Over 300 people gathered on Friday February 14th, 2014, in Downtown Pittsburgh to participate in a global day of action to end gender based violence. The ANEW Rising Women’s Collective, New Voices Pittsburgh: Women of Color for Reproductive Justice, One Billion Been Rising and Let’s Get Free came together to lead different parts of the day’s events. Over 70 different groups endorsed the action including labor rights leaders, women shelters, arts organizations, sororities and legal justice & human rights groups.
The festivities kicked off in a march and vigil against domestic violence and in memory of Ka’Sandra Wade, a local activist and friend who was killed last year by her ex-boyfriend. Her story stayed in the news because it exposed problems within police policies on responding to 911 calls for “unknown trouble.” Her family and advocates for women worked tirelessly to change those policies. Members of the ANEW Rising Women’s Collective gathered at the portico of the city council building to hold the vigil.
Participants and family members of Ka’Sandra Wade marched to the hotel where 1 Billion BEEN Rising was gathering and staged a die in to represent the over 100 women that have died due to domestic violence in Pennsylvania this year.
The One Billion BEEN Rising program started around noon. The youth really came out! There were so many enthusiastic young people. It was amazing!
The creative messaging was an awesome presence! While it felt so different having the event inside at the hotel because Market Square was a dangerous sheet of ice, all the banners and signs really transformed the place. In months leading to the event many volunteers worked at the Neighborhood Print Shop in Braddock to screen-print placards, patches and posters for the action. A local men’s group that organizes to unlearn and challenge sexism made some beautiful signs that were meant to be held by men. They said things like, “I love feelings. Violence against women is a mens’ issue. Gentle and proud. Men can change.” A series of posters were generated based on Andrea Smith’s platform –what should organizing around ending gender based violence look like?
More volunteers created vibrant colorful fabric banners, including slogans from movements past and present – from the civil rights movement, “We must be tender with each other so we can be dangerous together” and, “ The Revolution Starts at Home” which is also the title of a book about intimate partner violence in the activist community. “No one is disposable,” read another banner – referencing a recent video series by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project outlining strategies for every day prison abolition.
The rally kicked off with a drum call by Abafazi and a libation by La’Keisha Wolfe. During the libation, water is offered to the earth to honor the ancestors in the African tradition. In addition to speaking the names of our ancestors, there was space created to honor loved ones lost to domestic violence and those that survived.
Our first dancer was Dr.Mythili Ramakrishna who performed in India last year as part of the 1 Billion Rising there. The dance, Bharatanatyam is the strictly traditional and pure form of classical dance that has survived in the southern part of the Indian subcontinent in spite of centuries of social and political upheavals. This 2000 year-old art is still as fresh and fascinating as it must have been when it inspired the brilliant sculptors who have left records of Bharatanatyam in the magnificent temples of Tamil Nadu.The word Bharatanatyam is made up of three elements- ‘Bha’ or Bhaava (expressions), ‘Ra’ or Raaga (musical melody), and ‘Ta’ or Taala (rhythm).
On this day Dr.Mythili Ramakrishna performed the dance form within the realms of feminine power. The world mother, as the female divinity is known in India, represents the synthesis of the feminine energies of the universe, and illustrates how the female principle of God, Shakti, is inseparable from Shiva, the male principle of God. This piece symbolizes the cosmic cycles of creation and destruction, as well as the daily rhythm of birth and death. The dance is a pictorial allegory of the five principle manifestations of eternal energy — creation, destruction, preservation, salvation, and illusion, presented through fervor laden devotional poetry and rhythmic mnemonics, that create roiling waves of resounding beauty, energy, and a vision of a primordial energy of female power. The piece is called Shivoham and is composed by Adi Shankaracharya in the 8th century.
Ruth Martial, etta cetera, and Bekezela Mguni read aloud A letter to our sisters, ourselves, and the movement for radical social change and liberation. This letter was collectively written by One Billion BEEN Rising crew in response to important criticism to Eve Ensler and the 1BR organization by many feminist leaders of color all over the world. The letter expresses solidarity with the women and communities that have been harmed by the racism within the One Billion Rising movement. Ruth also spoke about how for the last 25 years, February 14th has been a day of action for missing and murdered indigenous women in the United States and Canada for decades. The purpose of this day – Annual Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) is not only to honor and remember the women but to demand justice and an official inquiry. These murders and missing persons cases are almost never even investigated. Some blockades have just gone up in Mohawk territory to protest the lack of response just in the last few days. The article Ruth quoted was by Lauren Chief Elk of the Save Wiyabi Project and you can find it here.
Black Rapp Madusa performed a powerful poem she wrote while she was incarcerated. She spoke of the many women she met while incarcerated in Texas who had been locked up for self defense.
La’Tasha Mayes of New Voices Pittsburgh; Women of Color for Reproductive Justice spoke about the case of Marissa Alexander. La’Tasha got the whole crowd wishing Marissa a Happy Valentine’s Day. In the beginning of March opposition to Marissa’s quest for justice escalated. The campaign website reads “Demonstrating a stunning abuse of power, Florida State Prosecutor, Angela Corey, announced that she aims to increase the prison sentence for Marissa Alexander from 20 to 60 years in the upcoming July 28th trial. In 2012, Alexander – an African American mother of three in Jacksonville, Florida — was sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 20 years for firing a warning shot upwards into a wall to defend her life from her abusive estranged husband. She caused no injuries. Alexander successfully appealed the unjust trial and was granted a new trial. In November 2013, after serving nearly three years in prison, she was released on bond to home detention until her new trial.”
“Yet as a consequence of winning the appeal to hopefully secure a more fair trial, Alexander now faces the alarming prospect that the original devastating sentence could be tripled in the new trial. In the upcoming trial, Corey says she intends to seek three 20 year sentences for Alexander to be served consecutively rather than concurrently, tripling the mandatory minimum to 60 years.”
“Free Marissa Now member and victim’s advocate, Sumayya Fire, stated, “Remember that this entire case boils down to a woman defending her life from her husband who attacked her, strangled her, threatened to kill her, whose beatings have sent her to the hospital and likely caused her to have premature labor. A husband who confirmed in a deposition that he beat her, that he was in a rage when he attacked her, and that he has beaten other women with whom he was involved. Remember that when Marissa Alexander fired her warning shot to save her own life, she caused no injuries. Now she’s facing the very real possibility of spending the rest of her life in prison for that act of self-defense. That should send a chill down the back of every person in this country who believes that women who are attacked have the right to defend themselves. Anyone who believes that domestic violence is unjust should be deeply shaken by Corey’s abusive prosecution of Marissa Alexander and should be advocating for Alexander’s freedom.”
Ngani Ndimbie spoke on behalf of the the ACLU. Several towns in PA have so-called “nuisance” ordinances which punish tenants who call the police with eviction even if they are calling to report a serious crime such as domestic violence. This is what happened to Lakisha Briggs, of Norristown, PA, who was threatened with eviction after she called the police for protection from an abusive ex-boyfriend. The ACLU of Pennsylvania is representing Lakisha Briggs and will fight the Norristown ordinance in court, but there is still more to be done. In response to the case, legislators drafted House Bill No. 1796. If passed, HB 1796 will prevent tenants and landlords from being penalized for requesting police assistance. The bill has already passed in the State House and has made its way to the State Senate. Contact your state Senator and urge him or her to support HB 1796.
Ginny Hildebrand from Stop Sexual Assault in the Military performed a chilling folk song that outlined four different scenarios highlighting forms of sexual violence with the chorus sounding – “if it could happen to you it could happen to me”. Joseph Hall, our amazing sound technician, read the man prayer and it was echoed by people who identify as men.
Additional expressive and motivating performances were presented by the Improve Dance Troupe – Interplay, The Raging Grannies, and the poet Joy Yejide KMT, who posed the question, “How can you be silent when your silence is violent? Our silences are killing us.”
“30 years is too much time! Self Defense is not a crime! Free Charmaine Now!”
Members of Let’s Get Free – The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee took the stage wearing soft ball style Free Charmaine t-shirts. Charmaine’s mother, Donna Hill, and Attorney Bret Grote, spoke about the tragic details of this case.
Charmaine Pfender was 18 years old when she took a life in self-defense and 19 years old when she was sentenced to life-without-parole for protecting herself against rape. She has served 30 years in prison. When the man she was on a date with pulled a knife and attempted to rape her, Charmaine struggled back, reached for a gun and fired a warning shot. When she tried to flee her attacker, he chased after her with a knife in hand, so she shot and killed him. Charmaine should never have been convicted of murder. She fought for her life against a knife-wielding man who was attempting to rape her. This is self-defense, not a crime. Donna asked everyone present to join her and Charmaine’s supporters in a march to the courthouse.
With the enthusiastic sounds of the Mayday Marching Band, all the beautiful banners and balloons, it really was a Valentine’s Day march – bursting with bright colors and messages of love. Let’s Get Free, The Women in Prison Defense Committee along with Charmaine’s mother, Donna Hill, Attorney Bret Grote, and a delegation of approximately 20 community leaders and concerned citizens braved the metal detectors and delivered chocolates and a letter wrapped in red ribbon to Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala calling upon him to re-open Charmaine’s case and to drop the charges against her. Meanwhile, the band and merry activists held down the court yard that sits in the middle of the building. Echoes of their songs could be heard through the halls, and curious lawyers, court attendees, and city workers lined the windows looking down at the colorful demonstration that circled the fountain.
The delegation was told that Zappala was not in his office and was asked to wait for a long time to deliver the letter, in spite of the face that the campaign made a point to inform his office that they would be delivering the letters a week prior to the action. Finally, the spokesperson of the DA’s agreed to meet with Donna and Bret. While they listened, the office seemed to pass the buck and responded dismissively – “Let me refer you to an office in the Northside.” “Don’t waste your money sending postcards for your cause.” “Our office doesn’t investigate prosecutorial misconduct.” The delegation left the courthouse feeling undeterred and unsurprised by the response and walked into the loving arms of the 25 or so supporters who were STILL waiting and chanting in the court yard! Donna symbolically liberated a teddy bear from inside a balloon – “We WILL free my daughter.” We left the courtyard with the words of Assata Shakur on our lips, “It is our Duty to Fight for Our Freedom! It is our Duty to Win! We must love each other and support each other! We have nothing to lose but our chains!”
5 DAYS LATER – ZAPPALA WROTE BACK
On February 19, 2014, Let’s Get Free received a letter from the District Attorney.
Zappala writes, “Ms. Pfender was convicted by a jury of several crimes including first degree murder in March of 1985. Although my jurisdiction in this case has long been relinquished, I have nonetheless assigned an assistant to review the transcripts of the testimony in the trial. That assistant has been directed to communicate with the attorney who has contacted the office on Ms. Pfender’s behalf.” While he is distancing himself from any obligation to do more than a review of the transcript, his prompt response and promise of review demonstrates a positive first step in the newly launched campaign to Free Charmaine!