Let’s be clear. The mess that culminated in the resignation of Seattle’s ex-Mayor Ed Murray should not be celebrated as vindication that “the process works.”
The process does not work.
The perception of white innocence and white supremacy, which creates an unreasonably high standard of proof for brown-skinned victims of sexual violence, had fingerprints all over that process.
There is no vindication for Ed Murray’s victims because, according to the allegations, most of the men he preyed upon are men of color. There is no vindication for sexual abuse victims generally.
The process works about as well as Equifax’s Customer Service line: horribly, with only a few being able to get through.
The process reminded us that, just like so many other things within American society, not everyone’s voice is counted equally, not everyone is taken as seriously, and only certain types of pain matter.
I will explain. But first, a story.
A few years ago, the erstwhile owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling, was ousted after he was caught saying some horrible things about black people. Truth is that many people of color accused Sterling for decades of being a racist—the former general manager of the Clippers, Elgin Baylor, said that Sterling had a “vision of a Southern plantation-type structure” for his team.
Baylor accused Sterling, as did many, many of Sterling’s Latino/a and black tenants, of systemic racism in the way he conducts business. This time though, he was caught on tape saying those horrible things. Because he was caught on tape, Lebron James courageously said that the NBA players would simply not play if Sterling were still owner of the Clippers when the season began.
Months later, after activism by NBA players and common folk, Sterling was forced out of his ownership of said Clippers. And all was right in the world.
Except it wasn’t. And still isn’t.
As with Donald Sterling, with Murray several men of color accused a powerful white man of wrongdoing for decades. And as with the Donald Sterling case, those claims against Murray were ignored, dismissed and excused for decades until irrefutable proof came along. Those men of color were ignored, they were tried in the court of public opinion and shamed by some of Seattle’s largest news organizations.
These were more than allegations, by the way: Oregon Child Protective Services made a finding that Ed Murray did, in fact, sexually abuse his foster son.
This was not just “he said, he said.”
At that point, every single person with a conscience should have screamed from mountaintops that Ed Murray had to resign. Either that, or he would be physically removed from office. Yet, the abuse that those men of color experienced was dismissed from the highest levels of government on down, and ostensibly told, “If that’s true, that’s old stuff. Those are old rapes.” Heck, one of the mayoral candidates kept supporting him even after the finding of sexual abuse and kept his endorsement on her campaign website until very recently!
It was business as usual—Ed Murray was going to serve out the rest of his term and folks would keep standing behind him at podiums as if all was good and he had not destroyed young men’s lives.
And that is precisely why the process simply does not work: because, for people of color, the court of public opinion requires such an incredibly high standard that it almost ensures that no one can ever reach it.
These are survivors of sexual abuse—it takes incredible courage to even make this information public. Yet, in exchange for their courage and willingness to hold powerful people accountable, they are met with institutional forces that protect this predator. Publications. Politicians. Why would any person of color, especially in a city as demographically white as Seattle, ever feel safe bringing forth such a claim again?
In the Donald Sterling case, the smoking gun was in the form of an audio tape that could not be ignored. In the Ed Murray case, the smoking gun—the irrefutable proof—came in the form of a white accuser.
Murray’s own kin, his cousin, told on him; someone with competency and credibility had accused him. A white person.
City Council members tried to dress it up as an aggregate effect: “The accumulation of these accusations and now coming from a family member just made it essential that he resign,” said Councilmember Tim Burgess.
But many people of color know what was going on—a white person confirmed what brown people could only accuse. Hours after Murray’s smoking gun became public, he announced he would resign.
And that’s obviously a huge problem. I mean, I’m glad a white person co-signed what so many people of color already said. God bless Murray’s cousin as a survivor and as a witness.
But it sends a very wrong message to the survivors of sexual abuse of color: 1) Either make sure you get it on tape, or 2) make sure you bring a white person with you to make the accusation.
We see this played out over and over when people of color interact with law enforcement. We saw it with Donald Sterling. Now, we see it in Seattle and how Seattle addresses victims of sexual abuse.
That simply cannot be the standard if we want all people to report sexual abuse and wrongdoing equally.
Gyasi Ross is a member of the Blackfeet Nation. His family also comes from the Suquamish Nation. He is a storyteller and an attorney. He is the former editor-at-large of Indian Country Today Media Network.