On Black Friday this year, Marcus Dee fatally shot his former girlfriend, Nadia Ezaldein, during her shift at the busy Nordstrom on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. He then killed himself in the store. Although the media was quick to identify Dee as Ezaldein’s former boyfriend, coverage of the event repeatedly failed to label the tragedy for what it was: an act of domestic violence.
News outlets did highlight the tenuous relationship between Ezaldein and Dee, even citing Dee’s history of physical abuse and Ezaldein’s sister’s attempt to file an order of protection on her behalf. For the most part, however, the media portrayed the murder as an out-of-the-ordinary tragedy rather than an aspect of a larger, systemic issue. Fox Chicago, for example, quoted one shopper as saying the incident was “an individual’s problem”; another agreed, “A bullet has no name on it but you wouldn’t expect it in this area.” “You would never think it would happen here,” another passerby told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Ezaldein’s killing was indeed horrifying. Unfortunately, however, it was not uncommon. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), domestic violence kills thousands of people a year; almost one-third of female victims of homicide are killed by an intimate partner. Not all domestic abuse ends in murder; however, it can still result in years—or even a lifetime—of trauma for the abused partner. And domestic abuse is rampant throughout every city, suburb, and county in the United States. It occurs in all kinds of relationships, to people of all ages, ethnicities, religions, professions, income levels, genders, and sexualities.
As outside observers, we cannot be aware of the ways Ezaldein may have reached out to potential allies for help during or after her abuse. Her family and friends may have done everything possible to protect her. Regardless, though, treating Ezaldein’s death as an anomaly diminishes the pervasiveness of domestic violence in Chicago and throughout the country—and it erases why it is imperative for communities to make preventing and intervening in abuse a central concern.
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Despite the fact that millions of Americans are directly affected by domestic violence, it remains one of the most chronically underreported crimes, thanks in large part to the shame and stigma associated with abuse. Victims may already be facing isolation; abusers commonly control their partner’s professional and social lives, cutting them off from potential support networks. A victim may also shy away from asking for help from friends and family out of fear of being judged or pitied. Oftentimes, abusers are well-liked and would appear to be unlikely perpetrators; as we know from the recent calls to attention of domestic violence in the NFL, abuse can take place among figures that we cheer for, admire, and trust.
All of this can combine to make victims feel confused, trapped, or uncertain whether they need or can even find help. And when, such as in the tragedy in Chicago, community members express doubt about whether domestic violence “could happen here,” survivors may be even more reluctant to bring attention to their own abuse—because they have no reason to think they will be believed.
In addition, members of the public themselves can be squeamish when it comes to having open, honest conversations about domestic violence, because it can feel private, intimate, and complicated to understand. However, learning to identify the warning signs of abuse can help communities come to terms with the reality of domestic violence, and even identify abusers in their community.
For that matter, the ill effects of domestic violence nearly always extend beyond the abuser and the abused. Like we saw in the Nordstrom case, immediate and extended families, places of worship, and workplaces also suffer the negative effects of abuse, which can include harassment, stalking, threats, and a decrease in public safety. In Ezaldein’s situation, Dee had reportedly been harassing her for almost a year before he killed her. According to the Chicago Tribune, he’d made threatening phone calls to Ezaldein’s siblings and father too. Just a few days before Dee opened fire in a packed store on the busiest shopping day of the year—putting passersby in danger—Chicago law enforcement says that he physically attacked a friend of Ezaldein’s, thinking he was her new boyfriend.
In a broader sense, domestic violence also heavily taxes multiple social institutions, such as the justice and health-care systems. Last year, the Chicago Police Department received 171,077 domestic-related calls, which amounted to almost 500 calls each day. They also responded to a total of 48,141 domestic-related incidents in person. Countrywide, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates that the annual cost of domestic violence to employers is around $700 million; the national health-care costs of domestic violence amount to about $4 billion a year.
With all this in mind, community members arguably have a vested interest in responding to domestic violence; furthermore, they are often ideally positioned to do so. Friends, family, and personal and professional support networks are usually the first contact point for a victim, which creates multiple chances to intervene. Friends can support the victim’s choices, for they are the expert in their own situation, and continue to maintain the friendship whether or not the victim stays with or leaves the abuser. Family members can ask about physical signs of the abuse, continue to make contact with and care for their non-violent loved one, and choose to hold the abuser accountable. Neighbors can knock on the door to check in with the survivor, or call the police when they hear an incident occurring. (Of course, a police response may not be ideal for many communities, and alternate ways of intervening can and should be implemented.) Clergy, health-care professionals, and social service providers can talk about warning signs of abusive relationships, how to have healthy ones, and remind their communities that abuse will not be tolerated.
In addition, instead of referring a victim to, say, couples counseling, supporters can steer the victim toward nearby services, whether they be in need of individual counseling, a safe place to stay the night, or assistance in filing an order of protection. Police, lawyers, and judges can learn to identify the myth of mutual abuse, and that abusers may have wounds because of a victim’s willingness to protect oneself. From a city leadership perspective, a recent CDC report has pointed to the success of towns who have limited alcohol vendors have also seen a decrease in domestic violence, though it is important to remember that alcohol is a risk factor but not a cause of domestic violence, and a policy like this should not be a one-and-done effort.
Employers also have options for assisting victims. They can opt to create a flexible schedule for the victim, based on her unique needs, and not publicly post that schedule where an abuser would see it. They could also choose to screen incoming calls to deter the abuser’s behavior or develop other security measures for their employees. They can even go as far as to write workplace policies that prohibit domestic violence and that give victims or supporting individuals paid leave to care for someone experiencing domestic violence.
Anyone can call the national domestic violence hotline to voice a concern or ask a question. Everyone can choose to educate themselves about the dynamics of domestic violence and how to help a loved one who may be in danger. Plenty of organizations, such as Futures Without Violence, INCITE!, Creative Interventions, the Allstate Foundation, and the CDC are working to develop resources, intervention strategies, and prevention education curricula for those who may know someone in an abusive situation.
Combating domestic violence is not one person’s responsibility; in fact, it is not even the responsibility of a victim’s family or friends alone. We all must resist the kind of media narrative that paints Ezaldein’s situation as an individual aberration. By confronting the ubiquity of domestic violence throughout our society, friends, families, colleagues, neighbors, and fellow city residents can support current victims and work to prevent other tragedies in the future.