As President Donald Trump touched down Tuesday at Memphis International Airport to lead a rally in nearby Southaven, Mississippi, I was also crossing into Mississippi to attend a political event of a different kind. I was driving two hours to Cleveland, Mississippi, to speak on a panel with former Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, currently running for US Senate, on progressive, intergenerational leadership.
While we were in deep conversation about the continued movement for racial justice in the South, Trump was roughly 120 miles north of us, mocking Professor Christine Blasey Ford -- and every person in America who has been a victim of sexual assault.
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It was dark as I drove home to Memphis and heard video of Trump's shocking retelling of Ford's testimony last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, mimicking her in a belittling tone and accusing her of leaving Supreme Court nominee Judge Kavanaugh's life in "tatters" and his family's life "shattered." The darkness was fitting as I watched the elected leader of our nation take an even darker turn.
Trump's taunts of Professor Ford, and the cheers they elicited in the arena where the rally was held, set a precedent that further emboldens rape culture in our country. It was clear that Trump's only concern is for the life of the man accused by more than one woman of sexual assault or misconduct and not for the women who have lived with the trauma of being assaulted. Judge Kavanaugh has denied the allegations against him. As I drove, I could only think of the young women and the children who would hear the President's words and how their own voices would be muted by his lack of empathy and the bravado with which he sought to disempower his own accusers and those of Kavanaugh.
That our President said and did these things is a national disgrace, but that he did so in Mississippi and just outside Memphis is especially appalling. According to data from the US Department of Health and Human Services, 14% of high school girls in Mississippi reported being forced to have sex against their will, higher than reported data nationally. Sunflower County, near where I was when Donald Trump was speaking, is part of the Mississippi Delta, the poorest part of the state. If a young girl in Sunflower County is sexually assaulted, her options for mental health care and reproductive health care are severely limited.
If that same girl's attacker impregnates her and she wants to terminate that pregnancy, she would have to find the resources to travel to the one abortion provider in the entire state in Jackson, the state capital. Southaven, where Trump spoke Tuesday night, is a more affluent part of the state, nearly 200 miles away, but there are still limited services for reproductive health care and sexual trauma recovery there, as well. By treating sexual assault survivors like fodder for a late-night TV monologue, Trump is blowing out a light of hope for many in a state where recovery options are far too few.
As I crossed the state line back into Memphis, I was still reeling, thinking of the many friends I have in Memphis who have bravely shared their stories of sexual assault in light of #MeToo. I reached out to one of them to see how Trump's words impacted her. "Hearing someone, who supposedly represents this country, mock the survivor of sexual assault makes my heart hurt," Angela Russell, a local business owner, told me. "It hurts for that woman, for every woman who has survived sexual assault, myself included. This is why women stay quiet."
She praised Professor Ford as "incredibly courageous for putting herself in the public eye in order to shed light on Kavanaugh's brutality and misogyny." But Ford is not the only one to brave public scrutiny. Earlier this year, Russell -- like Ford, who had to leave her home -- received threats when she publicly accused an abuser. Her business, in a city that during the past decade has led the nation's largest cities in female-owned business growth, was boycotted. In this context, Trump's words went further than impugning Ford's character. He attacked his own accusers of assault and misconduct. He attacked Russell. He attacked me and every other person in this country who has had to survive the trauma of being assaulted sexually.
In short, Donald Trump abused his power Tuesday night in my hometown. He engaged in the most powerful type of bullying and victim blaming and shaming we have seen as a country. To add further weight to the impact of his actions, he did this in the heart of the South, where women's ownership of their bodies slips swiftly through their fingers. Women in Tennessee wait with bated breath for the White House's decision on a waiver from the state legislature that would defund Planned Parenthood in our state. Rural hospitals are closing at rapid rates, leaving women without health care options. Some 12,000 rape kits sat untested for years, and the victims are found to have no standing. And the President stands in the midst of it all and laughs.
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