At around three o’clock in the morning of October 3rd, after an ordinary night out, an Upper Ninth Ward resident and two of her male friends biked to her home on France Street, where the three of them lingered together in her backyard. They had been talking for a few minutes when she caught sight of a tall, lean figure, his face covered, walking briskly towards her through the driveway, and the night took a terrifying turn. With a gun in his hand, he forced the three of them to get on the ground. “He took our wallets,” she said, “He made me go down on him, and then he asked me if I had ever been knocked unconscious, and pistol whipped me.”
The violent encounter took place just days after a similar attack on North Villere Street in the St. Roch neighborhood, in which a man with a bandana over his face slipped into a young woman’s house through the bars on the window, took her money, and sexually assaulted her. In both cases, the man used aggressive language, calling the women bitches— and threatened them at gunpoint. At least three other assaults, one of which happened on North Lopez, the other two on Chartres, shared enough characteristics that many, including the victims, believe that the multiple assaults have been the work of a single rapist. While the police have not officially connected the incidents due to lack of physical evidence, they do see the cases as potentially related.
The attacks have left residents of the neighborhood, especially women, feeling frightened and shaken. “You can sense the change in energy around the neighborhood,” says Thistle Musgrave, a young woman staying on St. Roch Avenue, not far from the site of the North Villere attack. “My friend won’t leave the house at night without a metal pipe in her hand.” Avery White, a resident of the Upper Ninth Ward, no longer feels safe coming and going from her house, where she lives alone. “The idea of a violent rapist targeting women in our neighborhood and breaking into their houses at night feels like something out of a bad dream. But this is the reality we are dealing with until he’s caught.”
In an open letter to Councilwomen Nadine Ramsey and Susan Guidry, and Sexual Assault Response Team Coordinator Amanda Tonkovitch, downriver neighborhood residents voiced their concerns that the police and city officials may not be responding adequately. “The recent series of aggravated rapes in the 8th, 9th, and 5th wards has left many of us scared and on edge… Since sexual assaults have historically been ignored and under- reported by the NOPD, as brought forth by the Inspector General’s report last year, we want to ensure these incidents are being properly investigated and all efforts are being undertaken to protect residents.” The letter makes reference to one of the Inspector General’s highest profile investigations last year, which looked into the history of the NOPD’s neglect of sexual assault cases. According to the OIG’s report, officers charged with investigating sex crimes had failed to follow up on 86 percent of nearly 1,300 assault cases from January 2011 to December 2013. Only a few months before the investigation, sex crimes detective Merrill Merricks claimed to have cleared the backlog of rape kits, with all collected DNA samples sent to the lab for processing, but the investigation revealed that samples hadn’t left NOPD premises. Another detective in the unit stated that she didn’t even believe “simple rape,” the legal term for rape which takes place under circumstances of extreme inebriation and unconsciousness, was a crime.
Hoping to put the mismanagement behind them, police spokesperson Tyler Gamble insists that the NOPD has now “completely overhauled the Special Victims Section.” A press statement issued in June asserted that over 300 neglected cases were being given a comprehensive review by a special police task force, and that they would be drastically changing the structure of the unit in order to ensure accountability. One of these changes has been moving the unit from the police station to the Family Justice Center, who, according to their website, is a partnership of agencies dedicated to ending family violence, child abuse, sexual assault, and stalking. Amanda Tonkovitch, who also operates out of the Family Justice Center, feels that thus far the reforms have been successful, especially in regards to the move. “That the detectives that are investigating sex crimes are in the same building as advocates keeps them both held accountable,” Tonkovitch says. “Every other week the police bring their cases to advocates at the FJC, such as social workers, counselors, nurses that are doing the evidence collection, and the District Attorney’s Office all review their cases and make sure survivors are getting the support they need.”
But at least one of the Upper Ninth Ward survivors has mixed feelings about her interaction with the police. “The police have been okay. They have been good about contacting me when they have any updates. The two I talked to seem to really want to get [the rapist].” However, while she attests to their swift arrival on the scene once she finally reached 911, the initial call she placed did not go through. During the robbery, while the assailant’s attention was diverted, she had a chance to place a quick call to 911. When the call failed, she lost her chance to get help. “I only had 20 seconds to do that. It was the difference between an armed robbery, and a sexual assault and an armed robbery.”
Looking to protect themselves without relying on the authorities for help, some of the victims’ friends approached Joseph Meissner, the owner of Shaolin-Do, a martial arts studio on St. Claude, to learn self-defense techniques. This past October, Meissner held a well- attended free class, focusing on techniques that would be easiest to remember under stress. “If violence is the only way out, you have to become like a vicious animal,” Meissner told The Gambit. “You have to be able to drop social inhibitions, be willing to claw at the eyes, bite, knee, elbow, and strike viciously to take away that person’s ability to hurt you.”
THAT WE ALL KNOW SOMEONE WHO HAS BEEN A VICTIM OF SEXUAL ASSAULT IS A STATISTICAL CERTAINTY. WE HAVE NO EXCUSE FOR TREATING IT AS SOMETHING THAT EXISTS OUTSIDE OF OUR SOCIAL SPHERE.
Even if you do everything right, she says, “you can still get assaulted in your house.” In the case of the France Street assault, the victim did not see self-defense as a possibility. “There wasn’t a lot I could physically do because he had a gun, and two of my friends were there. I felt that there weren’t a lot of options to keep the three of us from getting killed.”
That we may not be able to prevent rape is a bleak conclusion. Then again, there lies potential to unify in the face of its ubiquity. Studies report that as many as one in five women have experienced a sexual assault. It is clear, therefore, that some of the most important work to be done as a society lies not only in prevention, but in more openly processing assault trauma. As much as rape occurs in American society, discussions of
rape are exponentially less common. Issues related to race, class, and equality may be uncomfortable to bring up in casual conversation, but there are few social ills we are as hesitant to discuss as sexual violence. An astounding statistic from the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Study states that over 68% of sexual assaults go unreported to police. Our reluctance to collectively acknowledge the occurrence of rape is so extreme that victims would often rather allow the incident to go unresolved than expose themselves to the associated scrutiny. The typically heavy handling by police only adds to the overall trauma of the experience. This is especially true when one considers that most sexual assaults are intimate violence—perpetrated not by strangers, but by people known to the survivor. How then can we as a community make it clear to victims that if they are violated, they won’t be shamed or forsaken, or permanently defined by what happened to them?
National Sexual Assault Hotline
Crescent House Healing & Empowerment Center Crisis Line
New Orleans Family Justice Center
Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault
Women with a Vision
For the France Street survivor, getting connected to the surprisingly large network of survivors was one of the most profound parts of her overall experience. “Because I’ve been so open about what happened to me, it’s brought a lot of other stories to the surface. People around me have been able to come forward with their own stories.” Learning how many women have been quietly shouldering the burden of this trauma makes her determined to start addressing sexual assault better as a community. “Trauma doesn’t have to be the end of my life as I know it. I want to do what I can because I’ve had this experience, and I want to help people talk about it.” As of a few weeks ago, she and her friends have founded a support group for people “to talk about what makes us fearful in a supportive environment.”
She also hopes to start promoting community-wide home invasion prevention, envisioning a neighborhood organization which collectively raises funds to update security features like iron bars and floodlights, and keeps a better eye out for one another in the event that the police are inaccessible or not a good option.
For those of us who are fearful and alarmed by recent events, this is perhaps the most hopeful outlook. If we could count on support and recognition from our communities unconditionally, it may be easier to stop fearing the worst. When we do feel afraid, we can channel our fear into action by taking the initiative to end the isolation that victims experience, and start uprooting the cultural elements which support a society in which the majority of rapists will never be held accountable, whether by the legal system or their peers. Tonkovitch calls it “bystander intervention,” in which those on the sidelines decisively intervene before or during an assault. She also uses the term to refer to interrupting instances of sexual intimidation even on the smallest scale. “It’s intimidating, but we have to focus on a larger cultural shift. There’s no quick fix. It’s about interrupting the culture to show we support and believe people.”
This is especially true in a city like New Orleans, where anonymity is rare. We pride ourselves on knowing our neighbors, and belonging to a tight knit community, but we are often ignorant of abuses taking place around us. That we all know someone who has been a victim of sexual assault is a statistical certainty. We have no excuse for treating it as something that exists outside of our social sphere. Sexual assault cuts across race and class lines, and yet we only talk about it publically in the context of exceptional cases such as these. Unfortunately, the recent attacks are not as out of the ordinary as we’d like to think. While being raped by a stranger (rather than someone known to the survivor) is unusual, studies show that 90 percent of rapes are committed by a serial perpetrator. Therefore, in a small city like New Orleans, we are likely to know sexual assault perpetrators as well as their victims. This is why it is so crucial to remove some of the stigma and create a safer space for survivors to come forward.
Considering that as of 2014, 229 rape kits had yet to be processed, NOPD’s sexual assault unit has plenty of work still ahead of them. We have to invest in a community infrastructure which both believes and supports survivors, and relieves them of the burden of holding perpetrators accountable.