Michelle Coleman of St. Martin, Miss., still lives in the home that her husband shot her, leaving her with nerve damage and telling scars. Credit: John Fitzhugh/MCIR
Credit: MCIR

Michelle Coleman’s marriage had been rocky and violent, but things seemed better when she and her husband of a decade moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2017. After her new job at a medical unit in a jail, things “got physical,” she said, and she was forced to leave with her two children.

She didn’t report that violence or most previous violence by her husband, Vinet Williams Moore, because she knew Black men make up much of the prison population, and she had no desire to add to that number, she said. “I didn’t want my children to see their dad put in handcuffs — and I loved him.”

She confessed there were other times, too, when she said she should have called, but didn’t. When she did make a 911 call in 2014, “nobody even cared,” she said.

Coleman is hardly alone. More than four in 10 Black women experience physical violence from an intimate partner during their lifetimes, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. But they are far less likely to report the crimes.

Experts say distrust of the criminal justice system, intergenerational trauma and community stigma deter many Black women from seeking help, before the violence or after.

Alicia Nichols, deputy director of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and Firearms, said that Black women who are abused might be reluctant to call the police both for fear of the police shooting their partners or for fear of adding to the incarceration epidemic.

According to the NAACP, the rate of incarceration for African Americans is more than five times that of white people. Nichols also noted that the loyalty trap — where the broader community tells Black women that calling the police will further cycles of violence and, within the household, might also lead to incarcerating the person who keeps the lights on, brings in food, and pays for access to the car — is often a factor in Black women avoiding calling the police.

But even Black women who try to report the violence against them are faced with a justice system riddled with failures.

‘There’s no protection for me’

In 2019, five years after that first 911 call in Texas, Coleman called again, this time in Mississippi.

“We came back from therapy, and it was a very intense session. I went to get myself back together, feeling angry about the session,” she said. “I came into the room, turned the light on, pulled the covers up over me, and [her husband] started yelling at me and woke me up out of my sleep.” Coleman ran to the bathroom, at which point he “pushed me up and broke my toilet, making water go everywhere.”

She called 911 from a neighbor’s house. When they arrived, Moore was passed out from drinking. “The [Jackson County Sheriff’s Department] basically said, ‘there’s nothing we can do, he’s your husband, he lives here. He’s drunk, let him sleep it off.’”

The deputies left, she said, without making an arrest. The Jackson County Sheriff’s Department did not have a report from this incident — it is their policy to only write a report if the victim requests it, which Coleman confirmed she did not do in every instance, though she noted that she was not aware that asking for a written report was an option until her divorce attorney told her.

“They brush it off, unless it’s a grievous injury,” she added.

Coleman spent that night sleeping behind a couch so that Moore wouldn’t find her.

She called 911 again, in 2020, after she found him with a sledgehammer trying to break open her gun safe to find out if she was cheating on him. When the deputies came again, she said, they left and “didn’t do anything.” She decided to file a 30-day protective order.

In June 2021, with a different temporary protective order in place, she received a call from him asking if he could see their children before he went out of town. When she let him in, he asked to talk and, after a brief conversation in which Coleman indicated that she wanted to move on, he started “screaming and yelling in [the children’s] faces.” Coleman took the phone to call 911, after which he choked her and broke her ribs. Ultimately, a daughter called 911, at which point the deputies came and took a report. Coleman went to the emergency room — she says that there is an October court date for that incident, for which Moore was not arrested.

“At one point, I asked someone in the office to arrest him,” she said. “I said there’s no protection for me.”

After the June incident, Coleman said, “I didn’t feel the same anymore,” noting that her husband would call and text harassing messages from blocked numbers. On the morning of Sept. 9, as Coleman and one of her daughters were leaving for work and school respectively, he came to her door. When the two refused to go outside and speak with him, he broke the door open with a sledgehammer.

“We were doing a little Ring Around the Rosie around the couch, while I’m screaming and yelling and asking what’s wrong with him,” Coleman said.

Moore started hitting, stomping, and kicking Coleman while she screamed that he was going to kill her. Two of her children dialed 911. Her 10-year-old daughter told him to “leave [Coleman] alone” and in response, he pulled out two guns, one in each pocket. He waved one at the 10-year-old and told her to go to her room.

When the deputies came, Moore had a gun to Coleman’s head, and when she tried to slowly move away while the deputies spoke to him, he started shooting.

“I ain’t gonna spend no life in jail,” Moore said, according to the police report.

Vinet Williams Moore, 42, is being held without bond. Credit: Jackson County Jail Credit: Jackson County Jail

“All I can remember is falling to the floor, waking up, and blood was pouring out of my head and pouring underneath my body,” Coleman said. Ultimately, one bullet grazed Coleman’s head and the second went through her left arm, breast, and fractured her humerus. It severed an artery and damaged all of the nerves in her arm.

“I told y’all to get an ambulance, I knew he was going to shoot me,” she said in the police report as they dragged her outside onto the sidewalk.

Her children climbed out of a window to get to safety.

Moore was immediately arrested and is still in jail after bond was denied three times. The charge was upgraded from domestic battery and aggravated assault to attempted murder. He’s also charged with kidnapping and domestic violence simple assault.

Coleman’s daughter, Ariahn, said that watching her mom get shot and experience repeated domestic violence “kinda makes you have to grow up quicker.” But she added that her dad, Moore, had previously experienced violence in relationships and was stabbed by a different woman. Her uncle, his brother, was also stabbed and killed in a separate occurrence.

Ultimately, Coleman says the problem goes far beyond Moore, pointing to a legislative system that, she says, does not adequately protect victims of domestic violence.

“To have a man, or whoever, put their hands on someone and not be able to feel safe in your home and to know that the justice system is not there for you, it’s not a good feeling,” she said. “They go to jail, pay a fine, and will be out. How is that protecting us? How is that protecting women? It’s not.”

Michelle Coleman of St. Martin, Miss., wears a compression glove to keep swelling from her shooting injury under control. Credit: John Fitzhugh/MCIR Credit: John Fitzhugh/MCIR

‘This is where they’re going to find your body.’

Domestic violence steals the lives of more young women of color than any other disease. More than cancer. More than heart disease. More than lung disease. A 2015 study from the Violence Policy Center found Black women were two and a half times more likely to be killed by men than white women.

Marilyn Bradford of Vicksburg almost became one of those victims.

She had been living with boyfriend, Kelvin Bell, for nearly a year when she received a check from the electric company.

When she realized the check was meant for her ex-husband, she dialed him. Later on the boyfriend asked her about the call: “How long did y’all talk?”

A few minutes, she replied.

The day after Christmas 2014, the boyfriend accused her of trying to get back with her ex. He said he had checked her phone records, and the call had lasted 11 minutes.

He drove her to an abandoned house and told her, “See, I can’t trust you. You lied to me.”

The next thing she knew, he struck her in the face, she said, “It cracked the bone that held my eye together.”

He drove west, still threatening her. When they arrived at a reservoir, he told her, “This is where they’re going to find your body.”

She began praying, “God, if this is my time, take me quick.”

He beat her again and then drove back to their bedroom, where he told her that she didn’t know how long 11 minutes was so that he would stab her that long.

She thought she was going to die and cried out to the boyfriend, who had been attending church with her, “Man of God, please stop.”

As the blood gushed, “I could see the demon that was in his face,” she said. “I couldn’t see him.”

Then Bell tried to choke her to death, she said. “I was really ready to die.”

He then made her wash her face and held her hostage, keeping her from getting medical treatment. Hours later, when a nephew arrived to check on her, she told him, “Get me out of here.”

He did, and she made her way to Haven House, a women’s shelter.

She credits God for giving her the strength to testify against Bell, who was convicted of aggravated assault and sentenced to 15 years in prison, where he remains.

A victim gets arrested

Sharon Chambers has experienced domestic abuse since she was a young girl, molested by one set of her godparents and “passed around multiple men.” Telling family members and other people about the abuse meant they would “look down on you, think you was no good no more.” So Chambers stayed quiet, hiding in the closet to try and protect herself from abuse.

It wasn’t enough.

Her husband of 24 years would abuse her, too, calling her “damaged goods” and physically assault her. “After all that, I ended up in an abusive marriage,” Chambers said. “He jumped on me for no reason. Put me in the [emergency room] for that.” A 2009 police report wrote that a witness saw Chambers’ husband, intoxicated, beat Chambers with a water hose and threw bricks into the house. Chambers said that he hit her behind the neck with the entire apparatus that the hose is wrapped around and also threw bricks at her, one of which grazed her ankle.

In a separate, 2010 incident, a police report wrote that Chambers’ husband had threatened her with a knife and pushed her against the wall, and a 2011 report noted that Chambers hurt her shoulder after her husband pushed her in a casino parking lot. Chambers said that her shoulder was previously damaged on a job, but that her husband did indeed push her. “The police is not doing their job, they’re writing what they want to write,” she added.

Her husband was arrested for domestic violence simple assault in the first instance and, in 2018, was charged with disorderly conduct after refusing to sign a protective order and leave his and Chambers’ house.

Her husband would often call the police on her, she said, due to previous drug use — Chambers was arrested and ultimately released in 2017 for selling hydrocodone, and a 2021 police report indicates that her husband told the police that Chambers was “on drugs acting crazy trying to assault him,” though no evidence of drugs was found. Even so, she avoided dialing 911 herself, citing a mistrust of the police, who “weren’t that helpful” and “would be more rough on me” whenever she did decide to call. In 2017, when Chambers’ husband came home drunk and tried to cut her with a box cutter, instead accidentally nipping himself, she nevertheless decided to involve the police.

When they came to the house, they noticed her husband had a cut and took Chambers out of her bed, handcuffed her wrists and feet, and took her to the station’s jail, where she spent the night “shackled to a bench that was on the hard concrete floor.” Chambers said that, in the morning, they transferred her, “in a doll cage,” to a different jail in Issaquena County. She spent another night in jail there, away from her 16-year-old son.

“I don’t trust the police at all,” Chambers said. “They didn’t lock him up. I had to deal with that trauma.” Even when her husband went to the police station to later tell them that he had lied and cut himself, Chambers said, she still had to pay $200 in bond to be allowed to leave and had to stay away from her house for 30 days, her son alone in the house for the weekend. “The justice system is messed up!!!” she added in a follow-up text message.

The Vicksburg Police Department report from the incident charged Chambers with domestic violence assault, noting the cut on her husband’s arm. The charge was ultimately thrown out. 

Chambers does not call the police anymore.

Chambers, who is still married to her husband, cites her faith as a large reason why she has stayed in her marriage, which she says is still, at times, abusive. “I’ve got God in me, that’s why I was able to survive,” Chambers says.

“I made a promise to God, years ago when I was young. I promised God if he ever blessed me with a husband, I’d do whatever it took to make my marriage work,” Chambers said, her voice breaking as she continued. “I didn’t know that it would be this bad.”

But if her faith was a large reason she stayed, her children were an even bigger one. “I did, I wanted out,” she said, noting that she filed and successfully was awarded a divorce from her husband, before ultimately deciding against going through with it. “But my son said, ‘I don’t know nobody but you and dad. Why would you leave now?’”

Her daughter spoke similarly, Chambers recounted. “He ain’t all bad,” her daughter said of Chambers’ husband. “He just didn’t know how to treat a woman.”

Sharon Chambers stands outside the Attic Gallery in downtown Vicksburg, Miss., on Friday, July 29, 2022. Credit: Sarah Warnock/MCIR Credit: Sarah Warnock/MCIR

“I am angry”

Nichols said she found these women’s stories unsurprising — and indicative of larger, systemic patterns.

Beyond the loyalty trap and fear of police brutality, many states, including Mississippi, can file charges against mothers under “failure to protect laws,” giving Child Welfare Services grounds to take children out of the house.

An arrest can lead to a criminal charge, employment issues, and evictions.

“These systems are not broken,” Nichols said. “They are working as they are designed — for straight, cis[gender] white men.”

Gretta Gardner, general counsel for Ujima, a group working to end domestic violence in the Black community, also noted Chambers’ experience of being arrested after calling the police is common, the result of racist and sexist stereotypes that interprets a Black victim as the “angry Black women,” especially if she outwardly expresses any emotion.

Nichols noted the adultification bias, where Black girls are perceived as being more adultlike and therefore needing less support and protection, leads to a hypersexualization and an idea that Black women are strong and impenetrable that also contributes to the “angry Black women” label. “It results in consequences that if a white woman presented in the same way would be different,” she said.

Gardner also noted many Black survivors also feel as though shelters are built for white women and therefore are not culturally welcoming of them. Smaller steps, such as having Black hair-care products and having a multilingual and multicultural staff are important, she says. But broader issues, such as the restrictive rules of many shelters that require curfew, parenting classes, GEDs, etc, are often not conducive to families with children and are also belittling, treating women as less than full adults and treating care like a transaction.

Both Nichols and Gardner agreed that, though Black women experience higher rates of violence, those rates are not because Black men are any more violent. Rather, they point to the Black community’s more frequent contact with law enforcement through over-policing and overcriminalization, which in turn leads to more reporting and documentation. Further, because shelters and other resources might not always be culturally welcoming, Gardner notes, Black women tend to access them less. And, because of the loyalty trap, distrust of the police, and other systemic challenges that Black women face, they will often remain in abusive relationships for longer than women of other races.

Solutions to the higher rates of violence, they both also agreed, need to focus on the roots of the violence. Equal access to housing, for example, will allow for single women and women with families to access safe housing and not feel bound to their abuser. In turn, focusing on economic justice will allow women to become more economically independent — statistics show that economic status is a major indicator of whether a woman will experience domestic abuse. Forgiving student loans, Gardner said, is a concrete step towards economic justice, as the Black population has the highest level of student loans.

Both Gardner and Nichols noted that alternatives to criminal justice, such as restorative justice, violence interrupters, or anything that more directly engages the abusers, rather than putting the burden on survivors.

“We need to design tools from the perspective of the most marginalized,” Nichols said. “If it works for them, then it works for everyone.”

But until those tools are designed, Black women will continue to be abused and murdered, and continue turning towards a system for help that, as the above three women demonstrate, does not always deliver the justice it claims to provide.

“I am angry,” Nichols said of the current epidemic and the dearth of alternative justice options. “I should be angry. And why is everyone else not that way?”

This story was produced in partnership with the Community Foundation for Mississippi’s local news collaborative, which is independently funded in part by Microsoft Corp. The collaborative includes MCIR, Mississippi Today, the Clarion Ledger, the Jackson Advocate, Jackson State University and Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization that seeks to inform, educate and empower Mississippians in their communities through the use of investigative journalism. Sign up for our newsletter.

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