October is National Domestic Violence Awareness and Prevention Month, and we look at how Black and Brown survivors of domestic abuse are further criminalized by police and prisons — and how activists have been organizing to win their freedom. In her first broadcast interview, we speak with Tracy McCarter, a nurse and grandmother who was jailed after her abusive husband, a white man, died of a stab wound when she defended herself during an altercation. McCarter, who is Black, describes being a criminalized survivor of both domestic violence and the criminal legal system. She was held at the notorious Rikers jail for nearly seven months and had her murder charges dropped in November after a campaign led by the grassroots abolitionist organization Survived and Punished. This comes as one-third of women imprisoned in New York for homicide were abused by the person they killed. “It became clear to me that I wasn’t going to be considered a person whose life was important enough to defend,” says McCarter, a registered nurse and graduate student at the time of her arrest, who shares her story and explains how racism affected her case. We also speak with Brooklyn Law School professor Jocelyn Simonson, a member of the “I Stand With Tracy” solidarity campaign and author of the new book, Radical Acts of Justice: How Ordinary People Are Dismantling Incarceration.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness and Prevention Month. We spend the rest of the hour looking at how the criminal justice system disproportionately criminalizes Black and Brown survivors of domestic abuse, and how activists have been organizing to win their freedom. The Vera Institute of Justice reports 77% of women in jail have experienced intimate partner violence. Here in New York, 90% of incarcerated women have faced domestic violence, and New York’s own data shows a third of women imprisoned in New York for homicide were abused by the person they killed.
Today, in her first broadcast interview, we’re joined by Tracy McCarter, a survivor of domestic violence, who was the focus of a campaign called “I Stand With Tracy” that led to a remarkable courtroom scene in New York City last November when Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg asked a judge to dismiss the second-degree murder charges against Tracy, who says she stabbed her estranged husband in self-defense when he attacked her in her New York City apartment in March 2020. It was Tracy who called 911, but she was immediately arrested. Tracy spent nearly seven months at the Rikers Island jail complex, until she was released thanks to pressure from a successful solidarity campaign. This is Bragg’s exchange with Judge Diane Kiesel. Listen closely.
JUDGE DIANE KIESEL: What you want to do now is to dismiss this case outright, is that correct?
ALVIN BRAGG: Yes, Your Honor. … The fact that there’s one fatal wound here, not a series of wounds, the almost immediate medical attention after the infliction of that wound.
AMY GOODMAN: This remarkable scene played out after a campaign to support Tracy, led by groups like Survived and Punished, that included a call to pack the court. Her case drew attention after the New York Post reported on it. Then journalist Victoria Law contacted Tracy McCarter in prison and wrote a piece for Gothamist about her, that was then shared by several candidates in the Manhattan DA’s race, including Alvin Bragg, who you just heard from in that clip, who wrote, “I #StandWithTracy. Prosecuting a domestic violence survivor who acted in self-defense is unjust.” But Bragg did not move immediately to drop the charges once we was elected; it took nearly another year of pressure.
For more on this story, we’re joined by Tracy McCarter herself. She’s a registered nurse who just graduated from Columbia University with a master’s 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.”
Tracy McCarter, thank you so much for joining us. Welcome to Democracy Now! I summarized your case, but, most importantly, we want you to tell it in your own words. Take us back to 2020 until today.
TRACY McCARTER: Thank you, Amy. And thank you for having me.
You know, one of the first things that a person loses when they become a defendant is their voice. Everyone tells you to keep quiet. And so I really welcome this opportunity.
In March of 2020, I was living apart from my spouse, because he had relapsed on alcohol and he would be violent, and when he was drinking, his violence would lead to attacks that included choking. As a nurse, I knew exactly how dangerous strangulation is to anyone. To a domestic violence victim, it is considered the most dangerous form of domestic violence. And when he wasn’t drinking, I would try to say to him, “Listen, you can’t do this. This is so dangerous to me.” But he would drink. He would not be, you know, able to be in control of himself. And so I had to move myself away. I had done that.
I was living on the Upper West Side in an apartment by myself when he contacted me that day while I was at work. And I immediately shot off an email to his father to say, “Oh my gosh, Jim is drinking again. I don’t want to help him, but I don’t know what to do.” And the reason I was so distressed is because Jim would come to my apartment regularly, and he would ring the doorbells of all the neighbors until someone let him in. He would come into the building. He would harass people. He would fall asleep or pass out in front of the door. And the building management was threatening to kick me out, even though I wasn’t responsible for his behavior. And so I felt desperate that if I was going to find a way to escape him for good, I needed to help him.
And so, I let him into the apartment that night because he had asked me for help getting back to sober living. And instead of doing that, immediately upon entering my apartment, he started saying, “Give me money. Give me money.” And I was not going to give him money to help him keep drinking. And what followed was, you know, he rebuked an offer of medication that would have helped him, and he went further into my apartment, grabbed my purse, came back down the hallway, and we end up in a struggle over the purse. And he then proceeds to attack me, which included a choking episode. And it ended up that he came away with my purse. He was by the door. I was further inside of the apartment, and I wanted him to get out. I was so desperate for him to leave. He wouldn’t leave. Neighbors heard me yelling at him to get out, get out, not to take my purse.
I grabbed a knife, that was a long serrated knife — it was a bread knife — because I thought I would scare him out of my apartment. It had, in fact, worked before, that I was able to scare him into leaving me alone. He approached me when he couldn’t find my wallet in my purse. And I had the knife, and it started to scratch him, in fact. It didn’t scare him. And that terrified me. He was getting more angry. And so I agreed to give him my wallet. When I put the knife away and looked for my wallet, it wasn’t where I normally kept it, in my scrub pants, and I pleaded with him that I didn’t know where it was. And he didn’t believe me.
And he was coming at me again. And I was terrified that he was going to now choke me to death. And I grabbed another knife out of my kitchen drawer. And as he was coming toward me, he stumbled. I don’t know if it was because he was drunk or he stumbled on things that were on the floor. When he stumbled, he impaled himself on the knife that I was holding for my protection, because I had a right to defend myself. And that wound proved to be very grievous. It went into his lung, punctured his lung, and he did not survive that.
AMY GOODMAN: Tracy McCarter, you called 911?
TRACY McCARTER: Yes. I immediately began screaming for someone to call 911, and, in fact, myself, got my phone and called 911. A neighbor came into the apartment and helped me to talk to 911 while I was trying to put pressure on the wound. As a nurse, I knew that was the only hope he had, was to just keep pressure on that wound. And I was desperate to do that. And I talked to the 911 operator. My first words to the 911 operator was that I stabbed my husband on accident, because, in my mind, that’s exactly what had happened: An accident had just happened. But I also go on to say that I was being attacked. The neighbor was yelling at me, asking me what did I do. The 911 operator was querying me about what did I do. And I told them that I had in fact been attacked.
And then, shortly thereafter, the police came into my apartment, and then EMS. And I was forced away from helping to save his life, put in handcuffs, and I watched the police try to perform CPR on my husband, not putting pressure on the wound, and was forced to watch them pump the blood out of his body even faster than it was already going. And they wouldn’t listen to me when I was trying to tell them how to save his life.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Tracy, you end up being taken to Rikers. I think this piece that you just won a major award for, the Truthout Center for Grassroots Journalism Award, “As a Black Woman Accused of Killing a White Man, I Was Never Innocent Until Proven Guilty.” Did you see race as playing a major role here in determining you being imprisoned at Rikers for, what, half a year?
TRACY McCARTER: You know, at first I just — I didn’t. I mean, I didn’t think of myself as Black and Jim as white. I was just a person who loved Jim. And a few months into being at Rikers, I remember being on the phone with a friend, and I said to her, “Oh my god, I’m still here because Jim is white.” They don’t see me as a nurse. They don’t see me as a person who had loving relationships with people, who was a good mother, who had never been in trouble. I was simply being viewed as a Black woman who had killed a white man.
And, you know, that was played out and confirmed for me on April 30th, 2020. I was in a bail hearing requesting bail. And I thought, “You know, they just don’t know what happened. They just don’t know how dangerous Jim was.” And there was this video that I had ended up getting on my phone of him. And I told my lawyer, “Let them go on my phone, look at this video, and when ADA Sara Sullivan sees this video, she’s going to understand, and I’m going to be going home.”
And so, what happened was, in court that day, instead, what ADA Sara Sullivan says about that video was that, you know, it appeared that Jim was — he was attacking me — I’m sorry, he was yelling at me. He was in my face yelling at me, not attacking me. And at some point, he comes up and he starts to pull my hair, and the phone goes down. And it’s not entirely clear, but it appears that he may have choked me, but it would have been for a short time. And I thought, “Excuse me? What are you — like, you can’t choke someone — there’s no — we know that from all of the — you know, the fact that police can’t put people in chokeholds anymore, there is no safe amount of time to choke anyone.” And so, this was an ADA in the Domestic Violence Division who should be extremely aware that strangulation is the most dangerous form of domestic violence, and instead, she was saying that he was allowed to choke me for this brief time without being a big deal.
And I want to be clear: That video was not from the night that I was attacked. It was from a night the night before I — the time before I left him, and that’s what convinced me I had to leave. And so, you know, he only got worse over time.
And so, it just became clear to me that I wasn’t going to be considered a person whose life was important enough to defend. And I can only make the assumption that it is because I am a Black woman. And as Mariame Kaba, a very famous abolitionist and activist in this work, tells us, we don’t have selves to defend us, you know, Brown and Black women. And the court makes that very clear.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you are put in Rikers at the height of the COVID pandemic. You’re a nurse. You have this remarkable history. You had four kids by the time you were 20. You were accepted to Yale University. You couldn’t go because you couldn’t afford it. You were at the time — right? — getting your master’s degree at Columbia, but you’re in Rikers. And a movement starts to grow, this grassroots movement led by Survived and Punished. If you can talk about the significance of the people who fought for your case to be known? And ultimately, one of the men who would stand with you was running for district attorney — you talked about the ADA against you, but Alvin Bragg, and he tweeted #IStandWithTracy. And he ultimately won, though it would take a year before he would drop the murder charges against you, Tracy. The significance of that activism?
TRACY McCARTER: I want to be very — I want to be very clear that my case was started under Cy Vance and continued under Alvin Bragg. And so, prosecutors aren’t different just because there’s a new one, what I saw — not from what I saw.
And so, there was this group of people who started by just sending me a letter at Rikers. And I had no idea at the time that anyone other than my family and my lawyers knew I was at Rikers. And it said, “We have this information about other women. We have expertise that we can leverage to help you. Will you allow us to do that?” And so I consented. And they contacted my family. They helped us to understand the court process, because my lawyer, my first lawyer, wasn’t very good at doing that, I felt.
And so, they also started talking about how to get this case, you know, in the media. How do we get people to understand what is happening to me? And my lawyers — lawyers aren’t very pleased with these things. They want decorum, right? We’re supposed to just follow the rules. And the rules say you don’t talk about your case prior to appearing in court. But after six months at Rikers, I knew this was my only hope to get out of there. And so, they started to meet weekly with my family on the outside. I wasn’t initially involved with meeting with them weekly. But when I got out, we started to meet. They were the ones that got Victoria Law interested in my case. And because of her —
AMY GOODMAN: The journalist.
TRACY McCARTER: — she wrote a story, and it was picked up by The Wall Street Journal. And I, quite frankly, think it embarrassed the office of Cy Vance, and that is the only reason I was allowed to leave Rikers on an electronic monitor.
And as you say, there was this campaign going for a new district attorney. Cy Vance was not going to run again. And several of the candidates made some sort of comment about my case, but Alvin Bragg made a very strong statement that, you know, domestic violence survivors should not be prosecuted for acts of self-defense. So, when he was elected in the fall of 2021, we thought, “OK, well, he’s going to — he’s heard the story. He knows some of the facts.” My lawyers ask, “Can we have a meeting with him to give him all the facts?” I actually had a meeting where I sat down for two hours in his office and explained to him exactly what happened, the history of my relationship, and walked him through that night. They had access to all of our evidence, to our experts. They were allowed to talk to — they had our entire case.
And what happened instead was he offered me a plea. And I was not willing to take a plea. They did get it down to an Alford plea. That was, you know, what allowed me to keep my license. And by that time, I was on the record as being suicidal. I needed desperately to get to treatment, and so I said, “Fine. If I can take an Alford plea,” which is one in which you do not have to say you’re guilty, because I am not guilty of a crime, and it would end in a repleader, where it would be a misdemeanor at the end of a year, and I would get to keep my nursing license. “Fine, I’ll take it.”
And we go to court, and Judge Kiesel, who had my case in front of her, said, “Absolutely not.” She would not take it, because it was — her words were, speaking to the prosecutor, “You charged her with murder. And you want this” — like, and saying, like, “You want this to end in a misdemeanor?” She said that it was — indicated it was too lenient, and she was not going to take it. Now, by this time, all of these activists —
AMY GOODMAN: Which was absolutely amazing —
TRACY McCARTER: — were coming to court with me —
AMY GOODMAN: — because she was known as an advocate —
TRACY McCARTER: — every time I had to go to court every 60 days.
AMY GOODMAN: — for domestic violence survivors. So, I want to bring into this conversation Brooklyn College Law professor Jocelyn Simonson, who has written the book Radical Acts of Courage: How Ordinary People Are Dismantling Incarceration. Professor Simonson, if you can talk about how it was this grassroots movement that ultimately pushed Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan DA’s Office to drop the murder charges entirely?
JOCELYN SIMONSON: Sure. Good morning. Thank you for having me.
So, you played some audio earlier of Alvin Bragg asking Judge Kiesel to dismiss the case, but that only happened after he was in office for nearly a year, not keeping his promise to dismiss the charges against Tracy. And what you can’t see when we hear the audio is that courtroom was absolutely full of people wearing red T-shirts and red hoodies that said two things on it. One was “Stand with Tracy,” because this group had collectively worked both to support Tracy and to let the public know about her case, and it also said “Free them all,” because Survived and Punished New York is a group that works with individuals on their collective defense campaigns, but also connects what’s happening to the larger criminalization of survivors, and especially of Black women. And so, this group was able to support Tracy, to let the public know what was happening, and to connect what was happening to larger beliefs in the injustice of what was happening. And that’s what my book talks about, about different ways that people are collectively helping people who are being criminalized, and, by doing so, actually showing that there are other understandings of justice and safety. In Tracy’s case, that justice would have been not arresting her in the first place, but rather supporting her during a trauma that is unimaginable to so many of us.
AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to continue this discussion after the broadcast and post it at democracynow.org. You’re listening to Jocelyn Simonson, law professor at Brooklyn College [of Law]. Her new book is called Radical Acts of Justice: How Ordinary People Are Dismantling Incarceration. We’re also going to continue talking with Tracy McCarter, domestic violence survivor, nurse and grandmother. She just graduated from Columbia University. I’m Amy Goodman. Tune in to Democracy Now! Happy birthday to Paul Powell!