Why did crowds tolerate sex assaults?

Monday, March 12, 2001


We've seen videotapes of indiscriminate beatings, and debated whether race played a role in Seattle's Mardi Gras violence. But why did it take nearly two weeks to start talking about what happened to women in Pioneer Square that night?

Picture this ugliness. Two dozen young men are crowded around a woman who has been pushed flat on a slab. Five men are fondling her breasts. Four others are at her crotch. Two more are pulling off her pants. Another grips her right elbow.

Most of the men are smiling. The woman appears dazed. Her left arm flails about.

The woman, shown in a series of images captured by a Seattle Post-Intelligencer photographer on Fat Tuesday, fights to get up. Several men pin her down. At one point, there are 19 hands -- white, black, Asian, Hispanic -- on her body.

The P-I can't publish those photographs without violating the privacy of the woman, who apparently was able to slide off the slab and escape.

Or how about this one: A woman on a friend's shoulders is trying to get down. Men grab her from behind, grope her chest and knock her to the ground, where a half-dozen men jump on her and pull her clothes off.

That scene played out several times during the night as video cameras rolled. The tapes and the photographs show reprehensible, infuriating conduct. Were these men having fun? Did those who witnessed the assaults feel any responsibility to report the crimes? I keep wondering what their parents would think if only they knew.

None of the women who was attacked have reported the assaults to police. That's probably because they're embarrassed. Many were drunk. They used extremely poor judgment. What were they doing at a street party swarming with thousands of lecherous, intoxicated young men?

The mob of more than 4,000 people came for titillation, and they got it. One woman stood on a platform above the crowd, masturbating. A man streaked by; another climbed a light post and exposed himself.

Dozens of women bared their chests in exchange for Mardi Gras beads. But as the crowd became more inebriated, friendly groping morphed into assault.

Do these women share responsibility for the street party getting out of hand? Absolutely. But should sexual assault be the penalty for stupidity?

Seattle police Chief Gil Kerlikowske said last week that the Mardi Gras violence was not directed against a particular race or gender. He called them "equal-opportunity assaults."

"Women got punched and kicked, and women were punching and kicking," he said. "A 13-year-old girl will be one of our arrestees."

At the time, Kerlikowske hadn't seen evidence of the kind of "wilding" reported on several occasions in New York's Central Park. In June, dozens of men in the park sprayed women with water, then stripped, groped and assaulted them. In 1989, a stockbroker was beaten and raped by a mob of teenagers who called the vicious assault "fun."

On Friday, told by his staff that similar incidents had happened in Pioneer Square, Kerlikowske urged victims of assault -- sexual or otherwise -- to call police and report it. "A sexual assault is just that," he said. "Whether (a woman) was intoxicated -- that's irrelevant. We would want to prosecute her offenders."

A police task force is dissecting videotapes and photographs of Mardi Gras activities. It has 70 suspects identified, and 50 cases have been assigned, police spokesman Sean O'Donnell said. "They're working it. Hard."

That's nice to hear. But more frightening than victims' not reporting their assaults is what this says about our young people. What kind of mentality allowed this to happen? What made it OK to laugh while watching a woman being groped by two dozen men?

"We are seeing something new," Kerlikowske said, "something we can't quite explain."

If we can't explain it, how do we stop it?


"Ye that love the LORD, hate evil..." -Psalm 97:10