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Surviving a domestically violent hero

Updated: Jul 8, 2022

No matter how much time passes, it feels like just yesterday that I had shielded my two-year-old son behind me as my husband wielding a knife and threatened to stab me. Him telling me that I would be lucky to leave that room alive haunts me to this day. Being a political activist in a domestically violent relationship with a man that is revered in the movement, I found myself feeling alone. Not knowing who to call out of all the people who saw this man as a hero. Me knowing the other side of him, how bad it can get, and how desperately I needed to get my son and I to safety. This narrative did not fit with the image he had worked so hard to make public and popular.

When he choked me in the hallway, I was in disbelief. I could barely speak and sounded unrecognizable as I struggled, begging him to stop. The irony of this man choking me after gaining notoriety for filming Eric Garner be murdered by NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the same way was not lost upon me. Even years later I struggle to understand how he could have committed such an act after all that had happened since he filmed the video. What I didn’t understand then is how much my back would still be up against a wall after standing up and speaking out against him, how unrecognizable everything would be in the pursuit of transformative or restorative justice, or exactly how unsafe I was as a Black Woman, with a Black son, in this movement highlighting the plight of Black people in America.

Surviving and escaping domestically violent relationships is notoriously difficult. We consider ourselves well versed in abusive behaviors and red flags even though the emotional & financial manipulation, isolation, control and violence often come later. What we don’t seem to want to grasp is how difficult it is when your family and social circles have come to favor your abuser. This becomes more of an issue in organizing spaces where we fail to keep one another safe as we collectively struggle for liberation. When I reached out for help to people I considered “comrades”, they were more concerned with insulating my abuser from any harm than holding him accountable and pursuing any form of justice on my behalf.

Calling comrades left me stranded on East Houston and Ave D in 18 degree weather, with no jacket, with my son kidnapped and my abuser - the kidnapper, dragging me to Duane Reade in an attempt to withdraw my daily maximum amount. Screaming passionately for help, purposefully making a scene and relying on whatever help I could get in the moment was where I found myself. When other people were happily out buying Valentine’s Day gifts, my husband was terrorizing my son and I, and I had no one. All I had was myself and my resolve to get through this, save my son, and move on.

How often have we known victims of abuse and turned a blind eye because it was uncomfortable to deal with? Because we didn’t want to get in their business or lose a particular friend? You just didn’t want to believe what was being said because it hadn’t been done to you... yet? Whether Mom, friend, comrade, church member or next door neighbor, we have to start doing the work that it takes to provide safe spaces. We want people to stand up and we will pull out our phone and record them being run down and blame them for not moving, then organize around safe driving laws. When my Mother in law told me that I should have urinated on myself in public to appease my husband, I was in shock. I had never been told to pee on myself as a grown ass woman. The lengths people had gone to in order to excuse the abuse my husband subjected me to was more than absurd, it was sickening to witness and experience.

When I drove across the country to get away from my abuser, I thought I was safe when I got home. Unfortunately, he received so much support after all the news articles of him going to jail for kidnapping my son, that he was able to fly to my state and end up at my Aunt’s front door a few days later. After seeing the way people supported him, even if that meant putting my son and I in further danger, I lost my voice. I was drowning in the sea of bitter, “angry-Black-Women voices that get ignored daily. I got blamed for loving and marrying a man by the same people who admired him so much they would ignore his monstrous ways as long as it meant their narrative was supported.

Often times, people hold us to such a standard of what they think we should do, that they don’t allow us the freedom to make the decisions we need to make in order to stay safe. This is one reason why when it comes to holding our abusers accountable or keeping previously common spaces safe, it is such a challenge. We don’t even have the right to define our own abuse, let alone fight against it or garner support.

Over the past years, I have had to stay strong against those who would literally praise my husband as a hero for filming the murder of Eric Garner. They have excused his abuse towards my son and I as trauma from being a victim of police targeting and other forms of state sanctioned violence, racism and capitalism. Even in the presence of evidence, they have shunned me for speaking the truth because “that is not their experience with him”. It’s to the point, that even in this writing about domestic violence, I do not start by introducing his name because the knee jerk reaction to jump to his defense clouds people’s judgement when they hear my experience.

What I have learned is to trust myself. Trust my inner voice that screams to be heard amongst the letter writing campaigns and mainstream media articles that glorify the random actions of my abuser while ignoring his pointed abuse. Find ways to remove the vulnerability of dependence on those who won’t hear you, trust you, value you or protect you. Find the communities that do offer support and realize that, while it is not fair, the masks are off and now allow you to see people for who they are, which should make it easier to protect yourself from future harm. Do these things, because you can’t fight for the liberation of us all if you can’t first do for self.

Advocate for yourself because nobody understands the overwhelming emotions surrounding your situation but you. Nobody can validate your feelings of being abused and needing support, and nobody but you will be able to define what it means to feel safe again. Advocating for myself meant putting all of my emotions into words, channeling the fear, rage and disappointment into something productive and conducive to my mental health. Arguing with and dismissing people who I once thought to be friend forced me to find those who were more supportive of my being safe with my son. Finding my voice was hard but finding the environments where I felt safe again was so much more difficult.

The support systems I have managed to cultivate in person and online, have helped me rediscover the passion I once had to unapologetically fight for justice, but this time on my own behalf. Without the people who have offered kind words, debated the rhetoric that my abuser was a hero and helped to center me, I don’t think I would have ever left him for good. It was the people who supported me, and still do, who reminded me that I was deserving of feeling loved and safe. Recently, this circle of support has grown and this time, I received help to file for divorce. Finally one step closer to having a future that is free of him and his abuse.

- Jessica Orta

East Oakland native. Live-streamer. Activist. Public Speaker. Pro-Black survivor of Domestic Violence.

Instagram: @Bellaeiko

Twitter: @Bellaeikomedia

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