Wednesday, October 29, 2014
Delores Mae Smith was a kind, warm, but take-no-mess kind of woman.
"She was very loud against any kind of wrong," her son, Felix Anderson, said. In fact, it was Smith's kindness and inner strength that made it almost unfathomable to Anderson that his mother could experience domestic violence.
That all changed when she was murdered in September 2013 in Portage, Mich. Her estranged ex-husband, Clinton Smith, was convicted for the crime and sentenced to more than 20 years in prison.
A Crenshaw, Miss., native, mother of three and a grandmother, Smith had moved north after her children grew up so she could be closer to relatives. Anderson, a northeast Mississippi native who lives in Madison, said there were no outward signs that his mother was in an ongoing abusive relationship. As a matter of fact, at the time of her death, she seemed to be in good spirits, preparing for a visit to Mississippi during Jackson State University's homecoming activities.
Anderson, who did not grow up in an abusive home and says his mother and the men in his life taught him to respect women, said he would not have known what other signs of abuse to look for. Later, after her murder, Anderson learned that even though his mother and her ex had been divorced for six years, Clinton remained possessive and jealous.
"When men get angry, sometimes we don't have healthy outlets, and we don't know why we're feeling it," Anderson said.
Anderson also found himself wanting an outlet to honor his mother and, shortly after her death, he started a foundation in her memory called I Am Her Voice. Later, organizers of a weekly spoken-word open mic called Synergy Nights purchased a microphone and nicknamed it Delores Blue, after Anderson's mother, who also loved to sing.
He also met Wendy Mahoney, the executive director of the Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which was in the nascent stages of organizing a group of men who would be trained in strategies for educating other men about domestic violence.
Since March, a group of about 10 men from various walks of life have been meeting once a month around the Jackson area.
"I realize that as a man, there are conversations that only men can have with men," Anderson said. "A lot of men just wouldn't be as receptive if it's coming from a woman."
The men represent a spectrum of experiences in dealing with interpersonal violence in several fields and not only learn how to safely intervene when they see or learn of domestic abuse, but also work toward teaching men to use positive language when talking about women.
Anderson points to his 6-year-old son, whom he is teaching to write and talk out his feelings in hopes that he can cope with emotional turbulence as he goes through life.
"We tell our young men not to cry—(you're) crying like a girl. To me, that's kind of screwed up," Anderson said.
Ending the Blame Games
While Shawn Carter's sister-in-law might have roughed him up in an elevator, Solange Knowles does not fit the description of the typical abuser.
The Mississippi Coalition Against Domestic Violence's Engaging Men Work Group confronts a brutal truth of interpersonal violence—that is, statistically speaking, men are usually the offenders.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey recently delved into the data of domestic violence. New information released in September 2014 shows that one-quarter of all women and about 14 percent of men have experienced severe physical violence at the hands of a partner.
Furthermore, the CDC's data show that 19 percent of women and 1.7 percent of men in the U.S. have been raped in their lifetimes. Additionally, an estimated 44 percent of women and 23 percent of men experienced other forms of sexual violence, including being forced to penetrate, sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact and other unwanted sexual experiences. The survey also found that about 15 percent of women and 6 percent of men have been stalked in their lives.
Bruce Kitchens is among the small number of men who were abused for more than five years by his partner, but only his gender makes him unique.
Kitchens, 25, said his girlfriend became violent soon after they started dating six or seven years ago. Kitchens, a police officer with a local agency, said he thought she would change as time went on, but neither time, the birth of their son nor their marriage in 2012 made any difference. In fact, after the wedding, things only got worse, Kitchens says.
"I was playing the blame game," Kitchens said, telling himself that he invited her attacks, which is a common thought for victims of intimate-partner violence.
She did not want to end the relationship because she did not want the family to break up, nor would she attend counseling. When Kitchens finally decided to leave after he found evidence of infidelity, she shot Kitchens as he walked out of the door. A Madison County jury later acquitted her, he says, after she told jurors that she was, in fact, the victim.
What Kitchens describes with his former partner is a textbook story of control, self-blame and alienation. And it contains many of the same elements of one of the biggest domestic-violence stories in recent memory. The MCADV working group, in which Kitchens and Anderson participate, coalesced just as news came to light about professional football player Ray Rice's expulsion from the National Football League.
Rice had previously been slapped on the wrist with a two-game suspension for knocking his fiancee unconscious, but pressure to give Rice the boot mounted when video of the incident, which took place in an elevator, went viral on the Web. That touched off a torrent of discussion on social media and television airwaves that was not without a healthy dose of blaming Janay Rice for inciting her husband's abuse.
"Let's make sure we don't do anything to provoke wrong actions," said Stephen A. Smith, a television sports commentator, who later apologized to women who "misconstrued" his comment.
Of course, the practice of dominant groups blaming victims for their subjugation has been around since feudal rulers claimed the divine rights to lord over those born into peasantry. In contemporary times, victim-blaming has become central to ongoing political debates. In 1971, sociologist Dr. William Ryan examined the phenomenon through race and poverty in his book ''Blaming the Victim,'' in which he defined victim-blaming as ''justifying inequality by finding defects in the victims of inequality."
Over time, victim-blaming became part of the vernacular of social scientists in a number of fields, as well as victim-advocacy groups.
Julia Churchill Schoellkopf, a scholar at the University of Rhode Island, considered the phenomenon's historical context in a 2012 white paper published by URI's Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Center. In "Victim-Blaming: A New Term for an Old Trend," Schoellkopf writes that "victim-blaming is performed in order to have control and power."
"Perpetrators wish to have control, power and privilege over their victims to excuse their behavior to avoid punishment and maintain their freedom to abuse in the future. Bystanders, society and victims want to have a sense of control and safety over their own destinies," she argues. "Unfortunately, because of victim-blaming, the real reasons people are abused is obscured and in turn the cycle of crime and oppression is continued and promoted."
The Four Ds
The job of the men's working group is to get men to say the right thing about domestic abuse the first time.
The first order of business for the group was for the participants to talk about their own experiences and understanding of domestic violence, which was at times uncomfortable. This included some tense conversations in the group, which includes several police officers, about the prevalence of domestic violence in the law-enforcement community.
Brandon Jones, a member of the group, a MCADV board member and an attorney, said each member of the work group had his own "education gap" to overcome.
"A lot of us who may have the best of intentions (are) still bring our own ignorance to bear. We've received some education," said Jones, a former state lawmaker from Pascagoula who now practices in Jackson.
The thrust of the lesson the men receive, as MCADV organizers say, is how to a be stand-up guy—and intervene on behalf of women—and not a stand-by guy. Intervention involves the four Ds: direct, distract, delegate and delay.
Being direct involves confronting situations directly, which works best when the intervener knows the person whose behavior they are trying to change. Another strategy involves delegating, or enlisting help from friends or authority figures, while delaying means simply stalling until the situation can be diffused. Distracting involves diverting the offender's attention from their victim, which the men learn can be especially useful in situations where drugs or alcohol might be present.
In some ways, the men's working group is akin to receiving instruction in a foreign language, since men rarely talk about victimhood, much less their personal roles in it, Jones said. But, as with a freshman's first day of Introduction to German, Jones says the men with whom the work group has met have been eager to learn more about domestic violence despite the initial nervousness that is often present.
"It's not unlike any other family issue," Jones said. "As men, we're not known for being open and candid with a group of strangers, and some people don't want to talk about their exposure to this issue."
At the same time, the members of the men's working group can open up a dialogue about domestic violence in ways that some community leaders cannot. For example, participants have met with a number of churches, some of which historically have preached problematic messages on domestic issues, including that women are to remain in abusive situations to keep families together.
"Some of the value (is) we come in and offer a way to start the conversation," Jones said. "Then the process is to try to empower and educate."
A Movement Grows
The MCADV work group is a part of a slow but growing movement of men acknowledging their roles in ending gender violence.
Jackson Katz, a gender-violence expert who has written several books and given a TED Talk on the subject, noted in a Huffington Post op-ed that the Ray Rice case was different from other instances when high-profile athletes have faced charges of violence against women.
"One of the most notable developments in the Ray Rice case is the astounding number of men in the media and in public life who have stepped forward to strongly criticize Rice on the air and applaud the National Football League's (NFL) decision to indefinitely suspend him," Katz wrote.
He continued: "The most promising aspect of this sad saga is that the presence of the video has contributed to a transformation already underway in the public's understanding of gender-based violence. ... (T)he new paradigm for understanding domestic and sexual violence entails turning the spotlight around, onto men."
Men talking about domestic violence is emerging as a kind of cause celebre, with athletes, actors such Patrick Stewart, and Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, launching campaigns to engage men.
"I've got no time for this chest-bumping attitude that males have these days. I just think it's so out of date," Rawlings, a former chief executive officer of Pizza Hut, told New York Magazine in March 2013.
"Domestic abuse is a much more serious issue than littering, but when I was growing up, if you had an empty Coke can, you just threw it out the window. There was a movement in the late sixties and seventies that was like, 'That's just bad.' Now you couldn't even believe someone would do that. There's a huge stigma now. That stigma can be placed, I think, on this issue, but it takes a little while, and it takes these conversations."
Several members of the Jackson men's group are already working to change that culture by working with boys.
Jean Ones Austin works with boys as young as 7 years old through Catholic Charities, where he is a program manager, charged with teaching them about domestic violence, teen-dating violence and stalking. Austin finds it easier to break through to the youngest boys, who have not yet formed concrete opinions about gender roles. As the boys age, not only do the young men become more set in their ideas, but they are also less likely to talk to their peers and ask questions about violence.
"They're not going to talk to another 15-year-old about domestic violence—there is no way, no how," Austin said of teenagers.
Cassio Batteast, who mentors boys and young men, including at the Hinds County Juvenile Detention Center, through a program called Knowledge Institute New Generation of Scholars (K.I.N.G.S.) Leadership, says that his kids in juvy tend to be more open-minded than older men.
In a way, the boys at the detention center may better understand the dimensions of domestic violence because many are there on the charge of disturbing the family peace, often for intervening when their mothers were being beaten up by their partners. At the same time, Batteast, who has a teenage daughter, observes that some of the same boys who tried to protect their mothers and sisters see nothing wrong with hitting their girlfriends nor do they think to intervene when their friends abuse.
"A lot of young men don't see their mothers and sisters in other women," Batteast said. That may be the hardest job facing the men's work group, to change a cultural system where men are at the center of our cultural solar system and women play but supporting roles.
"We find ourselves saying boys will be boys," Batteast says. "But what happens when you're a man and you have those same boy mentalities?"