Outrage: The Story Behind The Tawana Brawley Hoax

Christopher Owens reviews a work about an alleged rape in 1980s New York.


This is going to be a tricky review, because the event and the implications deserve as much, even more, discussion.

We all know the quote from Marx about history repeating itself. It manifests itself firstly as tragedy, and secondly as farce. Very true, but George Bernard Shaw's line is much more succinct (and arguably much more nihilistic): "We learn from history that we learn nothing from history."

But two incidents from history sit at the front of my thoughts. One is a example of what happens when history is ignored, the other is an event which could happen again in this current climate.
1987 was an important year. Napalm Death released the groundbreaking 'Scum' album (taking hardcore punk and metal into uncharted realms), Derek Jarman released his greatest film, 'The Last of England', and the Provisional IRA suffered not only it's biggest defeat against Crown forces (Loughgall), but also it's (arguably) biggest loss of support (Enniskillen).

It was a year of consolidation (Conservatives winning the UK General Election), a year of protest (the Brașov rebellion in Romania) and a year of germinating steps (Reagan and Gorbachev sign a treaty to eliminate 4% of their nuclear weapons).

And it was a year that we can still learn from.

On 18th November, a discarded match fell under a wooden escalator at Kings Cross station in London. This (quite literally) sparked off a chain of events which culminated in the death of thirty one people in an inferno which gutted the entire station (one of the largest and busiest in London).

With the Grenfell Tower tragedy still fresh in the mind of many, it's easy to look at an event like the Kings Cross fire and compare the two, asking if we have learnt anything from it. It doesn't seem to be the case at all.

Be it 1987 or 2018, local government and big business are truly one and the same, cutting corners and creating cultures where one little incident turns into unmitigated disasters.

And Outrage lays this out, in exquisite and excruciating detail.

On November 28th 1987, 15 year old Tawana Brawley (an African American lady from outside New York City) was found in a garbage bag after being reported missing for four days. She appeared to have gone through horrendous torture, with her jeans burnt at the crotch and racial terms scrawled on her body in charcoal. When she recovered enough to speak, she alleged that one of her abusers was a police officer.

On the face of it, it was impossible not to feel revulsion at what had happened to Brawley, and sympathy for her as a young woman.

The case had caught the attention of the black community, with Reverend Al Sharpton becoming one of her main advisors. A protégé of Jesse Jackson, and former tour manager for James Brown, Sharpton's explosive (and, at times, racist) rhetoric, dynamic speeches and prominent activism quickly made him a prominent media figure.

Before we go any further, we need to introduce some context.

The New York of 1987 was closer to dystopian cult classics like 'The Warriors' and 'The Exterminator' than Woody Allen neurotic romantic comedy fares, with recorded crime at an all time high. As the Cro-Mags once sang "Living in burnt out buildings/Living in the streets... Never know what's coming up ahead/If the beast pulls the trigger could wind up dead."

Racial tensions were a fact of life. We had already seen the well documented cases of Michael Stewart (who died after a beating from police), Bernhard Goetz (known as the 'Subway Vigilante'), Michael Griffith (murdered in Howard Beach) as well as the countless undocumented cases of racial violence and abuse.

Because of this, Sharpton and Brawley's lawyers (Alton H. Maddox Jr and C. Vernon Mason) believed that there was the potential for a cover up by the state, and it's not hard to see why. However, by 1988, they had named two people that he believed had committed the crime. One, conveniently, had committed suicide a few days after the supposed attack. The other was a practising District Attorney. By the end, they had also thrown the Mafia, Klu Klux Klan and the IRA into the mix.

Written by various New York Times journalists who reported the case, it manages to strike a delicate balance in tone by allowing Mason and Maddox's genuine hatred of the system that enslaved the black community for hundreds of years to shine through as part of their motivation. However, the book also shows how the fame and donations also played a huge part as well.

It starts off as one small incident (where a white cop asks the mother and aunt of Tawana to move) in the hospital before all hell breaks loose and the family are demanding that only black police officers deal with the case. The breakdown in communication, which then leads to fabrication and outright lies, is something the readers are left wondering about. Was it deliberate collusion between Tawana and the family? Was it an overprotective aunt who had suffered racism now unleashing her vengeance, or did events overcome them?

So many questions, and with Tawana still sticking to her story after 30 odd years, it looks like we'll never know for definite.

Brawley's case eventually fell apart due to forensic evidence not matching her story (the jeans had been burnt at the crotch and then placed on her, the racial terms appeared to have been written by Brawley) and a grand jury concluded that the whole incident was a hoax designed as a cover story for hanging out with her boyfriend (whom her stepfather disapproved of).

While the case has largely been forgotten about today (although supposedly "Tawana told the truth" can still be seen in graffiti form in parts of New York), it still has implications for 2018, especially with the recent trial of Ulster rugby players still fresh in the memory.

And I have to be thankful that such a book like Outrage exists. What it does is take what, on the surface, seemed a simple case which grew more and more complex as the days went on and detail every single twist and turn to forensic effect. Also, by examining the vast socio-political situation of New York at that time, Outrage becomes an important time capsule, not only in terms of race relations, but also in how the various media outlets facilitated in the expansion of the "mosquito press" for the black community who believed the mainstream media had no interest in what happened to a young black girl (a view that was later validated with the press coverage of the Central Park Five less than a year later).

The Tawana Brawley hoax was a product of it's environment, but it's one that can still happen today. And the way society is heading, I can see it happening again.

In his farewell speech to the American public, Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about the dangers of the military industrial complex, but he also said that "together we must learn how to compose difference, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose."

Eisenhower was clearly an optimist, as we are seemingly doomed to the Machiavelli approach to history: "Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results."

Books like Outrage should remain in print indefinitely, to serve as a reminder that we should never be fooled again.

Robert D. McFadden (editor) Outrage: The Story Behind the Tawana Brawley Hoax 1990 Bantam Dell ISBN-13: 978-0553057560

➽ Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.
Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212

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