Standing Our Ground: Reproductive Justice for Marissa Alexander

Marissa Alexander did not get a chance to see her youngest daughter take her first step. She didn’t get a chance to hear her say her first word, or blow out the candles on her first birthday cake. These and many more memories that mothers are excited to photograph or catch on film weren’t possible for Alexander because she was living behind bars—all because she fired a warning shot in the air, harming no one, to ward off Rico Gray, her abusive estranged husband and the father of her youngest child.

Each year, approximately 1.5 million women in the United States are raped or physically assaulted by an intimate partner, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has found, and of that number, 324,000 were pregnant when the violence occurred. Unfortunately, according to a recent report by the Violence Policy Center, Black women like Alexander experience intimate partner abuse 35 percent more than their white counterparts. Moreover, the Urban Justice Center found that when Black women use deadly force to defend themselves from abusive partners, they are less likely to succeed at using as their defense being a battered spouse, making it more likely they will be convicted and sentenced for homicide.

Gray beat Alexander repeatedly over the course of their relationship, even head-butting her and giving her a black eye while she was pregnant with his child. Her youngest daughter was born premature, and just nine days after Alexander gave birth, Gray attacked her again. This time he strangled her and threatened to have her murdered. It was this incident that led her to defend herself and her family by firing a warning shot upward into the wall. Alexander was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison. She was forcibly removed from her children’s lives, including her breastfed infant.

According to Barbara Bloom in her testimony before the Little Hoover Commission in 2004, approximately 70 percent of people in women’s prisons are mothers, and the majority of them were the primary caretakers of their children before they were sent to prison. The over-policing and over-criminalization of pregnant women and mothers is becoming a major issue in this country, and the safety of mothers is at stake.

From women dealing with substance abuse issues, to women living with HIV and AIDS, to women who are abused, incarceration rates among some of the most marginalized communities are increasing and even more harmful legislation is being enacted, causing more women to lose their freedom and thus lose their parental rights.

Incarcerated mothers are leaving behind children to be cared for by family members who are forced to deal with the emotional and financial strains from the addition to their lives, or these now parentless children are left to be raised by the state. But as the report Children of Incarcerated Parents, prepared by the Council on Crime and Justice, notes, children who have imprisoned parents are more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system and prison themselves, which furthers the dismantling of families across the country.

Unlike many of the women who are serving time, Alexander was given a second chance. Last November, due to national attention resulting from statewide protests to repeal the “stand your ground” law, Alexander was released on bond and granted a retrial.​

Not only has Alexander been granted a second chance, but we as activists are given another opportunity to organize across movements in political solidarity to support her, and to demand an end to violence against women and the over-criminalization of mothers. This is a reproductive justice issue that cannot be ignored.

Alexander’s case is the epitome of a reproductive justice issue. It was because of these types of human rights violations, coupled with the ways reproductive oppression continues to be perpetuated in our communities and within racist and sexist legislation, that Black women came together 20 years ago to create a new, more intersectional framework that stretched beyond the narrow focus on legal access and choice to a more broader analysis of racial, economic, cultural, and structural constraints on our power and ability to protect our bodies, our families, and our lives.

Alexander’s prosecutor, Angela Corey, has threatened to increase Alexander’s sentence from 20 to 60 years if convicted in her retrial. Black pastors in her hometown are encouraging her to take a plea deal as opposed to going to trial. These pressures—along with an understanding of the costs associated with maintaining her freedom and the emotional strain of being isolated from her children, who reside with the person who abused her—are the exact reasons SisterSong and the Free Marissa Now Campaign have partnered to host “Standing Our Ground: Raising Our Voices Against Reproductive Oppression and Violence Against Women” July 25-28 in Jacksonville, Florida.

The weekend will begin with a community-wide “Reproductive Justice 101” training, followed by a full-day institute, where SisterSong’s national member organizations as well as activists across social change movements, human rights advocates, academics, and scholars will address the intersections of reproductive justice and the criminal justice system, child welfare system, and the violence against women movement and how race, gender, and sexuality play out in legislation such as the “stand your ground” laws. The weekend will culminate with a march on July 28, the day of Alexander’s retrial, to the Duval County Unified Courthouse to stand in solidarity with Alexander and in opposition to the reproductive injustices that this case and legislation has made public.

Alexander’s case reminds us of the very reason the reproductive justice framework was needed. It also gives reproductive justice activists an opportunity to lean into the intersectionality of our framework and to take another bold step forward in eradicating reproductive oppression.

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  • Chris Herz

    Most of white America still believes in affirmative action — so long as it occurs only in the jails.

  • red_zone

    All the best to this woman and may she finally see true justice.

    • Shan

      I hope so, too. Because from everything I’ve read about it, Angela Corey seems to have it out for this woman.

  • terafied

    Look, she broke the law. She will have her day in court, again. But you don’t fire “warning shots” in an enclosed room, especially with children present. That’s how people die. She had an opportunity to flee, but chose not to. Let a second jury evaluate her defense, but don’t treat women differently just because they are mothers. That’s what we’re trying to avoid as feminists.

    • Shan

      Florida’s SYG law doesn’t require a “duty to retreat” and even if it did, one of the problems with Alexander’s case is that she was not allowed to invoke the SYG law.


      “But you don’t fire “warning shots” in an enclosed room, especially with children present.”

      But it’s perfectly okay for her ex to have his children present while he physically assaults a woman who already had a restraining order against him?

      • Alicia Zarycki

        She fired a warning shot instead of killing her abuser or killing a man in front of her children. She did nothing wrong by sparing a life because she thought that it would be better for the justice system to go after the abuser who broke the restraining order against him and beat and threatened to kill her in front of the children. For that mercy she is being punished and kept from her children while her abuser is being protected by the authorities! Insanity and injustice!

    • Ginnie Dickinson-Burns

      Do you understand the logistics of fleeing a man intent on beating you, possibly to death, WITH an infant and other young child(ren)?
      Should she have left them with the man she believed was going to try to kill her, or tried to get herself AND the children safely into a vehicle to flee while he most likely would have been chasing her down to complete his mission?
      Should she have been perfectly rational while she and her children were in mortal danger? That’s more than we expected from George Zimmerman when he “felt threatened” by Trayvon Martin….
      Did she go to the car to get a gun? Yes. And most likely the only reason he didn’t follow her to the car is because he knew she’d be back, because he still had her kids with him. Had she gathered up the kids and fled I have no doubt he would have chased her to the car and caught up with her before she could get away.
      Her opportunity to flee involved leaving her helpless children with a man she knew to be extremely dangerous and in the midst of a violent rage. I think her course of action is completely understandable in such a horrifying situation.

    • Arekushieru

      Nope, what we’re trying to avoid as feminists is women being treated as inferior just because they happen to be women, which includes those who are mothers. Thanks.

    • mbm

      What an absurd response…”you don’t fire a warning shot in an enclosed room especially with children present” as compared to allowing this ex to beat her to death in front of her children? What happened to self-defense? If she had shot/killed him, the hue and cry would be even more divided. She has the right to protect herself and her children from a known abuser/intruder. Period. Or is Stand Your Ground only for white men? Just compare for one moment, her treatment with the DuPont heir who after having confessed and being convicted of repeatedly raping his toddler daughter and sentenced to prison, was allowed to walk. Tell me, who is the greater danger to society? Justice in America? A travesty. The deck is stacked against her.

  • Charlotte Taft

    This is one of the most awful examples of an epidemic of injustice against women. Women of color, young women, and poor women are the most vulnerable. But none of us is spared. This is a struggle that is thousands of years old, but it has resurfaced in a very ugly way in the past several years. Thank you, Sistersong, for helping to organize people to stand for justice. Charlotte Taft, Abortion Care Network

  • MrsGriswold

    Why is prosecutor Angela Corey so hell-bent on giving a 60-year sentence to a woman who has harmed no one? Why not just three years? Why 60 years? Where did that number come from?

    1. She’s trying to protect her own political reputation as “tough on crime.”

    2. She’s furious that Alexander was granted a retrial and is out for revenge.

    3. She’s getting kickbacks from the for-profit Florida prison system in exchange for doling out the longest possible prison sentence.

    4. She is an evil spawn of Satan.

    5. All of the above.