Twice Soaked

For Women of Central Park, Official Outcry Obscures Unmentionables


Shame for Brown and Blue

Ultimately, little divides the cops who reportedly permitted the attacks from the attackers themselves, women's advocates say.

Marie Wilson, head of the Ms. Foundation, understands the police attitude that day as, " 'Oh, here are boys being boys,' instead of boys being biased."

If a desire to be politically correct actually did prevent hundreds of cops from intervening in a mass sex attack—or even if that argument is being touted as a justification—the department suffers from an enormous ignorance about the gravity of sexual violence, its critics say. Perez says reported police inaction Sunday stems from a failure to "recognize [sexual discrimination] in their own house," where, he and other women's advocates argue, incidents of domestic violence and sexual harassment are not uncommon.


The initial refusal of law enforcement figures to take seriously the Central Park situation is part of what some say is the long-standing challenge of getting sexual discrimination and violence cases investigated, tried, and convicted.


"None of these women wanted that to happen," says Ortiz. "This was not an act of consent." But questions of cop culpability aside, she stresses, "The [Puerto Rican] community has to be responsible. . . . These [attackers] have mothers, sisters, girlfriends that they did not envision as they were attacking these women." She advises the women in the community: "If you know that your son, brother, boyfriend was responsible for this, you should urge him to turn himself in."

Perez agrees that a top priority for the Puerto Rican community should be to "convey the message to the young people that this is pig behavior." He says some in the community are reeling from "the horror of these young men in our community being such assholes and thinking that this is acceptable behavior.

"It's a real setback to our community to have women assaulted by men in this way," Perez says. "And it raises, again, the hidden questions not only in the Puerto Rican community but in every community of the unspoken brutalization and victimization of women."


Not Just an 'Isolated Incident'

In fact, the Central Park attacks occur against a backdrop of similarly high-profile sex assaults in recent years on large numbers of women in fairly public settings.

They recall the rash of "whirlpooling" incidents in the early 1990s, under former mayor David Dinkins, where public swimming pools became the site for the entrapment and molestation of young women by young men. The attacks also mimic the situation at the 1999 Woodstock music festival, from which emerged a number of reported rapes and sexual assaults and many more unreported incidents that are assumed to have occurred.

In the 1991 navy Tailhook scandal, 83 women, some of them in the navy, told of the weekend-long assault and harassment fest that took place at the association's prestigious annual convention. (Nearly nine years later, the navy reestablished formal relations with Tailhook, a private naval booster society.)

For women's advocates, the initial refusal of law enforcement figures to take seriously the Central Park situation is part of what they say is the long-standing challenge of getting sexual discrimination and violence cases investigated, tried, and convicted.

In a pivotal ruling last month, the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional on the basis of states' rights a section of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAMA)—which was to permit women to sue in federal court for gender-based claims—in the first actual test of the statute. For former Virginia Tech student Christy Brzonkala, the decision marked the end of options in her battle to convince a court of law that two football players, Antonio Morrison and James Crawford, had gang-raped her in a dorm room in 1994. More broadly, says Wilson of the Ms. Foundation, the decision was "an attack on women's civil rights." She argues that similar statutes pertaining to other minority groups have been allowed to stand.


"It's a real setback to our community to have women assaulted by men in this way," says Richie Perez, of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights. "And it raises, again, the hidden questions not only in the Puerto Rican community but in every community of the unspoken brutalization and victimization of women."


Following this trend in events, says Kathy Rodgers, president of the National Organization for Women Legal Defense and Education Fund (NOWLDEF), the Central Park attacks and the official reaction to them fit "into a historical and global context [where] it has been the norm that it is OK to commit violence against women."

Some advocates compare the city's initial reaction to the park attacks with the treatment of another, little-noted incident from earlier that same day, when a group of Hasidic men in Coney Island allegedly were assaulted, and four of them stabbed, by a group of Hispanic men on the Coney Island boardwalk.

Without any of the hoopla accompanying the eventual official reaction to the Central Park incidents, but rather with businesslike swiftness, a police spokesperson on the day of the Coney Island crime declared the incident a bias attack—anti-Semitic remarks reportedly were uttered before violence broke out—and said the case had been referred to the department's hate crimes task force.

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