The Holtzclaw trial: it’s intersectional feminism or bust

In the United States, more than 800,000 people serve as local and state law enforcement officials. These police officers are charged with upholding and enforcing the law, maintaining order, and providing general services. To carry out these duties, police officers possess certain powers, granted by the state. If the situation calls for it, police officers can frisk, detain, and arrest civilians, as well as seize property. In addition, depending upon the situation, police officers are empowered to use force to defend themselves or civilians (the amount of force extends along a spectrum from police presence through deadly force). Given the powers that police officers have, it is incumbent upon them to maintain a level of professionalism in the course of their duties and to wield their powers responsibly and ethically. Unfortunately, there are countless examples of cops engaging in a range of irresponsible, unethical, immoral, and/or illegal activities from bribery and unjustified arrests to illegal search and seizure and the use of excessive force. And then there’s one common form of police misconduct that is second only to accusations of excessive force: sex misconduct.

Over a six-year period, a recent Associated Press investigation of sex misconduct among law enforcement officials nationwide found roughly 1,000 officers who lost their badges due to various forms of sexual assault, sexual misconduct, and possession of child pornography:

In a yearlong investigation of sexual misconduct by U.S. law enforcement, The Associated Press uncovered about 1,000 officers who lost their badges in a six-year period for rape, sodomy and other sexual assault; sex crimes that included possession of child pornography; or sexual misconduct such as propositioning citizens or having consensual but prohibited on-duty intercourse.

The number is unquestionably an undercount because it represents only those officers whose licenses to work in law enforcement were revoked, and not all states take such action. California and New York — with several of the nation’s largest law enforcement agencies — offered no records because they have no statewide system to decertify officers for misconduct. And even among states that provided records, some reported no officers removed for sexual misdeeds even though cases were identified via news stories or court records.

 “It’s happening probably in every law enforcement agency across the country,” said Chief Bernadette DiPino of the Sarasota Police Department in Florida, who helped study the problem for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “It’s so underreported and people are scared that if they call and complain about a police officer, they think every other police officer is going to be then out to get them.”

Even as cases around the country have sparked a national conversation about excessive force by police, sexual misconduct by officers has largely escaped widespread notice due to a patchwork of laws, piecemeal reporting and victims frequently reluctant to come forward because of their vulnerabilities — they often are young, poor, struggling with addiction or plagued by their own checkered pasts.

Young. Poor. Struggling with addiction. Plagued by checkered pasts. Descriptions that fit many of the 13 women who were raped and/or sexually assaulted by former Oklahoma police officer Daniel Holtzclaw. In June of 2014, Jannie Logins was pulled over and sexually assaulted by Daniel Holtzclaw. Her report to the police led to an investigation of Holtzclaw which resulted in his termination from the police department in January 2015. With 36 charges against him-ranging from sexual assault to sexual battery to coercive oral sodomy and more-his trial began on 11/2/15. On 11/29/15, Holtzclaw was convicted of 18 of the 36 charges against him with a recommended sentence totaling 263 years in prison (he’ll be formally sentenced on 1/21/16). If you read about the verdict online, you probably saw this picture (or one of a similar nature):

(image: former OK police officer Daniel Holtzclaw rearing his head back in tears after hearing of his conviction on 18 charges)

Before I go on, I want to suggest that readers take some time to view this video of 2 of Holtzclaw’s victims speaking out for the first time, as well as comments from their friends, family, and attorneys who supported them. This is important, bc all too often the victims are ignored and their stories unheard.

I have to say that I don’t have one shred of sympathy for him. Not. One. He can cry every day for the rest of his life and I will never have a single fuck to give. But I do have an emotion that I feel for this man: anger. Outrage. That this man used the power of his badge to prey upon women in his police beat, which primarily consisted of a low-income, minority neighborhood is beyond the pale. Knowing that potential victims would be less likely to report an assault if they had a criminal record or drug addictions, he methodically targeted his victims and used threats or coercion to sexually assault them. I consider rape and sexual assault to be among the worst actions one human can commit against another bc they are a violation of one’s body. Rape and sexual assault are a denial of the individuals’ right to decide what to do with their bodies. Rape and sexual assault are a way to rob an individual of power and choice. Rape and sexual assault strip the humanity away from an individual by forcing them to commit a sexual act against their will. Rape and sexual assault are dehumanizing and absolutely unconscionable and I hope he spends the rest of his life behind bars.  But it seems I have some extra anger. Anger that is not directed at Holtzclaw, but rather, at the national media.

Why, you might ask?

Where was the coverage of this story? Where was the coverage-not African-American news sources like The Root, For Harriet, Atlanta Blackstar, Colorlines, which have been covering the story since it broke last year-but mainstream news sources like CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, or CNN (you’ll pardon me if I don’t include Fox “News” in that list, but they can’t make entertaining programming let alone provide accurate and reliable news). Where was their coverage of this story? After all, we live in a time when law enforcement officials around the country are under increased scrutiny over their use of force. You’d think a police officer who is also a serial rapist would merit screen time. But the mainstream media was largely silent (at least until the resolution of the case). I wonder why that is. Kirsten West Savali offers an explanation:

You may not know his name because his alleged victims are black. That fact has led to blink-or-you’ll-miss-it mainstream-media coverage and either lukewarm interest or outright apathy from almost everyone who isn’t also a black woman.

Terrell Jermaine offers an answer that is intertwined with Savali’s:

Sandra Bland dominated national headlines for weeks, but the media attention her death generated was a rarity. Meredith Clark, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of North Texas, knows why. Bland’s middle class background — college-educated, about to start a new job, well-spoken — provided the wider public the necessary social credentials they needed to embrace her humanity, she told me. That is not true in the case of the women who are accusing Holtzclaw of sexually assaulting them.

“They are harder to identify with because of our all-or-nothing take on morality: Either you are completely innocent, or at the most you sin like me, and then I can identify with you,” Clarke wrote in an email. “But it’s easier to write off these imperfect victims. Every mitigating factor that the defense has brought up to besmirch their character makes it harder for them to be presented as ‘worthy’ victims. Through legal, media, and moral lenses, this is exactly how black women are repeatedly dismissed, ignored, and disqualified from being fully human and worthy of inclusion and justice.”

I suspect the answer to “why did the mainstream media pay so little attention to the Holtzclaw case” is in part bc black lives are devalued in society-including the media-and bc black womens’ lives are valued even less. And the media needs to do better. The mainstream media needs to recognize that African-Americans are part of this country…are part of the narrative…are part of the fabric. They need to recognize that what hurts black people in this country, hurts this country. They need to recognize that white people are not the only ones with concerns in this nation and hopefully they’ll begin to realize the importance of addressing the needs, concerns, and frustrations of African-Americans.

That lack of concern on the part of the MSM demonstrates why the Black Lives Matter movement is vital. In a country where black lives truly matter, the suffering of black people by agents of the state would be news. It would be reported on by a mainstream media that recognizes that “all lives matter” (can’t believe I actually used that phrase non-ironically). But just as importantly as the #BLM is feminism. Specifically intersectional feminism. The 13 people who were sexually assaulted by Holtzclaw were not just black-they were black women. And there is a long and storied history of state sanctioned violence against black women:

The rape of black women by white men, a common form of racial violence during both chattel slavery and the Jim Crow era, was foundational to maintaining a white supremacist racial status quo. The prevalence of violence as a tool to maintain segregation and to promote white superiority shaped the African American experience throughout the post-emancipation and Jim Crow eras.

More recent historical work from scholars such as Cheryl Hicks, Kali Gross, Kidada Williams, Hannah Rosen, and Sarah Haley uncover the specific ways in which black women experienced anti-black racial violence. From convict labour and violent employers in domestic work settings to the stark vulnerability of those engaging or perceived to be involved in sex work, black women encountered a range of violations without any recourse.

The state played an integral role in violence against black women through forced sterilisations, abusive and exploitative convict labour, and the hyper-policing and criminalising of black women’s bodies.

The state often sanctioned the assault, rape and murder of black women through not searching for or convicting those responsible for these acts of violence. Viewed as un-rapeable, the mere suggestion that a white man would rape a black woman flew in the face of anti-black racist logic.

Throughout the trial, Holtzclaw’s defense team engaged in character assassination. His attorney Scott Adams, tried to paint the victims as untrustworthy lawbreakers, who essentially couldn’t have been raped. It’s easy to see the angle he was playing: attack their character to undermine their credibility. It’s a dishonest tactic bc whether or not one is a morally upstanding individual or a moral abomination does not change whether the sexual interaction in question was consensual or not. Even Holtzclaw himself was shocked when the jury returned their ruling, as if he expected them to render a series of not guilty verdicts. It’s like the man thought that his actions-his sexual assault and rape of 13 women-was somehow not wrong. He didn’t view his actions as violating 13 human beings…13 black women. He saw himself as entitled to do what he wanted, likely by virtue of his badge and gun (and possibly because of the entitlement mentality that men raised in a culture of toxic masculinity so often possess). So when a series of guilty verdicts was returned, he probably felt betrayed. Hence his tears.

This case is like an oasis in a desert. For black people across the country, seeing a corrupt, rapist cop not just arrested, not just charged, but convicted, is a rare sign that justice can be had for black USAmericans. This case also highlights the important role intersectional feminism must play in advocating for racial justice.  Without an approach that focuses not just on the struggles of black men, but also on the unique difficulties faced by African-American *women*, true racial justice can never be had.

The Holtzclaw trial: it’s intersectional feminism or bust