So often, the criminal justice system retraumatizes victims of domestic and sexual violence, further magnifying the harm inflicted.
TW: This essay contains discussions and descriptions of intimate partner violence
By Michelle Zacarias
When I was 22-years-old I became wrapped up in one of the most wildly abusive relationships of my life. I was entering my senior year of college on a full-ride scholarship at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign when I met my ex-boyfriend. Tall, tatted, and a bit rough-around-the-edges, David* was an otherwise loyal, funny, attractive man who could throw down in the kitchen.
Like so many of the Black and non-Black Latino men I grew up with in Chicago, David lacked access to educational opportunities growing up. Raised by a single mother, he sold drugs at a young age to support himself and eventually got swept up in the school-to-prison pipeline. After landing in juvie as a teenager, he was unable to escape the constant target on his back and found himself serving a sentence in an adult prison by his early twenties.
Even after his release, David struggled to get a fresh start. His prior record made it difficult for him to find lasting employment, and the police constantly followed him around. The cops on campus made it abundantly clear that they were not a fan of the “townies” who frequently hung around the university. Even with me accompanying him, David often got kicked out of “student only” designated spaces on campus. He was booted from libraries, computer labs, cultural centers, any facilities filled with resources that would have been massively helpful to a formerly incarcerated person transitioning back into society.
The intentionally systemic way in which campus cops attempted to exile Black non-students (also see: respectability politics) from the community made me that much more protective of David. To understand how commonplace anti-Blackness is in Champaign-Urbana, you simply have to look at the data. From 2007 to 2011 (overlapping with the years I attended school there), approximately 91% of the people cited for jaywalking, and 89% of those arrested, in Urbana were Black. These stats are a microcosm of the larger-scale institutional racism that exists and continues to remain prevalent there.
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Although I hadn’t quite evolved into a full-blown abolitionist in college, the anti-authoritarian seeds were being planted. At the time, I was concluding my senior thesis on implicit bias in the criminal justice system and understood first-hand from growing up in Chicago’s west side what the cops did to people who looked like David. With Chicago being home to one of the largest police “black sites” in the nation’s recorded history, the rampant corruption and prejudice of the “criminal justice system” was no secret to me. This is why, in part, when our relationship escalated into physical abuse, I was hesitant to involve the police in any sort of way.
Being a product of both a violent upbringing and a violent criminal justice system, David had difficulty expressing emotions in ways that were not explicitly physical. He would often break things around the apartment during heated arguments; purposely shattering items he knew were important to me. For a while he refrained from putting his hands on me, knowing that was a line he couldn’t cross (yet). Eventually, however, the lines became blurred, and I found myself covering up bruises and marks across my body.
In the beginning, our physical altercations resulted in more shame than anything else. I was ashamed as a woman who proudly identified as a feminist. I was ashamed that I wasn’t “tough” enough to hold my own in a fight (I’m a hood femme from the West Side of Chicago, we don’t show weakness). I was ashamed that after everything my mother taught me about never letting men mistreat me, I had allowed myself to be in the situation. But it wasn’t until the first time that the cops showed up to our apartment that I felt genuine fear.
Our fights were undoubtedly loud, toxic, and they often drew the attention of worried neighbors who did not hesitate to call the police. Despite constant pleas from my friends to file formal criminal charges against David, I never conceded. Growing up on the West Side of Chicago, we had one golden rule: don’t talk to cops.
As a woman of color, there is often a misconception that we are obligated to ride or die for our men; a dangerous trope that so many have called out for upholding cycles of abuse in our communities. For women, like myself—queer, disabled, brown—my identities pose a complicated narrative. In retrospect, I was fortunate that nothing irreparable ever happened to me. Femicide stemming from intimate partner violence is extremely common and fueled by a culture of toxic masculinity and outdated cultural expectations of Black and brown women.
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Police, on the other hand, are ill-equipped to handle domestic situations involving people with disabilities. Cops view behaviors associated with disability (e.g. neuro-divergence, deafness, visual impairment) as noncompliance, which is used to justify excessive force. They are also less likely to respond to reported violence against victims with disabilities; police respond to 90% of reports by victims without disabilities, and only 77% of reports by victims with disabilities.
Similarly, people with disabilities are 2.5 times more likely than nondisabled people to experience violent victimization. A 2008 Department of Justice report found intimate partners perpetrated 27% of violent crime against women with disabilities. The mainstream dehumanization of disabled bodies coupled with power dynamics set up between disabled people and their non-disabled partners result in our experiencing higher rates of intimate partner violence.
Looking back, I made a decision that I felt was right for my circumstances. So often, the criminal justice system retraumatizes victims of domestic and sexual violence, further magnifying the harm inflicted. Despite the fact that an estimated three women die every day from intimate partner violence, we are continually punished for defending ourselves. Studies show that women of color and low-income women are disproportionately affected by mandatory arrest policies for domestic violence. A 1999 study conducted by the Women in Prison Project found that 75% of the incarcerated women they interviewed had experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner during adulthood.
So what is left for us? Who do we turn to when the police can’t/won’t protect us? I was fortunate enough to be able to rely on my community. When I finally ended the relationship with David, I left most of my belongings in the apartment we shared and moved in with my best friend who opened her home to me without hesitation. She shared her bed with me, respected my privacy on the matter, and at only 5’2” physically stood between myself and David whenever he would unexpectedly show up in public places to berate me. She never once made me feel judged or blamed me for being in the situation in the first place. I made it out of an abusive relationship alive and it was largely thanks to the support of women and people of other marginalized genders that protected me in ways that the police never could.
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But the reality is that survivors of domestic violence don’t always have the options I had. Even caseworkers are required to ask for legal documentation, restraining orders, police reports, etc. All that being said, there are survivors that choose not to follow my trajectory. There are survivors that choose to call the police. There are survivors that choose to file charges. There are survivors that will decide accountability means jail time for their abuser. That is perfectly fine. This reflection isn’t meant to vilify those decisions or choices, it is meant to provide an alternative perspective to what healing, growth, and redemption can look like for victims of gender-based violence.
I largely credit my abolitionist ideals to organizer and educator, Mariame Kaba. The first time I heard Kaba speak was at a Chicago rally against police violence in 2013, and when she uttered the words “abolition” I cringed. Without missing a beat she turned to the crowd and said, “I know a lot of people think prison and police abolition is impossible, I used to be in your exact shoes.” She then went on to discuss the importance of practicing harm reduction and addressing traumas in order to transform a situation before it reached the need for further state intervention. Something shifted in me that day. I began to see prisons for what they were; an extension of the exact same cycles of violence that the criminal justice system claims to condemn.
Abolition isn’t just about dismantling prisons and police, it requires an intentional and strategic effort to replace punitive culture with restorative practices. As a survivor, that means implementing systems of accountability, as well as providing essential resources for decent living (emergency shelter), and facilitating restorative mediation. For a 22-year-old Michelle, it meant having the resources to leave a harmful situation as quickly as I could and finding alternative housing. For a 30-year-old Michelle, it means sharing my journey of reconciliation, addressing past traumas, and aspiring for a world without prisons and police.
Michelle Zacarias (she/her) is an award-winning queer, disabled, Latina journalist. After graduating from the Univ. of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign in 2013 she moved back home to Chicago to launch her journalism career. Michelle is passionate about covering anti-racism movements, queer identities, feminism, and the abolition of state-sanctioned violence. She has previously written for Teen Vogue, The Triibe, Latina Mag, People’s World, and more. When Michelle isn’t playing Call of Duty or working on her upcoming indie web series, THOTless, she is conceptualizing the end of capitalism.