Bashing the bashed
Some who read about deputy-involved violence on the Gold Line blame the victim
By Carla Sameth 12/05/2012
When the Pasadena Weekly was about to publish my story “One Day on the Gold Line” (Aug. 30), I was told I was courageous for “going public” with my experience. I didn’t really understand why. Helping others tell their stories by advocating for people, organizations and causes is what I do, both personally and professionally. I had decided it was time to tell one of my own. Then I discovered the risk involved and understood what people were calling “courage.”
A first-person essay is a story from one person’s perspective — its value lies in putting readers “right there.” My goal was to raise consciousness about the culture of violence within the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department by sharing my own experience of having my nose broken when I couldn’t find my Metro ticket.
Though most responses to my essay were supportive, I found myself on the receiving end of a certain level of viciousness that looked for character flaws in me to justify the violence I endured. I saw terms tossed about that I had only heard used in noir movies, accusing me of being things like a “lesbian charlatan.” (“Lesbian” I accept; “charlatan” — exciting — but not me.) One anonymous post suggested that my whole life was a lie and sought to cross out a lifetime of social justice and community work with the tap of a keyboard.
Having worked for many years with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, I remember well the many battered women who were accused of throwing themselves against walls or otherwise causing their injuries, or were simply being found wanting as human beings — deserving to be beat up. Similarly, rape victims are often accused of “asking for it” by their dress or behavior, and “whistleblowers” find themselves facing a case built against them, attacking their character and performance once they “blow.”
As psychologist Dr. Mary Hayden, PhD, explains, “People don’t want to think that it could happen to them, so they blame the victim, thinking there is something unique that made them attract violence.”
The Internet and the advent of anonymous posting add a new dimension. Susan Turner Lowe, a local communications leader with a long career in public information and journalism, commented, “Before the Internet, people said these things — many times, hateful — out of fear or defensiveness, but they never had an audience like they do now. If this provokes a thoughtful discussion, that’s part of the beauty of the Internet, but it can also be a magnet for the un-moderated expression of — often anonymous — hatred, where anyone can attack anything without having to answer personally and then the rest ‘pile on.’” The unfortunate outcome is that the main issue can become lost in the melee that follows — that of the greater problem of police misconduct and the culture of violence within the LA County Sheriff’s Department (as in this case).
Beginning to feel as if my head had been smashed into a pillar all over again, I turned to family and friends. My usually not-so-emotional brother wrote me this email:
I’m afraid this is an unfortunate but inevitable by-product of attracting public attention. Try very hard to ignore it, because no harm will come of it other than the sting that you of course feel. You decided to go public because you hope that doing so might lead others to take action that will result in reducing the likelihood that what happened to you will happen to others. I think that was very brave, even if you didn’t specifically anticipate that among the results might be something like this kind of hate mail. I also think that there is still every reason to believe that your hope will be realized. The vast majority of people who read what you wrote will be moved by it, and among them may well be some with the motivation and means to take action that will effect policy changes to reduce police misbehavior. On the other hand, I don’t think there’s any risk that anyone will be moved by the comments of either the cynics in general, or this person in particular, to do anything that would lead to an increase in police misbehavior.
This is just one of the costs (perhaps unanticipated) of doing the right thing. Take solace in the fact that that is what you did. Then forget about it. I don’t think there is any response to this kind of nonsense that will make things better, and I think there is great risk that anything you try to do will make things worse — at the very least, it will prolong the time it takes for the sting to fade — which I promise you, it will.
People from across the demographic richness of LA approached me to say they were moved by my essay, often sharing their own experiences of police brutality. Others told me their eyes had been opened to a whole world of which they had been unaware and that they were suddenly questioning mysterious deaths that had occurred in custody and noticing other stories of police misconduct.
The other day, a friendly “front desk person” came running up to me. “Can I give you a hug?” he asked. He seemed nice enough. “Did I look like I needed one?” I asked.
“No — it’s just … I read your article,” he said. “I really appreciated it. My friends and I have been through some bad experiences with the sheriff’s deputies on the Metro. Not hurt the way you were, but thanks for speaking out!”
Perhaps the greatest wisdom comes from my 16-year-old son: “Mom, you gotta realize, once you write something for the public, it belongs to them; you go out with your story, you gotta expect this.” He’s not a bit fazed by hearing me called a lesbian grifter. He is proud that his mother is not afraid to speak out. And I am forever grateful to the Pasadena Weekly for providing the platform (no pun intended).
Carla Sameth is a writer, co-founder of The Pasadena Writing Project and president of iMinds PR imindspr.com.