Forcing DeWine to address rape

Pranav Jani reports on a meeting between activists protesting rape and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine--and why it will take a larger fight to stop sexual assault.

THE VERDICT in the Steubenville rape case--guilty for both defendants--is in, vindicating the victim known as "Jane Doe" and the efforts of her supporters. This report details one of the actions leading up to the verdict and some of the lessons it provides for the growing movement against sexual assault and women's oppression.

On March 4, about 15 protestors conducted an action at Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine's office in connection with the Steubenville rape case. The Ohio chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) intended to drop off a petition, with 85,000 signatures, demanding that DeWine prosecute Michael Nodianos for failing to report a crime.

Nodianos is the young man seen making crude jokes about the rape victim in an online video. He also tweeted extensively about the crime.

The small but energetic and diverse group, led by women, began the event with chants and signs including "Rape Is Not a Joke," "Failure to Report Rape Is a Crime" and "Men Can Stop Rape." The representatives of NOW-Ohio and the Ohio State University students who made up the bulk of the protest, including members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Women and Allies Rising In Resistance (WARR), underlined our disappointment with DeWine's office, as well as the misogyny that pervades our society.

As we went to drop off the petition and signatures, however, we were surprised to learn that we would be invited to speak to DeWine in his office. For over half an hour, and in the presence of local media, our group grilled and debated DeWine about the actions of his office and the fact that the evidence points to an initial cover up of the rape in Steubenville.

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DEWINE, REPRESENTING the prosecution, was quick to agree on the "law and order" aspects of the question. But he also insisted that this was the act of a few bad individuals, that he would not commit to prosecuting Nodianos, and that there was no cover-up of the rape.

We contend, in fact, that the jokes and snide remarks that Nodianos expressed were part of a prevalent culture in our society in which rape and sexual assault are often downplayed, and that the law could do much more to signal to signal that rape would not be tolerated.

Indeed, women often do not turn to the police and the courts precisely because those institutions have proven to be inadequate in bringing about justice for the victims, and often bring more pain and suffering to the victim. DeWine actually agreed on this point, saying that having victims come forward was one of the biggest challenges in prosecuting rape and sexual assault perpetrators.

When DeWine did give some space to the idea of a larger social and cultural problem, he insisted--true to this long tenure as a Republican Party politician in Ohio politics--that the responsibility for changing the culture lay with parents, teachers and the community.

In effect, he tried to turn what women's rights activists call "rape culture." "Rape culture" refers to the climate of misogyny that makes rape a joke and enables sexual assault--a climate created by institutionalized sexism. While not engaging in victim-blaming per se, DeWine's response was a kind of "community-blaming" instead. Apparently, society's moral values--and not gender oppression, commodification of women's bodies and ideas about heterosexual male superiority--is causing rape and sexual assault around the globe.

At the end of the day, the action was a big success for the protesters, who took DeWine on with confidence and clarity. First and foremost, it added to the local and national scrutiny of how the Steubenville case was being handled. Covered favorably by the local media, as well as ESPN's recent Outside the Lines episode on the Steubenville case, news stories highlighted our comments about rape and its causes.

On another level, it helped build confidence among ourselves and other activists, forcing us to think on our feet. The immediate result is stronger links between NOW, the ISO and WARR, which has allowed activists to mobilize in solidarity with Jane Doe.

The action also taught us a few important lessons. Many of the us were quite disappointed by the small size of the action. The work that needs to be done to challenge the status quo often can seem incredibly daunting. It's not just the left that has to be rebuilt but even liberal organizations with extensive networks.

The idea of a mass mobilization--how to do it and why it matters--needs to be brought back to the fight for women's rights. Meeting with politicians like DeWine is ultimately limiting, because it allows them to shape what gets discussed and how the discussion is carried out.

At the same time, this action showed that small, organized groups with clear ideas can make a big impact. It's through this process that broader links can be made. And the Steubenville rape case has radicalized many people--especially women--who are not yet activists. Getting them involved in the fight against sexism and rape in any way possible--even sending masses of postcards to Jane Doe to show our support--will go a long way to building the fight to change society.

Members of the International Socialist Organization-Columbus contributed to this article.