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They Called Her A Liar

      -Justice Denied in the Tawana Brawley Case  



     On the evening of November 29th, 1987, I returned home to

New York City from a Thanksgiving holiday in upstate New York. I

immediately turned on the television, as is my habit when returning to

what I considered civilization after nearly a week in the woods. Within

moments, my attention was drawn to a news story showing a teenage

girl lying on what appeared to be a living room couch. The news reporter

continued with the narrative . . . She is fifteen years old . . . resides in

Wappingers Falls, New York . . . She had been abducted and sexually

assaulted and left with racial epithets written on her body.


     As the story was unfolding, my attention locked on to the television

screen. I was captivated by the girl on the couch who looked utterly

forlorn, pitiful, and vulnerable. She lay there in a bathrobe, covered by a

blanket. All I remember of her was her face, the unkempt condition of her

hair, and her very sad Bette Davis eyes.


     My interest in the story quickly morphed into anger as I continued

to focus on this child—the same age as my own child—and mentally

processed the news reporter’s narrative. I was angered by the content of

the story that I was hearing, and I felt a growing anger directed at the

reporters presenting it. “Why are they broadcasting pictures of this little

Black girl and identifying her by name and location?” I asked myself. To

the best of my knowledge, time-honored journalistic practice prohibited

the identification of an adult rape victim. Certainly, that would be doubly

true in the case of a child.


     I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. Her face, her name,

her small town, her family, and the most God-awful story imaginable was

laid bare to the public that evening.  Anger rose from my abdomen as I

turned off CBS News in utter frustration.


     This was my personal introduction to the Tawana Brawley story. The

mystery of what happened the night she disappeared and the following

three days has haunted me ever since.


     The image of her lying on the couch with that forlorn expression

lingered in the back of my mind as I learned in the following days and

months of the many controversies surrounding her case. The implications

of white law enforcement being involved, the smearing of feces over her

body, the strong racial implications of writing “KKK” and “nigger bitch”

across her abdomen—and then the almost immediate rumors of a hoax.


     Tawana indicated that on her way home that Tuesday evening, she was

accosted between the bus stop and her home, which was approximately

a mile and a half away. A badge was flashed, and she was forced into a

car and driven to an unknown location. She was held for a number

of days, assaulted repeatedly by a group of White men, and then was

dumped at the housing development in Wappingers Falls known as the

Pavillion, from where her family had just recently moved. She was found

on Saturday in a green plastic garbage bag and taken to the Saint Francis

Hospital in Poughkeepsie for medical treatment.


     I instinctively empathized with the fifteen-year-old victim. I was,

at that time, acutely aware of the latent racism often found in the law

enforcement community and in the small towns of Upstate New York.

Compassion welled up in me from the basic human interest of the story.

But within weeks, like so many others, I also questioned the veracity of

the story as conflicting bits of information began to come to my attention

through television reports and newspaper articles.

She reportedly was seen “hopping” into the plastic bag in which she

was found. There were published statements that her medical condition

bore no evidence of rape. She was reported to have been seen at parties

in the nearby city of Newburgh during the time she was assumed to have

been held captive.


     Even her family wasn’t beyond the harsh criticism that rapidly

developed in the media. Her aunt, Juanita, was described as “an activist,”

whatever that is supposed to mean. Her mother, Glenda, was portrayed

as neglectful, disinterested, and dysfunctional. Her stepfather, Ralph

King, was portrayed as a violent, controlling abuser of alcohol so

fear-engendering that she just ran away from home and concocted the

story to avoid his harsh punishments. It was reported that she could

have been running with a wild crowd of drug dealers and hoodlums in a

neighborhood frequented by prostitutes. There were even suggestions that

Tawana herself might have been involved in prostitution. A powerful news

media was molding public opinion.


     I paused to rethink my position. Maybe my first reactions to the story

were wrong. Opinions, for all of us, are built and change based on one’s

prior knowledge and experience, seasoned with newly acquired information.

The official information that flooded the media would lead most people to

believe that Tawana’s story was not true. It caused me to wonder and to

seek confirmation. I questioned, but I did not disbelieve. But the February

1988 call by Mason, Maddox, and Sharpton for a special prosecutor could

only mean one thing in my mind: the local criminal justice officials could

not be trusted to shepherd the case through to a just conclusion.

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