and yet the DA refuses to prosecute. It's political that makes this case different.
My friend had to much to drink and her husband grabbed her and left a bruise on the arm. The girfriend could have used this in a negative matter or for what it was to steady her. To keep a loving family apart from their child is the true crime here.

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Posted by janet on Nov. 12, 2012 @ 6:34 pm