Protesters chanting “We want life!,” referring to a life sentence, could be heard inside an Oklahoma City courtroom, where Daniel Holtzclaw, a 29-year-old former Oklahoma City police officer who was charged with sexually assaulting and raping 13 black women, faced a judge. More than 50 people marched outside at one point, their demands audible.
“I can’t order you to not hear it,” the judge told the all-white jury at the time, according to the Associated Press. “But you understand that has nothing to do with what goes on in this courtroom.”
On Thursday, Holtzclaw was found guilty of 18 counts of rape and sexual assault. But to activists in Oklahoma City and across the country, what happened inside the courtroom couldn’t be divorced from what happens outside it every day. For them, Holtzclaw’s case is about the perfect storm of race, gender and the police, and the fear that Holtzclaw’s victims wouldn’t see justice because of who they were.
“The tendency is not to believe black women,” Grace Franklin, an activist with Oklahoma City Artists for Justice, said in a press conference Friday, where two of Holtzclaw’s victims spoke. Prosecutors said Holtzclaw primarily preyed on women with criminal records and drug habits, ”women he could count on not telling what he was doing,” as they put it during the trial.
“We live in a system that isn’t equal and isn’t fair,” said Garland Pruitt, president of the Oklahoma City branch of the NAACP.
The women who testified at the trial spoke of having the same doubts that they would be treated justly — because of who they were or because of Holtzclaw being a white police officer. (In court records, Holtzclaw was identified as Asian; his mother is Japanese. But some of the women testified that he had referred to himself as white as he sexually assaulted them.)
“I thought, then again, you know, who are they going to believe? It’s my word against his because I’m a woman and, you know, like I said, he’s a police officer,” said one of the victims, according to court documents reported on by Buzzfeed. “So I just left it alone and just prayed that I never saw this man again, run into him again, you know.”
Another victim told investigators, “I was shocked and I didn’t know what to think and I didn’t know what to do, like, what am I going to do, call the cops? He was a cop.”
All of that explains why Oklahoma City activists felt pessimistic about the case, even after Holtzclaw was prosecuted on 36 charges. “I doubted it to the very last minute,” Gwendolyn Fields, executive director of the Advocacy Council, a group that works on racial justice and sentencing reform, told MSNBC. ”African-American voices have never been heard in Oklahoma.”
Prosecutors identified a clear pattern of Holtzclaw pulling over women in his capacity as a police officer, then using coercion and threats to sexually assault or rape them. His biggest slip up, they said, was targeting a grandmother in her 50s who did not live in the neighborhood he patrolled and chose to call the police.“He picked the wrong lady to stop that night,” she said at a press conference on Friday.
Holtzclaw will be sentenced in January, and faces up to 263 years. Activists said their priority now is to make sure Holtzclaw serves his time consecutively, rather than concurrently, which would shorten his prison time. The Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office said Holtzclaw is currently on suicide watch.
Even with sentencing and civil suits proceeding, though, victims’ advocates acknowledged that they felt that, for a change, justice had been served.
“This isn’t just a celebration of victory,” attorney Benjamin Crump told reporters at the press conference Friday. “It’s a celebration of courage.”