When Indira Henard, director of the DC Rape Crisis Center, received the text message on Wednesday, she thought she was not reading her phone correctly. “Indira oh my god,” said a colleague’s post. “Cosby gets out of jail.
“I put the news on and it was there, and my heart just dropped,” Henard said. “I thought about how all of our survivors would feel. ”
During the afternoon, Henard said the centre’s hotline was “off the hook with survivors needing a place to treat and people asking, ‘What happened? I do not understand. He was sentenced. Why would they do this? ‘ The center held support sessions on Wednesday evening and emergency sessions scheduled for Thursday to deal with the news.
When America saw Bill Cosby – once “America’s father” – go to jail almost three years ago, it was perhaps the most astonishing development to date of the nascent #MeToo movement, which emerged in late 2017 with allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Advocates and survivors of sexual assault hoped the movement would usher in an era of accountability for stalkers and abusers – and in many ways, it did. In recent years, victims have grown increasingly emboldened to seek justice, even for abuses committed years ago, in the hope that their allegations would be taken more seriously.
But on Wednesday, as the nation digested the equally breathtaking sight of Cosby being released from prison, some feared this would act as a deterrent for survivors, who often do not come forward because they do not believe it will do justice. And they wondered if some of the momentum of the movement, already slowed down by the pandemic, would be lost amid the feeling that another powerful man had gotten away with it – albeit on a technicality.
“It was a tough day,” said Henard. “This is a deeply painful moment – not just for the survivors of the Cosby case who came forward at the risk of their lives, but for all survivors.”
This story includes a discussion of sexual assault. If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
For Tarana Burke, the leading activist who gave the #MeToo movement its name, the first reaction to the Pennsylvania court ruling was “a shock, really a shock.”
“And as the shock set in and I started to see some of the comments (on social media) coming in… we, the people doing this work in the field, started to regroup. to talk about our response, ”Burke said in an interview. “It was just a real concern for the survivors. We’re going to have a hard time sleeping.
“The fact of the matter,” added Burke, herself a sexual assault survivor in her youth, “is that we won’t see the ramifications of things like this for a while. People will look back and say, “I was sexually assaulted a week before Cosby’s verdict was overturned. And the way the backlash hit the internet made me change my mind. We won’t be hearing these stories for a while. But those of us who have been through similar things – we know exactly how it hits and where it lands and what the consequences are, unfortunately. “
RAINN, the anti-sexual violence organization, said its phone calls increased 24% on Wednesday from the previous week. “This is one of those times when I really pray that people will read past the headlines,” said Scott Berkowitz, Executive Director.
“I think the country believes the victims,” Berkowitz said in an interview. What worries him: “Many survivors choose not to report to the police, and for those who do, it is a difficult decision because they know it will be a long and difficult task throughout the judicial process. . It only makes sense to undergo this if you think that in the end there is a reasonable chance of getting justice. He said RAINN would try to educate people that “the problem that got Bill Cosby out is not a problem that arises in a normal case.”
This is the point that Lisa Banks – one of the nation’s most prominent lawyers in #MeToo issues with her partner, Debra Katz – has sought to return home. “The message has to be very clear and simple, that this is a prosecutor’s error, a very unusual error and a technical detail that is unlikely to happen again,” she said.
She was referring to the decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that District Attorney Kevin Steele was obligated to honor his predecessor’s promise not to indict the comedian, although there is no evidence that a deal was ever put in writing.
“Of course, the outlook for the #MeToo era’s first major conviction on release from prison is devastating,” Banks said. “I don’t think it’s something that a lot of people are going to get over very easily. But I will say one thing that Andrea Constand (Cosby’s accuser) said when the verdict came: “The truth prevails”. I still think I did. And I don’t want people to get discouraged, although I know it’s going to be difficult.
For activist Anita Hill, the word “technicality” was not quite adequate to describe what she sees as a deeply flawed legal system against survivors.
The issue of the non-prosecution agreement was, Hill said in an interview, “revealing how difficult it is for women to actively prove to prosecutors that their claims should be heard in court by a jury.” She also found it troubling that the court left open whether the prosecution’s use of five additional accusers was inappropriate, as Cosby argued, “creating that further uncertainty”.
“Uncertainty: This is what keeps people from coming forward,” said Hill, who came forward in 1991 with harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas during her confirmation hearing in the Supreme Court. . “They just don’t know what’s going to happen. And you know it’s gonna be really brutal.
The general public, she said, is unlikely to understand the complexity of why this happened: “There was a jury verdict. He was in jail. Now he is not.
As for #MeToo: “It’s a work in progress,” said Hill, who now chairs the Hollywood Commission, which fights against harassment in the entertainment industry. “Old systems are hard to change, they require a different mindset. So I think we have to keep pushing. We have the social movement, we have the public outrage. But we need to reform the systems that have always been in place. “
Henard said she and her colleagues at the DC Rape Crisis Center were spending Thursday listening to survivors. “I am really concerned about the chilling effect this will have,” she said. “Especially for the black and brown survivors, it cuts deeply. We bear witness to tears and pain, with survivors asking, “What will it take for a verdict to fall and not be overturned by some technicality?” This man raped not one, not two, not three, not four, but (dozens of) women, and so we cannot forget him, ”she said, referring to the charges against Cosby that have never been brought to court, often because the statute of limitations had run out.
But Henard said Wednesday’s court ruling, as shocking as it has been to so many, “in no way diminishes the good work of the #MeToo movement.”
“We have made great strides in the past few years,” she said. “There are other great things that have happened and will continue to happen. What this moment does is remind all of us, especially those of us with boots on the pitch, that there is still work to be done.