Powerful protests, both vocal and silent, punctuated the Stanford University commencement on June 12. Dozens of graduating students expressed their outrage over the meager sentence handed down to Brock Turner, 20, a convicted rapist and former Stanford athlete. Turner was convicted by a jury of three counts of sexual assault.
Judge Aaron Persky of Santa Clara, Calif., Superior Court, however, handed Turner a velvet-gloved six-month jail sentence on June 2 for the Jan. 18, 2015, sexual assault of an unconscious woman. Turner could be out in three months. His sentence includes three years of probation, and his name will be entered on the lifetime sex offenders list. The unconscious, unmoving victim was being brutally attacked by Turner behind a campus dumpster when two male Swedish students, riding their bikes, came upon the crime in progress and stopped it. As Turner ran away, they tackled and held him until police arrived.
“Rape is rape,” “125 years of rape culture,” “You’re a warrior” (referring to Turner’s victim) and “1 in 3” (how many women in the U.S. will be raped in their lifetime) were among the messages on signs held aloft during the ceremony. Many others had “1/3” written on top of their mortarboards. Activists are demanding the university administration make public its list of students responsible for sexual assault and misconduct. #StanfordKnows is the hashtag for this struggle, which includes a petition drive. (latimes.com, June 13)
Outrage from coast to coast has emerged since the sentencing. More than 1 million petition signatures demanding the ouster of Judge Persky were delivered June 10 to the Commission on Judicial Performance in San Francisco. At least 16 California lawmakers have asked the commission for a review of Persky’s conduct in meting out the sentence, while attorneys and activists are considering a recall election. (mercurynews.com, June 10)
In the midst of the burgeoning backlash and fightback generated by his lenient sentencing of a rapist who could have received 14 years in prison, Persky won another six-year term on June 7. There wasn’t even an election since he was the only candidate.
Persky, a Stanford graduate, obviously took pity on Turner, a former member of the university swim team, stating at sentencing that he was impressed with the “character references” sent by the convicted rapist’s friends and family and noting his lack of a criminal record. “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him,” Persky actually stated.
Fight against growing racism and sexism
Totally offensive comments from Turner’s father and the victim’s compelling statement have further fueled the backlash against the rape culture which exists not only on college and university campuses around the country, but throughout U.S. society. “His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life,” Dan Turner callously wrote in his letter asking for probation for his son.
The survivor of Turner’s sexual assault, who has chosen to remain anonymous, publicly issued to BuzzFeed News on June 3 the statement that she read to the court at Turner’s sentencing. Her courageous message described the “severe impact” that Turner’s actions have had on her life and her outrage at the sentence:
“What has [Turner] done to demonstrate that he deserves a break? He has only apologized for drinking and has yet to define what he did to me as sexual assault, he has revictimized me continually, relentlessly. He has been found guilty of three serious felonies and it is time for him to accept the consequences of his actions. He will not be quietly excused.” The entire statement, poignant and infuriating, can be found at buzzfeed.com, and is well worth reading.
Both Persky and Turner are well-off white men, revealing that this travesty of justice is rooted in white supremacy, class privilege and misogyny. The interplay of racism and national oppression; wealth, power and class oppression; violence against women and the LGBTQ community all come into play in this case and others like it.
The ongoing scandal of alleged sexual assaults by Baylor University football team members and their cover-ups by coaches and administration is a case in point. There, the head football coach has been fired and Baylor’s president, Kenneth Starr was demoted. (Starr, who investigated U.S. President Bill Clinton’s conduct in office leading to his impeachment, is now Baylor’s Chancellor.) The university is currently trying to settle a civil case of negligence and gender discrimination brought by victim Jasmin Hernandez in April.
In contrast to the slap on the wrist afforded Turner, former Baylor student and football player Tevin Elliott, an African American, was sentenced in January 2014 to 20 years in prison on each of two counts of sexual assault. (courthousenews.com, June 13)
The movement to stop rape and eradicate rape culture and violence against women cannot be separated from the struggle against systemic racism and national oppression. Racism and sexism under capitalism are two pillars of oppression, used by the ruling class to “divide and conquer” and sow disunity among the workers and oppressed. Uncompromising solidarity with the most oppressed is the key to overturning these evils and the capitalist system which breeds them.