There’s something on my mind recently that I’ve been struggling to put to words. When I was out last weekend with ML, we had a good conversation about it and I intended to write about it right away but then I sat and stared at a blank document for a while, the words bottlenecked in the tips of my fingers and I couldn’t type. Maybe this time will be different.
[Trigger warning: this post discusses violent rape.]
There’s a serial rapist in a neighborhood in San Francisco where many of my friends live and where I go to frequently, and he’s struck multiple times. The attacks have been violent and in public in early morning hours. And I’ve been really turned off by the way it has been discoursed in communities I’m tangential to and in general by the patterns I have witnessed over and over in the past, repeated here, as responses to extreme violence against women.
I found out about it because of an email blast by the local rape crisis center to all of its volunteers; the email gave the details of the attacks, I guess just as an advisement to the volunteers about potential hotline callers. It also said that the police are on the case but that they’re asking that it not be brought to media in order that they can find the rapist more easily; media attention might alert him that they’re looking and he could relocate. Before too long this email had spread throughout the various networks I’m a part of and I got it sent to me in various truncated forms several additional times, always along with some sort of cautionary note by the sender about being careful, not walking alone, taking appropriate measures, and finally “be safe.” People are hyperaware and there has been a palpable climate of anxiety.
There are multiple layers of all of this that I struggle with. There’s the obvious fact that the sensationalizing of the street attack and the stranger rape is highly problematic, especially given the ubiquity of rape, sexual assault, and violence perpetrated by non-strangers. For me, though, that’s a more difficult argument to grapple with given that for me it is not a myth, it is not sensational. Still, I can’t write about the problematics of what’s going on in SF right now without bringing that up, the hyper-paranoia and perhaps exaggerated response to this sort of rape, especially in contrast to the silence around all other (and way more common) forms of sexual violence. Related to and beyond that, though, I’m angered by the way this kind of information is just sent into the world to live its own sensationalized life and that it seems like the only real possible reaction to it is fear, and the result is a kind of social control of women operated through this fear. One of my friends called the rape crisis center to ask if they were planning or knew of any organized community or collaborative response and she said they just sounded annoyed and dismissed her. This isn’t to say that it’s their job to put something like that together, but that given the way they disseminated the information and offered no container for coping with the gutteral punch of the email other than to suggest that individuals who have feelings about it call the crisis hotline, a dismissive response to my friend’s inquiry just seems inconsiderate and even irresponsible to me.
I’m also struggling with the faith in the police that that initial message conveyed, and particularly with the lack of questioning the police’s methods which, in this case, was essentially “don’t tell the media because we need to find the guy and if he knows he’s being hunted he’ll move” and to me reads as “we need him to strike again so we can catch him” or, “it’s more important that our strategy for catching him not be interrupted than for the community to be able to feel safe.” When I was subletting in North Berkeley in summer of 2008, there was also a serial rapist who was breaking into the homes of young women who were living alone and violently raping them. I was, in fact, living alone and in the immediate vicinity of his previous attacks when the police knocked on my door, handed me a flyer with “information” and how to contact a tip line, and then left me alone in my ground floor apartment with windows that didn’t lock, shrugging and saying “sorry, can’t help you there” when I asked them, panicked, “well what should I do??” What we should do, apparently, is fear for our lives and our bodies, because what else does this method of disseminating information call for? And, why did the crisis center that historically only will cooperate with police to the extent that it is forced to so blindly follow in the police’s footsteps in this case?
Then there’s the fact that eventually a local newspaper did release a blurry black and white still from a security camera of the suspect, and that the only thing about him that is discernible from this photo is that he is black and that he was wearing a dark hoodie. What is the purpose of this circulating when there is no chance that anyone will actually be able to identify him based on that photo and instead it just sends the message: “be afraid of black men in hoodies.” This is such an ugly dynamic and it’s one that I don’t really know how to untangle. But sending that out into a world in which black men are already racially profiled in super intense ways and experience intense criminalization on a daily basis is irresponsible at best and nasty and racist at worst. This is not to say that it’s racist to talk about a black man being a rapist, or to identify this one as a black man. I’m not saying we should pretend he’s not black or refuse to engage what comes up around his race. I’m just asking, in this case, what is the point of that blurry photo being circulated? If the rest of the messaging around there being a serial rapist is “he’s brutal, he comes up from behind, and he isn’t deterred by fighting back” then how is having a blurry and unidentifiable photo of him helpful for the community? If the logic is the paternal “ladies, just stay inside” then it seems to me that this photo will only exacerbate that as the message by bolstering the public imaginary that all black men are to be feared. It’s just ugly.
And then for me there’s the very personal level of struggle. I have been feeling a lot of anger, resentment, irritation with people who have been talking about this and have been having difficulty articulating why. I don’t think even I have really been able to understand myself why those emotions are coming up for me. It came up for me a lot when I was hanging out with one of my friends who lives just blocks away from the most recent attack and she insisted on walking me the one block to my parking spot when I was leaving around midnight. I wasn’t angry at her or irritated at her but I was feeling a mess of angry/frustrated emotions that I couldn’t quite place. I guess the best way for me to explain it is that, for me, this serial rapist on the loose doesn’t change things. I don’t feel any less safe knowing that that’s out there. I don’t feel any more safe at any other time when there isn’t a known rapist on the loose. I always feel that fear, I always feel like any second now it could happen again. I know that when it happened to me there hadn’t been any community warnings and so I guess I just feel like, what do these warnings do, what are they for, if it happens anyway, whether we are prepared for it or not. And, what does it even mean to be prepared for it? It’s impossible, you can’t possibly. I feel like I just have so much resentment that I can’t understand the fear that other people have about it, I can’t understand fear from the side of not-knowing. It makes it hit home for me so much that I live in a different world than they do. My normal is so wildly different. And it’s occasions like this that bring it all back to me when in general I feel like I do a pretty good job of dissociating from it in my daily life. I do a good job of intentional forgetting. Not forgetting that it happened, there is not a single day that goes by that it is not present for me, but forgetting how it makes me different, forgetting the anger and bitterness about it being the background of my daily life.
I didn’t really intend to end here. I wanted to go into a sort of brainstorming session of what might a robust and healthy community response to sexual violence look like, and how might we organize around that more rather than stopping at feeling trapped and afraid? I have thoughts. But I’m feeling drained, so I’m going to stop. More soon. Xoxo.