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Murders of women ignite outrage
Published Dec 3, 2009 9:58 PM
Coalitions are forming in several Cleveland communities to address the murders
of 11 Black women whose bodies were found in and around a house on Imperial
Avenue in late October. Activists are holding rallies and vigils, meeting with
public officials to present demands, developing better resources for women and
the families of missing persons, and taking care of all the funeral
arrangements for the 10 women whose remains have been identified.
Neighbors in the Imperial Avenue area had filed complaints about odors since
2007, but the sausage factory on the corner was blamed. Even women who battled
alleged serial killer Anthony Sowell and escaped were not taken seriously by
One such woman was Gladys Wade, who was bleeding and screaming in torn clothing
when she fled Sowell's home in December 2008. The case was brought to
Cleveland Chief Prosecutor Victor Perez. "Not credible" was
handwritten on the prosecutor's review. (Plain Dealer, Nov. 14) Sowell, a
convicted rapist, had been arrested and released without being charged. No
attempt was made to collect blood from Sowell's steps or elsewhere in his
According to the coroner's office, five of the women whose bodies were
recovered from Sowell's house died after December 2008: Kim Yvette Smith,
Nancy Cobbs, Amelda Hunter, Janice Webb and Telacia Fortson. The fact that
their deaths could have been prevented had Wade been treated as
"credible" is a source of widespread outrage.
Only two of the 10 identified victims were officially reported missing. Media
and blog commentaries against the families have been widespread, but the police
department will frequently refuse to take a missing persons report without
evidence that a missing adult is "endangered." This practice often
means several days' delay in collecting crucial evidence.
The women who encountered horrendous deaths on Imperial Avenue were similar to
many other missing persons in having histories of drug use or criminal records.
(Plain Dealer, Nov. 15) These histories increased their vulnerability and their
families' silence due to the fear that their loved ones may end up with a
Wall Street's economic Katrina has left Cleveland with high job losses and
foreclosure rates and created abandoned neighborhoods and vulnerable people.
Resources go to wars, prisons and bailouts, not drug treatment, homeless
shelters, rape crisis centers and mental health.
Deaths spur anger, activism
A group at the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center is pressing Cuyahoga
County Sheriff Bob Reid to set up a missing persons department and is writing a
guide for women of resources that are outside the justice system.
A march on Nov. 21 dedicated to the 11 murdered women drew nearly 200 people,
mostly young. It was the second of a series of marches initiated by media
personality Basheer Jones to bring attention to the neglected neighborhoods and
call for an end to violence. With the red, black and green Black liberation
flag at the head, the march stepped briskly down East 79th Street to Hough
Avenue, the site of major rebellion 40 years ago.
On Nov. 16, Black and white women activists from Imperial Women, a newly formed
group, met with representatives from Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson's office
to demand an investigation of Chief Prosecutor Perez, Cleveland Law Director
Robert Triozzi, Chief of Police Michael McGrath, and Safety Director Martin
Flask. They also insist an "Imperial Alert" be set up, similar to the
"Amber Alert" system but encompassing missing adults as well as
Journalist Kathy Wray Coleman, an organizer of the group, told WW: "At
least five of those women died in vain because authorities ignored reports of
alleged rape or other violent crimes reported prior to the time they went
missing. We believe they did so because of a disrespect of both women and the
Black community. That's unacceptable and somebody should and will be held
A rally sponsored by Imperial Women on Nov. 24 brought together people from a
variety of organizations at the house where the bodies were found. Imperial
Women is calling for a review of all police reports marked "not
credible" over the past 10 years and taking the position that no reports
of rape should be deemed "not credible."
Women revealed their rape experiences for the first time in decades and spoke
of being "raped a second time when reporting it to the police." The
high-energy chants were "Woman power!" and "We're in the
Another group is sponsoring a march on Nov. 30 to arrive at Cleveland City
Hall, where each marcher will sign in and write "Sowell 11" next to
their name. The march is calling for a missing persons unit in the
Cleveland Police Department and an increase of officers in the sexual offenders
All across Cleveland the words "racism" and "sexism" are
being spoken loud and clear in relation to the neglect of poor Black women.
Everywhere people are standing up and saying, "We are not throw-away
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