Leftists need to stop shaming women for engaging the criminal justice system in situations of abuse

When looking for alternatives to the criminal justice system, we need to be realistic, not idealistic.

A 1998 protest against Bishop O’Connor’s “healing circle,” which allowed him to avoid trial.

“Fuck the police” was a slogan I easily aligned myself with as a young woman. As a then-aspiring anarchist (and NWA fan), the declaration sounded appropriately rebellious, and my father the Marxist had taught me that the police were bullies who existed only to protect money and private property. He may have been partially right, but while the phrase remains politically powerful, extending the sentiment to a literal abolishment of the police, I later realized, was not as radical an idea as I’d thought.

It was not only my lived reality, as a woman, but understanding the realities of countless other women, combined with the realization that power imbalances would not be addressed simply by avoiding engaging the criminal justice system, when dealing with male violence, that led me to question the idea that this was a viable solution.

It’s much easier to demand we get rid of something when we’ve never had to use it ourselves.

The fact that it is the male-centered left who are most-often leading calls for “restorative justice” processes or to abolish the police is a useful clue. The feminist movement, after separating itself from the left, as their issues were being ignored and they were subjected to ongoing misogyny from the men in these movements, fought to criminalize things like domestic abuse and marital rape, and, as a result, has been tarred as “carceral.” It’s a double-bind women can’t escape — either we are cop-lovers and traitors to the left, or we must remain silent, with no recourse when faced with men’s violence and abuse.

Criticizing leftist alternatives to dealing with crimes against women is often met with perturbed resistance and accusations of “carceral feminism” from men who’ve invested their politics in the idea that they are the “good guys.” But because abuse happens in supposedly progressive communities as often as it does anywhere, and leftist men continue to protect one another from accountability, these criticisms strike me as a particularly sexist form of bullying.

“Carceral feminism” is a meaningless term, adopted to encourage otherwise radical people to distance themselves from the ever uncool women’s liberation movement. If one accepts that using the law and the state as part of women’s efforts to hold men to account and to protect women’s rights is “carceral,” then the phrase is applicable, I suppose. Of course, if this is the standard by which we are using the term, any person who believes murder should be criminalized is also “carceral,” rendering the “feminism” affix meaningless.

In any case, the notion that the feminist movement has focused on incarceration as a solution to systemic oppression is wrong. Louisa Russell, a collective member at Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter confirms this, telling me over the phone:

“Rape Relief, CASAC [the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres], and many other feminists do not think that long and harsh sentencing is the answer and we are not in support of ‘law and order’ agenda. We’re in agreement with the current campaign to get rid of mandatory sentencing.”

What the “carceral feminism” accusation tends to misunderstand (beyond its simple mischaracterization of the women’s movement and its goals) is that advocating for legislative change is less about jail time than it is about reflecting societal ideals — that is, making official the fact that, say, it is not acceptable to rape your wife, because your wife is not your property. While the law under capitalist patriarchy, in a racist world, should be criticized, rejecting it entirely seems misguided. Law is intended to be a reflection of society, therefore, advocating for feminist legislation is very much connected to our efforts to effect social change.

Unfortunately, due the fact that we have not yet managed to undo the system called patriarchy, women still fear violence from men on the left and men on the right, as well as all men in between. Currently, there is no group of men who women can trust to protect them.

When Michael Stewart, a writer at rabble.ca, argued in 2016 that abolishing the police was something we needed to start taking seriously, I understood his reasoning. The ongoing racist violence people of colour are subjected to, not only in the U.S., but in Canada as well, is abhorrent. In Toronto, carding (the practice of arbitrarily stopping, questioning, and documenting individuals when no offence is being investigated) was restricted (but not banned), after it was found to disproportionately target minority groups. Indigenous men in Canada have long experienced violence, negligence, and abuse at the hands of the police. Both the RCMP and the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) have failed on an abysmal level, to protect Indigenous women and girls from male violence (and, in fact, the police are often perpetrators of that violence themselves). Even within the ranks of the RCMP, sexual abuse and harassment is widespread — we’ve seen hundreds of female officers come forward with allegations. Disappointing response after disappointing response has led many women who experience sexual assault or domestic abuse to avoid calling the cops at all. The police have failed women many times over, and RCMP member Matt Logan was quoted as saying, “If you are a sex offender in B.C. right now, you have a 98.5 percent chance of getting away with it.” In 2016, feminists and allies gathered outside City Hall to protest the VPD’s refusal to enforce Canada’s new prostitution legislation, which made the purchase of sex illegal. Mayor Gregor Robertson himself is unwilling to intervene on behalf of the marginalized women and girls who are being bought and sold on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, despite previous commitments toward doing so, and despite the fact that it is now the law.

Between their ongoing criminalization of poverty, their too-often violent racism and misogyny, and their unwillingness to hold other men to account for their violence against women, really, what is the point of maintaining a police force? Well, a perhaps uninspired answer is that we have no viable alternatives.

Russell told me that, as an anarchist, it felt a little awkward to be “supportive” of police protection, but “when you’ve seen that many battered and raped women it doesn’t seem ridiculous at all.”

“Yes, in my ideal fantasy there are no police, but we’re a long, long way from having that ideal and, at the moment, the reality is that one of the largest numbers of calls to 911 is in dealing with abusive men.”

Imperfect and unpleasant as it may be, women need intervention and the police are currently the only ones able to intervene at 3:00AM, if a woman needs to get a violent man out of her house. Women in these kinds of situations have no other choice but to call the police, Russell says.

What we have in the police force is also access to accountability. The same cannot be said of men in our community. Alice Lee, a member of the Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution, points out that, “Society is often part of the reason why [a man has] been able to get away with abusing or hitting [a woman].” When abuse is something that is largely condoned, women are left with few other choices than to turn to a body that, at very least, is legally obligated towards accountability. “It is in this accountability that we have found recourse,” Lee tells me. “I haven’t heard of any other system that allows us to have this kind of accountability or recourse.”

Like the state itself, the police are meant to work for us — citizens. That they sometimes do not is an issue we must continue to address, but the reality stands that the police, in Canada, are part of the public sector. Lee says:

“The police force is something I see as a system that reflects society’s values and principles and it should function that way, carrying out society’s values and principles. So when it’s not working, it’s up to us to demand change so that it works for everyone, not just certain people.”

The thing about abolishing the police is that women do still require a justice system and women still do need access to law enforcement. We need someone to call who will show up. And when it comes to offering alternatives, the progressive men advocating to abolish the police fall short on answers.

Fay Blaney, an Indigenous activist and founding member of Aboriginal Women’s Action Network (AWAN), thinks men often say such things without thinking about the impacts on women. “We’re always an afterthought,” she tells me.

In light of #MeToo, many have been calling for alternative models for dealing with sexual violence. At the 2018 Golden Globe awards, Laura Dern used her acceptance speech to call for “restorative justice,” and indeed, the most common response to the question of alternatives to the police is “restorative justice models.” While women should certainly have access to any form of justice they feel will offer them safety and comfort, things are not so black and white as “criminal justice system=bad/restorative justice=good.” Things become more complicated when we take power imbalances and abuse into account.

Though many white proponents of restorative justice models often attribute their origins to Indigenous cultures, they can actually be traced back to Christian groups such as Quakers and Mennonites. These measures were promoted by the B.C. government as a more “culturally sensitive” model of justice for Indigenous communities and as a means to address “concerns over the growing numbers of Native people being incarcerated,” a 2001 report by AWAN states. The report references Emma Larocque, a professor in the Department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba, who, in her article, “Re-examining culturally appropriate models in criminal justice applications,” finds that “the collective concept in these reforms has more to do with a misguided socialist assumption stemming from western, liberal, colonial ideas than any Native tradition.”

Blaney, an Xwemalhkwu woman of the Coast Salish Nation, echoes this, telling me, “That restorative justice model is not ours. We like to think it is, but it’s not.”

In a 1992 report looking at Aboriginal justice from a female perspective, Teressa Nahanee writes, “Aboriginal traditions have become bastardized by Christianity and the imposition of western culture.” The Indian residential school system, of course, is one example, having created a cycle of abuse that has yet to be unbroken.

As a result, she writes, “It is primarily men who have almost total power and control in Aboriginal communities e.g. Band Councils and Chiefs, male police, etc.” She explains that Aboriginal male leaders protect each other “and have collectively or collusively contributed to the violence against Aboriginal women and children through their inaction, ineptness, ineffectiveness, or neglect.”

In other words, Indigenous women and girls are being abused and marginalized both inside and outside of their communities.

In response to numerous concerns raised around the implications of restorative justice in cases of crimes of violence against Aboriginal women and children, AWAN conducted extensive community consultations and research. They came out “strongly opposed” to the application of restorative justice in such instances, citing numerous issues including, “structural power imbalances between abuser and abused,” “lack of…consultation with Aboriginal women and Aboriginal women’s groups,” a “failure of Aboriginal leadership to adequately address crimes of violence against women and children,” and “misrepresentation of Aboriginal ‘culture.'”

The reality of sitting down in a room with your abuser is unlikely to appeal to many victims… Any woman who has been abused by a male partner or family member will likely know that these dynamics extend far beyond physical violence, and that talking things through with an abusive person is likely to be more triggering than productive.

Russell points out that the issue of power tends not to be taken into account by those advocating for restorative justice models as a viable alternative to the current justice system. “When it comes to cases of violence against women where there’s such a massive power imbalance, [restorative justice] is wholly inappropriate,” Russell says. “It puts [women and men] on an equal playing field, which they’re not.”

An interesting example is the 1996 case of Hubert O’Connor, a white bishop who victimized a number of Aboriginal women at the St. Joseph’s residential school in Williams Lake, where O’Connor was principal in the 1960s. O’Connor served six months, was released, then sent back to court on yet another rape charge, which was dropped in 1998, after O’Connor participated in a seven-hour healing circle. While one of his victims claimed relief at being able to deal with the abuse outside of the court system, representatives from sexual assault centres and Indigenous women’s groups were vehemently opposed to the process, proposed not by his victims, but by O’Connor’s lawyer. Shortly after the healing circle, 70 women — many of whom had personally suffered abuse connected to residential schools — gathered on the legislature’s lawn for “a traditional native grieving ceremony” to protest. “He had no business going through the restorative justice process,” Blaney said.

Blaney cites numerous other examples where alternative justice models resulted in the revictimization of women, one of those being the South Island Justice Project.

The project experimented with “diversionary justice” within a group of Coast Salish Communities during the 80s and 90s, and was centered around healing through cultural and spiritual practices. While the program was in place, Blaney says, there was a case of a young man who was sexually assaulting women. He was charged, but the tribal council, chaired by the man’s uncle, requested that he be diverted out of the mainstream justice system, into the alternative justice program set up through the project. When he offended again, he was diverted once more. “He became so brazen that he sexually assaulted a woman in broad daylight, on the hood of a car, out in public,” Blaney said.

In a case study of the project, recorded in the book, The Problem of Justice: Tradition and Law in the Coast Salish World, author Bruce Granville Miller notes that project reviewers reported that victims often didn’t come forward about assaults because they “presumed that the offenders would simply be ‘counseled’ by elders and remain in the community, perhaps as neighbours.” Likewise, women were “reluctant” to approach elders who were perpetrators themselves, assuming “their concerns would not be addressed.” Victims were guilted into not going to the police, pressured instead to simply put the abuse behind them, and sometimes were intimidated by the abuser himself, as a means to prevent victims from involving the criminal justice system.

The project ended in 1993 due to ongoing challenges from Indigenous women, primarily Sharon McIvor, lawyer and (at the time) spokesperson for the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC).

A central reason that restorative justice models don’t work in Aboriginal communities is that, Blaney explains, colonialism destroyed the matriarchal kinship system that once existed in Coast Salish communities. As patriarchy was imposed, so was a culture of male violence and abuse. To her mind, restoring those matriarchal traditions would go a long way in terms of working against ongoing violence and abuse in communities like hers.

For now, Blaney says that, “even though the model with the police is not that effective, they’re a safe institution where we have the ability to challenge what they’re doing and attempt to improve upon it.” She adds, “I think we need that — we need the police… They just need to do a better job.”

In an essay at The Nation, Mychal Denzel Smith writes:

“We don’t consider the abolition of police a viable position to take because we believe they’re the only thing standing between upstanding citizens and the violence of the deranged. We’re afraid of being attacked on the street, of having our homes shot at, and being left without access to equally violent retribution.”

But women aren’t afraid of something as vague as “the deranged.” They are afraid of something quite specific: men. Those men might be the cops themselves, or some other authority figure. They might be cab drivers, neighbours, or faceless strangers we fear will follow us home or break into our houses at night. But most-likely, the men who will cause us harm are already in our homes — they are our husbands, fathers, and boyfriends.

If we get rid of the police, the question of who will protect women, then, from men, has a fairly obvious, but unsettling and insufficient answer: other men.

“In an ideal world,” Russell says, “responsible men would watch out for other men in the community and protect the community from being further attacked by [male perpetrators]. But that’s not what men are doing right now. Far from it. The current reality is that most men refuse to even hold other men accountable for their sexist behaviour — let alone police or correct them.”

Based on the logic behind “abolish the police,” we may as well say, “abolish men,” considering the source of most of the world’s violence. I’m being facetious, but surely you see my point.

What makes any of us believe the new boss, as it were, would be any different than the old one? The most likely result of replacing the police force with “something else” — whether that be restorative justice or some other form of mediation process; community patrols or a popular militia; an anarchist utopia that imagines perpetrators will be ostracized or will “heal” alongside their victims, in the community — is that similar structures of power will be replicated, and women will remain vulnerable and continue to be denied justice.

“Violence against women and racism are the result of systematic inequalities and if we don’t make real changes, I have no illusion that a different framework will result in a different or better outcome than what we have now,” Lee says.

Lee agrees with criticisms of the police coming from marginalized and racialized groups. “I’m not in any way in favour of a law and order agenda — I think that’s very dangerous. I’m totally against the police having too much power, acting with impunity, and a budget that’s high on militarism,” she says. “Those are all things we need to fight against.”

She believes that what we really need is a revolution, adding that movements like Black Lives Matter “are the way to go” and that other social justice movements need to come out in support. “That’s how we will effect real change,” she says. “But in the meantime, women need access to the law.”

Russell agrees, saying, “It’s not a political ideal, it’s just a reality.”

That leftists often accuse women of “pearl-clutching” or of encouraging a police state, due to their efforts to protect themselves from male violence, only demonstrates how little they understand about their own self-professed efforts at building a just world. The hypocrisy of subjecting women to abuse, but then criticizing them for calling the police should serve as a reminder to women of the priorities of these groups.

After a Toronto writer named Andray Domise, well-known on the Canadian left, was accused of abuse, a friend of his and fellow activist wrote in his defense:

“… Many of our personal philosophies involve sidestepping the police and courts, and instead embracing alternatives like transformative justice. Throwing a Black man to the wolves of the criminal justice system is violent, and does nothing to heal anyone involved including the accuser, the accused and the wider community.”

But accusing victims of “violence” for engaging the criminal justice system in their defense is a disturbing manipulation of both the word “violence” and the goal of social justice. A man can simultaneously be impacted by racism and also be abusive or misogynist — one does not cancel out the other. Letting men off the hook for violence because they are working class or racialized will not right the wrongs of an unjust world. These men still hold male power under patriarchy, despite facing class or race oppression, and indeed, have done their own fair share in terms of maintaining that power.

Mocking or shaming women for their efforts to hold their oppressors to account feels a lot more like locker room bullying à la “Man up!” than it does solidarity.

I’ve had to call the police myself, several times in the past, due to abusive men — men who were my partners – sometimes with positive results, sometimes not. An abusive ex suggested a “restorative justice process” to the community I was ostracized from — laughable considering his own position of power in that community (and in society, in general), and his demonstrated efforts to manipulate and distort the narrative in his favour, as abusive men are keen to do.

I’ve learned both from personal experience, as well from other women in this movement, that, while rebellious declarations satisfy our comrades, sometimes reality is a little more sobering.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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