Twice Soaked

For Women of Central Park, Official Outcry Obscures Unmentionables

The June 11 sex attacks on at least four dozen women in Central Park by more than as many men was, as the mayor himself eventually was forced to admit, a "sick and shocking and horrible" event. With mounting public criticism, the mayor dubbed the alleged police negligence, if true, "outrageous" and promised a search for attackers that has, indeed, involved "tremendous enthusiasm and enormous force."

Yet, in a course of action that received widespread criticism, the administration hedged for nearly 48 hours before a few vocal victims, and incontrovertible visual evidence, forced it to take seriously the attacks and police reaction. (Also tardy were elected officials, advocacy groups, and even a woman Senate candidate who could use a popular issue where she holds a natural advantage over her opponent.)

The city's failure to act effectively and immediately mirrored the alleged conduct of police officers present in the park that Sunday, critics say. For victims and their supporters, the same question applies in both cases: Why the holdup?

Blinded by Color

"Would it have been as much of a story if the British women, a French couple, and a white woman hadn't come forward?" wonders Richie Perez, a lead organizer of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights. It was not much of a story to the approximately 950 cops stationed in Central Park on the day of the incident, he argues. While the early emergence of white women victims shaped a different perception of the attacks, he says, the day's reality overwhelmingly involved Latinos and other men of color perpetrating acts of violence on their female counterparts.

And "as long as it was happening in the community, it wasn't a crime, according to the cops," he says.

The reported inaction of officers, which at first dumbfounded members of the public and subsequently became the subject of intense scrutiny, was officially explained away, at first, as a problem of distribution of officers within the park.

While the early emergence of white women victims shaped a different perception of the attacks, the day's reality overwhelmingly involved Latinos and other men of color perpetrating acts of violence on their female counterparts.

But in anonymous press statements by officers, and also in news editorials, it was later justified as the response of a force made overly fearful—following a year of police-brutality scandals—of accusations of cultural insensitivity or worse. A June 15 Wall Street Journaleditorial invited readers to "get real" if they thought callousness to sexual violence was at the root of officers' alleged inaction. Instead, the Journalsuggested, look to the minority anger around Dorismond, Diallo, and Louima for the cause.

"That's a bullshit excuse, plain and simple," says Puerto Rican community activist Megan Ortiz. "They want to turn the focus away from themselves and not admit they fucked up on this." A parade-going veteran, Ortiz testifies that officers are generally vigilant even following the end of the event, when the crowd is dispersing. Noting the upscale businesses and luxury apartment buildings in the midtown Fifth Avenue area where the parade traditionally takes place, she laughs, "They want to make sure we get out of there."

Perez agrees that, with approximately 4000 officers assigned to the parade, there was regular and widespread enforcement. The police commissioner himself offered public confirmation of hundreds of minor violations and offenses cited on parade day. Ortiz says it is disturbing to think that cops enforced alcohol and vending violations but slacked when dozens of women were being held down and stripped naked by a mob of rowdy men.

In fact, Ortiz argues, it was hardly cultural sensitivity that led cops to stand idle, but the opposite. She accuses the officers of operating with the misperception that "that's how those crazy Puerto Ricans have a good time." Against the backdrop of what the Journal editorial called the "wild and woolly" parade, perhaps such behavior was assumed to be normal, she says, especially given popular stereotypes of Latinas as "hot women."

"Based on the history of stereotyping that exists in the NYPD" regarding the Puerto Rican community, says New York Civil Liberties Union director Norman Siegel, who examined relevant police training materials as a member of a mayoral police-brutality task force three years ago, "that would not be surprising."

On June 19, a police spokesperson identified approximately 25 of 42 known victims as "Hispanic." But Ortiz contends that, while it is impossible to know their numbers, many Latinas violated that day have not come forward because of "fear," "embarrassment," or distrust of the police. "The police didn't help them that day," she says. "Why should they think the police are going to help them after the fact, despite all the police grandstanding and 8 million apologies?" In addition, she says, the Latina victims also face repercussions in their own communities.

She emphasizes that most of Sunday's victims live in the neighborhoods that have become the focus of "a massive manhunt." She says that police will "pursue this super-aggressively, [reasoning that] 'We fucked up in the beginning, we're going to make up for it now.' " She predicts a severe tightening of security at next year's parade, as anonymously confirmed by officers in news accounts. Police department spokesperson Detective Carolyn Chew, citing the ongoing nature of the investigation, refuses to comment on how the handling of the attacks reflects current and future policies regarding the Puerto Rican community.

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