The University Record, April 2, 1996

Violence, fear part of women's lives, says Rape Prevention Month speaker 

By Lisa Herbert
Human Resources/Affirmative Action

Evelyn C. White, author of Chain Chain Change: For Black Women in Abusive Relationships, The Black Woman's Healthbook: Speaking for Ourselves, and numerous articles and essays concerning women's health, opened the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center's (SAPAC) Rape Prevention Month with a powerful speech on how violence, pain and fear affect women's lives.

Speaking March 20 at Rackham Amphitheater, White offered raw truths and statistics, punctuating her statements with the refrain, "No debate. No discussion. Fact," as she cited how both incidents and fear of attack, assault, rape and murder control women's lives in this country, especially the lives of African American women.

White noted that 12.3 of every 100,000 African American women are murdered. The corresponding statistic for white women, she said, is 2.9 of every 100,000. That means that for every white woman who is murdered, four African American women are. According to the Center for Disease Control's latest report, White said, intentional injury is the leading cause of death among African American women ages 14&endash;45.

Women in general, she said, have an "acute awareness" of themselves as targets of violence, and that as a result of this awareness, fear plays a large role in all women's lives in determining what, where, when and with whom they associate.

Violence takes a heavy toll on women's souls, White said, silencing them and keeping them from becoming whole. She told the story of Azalea Cooley, the victim of the longest string of hate crimes ever perpetrated in Portland, Ore. Against the backdrop of local anti-gay legislation called "Measure 9," Cooley, a 40-year-old wheelchair-bound African American lesbian suffering from chronic brain cancer, awoke one morning to find, "Burn, Nigger, Burn" painted across her wheelchair ramp. The next morning she found the shape of a cross burned into her front lawn. For 21 consecutive mornings there were new horrors.

The opponents of Measure 9 rallied around Cooley and offered their compassion and support. She spoke at a "Take a Stand Against Hate" rally that aimed to build momentum against Measure 9. In short, she became a rallying point for the liberal community in Portland in its efforts to halt the legislation.

Yet the hate crimes continued: Burned crosses, obscene letters and phone calls, signs saying "Nigger&" until the day that a hidden police surveillance camera discovered the perpetrator.

The figure the police saw hammering together a wooden cross, dousing it with lighter fluid, setting it ablaze and then scurrying off into the bushes on agile limbs, was the woman, herself: Azalea Cooley.

White asked the audience to look beyond their knee-jerk reaction of regarding Cooley as a traitor. She said a better response would be to ask themselves, "What would have to happen to a person, what pain would she have had to suffer, what wounds would she have had to endure, to make her commit such atrocities against herself?"

White said Cooley's actions should be seen as part of the continuum of the manifestations of fear, pain, violence and suffering that mark all women's lives. She asked, "Who or what betrayed Azalea Cooley?" White recited a litany of incidents of betrayal that women, especially women of color, have experienced that were not heard, cared about or paid attention to: the unsolved cases of African Americans who were murdered in Seattle a decade ago; the Greensboro, N.C., murders; and the four African American girls who were murdered in September 1963 in Birmingham, Ala., when whites dynamited a church.

Azalea Cooley got people to pay attention when they thought she needed support, White said. She urged women to come together and refuse to be silenced by their suffering.

For additional information about Rape Prevention Month events, call 763-5865.