The blame game

Protestors decry sex assaults, victim-blaming

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey addresses a crowd of protestors in City Plaza Park. He asked rally attendees to “turn the anger you have right now into something positive “ for rape surviviors.

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey addresses a crowd of protestors in City Plaza Park. He asked rally attendees to “turn the anger you have right now into something positive “ for rape surviviors.

Photo by Tom Angel

Hostile reaction: When prosecutors from Ramsey’s sex crimes task force Special Victims Unit took the stage to defend their efforts, they were roundly booed. After a female prosecutor told the crowd that sex crimes were “aggressively prosecuted” by her office, one disbelieving woman in the crowd shouted, “You’ll get a good raise for that one, honey. Shame on you!”

At an emotional rally held in downtown Chico last weekend to call attention to the plight of sexual-assault survivors, a large crowd gathered to vent its frustrations over the response of the Butte County District Attorney’s Office, schools and the media to a recent, highly publicized alleged attack on an unconscious 16-year-old girl.

Community reaction to the alleged assault, which occurred at a party attended by about 120 young people on Oct. 5, has been visceral, immediate and condemning. Angered by what many perceived as an attempt on District Attorney Mike Ramsey’s part to blame the victim for the incident, about 500 people braved a cold and dreary day in City Plaza Saturday to voice their rage about the perceived lack of justice for many survivors of sexual assaults.

Standing before this hostile crowd, Ramsey apologized for offensive remarks attributed to him by the Enterprise-Record, in which he was quoted as saying the 16-year-old victim of the alleged assault had been “doing the house” before she passed out and was molested with fingers and a pool cue by at least four young men.

Although Ramsey maintains that he was misquoted and his words were taken out of context, he said he was sorry “for words that were misconstrued and did not reflect my intent or my lifelong philosophy” toward the prosecution of sex crimes.

Many in the audience expressed their lack of confidence in Ramsey by booing and shouting epithets such as “Come on!,” “Prosecute!” and “What are you going to do about it?”

Ramsey, who has become the focal point of much of the outrage over the assault, defended his record in prosecuting sex crimes, saying that his office would be prosecuting the defendants to “the fullest extent the law will allow.” In an apparent shot at Chico’s party image, Ramsey also said alcohol had contributed to the incident. His speech was met with both applause and derision.

Many civic leaders and rape survivors’ advocates were on hand to speak about the incident and about ways the community could better prevent and deal with such assaults in the future.

“I feel a deep concern for our junior-high- and high-school-age girls,” said Trinity United Methodist Church Pastor Ellen Rowan, who said she was disturbed by reports from young girls that sexual acts among minors at parties were common.

“They said, ‘Oral sex isn’t sex, it’s a party game,'” Rowan said. “These young people are of inestimable worth, and they don’t know it. We have our job cut out for us.”

At least three rape survivors took the stage to urge solidarity among women and an end to victim-blaming.

“As a survivor, I want us all to be survivors,” one said. “I hope that those of you who know her [the 16-year-old victim] will go up to her and say, ‘I’m there for you.'”

Media coverage of the story was harshly criticized by several of the speakers.

Loretta Metcalf, who received wild applause for her comments on the nature of power and gender inequality, said the media had shown they lacked compassion “with their graphic, detailed and repetitive reporting.”

Ramsey chided local newspapers that he said had “perpetuated an outrageous notion that [his office] would blame the victim.” Another speaker said, “Reporters like to make controversy. It sells papers.” And, in a poem, Gina Curiale, an Associated Students Women’s Center intern who was given much of the credit in organizing the event, blamed the media for “commodifying rape” and profiting from the “spilled blood” of sexual-assault victims.

The News & Review was singled out over its coverage. One speaker, who identified herself as a critical-thinking teacher, said the CN&R’s article ("Innocence lost,” Newslines, Nov. 14) was “not an appropriate way to cover this story,” especially for a “liberal” paper that “is supposed to be the progressive voice of this community.”

“You have to look at how you feel after you get through [the story],” she said. “What’s the emotional spin?”

In a question-and-answer session at the end of the two-hour rally, Ramsey reiterated the charges brought against three 17-year-olds and a 20-year-old, all of whom have been implicated in the assault. All face felony charges of penetration with a foreign object of an intoxicated subject.

The juveniles, he said, would face stiffer penalties in Juvenile Court and thus would not be tried as adults. If given maximum sentences, each could be behind bars until they are 25. The 20-year-old, former PV student Dereck Rickmers, faces three felony counts and could be sentenced to a maximum of 12 years in state prison. He has pleaded innocent.

When asked about two 18-year-olds arrested in the case, both of whom Ramsey has so far declined to charge, he said that decision was based on “saving the emotional energy” of the victim, who may be called upon to testify against her alleged attackers.

The girl, whose name is being withheld, is said to remember little from the night in question. She did not report the incident or seek immediate medical attention after the alleged attack but was instead contacted by Butte County sheriff’s investigators, who got wind of the incident through rumors floating around PV High School.

While some have questioned Ramsey’s record in prosecuting crimes against women, statistical evidence to substantiate that claim is hard to come by. State records on felony rape arrests in Butte County are available but aren’t cross-referenced with conviction data. Ramsey said he judges his own success on a case-by case basis, and is one of only a handful of prosecuters in the state to employ a 10-member unit specifically devoted to sex crimes.

Numbers are probably of no value or consolation to rape survivors, and national statistics on sexual assault are often confusing and contradictory. Many rapes go unreported, and many offenders are allowed to plead to lesser offenses, which skews the data dramatically. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Report lists 90,491 forcible rapes in the United States in 2001, a rate of about 62 per 100,000 women, or about one rape every 5.8 minutes. The California attorney general states that a forcible rape occurs in California every 53 minutes.

In a phone interview, Curiale questioned the figures, referring to a 1992 report by the National Center for Victims of Crime, which states that 84 percent of rapes go unreported. That study also reports that a woman is raped every 1.3 minutes, and that the vast majority of rapes—61.6 percent—are perpetrated on women under 17. Rape by strangers is less common, accounting for 22 percent of known cases.

Chico Rape Crisis Intervention did not respond to requests for additional local data.