The Washington Post should be ashamed of itself for suspending Felicia Sonmez.
TRIGGER WARNING: Graphic description of sexual assault.
On Sunday January 26, Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna Maria-Onore Bryant, perished in a helicopter crash along with seven other individuals, two of which were Gianna's age.
The group was on their way to Kobe's Black Mamba basketball academy, where Bryant was going to coach his daughter and the rest of her team. But it's almost impossible that you aren't already aware of these details. As soon as the news of the crash broke on Sunday, celebrities and fans alike took to social media to mourn the star athlete's passing and to send their condolences to his wife and children left behind. There was not a media property in America, or perhaps the world, that didn't run a story about Kobe's untimely death that reflected on his cultural impact and personal strengths. When the Grammys aired Sunday night, there was an obvious heaviness in the room and myriad tributes to the Lakers legend. He was, almost universally, remembered as a tenacious athlete, a great leader, a loving father and husband, and an inspiration to millions.
A memorial set up in Kobe's memory
But, he was also an alleged rapist. And there are a few people who are refusing to erase that fact amidst the clamor of adoration for Bryant.
Actress Evan Rachel Wood tweeted, "What has happened is tragic. I am heartbroken for Kobe's family. He was a sports hero. He was also a rapist. And all of these truths can exist simultaneously." Wood was referring to a case from 2003, in which a 19-year-old hotel clerk accused Bryant of rape. It was by no means a baseless claim, as Bryant even corroborated the majority of the accuser's story and there were vaginal lacerations (indicating force) documented by law enforcement at the time of the report. When originally confronted about the interaction, Bryant changed his story multiple times.
To read the accuser's full account of the incident, you can read this piece from the Daily Beast, which includes statements from the victim, such as, "Then he held me by my neck and physically forced me over to the side of the couch," and "'at that point I was just kinda scared and I said no a few times." She also stated that she repeatedly said no, once when he lifted up her skirt and again when he took off her underwear. The accuser also had a bruise on her neck after the incident. As the Daily Beast points out, "And the accuser, it should be noted, came from a wealthy family."
Bryant also read a statement of apology in court, an excerpt from which reads as follows: "I also want to make it clear that I do not question the motives of this young woman. No money has been paid to this woman. She has agreed that this statement will not be used against me in the civil case. Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did."
Despite seemingly damning evidence, the case was dropped in 2004 when the victim reportedly declined to cooperate with prosecutors any longer. In 2005, Bryant and the accuser settled the matter out of court.
Kobe Bryant in court in 2003
On the day of Bryant's death, Felicia Sonmez, a reporter at The Washington Post, tweeted a link to that same Daily Beast story, a decision that has put her job in jeopardy. After posting the link, she later tweeted that "10,000 people (literally)" had sent her "abuse and death threats" as a result. According to Slate, "Sonmez also posted a screenshot of her email inbox, which included the full display name of a person who'd said, 'Piece of f*cking shit. Go f*ck yourself. C-nt.' Upon seeing these messages, The Washington Post punished Sonmez." Sonmez has since been placed on administrative leave while the paper "reviews whether tweets about the death of Kobe Bryant violated The Post newsroom's social media policy," according to managing editor Tracy Grant.
In the wake of the Me Too movement, there is undoubtedly something questionable about the decision to suspend a reporter for reminding the public of the facts of an alleged rape by a powerful man (especially one that's largely been erased from public consciousness since it happened) and then exposing the misogynistic harassment recieved as a result. Sonmez's story reminds us of the great lengths people will go to vilify women who refuse to ignore the corruption that allows flawed men to act reprehensibly and get away with it.
Kobe also made it clear he believed he was not the only NBA star to forgo consent in his sexual relations. At one point in the investigation he told officers, "I should have done what Shaq does, Shaq gives them money or buys them cars, he has already spent one million dollars." The report added, "Kobe stated that Shaq does this to keep the girls quiet." It's clear that Sonmez's suspension is a product of the same system that allowed Kobe to stay out of jail, a system that often protects and idolizes powerful, rich, revered men, like Shaq and Kobe, and makes victims and whistle-blowers just...go away.
To any rational mind, when reading the verified facts of the case, it becomes clear that—more likely than not—Kobe Bryant did not get consent from the 19-year-old he bent over that hotel room couch. He almost certainly raped this woman and then settled the case out of court. And, even when mourning his tragic death, that is worth talking about. We have to reckon with the entirety of his legacy.
As Evan Rachel Woods pointed out, this incident doesn't mean he wasn't an extraordinary basketball player. It doesn't even mean that he wasn't a loving father and husband (despite the philandering). Hell, it doesn't even mean that, in other ways, he wasn't a great guy. It also doesn't mean we can't be sad that he died. Regardless of his misdeeds, Kobe was a symbol of determination, hard work, and talent, and that's worth mourning. And at the end of the day, if we want Me Too to enact real change, then we have to allow people to exist in conflict. We have to begin to acknowledge that a person is not one thing: a rapist or a sports star, a loving father or a philandering assh*le, a legend or a pervert. We can't write someone off as purely good or bad based on any one thing.
But that doesn't mean we can ignore the bad—the horrifying, the misogynistic, the violent—to focus on the good. Acknowledging the duality that exists in all of us does not condone the rape that likely tore apart the life of the young woman it happened to. It does not mean it's okay that the justice system is designed to protect the powerful and the wealthy. It does not mean we don't have to reckon with the racism that makes us more likely to believe a white woman than a black man. It does not mean that it's okay to harass and suspend a reporter who was trying to talk about this important issue. It does not mean we can ignore his extraordinary accomplishments both as a philanthropist and player. Most of all, it does not mean that, in the wake of Kobe Bryant's death, we should ignore the grounded accusation of rape brought against him. We need to talk about it. We need to wrestle with the issue of whether or not we can or should deify a man who preyed on the weak–even if it was just that once, even if he was genuinely sorry. If the collective trauma of Me Too is going to be worth anything, we have to make room for complexity, reform, contradictions, and, most of all, conversation.
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The quarterback said "I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country." And then he tried to apologize. And only made it worse.
Drew Brees, a man who makes literally millions of dollars for throwing a ball, has come under fire for insensitive comments he made about NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police brutality.
"I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country," Brees said in the interview with Yahoo Finance. He clarified that this was in part because he envisioned his grandfathers, who fought in World War II, during the National Anthem. He continued, saying, "And is everything right with our country right now? No. It's not. We still have a long way to go. But I think what you do by standing there and showing respect to the flag with your hand over your heart, is it shows unity. It shows that we are all in this together. We can all do better. And that we are all part of the solution."
This isn't the first time Brees made it clear that he cares more for the idea of a make-believe unified America than he does for actual human lives. In 2016, he criticized Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the anthem, saying it was "disrespectful to the American flag" and "an oxymoron" because the flag gave critics the right to speak out in the first place.
Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest of racist police brutality
Of course, the flag's alleged ideals have been proven to only be applicable to wealthy, white men—men like Brees. Sure, his grandfathers did a noble thing when they fought under the US flag during WWII, and no one, including Kaepernick, has ever said that sacrifice isn't worth respecting. Thanks to the sacrifices of many people (including the enslaved Black backs upon which this country was built, including the scores of routinely abused Black soldiers who fought for American lives), America has offered opportunity and peace for many, many people. In particular, Ole' Glory has been very kind to men like Brees: rich, white men who still control the majority of the power and the wealth in the United States.
But what about the rest of us, Drew? What about George Floyd whose neck was crushed by a police officer who kneeled on him so casually that he didn't even take his hand out of his pocket? What about Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot for the crime of being Black and going for a jog? What about Breonna Taylor, a black woman who was murdered by police in her home in the middle of the night for a crime that had nothing to do with her? What about Tony McDade, Drew–have you heard his name? Have you heard about the 38-year-old Black trans man who was gunned down in Florida last week? Do you understand why these people's family's may harbor just a bit of disrespect for your precious flag?
Is it possible for you to realize, Drew, that your wish for "unity" is not a wish for progress, but a wish to maintain the status quo? When you call for unity under the American flag, you're talking about your flag, the flag that represents a long, sordid history of racial oppression and violence. There is no unity where there is no justice. When you say that "we are all in this together," what you're saying is that we all have roles to play in the version of society that has served you so well. For your part, you'll be a rich, white man, and for Black people's part, they'll continue to be victims of state-sanctioned murders– but hopefully more quietly, hopefully in a manner that doesn't make you uncomfortable?
When you say, "We can all do better. And that we are all part of the solution," what you mean to say is that POC and their allies are at fault. Sure, you probably agree that Derek Chauvin took it a bit too far, and you probably feel a little self-conscious that he's brought all this "Black rights" stuff up again. But when you say "all," you place blame on the victims who are dying under a broken system. And what, exactly, do you expect POC to do differently, Drew? Ahmaud Arbery was just out jogging, and still he died. George Floyd was just trying to pay a cashier, and still he died. POC and their allies try to peacefully protest by marching in the streets or taking a knee at a football game, and still white people condemn and criticize. Still the police shoot.
After much criticism, Brees did attempt an apology on Instagram, where he posted a hilariously corny stock photo of a Black and white hand clasped together. His caption, though possibly well-intentioned, made it even clearer that his understanding of the movement for Black lives is thoroughly lacking.
Highlights of the "apology" include his immediate attempt to exonerate himself from culpability, claiming that his words were misconstrued, saying of his previous statement: "Those words have become divisive and hurtful and have misled people into believing that somehow I am an enemy. This could not be further from the truth, and is not an accurate reflection of my heart or my character." Unfortunately, Drew, white people like you are the "enemy," as you put it, because by default you are at the very least part of the problem. No one is accusing you of being an overt racist, Drew; no one thinks you actively and consciously detest Black people. But your lack of empathy, your apathy, and your unwillingness to unlearn your own biases are precisely what has persisted in the hearts and minds of well-meaning white Americans for centuries.
Next, you say, "I recognize that I am part of the solution and can be a leader for the Black community in this movement." No, Drew. Just no. Black people don't need white people's savior complexes to interfere in their organizing; what they need is for us to shut up and listen. What they need is for us to get our knees off of their necks.
Finally, you say, "I have ALWAYS been an ally, never an enemy." This, Drew, is suspiciously similar to saying, "But I'm one of the good whites!" The fact of the matter is that feeling the need to prove your allyship is not about helping a movement; it's about feeding your own ego. Not only that, but your emphasis on "ALWAYS" does a pretty good job of making it clear that you don't think you have a racist bone in your body and that you have taken great offense at any accusations to the contrary. I have some news for you, Drew: Every white person is racist. Sure, the levels vary, and while you may not be actively and consciously discriminating against POC, you have been brought up in a racist system, and your implicit biases are as strong as any other white person's. Your job now is to unlearn those biases and confront those subtle prejudices in yourself and in other white people. Maybe the first step in doing so is just shutting your f*cking mouth about kneeling at football games. Maybe you should even consider taking a knee yourself.
For other non-BIPOC trying to be better allies, check out one of these 68+ anti-racism resources.
Pop culture can be useful when connected to politics if it inspires tangible action—but the two can be like fire and gasoline when combined in the wrong way.
In a world where the Kardashians and A$AP Rocky have been name-dropped during literal impeachment hearings, it's hard not to wonder if we're living in a simulation.
Of course everything about Donald Trump's regime has had a simulacra-like quality about it, as full of glitches as any beta website. The former reality TV star has often been called the "social media president," after all, and his prolific Twitter usage grows more surreal by the hour.
We've entered an era where pop culture, social media, and politics blur into each other, tangling in every aspect of our lives. In fact, as the Kardashian, Jay Leno, and A$AP Rocky name-drops reveal, the ties between figures in pop culture and politicians have never been stronger and more influential, able to influence actual policy and political decisions.
Bernie Sanders and Ariana Grande Unite
At the same time Trump is discussing the Kardashians in one of the most high-profile hearings of all time, one of Trump's most formidable opponents is making his own ties to certain pop culture deities. Yesterday, Bernie Sanders was photographed beaming with Ariana Grande, and Grande took to Instagram to voice her support. "MY GUY. thank you Senator Sanders for coming to my show, making my whole night and for all that you stand for !" She wrote on Twitter. "@headcountorg and i are doing our best to make you proud. we've already registered 20k+ young voters at my shows alone. also i will never smile this hard again promise."
Sanders responded, "I want to thank @ArianaGrande for not only being a wonderful entertainer, but also for being such an outstanding advocate for social justice. We must all be prepared – like Ariana has shown – to fight for everyone who is struggling. It was great to meet her in Atlanta last night."
The senator has shown abnormal acumen in terms of using pop culture to his advantage, which can't entirely be said of his primary challengers. Previously, he's aligned himself with Cardi B, Susan Sarandon, and the Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar. While Hillary Clinton garnered the support of thousands of A-list celebrities to no avail and put on a show of performative allyship that wound up looking like loyalty to Hollywood elites, Sanders' choice of allies feels more purposeful and genuine.
Bernie x Cardi B www.youtube.com
Then again, in the eeriest way, the same might be said of Donald Trump. His clear allegiance to Kim Kardashian and Kanye West—both figures who provoke immense ire and loathing among the masses and who, like the worst of car crashes, are incredibly difficult to look away from—aligns well with Trump's general distaste for authority and reason.
We have good reason to question celebrity alliances, as they do seem like excellent marketing for both sides. Celebrities can benefit from appearing more politically engaged through alliances to politicians, and, of course, the latter can reap the adoration of massive fanbases through a few deep connections. In some ways, celebrities and politicians seem united by the sheer amount of money and power they both amass and use to run their platforms.
But there's a long tradition of art blending with political ideology and vice versa. After all, what are politicians and performers, if not master storytellers, capable of rallying hundreds of thousands of people? When has anything been separate from politics?
Political Art vs. Pop Culture Politics
Art has always been political, used as a way of disseminating ideas and ideologies. Pop culture, in particular, is a broad mode of communication between the masses and collective values and ideas. "'Pop-culture' does not belong to just the elites and it is not officially or ideologically acknowledged as the dominant culture any level," writes Ayush Banerjee, "yet its discourse has enormous significance in the formation of public attitudes and values, as well as a profound impact on both domestic and international affairs."
Politics has also always been a theatrical game, and pop culture icons have long endorsed candidates. John F. Kennedy had Frank Sinatra sing "High Hopes" during the 1960s. Nixon famously met Elvis; and then there was Ronald Reagan, who, like Trump, made his way from Hollywood to the Oval Office.
President And King TIME.com
But in a time when silence is widely equated to taking the position of the antagonist, there's never been a time when it's been so imperative for artists to develop political alliances, and vice versa. Similarly, politicians must rely on social media and its language to channel their campaigns, as being out-of-touch with the online world can tank you as quickly as a meme can go viral.
Are celebrity relationships influential and beneficial? "If a celebrity endorsement just benefits a politician looking to boost their profile and prove their cool, then it's a lame effort to manipulate fans with short attention spans," writes John Avlon on CNN. "But if Poliwood draws sustained attention to a real public policy problem, it can serve as a gateway to civic engagement and spur political action."
Overall, the general consensus seems to be that pop culture can be useful when connected to politics if it's linked to tangible action—but the two can be like fire and gasoline when combined in the wrong way. "Politicians are not celebrities; they do not deserve fawning worship," writes Mark E. Anderson. "They are public servants, who can and should be scrutinized, and must be held accountable for their actions."
Arguably, with the rise of #MeToo and cancel culture, celebrities are being held to higher standards than ever before (which isn't saying too much, but still). Perhaps the intermixing of politics and pop culture doesn't mean that the simulation is breaking. Maybe the walls between the worlds are just falling down.
In some cases, this intermixing of pop culture and politics leads to the kind of apocalyptic cognitive dissonance that's plagued the entire Trump impeachment hearing circus. On the other hand, seeing Ariana Grande and Bernie Sanders beam together—both so full of hope for a better world—feels like the beginning of something, and God knows we all need something to get us through the next 18 months.
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