Carrying the weight together

November 4, 2014

Elizabeth Schulte gathers reports from international Carry That Weight day of action events calling for justice for survivors of sexual assault.

AT THE heart of the Carry That Weight actions that began at Columbia University to protest the administration's handling of sexual assault cases is solidarity and collective action--that together rape survivors and their supporters can bring this injustice to light.

The October 29 Carry that Weight day of action was no exception, as students around the country, and around the world, replicated the protests at Columbia by carrying mattresses around their campuses.

Mattresses quickly became symbols of the movement after Columbia senior Emma Sulkowicz began their senior art project titled "Mattress Project: Carry That Weight," pledging to carry a dorm mattress everywhere they go on campus as long as the student who raped them on the first day of their sophomore year remains at the school.

"In my case, I was raped in my own bed," Sulkowicz told Democracy Now. "And of course, rape can happen anywhere, but for me, it sort of desecrated one of the most intimate and private places of my life. And the way that I've brought my story from a place that I keep secret out into the public eye sort of mirrors carrying the mattress out into the light for everyone."

UC Berkeley students gather to show their solidarity with the Carry That Weight protests
UC Berkeley students gather to show their solidarity with the Carry That Weight protests (Geming Lai | SW)

As other people helped Sulkowicz carry the mattress through campus, the hidden burden that sexual assault survivors are typically made to carry privately and alone became public, and the burden was no longer just hers to bear.

These acts of defiance and solidarity, alongside a series of angry protests featuring rape survivors who retold their experiences navigating through an impenetrable sea of university red tape, have helped shine a spotlight on how college administrations treat women seeking justice.

On October 29, this message was shared by students at more than 130 campuses in more than 30 states and five countries, according to organizers. From coast to coast, supporters turned out to say that they aren't going away, but their numbers are growing.

AT COLUMBIA University in New York City, some 500 people turned out on October 29 called by No Red Tape Columbia and Carrying the Weight Together. A diverse group made up the angry protest, including representatives of Students for Justice in Palestine as well as the mock trial club and swing dance team. Survivors spoke out about their personal experiences struggling to be heard by the university administration.

Twenty-eight student groups sponsored 28 mattresses, representing the 28 people who have filed federal complaints against the university since April, that were carried at the protest--plus more mattresses that individuals who joined the protest brought with them.

All the mattresses were carried to the home of university President Lee Bollinger, where they were piled on his doorstep as protesters taped a list of demands to his door.

We wanted to make sure he could not ignore us," said Zoe Ridolfi-Starr of No Red Tape. "It is more and more clear that we have to bring this issue to his literal doorstep if that's what we have to do to make sure our voices are heard and survivors are protected in this community."

The list of 10 demands included prioritizing the voices of survivors and activists in the development and implementation of policy, requiring comprehensive and program-appropriate prevention education for all students at least once per semester, and removing deans from decision-making roles in the disciplinary process.

The tenth demand is to reopen Emma Sulkowicz's case, which the administration has failed to address at all.

A continent away at the University of California (UC) at Berkeley, students gathered in front of Sather Gate at the center of campus holding protest signs and carrying mattresses to show their solidarity with sexual assault survivors. Some of the messages on signs included, "Where I am, at what time, is no excuse for rape," "We are not alone, carry the weight together" and "We deserve to have a rape-free campus."

Other signs highlighted the sexual violence on the UC-Berkeley campus. "Nationally 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted before they graduate. At UC Berkeley it's 1 in 3," said one sign, referring to a recent campus research study. "It has been six years since an assailant has been dismissed from our school," read another sign.

In an op-ed to the Daily Californian, Sofie Karasek, co-founder of End Rape on Campus, and Meghan Warner, director of the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC) Sexual Assault Commission, said that administrators have effectively avoided seriously combatting the crisis by spending valuable resources on superficial measures and that "serious punishments for rape and sexual assault do not exist at UC Berkeley."

The protest, which was sponsored by the ASUC Sexual Assault Commission and student senator Haley Broder of the Cal Students for Equal Rights and a Valid Education, was significant in raising awareness about the injustices that survivors have had to endure and confronting the university administration that has failed them.

This protest attracted some 30 people, and at least two independent groups of students were also seen taking part in their own "Carry That Weight" actions on campus as part of the day of action.

PEOPLE TAKING up the call to "Carry That Weight" was repeated on campus after campus, in small and large actions, revealing how many sexual assault survivors are denied justice by their universities--and how many people want to speak out so that their stories are heard. The day of action's Facebook page provides a snapshot of the events that sprang up on campus after campus. Some were organized by existing groups, but many were organized by individuals via social media using the hashtag #carrythatweight.

At Rutgers University in New Brunswick, students, faculty and staff marched down College Avenue carrying mattresses above their heads in an action organized by the Rutgers group Women Organizing Against Harassment.

"Victim blaming is never acceptable, and putting the onus of rape prevention on women is really the wrong place to put it. Rape should be prevented by potential rapists," said Laura Christiansen, program coordinator at Rutgers Student Life.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, some 50 people turned out to join the protest. Protesters marched with mattresses to the dean's office, and before they left, they taped their posters to the dean's door. Many protesters joined a living-wage protest happening at the same time, and the whole group sang "Solidarity Forever" together.

Other participating campuses included Stanford University, the University of Michigan, University of Southern California, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, Arizona State University and the University of North Carolina, to name a few.

At Georgetown University, activists say that all told, some 200 people took part in Carry That Weight events on campus, which included tabling to raise awareness about campus sexual assault.

"Part of what this day is really about is just being very visible and public about our support and solidarity with all survivors of sexual assault," Kyra Hanlon told a campus newspaper. "We are standing in solidarity with Emma, and our event is inspired by them, but we really want to make sure that students know that sexual assault does happen at Georgetown. It happens in our own beds and to our friends. But there's also a group of students who care about this issue, who want to see change happen. Students can join in this dialogue and really help make that change possible."

Solidarity actions were also organized at a few campuses outside the U.S., including Central European University in Budapest.

Geming Lai, Corey Larson, Cami Q, Sherry Wolf and Elizabeth Wrigley-Field contributed to this article.

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