On Monday, Bill Cosby had a very good day.
First, the 80-year-old comedian paid his respects to Faison Firehouse co-founder Tad Schnugg at Harlem’s First Corinthian Baptist Church. Alongside a list of attendees that included Oprah Winfrey and Rev. Al Sharpton, Cosby spoke at length about the love between Schnugg and his partner, choreographer George Faison. In a video obtained by Page Six, Cosby can be heard saying that a “play has to be written about the two of you,” to rapturous applause. Later in the speech, a playful Cosby gets laughs from the crowd.
It’s an enthusiastic reception befitting a beloved, veteran comedian—which is who Cosby was, before sexual assault allegations finally caught up with him. While Cosby seemed to leave his damaged reputation behind for the length of the service, the New York Daily News did report that friends of the deceased were informed of Cosby’s intentions to attend, “but were asked to keep that information under wraps to keep protestors away.”
Later on Monday, Cosby made an appearance at the LaRose Jazz Club in Philadelphia—his first public performance in years, and certainly the first since a mistrial verdict last June. Onstage, the comic joked with the crowd and even joined the jazz quartet on the drums. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Cosby arrived to a packed house and audience members, “including several whom Cosby greeted as old friends—swarmed him afterward for selfies.” The Daily News reported that amidst the well-wishers was one lone protestor standing outside of the club—a woman playing “I Am Woman” on repeat and holding a sign urging “Perseverance to all survivors.” Cosby’s team reportedly notified the press about his performance; according to the Inquirer, this is just the latest in a “series of public appearances”—a move toward increased visibility just a few months before the comic’s upcoming retrial.
On January 10, reporters were “tipped off” that Cosby would be eating dinner at an Italian restaurant in Philly. The Inquirer reported that “Cosby told jokes over an entrée of penne and sausage in the largely empty dining room. He reminisced with his dinner companions—a childhood friend and a few publicists—about growing up at 10th and Parrish Streets, and welcomed other diners to stop by to snap selfies.” When a reporter asked the comic about the retrial, he responded, “We’re ready.” On his personal Twitter, Cosby shared some pictures from the evening, which he described as a “night out with friends, fans, and loyal supporters.” He’s also shared video footage from an appearance at a local barbershop, where he hung out with—you guessed it—“friends, fans and supporters.”
Cosby is often held up as an example from the far end of the sexual misconduct spectrum. At least 60 women have accused Cosby of sexual assault, and many of their accounts recall Cosby drugging and then assaulting them while unconscious. In one particularly damning testimony, Cosby described his 2004 encounter with Andrea Constand (the case that would eventually lead to a mistrial). Constand says that the comic drugged and raped her; Cosby recalled, “I don’t hear her say anything. And I don’t feel her say anything. And so I continue and I go into the area that is somewhere between permission and rejection. I am not stopped.” He also confessed to providing women with Quaaludes before sex, claiming he used the prescription drugs in these situations “The same as a person would say, ‘Have a drink.’”
When the mistrial verdict was delivered last summer, it seemed to be, if not a miscarriage of justice, at least an illustration of its limitations. Ultimately, the jury was incapable of reaching a consensus on Andrea Constand’s case; out of an army of accusers, Constand’s was the only alleged assault within the statute of limitations. While the Montgomery County District Attorney said that, “We will push forward,” insisting that Constand “is entitled to a verdict in this case,” Cosby’s publicist was quick to spin the mistrial as a full exoneration, telling press, “Mr. Cosby’s power is back. It’s back. He has been restored.”
Cosby’s long-delayed retrial on three charges of aggravated indecent assault is set for “sometime between March 15 and April 1.” According to court papers, prosecutors have requested that the judge allow testimony from the 19 other Cosby accusers.
Cosby infamously carried on for years, unhampered by multiple rape allegations. Constand’s 2005 civil suit triggered an avalanche of accusers. Still, it wasn’t until comedian Hannibal Buress started calling Cosby a rapist in his sets that people began to really revisit and reckon with the women’s testimonies. A 2014 Gawker article on the allegations surmised that, “Nobody wanted to live in a world where Bill Cosby was a sexual predator,” adding, “With shocking speed, it was effectively forgotten.”
Amidst the seeming forward momentum of the #MeToo movement, it’s impossible to imagine regressing back to the age of Cosby’s Teflon reputation. The implicit promise of the Hollywood reckoning is a rejection of the old status quo, which doled out endless second chances to Hollywood’s legion of abusive men. In addition to outing abusers, the movement has elevated long forgotten (or deliberately ignored) testimonies of abuse. But Cosby’s efforts to rehab his image—his denials and talk of a racist conspiracy, his “friends, fans, and loyal supporters”—are all an ugly portent of what’s to come.
While we might like to think that alleged abusers would have the good sense to stay out of sight and off the stage, Cosby’s campaign is a good reminder that the A-list accused are already fighting back. For every Louis C.K. saying that “these stories are true,” there’s a Brett Ratner suing an accuser for defamation or a Donald Trump, who threatened to do the same.
Many columnists have already moved on to tepid defenses of only-sort-of-bad dudes, insisting that an Aziz Ansari shouldn’t suffer the same fate as a Harvey Weinstein, a Kevin Spacey, or a Bill Cosby. But if Cosby’s career isn’t even over—if a comic can spend decades allegedly drugging and raping women and then get a warm reception during a comedy set—then maybe this movement isn’t as fearfully powerful as those op-eds would have us believe.
If a man like Bill Cosby is able to fight and arguably win in both a court of law and a court of public opinion, what does that say about the future career viability of accused abusers in every industry? Maybe the era of a million free passes isn’t over, after all.