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.
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 Journal editorial invited readers to “get real” if they thought callousness to sexual violence was at the root of officers’ alleged inaction. Instead, the Journal suggested, 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.
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.
“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.
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.
Women’s advocates wonder why there was not a similar condemnation of the park assaults. While a state hate crimes law is still pending, the advocates stress the importance of official recognition of the seriousness of crimes committed against individuals merely because of their gender.
“It is a hate crime,” says Rodgers of the sex attacks, and Siegel says the women’s civil rights were certainly violated.
“What people are not willing to say,” Wilson argues, “is, this is a form of social control.”
Recommendations for remedies to Sunday’s assaults from women’s advocates range in scope from the swift arrest of suspects and disciplining of delinquent officers to the strengthening of state and federal legislation to provide legal avenues for women seeking redress for gender-based discrimination or violence.
NOWLDEF, upon having lost the effort to preserve the section of VAWA struck down by the Supreme Court, is focusing its energies on prodding Congress to reauthorize funding for the remainder of the act, which in part would provide education and training to police and prosecutors in the handling of sexual-violence cases.
New York congresswoman Carolyn Maloney is pushing an amendment to the federal Hate Crimes Statistics Act that would require states to collect data on gender-based crimes as well as in the already designated categories of race, religion, and sexual orientation.
And as some representatives in Congress struggle to insert recognition of gender into the existing federal hate crimes act—which currently provides additional penalties for crimes based on a person’s race, ethnicity, or religion—New York State legislators are battling over rhetorical differences between two nearly identical hate crimes bills passed this month by the state senate and awaiting the governor’s signature.
But, Ortiz argues, “Laws in themselves don’t do anything,” saying that “the laws that are already on the books aren’t being properly enforced.” She questions whether laws tried on a case-by-case basis will have broad societal impact.
“As a society, we’re not prepared—since it’s mainly male-driven in the law enforcement area—to see the systemic patterns,” says Siegel. “They tend to look at sex crimes as isolated, as opposed to systemic.”
Anannya Bhattacharjee, an advocate for South Asian immigrant women workers, says the “top-down” approach of legislative reform never reaches many women of color, especially when they are poor or undocumented. Ortiz agrees that low-income women of color “may not know about” legislative possibilities and says, “They don’t have access.”
In addition to legislative measures, advocates for poor women of color call for a “ground-up” education effort in minority communities against sexist attitudes and effective training for police officers on how better to deal with racially charged situations and incidents of sexual violence—separately and, as in the case of Sunday’s attacks, concurrently.
Ortiz wonders,”realistically speaking, how many [sex assault victims] will be given the benefit of the doubt to use those laws,” without such training for authorities and penalties for officers who condone or promote bias. “We already have seen how many of these women from Sunday were dismissed,” she says. “It defies logic.”