Front Burner

I’ve lived in Southeastern Michigan for half my life, first in Ann Arbor and then in Detroit. As a Black woman who studied violence, I followed reporting on sexual assault in the region, specifically in the city. Kidnappings. Home invasions. Serial killers. I often asked myself, what is happening here?

So, when news broke about the untested Sexual Assault Kits (SAKs) sitting in a DPD storage facility, I paid attention. The many levels of betrayal—institutional, political, legal, social—made themselves at home in my head. More than eleven thousand untested kits, some of which dated back to the era when kits were first created to collect forensic evidence from reports of rape, indicated a longer history of negligence. Some officials’ and police initial resistance to funding the testing of Detroit’s kits hinted at a more nefarious problem.

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Detroit’s rape culture didn’t just materialize in 2009 with the SAK scandal or even around the time I moved to the region. It had been here. For a minute, as we say.

But how? Michigan had been at the forefront of a national campaign to change how the criminal justice system handled rape. A brigade of activists in the southeastern region of the state had birthed the rape crisis counseling center movement. Investigations subsequent to the Detroit discovery revealed the gross injustice wasn’t confined to the Motor City. Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and Flint all had backlogs, too. I couldn’t stop wondering how my home state had so miserably failed its citizens.

I suspended my plans to research the ways racist massacres in the South corroded community to investigate what had happened (and was still happening) regarding rape in Detroit. To date, I have combed through five decades of reports in the local newspapers, examined municipal records, court cases, and conducted some interviews. Every thing I’ve learned has shaken my assumptions.

Women’s Action Team Against Violence press conference in response to 1984 rash of attacks on Detroit school girls.

Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young tries to calm crowd at 1984 “Summit” on Rape

Reactions to news of my new research often amount to: “You’re researching more violence? Sheesh. Couldn’t be me!”

Researching violence requires discipline and an ethic, especially when you want to do right by survivors. And not everyone has the expertise or the sense of obligation to victims. This is evident some people’s penchant for centering themselves in survivors’ tragedies, appropriating or capitalizing on victims’ pain, and using pop culture understandings of trauma to discuss the harm in unserious ways.

Adequately witnessing survivors’ articulation of their suffering is one of the ways we confront violence. So for me, studying violence is a mission. And I take comfort in knowing that I’m part of a cadre of scholars giving this work the respect it deserves. Indeed, one of the most inspiring aspects of this research has been seeing all the work of intrepid activists and advocates who have remained steadfast in fulfilling their obligations to victims and in their commitment to ending sexual violence. They’re a part of this story, too, and I can’t wait to share it.

So, yes, I am still researching violence. Unapologetically. And I will probably keep studying it until we live in a less violent and more just world.