Thoughts on the Trial of R. Kelly

R. Kelly's federal trial began last Wednesday in New York. He is being charged with racketeering, kidnapping, forced labor, and sex trafficking, as well as eight counts of violating the Mann Act, which prohibits sex trafficking across state lines. At our recent staff meeting, WCSAP staff were discussing how and why this man's exploitation was allowed to continue for so long.

R. Kelly's case is only of a series of powerful men like Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, and Larry Nassar that have been accused of exploiting their social position of fame and influence to abuse women and girls and have been shielded from accountability. These men preyed upon their victims' positions of marginalization to continue their abuse. Additionally, other people connected to these men — people with power or influence, or who are responsible for protecting the public — participated in the collusion of these crimes against humanity. In the case of R. Kelly, we see clearly how society continues to devalue the safety of women and girls and even more so how the legal system deprioritized the value of safety for Black or Brown women and girls.

As a part of our internal repair and equity work, WCSAP and OCVA are doing some ongoing joint learning led by Zoe Flowers. In our most recent session, Zoe shared with us about the use of the code NHI in law enforcement reports. NHI stands for No Humans Involved and has, and still is used, to describe and deprioritize criminal investigations where the victims are poor Black women, Black sex workers, Black women with criminal backgrounds, and/or Black women with substance use history.

This NHI culture can also be connected to the lack of action by law enforcement on the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and the federal immigration system that keeps Brown children in cages. Dehumanization is at the root of all forms of oppression and violence.

Every day, we continue to see the connections in our sexual and domestic violence movements, including the dehumanization of Indigenous, Black, and People of Color to further marginalize their access to real justice. After the trauma of interpersonal violence, as they reach out for justice, accountability, and healing, too many survivors find that they are not considered a "good victim" and therefore not a "real victim" by the legal system as well as by many service providers and other systems.

This is further complicated as many of us in these movements may be working to end mass incarceration, advocating for prison abolition, and building solutions to end sexual or domestic violence that don't involve the criminal legal system. It's hard to know what to feel or what to hope for an outcome when these cases arise — cases like R. Kelly, Harvey Weinstein, Larry Nassar, and more. On the day the trial for R. Kelly started, Nylah Burton wrote in The Independent:

I know that I am supposed to feel some kind of relief; that charges being brought against Kelly at all, regardless of the outcome, means society is marching towards progress. If he's found guilty, I'm supposed to thank the people who put him behind bars. I'm supposed to say that we won something. And if I don't feel that, then I'm supposed to clear my throat and state that the prison-industrial complex won't save survivors. I'm supposed to waste precious breaths arguing that Kelly shouldn't be in jail anyway.

But I don't feel that way. I don't feel like it's a win and quite frankly, I don't care if Kelly is in the belly of the beast. Because on days like these, when prolific abusers finally face a multitude of charges, all I can feel is rage. And when I cannot bear the rage any longer, I make myself feel nothing. I buy some takeout, work throughout the day, shrug until it feels like my shoulders are going to become dislocated. It's how I survive men like Kelly, rich abusers whose shadows loom.

This ability to hold complexity and contradictions in our feelings, beliefs, and ways of working are also part of our ongoing racial equity work.

And, critically, we need to remember all survivors — particularly survivors who are most dehumanized by our systems — when the news cycle moves on. #MuteRKelly

Abolition is about presence, not absence. It's about building life-affirming institutions.

— Ruth Wilson Gilmore