Thursday, August 25, 2011

Nafissatou Diallo and Tiawanda Moore

Posted By on 08.25.11 at 12:46 PM

In a recent story in the New Yorker, published well into the controversy surrounding former IMF president Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged rape of the Sofitel housekeeper Nafissatou Diallo, reporter Suketu Mehta follows an African asylum seeker (the country isn’t specified) through her application process. “Caroline,” or “Cecile,” works at a Manhattan supermarket under another person’s social security number: “Caroline was living three lives: as Cecile Diop, a woman with papers who had been in the country for ten years; as Caroline the African rape and torture victim; and as herself, a middle-class young woman who wanted to go to college and make a life in America.” It is, writes Mehta, “a continuous exercise in willed schizophrenia.”

Through the course of the article, Caroline develops and tells to an immigration officer an ultimately convincing story about her beating and rape by government soldiers in her home country. It never happened—Caroline tells the reporter that she was never raped, though her brother was beaten and she was threatened; her parents, supporters of an opposition leader in her country, were targets of government repression. The story Caroline puts on her asylum application is false; but then, she thinks, so is everybody else’s: “Everybody’s story is a mixture of what is true and what is not,” says Caroline. She thinks that embellishing her application is the only chance for her to stay in the country. Mehta writes:

“It is not enough for asylum applicants to say that they were threatened, or even beaten. They have to furnish horror stories. It’s not enough to say that they were raped. The officials require details. Inevitably, these atrocity stories get inflated, as new applicants for asylum get more inventive about what was done to them, competing with the lore that has already been established, with applicants whose stories, both real and fake, are much more dramatic, whose plight is so much more perilous, than theirs.”

I thought about this when New York City prosecutors cited as evidence to drop charges against Strauss-Kahn the fact that Diallo had said that she's been raped by Guinean soldiers—and then appeared to back off that allegation. She brought it up in initial interviews with prosecutors, but later admitted that she had “fabricated” parts of it. Her dissembling is part of what convinced prosecutors that their case was too weak to bring to trial. William Saletan, who thinks that the prosecution “oversold” both the case against Strauss-Kahn and the case against Diallo—which seems about right—points out that Diallo continued to affirm, in later interviews, that she had been raped in Guinea. The details changed, though. Saletan writes, “she did not say that the rape was ‘entirely fabricated.’ She changed the details. That doesn't excuse her dishonesty. But it does narrow the extent to which she has shown a willingness to lie—not to mention the obvious difference between sending an innocent man to jail and distorting a bygone rape by unnamed assailants to get asylum.”

This seems like an important point, and today the New York Times—perhaps still trying to atone for its atrocious recent coverage of the violent sexual assault of a child in east Texas—wonders what the dismissal of charges against Strauss-Kahn “will mean for rape cases.” Reporter Cara Buckley follows up on questions about Diallo’s shifting story:

None of the women’s advocates interviewed expressed doubt in Ms. Diallo’s claim that she was assaulted. And they said her initial account of a gang rape in her home country—which she later admitted was false, contributing to the undoing of her case—could be explained by her anguished state and troubled past, several advocates said. . . .

“Erratic responses are something that we see over and over again,” Ms. Leidholdt said. “Her behavior was consistent with a trauma victim.”

Rape, Buckley writes, tends to go underreported: according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, six in ten sexual assaults aren’t registered. She notes, “Advocates for domestic violence victims said women who are raped would almost certainly be more fearful of stepping forward, knowing that everything in their past may be exposed; indeed, reporting of rapes usually drops in the aftermath of high-profile sexual assault cases.”

Meanwhile in Chicago, Tiawanda Moore was acquitted yesterday. Moore, like street artist Christopher Drew, faced charges of violating a state eavesdropping law: she’d surreptiously recorded a conversation in which two Chicago Police Department internal affairs officers urged her to drop a sexual-harassment complaint against another cop. She faced up to 15 years in prison. The jury deliberated for less than an hour:

In the recording, which the one juror said was replayed several times in the jury room, [officer Luis] Alejo was heard explaining to Moore that she might be wasting her time because it was basically her word against that of the patrol officer. Alejo also said that they could “almost guarantee” that the officer would never bother her again if she dropped the complaint.

“When we heard that, everyone [on the jury] just shook their head,” juror Ray Adams told the Chicago Tribune. He also said, “Everybody thought it was just a waste of time and that [Moore] never should have been charged.” The state’s attorney’s office maintained that it brought the case “in good faith based on credible evidence.”

In a sense, the details of Moore’s case itself seem quotidian: the eavesdropping law is sufficiently obscure that its use by the state’s attorney’s office has created a lot of controversy. But taken more broadly—considering what sorts of repercussions a woman faced for trying to bring a sexual-harassment complaint against a CPD officer—nothing about it is encouraging. “If I would have known I was going to get in trouble, I might never have come in and filed the complaint in the first place,” Moore said after the verdict was announced.

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