Powerlessness Re-Defined

by Liz ElBayadi/Guest

This is powerlessness: an 18 year old girl, being followed into a portable toilet and raped while she stares down into the stinking filth below; never even considering that she could have tried to stop it, or at the very least demand justice at some point upon exiting the toilet. But it would have been another type of girl who would have formed a scream in her belly and emerged from that disgusting blue port-a-­potty seeking friends and family and allies to help make it right. It surely wouldn’t be this girl wearing her vulnerability as plainly as the dress she had on that day, the one that allowed Officer Chester Thompson speedy access to that which he sought to tear into. And anyway, he would have left another type of girl alone: she wouldn’t have reeked of fear and weakness. In a little over a month it will have been 19 years since Chester “Chet” Thompson pushed behind me into that bathroom at an outdoor music festival on my 18th birthday. I was, at the time, a child desperately seeking a way out of a very unhealthy home situation. I was supposed to be starting college at Syracuse University in the fall but still nervous that it wouldn’t work out as I needed an additional loan that my parents were unable to co­-sign for. When the man who identified himself to me as a Syracuse Police Officer named “Chet” asked me if I could prove that I was not drinking underage I saw the future I was grasping so hard for fade away. And so I let what happened happen. And he said it was “okay” afterwards and that I wouldn’t be in trouble. But I was still in trouble and it wasn’t okay for a long time.

I suppose we could talk about how my parents couldn’t love me the right way and it turned me into someone who felt they deserved the abuse and the mistreatment that came in the guise of attention or approval. And we could likewise discuss how ghosts in Officer Thompson’s past may have turned him into the power-­wielding abuser, lashing out at those who, like I was, so clearly demonstrated that their lives up that point had shown them that they should just take it. We could pass this blame around forever and ever but the thing is, I’ve owned my part in it. My mother taught me not to “play the martyr”, so I didn’t. I walked out of that bathroom and the next day I wrote in my journal that I should never talk about it or think about it again. I did a pretty good job of pretending that I was doing neither.

I carried on with the business of my life, I did enter Syracuse University that fall and later I also earned a Master’s degree in Art Therapy from Nazareth College in Rochester, NY. In graduate school I did the difficult work of looking deep and hard at this and other horrible events from my past and I made a kind of peace. I distanced myself from my family, I learned to appreciate my own strength and I fell in love with a medical student who later became a physician and my husband and the father of our three little boys. The past was the past. Until I found out that it wasn’t just me. Until I had a full name to put with the face that had been hiding in the back of my mind for all of these years. A few weeks ago, I came across a news story that made my heart stop: a woman named Maleatra Montanez had pressed charges against Officer Chester Thompson for raping her in her own home in front of her infant son. I missed this story on it’s first go­-around: when he took a plea deal out of the criminal case that she filed against him. A deal that allowed him a mere slap on the wrist in the form of a dishonorable discharge and a lifetime of freedom to enjoy his taxpayer-funded pension. But now I was seeing it, and now I thought that I finally had cast off my powerlessness and could make a difference for this woman who risked so much by bringing her story forward and bringing him to trial.

I went through the business of contacting the authors of the news story that I read, I talked to the lawyer for Ms. Montanez’s civil suit, I talked to the Onondaga County DA. I shared the news story­­and some of my story­­ on social media and asked others to share, I contacted the crime investigation programs for the major television networks. My motivations were not for financial gain or to try for my 15 minutes of fame, in fact initially I wanted my story to be anonymous and was told that it could not be a part of anything unless I was willing to link a name with it. I want to help this woman and the other women who have come forward. I want to stitch my story next to theirs because very little has changed in this patriarchal society. So much less than I even thought three weeks ago. As painful as this is to admit: I actually do not have that much more power than I thought: because of red ­tape, because of legal stipulations, because of the powers that be protecting their own and the good name of their institutions. The statute of limitations has expired for me to file a civil suit and it seems that that is the case for a criminal suit as well (though for some reason, I can’t get anyone to give me a clear answer about that) and apparently the more amorphous statute of limitations on how much people are willing to care has also expired.

This is what rape is: it is an individual being told physically, mentally, emotionally and maybe even verbally that they are worthy of humiliation, self­-doubt, silence and fear. And if, by some chance they crawl out from under the weight of all that for long enough to talk about it they are congratulated for their bravery (in the best case scenario) and asked to step aside so that people can get on with the better business of life: enjoying viral videos and political conspiracy rants on Facebook.

This is how a rape culture functions: when an individual who has had a sense of self that was perhaps already fragile, torn violently away but still finally comes to a place where they would like to reclaim some of their dignity by saying, “This is me and you all know me and this happened to me”; but society instead says, ‘There there, you’re alright. Now move along.’ And we accept that so readily: ‘She must have been asking for it.’ is the unspoken message; and somewhere in the victim, that very fear is burning away at her. But the thing is, how are we supposed to raise our children in a place where predators in power are protected when you and I know that one slip up by us mere mortals and we would be in for swift punishment.

I am a mother. My time belongs to my children, who in a short amount of time get to be all mine for the summer months, and I want my focus off of this pathetic excuse for an officer of the peace. This situation that is holding a bigger part of my attention than I would like is that a rapist has been hidden in the ranks of a police force so skillfully that even when he is caught, his victims start to wonder if they may have overstepped their boundaries by asking for accountability. This situation is worthy of my time, but it is not as worthy as my children are. I want answers. I want faith in my community. I want to move on and I want the other victims to feel as though they live in a world where they can come forward without fear. I want a dialogue and that’s pie-­in-­the-­sky thinking. We are so far away from that if we ever get there. But I’ll settle for some common­sense disgust from my fellow humans. I can’t be the only one who finds brazen abuse of power this unacceptable. I’m tired of people telling me I am brave because I let a sorry excuse for a man (let alone an officer) rape me, I want people to tell the officers that they are cowards for perpetuating this, for protecting this, for allowing this to walk our streets. I want the focus off of me and onto him where it belongs. Outrageous actions deserve our outrage.


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