Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Why does hate matter?

In the wake of events like Sunday's shootings in Overland Park, KS, people often ask what is so different about a hate crime. Conventional logic tells us that in order to violently victimize someone, you would have to at least dislike if not hate that person. Still, the law distinguishes between “regular” crimes and “hate” crimes. Why?

Part of the insidious nature of hate crimes is that they are not just committed against one person. Rather than targeting a person for some perceived wrong he/she committed, the suspect in a hate crime targets a person simply because they are a member of a certain group (or believed to be a member of that group). It is a crime against an entire community of people based solely on a characteristics that are largely outside of their control like race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or religion. Because hate crimes are perceived as attacks on entire groups, there is elevated risk of retaliation and escalating violence.

There are two very important lessons to take away from the tragic crimes in Kansas. The first is that a victim need not belong to a minority group to be the victim of a hate crime. What matters for the purposes of hate crimes charges is that they were targeted because the perpetrator believed they belonged to a certain group. In this case, the victims were chosen because of their suspected affiliation with two Jewish institutions. While all three were Christian, according to media reports, that is not the important factor in the decision to charge the alleged perpetrator with a hate crime.

What matters for hate crime charges is whether victims are targeted because of their real or perceived membership in a particular group. It does not matter whether that group is a minority or a majority in our society. The same charges could be leveled against a perpetrator who shot people outside of a mosque or outside of a Christian church because he/she believed the victims were members of that religion. Members of majority or minority groups may be victims of hate crimes.

Perhaps the more important takeaway from this crime is that hate crimes legislation does not criminalize speech. It only increases the punishment for criminal acts. One of the reasons given for opposing hate crimes legislation is that such laws punish people for exercising their Constitutional rights to freedom of speech. According to news sources, the suspect in the recent case had a history racist, anti-Semitic speech documented through letters, campaign ads, and over 12,000 internet postings on one site alone. None of those were charged as hate crimes. They were not hate crimes. In order for someone to be charged with a hate crime, they must commit a criminal act. Hate crimes legislation does not impinge on individuals’ freedom of speech. The suspect was only arrested on hate crimes charges once he resorted to violence, a criminal act. Speech is not a hate crime unless the person commits or incites violent, criminal acts.

Hate crime prosecutions are not about controlling the exercise of free speech. They are not just committed against "the others" in society. They are about increasing penalties for individuals who commit a crime against a person or group for what they are, not who they are. Hate matters because it preys on fear, misinformation, and anger to incite violence. Hate matters because it breaks the bonds that hold us together as a city, a state, and a country. Hate matters because crimes against individuals based on their membership in a group depersonalize victims and alienate entire communities from the larger society.

Comments by Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services 

Friday, May 31, 2013

A Knight, A Captain, and A Role Model

Sir Patrick Stewart is not just the man behind Capt. Jean-Luc Picard of the Startship Enterprise. He is a voiceover artist, a Shakespearean actor, and a survivor of domestic violence. At (of all places) Comicpalooza in Houston, Texas, a brave woman- herself a victim of abuse- thanked him for his work on behalf of ending violence against women and asked "Besides acting, what are you most proud of that you have done in you life (that you are willing to share with us)?” His answer stopped me in my tracks and I knew I had to share it. He is eloquent, steadfast, and above all genuine. At the end of the video, Sir Patrick Stewart hugged the woman who asked the question and whispered to her "You never have to go through that again. You're safe now."

Sir Patrick Stewart has a spotlight because he is famous. He has chosen to expose a painful part of his life to that glaring light and to use it to help others. His sentiment that men must be responsible for ending violence against women is one that any and all men should adopt. You do not have to be famous. You do not have to have a history of being abused. You just have to be a man who will no longer tolerate violence against women, who will no longer blame the victims of abuse, and who will not be ashamed to say so. Men can guarantee that women never have to go through abuse again. Men can make sure that women are safe now and in the future.
Comments by Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A picture is worth a thousand words, but are all pictures worth publishing?

Crime Victim Advocacy Center staff members are teaching 60 continuing education sessions for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. Besides teaching the officers how to communicate with victims of trauma and grief, we (hopefully) teach them some ways to deal with their own trauma- the trauma that comes from seeing what they see and hearing what they hear on a daily basis. It’s the proverbial “put on your oxygen mask before trying to help the child next to you” approach to mental health. If you’re burnt out, it’s only going to make your job harder. One of the coping mechanisms we offer is to avoid traumatic material like books, movies, or news after you’ve had a particularly bad day, week, or month. The same suggestion holds true for other trauma workers, including the staff at CVAC. 

I am not ashamed to admit that I have been feeling a little “toasty” around the edges. Not burnt out, but definitely moving in that direction. With the police training still fresh in my mind, I took great pains to avoid the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. I knew there were graphic images out there. A coworker said she had seen a picture of someone who had lost a limb and all other sorts of injuries. That was the type of traumatic material I knew I should avoid. Practice what you preach.

Then, in the midst of my Facebook newsfeed this morning, among a host of messages supporting the victims of the bombing, I saw a picture of a man in a wheelchair with a tourniquet around his thigh. The photo also showed rest of his amputated limb including the exposed bone and shredded muscle. My first thought was to immediately unfriend the person who posted it, which I did. My second thought was to question why someone would post that on Facebook. Then, a bigger issue came to mind. Why is that image out there to be posted on Facebook?

It did not look like a photo taken on a smartphone. It looked like a professional photograph. With a quick Google search, I found it on a number of reputable news sources. Many of the websites had cropped the image to avoid showing the gory remnants of the victim’s limb, but others had not. One website blurred the man’s face for his privacy, but still showed the rest of the graphic image. The same online photo galleries where I found the original shot showed victims lying in the midst of a blood-splattered sidewalk just minutes after the bombing occurred and other blood-spattered, screaming victims on gurneys.

I understand that when there is a tragedy like the bombing yesterday, people crave information. News sources want to get out as much content as possible, especially if the public's safety might be in jeopardy. I understand that a picture is worth a thousand words. I also understand that each bloody person you see in a news photo is a victim who has family and friends that will likely see those pictures. Those images may have reached them before word from their loved one. Those images may be the last ones that some families have of their children or brothers or sisters. Not to mention the toll that those graphic images take on the general public.

I do not want to regulate the press. The free press is one of the cornerstones of our free speech. Free speech, however, does not mean printing or distributing everything that crosses a news desk. I would ask the press to be more thoughtful in what they are posting. When something is on the internet, it is there forever regardless of whether it is later removed from a website or censored by some sources. Those images are permanent. Decisions like whether to post graphic material have permanent consequences for the people who have already been victimized or those who are simply bystanders to the tragedy. Those consequences may not be seen by the media, but they will doubtless be felt by those who have already been put through so much pain.

Comments by Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

And I think to myself...

Thinking of the faces is not something that I regularly do. It is a luxury that I cannot afford to myself. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about the victims. It’s just self-preservation. I have always been afraid of being crushed under the weight of all the pain and loss.

When I started my college internship at CVAC in 2002, the second case I opened was with the mother of a homicide victim. I still remember the victim's name, but I never saw his face. Since then, I have worked with hundreds of families of homicide victims. I have seen some of the faces on t-shirts their families wear or on funeral programs families bring to our office, but it’s always in passing. I know the names. I see them over and over in case notes and in the list of names I assemble for our annual homicide victims’ vigil. I don’t know their faces.

Sometimes the stars align. Sometimes God smiles on us. Sometimes karma brings us good things. Sometimes there are coincidences that turn out for the best. However you want to attribute it, you know what I mean. And so it went with CVAC’s National Crime Victims’ Rights Week event this year. Victims’ Rights Week was coming up. An artist was looking for pictures of young victims of gun violence. A gallery just a couple blocks from the CVAC office gives space to artists free of charge.  It turns out that the artist’s schedule, the gallery’s availability, and Victims’ Rights Week all coincided, so we scheduled the exhibit and an opening reception.

For the “Faces Project,” Christine Ilewski paints watercolor portraits of young victims of gun violence, donates the original to the family, and collages reproductions of the portraits onto vintage handkerchiefs. These images make up a traveling exhibit with a mission to raise awareness of the toll gun violence takes on American youth. So, with the help of coworkers and interns, I narrowed down our clients according to the artist’s guidelines (victims under 20 years of age and killed by a gun) and sent them an invitation to participate along with an envelope for them to return the release form and a photograph of their loved one.

A few responses arrived in the mail. I did not open them. I told myself it was just to keep them from getting lost. If I’m being honest with myself, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see the faces.  Finally, one showed up with a handwritten note on the outside of the envelope that read “Last picture he took! Thank you.” My curiosity got the best of me and I opened the envelope. Seeing the picture nearly brought me to tears (which my coworkers could tell you is a rare occurrence). Then one arrived with a familiar return address, so I opened that one, too. Same result. Finally, I decided to open the rest. I found not only pictures, but also notes about the victims. Even in the midst of their grief, the families found happiness in this project and in telling their loved one's story.

Then it hit me, the tears I was holding back were not tears of sadness. Instead, I was in awe of how much this project meant to people and of the very small part that I could play in making it happen. I was in awe of how these families let us into their lives at the worst time and how much trust they place in us. Rather than crushing me under their weight, the faces buoyed my spirit.

Whenever I tell people where I work, they either tell me a story of their own victimization, they try to get away from me as quickly as possible, or they tell me how sad or hard my job must be. It’s true, although I don’t let myself think about that. Just like I don’t let myself dwell on the faces. Somehow, though, I am sitting at my desk and listening to Louie Armstrong sing “What a Wonderful World” and thinking that it couldn’t be truer. It’s a cruel world. It’s a difficult world. It’s a sad world. It is also a wonderful world. And sometimes there is wonder in the midst of the sadness. It is with that revelation in mind that I invite you to come see the faces.

Friday, April 19, 2013
3701 Grandel
St. Louis, MO  63103

Comments by Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services

Monday, April 1, 2013

Taking stock of our resources

Today, several media outlets circulated news about a push to establish a National Compassion Fund for victims of mass shootings. Families of some of the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks and of several highly publicized mass-shooting events have created a petition on the White House’s petition page to collect funds and to give them directly to the victims’ families. Since most people do not think about victim services until they need it or until it is in the news, this petition provides a perfect opportunity to explore the resources that St. Louis has to offer in the case of a local mass-shooting attack.

Need: Funeral & Medical Expenses
Services: Mo CVC can provide up to $5000 in reimbursement for funeral expenses and up to $25,000 in medical expenses, lost wages, and/or loss of support for children.

Need: Counseling for Adults
Services: Free trauma-specific counseling for anyone age 10 and up

Need: Counseling for Children
Resource: Family Resource Center, Annie’s Hope, and others

Need: Spiritual Support
Services: A volunteer minister is paired with grieving families to provide sensitivity and support to the families of homicide victims, to rebuild and strengthen relationships between the Police Department and the community and to reduce the likelihood of retaliation

Need: Group Counseling
Resource: NOVA (National Organization for Victim Assistance) Gateway Crisis Response Team
Services: CRT responds to crises in the workplace, neighborhoods, organizations and corporations with group crisis intervention and companioning.

This list is by no means exhaustive of all possible needs, but it also does not cover all of the available services. Listing all of the resources available would far exceed the limits of this blog and the limits of its readers' attention spans. While we cannot provide direct funds to victims like a National Compassion Fund, victim advocates at CVAC will assess what needs a family has and will do their best to find a resource to meet those needs. You can reach CVAC at our hotline 314-652-3623.

Comments by Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Asking the tough questions

Lest the previous post give the reader the impression that men are the only ones who have work to do regarding rape in our culture, I posit that women also have work to do. Contrary to the traditional approach where women must work at preventing rape, I argue we must work harder on how we react to other women who have been raped. We cannot control the actions of other, we can only control how we react to them.

To do this, we must ask ourselves difficult questions like:
  • Why do women continue to have the prevention discussion when it puts an unfair burden on them?
  • Why do we take on the responsibility for preventing rape when the responsibility really belongs on men not to rape?
  • Why do we criticize and stigmatize other women for their choices?
  • Why do we look at a victim and try to find a way to blame her?

For that matter, why don’t we ever stop to see that we may have been in similar positions in our past although with a different outcome? It doesn’t take a mental gymnast to do this. It’s just a series of simple questions…
1. Have you ever been in the presence of a member of the opposite sex?
2. Have you ever been alone with a member of the opposite sex?
3. Have you ever consumed alcohol in the presence of a member of the opposite sex?
4. If you answered yes to all the previous questions, were you raped in that situation?
Most people can probably answer yes to questions 1-3, while answering no to question 4. Yet, one common criticisms we hear is that a victim drank too much alcohol, leaving herself vulnerable in the wrong situation. Well-meaning experts will suggest that women not drink in excess around people they don’t know or trust. Still, this warning contradicts the vast majority of experiences that women have. Rape is the anomaly, not the rule. Why do we still hold rape victims to a standard that we, ourselves, do not live up to?

One answer is self-preservation. In order to get out of bed and face the world every day, we must have some sense of safety. We can build our sense of safety by mentally checking off behaviors that we see resulting in negative consequences. I will not touch hot burner on the stove because I once burnt myself. I will not go around railroad signals to beat a train because I saw the pictures of resulting collisions in driver’s ed. We tell ourselves we won’t get hurt if we follow all of these rules. We tell ourselves that we are in control of our fate. The same is true of rape.

It’s tempting to think that if I can figure out what a rape victim did “wrong,” then I can protect myself from that crime. I tell myself that I will never make the same mistakes, so I will never be raped. That way, I can go out and face the day without fearing for my personal safety when in the presence of any man. The fact is, though, this mental checklist does not protect you. Women can do everything “right” and still get raped.

Even women who have been raped fall victim to this mental accounting. They examine their own situation for some thing they can latch on to- something to which they can attribute the negative consequences. That way, if they just avoid that behavior or situation in the future and they will never be victimized in the same way. Victims blame themselves so they can feel a sense of control over their future. Control has been taken away by the rapist and the victim is willing to do almost anything to get that sense of control back- even to blame herself for her victimization.

As women and as human beings, it is difficult to accept that we are not in control. Rape, however, is a crime in which we are not in control. The only person in control of the situation is the rapist. He chooses to whether to rape or not. With that power comes the ultimate responsibility and ultimate blame. It is not the woman’s fault that she was victimized, but it’s understandable that she might blame herself so she can get back some sense of control. With rape victims, it is a difficult process to navigate self-blame, victim-blaming in society, and her ultimate powerlessness over her body and safety during the crime. That is why agencies exist to meet the myriad needs of rape victims.

For the rest of us, we need to learn to accept or refuse responsibility as is appropriate. I must take responsibility for not touching a hot burner. It is my hand and I choose where I put it. I must take responsibility for not trying to beat a train. It is my car and I choose not to cross the tracks when a train is coming. I cannot, however, prevent myself from being raped and if I am raped, it is not my fault.

To blame a victim is a natural method of coping with the threat of victimization. Thus, we must make a concerted, conscious effort to question out assumptions about blame or guilt. It requires that we be brutally honest with ourselves. As women, we must lead the way in refusing to accept blame for what a criminal chooses to do to us. However, we cannot simultaneously ask men to take responsibility for preventing rape while we blame a woman for her actions before a rape so we can feel safer. We must decide to hold rapists solely accountable for their actions, even if it means our world is more uncertain or more dangerous than we would like.

Comments by Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

An ounce of prevention?

Recent politics is rife with conversations about rape and its prevention. The eyes of the nation have most recently been drawn to the state of Colorado for a pair of controversial statements. First, Joe Salazar a Democratic State Representative argued that women should not need concealed weapons to protect themselves from rape because “that’s why we have call boxes, that’s why we have safe zones, that’s why we have whistles.” His concern, not wholly without merit, is that a woman who fears for her safety might shoot an innocent person who had no intention of raping her. A second story out of University of Colorado at Colorado Springs concerns a school website that lists "Last Resort Tips" to avoid sexual assault. These include telling the potential rapist that you are menstruating or have an STD and/or urinating or vomiting on the attacker to dissuade him from raping you. The legislator from Colorado apologized and the university took down the list of “Last Resort Tips.”

More important than the apology or the removal of the webpage is that these two stories show how fundamentally wrong our discussions about sexual assault can be. By reframing rape as a gun control issue, the focus falls on women to prevent rape by carrying a gun or a whistle, depending on which side of the gun control debate someone happens to fall. By suggesting a woman scream or bite or tell certain things to her attacker, the onus once again falls on women to prevent their own rape. The logical conclusion of the prevention argument that many people fail to acknowledge is that victims somehow bear some responsibility if they fail to ward off their attacker. As if the woman is to blame for not preventing a man from raping her. That notion is unacceptable.

Victim blaming is nothing new. Over the decades of the victim services movement, we have heard questions about how short of a skirt the victim was wearing, how much she had to drink, or even how many sexual partners she had before the rape. This new brand of victim blaming is more insidious, however, because it is couched in terms of prevention. The bottom line is that no matter how many steps a woman takes to prevent rape, if a man is determined to rape her, it will likely happen. A woman can carry a gun and a rape whistle and still be raped. A woman can scream and kick and fight and still be raped. A woman can use an emergency call box and still be raped before help arrives.

Everyone can and should take steps to make themselves feel safer, but the only sure way to prevent rape is for men to stop raping women. Rather than teaching our girls how to vomit on command or how to shoot to kill, we need to teach our boys not to rape. Women should not have to look at every man as a potential rapist. Men should not settle for having to prove that they are not a rapist before a woman will engage them. Both genders deserve better than that. It is time for a real discussion about why rape happens. 

We need to ask ourselves as a society why rapes occur. Although we don’t have all of the solutions, we know that "a lack of prevention by women" is an unacceptable answer that puts a misplaced burden on women and an unfair stigma on men. It is not a woman's responsibility to prevent rape; it is up to men to choose not to rape. That understanding must be the starting point for a meaningful discussion on how to address the issue as a society.
Comments by: Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services