It should come as little — or no — surprise that embattled Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-MI) announced his retirement Tuesday in the wake of allegations made by several of his female staffers that he sexually harassed or made unwanted advances toward them. It was the right thing for him to do.
Conyers leaves office with an outsized and historic legislative record. But for all of Conyers’ good deeds — and there were many accomplishments during his half century of service in Congress, including his founding the Congressional Black Caucus and spearheading the establishment of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday — none of it makes the abuse of power tolerable.
Appearing on “The Mildred Gaddis Show,” a Detroit-area radio program, Conyers said he would retire immediately, but continued to profess his innocence and predicted “this too shall pass.” Understandably proud of his tenure in Congress, Conyers told Gaddis that his legacy and reputation “can’t be compromised or diminished in any way” by the allegations hurled at him by his former staffers.
History will be the judge of that. At present, however, he leaves Capitol Hill under a cloud that casts a shadow over his reputation, tarnishing his role as a progressive advocate for civil and human rights.
He’s not alone. For months, since media accounts of sexual harassment and assault charges surfaced against movie titan Harvey Weinstein, a flood of disturbing allegations have brought shame to previously revered celebrities and political leaders. That list includes Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), who despite apologizing for a string of four women who have accused him of nonconsensual kissing, groping, and pinching, remains in the Senate. It also includes Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who despite very detailed allegations of pedophilia, has the backing of the entire GOP establishment from the White House down.
And, speaking of the White House, its current occupant isn’t unscathed either. As a candidate, Donald Trump paid no price for candidly speaking into a hot microphone that he grabbed women by the genitals for his own sexual gratification.
We are all hurt by the news of fallen heroes. The mounting evidence stacked against Conyers is likely painful for him and those who admired him. In Conyers’ case, according to reports in the Detroit News, it sent him to the hospital after experiencing “lightheadedness and shortness of breath” while he was under “tremendous stress.”
Some of Conyers’ supporters say a double standard is impossible to ignore. Amid calls last week for Conyers’ resignation, including one by Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, some black legislators and activists questioned why similar demands hadn’t been placed on Franken. “At the end of the day, Nancy Pelosi is going to have to explain what is the discernible difference between Al Franken and John Conyers,” Arnold Reed, Conyers’ lawyer, told reporters after the House Minority Leader said Conyers should resign.
CBC Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-La.) said in a Politico interview that Conyers was being singled out and treated more harshly than others in Washington. “I think the chorus of people that are calling for John to resign is noticeably larger than everyone else,” he said.
Why the uneven response to men accused of committing crimes against women, many of whom continue to hold positions of power and influence in society? Of course, politics is at the root of the shifting allegiance. Some of the same people who are ride-or-die supporters of Conyers (or Franken) will still demand that Moore in Alabama or Trump in the White House should be held accountable for their alleged improprieties, and vice versa.
But sexual harassment and abuse must not be viewed through partisan lens. No man should be allowed a free pass to sexually abuse women. Full stop.
That’s why the price to be paid for an abuse of power must be the shame and ignobility that comes from having one’s sordid deeds exposed to disinfecting sunlight and condemned as full-throatedly as possible. Indeed, rather than offering apologies or statements of regret, crafted by public relations professionals, all of these high-profile men should resign from any and all positions of power or prestige. If they don’t, then responsible supervisors — bosses or voters — should see to it that they are fired.
As painful as it might be to witness and acknowledge, the deplorable actions of men — even men whose work and legacy you admire — can no longer be ignored, hidden, or tolerated. How is that some people who are accused of these crimes seemingly proceed blithely, without serious repercussions?
And whatever pain Conyers and his admirers may feel, his alleged victims are feeling that much more pain; it’s this pain that doesn’t get emphasized enough in these conversations.
There’s plenty of work remaining to be done in this sphere. Trump is still in the White House. Moore may win a seat in the Senate — joining Franken, who shows no signs of leaving the chamber. Surely, as some female members of Congress have hinted, more legislators or federal officials will have their names called, too.
But Conyers’ downfall suggests our nation and society is capable on some level of recognizing the abuses of the past and compelling the changes needed for a better future.
The au courant exposure of male privilege is manifest only because it’s a new day. Now, at long last, women are more empowered to tell their agonizing stories. Better yet, they’re more likely to be believed.