Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Even the Bathrooms Aren't Safe.

Last Friday, as I sat at my desk, minding my own business, preparing for classes, I looked up to see this: This image does nothing to convey just how close that helicopter hovered near my building. I could see the pilot. Then, as I changed the batteries on my camera (the damn thing goes through a pair in about 5 shots), the helicopter turned toward me and advanced.

"Holy shit!" I said, getting the double As in backwards. "It's coming right at me!"

Actually, it was higher than the apartment building, so I laughed at my hyperbole. A guy on the 15th floor, five floors below me, swore to a reporter that it was headed straight for him. Yeah, lay it on thick for the press.

The helicopter, with a big ole state trooper insignia emblazoned on it's tail, turned to my right, and flew off in that direction. It circled around and came back, then began circling over this area, just below where it hovers in this picture:

You can't really see in that image, but a police car sits on the far side of the highway, on the shoulder of the exit ramp, next to that wooded area.

I found out later that two guys had been caught burglarizing two or three homes in that area. A kid -- they didn't explain why he was at home on a school day -- had heard the bad guys breaking into his house, so he grabbed his bb gun and headed for a nearby school. Seeing a kid approach the school with a gun, the administrators called the police. The police came, and the kid told his story. Meanwhile, the bad guys continued their deeds.

The police set the K-9 squad on the trail. They picked up one guy after pretending that they had called off the chase. That must have been when the helicopter left, only to return about a half an hour later. Then, they caught the other guy hiding in someone's basement. The police think that these suspects have burglarizing several in the neighborhood for some time.

That's just a story from last Friday. Yesterday was when I learned that the bathrooms on campus aren't even safe.

Yesterday, during our faculty council meeting, some sirens passed by the window. We thought nothing of it because there's a firehouse a few blocks away. I think nothing of sirens myself because I've always lived near firehouses. When I left the meeting, I saw an ambulance and some cars outside the building. I thought in passing that another mugging had taken place on the bridge that goes over the train tracks by our campus. There were two muggings there -- in broad daylight -- at the end of last semester.

"Crap," I thought. "Not again. I hope the ambulance was just a precaution."

Headed back to my office, which is in the next building over, I ran into the provost. He looked rattled, guarding the exits to the student center where we had our meeting. He wasn't letting anyone out, and anyone who came in had to stay in.

"There's been a crime," he told us. "The campus is locked down. If you leave, go straight to your car."

"Was it another mugging?" I asked. I don't think he appreciated me saying "another" in front of a group of students.

"Worse," he said.

"Rape," I thought. I didn't think a shooting because, given where the ambulance and police cars were gathered, we would have heard a gun shot. "Maybe a stabbing?" I thought.

One of my former students -- a really good one -- was taking notes and asking questions. She's a reporter for the school paper. "What happened?" she asked, not for the first time so it seemed.

"We're waiting for the police report," the provost said. He walks a fine line here. How much information do you let out only, as it turned out, an hour after the crime was reported, when you don't really know exactly what happened, and when you have hundreds of students clamoring to be let out and to know why they couldn't leave the building to get to their next class or pick up their kids from daycare or get to work on time.

"So, it wasn't a mugging, but it was worse," the student reporter repeated, writing down notes.

The provost asked me and another faculty member to guard the door so he could go look at the security tapes that the campus police were reviewing in their office. The student reporter followed right behind. "You go get that story!" I thought to her. "Good work!"

That was a fool's errand for the other professor and I. When you have a group of adults who have other places to be, those concerns are more immediate to them than their own safety. One young woman just defiantly pushed her way out the door and stalked off in the opposite direction from the police. Another started to argue with me that she had to "go pick up my little one." She went out and argued with the security officer, and he gave her an escort to the garage out of exasperation. Another student said, "my boss is NEVER going to believe the school was held up." The threat of a crime, especially one for which they had no details, and especially when their goal was to get away from the scene, was far too abstract.

The students gathered at the door also brought rumors of what they heard had happened. "A shooting," said one. "A rape," said another. "An assault," said a third. "Assault" has been used so many times between then and now that it ceases to have meaning.

"Listen to you guys!" I laughed. "The rumors begin! All we know is that is WASN'T a mugging." They laughed at themselves, too.

After about an hour, they let us go on our side of the campus. The campus on the far side of the train tracks, the campus next to a busy thoroughfare and an open park, they kept locked down. A few minutes later, a helicopter began to circle. It circled for a few hours, getting further and further away. The alert system kept us updated. Eventually, the other side of campus was released, but with warnings to steer clear of the police who were "doing their work" over there.

"So that's where the crime was," I thought. I was already a bit concerned having surmised that the crime had taken place indoors, because I caught a glimpse of the security tapes that the officers screened.

When I left the campus around 8, all of the women walked in clumps, and asked others to join them. We already have security between the garage and the campus because of the muggings last semester. We had more, although I would have liked to have seen someone actually IN the garage.

Last night, in the middle of Lost, the alert system sent a message saying that they had caught the suspect. Black man, about 5'8". That could describe over half of our student population. Heck, that could describe over half of the population in the surrounding area.

The news reported that the "assault" was sexual. They haven't said if it was a rape or not. The student -- a woman -- was attacked in the women's restroom on the second floor of one of the newest buildings on campus.

"The bathroom?" I said. "Is nothing sacred?" For some reason, that detail seemed the most shocking; and that pisses me off.

I walk around every day, aware that around every corner, behind every bush, on the elevator, in the parking garage, on the bridge between campuses, on dates, someone is waiting to rape a woman. That has been a lesson taught to girls from an early age. Not that they seriously taught us how to defend ourselves -- in fact, a cop once told my 6th grade class that we should just "let it happen" rather than get hurt. This was long before Clayton Williams ran for Texas governor. As if rape doesn't hurt.

I walk around constantly conscious of our rape culture. I realize that it is so normalized that, while I hate it, I fear it, I rage against it, I am not surprised by it. In fact, years ago, when I was assaulted -- on a date, for the second time in my life -- as I fought and kicked and scratched and negotiated (and finally wiggled my way free and into the bathroom) -- one of the several thoughts that ran through my brain was, "so, now it's my turn." If you look at the odds, that's not an entirely irrational concept. So many women get raped and so regularly, that the thought that my number had come up, perverse as it is, was not shocking.

In that case, I ran to the bathroom for safety. In all of the dark alley types of scenarios, even when those dark alleys are on dates, I never imagined the bathroom. The bathroom is a girl zone. A zone where your purse might get snatched but not one where you get raped. The doors lock for privacy, not security. It should be a safe place.


That is the irrational thought, that somewhere is safe. In a rape culture, nowhere is safe. Not even the women's room, in a shiny new building with security cameras.

I feel that there should be some sort of organized response. Not so much a protest, as an awareness or consciousness raising event, a discussion of how this is affecting the women on campus and how the women should respond. Also, something must be done on the guy side, too. I'm not sure what, but maybe I should bring the idea to the women's studies coordinator (from whom I'm taking over next fall -- maybe). It's not a solution; but, as Melissa McEwan says, it might be a teaspoon.

UPDATE: The guy "was charged with two counts of first-degree rape, first-degree sexual offense, and attempt to escape after arrest." He was waiting in the bathroom for the young woman when she walked in and told her he had a gun. He tried to escape when they transferred him from the police car to the station house.

Now, to look up what that charge means.

UPDATE #2 (5:30 pm): The charge means that he raped her twice. She was in the stall with the door locked. He crawled under the door, grabbed her and raped her. Then, he held her for an hour while he cried and apologized and talked about his ex-wife. (Yeah, it's always some woman's fault, isn't it?) There was something about how he was worried about going to hell. When the woman tried to leave, he grabbed her and raped her again.


Notorious Ph.D. said...

There were a couple of those on a nearby campus here a few years ago. Since we're a warm-weather campus, about half of our classrooms and such are constructed with the doors giving on to the outdoors, rather than interior hallways. This includes the student restrooms. Very easy for someone to slip in. Apparently struck when young women slipped out in the middle of night classes to use the restroom -- almost no one around. It was very creepy. I can't remember if they caught our guy.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Notorious Ph.D., I'm learning that this sort of thing isn't that uncommon.

I've updated the post with more information from a recent news story.

Digger said...

"In a rape culture, nowhere is safe. Not even the women's room, in a shiny new building with security cameras."

This pisses me off. PISSES ME OFF. I am T.I.R.E.D. of walking around afraid and on my guard all the damn time. It'd be a lot easier if it was an irrational fear, but, as you point out, it really isn't.

I'm glad they caught him; I'm even more glad that he tried to escape. He might get off on the rape charges (no pun intended), but that at least should stick. I hope the woman has a good support system and doesn't get vilified in the press -- you know, like "asking for it" by visiting the ladies' room. Grrrr.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Digger, I'm right there with you. No one in this scenario is to blame: not security, not the administration, not anyone except that asshole who committed the rape. Yet, he was still able to commit it.

And people wonder why women are so pissed off.

So far, no one has vilified the victim yet. Don't they usually save that for the trial?

I sense there might be mental health problems involved with the suspect. His reaction to his own crime, and then the authorities say that he seems to be homeless and has been living in hotel rooms that he breaks into. Still, I'm having a real difficult time having any compassion for him.

dykewife said...

i told you about some of the changes the admin made to women's bathrooms on campus...the most glaring change is that they removed the external door. you can't see directly into the bathroom from the entrance but when a woman walks in she can see (because of a mirror) if anyone is in the main part of the bathroom. if she yells or screams her voice will carry into the main halls.

in the bathroom where the sexual assault happened a while back there is an emergency button.

of course, all the changes in the world aren't going to change our culture that says women are fair targets for assaults. *sigh*

no, nothing is sacred. hasn't been for a very long time.

Flavia said...

On the big urban campus I was a lecturer at, the women's bathrooms all had locks, and only (female) instructors had keys--and the English Dept. and most of its classrooms were on the 9th-11th floors. This was hugely, hugely inconvenient: sometimes the doors were left propped open, but otherwise women had to interrupt their instructors, or stick their heads in faculty offices, to be let into the bathroom when they had to go.

It was months before I realized WHY they had locks--that the fear wasn't petty theft.

I hate the fact that that fear was justified.

Ink said...

I read this in the morning but couldn't articulate a response.

Still can't.

Other than the horror.


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