“Young, Angry and Really Smart” Activists Challenge Rape Acquittal

Activists Savitri D. and the Rev. Billy Talen showed up, child in hand, to Friday's protest against the acquittal of two New York City Police Department (NYPD) officers, ready for action. The long-time activists had, until recent weeks, been disappointed by what they say was a lack of protests in the nation's largest city.

“The drying up of activism in the public square since 9/11 has been incredibly discouraging,” both said via Skype to Truthout in an interview. “Since the 2004 Republican National Committee convention protests, we've been traumatized,” by the lack of protests and protesters.

But seeing Friday's crowd of between 300 and 500 “young, angry, and really smart people in their 20s” protesting the two officers' acquittal, along with numerous other actions across the world in recent weeks, changed their perspective.

Talen and Savitri pointed to the recent uprisings in the Middle East, along with the recent occupation of the Wisconsin Capitol in protest of an anti-collective bargaining bill in the state legislature, as a sign of something big. And even though both note that they hesitate when transitioning from the sensitive topic of rape to a larger issue, they nonetheless both believe one thing: “the First Amendment is back,” commented Talen.

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The Friday, May 27 protest in New York City that both Talen and Savitri spoke at was a quickly organized response to the Thursday, May 26 acquittal of two NYPD officers: Franklin Mata, who stayed on the lookout, and Kenneth Moreno, who raped the female victim. The officers have since been fired and also face jail time for misconduct for entering her apartment multiple times without consent on December 7, 2008.

Even so, the fact that they got off on the rape charge eerily spoke to activist Chavisa Woods of New York City, who attended the Friday protest. To her, the protest was not only a demonstration against one action, but also a broad call for systemic change.

As such, she said by phone, that she went for a couple of reasons. “This story exists at an intersection of multiple issues emblematic of institutional pathologies; rape culture – blaming and questioning the victim more than the accused attacker, as well as police brutality and a history of police forces not being held accountable for their actions,” she said.

She also notes that it is personal. “I've had friends, both men and women, who have been raped or sexually assaulted and they have found it impossible to maneuver through the court system.”

When the protesters gathered outside of the Manhattan Civil Court building on Friday, they were not merely fighting an adversary, but trying to change it, too. While the organizers could not be reached for comment, according to the protest's Facebook event, they came with demands that included the institution of a rape-sensitivity training program, a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault and a demand for more transparency from the NYPD.

To Talen and Savitri, the use of protest to express outrage is indicative of a larger change than just the return of the First Amendment. “We were just waiting for the smoking gun, a dramatic event,” said Talen, “because in an apocalyptic age, events like this light up the sky. Just as the exposure of Bank of America foreclosing on military members while they're overseas makes us understand the culture of the big banks, this acquittal makes us understand the culture of the police” – namely, that they don't care.

“There's a culture of impunity on the force and among powerful men who think they can get away with sexual violence and other forms of violence. And that won't change unless we're out in the streets saying 'No more!'” wrote another protest attendee, Matthew Arnold of New York City, to Truthout.