When local activists learned last August that a 27-year-old Oklahoma City police officer had been arrested on 16 charges of sexual assault against multiple Black women, they expected the case to garner national headlines.
“It was unheard of,” Grace Franklin, co-founder of OKC Artists for Justice, told Rewire in a phone interview. “Thirteen Black women on the east side of Oklahoma City saying they’d been raped by a police officer? That wasn’t just shocking to the Black community, it shook up the entire city, the entire state.”
But as Daniel Holtzclaw’s trial entered its third week Monday, with over two dozen out of an estimated 175 witnesses for the prosecution having testified so far, residents like Franklin are still waiting for the story to grab nationwide attention.
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Advocates who’ve been closely following the case say the lack of media coverage reveals a pattern erasing the specific experiences of Black women from conversations around race and police brutality, which the Black Lives Matter movement propelled into national prominence last year.
“There is a long legacy in this country of Black women being systematically silenced, and this legacy continues to this day as we see in the Daniel Holtzclaw trial,” Rachel Anspach, senior staff writer at the African American Policy Forum (AAPF), told Rewire.
“While it’s a sign of progress that the case has gone to trial at all, the silence of the media and the fact that the trial is being conducted with an all-white jury are prime examples of the erasure of Black women from dominant perceptions of who can be a victim in American society,” she said.
Holtzclaw currently faces 36 charges, including rape, forced oral sodomy, and sexual battery. He has pleaded not guilty to all of them.
During his three-year tenure with the Oklahoma City Police Department, he patrolled a low-income neighborhood located in the northeast of the state capital between 4 p.m. and 2 a.m.
While on this beat, he is said to have repeatedly targeted women he believed to have been in possession of drugs, or were otherwise embroiled in the justice system. As Rewire has previously reported, Holtzclaw frequently called in to the police station to check on outstanding warrants or criminal records, which later he allegedly used to coerce the women, and one 17-year-old girl, into sexual acts that ran the gamut from fondling to rape.
Some women say he coerced them into his patrol car, drove to deserted parts of town, and forced them to perform oral sex on him. Others say they were made to strip so he could perform “body searches” that included touching their breasts and penetrating them with his fingers.
Unlike other cases of police violence that have captured widespread attention, Holtzclaw has largely escaped public scrutiny. Researchers and advocates say this is partly due to taboos around sexual abuse and partly a refusal, even within activist communities, to examine the specific forms of violence Black women experience.
Anspach, who contributed to a report for AAPF detailing police brutality against Black women, which inspired the #SayHerName hashtag, said she was shocked to learn how many people couldn’t recognize the names or faces of the dozens of Black women murdered by police “in the same way that they did or would come to know names like Eric Garner and Mike Brown.”
AAPF’s research indicates that much of the data on police violence—even when disaggregated—is used exclusively in relation to Black men.
The report points to the findings of Operation Ghetto Storm, a Malcolm X Grassroots Movement study that showed law enforcement agents and vigilantes killed 313 Black people in 2012, or one person every 28 hours. While the research pertained to both Black men and women, AAPF notes that the study is most often cited to suggest that a Black man is killed every 28 hours, which contributes to the erasure of Black women’s experiences.
Sexual violence, Anspach said, does not come easily to the fore of movements like Black Lives Matter, which has galvanized widespread outrage primarily over fatal encounters with the police. Yet sexual misconduct is the second-most frequently reported complaint against law enforcement personnel, according to a report by the Cato Institute, accounting for 9.3 percent of all complaints recorded in 2010.
As they attempt to mobilize support for the women in the case who are facing off in court against what reporters have called an “aggressive” defense, Oklahoma City activists say they have experienced firsthand how sexual assault tends to be marginalized within the larger movement for Black lives.
Franklin, who has been following the case closely since late last year, said that with the exception of a handful of groups, it was not until the announcement that Holtzclaw’s case would be heard by an all-white jury that the larger racial justice community rallied to fill the benches of the Oklahoma County Courthouse. It was almost as if, she said, people needed a bigger and broader cause than the mere fact of sexual assault.
She said she was “frustrated by the taboos around rape culture and the abuse of Black women,” adding that some community members actually pushed back against reporters who included graphic details of one alleged victim’s experience in their news reports.
“But that’s what this is, it’s a rape trial, it is graphic … and we’ve got to speak about it,” Franklin said. “And it has to be as important as any other issue, because what we have here is a blatant abuse of authority against the most vulnerable members of the African-American community—poor Black women who have had contact with the justice system.”
Activists who have sat through hours of testimony and cross-examinations that are now entering their tenth day say Defense Attorney Scott Adams’ questioning of the witnesses—focusing largely on their criminal histories and, in some cases, substance dependency—highlights the ways in which poverty heightens Black women’s vulnerability to police brutality.
As KOCO 5 News reporter Patty Santos pointed out in a tweet from inside the courtroom Thursday, one witness who claims Holtzclaw fondled her breasts while searching her for drugs, said in response to a query about why she didn’t speak out sooner, “I am an African female. I didn’t have anything, who would believe me?”
As several studies have shown, street vendors, homeless people, and otherwise economically marginalized communities are more likely to be affected by the policing of poverty, while paradigms like broken windows policing have effectively enabled law enforcement personnel to punish economic deprivation under the guise of maintaining “order.”
Given that Black women were the only demographic whose unemployment rates did not improve last year, according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center, and since Black women typically earn less than even their male counterparts, they are more vulnerable to being policed solely as a result of poverty.
And AAPF’s research has shown how the intersections of race, gender, and class not only make women more susceptible to violence, but also death at the hands of the police, as in the case of Shelly Frey who was shot and killed in 2012 in Houston, Texas, under suspicion of shoplifting from Walmart.
Commentators have been quick to point out that the first woman to report Holtzclaw to the authorities, a 57-year-old who says she was pulled over in a routine traffic stop and then orally sodomized, was in fact the only one of his alleged victims who had some economic and social capital.
She had no outstanding warrant or criminal record that he could leverage against her—Holtzclaw allegedly routinely threatened his victims with arrest if they didn’t submit, or promised to make pending charges go away if they “cooperated” with him—and was quick to make a statement to the police, something the other witnesses have testified they were too frightened to do.
With a long list of witnesses yet to take the stand, the trial could last as long as a month, the BBC reported last week. As it proceeds, activists like Franklin are still hoping for a surge in media attention of the kind that has inspired national movements around issues of racism.
Referring to the media storm that surrounded the recent resignation of the University of Missouri’s president Timothy Wolfe following a major student movement, she said, “That is the type of support and media coverage and outrage from Black people across the country that should happen around this case.”