How sexual assault activism works
By Hallie Nell Swanson
Everyone knows about ‘the movement’—the name that encompasses those who have banded together to change how Columbia handles sexual assault. Be it on the front page of the New York Times, your Facebook feed, or Low teps, you can’t avoid it, in Morningside Heights or beyond. For most not directly involved, the movement is a collection of images and ideas: mattresses, angry students, narratives of miscarriages of justice and an uncaring administration. This common understanding primarily results from the work of No Red Tape (NRT), a campus student-activist organization. It is the product of a highly coordinated media effort that has ensured regular coverage of the organization. But while this strategy has secured NRT a place in the spotlight, i t has also crudely rendered the complex workings of the organization and the individuals involved in it.
‘We have to find ways to make them care’
How did we get here? To understand NRT, we must go back to a February meeting in the University Senate’s Low Library conference room. The previous week, an article (“Accessible, Prompt, and Equitable”?) had appeared in these pages detailing the experiences of survivors with Columbia’s adjudication process. As Anna Bahr, BC ’14 and the article’s author, recalled, “most of the faces that are still important to the movement right now were in the meeting on the first day.” Some had already been meeting and debating how to approach the issue since the beginning of the year, but only behind closed doors. At this juncture, and at several subsequent meetings, the people who had been talking about it were finally all in one room, and had to decide how to move forward,
Making those decisions was hard. Some people in the conversation wanted to tackle the issue through policy-based initiatives, while others favored direct action. There was a clear clash, not just of ideology but of individuals, particularly Sejal Singh, CC ’15 and Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, CC ’15. Ultimately, these differences resulted in a schism. On one side there was the Coalition Against Sexual Violence (CASV) led by Sejal; on the other, No Red Tape (NRT) led by Zoe.
CASV’s membership tends to consist of “student-leader” types, who already have administrative relationships, though Abby Porter, CC ’17, CASV’s co-coordinator for prevention education and CCSC Vice President of Communications, is keen to emphasize that anyone can get involved. According to Abby, it’s “unfortunate” that the “so-called student leaders” get access that not everybody does – but it’s a status quo that NRT can use to their advantage: they agitate, others lobby. The groups also collaborate frequently.
NRT, on the other hand, was born out of opposition and frustration. Co-founded by George Joseph, CC ’16, a key member of Student Worker Solidarity (SWS), its membership was more drawn from radical activist groups, who conceived of NRT along the same lines. According to Zoe, “Really the only things that they [the administration] care about are money and their public image. We have to find ways to actually make them care.” For NRT, without administrative relationships to exploit, this has largely meant securing media coverage.
‘Doing what comes up’
“At the beginning,” said Camila Quarta, CC ’16 and a NRT member, “we pushed ourselves to sit down and establish things like our mission statements. Things like what we stand for. But the conversation ended there, and I think we’re just doing what comes up.”
For NRT, a nationally recognized organization, “doing what comes up” is practically a full-time job. In a typical day, the group receives requests for comment from media, requests for advice from similar organizations at other schools, and requests for help from individuals at Columbia. As a result, their public relations have become a well-oiled machine.
At the National Day of Action, a large rally held at Columbia and planned to coincide with other rallies nationwide, NRT distributed a memo to its members about talking to media. “Reporters are not your friends!” it admonishes at one point. The first item in the document is a list of who is available to talk, about what, and when —Emma Sulkowicz, CC ’15, is listed as speaking to “top outlets only.” The sheet advises its readers to “stick to the talking points and focus on our main messages,” as well as stressing that you should say “what’s important for you to say” personally. Organizers told protesters to share the event on social media, and a typed sheet of protest chants was circulated. This sort of strategizing isn’t just for the National Day, but every day.
Reading all the coverage of NRT, it becomes clear that little new is being said. By way of example, part of the protest involved depositing the mattresses students had carried to Low steps in front of President Bollinger’s mansion. The action allowed for quotes like those from Michaela Wiehl, CC ’17 and a NRT member. To the Huffington Post she said: “The symbolism of them literally dumping the mattresses… they literally throw out rape cases.” Of the gesture, Zoe told the Socialist Worker “we have to bring this issue to his literal doorstep” while Becca Breslaw, BC ’17, told Jezebel, “we were putting all the balls in PresBo’s [sic] court, literally.”
NRT meeting notes from after the Day of Action tell another story. SWS, who booked Low steps for the protest and were charged for the cleanup, did not know that the mattresses would be left outside for workers to pick up rather than carried away by protesters. “Need to be more mindful of issues like this in the future with partnerships,” read NRT’s notes.
According to Camila, the focus on presenting a united set of quotes for the media, like those above, has the effect of dictating some of the group’s concerns for them, making meetings “purely logistical.” The notes about the mattresses focus on how to reclaim the image, concluding, “Let’s make paying the fine into a direct action?; spin to make admin look bad and use it as opportunity to publicize demands.” Fair enough, that’s what they need to do. But is “spinning” it constructive for organizing in the future? Perhaps this is an instance of, as Camila put it, “planning ahead, without talking about what we plan.”
An early meeting notes to the NRT listserv reads “GET SHIT DONE.” This sort of approach, Camila said, precludes conversations about how to develop strategy. “If you’re in the spotlight from the beginning, you don’t have the right to change your opinion as the movement develops.”
‘Standing in the background’
Students can’t have all the answers. Activism surrounding sexual assault at Columbia never happened in a vacuum, with people sharing resources and learning from national groups like End Rape On Campus, Know Your IX and SAFER (established at Columbia). The members or organizations like NRT don’t have the background to file a Title IX complaint. Gabriela Pelsinger, CC ’15 and former NRT member, said sessions with such organizations were “helpful to figure out a little bit more of the context.”
Carry That Weight, which Zoe conceives of as the national arm of NRT’s campus-based activism, is now a similar such organization. The group was founded at the beginning of this year by Allie Rickard, BC ’14. Upon reading about the senior art thesis of Emma Sulkowicz (whom Allie had never met before), she wanted to “find a tangible way to show my support for her and other survivors,” she said. Carrying The Weight Together, as the group was originally called, orchestrated ‘collective carries’ to help Emma get from place to place with the mattress she was carrying around campus for the art piece.
“With Emma’s performance piece [NRT] finally found a symbol,” said Anna Bahr. “It’s something No Red Tape has capitalized on and with good reason.” As it had with Allie, Emma’s piece resonated with people all over the world. “I started getting a bunch of messages from people all over the country of carries they were doing,” said Allie. “One thing led to another.”
This process wasn’t completely organic, however. Allie wasn’t just getting emails from student groups asking for support, but from other national organizations, including Hollaback!, Ultraviolet, Rhize, and Fission, who went on to form official partnerships with Carry That Weight.
Unlike, for example, SAFER, these groups aren’t just dispensaries of advice on specialist issues like Title IX. They act as consultants for grassroots organizations to market themselves. According to Erin Mazursky, Rhize’s founder, Rhize provided a PR consultant to write the Day of Action press release and respond to the PR requests that “inundated” Allie and Zoe. Rhize provided CTW with a “huge” network of media contacts, said Zoe, as well as finding and funding Carry That Weight’s new website.
They wrote a memorandum of understanding for affiliated organizations to sign, which dictated the partnership’s boundaries, for instance not being able to use Emma’s story for fundraising without her explicit consent. This is obviously all free for CTW, so what’s in it for a group like Rhize or UltraViolet? Put simply, they have their own agendas.
“Agenda” is a cynical word; certainly, they are all fighting to make the world a better place. But the link between their national project and what happens here at Columbia isn’t necessarily clear. “In terms of what Hollaback! has done to make this campus safer, I have no idea,” said Gabriela. “I haven’t seen that.”
Zoe said that the first requirement for a partnership was that “the organization is focused on empowering and amplifying students rather than co-opting student work.” When emailed for comment, Emily May, founder of Hollaback!, replied: “A big part of our role with #carrythatweight is standing in the background and letting students lead.” Gabriela, however, pointed out that “there are a lot of politicians and organizations that would want the endorsement or the connection with the activists at this point.”
Then there’s also the issue of money. Donations on the CTW website are split between NRT, CWT, Hollaback!, and Rhize. UltraViolet, who initially had the idea of a carrying of 28 mattresses, bought them for the Day of Action, and was going to pay for the cleanup fee. While keen to stress that she didn’t have experience collaborating with outside groups, Camila said, “I’m just concerned that it might create problems in the future if they want to do something we don’t want to, but then they’re giving us money.”
‘The Nation doesn’t know about the Safer Bars project’
What’s crucial to understand is that NRT is not all PR. Far from it. A key transition in NRT’s strategy was made at the beginning of this school year, when, according to Michaela, “we decided, or realized, that it was going to take so long to get the things we were asking for that some of them we just needed to start doing until the university would.”
A whole host of programs organized by NRT has emerged on campus in recent months and or are in the works. NRT helped the Marching Band write its own internal sexual assault policy, and Gabriela is in talks with COÖP to see what can be done there. They have also been highly involved in developing consent education programs. After the research has been done, NRT plans to extend consent education and bystander intervention training to frats, SICs, sports teams and other clubs. At the beginning of this year, NRT held an open consent workshop for freshmen during NSOP, focused on what questions to ask to engage productive conversations in the official Consent 101 workshop.
Michaela is working on the Safer Bars program, bystander intervention training for bar staff. Nine people have gone through the program to become trainers, run by DC-based group Collective Action for Safe Space. But, as Anna remarked, “The Nation doesn’t know about the Safer Bars project, which is a genius idea, and it’s a little odd to me that that kind of Columbia-specific stuff isn’t being publicized. I don’t really know why.” According to Michaela, it’s because the program, like the other initiatives, isn’t finished yet.
But that still doesn’t explain why so few people know about arguably one of the most important programs on campus, not affiliated with any group but associated with them: CU Suvivors’ Circle. It’s a sizeable organization which hosts several peer-facilitated meetings a week, as well as online spaces, for survivors to share resources and support. Confidentiality for the survivors is paramount, especially after reporters showed up to a meeting last year, so instead of publicizing meeting times, the group uses an email—firstname.lastname@example.org—where interested people can ask for more information.
The ‘Resources’ page of Allie’s old ‘Carrying the Weight’ together website used to direct to the Gmail—but since the movement (and the website) went national, it’s been removed and the ‘resources’ page now directs you to an 800 number. (The upcoming NRT website will have a Columbia-specific resources page.)
When asked how the activists publicize the survivors’ circle to people who don’t have relationships with those in the circle, Zoe said, “It’s something we could do a lot better,” although some newer members joined independently. “We don’t really have a publicity strategy” for the circles, she said. But the group does seem to have one for everything else.
‘Cosmo wants it to be more personal’
These things actually make up the bulk of NRT’s work. Why not use interviews to talk about them? Apparently because nobody cares. “When we put out statements and policy proposals, nobody fucking reads those. When we talk about models for prevention programs, people are like, ‘I don’t care,’” said Zoe. According to Camila, “What gets attention is the individual narrative, not us being like, ‘these are the systemic failures of policy and of rape culture.’” An excerpt from NRT meeting notes about an upcoming article reads, “Cosmo wants it to be more personal.”
Camila agreed to an interview for a New York Magazine article because she wanted to talk about her activism, which had not been mentioned in previous coverage. This was expressed in the resulting article with the epithet “die-hard leftist.” These stereotypes abound in the piece: Zoe is “the daughter of Innocence Project moms,” Emma the “hipster fencer-artist.” “That was a shitshow,” said Camila. “That was a bad fucking article.”
Darializa Avila-Chevalier, CC ’16, wrote a lead in The Eye about the intersection of race and sexual assault at Columbia. She called the New York Magazine-style approach, “portraying these five narratives and having them be the collective narrative,” one that is “frustrating.” Darializa, who identifies as Afro-Latina, has several times been interviewed, but often what she said is not included. “I honestly couldn’t say if it’s a matter of my race, or my ethnicity,” she said. NRT is extremely aware, and anxious, of the fact that they benefit from prejudices they emphatically disagree with. Camila points to the fact that people are much more interested in “sensationalism” surrounding rape on an Ivy League campus with “young white women.” But being featured often means playing in to, and perhaps even reinforcing, that mentality.
Both Camila and Darializa pointed to the strange paradox of the individual narrative-driven coverage: that the story is given an authority for being generalizable, but then easily dismissed on particulars. “It’s easier for them to say “Emma’s lying” as opposed to saying ‘sexual violence is bad,’” said Camila.
That said, this approach is what, according to Zoe, “has propelled this specific iteration of this movement to such prominent levels.” She said “older generations of what then was feminist activism” were focused on “rape crisis centers and reporting to their police, but people weren’t really telling their individual stories.” Doing that, said Zoe, lets other survivors know, as Anna’s article did for her, that “this is bigger than me.” It also helps to push back against “rape myths,” she said. And as Anna pointed out, to stop survivors from telling their stories “is a form of silencing.”
‘Who am I in this conversation?’
According to Zoe, not only is media attention “one of the largest ways we’ve been able to build power and leverage that against the university,” it is also important for promoting dialogue on campus, prompting questions like “‘Who am I in this conversation, how does it affect me, how do I participate in rape culture?’,” she said.
But on campus, it’s possible that the media strategy has been almost too efficient. Students take what appears of NRT in the media to be a reflection of the group’s main concerns. Columbia doesn’t know about the Safer Bars project either. If the questions Zoe, and NRT, want us to ask aren’t being prompted, then we won’t ask them.
Clearly, the approach has some limits: what will happen, for example, when Emma and Zoe, who have been most vocal in telling their stories, graduate? Zoe worries about losing the media attention, saying “not only would it slow down and stagnate the activism, but also that conversation would start to disintegrate or fade from people’s minds.” Clearly, the group doesn’t have all the agency in its relationship with the media. But perhaps it might be possible to have the conversation include more people and discuss NRT’s initiatives and their attempts to change campus culture.
Ironically, Jezebel put it well when reporting the fine for the mattresses left outside PrezBo’s house on the Day of Action. The fine was actually for those left on Low steps, but that doesn’t really matter: as the article admonished PrezBo, “the real issue at hand is the safety of students, not dirty mattresses.” If only their reporting reflected that.