On November 28, 1987, a 15-year-old black girl named Tawana Brawley was found lying inside a trash bag outside an apartment building located in Wappingers Falls, New York. She was covered in feces and racial insults had been scrawled on her body. When questioned by police she claimed that a group of white men, including police officers, had raped and beaten her. The black community rallied around her, and a prominent black leader, the Reverend Al Sharpton, appointed himself her spokesman. Support for Brawley reached its peak on June 15, 1988 when her advisers held a meeting at the Bethany Baptist Church in Brooklyn that was broadcast to an audience of ten million viewers.
However, the material evidence did not back up Brawley’s claims. Her body displayed no signs of rape or assault. She was not frostbitten, even though she had supposedly been kept naked in the freezing woods for days. The feces on her body turned out to be from a neighbor’s dog, and even more damningly, a local resident of the apartment community where she was found claimed to have seen her climb into the trashbag alone and lie down of her own accord.
In October 1988 a grand jury issued a report following a seven-month investigation. It concluded that Brawley’s claims were a hoax. Many speculated that Brawley had made up a wild story in order to avoid punishment at the hand of her stepfather for having run away from home for three days. But Brawley herself insisted that she was telling the truth, a stance which she has maintained to this day. More than anything else, the episode and its bitter aftermath displayed the deep racial divisions that still haunted American society.
Links and References
- McFadden, Robert D., ed. Outrage: The Story Behind the Tawana Brawley Hoax. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1990.
- Taibbi, Jike, and Anna Sims Phillips. Unholy Alliances: Working the Tawana Brawley Story. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1989.