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OTI Online
Spring 1991

The Strange Case of Mark Curtis, Victim or Victimizer?
by Fred Pelka


Five months after Mark Stanton Curtis was arrested in Des Moines on charges of sexual abuse and burglary, Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young sent a letter to the authorities in Iowa charging frameup and police brutality.

"As an early union organizer," Young wrote on August 18, 1988, "I am concerned that Mr. Curtis may be being harassed for his political beliefs rather than fairly investigated and brought to trial for actual criminal activity."

Young's letter was one of hundreds sent to Des Moines that summer on behalf of Curtis, a 29-year-old-member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and an employee at the local Swift meatpacking plant. It echoed a Detroit City Council resolution which stated there was "no evidence" that Curtis beat and raped* a 15- year-old African-American girl in her home on the night of March 4,1988, and referred to "a brutal attack" on Curtis by "law enforcement officials" of Polk County.

It isn't often that the government of one American city accuses another of holding and beating a political prisoner. So the retractions, when they came, were even more startling.

"I've done some checking on my own," wrote Detroit Councilman Mel Ravitz, in a letter to the victim's father, "and have concluded that it is improbable that Mr. Curtis was framed." Councilmen John Peoples and Nicholas Hood also wrote personal letters of apology for their support of Curtis.

The Socialist Workers Party has devoted an enormous effort to the Curtis case in the three years since his arrest. It has gathered endorsements from more than 8,000 political activists and organizations in and around the world and raised, by its own estimate, $150,000 in living room and union hall fundraisers, and by working the crowds at peace and prochoice rallies across the country. Past and present Curtis endorsers include Ed Asner, Congressmen John Conyers and Ronald Dellums, Angela Davis, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, Detroit Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, several chapters of NOW, the national chair of Sinn Fein, and members of Parliament and the African National Congress.

But while endorsers around the world see Mark Curtis as a champion of civil rights, his defense committee in Des Moines is picketed by the National Black United Front. While Curtis claims he was framed because of his fight for undocumented Latino workers, activists in the Des Moines Latino community say they never heard of him until his arrest. While his supporters contend Curtis was prosecuted as a warning to labor organizers everywhere, his own union refuses to endorse the effort to free him. And while feminists from North Carolina to Great Britain write letters of support, counselors at the rape crisis center in Des Moines insist on his guilt, and accuse his defense committee of harassing a teenaged rape victim.

Critics charge the Socialist Workers Party with perpetrating a hoax that is rapidly becoming an embarrassing cause celebre. Feminists in particular charge that the success of the Curtis Defense Committee in winning financial and political support reveals a deep streak of sexism among progressives, and an ignorance of the realities of rape. What does it mean, they ask, when so many "politically correct" people are willing to take, at face value, the word of a white man convicted of rape over that of his Black victim?

The case against Mark Curtis rests on the accounts of two key witnesses, 15year-old Demetria Harris and her 11year-old brother Jason. Accordingto their testimony, they were home alone on the evening of March 4, 1988, watching TV, when there was a knock at their door. When Demetria asked who it was, a man answered "Mark." Thinking it might be their bigbrother Mark, Demetria opened the door to see a "tall and skinny" white man standing on the steps outside their enclosed front porch, asking if "Bonita or Keith" were there, if this was 1545 lXth Street. The Harris home is at 1529 lXth Street —just a few houses down. When Demetria told him he had the wrong address, the man asked if her parents were home. Jason, getting bored, went back into the house to watch TV. That's when "Mark" pushed his way onto the porch.

"He closed the door behind him," Demetria told the jury, "and he told me — threatened, he said, 'I have a knife. I'll hurt your brother and you if you don't cooperate.'"

Demetria struggled, until "Mark" began punching her in the face and head. Jason, hearing the struggle, came to investigate. Opening the door a moment he saw "Mark" on top of Demetria. Jason went back into the house, armed himself with a kitchen knife, took the phone as far from the porch as he could, and dialed 911.

"This man is raping my sister," he told police dispatcher Kim Manning. Manning logged the call into her computer at 8:51 PM. She then radioed officers Joseph Gonzales and Richard Glade, parked nearby. The officers arrived two minutes later, pulled up silently. They walked to the front door and knocked.

"Mark" put his hands around Demetria's throat, "and started choking me, and told me not to say anything." Gonzales and Glade pushed through the door, and "Mark," his pants down around his legs, took off into the back of the house. Demetria, nude from the waist down and bleeding from the face, told Gonzales, "He just raped me."

The assailant was cornered in a back bedroom, where, his pants still down around his legs, Mark Stanton Curtis was handcuffed and read his rights.

Demetria positively identified Curtis at her deposition as the man who assaulted her. She and Jason both repeatedly identified him at the trial. Officers Gonzales and Glade identified him as the man they arrested at the Harris house on March 4. Kim Manning testified as to the time the 911 call came in from Jason. The tape of Jason's whispered message was played to the jury. Dr. Jodie Helmick from the Broadlawns Hospital emergency room testified that Demetria had been beaten, while nurse Jane Brackney described Demetria that night as "crying, pretty upset." And though no semen was found on Demetria (the entire encounter on the porch lasted less than 10 minutes. It took two minutes from the time Jason called the police to when they arrived; Curtis was interrupted before ejaculation occurred), forensic expert Paul Bush testified that dirt and creases on Demetria's clothes corroborated her account of the struggle. Curtis' wallet and keychain were found on the Harris front porch, his car was found parked out front.

Demetria's hour-long account of the attack was detailed and explicit. "I started getting sick," she told the jury at one point. "I wanted to throw up but I couldn't do it." Pointing to Curtis, she said, "He's exactly who did those things to me."

Most Curtis endorsers have never heard this testimony. In "The Frame-up of Mark Curtis," a slick video by Hollywood director Nick Castle, Demetria is only allowed to speak for a few seconds. Three days of I testimony, much of it damaging to Curtis, are reduced to 30 minutes of tape given largely to descriptions of conditions at the Swift plant, of the beating Curtis received at police headquarters after his arrest, of Curtis as activist, son and husband.

What the video gives us is Curtis' version of events, as recounted at the trial. According to this, Curtis started the evening at a meeting called by Latino activists to protest the arrest of 17 undocumented workers at a Swift plant earlier that week. After the meeting, Curtis went to a local bar, leaving at 8:30 to go home. At 8:45 he left his house to go shopping. Curtis says that on his way to the store, while stopped at a red light, a I teenaged girl demanded that Curtis give her a ride. She told Curtis that someone , from the nearby TNT Bar was after her. Curtis let her into his car. She gave him directions to the Harris house. When they arrived she asked him to get out of the car and walk her into the house. She let him in with a key, and then disappeared into the house, never to be seen or heard from again.

"Well, I heard a noise behind me, a 'bam' as the door flew open." It was officer Gonzales. "He handcuffed me, my wrists behind my back, turned me around, sat me down on this bed that was there, he pushed me back onto the bed and he unbuckled my pants and pulled them down...I was — I was — I was flabbergasted. I was — this was crazy. This was wild."

Curtis' account at the trial differed from the story he had told in the initial months after his arrest. In the original version, it was Demetria Harris herself who flagged Curtis down near the TNT Bar, and lured him to her home. One month before the trial, however, Curtis changed this story to that of a mystery woman — an unidentified Black teenager who was, according to Curtis, another cog in the police conspiracy against him.

But Curtis was unable to produce a single witness to corroborate the existence of this Black teenager. Neither did Curtis deny during the trial that Demetria was assaulted, (though he has since referred to her as "the alleged victim"), nor did he challenge the authenticity of Jason's 911 call, or accuse Kim Manning of lying when she said the call came in at 8:51 (a crucial point, since the SWP claims Curtis' presence at a bar until 8:30 constitutes "an unchallenged alibi"). When asked why Demetria and Jason would falsely identify him, Curtis said nothing about a police frame-up. Instead, he replied, "I don't know."

Prosecutor Catherine Thune made short work of the conspiracy theory. How could the police know, she asked in her summation, when and where Curtis would go shopping, or what route he would take? How could they know that the traffic light where the mystery woman was stationed would turn red just as Curtis reached it? How could they know that Curtis would give this stranger a ride to the Harris house, then leave his car, enter the house, and wait to be arrested? How could they know the Harris children would cooperate in framing a total stranger? And why use children in a frame-up, why use a charge of sexual assault, when such cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute?

Thune has her own theory as to how Curtis wound up at the Harris home that night. Curtis' former neighbor, named Keith Harrison, had moved the day before to 1545 lXth Street. Curtis had asked for Keith and his housemate Bonita by name and address when he first spoke with Demetria on March 4. Curtis, according to Thune, was looking for Keith Harrison at 1545 lxth St., and instead wound up on the doorstep of Keith Harris, at 1529.

While on the stand, Curtis denied ever speaking toeither Keith or Bonita.Bonita, called by Thune immediately after Curtis, testified that she and Keith had spoken to Curtis on several occasions. Curtis was thus caught in a direct lie under oath. Curtis also had to admit that he had lied about his marital status when first taken into custody — he told the police he was single when, in fact, he is married. His credibility was further damaged when Thune pointed out that he had been fired from a previous job for lying on his resume. Curtis admitted fudging his resume — making up jobs he'd never held — but insisted that he was fired because of his radical politics.

For his part, defense attorney Mark Pennington, during his summation, flatly denied that he or his client were claiming frame-up. What this was, Pennington told the jury, was an admittedly improbable case of mistaken identity, combined with a bizarre coincidence (the mystery woman leading Curtis to the scene of the crime), and perhaps some overzealousness on the part of officer Gonzales.

The jury found Curtis guilty as charged. Curtis was sentenced by Judge Harry Perkins to 25 years in the Men's Reformatory in Anamosa. In April 1990 the Iowa Court of Appeals rejected his final appeal.

"Curtis decided pretty quickly after he got out on bail that he wanted to organize a broad, political fight against what was . clearly a frame-up."

From The Frame-up of Mark Curtis: A Packinghouse Worker's Fight for Justice, by Margaret Jayco.

But the closer one gets to Des Moines, the less luck Curtis has had organizing his "broad, political fight."

"There aren't many people in the peace and justice community in Des Moines who have bought his story," says Bill Douglas, chair of the Iowa Socialist Party. Rudy Simms, civil rights activist and regional director for the National Conference of Christian and Jews, says Curtis "has no support that I'm aware of in the Black community here. Personally, I can't fathom any civil rights organization or any minority organization supporting Mark Curtis."

A call to Curtis' own union, local 431 of the United Food and Commercial Workers in Davenport, revealed that, other than sending a letter protesting his treat- I ment in custody, it has done nothing on behalf of Curtis. When a petition for Curtis was circulated at the Swift plant, none of the workers on his shift signed. Perry J. Chapin, president of the South Central Iowa AFL-CIO, has stated that he would "personally denounce any organization or individual who says we should support Mark Curtis."

Calls to the Iowa Federation of Labor, the Des Moines chapter of the NAACP, the American Friends Service Committee, the Catholic Peace Ministry, Des Moines and Iowa NOW, and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) come up with the same answer.

"The reason they're organizing around the country," said Marti Anderson, director of Polk Country Victim Services at the time of the trial, "is because they can't organize in Des Moines. He's not that important a person. He claimed to have been active in the feminist community, but those of us in the feminist community never heard of him. He claimed to be an activist in the union movement, and the unions in Des Moines aren't supporting him."

"I think there's a lot of resentment here," says Douglas, "over what people see as misrepresentations by the SWP of Curtis' activism."

Two examples of this "activism" are listed by the SWP as the primary reasons for the alleged frame-up. The first is Curtis' participation in a march against police racism in nearby Clive, IA, two weeks before his arrest. Larry W. Carter, president of Des Moines NAACP, was one of the organizers of that demonstration. He says that "Curtis had absolutely nothing to do with organizing that. Maybe he was there, but so were hundreds of other people." Carter himself "believed from day one that [Curtis] was guilty as sin," and "was gratified when his appeal was rejected." Far from seeing Curtis' arrest as a "racist conspiracy," as the SWP has described it, the Des Moines NAACP "told the County Attorney's office from the start that we wanted this man prosecuted just as strenuously as we imagine they would prosecute a Black man charged with raping a white teenager."

The second reason for framing Curtis is supposed to be the speech he gave at the United Mexican-American Community Center on behalf of the "Swift 17" — the 17 Latino meatpackers picked up earlier that week by the INS. At his trial Curtis testified that he'd spoken in Spanish at the March 4 meeting, just hours before his arrest, about "the need to get the union very involved in defending these workers." He described it as a large meeting. "There were many of us from my department at work, and family members of the arrested workers. The media was there, and so on."

"I don't know that he said anything," says Ila Plasencia, who organized and was present at the meeting. Plasencia, past national vice-president for the midwest section of LULAC, was a leader in the campaign to free the Swift 17. (Sixteen of the 17 were eventually freed; one was deported to Mexico). "It wasn't a big meeting. There was no press there." No one else who was there remembers Curtis at all. "If he says he's an activist in the Hispanic community," says Plasencia, "I would say no."

Plasencia openly resents the fact that she is quoted and LULAC is mentioned in Curtis literature. When asked what she thinks of the theory that Curtis was framed for his advocacy of Latino workers, she pauses a moment, and laughs. According to Charles Adams, author of Labor Defense and the Mark Curtis Case, Curtis, far from being a threat to the Swift management, was described by his shop steward as "a quiet kind of guy who kept to himself." And when Latino workers walked off the Swift production line to protest the arrest of the Swift 17, Mark Curtis, self-described "militant unionist," "antiracist fighter," and proponent of Latino-Anglo worker solidarity, refused to join them.

"It's all a hoax," says Carter. "There isn't a shred of truth to any of it."

Mark Curtis was literally caught with his pants down, minutes after a 911 call, in the home of a half-nude and bleeding adolescent who insisted that he had just raped her. There was an eyewitness to the assault, and other corraborating evidence: His keychain and wallet, his car parked out front, "Keith and Bonita," together with his proven duplicity under oath. As a result, Curtis' claim of frameup has little credibility in Des Moines. In fact, there is a good deal of outright animosity to his campaign, especially among African- Americans. How is it then that so many people outside Des Moines, who identify themselves as progressives, and even feminists, have lent their names, their reputations, and, in many cases, their financial support, in an effort to free Mark Curtis?

'The first thing (SWP members) do is the personal favors trick," says Barry Shuchter, editorial committee member of the Boston Labor Page. "They say, 'We've been on the line with you, we've come to your events. Now we're asking for this one favor in return.' Then comes the 'Look who else has endorsed' trick." This works especially well with unions. "For a union not to support another union is seen as disloyal."

Indeed. R.T. Griffin, president of the Central Arizona Labor Council (CALC), writes that "we at CALC wage (sic) all Unionists to support the efforts to defend Mark Curtis and ask the Labor Movement to stand behind him to illustrate solidarity for a Brother."

"Talking to people," says Linda Nelson, former chair of the Iowa Socialist Party, "I realized that they didn't know much about the case. And I would ask them, face to face, 'Do you think he's innocent or guilty?' and they'd say, 'I don't really know, but he was framed.' In other words, they were supporting Curtis out of solidarity for a comrade."

What adds credibility to the SWP pitch is a long history of actual FBI harassment, virtually from the party's founding in 1938. A report by former New York judge, Charles D. Breitel, cited instances from 1938 to 1976 of SWP members losing their jobs because of FBI harassment, arrests of members on spurious charges, bugging and burglary of party offices, anonymous death threats, and physical attacks on party offices and members. The Bureau gathered millions of pages of files on hundreds of members (including Curtis), and cultivated 300 paid informants in a party whose national membership is estimated to be anywhere from a high of 2500 to a low of 750. Yet the FBI turned up no evidence whatsoever of any treasonous act committed or planned by the SWP.

Not everyone takes so seriously a Marxist party with a seemingly unequaled propensity for internal squabble and mass defection. In its history, the SWP has spun off such groups as the Spartacist League, Socialist Action, the Revolutionary Marxist Committee and the Fourth Internationalist Tendency. Many of its women members, citing what socialist-feminist Karen Brodine described as "the SWP's growing conservatism, anti-feminism, and crass opportunism," left the party in 1966 to form the Freedom Socialist Party. (Ironically, the FSP is listed as a Curtis endorser.)

The SWP filed suit against the federal government in 1973, and in August 1986 won $264,000 in damages. The government appealed, but settlement was finally made the week after Curtis was arrested. This history, and the continuing harassment of groups such as the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), of which Curtis was a member, contribute to the willingness of the left to support almost anyone claiming frame-up.

But by far the most compelling "evidence" of frame-up is the beating Curtis received while in custody. After his arrest, Gonzales and Glade turned Curtis over to other officers. The police say that while at the station Curtis reached for the holster of the officer Daniel Dusenbury, who struck him across the face with his nightstick. Curtis says the police simply ! started beating him, calling him "a Mexican lover." The blow shattered Curtis' left cheekbone, and 15 stitches were required to close the gash on his face.

Curtis filed charges against Dusenbury and his partner, but both were exonerated in the subsequent police investigation. The police say Curtis refused to cooperate with the inquiry. Curtis calls it a cop whitewash, and more evidence that he was framed.

Either way, Curtis supporters do not seem to believe, as Detroit socialist Martin McLaughlin puts it, that "the police beat up the guilty as well as the innocent." McLaughlin, a member of the Workers League, a socialist group which is an ideological foe of the SWP, is the author of The Mark Curtis Hoax: How the Socialist Workers Party Tried to Dupe the Labor Movement, a devastating critique of the j Curtis campaign. For their efforts the Workers League has been dismissed by the SWP as "an embryonic fascist organization." "In other words," says McLaughlin, "if you don't support Curtis you are branded as anti-labor, and outside of the workers' movement."

A photograph of Curtis' swollen and bloodied face, taken immediately after his release, has been massively reproduced, and features prominently in the Nick Castle video. It is blown up and used on posters at Curtis rallies around the world. Nick Molnar, vice president of the United Mine Workers (UMW) in Ebensburg, PA, wrote a letter to Demetria's father explaining his endorsement of the Curtis ! campaign. "The story given at that time was that he was sleeping on his couch at home when the police broke in and arrested him on so-called trumped-up charges."

The printed materials distributed by the Curtis Defense Committee (CDC) are i only slightly less fanciful than the story of Curtis arrested while "sleeping on his couch." Their brochure, "Who is Mark Curtis?" is fairly typical. In part, it echoes Pennington's defense of Curtis at the trial, where instead of asserting frame-up he concentrated on attacking Demetria's credibility.

The brochure claims, for instance, that Demetria's description of her assailant { didn't match Curtis; that the assailant smelled like cigarette smoke when Curtis doesn't smoke; that Demetria "insisted he was wearing a belt" when in fact he wasn't, and so on. Each of these assertions is false. Demetria on numerous occasions described Curtis as "tall and skinny" with a mustache; she also described the clothes he was wearing. She never claimed to have seen a belt, she said she heard what sounded like a belt jingling as Curtis pulled off his pants. This could have been the keychain attached to his belt loop, entered as state's evidence. And Curtis himself admitted he'd spent several hours at Los Compadres drinking beer with friends who were heavy smokers. So it is not at all unlikely that Curtis smelled, as Demetria said, like "a combination of alcohol and cigarettes."

Also cited are "irregularities" in several of Judge Perkins' rulings, such as his dismissal before deliberations of the only Hispanic on the jury. But it was the juror himself, James Garcia, who asked to be removed. Perkins refused to admit Curtis' FBI file, testimony about the FBI's past harassment of the SWP, or evidence of the beating Curtis received hours after his arrest into evidence, ruling that these were irrelevant to determining whether or not Mark Curtis attacked Demetria Smith on March 4. Curtis supporters allege Judge Perkins, along with the Des Moines police, the Polk County Attorney's office, Polk County Victim Services, (probably) the management of Swift and the FBI are all part of the frame-up conspiracy.

Strangely enough, after all the effort spent discrediting Demetria, the SWP claims that Curtis was convicted "solely on the testimony of a cop who was a proven liar." This is a reference to Gonzales, who had been suspended 10 years before the Curtis trial for fudging an arrest report to protect the identity of an informant. It ignores the testimony of Jason, Glade, Manning, and, most significantly, of Demetria herself. While Des Moines feminists bristle at this discrediting of a rape victim's testimony, Marti Anderson of Polk County Victim Services is even more incensed by the "convicted solely" argument.

"In their account the girl disappears, she doesn't exist. It's as if her word, her story, her experience, counts for nothing." "When your gut reaction is to sympathize with an accused rapist of a young girl (and Black) then you have to investigate not only the facts but such a reaction ." From "Labor Defense and the Mark Curtis Case" by Charles Adams.

Curtis endorsers, by publicly supporting Curtis, declare their belief that Demetria Harris and her family are either police dupes or outright liars. Most endorsers do this purely on the basis of the SWP account. Not one of the numerous endorsers I interviewed had made a single phone call to Des Moines.

There is, of course, a long and tragic history of rape survivors being silenced by the criminal justice system, where the most prevalent forms of rape — date rape, marital rape, rape by family or acquaintances of the victim — are almost never prosecuted. This is especially true for women of color, and reflects a dynamic of social denial so virulent that Dr. Judith Herman, author of Father/ Daughter Incest, has concluded "this society doesn't prohibit rape, it regulates it."

What becomes immediately evident in any feminist analysis of the Curtis case is how effectively the left has acted to silence the survivor. We know little or nothing about her from reading the CDC material — her age and year in school, for example, are never mentioned. Nor is it mentioned that her parents were active in the civil rights movement in Des Moines in the 1960s, helping to integrate the local Firestone Tire Plant, or that Keith, Demetria's father, broke the color bar in his union local. Today Keith runs a onetruck hauling company from his home, and Demetria helps by baby-sitting and answering the phone. At the time of the attack Demetria also worked part-time at a local Burger King. Her favorite subject at school was nursing, and the evening of the assault she and Jason had gone for a walk with friends to buy cookies at a neighborhood candy store. All in all, Demetria and her family seem an improbable choice for police/FBI co-conspirators.

Mikel Johnson, a Des Moines feminist and observer of the Curtis case, believes that "there are some very heavy aspects of racism to this case. There were even statements at the time of the trial that it's impossible for a Black girl to give testimony this good." Johnson says she was "outraged from the start, because it was apparent that Curtis' credibility rested primarily on the fact that he is a white man." Johnson also sees "coastal chauvinism" at work in the way activists from New York, Boston, or L.A. will endorse Curtis without calling anyone in Des Moines. "People in Iowa," she says bitterly, "couldn't possibly know what's going on in their midst."

Curtis supporters place great credence in the notion that "good men" — that is, men who agree with their politics — don't rape. Nick Castle's video discusses Curtis' pro-labor sympathies, his membership in CISPES, his concern for Native Americans. Curtis' mother testified about her son's years as a cub scout and Webelo, and his "normal" dating habits. Jayco in her book tells us that on the night of his arrest Curtis was planning to prepare "a chicken and rice dish, his specialty" — as if to ask: Could a man who cooks be a rapist?

"There's this eternal denial on the part of the left," says Claire Kaplan, director of the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault, "to think that men among their ranks couldn't possibly commit such a crime. But if you talk to women active in the left you'll hear widespread complaints about sexism. I'm a socialist myself, I'm involved in a fine organization, but there's still sexism." Kaplan sees the Curtis case as "backlash, pure and simple."

Linda Nelson believes that to deny Curtis could rape because he is a leftist is "the same dynamic which occurs when communities refuse to believe some fine upstanding citizen (the banker, the scout leader, etc.) could do such a thing." This denial is both exploited and encouraged by the Curtis campaign.

Also exploited by the CDC is the myth that women "cry rape" to manipulate or intimidate innocent men. Endorser Paul Shannon, for example, with the Boston chapter of the American Friends Service Committee, said he considers Curtis to be another man "framed by the feminists." Barry Shuchter recalls a Curtis supporter asking him, "What if some woman accused you of rape? That would put a crimp in your political work, wouldn't it?" Almost as disturbing is how the SWP tried at times to obscure the fact that Curtis is a white man with a college education. One of their allegations, for example, is that Curtis "did not have a jury of his peers." As peers, the SWP lists "Blacks, Hispanics, farm workers." It's difficult to see this as anything but a cynical attempt to co-opt the oppression of others, including Curtis' victim. If anyone has a right to complain about the fact that the jury in Curtis' case, as well as the judge and court officers, were white, it is Demetria.

In a reply to an anti-Curtis editorial in the Boston Labor Page, Russ Davis, a Boston Curtis organizer, wrote that "there have been cases (Scottsboro Boys, etc.) where rape has been used in frame-ups. The fact that Mark is white does not change that." (Italics are mine.)

It's significant that Davis' list of cases where rape "has been used in frame-ups" begins and ends with the "Scottsboro Boys" — a group of African-American men convicted of rape by an all-white (and all-male) jury in Alabama in 1931. In that case the main prosecution witnesses were themselves incarcerated during the entire length of the trial, one of them recanting after her release. The defendants had been pulled off a train at random after a racial incident.

There is one similarity, though, between the Curtis case and that of the Scottsboro defendants. In both cases, the prosecution witnesses, women without access to power and unable to tell their stories, were vilified by the left. In 60 years that much, at least, hasn't changed.

"It is a sad story...Besides splitting the energies of the peace movement and diverting resources and attention away from the work we have to do, the [Curtis Defense] committee is again raping the victim...by having to call her a liar to create their version."

From "Is the Personal Political? (Comments on Mark Curtis)" by Linda Nelson, from the Iowa Idea.

The attacks on rape victims by the Curtis Defense Committee have been specific as well as general. According to Demetria's father, these have included the leafletting of Demetria's high school with flyers denouncing her as a liar (Demetria was personally handed a leaflet as she stepped off her bus the morning before the trial); the posting of handbills up and down their street; and the use of money collected through the Curtis Defense Fund to hire a private detective to have the chidren and their family investigated.

Terry Schock, Demetria's rape crisis counselor, recalls how the SWP packed the courtroom while Demetria was on the stand, moving people in and out during the most difficult part of her testimony, telling jokes and carrying on conversations. Schock saw this as "an attempt to intimidate" Demetria. The commotion became so distracting that Judge Perkins stopped the proceedings to ask the bailiff to restore some order.

Mikel Johnson refers to "a campaign of harassment," culminating in the burning of a cross on the Harris' front lawn. The Curtis campaign has admitted leafletting Demetria's school. CDC coordinator Stu Singer is quoted in the Sept. 2,1988 Des Moines Register, saying that Curtis supporters wouldn't return to Demetria's high school "because we already did, and we don't have to do it again." (The CDC in Des Moines refused to answer questions about this or any other issue. When I called I was told to put my queries in writing. Eight months and several certified letters later, I have yet to receive a reply.) The intention, says Keith Harris, was to embarrass Demetria among her friends.

Keith became so incensed with all this that he went down to the SWP's Pathfinder Bookstore in Des Moines several weeks before the trial. When he found the door locked against him and saw Curtis inside (Curtis was out on bail the entire six months between his arrest and trial), Keith smashed the plate-glass windows with his fist. "I cut my hands, but I wanted them to stay away from my kids."

Like Curtis' activism, this vandalism becomes more significant the further one gets from Des Moines. It is seen by Curtis endorsers not as the understandable, if violent, reaction of a father whose family has been assaulted, but as more evidence that Keith is a police thug. Endorser Jackie Osbourne, president of the Greensboro North Carolina chapter of NOW, says she discounted Keith's open letter to Curtis supporters because "we understand that he has been responsible for some violence against the Curtis program. Our understanding was it was something like a mail bomb."

The Curtis Committee claims that the Polk County Attorney's reluctance to prosecute Keith for his vandalism is furtherproof of collusion. But this anti-Curtis conspiracy doesn't seem to extend to the civil courts. The SWP brought a lawsuit against the Harris family, winning $2,000 for damage to their windows.

How will all this end? No doubt Curtis will be out on parole in a year or two, but whether the Curtis campaign moves beyond embarrassing individuals like Coleman Young and Ed Asner remains to be seen. Claire Kaplan of the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault has not yet seen any damage to the stop-rape movement on the national level, but fears that "groups will be divided wherever the SWP takes this campaign." Barry Shuchter of The Boston Labor Page is concerned that the case will "divide labor and feminists in very unhealthy ways."

In their pamphlet, "Who is Mark Curtis?" an SWP supporter is quoted saying, "This is not a case about rape." But the Mark Curtis case is precisely about rape. It is about the insidious and pernicious myths that work to silence rape survivors and protect their abusers. It is about backlash against the stop-rape movement.

It is about how easy it is for a rapist and his friends to recruit allies in their attack on a courageous young woman who dared to speak out against her abuser.

[*Note: The rape survivor's last name has been changed to protect her confidentiality.

The closer one gets to Des Moines, the less luck Curtis has had organizing his broad, political fight Curtis says the police simply started beating him, calling him a "Mexican lover"

 


 


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