02 Mar The Unthinkable Meets The Unimaginable
Harvey Weinstein, age 67, is temporarily in a Bellevue Hospital prison ward until being transferred to Riker’s Island jail in Manhattan and eventually to an upstate New York prison.
He was found guilty of having forced oral sex on former production assistant Mimi Haley in 2006, a criminal sexual act, and raping actor Jessica Mann in 2013. Sentencing is scheduled for March 11, when he faces a potential prison term of 5 to 29 years. His lawyers intend to appeal. Weinstein is also facing separate charges in Los Angeles—sexual assaults on two women who have accused him of attacking them just a day apart in February 2013. The LA District Attorney’s Office hasn’t yet said how soon it would seek Weinstein’s extradition. He is also the subject of criminal investigations in Dublin and in London.
Women wept in celebration. The Twitterverse and the media went into overdrive on how this verdict sent a powerful message of progress, heralding in a new era of justice, not only for the Silence Breakers, but for all survivors of harassment and assault, for all women. But Tarana Burke, the original mother of the #MeToo movement, stated “Harvey Weinstein operated with impunity and without remorse for decades in Hollywood. Yet it still took years, and millions of voices raised, for one man to be held accountable by the justice system.”
Tarana is so right. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. was highly visible in almost daily attendance at the trial, and after the verdict termed the moment historic, his omnipresence an implied effort to take credit for “this new landscape for survivors of sexual assault.” Some women are saying he deserves the applause, but others remember how we got here.
Vance has faced repeated accusations throughout his decade in office of backing down from sex crimes when influential men were accused. Only a year after his election, he dropped charges against powerful French politician and former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, accused of sexually assaulting a hotel housekeeper. In 2011, Vance’s office actually argued for Jeffrey Epstein’s sex-offender status to be reduced to the lowest classification, despite allegations Epstein was molesting dozens of teenage girls. In 2015, DA Vance declined to charge Weinstein when the first accusations emerged against him by Ambra Gutierrez who, with the help of the New York Police Department later even recorded Weinstein admitting and apologizing for his behavior. Furthermore, Vance brokered a no-jail plea agreement with Dr. Robert Hadden, a prominent gynecologist accused of sexually assaulting 19 women. (As new allegations against Hadden have emerged, Vance now says his office will review the case.) Vance’s critics point to what they say is a pattern of his tepid prosecutions when the defendants were powerful man and/or have well-connected lawyers who were big donors to Vance’s campaigns.
So yes, it did take years. It took pressure on Vance, high-level politicking by feminist leadership behind the scenes. It took public protests against his office by the National Organization for Women. It took press criticism. It took #MeToo. It took movie stars, forgodsake! And it took more than 90 terrified, brave women coming forward to accuse Weinstein of sexual misconduct, including harassment and rape. It took the power of the global Women’s Movement. Justice should not have to be won so slowly, at such cost, and in so piecemeal a manner. Within hours of the Weinstein verdict, a half-million dollar deal to settle sexual-harassment allegations against opera star Plácido Domingo collapsed, and Domingo withdrew his previous admission and apology, when an investigation uncovered his behavior toward over two dozen more women. Concurrently, a memorial was held for basketball star Kobe Bryant, while his legacy remains shadowed by a 2003 rape case hushed up and settled out of court.
The real historic victory of the Weinstein verdict lies in the potential, in developing strategy to escalate yet also move beyond individual cases to structural change. The wind is at our back. For now.
So we must act. Policy. Legislation, state and federal. Sex education in schools that emphasizes consent. Longer or looser statutes of limitations and filing deadlines for lawsuits. Expanded legal definitions of sexual harassment. Tougher federal laws to protect more workers, specifically citing equal pay and paid leave. The end of non-disclosure agreements for sexual misconduct allegations, or at the very least making them unenforceable if victims break them, as New Jersey has done. (The nation is still witnessing Democratic Presidential nominee candidate Michael Bloomberg squirming over that one, and finally releasing three—but not yet all—female former employees from their NDA’s.)
Another potential breakthrough in this conviction is in setting a precedent that allows victims and survivors to have less than virginal backgrounds. Relationships such as those maintained with Weinstein by some of his victims have long been considered by prosecutors as major obstacles in bringing charges, and Weinstein’s lawyers argued that all sexual activity with the accusers was consensual. But this conviction has the potential to reframe such cases, to acknowledge that rape can happen in the context of consensual relations, just as rape can happen in marriage or a dating relationship. Since the early 1970s, feminists have fought for that acknowledgment, fought to sensitize the justice system to the intricate, delicate, extremely complex power-nature of sexual crimes and the way women are socialized to respond to them. The verdict also raises consciousness in the justice system and in public about the life-long trail left by such abuse. Former “Sopranos” actor Annabella Sciorra, 59, testified how her life unraveled in the aftermath of being raped by Weinstein: “I disappeared. I began to paint the walls. I began to drink a lot. I began to cut myself.” This is the reality to which many survivors are sentenced for life.
Meanwhile, the perpetrators, armored in their arrogant sense of entitlement, still don’t get it. During jury selection, the judge had to threaten Weinstein with contempt of court for repeatedly violating an order not to use his cell phone in the courtroom. Two weeks ago, Weinstein hired a prison consultant—an apparently new profession tailored to prepping the rich and famous who might face time behind bars—though he was reportedly certain he wouldn’t need such services. Meanwhile, Weinstein lawyer Donna Rotunno told reporters, “He took it like a man. He’s mentally tough.” But Arthur Aidala, another Weinstein attorney, said that when the verdict was read, Weinstein was so stunned he refused to move from the defense table when approached by officers, and kept insisting, “How can this happen in America?” That’s the voice of someone who assumes America is about him; someone to whom it never occurs that justice might include the rights of others. That’s the voice of entitlement. Some men will never, ever get it.
But whether he gets it or not, Harvey Weinstein is now tasting his first sip of justice. No doubt he finds it bitter. Nor has it sweetened for another kingpin, who has served 16 months of his 3 to 10 year sentence in a Pennsylvania maximum security state prison.
Harvey Weinstein—Inmate No.06581138Z, meet Bill Cosby—Inmate No.NN7687.
Women were told that each of you ever going to prison was unthinkable.
We were told that both of you ever being in prison was unimaginable.
We’re coming for you now, Donald J. Trump.