November marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the Tawana Brawley affair--an incident that inflamed racial relations in New York and across the country after a teenage girl alleged that she had been sexually assaulted and abused by police. The ensuing media circus thrust Rev. Al Sharpton into the limelight and established his bona fides as a community spokesman. It also tarnished the reputations of the people she accused of raping her and, later on, Brawley's own reputation after her truthfulness was called into question.
Brawley was found near an apartment where she once lived in the town of Wappingers Falls, NY, about 70 miles north of NYC. She was discovered partially nude, smeared with feces, and had racial epithets scrawled on her body. Brawley claimed that she had been abducted by a group of white men who raped her repeatedly and that at least one of them identified himself as a police officer. District Attorney Steven Pagones was eventually accused as one of her assailants. Police investigated the incident, but no charges were ever filed when conflicting statements and physical evidence seemed to contradict Brawley's account of her ordeal. (Brawley has since insisted that she is not a liar and was telling the truth.)
The Brawley affair became a flashpoint in an era of inflamed racial tension. The girl herself became a public figure, supported by celebrities like Bill Cosby and appearing in a video by the rap group Public Enemy. The accusation of sexual violence by white cops against a black woman further infuriated people already enraged by the 1983 death of Michael Stewart, a graffiti artist who died after being put in a chokehold by police in NYC. Both events were alluded to in Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing," with a major character dying the same way as Stewart and one scene showing graffiti that reads "Tawana Told The Truth!"
And now, two decades later, Tawana Brawley is a graduate of Howard University and lives in rural Virginia. Her parents still maintain that she was gang-raped by a group of white men. They spoke to the Daily News about what they consider a serious miscarriage of justice when the accused crimes against her are described as a hoax. Sharpton has transformed himself into a major player on the national stage of the Democratic Party and continues to advocate on behalf of victims of racial injustice, with the Brawley incident sometimes haunting him. Pagones successfully sued Sharpton and others for defamation, winning a judgment of $345,000 (Sharpton's share was paid for by Johnnie Cochran, among others).