the body politic

What the Bill Cosby Mistrial Tells Us About Power in America in 2017

Bill Cosby. Photo: EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images

When it was announced on Saturday morning that Bill Cosby’s trial for the alleged sexual assault of Andrea Constand in 2004 would end in a mistrial, with a hung jury, Cosby’s family and legal team came to the front steps of the Pennsylvania courthouse to make public pronouncements. After a furious statement from the comedian’s wife, Camille, in which she excoriated the district attorney, her husband’s accusers, and the press, Cosby’s spokesperson, Andrew Wyatt, cited Black Panther founder Huey P. Newton as having defined power as “the ability to defy phenomena and make it act in a desired manner.” Then, pointing behind him at Cosby, who stood with his head high, Wyatt triumphantly declared, “Mr. Cosby’s power is back!”

This celebration of restored authority sounded, on some levels, pretty weird. First, Cosby had not been found innocent; the jury could not reach a verdict after more than fifty hours of deliberation, and the Montgomery County District Attorney has already announced that he will be re-tried. The nod to Newton was also strange, given that writer and former Black Panther captain Aaron Dixon has claimed that Cosby once said to him, “Huey Newton is nothing but a thug and a hoodlum!” — words that don’t sound out of character for a man who spent years chastising black communities for what he perceived as self-inflicted wounds, while absolving white America of charges of systemic racism.

But if Wyatt’s comments didn’t track factually, they were extremely clarifying, as direct of an appraisal as any of what, exactly, is at stake here — not just with regard to the allegations of sexual assault against Cosby, but in many of our contemporary tangles with gender, assault, and harassment, in entertainment, politics, and in America in 2017.

All sexual assault and harassment stories turn, to some degree, on power imbalances. In Cosby’s case(s), the dynamics appear particularly obvious. Almost 60 women have alleged that Cosby, over a period of decades, drugged and then molested them. He has admitted, in a 2005 deposition that remained buried for a decade, to having used Quaaludes as a tool to have sex with women. He targeted young women, especially aspiring actors or models, those looking for mentorship, guidance or a step up in the industry in which he wielded immense influence. He told the head of a modeling agency that he was particularly interested in women who were from out of town, and “financially not doing well.” Then he would use drugs to leave them unconscious while allegedly assaulting them. Cosby’s whole modus operandi, much of it self-confessed, was the violation of women at multiple power disadvantages, in terms of age, money, and professional stature. He rendered them physically and rationally vulnerable by drugging them. The very heart of Cosby’s turn-on, it seemed, hinged on affirmation of his own power.

That power was further exacerbated by the post-assault reality. Cosby’s position was so advantageous that the women had no traction, no ability to effectively respond, to bring him to justice or even tell people what had happened to them. Cosby allegedly told them that no one would believe their stories if they told them. And he was correct.

For years, women did try to explain what Cosby had done to them. And television networks and magazines reported those stories. But no one really believed them, no one really wanted to believe them about Bill Cosby; the allegations simply did not take hold.

It must be some kind of power, to have had multiple claims of sexual assault reported — in Newsweek, in Gawker, in People, in Philadelphia Magazine, and on the Today Show — and for there to have been no repercussions, no consequences. It must be some kind of power to have received, in the years that followed these public, published accounts of assault, an NAACP Image Award and a Kennedy Center Mark Twain Award, to have had rooms full of people stand and applaud you, to have been hired to make new TV shows.

All that stopped for Cosby three years ago, after a comedy routine performed by a man, Hannibal Buress, in which he openly called out Cosby as an alleged rapist, somehow sunk in. In the wake of Buress’s comments, scores of women began to tell their stories, helping to amplify the tales that were already out there. America finally took notice. Cosby stepped down from honorary positions; his TV deals fell apart; he was indicted in the only criminal case — Constand’s — that still fell under the statute of limitations, and was charged civilly by other women.

There was a perception that this wave of women, the mass force of voices gathering together to tell stories, might have enough power to overcome Cosby. “In 2005, Bill Cosby still had control of the media. In 2015, we have social media,” Tamara Green, one of his accusers, told New York in 2015. Chelan Lasha said, “I’m no longer afraid … I feel more powerful than him.”

The belief in the effectiveness of mass resistance — particularly female mass resistance — to power is not unique. It’s what we witnessed last summer, when more than a dozen women revealed that they had been encroached on against their will by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, that he had assaulted them in his home and on planes, his hands like an octopus, his tongue forced into their mouths.

These stories, like those about Cosby, had been kept quiet for decades. And then, when a tape surfaced in which Trump, like Cosby in his deposition, described the details of his own power — the fact that “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything” — those stories came tumbling out, along with thousands of others from women who flooded Twitter with tales not just about Trump, but about their own experiences of violations and harassment and abuse.

What kind of power it must be to have the facts of assault and predation undisputed — to affirm those facts yourself, in a taped conversation — and still be elected to the most powerful office in the land.

It often seems as if having this immense power threatened, by those behaving as if their stories might carry as much weight as these powerful men’s, is perceived by those men as the ultimate threat, the worst kind of violation. In a posthumously published interview, Roger Ailes lamented incredulously, about the many women who had finally joined together to make claims about his sexual harassment, leading to his ouster from Fox News, “Why would anyone take the word of these women over mine?”

Ailes’s former star anchor Bill O’Reilly, whose alleged history of sexual harassment had been public for decades, yet like Cosby and Trump had faced no consequence until recently, spoke before his departure from Fox of how he had been the one robbed of power. “Bill O’Reilly has been subjected to a brutal campaign of character assassination that is unprecedented in post-McCarthyist America,” O’Reilly’s lawyer Marc Kasowitz said. (Kasowitz is now working as Donald Trump’s defense lawyer.)

Lisa Bloom, the lawyer for several of Bill O’Reilly’s accusers, said some months ago of O’Reilly’s dismissal from his perch, “This is what happens when women speak our truth: we can slay dragons.”

But, so far, this weekend at least, it feels as though the evidence to support that claim is mixed.

O’Reilly and Ailes left their jobs and lost their influential political voices, taking with them tens of millions of dollars in parting gifts. Ailes is now dead, Bill Cosby will have another trial, and Donald Trump occupies the most powerful office in America. Around the country, millions of women are left unsure of how these power dynamics work: Is there power in numbers? Will anyone believe them if they tell their stories? Will men retain their outsized share of power? Was it ever really threatened to begin with?

There is, literally, no verdict yet. We still don’t know whether women, operating together in resistance to male power abuse, can effectively assert righteous or punitive power of their own, in courtrooms or in electoral politics. This question is being negotiated every day.

However, the speed with which Cosby’s spokesperson moved to crowing about his client’s restored power suggests a desperate and overeager need to declare a tie a victory, to utter the word “power” as if it were an incantation and saying it aloud would bring back Cosby’s.

It’s a Trumpian approach: to declare something true that self-evidently is not, to try to coat over your deepest insecurities by brashly declaring your superiority. Cosby hasn’t been convicted in a court of law, but his reputation — and the power that he got from it — has been forever diminished by the accounts of the more than 60 women who came forward. The declaration that his power is back is the equivalent of hanging electoral maps all over the White House and obsessing about the size of inaugural crowds. And perhaps it goes some distance to explaining how the hell we got here, to June 2017, to our increasingly authoritarian present. We are living in a death rattle, in which the formerly all-powerful and inviolable are doubling down on their dominance, even as — and precisely because — they feel it slipping away. 

What the Cosby Mistrial Tells Us About Power in America