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Take Back the Night, and the Agenda

 

It took a little determination last Thursday evening (April 27) to head inside from the gorgeous spring sunshine to the oppressive South Mall concourse for Albany’s annual Take Back the Night rally. Of course it’s hard to predict April weather, so this was the safer route in terms of comfort. The psychology of being in what for me was a somewhat claustrophobic space may have also been apropos, if not exactly liberating.

Take Back the Night is a powerful event—I almost called it institution, but that’s not right. More of a cultural meme, like Gay Pride. The first marches and protests under that banner were held in the late ’70s in Europe and the United States largely to draw attention to how widely under-reported and under-prosecuted the crime of rape was and to resist a culture that told women it was their fault and they should stay in at night (among other things) to stay safe.

That’s a fight that is still not won, though it has improved. And many Take Back the Nights have conscientiously expanded to address all forms of sexual assault—happening, as the Albany event’s literature was careful to point out, to different genders and at all times of day.

This evolution is a good thing in many ways, since stranger rape is only a small portion of the sexual assaults that happen, and many others are even harder to address. It was good to see more men present at the rally, and a man represented among the survivors who spoke.

It also means that the focus has been shifted heavily toward hearing the stories of survivors. The four survivors who spoke on Thursday were brave and articulate, and each had extremely different stories that defied the imagination even as they sounded terrifyingly familiar. A women attacked and nearly choked to death in a public place by an ex, who then only got one day in jail. A boy beaten viciously by his father who turned to friends for safety was instead sexually molested by them.

They also spoke of courage and recovery, taking back their lives, and the crowd applauded each time they mentioned key steps they’d taken toward healing—kicking an addiction, speaking out about what they’d experienced. This was not an event about victim status.

The final speaker also spoke movingly of coming to several Take Back the Nights, often in a support role for others, before she came around to realizing she needed to deal with her own history of abuse.

This is the kind of role such events can play—creating a space to publicly affirm that such stories are not shameful, reminding everyone that there is still work to do.

It can be an awkward transition though, from such intimate sharing to protest march, two very different venues. After the survivors and some poetry, thanks to the efforts of the Hudson Valley Writers Guild, which sponsored a poetry contest on a Take Back the Night theme (disclosure: I was one of the readers), the group moved directly to marching. It took at least a third of the route (across Lark Street and down State to the Capitol) for the group to get some of the suggested chants going—this was partly due to a lack of a rhythm section or experienced chant leaders (it’s harder than you think to get a large, moving group of people to say the same thing in unison). But I suspect it was also due to the abrupt change in tone and energy from the rally.

It took me until the next day to realize that one of the transitions that may have been missing was action items. Why were we marching? Were we angry or mournful or defiant? What were we demanding? Who were we speaking to? What does Take Back the Night mean in a world where everyone knows the phrase “No means no,” even if they don’t all respect it?

No one at the rally had mentioned changes to push for or support in legislation or law enforcement, programs that needed more funding or neighborhood watches to attend. There were no references to state legislative interns or the only recently stabilized status of the county Crime Victims and Sexual Assault Center. There was also no discussion of more individual things like learning the warning signs that a friend is in an abusive relationship, challenging attitudes that lead to sexual violence, or taking self-defense classes.

Much of this and more was in fact present in the literature at the many tables staffed by various sponsoring organizations. I speculate that the involvement of government agencies in sponsoring the event may have made it dicey to select any particular platform to promote.

In any case, the rally was about survivors and their stories, and was addressed to other survivors to encourage them to step forward. A powerful and worthy thing to do. But marching isn’t as good a venue for that. Perhaps if it had actually been after dark, then just being out in the streets in a group would have had more resonance. (“It was supposed to be Take Back the Night,” noted one marcher, “not Take Back Just Before Sunset.”)

One survivor I spoke with afterward said she thought the march had felt more relevant in previous years when the rally had been held in Washington Park and the march had gone “through the student neighborhoods.” It had felt, she said, like they had a more specific message of empowerment for a specific audience

These are small questions of tactics. In the long run, much as with gay rights, it will be the slow steady changing of culture that comes with people telling their stories, being visible and putting their feet down about unacceptable behavior that will have the most effect.

But if, as one of the organizers did, you want to say “Hopefully we won’t have to be back here next year,” it might not hurt to give people some intermediate goals to strive for, so that when they are back next year, it can feel like something has changed, even for those who are not survivors who have just worked up the courage to break the silence.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

 

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