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.