When Violence Strikes Home
Smith, Marcia, The Nation
One evening in the spring of 1995, at the height of the long national nightmare known as the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, my phone rang. On the line was a volunteer from the National Organization for Women (NOW), trolling for dollars. I do not belong to NOW, but I do support several feminist organizations and was not surprised to find myself on their list. "We'd like your support," the caller said. "Two hundred dollars, $100, anything you can afford--so that NOW can continue to work on issues like domestic violence. We don't want another woman to face the atrocities that happened to Nicole Brown Simpson." Whoa. Was this NOW's only frame of reference on the issue of domestic violence? I wondered. NOW either didn't anticipate having a Harlem resident as a fundraising target or must have thought that the issue of domestic violence plays the same way for African-American as for white women. "You've got to be kidding," I said, and hung up. The only pledge I made that night was not to support NOW unless they figured out how to talk to me.
Summer 1995. Boxer Mike Tyson came home to New York after serving a jail sentence for raping Desiree Washington, a teenage black beauty queen. He was ready to resume his multimillion-dollar career, and promoter Don King, Al Sharpton and others organized a rally to welcome him. The pro-Tyson crowd cloaked the event in nationalist rhetoric, shamelessly playing on African-Americans' alienation from the legal system to build support for Tyson.
Activists, led by a group of African-American women, agitated against the Tyson rally. The organization African Americans Against Violence rightly argued that Tyson, having been duly convicted of sexually assaulting a black woman, should be rehabilitated, not honored; and that domestic violence in the African-American community is a pressing issue. I stood with the opposition on 125th Street that August, in a small demonstration against domestic violence and the Tyson rally. Most leaders of the African-American community were nowhere in sight.
Spring 1997. A few weeks ago a New York City Health Department study revealed that a majority of female murder victims died at the hands of their husbands or boyfriends. In a five-year period in this decade, 52 percent of all female homicide victims in New York were African-American, although black women make up only 25 percent of the city's female population. Two-thirds of the women who died at the hands of their loved ones lived in Brooklyn or the Bronx; most, it can be assumed, were poor. They were stabbed, strangled, punched and sometimes--if they weren't dead after the first round--thrown out of windows.
The horrifyingly high level of domestic abuse is not exactly news. The Surgeon General starkly announced five years ago that violence was the number-one public health risk to adult women, and the Department of Health and Human Services reported early this decade that 60 percent of female homicide victims were killed by someone they knew--most often by someone with whom they'd been intimate.
And the death rate from domestic abuse may be just the tip of the iceberg. A groundbreaking study sponsored by the New York-based Institute on Violence found that in a three-year period in the early nineties, more than 60 percent of women discharged from city-owned hospitals with violent injuries were black; half of all female victims of reported violent crime were black; and black women were more likely to be victims of felonious, rather than misdemeanor, assault. In the lives of many African-American women, violence is not only a life-or-death struggle but an everyday affair: expected, if not accepted. …