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.”

News Race

#FreedomNow Protests: Police Union ‘Protects Violent Officers’

Michelle D. Anderson

In New York City, activists called attention to the role the union plays in preventing police accountability. The activists called for the firing a police officer who fatally shot 37-year-old Delrawn Small while off duty in a road rage incident on July 4.

Several activists demanding police accountability were arrested at a local police union building in New York City during a protest that began during Wednesday’s early morning hours.

Organized by the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP 100) NYC, the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, and The Movement for Black Lives, the protest was held at the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association headquarters building in Lower Manhattan.

The action was part of the two-day #FreedomNow national call for justice for Black lives. The movement seeks to counter failed policing strategies and disparities in health, education, and housing across the United States.

Rahel Mekdim Teka, the organizing chair for BYP 100 NYC, said in a statement Wednesday that police are trying to manipulate conversations on protecting Black lives by leading the public to believe law enforcement officers are at risk.

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Police officers in Louisiana were recently given hate crime protections after the state’s Republican-held legislature passed the so-called Blue Lives Matter bill. Texas is primed to become the next state to give law enforcement officers hate crime protections, even as violence against police has plummeted in recent decades.

“They are not at risk. Police officers are the threat. Police do not keep us safe,” Teka said. “Police do not protect us. They are the danger that keeps Black people unsafe. We [must] divest from institutions that do not value us and instead invest in Black communities.”

In New York City, activists called attention to the role the union plays in preventing police accountability. The activists called for the firing of New York Police Department (NYPD) officer Wayne Isaacs, a three-year veteran of the NYPD who fatally shot 37-year-old Delrawn Small while off duty in a road rage incident on July 4.

Isaacs has been placed on “modified duty” and assigned a desk job while the office of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman investigates Small’s death. The NYPD announced that the officer had been stripped of his gun and shield, the New York Daily News reported.

Monica Dennis, a Black Lives Matter organizer, tweeted protesters’ demands, charging that the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association “only serves to protect violent officers.”

The Million Hoodies Movement for Justice announced that ten activists from its ranks and BYP 100 had been arrested during the protests. The group sought donations for a bail fund that had raised around 70 percent of its $10,000 goal as of 4 p.m. Wednesday.

Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch issued a statement about the protests and arrests on the union’s Facebook page.

He called the protest “a display of misdirected and misinformed anger that should have been pointed at City Hall, not the police officers who were on hand to protect the demonstrators’ First Amendment rights.”

Lynch criticized protesters for entering the lobby and not dispersing when ordered. He asked local politicians to support police officers and to denounce violence against law enforcement.

The event garnered mass participation at the headquarters, located at the same address as the New York Civil Liberties Union and several private firms.

The New York protest was among several similar actions across the country. In Washington D.C., protesters with BYP 100 DC and Black Lives Matter DC “occupied” the legislative office of the National Fraternal Order of Police, according to a notice on the BYP 100 website.

D.C. protesters wanted officers who supported their fight for justice and accountability to show solidarity by not paying their dues.

On Twitter, Mervyn Marcano, a communications strategist for the Movement for Black Lives, said the successful shutdown in D.C. had lasted more than six hours.

Clarise McCants, an organizer for BYP 100 DC, said in a statement that the FOP functioned like a college fraternity.

“Just like college frats that further rape culture by closing ranks to protect members who are sexual assailants, the FOP has proven that their primary commitment is to protect the worst of their members behind the ‘Blue Wall of Silence’—even in the most heinous of circumstances,” McCants said.

News Race

At ‘Pro-Life’ Conference, Silence on Police Violence

Amy Littlefield

Among the only contributions to the national dialogue taking place over racial justice and state violence was a card circulated in the exhibit hall by a group called the Radiance Foundation that read “All Lives Matter In & Out of the Womb.”

As one of the nation’s largest anti-choice groups launched its three-day conference in Herndon, Virginia, Thursday, a very different conversation was underway on the national stage.

Across the country, peaceful protests erupted over the police killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.

As Rewire’s Imani Gandy has documented, the anti-choice movement has long attempted to appropriate the language of racial justice and the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag as part of a wider effort to shame Black women and cast abortion as “Black genocide.”

But at the National Right to Life Convention, the overriding response to last week’s police killings was silence. Among the only contributions to the national dialogue taking place over racial justice was a card circulated in the exhibit hall by a group called the Radiance Foundation that read “All lives matter In & Out of the womb.”

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Rewire asked convention director Jacki Ragan whether she thought the issue should have been raised explicitly at the conference.

“We are very single issue,” Ragan said. “We are here because of a threat to human life. We believe the unborn child is a human being from the moment of fertilization. We believe the disabled should have the same rights, [the] elderly should have the same rights, so we’re very single issue. So, no, I don’t really think it would be appropriate to address what had happened other than through prayer at the conference.”

At a prayer breakfast on Friday morning, after conference-goers awoke to the news five police officers had been killed by a gunman in Dallas, Rev. Dennis Kleinmann of St. Veronica Catholic Church in Chantilly, Virginia, prayed for guidance “to make this a better world, a world free of war and violence of every kind, including attacks on those who protect us.”

Ernest Ohlhoff, National Right to Life Committee outreach director, addressed the violence more directly.

“I don’t know if any of you heard the news this morning, but unfortunately we had another catastrophe in our country,” he said. “Five police officers in Dallas were killed in a shooting and [at least] six wounded, and I would ask you to pray for them and their families.”

No prayers were offered for Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, or their families.