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The Cleveland Horror and a Week of Violence Against Women | The Nation

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Leslie Savan

Politics, media and the politics of media.

The Cleveland Horror and a Week of Violence Against Women


A missing person poster for Amanda Berry, one of the three kidnapped women found alive in Cleveland. (Reuters/John Gress.)

In just the last few days, we’ve seen a series of news stories involving violence against women. The violence comes in different forms—physical, psychological, financial—and from different quarters—a former school-bus driver in Cleveland, the NRA convention in Houston, the military, Congress—and so it’s not surprising that the media, as usual, are delivering these stories as unrelated incidents. But arriving almost simultaneously, these tales of misogyny should jolt us all to connect the dots and to shine an unblinking light on the violence against women that’s always there, just below the surface.

The story of the three Cleveland women who were found alive after being held captive (and, by all accounts, raped, beaten and bound) in a neighbor’s house for ten years is the most shocking. The suspect, Ariel Castro, 52, reportedly let them outside only twice in all that time. Michelle Knight was 20 when she disappeared in 2002, Amanda Berry had been reported missing in 2003 when she was 16, and Gina DeJesus vanished at age 14 in 2004 on her way home from school. Berry’s mother died in 2006 of what friends say was “a broken heart” less than two years after a psychic on The Montel Williams Show told her Amanda was dead. DeJesus’s mother believed her daughter had been sold into the sex trade. On Monday, Berry and her 6-year-old daughter (possibly fathered by Castro) escaped with the help of neighbors Charles Ramsey and Angel Cordero. The other women came out shortly after. Berry and DeJesus are now home, while Knight remains in the hospital.

As this story unfolds, it will serve as fascinating cable TV filler: We’ll learn more of the horrific details and get to know the victims, their friends and families, and the suspect; we’ll urge neighbors to keep a closer eye on each other; and hopefully we’ll learn why the police didn’t follow earlier leads. But this shouldn’t be treated as just the latest incredibly sad and sensational crime story, as if it were devoid of social and political context—or unrelated to the other news of anti-women violence that accompanied it this week.

When I first saw the photo of a freed Amanda Berry with her sister and daughter, and tried to imagine the women’s unimaginable captivity, I couldn’t get another set of images out of my mind—that of “The Ex,” a target mannequin that squirts blood when you shoot her. “The Ex” (variously called “The Ex-Girlfriend” and “Alexa”) is a large-breasted white woman, her clothes party ripped off, blood dripping from her mouth down her cleavage, and she was sold with other “bleeding zombie targets” at the NRA convention in Houston last weekend. A target mannequin that looks like Obama painted green (one happy customer calls him “Barry” in a video that has been removed) also made the news. Buzzfeed reported that the NRA asked the vendor, Zombie Industries, to remove it from display, but it continued to be sold, a reminder of the racism that fuels the pro-gun paranoia. But the NRA didn’t object to displaying “The Ex,” and she still appears on the company’s website, where one commenter writes, “This Zombie Bitch is awesome, reminds me of a girl I knew in High School.”

Here is “The Ex”:

And here she is after getting shot up:
(Zombie Industries.)

Up until yesterday Amazon was also selling the $89.99 product. (“Great for a bachelor party!” read the only five-star review. “This was a very original, cool way to kick off a bachelor party for a firearm enthusiast, such as myself.”)

Noting that “‘The Ex’ shooting target turns violence against women into a joke and promotes the idea that men should want to kill their ex-wives or ex-girlfriends,” the activist group Ultra Violet petitioned Amazon to stop selling it. In less than 24 hours, 63,000 people signed and “The Ex” was gone.  

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A similar, if real-life, ex target was Grimilda Figueroa, the former wife of kidnap suspect Ariel Castro. Castro was accused of beating Figueroa, breaking her nose twice, knocking out a tooth, dislocating her shoulders and threatening to kill her and their children, according to a filing in Cuyahoga County Domestic Relations Court. The filing also said that Castro “frequently abducts [his] daughters and keeps them from mother/petitioner/legal custodian.” [UPDATE re misogynists and mannequins, from AP: Castro kept a life-sized, wigged mannequin around to scare Figueroa and others. He'd sometimes drive around with it, and he once told a young nephew of his: "Act up again, you'll be in that back room with the mannequin."]  

Figueroa’s brother, Jose Figueroa, told RadarOnline that in 1996 Grimilda and her children with Castro fled from him to a battered women’s shelter. “If she stayed with Ariel, he would have killed her,” Jose said. “She had gone to the hospital and called the police many times but they never did anything.” (Grimilda remarried and moved out long before Castro allegedly kidnapped the three women; she died of cancer last year.)

If Jose Figueroa’s account is accurate, his sister may have saved her life and her children’s, as so many abused women do, by finding refuge in a women’s shelter. But, as we learned this week, men who abuse women will be able to corner them even more easily: The sequester is cutting some $20 million of funding for women’s shelters and protection programs over the next year.

Like all sequester cuts that don’t involve airplane delays, the cuts to shelters are not making the national news, but they are locally. From KSL.com in Utah:

Julee Smith, the director of Your Community Connection in Ogden, said she works with people every day who are running from violent situations. She said many abuse victims need a place to stay, and due to the lack of funding, she has had to start turning them away,

“We literally had a lady call, she had four children and begged to get in our shelter,” Smith said. “She said, ‘I have 45 minutes to get out.’ And we said ‘We’re sorry, we don’t have any room.’ And then the police call and say that she has been abused again.”

Tim Murphy of Mother Jones cites other shelters and domestic violence programs that are being reduced or completely eliminated in Louisiana, Kentucky, Rhode Island, Oregon and other states. “The projections are bleak,” he writes.

Sen. Tom Harkin’s (D-Iowa) office estimates that 70,120 fewer domestic violence victims will have access to recovery programs and shelters; 35,900 fewer people will get help obtaining non-shelter services such as restraining orders and sexual assault treatment. Cuts to programs related to the Victims Against Crime Act will hurt another 310,574 people.

This increased danger to women has been made possible by the same pols, mostly Republicans, who are too scared of the NRA to pass an expansion of background checks, checks that would block sales of guns to anyone convicted of domestic violence, among other crimes.

And you know that big-shock Pentagon report released Tuesday that estimates 26,000 sexual assaults took place in the armed forces in 2012, a 37 percent increase over 2010? The report that also said fewer than 10 percent of the sex-assault cases end with a conviction at court-martial, while 62 percent of victims who dare to report an assault are rewarded with retaliation?

Well, expect those stats to get worse. The sequester is putting on hold Department of Defense plans to hire 829 “sexual assault response coordinators.” Army Secretary John McHugh and Chief of Staff Ray Odierno told the Senate Armed Forces Committee last month that sequestration will hurt efforts to reduce sexual harassment and assault in the Army in many ways, from “slowing hiring actions to delaying lab results, which hinders our ability to provide resolution for victims.”

Of course, as we also learned this week, the value of some of those sexual assault response coordinators is questionable to begin with. On Sunday, Lt. Col Jeffrey Krusinski, the chief of the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program, was arrested in a northern Virginia parking lot for sexual assault. A police report says that Krusinski, 41, was drunk and had grabbed a woman’s breast and buttocks. She fought him off, and his mug shot has the cuts to prove it.

While millions of men worldwide and the institutionalized male establishment at large still believe it’s their right to subjugate women, let’s not leave the impression that only women are victims. In the Pentagon report above, an estimated 13,900 of the 1.2 million active duty men said they had experienced some form of sexual assault in the past year (a far smaller portion than the active duty women). About a quarter of the victims of non-family child abductions are boys. And from 1994 to 2010, about four in five victims of intimate partner violence were female, according to the Bureau of Justice stats. But that leaves one in five victims to be men.

As if to prove the exception to the female-victim rule, there’s Jodi Arias. She was found guilty yesterday of first-degree murder of her ex, Travis Alexander. It was a particularly gruesome murder, with a heavy sexual backstory. A media circus, led by CNN’s sister channel HLN, has been making ecstatic noises over the trial’s every salacious detail.

When the Cleveland story broke Monday, it was hard to tell if HLN resented it for overshadowing the climax of its Jodi Arias witch-burning or welcomed it as a replacement now that the Arias show is winding down.

But instead of another media circus over the story in Cleveland, let’s see if the media and its audience—that is, all of us—can more seriously address the violence against women that is woven into our culture and that politicians in Washington threaten to make worse.  

While the Senate moved quickly to end furloughs that were causing air traffic delays, most of the sequester's effects continue, under-reported and unseen, Leslie Savan writes.

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