It was chilly and gray at 6:00p.m. that Thursday. One hundred, maybe 200 people were gathered at the bottom of the Aztec Center Free Speech Steps on April 27. They were mostly students and the vast majority were women.
Clumps of women in sorority sweatshirts dotted the crowd, as did an equal number of women in purple T-shirts that read “Let’s Talk About Sex,” and “Break the Silence, Stop the Violence.” Two uniformed campus police officers stood by their truck at the base of the steps, watching the proceedings.
A podium at the top of the stairs stood like a pulpit in front of the speaker, and the crowd listened in respectful silence until it was appropriate to laugh or cheer. A large blank projection screen was set up behind her, but the wind knocked it over mid-sentence.
“I guess that’s intermission,” she said. “That’s good, because I was starting to get a little choked up.”
The crowd laughed a little, and Tracy Johnson from the San Diego Rape Crisis Center went on speaking.
“Aren’t you all here to raise awareness? Aren’t you all here to show other students, your faculty, administration, and public safety group that you’re serious about sexual violence on campus, and you want them to be too?” shouted Johnson, and the crowd cheered. “Let’s increase community awareness… and help change the culture of sexual violence!”
It was the annual Take Back the Night rally at San Diego State University.
“Take Back the Night has been going on for 28 years in the US,” Johnson said into the microphone, competing with the wind again. “Let’s put that into perspective: that’s almost three decades of Take Back the Night.
“On the one hand, I want to celebrate – and I do celebrate each and every one of you for taking the time to care and wanting to put an end to this silent epidemic. On the other hand I’m distressed, as you can imagine – 28 years of Take Back the Nights and they still have to exist?”
According to Johnson, one in three women has been or will be assaulted in her lifetime. One in twelve men will share the same fate.
“The American Medical Association has declared sexual assault an epidemic in our society,” she said. “This is more than Take Back the Night tonight. This is Take Back Our Rights – our right to walk home…, our right to run in the evening after a long day of classes, our right to go to the bar for a drink, or for many drinks, and not fear that someone will hurt us, or violate us, and the right to go out… and be safe!”
Johnson stepped down from the podium and the women staffing the even passed out glow sticks, picket signs, and chant sheets printed on squares of pink paper. The march portion of the evening had begun, and the crowd flowed between the columns of Aztec Center and over the footbridge. Their path took them between the residence halls, down Montezuma Ave., and up Campanile Rd. where the throng held up traffic for a good five minutes.
“Our bodies, our minds, our right to decide!” yelled the marchers, along with some other more colorful slogans.
Car horns honked as they chanted their way down either side of Fraternity Row before heading back toward Love Library. The officers drove behind the marchers to discourage onlookers from causing trouble.
One resident on Hardy Ave., Jake Kobernick, was standing outside his house watching the procession.
“What they’re saying obviously I agree with,” he said. “I think everyone does. I don’t know what protesting is going to do down these streets though. It is nice to see that they’re standing up and that they’re doing something. For sure, it’ll raise awareness. I’m sure there are people down these streets who don’t even think about [violence against women]”
Once back at the Free Speech Steps, white candles were distributed and lit, although it wasn’t quite dark yet. The flames sputtered and dipped against the weather but most kept from going out. Poet and performer Kimberly Dark, the other featured speaker of the night, stepped up to the podium. A PowerPoint presentation displaying various facts about sexual violence churned on the big screen behind her.
“First of all, I need to liberate myself from this podium!” she said as she pulled the microphone from its stand. A few of the women cheered. She recited a poem about discovering the broken and bloody victim of incest in a public bathroom one night after work. The crowd didn’t make any sound over the noise of the wind and Dark’s words hung heavy for a moment.
“Thought becomes word becomes deed becomes habit becomes culture,” she said. “So what you all have done here this evening in marching and getting together is you have turned stories into action. And that is a very powerful thing.”
It was time for testimonials. A few dozen of the remaining crowd, maybe a third its original size, approached the microphone, and, one by one, they shared their own quiet tragedies of sexual violence and abuse. Hugs and tears flowed freely, and the evening began to draw to a close.
“As you leave tonight remember the reality is that most of the violence against women is not perpetrated in public places,” Johnson had said earlier in the night. “Most of the violence against women happens in our own homes, in our personal relationships.”
Take Back the Night has been hosted by the Women’s Resource Center at SDSU every spring for the last several years, but this year’s rally was different. It was a protest against sexual violence just like in past years, but this time the WRC was joined by the SDSU chapter of the National Organization for Women, several Sorority houses, and Fraternity Men Against Negative Environments and Rape Situations, or ‘Frat Manners’.
“If we work together we’ll be even stronger,” said Christina Gonzalez, co-president of the campus chapter of NOW. NOW has been a supporting organization behind Take Back the Night, which is hosted by the WRC, for three years, but just this year the two organizations began coordinating their efforts to create Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which ran from April 10-27. T-shirts that read “I ? Consensual Sex” were sold, and then back-ordered. The second annual Love Your Body Festival was held on April 14.
“I think it’s great,” said Manny Konedeng of Frat Manners, who also spoke briefly before the march. “It’s a great turnout.”
Frat Manners has been on campus for over three years, and they got involved with Take Back the Night after some fraternity men were caught throwing things at the marchers one year, said Konedeng. The men of Frat Manners decided to get involved and take action.
“Sexual assault prevention starts with a sense of responsibility for your actions,” Konedeng said, “and it begins with respect for women.”
The same incident with the fraternities was cited as a reason for the campus police’s presence as well. Lea Dennis, an alumnus who participated in the march several years ago, said there were also problems with men following women into the restrooms during the event, but campus police could not confirm or deny the report.
Officer Ruben Luna, on duty during the march, said that though he was relatively new to the force, he had heard about fraternity men exposing themselves to the marchers and throwing eggs. Overall, though, he said Take Back the Night was a very positive event.
Corporal Josh Mays patrolled the rally last year, one of two officers assigned to the march, and though he cited the reason for police presence as a request by event organizers, he too saw the rally as a positive measure on campus.
“As with any type of issue or event,” said Mays, “you raise awareness and awareness is power. When you have an event with media and police presence people are going to take notice. In that sense I think it was a successful event.”
The number of sexual assaults on campus since the introduction of Take Back the Night has fluctuated some, but Mays could not confirm any direct correlation between the event and the crime rates – there are simply too many factors to consider, he said. More detailed information on campus crime rates and bulletins is available at www.dps.sdsu.edu.
“Take Back the Night and RAD (the Rape Aggression Defense program offered to women on campus) are the most prominent programs on campus,” said Mays.
And while the number of assaults dropped significantly between 2004 and 2005, there was an increase in forcible sexual assaults this year, from 11 to 16, but Mays said the participants in these programs were not likely the victims. Even so, the majority of attacks on campus were perpetrated by acquaintances. According to Mays, only three of the attacks listed in the department’s statistics from recent years were stranger rapes.
Just how prominent are these campus programs for women’s safety, though? While there was a significant turnout of sorority members at Take Back the Night, not one of the women interviewed from Alpha Phi or Sigma Alpha Zeta had ever heard of the event before the Pan-Hellenic Council made the announcement this year and encouraged them to attend. Even Kobernick, who lives along the route that the march has taken for the last several years, had never heard of the event until it strolled through his front yard.
Unlike in previous years, the march wasn’t listed in the campus e-Newsletter. NOW and the WRC manned a table in the Aztec Center, selling T-shirts and passing out purple fliers all that week, but there was no big announcement on campus to let the approximately 40 thousand students know about it.
Associated Students President Chris Manigault spoke during the rally, with ideas to make sexual assault an even more prominent issue on campus.
“Let’s march during orientation,” he said. Incoming freshman especially need to be made aware, said Manigault.
“These are things people think about but never say,” said event participant Jennifer Cesena. “We need to be out here more than once a year.”