To wrap up Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we spoke with Tia Katrina Taruc Canlas, founder of the Alipato Project, based in Oakland California. Bolstered by a small staff and volunteers, the Alipato Project seeks to offer an alternative form of justice for domestic violence survivors by connecting them with lawyers who help bring civil suits against their perpetrators.
One pause before we listen to Tia talk about her work (and among other things radical childrens’ books). The brilliance behind the Alipato Project and Tia’s method lies in the slight but important difference between civil and criminal cases.
Unlike criminal cases which generally seek to land the perpetrator in some incarceration but often have additional consequences for communities, particularly communities of color, civil cases force perpetrators to compensate survivors usually through monetary damages. Also, only prosecutors can bring criminal charges, but individual survivors can pursue a civil cases. In Suzbob speak — the Alipato Project offers an alternative form of justice to domestic violence survivors by forcing perpetrators to literally pay for what they have done.
Talk of torts aside, the Alipato Project and Tia’s activism show us that there are alternatives to the criminal justice system while combatting sexual violence and it inspires us to search for more. They are currently fundraising two months rent for their office in Oakland; consider helping them out but first, keep reading!
And now without further ado, the Feministing Five with Tia Katrina Taruc Canlas!
Suzanna Bobadilla: Thank you so much for agreeing to sit down with us this morning. To get things started, I’d love to learn more about how and why you found the Alipato Project.
Tia Katrina Taluc Canlas: So first for the why — In law school, I was in a domestic violence class and my professor, Nancy Lemon, told everybody that one of things that the legal field is lacking is lawyers who are willing to represent domestic violence survivors, specifically in civil actions against their perpetrators. I had also recently just finished up an internship at the Transgender, Gender Variant Intersex Project where I was introduced to the concept of prison abolitionism. What I thought was really interesting was ways to hold violent people accountable for the harm that they inflicted on their victims.
Knowing the deficiencies of our criminal justice system, starting from police interaction all the way to our bias in jury pool, and to the way that prisons are overcrowded in California — abuse is just ignored in the prison system — I felt that putting violent people in potentially an even more violent situation isn’t helpful. What I thought was more helpful back then, given the limited knowledge I had as a second year law student, was just to get restraining orders and ensure that survivors of domestic violence had the resources they needed to move on.
Of course, that doesn’t really engage the people who have been doing harm in any way. Sometimes that is actually preferable for survivors, but for those who feel that closure entails some kind of accountability, I realized that the civil case is what would be the best alternative to the prison industrial complex. Because I didn’t know any lawyers who knew how to do it, I figured I could be one of them so I founded the Alipato Project.
As for the how – I’m a big believer of worker-owned cooperatives and horizontally managed workplaces. And since not a lot of employers give employees the opportunity to cooperatize, sometimes, you just have to start your own project from scratch.
I gathered a group of my friends and asked them to be Alipato Project board members, with an understanding that our organization would be horizontally run. In other words: “no bosses.” Then I asked them to ask their friends to donate some money to us for start-up costs. Within a few months, we had a name, a logo, a mission, and a few clients. I think it’s important for people to know that I’m not particularly awesome. Anyone with a solid and legitimate dream should ask their community to back them up in establishing a new project, especially if it’s worker-owned.
SB: Thank you so much. For those of us who aren’t too familiar with the legal distinction between criminal and civil case, would you mind explaining that further? Also how is that important in your project’s interpretation of justice?
TNTC: Okay! I feel like a first year law professor. So in a criminal court, if a crime in detected, the police do an investigation and they forward the information to the district attorney. The DA has the ability to desire whether they should prosecute the suspect based on the information they have they are representing the people. For example, the DA of Alameda County represents the people of that county and the DA’s duty is to stop crimes like this in their own backyard.
A lot of the times, the voice of the survivor is muted because it’s not about making the survivor whole, but about crime reduction in the specific county. Then the punishment is usually jail time, prison time, probation, or some kind of batterer rehabilitation program, specifically for domestic violence. Sometimes there is restitution ordered (Suzbob here again: that’s like money) but that’s not very common and then the survivor just has to move on with her life.
In a civil case, the lawyer is a lawyer outside of the government who would be contracted by a survivor of domestic violence and would be brought to court to ask for money damages. So there is compensatory damages which is what a jury would decide would make a survivor whole while punitive damages is the amount that would deter future misconduct.
The difference in justice producing is that while from trying to stay away from our corrupt prison system, the center of the tension is on the survivor of domestic violence and the whole issue is on how much someone has suffered. Of course it’s hard to quantify in monetary terms how much someone has suffered, but when you are suing someone who is really, really rich and is abusing their wealth in the legal system, it feels really righteous to take away their money and give it to someone who has suffered.
SB: This work I’m sure can be quite difficult at times. How do you stay motivated and committed to your cause?
TKTC: It gets really intense. These past few nights I’ve been getting pretty bad nightmares because I have been reading cases over and over again and read those depositions and read those details over and over. It’s also not particularly lucrative as a start up. I’ve been working about 50 hour weeks and billing 30 hours per week at minimum wage, but that’s a huge thing because we just started paying ourselves.
What keeps me going is a sense of justice and it makes me feel committed when I meet with my clients and they say over and over again that they have been looking for a lawyer for a really long time and they are so happy that I am working on their case.
For my first client, I told her that I didn’t have any experience, malpractice insurance, I wasn’t getting paid, that it a contingency free case in that she didn’t have to pay anything and I didn’t know anything so we were both giving each other something good. She was giving me the ability to practice working on these cases and I was giving her legal representation. I think the future looking dream is that I’ll get really good at this, I’ll keep winning cases, and people will find out alleged perpetrators are paying millions of dollars to their ex-intimate partners and that will reduce the occurrence of domestic violence with that particular group.
I know that domestic violence is really complicated and we need to attack it in many different ways thru counseling, preventative measures. But if there is just a few men out there who think that money is more important than letting their aggression go on their intimate partners than that is enough for me and that is what keeps me going.
SB: How can our readers help support the Alipato Project?
Usually I give the whole fundraising bit; you can find out more here. We are interested now in getting a following on a our Facebook and our blog. A big part in what we are trying to do is create an education jury pool. One of the limitations of low income clients that we have seen is that they can’t afford expert witnesses to explain to juries that domestic violence is in fact perpetrated against people with disabilities or psychological diagnoses and by people from wealthy and privileged backgrounds. So I think creating a more educated jury pool whose biases about race, class, gender, and disability are challenged needs to be a big part of our work. We try to create such a jury pool by sharing articles that share statistics and stories that aren’t often highlighted. So be sure to follow us!
SB: In my interview prep I saw that you volunteer by reading preschoolers radical children’s’ book. Can you share your favorite?
TKTC: So I try to do it in a discreet way because they are preschool students after all so they have to be fun and there has to be a storyline. They really enjoy Marcus Ewert’s Ten Thousand Dresses which is about a little girl who loves to wear dresses, but her parents and her brother say that she can’t wear them because she is a boy. At the end, she finds a friend who accepts for who she is and they make dresses together. That’s particularly compelling book for students at the preschool. One time I read it there was a boy who said, “I love the blue dress and I want to be the blue dress.” This is a boy who has a lot of high energy so it’s rare that he listens and follows the story. Before this little boy said that, the other boys in the class were like “Ew! Why does he want to want to wear a dress?” Once that kid said that, the rest of the students stopped caring about whether the main character was a boy or a girl, but what dress they wanted to be. That was really fun!
Another of my favorites is Lachie Hume’s Clancy the Courageous Cow, a story about immigration reform, border disputes, racial justice, and a just distribution of resources in the world of cows who wrestle.
SB: And finally: you’re stranded on a desert island, you get to choose one drink, one food, and one feminist. What do you pick?
TKTC: The food — I would bring something that is usually made in an urban area — I would bring kimchi. I would bring a cappuccino. And a feminist? Well there are a lot of feminist heroes, but I’m not sure if we would get along. So I would bring my mom, because she’s a feminist and I know we would get along really well.
Suzanna dedicates this one to all law students pushing thru exams and would like to thank Wikipedia for showing her the difference between torts and tarts. Tort class admittedly does not sound as much fun as tart class.