Grassroots Defense Committees Support Criminalized Survivors of Violence

Bayley Pitts believed she would be helped when she reported to the police that she was a teenage victim to sexual violence at her biological father. She did not — and now, Pitts faces the prospect of losing her mother, Wendy Howard, to the same system that failed to protect either of them. In an interview with Truthout, she wonders, “Why are you taking my mom from me? The one who protected my from all this? That’s not fair.”

Many survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse claim that the American criminal justice system forces them to choose between freedom and life. It often criminalizes trans and gender nonconforming people in self-defense, and limits their rights to bodily autonomy. This is particularly true for survivors of color. It is part the larger constellation of white supremacy, patriarchy and settler colonialism within which the prison system is rooted.

Pitts spoke Truthout that the backstory to her mother’s criminalization was a long history of abuse by Pitts’s father. Howard was able to divorce her partner after years of violence but some of her children still desired to be with him.

Pitts, now 19, described a situation in which she and her siblings were not always able to find out why their mother preferred to keep distance from their ex. Pitts claims that cultural pressures on both the father and mother made it difficult for them to have a father involved. “I think if you want your kids to be raised without a mom or dad, or maybe you’re getting, ‘Oh, you can’t do that. Because, you know, they need a mom, or they need a dad, or it’s not fair.’ You know, I think there’s a lot of pressure overall…. I think it’s really hard as a mom to say, ‘No, sorry, you’re not having a dad in your life.’”

However, the abuse history in the family was very severe. In addition to abusing Howard physically, sexually and verbally, Howard’s ex-partner also sexually abused two of her daughters, Pitts and Miranda Frost.

Pitts explained that the family tried several times to report the abuse. However, when Pitts and her mother tried to reach out to the police for assistance, they were not able to get any help. Frost also reported her abuse. However, Frost stated in a previous news interviewHer report was rejected because there was insufficient evidence

Pitts said that she was raised by police officers to trust her. “I thought when I told someone, especially law enforcement, there would be help for me directly right there,” she said. “I would feel protected and helped and like the bad guy was gonna get caught.”

Pitts claimed that instead of the safety and help she was expecting, the police told Pitts to go back to her house and try to trap her father by wearing a microphone if possible.

Cynthia Zimmer, district attorney in charge of this case, claims — like most other DAs — to be a strong advocate for crime victims. Yet, according to Courtney Morris, an organizer with the Wendy Howard Defense Committee, no services have been offered for Howard’s daughters.

“I think that through this, that has been probably one of Wendy’s largest grievances, is that they never reached out to Miranda or Bayley,” said Morris. “They came forward with their stories. Which was so brave, to go into the public view and say, ‘This is what happened to us,’ which has been so difficult, but this family has been committed to advocacy. And not once did the county ever reach out to Miranda and Bayley to say, ‘how can we get you some support services for what you’ve been through?’”

“This system failed us here,” Pitts said. “And they don’t want that to be out.”

The trial is for Wendy Howardis set for August 29, 2022. Howard has been charged along with first-degree murder and gun enhancement. According to Defending Self-Defense Howard was charged with a gun-enhancement charge. community-based research report by Survived & Punished, it is common for women like Howard to receive such sentencing enhancement charges, since “women who defend themselves from men in the context of domestic violence are more likely to do so using weapons like guns and knives than men who commit domestic homicide.”

TruthoutWendy Howard was unable to speak with him because she was prohibited by the judge form speaking publicly about this case.

Wendy Howard’s family is hardly alone in its experience. When Pitts first came forward about her abuse, she says that her social media was “flooded” with other survivors saying that they had been abused by parents, family friends and neighbors. Pitts said she received messages saying, “I wish someone would have believed me. I wish my mom was as brave as your mom and stood up for me.”

Prison Is Gender-Based Violence Not Protection From It

Many believe that the state attempts to protect victims of gender-based violence because of the constant disinformation campaigns. District attorneys are supported by campaigns to protect victims of domestic violence and copaganda. Law and OrderPolice, courts, prosecutors are often depicted as having a deep desire for ending domestic and sexual violence. They also do everything they can to protect survivors.

Contrary to TV, only 5 percent of sexual assault perpetratorsAre ever arrested. Many women in prison are also victims of abuse. Research indicates60% to 94 percent of women who survived are survivors Priorto enter prison. Behind bars, the violence continues. A random sample of 130 women in the Central California Women’s Facility found over 80 reports of sexual harassment and assault at the hands of guards, and dozens of reports of physical violence; all of the women reported being routinely addressed by correctional officers as “bitches,” “hos,” and other disparaging terms, including over the PA. Transgender prisoners are victimized inside prison at nine or more timesThe rate of other prisoners is lower than the rate for Black and Native women. These women are more likely be incarcerated and more negatively affected by mandatory domestic violence arrest laws.

The reality, says Alisa Bierria, is that “the relationship between gender-based violence and the carceral state is one of alignment, they are integral to each other rather than in opposition.” Bierria is a co-founder of Survived & PunishedNational coalition that works with survivors to support and decriminalize survivors and organizes around participatory defense campaign.

In its recent report, Survived & Punished highlights that self-defense is “an ongoing practice of survival.” One way that survivors continue to defend themselves after criminalization is by telling their own stories and “affirming the truth of their experience of violence.” Placing a gag order on survivors like Howard is yet another way that the state continues to negate her ability to defend herself.

Morris says that one of the goals of participatory defense campaigns is to highlight the fact of criminalized survival, namely that “it is so unfair that a person should be in a position to choose between their life and their freedom, and why that is just a story that is hit on repeat with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.”

Participatory Defence Campaigns Grow from Survivors Supporting each Other

There is hope, however. participatory defense campaigns: A mass, grassroots organizing campaign that focuses on securing freedom for and providing support to criminalized individuals.

In We Do This ’Til We Free UsMariame Kaba, an internationally renowned abolitionist organizer, says that it is essential to put emphasis on the needs and suffering of people who are currently subject to the violence of prison industrial complex. “Opportunities to free people from prison through popular support, without throwing other prisoners under the bus, should be seized,” she writes. An abolitionist participative defense campaign demonstrates that what is happening to a specific individual targeted by the criminal justice system is something that occurs regularly, and not an exception.

Participatory defense campaigns may focus on one case at a time, but the connection and solidarity between campaigns — particularly the way that survivors support and are inspired by each other — is also a hallmark of the organizing tactic.

Wendy Howard is a strong advocate for herself and is active in supporting other survivors.

Howard’s defense campaign began with her family, who immediately began organizing against the injustice of her charges, according to Pitts. But after Howard was released a few months later — once her bail was reduced from $1 million to $500,000 — she began to connect with other criminalized survivors.

Morris states that Howard came to support imprisoned people and not to share her story, but simply because she wanted to be an activist. “I think that Wendy had a lot of preconceived notions about the types of people that would be incarcerated. And she was incarcerated. And the people that she was with helped her keep her head above water during that time.”

In a news interviewHoward spoke to a reporter from a nearby newspaper shortly after she was released on bail ABCaffiliate of the support she received in jail. “Those girls mean everything to me and I will never forget them,” she said. “They were a huge support system for when I was in there and I don’t know if I would be standing here as strong as I am without them.”

Pitts talks about how her mom is “really, really, really into advocating” and “has all of these friends who you know, were in jail, or they’re out of jail now. And she spends all her time like making stickers for them, and coloring books, and cards.” Morris adds that Howard has “just been really dedicated to system-impacted people since she got out, so she stays in touch with a lot of people on the inside and out,” including offering rides to people being released and staying in touch with people’s families. “I think that’s why in her own campaigning, she developed a ‘this is all of our fight’ [mentality] because it’s not just about her own self-advocacy, it’s about how structurally harmful that system is.”

One goal of participatory defense campaigns for survivors, Bierria says, is “helping us to make this shift in common sense when it comes to how the systems treat survivors.” As an organizer, Bierria says she has heard countless times from survivors who believed that they had a right to defend their own lives and are shocked that they are being targeted for prosecution. “It’s so painful to hear survivors say, you know, ‘I believed in the system, I thought it would protect me and here I am, in prison for the rest of my life,’” she said. “Defense campaigns want to make this truth about carceral punishment — that it is an anti-survivor structure — we want to lift that up and spread that word as far as possible. And I think that that is an important strategy towards feminist abolition.”

Defense campaigns also engage people directly at the local level “to participate in the practice of freedom,” Bierria said. These campaigns do more than ask people just to take in the disturbing news and go about their day. They ask them to make a difference by asking people to change the outcome. “It’s about connecting people to a sustained, regular practice,” she went on — whether that’s a big action, or a small one, like following Survived & PunishedFind out which legal fundraisers they can support each week.

Wendy Howard Defense Committee is a separate legal entity. It involves people who are involved in fundraising for Howard. legal defense fund, circulating a petitionHoward’s charges against Kern County DA should be dropped. information about Howard’s case and ways to support her on social media and with their networks, and giving press conferences about their activities. The committee also shares information about other defense campaigns, such as that of Tracy McCarter (who was recently discovered) and Leah Eggleson. not guilty on all charges except for unlawful possession of a firearm).

The ultimate goal for the Wendy Howard Defense Committee would be to have the charges dropped. This would allow Howard, who is currently at home with her children or grandchildren, to continue living as she tells. TruthoutHer mother enjoys making videos of her grandkids roller skating. Until everyone is free, many of the committee participants will continue to support the next participatory defense campaign.