Cross-posted at Prison Culture
I described my initial sighting of Tiawanda Moore back in June this way:
The first thing that strikes me when I see Tiawanda Moore is that she looks so very young. The second thing is that she reminds me of my cousin Fatime. She has the same fine features and beautiful dark skin. She is slight in build and is wearing glasses. Every black person in the U.S. has a sister, friend, cousin who looks just like Tiawanda Moore.
Yesterday when I saw and spoke with Tiawanda, I observed something more – her courage and dignity. For nearly two years, this young woman has endured so much. First she was sexually molested by a police officer and then when she sought out justice for this offense, she found herself in the clutches of the State’s Attorney charged with two class 1 felonies for eavesdropping facing up to 15 years in prison. Tiawanda Moore is brave.
Yet every single media story that I have read since she was acquitted of all charges yesterday either opens with the words “former stripper” or mentions this somewhere in the article. Radley Balko picks up on this in a blog post published yesterday. He writes:
One other thing. It’s a little odd that most media accounts of this case describe Moore as a “former stripper.” It’s actually the first three words in the Sun Times story. Maybe I’m wrong, but it’s hard to envision the article starting that way if Moore were a former nanny. Or school teacher. Or bus driver. So what’s the point? Even if Moore’s sexual assault allegation was the only newsworthy part of this story, the implication is that her former job is relevant to her allegation. Is the implication that strippers probably act provocatively even when they aren’t working—-indeed, even when they aren’t strippers anymore—and thus should expect unwanted sexual advances from cops? Is it that strippers are inherently untrustworthy? That they’re more likely to make false allegations of sexual assault? (If anything, I would suspect that strippers have built up a fair amount of tolerance for unwanted advances.)
But that of course isn’t why this story is in the news. It’s in the news because Moore became frustrated in her attempt to file a complaint, and so recorded what she thought were Chicago police officers’ attempts to rebuff her, and was consequently facing a felony charge and up to 15 years in prison. The validity of the allegation that set all of that into motion isn’t really at issue. (Indeed, the resolution of Moore’s complaint is apparently “sealed.” Which is a problem in and of itself.) So even if you buy into the fairly offensive notion that Moore’s former occupation calls her harassment allegation into doubt, the “former stripper” label is completely irrelevant to whether or not she should have been arrested and charged for recording the cops.
I would submit that it is not “odd” that Ms. Moore’s employment as a stripper is always foregrounded in the media coverage. Young black women are often portrayed as sexually promiscuous. This has a longstanding history. If you recall the Duke Lacrosse case, the alleged victim was also frequently described in media accounts as a “stripper.” In the Dominique Strauss-Khan case, Nafissatou Diallo was alleged to have been a prostitute. There is an inglorious history in the press of women who bring charges of sexual assault often being painted as sexually “loose” in some way. So Mr. Balko is not wrong to assume that if Ms. Moore had been a former teacher or nanny that this would not have been the opening statement in an article covering this trial.
There is something more to the press’s fixation on the fact that Ms. Moore worked as a stripper. This description of her is offered as a kind of shorthand. As though it suggests something about her character and perhaps should lead us to question her credibility. It’s as if this is the main thing that we ought to know about who Tiawanda Moore is.
Chris Drew, who himself is facing eavesdropping charges, has been a supporter of Ms. Moore. He attended both days of the trial and was present when the jury read its verdict yesterday. He wrote the following about Tiawanda in an e-mail blast that he sent out to his supporters:
Ms. Moore is twenty years old and very much still trying to discover herself in this world. The Tribune calls her a former stripper but she is first a young woman struggling to survive in a depressed economy. She is too young to have established a career out of anything yet. She has every right to expect justice from our system and she is a brave fighter for women’s rights. She stood up to the intimidation of Chicago police to lodge her complaint of sexual abuse. Anyone who listened to the testimony Tuesday and Wednesday at her trial knows that took a very brave spirit. We should expect more from the newspaper of record in reporting behind the scenes. They should examine in depth the way Cook County State’s Attorneys Office shields police misconduct.
She fought against a culture of intimidation other women of any background might face when they try to lodge a complaint against the Chicago Police for sexual misconduct. She won putting the Cook County State’s Attorney on notice that they should not be shielding police who violate citizen’s rights with malicious prosecutions of this type. Her win is a win for all women and all citizens who expect justice from Cook County. Her attorney argued that she was being intimidated out of her right to file a complaint by police who were breaking their own rules in doing so.
I teared up when I read this mainly because it is so TRUE. But also because I felt a sense of hope to read these words coming from a man who is so very different from Tiawanda Moore. Chris Drew is an older white man, an artist. He is someone who has already lived many years and it seems that in this case it has brought him wisdom. Tiawanda Moore is young, black, and very different in many other ways from Chris. Yet he can see through those differences to simply embrace Tiawanda’s humanity. It means that we have hope for transformation. While the media continues its relentless assault on the images of young black women in the U.S., on an individual level many (including Chris Drew) resist these portrayals.
Chris offers something else in his words about Tiawanda Moore. He provides a context within which a young black woman with limited opportunities finds a way to survive. Young women do what they have to do to survive. Chris forces his reader to consider stripping as a rational form of employment and dares us to judge Ms. Moore without having lived in her shoes. He is basically saying to us: she was a stripper, so what? He also frames her as a “fighter for women’s rights.” To me, that is the proper context within which to view Tiawanda Moore. What she did in standing up to the police and the state tells us more about her resilience and character than does her employment. Most of us are not primarily defined by where we work. We define ourselves mostly in relation to who we love. Perhaps we see ourselves first as mothers, sisters, spouses or friends. We define ourselves by the struggles that we join as organizers, citizens, activists. We define ourselves differently depending on the day or the context. These things are complicated rather than being straightforward. The media shies away from the complicated preferring black and white descriptions. So I offer them an easy description of Tiawanda Moore: Ms. Moore is BRAVE. Thanks Chris for giving voice to this!