US jogger's death sparks emotional outcry and political debate

·3-min read

Eliza Fletcher left her home in Memphis, Tennessee for an early morning jog two weeks ago when she disappeared.

Her body was found a few days later, and since then, the tragedy has rekindled two distinct debates: one on women's public safety, the other over racial tensions in the United States.

Authorities said the 34-year-old kindergarten teacher and mother of two was "abducted" around 4:20 am on September 2, by a man who forced her into his vehicle.

Her alleged attacker was arrested the next day, but Fletcher wasn't found until September 5, behind an abandoned building.

The case has sparked a nationwide outpouring of sadness and anger.

Last week in cities across the country, hundreds of joggers met at the same morning hour Fletcher was kidnapped, to "finish her run" in her honor and make clear that "women should be able to run safely any time of day," organizers said.

To those who say Fletcher was tempting fate by going out alone so early, in a city considered unsafe, "it's time to stop blaming women for getting murdered while running," said Christa Sgobba in a story in Self Magazine.

Melissa A. Sullivan, a marathon runner, described in The Washington Post how she was tired of constantly having to be on alert.

"Like so many other women, I'm angry. I'm frustrated. I'm exhausted by the expectation that the onus to prevent the harassment and intimidation of female runners is, should be and always will be on us," she wrote in an op-ed.

- Culture wars -

The violent death of Fletcher, a mother with a big smile who has been described as an exemplary Christian, was quickly branded by some right-wing commentators as a sign of social decay under the left's leadership.

Tucker Carlson, a star anchor at conservative-favored Fox News, made Fletcher an allegory for "the fall of Memphis, law and order."

Conservative influencer Candace Owens, known for denouncing "wokeness" among other things to her four million Instagram followers, urged Fox News viewers living in inner city areas to flee, insisting those neighborhoods are infested with criminals.

"This is not a joke," she said. "Do not wait for politicians to rescue you. Rescue yourself, and get out of these Democrat-controlled cities."

For some conservatives, Fletcher's case is a reflection of the "culture wars" brewing in the United States in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement.

Fletcher was white, but her suspected killer, Cleotha Henderson -- also known as Cleotha Abston -- is Black.

- Violence against Black women 'habitual' -

Some internet users, insisting that Fletcher's murder did not get enough attention because she was not Black, have taken up a traditional Black Lives Matter rallying cry: "Say her name."

These words are often chanted at anti-racism rallies to remember the Black victims of police brutality.

Right-wing commentator Ann Coulter charged in her newsletter that the mainstream media has a policy of "no stories that would make Black people -- or more to the point, white liberals -- feel uncomfortable."

But this belief grossly misinterprets the situation, argues Kari J. Winter, an American studies professor at the University at Buffalo.

"Anyone who imagines that Eliza Fletcher's murder would have received more attention if she had been Black or brown is living in a fantasy world radically disconnected from the real world," she told AFP.

"In the United States, violence against Black and brown women is far more habitual, extreme and ignored than violence against white women."

Apart from these debates, Fletcher's death has also resurfaced a recurring problem in the United States: a DNA sample from an unrelated rape case turned out to match Henderson.

The rape occurred in September 2021, but the sexual assault kit was only processed in June.

Without the delay, it's possible that Henderson and Fletcher might never have crossed paths.