This case of repeated rapes committed against an 11-year-old girl in Cleveland, Texas reminds me in a lot of eerie ways of my own community. According to trial evidence, she was sexually assaulted at least five times in late 2010 by a gang of men and boys, and the situation was only uncovered when a classmate told one of her teachers about a video of her being sexually assaulted.
The population of Cleveland, 7,954 at the last census, is eerily similar to that of Fort Bragg (7,026), and the culture is strikingly similar as well. Insular. Quiet. Closing ranks behind their own. When a case like this erupts into national headlines, all the residents do is want it to go away, at any cost, and no matter how many reporters descend on the town for the real story, they’re going to find themselves on the wrong side of the insider culture.
This isn't about where the town is; it's not about how Texas is awful and so are the people there. Texas isn't the only place in the world where terrible things happen and terrible people close ranks behind the people who commit them. Small towns across the United States endure things like this every day, and those who are smug because they're not in Texas, or not in the South, should rethink their assumptions.
In this case, the situation is complicated by racial factors; the unnamed victim is Latina, and the suspects are black. Thus far, while a number have pled guilty, only one has stood trial, and he fled bail, forcing the jury to convict him in absentia. Some critics fear that the case is a reprise of racially motivated show trials that are little more than a performance to satisfy the thirst of a demanding public, with no justice at all for the defendant.
Others find the evidence more compelling.
And others still, of course, are striving for a way to blame the victim.
I remember being 11. I wore a lot of clashing colors and acquired more entries on my bookworm than anyone else in class. I hated math, even then, and had sleepovers with my friends. I remember once I got violently ill at school and had to lie out on the lawn waiting for my father to pick me up. I was entranced by the clouds passing overhead.
When I was 11, my skirts and dresses sometimes hitched up, flashing my underpants. I wore clothes that were probably tight and awkward. Sometimes I tried to look older than I was. I think those aren’t uncommon experiences for children, especially in a culture where girls are constantly devalued and told that their worth lies in their body.
I also don’t think it would have been grounds to sexually assault me, but apparently some residents of Cleveland think otherwise. Some have suggested that she was asking for it by wearing makeup and looking older -– I wonder if my best friend, who developed breasts and hips at around 11, would also have been asking for it because she looked older.
Others say it was the fault of her parents. They didn’t supervise her enough, you know. Or maybe that it’s that she didn’t respect herself enough. Apparently a local church held a conference to “teach girls to respect themselves” in order to prevent this kind of thing from happening. Because this is totally about self-respect.
At the trial, the girl testified in tears about graphic topics like being penetrated with a glass bottle. Video of her sexual assault was shown. DNA evidence was provided, along with a confession –- I don’t put a lot of weight into confessions because I feel there are some complicated issues around how they are obtained and used in court, but this one along with the balance of the evidence strongly indicated guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
I don’t see anyone talking, here, about who was actually responsible for the rape of this child, because an 11-year-old girl is a child no matter what she looks like, how she dresses, how she acts, who her parents are. The victim should have been having sleepovers with her friends and playing sports and having fun, not being repeatedly gang-raped by a group of men.
The people responsible are her rapists. If you want to prevent rape from happening in your community, you need to work on educating rapists about how not to rape -– it’s pretty easy, after all: don’t rape people. If you want to move past a horrific crime like this as a community, start by making sure that people know you understand who’s guilty in this case: not a child, not her parents, but the men and boys who raped her, over and over again, who will leave her with trauma for the rest of her life.
But instead, at least some people have made the conscious decision to blame this child and her parents for what happened to her, because facing the truth is apparently too ugly. And of course it is these voices that are the loudest, that are heard the most, that remind victims and their supporters of their place in society.
Over a year before this case occurred, a man named Aaron Vargas shot the man who had molested him as a child in my hometown. The case stirred up a lot of emotion in Fort Bragg and it made national news. Some people heralded him as a hero for taking action when the police and no one else did. Others condemned him for being judge, jury and executioner. He was sentenced to nine years for the crime.
Just in the last week I’ve seen a case of a Turkish woman beheading her rapist, and another woman setting her daughter’s rapist on fire. Recently a man, possibly accidentally, beat his daughter’s molester to death.
I can see why people feel driven to this point, I really, really do.