On January 20, her next day in court, Bresha Meadows will have spent 175 days behind bars. Last summer, when she was only 14 years old, Meadows was arrested for allegedly shooting her father to death as he lay sleeping. Meadows and her family maintain that the girl, her siblings, and her mother were subject to years of his brutal abuse and say she was acting in self-defense—not just to protect herself, but to save her family members, as well.
It's an account that's backed up by court records, including an order of protection that Meadows' mother, Brandi, filed in 2011. According to news accounts, Meadows often found herself on the other end of the barrel; the gun she used to do the deed was one her father allegedly used to taunt and coerce his family.
Meadows is being tried for aggravated murder, but her supporters see her as a victim—both of her father's abuse, and of a series of callous and unjust institutions. According to news accounts, Meadows twice ran away to her aunt, a police officer, to ask for help. Her aunt notified social services, but the social workers reportedly interviewed Meadows' parents together, making a disclosure of domestic violence all but impossible. And, despite potential red flags of abuse, including her dropping grades, nobody else in Meadows' life attempted to intervene.
In recent months, campaigners have been pushing to secure Meadows' release and petitioning the court for all charges to be dropped, arguing that she was failed by the agencies that were supposed to protect her, and resorted to extreme measures in the hopes of staying safe. "Her case is really notable in that she actually tried to escape her abusive household," said Alisa Bierria, a member of Survived and Punished, a collective that is working to end the criminalization of survivors of domestic and sexual violence. She told Broadly that Meadows' story was one of desperation: "It looks like the way the story goes down is that there was nothing else she could do to protect herself and her family from the extreme violence that they were living under."
The court recently decided that Meadows will be tried as a juvenile, meaning that at most she will be locked up until her 21st birthday, and won't be held in an adult facility. But even one more day behind bars is too long for a child who should be receiving counseling and support for the trauma she endured, according to her supporters. At the hearing on January 20, Meadows' lawyer will petition for her to be released until trial.
For many of those who advocate for survivors of intimate partner violence and sexual assault, the prosecution of Bresha Meadows is a crime in and of itself: proof that the right to self-defense is bestowed upon only certain kinds of bodies, and certainly not black women and girls. But why do so many victims of violence, especially women of color, end up getting criminalized when they should be getting help? And what needs to change so that survivors who resort to self-defense are recognized for who they are?
There was nothing else she could do to protect herself and her family from the extreme violence that they were living under.
"Women of color are often not read as genuine victims," explained Bierria—even though they are more likely to face lethal violence. According to the Department of Justice, black women are two times more likely than their white counterparts to be killed by a spouse, and four times more likely to be murdered by a boyfriend or girlfriend. On the Survived and Punished website, which lists the organization's existing campaigns to free survivors who have been criminalized, most of the cases listed involve women of color.
The overwhelming majority of women in prison have survived physical or sexual abuse as children (82 percent), as well as intimate partner violence as an adult (75 percent), suggesting that survivors are tracked into the criminal justice system through many routes, not just self-defense. As Beth Richie tracked in her seminal text, Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence and America's Prison Nation, black women also end up behind bars after being coerced into the drug trade or sex work. Women fleeing violent relationships might resort to shoplifting or theft in order to survive.
"If we know that the vast majority of women in prison are surviving of sexual and domestic violence before they get into prison," said Bierria, "then there's clearly some kind of relationship between the experience of surviving violence and the experience of being targeted for criminalization."
For centuries, all women were denied protection from the violence they might face at the hands of their loved ones. It wasn't until the mid-1970s, for example, that states began to strip the "marital exemption" from their criminal statues, which enabled husbands to assault their wives without legal consequence.
But the longstanding criminalization of black survivors warrants its own attention. In a 2015 essay on the case of Marissa Alexander, a black woman who faced up to 60 years in prison for firing a warning shot at her abusive husband, Wesleyan professor Kali Nicole Gross argued that the US has "a legacy of an exclusionary politics" when it comes to protecting black women. Since the days of slavery, she noted, black women have been subjected to "brutality and exploitation" but denied any "lawful avenue for redress." The result, for centuries, has been that black women who suffer violence are often doubly victimized: first by their assailants, then by a legal system that fails to protect them and punishes them when they attempt to protect themselves.
"This continues and prevents black women, after slavery, from being able to obtain justice," Gross told Broadly. "Those ideas about black womanhood hold, and they become codified in practices by police and the justice system."
If history laid the groundwork for the criminalization of black survivors, mainstream media narratives have done little to change the issue. Victoria Law is a freelance journalist who has written extensively about domestic violence victims who end up behind bars, including Bresha Meadows. Last summer, she wrote a story for Rewire that extensively explored the abusive dynamics in the Meadows' home, as well as Bresha's efforts to get help.
The police failed her, child welfare failed her, her aunts were unable to protect her, nobody at the school did anything for her.
Brandi Meadows' sister, Martina Latessa, told Law that her brother-in-law "once punched his wife so hard that she heard her teeth crack," and that he also "slammed her head into the wall, stomped on her, and kicked her in the face." According to Latessa, Jonathan Meadows also threatened his wife and their children with a gun: "He told her, 'I will kill your fucking kids. You will watch your kids die. That is the last thing you'll see."
The first time Bresha ran away, her father called the police and said that Latessa had kidnapped his daughter. The second time she ran away, Latessa called social services—but the visit from social workers only escalated the abuse. Latessa told Law that she didn't think Jonathan hit his children. "But they were belittled, ridiculed, and controlled"—and of course witnessed years of brutal abuse.
There is no data available on how many people are in prison for defending themselves against abuse, according to Law, so it's difficult to identify the full extent of the problem, or identify relevant cases to write about.
Reporting on criminalized survivors poses a lot of technical challenges, explained Law, but outlets have often failed to understand the dynamics of abuse or how to corroborate them. According to data presented recently to Law by an inspector the NYPD's Domestic Violence Unit, in 70 percent of city homicides attributed to domestic violence, the victim had never previously filed a police report. That means that even when people resort to self-defense in the face of lethal violence, they might not have "evidence" to easily corroborate their accounts. Certain populations—including people of color, queer and trans folk, the undocumented, and those with mental health issues—may be especially reluctant to contact the police out of fear that they won't be believed, that the cops will escalate the situation, or that involving law enforcement could put them or their family in danger.
It's not as though the courts magically came to the right decision, as if there weren't months of years of community organizing that got the case to that point.
"For a 14-year-old, the solution after the police failed her, child welfare failed her, her aunts were unable to protect her, nobody at the school did anything for her, was not to confront her abuser," said Law, "but to do so when she has the most chance of being able to succeed."
The systemic racism and indifference of state institutions are one reason why Black women and girls like Meadows are at such great risk. That the police and the courts appear so indifferent to black women's safety "makes them more vulnerable and susceptible to violence, including deadly or lethal violence," said Gross. "I think the two are intimately related."
Today is the National Day of Action to #FreeBresha, a solidarity campaign that aims to secure Meadows' release. In addition to participating in today's action, Survived and Punished are organizing a full week of actions (from January 19–27) to highlight other survivors whose criminal cases are at a crucial point. This kind of mobilization is integral to getting people out, said advocates. As Bierria pointed out, in cases where survivors are ultimately freed, like that of Marissa Alexander or CeCe McDonald, it's not as though "the courts magically came to the right decision, as if there weren't months of years of community organizing that got the case to that point."
Asked about how Bresha Meadows was faring on the inside, a representative from the #FreeBresha campaign said that she "is of course struggling because of the horrific experiences she's been through." Supporters hope that tomorrow, Meadows will finally be allowed to come home.
It is all but impossible to imagine what Bresha Meadows might have been thinking or feeling in the early hours of that fateful July morning. In an August interview with Fox 8, Brandi Meadows sobbed as she spoke about her daughter's bravery. "She is my hero," she said. "I wasn't strong enough to get out and she helped me."