Did you see those women emerge from the Pennsylvania courtroom, hugging each other, sobbing tears of relief? Did it send tears to your own eyes and shivers up your spine? Me too.
We grew up on Bill Cosby. Before The Cosby Show became a cultural behemoth in the 1980s and 1990s, Mr. Cosby was a legendary stand-up comedian with a string of successful comedy albums.
He created Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids – a Saturday morning cartoon favourite, with Mr. Cosby voicing a bunch of the animated characters, and appearing on-camera in live-action segments as himself. “This is Bill Cosby coming at you with music and fun. And if you’re not careful you may learn something before it’s done,” he said in the show’s intro. “Hey, hey, hey!”
On ubiquitous TV ads, Mr. Cosby good-naturedly told kids to get out of that Jell-O tree, and urged mom to make some of that delicious Jell-O pudding, while adorable kids spooned it up beside him.
But The Cosby Show brought the comedian next-level fame. Mr. Cosby, as the affable Dr. Cliff Huxtable, doling out wholesome, family-friendly advice in his colourful sweaters, became America’s dad.
Some people use their power for good.
On Thursday, Mr. Cosby, 80, was found guilty of drugging and sexually assaulting a woman at his suburban Philadelphia home in 2004. His victim was Toronto’s Andrea Constand, then an employee at Temple University, who testified that she was plied with wine and three blue pills by Mr. Cosby, throwing her into a state of weakness and in and out of consciousness. When she came to, she was being sexually assaulted.
The defence argued the encounter was consensual.
Mr. Cosby was convicted on three counts: penetration with lack of consent, penetration while unconscious and penetration after administering an intoxicant. Aggravated indecent assault is a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison for each count.
More than 50 other women have levelled similar accusations at Mr. Cosby.
At this trial, five other women testified that they believe they too had been drugged and sexually assaulted by Mr. Cosby years ago.
This time, the jury believed the women.
Mr. Cosby had been tried last year for the same crime, but a mistrial was declared last June, with a deadlocked jury, after six days of deliberations.
Then came #MeToo.
It’s impossible to connect with certainty Thursday’s verdict (which came on the second day of deliberations) with the #MeToo movement against sexual assault and harassment that gained enormous steam with the reporting of accusations against the entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein. Although in closing arguments, Mr. Cosby’s lawyer slammed the movement, comparing it to a witch hunt or lynching and suggesting Mr. Cosby was a #MeToo victim.
But it is also impossible to imagine allegations such as these being considered the same way they were in the environment of the before-time. This new climate has allowed for the unimaginable: for powerful, beloved men to have to pay for their terrible actions – whether in loss of reputation (which Mr. Cosby had already suffered), livelihood or, as we now have, with a criminal conviction.
Behaviour that was once shrugged off – or even bragged about – as A-list boys being boys is now, finally, the kind of behaviour that can catapult powerful celebrities from their pedestals and land them in prison.
Lawyer Gloria Allred, who represents 33 of Mr. Cosby’s accusers, spoke outside the courthouse after the verdict.
“In the beginning, many [of Mr. Cosby’s accusers] were not believed,” she said. “We are so happy that finally we can say women are believed and not only #MeToo but in a court of law where they were under oath, where they testified truthfully, where they were attacked, where they were smeared, where they were denigrated, where there were attempts to discredit them. And after all is said and done, women were finally believed and we thank the jury so much for that.”
Some women who have come forward will never get what Ms. Constand got Thursday, the satisfaction of a guilty verdict. But they must know that they too have made a difference; that their voices have buoyed the others who will get the convictions they seek for their abusers; and that, even more crucially, their voices have swayed a culture and created an environment where using one’s power to obtain sex is absolutely not tolerated, where it is universally considered shameful.
Everyone who has had the courage to come forward in this beautiful surge of a movement has helped us imagine a day when to sexually assault or harass someone and get away with it because of your fame or money or power will be unthinkable.
Maybe I’m being overly optimistic. But hey, this feels like the kind of moment for optimism.