“Today is the day of discovery!” proclaimed Queen Mother Dr. Delois Blakely as she stood outside the towering New York City Supreme Court this morning. “And this is just the beginning.”
Blakely, an activist sometimes known as the “unofficial community mayor of Harlem,” had come to see (and doubtless to be seen) in the midst of the media circus focused on Dominique Strauss-Kahn. And Blakely was playing on a legal term, the discovery of evidence, to make a bigger point about the man who, in some minds, symbolizes much greater evils than those inherent in the crimes he’s accused of committing.
The former head of the International Monetary Fund and erstwhile contender for the French presidency entered the court arm in arm with his wife to make a formal plea of “not guilty” to charges that include criminal sexual assault, attempted rape, and unlawful imprisonment of a 32-year-old African immigrant maid at the luxury Sofitel in midtown Manhattan last month. Police and prosecutors say they have found her story credible.
Strauss-Kahn’s defense lawyers suggested once again that whatever might have gone on between him and the young woman was consensual. "It will be clear that there was no element of forcible compulsion in this case whatsoever,” Strauss-Kahn’s attorney Benjamin Brafman told the throng of reporters scrumming near the courthouse steps to pick up his every word. “Any suggestion to the contrary is simply not credible."
But this time there was another set of advocates on the scene to make the woman’s case before the public, even if she was nowhere in evidence and her name continues to be omitted from most American coverage.
The first attorney to represent the impecunious alleged victim was a personal injury lawyer, Jeffrey J. Shapiro, who specializes in car accidents. Now she’s got some big guns with much higher profiles. Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson, who prosecuted New York City police officers for the beating and torture of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in 1997, now has a partnership with Douglas H. Wigdor, a former assistant district attorney, who specializes in “high-profile, complex litigation and government investigations.”
Thompson, not surprisingly, emphasized her pain. "She's devastated, she's suffering, she's traumatized,” he said. "It was a terrible sex assault on an innocent woman.” Any hint that the incident might have involved consensual sex was “preposterous,” he said.
The woman’s lawyers are expected to bring a civil suit, and they play no direct role in the criminal case. In other high-profile trials of wealthy alleged sex criminals, most notably basketball star Kobe Bryant, who was accused of raping a hotel employee in Colorado in 2003, women have decided to quit cooperating with prosecutors and settle out of court in the civil case for a large but undisclosed sum.
Thompson clearly wanted to lay to rest any suspicion that this is the strategy being pursued by the hotel maid in the Strauss-Kahn affair. “The victim wants respect and that justice is done,” said Thompson. “She's going to come to the courthouse and she's going to tell the truth. What she wants is justice—she's a woman of dignity and respect,” said her attorney. “She's not courting publicity."
“She’s going to come to the courthouse and she’s going to tell the truth. What she wants is justice—she’s a woman of dignity and respect,” said the defendant’s attorney. “She’s not courting publicity.””
But plenty of the other people on Centre Street in front of the State Supreme Court building clearly were, and there was no question where their sympathies lie. As Strauss-Kahn came and went, scores of hotel maids shouted from the sidelines like an angry Greek chorus, “Shame on you! Shame on you!” The cleaning women, organized for the protest by the New York Hotel Trades Council, had come originally from Africa, Latin America, and East Asia as well as the United States. Many still had on their uniforms and their nameplates. And most seemed to take cathartic delight in their chance to denounce this one man who now stands in for every pig they’ve ever had to put up with while changing sheets or cleaning toilets.
Meanwhile, the bigger story being constructed around Strauss-Kahn’s case is rich against poor, the first world against the third world, the colonizers against the colonized, and, indeed, white against brown and yellow and black.
In that respect, Strauss-Kahn is not just a target because he’s allegedly a difficult and dangerous hotel guest, but precisely because of his previous position on the world stage. No international institution is regarded with more suspicion and resentment—or needed more—than the IMF. It’s often seen as the bank of last resort for desperate nations, which become even more desperate when they try to meet its terms. As the IMF head for the last four years, Strauss-Kahn did take steps to make its policies more flexible, but the institution is still best known as the apostle of austerity for nations where most people live on the edge of economic disaster and in some cases starvation.
That’s the kind of fight against oppression that really interests Queen Mother Blakely, for one. Now in her late sixties, her style and rhetoric are reminiscent of the protest movements of 40 years ago. A former Roman Catholic nun from Florida who works closely with several communities in Harlem, she wears brilliantly colored West African clothing and is often invited to international conferences.
On the sidelines of the courthouse spectacle Monday, she told Mexican and French reporters that any victimization of the hotel maid by the then-head of the IMF should be seen in the context of U.N. debates and resolutions about violence against women. Citing her own background as an African American, she talked about forebears “who were raped, too, and then put on a ship” to cross the horrendous Middle Passage of the Atlantic into slavery here.
Closer to the present and to home, Blakely said that many in the West African community in New York don’t understand the American legal system. But when they heard what had happened to the alleged victim, who reportedly comes from a very poor village in the hinterlands of Guinea, her friends in Harlem and neighbors in the Bronx were stunned. “They were angry, outraged—who wouldn’t be?” Blakely said.
That may be the question that Strauss-Kahn’s lawyers will find hardest to answer.
Christopher Dickey is the Paris bureau chief and Middle East editor for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is the author of six books, including Summer of Deliverance, and most recently Securing the City: Inside America's Best Counterterror Force—the NYPD.