Ebony Antoine, founder of Broken by Violence, listens during a healing circle for people affected by violence in Fairfield, on May 17, 2022. The organization helps connect survivors of crime with resources and offers emotional support. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Ebony Antoine and her husband, Corry Rojas, moved from Oakland to Stockton in 2003 for cheaper rent and an opportunity to grow their family.
By 2010, they were happily raising their three children in an apartment complex. When the unit next door opened up, Antoine talked her best friend into moving in with her two teenage sons from Oakland — Antoine and Rojas were the boys' godparents.
Rojas, she thought, could be a role model for the teenage boys, whose father wasn’t around.
One warm Saturday night that year, they heard gunshots outside.
“We drop, we get on the floor and then we can hear the young man moaning,” Antoine recalled. “And so my husband said, I'm not going to let him die alone. I'm going to go out there.”
The next day, a detective knocked on the door, and Antoine let him in. Rojas answered some questions — he didn’t have much to tell, since he hadn’t witnessed the shooting. But about two weeks later, someone else knocked on their front door. One of his godsons answered. Rojas pushed him out of the way and was shot point-blank in front of his children and godchildren.
“My son was there, my youngest daughter was in that same living room and my oldest daughter, I remember her wailing from the stairs — 10 years old and her father was her everything,” Antonie said.
Rojas’ murder would have been devastating enough. But afterward, Antoine says, she was repeatedly retraumatized. Like many families of color who lose loved ones to violence, she was confronted by a government system that has historically excluded those communities from the services and compensation promised to victims of crime in California. That system included police, prosecutors and the state of California itself.
“Honestly, I was treated like I really didn't matter,” she said.
Rojas’ murder remains unsolved. After his death, Antoine applied for help through the state’s Victim Compensation Board, which offers financial assistance to crime survivors. It did cover the funeral. But they denied virtually everything else — moving costs, help relocating to a home where her family felt safe, help with the income they lost when their main provider was murdered.
“There's no resources. But somehow you're supposed to dust yourself off and pretend like this horrific crime never happened,” she said.
But she and others are working to change that — and they’re making headway. After decades during which the debate over what crime victims want and need was dominated by a handful of groups closely aligned with law enforcement and largely focused on criminal punishment, a new movement has emerged.
It’s being led by the communities most affected by violence, largely women of color — the mothers, sisters, wives and girlfriends who have been left reeling. And they’re demanding that California take a more holistic view of who is considered victims.
One of the groups helping organize crime survivors is Californians for Safety and Justice, a nonprofit that views the mission of helping both criminal offenders and victims as interconnected and necessary in order to build safer communities. Tinisch Hollins is the group’s executive director and lost two brothers to gun violence herself.
She said it’s not unusual for family members of crime victims to be treated like suspects by police.
“You know, it's not impossible for someone to have both experiences,” Hollins said. “It's not impossible for someone to have had a criminal record or had past contact with the criminal legal system and be a victim of a crime.”
Californians for Safety and Justice is best known for their work on criminal justice reforms, including the controversial Proposition 47. That 2014 ballot measure made many low-level felonies, such as drug possession, misdemeanors and raised the dollar threshold for prosecuting shoplifting. Many in law enforcement have blamed it for changes to crime patterns.
But they’ve also created a network of thousands of crime survivors — including Antoine — who have lobbied for changes to state law so there’s acknowledgement of the damage violence wreaks on communities.
For example, for decades, California’s Victim Compensation Board has required victims to cooperate with police and excluded anyone on parole or who police believe was involved in the crime. And the gatekeepers making those judgments — whether someone is listed in the police report as a victim, whether they are deemed to be cooperating — are often police officers.
The way the law has been structured, Hollins said, “excludes some of those people from being recognized as a victim, from being able to access trauma recovery services or get mental health or get relocated.”
Mariam El-menshawi is director of the California Victims Legal Resource Center, which runs a hotline — 1-800-VICTIMS — and website to provide assistance and resources to crime survivors. She said leaving so many people out of the survivor system only creates more crime — and more victims.
“It stops them from being able to move on and to heal from the injury,” she said. “So it definitely creates a cycle where people, you know, aren't able to access help and then they just go back into this same hurt.”
But things appear to be changing. Advocates including Antoine and Hollins have netted several legislative wins this year — California is increasing the amount of cash many victims can get, including relocation expenses. And they are removing some of those barriers to qualifying for the victims compensation fund — people on parole and probation will now be able to access the fund, and not everyone will have to cooperate with police to qualify.
Additionally, the state budget includes more than $300 million for programs aimed at both supporting victims and preventing future crimes. That includes $50 million that will be given as grants to community organizations, who can then offer families in vulnerable communities flexible, direct cash assistance that’s not tied to the traditional victims compensation fund.
Ebony Antonie helped come up with some of these ideas — she is now a full-time advocate through her nonprofit, Broken by Violence. The organization provides resources and coping skills for grieving family members and victims of violence.
But for her family, most of these changes come too late, even though the impacts of her husband’s still unsolved murder continue to ripple. Her then-teenage godson — who opened the door the night Rojas was murdered — is now serving a prison sentence himself for murder.
But her three kids are doing well. And she’s finding purpose in her work helping other crime survivors get the services and help she didn’t.
“God knew that I was not going to allow Corry's death to be something that would be my demise, and I would turn my pain into power,” she said. “I was desperate to find someone that had a success story after experiencing something so horrific … So I decided that I would be that. Broken by Violence gives me an opportunity to let people know I look like you, I've suffered like you, and I'm going to go to bat for you.”
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