Black lives — 13 of them — finally mattered Thursday night as an Oklahoma City jury found former policeman Daniel Holtzclaw guilty of 18 criminal counts, including four counts of first-degree rape.
This officer violated an oath to protect this community,” Assistant District Attorney Gayland Gieger said in closing arguments. “He exercised authority on those society doesn’t care about. Convince these ladies that someone does care about them.”
Holtzclaw, 29, had been charged with 36 counts of rape, sexual assault, sodomy and stalking, among other charges for his systematic pursuit of marginalized Black women with criminal backgrounds to stop, check and sexually assault as he worked his police beat.
“We were hoping he would be found guilty on call counts, but we are excited he was convicted on 18, which says a lot about how the women testified,” says Grace Franklin, co-founder of OKC Artists for Justice, an Oklahoma City-based collective started to keep tabs on this case.
“They were very brave,” Franklin says, “and the majority of them were relieved, even though there was a distinct character assassination against them. The jury was able to see through that.”
This case was always been about more than the local phenomenon tepid national media coverage would suggest: Beyond serving as an indictment of one cop gone rogue, this case served as a referendum on issues raised by #blackivesmatter and #sayhername, a Twitter hashtag that arose when Black female victims of police abuse were seemingly drowned out in the cacophony to seek justice for Black men also abused or killed by police in cities across the country.
The fact of an all-White jury (when Black jurors were available) and a defense intent on using the women’s troubled pasts against them instead of offering evidence Holtzclaw didn’t commit the crimes left many people doubtful of a fair trial. Unwilling to view the trial as a simple local affair, court watchers assessed it in the context of all the ways American-style justice has failed to prevail.
For example, Ferguson, Mo., Officer Darren Wilson wasn’t held accountable for killing Michael Brown in October 2014, and neither were New York City police officers after Eric Garner’s choking death in July 2014. In Chicago, activists have held a series of well-coordinated protests following the release of a video showing a policeman emptying bullets into the body of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. This is the same city where a cop, Dante Servin, shot down Rekia Boyd, 22, but was set free because the same state’s attorney who helped cover up the McDonald video didn’t file the right charges, although she should have known better having spent her career as a prosecutor. These are just a few of the cases that have African-Americans frustrated about the ways in which justice chooses to exercise her blindness.
“To be completely candid, I have been afraid to let myself entertain the thought this jury would be able to provide justice; at the same time, I have not wanted to face the horror if they didn’t,” says Dr. Kali Gross, a University of Texas at Austin historian who specializes in Black women and the American criminal justice system.
This case was notable because of how Holtzclaw quarried his prey, choosing so-called weak links who would be too afraid to tell. Arguably two witnesses were further victimized when they were called to the stand wearing orange scrubs, having been jailed for drug charges, while Holtzclaw was allowed to wear a suit even though he, too, was in police custody.
And because it’s clear Holtzclaw went after women seemingly without a voice, Black women throughout the nation have driven thought-leadership around this case so the world would know somebody was watching, and somebody cared. Ultimately, it was the witnesses who dared to take the stand, finally finding the words to speak.
“At a time when Black men and boys are being murdered by police officers or some other white person at an alarming rate, with viral video evidence to boot, it’s puzzling that the protests and outrage and uproar come to a roaring halt when horrendous crimes, including murder, happen to Black women,” says Dr. Natalie Bullock Brown, film and interactive department chairwoman at St. Augustine’s University, currently working on a film that addresses how beauty ideals of a white, racist, male dominant culture affect Black females.
“Crickets, at least comparatively speaking,” Bullock Brown says.
Gross, who regularly writes about “homicidal police violence” perpetrated against Black women, such as Tanisha Anderson, Yvette Smith, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Rekia Boyd, and Natasha McKenna adds: “For so long Black women have been victims of a politicized protection that has excluded Black women from protection, while in turn subjecting them to the harshest criminal justice outcomes.”
Franklin and others outside the courtroom in Oklahoma City regarded the wait for the jury’s decision as a hopeful sign they were carefully considering each count. She said the presence of her group and others “brought out more of the community and showed the prosecution they were being watched, and that this is a case of importance to the community.”
It took the jury nearly a week, including overnight hotel stays to consider each count as activists waited outside the courtroom, some chanting, “36 counts … We want life!”
The jury recommended a 30-year sentence on each of the rape counts, which Holtzclaw will face during his scheduled Jan 21 sentencing.
Deborah Douglas is a Chicago-based writer.