Last night students and members of the community gathered at the Barnard gates to participate in the Take Back the Night march, an annual demonstration against sexual violence. This year, the march took place along a similar route but with one notable difference—organizers decided to make the event completely gender neutral, eliminating the woman-only space at the front of the march in favor of embracing all survivors. Alex Eynon walked along.
The rally began with speeches condemning victim blaming and a permissive attitude towards rape culture. Heben Nigatu, the keynote speaker and a leader in both Radical C.U.N.T.S and the Black Student Organization, didn’t shy away from recent campus controversies. Nigatu condemned Kingsmen posters alluding to sexual abuse of young boys (this even though the Kingsmen co-sponsored the event this year) and sexist jokes at Orgo night; campus media was criticized for perpetuating the status quo through insensitive coverage and what she views as an excessively permissive comment policy that allows triggering and “retraumatising” (cf. Obamanard), most recently, the notice about an attempted sexual assault in Riverside Park.
Nigatu’s point, however, was that in order to create real change in campus culture, students should focus less on “reactive activism,” whether that is creating a Facebook group in response to the Obamanard scandal or spending hours responding to internet misogynists, and more on tangible community initiatives that build something new in order to “take back all the nights.”
As the marchers wound their way through Morningside Heights, blocking traffic on Broadway, Amsterdam, and Frat Row, the impact of their physical presence was clear. Passerby stopped on the sidewalk to watch the demonstrators and their public safety escorts pass, and still others emerged from buildings in response to chants like “Rape is a felony, even with a CUID” and “We are unstoppable, another world is possible.” Bystanders’ reactions to the march varied, ranging from confusion, to quiet or enthusiastic support, to the occasional derisive comment or disapproving look. The negative reactions though, rather than undermining the demonstration only seemed to confirm the accuracy of the rhetoric behind it. While we may live in a community rich with privilege and opportunity, the acceptance of rape culture and a lack of awareness of the sexual assaults committed in our midst are ongoing issues.
At the Barnard gates, the formidable display of solidarity dissolved into small groups and individual gestures of triumph as participants headed indoors for Speak Out, an opportunity for survivors and supporters to share their experiences. As the courtyard quieted down, there was a moment to reflect on the powerful impact this type of public activism has on our university, as well as the need for continued initiatives to address issues that can’t be rectified solely through anonymous discussion.