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The Criminal

My soul hurts when I think about the incident at a local church. Apparently, the minister provoked a member of his congregation with a sermon about racism. The individual was  so offended, he actually left in the middle of the service. As he walked out, he loudly muttered, “George Floyd was a criminal.”

This happened in a Christian church.

I may not be a Biblical scholar, but the last time I checked, the Christian church is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ. You know, that guy who taught about mercy, forgiveness and taking care of each other? I’m fairly certain that Jesus wanted us to interact kindly with all human beings – not just the people we like or respect or who make us feel comfortable.

I know that’s not always easy, and sometimes I feel as though it’s almost impossible. But labeling someone a criminal and then using that label to rationalize their mistreatment hurts all of us. That’s because we are all connected.

No one lives and shares that message more loudly and bravely than Father Greg Boyle. Father Boyle is a Catholic Priest who founded Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention and rehabilitation program in Los Angeles. I had the privilege of hearing him speak a few years ago, and his words resonated. Like him, I am incredibly fortunate to have a job in which I can learn from people who others might dismiss.

There is the woman experiencing homelessness who once proudly told me she was featured in a documentary about women in prison. She was, and I’ve since watched it. I’ve had her bags of medication for various mental illnesses in my office. I unintentionally taught her to beg in Spanish when she asked me how to say “I’m hungry” and “I need money” in Spanish. She recently stopped by the office to tell my coworkers and me that she had a place to live.  When I opened the door, I had to firmly tell her she couldn’t hug me because of COVID 19. I don’t call her a criminal. I call her a fellow human being.

There is the man who showed up in our office lobby loudly declaring “I just got out of prison and I don’t know where to go for help.” He had grown up in foster care and is functionally illiterate. He is demanding and difficult, but he was also sweet and helpful. He’d give staff cards and help clean our offices. After he went back to jail for rape, he still called the office on a regular basis. I don’t call him a criminal. I call him a fellow human being.

There is the young man with no place to live because his family kicked him out. Before COVID-19, he would stop by the office almost every day to make a cup of coffee. Occasionally, he would use the shower and do his laundry. He was always polite and followed the rules. When my co-workers and I hadn’t seen him for several days, one of us would look on the jail site. His mugshot would be there, and his charges ranged from battery to robbery. He stopped by the office last week to ask for a tent. I don’t call him a criminal. I call him a fellow human.

These individuals, like thousands of others, have stories to tell about what they have endured and survived. These individuals, like thousands of others, don’t have the support, resources, and connections that many of us do. And these individuals, like thousand of others, are so much more than a label or a criminal record.

Do I believe they should be held accountable for their actions? Absolutely! But I also believe that I should still care about them.

As Father Greg Boyle says, “There is no us and them, only us.”

I care about us.

The Rapist with the Great Reputation

feministDuring my freshman year of college, female students were on high alert. A predator had taken advantage of unlocked doors to rape at least two co-eds in their own dorm rooms. Flyers with a composite drawing of the suspect along with warnings and safety reminders were hung up all over campus.

I think the guy was eventually caught, but I honestly don’t remember.

What I do remember is that, for a while, most female students were careful about locking their doors and not walking alone after dark. While those precautions should have been and should continue to be common practice, our fears were somewhat misplaced.

Instead of  worrying about a stranger jumping out of the shadows to attack us, we should have been alert to those we already knew.

No one ever taught me that, but I learned the lesson anyway. Unfortunately, I learned it too late.

I was already a college graduate when I was invited to a law school party that started like any other. That didn’t last long.

At other parties, I didn’t fall down after one beer. At other parties, male acquaintances with whom I had absolutely no romantic interest didn’t complain, “that’s not how it was supposed to work” when I talked to other male party goers. And at other parties, I didn’t leave with huge chunks of time missing even though very little alcohol was consumed.

I will never know exactly what happened that night. I’ve gotten bits and pieces from friends but, to be honest, I never really wanted to know. For a long time, I was ashamed and believed that I had done something wrong.

Only years later, when I learned about Rohypnol and other date rape drugs, did I piece together what probably happened. And even then, I had no proof that anything happened at all.

Statistics show that such an incident isn’t uncommon. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) estimates that about 85 to 90 percent of sexual assaults reported by college women are perpetrated by someone the victims knows. Half of all victims do not define the incident as rape because ” there is no obvious physical injury and alcohol was involved.”  The NIJ also reports that “approximately 27.5% of college women reported experiences that met the legal criteria for rape.”

What they usually don’t do is report these incidents as crimes.

That’s because rape often doesn’t look like the crime many of us were taught to avoid.

Rape is not just a crime of violent sex offenders who stalk women in dark alleys. It is not just a crime of deranged individuals who can’t control their violent urges and express them through rape.  Instead, it is often a crime committed by men or boys with great reputations who, for whatever reason, are seeking to meet their needs by controlling women. And because these men are often respected professionals, athletes or students, they often get away with their behavior.

A former emergency room nurse told me a story about caring for a young woman who had been raped on campus by a student athlete. The university offered to pay the victim’s tuition if she didn’t press charges or go public. She never pursued the crime,  but she never went back to school either.

A social worker tells the story of a woman who drank too much and was picked up by a police officer, who, instead of giving her a ticket, chose to rape her instead. She never pressed charges for obvious reasons.

This week, a colleague showed me the photo of a young woman holding a sign that says ” I need feminism because my university teaches how to avoid getting raped rather than don’t rape.”  I posted the photo on Facebook, and it immediately got reaction, including those who wanted to emphasize that young women should be taught to take safety precautions.

I couldn’t agree more.  But I can’t say that putting all the responsibility on women is fair or appropriate. Universities, and society as a whole, must send a constant and consistent message about the definition of rape and that it is a crime regardless of the circumstances and people involved.

That’s not happening.  Instead, the message seems to be that these things sometimes happen when alcohol is involved or when women lead a man on. The message also seems to be that some men are just too important to hold accountable.

And so, I agree with the young woman in the photo.

There will always be individuals who push the limits.  The rest of us have the responsibility to push back.