Sunday, March 26, 2006

A couple weeks ago WRKO talk show host John DePetro ignited a firestorm by suggesting that Imette St. Guillen, who was brutally murdered after a night of bar-hopping in New York, should not have been out alone at 4 a.m. DePetro was immediately assailed for “blaming the victim”. Unfortunately his critics offered no real-life ways for young women to deal with real-world dangers. Simply put: Mr. DePetro’s advice was strictly pragmatic, his critics’ complaint strictly ideological. The sad fact is: the pragmatic approach could save a life, while an unwillingness to consider it could cost one.

No one has suggested that the murderer was not 100% responsible for Imette’s tragic death. But are we really “blaming the victim” in this case to suggest that certain minor precautions for a night on the town may have lowered the risk of danger for her? Or might lower the risk of danger for other young women like her? Should we follow the ideological route, as one woman in a chat room discussion on the case put it: “Yeah, we women should all stay locked up and afraid for our lives. Guess freedom in America is for men only, right? Might as well put long veils on us, lest we provoke the inner rapist…in men.” Is encouraging women to be proactive in protecting themselves as much as possible from danger (just as sensible men do, by the way) really tantamount to imprisonment or slavery?

It’s a question. But for a night out on the town the pragmatic approach is probably more useful. It goes something like this: regardless of the activity—whether it’s driving a car, crossing the street, cooking with gas, bowling, or bar-hopping—certain patterns of behavior expose you to more risk than others, and certain choices in conduct reduce risk. If you want to discuss the evils of patriarchy over drinks with strangers, just make sure you’ve got a friend you can count on close by. And just as you wouldn’t let a friend who’s drunk drive, don’t leave a friend who’s been drinking alone in a bar in the wee hours to fend for herself, no matter how much she protests or how fed up you are.

Here are the facts: Imette St. Guillen was at the bar at 4a.m. She was alone. She was drinking. At closing time, she was escorted out by a bouncer. The bouncer was convicted felon Darryl Littlejohn. If any—any—of these particular elements of the equation had been different, odds are Ms. St. Guillen would be alive today. You do the math. There are things we can do as a society to reduce risks like these, and things we can do as individuals to look out for ourselves and each other. It’s vital that we teach our boys to respect women, for one. It’s just as vital that we empower girls to act responsibly on their own behalf, so they never have to rely solely on “the kindness of strangers” at closing time.

2 Comments:

Blogger mmennonno said...

I received the following response to this piece today:

Mike Mennonno's column of March 28, 2006, regarding the death of Immete St. Guillen, rather missed the mark. Mennono argues that although violence is a community issue, women must be responsible for their own safety, and that many of the arguments made against that proposition are idealogical and lack pragmatism. Mennonno argues that certain "patterns of behavior" exposed her to danger, and that if just "one thing" about that night had been different, the outcome might have been different.

He is correct. Things might indeed have been different if the bar who hired Littlejohn had run a criminal background check and refused to hire a violent felon. If the bar had a policy of calling cabs for intoxicated patrons. If
just one of the bartenders who served Immete that night had been properly trained, and had refused to continue serving her. This is indeed a pattern of opportunistic, profit-seeking behavior that exposed Immete to danger.

The problem does not lie in holding women responsible for their choices. The problem arises when we are the ONLY ones held responsible for our choices. Doing so is both ideological and impractical - it fails to structure community-based solutions that really could keep other people - women, men, old, young, safer.


My response:

I do not disagree with anything you have written. I absolutely hold the bar owner, the bartender, and Darryl Littlejohn ultimately accountable. Working towards eliminating the circumstances that conspired against Imette is a necessary and noble goal, and you are right to insist that we acknowledge and keep the focus on bar owners and bartenders. The law must be much more proactive in this, too. I acknowledge I did not focus adequately on this aspect of the tragedy in my recent column.

I still maintain that we should try to behave with appropriate and realistic knowledge of potential risks, no matter how unfortunate it is that we have to consider such risks, and while working to eliminate them. I don't believe that saying this equates to "blaming the victim" for such risks, or that those who may ignore the risks are "fair game" for predators. Neither do I believe that acknowledging risk exonerates predators and perpetrators of violence against women.

I do absolutely believe that friends bear responsibility for one another’s safety and wellbeing, just as bartenders bear responsibility for cutting off patrons who are inebriated, and bar owners must be held responsible for hiring convicted felons who put their patron’s lives at risk.

A number of unfortunate circumstances conspire in cases like this one. To ignore, simply for the sake of argument, that Imette’s friends left her alone late at night when she had been drinking, leaves out a vital piece of information about the case. There’s not one lesson to be drawn from the tragedy, but many, and we should not shy away from discussing them all, in the hopes of preventing future such tragedies.

As for John DePetro, I think his comments and the firestorm they provoked made for good theater (e.g. the debate on the Abram’s Report at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11727163/ ), but ill-served students and young people in our community, men and women alike. If, by the way, you can read the debate I’ve cited above and argue that DePetro was the most sensationalistic and exploitative of the issue for ideological purposes, I’d have to respectfully disagree. He took a distant third, in my opinion.

3/28/2006  
Blogger mmennonno said...

The reader who wrote yesterday responds to my response:

Thanks for writing back, and for having putting so much thought into your response. I absolutely understand the point that you have made. There is of course a risk/benefit balance in almost everything that we do, and we bear the consequences of the risks that we take. My gripe is not with that analysis, but with its application.

When a liquour store, or a drycleaner, or a hardware store is robbed, the public and the media do not often comment that the proprietor "should have know better than to be in that neighborhood", or "loaded his drop-safe in view of the window". These comments would be construed as racist, insensitive, or inane. When a pedestrian is struck in a crosswalk, we do not say that he "took the risk of crossing at a major intersection at midnight on a Saturday, when drunk drivers are rife" - that statement would be considered idiotic.

We, as a society, do not generally comment on the risk/benefit balance that people make, do not generally critique the risks that people assume. Unless the person is a woman and the risk is sexual violence. We seem to feel that this particular form of violence gives us license to speculate, to analyze, to critique. This says something larger - something about entitlement, and power, and who we deem ourselves fit to judge.

In truth, the risk/benefit balance doesn't matter. Why? Because women are raped and murdered in their own homes. By their husbands and partners. Because women are raped as children, by their fathers, uncles, grandfathers. Immet was raped and murdered after getting smashingly drunk. Rachel Entwhistle was murdered by her husband while holding their child in her arms - she was the good suburban housewife, and that didn't matter either. It didn't matter for her, or for Elizabeth Lochtefeld, Deanna Cremins, Anmorian Or, Molly Bish, Sarah Prior, Sarah Araujo, Betsy McCandless, Anne Sluti - it doesn't matter if we are good girls - we are women.

What does matter is to whom we as a society choose to apply the analysis. Because prosecutors know about the analysis too. The analysis is still there, still lurking in the minds of jurors who weigh comparative fault regardless of what the judge instructs on the law. This is why so few rape cases are taken to verdict. This is why fewer than 5% of offenders are actually convicted, and fewer than that serve time. This is why Daryl Littlejohn was able to offend - because most people do the risk/benefit of Immet being out drunk, and very few do the risk/benefit of hiring Littlejohn.

So - no, I do not disagree with your analysis. I disagree only with the selective application of that analysis that we as a society continue to make. And also with the assumption that if Immet had made a different calculation, she would have been safe. That doesn't reflect the reality of our lives -she could quite easily have been raped and beaten to death cold sober in her own bed by her roomate's boyfriend. And that is where I would truly like to focus the analysis - why do we, as a society, hate women so intensely? And what can we, as a community, do to invoke change?

3/29/2006  

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