Our collective vision of the bad cop in America is chilling, sobering and totally driven by Hollywood. The bad cop takes bribes from the mob in “The Departed” or is part of some conspiracy like in “Better Call Saul.” In the worst case scenario he’s Denzel from “Training Day”, some diabolical gangster with a badge.
But what former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw is accused of wouldn’t dare be shown in a neighborhood theatre.
A white officer accused of raping, stalking and assaulting 13 black women while on duty? A police department oblivious to the problem until the ‘perfect victim’ came along? This case is the grotesque mixture of every Rape Culture and Black Lives Matter discussion in the public narrative over the last few years.
The only way that we can hope to unpack this story and this trial, now wrapping its second week, is if the focus remains squarely on the lives of black women.
On Thursday, the third accuser to testify against the former police officer told jurors flat out that she did not even consider going to the police.
“I didn’t think anyone would believe me," she said. "I’m a black female.”
A Police Nightmare
The fear of being pulled over and harassed, brutalized or in some cases killed by police is legitimate and pervasive in the black community. However our discussions of police violence and oppression are often woven around abuse likely to happen to men and women.
African American women carry the added burden and fear associated with sexual violence from police, something few black men consider in their daily lives and something that rarely is included in police misconduct narratives.
Further, while men and women face the reality that offending officers may never face justice, legal research shows that sexual assault convictions, especially in the cases of white men against black women are next to non existent in America's legal system.
Late at night on June 18, 2014 a black woman in her late 50’s (identified in court documents as J.L.) was driving home through the east side of Oklahoma City and was pulled over by 27-year-old Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw. The interaction started with phrases all too familiar to many African Americans that have had encounters with the police:
“If you have something on you and you tell me now, then I won’t take you to jail,” officer Holtzclaw allegedly told J.L., according to OKC detective Kim Davis’s testimony months later. “But if you don’t tell me about it now, and I find something, then I’m gonna take you to jail.”
Any conversation about this case in the press, or in public without intersectionality is a passive assault on black women’s lives.
J.L. hadn’t been drinking, speeding or doing drugs and told the officer she was on her way home from a friend’s house. At this point most harassment may stop, perhaps a threat or an unwarranted ticket but what happened next distinguishes Holtzclaw's actions from our common narratives about #BlackLivesMatter and police brutality.
In her testimony to police J.L says the officer demanded that she get out of her car and strip naked, while he allegedly pointed his flashlight at her with one hand, and fondled his exposed penis in the other. Eventually, according to victim testimony, Officer Holtzclaw threatened J.L. with jail if she did not perform oral sex on him.
She pleaded with him, “Please don’t do this, you’re not supposed to do this,” but Holtzclaw, empowered by his race, his gender and most importantly his badge and gun continued his assault. When he was done, he ominously followed her home, making sure she knew that he knew exactly where she lived.
The Perfect Victim
According to prosecutors Holtzclaw had gotten sloppy. J.L. went to the police immediately and turned out to be the first of 13 black women in East Oklahoma City to testify about sexual assault, rape and stalking on the part of Daniel Holtzclaw.
Assistant District Attorney Gayland Gieger told the court that Holtzclaw targeted black women in their 40s and 50s usually poor, but he always made sure to choose women with drug, prostitution or petty crime records. These were women he knew were invisible to the justice system, whose lives and stories would not be believed over his, whose sexuality would not be protected and defended in society at large or by the legal system in Oklahoma.
J.L. had no record, he couldn’t threaten her with jail in exchange for future access and abuse and she broke the case. But there had already been a report earlier that year from a woman claiming that a police officer matching Holtzclaw’s description had assaulted her. Why didn’t that sound the alarm? Why didn’t the mere accusation of a white cop raping a middle aged black woman cause an investigation? Why did it take a second woman, a more ‘respectable’ woman before Holtzclaw was held accountable?
Usually when someone types or says the word ‘intersectionality’ people’s eyes begin to glaze over. They start checking their phones or having flashbacks to that long winded grad student neighbor who ruined every dinner party.
However any conversation about this case in the press, or in public without intersectionality is a passive assault on black women’s lives. Intersectionality is simply the acknowledgement that different overlapping identities experience oppression and discrimination differently. So while #BlackLivesMatter may focus on police misconduct, Rape Culture, the theory that certain environments can normalize or facilitate rape, must be an equal part of covering this case.
This is not an easy conversation to have, even in the Black Lives Matter movement, which was started by three African American women. It took a concerted effort to make sure the names Rekia Boyd and Sandra Bland were cited and chanted with the same passion and consistency as Eric Garner and Mike Brown. So to make sure that the focus on the Holtzclaw case stays on the racial and sexual elements, allies have to remain vigilant.
A Community of Complacency
“Oklahoma has one of the lowest rates of prosecution for sexual assault in the nation,” says Grace Franklin, a member of OKC Artists for Justice, a group formed last year to keep the focus on the Holtzclaw case lest the local prosecutor or elected officials try to sweep it under the rug.
“He [Holtzclaw] targeted black women. Poor black women. There are plenty of middle class and educated black women on the East side of OKC. So he specifically chose people he knew wouldn’t be believed, wouldn’t have a voice or an advocate.”
In speaking with several members of the black community in Oklahoma City, the feeling about the case has been consistent if not in some cases calm. One lifelong resident of Oklahoma City told me that most African Americans believed Holtzclaw was going to jail.
Compared to the foot dragging and stalling seen in Cleveland, or Ferguson or Sanford Florida the OKC police seemed to have acted swiftly. Holtzclaw was arrested, and he was fired from the police department before he was even indicted. Prosecutors used GPS tracking from his police cruiser to corroborate the 13 victims stories and over 34 counts have been levied against him.
Even GoFundMe dropped him and publicly, no political pundit, politician or journalist has stood by his side. For many African Americans, this was a done deal. But Grace has a different perspective. She points out that despite facing 34 charges for various sexual crimes against women Daniel Holtzclaw has been allowed to be on house arrest for the last year. This is an incredibly generous and unusual punishment for someone facing such serious crimes.
And even though he’s violated his home arrest twice Holtzclaw has only served 14 days in jail in the last year. But the biggest reason to question the foregone conclusion of this case according to Franklin, happened this week. “People here were almost passive, complacent [for the last year] And now we see this week that it’s an all - white jury and people are in a panic.”
All too often Black women are told to shush or dismiss their experience for the sake of ‘allies’ or the movement.
Despite 10 percent of Oklahoma City being African American the jury for the Holtzclaw case is 100 percent white, with eight men and four women. There is incontrovertible evidence that white juries almost never convict whites (or “appropriated whites”) for crimes against black victims, and given that this is a sexual crime the chances are diminished even more.
In a sad twist of irony the Supreme Court started reviewing a case last week about racial discrimination in jury selection and how it violates the rights of African Americans.
“With that jury the defense has already done half their job,” said a lawyer I spoke to under condition of anonymity. Despite a preponderance of evidence and being abandoned by his own police department and union, it only takes one juror for Daniel Holtzclaw to escape conviction.
It only takes one white man or woman who can’t or won’t put the pain and experience of a black woman above the privilege and authority of a white man with a gun and a badge. And if that happens who knows if the Oklahoma prosecutors will re-commit to another trial.
Daniel Holtzclaw is not a fluke or an anomaly. As the Associated Press recently uncovered in a yearlong investigation, police sexual misconduct is rampant in America and likely woefully underreported.
All too often Black women are told to shush or dismiss their experience for the sake of ‘allies’ or the movement. White feminists tell black women to tone down the black stuff. Black men tell Black women to tone down the ‘women’ stuff. And white men, even progressive ones, are so busy mansplaining and caping they never hear black women to begin with.
But the lives of black women must be central to our protests, discussions and analysis of this horrific case. Data, anecdotes and research on the unique experiences of black women, rape culture and black lives matter must be centralized in this discussion for outsider observers to realize the crisis that we are witnessing in the courtroom.
This dirty cop story may not have a Hollywood ending, but at least we can make sure the story stays focused on the main characters.