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Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Accused

On March 6, 1983, Cheryl Arujo, age 21, put her two daughters to sleep in her New Bedford, Massachusetts apartment following the older daughter's third birthday party. Araujo then left her children with her boyfriend and father of her children to buy cigarettes at a nearby store. It was 9 PM.

Two local stores were closed, so she walked a block to Big Dan's Tavern on Acushnet Avenue in New Bedford’s North End. She bought the cigarettes, then had a '7 & 7' with a woman at a table and chatted with two men shooting pool. The other woman left. After she put her glass on the bar, she walked toward the door to leave.

Suddenly, she testified, a man in back of her grabbed the collar of her jacket while another tripped her and held her feet. They dragged her across the floor to the pool table, banging her head and hip against its side, and stripped off her jeans.

"I could hear people laughing, cheering and yelling from near the bar," the woman recalled in court. "My head was hanging off the edge of the pool table.... I was begging for help. I was pleading. I was screaming.... The man that was holding me down had grabbed me by the hair. The more I screamed, the tighter he pulled."

Then, reportedly, began a terrifying, 90-minute gang rape attack by six men. The woman could hear men laughing and shouting, "Do it! Do it!" Prosecutors later said they "cheered like it was a baseball game," and a detective described the accused rapists as acting "like a pack of sharks on a feeding frenzy." A bartender and three other men witnessed the rape, but two maintain they were threatened and afraid to call police.

After one alleged rapist stepped away to talk with his pals, Arujo bolted over the other side of the pool table, fleeing into the street at about 12:30 a.m. wearing only an unzipped jacket and a sock. She flagged down three men in a passing pickup truck, who heard her screaming that she had been raped. Cut and bruised, the woman was so traumatized she threw her arms around the neck of passenger Daniel O'Neil and wouldn't let go for at least five minutes.

After the incident, local residents were outraged both by the reported gang rape and by the release on only $1,000 bail of the four original defendants — two others were later indicted as accessories for pinning the alleged victim down on the pool table.

During the prosecution, the defendants' attorneys cross-examined Araujo to such an extent that the case - widely known as "Big Dan's rape" - became widely seen as a template for "blaming the victim" in rape cases.

Arujo was painted as an "unwed mother" (a scandal in those days) who left her children at home with her boyfriend to buy - of all things - cigarettes. Not milk or bread for her children. Cigarettes. I remember my mother and aunts and uncles shaking their heads and asking what kind of mother leaves her children to buy "Cancer Sticks" for herself?

Furthermore, she was dressed in tight jeans and a jacket and went into a bar. Alone. And had a drink with another woman. Many of the locals assumed she was getting cigarettes on her way to get a trick. She was a prostitute. Had to be. What kind of woman goes out of her house alone at 9 PM?

She was asking for it, see?

One of the many destructive fallouts from the "Big Dan's rape" case was the public airing of bigotry against the town's hardworking and family-oriented Portuguese immigrants. There were literally thousands of calls to radio station WBSM blaming the Portuguese and saying things like 'They should all be put on a boat and shipped the hell out of here'.
It should be noted that all six defendants were not U.S. citizens at the time of the arrest or trial.  They were, to a person, immigrants from the Azores , which has a history of being one of the stops in the Middle Passage of the Slave Trade, in which Portugal played a major role. It is no coincidence that Azoreans tend to be very dark skinned and many, like myself, have very tick, coarse, wavy hair.

Indeed, my grandmother, who was from Lisbon, considered that she had "married down" when she wed my Azorean grandfather, and scrupulously checked the skin color against a brown paper bag and the texture of the hair of her grandchildren to see if it was "kinky".

I had no idea what that meant until I was in nursing school with African American women who used the word. "My grandmother says my hair is 'kinky' too," I said, commiserating with their laments. I honestly didn't understand their laughter until later. Much, much later.

Many Portuguese immigrants like my relatives, who complained bitterly about the ethnic slurs, also besmirched the reputation of the alleged victim, herself of Portuguese descent. One vicious misconception was that she was a prostitute. Some local men condemned her for entering what one fisherman termed "that whorehouse," even though it was for the first time. "I don't think a clean woman would go into a place like that bar," said a soccer coach at a social club. When questioned, however, other neighborhood women say they also were unaware of the tavern's bad reputation.

The case was tried in a Victorian-styled courthouse in neighboring Fall River, Massachusetts. Six men were originally charged with the rape, though only four, Victor Raposo, John Cordeiro, Joseph Vieira and Daniel Silva, were eventually tried in two separate trials because some of them implicated each other.  The four defendants were convicted of aggravated rape, two men were acquitted of the charges. The trials attracted international attention. 

Indeed, the case became the basis of a Jodie Foster movie called, "The Accused".

I was born in Fall River and grew up in the Fall River-New Bedford area. I am of Portuguese-Azorean descent. I vividly remember the "Big Dan's rape" case and the trial that ensued.

I have tried to retell the events of that case because there are, in my mind, so many striking similarities between what happened to Cheryl Arujo and the recent killing in Sanford, Florida of 17 year old Trayvon Martin by volunteer Neighborhood watchman and mortgage risk analysis George Zimmerman.

Martin was unarmed. Zimmerman claims he shot the teenager in self-defense and is standing behind the Florida "Stand Your Ground" law. Under this legal concept, a person is justified in using deadly force in certain situations and the "stand your ground" law is a defense or immunity to criminal charges and civil suit.

Zimmerman was neither arrested nor charged with Martin's death. The Sanford Police Department's lead investigator initially pursued manslaughter charges against Zimmerman, but was told by the state attorney that there wasn't enough evidence.

The investigation into the killing of Trayvon Martin is essentially starting from scratch, with the new special prosecutor and a team of investigators quietly re-interviewing witnesses and examining evidence related to the unarmed teen's shooting death.

The 17-year-old Martin has been dead for a month, and George Zimmerman, his admitted killer, remains free after telling authorities he was forced to shoot Martin in self-defense.

I won't go into the confusing and conflicting reports of this event. I've learned that, at this point in this tragedy, the 'trial-by-media' that happens before the actual trial is all part of the prosecution and defense lawyer's strategy. I remember all too well how Cheryl Arujo was painted a prostitute and how the Portuguese community became both accuser and victim in the case.

Just as what Arujo was wearing the night she was gang-raped became important in the trial and a symbol of the sexism that tainted the legal proceedings, so has the "hoodie" that Trayvon Martin wore the night he was murdered become a symbol of the racism that still infests the psyche of this nation.

Geraldo Rivera took measure of the Martin case and determined that the moral of the tragedy was: young men, throw out your hoodies.  See also: "Asking for it".

Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois, however, had another take on the matter. Rush was escorted off of the House floor on Wednesday after donning a hoodie and sunglasses in honor of slain teenager Trayvon Martin.

He is reported as having said,
"I applaud the young people all across the land who are making a statement about hoodies, about the hoodlums in this nation, particularly those who tread on our laws wearing official or quasi-official clothes."

At this point in his remarks, Rush took off his jacket to reveal that he was wearing a hoodie underneath it. He covered his head with the hood, violating a rule in Congress that prohibits wearing hats on the House floor.

"Racial profiling has to stop, Mr. Speaker. Just because someone wears a hoodie does not make them a hoodlum," Rush added, swapping his spectacles for a pair of sunglasses.
Just as in the "Big Dan rape" case, the victim has become the accused.

It was ever thus when prejudice is really what's on trial.

It's not the hoodie. It's who's under the hoodie.

And, who was under the hoodie and behind those Foster Grants was a young black man - a threat to the dominant white male paradigm with a package of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea in his backpack - right next to the empty plastic baggie that contained, we are told, "trace amounts of pot".

It was President Obama who put his finger right into the gaping, festering wound of racism, when he said, "If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon."
Obama said it was "absolutely imperative" that all aspects of the incident be fully vetted at every level of government. The civil rights arm of the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI are reviewing the case, and a Seminole County grand jury is scheduled to convene April 10 to hear evidence.

"I think all of us have to do some soul-searching to figure out how does something like this happen. And that means that we examine the laws and the context for what happened, as well as the specifics of the incident," he said.
"Soul-searching". It's what I remember happened to the communities of Fall River and New Bedford after the "Big Dan rape" case.

I remember the protest marches and the rallies which not only resulted in the establishment of the first Rape-Crisis Center in the area, but also prompted laws which made the failure of a witness to report a sexual assault a misdemeanor carrying a $1,000 fine. Neighboring Rhode Island reacted even more strongly. Failure on the part of witnesses to report a sexual assault or an attempted attack became a misdemeanor punishable by one year's imprisonment or a fine of not more than $500, or both.

Changing laws is easier than changing hearts and minds. That requires that "soul-searching" that the President spoke about, so that the accused remains the person who committed the crime and not the victim.

Perhaps we could begin by considering one of the passages Rep. Bobby Rush was reading as he was escorted off the floor of the house, wearing his hoodie and dark sunglasses.

It was Micah 6:8:
God has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does God require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Perhaps, if more of us walked more humbly, more of young men of color and women from all walks of life would be able to walk freely, without fear of sexual assault or murder.

And, more of God's justice and mercy would be done.


Kirkepiscatoid said...

I like hoodies and wear them frequently (it feels kinda monastic, actually...)

Three years ago, on my way to visit my friend Robert in Alaska, I was in the Des Moines Airport in my Mizzou hoodie and got pulled out for a search before boarding the plane. The TSA people were rather rude and rough, and I did not like the vigor by which I was felt up. I mean SERIOUSLY felt up.)

I looked around and everyone who had been pulled was wearing a hoodie.

I thought to myself, "Damn. This is what you get as a white female in a hoodie. God help being a black male in one."

But hey, I guess I asked for it, right?

Muthah+ said...

Perhaps it takes this kind of incident--just like the murder of Jonathan Daniels to bring spotlight the violence that many of our laws permit. It must be the people all over that have to bring pressure on the gov't of FL to make a change.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirke - I'd like to think women and men can wear whatever style they like and not be judged as "asking for it" - except, of course, if you wore a swastika....or the rebel flag....

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Muthah+ - The only way to make sense of violent tragedies like these is to promise ourselves, "Never again".

Brother David said...

I pray for justice for Treyvon Martin.

Madre, as I have followed this story, you appear to have collapsed two separate stories into one on a small part of your narrative. The night that he was murdered, Treyvon did not have a backpack. He did have the skittles and the iced tea. He was reported to have been visiting with his father and his father's fiancé in this gated community, because he had received a 10 day suspension from his high school after his backpack was searched at school and the baggy with the residue was discovered at that time.

This story about his suspension is alleged to have been released by Zimmerman's defense attorney as an attempt at character assassination.

Turtle Woman said...

Adrienne Rich dies, and still we wallow in the heterosexual men, their guns, boys... why do we bother commenting on men with guns... they own them, they shoot kids, they look like neanderthal pigs... Adrienne Rich, perhaps the greatest lesbian poet of the 20th century... wow.. this is pathetic.

Anonymous said...

You should be able to wear a swastika-suppose you're a Jain or a Buddhist or Hindu?
Censorship is disgusting.
And the eworst anti-woman statements came from other Portuguese ladies in RI and MA:"No good Portuguese mother leaves her children and goes to a bar alone. She wanted it to happen."
They also say that the Azoreans look down on the "mainlanders"-apparently there are a lot of Azoreans who are descended from Flemings who migrated to the Azores and left many red and light haired offspring. Don't believe me? Google "Brian Cunha" and you'll think he's Irish.

MarkBrunson said...

I remember when we had some idiot from Florida here, opening up with his .45 in the parking lot of the neighboring hotel, firing at the guy who had broken into his car and both thief and "victim" were arrested. Oh, the outcry! He was just standing his ground, as Florida law permitted! Never mind this is Georgia, not Florida.

One of my coworkers, who hadn't been here at our hotel said, "I think it's great he stood up against some thug!" My response: "Would you have thought it was great if you'd happened to wander in front of a stray bullet . . . or if one of our guests had? Would it have been great if someone's kid, going to the snack machine, got run down by the car that went out of control when the thief was shot? How great would it have been if the car plowed headlong into one of our guest's cars . . . or rooms?"

No answers to that much.

The "valiant defender" was white and the thief black, btw. The co-worker was white.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Br. David - My apologies. There are so many conflicting details in this story it's hard to keep them straight, as it were. Thanks for that clarification.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Turtle Woman, well, I suppose it's good to know that I consistently fail to live up to your expectations.

A blog on Adrienne Rich will follow shortly. You would be so kind (if you can) as to allow me time to grieve her death and process her loss before writing on it.

I want justice for all people - Cheryl Arujo and all women who are sexually assaulted and raped AND Trayvon Martin and all who are harmed or murdered for the color of their skin. I think the best way to do that is to lift up the similarities of injustice so that those who oppress will know that they are being watched and we are not fooled.

Apparently, you disagree. Wow!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Anonymous - I find it interesting that you venture an opinion "Censorship is disgusting" but leave it anonymously. Can you see the irony in that?

So, I've given you a pass. Next time, please leave your name. I won't censor what you've written but I may not publish it if it doesn't meet the "Code of Conduct" for this blog.

It's my blog, after all.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mark - I've always maintained that prejudice destroys brain cells. Your story proves my thesis.

Anonymous said...

I would be interested in knowing what you men by:
"It's not the hoodie. It's who's under the hoodie. And, who was under the hoodie and behind those Foster Grants was a young black man - a threat to the dominant white male paradigm..."
Why do you describe his dress as a "threat to the whte male paradigm?" What does that mean Elizabeth?
Dave Golub

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hi, David. Good to hear from you again. I'm glad you asked the question.

What I mean by that is that, since Obama's election, the racism that was already in this country has reached all time highs. The Southern Poverty Law Project, which monitors White Supremacy Groups, has documented the rise in the activities of these groups. Indeed, here in Sussex County, the KKK tried to "adopt a highway" so they could get their name more visible. The State of DE wisely refused their application, so they re-applied using "The Liberty Party". No one was fooled.

Zimmerman may have had a gun but it was racism that pulled the trigger. The notion that a young black man with a hoodie is a 'hoodlum' is part of the dominant while male paradigm.

You may not agree with me, and that's okay, but I think I've got a great deal of documented evidence to support my claims.

As I recall, you are a deeply committed Christian. As such, you are not part of the 'dominant white male paradigm'. So, you can relax. Unfortunately, White Supremacy groups use their Christian heritage in perverse and hateful ways. You are not one of them, but the unspoken standard of value in this country are White, Male, Heterosexual and Able-bodied. That's the dominant social paradigm I'm referring to.

I hope this has been helpful to you.

Jane Ellen+ said...

I am mother to a 17-year-old, hoodie wearing, African-American boy who likes Skittles and occasionally walks down to the convenience store near our home in a predominantly Caucasian (but not gated) community with an active neighborhood watch program. Part of me just shakes every time this story comes up.

And the worst part is what you note here: blaming the victim- clothing, past errors, or anything but the actions and events of that night. My kid isn't perfect either, but nothing justifies feeding the vigilante bloodthirst of public opinion.

If people want to blame something, try considering a "stand your ground" law that does not permit a shooter to be arrested, even pending investigation.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Nobody's kid is perfect. Nobody was perfect as a kid. That's what adolescence is all about.

I think we also need to reexamine our gun laws. Why would someone like Zimmerman need a gun for a volunteer neighborhood watch

Lots of soul searching still left to do, America.

Anonymous said...

I understnd part of your reply, Elizabeth, but I am not sure I understand what "threat" this particular young man presented to the "paradgim" you posit.
Dave Golub

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hi, Dave,

In the dominant white male paradigm, any young black male is a threat.

You're right: it's not rational. That doesn't mean it's not true.

Bateau Master said...

How great it would have been if Zimmerman pulled up and said, "Hey I'm George with the Neighborhood Watch - it's raining, you need a ride?"

It isn't just the dominate white male paradigm - it is the black male paradigm too according to Jesse Jackson: “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps... then turn around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”

But paradigms are made to be shifted and changed - the question is how?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Bateau - I would argue that the reason there is violence in the Black Community is because of the dominant social paradigm.

I would heartily agree that the paradigm needs to be changed. I think it is changing. I think what we're seeing from the Political Right is intense resistance to the change.

The only way I know how to bring about change is to keep pushing for it - especially against the resistance.

Setting the Record Straight said...

I think you may be confusing Azoreans with the negro and mulatto population of Cape Verde. Here in Portugal, which includes Azores and Madeira, there are no apparent physical/racial differences between Azoreans and other Portuguese. Cape Verdeans, on the other hand, have been independent since the mid 1970s when Portugal grantes independence to its African colonies and they have their own nationality and unique African culture. Portuguese, Azorean or otherwise, can be dark skinned and curly haired like all other Mediterranean nationalities, such as Greeks, Lebanese, Sicilians, etc.