Domestic Violence

THE day after the "not guilty" verdict was handed down in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, a story appeared in a Boston newspaper, written from the perspective of battered women who have taken refuge in shelters across the city.

"Where are we going to run now, if the courts let him free?" one woman asked. "What could she [Nicole Brown Simpson] do? What can we do?"

It's an understandable reaction. Evidence presented at the trial revealed that Mr. Simpson abused his wife, verbally and physically. As is too often the case, police looked the other way more than a few times. A judge allowed counseling by phone after Simpson pleaded "no contest" to a beating in 1989.

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Advocates for battered women are concerned the case has sent a dangerous message to women that it is not worth the effort to fight domestic violence. That effort, however, belongs to all of us. The day before the verdict, President Clinton declared October a special awareness month. "This is a children's problem and it's a man's problem," he said. "We're not doing anybody any favors, least of all the abusers, by ignoring it any longer."

Under last year's Violence Against Women Act, federal agencies formed partnerships with private groups to provide more services for battered women. Congress authorized spending $1.6 billion over six years for this purpose. Recently, the Senate approved an amendment authorizing $175 million in 1996, as the Clinton administration requested. It's up to these partnership groups to reach out to women who, in light of the Simpson case, may be more afraid to reach out themselves.

Recently, black leaders in Los Angeles held a news conference urging Simpson to support the community that rallied to his side during the trial. But let's not forget that women make up more than half that community.

We've been here before: Black women forced to make a choice between race and gender. There was Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, and there was boxing star Mike Tyson, who recently served a jail sentence for raping a black beauty contestant. Black women's fight against racism should not preclude them from standing up for their right to live lives free of violence and harassment.

Clearly, we need even more education, more shelters, more counseling centers for men and women. Most important, a deep-seated understanding must be fostered that domestic violence won't be tolerated. Each individual can play a role by valuing more the essential role and qualities of women and by supporting and encouraging those who have been touched by domestic abuse. Schools, churches, advertising campaigns, TV sitcoms, and dramas - all these outlets can help by bringing the issue out in the open and by helping problem men understand how sound marital and family relationships should work.

In the beginning the Simpson trial was touted as one that would raise the world's consciousness about domestic violence. The issue was buried over the course of nine months, but it didn't disappear. After the verdict, California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) signed a law requiring defendants charged with abuse to admit their guilt or stand trial. The new law replaces a much-criticized statute that allowed first-time spouse batterers to erase their criminal record by simply undergoing counseling. The change was seen as a victory for women's-rights groups - and was a heartening response to the Simpson case and the crucial issues it raised.

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