Thursday, May 30, 2024

‘OKC 13’ film encourages tough talks

The “OKC 13” documentary, produced by Carmen Coffee, explores the trial of and abuse of power by police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, who was found guilty on 18 charges of various sexually violent crimes against 13 African-American women in Oklahoma City.

The documentary also explores intersections of power, race and gender in society and institutional establishments, such as law enforcement. In January 2016, Holtzclaw was sentenced to 263 years in prison for his crimes.

The documentary was planned to be screened at Plattsburgh State March 29, but after some legal complications involving Coffee and a business partner, the screening was cancelled. PSUC’s Health Educator and Outreach Coordinator Rhema Lewis, who was responsible for planning the event, decided to take a different approach on the presentation.

Lewis provided a slideshow with statistics not only on Holtzclaw’s case, but other infographics detailing abuse of minorities by members of law enforcement, as well as a question and answer panel discussion for those in attendance. The panel was composed of Lewis, PSUC Criminal Justice Assistant Professor Breea Willingham and Staff Attorney of Prisoners’ Legal Services Alissa Hull.

Lewis said she heard about the documentary on Twitter and was interested in the story because of her role as an educator, confidential advocate and “a woman of color.”

Lewis said Twitter had drawn attention to the documentary, but not enough. She said social media should be used to bring attention to these issues.

“We are taught hatred in society and media. We need to reteach and relearn what our country has taught us,” Lewis said.

Willingham said she was interested in the case as she teaches a course titled Minorities and Crime. She is also writing a book on the aspects of police violence on women.

Students spoke throughout the presentation, asking the panel questions and sharing some of their personal experiences and opinions on the intersections of race, sexual violence and socioeconomic standings.

One student said that not only the penal and law enforcement systems needed to change, but every other system, such as the media and television, that reaffirm the stereotypes of African American culture, needed to change as well.

Another student in the audience said some law enforcement officers follow a “protect and serve self” motto as opposed to protecting and serving their community.

“I’d love to see a revolution in this lifetime,” Hull said during the question and answer segment about the possibility of change.

The forum also discussed defects in the legal system. Several of Holtzclaw’s victims had previous arrests, and Holtzclaw abused his power by forcibly exchanging the victims’ freedom or pending charges for sex acts. The victims filed complaints against the officer, which were never formally followed up with by the Oklahoma City Police Department.

The structure of our legal system, according to the panel, allows “disenfranchised minorities to be taken advantage of.”

Willingham said the best way for students to make a change in these issues is to get involved and to attend more public conversations. Hull suggested involvement in “public health or community work,” to help combat the issues.

A student in the audience said it is important to enforce change on a micro level, such as a college campus, to enforce it on a macro level in the real world. Hull said those working to make an impact can work by supporting those marginalized by society. This includes minorities and those in different socioeconomic standings.

Lewis said this presentation was just a kickoff of events she is hoping to bring to campus to discuss issues of sexual violence and race. She encourages students to “keep speaking and keep shouting.”

“Students’ voices matter. Our student activists feel tired, fighting for so many things,” Lewis said.

Email Marissa Russo at

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