Who gets to decide what justice looks like?

September 28, 2021, 7:13 PM UTC

I will not bury a lede that took nearly 30 years write.

Yesterday, a federal jury in New York found multiplatinum recording artist Robert Kelly, better known as R. Kelly, guilty on all nine counts against him — one count of racketeering, with 14 underlying acts that included sexual exploitation of a child, kidnapping, bribery, and sex trafficking charges — and eight additional violations of a sex trafficking law known as the Mann Act. 

He faces additional charges in another federal venue later this year.

This case became a moment to tell a long overdue truth. R. Kelly is “a predator who used his inner circle to ensnare underage girls and young men and women for decades, in a sordid web of sex abuse, exploitation and humiliation,” said Jacquelyn Kasulis, acting US attorney from the Eastern District of New York.

Put another way, Kelly’s entire career was a criminal enterprise, emboldened by a world who treats the bodies, lives, spirits, and futures of Black girls, women, and boys with contempt. There were 22 “Jane and John Does” mentioned in the case; one of whom was the late pop star Aaliyah whom Kelly abused and then illegally married in 1994 when she was 15 years old.

It is up to the victims to decide what justice looks like, and it is their courage that made this moment possible. They are, and should remain, centered in all conversations about Kelly’s fate. But the people who came forward, even in absentia, were aided by two extraordinary journalists who doggedly reported the allegations and compassionately amplified their stories, despite enormous societal headwinds and the constant threat of violent retribution from the R. Kelly criminal enterprise.

Jim DeRogatis, along with Abdon Pallasch, first wrote about the allegations of R. Kelly’s sexual relationships with teenage girls in the Chicago Sun-Times in 2000. But he made chasing these leads and connecting the dots a personal mission. 

It was Rogatis (again with Pallasch) who broke the story of an incriminating sex tape filmed with a then-14-year-old-girl that helped prosecutors file their first case against the singer in 2008. (It was for child pornography, and he was acquitted.) Rogatis continued to report and file stories about survivors whenever he could; in 2017 he published an extensive investigation in Buzzfeed that helped bring Kelly back into the crosshairs of law enforcement. It’s a brutal read, describing the end state of an unrepentant predator, who’d created a cult-like environment of control and abuse. “You have to ask for food. You have to ask to go use the bathroom. … [Kelly] is a master at mind control. … He is a puppet master,” one woman told Rogatis.

RaceAhead-R Kelly Verdict-Jim DeRogatis
Former Chicago Sun-Times reporter Jim DeRogatis talks to reporters after a news conference by Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx announcing charges against R. Kelly in Chicago on Feb. 22, 2019.
Kiichiro Sato—AP Images

“You’re talking about an [alleged] serial sexual predator who has destroyed the lives of 48 women whose names I know, all right?,” DeRogatis tells Rolling Stone upon the publication of his 2019 book Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly. “And if I know many, how many more are there? And in full view of the world for 30 years.”

But it was dream hampton, the equally driven documentarian, who brought the voices and stories of Kelly’s victims into living rooms around the world, as it turns out, at exactly the right time.

Her twenty-year-quest for justice, was in part, a quest for journalistic redemption.

As a young reporter working for Vibe magazine in 2000, she wrote a cover profile of the singer for which she got studio access if she didn’t ask about his 1994 marriage to Aaliyah. She asked, didn’t get much in response, and turned in what she describes as an otherwise softball profile. As her story sat on newsstands, Rogatis published his first story about allegations against R. Kelly. The contrast between the two stories hit her hard. “Jim’s reporting was beginning to establish that R. Kelly was a predator with a pattern. Jim spent the next two decades proving as much, but no one seemed to care,” she says in this personal essay.

While hampton swore off celebrity profiles for good, she was ultimately persuaded that a six-episode documentary series — deeply reported, providing important context (even about Kelly), and filled with respectfully collected survivor testimonies — might make a difference. What followed was Surviving R. Kelly ,an Emmy-nominated Lifetime series that cast a bright light on Kelly and his enablers. The series steered into the emotional momentum created by #MeToo and found an audience adept at using social media to amplify important stories.

“I knew our series would shift the conversation when I monitored Twitter its first night,” hampton recalls. “I recognized the serious way black women in particular were talking — not just about R. Kelly but about the ways justice is denied to black women victims of gender and sexual violence. What I didn’t know was that Chicago District Attorney Kim Foxx and federal agents also were watching.”

Rogatis and hampton were together with NPR’s Audie Cornish in August, to talk about the trial. They both believed this time would be different. “[A]fter 30 years of victimizing young, almost entirely Black women, you know, he is being charged with his entire 30-year career being a criminal enterprise that enabled him to pursue the sexual victimization of so many young women and to threaten, coerce and bribe those who bravely spoke out against him,” said Rogatis. Kelly’s behavior escalated after his 2008 acquittal, said hampton. “He really was beyond the pale, you know, by the time we did Surviving R. Kelly and these women were brave enough to sit before our cameras. I don’t think if they’d not done that, if we’d not seen the pain, then we’d be where we were.”

An enormous number of things had to go right for a very long time for two journalists to create two bodies of work that were effective enough to finally persuade the public and the agencies tapped to serve them that a powerful entertainment figure had to be stopped from raping Black children at will.

Again, justice is for the victims to decide. But the verdict, long in coming, belongs to all of us.

Ellen McGirt

On Point

Let's talk about “missing white woman syndrome”  In his latest column, author and columnist Charles Blow frames the media coverage of the disappearance, and subsequent homicide, of social media personality Gabrielle Petito with the sharpness it deserves. “What kinds of people, in what kinds of bodies, with what kinds of lineage do we value?” In contrast with the decades-long fight to help R. Kelly’s victims find justice, the idea that the media is under the sway of the “missing white woman syndrome,” a phrase coined by journalist Gwen Ifill, compounds the inequity in the criminal justice system. “It all becomes cyclical: Media raises the profile; law enforcement engages because of that high profile; the public becomes invested; then the media continues its coverage because of the massive law enforcement response and widespread public interest,” he writes. “Just like that, we have all been manipulated into playing a part in the white damsel ideology, that young white women, often attractive, are the very epitome of innocence and virtue.”  
New York Times


This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.

On background

Seven ways to calm a young brain in trauma As children are returning to school, day care and other activities in larger numbers, I’m re-surfacing this piece from K-6 classroom teacher Dr. Lori Desautels. While it’s specifically about childhood trauma, the advice resonates for the transition trauma children are also experiencing. “A traumatized brain can be tired, hungry, worried, rejected, or detached, and these states are often accompanied by feelings of isolation, worry, angst, and fear,” she says. Kids who have been traumatized are often in a constant state of agitation, unable to form healthy attachments or make progress in school. They need help feeling safe inside their own bodies, she says. The techniques are simple and work for everyone. Deep breathing, movement and dancing are all helpful, but my favorite is a rhythmic clapping or drumming exercise that gets the entire class moving in the same rhythm. “The collective sound brings a sense of community to the classroom,” says Desautels.

Let’s all take a break and look at some amazing art El Anatsui is a seventy-six-year-old Ghanaian sculptor based in Nigeria, and has spent his career transforming cathedrals of fine art — London’s Royal Academy, Venice’s Museo Fortuny, and Marrakech’s El Badi Palace — with resplendent metal mosaics, which “[m]useums don them like regalia, as though to signal their graduation into an enlightened cosmopolitan modernity,” says writer Julian Lucas. The materials Anatsui uses are reclaimed trash, draped and sometimes folded into sheets; one described here uses bottle caps crushed and folded linked by copper wire, sometimes it is strips of roofing material, sometimes not. When the writer finally met the artist, a month into lockdown, his studio shuttered, the conversation did not disappoint. Enjoy.
New Yorker


RaceAhead-R Kelly Verdict-Dream Hampton
"These women were brave enough to sit before our cameras. I don't think if they'd not done that, if we'd not seen the pain, then we'd be where we were.”—dream hampton
Chris Pizzello—Invision/AP Images

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