Former Oklahoma City Policeman Daniel Holtzclaw was found guilty last week of 18 out of 36 charges brought against him, including 4 counts of first-degree rape. The trial involved 13 black women accusing him of rape, sexual assault, and other crimes. The trial also shone a light on issue of sexual assault reporting and race.
Crowds gathered outside the courtroom for days while the jury deliberated last week. But among the reporter scrums and general supporters, there were women like Chaya Fletcher, a member of Oklahoma City Artists for Justice.
“People weren't really talking about the case at all until the actual trial started,” Fletcher said.
“So for us, it's like letting the community know, ‘Hey, this is what's going on.’ [We’re] letting the prosecutors know, ‘Hey, we're watching and we care. And these women matter,’” she said.
Fletcher lives in the same part of town where Holtzclaw used to patrol. And she says Holtzclaw’s victims were all vulnerable.
Their ages ranged from 17 to 50-something, and many had a history of drug use or outstanding warrants. Holtzclaw’s defense attorney tried to paint them as uncredible.
“I am appalled at how we framed these women. These women could be my sister, my mother, my daughter,” Fletcher said.
Deb Stanaland is the Chief Support Services Officer for the YWCA of Oklahoma City. She says it’s not surprising that a victim’s past would come to light at trial.
“Of course this person may have a less desirable reputation because that's what a perpetrator looks for,” Stanaland says.
She says women of all backgrounds are victims of sexual assault, but reported rapes among black women are higher across the country than those among white or Asian women. Stanaland says many victims don’t immediately come forward.
“In the black community, for instance, historically, they're going to take care of things themselves. I'm going to go to my aunt and talk to her about this, or my cousin or my relatives, and we're going to take care of this in-house,” she says.
“We're going to go to our minister and talk about it because there has been somewhat of a distrust, because of our overall history, to go to authorities and say, ‘This has happened to me.’”
Between things like victim blaming and having to re-live an attack during trial, Stanaland says the barriers to reporting rapes are high, especially among non-white groups.
Oklahoma’s Uniform Crime Report for 2013 shows nearly one-third of forcible and attempted rapes occurred in Oklahoma County, and numbers across the state are on the rise.
Last year, the YWCA in Oklahoma City, for example, performed 400 rape exams.
“When you think about only 25-26% of rapes are reported in the first place, it is a huge problem in our society,” Stanaland says.
She points to education as the main way to increase reporting of sexual assaults across the state.
A Generational Trend
Back at the courthouse last week, Chaya Fletcher sat with Sache Primeaux-Shaw, another member of Oklahoma City Artists for Justice. While they waited for a verdict for Holtzclaw, one thought kept echoing in Primeaux-Shaw’s mind: It could’ve been her.
“I’m no different than any of them,” She said.
“Even though I’m educated and all of that, I’m no different than any of them. I just would have been in the same position they were in.”
Primeaux-Shaw calls the case a blow to her community, and says the women and their socioeconomic status made them especially vulnerable.
“These ladies, some of them, needed help. They're just victims of their circumstances. Whatever they did in the past doesn't condone what he did to them,” Primeaux-Shaw said.
Both she and Fletcher realize the problem with underreporting for women of color, and Fletcher points to the same pattern the YWCA’s Deb Stanaland recognized. Fletcher says black women take care of their own. But now, she wants things to change.
“We have always been very guarded with things that happen in our community and doing that generationally, we've kind of swept that under the rug,” Fletcher said.
“And I think we've created a space where women feel more powerful to own their stories and comfortable in sharing with them to connect with other women so we can work together to heal.”
She says the goal is to create a community that won’t accept rape culture and the victim blaming that goes along with it. It may take time, Fletcher says, but she insists it’s worth the fight.
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