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Lessons and Myths About Domestic Violence From the Case of Graham Garfield

Lessons and Myths About Domestic Violence from the Case of Graham Garfield

H. Bradford


For the past few weeks, local activists in Superior, Wisconsin have worked together to challenge domestic violence in their community following the arrest of city councilor, Graham Garfield.  On April 4th, Graham Garfield was re-elected to represent the 6th district.  It was a very tight race wherein he won the election by a single vote.  Aside from serving as a city councilor, has served in other positions including Vice Chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin Labor Caucus, President of the Superior Federation of Labor, Vice President of the National Association of Letter Carriers-337,  and Chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission.  He was endorsed by the Superior Federation of Labor and viewed by local progressives as a labor candidate who stood up against Islamophobic statements from the previous mayor.  Only a few days after being sworn into office, he was arrested on charges related to domestic violence.

In the evening of April 20th, Superior police responded to a report of a domestic dispute involving Garfield and his fiance.  To summarize the official police report, Graham’s fiance informed the police that they had been arguing that evening.  Graham had been drinking and had become verbally abusive.  When she tried to remove him from their residence, he bit her and when she slapped him, he pretended to call 911.  She retreated to another room.  Graham followed her and grabbed a gun, which he pointed at her chest from a few feet away.   Graham was located several hours later 10 miles out of Superior at Pattison Park and arrested.  He posted bail the following day and faces three misdemeanor and one felony charge.  The felony is for recklessly endangering safety and the misdemeanors are for possession of a firearm while intoxicated, pointing a firearm at someone, and disorderly conduct.  He will appear in court for an arraignment hearing on May 26th.

Following his arrest, various activists and politicians requested his resignation.  On April 24th, Jim Payne, Superior’s newly elected mayor, called for Garfield’s resignation, arguing that because of the felony charges against him, he could spend months in court.  That would impede his ability to serve the city council.  Meanwhile, Garfield did not release any public statements regarding the incident nor regarding his resignation.  When it seemed that he would be attending the bi-monthly city council meeting on May 2nd, members of the Feminist Action Collective and Feminist Justice League simultaneously called for activists to show up at the meeting dressed in purple, as purple is symbolic of domestic violence.  Both groups mobilized their members to attend the meeting as a way of drawing attention to domestic violence, supporting the victim, and pressuring for his resignation.  In addition to this action, the Feminist Action Collective also developed an open letter asking for Garfield’s resignation.  Garfield remained silent until shortly before the city council meeting, when he released his first public statement.  In the statement, he said that he would not be resigning.


“In response to ongoing legal matters and the mayor’s request that I resign my position, I have decided it will be best for my district and the council that I continue to serve in my existing capacity. Just as the election process is sacred, so too is the American justice system; a system that maintains that I am entitled to a fair legal process before judgment is passed against me. It was unfortunate that the mayor sought to inappropriately pass that judgment. Regardless, I continue to support his agenda and believe in the principles on which I was elected. I would also like it noted that I am now living a sober life and have begun to attend AA meetings. I appreciate the public’s support and understanding as I continue on the path of recovery. I will have no further comment for the press at meeting time.”  -Graham Garfield, May 2nd

Image result for graham garfield

Around twenty activists attended the city council meeting wearing purple.  Because his statement was released shortly before the meeting, many activists had not yet read his statement.  He arrived late and was treated cordially by some of his peers.  The meeting itself was rather short, with time allotted for public commentary.  Several local activists spoke out during the public commentary section of the meeting.  Fellow city councilor, Brent Fennessy, who appeared wearing purple, also voiced his concern regarding the allegations and asked Garfield to resign.

After the meeting and reading over Garfield’s statement, several activists from the Feminist Justice League discussed the next steps in pressuring for Garfield’s resignation.  To this end, a petition was developed and the Feminist Justice League called upon activists to not only attend the next city council meeting but to have a picket before the meeting.  It was felt that in order to pressure him into resigning, the activism against him would have to intensify.  This justified the more public action of a picket, as well as the development of a strongly worded petition meant for the city council.  Furthermore, Garfield’s decision to remain on the council and his abhorrent statement earlier that day, inflamed activists as it did not reference domestic violence, seemingly shirked responsibility for his actions, and pinned his behaviors on alcohol.

Two local news stations drew attention to the petition and picket the the following day.  Within forty eight hours, the petition attracted over 150 signatures.  The picket event on Facebook had attracted the interest of over seventy individuals.  The media coverage of the petition coincided with coverage of Graham Garfield’s first court hearing.  The same day, a motion was made at the monthly meeting of the Superior Federation of Labor that he should be asked to resign from that body.  This motion was not seconded, but expanded the discussion of domestic violence to representatives of the labor movement.  On the evening of May 4 th, just as the movement against Garfield seemed to be gaining momentum, Garfield unexpectedly released a statement that he had changed his mind and that he was going to resign.  Various media outlets attributed his change of mind to the public pressure put upon him.  His own statement cited concern for his colleagues and the community.

“Out of concern for the well-being of the community and wishing no harm upon my colleagues, I announce that I will be stepping down. It has been one of my life’s greatest pleasures to serve the people of this city, and I hope that I can be an asset to the community again someday. I continue to support, as a citizen, a progressive agenda that will benefit all members of the community and make our city a better place to live.” -Graham Garfield, May 4th

Image result for graham garfield petition

His resignation and the activism related to it offers many valuable lessons.  For one, it shows that social movements can be effective in making change.  At the same time, it revealed some flaws with how domestic violence is discussed and understood in society.  His resignation is a small victory, but the fight is not over.  It is important that his is held accountable by the criminal justice system.  It is also important that the Superior Federation of Labor and other organizations he is involved with also hold him accountable for his actions.  Thus, moving forward, future actions will be focused on making certain that the criminal justice system does not fail the victim and that the community holds him accountable.  Activists are also tasked with drawing lessons from their successes and failures, as well as further challenging and shaping the discourse around domestic violence.  To this end, there are several components of the public discourse regarding the Garfield case that should be challenged.

The Myth of Alcohol and Domestic Violence:

In Garfield’s May 2nd statement, he said that he was now living a sober life and attending AA treatment.  While it is encouraging that he wanted treatment for an addiction, the statement was problematic for a number of reasons.  One persistent myth about domestic violence is that it is caused by alcohol or that alcohol plays a role in violence because users are less inhibited.  There are a few things wrong with framing domestic violence this way.  On one hand, if alcohol means a loss of inhibitions, that implies that ordinary people want to be violent towards others but do not act upon this until alcohol has lowered their inhibitions.   I would hope that most people are not forcing down their dark urges to physically abuse someone, especially since most abuse is directed at women (97% of abusers are men with female partners).  Another problem with this narrative is that it ignores abuse that happens when an abuser is not drunk.  Financial control, emotional abuse, limiting where a victim goes or who they see, stalking a victim, etc. are kinds of abuses that may be ongoing in a relationship, irrespective of if the abuser is drunk or not.  Thus, the alcohol argument reduces abuse to a one time occurrence rather than a pattern of behaviors that exert power and control.  This argument is also problematic since if alcohol is blamed, it is easier to dismiss abusive behaviors as the result of being impaired.  This makes it easier to dismiss the abuse and in doing so, fails to hold abusers accountable.  Finally, alcohol exists in a social context.  If an abusive person is indeed more impaired by alcohol, they are still acting in a way in which they have been socialized.  Alcohol exists in society.  How alcohol use is expressed in society is shaped by gender roles, social expectations, and gender inequalities.  Some of the countries with the strictest prohibitions against alcohol have the highest rates of violence against women.  For instance,  according to the WHO, in North Africa and the Middle East, 40% of women have experienced intimate partner violence.  These regions have the lowest rates of alcoholism in the world. One would assume that if alcohol is used less frequently, there would be less violence.  As a whole, blaming alcohol ignores the broader context of abusive behaviors and the patriarchal social context which shapes alcohol use and behaviors while under the influence.

Image result for domestic violence global map

The Myth of Loss of Control:

Another myth about domestic violence is that it is about a loss of control, such as losing one’s temper.   This myth is problematic, since it again, does not make the abuser accountable for their actions.  In this narrative, the abuser might be an otherwise good person who has a problem with anger or who lost control of themselves.  This ignores how the abuser can control themselves in other situations and how the violence was directed at their partner.  If a person suffers from loss of control, one could assume that they would attack their boss, the checkout person at Walgreens, their mother, the police, or a stranger.  Instead, abusive behaviors are targeted at a partner.  Only 5-10% of abusers have records of assaults with victims other than their partner, which implies that most abusers are very capable of controlling their behaviors.  It is also problematic since it frames the abuse as a one time incident, rather than an ongoing exertion of power and control over another person.  The abuser maintains control inasmuch as they choose who, when, how, and where to exert their power and control.  For instance, it is more likely to occur in the home where it is private, than in front of a group of coworkers or family members that the abuser wants to impress or who may not condone the behaviors.  Rather than framing abuse as loss of control, it should be viewed as a means of maintaining control over the victim.  For instance, in the police report, Garfield faked calling 911 after his partner slapped him.  This was a way of controlling her by making her feel that he was the victim and that she would get in trouble with the police.

The Myth of the Single Incident:


Closely related to loss of control is the myth that a domestic violence incident is simply that, a singular incident.  Instead, it should be viewed as a pattern of behaviors.  Almost every single woman who comes to the shelter that I work at experiences various kinds of controlling or abusive behaviors before they are actually physically or sexually abused.  Abusers may defend their actions by stating that they have anger issues or lost control, but usually their anger is not directed at everyone and they maintain control in other situations.  Viewing abuse as a single incident ignores the power and control that was exerted through jealousy or controlling behaviors, stalking, monitoring, put downs, threats, using isolation, destroying property, blaming, denying, gaslighting, etc.

Image result for power and control wheel

The Myth of the Criminal Justice System:

Many individuals in the community expressed that there should not have been actions to ask for Garfield’s removal.  In their perspective, it is an issue that should be left to the criminal justice system.  These individuals also argued that he is innocent until proven guilty.  Even Garfield himself called the criminal justice system sacred and said that he would remain in office as he deserved a fair trial.  This enormous faith in the criminal justice system ignores the ways in which the criminal justice system has failed poor people, women, racial minorities, and other oppressed groups.  It is true that individuals are innocent until proven guilty in our court system, but the outcomes in the criminal justice system are shaped by power, privilege, and money.   For instance, a study noted that there were 64 cases of reported domestic violence perpetrated by professional athletes in the NFL, NBA, and MLB between 2010 and 2014.  Only one of these allegations resulted in a conviction.  Athletes, politicians, celebrities, or others with wealth, resources, and prestige are treated very differently in the criminal justice system.

Furthermore, the criminal justice system has not and often does not, take domestic violence and sexual assault as seriously as it should.  The feminist movement and the movement against domestic violence and sexual assault has worked for decades to be taken seriously by the criminal justice system.  It is important to note that for most of U.S. history, wife beating was viewed as the legitimate right of a husband.  While wife beating has been illegal since the 1920s, it was not until the 1970s that law enforcement began viewing domestic violence as something more than just a private, family matter thanks to the effort of feminists to educate and organize around the issue.  It was not until 1994 that the Violence Against Women Act was passed, which included the first federal laws against battering as well as provisions to fund shelters, legal aid, and other victim services.  Although there have been many gains in how the criminal justice system handles domestic violence, there is still much to be done.  One in four women experience domestic violence in their lifetime and each day, three women are murdered by their partners.  Only one in four incidences of domestic violence are actually reported to the police and in a study that appeared in Psychology Today, only three out of five domestic violence calls to the police resulted in an arrest.  The same study reported that only 2% of domestic violence offenders received any jail time.  In South Carolina, a study found that 40% of the domestic violence cases handled by the General Sessions Court since 2012 were dismissed.  There are many reasons for these numbers.  Domestic violence cases may be hard to prosecute because they occur within the home, often without witnesses.  Since few offenders actually see jail time (over 90% did not in the Psychology Today study) it may seem pointless to call in the first place.  African Americans, Native Americans, and other oppressed groups may fear calling the police due to negative experiences with the police.  Skepticism regarding the criminal justice system is understandable based upon these statistics.

Aside from the fact that the criminal justice system fails victims, the argument that the community should take a hands off approach is disempowering.  Any thinking person should be able to make conclusions about a public figure based upon police reports and reports in the media.  While ordinary citizens do not have all of the facts, the facts that are available are pretty damning.  It is a serious matter that an elected official reportedly pointed a gun at his fiance, bit her, and left the scene while intoxicated.  Just as you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, you don’t need a judge or jury to form an opinion on what appears to be a very serious and terrible incident of domestic violence.  Having an opinion is not anathema to believing in a fair trial.  Holding a public official, or any abuser, accountable, is not opposed to belief in working with the court system.  The “hands off, innocent until proven guilty” argument deflates the potential for social organizing.  Social organizing is important since if these recent events have taught us anything, it is that there is a need to continue to educate our community about domestic violence and work to end it.

Moving Forward:


On Monday, the Feminist Justice League will be meeting to discuss future actions related to this case.  We will likely be calling for activists to attend the court hearings wearing purple.  Other actions will also be discussed at that time.  On Monday, I will also be appearing on Henry Bank’s radio program at 4 pm.  In fact, this article was developed so that I could better organize my thoughts before appearing on the radio.  Moving forward, I hope that we are able to support the victim in this situation, but also draw lessons from what has happened so that a positive change can be made in the community.  Changing how domestic violence is talked about, holding public officials and abusers accountable, while identifying the ways in which our criminal justice system is imperfect are important components of future organizing.

Information in this article was drawn from:


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One thought on “Lessons and Myths About Domestic Violence From the Case of Graham Garfield

  1. Rowan Leigh on said:

    In regards to the “myth of the single incident”:

    You don’t have much in this section, so I would like to share my story here. It relates to Graham Garfield, and I haven’t talked about it publicly much, although I did open up to his ex-fiance, and I informed prosecutors in Garfield’s case about what happened to me.

    In early 2013, I went to a United Council of UW Students convention at UW-Madison. We were doing lobbying training over the weekend before lobbying legislators on a Monday. I was assigned to a training group with Graham, who I had met before on several occasions. He seemed like a fairly decent guy.

    Now, I made some questionable decisions that weekend and I’m not going to pretend I was behaving like a responsible adult. I was 20, I was drinking, and I got extremely drunk during the partying that went on at the hotel. I was hanging out with a new friend I had made, and Graham and a few of his friends offered to take a walk around the hotel with me to help me sober up a little. It’s important to note that all of them were also inebriated. This was something I definitely needed. Graham had mentioned his then-girlfriend several times throughout that day, and he had seemed like a solid, non-threatening guy. So, I agreed to walk with them.

    I told my friend I was going to go for a walk with these guys and I did. The next bit is slightly a blur, because again, I was very drunk. I remember walking, and I remember ending up in their hotel room talking with all the guys. I remember them smoking a bowl of weed while I kinda sat there.

    Next thing I noticed, the other guys had taken off for some reason and it was just me and Graham. I was sitting in a chair, and he was looming over me. He went in for a kiss and I pushed him away. I remember saying “I thought you had a girlfriend,” to which he replied, “it’s fine, she cheats on me all the time.” I then told him that even so, I didn’t want to kiss him. He took off my shirt somehow, despite my drunken flailings trying to push him off me.

    He continued to try to jam his tongue in my mouth as he pinned me down and started taking off my bra while I shouted “no” at him. Midway through that, the door of the hotel slams open, and two of the biggest guys I’ve ever seen came in, along with the friend I had left earlier. They pulled Graham off of me and my friend took me out of there. I’m pretty sure if they hadn’t come in when they did, Graham would have tried to rape me.

    The next day, his friends came up to me and apologized for leaving me alone with him. They told me that all day, Graham had told them that I was “super into” him, and they assumed that I wanted to be left alone with him. When they had run into my friend after leaving us alone in the hotel room, she asked where I was, and they told her, at which point she had cleared up that I had NEVER indicated any interest in Graham. My friend found the two biggest guys there, and brought them with, and Graham’s friends let them into the room.

    I didn’t get raped that night, and I wasn’t left with any real physical evidence of the attempt. I was drinking underage, and I also had a bit of a reputation for drunken hookups. I’m not ashamed of my youthful promiscuity, but it definitely damaged my credibility as a sexual assault victim. In fact, even my friends questioned me about whether or not I might have “sent the wrong signal” to Graham. They believed me when I said I was positive that I hadn’t indicated interest, and I honestly don’t blame them for having asked me.

    Bottom line though, I wasn’t a credible victim/witness, and I had been drinking (to excess) while underage. My friend had some similar credibility issues. I decided I wasn’t going to press the issue, and that I would just try to forget about it. I worked with Graham the rest of the weekend on the lobbying stuff, and tried to push down my emotions on it. I ended up sobbing in between lobbying sessions that Monday. Needless to say, I took no legal action.

    Cut to a couple years later, when I see Graham is running for public office. I thought about contacting the local news, but ultimately was too afraid of the public humiliation if/when I wasn’t believed about this thing that had happened to me. I also thought(hoped?) that what had happened to me was an anomaly, and that Graham had changed as a person.

    Next cut to me seeing on his fiance’s facebook that they were engaged. I wanted to contact her to tell her not to do it, but I had no reason to think she would believe me. It would have been the word of the man she wanted to marry versus a girl who had a history of drunken promiscuity. (This is not a criticism of her, by the way, just my own assessment of my credibility.) Again, I hoped, if they were engaged, he was probably a better person now.

    I thought about what happened to me a number of times over the 4 years between Graham’s assault on me and his assault on his fiance, and what always stuck in my head that made me want to say something was how his attempted rape of me seemed so planned out. He had set things up with his friends so that they thought I wanted to hook up with him. He spent the whole day setting it up, from what I could tell. Moreover, his selection of me as a target seemed suspect. As I’ve mentioned, I had about as little credibility in that sort of situation as any girl could have.

    These are things that habitual predators do. They know how to select victims, and they plan out how not to get caught. Graham didn’t impulsively try to push me in a corner, he arranged things so that we would be alone, and so that he would have cover if anyone asked why we were alone together. Further, Graham had cultivated an image of authority and respectability for himself, which would have made someone like me coming forward be even less credible.

    So when I saw what Graham did to his fiance, I went into shock, but I wasn’t surprised. In some ways, I blamed myself. I had kept silent for 4 years, and his behavior had escalated to horrifying violence. I reached out to Graham’s ex-fiance, and she helped me come to terms with things a bit. She told me that no one was responsible for what happened except for Graham, and that she couldn’t say if she would have believed me or not had I told her sooner.

    I’m still working to not blame myself for my silence. I know that I likely couldn’t have changed anything, but I wonder how many other women were hurt by Graham between my assault and the one that got him arrested. I feel fairly confident in my guess that I wasn’t his first victim. What he did to me seemed practiced, as if he knew what to do in order to get away with it. I also don’t have illusions that he only attacked two women ever. The level of escalation between my attack and that on his fiance, and the 4 year gap in between, are pretty good indicators that he is a serial offender.

    I haven’t gone public with my story before, and posting this here might not be very public, but I hope others who were hurt by Graham might see this and know that someone understands their silence and that what happened to Graham’s fiance isn’t their fault for staying quiet. It’s no one’s fault but his.


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