(CLIP FROM “SURVIVING R KELLY”) Interviewer: What about the women that came out against him and said, "I was in an underage relationship with him". "He did this to me". "He did that"? Juror: “I just didn't believe them, the women. I know it sounds ridiculous the way they dress, the way they act. I didn't like them. I voted against, I disregarded all of what they had to say.”
Kimberlé Crenshaw: That was juror John Patrion, who in 2008 voted along with other jurors to acquit R. Kelly of all charges. These were the charges that pertain to pornographic abuse of a young girl. Last month, some 11 years after that, acquittal, R. Kelly was arrested once more. This time the charges are aggravated, criminal, sexual abuse. And now the Pied Piper is in the news yet again. This after a shocking and explosive rant during an interview with Gayle King, now Kelly has denied all charges and of course claims that he himself is a victim.
(CLIP FROM INTERVIEW) R. Kelly: I need somebody to help me not have a big heart. Because my heart is so big, people betray me and I keep forgiving them!
Kimberlé Crenshaw: Watching Kelly's indignant declaration that these are simply conspiracies to bring him down, I couldn't help but think about the gendered differences in the ways that men and women are allowed to speak about victimization. My thoughts trailed back to that juror. The idea that because Patrion didn't like the way black women dressed, didn't like the way they acted, didn't like who they were, the idea that he could vote in favor of acquitting R. Kelly was just infuriating to me, to hear it spoken so plainly without any apology, without a sense that it needs to be repackaged was just jaw-dropping for me. It was the very embodiment of the intersection of racism and sexism or what Moya Bailey calls misogynoir. I wish I could say that I was shocked by the revelation, but in fact I've encountered this sensibility many times. I think we all saw it during Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings when the Senate Judiciary Committee effectively disregarded everything in Anita Hill had to say. I also saw it when I was writing an article entitled, Mapping the Margins. When I learned that Black women are least likely to be believed when reporting sexual abuse, they're least likely to see their perpetrators arrested, least likely to see them charged, least likely to see them tried, and least likely to see them convicted. And then on the very rare occasion when their claims actually do catalyze convictions, Black women remain the least likely to see their perpetrators do significant time. I learned about jurors in open and shut cases in which perpetrators were acquitted. When jurors said things like "A Black girl from that neighborhood probably wasn't a virgin anyway." Because of who Black females are thought to b, essentially there was a rule of no harm, no foul. This in fact is a historical dimension of Black women's sexual abuse. In some states historically, rape claims were dismissed for failure to state that the victim was white. In other words, being a Black woman many times made a woman or a girl unrapeable. So when I heard this juror cavalierly dismiss the testimony of Black women over a hundred years after the end of slavery, over 50 years after the end of segregation, over 20 years after Anita Hill, when we heard a juror say that he just didn't like Black women, he just doesn't trust Black girls, it made me want to holler. I wanted to do something, demand something, break something. The good news is that I know my outrage is shared not only by Black women who have been rising up against this assault on our sexual autonomy, but now by millions who have been mobilized by activists to begin a long and necessary process of changing the narrative about Black women and sexual abuse. Now, at least in Chicago, there's a new Sheriff in town, State Attorney, Kim Fox, an African American woman and survivor. The privilege to abuse in plain sight may now, finally, because of Kim Fox and the work of so many others, carry some penalties, and this might be one of the reasons behind the meltdown that we all saw on television a few nights ago. Now, there are few people who have to be given a shout out for making this all possible, including of course the courageous women who have shared their stories. But also we have to give a shout out to Jim DeRogatis who has been lifting up their stories for years when virtually no one wanted to hear about them. Also, dream hampton who brought these stories to life and finally Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye co-founders of the MuteRKelly campaign. So I was on the road when the most recent chapter in the Kelly saga was unfolding and I sent out a Hail Mary to Kenyette Barnes when she replied and said she was available to talk to us. We quickly converted a cavernous room into a makeshift studio, and we were off and running. In our wide ranging conversation Kenyette explain that her very first act of protest against Kelly was all the way back in 2002. She was a student at Temple University and she said she saw a man selling bootleg copies of the tape, the same tape that Kelly would eventually be tried on in 2008. Kenyette Barnes: In 2002, I was a graduate student at Temple University and that's when the original tape came out. And I remember I was on the train. And there was a dude selling the bootleg copies of the VHS like right out under the train. And I had rode that train maybe three days and the third day I hopped off, I walked across the street, and I knocked the tapes all off his table. Got back up on the train, had to use another token. I had to use another token, I'll never forget that, but I was done. When I got on the train I was like, "Oh, my God. This man could have hit me. I could have been arrested. Anything could have happened". But it was the rage. It was that unmitigated rage.
(NEWS CLIP) R Kelly is batting to save his name. Police are investigating a video allegedly showing the R&B singer having sex with a 14-year-old girl.
Kenyette Barnes: They watched it because it was a girl. Because it was a girl. So, that, to me, lets me know, when I hear these guys that are now my contemporaries in their 40s and 50s that are like, "Well, let's not be so hasty". I'm like, "Brother, shut up. You were probably the one sitting up there watching that tape, so be quiet".
Kenyette Barnes: Unfortunately, the primary oppression to our girls is sexual. And sexual oppression is generally intraracial. And by discussing that, we are indeed turning the lens on our black men and we're going to have to unpack all that. We've got to unpack it. As simple as that.
Kim Crenshaw: I thought about you when I read that Kim Foxx had issued the arrest warrant for Robert Kelly and I just thought, "I need to get on the phone as soon as possible". So, where were you when you heard the news? Tell us a little bit about your reaction.
Kenyette Barnes: When I heard the news, I was actually traveling and my notifications just went haywire and I'm like, "What is going on?" They just started wilding out. I was like, "Okay, let me log on". And that's when I found out about the grand jury indictment.
Kim Crenshaw: And, just to put a spin on it, if I recall correctly, it took six years after-
Kenyette Barnes: Yes.
Kim Crenshaw: R. Kelly was initially indicted before he went to trial. I think, in this instance, it was, what? Six weeks after the airing of Surviving R. Kelly, to the indictment? So, six years, six weeks.
Kenyette Barnes: Right.
Kim Crenshaw: So, what made the difference, obviously, between those huge differences?
Kenyette Barnes: I think the difference is that, in 2002, when that tape came out, the first respond to the black community was to bootleg it and sell it and watch it. And although there were those of us who were on the ground, just outraged about it, we didn't have the ground swell of activism on a large scale, on a crossover scale, as we do now.
And I think what has happened with a combination of Tarana Burke's work and dream hampton's work with Surviving R. Kelly ... And I will also say, Mute R. Kelly, is that we've watched a seismic shift in how people began to talk about this. But even in that space, you still have detractors. And I guess, we could talk about that too, but getting back to the timeline, I think it's going to be very difficult for a DA to not take this seriously in this climate and not to be sort of called to the carpet.
Kenyette Barnes: You mentioned the sisters coming to court with him, yes they did, but did you notice that there were numerous people watching them?
Kim Crenshaw: Yes. Yes.
Kenyette Barnes: So, yes, they were there, but they were also there under watch. And how many of us, how many of our sisters are survivors of domestic abuse and you hear about it years and years later? So, when we're seeing that snapshot, there's a whole lot that we're not seeing. And I just think that we need to stop relying on the fact that ... Because some of the things that I heard, Sis, was "Oh, those red bottoms are real cute". Red bottoms? These girls are being abused.
Kim Crenshaw: Oh, Jesus, in the middle of that? And when people are saying that, what do you think they are actually saying when they talk about, the red bottoms are really cute? What's the point of that?
Kenyette Barnes: Well, for me, it really speaks to the economic state of black women. And, for many of us, we're working two and three jobs. We're hustling. Taking care of kids sometimes and we're living below the margins almost in most cases. So, things like expensive shoes and handbags and trips are kind of beyond our reach. And when we see other women who've obtained those from a partner, or a partner-like person, we see something we don't have. So, therefore, if they do have it, they're doing okay. So, despite whatever is going on in their life, hey, at least they're being taken care of. And I believe we have this connection, also, that materialism equals love. And that's another narrative that we need to start to deconstruct, because there are many women who are victims of abuse and have a horrible abusive episode, and then are taken on a trip to Jamaica.
Kim Crenshaw: Right. Usually part of the makeup, right? The cycle of abuse.
Kenyette Barnes: Yeah. It's the cycle of abuse. You have that honeymoon stage where you have the escalation and then the actual action and then the makeup honeymoon stage. And in that stage, that's usually where you're getting all these gifts.
Kim Crenshaw: And then, from the outside perspective in, what people see is, you're being well taken care of. You're getting stuff. You appear to be well cared for, so what are you complaining about?
Kenyette Barnes: Absolutely. I think it really speaks to the intersectionality, to use your term, of not only economic instability within black women, but this need for companionship. And when you see someone who appears to have both, she has everything. Why is she complaining?
Kim Crenshaw: Yeah. And I think this is one of the factors that really has to be considered in our thinking about why this was able to go for so long without widespread community outrage. I think black women are probably among the least partnered, if not the most lonely people in the United States, if not the planet. So, when you have the desire for partnering, and you define your status in terms of are you partnered or not, someone who has someone, regardless of the conditions of that partnering-
Kenyette Barnes: Exactly.
Kim Crenshaw: Still going to be seen as in a privileged position.
Kenyette Barnes: Exactly.
Kim Crenshaw: So, what are you complaining about becomes almost a default-
Kenyette Barnes: Exactly.
Kim Crenshaw: So, I think a lot of people are now grappling with the fact that black women and girls are among the least believed when they talk about sexual abuse. When it comes to prosecution, they have the highest rates of police not going forward. They have the lowest rates of having their assailants convicted. When they are convicted, their assailants get the least amount of jail time. So, we know the system actually doesn't seem to care that much about black women and girls-
Kenyette Barnes: Right.
Kim Crenshaw: But what's surprising is our own community. Their response to claims of victimization. So, I know you've been in the forefront of this-
Kenyette Barnes: I have.
Kim Crenshaw: And I recall myself, when Anita Hill stepped forward, I was on her legal team. And what was most shocking and hurtful was what people in the African American community had to say about a black woman stepping forward. And it was often not, "We don't believe something happened". It was usually, "Even if it did happen, you should sit your butt down and not say anything about it"-
Kenyette Barnes: Exactly.
Kim Crenshaw: "Because you're being a traitor to the community"-
Kenyette Barnes: Exactly.
Kim Crenshaw: "You're bringing a brother down". I call it the "save a brother" school of thought-
Kenyette Barnes: You got to save the brothers.
Kim Crenshaw: And so, a lot of this is out of that same playbook. So, I'm wondering what part of the save a brother playbook did you all encounter when you first started Mute R. Kelly?
Kenyette Barnes: Ooh, wow. Okay. So, the save a brother playbook, we encountered the most benign being, maybe a comment on a social media post, "Why are you bringing down a black man?" to the most violent kind of threats, "If I ever see you, I'm going to 'F' you up, because you're trying to just destroy the black community". And the narratives tend to fall around, "Well, this is what white supremacy wants us to do". So, it's this idea that, any attempt to hold accountable wrongdoings in the black community is an extension of white supremacy, which is a logical fallacy.
Kim Crenshaw: So, it's weaponizing anti-black racism-
Kenyette Barnes: Right. Right.
Kim Crenshaw: Against black women and girls.
Kenyette Barnes: We can't do that. Topics of misogynoir, toxic masculinity, whenever those conversations come up in this space, it's usually met with a lot of vitreal. And my co-founder Oronike and I have really experienced some disgusting backlash over this. And, for me, the more-
Kim Crenshaw: What's some examples-
Kenyette Barnes: Oh, wow.
Kim Crenshaw: Of some of the things that you all have experienced?
Kenyette Barnes: Really a lot of the social media and email backlashes. I've gotten messages calling for me to just get all my social media accounts banned, to being sued. I've been threatened that, "If I ever see you, I'm going to 'F' you up". We've had fan groups of R. Kelly come into our public space where we're talking about issues of sexual violence within the black community and just troll the page and post pictures of R. Kelly and make sort of a play on our hashtag. Instead of "Mute R. Kelly" it's "Play R. Kelly" and just the vitreal and the-
Kim Crenshaw: And Kenyette, just to be clear, are these all men?
Kenyette Barnes: No. Actually, most of them are black women.
Kim Crenshaw: Yes.
Kenyette Barnes: So, that to me, was the most surprising and heart wrenching of this campaign. And I believe we are probably the first campaign to receive that degree of backlash, other than Anita Hill. Because I remember Anita Hill. A lot of the backlash was coming from black women as well, so-
Kim Crenshaw: Well, and just to be concrete about it, which was one of the reasons I was curious about whether you were seeing the same thing in the backlash, when we were in the Capitol and came out after the first day of hearing, we saw all of these black women and we thought they had come to support Anita-
Kenyette Barnes: I recall.
Kim Crenshaw: And when we got close to them, we found, not only were they not there to support Anita, they were praying to God for Him to intervene on behalf of Clarence Thomas.
Kenyette Barnes: Yup. I remember that.
Kim Crenshaw: So, she was being framed as a Jezebel, a harleque-