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This post is part of the Montana Innocence Project’s #barriers2innocence campaign. As an innocence organization, we work to combat systemic racism because we know that there are numerous barriers between Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and justice that exist solely because of racism. This campaign aims to highlight some of those barriers. Today’s topic is false accusations:

The name Emmett Till incites anger and grief in many people, and rightly so. He is the 14-year-old Black boy who was lynched in Chicago in 1955 after Carolyn Bryant, a White woman, claimed he flirted with her.

Bryant recanted her story in the 2017 book “The Blood of Emmett Till” by Timothy B. Tyson, but the result of her uncorroborated claim⁠—the murder of a Black teenager and the severe mutilation of his body⁠—demonstrates the power of false allegations against BIPOC.

Ideally, our society would have learned its lesson by 2020, but baseless claims against BIPOC⁠—namely allegations of Black men perpetrating violence⁠—are still met with presumptions of guilt.

Currently, more than half of all wrongful convictions can be traced back to a false allegation or false testimony. Because Black people represent nearly half of all exonerations, the burden of false allegations falls disproportionately on them. Today, we will explore the prevalence of false allegations of Black men perpetrating violence, but false allegations of all kinds permeate our criminal justice system and cause wrongful convictions regularly.

“I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.”

In May, a Black man named Christian Cooper was bird watching in Central Park and asked a White woman named Amy Cooper (not related) to leash her dog in accordance with park rules. Amy Cooper proceeded to call the police and accuse Christian Cooper⁠ of threatening her life.

Luckily, in this case, Christian Cooper recorded the entire interaction and posted it on social media; therefore, public pressure ensured that authorities and even Amy Cooper’s employer responded appropriately. But the fact that Amy Copper made the false allegation so confidently while knowingly being recorded is indicative that false allegations are still barriers to innocence for BIPOC—especially when there is no evidence to prove falsehood.

“When there is no video to refute a 911 call where someone sounds hysterical, the Manhattan DA’s office will use that as evidence and say, ‘Listen to the fear in her voice. You can tell how upset she was. How could she be lying?’ And often times, this is something that could be fabricated, and we have to take that into consideration,” New York City public defender Eliza Orlins told CBSN.

Before you continue reading, watch this video of Orlins speaking to the prevalence of false accusations against BIPOC in light of the Amy Cooper video.

Brian Banks

As Orlins mentioned, when it’s a “he said, she said” type of case, false allegations have more power. This was the case for Brian Banks in Long Beach, California in 2002. At 17-years-old, Banks was a football star bound for the University of Southern California on a full-ride scholarship when his life was uprooted by his classmate Wanetta Gibson.

Gibson and Banks had a consensual sexual encounter in a stairwell at Long Beach Polytechnic High School. Later that day, Gibson told authorities that Banks kidnapped and raped her. Facing 41 years to life in prison, Banks accepted a plea deal of six years incarceration and a lifetime as a registered sex offender. Banks had to make this unimaginable decision because the idea that he kidnapped and raped Gibson was instantly accepted as truth; in fact, he was booked in jail just hours after Gibson made the false allegation.

Ten years later, when Banks was no longer incarcerated but still facing daily challenges as a registered sex offender, Gibson recanted her allegation and admitted that she fabricated the story. Following the recantation, Banks was exonerated with the help of the California Innocence Project in 2012. He signed with the Atlanta Falcons in 2013 and now works in the NFL’s Department of Operations, but his life is forever altered by Gibson’s lie and the criminal justice system’s willingness to act on her lie without evidence.

Banks’s story is told in the 2018 movie “Brian Banks,” which is currently on Netflix. See Banks discuss the case and the film in an interview with Morning Culture below:

“Any Four Black Men Will Do.”

One year before Brian Banks was falsely accused, Iowa State University student, Katie Robb, reported that four Black men kidnapped her at gunpoint and took her to a wooded area to rape her. The allegation was front-page news the next morning and the search for any four Black men driving a Sedan ensued. Two days later, Robb admitted that she lied.

If any four Black men driving a Sedan were found, who knows what the outcome would have been for them? History tells us that it likely would have been four wrongful convictions. Rubin Carter, whose wrongful conviction story is famously told in the Bob Dylan song “Hurricane,” was initially arrested because he was driving a similar car to one witnessed driving away from a murder scene (more on his story later this week).

Tracey Owens Patton and Julie Snyder-Yulu, the authors of “Any Four Black Men Will Do: Rape, Race, and the Ultimate Scapegoat,” a study that examines institutional responses to the Iowa State case, argue that false allegations against Black men are upheld by a desire to protect the historically-based stereotypes that inform modern-day hierarchies.

“Institutions such as the media, universities, and campus police sanctify White patriarchal hegemonic hierarchies when investigating the “truth” is set aside in favor of the status quo,” they wrote.

The study describes Black men as the ultimate scapegoat for those who aim to protect this hierarchy.

“Robb’s falsification fed into the national mythology of Black male violence (i.e., Black men are brutes, Black men commit crimes, Black men rape White women) that indirectly justifies the policing of the hyper-visible Other to protect the White majority,” they wrote.

Why are these false allegations so powerful?

False allegationsparticularly about Black men being rapistshave been reinforced over and over again in our history. While shameful, America embraced the allegation a century ago, and America embraces the allegation today. It is imperative to know that the allegation is rooted in history to fully understand how ingrained it truly is in our society.

“Whether it’s a woman in Michigan falsely claiming that a group of Black men kidnapped, beat and raped her; another woman claiming a Black man kidnapped her 3-year-old and 14-month-old sons (whom she actually killed); the infamous Amanda Knox accusing a Black man of the heinous murder she was initially convicted of; or even a man claiming that Black men stabbed his wife to death (whom he actually killed),” Martenzie Johnson wrote in an article for The Undefeated. “In each instance, the initial story was believable because of the troubling belief that a Black man is capable of such a thing. It’s because we’ve always been told this is what black men do.”

Johnson draws the connection between modern-day attitudes about Black men perpetrating violence to the abhorrent film “The Birth of a Nation.” The film, which was screened at the White House in 1915, celebrates the Ku Klux Klan as heroes after a White woman jumps off a cliff to avoid the risk of being raped by a Black man.

“The Birth of a Nation” is a necessary part of American history to discuss because it systematized the idea that Black men are violent rapists. Again, it was screened at the White House for a viewing by our country’s leaders. Although that was over 100 years ago, the film’s message is still ingrained in our society and in our justice system. In fact, we embrace the film’s message every time we meet false allegations with unwavering support for the accuser and extreme animosity for the accused before there is a guilty verdict. It is because of this that people like Carolyn Bryant, Amy Cooper, and Wanetta Gibson are able to lie with so much confidence; they know people will believe them if they point the finger at a Black man because that has been the case for hundreds of years.

“The Birth of a Nation” is not the only thing that cemented the stereotype about Black men in our country’s collective consciousness. But it certainly set the stage for future perpetuations of the stereotype in media.

Important Note: You can oppose false allegations while also supporting victims of sexual violence. It is important to support people when they are brave enough to accuse someone of a crime like rape or sexual assault. But it is also important to support someone’s right to be presumed legally innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. You can do both at the same time; one does not negate the other.

Action Steps:

  1. Watch “Brain Banks” on Netflix.
  2. Read the empirical study “Any Four Black Men Will Do: Rape, Race, and the Ultimate Scapegoat.”
  3. In general, promote the idea of innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt: in conversations with friends, when reading the news, etc.

Thank you for participating in the Montana Innocence Project’s #barriers2innocence campaign. Tomorrow’s topic is coerced confessions.