Cleveland: A ‘house of horrors’ in a society of horrors

Before May 6, Georgina DeJesus, Amanda Berry and Michelle Knight were unknown outside of the Cleveland area. DeJesus and Berry, who went missing in 2004 and 2003, respectively, were only kept in the public eye locally by annual vigils held by community activists. Knight — who had been removed from the Cleveland Police Department’s missing persons list 15 months after her 2002 disappearance — was not known.

Now the three women — who endured beatings, rape and torture during their captivity —  are world-famous symbols of strength. Step-by-step depictions of Berry’s dramatic escape from captor Ariel Castro’s house on May 6 have been played and replayed on television. Hearts have been warmed by images of DeJesus and Berry reuniting with loved ones, while many people are concerned about Knight, who is estranged from her family.

Neighbor Charles Ramsey, who is African American, helped to rescue the three women.  A video of him saying that Berry running into a Black man’s arms was a “dead giveaway” that “something was wrong” has gone viral.

Clevelanders are asking how the CPD could have taken so long to figure out — even after neighbors reported suspicious happenings — what was going on in Castro’s house. Some believe this was deliberate neglect. “It’s the disenfranchisement of the poor,” was the conclusion of two gay men, whom this writer overheard talking in a barbershop.

Yet the heroes of this real-life drama have no shortage of critics. Some have blamed the young women for accepting a ride with Castro or blamed their parents for not teaching them to know better. One even blamed DeJesus’ mother, Nancy Ruiz, for giving her daughter only $1.25 for bus fare when she left for school. Now that Ramsey is a celebrity, the media that built him up is asserting that he “is almost used up.” (Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 10) Some criticize the Spanish-speaking neighbors who assisted in the rescue for wanting to be acknowledged for their efforts.

Women victims are typically blamed for their ordeal —  if they are taken seriously at all. When Ruiz first reported her daughter missing, police told her not to worry because “she’s that age.”

Four years ago, the bodies of 11 African-American women were found in the home of Anthony Sowell. Police had been dismissive of family members who reported the women missing and of women who had escaped from Sowell’s house. His victims were stigmatized for having abused drugs or worked as prostitutes.

At the same time, when the abuser is of an oppressed nationality, an entire community is put under a microscope. This happened 30 years ago during the widely publicized barroom rape of a woman by four Portuguese men in Fall River, Mass. Demonstrations protested the stereotyping of all Portuguese men as rapists.

Castro’s complexion was darkened for the cover story in Cleveland’s news and entertainment weekly, “The Scene.” He is being charged with several counts of rape and kidnapping and may face additional charges and, possibly, the death penalty.  Will the prosecution invoke racist stereotypes of “macho” Latino men?

Escaping captivity — into the real world of sexism, racism and class oppression

Healing for these three strong women, after a decade of torture, will be a hard, slow process, but it will take place in supportive and loving environments. Berry is with her sister, Beth Serrano; Ruiz and DeJesus’ father, Felix DeJesus, have their daughter back and have welcomed Knight into their home.

The women have broad community support. Survivors and Victims of Tragedy, Inc. is a network of people with murdered or missing family members. The group collaborates with Black on Black Crime, Inc., which has led many protests against police brutality. The two groups have kept the spotlight on otherwise neglected missing person cases in Cleveland.

Survivors and Victims of Tragedy, Inc. organized a vigil for Willi Ann Guy, who died on May 9 after crashing her car while fleeing a man shooting at her.  The organization’s news release read, “As we rejoice and celebrate the lives of Michelle, Amanda and Gina, last night’s murder of Ms. Guy reminds us that Cleveland seems to be a dangerous place for the safety of women.” Two African-American women were raped and murdered in March, both in the same neighborhood. On April 17, the body of an African-American Cleveland transwoman was found in a swamp in the suburbs.

This is the world our three heroes are returning to. In Castro’s house they were, according to ABC News reporter Byron Pitts, “treated not like human beings but property.”

Pitts inadvertently defined women’s oppression under capitalism. While few women suffer the gruesome misogyny that occurred in this now-famous crime scene, millions are raped, beaten and sometimes killed by their batterers.  All are dehumanized in some form.

Rape victims are put on trial for their mode of dress or their sexual history. Many states, including Ohio, still treat spousal rape differently. The phrase “man and wife” expresses a property relationship. It is in this context that women are snatched off the streets and taken prisoner.

These three women are joining tens of thousands of city youths who cannot find jobs. The foreclosure crisis has hit Cleveland hard, including on the West Side, where Serrano and the Ruiz-DeJesus family live. Only the predominantly African-American East Side has been hit harder.

Ramsey will continue working as a dishwasher, coping with the racism his “dead giveaway” comment exposed. Better paying jobs are few and far between for people of color.  The last time Cleveland received nationwide attention was after the police fatally shot two African Americans.

The only thing that can wipe away this mountain of injustice and make the world safe for all will be a global movement of workers and oppressed, fighting to free human relations from the fetters of capitalist property relations.

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