Black women in R. Kelly’s trial react to his conviction


The woman was taking a nap when her phone started to vibrate – and buzz, buzz: a verdict had been reached in the trial of R. Kelly, one of the biggest names in R&B music.

Two weeks earlier, the woman had testified under a pseudonym – Angela – at Mr Kelly’s trial, telling jurors the singer began sexually abusing him as a minor. His charges were not among the charges for which Mr. Kelly was convicted. But 30 years after Mr. Kelly began mistreating her, her testimony helped convict him.

“When I heard guilty, I immediately burst into tears,” she said. “I cried for a long time.”

She said she had seen the stories of other women who looked like her been dismissed before. “Black women are so often overlooked because people say, ‘Well you dress that way, look that way. You acted this way, you put yourself in this situation, ”she said.

But this time the response was unfamiliar: “Not only did they see us, they heard us, they believed us,” said the woman, who agreed to be identified under her trial alias.

Mr Kelly’s case has been widely seen as a pivotal moment for the #MeToo movement, serving as the first high-profile trial since the national sexual misconduct judgment starring a powerful man whose victims were predominantly black women.

In the days and weeks leading up to the jury’s verdict, many observers said they feared the stories of a group of black accusers, as heartbreaking as they were, could be dismissed.

Instead, Mr Kelly’s conviction on Monday was seen by many as a powerful validation of the accounts of those who have taken a stand against him and others whose stories have never been made public.

“For years I have been trolled for talking about the abuse I suffered from this predator. People called me a liar and said I had no proof ”, Jerhonda pace, who became the first woman to testify against Mr Kelly in a criminal trial, wrote on Instagram after the verdict. “I am happy to FINALLY close this chapter of my life. “

But it’s still unclear whether Mr Kelly’s trial and conviction represents a broader shift towards better treatment of black victims of sexual abuse.

“This moment will go two ways,” said Mikki Kendall, a Chicago author who has written on feminism and intersectionality. “Or we will finally say that black women and girls deserve to be protected.” Or we’ll repeat, as we did, this idea that black girls are “inviolable” because of their skin color. “

She added, “We’re making a choice here in the #MeToo movement.”

The question of which stories take priority has been at the center of recent activism efforts.

When Tarana Burke, a black woman, kicked off the original iteration of “Me Too” around 2007, she hoped to use the phrase to raise awareness of sexual assault and connect victims with resources. But observers noted that the effort was not supported by prominent white feminists. And when the actress Alyssa Milano tweeted the same words a decade later, it sparked concern that black women were being left out of history.

Black women have also spoken out in some of the most high-profile cases involving influential men like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby. But as white women and girls made up the majority of the accusers, their stories began to define the main campaign for some.

“I didn’t even know the #MeToo movement was for us black women,” singer Sparkle said in an interview after Mr. Kelly’s conviction.

She testified in a Chicago courtroom 13 years ago that Mr. Kelly was the man seen in a video urinating and having sex with his teenage niece. But even after others shared similar stories during Mr Kelly’s first criminal trial in Chicago in 2008, jurors acquitted him of the child pornography charges against him.

“Back then – and still today – we didn’t really care about black women,” said Sparkle, real name Stephanie Edwards. “If Robert did what he did to white women, we wouldn’t even be here.

For legal experts and advocates for victims of sexual assault, who have long warned that black women and girls face serious difficulties in raising charges of sexual abuse and rape, the perception was not surprising. .

They cite data that shows black women are disproportionately more likely than most to experience sexual abuse or violence, but less likely to report it in certain situations. The concomitant trials of sexism and racism form a dynamic known as misogyny.

For some, these factors explain what, until Monday, was a decades-long failure to bring Mr Kelly to justice.

“We needed a first trial, a video, a marriage license, a docuseries, a social media campaign, city organizers – all of that to make it happen. moment within the criminal justice system, “said Treva B. Lindsey, professor at Ohio State University. “I don’t think this bodes well for the overall treatment of black girls and women who have been sexually raped.”

She added, “If we need that level of sexual predation to recognize that black women and girls experience a disproportionate amount of sexual violence compared to the general population, I think that’s actually a really sign. sad.

But the cultural climate has also changed dramatically since the allegations against Mr Kelly began to surface.

There is a broader willingness to listen to and believe the stories of survivors, experts say, and awareness of the prevalence of sexual assault has grown in recent years. And for some, there was value in the nature of the case against Mr. Kelly himself, built around a racketeering charge that put his facilitators center stage.

“There isn’t a person who has been in Chicago for 20 years who doesn’t know of a survivor or incident around sexual violence with R. Kelly,” said Scheherazade Tillet, founder of A long walk home, a Chicago-based nonprofit that works around these issues. “It’s deeply rooted in our culture here as black people – we all knew there was something out there.”

She added: “Thinking of yourself as a participant in organized crime – watching a video of R. Kelly being that bodyguard who allowed something to happen – I think it is. a significant cultural change. And I really think that’s the only way to end sexual violence.

Still, others say the lawsuit highlighted the need to continue making progress in how issues of consent, autonomy and sexual assault are discussed in society and in some black communities in particular.

Those who study the intersections of race and sexual assault have long noted that black women face unique challenges when accusing black men of abuse or assault, attributing it to a variety of factors: mistrust of black men. the criminal justice system; a story of false accusations against black men of white women; and a desire to protect black men.

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a professor at Columbia Law School and UCLA School of Law who has studied the subject, said she hopes the current moment will change the narrative, in which the accusations of black women are equated with “no not be loyal to black men and open them up to abuse and injustice.

In Mr. Kelly’s case, a substantial public once viewed him as the victim of a deeper racist plot to stop black men from successfully thriving. That prospect has largely faded, but her trial has highlighted other deeply held beliefs that have yet to change, said Kenyette Tisha Barnes, who co-founded the #MuteRKelly campaign to boycott the singer’s music.

“We need to be aware of the culture of sexual violence in our community,” she said. “It’s an ugly story to unwrap, but we have to rip the scab off and let it bleed.”

And for Ms. Burke, the woman who created #MeToo, the current moment demands that more attention be paid to the realities of the issues at hand – so R. Kelly is not seen as an anomaly, but a vivid example. behavior that “happens in our communities every day.

“There has to be a change in the way we talk about sexual violence within the community so that when there are real cases there is a benchmark that people have in mind,” Ms. Burke said. . “And it becomes more than just ‘It’s probably wrong because that’s what history has shown”, because it merges. R. Kelly is by no means Emmett Till.

But even as attention turns to the future, some of Mr. Kelly’s accusers are hanging on to the present moment.

Kitti Jones, who is from the Dallas area, said much of his life felt “heavy” to him in the years that followed. she accused the singer of sexual coercion and physical abuse during their two years of dating after meeting in 2011.

Ms Jones was not part of the trial, but the verdict came as a “vindication” after the intense backlash she and others received for speaking out, she said.

“No prison sentence can go back,” Ms. Jones said. “But we can certainly start to get our lives back now and feel some normalcy. We have been through hell.

Ms Jones said she hoped the conviction would send a simple message to other survivors: ‘Don’t allow your abuser to keep silencing you,’ she said, ‘and tell your truth no matter what. come.

Emilie Palmer contributed report. Kitty bennett and Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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