Zerlina Maxwell talks surviving sexual assault, Bill Cosby and the Black community’s #MeToo call to action

(Courtesy Zerlina Maxwell)

Zerlina Maxwell knows why she didn’t report it.

Maxwell was just about to start her first year of law school when she says she was attacked by someone she knew. The crushing weight of fear and the pounding worry of a possible trial was a burden she couldn’t carry.  She reported the incident to the police, but ultimately decided not to press charges, vowing to move forward.

Today, Maxwell is the Senior Director of Progressive Programming for SiriusXM and a regular MSNBC political analyst, who says becoming a rape survivor changed her life forever.

As the country grapples with the meaning of #MeToo and declares #TimesUp for abusers, all while battling over the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh (now accused by three woman of sexual assault), Maxwell says we’re in a key moment to reflect.

We asked Maxwell about her #MeToo story, the recent sentencing of Bill Cosby and how the Black community can have healing and productive conversations around ending sexual assault once and for all.

TheGrio: What was your reaction to the Cosby sentencing? Did you think it was harsh enough, not enough? 

Zerlina Maxwell:  I have my own issues with jail as an institution and an idea. But if jail exist, rapists and people who commit first-degree murder, I believe that they should be there. And so no, I’m not in any way feeling like this is unfair in any way, in fact, I wish he could get triple the time.

People don’t, if ever, question the victims of the crimes and ask them what they were doing to bring the crime onto themselves. You know, how did you make yourself a victim? You know, nobody says to somebody who mugged, “It’s your fault because you had belongings.” 

I think part of the way we changed the culture is to change the laws as well. So one of the first things that Gloria Allred, did post-Bill Cosby news, not today’s news, but earlier on was work in the state of California to get rid of the statute of limitations. Part of the reason why Bill Cosby is only going to jail for three to 10 years for raping 60 people (that we know about) is because every single other claim of sexual assault against him was barred by the statute of limitations.

I am someone who believes that there should not be a statute of limitations for sexual assault because they fully understand that it takes women time to come forward with allegations and the law should reflect that. 

TheGrio: When Bill Cosby was accused of these crimes, there were a lot of people who still defended him. Where do you think we stand in terms of the black community’s growth?

Zerlina Maxwell: We have a lot of work to do on that front. You saw his two publicists come out and attack or read the letter from his wife, attacking the case. I always question how much money people are getting paid, because I can’t imagine the amount of money exists for me to have just no integrity whatsoever.

I think the reason why Cosby got black spokespeople is because he understands that there are a lot of folks in the black community. We’re not a monolith, but one of the things that does come up time and again is that black women are out here at every protest for Black Lives Matter.

We have a lot of work to do in terms of the gender dynamics between black men and black women. A lot of Black men were skeptical of the Bill Cosby allegations until there were 60 people and there are probably still some that don’t believe.

They think it’s some sort of conspiracy because a lot of the victims are white women, but they’re also dismissing Lili Bernard and the Black women who are among the Bill Cosby victims. So, we have a lot of work to do.

There are a lot of Black men that get it. I just would like a lot of the other Black men who do not get it, to listen to their sisters, to listen to their wives and other Black women in their lives. So, that they can become more educated about the issue because it, most of their positioning is born out of ignorance. 

“they think it’s some sort of conspiracy because a lot of the victims are white women, but they’re also dismissing LilI Bernard and the black women who are among the Bill cosby victims.

So we have a lot of work to do.”

– Zerlina Maxwell

TheGrio: I saw this tweet where you talked about if the person who assaulted you ever was running for office or going to be public, you would out them. Can you talk about the emotion behind that in the also your thinking behind that?

Zerlina Maxwell: Well, one of the things that’s always bothered me in my own personal situation is that, I feel like my rapist gets to walk around wearing a mask. Because he’s never been held accountable by society in any way, shape or form for committing a violent crime and part of that was up to me, right now in my own life.

I was starting law school. I was like ‘I can’t do a trial, I have to go to 1L classes.’ So for me it was a personal decision but also one that I regret because he was never held accountable.  Which means that he can go in his life and pretend like he’s a law-abiding citizen who never committed a violent crime.

Additionally, he could be alone with another woman. I mean God forbid, that’s what keeps me up, is like the idea that he could do it to someone else and I didn’t, you know, hold them accountable to the fullest extent of my capacity to prohibit that from happening.

If you found out that the person who violently assaulted you, in your past, your dark secret… You saw him on television one day and he was getting nominated to a permanent position on the most important court in the world. Then I would tell someone, I totally understand that impulse.

It’s not to say that I am going to do it, I don’t want to, you know, get sued or something even though the defense for defamation would be the truth. That would be a difficult case to win, I at least know that.

It’s important for us to put sunlight on bad behavior because people are doing, they’re hurting people and they’re just getting away with it. Like [Amber Guyger] you can kill someone in their own apartment and keep your job for weeks. Nobody really feels like that’s a big deal. Think about inherently how you internalize that as the value of your life. And that’s what we’re telling young women.

‘Your lives are literally less valuable than a man’s promotion.’

I think in Dr. Ford‘s case, I can relate to that drive of making part of your life’s work, combating a wrong that you feel like you can help fix… I’m going to tell people Dr. Ford’s right. She should have told us, you know. I mean if she hadn’t come out, none of these other women that would have come out and we don’t even know what the third allegation is. Only time will tell what’s going to happen before Thursday. But we’re going to learn a lot between now and then.

TheGrio: There are people who look at you, Symone Sanders, Charles Blow, Deray Mckesson, and they say, wow, “They’re so strong, they’re smart, they’re established.” How were they able to just move forward given what happened to them?

Zerlina Maxwell: You don’t start out in the strong place. The truth of the matter is, is that I was sexually assaulted three weeks before my first day of my first year of law school. And because I was like, well, ‘I have to go take contracts. I can’t do a trial.’ I decided not to press charges and that was a really big mistake on my part.

I still went to that first year of law school, but I failed two classes and didn’t make it to the second year. I took a year off, go work for Barack Obama and then restarted.. And I did it again. I did my first year, two times.

I’ve written, and probably talked about this before, but never in an official interview. I’m strong now, but that’s because I broke before. I had to put myself back together again and now the new version of me as strong.

Part of the struggle I think for me personally was when I had the realization that I was never going to be the same again. 

Exercise is a big thing for me. Like people laugh at me all the time because I’m always talking about like doing Shaun T’s Insanity videos. The reason I do them, in particular, is  he’s also a survivor of sexual abuse from when he was a child and exercise helped him overcome that.  I feel a kinship and connection with him personally. I need that as self-care. It feels good to be able to like be strong.

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You eventually do find your way through therapy, exercise, self-care and friendship, finding other people. I think one of the greatest things about, not just doing this work, but also just creating your own family and sense of community.

You know and find other people that you don’t have to say to them like “I’m not okay today and here’s why.” Those are, those are the main things that helped me be strong today, but I wasn’t always strong.

“there’s a history of what the country has done to our bodies, but we also had to take, I think a full accounting of what we’ve done to each other and be kinder and more loving to each other.”

TheGrio: Why is it important that we find a way to end sexual assault, particularly in the black community? Why is this something that we have to prioritize amongst the other things that we say are a priority in the community?

Zerlina Maxwell: I do think that like we have an ugly history of misogyny and sexual violence in the black community. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to a black woman that is my mother’s age or older who comes up to me, whispers, like, “I get it. Thank you for talking about this. This happened to me when I was a teenager and I’ve never told anyone ever.”

That’s somebody mother, that’s somebody’s aunt. In fact, I think there are a lot of Black men who don’t realize that every single woman they know has been sexually assaulted in some way in their life.

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When I turned 30, I looked around and I was like, wow, I don’t have any friends who are not survivors in some way… I’m fortunate enough that I’ve only been sexually assaulted once. That’s not true for a lot of women of color.

In the black community we just have to be really honest. Obviously there’s a history of what the country has done to our bodies, but we also had to take, I think a full accounting of what we’ve done to each other and be kinder and more loving to each other. Because, you know, we are all we got in a lot of ways. Black women are gonna show up for you at the next Black Lives Matter protest. So I would like to black men at the Me Too protests.

TheGrio: What is your life’s work around this issue of advocating for sexual assault survivors?

Zerlina Maxwell: I believe my life’s work is to shift the paradigm away from disbelieving victims of sexual assaults as the default position. I want to move towards a place where we believe the women or men who come forward with their stories of sexual assault and then we proceed to seriously investigate whether or not a crime has been committed.

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I think [this is part of ] what the #MeToo conversation did. I believe Bill Cosby did a lot to upend that dynamic, and then also Donald Trump, because you can’t say that the women who are coming forward post-Access Hollywood are just completely making it up.

We have come a long way from a day where historically we attacked victims, we blamed victims, we asked what they were wearing, we asked if they were drinking and so we’re in a different place.

I mean, Republicans are still in that old place, but most of us have shifted away from that and we’re in a better place. We’re not quite there yet, but it’s a lot better than it used to be.

(Courtesy Zerlina Maxwell)

Editor’s Note: This interview has been shortened and edited for length and clarity.