It was like Tawana Brawley all over again.
That was my first thought upon hearing late last week that the Guinean hotel chambermaid who had accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, of rape "had credibility problems." She had ties to a drug gang. She had lied on her asylum application. She had lied about the sequence of events that followed the alleged sexual assault.
According to the New York Post, she might even have lied about the sexual assault — she might at first have agreed to have sex with Strauss-Kahn in exchange for money, then cried "rape" after he refused to pay her. (She filed a libel suit against the paper Tuesday to counter those accusations.)
Tawana Brawley, for those who don't remember, was the Newburgh, N.Y., teenager who was found stuffed in a plastic bag back in 1987, covered with feces, with her hair chopped off and racial expletives written all over her body. She accused four men of abducting and raping her, one of them a cop, the other an assistant district attorney.
Like the case of the Guinean chambermaid versus Strauss-Kahn, Brawley's case became a media storm. It made the Rev. Al Sharpton's career (although Sharpton has been conspicuously quiet about DSK) and destroyed those of two prominent black lawyers, C. Vernon Mason — at one time considered a likely New York City mayoral candidate — and Alton Maddox Jr.
But as in the Strauss-Kahn case, prosecutors could never corroborate any of Brawley's claims. The rape kit showed no signs of sexual abuse, and the media reporting led inexorably to the conclusion that she must have harmed herself. Why? We will never know for sure, because Brawley never talked.
Kenneth Thompson, the chambermaid's lawyer, promised that, unlike Brawley, she would deliver her version of events. But at this point, the scythe of the news cycle has already destroyed her reputation as thoroughly as we thought it had Strauss-Kahn's chances of becoming the next president of France.
Now prosecutors are telling the New York Post that all charges against DSK will be dropped. "Nothing that comes out of her mouth can be believed," one prosecutor reportedly said. And Strauss-Kahn's political career doesn't seem as dead as it was last week. The pundits are now backtracking to say that the media should be more careful, that the "perp walk" that presupposes guilt should be more closely examined, that prosecutors shouldn't be so quick to rush to judgment.
If these reforms come to pass and the careful evaluation of facts is applied to poor black men the same way they are to powerful white men, that might be a good thing. At New York's Rikers Island, where Strauss-Kahn spent several nights prior to being allowed to stay in a cushy $20,000-a-month apartment, the less-well-off accused languish as long as five years awaiting trial.
But the soul-searching over justice for the aggrieved white man ignores the plight of the poor black immigrant woman in this case, whose union initially stood behind her, and who made prosecutors cry the first time they heard her story. It used to be that a black woman couldn't even cry rape — by definition, she was considered a slut or worse.
Even in 2011, it seems, black women who accuse powerful men of rape have to lead lives above reproach. The Duke University lacrosse-team rape case from 2006, and the St. John's College case before that, bear witness to what happens when a young black woman of questionable repute charges rape against privileged men. But the life circumstances of marginalized women force them to make different life choices.
Let's take the realities facing the Guinean chambermaid and parse them out: An immigrant from Guinea — the impoverished, politically corrupt West African country exploited for its bauxite, the substance in aluminum foil and soda cans — comes to the U.S. in 2002 as immigration laws are tightening and wants to stay. It's not difficult to imagine the conversations she had with her immigration lawyer.
What does she need to say in order to stay? She needs to establish a well-founded fear of persecution. So she was raped? Say it was a gang rape, her lawyer might have said, and say it was a rape motivated for political reasons. And so the seeds of her undoing get sown in the soil of tortured U.S. immigration law.
Then there's the matter of the conversations she had, in a dialect of Fula, her native language, with a friend of hers who is in prison for smuggling marijuana. Given the astounding number of women who are incarcerated for being drug mules, it's a wonder the chambermaid is not imprisoned already.
Instead, she most likely took a kickback for allowing her name to be used on several phone lines that the marijuana dealers used to run their trade. Did she know what they were doing? Most likely, but she chose to look the other way. Given a chambermaid's probable salary of $400 a week, she was "hustling," or trying to make ends meet however she could. As the character Omar says in The Wire: "It's all in the game, yo."
But in this game, Strauss-Kahn, the former president of the IMF, and his wealthy wife, the French former TV journalist Anne Sinclair, held trump. Even though it was the prosecutor's office that revealed the chambermaid's fabrications, the rules of the game set up a paradigm that guaranteed the Guinean would lose. Thus, the reactions of a woman in shock after a traumatic sexual encounter are defined as "inconsistent." Although the physical evidence may back up her story, the content of her character undermines her case.
And yet, the iconography of the case was so rich: Here was the white man raping the black woman; the IMF raping poor Guinea; the rich raping the poor; the French aristocrats overdue for their comeuppance. The public and the media fell into all that symbolism and whipped it into a froth. But at the end of the day, Western values, the rule of law and facts, worked against the alleged victim and in favor of the accused.
Strauss-Kahn may yet have to face new charges of attempted rape in France, but he has money and privilege on his side and most likely will prevail. We may never know what happened in that hotel room, but it's practically guaranteed that a woman's life has been destroyed — that she may in fact face deportation because she had the temerity to accuse a powerful man of sexual aggression. Meanwhile, the press will examine its rush to judgment, then do the same thing when the next big case comes along, all in the name of drawing more eyeballs to their websites.
I just wish that all of this public soul-searching and fact-checking went so far as to include the more than 2 million prisoners now incarcerated in the U.S. — nearly half of whom are black men, and many of whom are there not for what they did but because police needed to close a case, and the local district attorney needed to get re-elected.
That would be real progress.
Documentary filmmaker June Cross teaches journalism at Columbia University. She is the author of Secret Daughter: A Mixed-Race Daughter and the Mother Who Gave Her Away.