FROM THE HOME FRONT
As one might expect, from the time Tyson was accused of raping Desiree Washington until he was finally sentenced, the "accusation" was a hot topic of conversation. I had a number of discussions about the accusation with other African-American males living in Indianapolis. When the accusation was first made, I asked a lot of my friends what they thought. None of us seriously entertained the possibility that Mike Tyson might actually be convicted of rape; any doubt was resolved in favor of Mike Tyson. I do not remember a single male speaking up for Desiree Washington.
A typical discussion occurred at the barbershop in which I get my hair cut. Anyone familiar with the African-American male community knows that to really take the pulse of the community about a particular issue, you must discuss it at a barbershop. The barbershop is more than a place to get your hair cut—it is also a cultural institution. The barbershop is a place where we (males) hang out and receive part of our initiation into the finer points of being a male.
I put the issue of Mike Tyson on the floor by asking a question for general discussion to anyone who was willing to take it up: "What do you think about the claim by Desiree Washington that she was raped by Tyson?" Desiree had no supporters here. Among the comments that were fairly typical were: "Well, she got in his limousine, didn’t she?" "His limousine showed up at her hotel room at 2:00 in the morning?" "What do you expect, if you go out with a man at 2:00 in the morning." "No doubt the reason that she is doing this is because, like he said, she was probably mad because he didn’t walk her to the limousine." From these comments, an initial image of Desiree took shape. I thought to myself, it’s obvious, she must have consented. Not only that, I thought this woman must be crazy. Imagine doing all of this because someone would not walk her to the limousine. As for Mike, he was being victimized by a vindictive and unstable woman.
Another discussion that I had prior to the trial was with a friend of mine who was closely involved in organizing the boxing matches that took place during the Summer Celebration. Here was an opportunity for me to get an inside scoop on what had occurred. I asked my friend if he thought Mike had raped Desiree Washington. He responded, "[yeah] he did it, but we have got some things on her, too, she wasn’t completely innocent." The confident tone of his voice and what he said implied that Desiree might have brought this on herself.
This kind of inside information was precisely what I had hoped to find when I called him—the real inside story that would give me the complete picture so that I could understand precisely what had happened. So I asked, "Oh, really? Well, what did she do?"
I assumed that he was about to divulge the damning piece of evidence. You know, the piece of evidence that Perry Mason always hit the murderer with when they were on the stand in the final ten minutes of an otherwise dull episode. As he gave his response, his voice suggested quiet confidence that this piece of information would be the deciding bit of evidence. "She violated curfew."
Hmmm, I thought, that is serious business. She broke a pageant rule that was there for her protection. No doubt those rules were, in part, attempts to protect the contestants from this kind of situation. If only she had followed the rules, this would not have happened.
Prior to the trial, it was clear that all those I had discussed the rape with were resolving all doubt in favor of Mike Tyson. At least that view is consistent with the law; a person (man?) (white man?) accused of rape, especially date rape, is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
No one I talked to believed that Tyson would or should be convicted. Therefore, the verdict by the Indianapolis jury had a profound effect on our image of the "victim" in the rape. After Mike was convicted, he did not appear to lose any support. Shortly after the verdict, I went back to the same barbershop and once again raised the issue. This time I sought to find out what people thought the appropriate punishment should be.5 I asked my barber, an older man whose judgment I have come to respect through our many conversations over the past ten years, for his opinion.
"Do you think Mike should go to jail?"
"If he did it, and I’m not saying he did," my barber responded, "but if he did, I think that, well, maybe you ought to be lenient here. Perhaps he needs counseling, if he did it. And in fact, you know, there was a White guy this past summer who was also convicted of a rape, and he received a suspended sentence."
This was the beginning of the redefinition of Mike as the victim. Before the conviction, Mike was being victimized by an unbalanced and jealous woman. Now he was also being victimized by the "White" criminal justice system.
If he did it! Even though Mike Tyson had been convicted by a jury that had heard all of the legally admissible evidence and therefore was certainly more knowledgeable about the case than my barber, he (and now I) was not willing to accept that verdict as a pronouncement of what had actually occurred. Those unfamiliar with African – American culture may ask how my barber could now say, "If he did it." According to the Indianapolis poll, 67 percent of the African – Americans polled believed that Tyson was unfairly convicted and another 11 percent believed that, although he was guilty, his sentence was unfair. Only 7 percent of the African-Americans polled believed that Tyson got what he deserved. The remaining 15 percent expressed no opinion on the issue. In contrast, 40 percent of the Whites polled believed that Tyson got what he deserved. Only 28 percent believed he was unfairly convicted, while an additional 10 percent believed that, though he was guilty, his sentence was unfair. The remaining 22 percent expressed no opinion.6
My barber’s response tapped into two dominant beliefs in African-American culture. First, Blacks, and particularly Black males, cannot expect fair treatment by America’s White criminal justice system. The same poll also indicated that 37 percent of the Whites and 70 percent of the Blacks believed that the judicial system treats Blacks and Whites differently.7 In Tyson’s prosecution, ten of the twelve jurors who voted for conviction were White, and both the judge and prosecutor were White.8 When African-Americans talk about racism in the criminal justice system, this is part of what we mean—prosecution, judgment, and convictions of African-Americans by Whites. Comparing the sentencing of Mike Tyson to that of some White person convicted of the same crime was also based upon this same notion. It becomes even easier to view Tyson’s prosecution in a racial context when it is juxtaposed against the acquittal of William Kennedy Smith for date rape.
Viewing Tyson as a victim of the White criminal justice system completely changes the interpretation and understanding of his prosecution, conviction, and punishment. Mike Tyson’s conviction is not just his individual conviction. Rather, it is symbolic of the American judicial system’s harsh treatment of African-Americans, particularly males. To support Tyson, then, is to fight against racial domination of African-Americans.
The second belief that my barber tapped into was that the fight against racial subordination will usually trump the fight against the sexual subordination of African-American women in the Black community. Although it is true that a Sister had been raped by a Brother, Tyson was now a victim of racism in the criminal justice system. Despite the fact that Brothers certainly want to support Sisters, concerns about the Sisters must wait until after we have dealt with the Man (resolved the racial issue). Let us not forget, we have been trying to resolve the racial issue for over 370 years.
After my barber responded, another Brother in the barbershop joined in and brought up the fact that Desiree had appeared on television the night before and told her side of the story. During this program, she made it clear she had not received any compensation for her appearance. One of the other barbers in the shop pointed out that, although it may be true that Desiree did not get any money before the program aired, she very well could have received payment right after the program was shown. Another patron, seizing on this possibility, responded, "You know that show was on at 7:00 or 8:00, that doesn’t tell you what she got paid by 9:00 or 10:00." Another Brother said, "Even if she didn’t get paid for this particular appearance, she is going to get money from the tabloids. She is going to sue, she is going to get plenty of money. This woman is going to be set for the rest of her life. God damn! Some people are lucky."
Now the motives for Desiree’s not toeing the traditional line— racism trumps sexism—were out in the open. Desiree was out for herself. This wily eighteen-year-old college freshman from Coventry,
Rhode Island, was too sophisticated and worldly for Mike Tyson. She was doing all of this for the money. Desiree had just hit the lottery and was going to cash in big. And the terrible thing about it was that this Sister, in conjunction with the White criminal justice system, had brought down another Brother in order to advance her own greedy self-interest.
The day after the barbershop incident, I picked up the daily Indianapolis newspaper. On the front page was a story about a Black male friend of mine, who is an Indianapolis attorney. According to the story, this attorney had overheard the only African-American male on the Tyson jury say that the verdict was fixed. My friend said he felt compelled to report this information to the prosecutor’s office because he was an officer of the court and this was a serious violation that must be brought to the attention of the requisite authorities.
I had seen this juror at a televised press conference right after the verdict responding to a question by a news reporter who asked him if he thought the verdict was fair. His videotaped response was, "It was a tough decision to make, but I think it is the right one. We listened to all the evidence, and we made our decision on the evidence." Nevertheless, I thought to myself, even with a Brother on the jury, Mike Tyson still did not receive justice. The one Brother on the jury must have been forced to play along with the game plan. As I read that story, I felt further indignation about the treatment of Mike Tyson at the hands of the White criminal justice system.
Shortly after the story broke about the repudiation of the jury verdict by the African-American male juror, I was discussing the Tyson situation with another Black attorney. Reliable sources had informed him that the jury in the Tyson case was initially deadlocked at six to six. Evidently one of the White jurors, a former marine, had pressured the other jurors into changing their minds and voting for conviction. At first, I responded that juries are often deadlocked initially, which explains why it takes juries so long to reach a verdict. His response: "Don’t be naive, Mike was set up. His verdict was fixed." So, Mike was being railroaded by the criminal justice system. I thought, wow! What a raw deal Mike had received. That jury should have come back deadlocked. Once again a Black man cannot get a fair trial in the criminal justice system, even when a Brother is on the jury.
The next day, I happened to be flipping channels on the television and turned to a station delivering the Indianapolis news. I tuned in just in time to see a number of African-American ministers and community leaders pleading for leniency and mercy for Mike Tyson.
One of the ministers pointed out that the Bible said "’blessed are the merciful’ and we are simply asking for mercy for Mike Tyson." Just like that, the sentencing of Mike Tyson had become a religious issue. I thought, well, if God is on Mike’s side, then he must be innocent.
One of the Black reporters at the news conference responded to this statement by asking the minister, "Doesn’t the Bible also command that thou shalt not engage in fornication?" A split of religious authority had occurred, but this split was quickly resolved. The minister who had quoted the Bible retorted to this impudent question by reminding the reporter that it was the Black community leaders who had gotten African-Americans hired at the local television stations: "It was from us pressuring the stations you work at that got you your job." So now the issue of leniency for Mike Tyson had become an issue of loyalty to the African-American community.
As I prepared my remarks for this Conference, I started to think about the mental images that were in my mind. I sensed my outrage about how Mike Tyson had been victimized. He had been victimized by a criminal justice system. He had been victimized by a woman who had consented to have sex with him. He was then victimized by her again when she decided to take him down to advance her own greedy self-interest. He was victimized by a lawyer who failed to provide him with an adequate defense. He had been victimized by a jury that had been pressured into returning a guilty verdict against him. He was victimized, victimized, victimized.