Connecticut Bishops Not the Victims

Andrea Lynch

Connecticut Catholic Bishops' claim that they are the real victims of new legislation that stops Connecticut hospitals from denying emergency contraception to women who have been raped.

There's nothing new about Connecticut Catholic Bishops' claim that they are the real victims of new legislation that stops Connecticut hospitals from denying emergency contraception (EC) to women who have been raped—after all, everyone knows that enforced pregnancy by rape is far easier to cope with than having to balance one's personal religious beliefs with accepted medical ethics. But the Bishops' outcry represents a rhetorical trend in Christian Right political activism that is worth noting, since it seems to be getting used more and more often to shore up opposition to legislative measures intended to protect vulnerable or marginalized people from violence, negligence, and abuse (Rick Perlstein at Tom Paine has an excellent analysis of this trend in the Christian Right's response to hate crimes legislation recently introduced in the U.S. Congress).

The Connecticut legislation, recently signed into law by Republican governor M. Jodi Rell, came in response to widespread negligence of the reproductive rights of rape survivors in Connecticut hospitals. In 2006, research conducted by Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services (CONNSACS) revealed that 40 percent of women who were taken to Connecticut hospitals after being raped either were not offered EC or were not given the full dose, even though 8 percent of women who have been raped become pregnant (EC is effective at preventing pregnancy if taken up to 72 hours after unprotected sex). The phenomenon was particularly pronounced in Connecticut's Catholic hospitals, who had been directed in 2006 by Hartford Archbishop Henry J. Mansell to refuse EC to rape victims who were ovulating or whose eggs had been fertilized—even though it's been shown time and time again that EC prevents—rather than interrupts—pregnancy, and therefore, if a woman who is already pregnant takes EC, the drug has no effect.

Although CONNSACCS' research was conducted only in Connecticut Catholic and secular hospitals, the phenomenon it uncovered is a national one. Research recently conducted by Ibis Reproductive Health and Catholics for a Free Choice reveals similar trends in Catholic hospitals nationwide, over a third of which do not make EC available to rape victims in the ER.

Enter the Connecticut legislation (as well as similar bills that have already passed in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and Minnesota), which requires all Connecticut hospitals to offer EC to women who have been raped. The legislation was drafted by state Senator Jonathan Harris of West Hartford, who did his best to accommodate the wishes of Catholic healthcare providers by including a provision that allows hospitals to conduct a pregnancy test before giving a woman EC. Lawmakers stopped short of including a provision that would have allowed Catholic hospitals to conduct an "ovulation test" as well, and as a result, Connecticut Bishops are now claiming that the legislation forces Catholic healthcare providers to perform "chemical abortions," which violates their right to religious freedom. I guess that for them, religious freedom—even in a plural democracy—is absolute, and in this case, it is predicated on the ability to deny rape victims' rights.

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While advocates for the reproductive rights of rape survivors celebrate their legislative victory, attorneys for the Catholic hospitals are already making plans to challenge the law, and the Bishops are warning of a slippery slope for Catholic hospitals nationwide. Once you're forced to respect the rights of some of your patients, after all, what's to stop the state from forcing you to respect the rights of all of your patients? Dangerous times indeed.

News Human Rights

Daniel Holtzclaw Gets 263 Years, Advocates Insist ‘It’s Not Over’

Kanya D’Almeida

Thursday’s hearing saw journalists, residents, and activists fill the courtroom and spill out into the corridors of the courthouse, while Twitter lit up with more than 15,000 tweets using the hashtag #DanielHoltzclaw.

Daniel Holtzclaw, a former Oklahoma City police officer who last year was convicted of sexual assault against multiple Black women and one Black teenager, has been sentenced by a judge to 263 years in prison.

More than a month after the jury convicted Holtzclaw on four counts of first-degree rape, four counts of forcible oral sodomy, and six counts of sexual battery, among other charges, Judge Timothy Henderson—a former police officer—announced Thursday that Holtzclaw would serve the sentence consecutively, as opposed to concurrently.

That translates to multiple life sentences for the 29-year-old Holtzclaw.

Thursday’s proceedings were delayed for several hours due to a last-minute request by Holtzclaw’s attorneys for a new trial on the basis that key evidence had been omitted, a motion the judge eventually denied. He then heard “victim impact statements” from three of the survivors, including from Jannie Ligons, the oldest of Holtzclaw’s victims and the first to report him to the authorities.

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Cameras were not allowed inside the courtroom, but according to local journalists who live-tweeted the hearing, Ligons said she was traumatized by her encounter with Holtzclaw during which he orally sodomized her in his police car. Ligons reportedly said, “I want my life back,” and asked that Holtzclaw serve “all 263 years” so she wouldn’t have to keep “looking over her shoulders.”

Another victim named by reporters as Sherry Ellis said there would never be a day when she would forget “being violated by this man.” The youngest of Holtzclaw’s victims, a teenager who was 17 years old when Holtzclaw raped her on the front porch of her home, told the courtroom her life “has been turned upside down” since her encounter with the former officer.

The case has garnered widespread coverage from local outlets, as well as on social media, where activists and advocates gathered en masse to share live updates about the trial, which ran from November 2 until December 9, 2015. Thursday’s hearing attracted widespread attention, with journalists, residents, and activists filling the courtroom and spilling out into the corridors of the courthouse, while Twitter lit up with more than 15,000 tweets using the hashtag #DanielHoltzclaw.

The week leading up to the January 21 sentencing saw an outpouring of solidarity on Twitter, including what was called a Day of Visibility and Accountability, during which survivors of sexual assault were encouraged to share their experiences using the hashtags #SayHerName, #BlackWomenMatter, and #ItsNotOver.

Closer to Thursday’s hearing, this virtual support materialized into the physical presence of supporters hailing from several cities. One such solidarity action, the National Justice Ride for Black Women in OKC, organized by the national feminist organization Black Women’s Blueprint, brought a caravan of activists from New York City to Oklahoma to stand in support of the women Holtzclaw had brutalized.

Other organizations like the Native Alliance Against Violence also had a presence at events leading up to Henderson’s ruling.

One local group, called OKC Artists for Justice, has been largely responsible for galvanizing such widespread interest in a case that has been ignored by most national media, mobilizing community support for the 12 Black women and one Black teenager who came forward to record their testimony, and leading a major grassroots campaign aimed at raising the women’s voices during a trial that was marked by victim blaming and character assassination of the witnesses.

OKC Artists for Justice co-founder Candace Liger explained in an interview with Rewire that what began as a small collective of artists in Oklahoma City quickly snowballed into a powerful current within the larger movement for Black lives, sparking debate and dialog on the need to elevate the experiences of Black women and girls, particularly their vulnerability to sexual violence.

From organizing almost daily protests outside the courthouse, to packing the courtroom with supporters on days when survivors took the stand against Holtzclaw’s aggressive defense lawyer Scott Adams, the group drew local media coverage. Liger said that while some of the group’s initial protests brought out about a dozen demonstrators, later gatherings attracted close to 100 people.

The collective is now partnering with the African American Policy Forum (AAPF), a national advocacy organization that has long pushed for the inclusion of women in conversations around state violence and police brutality.

In a webinar hosted this past Tuesday, titled “Beyond the Holtzclaw Verdict,” AAPF curated a panel to discuss long-term solutions to the issue of sexual abuse of Black women at the hands of police personnel, a widespread but underreported phenomenon.

A recent study by the Associated Press found that more than 1,000 officers lost their badges over a six-year period for such crimes as rape, sodomy, and other forms of sexual violence. While the data is not disaggregated by race, a pattern of Black women suffering disproportionately high rates of sexual violence suggests that they likely bear a significant share of the burden of sexual misconduct by police.

The Holtzclaw trial put this very issue into focus. All of the ex-cop’s accusers were economically, politically, or socially marginalized Black females, whose testimonies further revealed that Holtzclaw preyed upon other vulnerabilities like outstanding arrest warrants or substance dependency issues to force or compel them to perform sexual acts.

All but one said they didn’t initially report the incidents for fear that no one would believe them.

Advocates like Rachel Anspach, a senior staff writer with AAPF, say Holtzclaw’s systematic abuse of mostly low-income Black women highlights the pressing need to combat racial profiling in police departments across the country by implementing the 2015 End Racial Profiling Act, as called for in the final report of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

Anspach said her organization has called on law enforcement agencies to “enforce zero tolerance sexual offense policies that support victims [and] provide an environment in which victims can feel safe to report” police sexual misconduct, and other forms of sexual violence.

Liger, of OKC Artists for Justice, echoed these sentiments, adding that training police officers and first responders could have a marked impact on women’s willingness to report sexually violent encounters. Recounting an incident in which she experienced domestic violence and sexual abuse, Liger said, “When the police finally turned up at my home, I was the one with blood on my hands, and I was told that because I fought back I could be put in jail, and my kids placed in the custody of [the Department of Human Services].”

She said this prevailing reality puts women “in the very difficult situation” of being forced to choose between reporting crimes and protecting themselves against possible retaliation by the state. This is something Holtzclaw’s victims were all too familiar with, given that the police officer threatened many of them with arrest or incarceration if they didn’t submit to his sexual advances.

Strengthening reporting and investigation of sexual assaults would help fill a lacuna in official data on sexual violence: Under-counting of sexual assault cases by police departments across the country is so prevalent that between 1995 and 2012 it resulted in more than a million rapes being left out of the FBI’s national database on sexual violence, according to data compiled by Black Women’s Blueprint.

Advocates welcomed Thursday’s ruling, but many were quick to note that their work is far from over. While Henderson’s decision to slap Holtzclaw with the longest possible jail sentence sends a strong message to other possible sex offenders, the issue of Black women’s marginalization, even within larger anti-violence movements, remains a serious one.

“I think one of the biggest obstacles to including the types of police violence that women face within our overall understanding of anti-Black state violence is that oftentimes it is not as visible as the violence experienced by Black men,” Anspach told Rewire. “While both men and women are subject to police violence in public spaces, for instance, while driving, Black women are more vulnerable to experiencing violence in private spaces. We saw that with Holtzclaw’s victims, where some of the women were brutalized in their own homes, on their own porches, or in their hospital beds. Now is the time to expand our idea of where police brutality takes place, and who can be a victim of police violence.”

For Liger, the road ahead is a long one, littered with hurdles such as the need for widespread changes in policing and far-reaching legislative reforms. Thursday’s ruling represents for her a small step in the right direction.

“The main lesson I’ve learned throughout all of this is that we are more powerful than we think,” she said. “If we encounter an issue, we’ve got to talk about it and move on it, because you can’t really garner support without action. People need to see that you’re willing to stand up and do something, willing to ruffle some feathers, before they back you. But they will back you in the end.”

Analysis Violence

Drug War’s Impact on Black Women Comes to the Fore in Daniel Holtzclaw Trial

Kanya D’Almeida

Of the many horrific details that have come to light in the ongoing trial of Daniel Holtzclaw, the former Oklahoma City police officer accused of sexually assaulting multiple Black women, perhaps the most common is the allegation that the 28-year-old football star-turned-cop specifically targeted women with histories of substance dependency.

Read more of our articles on the Daniel Holtzclaw trial here.

Of the many horrific details that have come to light in the ongoing trial of Daniel Holtzclaw, the former Oklahoma City police officer accused of sexually assaulting multiple Black women, perhaps the most common is the allegation that the 28-year-old football star-turned-cop specifically targeted women with histories of substance dependency.

Holtzclaw reportedly preyed upon 12 Black women and one Black teenager in the low-income neighborhoods on the east side of Oklahoma City that served as his patrol area between December 2013 and June 2014, stopping those he suspected of being in possession of drugs and allegedly using this excuse to perform abusive body searches and to threaten or coerce women into sexual acts.

By Tuesday evening, which marked day 16 of the trial and saw the 13 accusers taking the stand against Holtzclaw in the Oklahoma County courthouse, a pattern of alleged abuse had emerged that not only highlighted Black women’s vulnerability to police brutality, but also called into question the ways in which the “war on drugs” has disproportionately impacted Black women.

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Since the trial began on November 2, local journalists have reported that the defense attorney led his cross-examinations by questioning witnesses about being under the influence of, or in possession of, either drugs or alcohol at the time of the assaults.

An investigation by the Associated Press revealed that one woman who claims to have been orally sodomized by Holtzclaw was handcuffed to a hospital bed throughout the incident; she’d been admitted to the medical facility while high on angel dust, or PCP.

Other accusers say the ex-officer fondled, groped, and even penetrated them under the guise of searching them for drugs. Some say he promised to make pending charges go away if they “cooperated with him,” or threatened them with jail time if they didn’t.

The sixth accuser who testified against Holtzclaw on November 18 was the second witness to take the stand while in the custody of Oklahoma County jail on drug-related charges. Shackled at the wrists and ankles, she wore an orange jumpsuit to the courtroom and told the all-white jury she was under the influence of crack cocaine when Holtzclaw allegedly stopped her on the street, drove her home, and raped her in her own bedroom.

Defense Attorney Scott Adams has seized upon some witnesses’ histories of substance dependency to cast doubt on the validity of their testimony, according to reporters with the Oklahoman and TV news channel KOCO 5.

In one incident that generated some buzz on social media, Adams aggressively questioned a witness on the stand until she said, “Before I came here I smoked some marijuana and a blunt stick laced with PCP.” Other accusers interviewed by the AP say that, haunted by the attack, they have since slipped even deeper into the use of substances like cocaine.

These repeated references to drug use by the alleged victims made their way into a BBC article on the case—one of the few pieces of coverage of a trial that has otherwise been completely ignored by the mainstream media—headlined, “Daniel Holtzclaw trial: Standing with ‘imperfect’ accusers.”

“I think this is absolutely disgusting,” Camille Landry, co-convener of an Oklahoma City group called Occupy the Corners, said in response to the BBC article, “to suggest that a victim has to have certain attributes or behaviors in order to not be blamed for an assault against her.”

“Exactly what would a perfect victim be?” she asked. “How does one become perfect in anticipation of being victimized so that one is not blamed for her victimization?”

“It doesn’t matter what they were doing or what their past might have beenthese women were sexually assaulted by a man who was charged with serving and protecting them and who instead became a predator against them,” Landry told Rewire.

A close look at the state’s policing of drug-related offenses offers some insight into the context surrounding the threats Holtzclaw is accused of making, and the systems in place that his alleged victims may have been up against at the time of their encounter with the officer.

A 2014 study conducted by the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Sociology found that the state has the highest female incarceration rate in the country, locking up 130 women per 100,000 residents, compared to the national average of 67 per 100,000 residents. About 1,000 women are admitted into Oklahoma’s prison system every year—half of them on drug-related charges.

“The number-one offense is possession,” Susan Sharp, a contributor to the study and author of the book Mean Lives, Mean Laws: Oklahoma’s Women Prisoners, told Rewire in a phone interview.

“Women are low-hanging fruit, they are easy to detect and prosecute, and they seldom have enough information to plea bargain with. The war on drugs is what has driven the high rate of female incarceration in this state.”

She said harsh drug sentencing laws are largely to blame for the fact that 2,400 women are currently locked up in jails and prisons across Oklahoma.

“In Oklahoma you can be charged with drug trafficking for possession of five grams of crack or 20 grams of methamphetamine, both of which are fairly low quantities,” explained Sharp, who is also a professor in the sociology department at the University of Oklahoma. She said policies like the 85 percent rule—originally intended to ensure that violent criminals served 85 percent of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole, but which has now been extended to some drug-related offenses—ensure lengthy sentences for minor crimes.

While all low-income women are caught up this dragnet, she said, Black women tend to be disproportionately impacted, a reality that is not limited to Oklahoma.

Across the United States, the “war on drugs” has torn apart communities of color at a far higher rate than white communities, despite the fact that the government has repeatedly documented similar rates of drug use across racial groups.

A recent fact sheet by the Drug Policy Alliance revealed that 80 percent of the roughly 1.5 million drug-related arrests that happened in 2013 were on simple charges of possession. Black people comprise 30 percent of those arrested for drug law violations and 40 percent of those imprisoned on drug-related charges, even though they account for just 13 percent of the population.

Statistics are even grimmer for women. Between 1980 and 2002 the number of incarcerated women in the United States jumped from 12,300 to 182,271. During that time, incarceration rates for drug offenders ballooned by 888 percent, with women of color disproportionately impacted by the increase; the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that Black women are three times more likely to be locked up on drug charges than white women.

“In the last 20 years, Black women have comprised the largest group of people presenting in prisons, and much of that is driven by the war on drugs,” asha bandele, an author and senior director at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Rewire.

A 2005 ACLU report titled Caught in the Net, the most recent comprehensive study on the impacts of the drug war on women, revealed that these racially lopsided numbers are not a coincidence. Rather they are the result of “racially targeted law enforcement practices, prosecutorial decisions, and sentencing policies,” which are exacerbated by “selective testing of pregnant women of color for drug use as well as heightened surveillance of poor mothers of color in the context of policing child abuse and neglect.”

Organizations like the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) have documented the ways in which Black women have borne the brunt of drug war policies like mandatory minimum sentencing laws “despite their peripheral involvement in the drug trade.”

A 2015 AAPF report highlighted how interactions with law enforcement personnel who regard Black women’s bodies as “vessels for drugs ingested, swallowed or concealed, or their homes as drug factories” have led to the deaths of Black girls as young as 7 and Black women as old as 92.

Hyper-policing of Black women under the guise of fighting the “war on drugs” also informs how women interact with the criminal justice system, legal experts say.

Citing a recent report on policing and domestic and sexual violence, Sandra Park, a senior attorney at the ACLU, told Rewire, “Survivors with criminal records or substance abuse issues, even if they have experienced sexual assault or domestic violence, tend not to reach out to the police because they know they are vulnerable to arrest.”

She added, “That issue is compounded when you are talking about a police officer like Daniel Holtzclaw, someone who can use stringent drug laws to help perpetuate or commit sexual assault.”

As witnesses in the Holtzclaw trial have testified, this same cycle of fear held true when it came to reporting the police officer’s alleged abuse. Under aggressive questioning by Holtzclaw’s attorney, several women on the stand confessed that they didn’t lodge official complaints because they were afraid to reveal their own drug problems, didn’t think the authorities would believe the word of a Black woman, or simply saw no purpose in reporting a crime to the very same institution that the alleged perpetrator was part of.

“What kind of police do you call on the police?” the 13th and final accuser said on the stand on Tuesday.

Damario Solomon-Simmons, a civil rights lawyer based in Tulsa who traveled to Oklahoma City together with National Bar Association President Benjamin Crump to witness the trial proceedings, said in an interview with NewsOne, “As Black men and lawyers, it was important that we attended the trial to both personally show solidarity.”

Asked about what he witnessed in the courtroom, Solomon-Simmons said, “Frankly, it was a surreal and disappointing scene that was more like 1915 than 2015 … while defendant Holtzclaw was allowed to attend the trial in a suit and free from handcuffs or restraints, some of the alleged victims were actually forced to testify while shackled and ‘dressed out’ in jail orange jumpsuits.”

He also noted his “disappointment” that the women did not appear to have adequate legal representation or the support they needed to navigate the complex proceedings.

In addition to a decades-long crackdown on narcotics, Oklahoma recently tightened regulations regarding the abuse of prescription drugs. The state ranks ninth nationally for overdose deaths involving opioid pain relievers, or OPR, according to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, while local news reports suggest that the number of overdose deaths as a result of powerful prescription drugs has doubled in the past 12 years.

Last year the senate passed HB 2589, a bill that added morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and benzodiazepine to a list of controlled substances in Oklahoma’s Trafficking in Illegal Drugs Act. Ostensibly aimed at curbing overdose deaths, the legislation imposes a ten-year minimum sentence on individuals found to be in possession of legally stipulated quantities of the four additional substances. However, criminal justice experts fear the law will do nothing except add to the state’s prison population by policing and prosecuting users, rather than, for instance, the drug manufacturers.

The bill could have especially serious ramifications for communities of color, who are disproportionately cut off from health services and are unable to seek treatments or care for dependence on controlled substances. The Oklahoma Policy Institute estimates that over 20 percent of the state’s African-American population is uninsured, suggesting that once again Black people are more likely to feel the most impact of a crackdown on “drugs.”

By putting a health issue into the hands of law enforcement personnel, the state has effectively widened the scope for police officers to conduct searches in the name of public safety. In fact, a common thread running through the testimony against Holtzclaw is the allegation that he instructed women to remove their shirts, “lift up their breasts,” and even pull down their pants so he could search them for drugs, in one case reportedly shining a flashlight between a 57-year-old woman’s legs to satisfy his suspicions.

So far the prosecution has called more than 40 witnesses, while the defense is expected to produce up to 75. With the trial expected to carry on well into the month of December, activists who have mobilized to pack the courtroom, demonstrate outside the courthouse, and otherwise show their support for the accusers say they are ready for the long haul.

“It is traumatic, seeing what has happened to these women in our own backyard and knowing it could have been us,” Landry said. “I am 65 years old and I have been accosted by the police just driving down the street. Other Black women have had similar experiences. Grandmothers, women with gray hair, have shared stories of being thrown up against the hood of their car and patted down with their grandchildren in the backseat, on their way home from church or school or the grocery store.”

“Even people who have had a hard time getting involved in this kind of activism have come out and said, ‘This is the straw that broke the camel’s back. This is where I draw the line. This is where I stand up and say, stop,'” she said.

As of Tuesday evening, all of the alleged victims had taken the stand, including one girl who was just 17 years old at the time of the assault and whose DNA was found on the inside and outside of the former policeman’s trousers, a lead detective testified this week. Holtzclaw has pleaded not guilty to all 36 charges against him, which include battery, stalking, and forcible oral sodomy.