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