On February 27, 2014, a slew of charges began pouring into the Oklahoma Police Department from eight Black women, accusing former college football player and then-police officer David Holtzclaw of various sexual assault crimes. By June, that number increased to 13, as Holtzclaw was fired from OPD and, subsequently, filed a grievance case with the Fraternal Order of Police.
Soon, an investigation was underway, resulting in Holtzclaw, 28, charged with 35 felony and 1 misdemeanor sex-related counts, including indecent exposure, oral sodomy, stalking, sexual battery, and more.
He was arrested on Aug 21, 2014.
Several more months and New Years passed. Now, after a year-long wait, in front of an all white, majority male jury — 8 men, 4 women — the courts will finally hear the testimony of these 13 Black women, whose ages range between 17 and 54, who dared speak out on this “all American good guy.”
You’d think in this heightened climate of Black Lives Matter hashtags, petitions, demonstrations, and street marches, and a renewed focus on rape because of the multiple black and white women (I may have just answered my own question) who, after years of silence, have gone public about their relationships with funny man and former icon, Bill Cosby, people would be all over the situation in Oklahoma. Funny thing is, judging from the limited amount of articles and status posts circulating on my Facebook newsfeed, only a small minority seem upset or outraged about it.
Calling this disappointing or heartbreaking would be an understatement, especially given what we know, or what’s being reported, about the case and Holtzclaw’s motives so far. I have already named one vital piece of information — every member of the jury deliberating the Holtzclaw case is white. Daily Free Press put out a good analysis of why an all-white jury poses a potential problem for rendering justice for these 13 black women.
However, we also know that Holtzclaw, in his hunt for female prey, intentionally and specifically targeted Black women. And his reasoning for doing so is as insidious as it is consistent with the whole history of America’s horrid perception of black bodies, particularly black women bodies, as disposable, worthless receptacles, fit only for abuse.
In Holtzclaw’s eyes, Black women are the weakest, and thereby, the most suitable and ideal victims for sexual assault. Poor Black women are even better, for they’re likely to have an arrest record that can be used to goad obedience.
The Root’s Kirsten West Savali, documented Holtzclaw’s tunnel vision niche on black predation this way:
“Like a vulture scavenging for prey, Holtzclaw is accused of circling an area of Oklahoma City where he could swoop down on black women and girls, some living in poverty, others carrying drugs and/or facing criminal charges, who would be the most vulnerable to attack. According to prosecutors, he abused his power to target the ones so terrified of police—or resigned to the fact that the system is designed to protect officers and white America, not black victims—that he knew he could threaten them with jail if they dared to refuse or report him.”
The only thing worse than knowing that even the state — police officers, who are subsidized via taxes paid by our citizenry — could likely rape black women is the knowledge that racism and poverty stamp the specific bodies of these women with an especial level of accessibleness and vulnerability.
This isn’t a fluke or moral aberration, or some deviation from the historical norm. Holtzclaw’s rationale, the perversions of his individual opinion, is perfectly in line with American heritage and striking proof that stereotypes of Black women (every trope from Sapphire to Jezebel) are very much alive and real and active in the pursuit of dehumanizing black womanhood.
As associate professor of African and African Diaspora Studies Kali Nicole Gross explains, there’s a national precedent to Holtzclaw’s actions and the silence regarding these black woman victims that cannot be overlooked:
“Historically, the justice system did not criminalize rape and other violent crimes against black women, though it punished black women in the harshest fashion for defending themselves against would-be attackers and rapists. Those black women who stood up faced execution or lengthy prison sentences.”
Pursuing this train of thought, she writes:
“On chain gangs in the South, they were easy prey for prison overseers and the male inmates they were forced to labor alongside. In other parts of the country, black women, largely excluded from all-female reformatories, languished in custodial prisons where they were also victimized by prison guards.”
This nightmarish trend of disregarding and disrespecting black women bodies hasn’t abated. And judging from the amount of online support given to Holtzclaw, lack of interest in the innocence and bodily integrity of black women is not looking to go away any time soon.
Feminist of color have always understood this. White feminist are still sadly slow to jump on board. The thinking is: it’s all fine and good to speak out against Black women killed in police custody or Black underage girls physically abused by white officers. It’s another matter altogether to suggest that black women may be the rape victims of choice for members of the white state.
But, that’s the situation. The sooner we come to grips with it, the better our chances for protecting our Black girls, ensuring that their girlhood and womanhood, too, is a national and movement priority.
Men and women of color involved in this burgeoning Black Lives Matter crusade may well believe, strongly, in their heart of hearts, that Black women rape victims deserve every bit of empathy and justice as white women. From time to time, they may even turn up the rhetoric on this matter.
However, dialing down critical coverage of the trauma affecting what we’ll call the Oklahoma 13 sends a countermessage to the world.