A few nights ago, I couldn’t sleep and I found myself at 3:00 a.m., watching a past episode of Steve Harvey’s talk show. His guest was Nate Parker, a promising young actor and the star of a slavery-themed movie in theaters now, Birth of a Nation. Nate was talking about how much of himself he had invested in the production of this movie, the accolades that were being heaped on the film when it was first released, and then the grinding halt of progress when the media picked up the story of something that had happened when he was in college. The thing that had happened? A young woman had accused him of sexual violence. There’d been an investigation and he’d been acquitted, he said. It had happened in 1999 – he was 19 years old then. In 2012, his accuser committed suicide. It’s unclear if her taking her life was related in any way to what had happened more than a decade prior. But four years after her untimely death, on the cusp of Parker’s movie hitting the box office, the story got picked up by the news wire and suddenly, everyone was looking at him funny and calling him names.
I don’t know Mr. Parker. I don’t know the details of the situation, no more than what I heard on TV. I wouldn’t hazard a guess about whether he was guilty or innocent. I know sexual assault is a heinous crime and I think there should be consequences whenever someone violates another person’s body. I do, however, believe, that to uphold the integrity of the justice system, when when someone is acquitted, we should let that person be.
In the last few years, there have been several incidences of famous men accused of sexual crimes. It started with Kobe Bryant. Michael Jackson. Bill Cosby is still being investigated. Last year, NFL alum Darren Sharper took a plea deal where he’ll serve 9 of the 18 years he was sentenced to for rape. Famous men we once admired brought to their knees because of inappropriate behavior. We want to feel sorry for them, we feel bad because all their accomplishments now carry a stain. No one wants to wear a football jersey that carries the name of a convicted criminal.
But in each and every case where there is indeed inappropriate behavior, there is a victim. Someone, often a woman, whose rights have been violated. A woman who was forced to do something against her will. No matter how we feel about the person accused of the crime, that person is the true victim. (S)he is the one who truly deserves our tears of solidarity.
For every famous man who’s been accused of sexual violence, you could probably name an equally famous woman who’s survived a similar act. Oprah Winfrey survived childhood sexual abuse. Gabrielle Union spoke of an attack in her past. It’s important for all of us to see these women rise up above the acts committed against them an thrive. We stand with them, proud that they would not be victims defined by someone else’s cowardice.
Which is why it’s so tragic every time someone makes up a story that changes the conversation, takes the focus off where it should really be – how to prevent this from happening again? Where did society fail and how can we learn so we do better next time?
I am reminded of the story of the boy who cried wolf. He was a shepherd boy, with a simple job to protect his flock. When he was tired and wanted a break, and sometimes just for his own amusement, he would raise a false alarm of a wolf attack so people would come to help. Eventually, they stopped responding to his fake alarm. When the wolf did indeed attack, no one believed and the devastation was great.
When I was in college, we had fire drills often. So often, sometimes, that those who worked in the various offices stopped responding and when the alarm sounded, we would lock the door and hide so the security guards patrolling the halls wouldn’t know we were still inside. Chalk it up to youthful stupidity. We never thought of what would happen if there had been a real threat and the security guard tasked with keeping us safe would be punished.
Sometimes, the person calling wolf is just scared, using whatever means to get attention. I’ve often heard that if a woman is being mugged, instead of screaming the generic “Help”, that she should yell “Fire!” because people are more likely to respond. Maybe the boy who cried wolf was desperate for company and didn’t know how to get it otherwise. Maybe the kids in the college offices just didn’t understand how fast a situation can erupt. Sometimes the aggressor deserves our pity too.
There are lots of prompts telling us to lie, to stretch the truth to get attention, to do whatever we need to do to get ahead. I wonder if anyone thinks about the person who’ll have to bear the responsibility. Of the person who’s name is forever linked with shame even in his innocence.
19 year old Nate Parker was accused, tried and acquitted. I don’t know the details of his case but if he is indeed innocent, like the justice system concluded 17 years ago, we really need to think about what we’re doing by continuing to ring the fire alarm. Are we making it easy for others to ignore the warning when the real fire comes?
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