Complicity (and Reflections on Anthony Sowell)

Phillip Morris at the Cleveland Plain Dealer has written a very apropos column on Anthony Sowell and the eleven women he murdered.

And as the unmistakable smell of rotting human flesh enveloped the neighborhood around Sowell’s house, a community shut its eyes and held it’s nose, while Sowell kept making his run to the beverage store.

The registered sexual predator in their midst made little effort to conceal the horrors that police say he perpetrated on women, but a neighborhood — and a city — blithely ignored the parade of women walking into Sowell’s home without ever walking out.

It appears that a serial killer was able to kill with abandon and confidence in a congested neighborhood because he knew that no one would bother to come looking.

The killer knew that on his streets, a black woman can simply disappear. No questions will be asked. He arrogantly told one of his victims, who managed to escape, that no one would come looking for her because she was a “crack bitch.”

This reminds us of the vast differences between what happens when a white woman, or an owning class woman, disappears versus a black woman, or poor woman. Not only were these women murdered, but no one was even seriously looking for them after they died. Even when relatives did note their absence, authorities declined to look into the matter. What’s the worth of a drug-addicted poor black woman? It should be the worth of a human being, but we have unmistakable tiers for determining who is worthy of society’s resources and emotional investment. Our own memories serve as evidence: when we think of missing women we heard about in the news, who comes to mind? Who’s searches made the media?

Newsweek recently had a story on this exact topic. It discusses a situation in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where ten women have been killed and several more are missing. Their profiles are strikingly similar to the women killed in Cleveland. All black. All poor. Most with a history of drugs.

“If it was someone of a different race, things would have been dealt with the first time around; it wouldn’t have taken the fifth or sixth person to be murdered,” says Andre Knight, a city-council member and president of the local NAACP chapter. “All these women knew each other and lived in the same neighborhood; this is the sign of a potential serial killer. When it didn’t get the kind of attention it needed, it made the African-American community frustrated.”

In Rocky Mount, the police only recently warmed to the thought of a serial killer, perhaps because a killer hasn’t been handed to them on a silver platter as Anthony Sowell was (though there is a local sex offender who was charged with one of the murders in October). Work hours and community resources would have to be expended to determine the existence of a serial killer and locate hir. Not worth it if the killer only strikes poor black victims. The community of Rocky Mount had better hold onto their resources for something more important. Sports stadium, anyone?

Sowell was, unfortunately, quite smart, and knew things like this. He struck upon a ‘winning’ formula, which probably also stroked his ego for its boldness, its audacity. He preyed on women whom he knew society valued little. He didn’t even bother to hide his deeds. He killed women and in some cases just left the bodies where they lay, allowing the stink of his murders to oppress the entire neighborhood. Everyone knew something or someone had died. And collectively, they accepted it with few questions. He knew they could smell it. When they did nothing, surely he felt that the neighborhood was complicit.

This case is really a story about complicity. Anthony Sowell did the raping and murdering. But so many others made it possible for him to do so. Don’t they deserve any credit for their work? The prison system, the police system, our “war on drugs”, drug dealers, the community, the city leaders, the economic system, institutional racism?

The number of people complicit in these rapes and murders of black women is staggering.

UPDATE: Someone who agrees with me:Cleveland, You Know You F&@ked Up, Right?

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13 thoughts on “Complicity (and Reflections on Anthony Sowell)

  1. It has nothing to do with being black. It has to do with being the hidden part of society. Prostitutes. Crack addicts. Kids living on the streets. Rochester had a serial killer who killed white prostitutes. No one noticed for years. In fact, most white serial killers kill white women and they get away with it because they choose people that no one will miss. A crack addict gone from the streets? She probably just moved on. Or maybe she is in rehab. This isn’t a racist issue. This is just the way all street people are treated.

  2. It stretches credibility to say race isn’t a factor in these women’s death.

    I am familiar with white serial killers who killed white prostitutes, such as the pig farmers outside of Vancouver. They also got away with their crimes relatively easily.

    But this is a classic race diversion tactic: it’s not race, it’s class! I readily admit that class is a huge factor here, which I believe I mention in the OP. That’s why similarly situated black and white women have been targeted by serial killers.

    But race is present. I am not the first person to notice that missing white women get more attention, especially when they are from the owning classes.

    But additionally, it is easy to show that black women, on average, are more likely to grow up in poverty, receive lower wages on average, are more likely to experience racial discrimination in school or work, receive worse health care, and are more likely to have encounters with the police. All these factors make black women more likely to be in that lower economic position, or to put it differently, to be more marginalized in society.

    And predators always aim for the easiest victims. The ones valued the least, at the furthest margins of society. And black women are more likely to be at that margin than white women.

  3. First, the link you pointed to has nothing to do with police investigation of murdered women. It has to do with press coverage. If you want to discuss how serial killers of white women get more press coverage that’s a different issue.

    Second, “And predators always aim for the easiest victims” is 100% wrong. Almost all white serial killers kill white women. In fact, you can count the number of white serial killers who don’t target white women on one hand and have fingers left over. In virtually every single case where serial killers kill street women, no investigation is done until a body is discovered.

    “And black women are more likely to be at that margin than white women” is irrelevant. There are many more white women on the fringe of society than there are black women. And white women are MUCH more likely to be killed by a serial killer than black women.

  4. the press has a lot to do with it. if the community is aware of what is going on and feels that they can go to authorities and truly be listened to, the investigation will go much better. the relationship with the community is one of the primary things that helps in investigations – get people to talk. so if the press does not give attention to crimes against groups at the margin, it aids in creating an environment that tells members of these groups that no one will listen or help. it goes back to complicity at yet another level.

    how are there many more white women on the fringe of society than there are black women?

    i don’t recall seeing anywhere in the original post anything about the number of serial killings of white women vs black women. that is not the main argument. the argument is that when marginalized people are killed, their stories receive little attention (at all levels – noticing what is going on and caring, having authorities take appropriate and thorough action, receiving media coverage, etc.). i noticed in various articles about this case that there is great concern from people that have friends and family members who have gone missing and nothing was done (in other words, could they be one of his victims?). as Ian Urbina’s article in The New York Times states:

    ‘The area in the east side of Cleveland where Mr. Sowell lives is predominantly black and very poor. Judy Martin, who lives in a Cleveland suburb and is the director of Survivors/Victims of Tragedy, said there was a question about whether missing-person reports, especially those involving members of minority groups or people who live in poor neighborhoods, were taken seriously enough by the police.

    “We have a lot of women of color who disappeared and who police just never even bothered to look for,” Ms. Martin said.’

    i know i’m always told ‘well what more do you want people to do?’ in cases like this. but at what point to people add up all the elements (complaints of dead body smells, record of having raped a woman, women in the community disappearing, police stopping by but never checking out the residence, several reports of violence and rape that were never followed through, being found over a beaten, naked woman and not investigated, etc.) and just shrug if off as nothing?

    i have often wondered what do you do when the legal authorities will not help you. i don’t have answers for that question…

  5. “that is not the main argument. the argument is that when marginalized people are killed, their stories receive little attention”

    Actually no. Your argument is that when marginalized people disappear, the police do nothing. Lots of marginalized women disappear because they have moved away but haven’t left a forwarding address. Most of the time they are fine but there is no easy way to track them. A more serious investigation probably would be able to determine whether they were OK or they had been murdered. But it’s hard to justify spending money to investigate something when it isn’t clear that there has been a crime. If you disappeared it would be a different story. The police could see that your credit cards weren’t being used. They could check airports for flights. They could see if you had packed your belongings. They could interview your friends and co-workers.

    “We have a lot of women of color who disappeared and who police just never even bothered to look for,” Ms. Martin said.’

    Yes, and Rochester, NY had a lot of white women who disappeared. And so did Seattle, WA. And because they were prostitutes and drug addicts, the police in those cities did nothing until the bodies started turning up.

    This isn’t a black or white story. This is what happens to marginalized women of any race when a smart serial killer kills them and disposes of their bodies so that they are hard to find. I suggest you read about the Green River Killer.

  6. The Green River serial killer is a well known story. I already said I am familiar with serial killers who prey on white women.

    I am trying to explain at this point that realities of race in America make it more likely for a black woman than a white woman to end up at society’s margins. When tearful family members report a poor black woman missing, it’s not likely she just “moved away but ha[s]n’t left a forwarding address”. I don’t understand why you find police excuses credible in this situation.

    My main argument is about more than the police. As in the title and the final sentence of the OP, my post is about complicity. The police are part of that, but not all of it. Race plays a factor, but isn’t the only one.

  7. @Tom
    “There are many more white women on the fringe of society than there are black women.”
    I am interested if you have any supporting documentation. That’s an interesting topic, the racial make-up of societies margins. I have a feeling that POC are disproportionately represented, but I’d like to see your numbers.

    “First, the link you pointed to has nothing to do with police investigation of murdered women. It has to do with press coverage. If you want to discuss how serial killers of white women get more press coverage that’s a different issue.”

    I think you misread the purpose of my post. My post is about complicity. Who *allowed* this to happen by choosing inaction over action, acceptance over questions? Both press coverage, which is often spurred by a rigorous police investigation, and the police themselves are relevant to this point.

    “Second, “And predators always aim for the easiest victims” is 100% wrong.”

    I think if we look at serial killers historically the almost always aim for the easiest victims. Children, runaways, drug addicts, prostitutes, poor people. They often target victims of their own race, which may also have something to do with who they have easy access to.

    Charles Manson aside, do you have a long list of examples to prove me “100% wrong” in this statement? I don’t think there are many examples of serial killers who went after female politicians or female heads of state or woman CEOs.

    ““And black women are more likely to be at that margin than white women” is irrelevant.”

    This is my post we’re talking about. And I say it *is* relevant. In a discussion about predators who prey on marginalized people, the racial make-up of the margin is relevant.

    “And white women are MUCH more likely to be killed by a serial killer than black women.”

    I hadn’t heard this before. Where are you getting your knowledge? I would be interested in reading more on this topic, but I admit I find it surprising that white women are “much more likely” to be targeted by a serial killer, can you provide some numbers?

  8. “This is my post we’re talking about. And I say it *is* relevant. In a discussion about predators who prey on marginalized people, the racial make-up of the margin is relevant.”

    It is irrelevant because the vast majority of serial killers are white and virtually every serial killer preys on women of their own race.

    Here you go:

    In the United States, serial killers prefer to target victims ages 18–50. The majority of victims are white, supporting researchers’ claims that serial murder is intra-racial.[47]

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_killer#Victims

  9. Thanks for looking that up Tom.

    I’m going to nitpick and say that saying that more white women than black women have been killed by serial killers is different than saying black women are *statistically* less likely to be a serial killer victim.

    I will say once again, the point IS relevant. Many serial killers prey upon their own race, but not all. The very Wikipedia page you point out makes note of that.

    It also gives a breakdown of infamous serial killers by race, listing 9 black men and 23 whites. (A failing here is that this list is not exhaustive.) This is 39% black killers, whereas blacks only make up about 13% of the US population. So even if the majority of killers prey upon their own race, there are more black serial killers per capita among US blacks than white serial killers per capita among US whites.

    Whether or not there or more or less black victims of serial killers, race definitely still effects how police handle their cases or the media portrays their stories.

  10. “Whether or not there or more or less black victims of serial killers, race definitely still effects how police handle their cases or the media portrays their stories.”

    I have seen no evidence from anyone that race effects how police handle the cases. And the list you pointed to is not just “not exhaustive” it does not reflect anything other than a list of people that the author was able to find. The only thing that can be said about the list is that 39% of the people on the list are black. This would tend to disprove your point. All it shows is that the author of the list was able to find a lot of black serial killers. So therefore black serial killers get a lot of press coverage. That doesn’t mean that 39% of all serial killers are black.

  11. “All it shows is that the author of the list was able to find a lot of black serial killers. So therefore black serial killers get a lot of press coverage.”

    according to the person that made that list, which, as was pointed out, is not exhaustive and therefore we can not say that black serial killers get a lot of press coverage.

    however, i think the original point was more about the victims and complicity of those surrounding the area and involved with the investigation and coverage (with the focus being coverage of victims based on their identity, specifically their race). that victims who are white women (typically middle class or upper class) receive more coverage is commonly referred to as ‘missing white woman syndrome’.

    as far as race mattering when police handle a case, how has that shown to not be a factor? it has been a factor historically (such as the race riots and how the police handled it) and continues to be. perhaps somewhat anecdotal, but where i live is largely racially segregated. during certain times (for example, 4th of july), the police do not answer calls from the ‘bad’ areas of town (aka, those largely populated by people of color). i’ve seen the barricades up and spoken to police who told me that it is common practice to not respond to calls from that area. there are many different examples of the handling of criminal or extreme situations according to the racial make up of the people involved (such as the heat wave in chicago and katrina). its not surprising that in serial killing cases, the coverage follows a similar pattern.

  12. My point with the racially disaggregated serial killer lists was to show that serial killing is not found significantly moreso among whites than blacks. It is an imperfect example, but I challenge you, Tom, to find a counter-example. So far it is only I who have had to prove my claims. You dismiss each of my pieces of proof, but provide little counter-example to bolster your position.

    I wanted to show this because you claimed that since serial killers are so often white, and given that serial killers usually prey on victims of their own race, black women would therefore be less likely than white women to be victims. I believe it is clear this is false, unless Tom can produce sounder evidence than I the opposite.

    I agree with Shenanigan’s comments. It is a well-known fact that blacks have a more fraught relationship with the police (and the criminal justice system) than whites. Anticipating a challenge for Tom, I will provide links showing that blacks are disproportionately penalized by the criminal justice system, blacks are disproportionately murdered by police (blacks make up 66% of people killed by police in NYC), reporting of missing or killed blacks often takes back seat to reporting on white people, there are many localities which experience racial discrimination in the hiring of police officers (here’s one story, google for more), and individuals have sued police departments for inaction investigating disappearance and murder in black communities (here’s one such story, google for more).

    There is also a blog created to help fill the gap on coverage of and attention to missing black people. Black and missing.

    In conclusion, I believe that race is a factor in Sowell’s ability to get away with his crimes so brazenly and for so long.

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