Idealism Takes a Hit by Carol Orange
An Attempted Rape Challenges My Cherished Beliefs
Before the Black Panthers documentary began I left the auditorium for the ladies room in the building’s basement. As I walked along the corridor I heard footsteps behind me. I turned around, noticing two young black men talking and laughing. They were tall, heavy set, not carrying books or briefcases. I tensed when I realized we were the only ones in the hallway. Then I chastised myself for racist fears.
It was June of 1967 when Eric, my professor husband, and I entered Berkeley’s ground floor auditorium where the film was being shown. The proceeds were slated for freeing Huey Newton, one of the movement’s incarcerated founders. My support of the Black Panthers began after reading Malcolm X’s eloquent Autobiographyfor a curriculum development job back in Boston. I was an idealistic 25 year old on a multi-racial team, and while co-writing “The History of Black Americans”, my anger smoldered at the horrific stories of their lynchings, rapes, and job discrimination.
Entering the dark ladies room, I turned on the light and opened the door to a stall.
After I peed I left the stall, and was shocked to see the stockier of the two young men waiting there for me.
“My husband’s upstairs and he’ll be down if I’m not back,” I said.
He grabbed me. I was terrified. In a flash I remembered what Brian, my Boston colleague had learned when he was an investigative reporter for the Globe. “If the women had shouted for help, they might have been saved,” he told our team about the Boston strangler’s victims.
“HELP, HELP,” I yelled. I doubted that anyone could hear me in that dark basement. It was my only chance.
As my assailant wrestled me to the floor, pulling down my underpants, I screamed even louder. When he unbuckled his belt I closed my eyes, trembling.
Suddenly a group of students burst into the ladies room and saved me. I couldn’t stop crying. Ironically, they’d been discussing alienation in modern societies when they heard my screams. A female student put an arm around my shoulder as we walked into the auditorium. Eric ran to greet me. He’d seen the police running after a young black guy and felt sorry for him until he learned what happened. We never got to see the Black Panthers film.
Two campus police officers asked me to press charges against the 18-year-old man who’d been caught. I didn’t want to do that, picturing him trapped inside a brutal prison, which would only harden him. The head officer, who happened to also be African American, raised his eyebrows. “We’ve had a siege of evening rapes, and the victims are petite young women like yourself,” he said. He explained that the offenders came from Oakland and headed to the Berkeley campus to cause trouble. “If you don’t press charges, you’re risking other women’s lives,” he said.
If the police officer had not been a black man, I may not have been persuaded. I might have found a white cop part of the system. Yet I sure didn’t want this to happen to anyone else and agreed to press charges.
Eric and I postponed our flight back to Boston. Before the court date a week away we tried leading normal lives. We attended a dinner party at a professor’s glass house, where Huey Newton was discussed. I usually had a lot to say, but that night I remained silent. The next day we drove to Sterling Vineyards in Napa. As we tasted wines, I almost forgot until later that night I awoke with nightmares, re-experiencing being assaulted. I was furious with the guy for going after me. Yet I tortured myself about having become part of an unjust society. I knew that black males were incarcerated five times more frequently than whites.
“How could I be a turncoat? “ I l asked Eric the following morning at the hotel café.
He assured me that I was not.
I told him “his words came too easily.”
The morning of the court hearing finally arrived. I’d thrown up before entering the cab. On the way downtown Eric held my hand, trying to comfort me.
It was my first time in a courtroom and we were seated on the witness bench. I considered this young male who slumped on the bench, looking down at his feet. I noticed his mother’s worried face. The white judge appeared stern. The university cop walked over and said, “You’re doing the right thing.”
The defendant’s lawyer approached us. “I’m sorry you had such a frightening experience,” he said. We accompanied him to the judge’s chambers where he told us that my assailant had admitted to being a drug user and apologized for his attempted rape. He’d agreed to live in a rehab center for a year. During his probation he would report to a parole officer every two weeks. If he did not honor this commitment, he would be sent to prison. While still upset, I was relieved that he’d have a second chance to get his life together.
I’d read that Malcolm X supported drug rehabilitation and I agreed to drop the charges. My assailant went to rehab, and the following day Eric and I flew back to Boston. Back at work I thanked Brian for saving me.
Since that harrowing experience, I always ask someone to accompany me to a ladies room if it’s located away from a crowd. When Alex, my daughter, left home for college I told her about the danger I’d encountered. She was horrified, but understood that “he was one screwed-up guy.”
This attempted rape, despite its emotional scar, didn’t change my passion for social justice.