Clearing the Fog: A retrospective on lessons learned from campus activism

Trigger warning: sexual assault, violence, racism

A Timeline of Violence, Sexism, and Student Activism at UBC Vancouver (2013):

  • April 19th/2013: “Stranger in the dark” sexual assault reported on UBC Vancouver campus
  • May 19th/2013: Another “stranger in the dark” sexual assault reported; goes unreported to the campus community
  • Sept 7/2013: CBC News reports Sauder School of Business FROSH Rape chant
  • Sept 28/2013: Third “stranger in the dark” sexual assault reported on UBC Vancouver campus in 2013
  • Oct 13/2013: Fourth “stranger in the dark” assault reported
  • Oct 19/2013: Fifth assault reported outside Totem Park Residences
  • Oct 27/2013: Sixth assault outside Gage Towers
  • Oct ~20-30/2013: Take Back the Night Rally Facebook Page gains over 800 attending and generates thousands of comments, trolls, and conversations
  • Oct 30/2013: Take Back the Night marches through campus from Museum of Anthropology to the campus RCMP headquarters on Wesbrook Mall
  • Nov/2013: Sometime within mid-October – mid-November, the “Don’t Walk Alone” campaign begins on campus, with posters and bus announcements on major UBC lines repeating the phrase, “Call Safewalk to escort you to your destination”.
  • Nov 5/2013: Composite sketch of suspect released, with a height discrepancy of half a foot between all the witnesses.
  • Nov 22/2013: March to Reclaim Consent

It’s been over a year since any violent stranger assaults have been reported on campus, but take a moment to remember the atmosphere it triggered in the fall of 2013: the weeks of thick fog that covered campus; the hushed conversations; posters, bus announcements, professors and peers admonishing us “Don’t walk alone.” I saw women check in with each other constantly, asking, “Do you have a ride home?” and a few well meaning men discussing vigilante action plans (none of which came to fruition). The anxiety hung thick in the air, and suddenly, the conversations about sexual assault that some of us have been having for years were in the forefront of everyone’s minds. It was as if the anxiety and fear some of us have felt our entire lives was suddenly released, and suddenly visible to everyone.

In the autumn of 2013 I helped spearhead the March to Reclaim Consent. There were a lot of people who were confused about why we were creating a conversation about consent when the issue was, according to RCMP, just one individual attacking women in the night. There were some people who told me I was wrong, annoying, and should just shut up, and more who congratulated me on my “values”, as if valuing the lives and safety of women is some kind of special trait.

There is a lot to be said for hindsight, and there are a few things I wish I’d better understood a year ago. What good is education and raising awareness if we never put our words into actions, and if we do organize action, what does it accomplish? How do you explain to a CBC news camera the importance of understanding the intersections of colonialism, poverty, race, capitalism, gender identity, and sexism, that these events are just a small town on the roadmap of a violent history? What is the point of fighting within this state of constant emotional exhaustion, if there are always going to be more people who don’t get it? This reflection is a retrospective of what we might take away from the events at UBC Vancouver in the fall of 2013.

What constitutes a protest?

During the planning phases for the March to Reclaim Consent, I was terrified that I wasn’t cut out for whatever I was doing, especially after the media frenzy of Take Back the Night. I had this feeling I hadn’t read enough feminist theory, and that I was a fraud for not actually retaining any information after reading Foucault, and for being very confused after hearing Judith Butler speak.

It turns out there isn’t a list of qualifications in order to be political, or an activist (aside from being a good listener). As a person who holds a ton of privilege, who has navigated UBC and various institutions with relative ease, I had access to a lot of great people who guided and connected us to resources provided by UBC and the Alma Mater Society. There were closed meeting spaces provided to us within 24 hours of asking. I had fairly jovial meetings with campus security. We had a loudspeaker system provided to us, and a number of amazing poets, professors and community activists spoke at this event. While the March to Reclaim Consent did not generate as much news or controversy as Take Back the Night, I felt confident that we had worked hard to consult one another, to create a safe and inclusive space.

The March to Reclaim Consent occurred because a group of activists felt like they needed to do something in an atmosphere of fog and anxiety. I tried to facilitate spaces where people felt safe to voice concern and ask questions without shame, because my priority was always that we were taking care of each other.

There is a little voice of doubt though, that asks what kind of impact did we actually have?

The issue with organizing a protest against rape culture is that the symptoms are so wide and varied that the point is often lost. Constructive changes turn into finger pointing. There is a devolution of organization, and then the deluge of attacking comments and derailing conversations. Once the major fires of the inciting incidents burn down and the newsfeeds turn back to cat videos, many of us are left to stoke the smoldering ashes, having tired, ineffective conversations such as, “Yes, catcalling is offensive”, or, “No, Anita Sarkeesian is not lying about death threats, being doxxed, and terrorist threats for speaking publicly”. These tired conversations, all on different topics, lead to the same conclusion: we are steeped in cultures of violence, and that violence disproportionately affects some people more than others.

These conversations have made me tired, and I, like others, carry enough privilege that I can sometimes hide from them.

I once met someone who believed if you were not willing to be arrested during a protest, you don’t care enough. While I disagree, because there is something deeply privileged about being certain you’ll survive the justice system unscathed, I was impressed by the conviction this person held. Part of me wanted to hold myself accountable to my own words that often call for change, no matter the price on my position in society. It takes a deep, unwavering energy to want change that hard, because there is often a high personal cost and loss of safety nets as a result.

It turns out that the biggest impediment to organizing activism, in my experience, is not any individuals or groups working or speaking out against us. It is our own lack of availability. We all had projects, papers, deadlines, jobs, and families, and the only reason I was able to do the organizational work I did was because I only had one course in my final year. “You do you” is my go-to mantra for myself and friends I work with, but what if the work needed is greater than yourself or your own comfort?

I organized by cooperating, obtaining permits, and promising to walk on sidewalks, and while that demonstration had its time and place, I wonder if we could have been a bit more disruptive. I wonder why I was so afraid to shake people out of their safety nets. Cooperating with UBC ensured safety, yes, but it also ensured those with power could glance at us over a cup of coffee from their glass offices, filing along the sidewalk, and then dismiss us as a “non-issue”.

We are young in a time of great change. But our voices need to be sustained. Are we protecting our safety nets, or are we settling into our hammocks? We don’t have time to be afraid to shake it up.

Remembering history and land

It seems fitting that I am writing this article from a crowded coffee shop at Oak Street and 12th Avenue, the location where the original Fairview campus of the University of British Columbia opened nearly a century ago. This land which now hosts a hospital is the unceded territory of the sḵwx̱wú7mesh, sel̓íl̓witulh, and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm nations. That this is stolen land is not a footnote or an afterthought – it is the first act of violence in a long history of violence and atrocities that occurred and continue to occur on this land.

I wish I had been more mindful of this fact in all of my conversations a year ago. I know, acknowledging colonialism as a settler is confusing and disconcerting at first to those whose complicated family histories allow them to call a new place home. It dismantles ideas that you never thought to question as a child, like the legitimacy of a nation built upon oppression and abuses, white-washed versions of history taught in our government approved high school curriculums, and the efficacy of our current systems of government. Tacitly accepting the continued oppression of people around you (whether you see it or not) is a much easier way to spend a sunny afternoon – but it does not contribute to the culture of equality and consent most of us say we’d like to be part of.

Fostering a consent culture depends largely upon people being able to meet each other on equal grounds. This is why any equality movement occurring on this land must give power to Indigenous voices, those who have been here all along. This is why we must actively give amplification to the voices with less power or ability. We can’t wish equality into existence because we actively have to create those equal connections.

“But all of that stuff happened in the past, Laura. We should all have a clean slate and live peacefully in our meritocracy!”

DNA is not destiny, but you exist on the shoulders of your ancestors. The tangible clues of forgotten histories are all around us, peppering our consciousness with street signs, building names, park names, statues. These pieces of history reflect whose power has shaped our society, and whose children benefit because of that power. Remembering that this land was taken without consent and with violence reminds me of the less tangible clues of our forgotten histories that continue unresolved – learned fears, poverty, depression, anxiety, cycles of violence. These cycles can continue on for generations, until an individual chooses to stop it by building a community of care around themselves. But violence cannot simply be forgotten; it rises like a thick fog, or a ghost, seeps into your life again unexpectedly, and is sometimes impossible to dispel on your own.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the causes of violence, whether it is a symptom of hunger and pain, and whether there actually is enough food, water, shelter, and love to go around. It sometimes feels like we live in this perpetual drought of resources in spite of the almost sickening abundance of North America. It is possible for this land to support those who call it home. It’s possible for other lands to yield abundance to the people who call those lands home. Call me an idealist, but if we can give all humans an equal and fair chance at access to sufficient food, shelter, and love, looking at those needs as human rights rather than comforts to those who can afford them, we might accidentally solve a lot of issues.

We also need to give an equal amount of respect to the land that provides those resources. I am thinking of the brave protesters on Burnaby Mountain who understand that everything we need to survive hinges on respecting our land, which is what Indigenous teachings have acknowledged for time immemorial. Instead of allowing these warnings of climate change to sink in and change our lifestyles, we continue our placid and comfortable existences (in which I am just as comfortable), waiting for something to force us into change.

But no one can force you to change, and I am realizing more and more every day that this is the basis of my feminism.  Any change incurred by force does nothing to change your heart, or true belief. This is why you cannot legislate violence and bigotry out of society. This is why the idea that we should have automatically become more progressive because “this is the future, man!” and “It’s 2014, I can’t believe we still _______” is false.

The passage of time does not effect change – people do.

This is, and is not about me

When I came into feminism and politics a handful of years ago, my discussions were very much centred on the personal – personal hurts, how social norms and body policing on the personal level affect representation on all levels. It was safe to discuss “feminism light” issues, because it is well-treaded territory, and most everyone experiences body insecurity on some level. But what I have come to know is that the discussions of our personal hurts go much deeper, and social expectations and body policing happen on a much larger, incomprehensible scale. What I have come to know is that my voice, opinion, and being are fairly insignificant against a pounding waterfall of issues, injuries, and atrocities. My story is no less and no more significant in the stream of this world.

Paradoxically, I have also come to know is that my voice, opinion, and being are indispensable to change.

Last year, depending on who I was talking to, I was simply an event organizer, helping an activist cause that I was only lightly invested in. “This isn’t about me,” I kept insisting to friends, reporters, journalists, all asking why I feel this issue, the conversation about consent, is so important. I felt okay to discuss the theories, the case studies, the evidence stacked to reveal social inequalities and continual apathy toward systemic violence. Yet, if you were to ask me a year ago why these stories of violence resonate so deeply within me, I would have probably given you a vague answer. I was, and still am, afraid of my own story, and continue to grapple with what to tell, whom to tell, and whether my mom will be reading it.

I’ve thought about sharing personal stories time and again, and then wondered whether it would do me any good to delve into details about that time in residence, or that three-year relationship, or that time he was drunk, or that time I was drunk, or the time I believed in God. I have several stories about times I was not asked, which has also impeded me from speaking. This is another thing we have to get over – you are allowed to have more than one story. Our current narrative allows you victimhood the first time, and anything past that you’re asking for it. We are multitudinous beings, with many stories and identities. These are things that have happened to me, but you don’t need to know these details in order to know me.

If you’re stepping on someone’s foot, they don’t need to describe the pain of the crushed toe in detail for you to realize that you should probably get off their foot. We don’t need the details of any one violent story in order to cease the action. The simple knowledge that an action has hurt an individual should be reason enough. Yet a lot of people will ask for details, look for the lie, or make it more dramatic in its repetition. The story, separated from the human, is talked about for a week, in its hundred incarnations, and then forgotten by the next terrible incident. Unless there is a personalization to the pain, a name and a face, we tend to forget or abstract the idea.

There is this hunger by media, and social media, for scandal. Six stranger sexual assaults on a campus is newsworthy, but hundreds of instances of domestic abuse and sexual assault by an individual known to the survivor, which also occur on the same campus – no, that is just personal, and it is not a social issue. A lot of people think these kinds of violence are just an ugly inevitability of life. The anonymity is required, but without the names and faces, many people don’t actually grasp the vastness of the amount of violence surrounding us. These things happen to other people, in other places, sometimes reported by an impersonal news outlet so we can all collectively gasp at individual atrocities, and never ask why we allow them to happen in the first place.

The personal is the political, and our bodies are the war zones of political histories. Our bodies, that we tell ourselves are not tall enough, white enough, rich enough, thin enough, and able enough, take all of this information in. Our bodies take in the time I was seven in Niagara Falls on family vacation and a white man muttered, “Fuckin’ Japs” as you walk by. Our bodies take in the “Fattie”, and the “Too chinky to date”, and the “You’re like a Twinkie”. Our bodies understand what it means when you walk in on a conversation of boys rating and comparing the bodies of women who live on your residence floor. Our bodies understand what it means when a police officer shoots another Black boy in America.

This is, and is not about me. While the details of my own story are unimportant, it is important that I help add words to this story being shaped in my community, and the stories of those around me.

What does this mean in retrospect?

Violence continues to be part of the thread that weaves our planes of existence, in spite of the largely unknown work of activists for hundreds of years. We all have a story, or know a story, or are so grateful to not have a story, even if we doubt ourselves that our story actually counts. We have all turned away or tolerated violence because there is very little we can do as individuals, without organizing.

So, in my mind at least, the activism on campus, no matter how organized or disorganized, big, small, hostile or passive, through petitions and demonstrations or in the conversation between friends, is valuable. The frustrated conversations you have with your mom’s friends, or with a coworker, or a fellow student on Facebook is valuable. Being wrong and then coming back to a conversation to correct yourself, or allowing yourself to change your mind, or holding to your opinion in spite of multiple naysayers is valuable. Do not let them tell you your conversations, learning, and teachings are not valuable.

I am not a person who thinks violence can be entirely eradicated. No matter how many people we educate, or bring to justice, no matter how many organizations we form, or protests we stage, tragedy will always continue to occur. However, I would someday like to feel a tragedy as being a tragedy, instead of inevitability. I would like to be shocked again. I would like to be surprised again.

I haven’t written as much or been as vocal this past year. I’ve been learning how to ask for what I need. I’ve been learning how to let go of what I don’t need. I’ve been learning how to love this year (it turns out this is all quite difficult to do, and there is more of my snot in my friends’ hair than I care to admit). Build a community of care and consent, even if it is just a community of two to start. Ask for embraces by holding your arms open and pausing. Be mindful of the burdens of others. Be mindful of your own burdens. You will constantly have to remind yourself and your community when consent is taken for granted, so be gentle but unyielding.

Eventually the fog might clear, and we might surprise ourselves again.

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