Daniel Holtzclaw, Police Sexual Assault, and the Terror of Being Uncared for

by Kimberly Foster @ KimberlyNFoster Last week the trial began for Daniel Holtzclaw in Oklahoma City. Holtzclaw, a serial rapist, has bee...


by Kimberly Foster @KimberlyNFoster


Last week the trial began for Daniel Holtzclaw in Oklahoma City. Holtzclaw, a serial rapist, has been charged with 36 crimes committed against 13 Black women including rape, sexual battery, forcible oral sodomy and indecent exposure. He perpetrated each offense while on duty as an Oklahoma City Police Officer.


The details of Holtzclaw’s acts are difficult to stomach. He systematically assaulted and stalked the women, and one underage girl, with confidence his badge offered him protection. His crimes went unreported until he preyed upon the wrong woman— a 57-year-old who, despite her fear, knew that her violation warranted retribution. Her account sparked a complete investigation from the Oklahoma City Police Department.
Though the magnitude of the ex-cop’s depravity is nearly unfathomable, the violence, itself, is not.

“It's shocking and surprising because you don't expect people to do this,” says historian Danielle McGuire, author of At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance. “But because I knew about this long history of police officers attacking women of color, it wasn't that shocking.”

McGuire is associate professor of History at Wayne State University. She explains, “There was a history of police officers attacking Black women, arresting them on trumped up charges, accosting them and taking them into custody. Then once they're in the police car, taking them somewhere else to either sexually abuse them or physically assault them.”

Today preying on Black women’s bodies is no less rare and serves a function beyond Holtzclaw’s sexual satisfaction. This violence maintains a social order—a hierarchy in which Black women are served last and least cared for.

When you recognize that your needs will never be priority, you come to fear those deemed your protectors. Holtzclaw often violated his victims in broad daylight. He chose them each from a small section of the city and visited them more than once. The boldness with which he operated from December 2013 to June 2014 underscores how little fear he had of being caught. But more concerning are the conditions that kept all but one of the women silent.

Black women did not create the scripts used to justify our continued abuse, but with them we are intimately familiar. One of the victims explained why she never came forward at a pretrial hearing. “I didn't think that no one would believe me," she said. "I feel like all police will work together. Institutional corruption aids Black women’s continued vulnerability to abuse.

Daniel Holtzclaw will not become a household name because he reifies widely held beliefs about black womanhood. That most of these women are poor only compounds their marginalization.

Holtzclaw patrolled predominantly Black Northeast Oklahoma City, commonly known as the “East Side.” The area, once a thriving mixed-income hub, has suffered middle class exodus and municipal divestment for the past 30 years. Population there has decreased nearly 16% since 1990, and in 2014, the Oklahoma City Council declared the area “blighted” to expedite urban renewal. 

But recovery will not happen quickly.

Activist Grace Franklin, 40, was born and raised on the East Side. She describes a lost feeling of safety and community. “What's left in certain parts of the East Side are those parts of the city that have drug issues, gang issues, violence, low income and high unemployment,” she told For Harriet.

Many of those left are the most disadvantaged, and the defense will use this to build their case. Holtzclaw’s attorney, Scott Adams, argued in his opening statement that the women possess “street smarts like you can’t imagine.” This is an attempt to assert that the women are, in fact, predators, not victims. In contrast, he described 28-year-old Holtzclaw as “naive and very gullible.” These logical contortions try to make Holtzclaw, a 6-foot-2, 260-pound former linebacker, seem child-like. The strategy, though repulsive, may be effective. While Black people are denied any right to childhood, those who can make a claim to whiteness are given an interminable innocence.

To cast the victims as “unrapeable” Adams will have to argue a foundational narrative of white supremacy: Black women are responsible for every trauma they endure.

The defense has already achieved one significant victory. An all-white jury of 8 men and 4 women will decide the case. 

“Typically all white juries tend to find in favor of the assailant especially if the assailant is white and the victim is African-American or any other person of color,” McGuire explained. “That's our history. Prosecutors know this. Defense attorneys know this. Defense attorneys, in particular, work to get all-white juries even if they deny it.” The goal is to eliminate empathy while perpetuating the myth that whites are impartial and Blacks are biased.

Holtzclaw, himself, is mixed race; his mother is Japanese. Despite his ethnic ambiguity, his whiteness will be central to his defense. Attorney Scott Adams described him as an “all American good guy” to the jury. But that might not be enough, says McGuire. “I wouldn't be surprised if jurors come up with some [idea] inside their minds, subconsciously maybe, that he's not really white and therefore more culpable.” Still, hoping for convictions on significant offenses and a lengthy sentence feels like an exercise in futility. The past does not bode well for those who desire justice.

***

If we, as a community, want to demonstrate care for the women Holtzclaw violated, we must fight for them. Continuing to neglect the terror that is routine for so many Black women is inexcusable.

That terror takes many forms.

For example, Black women’s encounters with racist policing put them at risk, and the consequences of which extend beyond incarceration. The criminal records of Holtzclaw’s victims have already surfaced in the trial to disparage their character. The former officer used them to coerce the women into performing sex acts. One of the attacked, Syrita Bowen, told the Associated Press that she relented because it would be “easier” than prolonging yet another encounter with law enforcement. But the organizing around ending the carceral state overlooks their realities. Men are at the center.

The same goes for the movement to end police brutality. Rarely is police sexual violence included explicitly, and it must be addressed. There is precedent for this. Sexual violence against Black women has mobilized activism within Black communities, historically. Few know the story of Gertrude Perkins, but activists cited her rape by two white police officers, and the subsequent acquittal, as fuel for the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Grace Franklin is a leader of OKC Artists for Justice. The organization has mounted a local campaign to raise awareness of the case and hold Holtzclaw accountable. Through their work, she keeps in contact with many of the victims and their families. The women feel abandoned, she says. “Some of them don't understand why this is not a national story,” She told us. “Why we're not getting more coverage and why they aren't seeing more of us out there when we are protesting.”

No matter the outcome of the trial, this is opportunity for a new movement. That is the least these women, and the countless others who have experienced similar savagery, deserve.

This will happen again unless the collective will to defend those long seen indefensible grows. Without a commitment to protecting the safety and bodily autonomy of Black women, any espoused belief in justice rings hollow.

Photo: AP/Sue Ogrock

Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor-in-chief of For Harriet. Email or

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