Leave a comment

Rebirth in Virginia: The ERA in the 21st Century

ERA

Image credit: ERA Action, We Are Women Coalition and Progressive Democrats of America

This week, activists in Virginia are working to convince their legislators to do something that has not been done in the 21st century: ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Hard as it may seem to believe, the Equal Rights Amendment, the 90 year-old brain child of suffragist Alice Paul and bastion of 60s and 70s era feminism, is still not part of the U.S. Constitution. As a result, we face the reality that in 2014, the right to equal protection, regardless of gender, is not the law of the land.

To change this, ERA activists face two daunting challenges. First, the ERA did not become law in the 1970s because it fell three states short of the 38 state (three-fourths of 50) ratification threshold set forth by the Constitution. Indiana, the 35th state, ratified the ERA in 1977. No other states have ratified it since. Secondly, when the ERA was proposed to Congress in 1972, it included a ratification deadline, a deadline that passed way back in 1982. So ERA proponents including activists from the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) have a two-pronged battle plan: 1) get Congress to approve removal of the ratification deadline (there are resolutions in the House and the Senate to do just that ) and 2) get at least three more states to ratify the ERA.

And that brings us to this week’s activity in Virginia. Virginia’s Senate already passed the most recent ERA bill but approval in the House is proving to be a tougher nut to crack. Delegate Mark Cole, Chair of the House Privileges and Elections Committee, questions the legality of the bill and has said he will not bring it out of committee to the floor for vote. Proponents of the bill hope to change that. On Wednesday, February 19, PDA will stage a call-in day in which Virginia voters can call, tweet, or email their delegates, House Speaker William Howell and/or Delegate Cole to ask them to bring the bill to the floor. in addition, there is an online petition asking Delegate Cole to bring the bill for a vote. According to PDA’s National Deputy Field Director, Andrea Miller, the petition will be delivered to the House Privileges and Elections Committee on Friday morning.

Also on Friday, activists plan to line the hallways outside the Committee room in a “silent sentinel” to send a message that Virginia citizens, particularly women, are watching what the delegates do. Friday may be the last day for the bill to be placed on the docket for this House session so Miller is hopeful that they can get several hundred voters to Richmond on Friday for the demonstration. If the bill fails to pass the Virginia House in this session, Miller says PDA will not give up in Virginia, or on their other targeted states: Arizona, Florida, Arkansas, Nevada, Louisiana and Missouri, among others.

Even though, it’s been almost forty years since a state last ratified the ERA, Miller and the other proponents are confident and determined. She calls passage of the ERA the “unfinished business” of the last century and of the civil rights movement. Though laws like the Lilly Ledbetter Act have helped give women legal options in the workplace to combat discrimination, it doesn’t go as far as an amendment could. Miller stresses that finally passing the ERA will give judicial standing to such laws and to gender discrimination cases that come before the nation’s high courts. “If we are going to lift women and families out of poverty in this country, we need pay equity. The ERA will help us get there. Finally.”

Finally indeed.

Learn more about the ERA and the three-state strategy here: www.equalrightsamendment.org


Leave a comment

Radical Grace, Radical Change: An Interview with Filmmaker Rebecca Parrish

Rebecca Parrish is a filmmaker with a track record for making incisive, ground breaking films with a progressive and often feminist bent to them.  WRUN Admin Jen Giacalone sat down with Rebecca recently to chat about her current project, Radical Grace, which follows the Nuns on the Bus and the other Catholic sisters in their fight for social justice and their struggle against the Church patriarchy.  Followers of the page know that we are NOTB fangirls, so the editors will not bother to hide their glee.

 WRUN:  So, I have to ask… how did you and the sisters find each other? Did you seek them out, or did they approach you?

rebecca and simone

Director Rebecca Parish with NETWORK’s Sister Simone Campbell, in the field while filming “Radical Grace.”

RP: A friend of a friend was a friend of Sister Jean’s.  So our mutual friend connected us and we thought there was a film there. Then we approached Jean.  That’s the short version.

WRUN:  Did you know immediately what the story was that you were going to try to tell or did that reveal itself over the course of working with them?

RP:  I knew I was interested in a couple of things: What it means to do social justice as a spiritual practice, and what it means to be a feminist in a patriarchal institution.

There are the two opposing concepts of spirituality that are illustrated in this story. The hierarchy is typically all about who are the insiders and who are the outsiders, who is closer to God and who is further, and how do you get to heaven. The sisters are all about how we’re all interconnected and how we need to be there for each other, and, as someone who’s not religious per say but sees value in spirituality, their story and approach to this concept of God in a really broad way really appealed to me.

WRUN:  It must be an interesting learning experience for you as a non-religious person. What is like to experience the Church through their eyes?

RP:  It totally changed my conception of what “the church” is.

WRUN:  How so?

RP:  It used to be that the hierarchy defined it for me. Whatever the pope and bishops say Catholicism is, is what it is.  Now I see that it’s the people, and the community they have built together who define it.  The sisters and other lay people have just as much “authority” in my eyes, if not more ‘moral authority,’ than many of the bishops.  Before, I just never thought about it that hard.

WRUN:  I think that’s something that would be surprising to a lot of secular folk who are a little hostile to religion in general.

RP:  Yeah, totally.  It was like, ‘Catholics believe XYZ, the pope is infallible…” Now I see that it’s all much more contested.  I think that’s part of what gives faith such a bad rap: the people on the outside take those who claim to be the representatives at face value.

WRUN:  So, there’s been a bit of hostility between “The Church” and feminism. Feminists often feel that religion, and Catholicism in particular, upholds dogma that is oppressive to women.  Do you think that this project can have some impact on the way that these groups view each other?

RP:  I hope so.  I think that secular feminists in particular have a lot of assumptions about people who have maintained their Catholicism. I certainly did. I think this film debunks some of those stereotypes.

WRUN:  What would be the one thing that you would want secular feminists to walk away with after seeing it,  if you had to boil it down like that?

RP:  Ooh, that’s always a hard question for me.  I tend to approach filmmaking more as an exploration and asking questions than with a particular agenda.  I guess I want people to see opportunities for coalitions and collaboration. I think the separation between faithful feminists and secular feminists is a real detriment to their shared goals.  It’s like a divide and conquer thing.

WRUN:  Imagine what could be accomplished if feminism and the church were both bigger tents?

Exactly.

WRUN:   What are the sisters like?  How has it been to spend so much time with them?

RP:  They are really fun.  Another huge thing for me has been seeing how they approach such challenging work with so much joy.  Maybe that sounds trite, but they really know how to party.

But I think that ties in to my interest in spiritual activism, because a huge part of what their spirituality brings to their work is a sense of lightness, joy, and resiliency.

WRUN:  Does most of the film take place out on the road with them, or is it more about what they do within their community?

RP:  It’s both.  The film actually follows three separate stories: Sister Jean’s, Sister Chris’s and Sister Simone’s stories are separate but interwoven.

We filmed with Simone at NETWORK, lobbying on Capitol Hill, on the road with Nuns on the Bus, and at her Motherhouse.

We filmed Jean working with formerly incarcerated people at St. Leonard’s house and making decisions with people at her Motherhouse.

And we filmed Chris organizing Catholics to work for church reform in parishes and leading a pilgrimage to sites of early women leaders (who have been obscured) in Rome.

WRUN:  I saw a little of Jean’s story in the trailer and thought that looked really moving.

RP:  Yeah, it is. Her story spans both her work with the formerly incarcerated and her struggles with the institutional Church.  She doesn’t always see God in how the institution operates, but she does see it in the guys at St. Leonard’s house.

WRUN:  Chris’s story sounds fascinating too.  I think the only notions that a lot of people have about women in the early church come from Dan Brown novels.

RP:  She leads the pilgrimage to the archeological sites, because women leaders often don’t show up in the written history, which was written by men. But they do show up in the art, which is a more direct source in terms of how people lived and how they understood themselves in relation to faith and society.

WRUN:  Amazing.  So tell me about Simone’s story.  Does that follow the health care law?

RP:  That’s part of it.  That and the Nuns on the Bus.  When the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) came out in opposition to the Affordable Care Act, she was heartbroken.  She and NETWORK have been working on healthcare reform for a long time. And when it finally started to look like a real possibility, her own church leadership was opposing it.

And, she knew that the USCCB could have a real influence on Catholic legislators, so she crafted a letter that leaders of many nuns’ congregations across the country signed, saying that this law was in alignment with their faith values.  They say that universal healthcare is “the REAL pro-life stance.”

Then her organization, NETWORK, is named in the Vatican censure. And to her, it’s obvious that this is payback for their work standing up for healthcare reform. As she/they become famous as a result of the censure, Simone asked, “how can we use this new fame to further social and economic justice?”

She’s very strategic. The big issue at that time was the federal budget, and Paul Ryan was twisting Catholic Social Teaching to say it supported cutting social services. So she used her new fame to, once again, be a progressive Catholic voice for change.

WRUN:  I have to tell you, we really love that story.

RP:  Yeah, so many people connected with it.  I think many secular, or unaffiliated, or “spiritual but not religious,” people connected with her kind of spirituality.  She also represented something people were/are hungry for in that way too.

And, of course, there is the progressive Catholic laity who were excited to have a positive public model of what their faith is all about.

WRUN:  Well, you could easily argue that there’s been a real failure of leadership in the political class on these issues.  Do you think Simone and the sisters are kind of filling a void there?

RP:  Yeah. I also think that progressive organizing lost its soul in a way.  It’s very materialist.  Maybe I’m getting too abstract?

 

radical groupWRUN:  Well, I think there’s something to the notion that you have these big progressive organizations that feel very corporate, because they are.  They have budgets, and staff, and PR firms, and so on.  There’s something about the way that the sisters are doing what they’re doing that is very genuine and uncorrupted.

RP:  Yes. That’s very true.

I think it’s like the humanity, the feeling of connection and interconnectedness drops out when it becomes so corporatized.  But at its heart (no pun intended), that’s what progressive organizing should be about, or that’s what motivates it, and helps people keep going when it’s tough, and builds community and solidarity.

Radical Grace is currently in post-production.  Rebecca and the Sisters are running a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds to finish and promote the film.  If you are interested in learning more about the Sisters’ work, the film, or how to help, go visit: Bit.ly/RadGraceFilm


1 Comment

Why Identity Politics Works (Except When It Doesn’t)

Guest Blogger Dave Thomer explains how he picked a candidate to support in the PA Gubernatorial race.  (Hint: It's NOT this guy, current Governor Tom Corbett)

Guest Blogger Dave Thomer explains how he picked a candidate to support in the PA Gubernatorial race.
(Hint: It’s NOT this guy, current Governor Tom Corbett)

I’m a Philadelphia resident who teaches in the Philadelphia public schools and has been married to WRUN Admin Pattie for the last 14 years. So you are probably not surprised to hear that I am rather eager to see Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett defeated in 2014. I am optimistic that the Democratic nominee will be able to defeat Corbett, but first there is the significant issue of choosing said Democratic nominee. I spent a large chunk of today trying to decide if I would donate to any of the candidates before the July 31st filing deadline, and wrote about that process at my site, This Is Not News. I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss how gender factored into my decision. All things being equal, I would like to support a female candidate for the nomination. But at this stage of the campaign, I found myself unable to do so.

Let me tackle both parts of that process. Why did I go into the process hoping that I could find a woman to support? Part of the answer is pure political calculation. There is usually a significant gender gap in support of the Democratic and Republican parties, and I believe that a qualified female candidate could widen that gap in the Democrats’ favor. In the specific case of Corbett, his position on reproductive choice and his comments about women closing their eyes during trans-vaginal ultrasounds might not be the primary reasons for his low approval ratings. But they are certainly not helping, and a strong female candidate should be able to vividly demonstrate how absurd and out of touch Corbett’s positions are. As I mentioned, I really want to see Corbett defeated. So if a woman gives the Democratic Party a better chance to do that, I would like to pick that woman.

The larger reason, however, is that when we vote for someone we are not selecting a policy automaton who will make political decisions based on some set of formal algorithms. We are electing a person who is going to make judgment calls, and sometimes that judgment is going to be based on the personal experiences that make each one of us different. I have written before about how important empathy is for a functioning democracy. It is important for each of us to try to look at the world from another person’s point of view, and understand how our choices will affect them. It is important that every citizen believe that the people in their government are trying to understand the consequences of the policies they they propose.

In order for empathy to really work, we have to be exposed to as many different perspectives as we can. With all the good will in the world, I can not imagine the perspectives and experiences of others who come from different backgrounds. I need to listen to them when they speak. I need to read them when they write. I need to spend time with them in order to know them as people so that my imagination has something to work with when I try to be empathetic. It is a lot easier to hear and learn about different experiences when there are leaders who have had those experiences. It is a lot harder to avoid hearing and learning about them as well. I would point to President Obama’s comments about Trayvon Martin as an example.

On the flip side, empathy only goes so far. There are things that I understand at a deeper level because I experienced them. So when you have a job like the governor, which can only be held by one person at a time, it is inevitable that there will be some issues and concerns that the governor understands at a personal level and some that he or she does not. As long as the governor is trying to reach beyond his or her own experiences, that is fine. But what can be harmful is if one governor after another has the same basic background and perspective. The government will wind up institutionalizing that one perspective, and others will be lost. There have only been a total of 36 female governors in the entire history of the United States. There are currently only five in office. Pennsylvania has never had one. So in the abstract, before I look at individual candidates, I can see a strong reason to want a governor who can bring a personal experience of the issues facing women to the office.

Some people might question me generalizing that women and men have different experiences, such that I would assume that a woman has understanding of something that I assume a man is lacking. Don’t those assumptions work against the idea of equality? Wouldn’t it be better if I just took a bunch of resumes, biographies, and policy statements, then stripped them of all reference to gender, and picked the best one? Well, besides the fact that such a process is practically impossible, I believe that equality requires recognizing and affirming differences. From a pure biological standpoint, women and men will have to deal with health issues that are not identical. I think that’s a relevant difference when you think of the impact that a governor can have on health care policy.

Beyond that, as much as I would like to say that we live in a world that is free of gender stereotyping (as well as stereotyping based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so on), the truth is that we do not live in that world yet. Lots of people treat men and women differently. That means that men and women will experience the world in different ways.

Here’s a personal example. When our daughter was born, I was in graduate school working on my dissertation. Pattie had a full time job that provided the bulk of our income, not to mention our health insurance. So Pattie went back to work and I stayed home to watch our daughter while I did my research and writing. At work, many of Pattie’s female coworkers assumed that she was going to quit her job as soon as possible in order to be a stay at home parent. Meanwhile, I took our daughter with me to take care of some paperwork at the university, and a couple of people made comments like, “Oh look, Daddy’s taking care of you for the day!” We each fought against the expectations people had based on our gender, and I’d say that Pattie had the more aggravating fight to deal with.

If you want a more substantial example in the policy world, look at what people are saying about Janet Yellin and whether she has what it takes to be the chairperson of the Federal Reserve. Men can and should be empathetic to that kind of stereotyping. But we should also have leaders who have faced and overcome it personally, to help create a new culture where the next generation of leaders will not have to face the same obstacles.

So that’s why, all things being equal, I would like to support a woman to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for governor. (Feel free to bookmark this post, come back in 18 months, and do a search-and-replace to change to “governor” to “president.”) And yet, at the end of the day, I’ve chosen to support John Hanger. How can I do that in light of everything I have just written?

Well, that’s where the “all things being equal” comes in. Background and biography are important, but they are not a blank check. I have to have the sense that the candidate will use that background to try to implement policies that I support. Hanger has just done so much more than the other candidates to define his positions that the other candidates look much poorer in comparison. I absolutely love former environmental protection secretary Katie McGinty’s resume and biography. But she barely mentions education at all on her campaign website, and even her environmental policies are vague. I want her to step up her game. If by January, she’s laid out proposals that are even close to Hanger’s on the critical education and economic issues facing the state, I will happily change my support.

In the end, I think that this shows where “identity politics” factors into my thinking. It’s important to evaluate candidates based on their qualifications and proposals. But when deciding between candidates who have cleared that bar, establishing greater diversity in government is a virtue that can legitimately push one qualified candidate ahead of another.

Dave Thomer is a teacher, adjunct professor and blogger from Philadelphia. He blogs at www.notnews.org


4 Comments

Where the Action Is: A Primer on State Legislatures

CRAZY LAWS

“Tonto! Someone in Virginia is receiving oral sex! Quick! Round up the braves!”

by Admin Jen

I was chatting recently with a friend who runs a rather large & popular liberal-leaning Facebook page. I asked her who her state representatives were. She named her Congressman and United States Senator. I said, “No no, your state legislators. The people who vote on stuff in your statehouse, that your governor has to sign.” She had no idea. And this was someone who is pretty passionate about politics, and really pays attention.

But she pays attention only at the national level, and it’s a common mistake. Now, it’s not that national politics don’t matter. After all, it’s not going to be your mayor declaring war on Afghanistan or authorizing bailouts of collapsing foreign governments. But that stuff is half important, half dog & pony show, and half Coliseum blood sport. (I realize that’s three halves. That tells you more about our national politics than it does about my brain, OK?)

The real action is in your state legislature. In case you were unsure, your state legislature is the gang of people that make and pass the bills that your governor signs into law. This is an entirely different gang from the one that marches off to Congress and the U.S. Senate, to argue and mostly not pass bills for President to sign into law.

State legislatures are often vastly more entertaining than Congress and the Senate. They are home to a great deal of really loopy legislation, probably because they think nobody’s paying much attention. And they’re right. Our totally unscientific WRUN poll showed that half of you have no idea who your state legislators are. It almost seems like they count on this: note how many legislatures are tucked away in the middle of nowhere, far from the large cities with lots of actual people in them (Harrisburg, PA? Albany, NY, anyone?). This is how you get real “put-your-feet-up-and-have-some-popcorn” type fun, like Kentucky’s law, “One may not dye a duckling blue and offer it for sale unless more than six are for sale at once.” Or Tennessee’s HB1783, which makes it illegal to share your Netflix password. Until recently, in Montana, if seven Native American Girl Scouts approached you trying to sell you thin mints, it would have been legal to shoot them, because more than six was legally considered an Indian raiding party. Kudos, Big Sky State, for catching up to the 19th century!

But don’t get lulled into the false sense of security that your state legislatures are all fun and games and Indian raiding parties. State legislatures are also, as Jon Stewart referred to them, the “meth labs of democracy,” wherein crazy people are able to run amok on issues that actually matter. North Dakota recently went wild with a sort of “Tough Mudder” style obstacle course of anti-abortion legislation; banning abortions at six weeks, banning abortions for sex selection and genetic disorders, banning them again at 20 weeks just in case you somehow made it past the other bans… while also defunding sex education for homeless teens. Because nothing says “it’s important to prevent abortions” like refusing to teach kids how not to get pregnant in the first place.

Members of North Carolina’s legislature recently tried to establish Christianity as the state religion, in total defiance of that pesky First Amendment. Texas, in its zeal to reduce abortions, cut off funding to any clinic that even looked like it might have ever had anything to do with Planned Parenthood, and in the process, cut thousands of low-income rural and urban women off from their contraceptives; they are now scratching their heads in puzzlement a year later as their tab for Medicaid births goes through the roof. Arizona gave us the “show us your papers” law (which was challenged and partially struck down by the Supreme Court), not only making racial profiling mandatory, but making it possible for the citizenry to sue the police if they didn’t feel the police were being racial-profile-y enough. That was a few years before the law that made it totally legal and fine for a doctor to lie to his pregnant patient about her pregnancy if he thinks the truth might cause her to abort. Genetic abnormality? Non-viable fetus? Potentially deadly tubal pregnancy? Too bad.

Michigan’s legislature handed the governor the authority to toss out any duly elected official of a financially troubled municipal body (that could be a mayor, a school board president, etc) and install a person or CORPORATION of his/her choice. Then they gave the world “right to work” (or, “legalized union-busting”) laws, and the baffling decision that you need a tax credit for a fetus but an actual born child… eh, not so much.

Meanwhile, Virginia has legislated against all sex except that between men and women, in the missionary position. I’m not sure you’re even allowed to have the lights on; you’ll have to check with Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

And Wisconsin? I can’t even talk about Wisconsin. Just go google “horrible laws passed under Governor Scott Walker” and try your best not to stab your eyes out.

Now, it’s not all bad news. Some lawmakers in places like Texas and South Carolina are trying to introduce laws saying that sex education classes have to contain actual correct information. I know, please try to contain yourselves. South Carolina’s is still too new to know what will happen (we’re hopeful as it was introduced by two Republicans), and Texas’s attempt at this didn’t pass (#headdesk), but still, you kind of have to applaud the effort. Enough state legislatures have decided to recognize marriage equality that it sort of qualifies as a movement. Washington and Colorado have legalized marijuana for recreational use. I’m still trying to figure out why we haven’t moved there yet.

And with all that, still, at least half of you have no idea who’s representing you in matters of everyday importance in your state. So, for Pete’s sake. Find out! Show up and vote in those races. Find out who your state senators and/or assemblymen are and write them, call them, or stop by their office and tell them what you want from them. They probably have one in your neighborhood, by the very nature of the job, and they have to listen to you. You’re a constituent, and they need to know what you want in order to do their jobs properly. Otherwise they’re just left to their own devices.

And I think we’ve seen enough about what kinds of shenanigans go on when that happens: racial profiling, defunded sex education, and illegal blue ducklings.

Please. Find your legislators here, at this link:
http://votesmart.org/


Leave a comment

Why Expanding VAWA Mattered: A Survivor’s Story

viewer2

Author Carissa Daniels after speaking at a Press Conference about domestic violence with Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) on April 2, 2012.

My name is Carissa Daniels. I am a mother, a student, an advocate and an activist. I am Cherokee. I am also a survivor of domestic violence. Fifteen years ago this May, I was forced to take my daughter and leave my home because of domestic violence. We spent four months homeless, living underground in the system of domestic violence shelters where victims move every 28 days to stay safe from someone who has threatened and/or tried to kill them. The same someone who said they loved them.

Nowhere in my dreams of happily ever after did it ever mention mental and emotional abuse, put-downs, physical and sexual violence. But I lived through all of those and more.

People ask why victims stay. A much better question would be “Why does someone who says he loves someone hurt that person?” As to why victims stay, I can tell you that in my case, I didn’t know that what I was living with was abuse. It’s hard to recognize because it occurs in so many different forms, and happens so gradually, you don’t even know what is going on until it is nearly too late.

I was disabled in a car crash years before meeting my ex, so I had very little income. Some abusers keep victims from working at all, or they take all the money, so she has no way to get out.

This is why renewing the Violence Against Women Act was so vital and why it was so important to not compromise on which victims receive services and protection and which don’t. VAWA helps to fund programs to support domestic violence victims who want to get safe. It enables them to have a place to go, temporarily, without cost. It gives them a roof over their head, and food to eat while they work on getting things in order and contemplating their next steps.

VAWA provides a victim with a legal advocate to help with things like an order of protection, divorce and child custody and support issues. Sometimes, when the situation is most serious, and the victim qualifies, the legal advocate can even help the victim find an attorney to help them. In my case, I nearly lost custody of my daughter because he had a significant income, while I did not. He could, and, did spend a lot of money on attorneys in an effort to take my daughter from me. If it hadn’t been for the legal advocacy program, I would have been alone while enduring four years of terrifying court battles, all in an effort to take my daughter from me.

Until now, this would not have been the case, if I lived on a reservation. If I had been assaulted on Native American lands, much of the help that is available to other victims of abuse would have been far from me. Getting an order of protection on a reservation would have been much more difficult if the House version of VAWA had become law. The Republican plan would have made it harder for the courts to issue civil orders of protection on the reservation because all applications for an order of protection would have required tribal courts to get approval from a US Attorney General. This is the current procedure for prosecution. It would not have changed under the new bill. This is part of the problem. If this hasn’t worked for prosecution up till now, why did they think it would work adding civil protection orders?

I felt a cold chill when I read this portion of the House GOP proposal because it meant even more people would die. Many abusers knew that their crimes could be committed with impunity on the reservation if you were not a tribal member. Eighty-eight percent of these crimes on the reservation are committed by non-Natives. Seventy-seven percent of people on the reservation are non-Native people, exempt from prosecution under Native law. Native women are currently two and a half times more likely to be assaulted, and more than twice as likely to be stalked, than non-Natives. Indian nations, which have sovereignty over their territories and people, have been the only governments in America without jurisdiction and local control they need to address the epidemic of domestic violence. We have given power to state and local governments to deal with domestic violence but until now we had not done so for Native American territories. The House GOP version of VAWA removed some more of the few tools the tribal courts have. While federal agencies have exclusive jurisdiction over these crimes, the U.S. courts are located hundreds of miles from the reservation, so they often decline prosecution. In any other foreign nation, they have the right to prosecute someone who commits a crime on their land. Not so with non-natives on Reservation land.

I cannot help but ask, when we see how effective VAWA has been in other areas, the number of lives saved (incidents of domestic violence are down 63% since 1994). And in the first 6 years of its existence, VAWA saved $14.8 billion dollars in net averted social costs. Why would we not support a bill that protects ALL victims? The new portions of the Violence Against Women Act have been created after months (and in some cases, years) of research and consultation with constitutional lawyers and the tribal authorities. Constitutional experts and the native organizations have come together, working to find a solution that maximizes the help for victims while controlling the costs. They agree that it can be done without any negative impact on the rights of Non-natives. When a discussion is made about if a non-native can get a fair trial in a tribal court, the answer should be a resounding yes. The jury of their peers… their neighbors, their community are called to hear the case. Instead of displaying ignorance and prejudice, squabbling over “if” we should do it, we need to ask, “How we can make it happen?” We already know it is costing many lives, and money to do nothing.

Then there’s the question of immigration issues: Because of controversy over this, Senate Democrats removed the section in their bill that would have granted more visas to undocumented victims of domestic violence. They did so to try to compromise with the House. Rather than being willing to compromise, however, Republicans in the House removed sections these sections as well as those would have protected LGBT victims from discrimination in applying for services.

Lastly, the House GOP proposal left out of their bill updates that would protect college students. The Leadership conference on Civil and Human Rights said it well when they said that “Even in today’s polarized climate, we should be able to agree that when we send our daughters and sons to college, they should be protected from stalking, violence, date rape and sexual assault.”

My point: These omissions would have cost many lives! The more inclusive VAWA that passed last week has significant cost savings, without yet another huge loss of services to those who need it most. In fact, it will reach more people and have a significant impact on future generations, while saving money… The choice was clear. Congress needed to do what was best for victims, and stop grandstanding. Thankfully they did so in the end. If we are to make a significant difference in the fight to end domestic violence, we need to have the tools to do so. That is why, yesterday when I saw the House passed S. 47, I cried. For those who will live and one day make our world a better place. If all of us do what we can, we can make a difference in the lives of victims!


3 Comments

In Stunning Last-Minute Move, Congress Does the Right Thing For Once

by Admin Jen

Well, the House finally found a way to vote on, and pass, the Senate version of the Violence Against Women Act.  It was the most convoluted, face-saving way possible, but they did it.  And as it turns out, most of our representatives don’t like domestic violence.  Pop the champagne, people.  The House has managed to sit down together and get enough of its members to agree that wife-beating is bad that they could pass something about it.  I realize this is a low bar, but we have to start somewhere and if we are really going to entertain fantasies of bi-partisanship or progress in this relentlessly, depressingly divided country, it’s a satisfying enough place to begin.

I’m not kidding.  The significance of VAWA’s passage can’t be underplayed.  It gives a glimmer of hope that we might see a more reasonable Republican party in the future.  As I’ve said elsewhere on this page, I would love to be having a spirited conversation with my conservative brethren and sistren about the role and size of government, the best way to spur economic growth, foreign policy, just about anything else than whether domestic violence should be treated as the serious crime that it is.  This really is a big damn deal.

Why do I say this?  Well, if you recall, the bill that originally sailed past the Senate last year contained expanded protections for underserved, hard-to-reach groups; namely Native Americans on reservations, illegal immigrants, and LGBT victims.  And the bills that were coming out of the House committees were conspicuously missing these expansions.  Multiple Republican House members said the expansions in the Senate bill made it “impossible” for them to vote for it, because of gay immigrant cooties or something.  America had the distinct impression that the House Republicans felt that immigrants, gays, and tribal women weren’t really women.  That they didn’t deserve the same protections as “regular” women.  By resoundingly passing the Senate’s bill, it gives the lie to all of that.  It codifies a simple recognition of the humanity of these groups.  A significant number of Republicans, in voting for this act, voted in favor of the notion that these groups are people too, and that their shared humanity matters.  It’s an encouraging thought.

Now, virtually all of the “no” votes were still Republicans… But there were lots who voted “yes”, including my own Pennsylvania congressman, Mike Fitzpatrick, a mushy moderate in a purple district who is nonetheless a Tea Party darling.  The partisan in me sometimes sits back and laughs when the rhetoric from that side of the aisle grows too sick, too sad, too hateful and misogynistic, because it clearly hurts them with women voters and, you know… decent people.  The evil voice in my head (who sounds suspiciously like Kathy Bates in “Primary Colors”) says,  “Go ahead, guys, keep giving yourself that rope, you saw how well it worked out for Richard Mourdock.”  But the truth is, I don’t want to live in that world.  I want to live in a world where the opposition is sane.  Where we really do share the same desire for the same ends, and the wrangling comes in trying to achieve them.  Where we can agree that all people are worthy of love and respect, deserving to live in a world that is as sane and safe as our loony species can manage.  (Again, a low bar, perhaps, but we can still try to raise it.)  I count a few conservatives among my friends, and they’re good people.  I promise you, they don’t sit around on their rooftops wearing hoods and taking potshots at their gay neighbors with a .22.  They aren’t Minute Men.  They really don’t deserve to be stuck with the reputation made by the louder, angrier, more reactionary cousins in their extended partisan family.  This vote brings the country one step closer to internalizing that truth.

Now, it’s not clear whether this seemingly sudden turnaround was politically motivated, motivated out of simple human decency, or some combination of the two.  It’s possible that the support for the Senate version had been there all along and the gamesmanship revolved around something else entirely.  Be assured, we’ll be researching the matter more, if only to satisfy our own curiosity as to what changed and when, and we’ll share everything we learn.  But there are two reasons to feel a glimmer of hope for the future.  One, because, after months of our own campaigning and encouraging you all to call and write your representatives, we finally have a Violence Against Women Act that reaches that many more women.

And two, because it might, just maybe, represent a tiny step in the direction of sanity for us as a people.

A girl can dream for just a minute.  Now give me the damn champers.


6 Comments

Foley’s Friendly Firearms Shop

by Admin Jen

mossbergThe first thing that I noticed was that I was the only woman in there. The young guy working the counter was helping a customer, but he perked up noticeably when I walked in. I was a little nervous. I’d never seen this many guns at one time. Also, I was worried that someone would figure out the Elantra in the parking lot with the Obama bumper stickers belonged to me, and would spot me as the interloper I was.

I spent a few minutes meandering along the counter and looking at the various firearms: a wall of hunting rifles and shotguns, a glass display case with Glocks and revolvers, and another display case with what looked to my seriously untrained eye like collector’s items: antique-looking six-shooters, Colt 45’s with pearl handles, and another very small, very old looking gun with a price tag that read almost a thousand dollars.

The clerk finished with the customer and introduced himself as Frank. I told him I’d moved down here from New York City a few years ago. Never owned a gun before, but was wondering if I ought to. “Yeah,” he said, “we’ve been getting a lot of that lately. Guns flying off the shelves, all first-time buyers.” “Since the Connecticut thing?” I asked. He nodded. “Yeah, kind of before that, like since the election. But definitely way more since the Connecticut thing.” “Connecticut thing,” of course, sounds much better than “the mass shooting of 20 first graders”.

“So what do I need in order to buy one of these?” I asked, gesturing at the case of handguns. “Like, a permit or a license or anything?” Not unless I wanted a concealed carry. Just show my drivers’ license and pass a background check and I’d be good to go. No waiting period? No. There used to be a five day waiting period, but they replaced that with the PICS (Pennsylvania Instant Check System.) “So, what do they look for in the background check? What if I got busted for turnstile jumping?” I asked coyly. Frank laughed. “No, they just look for felonies and uh, domestic misdemeanors.” “Domestic misdemeanors? So, if I broke a plate over my husband’s head, I’d be out of luck?” At this point, two other guys who’d been eavesdropping decided to chime in. “Only if you did time for it,” the younger, more clean-cut of the two offered. “And if it was less than nine years ago.” Everyone chuckled a little.

In case you’re wondering, the Pennsylvania Instant Check System sounds like a great idea, and for circumstances like gun shows, it’s probably very useful. Their hotline is open 7 days a week, even on holidays, and about 60% of those attempting to purchase a firearm are approved in minutes, according to their website. But what if I’d caught my brother having sex with my dog and was so enraged that I decided to shoot him? I have neither a brother or a dog, but let’s pretend. I have no criminal record, and Pennsylvania’s adherence to the notion of putting folks on a do-not-sell list for mental health is statistically nonexistent, so even if I’d been on anti-psychotics or something in the past, there’d still be no need for me to have a few days to cool off before marching into Foley’s and marching out with a semi-automatic weapon to rain destruction on my hypothetical sibling.

Frank brought us back to business. “So, what do you think you’re going to use it for? Would you want to carry something on you? Or more for your home?” I hadn’t thought that far into my lie. Just for my home, I decided. He took a shotgun down from the wall rack. It was a twelve-gauge, shorter than a lot of the others it sat next to, with synthetic wood grain on the stock. He handed it to me. It wasn’t an “assault weapon” but it was still heavy, and plenty “scary” looking. It felt substantial, powerful. Frank was enthusiastic about it for me, because it was relatively light, and you don’t need to be a good shot to use it because it fires a round that is about as big as a film canister. At only $375, it was a great deal. Plus, he said, “they’re never going to ban these.”

The two eavesdroppers weren’t convinced about that last part. “They’re not gonna be happy till they get rid of everything,” the older guy declared. “They’re gonna make us trade these in for a Teddy Ruxpin, so when someone busts into your house, you press the button and he’ll say, ‘Please don’t shoot me’.” More chuckling as he mimed brandishing a Teddy Ruxpin doll at an imaginary intruder.

His younger friend chimed in, “Look, if this is for home defense, you need something where you can just mow the guy down in one shot, so that if you have to go to court, you can claim self defense without it having to be a “he said-she said” thing.”

I didn’t understand.

“If the guy’s still alive then it’s your word against his, but if he can’t testify… well, you were defending yourself. Easy enough to say when you only fired one shot. It’s a lot harder if you shoot the guy four or five times.”

It took me a second to process that he was talking about actually killing an intruder.

“Yeah,” the older guy agreed, “but the good thing is, now, in PA, you don’t have to wait till he’s inside the house anymore, like you used to. With the new castle law, you can drop ‘em outside the house now. You just have to be able to say you felt threatened.”

“Yeah, just don’t shoot the UPS guy,” the younger man joked.

“You ever shoot anyone?” I asked him.

He laughed but didn’t answer right away.

Frank interjected. “No, but he has threatened to shoot someone, and sometimes that’s all you need. You pump this thing-” He took the shotgun from me, and pumped it once, and it made that sound –chk-shhck!– exactly like in every movie you’ve ever seen. “-and burglars know what that is, and they get the hell out.”

PIONEER WOMANI took it back for a moment more, pumped it once myself. It made that sound again, chk-shhck! I held it up, probably incorrectly. It felt… well, badass. I had a brief passing urge to say, “Make my day.” I flashed back to Technicolor westerns with stoic frontier wives. I thought, This is why people want these.

I handed it back to Frank and told him I wanted to do more research. I thanked him and left, hightailing out before anyone got a load of my bumper stickers.

Owning a Glock doesn’t make you Chuck Norris any more than owning a Fender Stratocaster makes you Eddie Van Halen, but emulating those guys… that’s why you buy those things. You’re envisioning your own blazing, electric moment. If you’re a musician, you can go through the motions in practice, but those licks you play in practice have to be so embedded in your muscle memory that they happen perfectly, even under the pressure of the spotlight. And much like playing an instrument, gun ownership, if it’s to be what you imagine, is something you commit to in a similar way; buying and maintaining gear, practicing, and so on. So that you can make your hands do what you intend them to do in that moment of truth.

But I didn’t hear about that at Foley’s. If I had wanted to, I could have plunked down $400 and walked out with a shotgun without raising anyone’s eyebrows, regardless of the fact that I would not have the first clue how to handle it. In the time I was there, I didn’t hear a word about safety. Not a word about storage. Not a word about how much practice it takes to get good at shooting. You hear about how great it is that you can defend your home. You hear about which rounds blow the biggest hole in someone trying to break and enter. But the damn thing isn’t much use to you unless you commit to the equipment, the training, the practice, and most importantly, the idea of killing.


3 Comments

What We Need To Do To Have a Real Watershed Moment About Rape

Women in India protest to demand justice for the victim of a brutal gang rape this December. Credit: Getty Images

Women in India protest to demand justice for the victim of a brutal gang rape this December. Credit: Getty Images

If you’ve been paying attention to the news in the past few years, you may have heard references to several so-called “watershed” moments about how various societies treat the crimes of rape and sexual abuse:

  • The brutal gang rape of a woman on a bus in Dehli, India in December was supposed to be a watershed moment for how that country treats women. At least until a virtually identical crime happened in early January.
  • In Britain, the release of a report detailing six decades of sexual abuse by television celebrity Jimmy Savile is being called a watershed moment for how the UK police will handle sex crimes. Many aren’t convinced, though, since the report comes only four years after the police last questioned Savile about the many abuse allegations levied against him. The interview, according to the report, was “perfunctory” and Savile himself set the tone. Savile died without ever being charged with sexual abuse though police now admit that his offenses may number in the hundreds.
  • Back here in the U.S., the conviction of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky on 45 charges of child sexual last year was hailed as a watershed moment for how our society views sex crimes against children. Yet large organizations like the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Church still spend millions of dollars in legal fees fighting efforts to force open their records of abusers to law enforcement.

Setting aside for a moment the fact that it seems to take incidents of immense proportion or brutality to get a society’s attention about crimes that truly happen every day, let’s talk about watershed. A watershed moment is, by definition, a critical moment when a group of people changes course. They stop doing things one way and begin doing it a different way. For a watershed moment to occur in regards how rape and sexual abuse are discussed, prosecuted, and understood in a society, it can’t be because the media decided it should happen – things actually need to change. We can start with the following:

1. Stop Assigning Guilt to Victims:
“What was she doing on the bus alone?”
“Why would she wear that?”
“If she hadn’t had so much to drink…”
Victim-blaming takes many forms. Whether it’s calling a sixteen year-old Ohio girl who may have been gang-raped at a party while comatose a “slut” or telling an Indian woman that she must marry her rapist in order to preserve her honor, it transfers some or even all of the guilt for the crime from where it rightly belongs – the perpetrator – to the victim. Why does it happen? Sometimes it happens to re-enforce cultural or religious norms – such as when Indian spiritual guru Asaram Bapu reportedly said the following in regards to the first Delhi victim:

“Only 5-6 people are not the culprits. The victim is as guilty as her rapists… She should have called the culprits brothers and begged before them to stop… This could have saved her dignity and life. Can one hand clap? I don’t think so.”

In other cases, it may be a subconscious way for others to reassure themselves that such crimes could not happen to them. The victim did something to put herself/himself into the situation therefore, he/she is suffering. I would never wear that/go there/drink that much, etc. Other times, victim blaming occurs as an attempt to maintain whatever status quo existed before the assault was reported. This was case of the 17 year-old victim of Jerry Sandusky who was bullied to the point he had to change schools in the middle of the year. The students bullying him were blaming him for the firing of Penn State Head Coach Joe Paterno. Yes, you read that correctly, people actually found a way to blame a child sexual abuse victim for his abuse…and that way involved football.

Whatever the motive behind victim-blaming, it is one of the fundamental reasons why ending sex crimes is so difficult. Victims who believe they will be blamed for their own attacks don’t come forward. Unpunished offenders become repeat offenders. Why wouldn’t they? Why would they feel remorse if others are all too willing to lay the blame elsewhere?

2. Stop Trivializing Sex-based Crimes:
Just as societies are willing to blame victims for sexual assault and rape, they are often just as willing to minimize the seriousness of sexual crimes. Returning to the Jimmy Savile case in Britain, one victim who complained about his actions towards her claims she was told “Oh, that’s just Jimmy. That’s just his way.” Jerry Sandusky managed to elude detection as a serial child rapist by convincing his employers at Penn State that he was “only showering” with young boys. Both adult and child victims can be confused and distraught after an assault and can be very susceptible to the suggestion of others that their experience was not serious or that it was a misunderstanding, or even a misinterpretation of actions that were innocent in their intent.

It also doesn’t help when lawmakers and law enforcement officials create artificial distinctions about rape: “forcible rape” (from Congress in 2012), “legitimate rape” (U.S. Congressman Todd Akin in 2012), “serious rape” (UK Justice Secretary Ken Clarke in 2011). Such distinctions give victims the impression that unless they are assaulted by the proverbial “stranger in a dark alley” with the bruises and broken bones to show for it, their assault isn’t worth the justice system’s time. Date rapes, acquaintance rapes, assaults where the victim is intoxicated or unconscious – they simply don’t make the cut. The common perception among victims is that law enforcement won’t take the crimes seriously. And often, law enforcement lives down to this reputation. The intervention of the Internet activist group Anonymous into the investigation of the alleged rape of a sixteen year-old girl in Steubenville, OH earlier this month came about due to the widespread belief that local law enforcement were not taking the case seriously.

Regarding child sexual abuse, if the abuse happened several years ago and the victim has just recently worked up the courage to come forward? It’s not unusual for such victims to be asked, “Well, it’s been years hasn’t it? Aren’t you over it by now?” Or worse, victims of child sexual abuse are increasingly accused lying in of hopes to “cashing-in” with lawsuits.
Let’s be clear, all instances of rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse are real crimes. Serious crimes. They are as deserving of the time and effort of law enforcement as any other crime. It’s long past time that we treated them that way.

3. Stop Prioritizing the Reputations of Organizations Over Victims:
Late in 2012, the Boy Scouts of America was forced by a series of court orders to begin releasing decades of its so-called internal “perversion files” – records of the scout leaders and other employees who had been dismissed by the organization for inappropriate actions with children. As reported by the Washington Post and others, the records show that in many instances the offenders were dismissed quietly, without being reported to law enforcement. In some cases, the parents of the victims agreed to this method, both to minimize trauma to their children and to “save Scouting” from negative publicity. The idea was that the BSA would flag the offenders in their files so they could not be admitted to Scouting programs in the future. There were two key problems with this plan, the flags didn’t work. Due to inaccurate record-keeping and failures in communication, dismissed offenders resurfaced again and again in BSA programs in different states, often abusing more children. The second problem with the “go quietly” plan was that the dismissed offenders were often men who had access to children through other aspects of their lives – they were teachers, coaches, counselors, and yes, priests. Barred from joining the BSA, they simply found victims elsewhere. By not reporting them, by placing the reputation of the organization above the safety of children, the Boy Scouts of America allowed offenders to abuse again. And again.
There have certainly been allegations that the same “reputation first” existed in the Catholic Church, at Penn State and now most recently at the BBC over the Jimmy Savile cases. Sadly, there are likely countless other well-respected organizations for whom reputation trumps all, even the safety of others.

4. Rethink Sexual Assault Prevention
A lot of sexual assault prevention advice seems to originate from the same school of thought as victim blaming: potential victims put themselves situations where sexual assault is inevitable. They wore provocative clothing. They drank too much. They ventured into dangerous areas alone. This attitude is not only demeaning to victims, it reduces men into immoral beings who are powerless to fight the inevitable urge to rape when they see a scantily-dressed person or a person in a vulnerable situation. Moreover it is ludicrous to assume that only provocatively dressed women get raped. Women in burkas are raped, elderly women in housecoats get raped, wheelchair-bound hospice patients get raped. Men get raped. Sexual assault is about power, not about clothing.
More recently there has been a movement in several countries to rethink how to approach rape prevention. There is now messaging directed at men reminding them about what constitutes consent and assault. One of the first of these was the “We Can Stop It” campaign from Scotland, which featured men making declarative statements about not being a person who would commit sexual assault.

PSA from Scotland's "We Can Stop It" Sexual Assault Awareness Campaign. Credit: Lothian and Borders Police, UK

PSA from Scotland’s “We Can Stop It” Sexual Assault Awareness Campaign.
Credit: Lothian and Borders Police, UK

Similar campaigns have been used in other countries and advocacy groups directed at educating men about sexual assault have formed as well. Among these is the U.S.-based Men Can Stop Rape which directs its education initiatives to college-aged men. This is where sexual assault prevention needs to go if we are to have true watershed moment: we need to teach people not to rape, not simply warn people to not get raped. There can be no real prevention until we acknowledge that the decision to commit the crime is one the offender does not have to make.

5. Value All People, Including Women and Children, As Human Beings:
This isn’t necessarily about offenders needing to see their victims as human beings. Psychiatrists have debated for years about how sexual offenders truly view others. No two sexual offenders are exactly alike and I’m obviously not going to get to the bottom of that question in a blog post. No, I’m taking about how ordinary people treat one another and victims of sex crimes. Why does it take someone saying “What if it were your kid?” for people to care about victims of child sex abuse? Can’t we care about strangers? Why is it OK to speculate that the alleged Steubenville victim is a “slut” only until someone reminds you that she could be your daughter. It seems that the first inclination for many people when they hear about a sex crime is to distance themselves from it. While this is a natural reaction, it can’t be the only reaction. This distancing too often leads people to being comforted by decisions to keep assaults quiet, to not prosecute offenders, and to not think about the fact that if an offender is not stopped, there may be future victims. Those victims may not be people they know, but they are victims just the same. People who deserve empathy.

There are many huge issues that the cultures of the world do not agree on but as human beings, we have to hope that we can at least summon the shared empathy to agree on these:

  • Children do not exist for the sexual gratification of adults; all sexual acts committed on children should be considered crimes.
  • Any sexual act committed against adults who have not fully consented or are incapable of consent should be considered crimes.

No exceptions. That’s valuing people as humans.

If we can agree to these, and have these principals guide our actions, we can have a real critical moment of change about sex-based crimes.

Share your thoughts on this in the comments here or on our Facebook page.


Leave a comment

Debater Hater

by Siobhan Carroll, W:RUN Contributor
Braevehearts blog

Ninety more minutes of extremely dull, choreographed talking points I’ve heard and read a million times already? Can’t wait!

Tonight Barack Obama and Mitt Romney head into round 2 of the Great Debates of 2012. I am an engaged voter who reads information from all sides and prides myself on making informed decisions. In high school I was an award-winning Lincoln-Douglas debater. And no, I was not super cool. What makes you ask that?

Yet I cannot bring myself to watch the debates. Once upon a time they served the venerable function of allowing the public the opportunity to see/hear/read about the candidates in a format that compared and contrasted their views, direct from the horses’ mouths. A hundred years ago it may have been a voter’s only opportunity to do so before the invention and wide use of radio. Hell before the very late 1800s I doubt most Americans even knew what the candidates looked like outside of pencil sketches. Now all we do is talk about widow’s peaks and Eddie Munster. And those delightful workout photos!

But today the magic of technology and the 24 hour news cycle means we are inundated with candidate information constantly. It’s to the point that there are videos of Mitt Romney debating himself on his flip-floppy issues. I think I know what he eats for lunch before he does. We have gone from one extreme to the other- from minimal information about our candidates to too much.

The debates frankly aren’t for people like me who consume media constantly and already have our minds made up. They are for the increasingly rare undecided voter who believes he or she will see something in one of these guys that will sway their vote. It could be anything from a policy statement to a hand gesture that makes this voter feel comfortable with one or the other.

Most importantly, they are increasingly an act of theatre. You only need to skim the memorandum of understanding released yesterday by Time Magazine to see that. The campaigns are less about the candidates themselves and their positions, and more about the carefully constructed narrative surrounding both Obama and Romney. Not long ago debates were meant to pierce the veil and allow the public to see the candidates for who they are*, but now they are just one more slog through rhetoric and even outright lies. The extraordinary mendacity of Romney during the last debate and the media still declaring him the “winner” is one unsettling example of this.

I much prefer to read the post-debate analysis, work through websites like factcheck.org and Washington Post’s fact checker to see who lied and to what extent. It nauseates me that Romney has seen a bump from the first debate, where he lied so hard I thought his eyes would pop out of his head. After the week-long convention extravaganzas, the months of primary campaigning and now the home stretch of the full presidential campaign, I just can’t take anymore. I want the commercials, the donation solicitation emails, the inflammatory comments on news articles to just stop. Maybe we should impose a two-week quiet period right before election day, where we can all meditate on our choices, clear our heads, take a deep breath and exercise our right to vote.

After all, the only thing in this election that isn’t out in the open are the choices I make in the voting booth on November 6th.

*None of this applies to Joe Biden. He is awesome and a national treasure. He is my spirit animal and he can laugh his ass off at Paul Ryan anytime he wants. Malarkey 2016!


Leave a comment

One More Word About Fourtin

We have been moving forward in our efforts to understand the Fourtin case and how something like this happens under the current justice system. Outrage can be effective for getting things done, but it’s important that we are responsible in directing it to the right places.  In digging further into the details of the case and the workings of the law, we’d like to share what we’ve learned, and what we feel may be the best way to move forward in terms of minimizing the instances of it happening again.

First, Richard Fourtin cannot be tried again for this crime.  It would appear that double jeopardy prevents that. The likelihood of this getting elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court seems fairly slim. The prosecution in this case has made a motion to have the Connecticut Supreme Court reconsider its verdict, which they may or may not grant, due to the public outrage that has been in part supported by this page. In discussing this issue with a number of attorneys and others familiar with the law, it appears that the Justices ruled in accordance with the law and the error most likely lies with the prosecution. We’ll explain:

The statutes for second-degree assault and fourth degree assault both contain a number of subsections each. Both contain a provision for assaulting with a mentally disabled person (specifically, *just* mentally disabled, not physically), as well as the now infamous “physically helpless” subsection. It’s anyone’s guess as to why, but the prosecution chose to go with the “physically helpless” provision rather than the one dealing with the victim’s mental disability, and therein lies the problem.

You don’t simply charge someone with second-degree assault, you charge them with a specific subsection of the statute. It is sort of stratification, if you will, intended (we suppose) to clarify the nature of the assault. But –and here’s the part that is hanging up a lot of people- even if evidence is presented during the trial that indicates the defendant might be guilty under a different subsection of the law… if that’s not what he’s being charged with, the prosecution is out of luck.  He’s supposed to have a reasonable chance to defend himself against what he’s specifically being charged with. That’s due process, as we understand it.

“Physically helpless” under Connecticut law as it stands is really defined so narrowly that it would seem to only apply to someone who is unconscious or drugged to the point of being unable to speak or move, and therefore is unable to communicate resistance to their attacker. We aren’t sure why the statute doesn’t simply say “unconscious” or something similar to avoid confusion and misuse of the statute, but that’s another story.  Often the law is written in intentionally vague ways to allow for circumstances that those writing it may not foresee.   It’s an acknowledgement that those writing the law cannot predict everything.  However, it’s worth noting that misuse of this statute is actually not unprecedented; in the majority opinion they actually mention another case in which a victim was strapped to a gurney but conscious during her assault and actually voiced to her attacker that she wanted him to stop, however, they could not convict on this count, because they were charging with the “physically helpless” subsection – which as it turns out, boils down to assaulting someone who cannot communicate. It does not, as has been previously stated here and elsewhere, indicate the degree of resistance that the victim did or didn’t offer.

Now, there’s a lot of information about this case that we do not have. We have not pored over hours of court transcripts. We discovered, though, in reading the majority opinion, that in fact, as much as the victim’s ability to move were limited, that she did have methods at her disposal of communicating dissent. Kicking, biting, scratching, screeching, and so forth, were things she was able to do in order to communicate resistance to an assault.  It would appear that whether she actually did these things or not is, under this very peculiar statute, beside the point. I know, I know, but listen: the law is not looking, in this case, for whether someone did or didn’t consent, merely whether they were physically capable of doing so or not. And if someone is assaulting a person who is capable of communicating, it’s not assaulting a “physically helpless person,” as defined by the law under which Fourtin was being charged.

While it has been correctly pointed out in other blogs (including this good one by public defender Gideon) that the statement of the victim having the mental capacity of a three year old is not mentioned anywhere in the opinion, it seems clear from additional reading on his and other sites that she had certain skill areas which did fit that description, and certainly not much above first or second grade level in even the strongest of her skill areas. It has been mentioned that she had nothing in the way of sex education. While it may be overly facile to say she had the “mental capacity of a three year old”, it is more than adequate even in the opinions as written, to say that she was still not what anyone would consider an adult in the sense that we understand it, nor adequately prepared in any manner for sexual intercourse; the Justices in fact did not understand why the prosecution chose to pursue a conviction under the physically helpless part of the statute rather than the mental disability portion.

We have seen a great deal of traffic and interest in this issue. We are grateful for that, but we also want to be clear that we are trying to handle this issue in a responsible way. Is it madness that someone can commit an assault, that there is ample evidence to show as much, and yet the perpetrator can walk away because of a prosecutorial mistake? Yes. What can be done about it? Regardless of whether the prosecution in this case is successful in its quest to get the court to reconsider its decision, our problem remains – what to do, to keep this from happening again? Where to direct the energies of reasonable outrage about it?

We do not suggest reaching out to the justices further. If they decide to overturn their own verdict, that is their choice, and perhaps they can find another way to interpret the statute that will allow them to do so. But this is unfortunately the law working to deliver a verdict which, as we’ve talked about elsewhere, is unfair, but is legally just. We also do not advocate seeking out the prosecutor to give them a piece of your mind: they are already doing everything they can do to right this mistake. A public statement from their office explaining their choice to prosecute under that particular statute would be nice, but we feel would offer little in terms of concrete benefit to future victims.

We suggest starting with the Governor’s office. Ask him to lean on the legislature to either expand the physically helpless statute (in light of its seeming repeated misuse), or else create a specific statute to deal with assaulting the disabled. We may also suggest that if you are in the State of Connecticut, that you reach out to your local legislators as well. We wish there were more that could be done. We wish there a way to affect the Fourtin decision but barring the Court agreeing to reconsider its verdict and ultimately overturn it, it appears that there’s nothing more that can be done on this terrible case.

Reach out to the governor here:

Governor Dannel P. Malloy
State Capitol
210 Capitol Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106

Tel: (860) 566-4840
Toll-Free: (800) 406-1527
TDD: (860) 524-7397
Fax: (860) 524-7395

If you don’t know your local state representatives, you can look them up here:

http://www.cga.ct.gov/maps/townlist.asp