Daniel Holtzclaw is America’s Son: Why We Can't Ignore the Systems that Created Him

by Breeshia Turner

By now, many of us have heard the news of Daniel Holtzcalw's conviction for sex crimes committed against 13 African-American women during his employment as Oklahoma City police officer. The videos of his tears have been liked and shared around the Internet, as people rejoice over what we have come to understand as "justice well served." Amidst the suffering and mourning for Black lives lost and brutalized across the nation, we can finally celebrate having "won" one. At last, we can sit back and revel in our oppressor's suffering.

And still I cry.

It is easy to lose sight of ourselves—and others—in a culture that dehumanizes individuals who fall outside of its White American, middle-class, able-bodied, cis-heterosexual male norm. Bodies caught at the intersections are at an increased risk for internalizing these consequences of cultural dehumanization, thus projecting their own degradation onto others. The consequences of bodily oppression are reflected in the states of our hearts and minds. In such a society, a lack of accountability also becomes the norm, making it is easy for us to distance ourselves from Holtzclaw and avoid cultural accountability for our role in creating him. It is safer to categorize Holtzclaw as a monster and close ourselves off from his tears. If he's not human, then he's not one of us and we do not have to claim him.

But the truth is: Holtzclaw is America's son.

From where did Holtzclaw develop the notion that the bodies, voices, and lived experiences of low-income Black women would not be respected? From whom did he learn that Black women's bodies could be violated without consequence? What social cues, either implicit or explicit, encouraged Holtzclaw to target members of America's most vulnerable, silenced, and policed demographics?

Holtzclaw's conviction followed the celebratory welcome of infamous child predator R. Kelly’s appearance on BET’s Soul Train Awards show. Both Holtzclaw and Kelly relied on similar tactics— made possible by centuries of abuse and devaluation of Black women—when targeting their victims. The unattested rape and exploitation of Black female bodies is deeply entrenched in this nation's history, and the devaluation of Black womanhood is a perpetual theme within the media, music, politics, and social justice movements. Holtzclaw is not an anomaly; thirteen was just his unlucky number.

I cannot join in false sense of solidarity when the damage of creating both perpetrator and victims has already been done. This is not over. Holtzclaw is not the last to be born into a system that breeds oppression and privilege along lines of race, religion, gender, sexuality, and citizenship.

Yet we continue to maintain a cultural standard that conflates justice with retribution. And in our quest for vengeance, we lose sight of our own humanity. Any model of justice that does not place healing at the center of its mission is both incomplete and insufficient. Perhaps our society does not know how to discuss justice, or humanity, as we often find ourselves ill equipped to navigate the daily manifestations of our nation's original sin(s). Perhaps we do not know how to craft a model of justice while continuing to live in a present where the past threatens to become undone.

Justice begins with empathy, and in order to cultivate an empathic practice we must not be afraid of evaluating ourselves in the process.

Navigating both feelings and expressions of empathy in a society that dehumanizes the experiences of bodies deemed "other" is challenging. Many of us confuse empathy with weakness because we believe that we can neither feel nor relate to the suffering of someone who has wronged us without "allowing" the transgression to happen again. However, one can have empathy for a rabid dog without sticking one's hand out to feed it. Similarly, one can observe the suffering of a dangerous man while still ensuring the safety of one's self. Empathy is necessary in order to hold someone fully accountable, in order to build paths of justice, in order to create change and to facilitate healing. It is not enough to reactively punish a trespasser once a crime has been committed. If we are to create sustainable change, then we must first be willing to see ourselves in the humanity of the trespasser, even when their actions are inhumane. Actions and experiences are limiting—there will always be experiences with which we cannot fully empathize. But when we expand our definition of empathy to center the humanity of the individual opposed to their actions or experiences, and when we acknowledge that each of us has just as much potential for evil as we have for goodness, we open ourselves up to the fullness of ourselves. We create authentic paths for justice and healing.

Dehumanizing a perpetrator in the spirit of retribution does not center the needs of his victims, nor does it restore their sense of humanity. To enact punishment from a place of vengeance is a quick fix to make ourselves feel better. Rejoicing over Daniel Holtzclaw’s tears or even the possibility of Holtzclaw being raped in prison does not erase the violation experienced by his victims—it just adds to the brokenness of another human being. Justice centers the need for healing and reparation of the victim's humanity. It centers the wholeness of community. One does not become whole through perpetuating injustice; wholeness is created through the power to hold a perpetrator accountable, the right to access resources that promote healing through safety and self-determination. Holding Holtzclaw and ourselves accountable is the most humane thing we can do in order to offer justice, healing, and hope to his victims.

A call for empathy neither suggests a pardon for the crimes Daniel Holtzclaw committed, nor does empathy for him preclude empathy for his victims. Deeming Holtzclaw (or any perpetrator) a monster suggests that they have no control of their actions, as a monster cannot be held accountable by the standards of humanity. Monsters are innately inhumane. Instead, we must acknowledge how our culture allowed him to commit his crimes. As previously mentioned, Holtzclaw was born into the privileged class within a white supremacist hetero-patriarchal society. He was conditioned to shape his identity in relation to the subjugation of others. This conditioning is inherently traumatic: It limits the privileged party's access to the fullness of their own humanity by shaping their identity in relation to the inhumanity of "others." Privilege promotes fragmentation and trauma, and trauma coupled with power creates the recipe for oppression.

Holtzclaw’s tears did not bring me joy because I know that his tears do not have the power to sooth his victims’ pain. However, our society has the power to accept and take responsibility for the children it creates. It’s time we stop believing in the myth of monsters.

Photo: Associated Press / The Guardian

Breeshia Turner is a Stanford University alumna and is currently pursuing a dual Master's in Divinity and Social Work at the University of Chicago. She is a poet and playwright interested in personal narrative, community healing, and identity construction.

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