Reliving the Big Dan’s Gang Rape Is Painfully Necessary [OPINION]
Sometimes it's good to relive a painful experience to see what if anything has been learned from it. Be careful, though, because what you find might not be what you expect to find and it can be just as painful.
The Big Dan's gang rape case that thrust New Bedford and its people into the international spotlight in 1983 is back. Episode 5 of the new Netflix series Trial by Media walks us through the horrifying events of March 6, 1983, and the trial that followed. It was the first gavel-to-gavel trial ever broadcast live on television and the whole world tuned in to see.
When it was over, four men had been convicted of gang-raping a 21-year-old mother of two from New Bedford on a pool table at Big Dan's Tavern on Bellville Avenue as some bar patrons cheered her attackers on and still others ignored what was happening mere feet away from where they sat at the bar.
Media from all over the world converged on New Bedford to cover the story, reporting on the Portuguese men who were accused of committing such a heinous and vicious crime. By making the ethnicity of the defendants an issue in its reporting, the media divided our community and created an evil, sub-human caricature of our proud Portuguese population. It took years for those wounds to heal.
The woman stopped at the bar on a Sunday night to purchase cigarettes and after sharing a drink with a friend, she tried to leave. That is when her nightmare began. The community was divided. While many thought the woman was the victim of a horrible, violent crime, others wondered if she had gotten what she was looking for. Why would a young woman go to such a place all alone at night anyway? Was she dressed provocatively? Did she really mean "yes" when she said "no?"
Unfortunately, that attitude still exists today. A caller to my Tuesday program suggested that Tara Reade, the woman who has accused Joe Biden of sexual assault, and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who claimed she was sexually abused by Brett Kavanaugh, "got what they deserved."
"Men are men," the caller said. Tara Reade is finding it tough to get anyone to care about her story.
Big Dan's trial Judge William Young erred by allowing a sensational rape trial to be broadcast on live television where it was sensationalized to the hilt by the media. The trial was divisive. It created resentment between the Portuguese and non-Portuguese communities in our area. Out of fear, for her safety and that of her children, the victim was forced to move away when the trial was over.
Judge Young, by the way, is the same judge who has released hundreds of criminals from Massachusetts jails since the start of the coronavirus crisis.
I covered the Big Dan's trial as a young reporter for the other station in town. I remember reporting live from the steps of City Hall the night thousands marched there from the Women's Center in a candlelight vigil demanding "no more rape." It was powerful.
The release of this Netflix docuseries episode, which prominently features WBSM's Jim Phillips throughout with his perspective on the events of that time 37 years ago, caught me by surprise. I didn't know it was in production. I didn't want to watch it but I'm glad I did. Sometimes it's good to relive a painful experience to see what if anything has been learned from it.
It is stunning how little has changed since 1983. Just ask Tara Reade.
Barry Richard is the host of The Barry Richard Show on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard weekdays from noon to 3 p.m. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @BarryJRichard58. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.