THE MARK CURTIS HOAX

Scott Solomon ss341 at columbia.edu
Thu Aug 10 19:45:12 MDT 1995


Scott Solomon:
I was curious whether the readers of this list were familiar with an
ongoing campaign of the US Socailist Workers Party.  A description
follows:


The article below was written by Ann Russo, an instructor at MIT's
School of Humanities and Social Studies. The article was published
in Thistle, the campus liberal-left paper in 1992.
You may reach Dr. Russo at 617-253-8844 or at
77 Mass Ave., School of Hum. & Soc. Science,
Cambridge, MA 02139
----
by Ann Russo

	Recently I've been confronted with a rape case that is
genuinely disturbing, if not enraging. A case that clearly
illustrates the racist ignorance and denial of sexual assault
that continues to permeate the progressive community,
especially when the assaults are perpetrated by white men
against African-American women. This is the case of Mark
Stanton Curtis, a white male member of the Socialist
Workers Party (SWP), who was arrested for sexually
assaulting a fifteen-year-old African-American girl,
Demetria Morris, at her home in Des Moines, Iowa, in
March 1988. According to the testimony of the young girl,
Curtis forced his way into her home, threatened her, beat her,
and sexually assaulted her on the floor of the family's
enclosed front porch. Curtis was arrested by two police
officers at the scene of the crime. They were responding to a
911 call placed by the survivor's eleven-year-old brother, who
witnessed the assault from another room. Curtis, a white man,
was convicted by an all-white jury in September 1988 and
sentenced to 25 years in the Iowa state prison for third-
degree sexual assault (10 years) and first-degree burglary (25
years, the minimum sentence under Iowa's mandatory
sentencing rules).
	Now one would hope that the case would be settled
and that we could all move on in our lives to fighting against
the epidemic of rape in this country and for social justice in
all areas of our lives. But, as usual, it's never that easy. Since
the arrest, the SWP, under the auspices of the Mark Curtis
Defense Committee, has orchestrated an international
campaign defending Curtis on the grounds that he was the
victim of police brutality and that he was framed because of
his "union and political activities." They consistently
downplay the rape, dismiss it as irrelevant, and even say that
the victim lied and that her brother's corroboration is
untrustworthy because of his age.
	They have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars
(some estimate over 2 million), and have gathered over 8,000
endorsements from labor, progressive, peace and justice,
civil rights, and feminist activists and organizations.
Feminist support includes individuals (among them, women's
studies professors) and sometimes whole chapters of the
National Organization for Women, as well as individuals
associated with Women for Racial and Economic Equality,
the Coalition of Labor Union Women, and the National
Abortion Rights Action League.
	While the SWP/Mark Curtis Defense Committee
has gained international support for Curtis, many in Des
Moines, Iowa, do not believe his story. The groups he claims
to be politically representing in his battle--the workers from
Swift Meatpacking Company and the immigrant community--
did not testify on his behalf nor are they involved in the
campaign for his defense. Curtis is not supported by the Des
Moines Rape Crisis Center, the Des Moines NAACP, or the
South Central Iowa AFL-CIO. But, unlike the SWP, these
organizations did not have the resources, time, or money to
build a defense campaign for the victim.
	Over the years, a number of individuals and one
organization have tried to challenge the defense campaign
for this white man convicted of raping a young African-
American girl. Martin McLaughlin of the Workers League, a
historic enemy of the SWP, was one of the few progressives
who supported the rape survivor and her family. He
investigated and followed the case and published The Mark
Curtis Hoax: How the Socialist Workers Party Tried to
Dupe the Labor Movement. The Workers League also helped
subsidize a letter from Keith Morris, the victim's father, to
some people in the labor community who were supporting
Curtis. A few others also conducted investigations and tried
to spread the word. Barry Shucter of Men to End Sexual
Assault questioned and investigated the case as soon as he
found out about it. He tried to challenge Curtis' support
among labor activists in the Boston area. His article, "Rape
and the Mark Curtis Campaign," in The Labor Page,
(April/May 1990) resulted in an exchange between himself
and Russ Davis of the Boston SWP in the following
newsletter. Fred Pelka, also of Men to End Sexual Assault,
wrote an excellent expos
 of the case, "The Strange Case of
Mark Curtis: Victim or Victimizer" [On the Issues Spring
1991]. But no one had the resources nor the credibility to get
people to take the issue seriously--that is until recently.
	Efforts to challenge the propaganda of the defense
committee escalated this past spring when Mary Bertin, on
behalf of the Boston NAACP, got involved. Anita Saville of
the Lowell Chapter of NOW had mentioned the case to
Bertin who then conducted an investigation for the Boston
NAACP. When she found that Mark Curtis was guilty of rape
and that his claims of police frame-up were a sham, she
initiated what she calls "a movement of truth to stop the
campaign and its continued victimization of Demetria
Morris." A group of us, including Barry Shucter, Fred Pelka,
Anita Saville and others, and myself on behalf of White
Women Against Racism and Violence Against Women, have
been directing our efforts towards supporters of Curtis,
encouraging them to disendorse his defense campaign.
	Most endorsers we have contacted have said that they
were never given all of the information--some had been told
only that Curtis was a victim of police brutality and a frame-
up. Some claim they did not know that he had been convicted
of raping a young African-American girl. As Mary Bertin
says,
The Mark Curtis Defense Committee has been able to
generate such an enormous amount of support for themselves
because there has been no one out there approaching [these
supporters] with the true facts.  For the past four years, [the
SWP has] literally had the reign of the world, and that has to
end. I felt the NAACP could be her voice, and so we designed
a campaign to inform people of Demetria's story. Our
purpose is to get the true facts of the case to as many
progressive activists and Mark Curtis defense campaign
supporters as is humanly possible.
	With the backing of the NAACP, some endorsers are
more willing to listen to Demetria's story and to seriously
reconsider their support for the defense campaign. And many
are now disendorsing, including local activists Eugene "Gus"
Newport (Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative), Juan
Vargas (Puerto Rican Civil Rights Committee), Mei Chu
Lui (AFSCME Local 1489), Daniel "Boon" Schirmer
(National Committee, Friends of the Filipino People), and
Mel King (Boston, Massachusetts). Others who have
disendorsed include attorney Robert Meeropol and John
Roberts (Civil Liberties Union), writers Margaret Randall
and Howard Zinn, and historian Herbert Aptheker, as well as
organizations such as South Middlesex NOW, Comite
Hondurano, and the executive board of AFSCME Local
1489.
	The Curtis defense campaign has been using
endorsements, especially from prominent leaders and
nationally recognized organizations, to give the campaign
legitimacy, obtain more signatures, and raise more money.
And here also we've found misrepresentation. When Bertin
launched the NAACP's counter-campaign, she first contacted
those NAACP individuals and chapters listed as endorsers to
find out why they were supporting Curtis. What she found is
that at least some of the individuals and chapters do not even
exist.  For instance, they list a James Bond as president of
the Atlanta NAACP. But there is no James Bond with the
Atlanta NAACP, and Julian Bond, a past president,
absolutely does not support Curtis. They also list a Vaughn
Goodwin as president of a Temple branch NAACP in
Philadelphia, but there is no such chapter. The defense
committee's disrespect and misrepresentation of the
NAACP is a further illustration of the illegitimacy of their
campaign.
	Some activists wonder why we are making such an
effort to stop the Curtis defense campaign. One major
reason is that it is not simply a defense campaign but a
harassment campaign against Demetria and her family. It is a
rape survivor's worst nightmare--just the thought of such a
support campaign in defense of a rapist stops many women,
especially women of color who have been raped by white men,
from speaking out about sexual assault. In this case, the rape
survivor faces an international progressive community that
supports this white male rapist and that, as far as she is
concerned, has no interest in hearing her story nor any
concern about the effects of the rape on her life.
	Consider what this campaign means from Demetria
Morris's perspective--a young working-class African-
American girl living in a midwestern city with a very small
African-American community. Imagine what it must be like
to be brutally raped and beaten by a white man who, when
arrested and held accountable for the rape, defends himself
on the grounds that he is a "fighter for women's and Black
rights." Imagine being continually reminded in the local
newspaper that he has international support, in the form of
endorsements, letters, and money, from a broad left and
progressive community who believe him, who don't believe
you. Imagine having rallies in your hometown with speakers
from all over the world who deny or dismiss your experience,
and, instead, glorify all of the good things that the man who
raped you has done for the community, your community.
	Imagine the week before the trial, being greeted at
your high school with fliers featuring pictures of the man who
raped you, proclaiming his innocence, and accusing you of
lying. Imagine being on the witness stand, having to recount
the horrific details of the assault, in front of this white man,
a jury of mostly white women and men, and a courtroom full
of Curtis supporters scrutinizing your every word. Imagine
hearing the claim later that this white man did not have a jury
of his peers because there were no Blacks or Hispanics on the
jury, you an African-American girl. Imagine all these actions
being done in the name of social justice.
	And it doesn't end. Imagine exactly one year to the
day when you were brutally raped and assaulted, not only living
through your own recurrent nightmares and memories, but
facing yet another rally in your hometown, advertised as a
"celebration of the first anniversary of the growing fight to
win freedom and justice for Mark Curtis" and featuring a
video that includes a clip of you and members of your family
in front of your house, filmed without your consent or
knowledge. There is no relief for this rape survivor and
certainly no safety or support for her among these so-called
progressive individuals and organizations.
	This kind of campaign can only be characterized as
vicious and hateful. And this viciousness inevitably spread, as
it would in a country so deeply rooted in racial hatred: soon
after the trial, an image of a cross was burned in the front
yard of the Morris house. I'm not claiming that the SWP was
directly involved in this hate crime, but I hold them
responsible for creating the hysteria and backlash that
resulted in its occurrence. The SWP/Mark Curtis Defense
Committee could not have led such a full-scale harassment
campaign had Demetria and her family been white and
middle-class.
	How has Mark Curtis and his defense committee
gotten away with this? Easy--relying on racism and sexism
while at the same time cynically appropriating the rhetoric
of social justice for their own benefit. Curtis and his
defenders dismiss the rape first by focusing on his
victimization at the hands of the police. After he was
arrested, Curtis was beaten by the Des Moines police. His
defense committee uses this as evidence of his innocence and
as confirmation that the police were conspiring against him.
However, having been beaten does not make Curtis innocent
of the charges of sexual assault. Nor was Curtis necessarily
singled out for his politics--the unjust reality is that many
people who are arrested in Des Moines face police brutality.
Curtis and his defenders are right--this brutality should be
loudly and publicly protested. In January, Curtis won a
lawsuit against the two police officers (not the arresting
officers) who beat him on the night he was arrested. He was
awarded $11,000 plus interest and attorney fees and
expenses. The defense committee, however, has
sensationalized his victimization as a way to erase his role in
brutally assaulting and raping Demetria Morris.
	The SWP's Mark Curtis Defense Committee
consistently refuses to address the rape and to take
responsibility for the impact of their campaign on the rape
survivor and her family. Ignorance about sexual assault and
racism in the progressive community has made it easy for the
defense committee to make Demetria's life experience
invisible. Sexual assault is still not an issue on many
progressive agendas, and many do not understand its
connection to racism--particularly in the case of white men
who rape Black women. Many activists signed on simply
assuming, without question, that the charges of rape were
false. As Bertin says,
The fact that Demetria and her family are African American
is the reason why they [the defense committee] had no qualms
whatsoever in engineering this very elaborate, sophisticated
campaign, and I think that they were relying on the fact that
Mark Curtis is white, and would be easily believed, more so
than Demetria. I don't think they ever really sat down and
gave any thought to any one really looking at the true facts of
the matter as opposed to Mark's race.
	They've successfully used one of the more common
sexist and racist methods of denying the facts of rape by
white middle class men--they hyperinflate the white man's
character. The defense campaign emphasizes Curtis's
personality, political views, and social activism as if these
cancel out not only his capacity to rape but the rape
survivor's experience. It's the ideology that so-called "good
men" (which in this country translates into white men) don't
rape. They assumed that because Curtis was white, nothing
else would matter. They were wrong about the judge and jury
but right about the progressive community.
	Another strategy of rapists and their defenders is to
deny or distort the evidence. The defense committee claims
throughout their literature that there was no evidence linking
Curtis with the rape, which absolutely defies the facts of the
case. When the police arrived, Curtis was found with his
pants down. The victim, beaten and bruised from the sexual
assault, naked from the waste down, crying, pointed to Curtis
and said, "He just raped me."
	Even Curtis and his defenders do not deny that Curtis
was at the scene of the crime, and, when pressed, they cannot
deny that the victim was sexually assaulted. They offer two
explanations for his predicament: they claim that he was
framed after the police realized that he was a political
activist involved in a union struggle at the local meatpacking
plant or they offer a complicated story of a mystery woman
who got Curtis to the Morris's house right after Demetria
Morris was raped (by someone else?) so he could be arrested
for her assault. Neither of these claims has ever been
substantiated and none address the positive identification of
Curtis by the survivor and her brother in their home at the
time of his arrest.
	This case is remarkable not for its evidence of state
repression against political activists but for its astounding
resolution in Curtis's conviction. When the predominantly
white jury convicted this white man for the sexual assault of a
young Black girl, it was a decision against the grain of this
country's history and tradition. The sexual assault, rape and
murder of Black women by white men in this country has gone
virtually unrecognized. As Jennifer Wriggins study of rape law
and racism indicates,
>From slavery to the present time, the rape of Black women
has been denied by the legal system. During slavery, the rape
of Black women by Black men was legal. The rape of Black
women by white men was frequent, legal, and a crucial weapon
of white supremacy. After the  Civil War, the legal system's
continued denial of the rape of Black women was manifested
in discriminatory doctrinal rules and judicial language. Today
Black women continue to suffer rape in disproportionate
numbers, while the criminal justice system still takes the
claims of Black rape victims less seriously than the claims of
white victims.
	African-American women are eighteen times more
likely to be raped than white women, yet very few of these
cases are given any public recognition or response. It is
extremely rare to get a conviction of a white man who has
raped an African-American girl or woman--the evidence has
to be overwhelming, as it was in the case of Mark Curtis.
	The SWP and its defenders use this history not to
support the rape survivor but to further attack her. They say
that Curtis must be innocent and the victim of a frame-up
because it is so rare that white men are convicted of raping
Black women. With this incredible logic, we might as well
forget prosecuting white men altogether. This kind of
political analysis reeks of racism and race-bonding at its
worst.
	One of the reasons Curtis defenders are able to make
such a claim is that they manipulate another aspect of the
history of rape and racism in this country to get Curtis off
the hook. Despite the fact that Curtis is white and his victim
is Black, they say he is a victim of a "racist frame-up." One
Curtis defense leaflet, put out by so-called feminists, says:
"This case is yet another example of the police using rape
charges to try and achieve their own political agenda against
a political activist. For example, in the South, rape charges
have traditionally been used to terrorize the Black
community into submission. It is particularly reprehensible
given the fact that legitimate rape charges are so often
treated with disdain and disbelief by the police."
	Here they equate the white supremacist society's
racist use of what Angela Davis calls, the "myth of the Black
male rapist" of white women, which has fueled terrorism
against Black men and Black communities since slavery, with
Curtis's conviction. But this equation does not work because
Curtis is white and Morris is Black. And there is no evidence
that he was framed. In fact, Curtis was convicted because the
evidence against him was so overwhelming and because
Demetria was a minor, they were strangers to one another, and
he forced his way into her home. Under these circumstances,
Curtis could not use the oft-claimed defense of consent.
	But some endorsers, despite the facts, continue to
maintain that rape is not the issue and that political
solidarity is what is most important to our work for social
change. They see this campaign as divisive and negative. Many
activists continue to ask us why we are creating such a
conflict in the progressive community. They don't seem to
ask the same question of the Curtis international defense
efforts. According to Bertin, "It's not creating a conflict;
it's bringing an end to a four year conflict that was designed
by the Mark Curtis Defense Committee." It's the Curtis
campaign that betrays the already shakey alliances between
the feminist, civil rights, labor and progressive movements.
This campaign is destroying the trust and faith necessary to
work together--a trust that cannot be assumed when a white
man's word about sexual assault is automatically taken as
truth against the words and experience of an African-
American girl.
	The hesitations to disendorse, I believe, come from
race, gender, and/or political alliances. Endorsers don't
want to upset or distort these bonds. They feel that by
publicly challenging and disendorsing from the campaign
"we" will be divided. But who does the "we" include when so
many among "us" are signing on to a campaign in defense of
an adult white male who raped a young Black girl. Does the
"we" include Demetria Morris? Does it include the millions
of other rape survivors? Does it include African-American
women? It is rape and racism that divide "us," not fighting
against them. Challenging the racism and sexism of a
campaign that defends rapists is a movement towards social
justice. And stopping a campaign of hostility and
intimidation that silences and erases a young African-
American girl's life experience makes a just community
possible--it strengthens our bonds, rather than weakens them.
Finally, our concept of social justice must extend beyond
political groups and solidarity and must embrace, as well,
young African-American women like Demetria Morris.

Ann Russo wishes to thank Mary Bertin, Barry Shuchter, and
Fred Pelka for their input into this article and for their
persistent efforts to seek social justice for Demetria
Morris.






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