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The Schneiderman allegations: When sexual and domestic violence occur under the authority of the law

Wmc Features Eric Schneiderman Drew Angerer Getty Images 053018
Former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The New Yorker article that details several sets of allegations of intimate partner violence against former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman closes with a haunting question raised by one of his accusers: “What do you do if your abuser is the top law-enforcement official in the state?” The question is eerily similar to the observation of another survivor — one separated by time, distance, race, and class — that I quoted in late 2015: “What kind of police do you call on the police?”

Thus, as the reckoning continues in the wake of the revelation of the Schneiderman allegations, I urge us to move past the details and inevitable victim blaming — why didn’t she speak up sooner; why didn’t she report him — and to focus on how little is new here. Because when we examine the nature of sexual and domestic violence accusations made against those who wield the authority of the law, we see behavior that is remarkably similar to what’s been alleged against Schneiderman, whether the perpetrator is a police officer, prosecutor, or someone else who can abuse the power given them by the criminal justice system.          

A review of the accusations against Schneiderman alongside those that were leveled against now former law enforcement officer Daniel Holtzclaw in 2014-15 may help illuminate how those who can coerce compliance by abusing their authority do so frequently and, typically, with impunity. While outwardly different — a beat cop in Oklahoma City versus the top prosecutor in the state of New York — the coercive behaviors involved in the two cases are both difficult to distinguish and extraordinarily typical of the ways that those who wield the power of the law hold that power over of the heads of their victims.

Convicted of 18 counts of sexual violence in late 2015, former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw chose victims — poor Black women in a low-income section of Oklahoma City — that he could intimidate into silence with threats of arrest for outstanding warrants he uncovered after running their licenses. It has not been suggested that Schneiderman went that far, yet the allegations against him are consistent with Holtzclaw’s with respect to the use of coercion, and intimidation connected to the power of his office. Schneiderman is alleged to have told one woman that he could have her followed and her phone tapped, and to have told another, “I am the law.” Holtzclaw was charged with crimes of sexual violence, while the allegations against Schneiderman primarily involve domestic violence, including, in several instances, death threats designed to compel his alleged victims’ silence. Although the former attorney general denies having ever engaged in nonconsensual sex, he is reputed to have called more than one of the women that he dated a whore, and in the instance of at least one relationship, to have perpetrated domestic violence while having sex.  

Sexual violence is not infrequently a component of domestic abuse, as are bullying and the trivializing of the accomplishments of the victim, which are also present in the Schneiderman accusations. Ultimately, both sets of victims felt threatened, despite that fact that each of the women who have come forward to make allegations against Schneiderman were, unlike Holtzclaw’s victims, economically independent, and free of any police record, the things Holtzclaw relied on to silence his victims. This is a timely reminder that crimes of sexual and domestic violence can happen to anyone, regardless of class, sex, gender identity, race, disability, or immigration status, and that crimes of violence sometimes happen to people who are targeted because of these identifiers. Transgender women of color, for instance, experience physical and sexual abuse at higher than average rates, including mistreatment at the hands of law enforcement.  

The Holtzclaw story and the Schneiderman allegations present us with two clear-cut cases of how misogyny and misogynoir work: men with the means to use their offices and connections to law enforcement to coerce and intimidate, collectively, nearly 20 women into silence until, in the instance of Holtzclaw, he preyed on the wrong Black victim, or with respect to Schneiderman, the chasm between his advocacy on behalf of sexual violence survivors and his alleged violence in the intimate partner context became too great.

Despite the fact that the attention of both public and press is more easily captured and kept when those accused are sports figures, Hollywood moguls, or politicians, we will not have succeeded in eradicating sexual and domestic violence until people are safe from being victimized by those in power, whether in the workplace, particularly in industries where victims have little power (e.g. restaurants and the agricultural and hotel industries), in law enforcement (including prisons and immigration detention facilities), or, as the New Yorker article reminds us, in intimate partner relationships. Our charge, regardless of the perpetrator, is clear: to believe survivors, to follow their lead in defining, seeking, and securing justice, and to educate ourselves about the work that advocates and survivors are engaged in to create community-based structures that respond offer answers to the “who do you call” question.

More articles by Category: Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Domestic violence, Sexualized violence



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