It is 2018, and you are walking to work in downtown Brooklyn. It’s a warm fall day, and the faint scent of marijuana wafts from the street corner. Piles of black trash bags line the sidewalks. Mothers pass by with their children in tow, rushing them to school. You’re approaching your office, which is right by the Jay Street subway station. You’re thinking about everything on your plate: your client is waiting for you to prep for trial. She’s been in court for months fighting for custody of her children, and an order of protection against her ex-husband. You’re thinking of the questions you’ll need to ask her, mentally reviewing the pieces of evidence you’ll want to introduce. The photo of the walls after he’d punched them. A picture of a bruise forming around her neck after the strangulation.
Suddenly, you’re brought back to reality by the sound of yells. You see a man and a woman facing each other. The man becomes more and more aggressive, and he starts to push her. There’s a second man there, and he’s trying to stop his friend from advancing. He’s standing between them, his arms up. Hey, hey, stop, he pushes back. But he fails. The man comes towards the woman again, and this time, he grabs her, lifts her up, and hurtles her against an orange construction barrier. He throws her with such force that you yelp.
A crowd gathers. Some are filming the incident. Others seem mute. A few murmur to one another in shock. You pick up your phone and dial 911. A minute later, the man slips away and down the street. The police come just a second too late. You hear stories of abuse daily from your clients, but here was a violent incident taking place right in front of you. And you couldn’t stop it from happening.
Gondama, Sierra Leone
It’s the middle of the day in town. The Junction, an intersection at the point of the road to Bo, Salone’s second city, is the place to be. The Junction is filled with people and small roadside stalls selling fried doughnuts, packets of clean drinking water, sweet yoghurt, groundnut sauce, kola nuts, and gari. Okada drivers are passing by, dropping off passengers and recruiting new ones.
You are walking back to the NGO’s office, a small structure attached to the bare room where you rest your head at night. Before you see anything, you hear the shouts and the sounds of scuffle. You shuffle your way through the crowd of villagers that is quickly expanding. A man and a woman are fighting over what appears to be a radio. He is pushing and slapping her and she is trying to defend herself. At the next moment, she strikes back. It is like a deranged dance.
You try to catch the attention of the police, but it turns out the officers are watching the scene in plain view. They are lounging on the police station’s front porch, eating boiled groundnuts to their hearts’ content. You hesitate. By the time you summon up the courage to take action, the woman breaks away. The mob starts to disperse. It is over, for now.
You’re in the courtroom, explaining to the judge why this abuser is dangerous. He strangled her. He threw her body across the room while their toddler was next to her, and while the baby was in his crib. The judge asks, if so, why your client’s ex was never arrested. You have no idea; she has made several police reports, and they never arrested him. They only asked him to “walk around the block” or told her to go to family court for help. Your client tells you she lives in the housing projects, and the police simply don’t take complaints from the tenants there seriously.
The judge remains skeptical. He asks: if she “claims” he strangled her, why does the most recent police report read otherwise?
In domestic violence complaints, NYPD is supposed to ask a few questions about the prior history of abuse, like, has the suspect ever:
(a) Threatened to kill you or your children?
(b) Beaten you while you were pregnant?
(c) Strangled or “choked” you?
You look at the most recent police report. The answer to (c) is “NO.” You can’t begin to count how many times you have seen such inconsistencies. It could be any of a dozen reasons: the victim is in a traumatized state; the officers fail to record accurately; there are language barriers; or the victim is afraid to tell the truth.
What’s important is that she’s here, in court, telling the truth now.
Before the judge can conclude that your client is a liar, your client pushes her phone across the table. You quickly take your client’s phone and begin to scroll through her photos. Your honor, these photos show bruises and marks left by the abuser. One image shows her right cheek with a reddish bruise. Her leg, bruised and purple. Her daughter, a mark beneath her eye – a scratch left during an altercation. After this exercise in humiliation, the judge is forced to acknowledge that something is going on here.
As you leave the courtroom, your client is hurt and angry. How come he didn’t believe me? It’s not my fault the police didn’t arrest him.
I’ve gone so many times for help, and no one has helped me.
Gondama, Sierra Leone
You are sitting at your office desk, and it is another hot, languid day in the village. Suddenly, a woman runs by your office, headed straight to the police post across the street. She is sobbing and you spot that she is bleeding from an open wound on her head. You rush outside and follow her down the road, along with the community justice worker in your office. The woman tells you her husband took a large stick and beat her with it. There is a frenzied look in her eyes. She’s moving her hands, gesticulating wildly and pulling her hair.
You negotiate with the police, asking them to search for the husband immediately. But the woman shakes her head. He’s no longer at home – he probably escaped to his family’s place in the neighboring town. The police say there is nothing they can do; they do not have the resources to drive to the next town to search for the husband. They tell you that if you can come up with money for fuel, they might be able to make it happen.
The police tell you that before they can charge the husband, they need a medical certification. But it will not be free. The woman has to go to a doctor, in Bo, which is 30 minutes away, and pay what is, for her, an insurmountable sum for a medical exam. The woman cries because she cannot afford this amount. For now, she will go stay with her mother. She will, eventually, have to go back to him because—how will they survive? His meager income from working in the mines feeds the children.
The woman is still wiping blood off her face when a throng of villagers envelops her. You can no longer reach her amid the swarm that surrounds her. You can only hear the faint strains of her voice.
She is repeating her story for them—over and over and over again.