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“Don’t ask about this girl, if she even exists” (Unlocked)
Suppressing discussion of a rape, for social justice
My subscribers voted, overwhelmingly, that they are okay with me sometimes unlocking previously paywalled posts that are at least three months old. That’s what I’m doing here — this post ran on 7/1/2020, and the original version lives here. As always, I’m cloning it to protect the privacy of subscribers who commented on the original — this version was created on 10/14/2021 and backdated to reflect the article’s original publication date.
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Because I write and talk a lot about online craziness, I regularly get emails of the form, “You will not believe what happened in this Facebook post/Twitter thread/Instagram comments section/[whatever].” These emails point me to consistently wild stuff, and I’m grateful for the tips, but it’s sometimes hard for me to write about these incidents. There’s a lot of online craziness out there, after all, and only so many hours in the day. Plus, to paraphrase Freud, sometimes online insanity is just online insanity, and there isn’t enough further there there to justify writing about it publicly.
A few days ago, though, a tipster sent me something truly gonzo, and I can’t resist devoting a newsletter to it. It’s about Powderhorn Park, which Caitlin Dickerson of the New York Times recently described, in a brilliant article, as “a tree-lined Minneapolis neighborhood known as a haven to leftist activists and bohemian artists[.]” As Dickerson reports, the actual park that gives the neighborhood its name is now the site of a homeless encampment that set up there after the killing of George Floyd, which occurred nearby, and as a result the neighborhood’s lefty residents are struggling to live in accordance with their stated values — crime and other types of social dysfunction appears to have increased, but they’re worried police involvement will only cause further harm to the marginalized community living in the park.
To give the most salient example, one guy who had two teenagers try to steal his car — one of whom pointed a gun at his chest — subsequently told Dickerson he felt guilty about calling the cops and refused to cooperate with prosecutors after the boys were apprehended. “Been thinking more about it,” he wrote her in a followup text message. “I regret calling the police. It was my instinct but I wish it hadn’t been. I put those boys in danger of death by calling the cops.” (It’s really an amazing article and everyone should read it — Katie Herzog and I also discussed it in the last episode of our podcast.)
Anyway, so, the tipster: He wanted to let me know that some truly bizarre stuff was going on in an online discussion about the encampment. The links he sent me pointed me to a Facebook group launched June 16 by the neighborhood’s residents to support inhabitants of “the sanctuary” and to demand elected officials provide them with housing and other services. I’m not going to link to it or give its full name as a sort of compromise with myself vis-a-vis writing about it: It is a public group and people did choose to write about these issues under their public names, but my preference is to keep this discussion to my paid newsletter and not turn it into some sort of public spectacle or outrage campaign. To that end, I’m also not going to include the names of the conversation’s participants. (According to a post in the group, there appear to be two separate encampments in the park, but I’m just going to refer to “the encampment” for simplicity, and the group seems to be referring to both encampments as “the sanctuary.”)
That out of the way: This brouhaha, which knocked the wind out of me (me! A seasoned veteran of internet bullshit!), begins with a simple question posed to the group. “I have seen a few online postings about a rape of a 14 year old girl near the camps,” writes Green, as I’ll call him. “Does anyone have information on this or heard similar?”
(I know I have at least one reader with a visual impairment who relies on a text-to-speech program to read my newsletter, so whenever I screenshot exchanges from the group I will also copy and paste the text into this post.)
As it turns out, there have been two recent sexual assaults in the park. One involved a juvenile victim, according to local news, and the other an adult one. The latter link suggests that the suspect in the adult assault was taken into custody after the above post, but it’s unclear whether that perpetrator is believed to be responsible for both attacks.
Within this Facebook group, which seems to have a bit of a radical bent — or to at least be controlled by those who have one — Green did not make many friends for asking a question that, to normal people, would certainly appear to be fair and relevant, given the possibility of a violent sexual predator lurking in the neighborhood.
Take this response from Red:
Red complains to Green that “I know the Sanctuary folks have been asking to get the community safety patrols resourced and funded so they don't depend on volunteers. No one at any level of government has been interested in helping out to make that happen. I’m trying to track whether people here want to be tragedy-voyeurs and get wound up about something new, or activate to step up to help.”
This clearly seems to be a shot at Green. By trying to find more information about a 14-year-old being raped, he is being a “tragedy-voyeur” who is seeking to “get wound up about something new,” and this is incompatible with genuinely wanting to help. Green responds that “our police aren’t welcome there…,” likely a reference to the generally anti-cop sentiment of the group. Red angrily fires back that he isn’t talking about cops. “I didn't mention police,” writes Red. “It’s not clear what you're trying to do here with your trailing dots. I did mention nightly community safety patrols, which many people have taken part in and see as an alternative to keep people safe that doesn't rely on such deadly and racist systems. Are you willing to step up and take a shift?”
In this view, it is unacceptable to get police involved after the rape of a 14-year-old because they are part of a “deadly and racist” system. The only alternative, until other authorities step up somehow, is to send civilians from the neighborhood out in the night to patrol the area of a homeless encampment where a girl (and also a woman) have been raped recently.
The part where I really had trouble keeping a lid on my own rage involved a woman I’ll call Orange:
“[S]ince when is it anyone's right to know who was raped when?” Orange responds to Green’s original post. “[R]ape happens every day, and often in the home right next to you. but because it's a home with 4 walls, you know it's not your business. when you feel like these people are somehow in ‘your’ space, you feel like you have a right to know. They're not in ‘your’ space and if there was indeed a CHILD who suffered the horrifically common fate of being raped, that is her private business that she can share with who she chooses. This is a dogwhistle.”
Where to begin! “Since when is it anyone’s right to know who was raped when” is the sort of sentence that should be framed and hung up in some sort of grim twisted tourist-trap faux museum 20 stories below Amsterdam’s Red Light district, or something. The mind reels. Then there’s Orange’s claim that if someone got raped one house over from Green’s, he wouldn’t care — in that sort of situation, he wouldn’t care about rape at all (the thinking goes). But because he’s one of those evil reactionary sorts who is concerned about girls getting raped in parks, of course he’s getting involved here, what with his dog whistles.
Things get even more heated, somehow, when Green fires back (righteously, in my view) that he is not going to be cowed by buzzwords into not seeking details about a horrific crime:
sorry but platitudes and catch phrases like dog whistles aren't arguments. I am appalled and grieve for every rape that occurs in my neighborhood, city and world. I don't have the capacity to do much about those that occur behind closed doors except to influence any young men (or old) how to respect and love all women in their respective spheres. So yes I am going to post about this one because I along with all of us here have agency to address it with each other, the park board and the city. I will not apologize for bringing attention to reality and desiring justice for this young woman.
To which Orange replies by cranking the derangement up to 11:
you can bring attention to the issue of rape without asking for details of a particular rape. the idea that you can't is totally absurd. you don't have a right to this child's body or to what happened to this child's body any more than a rapist does. mind your business. there are a million ways you can help rape survivors (like myself) without asking this question. You asked this question because you think poor people are more prone to commit crimes than middle class people. they're not. it's just that poor people are more criminalized by a system that not only harms more than it hurts, but does ABSOLUTELY NOTHING for rape survivors. no part of telling you what happened to this girl's body will help her, and no part of you asking this question helps the community. if you want to help, ask where you can volunteer, where you can donate, or what systemic changes you can advocate for to make rape a less common occurrence and provide better support for victims. Don't ask about this girl, if she even exists.
“Don’t ask about this girl, if she even exists.” It’s astonishing. As is the implication that asking about the details of a rape, for public-safety purposes, is on the same moral plane as… raping someone.
I grew up outside Boston, and this all made me think of how the Catholic Church there (and in so many other places) responded to priests who preyed on children: by covering up their behavior for the greater good of the institution. This is a pitch-black example of horseshoe theory, which posits that extremists of all sorts come to resemble one other: a leftist woman is telling someone to shut up and not talk about the rape of a 14-year-old, because it could boomerang back on the homeless encampment whose members everyone agrees are the Good Guys, because something something social justice.
Some of the other responses are similarly unhinged. “This post comes across as so entitled,” writes another replier. “And also no content warning for anybody who comes across it. If we wanna support survivors this is not the way to go about it.” So the issue isn’t that a 14-year-old was raped in the park that (presumably) everyone in the group, many of whom must have daughters, lives near, but that the guy who had the gall to ask about it — which is ‘entitled’! — didn’t include a trigger warning.
This is all very sick. But it’s also morbidly fascinating. It’s helpful to be able to watch the way ideology — just about any ideology, really — can, taken to certain extremes, curdle morality and basic human decency. If you’re not careful, you can end up being the person who snaps angrily at the guy trying to learn more about the rape that just took place in his neighborhood — your behavior can come to resemble that which occurred during an institution’s most notoriously twisted, evil chapter. Examples of this are useful because they teach us, in a rather loud and disturbing way, what any of us can turn into if we become untethered from a core sense of morality and justice.
Questions? Comments? Inquiries about the embezzlement scandal descending on Singal-Minded, which would be totally inappropriate since they would constitute an act of oppression against a Jewish Content Creator? I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jessesingal. Image of a ‘thinking’ emoji taken from emojiterra.com.