The Rape Trial Everyone in America Should Be Watching

Thirteen women came forward to accuse former police officer Daniel Holtzclaw of misconduct. Why aren't more people outraged?

Hair, Face, Head, Nose, Ear, Hairstyle, Eye, Chin, Forehead, Eyebrow,
(Image credit: Associated Press)

On Monday, November 2, the Daniel Holtzclaw trial commenced in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Charged with 36 offenses (opens in new tab) including sexual battery, forcible oral sodomy, stalking, and rape, ex-officer Holtzclaw allegedly targeted 13 women during his three-year tenure with the Oklahoma City Police Department. His victims reportedly ranged in age from 17 to late 50s, but the unifying thread of his accusers is race. Holtzclaw targeted African-American women (opens in new tab). And an extensive investigation by the Oklahoma City Police Department revealed a lengthy record of criminal sexual misconduct while on patrol.

Holtzclaw targeted African-American women.

The first woman to come forward to file a report alleged Holtzclaw forced her to expose her breasts and perform oral sex on him during a traffic stop. Another victim accused ex-officer Holtzclaw of forcing her to perform oral sex after finding a crack pipe in her purse. Unlike the first woman, who, according to a BuzzFeed report (opens in new tab), was just passing through the neighborhood, most of the 13 accusers were poor black women with either warrants or suspected of involvement in illegal activities such as prostitution or illegal drug consumption. According to his some of victims, he would offer to not arrest them if they complied with performing sexual acts. The women complied, fearing arrest and incarceration.

Despite the horrific nature of the allegations, and increased national attention and debate about issues of racially motivated police misconduct, the investigation of and subsequent trial for Holtzclaw remains largely under- and unreported in many major news outlets. In a historical moment in which campaigns to end sexual violence and to address racism at all levels of the criminal justice system thrive, a case involving an alleged serial rapist of black women has garnered far too little national outrage. Holtzclaw, a man accused of heinous crimes of sexual violation against both an underage girl and a grandmother, is not a household name.

The lack of mass media coverage of the investigation of and trial for Holtzclaw emerges from the unique intersection of racism and sexism in the lives of black women. Historically and contemporarily, the victimization of black women in the U.S. through sexual and other forms of violence does not incite a widespread call to action. With the notable exception of black women bloggers (opens in new tab)journalists (opens in new tab), and scholars (opens in new tab) documenting the investigation and the trial as well as a handful of news outlets covering the basic details of the case, there has been a deafening silence around a demand for justice for the black women who came forward. There is no nationally trending hashtag conveying the gravity of crimes allegedly committed by Holtzclaw while on duty. This is, however, "A Justice For Daniel Holtzclaw" Facebook page (opens in new tab) that attracts new likes and followers every day. Where is the uproar?

The first woman to come forward to file a report alleged Holtzclaw forced her to expose her breasts and perform oral sex on him during a traffic stop.

Any person reporting a crime committed by a police officer could face reprisal or accusations of dishonesty. A historical precedent exists, however, for black women being viewed as un-rapeable and not credible as witnesses to their own experiences with sexual violence. While some people may learn about slavery and the Jim Crow era in their high school and college classrooms, most will not learn about enslaved black women enduring forced breeding, rape, and brutal physical assaults. Most will not read about how the rape of black women functioned alongside the lynching of black people as a tool for maintaining the racial status quo after slavery ended and through the height of the civil rights movement. Black women who came forward to report crimes committed by white men during the early- to mid-20th century were especially vulnerable to violent reprisals. On rare occasions were these women's perpetrators tried or convicted for their acts of sexual violence.

The racial identities of Holtzclaw's accusers fit within a long history of systemic sexual violence against black women. His role as a police officer gave him a specific kind of power and authority with which to engage his accusers. He could threaten them with arrest or incarceration, or convince them that no one would believe them because of any past encounters they had with law enforcement or with their drug addictions. During opening statements at the trial, Holtzclaw's defense attorney deployed words such as "street smart" to discredit the accusers to the all-white jury (opens in new tab). His reference to "street smarts," vague but derisive, attempted to reinforce the idea that the accusers were involved in criminal activities associated with the "streets," such as sex work and drug usage. Consequently, these women should not be trusted as they are lying to cover up their criminal activities or were high when these alleged incidents occurred. Framing these women as liars and as criminally inclined builds upon a tendency not to see black women as victims. In stark contrast to the accusers, the defense attorney described Holtzclaw as an "all-American good guy." (opens in new tab)

Where is the uproar?

The invisibility of these women's stories on the radars of most news outlets and many of those invested in ending police brutality against black people speaks volumes about how black women figure in both national and social justice discussions about racial injustice. Without black-women-centered initiatives such as #SayHerName, the suspicious death of Sandra Bland (opens in new tab) may not have become a national news story. Similarly, without black women taking the lead on reporting on and organizing around Holtzclaw's accusers, there would be minimal coverage (opens in new tab) of these black women accusing a police officer of various acts of sexual violence. Most of the conversations about police violence against black people continue to focus on the police-involved killings of black men (opens in new tab).

On November 1, the Associated Press released data from a yearlong study (opens in new tab) on sexual misconduct by U.S law enforcement over a six-year period. Nearly 1,000 officers lost their jobs during that period for acts of sexual misconduct including rape and sexual assault. The study does not focus on the racial identities of the victims of these crimes, but it acknowledges that sexual crimes committed by police officers are woefully underreported. We have a lot to learn about the realities of sexual violence perpetrated by police officers. More specifically, we need to examine the ways in which specific groups of marginalized people, such as black women, are particularly vulnerable to these criminal acts. The work of the African American Policy Forum on police brutality against black women leads the way in collecting data about black women's unique and disparate experiences with policing (opens in new tab). "Black women are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault by police due to historically entrenched presumptions of promiscuity and sexual availability," according to a recent report. (opens in new tab) "Historically, the American legal system has not protected Black women from sexual assault, thereby creating opportunities for law enforcement officials to sexually abuse them with the knowledge that they are unlikely to suffer any penalties for their actions." 

We cannot afford to continue replicating a dangerous history in which our nation refuses to believe that black women can be victims or survivors of sexual violence, especially at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve. The women who came forward deserve our attention and our support.