A Note

To all those who have been reading this blog and wondering, “Who’s writing this stuff?” allow me to introduce myself.

My name is Emily, and I have spent the past 10 weeks interning at The Mary Byron Project in Louisville, Kentucky. I am originally from New York, and I am currently an undergraduate at Yale University in Connecticut.

I am from the suburbs. I attend a top-tier university. My parents are still married. I am white. I don’t do drugs. Yet, I see sexual harassment, sexual assault, dating violence and domestic violence all the time. It’s everywhere. If you just open your eyes and unclog your ears, you will start to see and hear it, too. Intimate partner violence affects all of us, no matter our age, our race, our socioeconomic status, our religion, or our region of residence. And it affects every aspect of our lives.

An advocate in the Jefferson County Domestic Violence Intake Center, Cammie Sizemore, told me that working in DV changes you. She told me I ought to think really hard before I decide this is what I want to do. She told me to consider what I like about myself, and ask myself if I’m willing to let that change. Cammie, the perceptive woman she is, knew within five minutes of meeting me that I am a cock-eyed optimist. She knew within five minutes that I like to think everyone has good intentions. She knew within five minutes that I simply cannot figure out why people can be so mean! And maybe she thought to herself, this girl is not cut out for this sort of work. After my first day at the Intake Center, I certainly had that thought, anyway.

But my thoughts didn’t stop there. Who’s to say that my hopefulness and sensitivity are necessarily disadvantages? And who’s to say that working in this field or that field will change me? Despite the placid picture I painted of myself above, I have gone through some rough times; I have faced adversity; I have struggled with my identity and my purpose; I have been passive and let bad things happen to me; I have seen bad things happen to other people and stood there knowing there was nothing I could do.

I am aware of the world around me. I never outgrew the childish tendency to ask too many questions and try to truly understand and relate to everyone I encounter. I like to analyze people and their interactions, whether they are characters in novels, my own family members, or strangers on the subway. Relationships have always fascinated me. The connections that people make with one another are vast and complex. As I’ve grown older, I have become both more independent and more involved with other people. I have been in healthy and unhealthy relationships, and have learned the difference the hard way. Not all relationships are rooted in love and trust. Many are much more twisted.

Domestic violence is nothing new. Men are physically more powerful than women and they historically have been given more societal power than women. This unbalanced power dynamic is at the crux of most domestic violence cases. Intimate partner violence is not about a need for anger management; in fact, batterers are in full control of their anger. Batterers manage their anger quite well; they deliberately direct it at the person or people most vulnerable to attack.

Additionally, outsiders (like the police) tend to stay out of private affairs more so than public ones. If you threaten a stranger on the street, people will intervene. But if you hit your wife in the home you share, people will not only fail to intervene, but they will often go further and blame the victim. They will ask “well, why doesn’t she just leave?” Domestic violence victims are the only class of victims held responsible for the abuse they suffer. People are more willing to fault the woman for staying with her abuser than fault the man for being abusive. No one ever asks why, if the man hates his wife so much, he doesn’t just leave.

Let’s back up for a second. Let’s take a look at people my age, the ones who don’t typically cohabit with their intimate partners. There’s a different name for the violence that may occur in these relationships: dating violence. And dating violence is where it all starts. After all, those women who are deemed victims of domestic violence were once dating the guy.

Dating is rife with insecurities, leaps of faith and second-guessing. And yet, most everyone dates. To be in a relationship, you need to date. And we’re brought up to believe (and it seems to be our biological destiny) that we should be in romantic relationships. And the worst part is that once emotions are involved, it is quite difficult to perceive whether or not your relationship is healthy or not. Who is to judge whether or not he loves you or he loves controlling you? Who is to determine when he crosses the line from protective to possessive? It’s a cycle. When you’re dating, you may not realize the pattern. And when you’re married, it may be too late. You can’t change someone else any more than you can totally understand someone else. He chooses to hit you. He chooses to demean you.

You can’t make his choices; you can only make your own.

My final blog entry for my internship is about song lyrics. I did not plan for this post to coincide with the rising popularity of an Eminem song that features Rihanna, but it has worked out that way. The song, which is now #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, focuses on domestic violence, a topic with which Eminem is quite familiar (see his autobiographical songs “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” and “Kill You”). In “I Love The Way You Lie,” Eminem very accurately breaks down the cycle of violence, but I have no idea what sort of message the song is supposed to send. The music video premiered Aug. 4 on MTV.

Current Events, Old News

On Oct. 31, 2009, David W. Johnson allegedly ripped off his girlfriend’s Halloween costume in the Bronx apartment they shared. He then strangled her and threw her against a bureau. 

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Nine years earlier, New York Governor David Paterson hired David Johnson as an intern. Johnson, who stands tall at 6-foot-7, strikes an imposing figure and he soon became a constant companion to the legally-blind Paterson as his unofficial bodyguard and driver. Despite no prior experience, he quickly shot up the ranks as the governor’s most trusted confidante and advisor. Paterson, who has said on the record that he does not hold adults responsible for their teenage transgressions, chose to overlook the fact that Johnson was arrested at the ages of 16 and 18. The records from the arrest when he was a minor are sealed, but we know that at 18 years of age, Johnson was charged with attempt to sell crack cocaine to an undercover cop and put on five years of probation.

Johnson’s violence against women is nothing new either. In 2001, Johnson had an altercation with his then-girlfriend outside the governor’s Harlem office. Woody Pascal, then Mr. Paterson’s chief of staff, interrupted the altercation. The police were not called.  The woman says she had filed a police report against Mr. Johnson for domestic violence before the episode outside Mr. Paterson’s office, but “they [the cops] didn’t take things as seriously back then.” There were no penalties for Johnson’s actions.

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Sherr-una Booker, Johnson’s latest girlfriend, went to Family Court and twice obtained temporary orders of protection. However, politics got in the way. The Governor’s administration has conceded that the State Police contacted Ms. Booker in the hours and days after the Oct. 31 alleged assault. One would like to think that perhaps the police were checking up on her and following through with the case, but she has said under oath that the mode of contact was harassment. They were calling to pressure her not to pursue charges. Why would they do this, you might wonder? Why would they, the presumed protectors of justice, try to subvert the rights of this woman to pursue charges against a man who viciously attacked her? Well, they were following orders. And technically, that is what they are supposed to do.

In addition to commandeering the State Police, Mr. Paterson instructed his press secretary, Marissa Shorenstein, to ask Ms. Booker to publicly describe the episode as nonviolent (which is not how she originally described the situation to police and court officials.)

And on Feb. 7, the day before Ms. Booker was to return to Family Court for a permanent order of protection against Mr. Johnson, Paterson enlisted a state employee, Deneane Brown (who is a mutual friend of the governor and Ms. Booker) to arrange a phone conversation between Ms. Booker and himself.

Ms. Booker failed to appear at court the next day, and as a result the case was dismissed.

Eventually, the press got wind of this series of events and on Feb. 25, 2010, The New York Times published a report that the governor had directly intervened in a domestic abuse case. The following day, Mr. Paterson ended his campaign for a full term as governor.

Three and a half months later, the case has become stagnant. In a recent article, The New York Times reports that Mr. Paterson has yet to be questioned, and a date has not even been set for him to be interviewed. A lawyer for Johnson said he had not had contact with investigators for months.

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Governor Paterson’s attempts to intercede on behalf of a man accused of attacking his girlfriend is just a high-profile version of a very old story. However unethical and unacceptable Paterson’s behavior, it is far from unique, only a bit more “newsworthy.” Thousands of cases just like these unfold everyday across this country, negatively affecting countless women and children every year.

In some cases, police are the problem. A number of police officers don’t bother to rush when they get a domestic violence call because they assume the woman is being dramatic, or that it’s just a petty fight. Many are wary of intervening in “a man’s private affairs.” But domestic violence is not a private affair. A woman should not be left to deal with an abusive partner alone. If a man attacks a stranger the way he attacks his lover, he would be persecuted much more harshly. The authorities have shown time and time again that they are willing to turn a blind eye to “marital strife” and let the man deal with his woman as he sees fit. The rule of thumb (which originally meant that a man can beat his wife as long as his weapon is no wider than the width of his thumb) is still followed today, both figuratively and literally.

 Since police officers are often reluctant to arrest a man who is only guilty of trying to keep his (nagging/slutty/loud-mouthed) girlfriend or wife in line, a new means of relief for the victim was established in the 1980s. This new legal remedy is known as the protective order.

It has been 30 years since protective orders were devised.  Three fast-paced decades in which we have witnessed monumental technological, political and social change, but three decades in which little progress has been made in ending domestic violence. Despite all of the innovations that have been tried from Alaska to Maine, in 2010 we find ourselves in much the same place as 1970. All of the work we have done to train, mandate and educate has wrought no appreciable change for battered women.

This most recent egregious case involving the New York Governor is proof. Despite the victim going to court twice to get a protective order, one was never granted. In New York, a protective order is not in effect until it has been served to the alleged abuser, and so all Mr. Johnson had to do was cleverly avoid being served. In the courthouse (during a hearing at which Johnson did not show) Mr. Johnson’s attorney refused service on behalf of his client.

Ultimately, the case was dismissed when Ms. Booker didn’t attend the third attempt at a hearing. We know now that her failure to appear in court was heavily influenced by the Governor. After months of pressure to drop the case, he took measures into his own hands and spoke with her the day before the final court date. The system worked to benefit the accused perpetrator and not the victim. Power trumped vulnerability. This is oldest refrain in the history of domestic violence.

The criminal justice system has major limitations when it comes to dealing with domestic violence. Indeed, domestic violence is the only crime that requires victims to take extraordinary steps to maintain their safety, the safety of their family and the safety of the community. No other crime imposes such responsibilities on a victim. And, make no mistake, it is a Crime with a capital C. It is not marital strife, a lovers’ quarrel, a domestic dispute, nor is it a rough patch or short-lived spat. The euphemism effect has rendered this sort of violence tame in the minds of too many. It is time that everyone opens their eyes and realizes that domestic violence is criminal violence, and it is likely even more damaging than other forms of criminal actions given the emotional manipulation involved in partner abuse.

Piecemeal measures are not enough. It is time for the criminal justice system to throw out the current model and move toward a solution.

The governor’s public debacle exploited historic flaws in the system. Johnson was put on leave, but he has not truly been punished for his crime. Paterson’s reputation is (further) tarnished, but he’s not going to suffer much. Justice may never prevail in this case, as it has not prevailed in countless cases before it, but let this front-page story be a reminder of all the stories buried in the myriad of newspapers. So often, domestic violence cases don’t make news until someone has to write an obituary.

Let this story serve as an example of power misused and courts misguided, and let this story serve as an impetus for reform.