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VOL. 124 | NO. 125 | Monday, June 29, 2009

Politics at Root Of Rape Center Failures

The Memphis News

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When government does not serve the people, whom does it serve?

The question is more important than the answer.

In the case of the Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center, the government response at one point not only failed to serve the people to their expectations, it made the problem worse.

Mayor Willie Herenton was accurate in his detection of organizational politics and the presence of what he’s termed “pressure groups.”

So what?

That in no way justifies the poor response and leadership he has given an issue that would have been easy enough to fix sooner rather than later.

Someone needed to rise above the political rhetoric that threatened the care of rape victims – RAPE VICTIMS – and oversee an accounting for the problems, as well as a solution.

That person should have been the mayor of Memphis.

And the mayor of Shelby County didn’t help by offering a political turn of phrase in a woeful attempt to obscure the fact that the solution was what others on the City Council and County Commission had suggested weeks before. Diplomacy has its place in matters of compromise.

But too often our local version of diplomacy seems to only encourage the preservation of pettiness and turf protection as a reasonable facsimile for leadership.

It is time our leadership ended the mutual respect of turf lines governing institutions that are the property of the people.

That leadership has the duty to keep local government relevant to our lives. It requires the ability to distinguish political static from legitimate public outrage.

We encountered this same undercurrent two years ago when a woman was raped and beaten in her home in Chickasaw Gardens. Her neighbors and friends who became involved encountered the same organizational politics and division of Memphians by race and parts of town that Herenton has now talked publicly about.

Suddenly they found themselves surrounded – between them and their simple goal of helping their friend and making this a safer place – by a variety of pitchmen for causes ranging from a campaign to get kids to pull up their pants to neighborhood groups seeking grant money to those attributing violent crime to the will of God. Some even urged them to blame and criticize Herenton.

You have to wonder if those seeking political gain from our crime problem intentionally try to make it as difficult as possible for the non-politically involved to become involved.

Politics do matter.

When there is no action at City Hall to appoint a new director for the office that treats emergency rape cases and the job has been vacant for months, politics has already affected something that matters.

When experienced nurses whose testimony and expertise is critical to making sure rapists are caught and put in prison are steadily fleeing MSARC, politics has already made its presence known.

When a rape victim who is clearly out of her mind is dumped at a rape center by police against well-established guidelines, and attacks the nurse helping her, and the nurse is fired, politics has overstepped its bounds.

When an inadequate response noted beyond the city limits is justified because the response has been inadequate within, politics has betrayed all of us. It has pitted us against each other. And that matters as well.

If our political leaders won’t rise to the occasion, then it becomes incumbent on us not to rise to the bait they’ve laid out. It’s a diversion to keep us distracted from holding those we elect accountable for the basic mission of government – to protect us.

Part of Willie Herenton’s success in politics has been his refusal to beat around the bush. It’s the reason you can find a live feed of just about every press conference he has on television or the Internet. In recent years, he’s continued to call it like he sees it.

What is alarming is he seems more willing to play a game that he wanted no part of just a short time ago.

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