The story broke over the weekend on television: a group of Auckland teenagers had engaged in a prolonged campaign of rape, which they documented on Facebook for the added pleasure of shaming their victims. They called themselves a name that I’m not going to repeat, to avoid glamourising these crimes in the very terms that these young men chose to describe them. Suffice to say that they styled themselves as vigilantes. We were told that the police was aware of the group, but that since none of the victims had laid a formal complaint, it could not build a strong enough case, and thus – it seems – was biding its time, waiting for more evidence.
There were questions, of course, from the beginning: how exactly was the evidence lacking if it was pasted all over Facebook? What consideration had been given to preventing more assaults, while the police bid its time? They had known for two years. But it got worse: it turned out that some victims had come forward. As many as four of them in fact. As young as 13. At least one had filed a formal complaint. And still the police insisted their case wasn’t strong enough. They did ask her, though, the 13-year-old: what was she wearing? Was it a skirt? Over and over.
It has been a gruelling few days: a time of mounting anger and frustration as the incompetence and the lies of the investigators were slowly revealed. Coming as I do from a society that harbours few illusions concerning the role of our police in enforcing the status quo, it never ceases to surprise me how much genuine respect large sectors of the New Zealand population have for theirs. Even after a historic case of sexual violence by police officers was prosecuted and occupied the news for months. Even after a military-style dawn raid on the predominantly Maori settlement of Ruatoki to round up eight political radicals on ludicrous terrorism charges. Even after the blockbuster movie-style taking – complete with helicopters – of the dangerous international criminal Kim Dotcom. And then, going back no longer than a generation: the batoning of anti-Apartheid protesters and the repression of Indigenous rights’ activist groups.
Still, for many, that innocence is never lost, and so this time too – on TV, on the radio, on social media – there was at first no shortage of police apologists, and the disbelief was slow to catch on. Surely they wouldn’t just allow it to happen for so long?
Rape culture works in multiple ways to silence the victims, hide the crime and question the very idea that such a thing as rape can exist in society. What case could be more exemplary than one in which the victims came forward, but weren’t believed, even as the rapists themselves publicised the crime – and still nothing happened?
On Tuesday, something else happened. A young woman who knew some of the victims of the gang, and who herself had narrowly escaped being assaulted, phoned a popular Auckland radio talk-show to speak about the case. Without working off a script, the hosts – Willie Jackson and John Tamihere, two former left-wing MPs who still play major leadership roles in their communities – responded by subjecting her to the kind of interrogation we might expect of a lawyer defending a rape case. This would have been shocking and outrageous enough if it had happened in court. In the context of the radio interview of a person who had called in to share a deeply traumatic experience, it was devastating.
There is no longer a publicly available recording of the segment. The station took it down after the initial furious backlash. When I asked around on Twitter for a copy, I was offered a transcription of the questions alone. It’s a text that fails to account for the calm and the strength with which the young woman – who went by the name of Amy – answered the interrogation. Yet, without the details that situate them, the questions acquire a universal value and are, if possible, even more chilling. I’ve reproduced them below as they were supplied to me by Hazel Phillips, whom I thank.
Tell me this, how old are you?
How did your parents consent to you going out as a 14-year-old til 3am in the morning?
So anyway you fibbed, lied, whatever, and went out to the parties – did you not know they were up to this mischief?
Well, you know when you were going to parties, were you forced to drink?
Don’t youse [sic] know what these guys are up to?
Yeah but girls shouldn’t be drinking anyway, should they?
Why is it that it’s only taken you this arvo to stand up and say this happened?
I know you’re only 18 but as the pressure comes on, a lot more girls who might have consented who are identified might well just line up and say they were raped as well.
How free and easy are you kids these days out there? You were 14 [when you had sex], yeah?
But if some of the girls have consented, that doesn’t make them rapists, does it?
You see Amy, when you get to that sort of number and you get people like you who’ve been around for three years, you know what, I find it very difficult to understand why an allegation, if rape has occurred, it hasn’t happened before.
That’s why I’m getting a bit confused here right. The girls like them, the girls think they’re handsome, the girls go out with them, then you say they get raped, right?
The other side come to it, are they willing drinkers, all those questions come in don’t they?
Do you think over this period any of the girls could have got together and said, this is not on?
This is what rape culture sounds like: victim-shaming, blaming alcohol or lying to one’s parents, the core belief that if rape happens often enough, it’s no longer rape. It’s all there.
This week, our collective conscience has been shaken. It’s time to turn the outrage and anger into collective action, so that we may not regain that false, misplaced sense of innocence and trust.