A Public Defender for the Rihannas of the World

By Glenn F. Ivey
Sunday, March 22, 2009

"You don't know what she did to him. She might have provoked him!" It surprised me. This vehement defense of singing superstar Chris Brown for allegedly beating his girlfriend, Rihanna, also a singing superstar, wasn't coming from his superlawyer for a giant fee. And it wasn't coming from the men in the room. It was coming primarily from teenage girls at a middle school I visited recently. If pressed to choose which singing star was at fault, a shocking number said that Rihanna must have "brought it on herself."

Then I realized I was hearing the same things on television and radio talk shows, local and national. Brown's defenders weren't all teeny-bopper fans; many were adults, some of whom acknowledged personal experience with domestic violence.

At least initially, a large contingent of people thought that Rihanna was guilty until proven innocent. Not only were they willing to defend Brown, but they also seemed convinced that she must have done something to "deserve" being beaten. Even after a tabloid released photographs of Rihanna showing extensive bruises and swelling, some persisted in defending Brown. Her decision to reunite with him after the photos were published was seen in some quarters as confirmation that she had somehow wronged him from the beginning.

I found myself wondering how we reached the point where so many people could hold these views about domestic violence. Even though there are public campaigns to stop this scourge, it sometimes feels as though we are losing ground. A disturbing number of young women seem to think that some level of violence is not only acceptable but even expected in a loving relationship.

We need a public education campaign to reverse this trend. I can't say what the whole thing should entail, but I can tell you that Michelle Obama could be a pivotal figure in the effort.

In my discussion with the middle school students, I could tell that I was losing the argument. They were unpersuaded by statistics and information about the cycle of violence. Finally, exasperated, I blurted out, "Do you think Barack would ever hit Michelle like that?"

Everyone in the room froze. One student weakly suggested that "Michelle is big enough to fight back," but I knew I had them then.

"Even if she were a foot shorter, can you ever imagine Barack hitting Michelle?" I pressed on: "Is there anything she could possibly do that would lead you to think she deserves to get beaten?"

At that point, the debate was over. Putting hands on Michelle Obama was somehow unthinkable.

"I know we can't imagine that happening to Michelle. She doesn't deserve to be beaten." I looked at the Chris Brown defenders and said, "Rihanna doesn't deserve to be beaten. And you don't deserve to be beaten either."

I wish I could say that my eloquence and logic won them over. But it wasn't about me. It was the power of Michelle Obama.

So that's why I hope that the first lady will make domestic violence one of her primary issues. I know this could be viewed as far too controversial, especially since first ladies frequently stick to safe -- but important -- topics such as illiteracy and hunger. Domestic violence can be viewed as inappropriate for polite conversation, so some political risk would be involved.

But this sort of campaign is clearly needed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that about 1,200 deaths occur each year as the result of domestic violence. Nearly 2 million attacks annually don't result in death but can be nearly as devastating -- such as what happened to Yvette Cade of Clinton in October 2005, when her estranged husband set her on fire. The Chris Brown/Rihanna case is the sort of domestic violence that I see nearly every day in my job as a prosecutor.

On top of all this, the ripple effects of violence continue to rip apart families and distort young minds. Many of the killers that come through my courthouse have a history of domestic violence in their homes. It will take powerful forces to break that generational curse.

For years groups have sought to reduce domestic violence nationwide. We would all benefit from the credibility and charisma that the first lady would bring to these efforts. Perhaps with her help, we could reverse recent trends and reduce domestic violence in America.

The writer is state's attorney for Prince George's County.

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