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This Is What Power Looks Like

The past few weeks have been a depressing lesson in how to get away with bad behavior

St. Louis Prosecutor's Office/Getty Images

November’s biggest stories have revealed not just what’s broken in this country, but also the complicated systems that obscure that damage. From Darren Wilson’s non-indictment in Ferguson, Missouri, to the horrific alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia, to Bill Cosby’s long-delayed reckoning with multiple rape accusations—these tales all turn on a series of grotesque power imbalances. They are stories of certain bodies—individuals, groups, races, classes, genders, and institutions—that possess an excess of power and exert it with malevolent, often violent force, against weaker bodies.

They have offered us a clear and chilly view of how power works: How it is communicated to the public and how it is carefully manipulated by those who have it. How the powerful manage to play the victim and turn power into a slippery force that slides right off of them and briefly appears to stick to the very bodies that grievously lack it. This month’s stories have made this transfer of power obvious. Mighty figures and institutions have been described as vulnerable, while those they have harmed are made to seem monstrously huge and threatening. 

The most obvious of these inversions became visible after a grand jury in Ferguson decided on Monday night to not indict Wilson for the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. As a white, armed police officer, Wilson had institutional, racial, and weaponized power over Brown, an unarmed black teenager. The system that processed the events included a predominantly white police force, a white prosecutor, and a predominantly white grand jury. Wilson was not made to even stand trial for taking Brown’s life. 

But pay attention to the ways in which these imbalances got manipulated and seemingly reversed as the story unfolded. In Wilson’s testimony, it was the far less powerful Brown who was the physical threat, and Wilson who was the vulnerable party. Never mind the fact that Wilson was roughly the same height as Brown and that he had a gun and police authority and Brown had neither.

“I felt like a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” Wilson told the grand jury. After Wilson already had shot Brown, Wilson told the grand jury that the young, injured man, “looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.” Again, the wounded, weaponless man—who now had his hands in the air, according to Wilson—is the demonic force, imbued with a supernatural threat. Gene Demby pointed out on Twitter that this dynamic was recently examined in “the first systemic empirical investigation into superhumanization, the attribution of supernatural extrasensory, and magical mental and physical qualities to humans.” The study found that “White Americans superhumanize Black people relative to White people.” 

After Wilson’s no true bill, Ferguson prosecutor Bob McCulloch gave a lengthy statement attributing blame (and therefore power) for how things have gone down in Ferguson over the past three and a half months to everyone—social media, news networks, and witnesses he was sure were mistaken in their testimony—except for the man who actually, indisputably exercised the power to draw a gun and kill someone. And he gave that statement at night after an endless build-up, a set-up perhaps designed to provoke the people in this story with the least power—protesters who could not even get the death of Michael Brown treated like a crime by the legal system—to erupt with fury. Protests, born of powerlessness, might turn angry, violent, aggressive, intense—all the characteristics attributed to Brown in Wilson’s telling of the story—and thus work to bolster the impression that poor people of color hold the real power, are the true threats. 

A similar inversion is on display in the excellent, deeply reported story in Rolling Stone about the alleged violent gang rape of a freshman woman at the University of Virginia, and the systemic papering-over of sexual crime at the university. Part of why the story packed such a wallop was the stark set-up. Reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely worked carefully to convey the immutable power imbalances inherent in her subject “Jackie’s” story of what happened to her four weeks into the fall semester. From the first sentence, Erdely tells readers that Jackie grimaced when she drank an alcoholic beverage, that she “wasn’t a drinker” and “was sober” and was a “straight-A achiever” who had reservations about UVa’s casual hook-up culture and had believed herself to have been on a traditional dinner date with a fraternity brother for which she had specially picked out “a tasteful red dress with a high neckline.”

Erdely hammered home the points about Jackie’s sobriety and sexual conservatism because she knew instinctively that these details would protect the story against a retelling in which the woman who claimed to have been thrown against a coffee table, punched in the face, and penetrated by seven men could have been made less horrific if readers could be persuaded that that woman had been drunk, loose, morally suspect, or dumb enough to have brought this on herself or to have misremembered. In such a retelling the woman herself becomes the dangerous figure, whose unreliable narration had the power to imperil her alleged attackers or the university they all attended. 

As it is, even with Erdely’s careful assurances that there was nothing potentially monstrous about Jackie, her power as a rape accuser remains the real threat in the eyes of her roommate. Jackie tells Erdely that this roommate asked, “Do you want to be responsible for something that’s gonna paint UVa in a bad light?” It’s just that easy to make the assaulted woman the threatening force against the enormous public university. 

Perhaps the most inventive power reversals are on display in Lloyd Grove’s interview with Mark Whitaker, the former Newsweek editor who recently published a widely reviewed 500-page biography of Bill Cosby that failed to include any mention of the dozen-plus allegations of rape lodged against his subject. In Whitaker’s mind, as he tells Grove, it’s Cosby whose life and work and reputation have been put in jeopardy by the exposure of the rape stories.

Cosby, Whitaker explains, is just a wisp of a thing—“Cosby is 77 years old. He’s almost blind”—whose only means of “surviv[ing]” this ordeal “might be an Oprah interview or … maybe he could suck it up and make amends by giving a whole bunch of money to anti-sexual-abuse causes or something … if he can still go into arenas, and people will come and laugh at his stories, then he’ll survive.” 

Do you see the magic? That this man, according to another man, is on the brink of not surviving except if he can go on Oprah, or maybe give some of his vast fortune to some vague anti-sexual assault causes, or fill an arena with people he has the power to make laugh. These are three examples of enormous personal, economic, and cultural power, framed as last-gasp chances of somehow making it through an onslaught. 

Cosby, Whitaker tells Grove, has already “paid a big price”: His planned comeback sitcom “has been yanked. The reruns of 'The Cosby Show' have been taken off the air. He’s routinely called a rapist everywhere. That’s a big price.”

Yes. It’s almost like this septuagenarian who has lived a life of cultural, sexual and possibly criminal conquest, protected by a series of enablers and left alone by much of the press corps and the American public, even the person writing his life story, is now fighting off an aggressive charge made by dozens of badly wounded women. But look at them: They look so angry, so intense; it’s like they’re demons.