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Stop the War Against Women

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Putting the Liberation Back in the Women's Liberation Movement

With the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA), domestic violence and sexual assault centers, police and district attorneys have experienced a huge infusion of federal monies intended to combat domestic violence - more than $100 million a year. In California and most other states, this windfall is controlled by the Office of Criminal Justice Planning (OCJP), a department of the State Attorney General's Office - that is, law enforcement.

One of VAWA's novel (and naive) ideas was to make the money for domestic violence and sexual assault centers contingent on their forming partnerships with law enforcement. In our county, in order to get the OCJP funding - by far the majority of the centers' income - their grant proposals must be approved by every police chief in the county and the district attorney.

Think about that: the cops now have total veto power over the money these centers depend on to survive. This has played out with predictable results.

While the stated reasoning behind this was that cops would learn from advocates and become more sympathetic to DV and rape victims, that reasoning ignored the power imbalance inherent in these "partnerships." Rather than create kinder, gentler police forces who've been "educated" into enforcing the laws protecting victims, the result has been the complete evisceration of criminal justice advocacy for victims.

What had once been grassroots, feminist institutions and activists fighting for women's right to be protected from male violence have become instead (willingly or unwillingly) well-paid handmaidens to the cops, doling out referrals and pats on the head at $150 a day. Criminal justice legal advocacy - getting cops, courts and district attorneys to enforce the law - has been almost universally abandoned. The effect on victims has been crushing.

A case in point: when Purple Berets first formed in California in 1991, we did a lot of work in coalition with Sonoma County Women Against Rape, our local rape crisis center. WAR's victim advocate fought hard to get rape cases prosecuted and to make systemic change in police and DA practices and policies.

Then in 1996, María Teresa Macias was murdered by her husband after being ignored by sheriff's deputies more than 25 times. It was Purple Berets and WAR working in tandem who investigated the case, organized and focused the public outrage, and ultimately won the landmark civil rights lawsuit holding the Sheriff's Department accountable for their utter refusal to protect Teresa.

Targeted for Repression
Faced with a $15 million lawsuit and national exposure of their virulent discrimination against women victims, county law enforcement officials were mad as hornets, swarming the media with lies and orchestrating attacks on the advocates who "did this to them."

For Purple Berets, because we receive no government funding, their attacks were damaging but ultimately toothless. They simply didn't have the leverage to shut us up.

But for Women Against Rape, they had all the leverage they needed - the purse strings. Over the next year or so, the WAR advocate who'd worked Macias was forced out, and WAR's county funding was ripped away.

The battle then turned to their state OCJP funding. After more than a year of threats and finally putting the rape crisis center out for bid, an accommodation was made. What was left of Women Against Rape was forced to 1) change their name, removing the words "women" and "rape" from their handle; 2) agree not to take cases to the media; and 3) agree never, never, never to associate with the Purple Berets, among other things.

This went so far as to have board members and volunteers sign a document swearing never to contact us - or even have coffee with us!

The net effect: the institution (now named United Against Sexual Assault, or UASA) was saved, but victims lost everything. Not surprisingly, we haven't heard a peep of criticism of the police or DA out of them since.

In fact, at their recent fundraising event, keynote speaker Sheriff Bill Cogbill's entire speech was devoted to recounting how they'd gotten rid of Women Against Rape. Far from hiding their naked manipulation of a once-feminist agency, the Sheriff's Department is bragging about it.

Cogbill was followed by executive director Gloria Young, who also spoke about how much better things are now that they've destroyed Women Against Rape. It was shocking.

Pay-Off or Pay-Back
So the UASA budget just keeps growing . . . along with the number of rapes.

Not surprisingly, this became an object lesson for other rape crisis centers around the state. The resulting self-censorship and self-limitation has been nearly total.

At the same time, all around California, rape crisis centers (historically by far the more feminist and radical wing of the violence against women movement) began to be swallowed up by the more pliant domestic violence programs.

All in all, on a national scale, VAWA's $1 billion has bought silence with jobs. What were once firebrand activists are now police advocates pulling down $40,000 salaries, often making decisions based on job safety rather than victim safety.

This is just wrong.

As feminist lawyer Christine Pfau Laney said recently, "I just wonder what would have happened to the civil rights movement if, in 1959, the federal government had flooded their organizations with $1 billion. Do you really think desegregation would ever have happened?"

The Voice in the Wilderness
For years, ours has been one of the only voices decrying this gutting of the violence against women movement, and whenever we've pointed it out, the attacks on us have come fast and furious.

So it was gratifying this spring to sit in a workshop at the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence conference called "The Problem with Programs: the Depoliticization of the Domestic Violence Movement." The room was filled to overflowing with activists and advocates, social workers and bureaucrats, all deeply disturbed by the constraints imposed on them by their budgets and boards. These were women who started out trying to change the world, only to find themselves expected to collaborate in women's victimization instead.

One by one, they spoke of the effect of the "professionalization" of the movement, the removal of even the word "feminist" from their mission statements, and of being changed from "social warriors" to "social workers" in order to keep their jobs.

Gone from their rhetoric was the language of patriarchy, of the institutionalized subjugation of women, of sexism, replaced by words like "syndrome" and "case management plan."

These women were hungry for a movement; for women taking power, not bowing to it. They wanted to work for women's rights, not women's further oppression.

Some Modest Proposals
It's a good sign - or at least a good start. We need to be having these conversations both inside and outside of rape crisis and domestic violence centers around the country, and to spark a fierce determination to take our movement back. But the road back to feminist activism won't be easy. Comfort is seductive, and won't be given up without a fight.

Clearly, though, there are a few steps that need to be taken now if the victims of rape and domestic violence are to have any hope for justice.

Time to Get Off the Tit
As long as the cops control our budgets, they're going to control our work. Turning that around won't be easy. A huge domestic violence industry has grown up over the last years and it won't willingly lay down all that power. And the truth is, good work costs money. Much of that law enforcement money will have to be replaced by other funding.

But it won't take as much as you may think. The time spent writing those government grant proposals and the bean-counting and reporting required to keep them take a big bite out of the grants themselves. At the same time, centers are mandated by the grants to offer a lot of "feel-good" programs that could easily be eliminated without much effect on victims.

Take the Cops Out of the Funding Loop
The pain of the transition might be eased by removing the VAWA money from the control of the criminal justice agencies and locating it elsewhere. In some states VAWA funds are administered by public health or other public agencies.

But there's a downside to that: whatever agency controls the funding, the movement will be warped to fit that agency's agenda. In those states where public health controls the funding, domestic violence suddenly becomes a "public health problem" rather than a hate crime.

So even if we're successful in changing the face of "daddy" from cop to shrink, we need to see this as only a way station on the road to complete financial independence.

Should the Shelter Model Be Abandoned?
Battered women's shelters are extremely expensive programs, and are much of what has led to the "professionalization" of the movement. Undoubtedly in the 1970s, shelters were an innovative, feminist response to the needs of victims. Today they're neither.

Let's look at what happens when a woman goes into a shelter. Her kids are uprooted, often taken out of their schools. She loses her housing, which in today's economic climate will likely consign her to a couple of years of homelessness before she can get on her feet again.

Often she also loses her job, either because her batterer knows where she works or because complying with all the shelter's "program" requirements leaves no time to go to work. And at many shelters a part of her meager welfare check (if she's lucky enough to still have one) is taken to pay "rent" on her room, leaving little for housing deposits and the other costs of creating a new life.

"I just wonder what would have happened to the civil rights movement if, in 1959, the federal government had flooded their organizations with $1 billion. Do you really think desegregation would ever have happened?"

Plus, she's now doing childcare 24/7, watching her children like a hawk for fear she'll be kicked out of the shelter, or worse. And through it all, she's buried in rules and prohibitions, bullied by staff, cut off from her family and support system - in effect, she's in prison, while her batterer remains a free man.

. . . Or Just Turned on its Head?
If anything, it makes more sense to put the batterers in the shelters, rather than their innocent victims. Then the women and their children could get on with their lives with as little disruption as possible. And the men could be bullied and badgered by the shelter workers, forced to work their program eight hours a day, and threatened that if they don't get their heads on straight, the next stop is jail.

At least it would send the right message: rather than locking the women away so the police won't have to bother to protect them, we could lock the men away.

Effective Law Enforcement Is Key
In the real world, once the violence has reached a certain level, law enforcement is the only institution with the power to actually stop it. For where else is a woman to turn in that critical moment when she lies, beaten and bloodied, knowing that sooner or later this is going to end with a gun to her head?

So if, instead of women's shelters, we put our time and resources into ensuring that domestic violence is prosecuted like any other violent crime, many of the problems victims face would disappear.

The woman and her kids would stay at home, in school and in their jobs. She would be supported, rather than criminalized; empowered rather than imprisoned; liberated from the violence, rather than merely having her battering spouse replaced by a battering social worker.

And most importantly, she'd be safe. Ask any woman at a domestic violence shelter if she feels safe.

That's not to say that law enforcement alone can put an end to male violence against women. That will only come with feminist-based revolutionary change in the way our culture views women, views violence, views race, views safety. It's a long-term struggle, with no certainty of success at the end.

But in the meantime, millions of women are being beaten and destroyed every year. The reality is that if we don't put the batterer in prison, we put the victim in prison - either leave her in the prison of the violent relationship, or put her in the prison and isolation of a shelter.

Time for an Insurrection
Regardless of where you come down on all this, one thing is clear: what we're doing now isn't working.

More women every year are beaten, held hostage, or killed by the men they live with or used to live with; those who dare to fight back are rotting in prisons. The costs to these women and to the society at-large are staggering.

At this point, the only thing that has been proven to protect women is incarceration of the men who beat them. If there's a better solution, let's find it. If there's not, let's quit being afraid to demand that police do their jobs.

It's time for us to get over our fear to even name the oppressor, and stop making (or tolerating) excuses for batterers and the cops who protect them.

It's time to quit waiting for government funding to take care of women's rights (when has it ever?) and get back to taking care of them ourselves.

That means increasing our political and financial support for independent feminist organizing tenfold - or a hundredfold - so we're free to set our own priorities about what needs to be done.
And it means getting our hands dirty and wrestling toe-to-toe with the raging, hate-filled face of the misogyny and male privilege at the root of it all.

Anything less is deadly.

July 2005


© Tanya Brannan, Purple Berets
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