by Caedmon Magboo Cahill, Shannon Perez-Darby, and DeAnn Alcantara-Thompson
Seattle local elections are underway, and for the first time voters are presented with two abolitionist candidates. In the race for Seattle City Attorney, much has been said about how abolition would negatively impact public safety. One of the more persistent refrains is the narrative that pursuing abolition is turning our backs on domestic violence survivors. We write to dispel this myth. As a former public defense attorney, a community organizer currently working at a local anti-violence organization, and survivors with a combined experience of over 35 years supporting survivors of domestic and sexual violence, we maintain it is abolition — rather than criminalization — that is the path toward survivor-centered justice.
Myth: All domestic violence is a crime.
Domestic violence is a pattern of actions that limits the agency of the person experiencing this pattern of power and control (survivors). Domestic violence destroys one of the primary parts of being human: that is, having a vision for your life, of your values, and of what’s important to you and then having the autonomy to live the life you envision for yourself. This objectification is the core harm of domestic violence.
Yet physical violence is only one way to objectify and dehumanize. Not all domestic violence is physical and not every harm is a crime. It’s not a crime to tell your partner that you don’t like their best friend — that you wish they spent less time with her and more time with you. It isn’t a crime to say, “You’ve gained weight; are you sure you want to go out in that dress?” Nor is it a crime to say, “I’ve had a really bad day. I need you to cancel your plans and take care of me.” While not considered “criminal,” these tactics are very effective if you’re trying to isolate, control, and manipulate.
Myth: Survivors of domestic violence need police to save them.
When survivors call 911, they are often desperate to de-escalate their abusive partners. When police arrive, they evaluate the situation and decide whether a crime has occurred and who is the perpetrator. Yet it is impossible for police — or anyone unfamiliar with the dynamics of the relationship — to instantly and accurately assess whether a pattern of power and control exists. Consequently, law enforcement can get these assessments wrong. Sometimes survivors get charged as defendants. Instead of relief, survivors get entangled in a system that fails to listen to their needs, continues to exacerbate harm, and ignores their pleas for agency.
In a 2015 survey about survivor experiences with law enforcement, the survey found that most people are reluctant to turn to law enforcement for help.
The study found that:
- More than half said calling the police made things worse.
- A quarter of individuals would not call the police again.
- Most said they were afraid the police would not believe them or would do nothing.
- One in 3 women who did call the police felt less safe after doing so, compared to only 1 in 5 who felt safer.
Myth: Abolition means never holding anyone accountable for the harms they’ve caused.
One of the primary issues with criminalization as a solution to domestic violence is that it assumes that an individual is the problem and that fixing the individual will fix the problem. The reality is that all violence has roots in trauma that originates in oppressions; sexism, racism, classism, colonization, and more. Criminalization does not offer people an avenue to unlearn generational harm nor does it provide an opportunity to address the underlying conditions that allow violence to flourish.
Accountability is not punishment. Fundamentally, accountability is about taking responsibility for your actions and the consequences of those actions. We cannot force others to be accountable. We can however create the conditions to support others in being accountable by meeting their basic needs and supporting them to close the gap between their actions and values and taking responsibility when their actions hurt others. Actively supporting each other in accountability is a bold and loving act.
Myth: Abolition is only focused on ending incarceration.
Abolition is as much about building as it is about divestment from current systems. Abolition is about making sure everyone has access to strong support services, that individuals are connected to healthy social networks, and that we actively resist a society that maintains oppressive inequities through violence, punishment, and control.
Myth: More money in the criminal legal system could end domestic violence.
We can’t end domestic violence through reliance on a bigger or “better” criminal legal system. The scale of domestic violence is far greater and more complex than most of us truly comprehend. To meet the need, we require exponentially more tools and interventions that can be individually tailored and adapted.
A quarter of women and 10% of men will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. While our local networks of domestic violence organizations do essential work in helping survivors regain control over their lives through robust survivor-centered advocacy, flexible financial assistance, and safety planning, even these skillful community-based workers will never address every need survivors have.
Most survivors will never call the police or a domestic violence hotline. Instead, most survivors turn to their friends, family, and community members. Well-intentioned family and friends want to help but often don’t know what to do. Rather than more jails, we need to help family and friends learn to identify and interrupt patterns of abuse and control with tools that build solutions tailored to the need.
Community organizations such as API Chaya exist to offer solutions beyond those the legal system offers. With the long-term vision of creating a world that better supports survivors, API Chaya’s Natural Helpers Program is a leadership development program that educates community members in human trafficking, domestic and sexual violence, and the societal forces that create conditions for violence and provides skill building around how to respond to harm and support survivors. These strategies work to build robust, vibrant community networks with the resources and skills to support survivors in their communities. These networks are one of the many solutions needed to end domestic violence and create the conditions to build loving, equitable relationships and communities.
Myth: Abolitionists represent the fringe.
We are all engaged in abolition when we work outside the legal system to interrupt violence and support those who have been harmed. When we ask our friends about their relationships, we are engaged in abolition; when we offer to help with childcare when a loved one is going through a hard time, we are engaged in abolition. When our auntie gives us “real-talk” advice about how to get out of a bad situation, we are engaging in abolition. Those who have been working with survivors seek out abolition because they’ve seen how the current system fails survivors and those who have caused harm.
The candidates in this year’s elections who embrace abolition are part of a larger movement of survivors, family members, service providers, policy makers, and visionaries who know that our current system fails to keep us safe. Our absolute commitment to survivor safety is why we support abolition and work to build the conditions to support loving, equitable relationships for every member of our community.
Caedmon Magboo Cahill is a former public defender and civil legal aid attorney who currently is policy manager at the Seattle Office for Civil Rights (SOCR) and advises the office’s criminal legal system project.
Shannon Perez-Darby is a queer, mixed Latina anti-violence advocate, author, activist, and consultant. You can learn more about her work at www.accountablecommunities.com
DeAnn Alcantara-Thompson works at API Chaya as a community organizing manager. She is an impassioned mixed Filipina Chamorita sister, partner, friend, and mother.
📸 Featured Image: Self-Accountability + Movement Building. Illustration by Laura Chow Revee.
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