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A Warrior Among Us: How One Black Woman's Fight for Justice Is Influencing the Nation

January 15, 2016

The morning after an all-white jury recommended ex-cop, and now-convicted rapist Daniel Holtzclaw to receive 263 years in prison, political strategist and crisis management professional Tezlyn Figaro stood next to two of Holtzclaw’s victims (now survivors)  on the steps of the Oklahoma City courthouse waiting to speak. She waited patiently what was a few more minutes after a months-long fight for justice on behalf of the Black women Holtzclaw terrorized during his reign? When her turn came up, Figaro unabashedly approached the microphone and said what so many Black women  who had been following the case, including the writer of this article, had been thinking and discussing amongst ourselves but never had a public platform to say out loud:

 

“I am ashamed at the lack of coverage from the Oklahoma City media. The media has shamed these women. The media has said these women did not have the right to speak up.”

 

“You’re here today because of the sensationalism of it but these women will be victimized for the rest of their lives. I appreciate you being here today but where are you going to be tomorrow?”

She then turned to the survivors, “You were never alone because I’ve been riding with you since day one.”

 

REFLECTIONS ON AND COLLABORATIONS FOR THE HOLTZCLAW CASE

 

Completely moved, I watched this scene unfold with my team of colleagues from our Brooklyn-based office. As  a Black communications professional, I was inspired and invigroated by  Figaro, a Black woman herself, using her platform, her expertise, not only to publicly speak truth to power but to fight for other Black women from whom she expected nothing in return.

 

Figaro has a long track record of critiquing the many systems which under-represent, denigrate, and work against Black women, both survivors of violence  and professionals fighting for and with those survivors. In 2014, when it became clear that the media largely ignored the Holtzclaw case, Figaro set out on her own campaign to cover these 13 Black women’s stories and to share them with the nation on her own terms.

As an  Oklahoma City native who grew up profiled and under police scrutiny, she learned that not much had changed “I understand because I have been pulled over for no reason many times in Oklahoma City because I was driving a Benz. They assume the car is stolen or I’m transporting drugs because I’m a Black woman and (the car) has Florida tags.”


“I was told they did not want to draw too much attention to the case… I also knew that many weren’t covering the case because at the time (2014) many of the victims had not come forward. I was trying to use every avenue to get to and support the victims and I was told, “No” on several different occasions. People were trying to redirect my attention to work on other cases. I reached out to several leaders who wanted me to redirect my attention  on other cases. I said, “That’s not what I called you for; I called you about this.”

Figaro enlisted the help of friend and acclaimed local attorney for the family of Trayvon Martin, Natalie Jackson for advice and support. “I contacted Natalie Jackson and we talked about this case. We called Attorney Crump and told him the case wasn’t getting the attention it deserved. I credit the two of them for making this case get the attention it deserved.”

 

“We said ‘Black women matter’ and we stayed on it.” Figaro and Jackson realized the victims weren’t coming forward because they didn’t want any additional media coverage. “They were told to just go through the process. It was difficult to find the victims and I understand. Their families were being very protective of them.”

She credits the willingness of everyone working together for the media coverage the case did finally receive. The efforts of everyone who respectively used their platforms from the inception of the case drew a wealth of followers, retweets, protesters, politicians, and concerned citizens alike. A variety of key players drew national media attention including renowned Attorney Benjamin Crump who represents five of the 13 victims who have come forward, Natalie Jackson, and OKC Artists For Justice co-founders - Grace Franklin and Candace Liger.

 

“It takes a collaborative effort. A lot of times when people are new to this work they don’t understand the roles people play. OKC Artists 4 Justice were really on the ground, protesting and organizing and they need to be acknowledged for the work they were doing and continue to do.” Still, with the resolve of such a diverse and dedicated group of people, the road to gaining national attention was obstacle-ridden and often, discouraging.

 

ON FEELING DISCOURAGEMENT AND FEAR DURING THE CASE

 

Alice Walker once said, “Black women are the mules of the world.”  As I, and so many others noted, this sentiment showed up insidiously in every aspect of the case. From the lack of media coverage, the victim-blaming, the outright dismissal of Black women’s humanity and their bodies being brutalized, Figaro’s challenges as a professional could not be extricated from shared challenges with Holbarriers as a Black woman, imposed by the heft of centuries of exploitation, denial, harassment, and erasure.  

 

Figaro notes: “If it had been 13 white women this story would have been all over the world - not just America - the world.”

 

The case cast a spotlight on the historical stigma which rejects the notion that Black women can be victimized or if they can be, it is their own fault and not newsworthy or worthy of justice. It also centered a focus on the shaming that befalls victims  from without and within their own communities. Many dismissed the victims claims, deeming them nothing more than poor, Black women, some of whom had criminal records. Some within their communities blamed the victims for being victims.

 

“Some of the victims had attorneys, some didn’t. Some were told to hush and not talk to the media which is understandable because you don’t want to taint the case in any way. It was difficult. My goal was to reach out and keep plugging away. Someone had to know someone (who could connect me). Eventually I got a call [and was connected] to one of the victim’s family members,” Figaro said.

 

The case cast a spotlight on the historical stigma which rejects the notion that Black women can be victimized or if they can be, it is their own fault and not newsworthy or worthy of justice. It also centered a focus on the shaming that befalls victims  from without and within their own communities. Many dismissed the victims claims, deeming them nothing more than poor, Black women, some of whom had criminal records. Some within their communities blamed the victims for being victims.

 

“As a result of testimony about the victims’ pasts, shaming came from their (the victims’) own community,” Figaro stated. “‘Why were you over there? Why would you put yourself in that position?”

 

For Figaro, too, the stakes of speaking out were high and scrutiny, intense. Taking on cases that threaten not only the place of individual police officers but of whole institutions like the criminal justice system and law enforcement can cost everything. Looking back to the Civil Rights Movement, activists who worked full-time jobs were constantly threatened with losing their income as a way to quash resistance and maintain the status quo of racism.

One of the biggest battles Figaro fought was internal as she realized she had to walk a very fine line in order to maintain her livelihood while standing up for Holtzclaw’s victims.

 

“The discouragement is real. When I do these types of things, I risk my income and political support because I am challenging the system. So many people see things like what happened to Sandra Bland and say, “See, this is why I’m not saying anything. This is why I don’t want to do it.’ And that blows my mind.”

Figaro, a single mother, knew she had to provide for her family but also knew she had a calling on her life to help these women and she resolved to stand up to her calling even in the face of fear.

 

“I risked my job when I said that I’m ashamed of the media, ashamed of the government. You really run a risk by doing this. When you’re saying you’re ashamed of the media - you’re making enemies - not friends.” Figaro explained.

 

When accused of enjoying the limelight, Figaro begged the question, “For what? To get shot? To run a risk of no one hiring you when they see you speak up? There are far more negative consequences then people understand. There’s plenty I can do to get attention. I get more negative attention and more chances of losing my job and chances of not being hired by doing this work. I am not getting rich from these cases and you often wonder how to make ends meet, like Moses I circle the burning bush more than once before I step out on faith, I ask God often is He sure this is what He wants me to do.”

 

Figaro’s resolve was strengthened by thinking of the victims and what they must have been experiencing at the same time.

“I was told by one of the victims, ‘We were looking for you while you’ve been looking for us.’ So, yes, you get discouraged but what else can you do? I kept picturing their faces, not even knowing what they looked like. So what else can you do? And I pay attention to the smallest things. There were definitely little things that told me to keep pushing along the way.”

 

ON THE OUTCOME OF THE CASE AND BLACK WOMEN TAKING THEIR PLACE, FRONT AND CENTER IN SOCIAL JUSTICE AND POLITICS

 

Though many see the verdict and the jury’s recommended 263 years in prison for Holtzclaw as a victory, Figaro sees beyond that.

 

“Yes it is a victory that the jury recommended the sentencing, now we need to see if the Judge accepts the jury's recommendation. Second, there were some victims that did come forward that did not receive justice at all. Then I think about the victims who said nothing at all and never came forward, I believe there still may be more out there who have been treated the same way yet said nothing at all.  So this is why our voices are needed.

Figaro has spent years fighting for Black women to be respected and stand side-by-side with their male counterparts especially within political settings but still, she says, it’s a struggle.

 

“Black women still aren’t recognized as far as being victims and our roles in politics. We’re far from being respected by our colleagues and even by our own people. Black women who are out here doing this work, they’re out here but they’re afraid of taking the mic.  People have this negative stereotype of Black women that we’re always frustrated and angry. Guess what -  I was angry that day and I’m alright with it. If you were underserved, overworked, not recognized, underpaid, had highest incarceration among women and were doing the worst economically and had 13 of your sisters sexually assaulted by the police, you’d be angry and frustrated too.”

 

Along with the frustration that helps to fuel her fire, Figaro takes the jury’s verdict as a beginning but not a full win citing the lack of Black women changemakers involved at-large.

 

“Did we really win in society as whole - I don’t think so. We do not have enough black women in positions of power and many of the ones that we do have are scared to challenge the system. They are afraid to speak up for fear of being called an angry black woman. Who’s giving Black women the mic? Not putting us in the background to stuff envelopes. But actually giving us the microphone to say what we need to say? God gave me the gift to rock the mic, so I’m rocking it!”

 

Figaro was on the ground in McKinney, Texas last summer when a white police officer threw a small, Black, female teen to the ground and handcuffed her while kneeling on her back.

 

“I went down and covered the McKinney case. Right now, we have a chance to show what has been going on since the beginning of time - we have been raped taken advantage of - it’s always been don’t cause confusion, don’t be loud, don’t say anything. No. according to the Bible, it is the woman's job  be the intercessor between the devil and my seed. We birthed this nation - It our role to keep our foot on the neck of the enemy, to speak up, not to be quiet. We must grab the mic. We must to grab the pen. At all times, a sister somewhere must grab something! If we don’t do it, who’s going to do it? It’s up to you. It starts with you.”

 

 

ON THE SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES BETWEEN HOLTZCLAW AND BILL COSBY AND HOW TO ENGAGE THE PUBLIC

 

While the Holtzclaw case with much less reach than most cases of police misconduct, has garnered mixed sentiments, most seem to be in favor of the 263-year imprisonment verdict recommended by the jury. However, with comedian, actor, and philanthropist, Bill Cosby, the issues at hand seem to be much more polarizing with as many against his indictment as there are for it. To understand the different reactions to these cases, Figaro says we must look at the brand recognition. Cosby is a longstanding public figure known to various generations. Daniel Holtzclaw is not.

 

“The media is  only going to talk about things people pay attention to and care about. Bill Cosby is something people pay attention to more than a police officer which is a shame. Bill Cosby was talking about black on black crime and telling black folk how we need to behave but look at what he was ‘allegedly’  doing. Black on Black crime - we can manage that in our communities but if an officer is telling you to get on your knees with a gun to your face, you have no power. That is a violation of the public trust.”

 

Understanding the reasons behind public sentiment is crucial to understanding how to gain national attention and support in cases like that of Holtzclaw, Figaro says.

 

“I can understand the media covering [Cosby] more because although he played a fictional character, in our world, to Black America, he was very real. He was the Dad on TV, to many Fatherless homes. In fact, Cosby spoke on the importance of having homes with a Father to reduce crime, so obviously these allegations are heartbreaking to the black community.  He was one of the first Black comedians to gain popularity by offering clean comedy in a white world. The media covered Cosby more because the media keep it in constant rotation therefore it garnered more attention. People don’t know these victims [of Holtzclaw]. For a long time, the victims had no face. People know Bill Cosby’s name.”

 

Drawing from the public’s inclination only to take up causes with which it can identify it seems even more pressing that those within social justice spaces restructure the way they think of influencing others. Figaro suggests looking to community leaders first.

 

“It takes a collective effort. It’s never just one thing or one person. We must have community leaders stand up, politicians, and then the public unite together. When everyone is on the same page, then we can push a national campaign.  Though her work involves managing crises and giving voice to those who might never have been heard, Tezlyn Figaro has a life mission that keeps her going to conquer fatigue and discouragement that so easily besets others.

 

“Either you’re a warrior or you’re not. It can't be what you strive to be, it’s either in you or it’s not. You are either strong or you are the weakest link. It's either going to be how I want to do it, what I was put on this earth to do or it won't be done at all. And those are the type of women that shape the world. I will always say what needs to be said.  Keep on moving. Keep on fighting.The story is never over. It's never done. I will say what needs to be said. I will not wait to die in order to rest in peace,  I will rest in peace in every night before I go to bed, I will rest easy because I know I told the truth. Other victims might never have come forward if the others did not speak up so speak up black woman, someone is depending on you!There will never be a world where everything is going to be in perfect harmony. You either move with us or move out our way, it is that simple.”

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