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Missing White Woman Syndrome: Media Obsess Over Some Cases as Black, Brown & Indigenous Women Ignored

StorySeptember 30, 2021
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Wall-to-wall coverage of the case of Gabby Petito — a 22-year-old white woman and blogger who went missing while traveling with her fiancé Brian Laundrie and whose remains were found in a national park in Wyoming — has renewed attention on what some call “missing white woman syndrome,” the media’s inordinate focus on white female victims and the disparity in coverage for women of color. We host a roundtable discussion with Amara Cofer, host and executive producer of the podcast “Black Girl Gone”; Mary Kathryn Nagle, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and lawyer focused on tribal sovereignty; and Melissa Jeltsen, a freelance reporter who covers violence against women. “There is an underrepresentation of Black women, of women of color in these stories,” says Cofer.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

For the past two weeks, much of the media coverage in the United States has offered wall-to-wall coverage of the case of Gabby Petito. She’s a 22-year-old young white woman who went missing while she was traveling across the country with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, documenting their trip on YouTube — she has been. Two weeks before she disappeared, her partner was seen hitting her during — on the street in Moab, Utah. This is a clip from a 911 call of someone who saw this happen.

CALLER: Hi. I’m calling — I’m right on the corner of Main Street by Moonflower. And we’re driving by, and I’d like to report a domestic dispute. Florida, with a white van — Florida license plate, white van. Gentleman —

911 DISPATCHER: Where is it at?

CALLER: — is about five, six years — they just drove off. They’re going down Main Street. They made a right onto Main Street from Moonflower.

911 DISPATCHER: And what were they doing?

CALLER: [inaudible], but — what did you say?

911 DISPATCHER: What were you doing?

CALLER: We drove by, and the gentleman was slapping the girl.

911 DISPATCHER: He was slapping her?

CALLER: Yes. And then we stopped. They ran up and down the sidewalk. He proceeded to hit her, hopped in the car, and they drove off.

911 DISPATCHER: OK. You said it’s a white van?

AMY GOODMAN: That was a 911 call to the Moab police. So, police then pulled over the couple’s van, soon after receiving that call. But they concluded that it was Petito that tried to hit Laundrie after she feared he might drive away without her. One officer said the couple appeared to be going through a mental health crisis. This is part of the police bodycam footage.

DANIEL ROBBINS: I’ve decided I am not going to cite you for domestic violence, battery, OK? It was only going to be a Class B misdemeanor; however, the domestic violence portion of it cancels it, makes life a major pain in the butt, especially — you’re 22, right?


DANIEL ROBBINS: So I’m choosing not to cite you today. … I’m not going to release you guys together. I want you guys to stay away from each other tonight, OK?

AMY GOODMAN: Now, what’s astounding about this is the police officer was not saying to Brian Laundrie, “We’re not going to charge you with domestic abuse.” He was saying it to Gabby Petito, who was crying in the backseat of the car, that he wasn’t going to charge her; instead, they should just work it out. This was in August.

Weeks later, Gabby’s family would report her missing on September 11th, 10 days after Brian Laundrie returned home to his Florida house in the van the couple had been driving in, but without Gabby, his fiancée. Her body was found on September 19th in a national park, the Grand Teton park, in Wyoming. Her death was ruled a homicide. Meanwhile, authorities are now searching for Brian Laundrie. They didn’t speak with him when he was at home with his family for many days, having come home without Gabby. He has now been named as a person of interest in the case.

Well, on Monday, Gabby Petito’s father, Joe Petito, spoke to reporters at a news conference in Long Island, in Bohemia, New York.

JOE PETITO: I don’t want to dismiss the ridiculously hard work that the FBI and law enforcement all around did, but social media has been amazing and very influential. And to be honest, it should continue for other people, too. This same type of heightened awareness should be continued for everyone. Everyone. … It’s on all of you, everyone that’s in this room, to do that. And if you don’t do that for other people that are missing, that’s a shame, because it’s not just Gabby that deserves that. So, look to yourselves on why not that’s not being done.

AMY GOODMAN: It was Gabby’s father who raised this issue of the kind of attention that’s not paid to other victims of domestic violence. Some have called the issue the “missing white woman syndrome.” This comes as about four women are killed by their partners every day in the United States. The coverage of the death of Gabby Petito has gotten enormous coverage. But what about the coverage of the missing Black women, missing Native American women, who are overwhelmingly the number of missing women and girls in this country? An estimated 64,000 Black women or girls are missing in the United States. In Wyoming alone, the state where Gabby was found murdered, at least 710 Indigenous people were reported missing in the last decade, from 2011 to 2020.

For more, we’re going to host a roundtable discussion. With us, Amara Cofer, host and executive producer of the podcast Black Girl Gone. We’re going to speak with reporter Melissa Jeltsen, who covers violence against women. And Mary Kathryn Nagle is with us, a citizen of Cherokee Nation and a partner at Pipestem & Nagle law firm, which is dedicated to the restoration of tribal sovereignty and jurisdiction.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Mary Kathryn Nagle, let’s begin with you. So, you can’t avoid this coverage. And talk about what it brings up for you.

MARY KATHRYN NAGLE: Well, you know, first and foremost, our hearts are with Gabby’s family. No one should ever have to lose a loved one in this manner, and it’s horribly tragic.

But I think what it brings up for a lot of our Native families who have lost loved ones is just the complete disparity, the obvious disparity, between how the FBI behaves when a white woman goes missing and how the FBI behaves when a Native woman goes missing. When a Native woman goes missing — and thousands do every year — the FBI does almost next to nothing. Oftentimes families are told that it’s not a crime to go missing.

The FBI oftentimes is the only law enforcement agency with jurisdiction to investigate, because — it’s complicated, but, in 1978, the Supreme Court in Oliphant eliminated tribal criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians who come onto tribal lands and commit crimes. So, in many instances, the Department of Justice has reported that the majority of violent crimes committed against Native people are committed by non-Indians. But that means, for the majority of those violent crimes committed against our Native people on tribal lands, we’re relying on the FBI to do its job. And they’re not. They’re failing us. And as a result, that is why Native women are more likely to be murdered in this country than any other segment of the American population. So, that disparity is really painful for Native people, because there is no explanation for why the FBI simply won’t do its job when our women and girls go missing or are murdered.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, Mary Kathryn Nagle, we spoke to you last about the case of Olivia Lone Bear. And I think the reason Gabby Petito’s story holds so much power is because you’re learning all the details of her life, and some people identify. If that was the model of coverage for every young person who has gone missing or was murdered, we would probably have far less of this. And, of course, particularly we don’t get this coverage with young people or older people of color. So, why don’t you tell us the story once again of Olivia Lone Bear, what happened to her, and the role of law enforcement organizations? We see how short they fell in the case of Gabby, I mean, saying they were going to charge her with domestic violence. But what about with Olivia Lone Bear and her family’s pursuit of, well, her disappearance?

MARY KATHRYN NAGLE: You know, Olivia’s case is so devastating. And I remember when I appeared on your show, you also had her brother Matthew on. And at that time, Matthew was begging the FBI to search for his sister. She went missing on the Fort Berthold Reservation, which is a tribal reservation, which means that the FBI has jurisdiction and has the responsibility to investigate homicide of Native people on that reservation. For almost an entire year, they refused to search for her body. Her brother repeatedly said, “You should look in the lakes.” Fort Berthold, because of what the Army Corps of Engineers has done in damming the Missouri River, has large bodies of water. And her brother kept saying, “Please search those bodies of water for her vehicle,” because her vehicle, her truck, was also missing.

Finally, after almost an entire year, for some reason, the federal authorities finally decided to do their job, and they did find her truck at the bottom of Lake Sakakawea. And at that time, she was seat-buckled into the passenger side of her car. And the federal authorities, who finally followed her brother’s advice and finally found her body, said, “Well, she probably committed suicide.” And her brother said, “Absolutely not. She’s a mother of small children. She would never have left those babies. And how can you explain her driving her truck into the lake if she’s seat-buckled into the passenger side?”

And, of course, part of the problem when the FBI doesn’t do its job and doesn’t investigate the murders of our Native women and girls is that by the time their bodies are recovered, there’s very little evidence left to investigate how the homicide took place. Imagine if they had pulled her body out or found her before she ended up in the lake or within a matter of days, as opposed to almost an entire year. And so, that’s really, I think — as you point out, it’s a great case, it’s a tragic case, but it shows the insane disparity between how the FBI responds to the murder of a white woman versus a Native woman.

AMY GOODMAN: The first Native American cabinet secretary in U.S. history, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who used to be congressmember from New Mexico, told the Associated Press that Gabby Petito’s case is reminder of missing Native Americans. She said, “Anytime a woman faces assault, rape, murder, kidnapping — any of those things — it’s very difficult and my heart goes out to any family who has to endure that type of pain. And so, of course, my heart goes out to the young woman who was found in Wyoming.” But “where I can make a difference in particular is in addressing the missing and murdered Indigenous peoples crisis, which has occurred since the beginning of colonization of Indigenous people on this continent for about the last 500 years and it continues,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said. You have used the example just of Wyoming, Mary Kathryn Nagle, where Gabby’s body was found, right next to the Grand Teton National Park, when it comes to missing Indigenous people.

MARY KATHRYN NAGLE: Absolutely. You know, in Montana, they have a statewide commission, and they released a report. And from 2000 to 2020, 20%, or maybe 21% — basically, one-fifth of all the homicides in the state were of Indigenous people. I can tell you that as a result of historical practices in the United States, we’re not one-fifth of the population in the United States today. And I know Native people don’t make up a fifth of the population in Wyoming. But for them to be a fifth — for us to be a fifth of the murders and homicides in that state is outrageous.

And, you know, as many others who work in this area have documented, we also have a real lack of data, because for a lot of our Native women and families, there’s simply no point in reporting it. Federal law enforcement, who has jurisdiction, is not going to do anything. Or, unfortunately, in many instances, too, we’ve seen corrupt BIA law officers actually harass or sexually assault our Native women. There’s a case in the Montana Supreme Court about that right now, where a BIA officer assaulted a Native woman. And so, we know that the data out there is actually underreported as is, and it’s a huge crisis. And, you know, I’m just so thankful that Democracy Now! is willing to create space to talk about it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Mary Kathryn Nagle, lawyer and citizen of Cherokee Nation. We’re also joined by Amara Cofer, host and executive producer of the podcast Black Girl Gone. You know, Amara, I couldn’t help but think about Simone Biles when Mary Kathryn Nagle was talking about the lack of FBI action — Simone Biles, who said she shouldn’t have even been in the last Olympics, considering how much she has suffered as a result of the sexual torture by the doctor, Larry Nassar. The FBI was onto this. The FBI refused to investigate or stop him. As a result, he abused at least a hundred more young women. This ties in. You’ve just begun a podcast called Black Girl Gone. Talk about why.

AMARA COFER: Well, thank you for having me.

So, the main reason why I started the Black Girl Gone podcast was, number one, you know, I was a fan of true crime, but, like many things in this country, there is an underrepresentation of Black women, of women of color in these stories. And what I noticed was that consumers of true crime, especially true crime podcasts, have been very intricate in solving some cases or having cases reopened or bringing attention to cold cases and missing person cases, but because the genre is dominated by stories of white people and white women, those are the cases that get the attention and get the pressure. And so, I decided, you know: What if I was able to do this but focusing on Black women and potentially bringing that attention to these cases and helping to find these missing women, helping to solve some of these cold cases, by just getting the public interested in these women’s stories?

And, you know, one of my angles was that I wanted to humanize these victims, because, like you said, one of the things is that people feel connected to the Gabby Petito case. They can see her life, they can see her pictures, and so they can see themselves in her. And so, I feel like it’s important for people to also see themselves in Black women and women of color, because we are also victims of these crimes, but we are mothers, we are sisters, we are daughters, we are college students. We’re all of these things that can be relatable to people. And so, I felt like it was really important for this podcast to be out there and to highlight these women and their stories.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us Kierra Coles’ story, Amara?

AMARA COFER: Yes. So, Kierra Coles is a young Black woman missing from Chicago, Illinois. She was — I’m sorry — she was three months pregnant at the time she went missing in February — October 2018, I’m sorry. She was a postal worker. And Kierra had a doctor’s appointment the day that she went to — the day that she went missing. She was supposed to go to the — she had an ultrasound appointment. She went. Her family spoke to her that day. And then she called out of work the next day, and no one has seen Kierra Coles since.

There was a very popular video that was out that had what the public thought for a long time was Kierra Coles in the video. But just in February of this year, it was revealed that this entire time when we thought that was Kierra Coles in the video, it wasn’t Kierra Coles in the video. And the police were aware of this. There’s been no suspects named in her case. The father of her unborn child was a person of interest, but he was kind of allowed to just move out of state. And there’s been very little movement on the case in the past few years. Her family is still out there. The Postal Service had offered a reward for information about her disappearance. But there’s really been very little national coverage, and there’s been very little movement on the case in the past few years.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the family that reached out to you because you’re doing Black Girl Gone, the podcast, Jennifer Blackmon?

AMARA COFER: Yes. So, Jennifer Blackmon, she is a mother missing from River Rogue, Michigan. I got a message from a friend of hers, about two months into doing the podcast, asking me to cover the story of their friend who has been missing since December 22nd, 2020. And, you know, one of the things was that they just really wanted this to be out there. And at the time when I did the episode, I really didn’t even have that big of a following, but she just wanted somebody to tell her friend’s story and put this information out there.

And so, yes, Jennifer has been missing from River Rogue since December 22nd, 2020. She has four children. Her daughter just went off to college. She missed Christmas. She missed her graduation. And when I spoke to the friend of hers last week, there has been no information, no movement on the case since then. And that’s just kind of like a theme that happens with these stories of these missing Black women, is that there kind of is nothing. The police are hesitant to release information. Suspects are allowed to move away or to disappear. And so the families are really left, you know, kind of trying to do this on their own.

AMY GOODMAN: So, again, an estimated 64,000 Black women or girls are missing in the United States. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates, out of 613,000 people reported missing in the U.S. last year, about 60% are people of color.

I wanted to bring into this conversation Melissa Jeltsen. You have been covering the issue of violence against women and girls for quite some time. There’s also a case that’s happening right now in Britain, where a police officer is about to be sentenced for killing a young white woman, that has gotten enormous attention. So, talk about your coverage of these issues. What is covered? What isn’t? And what are the issues that need to be raised?

MELISSA JELTSEN: I mean, in Gabby Petito’s case, I think it is an incredibly important story, especially because we have the body-camera footage of the domestic violence incident that happened before she went missing. You know, we know that victims of domestic violence are often caught up with the criminal justice laws that we have on the books, and end up being incarcerated themselves. And I think, you know, for anyone who hasn’t watched that footage, it is a really revealing lesson of how our domestic violence laws are not working for many victims. Utah has a mandatory arrest law on the books. And so, when police got to the scene, they decided they needed to work out who was the primary aggressor and who should be cited for the incident. And because of — you know, I think it’s about training, but it’s also that it’s really complicated to work out what’s going on in a domestic violence incident, and jail is not always the best solution for that. But they saw her as the aggressor and then threatened her, basically, with jail time and left her alone in Utah at a time when she really needed support. So, I think it’s a revealing look at trying to understand: Are our domestic violence laws working for us, or are they working against us?

In the London case, we have this young woman, Sarah Everard, who was killed by a police officer, who actually used his police powers to pull her over. She was walking home during COVID. We believe that he arrested her, falsely arrested her, because he said that she was violating COVID protocols. And then he went on to rape and kill her.

And in the aftermath of that death, a lot of activists really pushed for more criminalization, more power to the police, calling for sexual street harassment to be made illegal and to make misogyny a hate crime — all these measures that, when you really look at the consequences, would have a much bigger consequence, an unintended consequence, on minority populations and end up pulling more people into the criminal justice system. So I think one of the big things we need to think about when there’s a lot of attention on a case like Gabby Petito’s or Sarah Everard’s is, you know: What are the things we’re talking about that would try to help make people safer? And are they actually going to help make people safer, or are they going to end up just giving even more power to the police and prosecutors and the system that we know doesn’t often work for victims?

AMY GOODMAN: There are even racial disparities in Gabby Petito’s case. For example, when Brian Laundrie comes home, and she is missing — she is an obsessive YouTube documenter of van life — right? — of their trip across the country, and suddenly completely falls off the map. He is there day after day, refuses to speak to the police, goes camping with his parents, apparently, comes back home. The neighbors see him out and about. And then he disappears. If he were a young Black man, do you think he would have been shielded in that way, that the police couldn’t have spoken to him or he wouldn’t be arrested?

MELISSA JELTSEN: No, probably not. I mean, I think, like, going back to the body-camera footage, if you watch it, there’s this level of like camaraderie with him. The police do not see him as someone that — I mean, and, right, we still don’t know what happened — but the police don’t see him as someone that could potentially be dangerous. They fist — they give him like a fist bump before they leave. They set him up in a hotel room for the night. He is seen as someone that is safe and that he’s probably just having a hard — like, his partner is probably just giving him a hard time. And so, that ability to only see him as a good, respectable person who’s not doing anything wrong, I think, has everything to do with how he was perceived by police, and that has, you know, of course, to do with his race.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, one of the Moab police officers talks about his own ex-wife, so he commiserates with him. Mary Kathryn Nagle, I wanted to bring you back into this conversation to talk about the Violence Against Women Act and what that means, what it’s about, where it stands, and how it particularly relates to Native American women.

MARY KATHRYN NAGLE: Yeah, thank you so much. You know, right now we are working very hard to get the Violence Against Women Act reauthorized in the Senate. It did come — we got a bipartisan reauthorization out of the House a long time ago, and we’ve just been waiting to get a bipartisan VAWA through the Senate. And this is critical, because, like I said before, in 1978, the United States Supreme Court eliminated tribal criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians who commit crimes on tribal lands. And in 2013, when Congress reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act and President Obama signed that act into law, VAWA restored three categories of non-Indian criminal jurisdiction on tribal lands. And that is, specifically, domestic violence, dating violence and violation of protection orders.

What Native advocates are hoping to get in VAWA 2021 is a further restoration of other areas of criminal jurisdiction. So, for instance, in this kind of a dispute, the tribe may have jurisdiction now, post-VAWA 2013, over a non-Indian domestic violence abuser in a home who’s abusing a Native woman on tribal lands, but it doesn’t cover child abuse. And in so many domestic violence situations, children are also victims. We’ve had many instances where non-Indian individuals have sexually assaulted or abused Native children on tribal lands. Again, until that jurisdiction is restored, our tribal governments do not have jurisdiction to prosecute those crimes. And the U.S. attorney’s offices do not take them, because they are not a priority to the United States attorney’s offices.

So, there’s other areas of tribal criminal jurisdiction we’re advocating to have restored in VAWA 2021. And we’re very much hoping that the Senate will act quickly. I know there are a lot of distractions. We’re facing a potential federal government shutdown. But we really do need our Republican and Democratic senators to really act now, because it is a matter of life and death for Native women and children.

AMY GOODMAN: And treaties and sovereignty, how does that play into this issue?

MARY KATHRYN NAGLE: Well, you know, many of the — so, first of all, the United States wouldn’t be here today if it hadn’t signed treaties with tribal nations. Treaties were what originally gave the United States legitimacy, when the rest of the world looked at the United States and didn’t know whether or not the United States would be a legitimate sovereign. And so, the United States did what France and Britain and other — Spain — countries were doing, and it signed treaties with tribal nations to establish its own sovereignty. Then they continued to sign treaties with those nations to exchange land. And that’s why we have the lands that now comprise the United States.

But promises were made in exchange for those lands, and, in many cases, promises that tribal nations would be able to maintain their sovereignty and their jurisdiction, including their right to protect their own people within their own borders. Now, the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Oliphant infringes on that and violates that — and, I think, eventually will be overturned. It’s our — for Native people, it’s our Plessy v. Ferguson. But until then, as Secretary Haaland has noted several times, the federal government has a treaty and trust duty responsibility, signed in those treaties, to protect our women and children and our people on our lands.

And so, that is why it is so devastating when the FBI just completely disregards the murders of our Native people, because, in this case, the federal government, through the hundreds of treaties signed with tribal nations, has a very unique — what the Supreme Court has defined as a treaty, trust duty and responsibility to protect our lives. And I would argue that Congress has a treaty and trust duty responsibility to restore the tribal criminal jurisdiction that the Supreme Court in 1978 took away.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Amara Cofer, when African American women and girls are talked about, there is a certain level of victim blaming. Can you end our conversation by talking on, taking on that?

AMARA COFER: Yeah. You know, whenever stories of Black women do kind of make it to the mainstream media, or even in the local media where they’re from, there is always a focus on their life, their lifestyles, you know, things that may be justifications as to why these things hav happened to them, whether they’re missing or murdered. And so, that causes people to not care about these victims. It causes people to excuse why they’re not sharing the missing person flyer or not talking about this murder.

And so, that’s why what I try to do in my podcast is really humanize these victims and tell you who they were before they became victims, and also helping people to understand that it does not matter what your lifestyle is, whether you are a doctor, whether you’re a sex worker —

AMY GOODMAN: Three seconds.

AMARA COFER: — whether you’re a nun, that, you know, your life matters and that people should be looking for you and helping you.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. Amara Cofer’s podcast, Black Girl Gone; Mary Kathryn Nagle, citizen of Cherokee Nation; and Melissa Jeltsen, thank you so much. I’m Amy Goodman. Stay safe.

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