Taylor Blackston, a Black queer abolitionist organizer and survivor of sexual violence, and Sojourner Rivers, a sexual violence survivor, member of Survived & Punished NY and a member of the #StandWithTracy defense team, wrote a powerful op/ed about the abolition of prosecution. Excerpt below:
Prosecutors’ offices deal in punishment, not healing, prevention or justice. When candidates running for prosecutor claim to be on the side of survivors of violence, we always need to take a closer look — and recognize the violence inherent in the office itself.
In May, Manhattan district attorney (DA) candidate Alvin Bragg published an op-ed with advocate Marissa Hoechstetter in which they assert that it’s time to “center survivors and fight the public health crisis that is sexual violence” by expanding the prosecutor’s office to include a specific sex crimes unit. Not long after, carceral feminists Gloria Steinem and Sonia Ossorio announced support for the wealthy Wall Street candidate for Manhattan DA, Tali Farhadian Weinstein. They similarly claim that the expansion of the punishment system will improve the lives of women. The reality is that these carceral feminists, Manhattan DA candidates and the overwhelming majority of DAs across the country, are pushing forward a decades-old agenda of expanding a system that is inherently violent and counter to what most survivors say they need.
One year after the murder of Oluwatoyin Salau, a Black teen activist who was failed by a system unable to provide her safe housing and was, therefore, left more vulnerable to violence, the DA candidates are advocating for devouring the already austere New York City budget to build out the criminalization infrastructure.
Three months after the violence in Georgia targeting Asian massage workers — after which activists and sex workers denounced the idea that more criminalization and police could keep massage workers and sex workers safe — these candidates are advocating against sex work decriminalization.
As Black survivors of gender-based violence ourselves, and as organizers who work to end the criminalization of survival, our vision for a world without gender-based violence requires a world without policing, prisons and prosecution. Carceral feminists — or those who believe punitive practices such as policing and incarceration can solve gender-based violence — continue to claim they speak for all survivors. Yet many of us are screaming from the rooftops that we deserve so much more than the few carceral crumbs governments toss our way.
While carceral feminists may take up much of the public spotlight, radical feminists have long made connections between interpersonal and state violence, showing how law enforcement has perpetrated gender-based violence throughout history and outlining the ways that carceral systems have failed many survivors. While it may be true that some survivors feel that the criminal legal system is useful to them, studies have found that around 70 percent to 75 percent of sexual violence survivors do not report the violence to the police. Of those who do report to police, crude estimates show that 2.3 percent result in a conviction.
As the experience of Chanel Miller — a sexual assault survivor whose victim impact statement went viral in 2016 — revealed to millions, the court process is frequently retraumatizing and victim-blaming for gender violence survivors, even if a conviction occurs. Survivors are often crushed as the carceral machinery churns along to cage its next victim. Unlike restorative or transformative justice approaches, this legal system does not foster survivor-centered healing and accountability. The things that are precious to so many survivors — the abusive person taking responsibility for the violence they caused, apologizing and outlining how they will stop their violence, and making agreed-upon amends — are not byproducts of this system. The byproduct is more violence. Studies have shown that when the state targets communities with criminalization and incarceration, these communities actually experience increased rates of interpersonal violence rather than less. In short, incarceration does not prevent violence, it fuels it. The Manhattan DA has had over two centuries to become a victim-centered office — ultimately carceral feminists need to reckon with the fact that this is not possible in a system that only cares about punishment and not what survivors actually say they need.
As a recent survey of violence survivors has shown, overall survivors of violence prefer investments in schools, jobs and mental health treatment over more investments in prisons and jails. These realities would not surprise most anti-violence advocates. Since the Violence Against Women Act was first introduced, survivor advocates, particularly those that center the most historically marginalized groups, have stated over and over what communities ask for most while experiencing abuse: somewhere safe to live and somewhere nurturing to heal. Nevertheless, these cries go largely ignored by most bureaucrats and lawmakers. As a result of refusals to invest in actual affordable housing and sufficient emergency cash assistance, our city’s shelters burst at the seams, as domestic violence has become the number one driver of the New York City homeless shelter population. Upon fleeing violence, many survivors and their families then experience the stress of severe poverty and housing insecurity.
Any real commitment to survivors must involve divesting from law enforcement responses to violence — which most survivors do not benefit from and which many marginalized survivors experience as violent — and redistributing resources to life-affirming and non-carceral supports.
Not only do prosecutors usually fail to provide any respite for survivors of gender-based violence, they also often directly target them with criminalization and incarceration. The Manhattan District Attorney’s office has a long history of prosecuting survivors of gender-based violence. In 2007, seven women were arrested for defending themselves after being sexually harassed in the West Village, and four of them were later sentenced to up to 11 years in prison. Today, that same office is prosecuting Tracy McCarter, a survivor of domestic violence, for the death of her abusive partner. The DA’s office currently houses a Domestic Violence Unit similar to the proposed sex crimes unit that Bragg and Hoechstetter propose, and yet it continues to prosecute people for defending their lives.