The criminal trial of former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw has entered its third week. Dozens of witnesses have already taken the stand, including many of Holtzclaw’s 13 alleged sexual assault survivors and their families. As the trial progresses, one thing has become clear: Holtzclaw’s defense team is not interested in proving, based on evidence, that he didn’t commit over 30 different crimes, from sexual assault to burglary to stalking. What the defense is interested in is showing the jury that the people Holtzclaw assaulted, harassed, and stole from are fundamentally untrustworthy — and that they therefore deserved what happened to them.
As survivors and their families have taken the stand, Holtzclaw’s defense has rolled out rap sheet after rap sheet, asking time and again why they haven’t, say, renewed a driver license or paid a parking ticket, whether they were smoking weed or doing other drugs on the night of their assault, and — perhaps most incredibly — why the survivors or their families didn’t call 911 after their run-in with Holtzclaw. The professional witnesses — the detectives and police support staff who caught Holtzclaw in the first place — have not been subject to questioning on quite the same level of intensity or granularity. It’s almost like Holtzclaw isn’t the one on trial at all — his victims are.
It bears mentioning here that the thirteen women who have come forward with allegations against Holtzclaw are black and almost exclusively from a poor neighborhood in Northeast Oklahoma City. It also bears mentioning that Holtzclaw’s jury in this trial is all-white and two-thirds male. This divide, with the survivors on one end and Holtzclaw and the court on the other, is not a coincidence; rather, it seems to be common practice.
“Given that blacks are disproportionately victimized by cops and disproportionately incarcerated in the prison system, the government’s practice in many southern jurisdictions of excluding blacks from juries is especially troubling, and raises questions about the practice of peremptory challenge itself,” Roderick Long wrote recently ("Black Jurors Need Not Apply"/ October 22, 2015).
At the beginning of the trial, the prosecution told the jury that a common theme among the victims is that they were initially reluctant to tell anyone about what Holtzclaw did. They felt that, because they weren’t upstanding, model (white) citizens, “no one would believe [them].” That a prospective jury would acquit Holtzclaw because the victims had a criminal history, or were addicted to drugs, or were simply guilty of being poor and black in the south. Their consternation is borne out in case after case in recent memory alone, where police have literally gotten away with murder because their victims were black and they could claim something like self-defense.
It is to hope against hope that this trial will not merely prove illustrative the state’s innate disdain toward people of color, that perhaps it will mark the beginning of the end of police monstrosity. It is maybe overly optimistic to wish that, if nothing else, things begin to change for the better. Make no mistake, though: Whatever happens to Holtzclaw will not be justice. Holtzclaw is just one head on the Hydra of death, destruction and impulse that is the police machine. Even if the full force of the “law” is exercised on this one rapist cop, there will be others. An investigation by the Associated Press has already uncovered others.
Justice only comes with the disbandment of the police and the institutions that allow the police to act with impunity. There must be a way to make a better world than this.
Trevor Hultner is a Center for a Stateless Society contributor.