Published: May 1, 2024 By

New York’s highest court recently overturned Harvey Weinstein’s 2020 rape conviction, saying the judge allowed testimony about unrelated allegations against the former Hollywood mogul. 

Lolita Buckner Inniss

Lolita Buckner Inniss

Weinstein may get a new trial in the New York case but remains subject to a 16-year sentence for a separate rape and sexual assault conviction out of California. 

The allegations and cases against Weinstein were widely seen as fueling the #MeToo movement—holding powerful men accountable for sexual assault and aggression. Advocates say the ruling, while upsetting, will not diminish their—or the movement’s—work and progress. 

Lolita Buckner Inniss, dean of the University of Colorado Law School, studies legal history and social movements, including #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. She is also the co-author of a book examining both movements, set to come out this year. 

In a conversation with CU Boulder Today, she gave her take on the Weinstein ruling, how the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements are intertwined and what happens next. 

Has #MeToo been a successful movement? 

Have we succeeded in terms of eliminating some of the various sorts of gender-based harms that many women have experienced? I would say we still have a long way to go. I would say, however, that after #MeToo, women are much more likely to be seen, to be heard, to be believed. I think we're much more likely to pay attention to and potentially hold accountable the people who are causing these harms. 

Does the overturned conviction set the movement back at all? 

I think overturning Weinstein's rape conviction is dismaying for a lot of people who worked hard to bring #MeToo to the forefront. I think it's discouraging. I don't think, however, that it creates a barrier or a block to further progress here. 

I think it’s also important to remember the reason the conviction was overturned in New York was because of a fairly narrow aspect of New York state law regarding the kinds of witnesses that can be brought forward in a criminal case. Weinstein was also convicted in California using the same sort of evidence. California law is much more open and allows testimony of people who talked about past acts.

When we're talking about criminal law in the United States, we're talking about myriad laws and rules over 50 state jurisdictions and some territories, and that means that you may have variation, but it says nothing about what I would call the justice content of this prosecution. 

What happens to the #MeToo movement now? 

I think perhaps the most important outcome of the movement is that people who are victims of sexual aggression are much more willing to speak out. I would also note that while this has largely been seen as a women's movement or a movement of people who are woman-identified, it's not just women who have benefited. We have seen prominent men who have said, I, too, was sexually assaulted or harassed by someone in my workplace. And we've particularly seen that in the world of entertainment, television, film, etc. 

Hollywood has a very long, very deep and sordid history of sexual assault, violence and harassment, and up until #MeToo, I think it would be fair to say cases often went without redress for the victims. I think we’re past that—there are possibilities for justice for famous people and regular people. 

How are Black Lives Matter and #MeToo intertwined? 

It’s important to recognize the real power of #MeToo is its existence as a social movement—that is, it is a collective action by an engaged and organized group aimed at changing institutional or societal behaviors. Black Lives Matter, which came along in the same time period, is also a social movement. Black Lives Matter was meant to address societal ills like vigilante and government violence against Black people, as well to address other sorts of race-based harms. This includes gender violence against women because, after all, half of Black people are women.

Black Lives Matter, however, failed to catch on to the same extent as #MeToo because, for the most part, it centers on a fairly limited part of our population. When you're talking about #MeToo, not only are you talking about women and woman-identified people, you're talking about the people who know them and care for them. So even the most abusive oppressors, when it comes to women, some of them may even pause and say, I have a wife, I have a daughter, I have a sister.

Those sorts of conversations don't necessarily happen when we're talking about the harms that accrue to Black people. This is true even, or perhaps especially, when those harms happen to Black women.

Black women are often seen as both hypersexualized and desexed, as weird as that sounds. We don’t get the same benefits, however dubious, of being treated as a lady, as someone who needs the protection or the concern or the care of law or society. And too often, perpetrators have seen this and interpreted it to mean that if neither law nor society care, they’re much more likely to get away with aggression and abuse.

Black women and other women of color—even though they are people who are perfectly positioned as a result of experience to talk about the real importance of the #MeToo movement—when they complain, if they dare to, are much less likely to be heard. 

Why is it important to talk about both movements?  

Our book on these movements was born out of conversations—conversations where we realized Black Lives Matter and #MeToo came along at roughly the same time, but it was our observation that the two movements were being received very differently. 

In a number of instances, Black Lives Matter was seen as a set of disruptive, disjointed activities by lots of people who didn't necessarily have a legitimate or broadly attractive goal, even where that goal was to end things like police brutality and many of the macro and microaggressions that many Black people routinely experience in the United States.

While Black Lives Matter was initially seen as a response to vigilante shootings, as well as police shootings and violence, it also developed around what I would call this intensification of the surveillance state. Black people who appeared in certain spaces were being told to get out of those spaces, not only by police but by civilian white people. Black Lives Matter started to come into the public consciousness when the victims of that overarching surveillance started to take their own videos, to surveil back, and to use social media resources to share their experiences. 

#MeToo developed quite a bit differently. We saw women start to talk about the experiences that they had with men, men who were both famous and not so famous. Everything from sexual harassment all the way to rape, misogynistic treatment, macro and microaggressions. And that really started to explode in public consciousness when we heard famous women like Alyssa Milano start saying, hey, this is what's happening to me. I'm famous. I am out here in the public. I'm widely known and respected and, yes, even I am experiencing this. 

We need to talk about and understand Black Lives Matter and #MeToo in tandem because both movements challenge power dynamics that perpetuate injustice. We can forge a deeper understanding of how power operates within different social structures and institutions by considering both at once. In addition, both movements offer ways to amplify the voices of those who have been historically silenced or ignored. 

What else should people know about your research? 

The #MeToo movement actually started with a Black woman, Tarana Burke. However, her contribution to some extent was overwritten when more famous, mostly white, mostly wealthy women started to also talk about their experiences.

Now in 2024, even though it is a relatively truncated legal historic period, the book is able to reflect on the outcomes of these movements because of the intensity with which they entered the public consciousness. #MeToo continues to hold the most meaning and value and has the most public support. Black Lives Matter has been frequently savaged and undermined, at least in terms of how I think a lot of people have come to view it. 

The big question for me as a legal scholar is: How do #MeToo and Black Lives Matter affect law? And when I talk about law, I mean both law with a big L—courts, legislation, legal opinions, etc.—and what I would call law with a little L, which I think is really the important L here—social norms, the kinds of norms and regulations that govern us in our daily lives, how we behave to each other in the workplace, among neighbors, etc. That's the law that really matters when we're talking about most interactions, whether personal or professional.