On a dark, wet evening in March 2016, I was struggling to light the fireplace when my phone rang.
“It’s Kristin,” she said. “Kristin is dead.”
I paused. My guts went cold. “Have they arrested Nick? Is he alive?”
She gasped for air on the other end of the line, holding back tears so she could speak.
For decades, advocates who work with survivors of domestic violence have been predicting domestic homicide with tragic accuracy. Those who know know when someone’s life is in danger. That knowledge can save lives.
Kristin Johnston’s relationship should have raised numerous red flags amongst her peers, but no one feared for her safety. Her friends and family recoiled in shock and surprise when her ex-boyfriend took her life. For those of us who are familiar with patterns in domestic homicide, red flags feel like sense memories. It’s like smelling something familiar, but you aren’t sure where it is coming from or why it makes your blood run cold.
But what are we supposed to do when our fears are anchored in experience and our gut is telling us we are in danger?
What do we do with that?
“I don’t fear a world without prisons”
Most precursors to domestic homicide are not necessarily criminal, and even when they are, few report the violence and even fewer receive consequences that lead to improved safety. Reporting to police can be dangerous, as abusers often retaliate when bystanders or survivors report their concerns to police. Policing, as a general strategy of crime control in contemporary settler states, has not kept us safe from family violence.
Despite working for two decades with survivors of family violence and those who have been convicted of homicide, sexual abuse and intimate partner violence, I don’t fear a world without prisons. Working with incarcerated people has given me an intimate glimpse into how—rather than improving community safety—policing, prosecution and imprisonment intensify the cycle of violence and create more dangerous conditions for us all.
Decades of activism, social research and brilliant scholarly work have made a case for abolishing prisons and police to improve safety and bring healing and justice to our communities. Abolitionist feminism seeks to transform the conditions that give rise to violence. Abolitionist feminism acknowledges that intimate partner and family violence cannot be seen as separate from state violence, which arises through the military and police.
Yet, despite teaching and writing as an abolitionist, I still found myself perched on the edge of a hard wooden bench in a courtroom pleading for a guilty verdict for a friend of mine who had murdered his girlfriend. Ground zero—the territory in which the impacts of homicide are immediately felt—is ripe with mess and contradiction. Thinking through the most dangerous forms of family violence and how we might respond without police, guns and state violence is heavy and hard.
We don’t spend enough time thinking about what makes someone a killer. We don’t have the right tools for responding to their violence and the risks they pose to our kin.
Stereotypical villains, far from where we live and play
Just a couple of weeks before Kristin Johnston’s death, I had expressed to a mutual friend that Nick should contact a local men’s counselling program that specialized in domestic violence intervention. There was no history of violence in Kristin Johnston’s relationship with Nick Butcher—at least, not that we knew of. Still, I had a familiar and nagging feeling in my gut. He was deeply depressed and unemployed, and his relationship seemed to be on the rocks. His friends were worried about him. I suspected that he was a danger to himself and his partner.
My warning that Nick might be dangerous was swallowed up in the distance between those who understand that violence is the normative condition of our lives and those who believe that violence is perpetrated by stereotypical villains in places far from where we live and play. My suggestion to bring Nick to a program for intimate partner violence went unheard. Nick couldn’t be dangerous—he was just a regular guy. A friend. He was part of our circle. We aren’t people who dance with monsters. We are the good ones.
The shock and surprise felt by those within her closest circles betrayed the truth of their complicity. Many had known that he was reading her private messages. His closest friend had joked with him about killing her dog as revenge for her suspected infidelity. His circle of male friends, who for decades had made misogynistic jokes and quietly avoided discussing sexual assault and other forms of violence prevalent in their intimate social circles, all processed their grief and bewilderment as if the sky had fallen without warning.
But there are always warnings.
Feelings of shock, betrayal and surprise make sense if you believe that domestic homicide is a rare and random act rather than an all-too-common outcome in a settler culture whose very fabric is held together by coercive control, a desire to “possess” and market forces that “dispossess” us at every turn.
Police homicide, an incarnation of domestic homicide
Domestic homicide is the murder of one’s intimate partner or other family members. “Domestic” refers to the home or family. It is a word we use for the space that contains our most intimate relations. The definition of domestic homicide differs across jurisdictions, but it is generally understood as killing that occurs in the context of an intimate or familial relationship. These tragedies often involve the suicide of the killer or the murder of bystanders or witnesses.
Rates of intimate partner violence remain persistently high and, in times of economic or social stress, are on the rise. Despite expanding awareness within the violence prevention industry of the need for social ecological models and intersectional approaches to preventing domestic homicide, these tragedies continue to be treated as “anomalies” in an otherwise peaceful society. Collectively, we continue to assume our “domestic” spaces are safe places.
For the most part, solutions for preventing domestic homicide are understood in and through state-based systems of policing, prosecution and punishment. Safety is understood as something provided through secure shelters, though they rely on the whims of charitable donors to keep their doors open and never seem to have enough beds for the survivors who need them. It is often cited that a woman is killed by her partner, on average, every six days in Canada.
But police kill just as often. Police are what we call our “domestic security” forces. They are ones tasked with serving, protecting and keeping us safe inside the nation states that contain us. Police also perpetrate a significant number of homicides. Between January 1 and November 30, 2020, police shot fifty-five civilians. Police shot a civilian, on average, every six days in Canada in 2020.
Although the majority of these victims were men, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom points out that “Black and Indigenous women are significantly more likely to be killed by the police compared to white women.” Police and military personnel also perpetrate intimate partner violence in their own families at a higher rate than the general population. Black and Indigenous women have been arguing for decades that intimate partner violence must be understood in the context of ongoing state violence.
We should take this directive seriously. I consider police homicide to be an incarnation of domestic homicide. How can we conceptualize state violence and family violence together as we work to prevent domestic homicide and heal from the tragedy?
Lessons from Black Feminism
By abolition, I mean building a world without prisons or police.
Feminist movements against intimate partner and sexual violence in the United States and Canada are relatively new. Since the 1970s, feminist movements against family violence have been increasingly dominated by carceral approaches to social change. A carceral approach to family violence views policing, prosecution and punishment as the primary means of addressing intimate partner and sexual violence.
However, as legal scholar Alexandra Natapoff points out, under-enforcement and over-enforcement are twin problems of a carceral system that excessively punishes Black, poor, disabled and disenfranchised communities and ignores their experiences with violence. Carceral feminism emerged as the dominant voice in organizing efforts against intimate partner violence through the rise of what criminologist and professor of African American studies Beth Richie calls the “prison nation” in the late twentieth century, where “ideological and public policy shifts that have led to the increased criminalization of disenfranchised communities of color, more aggressive law enforcement strategies for norm-violating behavior, and an undermining of civil and human rights of marginalized groups”. The new “tough on crime” rhetoric of the late 1980s and 1990s fostered increased collaboration between feminist anti-violence organizers and police.
But an analysis that men are solely responsible for violence does not acknowledge the ways in which violent forms of state-building, such as slavery and settler colonialism, have worked to normalize forms of violence and abuse. It absolves white feminists of a need to acknowledge their own complicity in systems of violence.
Black feminism teaches us, and has been teaching us for decades, that police will not keep us safe from intimate partner violence. Black abolitionist feminism draws us into the task of building an abolitionist future with the tattered remains of the present.
White feminist movements that are aligned with the same systems that abuse Black and Indigenous women betray the origins of feminist organizing. Black feminist organizers, through their experiences with the state and its systems of violence and exploitation, inherently understand the failure of carceral approaches to ending violence.
In Canada and beyond, legal reforms have served as the official means with which to secure increased safety for survivors of family violence, to the exclusion of Black, Indigenous and other racialized women and gender nonconforming people, who face increased violence and criminalization through contact with police. Despite consistent support and funding for policing and punishment in Canada, rates of intimate partner and sexual violence remain high. Indigenous women are six times more likely to be victims of homicide than white women, and Black women continue to face elevated risks for both police and intimate partner violence.
Vicki Chartrand argues that the carceral system in Canada represents a continuation of colonial logics and practices that function to undermine the autonomy and sovereignty of Indigenous Peoples. Violence through contact with police and in the prison system is a continuation of historical settler violence that began with the first incarnation of what is now the RCMP. Given the persistent failure of carceral feminism in Canada to meaningfully engage with those at highest risk for severe violence and death, through both intimate partner and state violence, a need for feminist abolitionist organizing on domestic and state-sanctioned homicide is clear.
Absolved of accountability
I met Butcher in high school. We had people in common.
Like so many friendships that began in Halifax, our overlapping circles came and went through various phases of living in Montreal or Toronto, our shared friends making the inevitable pilgrimage to bigger cities and returning again.
Our crew had that waspy thing, that kind of soft-misogyny—you know, that vibe that feels progressive but is underpinned by a deep distrust and hatred for women? The kind of scene where tomboys ran the show, all of us drinking in jeans and t-shirts in somebody’s basement, seemingly equal until some dude’s feelings got hurt and he turned into a raging misogynist for a bit. Then nobody talks about it.
Drunk cliff-running was a thing. The post-Jackass “let’s tie this curb-side sofa to the back of a Jeep and ride it” kind of scene. I learned how to aim a salt shaker at someone’s eye. Mischief and injuries. And too much alcohol.
Most of the women I shared this time with were queer and in various stages of owning this publicly. It was fine to be queer, as long as you were a girl. I remember how that kind of homophobia felt in the back of my throat.
In truth, I loved them all very much. Every one of those misogynistic assholes. I can’t say that Butcher was even the most misogynist. He might have come in at a distant third or fourth place for that title.
Butcher was the kind of guy who would quietly fill up a dog’s empty water bowl at a house party and then sit cross-legged on the floor, giving a loving ear scratch after calling the pup over for a drink. He was a gentle guy.
His self-presentation shifted completely when he got into law school. Dress shirts and a new ride. I remember barely recognizing him after the transition to white-collar manhood.
I made fun of him. This I remember. Twice, he had dated my closest friends. Twice, he had left them feeling confused and humiliated after a short-term tryst. This was my excuse for being shitty to him, I suppose.
I remember walking down a dark driveway on my way to a party and stumbling into an intense conversation between Nick and Kristin in the shadows beside the house. I didn’t know they were dating.
They left holding hands that night.
It was common knowledge that Butcher was struggling to find work after graduating from law school. He was working at a friend’s café and trying desperately to secure an articling position.
Friends testified at the trial that he was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. He had a lot of job interviews, but none ended in an articling position.
He was falling apart.
Kristin’s friends and family testified at the trial that she wanted to leave the relationship.
Some of Nick’s friends knew that he was reading her private messages. There were times when he knew where she was and who she was with even when she didn’t tell him.
His friends were worried about him.
We should all have been worried for Kristin.
In controlling, abusive relationships, risk for domestic homicide skyrockets when the survivor tries to leave. Unemployment—especially sudden or unexpected financial or occupational stress—is also a major risk factor for domestic homicide. I had worked in the field long enough to know this.
But from what we know, from testimony and long conversations with friends, there was no point in Kristin’s relationship with Butcher where police could or would have intervened prior to the murder.
The rage, shame and distress that Butcher was likely experiencing was repressed deeply enough to prevent him from being openly violent enough to warrant a criminal charge.
Everyone was worried about him.
That’s the irony, though, right? Men in patriarchy accrue so much “power,” but they are often enabled by friends and family who absolve them of accountability. They are absolved of accountability by their loved ones because they see how men are wounded by other men and systems of violence. Butcher’s self-esteem and financial future were decimated by a cut-throat job market. We feel pity. We let them off the hook.
Despite ticking most of the important boxes in a domestic violence homicide risk assessment questionnaire, without a criminal charge, police could not have intervened in the points leading up to the murder. Without a history of violence in the relationship, Kristin likely did not believe she was at risk.
Intimate terrorism under racial capitalism
In a financialized market, where most of us lack the means to survive—to eat, find shelter or care for our kin—without exchanging our labour for cash, we can’t choose whether we work or not. Without choice, how can we consent? As anarchist and author Bob Black wrote: “Work is production enforced by economic or political means, by the carrot or the stick. (The carrot is just the stick by other means).”
Our capitalist system, facilitated by the expansion of colonial extraction and industrialization, was enacted through practices of objectification and dehumanization that used racism as an excuse for the continued theft of land and labour from Black and other racialized peoples.
In a general sense, we must consider our relations with “work” as a form of coercion that normalizes coercive control in everyday life.
Coercive control relations, the type of abusive relationship that poses the highest risk for domestic homicide, are underpinned by a “possessive logic” whereby the abusive partner engages in a wide range of tactics to maintain control over their partner, seeking to “possess” them in every sense of the word. This possessive logic is central to the expansion of settler colonialism, which relies on white supremacy to justify and legiti- mate theft of land, resources and bodies from Indigenous Peoples and the transatlantic slave trade. This normative practice of coercive control in public and private life can be tragic when it combines with occupational stress and childhood experiences with neglect or violence.
Occupational stress in racial capitalism creates existential insecurity that can trigger domestic homicide. Attention to the subjectivities produced under conditions of occupation reveal the emotional conditions of domestic homicide. These occupying forces, coupled with heteropatriarchal notions of masculinity, shape the internal contours of a familicidal heart. When blended with feelings of humiliation, shame and powerlessness, they become a toxic cocktail in which domestic terrorists turn to homicide to resolve feelings of shame and failure. The intimate terrorist is one where the self has collapsed into the occupying forces of racial capitalism. It is clear that, for some killers, their failure as a worker is experienced as a deep existential threat.
If we acknowledge that the intimate terrorist has no subjective vitality outside of the forces and demands of the market, then perhaps greater attention to work as coercion and a refusal of the conditions of work in racial capitalism might open possibilities for a safer future for survivors of family violence. If our toxic relations with “work” contribute to conditions that foster homicidal violence, then labour organizing and movements for justice for those who are unemployed or facing financial hardship can be one avenue to build healing projects before a tragedy occurs. We must build movements that not only respond to suicidality and depression but question the mechanisms that cause shame, rage and depression when we face unemployment or financial hardship.
If we are to take risk factors for domestic homicide seriously, we must acknowledge the way in which our cultural relationship to work and the heteropatriarchal means we use to secure men’s participation in a dangerous and often damaging workforce might be creating harm for all our communities. In carceral accounts of domestic homicide, we position “occupational stress” as a risk factor for domestic homicide and locate the failure inside the individual perpetrator, never once asking whether work itself is the problem. The existential insecurity experienced by domestic killers who seek to exert ultimate control over their partners when faced with occupational failure must be understood as socially and culturally situated in contemporary capitalism.
Carceral feminism wants to imprison more and greater numbers of men to make us safer. But incarcerating violent men will not stop others from learning to be violent and killing each other, their kin or themselves. The existential insecurities brought on by racial capitalism will continue to present annihilation of self and others as a reaction to economic or occupational stress. Unless we deal with the socio-cultural causes of homicidal response to distress, we will not stop this violence.
What if we took calls to examine men’s violence seriously and looked at the causes of their violence with abolitionist care and attention? When we examine the genealogy of coercive control relations, occupational stress and the reification of the hypermasculine roles of police and military, we see that the process of European colonial state-making was founded on the very same pattern of relations that lead to domestic homicide today.
Misogyny is an effect of settler colonialism. We can’t talk about one without implicating the other. The acquisition of land and territory was achieved through the patriarchal possessive logic of white supremacy in colonialism. The land was, and continues to be, treated as an object to exploit and possess in our social and economic system. Black people were treated as “objects” to be bought and sold by white landowners and continue to face dehumanizing coercion, terror and violence at the hands of police. Advocates against femicide argue that women are killed in domestic homicides because they are “objectified” and seen as “property.”
The common thread in all these coercive control relations is objectification produced by systems of private property and consumer capitalism. Men take up the heteropatriarchal expectations of “work” and conflate their identity with their value in a capitalist market that creates existential insecurity through changes to the global marketplace, rising unemployment and fiscal collapse. Income inequality, produced and maintained by racial capitalism, is the biggest statistical predictor of high homicide rates. In places with high income inequality, as Maia Szalavitz writes, “men have little hope of a better future for either themselves or their kids, [and] fights over what little status they have left” lead to tragic outcomes. When these tragedies occur, we simply do not have adequate services for survivors of family violence.
The cycle of state violence continues to reverberate, structuring our intimate and familial relations.
This is an edited excerpt from Ardath Whynacht’s book Insurgent Love: Abolition and Domestic Homicide.