Steubenville, Ohio a town of 18,000 people, sits on the Ohio river a stone’s throw from West Virginia and Pennsylvania. At its peak it was a steel town of 35,000 people that went into slow decline until in 2010 with a 15% unemployment rate, it was resurrected and riven by its place atop the Marcellus and Utica shale formation. What fracking has done to the ground beneath them, the scandal surrounding Big Red has done to the people of Steubenville. And now this small town is a crossroad on the virtual, viral map.
Big Red is the Steubenville High School three-time state champion football team. It is what everybody does on Friday night and it has been for two generations, the pride of Steubenville. Coach Reno Saccoccia has coached those two generations and won 85% of his games. The field of play is named Reno field and it is perfect and camera ready. The games are broadcast every week.
On August 11 at a party, which apparently began at a volunteer coaches house and moved throughout the evening to two other locations, a 16 year old girl was raped and carried unconscious from party to party where she was abused, raped, urinated on and finally left naked in her parents front yard in the morning.
She remembered none of it. It is likely that she was given Rohypnal in a soft drink on the way to the party as according to some sources, the whole adventure began because she had dated and rejected one of the football players. She was called and invited to the party by the girlfriend of another player who told her that her ex was not angry at her and everyone wanted her to come to the party.
Because she was totally unaware of what happened to her the incident was not reported to the police until two days later when her parents were sent photos and tweets of the incident that the students had sent to each other that night. She had showered; there is no physical evidence. She has no memory of the incident, and so she cannot even testify in her own behalf.
So this story may have faded away as many alleged rapes do. But two of the players were eventually arrested. Because they are 16, the state has decided to charge them as juveniles with delinquency, and not with rape, a charge that will vanish from their records at 18. All of the other “players” who watched and tweeted and said nothing, played football all season, not even a slap on the wrist.
The incident has caught fire on the internet, all this time later and the case is scheduled for Juvenile Court on February 16. Now the venue is the virtual world, and we members of the virtual world should watch and weigh in. Steubenville, Ohio could be anywhere….
How did this happen, this belated outrage, this struggle to find out what really happened and who is complicit. It started slowly with one woman whose corner of the bloggers’ world is crime reporting. Her name is Alexandria Goddard and her blog is Prinniefield.com. She followed the story and screen grabbed the tweets and photos that were circulating among the students at the time of the incident. She suggested that a handful of the athletes were to blame and was roundly criticized in the local press, saying her site “had lent itself to character assassination and begun to resemble a lynch mob.” She was sued by one of the players for defamation of character, a suit which has since been dropped. And as those photos and tweets she captured were taken down from her website. The phones were collected be the police and the tweets and photos mostly, mysteriously disappeared. But she had preserved evidence and set the debate in motion. The two sides have lined up with opposing beliefs, spilling anger and threats in Steubenville. The police chief, the district attorney and the school superintendent all had close ties to the football team.
But four months later on December 16th, the New York Times wrote an in-depth article laying out the story in detail, followed by updates on the Atlantic Wire. It was surfacing in national media, it was finding a way to the internet: the virtual community.
Into this community steps Knight Sec, a part of the amorphous and vocal crusaders, Anonymous, who speak for those who have small voices. Outraged by the imbalance in this fight, they took up the cause and began organizing protests in Steubenville and restoring the photos and Tweets, that had been removed from Alexandria’s blog. They named those who were accused of both participating, watching and commenting on this horrific event and continued protecting the 16 year old girl’s identity. They posted a video tape of one of the students laughing and commenting on the events of that evening. Watch it, if you dare. It is disgusting and disheartening.
But the story goes on. Into this morass steps a group called Local Leaks. They have put up a web site which details the events of that night, the players, coaches, politicians involved and links to every article written on line about the night of August 11th and its aftermath. All of the photos, tweets and the disgusting video are there too. It is an amazing and well documented effort, but some of the reporting is based on anonymous leaks. Through these leaks the story continues to grow. It has been reported that there are other victims on other nights, that there is a rape squad at the school that it is supported and protected by one of the coaches, that the police chief is involved in an illegal gambling enterprise which takes bets on the football team, that the district attorney’s son is a member of the group.
After the rape when the sheriff (not the police chief) asked party-goers to come forward to report what had happened that night, only one person did.
To date, LocalLeaks has received over 1,000 testimonial leaks and they continue to receive 50 to 100 each day. These reports are anonymous so there is no fear of reprisal.
Who are the people behind LocalLeaks. They say they are a small clan of “truth seekers.” When asked where located, their reply, Planet Earth. They are in fact spread out across the world. They are developing a verification process for their testimonial leaks, which, must be supported by multiple credible sources in order to be made public. They have now so much information that they are having some difficulty storing it. Fortunately, they have an attorney who is prepared to defend their right to make information public that has been credibly reported to the site.
Will it stand up as evidence; doubtful. It is difficult to see how it can be other than hearsay, unless some of the reporters are willing to testify in court. As for that there have been multiple death threats against both witnesses and the defense counsel. Chief among them from Coach Soccoccia, who threatened an interviewer saying as he walked away. “You make me mad now. You are going to get yours and if you don’t somebody close to you will.”
Does it make change of venue moot, most likely. Many people are watching what happens in Steubenville, Ohio.
So where are we? Better off? I think so. The legal system will certainly find these two boys guilty of delinquency. There will be some repercussions for them, although their records will be wiped clean in two years allowing them to move on with their football careers.
The young lady may or may not recover, and unless she chooses to write a book and tell us, we may never know.
Is there some hyperbole or false information circulating, probably. But the story has caused the town and in fact the world to question the values that are taught to young men in small town US.
The legal system is trying to grapple with this new court of public opinion. Anonymous has been CyberSLAPPed with a law suit in an attempt to discover their identity. The city of Steubenville has put up its own website in a fairly lame attempt to control the information on the case. Because the young lady was transported across state lines, the football player and his girlfriend picked her up in Weirton West Virginia at a Volley ball game, the case has potential Federal standing. And the surrounding corruption that appears to affect Steubenville, who knows, maybe the fracking which has resurrected their economy will sink them into the netherworld in a vengeful earthquake.
But for me and I hope for many others, the story is worth following. Here we are on planet earth, still trying mightily to sort things out. How’s that going? The jury is still out, but I am grateful that we have people who can and will give voices to the many and question the privileges of the few.
The trial for the two boys charged in this case begins in ten days. I am hoping that the world will be watching.