Wearing a Safety Net: Activists Address Sexual Assualt in the Protest World


The Pittsburgh G20 Resistance Project's "Creating a Safer Space" Timeline

Over the past 20 years, supporters of "victims" of sexual assault have begun to use a more empowering term to describe them: survivor. Occasionally a hot-button semantic issue for victims and non-victims alike, the term "survivor" is now generally considered the proper idiom when discussing sexual assault or rape.

In their study "Talking About Sexual Violence," Stacy L. Young and Katheryn C. Maguire write, "Anyone who has lived through a sexually violent episode is a survivor. While the term victim seems to focus on what actually happened to the person, the term survivor emphasizes what occurs after the encounter. The use of survivor may help the individual see past the incident and move forward with the recovery process."

Young and Maguire conclude that all the women involved in the study thought of themselves as victims at the time of the assault, but most of them currently think of themselves as survivors. The authors attributed this to the fact that during the attack, the women were made into victims. Using the term "survivor" is a contrast: No one can make someone a survivor; that is something the individual must do herself. "In using the term survivor," the study goes on, "they minimized focus on the event and maximized emphasis on their recovery and strength."

Activist Ben Yager, 24, of Grand Junction, Colo., – a survivor himself – uses the term when talking about sexual assault. "The word is validation of the fact that a person survived an ordeal," he said. "For a lot of us, it's a big deal to survive every day. Were we victimized by a perpetrator? Yes. But are we still alive? Yes. Changing our terminology is part of reclaiming ourselves and not allowing victimization to destroy us."

In the summer of 2008, Yager volunteered with the organizing body Unconventional Denver, an anarchist protest group formed to oppose the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Colorado's capital city in August. Local anarchists and anti-capitalists designed the group as a mouthpiece to speak out against the injustice of a two-party electoral system.

In planning for the protests, Unconventional Denver created a branch called the "Accountability and Mediation Team" (AMT), which was responsible for meeting the needs of survivors at the DNC protests. These needs could range from asking a perpetrator to leave the convergence space to starting a dialogue with the perpetrator. Yager was a member of the AMT and explained that the reason for this safeguard is that, despite being oriented toward change, activists are not immune to crossing personal boundaries and perpetrating sexual assault. They just don't often like to realize it.

He also explained that "mediation" suggests finding a compromise between both parties in a difficult situation. His team's goal, however, was to ensure that any dialogue that happened was safe and supportive of the survivor. The AMT's vision was to create a space that felt safe for survivors – or at least safer than other spaces. "We should talk about safer space when talking about public space, because we can't make a space 100 percent safe," Yager said.

According to the AMT, making a "Safer Space" for sexual assault survivors involves a three-tiered strategy:

The first step is working to prevent unsafe and oppressive behaviors. What is defined as "unsafe," according to Yager, is behavior or language that is dismissive, reinforces "rape culture" or implies that consent is unimportant or not needed.

The second tier of a Safer Space is actively supporting survivors by meeting their needs and wishes. These include logistical and physical needs as well as emotional ones (such as watching for triggering events, flashbacks or perpetrators in the survivor's space).

Finally, the cardinal rule of a Safer Space is simply to respect the survivors and never question their feelings or needs surrounding the assault.

Many activists would like to believe that because they oppose oppression, they are immune to acting oppressively. Unfortunately, oppressive behavior is socialized into even the most radical anarchist. Because of this phenomenon, there is often a need at mobilizations for "identity-based Safer Spaces," where women, trans folks or people of color can organize, share, relax or decompress. The idea is to take a break from the internalized racism, or sexism, or homophobia, or hetero-normativity, and so on, that burdens even the most socially conscious activists seeking to fight all forms of oppression.

These efforts to make spaces "safer" at mobilizations seem to some like misplaced energy, however. In Denver, Yager explained, he and his team mostly experienced cooperation during the DNC protest itself, but there was some skepticism around the ideas of "Safer Space" and "survivor support" in the initial organizing phase. Some organizers felt like it was disruptive and consumed too much time and energy.

The confusion about priorities stemmed from the fact that none of the discussed perpetrators had committed overtly violent crimes. While most activists try to avoid calling on the police, the lack of alternatives can force people to take rapes of a certain nature out of the hands of the community. For example, violent perpetrators such as Omar Yoguez Singu – who raped and killed U.S. activist Sali Grace Eiler with a machete in September 2008 – are admittedly better off behind bars. But some assaults are the result of "rape culture" socialization, in which consent is not considered. The survivors of these assaults argue that their attacks should not be downplayed as non-traumatic. Their perpetrators acted inappropriately or were unable to recognize when touching was non-consensual. Some had been in relationships with their partners who forced them into non-consensual sex. Some had been sleeping next to a friend or acquaintance and woke up with their hands wandering. Some had gotten drunk at a party and done something regrettable for everyone involved. These kinds of assaults, if reported to police, at most punish the perpetrator with jail time or a fine – neither of which help remediate the attack.

Furthermore, such incidents likely would not be labeled "criminal" – and if they were, the legal system and the prison industrial complex would be prepared to do little in the way of rehabilitation. That is why the AMT developed a policy on how to deal with perpetrators as a method of protecting the community while avoiding outsourcing their conflicts.

The AMT branch of Unconventional Denver was lucky to receive little trouble from protesters regarding their sexual assault policy, but Yager recalled some opposition when he and a group of individuals tried to do something similar at the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) protest in Miami in 2003.

During one incident, the survivor identified a fellow protester as her perpetrator and said that she was uncomfortable with him in the convergence space – a public meeting point for everyone involved in the mobilization. Respecting her request, organizers prohibited the perpetrator from entering the space. This protocol may sound extreme considering that the assault itself was over and done with, but Yager stands by the strict policies. "In an effort for total liberation," he said, "we can't fail our communities and fail to act accordingly. We need to create our new world at the same time that we're tearing down the old one."

One of the AMT's rules was that perpetrators would not be allowed in the convergence space unless they were in an "accountability process." Perpetrators had to check in so the AMT could find out what their individual process was (usually assigned by the survivor).

An accountability process is a process in which the survivor and their community hold the perpetrator accountable for the sexual assault so as to change his or her behavior patterns and protect others in the community from those destructive behaviors.

Accountability processes can serve any of the following three purposes:

To make the survivor feel safe. One example of this sort of process is requesting that perpetrators stay away from places that survivors go. In extreme cases, the request could include leaving the community or city entirely.

To impose lifestyle guidelines or boundaries for the perpetrator to avoid similar situations in the future. This could include requiring the perpetrator to inform all sexual or romantic partners about the assault. If the assault happened under the influence, the request could include the perpetrator limiting his or her intake of alcohol.

To enact long-term emotional work with the perpetrator to change behaviors and be welcome again in the community. These behaviors can stem from an abusive history in which the perpetrator was taught that non-consensual or oppressive behavior is an acceptable way of interacting. An accountability process can play an important part in learning from those patterns.

"We get asked a lot why are there so many assaulters that we need policy," Yager said. "What's wrong with our community? My response is that there are assaulters in every community and [assaults] happen in all communities – what's unique about ours is that we're actively addressing it. And we're doing so without the police."

This radical move to work without the police in an assault situation is a step toward eliminating the need for government, which is the ultimate goal of anarchists involved in groups like Unconventional Denver. Not only is it a statement on behalf of Unconventional Denver that they can handle crises without the help of authorities, it is also a tactical measure to avoid further trauma.

According to Yager, the police's process for dealing with such incidents tends to re-victimize and re-traumatize survivors without effecting any results. What's worse is that police have a sordid history of acting as perpetrators themselves.

In March 2004, four months after the FTAA protests in Miami, three women filed a class action lawsuit against Miami-Dade County and several county corrections officials for unnecessary and invasive strip searches. Judith Haney, 50, Liat Mayer, 19, and Jamie Loughner, 39, were arrested for "failure to disperse." Once inside the jail, the women alleged that they were ordered to remove all their clothes for inspection, and were not allowed to put them back on until they squatted and "hopped like a bunny" three times. Mayer further specified that the door to the room was left open, and people passing in the hallway could see her naked.

According to Florida law, people who have been arrested for minor offenses should not be subjected to strip searches unless the person is arrested on a drug charge, is suspected of having contraband or is booked on a violent offense. The law also requires supervisors to give written authorization for such a search.

In April 2005, over a year after filing the suit, the court settled that Miami-Dade County would pay out over $6 million to the three plaintiffs, as well as thousands of other women who passed through the jail and were subjected to strip searches since 2000. In a statement, Judith Haney said, "During the process of the suit, we identified a potential class size of 10– to 20,000 women who were subjected to these dehumanizing searches over a four-year time period. Yet we know that the practice lasted seven years. That means that it is likely that over 20,000 women were subjected to these searches. These women may be elderly, physically or mentally disabled, menstruating or pregnant."

Through this lawsuit, Haney and her attorneys also learned that prior to filing the complaint, no one in the Miami-Dade justice system, nor the Florida Justice Institute (a firm that deals specifically with prisoners' rights), had known about the practice of strip-searching misdemeanants. "Miami-Dade has stopped strip-searching pre-arraignment misdemeanants," Haney said, "as has Sacramento, San Francisco and New York City. But it took class action lawsuits to make that happen. These searches happen on the doorstep of the prison system, not deep inside. If this level of humiliation is happening to pre-arraignment misdemeanants, what's happening to the women who are deeper inside the system?"

Police are not always directly responsible for the sexual assault that happens within a prison's walls; but they are known for turning a blind eye to sexual assault committed by other inmates. Trans and queer people especially have proven to be high-profile targets, as illustrated by the Alexis Giraldo case. Giraldo, who was born as a man but lives as a woman, filed a lawsuit in 2007 against the California Department of Corrections, claiming that she had been repeatedly beaten and raped by her male cell mate at Folsom State Prison while guards ignored her complaints.

While there is still insufficient data on the extent of prison rape in the United States, experts have conservatively estimated that 13 percent of all inmates in the country have been sexually assaulted – which does not include repeat assaults. By this estimate, approximately 200,000 current inmates have been or will be sexually assaulted while incarcerated. This would mean that nearly one million people have been sexually assaulted or raped in jail in the last 20 years.

The issue of intra-jail sexual assault is being slowly and bureaucratically addressed by the system through pieces of legislature such as the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA) and the lesser-known California-based bill called the Sexual Abuse in Detention Act of 2005. But these new rules are just words that make the law books heavier. Real change can only be found when people work from the grassroots up to reshape the way that sexual abuse is viewed and to iron out the crinkles in the social fabric that leave perpetrators unaccountable.

Indeed, Unconventional Denver drafted their sexual assault policy based on a 15-page document by the RNC Welcoming Committee (a similar group organizing against the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn.). In the preface to the policy, Unconventional Denver asked:

"When sexual assault happens in our community, is there a safer and more effective means for us to deal with it than calling the police? What role does the state play in creating and fostering rape culture? Why do the predominate models for addressing sexual assault fail to prevent it from happening again, fail to address the needs a survivor and their community have from a perpetrator, and not support the survivor in reclaiming the space and emotional stability lost in their lives due to the assault?"

The Denver anti-DNC protests saw the first mobilization with a process for police-related sexual assault within the legal system. While survivors could come to the AMT for support, they were still not able to do much mediation with police. Instead, the Unconventional Denver legal team, known as the People's Law Project, designated a group as "survivor support" people. Through this branch of the legal team, survivors could decide what they wanted to pursue within the legal system; that is, by prioritizing emotional wellbeing over legal expectations, the survivor could refuse to show to trial, request a trial in absentia in order to fight criminal charges from protesting, or request a civil process in which the support person would advocate for the survivor in a civil suit in court.

Survivors did not need to prove to the legal team that they were assaulted, which has been an issue in the past. The legal person would still be there to support them in court, in the legal process and within the legal team. Despite there having been no known incident of police-related sexual assault at the 2008 DNC protests, Unconventional Denver and the People's Law Project saw the safety net of this process as essential. After all, many times protest legal teams don't find out about assaults until long after the fact.

"Being assaulted is a terrifying, disempowering experience," Yager said, "and it's up to the survivor whether or not they want to come forward about it to the AMT, the legal team, friends and family or anyone." At the FTAA protests, Miami Activist Defense knew that certain people were at risk but did not get information on specific assaults until four years later.

Unconventional Denver and activists like Ben Yager nod to the past of anarchist and feminist movements, knowing that they have begun to address a serious issue that has long been swept under the rug of anti-authoritarian activism. The movement is learning that the struggle is within itself as much as it is without. Part of envisioning a new, better world is practicing being part of that new, better world, which addresses internalized oppression and supports its community members who have survived it.

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