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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:



March Activist Notes

March Activist Notes

H. Bradford


March was another busy month!  I can’t believe that it is already over.  Now, I didn’t attend every event that happened this month.  That would be impossible.  I also didn’t attend every event that I could have attended this month.  That would require a revolutionary zeal that I simply don’t possess.  I took time to bird watch, paint bird houses, edit a book I have been working on, and attend the ballet.  I also took walks, wasted time, and socialized.  So, this sample is not all of the events that happened in the Northland this month.  It is not even the most important events that happened this month!  It is a sample of a few things that transpired so that those who missed them can get an idea of what they missed out on.

Berta Vive in Duluth: March 5th

Berta Caceres was assassinated on March 2nd, 2016.  She was an indigenous environmental activist who stood up against the neoliberal plot to build a hydroelectric dam in Rio Blanco, Honduras.   Following the 2009 coup which Hilary Clinton’s state department legitimized if not supported, violence against activists has increased.  Caceres, a critic of Clinton, was one of many victims of this violence.  Witness for Peace is taking a delegation to Honduras this spring, so in honor of Berta, but also to promote the upcoming trip, they hosted this event.  The event featured a panel of previous Witness for Peace delegates.  This was a great way to start International Women’s Day week, since it connected the struggles of women in other countries to our own brutal foreign policy.  Feminism should be for everyone, not just American women.  Our foreign policy is anathema to feminism.

Berta Caceres 2015 Goldman Environmental Award Recipient

International Women’s Day: March 8th

On March 8th, the Feminist Justice League hosted a 78 minute symbolic strike in solidarity with International Women’s Day events around the world.  The strike was meant to highlight the wage gap between men and women.  If one compares the median income of a man versus a woman, women make about 80% of the income that men make on average in a year (80% is the newest statistic, but 78 is still often quoted).   There are many reasons for this.  For one, women are not valued, so their labor is less valued.  Careers which attract women tend to be lower paid and less esteemed.  Because the United States is one of the few countries in the world which does not provide paid maternity leave, women must leave the labor force when they have children.  This also diminishes wages.   Women are more likely to do unpaid labor and care for children as single parents.  This too, diminishes their economic power.   It was extremely cold and windy on March 8th, but a few dozen intrepid protestors braved the cold for the whole 78 minutes.  At various intervals, we banged on a pot and announced the wage gap between various racial minorities and white men.  The banging on the pot was met with “boos!” as we expressed our outrage over the racist, ageist, and sexist wage gap.  Black women make about 63% of the median income of white men and Hispanic women make 54%.  Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders make 60% of the income of white men and Native Americans make 58%.  Women over the age of 55 make about 74% of the income of white men the same age.   Wage parity is important since it highlights the economic foundations of sexism (and for that matter racism).   The event was followed by a panel discussion, which explored other facets of labor.  I especially enjoyed when Ariel spoke about sex work and stripping.  She provided a balanced view of the pros and cons of the industry, her struggles and successes as a stripper (especially with stigma), and a call to legitimize all the work women do.    Kristi provided great information about Earned Safe and Sick Time in Duluth and Katie Humphrey spoke about how women benefit from unions.  A great discussion followed.  On April 4th, there will be another wage parity event in Duluth, hosted by AAUW.


Feminist Frolic:  Labor History Walk + Discussion

Once a month, the Feminist Justice League hosts a feminist frolic, which involves an outdoor activity and a discussion.  This month, Adam was going to present on the labor history of Superior while doing a short walk.   Only three people showed up, so we decided to table the event for a later time.  However, about an hour later, two more people showed up, so I did a presentation of socialist feminism at the Solidarity House.


13th Documentary: March 13

Superior Save the Kids hosted a documentary showing of 13th.   I enjoyed that the documentary was dense with history and information, yet easily digestible.  It wove a tight narrative of how the criminal justice system is fundamentally racist.  For instance, African Americans make up 6.5% of our population, but 40% of the prison population.  It is startling to think that there are more prisoners today then there were slaves during the Civil War.   The United States is 5% of the world’s population, but hosts 25% of the world’s prison population.   According to the film, the rise of the prison industry was a way to profit while oppressing racial minorities (and really everyone as we are all to varying degrees oppressed by a system that divides us, threatens us, and profits from our punishment).  To this end, the “scary black man” had to be invented.  Thus, around the turn of the last century,  a narrative that black men were rapists, out of control, and associated with criminality was concocted.  This narrative legitimized the KKK and racist mobs (such as the racist mob which hung Clayton, Jackson, and McGhie in Duluth).  The Civil Rights movement challenged outright violence against and segregation of black people, but violence and segregation have continued through the criminal justice system.  For instance, in 1970, the prison population was about 350,000 people.  Today, there are states with higher prison populations than that number!  By 1980, there were 500,000 people in prison.  The war on drug, which penalized crack cocaine harder than other drugs, as well as cuts to social programs, ushered in an era of explosive prison population growth.  By the mid 1980s, over 700,000 people were imprisoned.  By 1990, the number was over one million.  In 2000, the number reached 2 million.  The Clintons were complicit in this surge, as Bill Clinton wanted to be tough on crime.  Through his Crime Bill and other polices, he supported extra police, the militarization of the police, the construction of extra prisons, mandatory minimum sentences, truth in sentencing (which limits parole), etc.  Hillary called black youth “super preditors.”  I have no illusions with the Democratic party.  But, to be fair, Trump wanted the death penalty for youth.   The movie also pointed out that the mass incarceration of African Americans has resulted in a crisis of leadership or less ability to organize themselves for their own rights.  There was also information about ALEC, for profit prisons, and the movement of individualizing prison through GPS tracking/ankle bracelets.   I had to work that night, so I missed the discussion, but it was a powerful and informative film.  Save the Kids hopes to continue to show films on a monthly basis.  On April 10th, Selma will be shown.


Bi with (Pizza) Pie:  Trans in Prison- March 20th

Each month, Pandemonium, the local Bi+ group gets together for a presentation on a topic.  This month, Lucas Dietsche led the discussion with a presentation on the challenges that trans individuals face in the criminal justice system.  He gave a very informed and engaging presentation on this topic.   Some of the challenges include getting sent to a prison that misgenders the individual (so typically transwomen end up in men’s prisons or transwomen in men’s prisons), lack of access to hormones or other treatments, sexual assault, solitary confinement, lack of access to gender specific items such as bras, solitary confinement, and use of a legal name rather than preferred name or pronouns.  When writing to trans prisoners, Lucas noted that the writer can not address the envelope or letter to the preferred name of the individual.  The DOC requires that senders must use the legal name of the prisoner.  He also noted that the DOC does not track trans individuals since it does not view them as trans.  Rather, it lists them as their legal or birth sex.  Thus, it is hard to know exactly how many trans individuals are in the prison system as the system renders them invisible.   Lucas also mentioned some examples of trans people in prison or who have been in prison, such as Cece McDonald and Chelsea Manning.   In the future, we would like to host an LGBTQ Letters to Prisoners Event.


UMD Women and Gender Studies Presentation: March 21st

I was invited to speak at a Feminist Activism and Community Organizing Class at UMD.  This was a great experience.  I spent the hour speaking about how theory informs the organizational tools that I chose to utilize as a feminist.  I spoke about socialist feminism and my focus on building mass movements over electoral politics.   The coolest part was that one of the students had read one of my blog posts prior to my visit to the class!

Socialism and a Slice: March 27

One a month, Socialist Action hosts Socialism and a Slice.  This is an event for local activists to get together and enjoy pizza while discussing current events.  At this meeting, Henry Banks provided us with some information about Uber.  He made a strong argument against Uber on the basis that it is not regulated, it can drive up the price of taxis, and that taxis themselves are often utilized by people of color and low income individuals (contrasted with Uber which has more middle class white appeal).   Taxi companies are more likely to be unionized than Uber and Adam R. pointed out that during Trump’s immigration ban, Uber continued providing ride services while NY taxi drivers were on strike.   Later, Uber undercut taxi drivers who returned to work by turning off surge pricing (that is, when taxi demand goes up, prices tend to go up). This disgusting scabbing should be enough to turn a person off of Uber for good, as it seems that Uber only supports society’s “ubers” and uber profits.  Unfortunately, Duluth’s City Council passed a resolution in support of ride share companies later that night.

Homeless Bill of Rights:

The Homeless Bill of Rights meets each Thursday at 6:30 at Dorothy Day House.  I did not become involved with the group until October, but the organization has been tirelessly and relentlessly working on this issue since 2013.  Finally, after all this time, the Homeless Bill or Rights is finally moving forward.  Two important things happened this month.  Firstly, the Duluth City Council voted that they wanted to move forward or for action to occur related to the bill.  Although this doesn’t mean too much, it does mean that they are looking to see some sort of progress on this issue in the future and are committed to being a part of that.  Another hopeful turn of events is that the Human Rights Commission voted to support the language and eleven points of the Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights.  They also support this as an ordinance or a template for moving forward with an ordinance.  This does not mean that this will be the ordinance that the City Council eventually vote on, as this requires further negotiation.  However, it is a nice step forward.

14702377_1240475885996242_1996750558988644607_n  This is a promotional photo taken by the Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights Coalition.  The featured individual is an activist who is engaged in this campaign and who has spoken about her experiences (Shareeka), though many individuals had their photos taken to promote the ordinance.

Hotdish Militia:

The Hotdish Militia has continued to meet each Thursday at 5:30.  The big project that the group is working on is a Bowl-a-thon to raise funds in support of local abortion access at the Women’s Health Center.   The funds go directly to local, low income women (or possibly men/trans/gender non-binary) so they can afford an abortion or other reproductive health care.  Right now, we are working on raising funds, but also soliciting businesses for prizes to award the teams.  The bowling event will be held on April 29th.  Thus far, the fundraiser has raised over 2000 dollars.  The goal is $5000.  My own modest team, The Feminist Justice League, has raised over $400.  While we are not the biggest fundraisers, I am proud that we have raised anything at all and thankful to the donors who have supported us!

to support us:


Doctrine of Discovery:  3/30/17

Peace United Church hosted a showing of the documentary, Doctrine of Discovery.  The film is about how Papal law from the late 1400s has been used to justify the denial of land rights and self-determination of Native Americans.   Catholic law has been the basis of U.S. policy regarding Native Americans throughout our entire history.  Basically, Catholics did not recognize the right of Native Americans to own their land.  Rather, as “heathens” they were viewed as subhumans who benefited from civilization and who did not have rights to the land because they were not making “productive use” of it.  As late as 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court (Ruth Bader Ginsburg no less) has upheld this archaic worldview.  In fact, this worldview is the foundation of the United State’s very existence.  To recognize the property rights of Native Americans would challenge capitalism and the taken for granted right of white people to inhabit/exploit this land.  The documentary was awesome and I enjoyed the thoughtful discussion that followed.   I also enjoyed learning the origins of some words.  For instance, colonization comes from the word colon.  To colonize is to digest.  What a powerful metaphor.  Europeans digested Native Americans by consuming their land, taking their lives, and destroying their culture.

Trans Visibility Day: 3/31/17

The month ended with a picket in support of Trans Visibility Day.   Trans Visibility Day was founded in 2009 in the United States to promote positive visibility of the trans community (as opposed to Trans Remembrance Day which is focused on violence against and victimization of trans individuals).  Locally, the event was sponsored by the Prism Community, though I believe that other groups such as Trans+ and UWS Gender Equity Resource Center were also involved.  The event which I attended was a picket, but the previous night there was a poster making session and later on Friday evening, Prism sponsored a film showing of National Geographic’s Gender Revolution.  I did not attend the film.  However, the picket was very well attended.  It was great to see so many young people, especially high school students.  I also liked all the glitter and colorful hair!  There was a lot of positive energy!  Many vehicles honked in support of the event and I only noticed a few pedestrians and one driver making rude gestures or comments.   This was my first time attending Trans Visibility Day and it was a great experience.  I also received a few compliments on my sign!

Self Care:

I am not a superhuman, so I did take time for myself.   I had a fabulous time attending the MN Ballet’s Firebird.  What is better than Stravinsky, Russian folk tales, and my favorite kick ass lich Koschei?!  I also visited St. Croix State Park.  I saw two fields of tundra swans near the park.  Today, I did some birding at WI Point and saw many common mergansers.  I also painted some bird houses and worked on editing one of the vampire novels I’ve written.  I wish there were more hours in the day.  I didn’t have enough time to read or pursue other hobbies.   Oh well.  It was a great month and I am looking forward to a fun filled, activist driven April!

Activist Notes: Solidarity Valentine Cards to Prisoners


Activist Notes: Solidarity Valentine Cards to Prisoners

H. Bradford


On February 13th, the Feminist Justice League (formerly the Twin Ports Women’s Rights Coalition), collaborated with Letters to Prisoners and Superior Save the Kids to do a solidarity Valentine card event.  The event was attended by about nine individuals, who met at the Superior Public Library for an hour and a half as they wrote letters and sent cards to various incarcerated individuals.   The event was a great way to celebrate Valentine’s Day and produced a large pile of letters.  As I report back on this event, I wanted to share a little history and why this is a feminist issue.

Now, when I pitched the idea to Meghan, the organizer for Letters to Prisoners, she was a little worried that the idea of women sending Valentine cards to prisoners was a little….iffy.  Not that there is anything wrong with women forming relationships with men who are in prison, but this sort of letter writing doesn’t seem like a particularly feministy activity.  In a way, this represents how it is almost impossible to think about Valentine’s Day in a non-romantic way!  Valentine Cards are almost always about romantic love.  (Though in my own card shopping this year, I was surprised to find that there are a fair amount of Valentine Cards sold on behalf of cats and dogs…)  In any event, it was very important to make clear that this event was not about romance.  It was about sending cards that express love for freedom, social justice, humanity, and a better world.  Hence, these were solidarity Valentine cards.

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Sending cards to prisoners on Valentine’s Day makes a lot of sense to me.  Now, eons ago, I used to be a Lutheran.  Lutherans aren’t known for their support of Saints (hence, the whole protestant reformation).  However, I remember in confirmation class I learned about Saint Valentine, probably around Valentine’s Day.   I learned that he was imprisoned for performing Christian weddings in the pagan Roman Empire and sent a letter to his followers before his execution.   Even Catholics don’t know if St. Valentine actually existed as a historical individual.  According to the Catholic Education Resource Center, the first person named St. Valentine was beheaded on Feb 14th 270 AD for comforting Christian martyrs.  There are two other saints named Valentine, one who was killed in Africa and another who was a Bishop in Terni (north of Rome).   It is the Bishop from Terni who may be the Valentine most associated with the holiday, as he allegedly married couples and thusly became the patron saint of young people, marriage, and love.  He is also the saint of bee keeping, epilepsy, and plagues, though these don’t sound quite as romantic.  Like the original Valentine, his feast day was February 14th.   In some stories, he either befriended or was romantically involved with the daughter of his jailer/judge, but this may have been a later addition to his story.  Over time, the story and feast day became more closely associated with romance rather than Christian martyrdom.   The romantic associations with the holiday may have come from other holidays, such as the Roman holiday of Lupercalia (which involved match making) between Feb 13-15 and Galatin’s Day (lover of women day).

Like Halloween, Christmas, and Thanksgiving, modern Valentine’s Day took off in the United States mid to late 1800s.  This was bolstered by the industrial revolution, which allowed for the mass production of media, gift items, and cards (a boon for popularizing holidays).  Like the other holidays, the modern celebrations was also buoyed by increased space for secularism in society.   It would be interesting to write a history of Valentine’s Day, but for lack of space and time, suffice to say the holiday has had some romantic connotations since the beginning, but if the story is boiled down to its most basic elements it is a story of a man who is imprisoned and executed by a powerful empire on the basis of religious belief.   It is a story about capital punishment and religious intolerance.  Christianity may be the dominant religion in this country today, but religious persecution certainly continues through the violence, incarceration, and surveillance of Muslims in our country as well as recent attempts to ban Muslims from entering the country.   In terms of capital punishment, the United States is the only country in the Americas that executed prisoners in 2015.  Most industrialized countries have abolished the death penalty, so although we are among the 54 countries that practice capital punishment- most of the other countries are our so-called enemies…you know, the poor countries that we want to bring democracy to in the Middle East and Africa.  Because of the actual history of St. Valentine, I think that the holiday provides a great opportunity to put a spotlight on our criminal justice system.

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I have only gone to a few Letters to Prisoners events, but a person can learn a lot about our criminal justice system by simply sending a letter or card.  For instance, although the event was pitched as a Valentine card making event, prisoners are not allowed to receive glittery, pretty, colorful handmade cards.  The cards must be done in black and white ink.  Likewise, the prisoners can not receive letters with colorful birds or flowers.  The stamps must be Forever FLAG stamps.  Officially, this is to control what kinds of stamps are sent to prevent drugs from being sent in the guise of stamps.  But really?  Really?  Forever FLAG stamps.  I think this sends a powerful message that they are owned and controlled by the United States.  The letters are stamped with mandatory patriotism.  I also observed that most of the prisons are in the south of the United States.  For instance, I sent cards to four political prisoners with birthdays in February.  Three of the four were in prisons in the southern U.S.   The south has the largest prison population.  There are 867,000 prisoners in Louisiana, Alabama has 677,000 prisoners, and Mississippi has 740,000 prisoners.  Georgia has over 550,000 prisoners and Texas 669,000.  Minnesota has 194,00 and California 365,000.  The states with the highest prison populations have the poorest populations and a history of slavery.   While the bulk of the U.S. prison population lives in the south, as a whole, the United States has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prison population.  We have more prisons than colleges.  Finally, many of the political prisoners that I have written to have been imprisoned for decades.  Many, like Leonard Peltier, will likely die in prison.  If we look to our neighbors in the Americas, many countries limit life sentences.  In Brazil,  Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Uruguay the maximum prison sentence is 30 years.  It is 25 years in Paraguay and 35 years in Ecuador.  I find it ironic that many of the countries that the United States has tried to bring democracy to through supported coups and military training are actually more democratic and humane that our own country.

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To connect the issue more closely to feminism specifically, I had my friend Lucas construct a list of female prisoners for participants to write to.  Participants in the letter writing event chose from this list or sought other lists from online.  While the United States hosts 25% of the world’s prison population, if we looked at the world’s female prison population, we detain 33% of the world’s female prisoners.  It is astonishing to think that 1/3 of all of the women in prison, in the entire world, are held in the United States.  While we did not discuss female specific issues related to prisoners at the event, there are some unique challenges that female prisoners face.  For one, while prisoners should legally have the right, this has been denied to women.  States such as Georgia, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Missouri have no policy regarding pregnancy, which leaves the decision in the hands of correctional facilities.  In the past, correctional facilities in Arizona and Missouri have refused to transport female prisoners for abortion procedures.  Of course, barriers that all women face in obtaining abortion pertain to imprisoned women as well, including waiting periods, mandatory ultrasounds, limited access in some parts of the country, parental consent, etc.  Female inmates with children must navigate custody issues and expensive phone calls if they want to remain in touch with their children.   A collect phone call from a prison in Minnesota costs about 75 cents a minute, but in Kentucky, the cost is $5.70 a minute!  In North Dakota, the cost is over $6.00 a minute!  These costs are expensive because prisons have contracts with phone companies, which offer kickbacks to the agency that contracted with them.  From my own experience working in a domestic violence shelter, many of the women who come to shelter have criminal histories.  However, some of this includes arrests for assaults that were really actions taken for self-defense.  These criminal backgrounds make it harder to obtain housing, as it may disqualify them from some programs or make landlords less willing to rent to them.  It also makes employment more difficult, as only the lowest paid sectors of the service industry will hire them.  This creates barriers for escaping domestic violence and building a life outside of crime and poverty for their family.  But, gender aside, as human beings, we are all diminished by a racist, ableist, and classist criminal justice system which divides us, removes sectors of the population away from their families and communities, and steals the lives of fellow humans at a profit to corporations!

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