It was a last minute choice, but after reading the two Rolling Stones articles about rape at UVa, i knew i had to go to the protest. Because of the hasty preparations and the large group going, i grabbed a dozen black gloves from commie clothes.
On the way into the protest, much of the conversation was about the choice to protest at the fraternity. In our minivan there seemed to be agreement that the university’s complicity in these sexual assaults was what really needed action and change. The university’s internal policies tend to punish survivors and set free perpetrators and thus fosters ongoing sexual assault. The first Rolling Stones article points out that 86 schools are being investigated by the Dept. of Education because they are suspected of denying students their equal right to education by inadequately handling sexual-violence complaints. UVa is one of only 12 under the harsher “compliance review”. Which are “… targeted efforts to go after very serious concerns,” says Office of Civil Rights assistant secretary Catherine Lhamon. “We don’t open compliance reviews unless we have something that we think merits it.” This is likely because not a single student has been expelled for sexual assault at UVa for the last 7 years.
We arrived a bit late for the protest, and it had already broken up into discussion groups. There was a policy group, an alumni group, a women’s group, a group discussing fraternity reform, and some others. Some local activists looking for a more confrontational action complained that we were not going to simply talk the university or the fraternities into changing their ways. There was also a critique of “Facebook activism” in which students thought that by hitting like and posting some protest pictures these well entrenched cultures would shift.
i joined the policy discussion group for a while, but because i was late, what ever groundrules there were about who could talk and who was facilitating eluded me. And there were lots of participants who had quite charged feelings on the topic, including a couple of UVa rape survivors who were speaking powerfully and critically about how the university failed in handling their personal cases. It did not feel like the right place to share my ideas.
i do have lots of thoughts about policy changes the university could make to reduce sexual assault based on many conversations with Abigail who is doing this work at University of Oregon, but this will be the subject of another post.
The fraternity at the center of the controversy, Phi Kappa Psi, has not had an easy time of it since the Rolling Stone article came out. There have been several attacks on the building itself. The members have moved out of the building to a hotel. And the fraternity voluntarily surrendered its “Fraternal Organizing Agreement”, which means for the moment it technically does not exist. UVa has suspended all Fraternity activities until Jan 2015, in response to the allegations.
Having brought in law enforcement to investigate the Rolling Stone gang-rape allegations (more than a year-and-a-half after the university was first made aware of them) the state fumbled its very first task. State Attorney General Mark Herring originally announced Mark Filip would be the University’s independent counsel to address its handling of sexual violence. Turns out Filip was a member of the fraternity at the center of the controversy. The appointment was reversed after this embarrassing mistake was made public.
There have been a handful of protests at UVa over the Rolling Stone article. A couple days before this one, more than 700 people came out to express their concern, frustration, and rage over the long history of sexual assault on campus and the university’s near total failure to reduce it.
UVa does not protest much. It is quite a quiet campus when it comes to activism, especially around gender issues. Rolling Stone characterized it this way:
From reading headlines today, one might think colleges have suddenly become hotbeds of protest by celebrated anti-rape activists. But like most colleges across America, genteel University of Virginia has no radical feminist culture seeking to upend the patriarchy. There are no red-tape-wearing protests like at Harvard, no “sex-positive” clubs promoting the female orgasm like at Yale, no mattress-hauling performance artists like at Columbia, and certainly no SlutWalks. UVA isn’t an edgy or progressive campus by any stretch. The pinnacle of its polite activism is its annual Take Back the Night vigil, which on this campus of 21,000 students attracts an audience of less than 500 souls. But the dearth of attention isn’t because rape doesn’t happen in Charlottesville. It’s because at UVA, rapes are kept quiet, both by students – who brush off sexual assaults as regrettable but inevitable casualties of their cherished party culture – and by an administration that critics say is less concerned with protecting students than it is with protecting its own reputation from scandal.
So i was unsurprised by some of the debate that was going on at this protest. One of the protest organizers with a bullhorn ended the working groups session and made a short speech on what is often called “diversity of tactics“. She said basically that many people have strong feelings about the issue of sexual assault on campus and there will be lots of different approaches to organizing based on these feelings. Some will want to engage the university in dialog and will stage peaceful protests and avoid confrontation with the police. Others will choose to confront the police and risk arrest. She called on the crowd to respect the different choices that different activist make and keep the focus on the university and frats which need to change most.
She did not talk specifically about property destruction and she certainly did not talk about violence against people [Sadly, there were lots of people in the crowd who thought property destruction was a form of violence.] These are the places where diversity of tactics gets tricky.
During the chanting which took place at the fraternity house after the discussion groups had ended, some protesters were chanting that the building should be burnt down. Several other protesters were quite upset with this chant and said so clearly. It stopped quickly.
There was an especially peculiar moment as people were risking arrest in which another protester upset about the gravity towards the arrest yelled at the protesters “Hello Gandhi, Hello Martin Luther King”. This simultaneously struck me is distressing and funny. How exactly did this person think Gandhi and MLK succeeded? It certainly was not by avoiding arrest (and much worse) at the hands of the authorities.
Four of us got arrested at the very end of the protest for trespassing: myself, Sapphyre, Edmund, and Caroline intern from Acorn. Going to the protest, it had not been any of our intentions to get arrested. And all through the protests the police and campus security had been basically invisible.
The overwhelming response to our arrests were positive. It also got a surprising amount of press, including the International Business Times, US network news, a mention in the LA Times, in Washington DC, the feminist press, local media, NBC 29 and of course campus media.
On Dec 4th we have our trial. Feel encouraged to come and join us at the Cville court on market street.
The most vexing and important question for the next generation of Occupy is what do we think about violence as a part of protest.
There is a philosophical framing of this argument as the acceptance or rejection of the strategy of a diversity of tactics. The unofficial spokes persons for the black block are the CrimethInc Kids who have a tight case for the activist right to violence
What is violence? Who gets to define it? Does it have a place in the pursuit of liberation? These age-old questions have returned to the fore during the Occupy movement. But this discussion never takes place on a level playing field; while some delegitimize violence, the language of legitimacy itself paves the way for the authorities to employ it.
The case against violence in the context of Occupy’s daughter movements is one of parasitism and culture. The black block attends events in which the principal organizers have declared that the philosophy of the event is a non-violent one. The event maybe family friendly, it might even be a permitted protest (something i would not recommend, but happens). So hundreds or perhaps even thousands of people show up expecting to have a certain type of experience. They come planning to express their political descent with a certain personal risk.
The black block is often seeking confrontation with the police. They are generally a small fraction of these larger events. By fighting with the police, they are basically using the other protesters who signed on to a different set of agreements as there shields and foils. Children might get tear gassed, grannies might get beat up by the cops, pacifists might end up in jail unexpectedly.
Of course if the black block wants to organize an action where the agenda of fighting with the police is explicate and is known to the participants, i have no problem with this. i might not choose to attend, or might choose to support it in some indirect way (i’ve done plenty of fighting with the police, i am currently retired from this sport), but i would not feel like a larger group of non-violent protesters was being used.
The real problem with the black block at Occupy and other non-violent identified events is that they damage the movement. It is often a stretch for people to come out and protest, they are taking personal risks to do this type of activity. Generally movements succeed by being persistent, by growing and by being clever in their tactics. If a minority of protesters, violating the spirit of the events agreements causes other protesters not to return to future events, they are setting the cause backwards.