Demonstrators from across the country converged on the Jefferson County Courthouse in Steubenville, Ohio this Saturday to protest what they insist is a cover-up by local law enforcement officials of the rape of a 16-year-old girl. The noontime rally, drawing upward of 2000 individuals, featured over 25 women who spoke openly about their experiences of sexual assault. The demonstration was called for by members of the hacker group, Anonymous, which has accused Jefferson County prosecutors, the County Sheriff’s office, local police, and city residents of colluding to protect the alleged assailants.
On August 11, 2012, Trent Mays, 16, and Ma’lik Richmond, 16, both members of the Steubenville High School football team, allegedly raped a local high school girl as she lay unconscious after a night of heavy drinking. The girl, who is from across the Ohio River in Weirton, W. Va., was then allegedly transported from one high school party to the next while too incapacitated to respond. The victim at one point may have been urinated on, and one witness has come forward to say he videotaped (although he later deleted) the assailants sexually penetrating the victim in the backseat of his car. The next day, various pictures of the assault taken by several witnesses surfaced on the internet, sparking widespread outrage among both community members and bloggers.
The case first entered the media spotlight with a December New York Times article that portrayed some members of the community closing ranks around their venerated football team. Since the 1970s, Steubenville been suffering a protracted economic decline. As The New York Times reports:
The median household income is $33,188, about a third lower than the national figure. More than one quarter of the residents are living below the poverty level. Also, the police say the city’s drug problems are growing, with heroin addiction the latest vice. In recent decades, new residents arrived from Chicago, bringing “Chicago-style violence,” like drive-by shootings in the tough parts of town, said McCafferty, the police chief.
Despite all those components to this depressed city, a bright light remains for the people here: the Steubenville Big Red football team.
On January 1, the hacker group, Anonymous entered the fray, launching a “local leaks” page and saying that it had taken up the cause with the purpose of “giving a voice to the victim of this horrible crime, and began unraveling this conspiracy of silence designed to protect a group of these high school football players.” Activists charge that the investigation by local police has been geared toward protecting the assailants and their enablers in order to safeguard the football team. Mays and Richmond, who have been under house arrest and are currently awaiting a trial set for February 13, are the team’s star athletes, and many believe that that still other players should be arraigned as accessories to the crime.
Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla – who is rumored to be close friends with Head Football Coach Reno A. Saccoccia – announced Saturday in front of a jeering crowd of protestors that his office would not be taking charge of the ongoing investigation from local Steubenville police. Abdalla, in an interview with local ABC-affiliate WTRF, condemned the hackers for their actions:
When they came into the county last Saturday, I had respect for them. I thought their cause was right. They thought there was some injustice going on. You have a right to stand up for that…but when you cross the line and start character assassination, they’ve lost their mission.
A petition on the White House website calling for the case to be tried out of juvenile court has now garnered 25,000 signatures, which is supposed to warrant an official response from the Obama administration. Writing at Slate about the information published by Anonymous, Amanda Marcotte warns,” This type of online vigilante justice is potentially invading the privacy of or defaming innocent Steubenville residents, and even if everything published is true, there are very serious legal limits to the Anonymous strategy.” But anger at the victim-blaming culture the group is assailing has meant that the protests are continuing to catch on, with another being planned for February 2, according to a tweet by user @KYAnonymous.