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Domestic Violence Survivor Tracy McCarter & Author Jocelyn Simonson on Dismantling Mass Incarceration

Web ExclusiveOctober 02, 2023
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October is National Domestic Violence Awareness and Prevention Month, and in Part 2 of our interview with domestic violence survivor Tracy McCarter, a nurse and grandmother who was jailed after her husband died of a stab wound when she defended herself during an altercation, she describes the grassroots campaign that won her freedom. She is now a registered nurse who recently completed her master’s at Columbia and just received the Truthout Center for Grassroots Journalism’s Keeley Schenwar Memorial Essay Prize for her essay, “As a Black Woman Accused of Killing a White Man, I Was Never Innocent Until Proven Guilty.” We are also joined by Jocelyn Simonson, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School who was part of the “I Stand With Tracy” campaign and features Tracy in her new book, Radical Acts of Justice: How Ordinary People Are Dismantling Incarceration.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness and Prevention Month. We’re continuing with Part 2 of our look at the remarkable story of a domestic violence survivor. Her name is Tracy McCarter. She’s a nurse, a grandmother, who was jailed after her husband died of a stab wound when she defended herself during an altercation. Her imprisonment sparked outrage across the country.

The story begins in March of 2020, when she was arrested after calling 911 to help her estranged husband, who was attacking her in her apartment. It ended November of last year, when the Manhattan district attorney asked the judge in her case to drop all charges against Tracy McCarter, after a grassroots campaign to ultimately free her.

We’re joined now by Tracy McCarter herself, a registered nurse who recently completed her master’s degree at Columbia University and also just received the Truthout Center for Grassroots Journalism’s Keeley Schenwar Memorial Essay Prize for her piece, “As a Black Woman Accused of Killing a White Man, I Was Never Innocent Until Proven Guilty.” And we’re joined by Jocelyn Simonson, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School, part of the “I Stand With Tracy” campaign, and she features Tracy McCarter in her new book, Radical Acts of Justice: How Ordinary People Are Dismantling Incarceration.

Tracy McCarter, I want to begin with you, as we did in Part 1 of this discussion. In Part 1, you went through that horrific night of March of 2020, that night where you were defending yourself against your out-of-control estranged husband. The neighbors were hearing the shouting, and after he was wounded, you saying it was completely accidental, you were protecting yourself after he had tried to strangle you. The police came because you called 911. And they arrested you. You end up at Rikers Island for six months. And let’s remember this time, March of 2020, you’re in absolute shock that you have been arrested, and you’re there at the height of COVID, and you are a nurse. If you can talk about that time? Because it’s so important also in your own life, as you didn’t want anyone to have to help you — that was your instinct, is to get by on your own, you and your children. And here was a grassroots movement that was growing around you, saying, “I stand with Tracy,” that was led by a group called Survived and Punished. If you can talk about that time, when you started to respond to them and to people saying you are not alone in this, and we want to not only publicize this because of you surviving domestic violence, but because of so many others?

TRACY McCARTER: So, when I came home from Rikers, at the time, my hospital had said that I could return to work as long as I was released. And I was attending Columbia to get my master’s degree. So my family had contacted Columbia to say, “Hey, help us, you know, support one of your students.” We had not heard back from Colombia. And what happened was something entirely different. I came home, and my hospital said that I was being put on personal leave without pay. And I waded through some emails and found out that Columbia had in fact suspended me from their program, and they said that I could not return to campus because I was being accused of gender-based misconduct. Those things —

AMY GOODMAN: Gender-based misconduct.

TRACY McCARTER: Gender misconduct, that I was victimized, yet I was being accused. And so, immediately, I felt discarded from my most important communities, the ones I thought for sure would stand up and assist me during this time.

Instead, there were these strangers that contacted me, people from the community, who said that it didn’t appear to be OK, what was happening to me. They wanted to help me figure it out. They wanted to help me ask for the charges to be dropped, you know, ask for me to return to work, fight for me in all these different fronts. And like you said, as a person who’s used to giving assistance and not receiving it, I was pretty resistant to it at first. But when I figured out that I was so far in over my head and I wasn’t going to get out of this on my own, I did reach out to them.

And, you know, we made this campaign where, you know, we said — they said, you know, some campaigns have been successful with wearing solidarity T-shirts into court. And my lawyers were, like, afraid of that, because they’re like, “It could anger the judge. We don’t know about that.” But going to court every 60 days — I had to be there to get my electronic monitoring renewed, and I continuously asked for bail — I realized that the judges already weren’t happy with me. And so, what would I risk by being bolder in my approach and showing that I, in fact, had community support? One of the lies that the prosecutor kept saying is I was such a flight risk, because I didn’t have community in New York City, when I was, in fact, not just going to work full time, getting my master’s, I was buying an apartment in Queens and planning to make New York City my home. I had been here since 2014.

And so, we started — I designed, with a friend of mine, that T-shirt. And it was important to me that it had both “Stand with Tracy” and also “Free them all,” because I realized this wasn’t something unique that was happening to me. This happens routinely with Black and Brown women especially, who aren’t allowed to invoke, you know, self-defense. New York state does allow for self-defense. If someone comes into your home and they are attacking you, you’re supposed to have the castle doctrine say, “I have no duty to flee. If I am in danger, I get to use up to and including lethal, like, force to defend myself.” And yet, we see over and over again that’s not allowed for women who look like me.

And so, having people who absolutely saw me, who didn’t just discard me simply because I had been — had handcuffs put on me, it was powerfully empowering. And it taught me a lesson that not only am I worthy to ask for help, that there’s strength in asking for help. And I think that’s one of the most important messages I want to make sure that I get across, is that I became stronger by relying on my community and their strengths to come forward and help me fight for my life, because, let’s be clear, I was still in a fight for my life.

AMY GOODMAN: Tracy McCarter, so you graduated in May from Columbia graduate school and shared a photograph showing you in your cap and gown. You’re wearing also a black banner that reads, “Columbia U failed to support this criminalized DV survivor. I graduated anyway!” the light blue gown with the black banner. You wore that as you crossed the stage to get your diploma. Can you talk about the response to that and how you felt making that statement?

TRACY McCARTER: Yes. So, by the time I — I had to actually fight Columbia to get reinstated. And I did so by simply highlighting — I literally highlighted page 12 of the student conduct handbook — misconduct handbook, that they sent to me. And it said they should try to preserve my right to my education, as long as no other students were being put in danger. And by that time, all of Columbia’s classes were by Zoom. And I thought, “So, how can I hurt someone from my own apartment?” And I forced them, through meetings, to acknowledge that this was, in fact, their policy.

By the time they reinstated me, I didn’t even want the degree. But it was important to me that I make them allow me to finish. And so I did, while fighting for my life, while preparing for trial, where I was facing 25 years to life. I went back to class. I completed my capstone project. And I’m proud of the work that I was able to do. And at first I thought, “I’m not going to go to their graduation.” But then I thought this could be a moment that’s so powerful, where I speak to them, because they clearly weren’t hearing me. I never received an apology. I never received — you know, there were a couple people from Columbia that kind of said, “We’re really sorry this is happening to you,” but they also, in that same meeting, said, “Our hands are tied, and there’s nothing we can do.” And so I went to Staples, and I had this banner made.

And I was deceptive, because you’re not allowed to take anything on stage. And so I rolled that banner up really tightly, and I carried it like it was a cane. And I thought, “I really hope they don’t catch me.” I warned the person behind me that I was doing this, because I didn’t want to ruin her moment. You know, she deserved her moment. I was proud that she had finished her degree, and I know her family was there to see her. And I said, “Just pause, in case. I don’t know how this is going to go.” And so, I got up to the stage. It was my turn. I take the rubber band off, and I unfurled that banner in front of me. And so many people in the audience were clapping and cheering. My “Stand with Tracy” family were up in the balcony cheering for me. And I turned around and I looked at the administration, that were on that stage, and their faces were anything but pleased. But I felt like I took my moment and I had my say, and shame on them for not supporting me. Shame on them. And I really just wanted them to feel that I did this anyway. It’s one of my most proud moments.

AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Tracy McCarter in her first television broadcast interview, as she has gone through this horrific ordeal over the last years, talking about walking across Columbia University’s stage to receive her graduate diploma, which she had earned. We’re also joined by a professor, not at Columbia, but at Brooklyn Law School, Jocelyn Simonson, who wrote the book Radical Acts of Justice: How Ordinary People Are Dismantling Mass Incarceration. And she features Tracy in this book. Professor Simonson, I want you to talk about — it’s really not just the criminal justice system, the whole system, disproportionately criminalizes Black and Brown survivors of domestic violence. The Vera Institute found 77% of women in jail have experienced intimate partner violence. Another report showed in New York 90% of incarcerated women have faced domestic violence. So, if you can talk about what happens to Black and Brown women, and then — and this is the focus of your book — how movements are changing the system, and what a difference it means?

JOCELYN SIMONSON: Yes. So, the statistics you name give us the numbers. And I think Tracy’s own description of what happened to her explains it better than I could, but isn’t an isolated incident. What the system does — and we can think about the criminal system, we can think about the family court system, or we can think not just about the state, but things like what happened at Columbia — it isolates people, right? It takes one person who’s experiencing something that many people experience — that’s part of what it is to be a person — and it makes them not even a person, right? It was The People of the State of New York v. Tracy McCarter, you know, by herself on the other side of that “v.” And by isolating people and taking away their voice, it takes away their ability to be part of the community, or at first it does.

And so, what the Survived and Punished New York “Stand with Tracy” campaign did — and to be clear, I wasn’t at the heart of that campaign, but I was watching it and in community with people — what groups like that do is they join Tracy McCarter on the other side of that “v.” Right? They say, “We are part of the community too. And we would feel safer, we think there would be more justice, if we took care of people when there’s been harm, if we were in community with each other and supported people to become nurses, or just to be able to take care of their own families.” And by doing that, it’s not just _The People of the State of New York v. Tracy McCarter.” It puts the people on the other side. And so, that means that when a group gets together to join in a collective defense campaign for someone like Tracy as Survived and Punished did, they’re actually making a really powerful statement about the system’s claim to be the people or to support the community. And when you’re sitting in that courtroom and you see all of that red shirts, you feel it. The only group of people in that room were the group in red shirts supporting Tracy, demanding that the charges be dropped.

And let’s be clear, Alvin Bragg may have tweeted, “I Stand with Tracy,” but these charges would not have been dropped, were it not for the campaign on her behalf, supporting her and living out other understandings of community and safety. And so, my book talks about the “Stand with Tracy” campaign. And it also talks about other ways that people are collectively pushing back against criminalization and against the isolation of Black and Brown and other marginalized people, through other tactics, things like community bail funds, court watching groups, participatory defense hubs, and even groups that get together and make people’s budgets and show us how we can live out community and safety without criminalization. But this story was one of the ones that really touched me the most. And so it’s such a pleasure to be here with Tracy today.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you also talk, Jocelyn Simonson, about other cases, like Marissa Alexander? Now, that might ring a soft bell for some people, her case made famous by the killing of Trayvon Martin. But how this happens to people around the country?

JOCELYN SIMONSON: Yes, Marissa Alexander, part of the reason we may remember it is that Survived and Punished was also involved in this campaign. And this was a case in Florida, and it was often contrasted to the case of George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin and was allowed to — and was acquitted, and was allowed to use Florida’s ideas of self-defense, in contrast to Marissa Alexander, a Black woman, who was denied the ability even to use the defense of “Stand Your Ground” in a Florida court, also a criminalized survivor, and also someone who, when people were collectively supporting her — and this was a national campaign, which is why we might remember it — when people were supporting her, it wasn’t just, “Let’s help this young criminalized Black woman,” it was also, “Let’s realize how this is not an isolated incident, how we take punishment and criminalization and cages instead of care and community and support, and how we actually could be doing the opposite.”

And so, it’s campaigns like that for Marissa Alexander, and dozens of other people across the country, Black women, Brown women, queer people, trans people, who, because of their identity, as Tracy said, the system is able to marginalize them. And so, when a group comes along and says, “No, we stand with that person” — right? — “We stand with Marissa,” “We stand with Tracy,” it’s actually a really powerful, larger statement both about the criminalization of survivors, and especially Black and Brown survivors, but also about the use of the criminal law at all to deal with harm and to deal with care. And so, part of the message that has come out from people like Mariame Kaba, who Tracy mentioned, is that we can look at this phenomenon, the criminalization of Black and Brown women who have survived interpersonal harm, and we can say, “This teaches me not just that we shouldn’t use the criminal system to solve that problem, but that maybe the criminal system and these criminal courts” — that we sat in for Tracy’s case over and over — “aren’t capable of bringing us justice.” And how do we know that? It’s because we see campaigns and groups living out other versions of community and care.

TRACY McCARTER: I’d like to jump in there, too, because I urge everybody to read Jocelyn 's book, because it really gives an idea, for people who don't know, what this idea of participatory defense is. It’s where the community comes together in different ways, all the ways that you mentioned, like court watching, which was integral in my case — right? — and also a community defense team.

If you want to know how dangerous the system thinks participatory defense is, I think you have to look no further than the ruling dismissing my case. So, I was in court in front of Justice Diane Kiesel, who has written a book about domestic violence and, I believe, has written a book about civil rights. And so this is a person who should be intimately familiar with the things that I was facing, and, you would hope, to be a little sympathetic about the things that I was facing, because of her knowledge. And yet, you only have to look at her ruling to discover just how threatening she thought participatory defense was. She cites all of the activism that was at play. She talks about those red shirts. She really hated the fact that people were wearing those shirts in her courtroom. And she took special note, on page six of that ruling, to put everything that she herself had ruled was too defamatory toward me to use at trial. She took the time to actually list each one of those things that she ruled was too bad to use at trial. For what? To shame me? To punish me for having a campaign of people supporting me? And she decried the fact that she was, in her words, “powerless” to make the district attorney continue to prosecute me. And all I have to say about that is, if Diane Kiesel is watching this, she did not embarrass me. I argue she embarrassed herself. And she showed just how effective these defense campaigns are, and that that’s really scary to her, because it’s going to make her lose some power.

AMY GOODMAN: I just wanted to —

TRACY McCARTER: I don’t have any other words for that.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to reiterate, you were at Rikers for six months. The campaign led, ultimately, to your release. But to explain —


AMY GOODMAN: — what happened, when we say “your release,” and I wanted to quote your son Justin, who wrote, quote, “I was living in San Antonio, TX, when my mom was arrested. When she came home with the ankle monitor, the judge gave her ZERO free time out of her apartment. She couldn’t shop for groceries or walk her dog. She moved to a place with a small backyard so she and her dog, Snuffles, could have time in the outdoors. I moved to New York City with her, so at least the dog could have regular walks. It seemed so messed up to me that even though she wasn’t convicted of anything, her dog had more freedom than my mom.” Those are your son Justin’s words. Your response, Tracy?

TRACY McCARTER: Also at the time of me being allowed to have — be out on electronic monitoring, there were two males who were out on electronic monitoring with my same charge. Both of them were released from Rikers with time to run errands and to do exercise, to do whatever it is they wanted outside of their apartment. They were not considered a threat in the way I was considered a threat. I found that to be completely interesting.

And, you know, I want us to be careful that we don’t look at this and say, “Alvin Bragg did the right thing.” He didn’t. Alvin Bragg did the only thing he could to save himself. Half that courtroom was also filled up with the press on the day that he had to give — to do my release. And, you know, there had been a man, Jose Alba, whom his office had written this robust dismissal for. You know, Jose Alba was accused of also committing murder, right? But it was found that he had defended his life. It was self-defense. And so, his office wrote a 17-page dismissal to support Jose Alba being released. And in it, they said a knife was a normal thing to have behind the counter of a bodega. And I just thought, “How interesting that a knife is not normal to have in a kitchen, where someone’s in your home attacking you.” But they made none of those arguments. There was about one-and-a-half pages of argument for my release. And so, I just want us to be careful that we don’t give him credit. The only reason he did the thing he did was because it was going to be that much worse for him when I won at trial, and all of that press was present. They don’t mind risking it if no one’s watching. And that’s why it was important to have the public watching, because then, and only then, did they become afraid. And only 10 days before I was set to go to trial and it became clear I would not take any plea that would cost me my license, that’s when he came to court himself and said that he would release me.

AMY GOODMAN: And you’re talking about, of course, your nursing license.


AMY GOODMAN: Jocelyn Simonson, we just have about a minute. You put Tracy McCarter’s incredibly brave story in the context of this national movement around dismantling mass incarceration. As you wrote your book, Radical Acts of Justice, what gave you the most hope?

JOCELYN SIMONSON: I was continually given moments of hope as I wrote this book. I talked to organizers all around the country, who are often not paid and spending their time taking care of other people in the context of a system that does the opposite of care, that puts people in cages, that responds to things that it claims are harmful by saying it’s protecting the community using policing, prosecution and prisons. And so, I was continually given hope, even as I saw people going through trauma and going through suffering.

But let’s be clear: The hope comes from people resisting the system, at the same time that they’re taking care of people. They’re engaging in collective care, but they’re also doing it by going into courtrooms and doing incredibly brave things in the face of court officers wearing guns, or jailhouses that you have to walk into and post bail, or, as we’re seeing in Atlanta, the repression and criminalization of these very acts of collective care. So, when I look around and I see this bravery and this care, and I see people starting to realize that we don’t have to use criminal courts to address harm, that we can care for each other in other ways, that’s where I get excited.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Tracy McCarter, I want to give you the last word. You went from a woman defending yourself, being sent to jail, in this case Rikers, not used to reaching out to other people to help you. And what you’ve learned from this movement, and what you say to other people who are afraid to raise their voice, who live in the shadows or are imprisoned in the shadows, what you would say to encourage them?

TRACY McCARTER: I would say that I understand the fear, because the powers are so heavy against you. But I would say, find your voice anyway. Find ways to reach out to people and ask for help. Find ways to your community, because the community is waiting there to support us. And we give as much to this community as we take. So this community needs you just as much as you need them.

AMY GOODMAN: Tracy McCarter, we want to thank you so much for being with us, domestic violence survivor and champion for human rights, a nurse and a grandmother, just received the Truthout Center for Grassroots Journalism’s Keeley Schenwar Memorial Essay Prize for her essay, “As a Black Woman Accused of Killing a White Man, I Was Never Innocent Until Proven Guilty.” We’ll link to it at democracynow.org. And, Jocelyn Simonson, congratulations on the publication of your book, law professor at Brooklyn Law School, her book, Radical Acts of Justice: How Ordinary People Are Dismantling Incarceration.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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