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WWP 2009 CONFERENCE
Murders of women ignite outrage
Published Dec 3, 2009 9:58 PMCoalitions are forming in several Cleveland communities to address the murders of 11 Black women whose bodies were found in and around a house on Imperial Avenue in late October. Activists are holding rallies and vigils, meeting with public officials to present demands, developing better resources for women and the families of missing persons, and taking care of all the funeral arrangements for the 10 women whose remains have been identified.
Neighbors in the Imperial Avenue area had filed complaints about odors since 2007, but the sausage factory on the corner was blamed. Even women who battled alleged serial killer Anthony Sowell and escaped were not taken seriously by the authorities.
One such woman was Gladys Wade, who was bleeding and screaming in torn clothing when she fled Sowell's home in December 2008. The case was brought to Cleveland Chief Prosecutor Victor Perez. "Not credible" was handwritten on the prosecutor's review. (Plain Dealer, Nov. 14) Sowell, a convicted rapist, had been arrested and released without being charged. No attempt was made to collect blood from Sowell's steps or elsewhere in his house.
According to the coroner's office, five of the women whose bodies were recovered from Sowell's house died after December 2008: Kim Yvette Smith, Nancy Cobbs, Amelda Hunter, Janice Webb and Telacia Fortson. The fact that their deaths could have been prevented had Wade been treated as "credible" is a source of widespread outrage.
Only two of the 10 identified victims were officially reported missing. Media and blog commentaries against the families have been widespread, but the police department will frequently refuse to take a missing persons report without evidence that a missing adult is "endangered." This practice often means several days' delay in collecting crucial evidence.
The women who encountered horrendous deaths on Imperial Avenue were similar to many other missing persons in having histories of drug use or criminal records. (Plain Dealer, Nov. 15) These histories increased their vulnerability and their families' silence due to the fear that their loved ones may end up with a prison sentence.
Wall Street's economic Katrina has left Cleveland with high job losses and foreclosure rates and created abandoned neighborhoods and vulnerable people. Resources go to wars, prisons and bailouts, not drug treatment, homeless shelters, rape crisis centers and mental health.
Deaths spur anger, activism
A group at the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center is pressing Cuyahoga County Sheriff Bob Reid to set up a missing persons department and is writing a guide for women of resources that are outside the justice system.
A march on Nov. 21 dedicated to the 11 murdered women drew nearly 200 people, mostly young. It was the second of a series of marches initiated by media personality Basheer Jones to bring attention to the neglected neighborhoods and call for an end to violence. With the red, black and green Black liberation flag at the head, the march stepped briskly down East 79th Street to Hough Avenue, the site of major rebellion 40 years ago.
On Nov. 16, Black and white women activists from Imperial Women, a newly formed group, met with representatives from Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson's office to demand an investigation of Chief Prosecutor Perez, Cleveland Law Director Robert Triozzi, Chief of Police Michael McGrath, and Safety Director Martin Flask. They also insist an "Imperial Alert" be set up, similar to the "Amber Alert" system but encompassing missing adults as well as children.
Journalist Kathy Wray Coleman, an organizer of the group, told WW: "At least five of those women died in vain because authorities ignored reports of alleged rape or other violent crimes reported prior to the time they went missing. We believe they did so because of a disrespect of both women and the Black community. That's unacceptable and somebody should and will be held accountable."
A rally sponsored by Imperial Women on Nov. 24 brought together people from a variety of organizations at the house where the bodies were found. Imperial Women is calling for a review of all police reports marked "not credible" over the past 10 years and taking the position that no reports of rape should be deemed "not credible."
Women revealed their rape experiences for the first time in decades and spoke of being "raped a second time when reporting it to the police." The high-energy chants were "Woman power!" and "We're in the streets!"
Another group is sponsoring a march on Nov. 30 to arrive at Cleveland City Hall, where each marcher will sign in and write "Sowell 11" next to their name. The march is calling for a missing persons unit in the Cleveland Police Department and an increase of officers in the sexual offenders department.
All across Cleveland the words "racism" and "sexism" are being spoken loud and clear in relation to the neglect of poor Black women. Everywhere people are standing up and saying, "We are not throw-away people!"
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