THE BLOG

Some Thoughts on Ariel Castro, George Zimmerman and Ending Violence

08/03/2013 11:12 am ET | Updated Oct 03, 2013

So, this happened: Ariel Castro, a man who harvested three girls off of the street to enslave, rape and torture them in his house for 10 years, was sentenced to life in prison plus 1,000 years.  Good riddance.  But, let's be clear, while Castro might seem psychotic and this case enraging and terrifying, there is no shortage of cases with similarly staggering detailsAll. Over. The. World.  Every. Single. Solitary. Day.  Not only is this violence against girls and women, because they are girls and women, tragic for the individuals involved, but it is a big, fat, canary in a coal mine.

There are WAYYY too many men on earth like Ariel Castro who insist they aren't monsters. Many people pay for these beliefs and our institutions continue to enable them to act on their hateful convictions for with unconscionable confidence and entitlement.  It's a global, systemic failure that makes justice for girls and women an oxymoron and leads to widespread harm to boys and men.  Violent men who abuse are confident for a reason.

What does confidence look like? During his trial, Castro asked for visitation rights with the daughter who was born as a result of her mother's imprisonment and rape. Ohio, and more than 30 other states, do nothing legally to prohibit rapists from suing for visitation rights; really, you should make sure yours is not one of them. The judge, mercifully, deemed visitation "inappropriate." Maybe this judge should move to Oklahoma, where a convicted sex offender asked for sole custody of his six-year old daughter. The judge gave him custody. Six is the age of the girl that the man was found guilty "of lewd or lascivious acts" with.  "With" is the word often combined with "have sex." This is the phrase used last Friday to describe the repeated rape of a 15-year-old girl kidnapped and held in a box by two men who only released her so they could, according to the San Francisco Chronicle "repeatedly [have] sex with her." Words have meaning.

Like the words used in 2005, when Castro's former spouse petitioned a court for protection. The petition read that he "broke the [her] nose (twice), ribs, lacerations, knocked out tooth, blood clot on brain, (inoperable tumor), dislocated shoulder, (twice, once on each side) threatened to kill petitioner and daughters 3 to 4 times just this year." He repeatedly threatened to kill her and kidnapped their children.  A judge dismissed a protective order when the woman did not appear in court. (For anyone wondering why...) Castro was able, in the midst of this, to be hired as a school bus driver.  He was suspended from this job in 2004 after he allegedly told a young, mentally challenged student on the bus, a boy, "Lay down, bitch." Kid probably asked for it.  In an article about Castro, the Washington Post called the two referenced episodes from his past "hints of darkness." Hints of darkness?  That's a SUPER interesting choice of words, if you ask me. 

Because this misogynistic sadist manipulated a system that has historically failed to understand domestic violence and how to prevent it, Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight lived 24 hours a day with the threat and reality of brutal physical violence and torture. But, it doesn't end here.

The media's relentless coverage of their case and highlighting of the vulnerability of girls and women in general is a kind of propaganda, doubly effective for its sexism and racism. The sensationalized coverage of this case followed a well-worn pattern that includes people feeling panicked and irrationally fearful for their daughters or themselves in the immediate aftermath.  Berry, DeJesus and Knight join others, familiar names like Elizabeth Smart, Jaycee Dugard, Natascha Kampusch, Elisabeth Fritzl, Jeannette Tamayo, Danielle Cramer, all of whom are light and experienced extreme captivity. Media frenzies around these stories are part of Missing White Woman Syndrome. This isn't something I made up on a disgusted and exasperated lark.  It's the name that social scientists have for a particularly disgraceful aspect of our media biases. Only 20 percent of missing children news coverage is dedicated to dark children and women. Last week, for example, the bodies of three black women were found, again in Cleveland. Their bodies were so decomposed, identification was difficult. According to news reports, police believe that the man they've arrested, a sexual predator, might have been influenced by another man "who is on death row for killing 11 women... at his home in the city."

Which brings up another important dimension: strangers. In addition to news coverage focusing disproportionately on light-skinned girls, it also fixates on harm at the hands of strangers, even though we all know that far greater risk is found at home. Because of our history, "Those strange men might get you," is coded to include, "Especially, you know, the darker ones."  This is known in dense-speak as a "justificatory narrative rooted in apartheid practices that legitimated violence by the dominant group against the disempowered." Charles Ramsey, the dark man who helped the women held by Castro to escape, succinctly summed all of this when  he was interviewed: "I knew something was wrong when a little, pretty white girl ran into a black man's arms." He summed up entire Ph.D. theses in 17 words.

Finally, of course, what all of this does is reinforce some people's need to be protected by big, strong, real, men. With guns. Another seminal narrative. Which brings us to George Zimmerman.  He was all about protecting people and his efforts resonated critically with at least one juror. According to the now infamous Juror B37 (necessarily immersed from birth in the dominant narratives described), Zimmerman's heart was "in the right place, but got displaced by... wanting to catch these people so badly." Juror B-37's language might land her a job as the national poster child for closet racism.

Possibly the only other place on earth that so closely resembles ours for its history of race-based segregation and injustice is South Africa.  It isn't a coincidence that South Africa has one of the highest rates of violence, and domestic violence, in a world in which violence against women is pandemic. Like our country, South Africa is a place where effects of deep inequality are conflated with ideas about race and violence and crime. And gender. This is where Oscar Pistorius was free, despite an alleged history of violence with women, to kill Reeva Steenkamp.  Regardless of the conclusion of his trial, it appears Pistorius was armed and psychologically primed to shoot and kill... someone.

Despite knowing that violence is most likely to come from someone you know, it is instinctively frightening to consider that you or your girl children can simply be taken, raped, and have life taken in these ways.  Realistically, it is more important to think of how widespread institutional tolerance -- in media, among the police, in our legal and judicial system - results in so many children and women living without recourse with the daily terror of incest, sexual assault and domestic violence in their own homes. Intimate partners kill three women every day in the United States. 40% of women who are murdered are killed by male partners, often as the culmination of repeat assaults that go unchecked. Fully 33 percent to 47 percent women who live with domestic violence in the U.S. report that their partner tried to strangle them, multiple times, in the past year. In addition, as Mia Fontaine noted in her blistering piece, America Has An Incest Problem, "One in three-to-four girls, and one in five-to-seven boys are sexually abused before they turn 18," most in their own homes. It is as obvious as the noses on our faces that men who feel private license to hurt their intimates, might, just maybe, be more inclined to hurt people they fear or hate. This isn't a causation, but one of correlation.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon brothers, was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend in 2009.  Nothing came of this arrest.  While everyone cooperated and unprecedented forces were marshaled to make sure that the Tsarnaevs were apprehended, very little is done to help women whose safety concerns and physical insecurity are routinely trivialized and ignored. Women plead for help from judges who deny their safety concerns, and they die. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead.. So frequently do judges belittle, mock and dismiss women's fears that there are monitoring groups like Court Watch Montgomery set up to try and ensure assailants are held accountable.

In Zimmerman's case there were two prior notable incidences. A former girlfriend accused him of stalking and physically assaulting her. She filed for a restraining order, he counter-filed, and the case went no further. A young cousin testified that Zimmerman molested her repeatedly for more than 10 years, starting when she was six.  The judge in the Zimmerman trial decided neither incident was admissible, although he did allow testimony about Trayvon Martin's prior marijuana use. Because, we all know how predictive of future violence the use of a substance that slows down a person's reaction time and makes them hungry is.

While these examples are complex in their unique ways, and differ tremendously, they share the quality of their perpetrators' aggrieved entitlement. This is a term, coined by sociologists Rachel Kallish and Michael Kimmel, that should be part of every media pundit's and analyst's lexicon, but isn't. Obviously, before a person can act on their aggrievement, they have to have a sense of what's "owed them" and this sense is distributed along gendered and racial lines.  Bluntly put: the presence of a Y chromosome and the absence of melanin give people greater entitlements to anger, to dominance and to violent actualization.

In many places the phrase "justice for women" is an oxymoron. V-Day, which works to raise awareness of worldwide violence against women, just launched Stage Two of its One Billion Rising Campaign, ONE BILLION RISING FOR JUSTICE, focused on, addressing, "impunity and the lack of accountability as significant factors in the perpetuation of violence against women."  After George Zimmerman's trial, Eve Ensler, the founder of VDay, was criticized (for asking what would happen to other forms of violence if societies paid real attention to violence against girls and women), because she did not explicitly acknowledge the ways in which we, in the U.S., are all acculturated to fear darker boys and men. Ensler knows that in this country most people are taught, without a shred of doubt, to fear darker boys and men. But, she is also entirely immersed in the global nature of violence against women and, when this is the case, racial complexities differ locally. From this perspective the roots of difference change, but the principles of difference adhere. Regardless of where you live on the planet, trivializing domestic violence and perpetuating destructive mythologies of difference (here, race; India, for example, color-coded caste) go hand in hand to create an environment where certain types of men are free to act on their impulses, and where culture and judicial and legal systems enable them. Misogyny and racism and homophobia have the same roots: hierarchical, male domination based on violence.

We do ourselves a disservice by avoiding an analysis that recognizes the degree to which intimate, gender-based violence is often the surest indicator of later dominance-based-on-difference-violence at every level of human organization. As long as intimate partner violence is marginalized, we will never stem the tide of greater violence.  How's that for making every thing a women's issue?