STEUBENVILLE - From tense moments with local law enforcement to emotional testimonials by women who said they'd been the victims of sexual assault, Saturday's Occupy Steubenville rally centered around the Jefferson County Courthouse was a series of dramatic moments, all covered by local and national media.
The second rally to protest that more individuals haven't been charged with the alleged rape of an underage girl and organized by the Internet hactivist group Anonymous drew an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 people - significantly more than a rally held Dec. 29, which drew an estimated 300 to 400 people.
This weekend's rally came in the wake of a video that surfaced on YouTube.com Wednesday morning that quickly went viral on social media sites as well as reaching an exponential tipping point, drawing in national media sources. Some are saying the video is tied to the upcoming trial of Trent Mays, 16, of Bloomingdale and Malik Richmond, 16, of Steubenville, who have been charged with the rape of a 16-year-old girl. Mays also has been charged with the illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material. Their attorneys have denied the charges in court.
Protesters gathered in front of the Jefferson County Courthouse in Steubenville as part of Saturday’s rally. (Special to the Salem News/Michael D. McElwain)
The crime was alleged to have occurred Aug. 11-12. The trial of the Steubenville High School student-athletes is set to begin Feb. 13 before visiting Judge Tom Lipps.
The 12-and-one-half minute video, presumably shot during the night of the alleged incident, shows a former Steubenville High School student-athlete and others crudely joking about what some contend is the alleged rape. No information on how the video surfaced, the time frame or where it was filmed is known.
Local law enforcement officials have said they were aware of the video and of other possible evidence taken from social media sources. However, all evidence has since been turned over to the Ohio attorney general's office and assigned to two special prosecutors.
The video quickly went viral on social media sites, attracting the attention of national and regional media, including the New York Times, CNN, the webzine Huffington Post, NBC, ABC and several other others. With good weather and the national spotlight on the case, organizers had expected the rally would draw a significant crowd.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer picked the story as one of the top 10 news stories in Ohio during 2012. A private Website dedicated to the case, www.occupysteubenville.com, includes links with messages from Anonymous, media reports on the case, blogs, interviews with local authorities and even offers apparel for sale. Also, a petition on the White House's Website demanding additional individuals be arrested in the case had gathered more than 7,000 signatures as of Saturday morning.
Those attending held signs in support of the alleged victim, while others targeted local law enforcement officials, particularly Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla, who had made several comments in the media during the past week criticizing Anonymous for releasing the names of other local youth Anonymous asserts are involved. Dozens of signs with slogans, such as "I'm Not Anti-Big Red - I'm Anti-Sexual Assault," "Rape is Not a Laughing Matter," "Charge Them All" and "An Eye for an Eye" dotted the landscape in front of the courthouse steps. Others wore Guy Fawkes masks, including one who acted as master of ceremonies and disc jockey. Several chants were started by individuals and quickly taken up by the crowd, including "We want justice," "Rape is not a sport" and "Coach Reno has got to go," referring to Steubenville High School football Coach Reno Saccoccia.
Several in the crowd expressed anger no one else had been charged in the case, while others took the microphone to express their view not enough was being done in the case.
One woman, who identified herself as Svenka Doe and said she was a member of a cyber feminist organization Dames of Binary, said some victims of sexual assault are treated as "second-class citizens. We live in a society where the victim is treated like the (criminal.) Now we will sweep away the filth for (the alleged victim) Jane Doe. Not enough people have been charged for this crime. I am a rape survivor. How do you sleep at night?"
She also directed her animosity toward Abdalla, who would later take the microphone to defend himself. Abdalla said he supported the public's right to assemble and protest.
"It's a beautiful day for a rally," said the sheriff. "I'm sure it's going to be peaceful. What I'm upset about is (Friday) evening two individuals wearing masks were going door-to-door looking for where Coach Saccoccia lives. They had their masks on while they were doing that. It's not Halloween. No one should be doing that in a neighborhood with a mask on."
Abdalla continued to criticize Anonymous, adding, "Guilty or innocent - they are attacking everyone. When they start putting names and addresses of (minors) on the Internet - that's not right. People forget these boys are innocent until proven guilty."
Abdalla also said he believed the vast majority of those attending the rally were there for the right reason.
"These are good people," he said. "They believe in the cause. I have a problem with Anonymous."
Debbie Thompson of Steubenville said she was there to stand up for the alleged victim and to speak as a mother.
"I'm here because of my daughter, your daughter - everyone's daughters," she said. "My problem is with the other children who were there (during the alleged incident) and laughed. I don't think they have as good of morals as they should.
"I understand peer pressure," Thompson continued. "Call the school, call the police, call anyone, but don't just stand there - do something. It's not OK to just sit there and watch it. We want to raise good young men. We want to raise good young women with morals."
Becky Weaver of Toronto said others involved in the alleged incident should come forward of their own accord.
"I think anyone who was involved should come forward and admit their mistake," she said. "They are young, and they were dumb. What if that were someone's sister, or their child?"
Weaver said she hoped those in charge of the case would be able to successfully prosecute those allegedly involved.
Several women stood before the crowd, said they'd been the victims of sexual assault and came forward and gave gripping and horrifying accounts of their ordeals. Some said as victims they'd approached law enforcement, only to be turned away or ignored. Many of the women broke down as they told their stories, while others told of psychological and other problems they'd faced since their ordeal. Others said they'd been the victims of sexual assault by neighbors, schoolmates and family members. Although most didn't give their names, none of them wore masks.
One father told the story of his daughter's sexual assault and the emotional fallout that followed. Other stories were followed by chants of "We've got your back" and "We are not afraid."
Men also showed their support, as Jim Lancaster of Steubenville took the microphone and took off his mask, "In support of these ladies," he said. "They weren't wearing masks when they were up here. These are our daughters. These are our wives."
Lancaster said he was the father of five children, and those attending needed to teach their children right from wrong.
"Raise your children right," he said. "We need to teach our children to be accountable. Don't let this get swept under the rug. God bless these ladies."
There were several tense moments, as some in the crowd taunted and hurled insults at Abdalla, who stood with sheriff's deputies near the courthouse steps. Others asked attention be focused on the victim and not law enforcement officials. In one dramatic moment, Abdalla hugged the masked master of ceremonies, and later during the rally was given the opportunity to speak.
"I'm not going to stand here and try to convince you I'm not the bad guy," said the sheriff. "You've already made up your minds about that."
Abdalla defended his record concerning sexual assault in Jefferson County, adding he'd arrested more than 200 individuals who were found guilty of sex crimes since being elected sheriff in 1985. He complimented the bravery of the women who had stood and told their stories during the rally.
"When I came into this office I made a commitment to go after those who harmed or molested children," he said. "Not once was (a sexual crime committed) by someone (the victim) didn't know. The most difficult thing for me to do is listen to a 3- or 4-year-old tell you what they went through. It's like a dagger in the heart."
Abdalla also said he had seen the most recent YouTube video of the former Steubenville High School student-athlete for the first time three days ago, but that prosecutors had been aware of the video earlier. He also said the while the video was "disgusting, nauseating and revolting," it wasn't taken at the scene of the alleged rape. He also said while what the individual said was offensive, it had little to do with the case.
"You can't prosecute being stupid," he said.
Before the rally, Steubenville City Manager Cathy Davison and other local officials held a press conference to announce the launch of SteubenvilleFacts.org, a Website designed to respond to rumors with facts regarding the investigation into the alleged rape. Joining her at City Hall were 4th Ward Councilwoman Angela Suggs; Jodi Scheetz, director of A.L.I.V.E., which provides shelter to women and children who have been displaced due to domestic violence; and Police Chief Bill McCafferty.
(Miller can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)