Advanced Search Your Shopping Bag
You are reading the Excerpt of American Methods by Kristian Williams.

Return to the book overview

American Methods | Excerpt

Chapter Seven
The Centrality of Rape

On August 9, 1997, Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, was arrested outside a Brooklyn nightclub following an altercation between police and some number of the patrons there. Louima was not involved in the conflict, but police mistook him for another man who had been fighting. The officers who transported Louima to the precinct stopped twice en route and beat him. Later, inside the station house, Officer Justin Volpe removed Louima from his cell and led him to a bathroom. While another cop held Louima down, Volpe shoved a broken broom handle into his ass, and then into his mouth.

Louima was returned to the holding cell, until other inmates complained that he was bleeding. He was then moved to a hospital, where a nurse reported the abuse to Internal Affairs. Among Louima's injuries: a ruptured bladder, a torn colon, and broken teeth.

The response of the authorities was surprisingly swift. Officer Volpe was arrested and charged with violating Louima's civil rights. Officer Charles Schwarz, who was accused of holding Louima down, was also arrested, as were Officers Thomas Wiese and Thomas Bruder, who were charged with obstructing justice. Volpe pled guilty and was sentenced to thirty years.

This outcome was virtually unique among the many high-profile brutality cases under the watch of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who was in office between 1994 and 2002. And it was clearly not the reaction Volpe expected. Volpe did nothing to hide his crimes from his colleagues. He marched Louima through the booking room, to and from the bathroom. He borrowed gloves from another officer before the assault, and he showed off the bloody, shit-smeared broom handle afterward, like a macabre trophy.

It is worth considering the overall atmosphere of impunity that made such arrogance possible. It seems that Volpe expected to be fully protected by his peers. And while that didn't really work out as he had hoped, it's not as though that expectation was altogether groundless. No police officer tried to stop the attack on Louima, or moved to report it afterward. When the nurse did report it, Internal Affairs investigators misfiled the report and failed to forward it to the district attorney's office (as required by department policy). Once an investigation was finally launched, a few officers came forward with what they knew; of these, at least one had to be transferred for his own protection. Meanwhile, eleven cops were cited for withholding information or lying to investigators.

Sexualized Abuse

I begin this chapter with a description of the abuse suffered by Abner Louima, in part because the case is well-known, but also because it is not usually discussed in terms of rape. Instead, it is often called "assault," "sodomy," and "torture.” Given the facts, "rape" would seem to be the most obvious term. The International Criminal Court, which considers rape a crime against humanity, defines it according to these criteria:

1. The perpetrator invaded the body of a person by conduct resulting in penetration, however slight, of any part of the body of the victim or of the perpetrator with a sexual organ, or of the anal or genital opening of the victim with any object or any other part of the body.

[And,] 2. The invasion was committed by force, or by threat of force or coercion, such as that caused by fear of violence, duress, detention, psychological oppression or abuse of power, against such person or another person, or by taking advantage of a coercive environment, or the invasion was committed against a person incapable of genuine consent.

Clearly, by this standard, Justin Volpe–with the aid of his colleagues, the protection of his immediate superiors, and in every sense that matters, under the color of law–raped Abner Louima.

Yet it does not get called that. Perhaps because the weapon, in this case, was a stick and not a penis. Or, perhaps, because the story–or more specifically, the victim and the rapist–do not fit our culture's stereotyped rape narrative. The idealized victim is a woman, usually a young woman, and necessarily a "good girl"–since sluts, it is suggested, are fair game and therefore cannot be raped. The rapist, of course, is a stranger, an outside force, a pervert and probably a psychopath. As has often been observed, these characters–the good girl and the stranger–carry racial connotations dating back to the white mythology of the slave era. The "good girl," almost by definition, is white and middle class; the "stranger" is a Black man. There is no room in this scene for the victim to be a hard-working Black man, or for the rapist to be a white cop. So rape gets called something else, just as it does when the victim is a prostitute or other "fallen woman," just as it does when the rapist is a husband, boyfriend, or coworker–just as the brutality of Abu Ghraib gets called "abuse" and not "torture," because we all know that US soldiers don't engage in torture, and facts be damned.

But it was rape–what happened to Abner Louima–and it was torture, and using the words, especially together, may allow us to see similarities that might otherwise remain obscured.

Justin Volpe's attack on Abner Louima is particularly well known, but it is unfortunately far from unique. If we look back through the preceding chapters, we see a continuous theme of sexualized abuse, encompassing a startling range of practices: penetration of the genital and anal openings, using the perpetrators' bodies, sticks, bottles, truncheons, and (at Abu Ghraib) a chemical light; groping of the breasts, genitals, or buttocks; forced prostitution; coerced abortions; obscene gestures or sexually graphic remarks; mutilation of the genitals by crushing and electrocution; and rituals of humiliation involving strip searches and body cavity searches, prolonged nudity, pornographic poses and photography, and other violations of sexual taboos and gender norms. These practices occur in police stations, jails, prisons, military bases, on public streets, and in "undisclosed locations." The victims include men, women, and children; suspects, convicts, political enemies, and people who are manifestly innocent of any offense. The perpetrators are cops, guards, soldiers, mercenaries, paramilitary troops, intelligence officers, secret police, and sometimes other inmates.

This catalogue of atrocities is remarkable for its diversity, certainly, but more so for what its items have in common. Why should sexualized abuse feature so prominently in the stories of torture? Certain individual abuses may be explained in terms of opportunistic sadism, but the whole pattern of abuse cannot be dismissed so easily.

Part of the explanation is probably technical: An efficient and effective attack will focus on the victim's vulnerabilities. The genitals are an unusually sensitive part of the human anatomy, sex is an unusually sensitive area of human psychology; these then become rational targets for pressure. But to understand the whole picture, we should consider the aims and purposes of torture as it is practiced, and we must view its specific techniques in terms of the larger social context of male dominance and cultural misogyny, as well as white supremacy and US imperialism.

seealso Return to American Methods