Our responses to Kobe Bryant’s death revealed our shortcomings and our collective failure to hold space and care for one another.
TW: This article mentions sexual assault
By Nylah Burton
Alyssa Altobelli. John Altobelli. Keri Altobelli. Gianna Bryant. Kobe Bryant. Payton Chester. Sarah Chester. Christina Mauser. Ara Zobayan.
These are the nine people who were tragically killed in a Calabasas helicopter crash on January 26th, en route to a tournament at the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks.
Upon hearing the news of the death of 41-year old basketball legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year old daughter Gianna, the world was trapped in stunned grief. Spread by disbelieving and mourning fans, one of top trending phrases on Twitter that day was “Please God.”
Immediately after the news of the crash, another topic began trending as well: Bryant’s 2003 charge of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman.
This case was highly publicized, so hearing of Bryant’s death ignited complicated and sometimes conflicting emotions in sexual assault survivors, including myself.
Some felt confused and bewildered, caught between grief and shock. Some felt hurt or angered by seeing so many people praising Bryant; not only his skill in basketball but also their belief that Bryant was a good person — an exceptional father to four daughters, a devoted husband to his wife Vanessa, and a champion of women’s sports.
Those who pointed out Bryant’s alleged violent assault of the survivor — I won’t go into the details of the damage done to the victim’s body, but it is quite graphic — were harassed or threatened with violence online. Seemingly as a response to this harassment, 32-year old actor Evan Rachel Wood tweeted that she was “heartbroken for his family,” while also pointing out that Bryant “was a sports hero. He was also a rapist. And all of these truths can exist simultaneously.”
Wood faced an incredible amount of backlash for this tweet, even after stating “Beloveds, this was not a condemnation or a celebration. It was a reminder that everyone will have different feelings and there is room for us all to grieve together instead of fighting.”
The arguments against survivors who spoke about Kobe’s past range from “Minutes after his death? That’s not the right time to speak about this,” to “Kobe was a complicated figure, his story deserves nuance,” and the less salient criticism of “How fucking dare you?”
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The first two arguments have merit. It was jarring and upsetting for me to see journalist and sexual assault survivor Xeni Jardin tweet, ”Fuck Kobe Bryant I’m glad that rapist is dead. Won’t rape anyone anymore,” right after nine people died a horrifying violent death, including three children. However, in this same tweet, Jardin disclosed that the praise of Bryant was bringing up traumatic memories of the person who assaulted her.
I understand that. When survivors are assaulted by powerful and beloved men, their pain is often rendered insignificant in death as well as in life. We have to claw our way for recognition to be given, beg for our pain to be seen, plead for space to be held. Because of this for many sexual assault survivors, that day we saw a reflection of ourselves in the survivor. We saw how many of us would be treated if we were in the same situation, and it felt infuriating.
But it’s wrong to assume that survivors who tweeted out harsh statements are lacking in empathy or morality. Being a survivor is complicated, and it comes with unbelievable trauma. Survivors may express these feelings in ways others don’t understand, but I believe we have a duty to listen, not to condemn.
And when trauma occurs, social media allows us to process every emotion trauma in real-time. Social media isn’t designed to wait for anyone, but when it comes to abusers, the “right time” for survivors to speak up rarely seems to come.
Furthermore, it’s true that multiple layers of nuance are needed when discussing Bryant and the rape case. But Wood, whose statement was kind and teeming with nuance, was harassed to the point where she felt it necessary to make her social media private. Calls for nuance are so often demands for silence.
As far as we know, Kobe only raped one woman, and she is the person we must center when discussing the assault. Ideally, we would take her lead, listen to her, and follow her wishes. But how do we advocate for a survivor when it isn’t safe for her to speak her truth? How do we hold space for her when she can’t discuss her feelings? I don’t pretend to know all the answers, but I know that we cannot absolve him of rape on her behalf. Atonement is a matter between perpetrator and survivor. As witnesses, our job is to support those directly impacted.
Because of our moral responsibility to center those directly impacted, we must remember that while feeling “glad” that Bryant is dead may be a valid emotion for survivors, expressing that publicly is counterproductive and disrespectful in this case.
Bryant was not the only one killed in this crash; eight other people lost their lives and three of them were children. Being glad that Bryant is dead implies — whether the implication is intended or not — that we are also glad that those other people are dead, and there is no excuse for that.
I weep for Bryant and his daughter. I weep for their family. I weep for all the people who died on that helicopter, and their families. Whenever I imagine the sheer terror they must have felt, to be in a helicopter that’s dropping 2,000 feet a minute, I feel physical pain. I can’t imagine how it feels to plummet into the earth while looking at my baby daughter’s eyes, maybe trying desperately to reach her, to hold her, to protect her — all while knowing I am powerless to prevent both our bodies from going up in flames. I will never be able to celebrate this.
There are also so many other victims of this crash — including Gianna Bryant — who don’t deserve to have their legacy obscured by the public’s reaction to Bryant, whether they are glorifying him for his stardom or condemning him for his violence. Trauma of losing Bryant seems to have overshadowed all else.
There was also a failure on the media’s part to adequately hold space for the trauma of Bryant’s death, and to handle this case with care and compassion. The news of Bryant’s death was reportedly released by TMZ before the police notified any of the families, which is wholly disgusting. And Felicia Sonmez, a political reporter at the Washington Post, was initially suspended (the suspension was later reversed) for tweeting a link discussing the 2003 charges against Bryant minutes after his death was announced. The article was not written by Sonmez, nor did she provide any commentary besides the headline and the link.
Sonmez should have never been suspended, and she certainly never should have been harassed. And her case should prompt us all to consider questions of censorship and the punishment of survivors who speak out about assault. Still, I don’t agree with her decision to just drop a link like that, right after the death of nine people. If we writers and journalists are going to have these discussions, let us have them carefully, respectfully, thoroughly, and honorably — not with snark, glee, or ambiguity.
Grief is messy, and public grief seems to bring out the very worst in us. Bryant’s death is no exception. It revealed the fault lines in how we treat each other, how we see our professional responsibilities, how we speak about Black men, how we fail to support survivors, how we treat women, how we disregard children, and how we participate in the violent spectacle of fame.
Our society could learn a lot from this. But most likely, those potential lessons will be forgotten, fading into the background as we gloss over both Bryant’s violent and complicated legacy, and what our response to his death revealed about our shortcomings and our collective failure to hold space and care for one another.
Nylah Burton is a DC-based writer with bylines in New York Magazine, ESSENCE, Bustle, and The Nation. You can follow her on Twitter, at @yumcoconutmilk.