OPINION: Courthouse Assault a Symptom of Failing Systems, Not Individuals

by Erica C. Barnett 

Last week, a 35-year-old man who had been released from jail less than one week earlier attacked a county employee in a women’s restroom at the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle. The assailant, a Level 1 sex offender with a history of attacking women, told detectives he had smoked “homemade meth” immediately before the attack. A police report filed after the incident indicates the attacker, who is a person experiencing homelessness, may suffer from mental illness.

The particulars of this case might lead a reasonable person to conclude that people who commit sex offenses need closer monitoring once they’re released from custody, along with access to housing and mental health care to prevent them from reoffending once they’re released.

Instead, the assault became a symbol for conservative officials, who suggested “solutions” that included sweeping dozens of homeless people from a nearby encampment and directing women to change the way they behave in public. 

Crime is often used as a reason (or excuse) for removing people from public spaces, regardless of whether the perpetrator lived in an encampment or whether a sweep would make other people living there less safe. Last month, for example, the City removed an encampment near Ravenna Park after a man who did not live there shot and killed an encampment resident, citing “public safety” as the reason for the sweep. 

In a message that went out to all courthouse employees, the County suggested that employees who might be vulnerable to sexual assault could avoid being attacked by following a list of “tips … to enhance your personal safety and avoid potential trouble” while downtown.

The “personal safety tips” will be familiar to many women, who are often told that we must restrict our movements and remain hypervigilant in order to prevent our own sexual assault: Leave all personal belongings behind when you leave your car, or “if you must carry a purse,” hug it close to your torso; wear flat shoes and loose clothing that will allow you to run; don’t walk outside and take a security escort if it’s dark out; use underground tunnels to completely “avoid surface streets” downtown; huddle near buildings while waiting for crossing signals so no one can sneak up from behind; don’t use headphones or look at your phone; and avoid “shortcuts,” including “parks, parking lots, garages and alleyways.”

I don’t remember the first time I was told to never walk to my car alone, to stay home at night, to keep my back against the wall, or to keep a key lodged firmly between my middle and index fingers in case I needed to stab an assailant in the eye. I just know that I internalized the lesson that I can prevent my own sexual assault, and its corollary: If I’m assaulted, it’s because I did something “wrong.” I wore my purse on my shoulder, instead of clutching it to my chest with both arms. I listened to music instead of my surroundings. I didn’t identify every potential exit route. My female body was the problem, and I failed to follow all the restrictions imposed on its movements.

It’s a comforting idea, especially if you’re a policy maker who wants to shift blame from systems to individuals. If we can make women “safe” from assault by convincing them to move through the world in a certain way, there’s no need to address the larger question of why some men feel entitled to women’s bodies or why the punishment for sexual offenses is, too often, incarcerating men and releasing them with no support system in place to prevent them from offending again. Along similar lines, if we can identify the problem as “homeless people” rather than “homelessness,” the solution becomes much simpler: Make the people go somewhere else. Problem solved.

These narratives may seem different — blaming individual women for failing to protect themselves and blaming homeless people in general for the actions of one homeless person — but they’re doing the same work. By shifting blame onto individual behavior in the first instance and onto a group of people in the second, both narratives suggest that people, rather than systems, are at fault. Women, not boys who grow up believing that women’s bodies are property. Homeless people, not an economic and political system that leaves millions with no safety net. “Criminals,” rather than a criminal justice system that fails to rehabilitate.

People are, in theory, much easier to fix. Stop looking at your phone. Don’t walk alone. Quit drugs and get a job. Stop “choosing” to live outdoors. Telling women to live in terror is easier than teaching men not to be rapists or addressing rape culture. Telling homeless people to stop existing in public is easier than giving everyone a home.

And there are other systemic issues at work here too. Although many details about the alleged assailant’s life are unknown, we do know that he was released from King County Jail directly into, instead of housing or supportive services, homelessness — a situation practically designed to ensure he would reoffend. Now he’s headed for jail again. Has justice been served? Are we “safe?”

The problem with the courthouse attack isn’t the courthouse — a place bristling with armed officers, where any woman following the “tips” laid out by King County should have expected to be safe. Nor is it the homeless encampment next door, where — according to outreach workers on site at the encampment daily — the assailant did not live. Nonetheless, the solutions proposed by elected leaders and judges focus on both. King County Superior Court Presiding Judge Jim Rogers has demanded that the City sweep the park, and Reagan Dunn, a Republican King County councilmember, wants to lock down the courthouse so only people with official business can enter. The irony of shutting down a building whose ostensible purpose is justice and rehabilitation appears to be lost on many who inhabit it.

Erica C. Barnett is a feminist, an urbanist, and an obsessive observer of politics, transportation, and the quotidian inner workings of City Hall.

📸 Featured Image: The King County Courthouse. Image attributed to Evan Didier under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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