When in Doubt, Blame the Victim: The Troubling Media Narrative Around Kasandra Perkins

Collectively, mainstream media reporting has at once discounted Jovan Belcher's actions on account of his mental state and blamed Perkins for staying out too late -- as though Perkins could have brought her murder on herself.
Publish date:
December 7, 2012
domestic violence, race, murder

On December 1, Kanas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend and the mother of his 3-month-old child, Kasandra Perkins. She was 22 years old. Shortly thereafter, Belcher traveled to the football team’s practice facility and killed himself in front of his coach and general manager just as police arrived at the scene.

Some coverage has focused on Perkins’ behavior on the night leading up to her murder. Others emphasize Belcher’s reputation among teammates and his family as an upstanding guy, or claim traumatic brain injury is to blame. The New York Post reported that having obtained childcare for her daughter, Perkins stayed out at a concert until 1 am, and that Belcher was “furious with her” upon her return. Some reports mention that Perkins went out for drinks with friends after the show.

According to some coverage, these were the precipitating events that lead to her murder. The fact that these details are utterly unextraordinary is beside the point; even if Perkins had done something decidedly outrageous, she didn’t deserve to experience violence at all, let alone to die. And rather than acknowledge the brutality of the crime -- Belcher shot her nine times in front of his mother -- some writers have billed the crime as the result of traumatic brain injury, rather than an indication that Belcher was violent and abusive.

Collectively, mainstream media reporting has at once discounted Belcher's actions on account of his mental state and blamed Perkins for staying out too late, being argumentative and so forth. This simultaneously identifies Perkins as the offending party and disqualifies the insidious nature and acceptance of violence towards women as a part of the story.

In a broadcast segment on Fox News, a reporter paraphrases Kansas City Mayor Sly James saying, “[I]n recent months there’s been a lot of talk of the Chiefs’ underperformance and this is a time to remember that these players, these folks that put on these helmets each and every weekend, are humans with families and feelings, and that sometimes they are under an indescribable amount of pressure. He’s asking for people to come together and to wear red, and to come together as Chiefs families as we all are.”

This statement edits Perkins out; a community’s loss of a high profile figure is central and the violent act he committed prior to ending his own life is incidental. Further, it suggests that this type of violence is something that any player under similar stress might exhibit, thereby normalizing it.

In a New York Times article published on the day of the murder-suicide, the Kansas City Chiefs team members are the only apparent victims. And another New York Post article describes Belcher’s hometown reeling from the loss: “He was their all-pro.” This hometown hero narrative further exonerates Belcher, suggesting that he was really a good kid and a victim of circumstance out of his control, brought on by a tumultuous relationship.

This isn’t to say that Belcher wasn’t beloved, wasn’t human or that his fans and friends don’t have the right to publically mourn him. But rather, that the imbalance of attention paid to his character in life and Perkins’ says that his was more important.

Deadspin published a transcript from a conversation over email with Belcher’s anonymous friend in which Perkins is blamed for her own death over and over again. The unnamed source goes so far as to say she was the “catalyst” of her own murder. Belcher is given a pass because he was under duress, on drugs and may have suffered football-related head trauma. That Perkins went to a concert and did not answer her phone when her boyfriend called does not excuse her murderer as this narrative insinuates, and presenting the transcript without analysis fails to hold Belcher accountable in any way.

What About Our Daughters points out that Perkins is part of a consistently victimized demographic; black women are seven times more likely to be victims of maternal homicide than white women. What’s more, black women between the ages of 25 and 29 are 11 times more likely to be murdered while pregnant or within a year of giving birth, than their white peers. These statistics say nothing of the myriad unreported cases the Center for Disease Control says might make comprehensive figures even more disturbing.

If Belcher wasn’t high profile, it’s unlikely that anyone outside the couple’s immediate community would have known about Perkins’ murder. And Perkins, like many women, may have been victimized on a regular basis unbeknownst to friends or the community; 85 percent of abused spouses continue or return to relationships with their abusers. There’s no way of knowing whether she experienced violence at home prior to her murder, but it’s not unreasonable to consider that she might have.

Suggesting that Perkins was at all responsible for her murder does an immense disservice to all suffering women who might otherwise consider coming forward against their attackers. And further, it sends the message to future attackers that they won’t be held accountable. Whether sports blog, tabloid press, or mainstream news source, irresponsible coverage of violence against women matters.

In the few days since the initial coverage was published, information has come out about Belcher’s extensive and unconfined gun collection, prior encounters with law enforcement for punching out a glass window over a woman, and heavy drinking.

For some reason, we needed this evidence to admit that he was a violent, abusive person -- to identify his active role in Perkins’ murder. The loss of her life was not enough, and that’s a serious problem, indicative of all of those statistics that speak to the vulnerability of young black mothers whose lives are inexplicably devalued every time narratives like this one pop up.

Fox News published a disturbing editorial by "More Guns, Less Crime" author John Lott that suggests conflating gun violence and domestic abuse, as Bob Costas did in an NFL halftime report, “irresponsibly makes people afraid of those who they have no reason to be afraid of.”

For some reason, Lott doesn’t think women should be afraid of gun-wielding, abusive spouses. He goes on to say that most victims of gun violence are prostitutes, pimps and johns, and cab drivers, saying, “to put it bluntly, criminals are not typical citizens.” Meaning those guilty of intimate partner violence are not criminals because they fall under the category of “normal” or “typical citizen,” which by the way, women in prostitution, and cab drivers encounter constantly.

He ignores the fact that nearly 70% of domestic violence goes unreported; his understanding of these victims is inherently flawed. He goes on to say that women who want to protect themselves should probably just get themselves a gun.

This is another form of victim blaming that supposes women who haven’t armed themselves with the proper defenses aren’t making an active effort to ward off attackers, as though domestic violence is a fact of life to which women should adjust.

These arguments are just as pervasive in journalism as they are in the court system. Alleged rapists are frequently defended in court by the very precepts that give them a sense of license to attack.

According to a study by the American Association of University Women, the shame and embarrassment of being raped keeps 65 percent of victims in college from reporting their assaults, allowing more attackers to go unpunished. Public victim blaming suggests women deserve that shame.

In college, I wrote an editorial about a New York Times article covering the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Texas. The writer implies that her behavior and physical appearance goaded her future attackers, thereby blaming the child for her gang rape by 20 boys and men.

After two years, a trial is underway, and local reports from the Houston Chronicle describe more victim blaming in the court proceedings on the part of the defense attorney. In his argument, attorney Steve Taylor said, "Like the spider and the fly. Wasn't she saying, 'Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly?' "

In another case, Kristen Cunnane has come forward with charges against the Moraga School district in California, where she attended elementary school. She says two teachers molested her over a period of four years. The school district released a public response saying she was “careless and negligent,” at age 12, in warding off her attackers.

Victim blaming is not unique to this particular moment in history or confined to the continental United States. Given the insidious nature of this sort of narrative, particularly for women of color and victims of sexual violence, it’s imperative that we collectively acknowledge when it’s happening, and that it’s wrong.