When it comes to race relations in today’s society, it is obvious that we are a nation that is divided. While things have improved than they were around five decades ago, it is apparent that relations between African-Americans and white people still need work if we are truly to become a unified America. Yet, the role that the media plays in this concept can be traced back decades ago during their reporting of pivotal race cases. One such case involves an African-American by the name of Tawana Brawley, whose case on November 28th, 1987 brought to center how the media can help or harm the perception of how one race may view another.
In Wappingers Falls, New York outside the Pavilion Condominiums, a woman by the name of Tawana Brawley is discovered wrapped in garbage bags and covered with feces. She looked to have endured a severe traumatic event as there was a racial slur could be seen on her body, some pieces of her hair were cut off and her pants appeared somewhat burned. She would explain to authorities that she was held without her permission for four days as well as being raped repeatedly by a group of white men; Tawana claimed that one of the men had a police badge.
Tawana’s case was labeled as a “cause célèbre” due to community activist Al Sharpton, controversial attorney C. Vernon Mason and Alton Maddox announced their support for her as well as implying in the investigation that there was a cover-up going on. Sadly, what followed was that Tawana’s account of what happened was not as accurate as she claimed.
While Brawley declared she was held captive against her will for four days, during that period of time no one had notified police that the teenager was missing. Actually, there was a high suspicion that she fabricated what had happened to her since there was a lack of concrete evidence to support her accusations. In fact, the evidence gathered was showing the opposite as fiber evidence determined that most likely Tawana had written the racial slurs herself and according to some witness statements, during the time she claimed to be missing Brawley was seen attending a party. What followed was unfounded and wild accusations made by Brawley’s advisers as criticism increased about her story which included that Special Prosecutor Robert Abrams was viewing the photos submitted as evidence and masturbating while accusing Assistant District Attorney Stephen Pagones was a participant of the supposed rape.
Tawana and her family’s refusal to cooperate or testify during the investigation only added to the ongoing controversy as the incident morphed into a media circus. While the family had no problem with accepting financial donations, the final outcome was the entire matter was dismissed by a Grand Jury in October of 1998. However, the repercussions of the case resulted in the New York State Bar filed disciplinary proceedings against Attorneys Maddox and Mason for their behavior during the investigation while a libel suit was filed by Pagones against Sharpton, Mason and Maddox; he would in 1998 win his lawsuit.