“Society tends not to believe black women.”
Last Thursday, serial rapist and policeman, Daniel Holzclaw was found guilty by an all-white jury of sexually assaulting 13 women over a period of several months. The Oklahoma cop faced 36 charges, and was deemed guilty of 18 of them.
After deliberating for more than 45 hours over a period of four days, the jury found Holtzclaw guilty of six counts of sexual battery, three counts of lewd exhibition, four counts of forcible oral sodomy, four counts of rape in the first degree, and one count of rape in the second degree. The jury recommended 263 years in prison, with 120 for rape in the first degree.
Pointedly, all of Holtzclaw’s victims were African American women, from low socio-economic backgrounds, many of whom had a history of drug abuse and prior criminal convictions.
The eventual whistle-blower was 57 year-old grandmother Jannie Ligons. Holtzclaw stopped her at night in her car, then forced her to perform oral sex on him. Ligons knew she had done nothing to warrant her being pulled over, but was coerced into submission by the threat of arrest.
“All I could think of was he was going to shoot me, he was going to kill me. I kept pleading, “Don’t make me do this, sir. Are you going to shoot me?”.” she stated.
Ligons drove home to her daughter and called the police, which sparked the investigation leading to his arrest and eventual conviction.
However, this raises the uncomfortable question of why none of the other 12 victims spoke up. The prosecution argued Holtzclaw had strategically chosen victims lacking in credibility because of their backgrounds. That is, African American women, whose reports of abuse are often not taken seriously.
“What’s the good of telling on the police?” asked a teenager who prosecutors contended was raped by Holtzclaw on the porch of her mother’s home. She was 17 at the time.
“What kind of police do you call on the police?”
She also stated she had been raped before, but had never reported it because she didn’t think anyone would believe her.
The defence, on the other hand, brutally attacked the character of the women, using their records as an attempt to discredit them. Many of the victims were asked whether they were high at the time of their respective assaults.
Activists supporting the women have condemned the tactics used by the defence, and analysts have slammed the mainstream media for not adequately covering the case because the women were not the ‘perfect victims’.
“A rape case is always difficult. A survivor is always on trial,” stated Grace Franklin, co-founder of an Oklahoma community group that rallied around the case.
“When you add race, poverty and lack of education and contact with the system, it’s an even more brutal assault to watch. Society tends not to believe black women or value them as other women are.”
The controversial nature of this case, is the fact it highlights a vehement unwillingness to acknowledge issues faced by the African American population, especially those of its women. Worse still, it paints a clear picture of the ease with which those enforcing the law can and will strategically take advantage of this, and in turn perpetuates rape culture.
Attorney Benjamin Crump, speaking for Ligons, stated, “Black women’s lives matter. It mattered just as if this were a group of 13 white women.”
The Black Lives Matter movement of which Obama has been an outspoken proponent, seeks to combat this racist indifference. The group was founded in 2012 after black 17 year-old Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted for his crime, and Trayvon was post-humously placed on trial for his own murder. Since then, its voice has reached epic proportions, and has done immeasurable good in highlighting the racism and injustice entrenched in the legal system.
However, the problem with the movement, and the perception of society in general, is it primarily focuses on African American men who have suffered at the hands of appalling police brutality. While this is an issue in dire need of address, the decidedly more stigmatic topic of female sexual assault remains largely swept under the rug.
Why are we still so uncomfortable talking about rape? Is our still-patriarchal society subconsciously making excuses for the bad behavior of men? Or is the idea perpetuated by white male anti-abortion activists, that rape is always second priority because, hey, at least she wasn’t killed? Talk to any rape victim and she’ll tell you the physical and psychological trauma accompanying it is a fate worse than death.
The rape and sexual assault of 13 victims cannot be the bar we set for the recognition of the plight of black women. Until we throw off the cloak of convenient indifference, we cannot consider ourselves fair or benevolent. While Holzclaw’s victims received some level of justice in the end, the fact his crimes were able to continue for so long says something very uncomfortable about the balance of gender, power and race in our society, and that’s a message that’s not going to go away any time soon.
Image: Sue Ogrocki/AP Photo
Comment: Do you think the fact Holzclaw’s victims were all Black women from low socioeconomic backgrounds allowed him to get away with his crimes for so long?