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I Don’t Want to Hear About Your Domestic Violence. Oh, Wait, Are You Famous?

by Jen Giacalone

Zimmerman-wink-300I promised myself I wasn’t going to talk about George Zimmerman.  The sight of the guy’s face generally makes me near-apoplectic, and that’s on a good day.  How you shoot an unarmed kid in the chest and walk away with nothing, not even a month’s community service picking up trash by the freeway, is beyond me.  But this other problem has been burning in my brain since we shared the story of his most recent brush with the law.

To recap briefly, his current girlfriend called 911 during a dispute with him, in which she says he smashed her coffee table and then pointed a gun at her.  A shotgun.  Nothing says I love you like a twelve-gauge to the chest, I suppose.  This scene quickly escalated into dueling 911 calls, in which he appears to sound calm and reasonable, explaining that he didn’t really point anything at her, and that she actually broke the coffee table, not him.  The world is full of miserable relationships between crazy people of various genders.  Of course none of us were there, so we don’t really know, but if this were a dispute between any couple in the world that didn’t have the baggage of George Zimmerman, we’d probably be more hesitant to hazard a guess.

But it wasn’t any other couple.  It was George Zimmerman and his girlfriend.  It was the guy who was, only a few months ago, picked up for allegedly pointing a loaded gun at his wife and father-in-law.  He claims the father-in-law attacked him, and again, we’ll never know.  In any other situation, with any other people, with the limited information that we get as “the public”, it would probably have been hard to tell.

But here’s the thing:  we don’t hear about many of the other situations.  We hear about George Zimmerman’s domestic abuse raps because he’s a famous killer.  That’s what the press finds interesting about him.  He killed an unarmed kid in what surely looked to my untrained eye like a racially motivated attack.   He’s either lionized or demonized for that act depending on who you talk to.  That’s what makes him so fascinating to the people who decide what’s news.

He had a very high profile trial, he walked free when a lot of people felt he should have done time for what he did, and now the media is obsessed with his every move and using every idiotic scrape he has with the justice system to continue to stoke the outrage around him and fuel the speculation over whether his trial was botched or not.

But as we prepare to relive that outrage one more time, it’s also worth remembering that the only reason his domestic violence stories are worth the press’s time is because of who he is.  Because he’s George Zimmerman.  And when we hear about his speeding tickets, or how he gets caught with weed in his glove box, or waves a gun around inappropriately, or whatever insane, stupid, bench-ticket-worthy offense he may commit, that coverage is sucking time and attention away from domestic abuse situations that DON’T involve George Zimmerman.  The literally thousands of domestic violence situations every single day that don’t involve George Zimmerman.

Of course I’m outraged that this guy is still allowed to walk around, still allowed to own a gun, still allowed to enjoy the life and liberty that he stole from Trayvon Martin.  Of course.

But I’m also just as outraged that someone like him, of all people, is what it takes to get domestic violence talked about in the mainstream media.  You have to be famous, or infamous, for people to care.  And even then:  Saatchi choking Nigella Lawson in a restaurant earned him a “warning” from the London police (“Stop!  Or I’ll say stop again!”), and the long list of scary ways Charlie Sheen has terrorized women seems to get a shrug from, well, everyone.  A lot of people conveniently forget Mel Gibson’s history with terrorizing and verbally abusing his girlfriend, or else chalk it up to him being a “a little nuts”.  Chris Brown still has a career.  It’s another day in America.  We don’t have an organization at the national level advocating for this cause, the way that, say, breast cancer does.  So not enough people with serious clout are working the media on it.  Nobody’s feeding them the real stories, or explaining to them how to handle it.

Zimmerman’s a celebrity of sorts, his antics are click-bait, and I get that if you are a media outlet, you have to get eyeballs to pay the bills and keep the lights on.  I’m not saying the press should never report on the abusive behavior of famous people; that would amount to enabling.  But it’s deeply problematic when that’s the only time you hear about it.  Domestic violence then becomes this salacious thing that happens to celebrities.  So, if I could say one thing to the wizened grey heads at say, CNN, it would be this:  if you care about domestic violence as an issue, how about covering it like journalists?  There are plenty of tabloids to chase dirt.  Why not devote some space and time to the other hundreds of thousands of people who are suffering with this anonymously every day?

It’s just a thought.


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Why Expanding VAWA Mattered: A Survivor’s Story

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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!