Catcalls And Killers

It was a tragedy, and ought to remind us that there are bad people out there who do bad things, horrible things, to others. In the chorus about ending mass incarceration, it’s often lost that not everyone in prison is a victim of society. Some are there because they’re dangerous people who harm others without remorse, and some dangerous people may well be victims of the many ills of the system, but are still dangerous people.

Ruth George is dead because she was allegedly sexually assaulted and choked to death by Donald Thurman, who was out on parole from a 2016 robbery conviction.

His court-appointed attorney, public defender Valerie Panozzo, said in court Tuesday that he struggled with mental health issues and homelessness.

This could have been a lead-in to the many common issues raised by such tragedies, from the failure to provide help to Thurman for his mental illness while in prison, thus putting him back on the street to murder a 19-year-old college student as sick, if not sicker, than he went in. Or homelessness or vocational training. Perhaps there is a drug problem in there as well.

Or this horrible murder might reflect challenges to those whose concern is limited only to the unfortunate circumstances of those arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned, as a reflection of the reality that no matter what the excuse, a young woman was molested and murdered. Sure, his situation was sad and unfortunate, but she’s dead.

But neither of these approaches informed the Washington Post in their treatment of this tragedy.

She caught the attention of a stranger, Donald Thurman, who tried talking to her after she walked by, said James Murphy, the assistant state’s attorney for Cook County.

“The defendant was angry that he was being ignored,” Murphy said in a statement Tuesday.

There was surveillance video in the parking lot where this happened, but such video almost never includes sound. How would Murphy know what was said or how Thurman felt? It’s possible he talked, but that would be a confession and would have been noted in the article. There was nothing about him talking or confessing.

George’s next moments, according to police, illustrate the nightmarish, harrowing reality that women can face on any given day, particularly when encountering a man, alone, on a darkened street.

Thurman, 26, pursued George and closed in while he “catcalled” her throughout the garage, Murphy said. She arrived at her car, but Thurman choked her from behind and dragged her into the car, where he sexually assaulted her before fleeing in a distinctive white jacket, Murphy said, citing images on captured on surveillance videos.

And that’s the story in the Washington Post, about a guy who “catcalled.” About how the “harrowing reality” that a woman can “face on any given day” from a guy who “catcalled.” And should you not get the critical point of the story from the way it was presented, the WaPo headline made it impossible to ignore.

A woman ignored a man’s catcalls — so he chased her down and killed her, prosecutors say

Is every guy who catcalls a killer? In the absence of sound on the surveillance video, how they arrive at the conclusion that Thurman “catcalled” at all is remarkable. If the video showed him speaking to her, that doesn’t mean he “catcalled.” Maybe he asked her if she had the time, or had a smoke. Or maybe he yelled something rude at her from across the parking lot. Since Ruth George was murdered, it’s not as if she can tell the story of what led Thurman to kill her.

To what end would George’s death be twisted into a story to “illustrate the nightmarish, harrowing reality that women can face on any given day”? Is it possible that a woman can find herself in a parking lot with a violent, mentally ill person on parole who will sexually assault and choke her? Sure. Fortunately, it’s an extremely rare event, but for Ruth George, its rarity is irrelevant. It happened to her, and that’s all that matters to her and her bereaved family.

But instead of recognizing that violent crime can, and does happen, or the myriad other considerations that might have been reflected by this tragic event, it was used as a device to raise hysteria about the threat men present, in general, and catcalling men, in particular.

And, indeed, the insipid went with it.

Some jerk catcalling a woman isn’t a big deal, but women can’t differentiate between which ones are just losers and which are dangerous people.

And it swiftly morphed from the murder of Ruth George to the general horror of men catcalling.

This rape/murder is an extreme outlier. But I know lots of women who have ignored a catcaller and been followed down the street by him, been verbally threatened, have him block her path and force her to go around, etc..

It’s not irrational to find that behavior threatening.

Whether Thurman catcalled Ruth George at all is questionable, but the thrust had nothing to do with the killing, “an extreme outlier” even though that was the reason the story appeared in the paper, that was the critical fact giving rise to it being a story at all.

This isn’t to say that “catcalling” is an acceptable way to behave. But this is about a sexual assault and murder, not the “nightmarish, harrowing reality” of catcalling. Should every catcall give rise to a woman’s not-irrational fear that she’s about to be murdered? Should women carry guns and shoot at male catcallers so they aren’t murdered, because this is the “nightmarish, harrowing reality that women can face on any given day”? If women are unable to distinguish “losers” from “dangerous people,” what are they to do, wait until they’re murdered to find out who to shoot?

Or is the message that women should live in constant fear and dread because they may run into a violent, mentally ill guy on parole named Thurman? That can happen. It happened to Ruth George. A 19-year-old college student was tragically murdered, and yet the Washington Post uses her death as a means to launch a generic attack on women suffering the nightmare of catcalling.

12 thoughts on “Catcalls And Killers

  1. Kathryn Kase

    Women don’t need the Washington Post to make us fearful. Too many of us have experienced cat-callers who are scary because they follow us down the street, they follow us in their cars and trucks, and they apparently want engagement.

    Ordinarily, you ignore the jerk, but when the guy insists on following you — and you’re in a place where people can carry concealed — you start thinking about where you can seek shelter from the jerk, which can be difficult if you’re walking to your car after dark or you’re taking a run at 6 AM.

    It’s easy enough to say, well, don’t run at 6 AM or don’t work late. But we all want autonomy. And at the risk of sounding churlish, I don’t notice men having to curtail ordinary activities because of those who apparently enjoy harassing and scaring women.

    1. SHG Post author

      Are they catcallers or are they stalkers? Is it because their gender is male or because there’s something seriously awry with the person?

      When the hysteria du jour was muggers, almost all were male, but the concern was about muggers, not about men. What’s changed?

      And for those of us males (dare I say, the overwhelming majority) who don’t enjoy harassing and scaring women, do we wear tags on our clothing or are we presumptively toxic?

      1. Kathryn Kase

        Good questions all. I’ve never felt sufficiently safe to engage these jerks to determine if they’re predominantly cat-callers or stalkers or to find out what else, beyond their being male, puts them in the category of jerkdom. Perhaps if I take a social scientist with me on my next late night foray to the parking lot, we just might get answers…

        1. SHG Post author

          Assuming it happens without a social scientist handy, what to do? Shoot or not? I always wonder what would happen to me if I asked the wrong woman if she happened to know what time it is. After all, I may know I’m not a danger, but how would she? I am, after all, male.

        2. David

          I’ve been approach by weird women from time to time, but maybe the difference is that I’ve never been afraid of them as I don’t feel physically threatened. I would explain that as a matter of being male and believing I’m physically capable of defending myself if I had to, but would that be sexist of me to assume that most women pose no physical threat?

          Would it be less sexist of me to feel threatened by every woman who approach me?

          My point is that we are all approached by person of the opposite sex from time to time, any one of whom could be a violent, mentally ill criminal, but for most men (or perhaps just sexist men like me), fear just isn’t the natural reaction. We’re just not as afraid as we should be, apparently.

          1. SHG Post author

            There was a vid on the twitters about a woman who felt unsafe because of a black UPS delivery guy, to which I queried whether anyone wears a UPS uniform because they think it makes them look good. Someone replied that he recalled a time when robbers were dressing as UPS drivers. So do we call the cops whenever we see a UPS driver because you never know? What about female drivers?

            If this is how we’re going to deal with each other, it’s going to very quickly be unnavigable.

      2. AH

        I am a woman who works in the downtown core of my city. For reasons that are unknown to me, I seem to be quite popular with a certain subset of the homeless population. I get many catcalls and generally I respond politely without inviting further engagement, because quite frankly I can afford to be polite to people who live on the margins of a world in which I am relatively very lucky. Is there a risk that one of these people, many of whom appear to be mentally ill or have addictions problems could attack me, of course. But I also find myself in circumstances where am also at risk of being attacked by women who suffer from addictions, mental illness, and homelessness, although I get fewer catcalls. The common link is their personal demons, not their gender.

        Life is full of risk. The choice is ours to change our behavior because of that risk, or continue to live our lives the way we want to.

        More on topic, although I agree with the mischaracterization of this set of circumstances, it seems that the prosecutor got the ball rolling and the Washington Post just ran with it.

        1. SHG Post author

          We don’t know everything the prosecutor said, but only what was reported. Without more, I hesitate to levy blame.

  2. Matthew Scott Wideman

    The Washington Post story should read “Bad things happen to good people……it’s a tough world out there”.

    But, that won’t get clicks and won’t make rich people clutch their pearls. Everything nowadays has to relate back to patriarchy or class guilt…..or green eggs and ham.

    A mentally ill man killed a young woman. That is tragedy enough. I miss when reporters just reported the facts and didn’t view every senseless act through the lense of a liberal arts major.

Comments are closed.