I just watched the Vice documentary about Anthony Sowell, the black serial killer in Cleveland who raped and strangled eleven women between 2007 and 2009, and raped a few others who managed to get away.
All of his victims were black women. All were drug addicts. All of them were failed by their community, by the overworked and under-caring police. And all of them could possibly have been saved if someone along the chain of accountability had cared just a little harder — in the case of the community, about the fate of a few missing women who happened to be drug addicts, and in the case of the police officers, about doing a better job of following all of the myriad clues pointing to the vile monstrosity that was Anthony Sowell.
This is one situation where moral high ground in the face of their imperfect victimhood — even the ones who got away — doomed Sowell’s victims to years of injustice.
One of the women who survived escaped when he fell asleep after raping her, and she testified later, weeping, that no one stopped to help her while she tried to flee to safety. Another survivor fought him off until she was scratched and bloody, and then smashed through a glass door to get away — only to be turned away at the restaurant she ran to for help. When she flagged down a police car, they arrested him, but later released him for “lack of evidence”, despite the blood, the DNA, the signs of the fight they found at his home. At the time, the smell from the bodies already in his home was so strong that health inspectors had been called to the sausage factory beside his home, under the assumption that the rotting smell came from there.
Another woman flung herself, naked, out of a second storey window, a scene captured by the next door business’s security camera — and when Sowell came down, naked as well, and was confronted, he tried to play it off as just a bit of rough sex between him and his woman. Unconvinced, the business owner called 911 and the unconscious victim was taken to the hospital accompanied by Sowell, but nobody questioned him at the hospital before he slipped away, nor apparently was he followed up with later.
The levels of failure in this case are astounding. The fact that he was caught at all almost seems like a fluke by the end of it.
It might be easy to look at this as one isolated case, or the result of an understaffed, or worse, incompetent police department in one city, but I am more inclined to chalk it up to the priority placed on those women deemed morally repugnant to society, and thus, unworthy of being considered victims and fought for as such.
Just look at the ongoing shitshow that surrounds the missing and murdered indigenous women here in Canada, who it seems needed a hashtag — #MMIW — before they could get some national attention on them. The initial official report stood at about 1000 women, but the people whose lived reality it is scoff at this as a ridiculously low figure.
Think about it. One thousand women. And that’s lowballing it. (The inquiry currently estimates the number as closer to 4000 missing and murdered indigenous women.)
Think about Robert Pickton, the BC pig farmer who for years and years got away with murdering women from Vancouver’s Lower Eastside and feeding them to his pigs, despite family members coming forward for years on end to press for inquiries about their missing mothers, daughters, sisters…
He was convicted for the deaths of six, charged for the killings of twenty others, and confessed to an undercover officer posing as a cellmate that he had actually killed 49 and was “aiming for an even 50” until he got caught.
And yet the family members who had come forward earlier were routinely ignored because the victims were prostitutes and drug addicts. You know, “those kinds of women”. Not to mention the ones who were aboriginal. Indigenous women in Canada seem to occupy the lowest priority strata, while consistently being the targets of violence and sexual abuse.
Sowell wasn’t an outlier. Pickton wasn’t an outlier. They were both the malignant signs of a society that is often particularly cancerous to women, especially women who are deemed less than worthy for whatever reason, be it skin colour, substance issues, or the choices they are forced to make in order to get by in life.
We need to be morally accountable to each other. Empathy needs to be the default way of interacting with each other. Because sometimes it is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.
Everyone deserves the right to live. To be humanized. Everyone deserves to be rightly honoured, and for justice to prevail if their lives are taken away for no damn reason.
Nobody deserves to be a victim of these kinds of heinous crimes, no matter how fucking imperfect you think they are.
This piece originally appeared on Medium, and has been reprinted with permission.
Photo: Cory Doctorow/Creative Commons