Although she was acquitted last week, Tiawanda Moore, 20, remains a casualty of an upside-down justice system that treats alleged victims of sexual assault like criminals—and a media that subtly reinforces this dynamic.
Moore’s transformation from a private citizen into an accidental symbol of systemic failure began last July, shortly after an explosive dispute with her then-boyfriend at his apartment on the South Side of Chicago. Her boyfriend called police and reportedly requested that they help eject Moore from the unit. However, by the time two patrolmen arrived, the couple had reconciled. Police rightfully interviewed Moore and her boyfriend separately. But during Moore’s interview, which took place in the couple’s bedroom, the officer allegedly groped her breast and gave her his home phone number.
In August, Moore filed a complaint about the officer’s conduct and agreed to meet with Internal Affairs at police headquarters. According to activists close to the case, she arrived with her boyfriend, who intended to serve as a witness, but IA officials immediately told him to go home or wait for Moore at McDonalds.
During the meeting, IA authorities insisted that she drop her complaint because the officer in question was “a good guy.” Frustrated, Moore pressed “record” on her BlackBerry and captured the officers’ stonewalling. “I think this is something we can handle, without having to go through this process and even have you come in…” an officer says on the recording. “If all you want is to make sure he doesn’t bother you again, we can almost guarantee that given that we’re going to be able to speak to his superiors.”
When investigators realized that Moore was recording, they arrested and charged her —for eavesdropping. In Illinois, which has particularly stringent eavesdropping laws, recording a police officer without his or her consent is a Class 1 felony that carries a maximum sentence of 15 years.
The charges smacked of retribution, but Illinois States Attorney Anita Alvarez refused to drop the case against Moore, who ultimately spent two weeks in jail as she raised bail money. And while Moore invoked her right to a speedy trial, the case had about a year’s worth of continuances. In the interim, Moore’s pro bono attorney, Robert Johnson, and activists including the founders of the Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls and Women, raised awareness. The resulting media coverage often described Moore as a “former stripper”—which is true, but irrelevant to the case at hand.
In an effort to compel the states attorney to drop the charges, the Taskforce launched an online petition that garnered well over 3,000 signatures. In early August, the grassroots organization’s members wrote the name of each signee on an index card and delivered the cards to the states attorney’s office.
Despite the pressure from activists, Alvarez refused to drop the case against Moore. And during the trial, which finally began in late August, one prosecutor told jurors that the content of the tape wasn’t the issue. “The issue is that the words were taped,” The Chicago Sun-Times reports.
Thankfully, jurors acquitted Moore of eavesdropping on grounds that she’d taped IA officials because she reasonably believed that they were committing a crime. At press time, the officer who allegedly assaulted Moore and the IA officials who further violated her have not been punished.
On the heels of this victory-by-loophole, Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls and Women cofounder Melissa Spatz explained why this case isn’t a fluke and what race and class have to do with it.
What compelled the Taskforce to get involved in Tiawanda Moore’s case?
The Taskforce got involved, first, because of the deep injustice of the case. Here’s a young woman who is sexually assaulted by the police, and there are no repercussions for the police. Instead, she finds herself possibly facing 15 years in jail. We felt that action needed to be taken in support of this young woman who had found herself victimized by both the police and the state’s attorney. We also felt that this case was the tip of the iceberg. For us, it comes in the context of other cases in which women in Chicago—and across the country—have raised allegations of police sexual assault. And it appears the police can assault women with impunity. We wanted to raise these issues in the public sphere, and demand that the police be held accountable for their actions.
Given the lopsided power dynamic that pits the Chicago Police Department and Internal Affairs against 20-year-old Moore, her pro bono attorney and grassroots activists, do you honestly think the petition helped?
We had hoped that the state’s attorney would respond to the petitions by dropping the case, but this obviously didn’t happen. On the other hand, I think the 3,600 signatures really drove home the message that the public was angry with how the state’s attorney handled this case. Those signatures helped to generate media coverage and public dialogue about the reality of what young women are experiencing in Chicago—about police sexual assault of young women; about the refusal of Internal Affairs to investigate these claims; about the state’s attorney’s support of corrupt officers; and about the eavesdropping law. Questions are being asked now that were not being raised in the same way before, both in Chicago and across the country.
Much of the media coverage occurred without comment from Moore. What did you think of it?
I was concerned with how media constantly framed Tiawanda Moore as a “former stripper” and how typical it is of how young women of color in particular are depicted when they allege they have been sexually assaulted. This additional assault on young women who have already experienced physical violence is a real deterrent to reporting what’s happened to them.
Moving forward, how do you think Moore’s case will impact reporting police misconduct?
While [the acquittal] is a victory for Tiawanda Moore, I worry that her experience does send a message that young women will face repercussions if they report police sexual misconduct. As my colleague Mariame Kaba has pointed out, Tiawanda was so brave in going to report the case, in pulling out the tape recorder, and in holding her head up during a year of prosecution by the state’s attorney. She has stepped up in support of women everywhere. But now it falls to all of us—organizers, writers and the general public—to demand concrete systemic changes so that young women don’t have to face this in the future. I think we have a real responsibility to advocate for changes, and now is the moment to do that.