Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, more than a million people have fled, causing a refugee crisis of enormous magnitude. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), upwards of 3,000 Syrians a day have registered as asylum seekers in neighboring Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey. The lion’s share of these refugees—between 300,000 and 400,000—have ended up in Jordan, with approximately 30 percent of the total settling in the Al Zaatari refugee camp and 70 percent moving into host communities throughout the country. UNFPA further estimates that three-quarters of the refugees are women and children.
By all accounts, displaced Syrians are encountering grim conditions, with overt violence, supply shortages, and filth more the rule than the exception.
The Al Zaatari refugee camp, administered by the UN High Commission for Refugees, was built to accommodate 60,000 people, but there may be as many as 120,000 refugees there now, according to the New York Times. Yifat Susskind, executive director of MADRE, was in Jordan and visited the Al Zaatari camp in mid-April.
“Jordan is a highly functioning state, but it is resource stressed, especially for water,” Susskind told Rewire. “Syrian refugees are putting a huge strain on the population, and tensions have developed. For example, Syria is a beautiful, green country with adequate fresh water, so it does not have a culture of conservation. One of the big issues in the camp is that refugees are protesting the amount of their daily water ration. At the same time, water-strapped Jordanians are beginning to resent camp residents who they perceive as having easy access to all the water they need.”
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In addition, Jordanians are fearful that the Syrian influx will inflame already pervasive problems, including deforestation, soil erosion, desertification, and the overgrazing of land.
Even more daunting are safety concerns. Al Zaatari’s toilets are unlit so many woman are terrified to use them at night, and there is a need for more routine health-care services, including basics like adequate access to sanitary pads, and ongoing educational programs for youth. Although UNFPA reports that it provided reproductive health services to more than 3,600 women in the camp during two weeks in early April, Susskind said that there are nonetheless barriers that need to be addressed, among them the distance between the health center and the location of many people’s temporary housing. “The camp is so large that it can take an hour and 15 minutes to walk to the area where services are offered,” she said.
“For women who are in the last months of pregnancy, who are sick, or who have just delivered a baby, this location poses a terrible hardship,” Susskind said. “There has been talk of trying to raise money for a shuttle bus, but this has not yet happened.”
Despite this criticism, Susskind is quick to commend UNFPA for its valiant efforts. Still, as she spoke, she shook her head at the enormity of the issues facing aid workers each day.
Dealing with survivors of sexual trauma or rape is even more problematic, she continued: “We know that rape and domestic violence always increase in times of war and displacement, and we know that many of the women became refugees after being raped or out of fear that sexual violence would be perpetrated against them or their family members.”
She went on, “There is no way to estimate the number or refugees who have been raped or sexually abused, and it is really clear that this is a topic the women won’t talk about. Syrian refugees have a lot of disincentives to keep them from coming forward to talk about these issues. They live in a culture where honor killing is practiced and where the blame and shame of rape is placed exclusively on them.” This means that crisis counseling teams need to be attuned to the signs of trauma that typically appear in survivors, from the inability to bond with a newborn to disassociation to overt clinical depression.
Women Under Siege Director Lauren Wolfe, writing in The Atlantic, calls Syria “a nation of traumatized survivors,” and notes that men as well as women have been violated by government forces and plainclothes militia in a campaign meant to humiliate, intimidate, and ultimately stifle resistance to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
What’s more, overwrought and fearful families have pushed girls as young as 13 into arranged—some would call them forced—marriages. In more than a few instances, this has unwittingly placed them in the hands of traffickers; in other cases, it has meant moving adolescent girls far from their families, isolating them from everyone they have ever known.
Meanwhile, the number of refugees keeps growing as more and more people opt to leave Syria, on foot and by paying drivers to transport them across borders that may eventually be closed. While humanitarian groups such as Handicap International, the Jordanian Red Crescent, Mercy Corps, and UNICEF are working to provide supplies to this diaspora, the specific needs of women and girls all too often fall through the cracks. Code Pink and MADRE, among other feminist groups, are working to address and meet female needs; they recently teamed up to purchase 350 solar lanterns so that at least some of the women in Al Zaatari can be more relaxed about walking in the camp after dark. They are also fundraising to train midwives to counsel women who show signs of sexual abuse and trauma.
This is the third and final article in Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series. You can read the other pieces in the series here.
In the early hours of May 21, 2009, Alicia McWilliams was woken by a frantic phone call from her sister, saying that the FBI had just raided their other sister Elizabeth’s home. In an interview with Rewire, McWilliams says she couldn’t decipher her sister’s hysterical words, and so switched on the local news, which was blowing up with the alleged ”Bronx Terror Plot,” flashing scenes of her nephew, David Williams—Elizabeth’s son—being led away in handcuffs on terrorism charges.
McWilliams says she knew right away that there was something wrong with that picture, suspicions that only deepened as she learned the details of how an FBI informant had befriended her nephew and three other low-income Black Muslim men and involved them in a convoluted scheme that would include attacking synagogues in New York City and an Air National Guard base in Newburgh, New York.
She tells Rewire on the phone her first thought was that the entire plot smacked of the days of COINTELPRO—the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s counterintelligence program that spied on and infiltrated various political groups throughout the 1950s and ’60s. Ushered into existence in 1956 to squash the Communist Party, the program quickly turned its attention to groups like the Black Panther Party in order to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” the Black Liberation Movement.
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Feeling a sense of déjà vu during the early days of her nephew’s arrest, she watched as the government and the media spun a narrative of four violent extremists plotting to blow up Jewish houses of worship in the name of jihad, obscuring the vulnerability and desperation of the men involved and the active role played by the informant.
The plot was so outrageous that even Judge Colleen McMahon, who presided over the Newburgh Four trial and ultimately sentenced them to decades in prison after a jury returned a guilty verdict, concluded:
Only the government could have made a terrorist out of Mr. Cromitie [one of the defendants in the case], whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in its scope … I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that there would have been no crime here except the government instigated it, planned it and brought it to fruition.
But for McWilliams, who was “scared to death” at the time, simply acknowledging the injustice of the government’s counterterrorism tactics was not enough. She felt compelled to fight back. The two-month-long trial surrounding the “Bronx Terror Plot” saw her either sitting in the courtroom or standing on the steps of the federal courthouse in White Plains, New York, protesting the war on terror in both its domestic and foreign manifestations.
She talked to the press. She marched in the streets. Even after the trial ended in a guilty verdict, she did not let up: Every waking moment was spent fighting with her sister Elizabeth on David’s behalf.
Before long, she connected with other advocates and began speaking on panels alongside the family members of hundreds of Muslims who have been incarcerated on terrorism charges since 9/11.
She remembers a time when she was the only Black woman and non-Muslim in those organizing spaces. “It was new for me,” she tells Rewire. “I was different: I’m very outspoken, I cuss a lot. But they accepted me as a sister. Because I was saying and doing what they all wanted to—I was standing up and cussing out the government for taking our boys away.”
In the third part of Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series, we talk to some of the families and activists who have spent the past decade and a half fighting to expose religiously biased federal policies that have fanned the flames of Islamophobia and torn hundreds of American families apart.
This past January Zurata Duka, an ethnic Albanian immigrant whose story Rewire reported on previously, entered a Philadelphia prison where three of her four sons were being held pending a court hearing. There, for the first time in eight years, she held them in her arms.
Dritan, Shain, and Eljvir Duka had been arrested in 2007, in connection with an alleged plot to attack the Fort Dix military base in New Jersey. The plot turned out to be manufactured by the FBI with the help of confidential informants, who worked for months to try and record evidence of the Dukas’ involvement in the plan.
Though the prosecution was unable to establish proof that the brothers had agreed to the plot, and despite the fact that the FBI’s own informant testified that the brothers were ignorant of the plan, a jury found them guilty and sentenced all three to life in prison, with an additional 30-year sentence for the youngest, Eljvir.
Imprisoned far from home—in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Colorado—the three brothers almost never see their parents, siblings, or the children that both Dritan and Eljvir left behind. For years they were even cut off from physical contact with their family as the government shuffled them between multiple high-security federal detention centers, where they were held for long periods in isolation. To this day Eljvir remains in solitary confinement.
The fact that Zurata Duka was able to embrace her sons after nearly a decade was thanks in large part to a coalition of individuals and organizations who have worked for years to keep alive the case of the Fort Dix Five, as the Duka brothers and their two co-defendants came to be known in the media.
Under legal and social pressure, New Jersey District Judge Robert B. Kugler—the same man who presided over the original trial and sentenced the brothers back in 2009—agreed in 2015 to hear a motion for retrial, based on the contention that the brothers had received ineffective counsel. At the time of writing, he had yet to issue a ruling.
A few months ahead of that hearing, a woman named Lynne Jackson drove down to the Camden courthouse in New Jersey along with several other activists and unfurled a huge banner that read ”Free the Fort Dix 5.”
It was a freezing November day, she tells Rewire in a phone interview, but the members of the Fort Dix Five Family Support Committee clustered together, passing out leaflets about the Duka brothers’ case, which had captured national headlines back in 2009.
At one point, Jackson says, two courthouse officials came outside to ask what the protesters were doing.
“I think they were surprised that people hadn’t forgotten about the Dukas, that two months before they were scheduled to appear their supporters were standing around in the freezing cold behind a massive banner,” Jackson says. “How could we forget such an injustice? It keeps me awake at night. So this is what we do: We try to keep these cases alive.”
Jackson’s support for Muslim Americans’ rights dates back to 2007, when she and several other concerned citizens came together around the cases of Yassin Aref, an Iraqi Kurdish refugee, and Mohammed M. Hossain, a Bangladeshi immigrant, who were convicted in 2006 on terrorism charges.
Both men were residents of Albany, New York. Aref had been a well-known imam, and Hossain the owner of a struggling local pizzeria, when an undercover FBI informant named Shahed Hussain showed up in the community with gifts, promises of cash loans, and stories of his involvement with a Pakistani terrorist group, according to court testimony, the New York Times reported.
For months the informant attempted to engage Hossain in discussions about terrorist activity. One such conversation, which was caught on tape and subsequently played at trial, the Times reported, involves the informant claiming that the $50,000 loan he had promised to the pizzeria owner came from the sale of a missile launcher that would eventually be used to assassinate a Pakistani diplomat in New York.
Ultimately, the defendants were tried and convicted on charges of providing material support to a terrorist network.
As Rewire has reported previously, the federal government has used material support statutes to incarcerate hundreds of Muslims since 9/11. Legal scholars contend that while the laws originally sought to prohibit citizens from providing fiscal support, weapons, or intelligence to designated terrorist groups, courts have interpreted the statutes far more broadly in the decade since September 11, convicting individuals whose faith or ideology supposedly “predispose” them to violence.
According to the complaint filed against the two Albany men, Hossain’s only “crime” was to accept a loan from the FBI informant, while Aref did nothing but witness that loan in his capacity as an imam, as per Islamic custom—actions that the prosecution charged amounted to money laundering in the service of a terrorist organization.
Shocked by the extent to which the government had gone to infiltrate their community and ensnare two Muslim men in a bogus scheme, residents like Jackson began to mobilize. She joined the Muslim Solidarity Committee, which had sprung up in 2006 as a kind of hub for supporters of Aref and Hossain.
Activists quickly realized that, far from being an aberration unfolding in their town, the Aref and Hossain case represented a pattern in which federal law enforcement practices were eviscerating the rights and liberties of many Muslim residents, Jackson tells Rewire. Faced with what was clearly a nationwide trend, the committee folded into a larger effort known as Project SALAM (Support and Legal Advocacy for Muslims), becoming just one of several chapters around the country.
Project SALAM now falls under an even broader umbrella group, the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms (NCPCF). The coalition’s legal director, Kathy Manley, tells Rewire in a phone interview: “We work with rights groups and families to defend Muslim residents who are being—or might be—prosecuted, not for something they did, but because of what the government fears they might do.”
She referred to this legal strategy of prosecuting individuals who have not committed a crime as preemptive prosecution. It is a term that neatly sums up the FBI’s post-9/11 counterterrorism program, whose most controversial feature has been the widespread use of confidential informants to involve Muslim residents in government-manufactured terrorist plots.
As of 2014, counterterrorism operations accounted for 40 percent of the bureau’s $3.3 billion operating budget, according to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch. Informants likely account for a significant portion of those funds: as of 2007 the FBI had about 15,000 confidential informants on its payroll, up from 1,500 in the 1970s.
Families and organizers with the No Separate Justice campaign are all too familiar with this tactic and—in some cases—with the informants themselves.
The Newburgh Four: Sowing the Seeds of Solidarity
In the spring of 2008, Shahed Hussain, the same informant who targeted Aref and Hossain in Albany, showed up in the economically depressed town of Newburgh, about 60 miles north of New York City.
Over several months, he set about infiltrating eateries and houses of worship, including the Masjid Al-Ikhlas, whose congregation counted many Black American Muslims.
As the mosque’s imam, Salahuddin Muhammad, noted in the 2014 HBO documentary The Newburgh Sting, most of the congregation was put off by Hussain’s extremist views, including his conservative attitude toward women and his talk of jihad. But one man, James Cromitie, was taken in by Hussain’s flashy car and promises of money, and the two struck up a friendship.
Over time, Hussain convinced Cromitie and three other men to participate in a plan that involved attacking synagogues in the Bronx and firing missiles at a U.S. air base in Newburgh. Hussain offered the men $250,000 for their efforts. One of the men lured by this extravagant promise was Alicia McWilliams’ nephew, David Williams, a young Black Muslim convert who’d grown up in Brooklyn but had returned to Newburgh in 2009 to help care for his young brother Lord. According to reports, Lord had recently been diagnosed with a terminal liver disease.
As Anjali Kamat reported for Democracy Now! in 2010, Lord needed a liver transplant in order to survive, a medical procedure the Williams family could not afford. In fact, all of the men ensnared in Hussain’s plan were struggling financially. They had also served time in prison, and one of them, a Haitian-born immigrant named Laguerre Payen, was a paranoid schizophrenic.
Kamat added, “[Payen] lived in a one-room occupancy in Newburgh’s crack alley. When he was arrested, there were open containers of urine [in] his room, because he was too afraid to walk down the hall to use the restroom. This man, we’re supposed to believe, is a terrorist.”
On May 20, 2009, as they attempted to carry out the fake operation, all four men were apprehended and three of them, including Cromitie and Williams, were subsequently sentenced to 25 years in prison for conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction in the United States. At least two of the defendants maintain that they had planned to foil the plot all along.
After receiving that fateful call from her sister following the arrest, Alicia McWilliams began connecting with advocates from Project SALAM and NCPCF and speaking out against the policies put into place since 9/11 that were explicitly targeting Muslim Americans.
But organizing around domestic terror cases is no easy task. Family members have told Rewire that the stigma of the word alone has pitched them into poverty and isolation, as relatives, religious communities, and prospective employers disappear from their lives, fearing guilt by association.
McWilliams says that back in 2009 many of the women she met—women who are now at the forefront of the No Separate Justice movement—were still in the shadows, silent for fear of being retaliated against.
“I told them, ‘You gotta come out and let people know you won’t be quiet,’” she tells Rewire.
Two women in particular were deeply affected by McWilliams’ words: Zurata Duka and Shahina Parveen, whose stories Rewire has reported on previously.
In multiple interviews with Rewire, Parveen explains that McWilliams often gave her the courage to speak out in public—something she had never done prior to her son, Matin, being targeted by an informant and sentenced to 30 years in prison on charges of providing material support to terrorism. Parveen says she and McWilliams have sat by each other during the most challenging times. A devout Muslim, Parveen once even accompanied McWilliams to church.
“Now Mama Shahina is out there doing her thing,” McWilliams says, referring to the monthly vigils that the No Separate Justice campaign hosts outside the Metropolitan Correction Center (MCC) in downtown Manhattan, where Parveen can often be heard advocating on behalf of Muslim prisoners.
McWilliams lives too far away to attend the vigils, but she says she remains connected to her “sisters.”
“These are beautiful women,” McWilliams tells Rewire, “And we love each other unconditionally.”
Fighting on Multiple Fronts
McWilliams, who often refers to her nephew’s case as “COINTELPRO all over again,” was not the only person Rewire interviewed for this series to draw parallels between the current counterterrorism effort and the counterintelligence operations of old.
Laura Whitehorn, a former political prisoner who was incarcerated for 15 years in connection with the Resistance Conspiracy—actions undertaken by white anti-imperialists in 1985—recalls speaking about the history of COINTELPRO at one of the earliest conferences of families affected by terrorism prosecutions, back in October of 2011.
“I talked about the number of incarcerated Black Panthers who are still in jail, about the murder of Fred Hampton [a member of the Panther Party], which was engineered by the FBI and carried out by the Chicago police, and about how COINTELPRO framed, arrested, and assassinated so many people who were part of militant movements in the ’60s, ‘70s and ‘80s,” Whitehorn tells Rewire. “Afterwards some of the women, the mothers who had not yet become as active in the movement, came up to me with tears in their eyes, two of them speaking to me through a translator, and said, ‘We never knew that your government did this.’”
She says the No Separate Justice vigils have provided a space for unity between populations that have historically been incarcerated for so-called radicalism—including Black, Puerto Rican, Native American, and white anti-imperial activists—and the Muslims who are now being targeted by the federal government.
The monthly gatherings outside the MCC draw an eclectic crowd, with each case attracting activists from across the political spectrum. Vigils held in honor of the Holy Land Five, for instance—a group of Palestinian men whose charitable contributions to local Palestinian communities was deemed a form of “material support” for Hamas, the governing authority of the Gaza Strip—drew scores of Palestinian rights groups and anti-Zionist Jewish activists, including members of Adalah-NY and Al-Awda NY.
When Shahina Parveen or other South Asian immigrants have been in the spotlight, members of the youth and worker-led Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) have turned out in large numbers.
Meanwhile, cases like that of Shifa Sadequee, a Bangladeshi American who was convicted on terrorism charges in 2009 and whose story Rewirecovered at length earlier in this series, has drawn support from queer activists and groups organizing around political prisoners. According to Shifa’s sister Sonali, supporters of U.S. political prisoners were among the few people who stood by the Sadequee family when Shifa was arrested back in 2006.
“Large parts of the immigrant Muslim community in Atlanta [where the family lived at the time] were completely hands off,” Sonali tells Rewire in a phone interview. “It was heartbreaking: No one wanted to deal with the issue, they didn’t even want to touch it, to come close to it.”
Their support came instead from Black activists, including those involved with the Jericho Movement, a nationwide effort to free political prisoners in the United States. Both sisters had rallied with folks from Jericho, particularly around the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a Black journalist and author who has spent over 30 years in prison, almost all of them on death row. While ostensibly convicted for the 1981 shooting death of a Philadelphia police officer, advocates believe that Abu-Jamal was incarcerated for his radical views on Black liberation and his outspokenness as a reporter and radio personality.
The sisters had also participated in efforts to free imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, known in the 1960s as H. Rap Brown, when he was chairperson of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. A resident of Atlanta, Georgia, Al-Amin has been a “target of the government due to his radical beliefs,” according to reports. His supporters claim he was framed for the shooting deaths of two sheriff’s deputies in 2000.
“There was a powerful Black Muslim community already in place that understood the issues we were dealing with, that took up Shifa’s case and basically gave us whatever support we needed,” says Sonali. As Shifa’s case unfolded, it became clear to his family and his supporters that he, like many Black activists, had been targeted largely for his political views. His sisters say the prosecution relied heavily on Shifa’s religious teachings, his political opinions and his work as a translator of Arabic texts when pressing their case to the jury. The framework within which movements for political prisoners have organized for years became a crucial one for understanding Shifa’s situation, they say.
Activists from Atlanta’s queer community, as well local groups likeProject South, also stood behind the family from day one—even when members of their own Bangladeshi Muslim community shunned them.
“It was such a blessing, such a relief, to have this politically conscious community in place,” Sonali tells Rewire. “They kept us going.”
And yet, while echoes of COINTELPRO shimmer in the current landscape, some say the situation Muslim residents face today is unique.
“Back then the FBI mostly targeted political activity,” Whitehorn tells Rewire. “Now they seem more interested in building a fake narrative that citizens of the United States are at risk of, or endangered by, Muslims—even those without political leanings.”
She points to politicians like Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, whose inflammatory rhetoric—including his call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States—appears to have fanned Islamophobic sentiment. Since the 2016 presidential election campaigns began, there has been a documented uptick in anti-Muslim violence, from 154 reported incidents between January and December of 2014, to 174 by the end of 2015.
But while families and advocates are alarmed by right-wing rhetoric, they are quick to highlight prevailing policies that have, over the past 15 years, pitched hundreds of families and whole communities into fear and despair.
“If Trump becomes the definition of what Islamophobia looks like, more ‘polite’ or legalized forms of injustice might be made more acceptable in the process ” Jeanne Theoharis, a political science professor at Brooklyn College and co-founder of the NSJ movement, tells Rewire, pointing to controversial counterterrorism tactics that have unfolded, unchecked, under the Obama administration.
“I am heartened by the rising movements pushing back against Trump and Islamophobia but I worry about the ways in which our attention to Republican candidates’ extremism gives a pass to what has already happened, and continues to happen, to many Muslim families in this country,” she says.
In the last two years alone, which saw the November 2015 Paris attacks and the December 2015 shootings in San Bernardino, California, 85 individuals in the United States have been arrested on charges relating to involvement with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), according to an April 2016 report by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. The average age of those arrested is 26, and 54 percent of the cases involved an informant or undercover agent.
So the national security apparatus grinds on. The only thing standing between it and scores of Muslim American families under surveillance is this small women-led movement that has taken on the impossible challenge of fighting extreme religious intolerance with interfaith unity.
As Alicia McWilliams says to Rewire: “We’re making some progress but we gotta do more. People need to start showing up for us, speaking out for us. My Muslim sisters and I, we’re fighting—but we can’t do this alone.”
Practically everyone in Chicago has a Patrick Kane story.
As a former bartender who was slinging drinks in the Windy City when hockey reappeared like magic on our televisions in 2007 turning a lost generation of Chicagoans into fans of the young, exciting team featuring first-year phenom Kane and his captain, Jonathan Toews, I certainly have mine. And though I’ve always been more of a Patrick Sharp girl (I’m almost done crying about the trade), I’ve appreciated Kane’s work on the ice—delivering three championships in six seasons. I’ve also sort of appreciated him in a bizzaro feminist way for having managed his party rep without his name being automatically associated amongst service staff with misconduct allegations à la Steelers champion quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Blackhawks fans who had planned to spend the summer celebrating the return of Lord Stanley’s Cup must instead come to terms with the news that their star 26-year-old forward is an accused rapist. As criminal defense attorney turned sports reporter and rape survivor Julie DiCaro has covered so adeptly for the Chicago Tribune, some are handling it better than others.
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“When it comes to the Kane investigation, Internet stupidity abounds,” writes DiCaro, below a list of representative examples. “And while it’s tempting to laugh off some of the comments as written by misguided juveniles with a serious case of hero worship, the problem is actually much bigger. Tweets, comments, rumors and news reports like those above are reflective of the way our society treats those who report rape.”
While local radio hosts and writers are largely handling the situation with grace and consideration for all involved, DiCaro’s words aren’t hitting home for a significant portion of the Blackhawks fan base. You couldn’t pay me enough to be a call screener for a local sports station right now.
Kane spent Saturday, August 2 at SkyBar, a popular nightclub in his hometown of Buffalo, New York, reportedly leaving around 3 a.m. with two women to continue partying at his house in nearby suburban Hamburg. Around 4 a.m., one of the women—whose name is being withheld (police say they are abiding by a gag order)—went into another room by herself; Kane reportedly followed and raped her.
The alleged victim then did what rape culture deniers demand of all sexual assault survivors: she found her friend, left, and called a family member on her way to the hospital, where she submitted to an exam and reported the attack to law enforcement. To their credit, Hamburg police appear to be taking her accusations seriously; they have searched Kane’s home and the case has been assigned to Roseanne John, head of the Special Victims Unit in the Erie County District Attorney’s Office. Research outlined in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence estimates that almost half of rape survivors who report experience “secondary victimization” by law enforcement. Being believed by enough personnel (most rape victims must tell their stories repeatedly) to prompt the search of a local celebrity’s home and the hiring of an expert SVU prosecutor before potential charges are filed shows a level of engagement and willingness to believe the victim we can’t, unfortunately, take for granted.
According to details obtained by the Buffalo News, the alleged victim even bears the marks rape apologists and perpetrators of the “stranger rape myth” expect of anyone truly not consenting to the encounter: bite marks on her shoulders and a scratch on her leg. She has behaved as a supposedly model victim, fighting back physically and then legally, risking the public ridicule that descends upon anyone who dare sully the name of a beloved athlete.
Obviously, I don’t know exactly what happened that night; I’m not privy to the ongoing police investigation or hospital reports and I haven’t had interview time with Kane’s accuser. What I do know is that statistically, I can’t expect relief for the knot in my stomach that formed when I first saw headlines of the incident. Research tells us that more than 92 percent of rape reports are credible. Considering we hardly have a contingent of rape survivors who were granted fame and fortune as a reward for accusing a well-known man of assault, I’m inclined to eschew society’s unfortunate convention and simply believe her until I see evidence she put herself through this ordeal without cause.
I’m not on a jury, so save the “innocent until proven guilty” nonsense. That’s a legal term, not a cultural requirement.
And, listen. I’ll be uncomfortably honest: like any fan of any sport (or anything, really), my heart sank when I heard that an integral member of a team I have rooted for—whose jersey hangs in my closet—was being investigated for something heinous. Also like any fan, my first impulse was to close my eyes and utter the sentence, “Please don’t let it be true.”
For anyone who’s more than just a casual sports consumer, it’s understandable to hope your team isn’t tarnished or is about to lose a player so good, a mere seven years in he’s already past the 100-point mark in his playoff career. With a contract extension through 2022-2023, Kane is poised to become the most celebrated player in team history. Permanently breaking up the Kane-Toews line would likely usher in another championship drought.
So, of course I had the thought. As hard as it is to admit, that was my first impulse. I’m human, which means my brain automatically considers how unexpected news will affect me before processing what it means for other people. Because I am a justice-oriented survivor who’s educated on the effects of rape culture and understand what it takes for someone to report, I processed all of that in pretty rapid succession—but I have to admit to myself that even I started from a self-serving mental moment of disbelief.
What I haven’t done and won’t do is participate in the toxic pastime of victim-bashing as a show of support for my bro, Kaner. Almost as though he knew it was on the way, Chicago sportswriter Tim Baffoe published an outstanding critique of “He’s my guy!” style fandom the day before a rape apology-laden hashtag caught fire. Ostensibly designed to prop up #88, the #iSupport88 thread is a predictable haven for crass name-calling, rape “jokes,” and non sequitur love for Bill Cosby and other celebrities accused of sexual assault.
In his piece, Baffoe holds nothing back, saying, “Patrick Kane is not your friend. You are not his dawg, and he is not your bro … And you need to stop with the garbage default setting of rushing to defend him. Even under the guise of “innocent until proven guilty.’”
In a tight-knit sports town like Chicago that thrives on the perception of personal connection, those are fighting words. Baffoe was just getting started:
The reflex of “Leave Kaner alone—you’re ruining his reputation!” or anything remotely putting the onus on the woman involved shows you’ve let sports fandom strip you of your humanity. Your ethics have grown so out of whack while drunk on being a fangirl or fanboy that you’ve drowned your soul. You value sports over violation of the human body, and you then become no different than, say, a defender of [child-abuse enabler] Joe Paterno.
Well done, sir.
Right now I have to consider that this season I may be a rape survivor cheering for a team led by an accused rapist. And so, for the remainder of the off-season, I’m rooting for law enforcement, the Blackhawks organization, and the National Hockey League to break from rape culture and handle the case in a way that recognizes the needs of the alleged victim as more important than the reputation of the accused.
I’m not entirely sure what the appropriate action for the Blackhawks and the NHL to take would look like. How do they balance the uncertainty of an ongoing investigation with the rapidly approaching start of training camp? As SI.com writer Allan Muir succinctly paraphrased Chicago Tribune columnist David Haugh yesterday, “Kane’s uncertain legal status puts the Hawks in an impossible position. With training camp less than six weeks away and the justice system moving at its own deliberate pace, the team may be forced to suspend the star winger.”
Do the Blackhawks wait? Do they hope the league steps in to suspend him, letting them off the hook? Would the team or the league be on solid ground legally to suspend a player before there are charges and/or a conviction, as Haugh calls for?
“In the post-Ray Rice era of professional sports, a first-class franchise such as the Hawks cannot allow a player facing serious allegations to represent it until more clarity about the case exists,” Haugh wrote. “The thing about setting a standard of excellence as high as the Hawks have is living up to it; no single player, not even a living legend, can compromise that commitment to integrity.”
I’m inclined to agree that the risk of sending Kane out on the ice despite the statistical probability that the accusations are true is more risky than suspending him and being forced to apologize later, should his accuser recant or turn out to be in the false reporting minority. And I certainly applaud the decision by EA Sports yesterday to pull Kane from their NHL 16 cover and promotional roll-out:
For people who couldn’t care less about sports, why does the handling of a rape accusation by a professional sports team or league matter? I get this question on the regular every time another high-profile athlete is accused of assault or National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell does something detestable. The answer is simple: We are a nation of sports fans and human beings do not compartmentalize our experiences. It’s not just that athletes are disproportionately revered in our society; for better or worse, they’re recognizable public figures even outside their fan bases. According to a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair Poll last year, over 100 million people had watched the Super Bowl despite 25 percent of respondents saying football “has the most jerks” out of any professional league.
People are disinclined to believe someone they know is capable of a crime like rape. Seeing someone’s face and hearing their name as often as is typical of stars and champions leads people to feel, as Baffoe pushed back on, like we know them. Even if we don’t like a player very much, it’s quite a step to go from dislike to believing someone is the evil outlier our culture tells us commits rape.
Because of this culture of disbelief, the language that’s used as the investigation continues is extremely important—as evidenced by the somewhat predictable vitriol of the #ISupport88 crowd. Those close to Kane and the team have been tight-lipped, but the statements that have been made manage to walk the line of avoiding the kind of enthusiastic support that erases or gaslights victims while not openly condemning someone who hasn’t yet been charged with a crime.
Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz briefly weighed in with firmer language than sports fans are used to hearing at an allegation stage of a potential public relations nightmare, saying, “We’re disappointed but hopeful,” Wirtz said. “Beyond that, it would not be appropriate to expound upon.”
If the team makes the move to suspend Kane preemptively, it’ll be sending a strong signal not just to players, but to fans—specifically female fans. The Blackhawks boast a 45 percent female fan base that’s well above the league average of 37 percent and is partly responsible for their ability to re-sign Kane and Toews for a combined $168 million. You can’t afford that price tag without both routinely selling every ticket in your stadium and bringing in massive merchandise sales numbers. The Blackhawks wouldn’t have as much of their team intact without us.
Simply continuing to refrain from hinting at motives on the behalf of the alleged victim or from promising to stand by the accused no matter what would be a bright spot in the very dark intersection of sports and rape culture. But Wirtz and the league owe more to both their female fans and to a city that welcomed them back with open arms after years of inaccessibility. If league rules allow for a suspension, the Blackhawks should take that action. If they don’t, it’s time for the league to revisit how it handles the misconduct of its players.
I’m rooting for the NHL and the Blackhawks to do the right thing so I can buy a new jersey this fall and cheer without hesitation for a team I love.