The Lesson of Tacoma

How should the Supreme Court and Congress address domestic violence? Tacoma, Washington, offers answers gleaned from tragedy.

FOR MOST OF THIS nation’s history, domestic violence was considered a private matter, not warranting, or even permitting, a public response. The same ideology that refuses to grant a woman the privacy to make her own decisions about reproduction granted a zone of privacy in which a husband could beat his wife. To some extent, and despite the very great gains in recent years in confronting domestic violence, vestiges of that attitude remain: In Castle Rock v. Gonzales, a case recently decided* by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Justice Department argued, successfully, that “private parties”—in this instance women who have taken out restraining orders—may not enjoy an “entitlement to enforcement.”

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That reasoning is heresy to those who work with domestic violence cases, who know that the battering of one woman produces multiple victims, and that among those victims is society at large. “The longer I do this,” advocate Patricia Prickett told reporter Sara Catania ("The Counselor"), “the more I’m reminded that domestic violence is everybody’s problem.”

I can’t read Prickett’s words without recalling my sojourn last year in Tacoma, Washington. I’d come to report a simple travel piece about Tacoma’s artistic and civic renaissance, but couldn’t even skim the touristy surface of the place without stumbling into a barely submerged agony. Asked about the future of a Tacoma museum, a docent confided, “Our board’s been in upheaval since the Brame tragedy.” Asked if the city’s light-rail system would be expanded, a civic leader mourned that the political will for large projects had collapsed “since the Brame tragedy.” The new head of the opera, when I inquired if she’d been greeted by cultural ambassadors eager to discuss how her institution fit into the city’s rebirth, told me no. Initiatives of that sort might have happened once, she said, “but that would be before the Brame tragedy.”

The event that had left the city so stunned was by then a year old. In April 2003, David Brame accosted his estranged wife, Crystal, in a shopping center parking lot, shot her in the head with a .45, then killed himself, all while their two young children watched. Crystal lingered a week. The crime was horrifying enough in its details to provoke a national response. Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) invoked the Brame case when presenting the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Do-mestic Violence Prevention Amendment to Congress in March 2004. The tragedy’s effects locally were all the more devastating because of who David Brame was—Tacoma’s chief of police—and because of the slow-breaking revelation that many civic leaders had tolerated or covered up his violence and misogyny for years. Cleansing the good-old-boy infrastructure that had coddled David Brame required deep soul-searching on the part of the community, and eventually some hard action. Public officials (including the city manager) and police brass were fired or resigned, and the rosters of civic and business associations vetted. Tacoma, momentarily tarnished, was permanently transformed.

The nation could use some of the same housecleaning. Complicity in violence takes many forms. President Bush’s recent budgets underfunded Violence Against Women Act programs by $40 million a year, a Center for Disease Control rape-prevention program by $36 million a year, and grants for battered women shelters by $49 million a year below their authorizations. When the Violence Against Women Act comes up for renewal this fall, its funding may again be cut. And Senator Murray’s 2004 amendment went down to defeat, opposed by anti-abortionists who felt that the measure, in addressing the abuse of women, deflected attention from what Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.) called “the ultimate victims of domestic violence,” fetuses. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce likewise opposed the amendment, on the grounds that businesses might find some of its common-sense provisions expensive. Among those were proposals to extend job protection and family-leave privileges to women forced to take refuge in shelters or called to testify in court, thus interrupting the vicious cycle in which batterers force women to lose their jobs, trapping them further in financial dependence on their tormentors. Murray countered the Chamber’s claims with data showing the cost to business of domestic abuse. That cost accrues to almost 8 million lost workdays and $3 to $5 billion in health care annually, not to mention the price of extra security, since 75 percent of abused women are harassed at their workplaces and 20 percent of workplace homicides are committed by intimate partners.

As the citizens of Tacoma know, the accounting on domestic violence goes deeper than dollars and cents. The injury inflicted on women who are battered is the grim epicenter of wider circles of damage—to children, to extended families, to an economy blessed by women’s labor, and to a society grotesquely disfigured by the inability of women to rely on that minimum prerequisite of a free and useful life: safety in one’s everyday dealings. A woman’s safety is the least sparrow of healthy civic life; anytime she cannot come to work because of a black eye, must pull her children out of school to take refuge in a shelter, or is made to tremble at the turning of a doorknob or a step on the stair, society weeps. Or should. The nation would do well to learn the lesson of Tacoma and to seize this political season as an opportunity to further remove domestic violence from the hidden realm of the private, to make the task of solving it, once and for all, the problem of every American.

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