"How come I've never seen you people before?"
"Because we are the people you do not see."
This exchange, between a gangster who traffics in human organs and a Nigerian illegal immigrant cab driver in the British film Dirty, Pretty Things, drives home the central theme of Stephen Frears' 2002 drama about the underground lives of immigrants in London. The African cab driver, the prostitute and the Turkish maid are the people who make life for the middle class and the rich possible in cities like London, Paris and New York.
Who they were in their home countries (a doctor, in the case of the film's Nigerian cab driver), what they suffered, the daily compromises they must make in order to survive in an underground economy that offers no protections and meager wages, are largely irrelevant to those of us living in mainstream society. They cut our lawns and work as busboys in the finest restaurants, and we see them, but we don't see them.
And perhaps this is what made the story of Nafissatou Diallo — the Guinean-immigrant hotel housekeeper who alleged that she was the victim of a brutal sexual assault at the hands of one of the most powerful men in Europe — so compelling. For a brief period, while charges against her attacker were pending, we were forced to look at the life of a woman whom so many New Yorkers encounter every day but never really see. Diallo's account — that she was attacked by a naked and determined male guest in a $3,000-a-night suite at the Sofitel Hotel — was so credible that police seized her alleged assailant, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, as he tried to leave on a flight to Paris, arrested him and held him at Rikers Island.
Fast-forward three months, and after a brief farewell tour at the International Monetary Fund, Strauss-Kahn is a free man, expected to arrive in France Sunday, where a renewed political career is not out of the question. His supporters will surely harden their conviction that DSK was a victim of outright lies — if not extortion. Diallo, her version of the events discredited, finds that even her future in America may be in jeopardy.
Perhaps it's not surprising that it ended this way. Strauss-Kahn's defense team launched into attack mode as soon as he was arrested on May 14, seeking to discredit his accuser. The prosecution team also began to investigate the background of the accuser as they sought to test the soundness of their case.
Within weeks, word began to leak that the Guinean immigrant may have lied on her application for political asylum. That within days after the attack, she participated in a phone call with an accused drug dealer. That in that call, she spoke of the fact that Strauss-Kahn is wealthy and influential. The New York Post issued an unsubstantiated report that Diallo had been a prostitute in the past.
It was as though a magic wand had been waved. Diallo was quickly discredited. It was rumored that the case against Strauss-Kahn could not stand in the face of accusations by a witness with so many "credibility problems." Newspaper columns shifted the focus from exploring the excesses of a powerful man with a trail of ugly stories involving unwanted advances on unsuspecting women to speculation about the improper motives of the housekeeper.
Never explained was why — even if all the stories circulating about Diallo were true — the credibility of Diallo's depiction of Strauss-Kahn's violent attack against her would be deemed incredible. Diallo's story and the DNA evidence collected in the hotel room supported that a violent assault had taken place. Strauss-Kahn's story that a consensual sexual encounter had occurred lacked both corroborating evidence and logical cohesion.
Nevertheless, despite a round of late-summer media interviews in which Diallo attempted to clear her name, New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. decided to drop the case against Strauss-Kahn. Sympathetic columns were devoted to the hand-wringing dilemma faced by Vance. It wasn't that the prosecution didn't believe her story. The prosecution, we are told, simply grew irritated with the victim, who inconveniently had a past too messy, too imperfect, too real, to make her a credible witness in a high-profile case against a powerful man.
Did Diallo's past misstatements really make the case against Strauss-Kahn impossible to successfully prosecute? This is, after all, the same city, where in the Central Park jogger case of 1989, five black and Latino youths were tried and convicted for a rape they didn't commit. The victim was so brutally beaten that she could not remember the assault, much less identify her attackers.
But in that case, the victim's innocence was unassailable. Her bona fides as a young, white Wall Street trader, out jogging like thousands of others in the city's most famous public park, and the fear of young black and brown criminals on the streets in the 1980s, made the crime cry out for justice — even imperfect justice. It cost the young men between five and 13 years of their lives before they were exonerated and someone else found guilty.
But when the head of the International Monetary Fund is accused of "wilding" in a $3,000-a-night suite at one of the city's fanciest hotels, leaving his DNA at the scene and making a hasty departure on a flight from JFK, and the victim is a black African immigrant with dubious friends and a complex backstory, the demand for justice is considerably weaker.
The implications of Vance's decision are staggering. Are we to understand that even in the face of corroborating DNA evidence, a woman who has lied about being raped in another country can never be the victim of a rape in this country? Is this limited to rape? If Diallo had lied about being robbed in another country, would this make it impossible for a jury to believe that she'd been mugged on a street in New York?
It's no surprise that in the same week that the charges were dropped against Strauss-Kahn, the movie The Help enjoyed yet another week at the top of the box office. This is how America prefers to see its maids — noble, long-suffering, even a bit sassy — but free from lives made up of the kind of half-truths, moral compromises and complications that characterize the often messy lives of the real "help" whose work and sweat make possible the comfort and luxury of contemporary upper-middle-class life.
For these people, no DNA, no physical evidence, no prompt disclosure will erase the stain of an imperfect past. Vance's decision to drop the case has left Diallo and so many other unseen New Yorkers with only one conclusion: that the legal system will not protect them.
For just a few months this summer, Americans were transfixed by a story of the real "help" — striving, complicated, imperfect and very, very vulnerable. We looked away and went to the movies. And DSK is headed home to Paris.
Sherrilyn A. Ifill teaches at the law school of the University of Maryland.