This post was originally published at the South Seattle Emerald.
By Erica C. Barnett
Last week, a 35-year-old man who had been released from jail less than one week earlier attacked a county employee in a women’s restroom at the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle. The assailant, a Level 1 sex offender with a history of attacking women, is homeless and told detectives he had smoked “homemade meth” immediately before the attack. A police report filed after the incident indicates the attacker may suffer from mental illness.
The particulars of this case might lead a reasonable person to conclude that people who commit sex offenses need closer monitoring once they’re released from custody, along with access to housing and mental health care to prevent them from reoffending once they’re released.
Instead, the assault became a symbol for conservative officials, who suggested “solutions” that included sweeping dozens of homeless people from a nearby encampment and directing women to change the way they behave in public.
In a message that went out to all courthouse employees, the county suggested that employees who might be vulnerable to sexual assault could avoid being attacked by following a list of “tips… to enhance your personal safety and avoid potential trouble” while downtown.
The “personal safety tips” will be familiar to many women, who are often told that we must restrict our movements and remain hypervigilant in order to prevent our own sexual assault: Leave all personal belongings behind when you leave your car, or “if you must carry a purse,” hug it close to your torso; wear flat shoes and loose clothing that will allow you to run; don’t walk outside and take a security escort if it’s dark out; use underground tunnels to completely “avoid surface streets” downtown; huddle near buildings while waiting for crossing signals so no one can sneak up from behind; don’t use headphones or look at your phone; and avoid “shortcuts,” including “parks, parking lots, garages and alleyways.”
Telling women to live in terror is easier than teaching men not to be rapists. Telling homeless people to stop existing in public is easier than giving everyone a home.
I don’t remember the first time I was told to never walk to my car alone, to stay home at night, to keep my back against the wall, or to keep a key lodged firmly between my middle and index fingers in case I need to stab an assailant in the eye. I just know that I internalized the lesson that I can prevent my own sexual assault, and its corollary: If I’m assaulted, it’s because I did something “wrong.” I wore my purse on my shoulder, instead of clutching it to my chest with both arms. I listened to music instead of my surroundings. I didn’t identify every potential exit route. My female body was the problem, and I failed to follow all the restrictions imposed on its movements.
It’s a comforting idea, especially if you’re a policy maker who wants to shift blame from systems to individuals. If we can make women “safe” from assault by convincing them to move through the world in a certain way, there’s no need to address the larger question of why some men feel entitled to women’s bodies, or why the punishment for sexual offenses is, too often, incarcerating men and releasing them with no support system in place to prevent them from offending again. If we can identify the problem as “homeless people” rather than “homelessness,” the solution becomes much simpler: Make the people go somewhere else. Problem solved. Continue reading “Proposed Solutions to Crime Near Courthouse Focus on Symptoms, Not Causes”