I was living in Los Angeles in 1991 when I first watched four white police officers savagely beat a prone African American man named Rodney King. Millions of people across the country and around the world saw the brutality on television at the same time as I did. Though no one had an iPhone in 1991, George Holliday was able to use his camcorder to give others a window into police violence against a civilian. Having such visual evidence of police brutality was rare and precious at the time. Yet a jury still acquitted three of the police officers and was unable to reach a verdict regarding the third, leading to riots that inspired King to ask “Can we all get along?”
Turning back the clock even further, I remember being approximately ten years old when I first heard about date rape. Two men were speaking of an accusation at their workplace. Seemingly unaware that I was nearby, the men animatedly declared to each other that there had obviously been no rape. After all, one said, the “victim” was seen having coffee with her assailant in the cafeteria the day after the alleged attack. I did not really understand what they were talking about at the time, but I had a sick feeling, like there was something toxic in the atmosphere. Perhaps I sensed without full comprehension that the men were by implication insulting every girl and woman who wanted to be believed, by assuming that the woman in the story was lying about rape.
These two cases taught me something, though I appreciated the lesson only later. They showed me how racism and misogyny can undermine the bigot’s capacity to think rationally and empathically about targeted violence in our society. I have in the past referred to the factual and moral distortions that plague the bigot’s thinking as “denial” and “devaluation.” These destructive processes, like a debilitating virus, infect conversations, conclusions, and decisions about police brutality and sexual violence. But just as a virus inspires the development of vaccinations and medications, denial and devaluation have motivated #MeToo and Black Lives Matter as efforts to protect and cure our body politic of these forms of bigotry. The treatment consists of asserting that victims will no longer shut up and tolerate the denial and devaluation that attend the narratives of violence against African Americans and women. People will speak up, and we will believe their stories and hold their assailants accountable.
Rodney King and Denial
What is denial? We sometimes use the word to refer to a defense mechanism through which we avoid facing the truth. A man might choose not to believe that his partner is having an affair, even though the evidence of cheating is plain and unmistakable. A child might ignore the signs of rabies in her dog because she cannot cope with the reality that she will lose him. Denial may also represent a collective decision not to acknowledge that something terrible has happened, perhaps because the collective likes things the way they are and does not want to have to reckon with its own atrocities. A recently passed Polish law prohibiting people from blaming Poland for crimes committed during the Holocaust constitutes a kind of collective denial.
One go-to method for denying an ugly reality is to blame the messenger and say that he is lying. Prior to Rodney King’s video, African American men coming forward to describe police brutality might encounter such disbelief. Given a choice between taking the word of a white police officer and believing an African American man who might have been accused of “resisting arrest,” white audiences might have preferred to believe the officer. When this happened, the black community could attribute it to the officer’s credibility or to inconsistencies in the alleged victim’s story. A decision to disbelieve one victim after another, though, would eventually look like a symptom of denial. The white audience would seem to be denying that there was a problem at all, refusing to believe that some proportion of white police officers truly had been committing physical violence against innocent African American men.
African Americans have undoubtedly felt tremendous sorrow and despair to find their accounts of brutality rejected in favor of the stories of their tormentors. It is difficult to come forward and speak of being hurt and humiliated, of watching helplessly as a friend or loved one is shot to death for nothing. Not being believed after mustering the courage to speak would have to have beeen devastating. One redemption fantasy, when the violence continued, might be to have proof positive that things had been happening exactly as the victims were claiming they had. And that is what the Rodney King video promised to be.
Finally, everyone could see, in black and white, what it looked like for a group of white officers to carry out an unjustifiable beating of an unarmed black man. Though horrifying, there was something exciting about having the proof. Exciting for both African Americans and their allies. But then the case went to trial, and the jury refused to convict. Rioting followed, as the promise that had attached to the videotape seemed to disappear.
So what did the acquittals mean? Some said that what happened was not as clear as it might have seemed on the videotape. Perhaps. Another possibility is that the denial that had prevented some white audiences from believing the stories of police brutality in the past had been only one of the obstacles that African Americans faced in the mental processes of white Americans. Devaluation was another.
More Than Denial: Devaluation
Devaluation is more straightforward in some ways than denial. It holds that the thing we are talking about is actually not as important as the victims imagine it to be. Denial, in a way, offers the pretense that once the victims come forward with better proof of their accusations, the audience will be outraged. Devaluation says that actually, even if victims can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that something happened exactly as they have been claiming that it did, the audience will simply minimize the seriousness of what occurred, refusing to classify what happened as an injustice. There was either no injustice because the claimed brutality did not take place (denial) or there was no injustice because the brutality that plainly did take place is tolerable (devaluation).
Nearly thirty years after Rodney King, we now have a better sense of what juries sometimes do when confronting evidence of a police officer’s crime. With the advent of smartphones, we have recordings of unarmed black men trying to reassure white officers, pleading for their lives, and nonetheless dying of bullet wounds or strangulation, their families unable to find vindication in the courts or perhaps even in the grand jury. Watching the acquittals or a failure to indict, African Americans might understandably come to the conclusion that not only does the white audience refuse to credit their words, but it also devalues their lives and will not punish the people who kill them.
“Black Lives Matter” explicitly responds to the devaluation of African Americans’ lives. It effectively reminds everyone of the people who have died at the hands of police. It insists—against the criminal justice system’s verdicts and other dispositions—that what occurred was indefensible violence and brutality. The members of Black Lives Matter act as witnesses, seeing and testifying to the truth that others have denied. Though 4084 African Americans were lynched between 1877 and 1950, there were only a handful of trials and even fewer convictions for these murders. Were people skeptical about what had taken place or did they know and not care? With videos of defenseless victims dying for no reason, we may have our answer, if it were ever in doubt. We now must pay attention and condemn the “not guilty” verdicts just as we would the conviction of an innocent defendant. Without accountability, there can be no law and order.
Denial and Rape
In the crime of rape, we have a long and ugly history of denial, devaluation, and the combination of the two. Denial makes an appearance, even now, virtually every time a woman accuses an acquaintance or a “date” of raping her. “Who knows what really happened?” people ask. “Why should we believe the complainant?” they inquire. In connection with one case involving a sexual assault accusation against Kobe Bryant, a feminist writer made the following remarkable statement: “There is a class of cases that are simply beyond the ability of the legal system to resolve, … [in part] because some truths are ultimately unknowable.” The suggestion is that we cannot know what happened in a date rape situation, so the legal system should not be adjudicating such attacks.
The common refrain when a woman comes forward to testify that a man has raped her, is that there are somehow no “witnesses” or no “objective” observers. This is a bizarre claim, given that we ordinarily regard crime victims as very much witnesses to the crimes committed against them. We also rarely doubt their objectivity, even though they care about the case and presumably want it to be resolved against the perpetrator. And false complaints of other crimes are just as common as false complaints of rape. Somehow, though, when it comes to acquaintance rape, perception changes, and people wonder whether it would be fair to convict a defendant on the basis of standard courtroom evidence.
Anita Hill experienced something like the denial leveled at date rape victims when she testified against Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings in 1991. Though there was nothing to suggest that she was dishonest or had any reason to fabricate a case of sexual harassment, senators expressed skepticism and disbelief about her claims. They then chose to confirm the man to the US Supreme Court, a very special form of acquittal.
The perpetual (and exaggerated) fear of the false rape or sexual harassment claim was palpable more recently as well, as university faculties reacted with alarm to the “Dear Colleague” letter from President Obama. This letter set out new Department of Education standards for campus sexual violence cases, some of which standards eased the burden on a complaining witness in light of the plague of sexual assault on campus.
Not surprisingly, President Trump’s Education Department has withdrawn the policy. The President, after all, has on video admitted to sexually assaulting women. His election to the presidency, about a month after the video surfaced, demonstrated that tens of millions of Americans either refused to believe a sexual predator’s own confession or, more likely, that what they had learned did not matter enough to them to change their vote.
People who become hyper-concerned about the perceived risks attached to believing an alleged rape victim thereby expose their true feelings about sexual assault. They reveal that they may not actually care whether a rape took place or not, because the crime—in their mind—is not that big a deal. Historically, defense attorneys were allowed to tell juries about a victim’s promiscuity, ostensibly to prove that she consented to her alleged assailant but maybe also (or mainly) because few cared about protecting “bad girls” from forced sex.
The law throughout this nation, until the mid-1970’s, likewise permitted married men to rape their wives. As seventeenth century jurist Matthew Hale put it, “[f]or the husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband which she cannot retract.” Hale is a well-known misogynist both for this declaration that married women have waived their right to refuse their husbands and for opining that rape “is an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused, tho never so innocent.’’ He accordingly discredited the words of female victims and devalued their safety from sexual assault at the same time.
#MeToo is for women and rape what Black Lives Matter is for African Americans and official white violence and murder. It allows victims to speak publicly of their victimization to an audience of people who will credit what they hear. And it provides a vehicle through which victims and those who believe them can demand accountability and justice for serious misconduct so long ignored. Harvey Weinstein and others suddenly found themselves out of a job, because people finally believed the victims and cared enough about the misconduct to do something.
The problems have not disappeared. Police brutality continues, and some violent police officers still get away with their crimes, even in the age of Black Lives Matter. And even though we have #MeToo, attitudes toward sexual violence have not become fully enlightened. Yet the two movements for racial and sexual equality remain significant. They let bigots know that there are many of us out there who believe victims’ accounts of racial and sexual violence and who believe that the violence demands consequences. Finally and perhaps most importantly, these two movements have let us know that we are not alone in seeking justice. There is power in knowing that, the power to plan the next step.