Why we walked out against sexual assault

December 20, 2018

Anger at the Senate confirmation of conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, even after senators heard Christine Blasey Ford testify that he had sexually assaulted her in high school, spilled over in walkouts at five high schools in Minnesota’s Twin Cities in October.

St. Paul’s North High School students Hailey Dickinson, Riley Ebner and Sabrina Rodriguez were part of protests that brought out some 55 students to protest sexual violence. Dickinson, who is a sophomore, and Ebner and Rodriguez, who are juniors, spoke with Socialist Worker's Elizabeth Wrigley-Field about their organizing.

TELL US about the walkout you organized against sexual violence. Why did you organize it and what happened?

Sabrina: I got a text from a friend about a Facebook account called “October 12 Walk.” I was angry about Kavanaugh’s confirmation so I texted [Hailey and Riley about organizing a walkout]. Surprisingly, we organized it in a couple days, and it went really well.

Riley: I had been really upset about Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. At first, we were going to keep the walkout at our school. And then it came up at a meeting: What if we went to the state Capitol in St. Paul? We agreed that would be more effective, so then we expanded it beyond our school.

Students speak out against sexual assault on the steps of the state Capitol in St. Paul
Students speak out against sexual assault on the steps of the state Capitol in St. Paul (Elizabeth Wrigley-Field | SW)

Sabrina: The three of us met up a few times at school and made sure we got a base plan before we got it out to everyone else. And then we made a Facebook event, and things went from there.

Riley: There was a solid group of five or six of us. We were the ones who got it set up and got the logistics figured out, and they were like: we will for sure go and support you guys.

Sabrina: We didn’t have a lot of people from our school. It was mostly from around the area.

Riley: It was so cool because we did get to know them.

Sabrina: We made a couple new friends.

Riley: And just to have people we didn’t even know coming made it more impactful for me.

Sabrina: And even though it wasn’t a lot of people, you knew that those people cared. They went because they cared.

Hailey: We have a group chat now of about 15 people who came.

HOW DID you decide who to invite? For example, was there a particular thinking about including Black Lives Matter?

Hailey: I reached out to someone I knew from the Women’s March, and once the event was spreading on Facebook, people started contacting us. Black Lives Matter reached out to us.

Sabrina: It was good to include them because people of color are assaulted, and that doesn’t get talked about as much. We actually didn’t have a lot of racial diversity at the march, so it was important to have somebody from BLM there.

WHAT KIND of feedback did you get after your action?

Riley: We got a lot of positive feedback. I got a lot of messages from friends and teachers who were proud of us.

Sabrina: Compared to the other one we did, this was a good one. It was less controversial.

YES, TELL me about that other one. This was not the first walkout you guys organized together.

Riley: Sabrina and I and another friend organized the walkout at our school last year for gun reform. We had a couple of weeks.

Sabrina: And then our administration and student council got involved. Having their involvement made a big difference.

Riley: But they still included us and our perspectives, and gave us a big say in how it went. We had 900 people from our school come out. I gave a speech, and it was such a powerful day.

I’VE ALMOST never heard of that before — that you initiated this action and the administration supported it, but they didn’t take it over from you?

Sabrina: Well, they couldn’t take it over.

Riley: Legally, they couldn’t get involved. But members of the school board said they were proud of us. It’s gotten me and Sabrina involved in meeting with the school district. But for this one, we got a huge amount of backlash.

Sabrina: The day after, a big group of students wore black to support gun rights.

Riley: So we got this big backlash as a group and as individuals, but I don’t regret it for a minute.

Sabrina: No, not at all.

Riley: It was probably one of the best things I’ve done.

Sabrina: I think it was the start of my involvement in activism, and it got me thinking that I can actually do something. And maybe we can make a change.

Riley: Yeah, definitely. I’ve always been passionate about this stuff, but that was the first time that I really got out there and expressed my feelings. The skills I got from it were how to be a leader, and I’m not saying I’m the leader of a movement, but just participating intelligently.

Sabrina: Learning how to lead smaller things, getting things started. It just made me realize that I can do something. It’s hard, but it’s manageable.

Riley: It helped me break out of this shell and not have fear. I always felt like, oh, I can’t speak up because I’m going to get criticized for my view, or I’m going to get in trouble with the school board. But it helped me learn that if I’m truly passionate about something, I should get involved and speak my mind.

THAT SENSE you guys are describing of “I can do something” — I think that’s why the walkout you did more recently seemed so inspirational to me. After Kavanaugh was confirmed, we were all very demoralized, and I think there was a lot of despair. I think it was very important right in that moment that you said, “Hey, actually, we can still do stuff. Being defeated doesn’t mean we’re giving up.” How did you feel doing that?

Sabrina: I felt more powerful, because I wasn’t the only one who cared. It gave me hope that maybe in the future we can get justice against sexual predators, because a lot of women have never gotten justice.

Riley: And it showed that, while he is confirmed, we don’t think “That’s that, there’s nothing we can do about it.” We’re doing something about it.

Hailey: People were angry about Kavanaugh, and I think that’s why we got such a good turnout. I didn’t expect to see as many students as we did, because there are a lot of risks to leaving school and walking out.

DID YOU guys get in trouble at all for leaving school?

All: No.

Riley: And even if we did, so what? There’s more important things than missing one hour of math.

TELL ME more about what you want to see happen to stop sexual violence.

Sabrina: Have people acknowledge it, and believe it. Really investigate, don’t just pretend to investigate. In Kavanaugh’s case, they said they investigated, but they didn’t really. They let Christine Blasey Ford speak, but they didn’t listen.

Riley: In a lot of sexual assault and rape cases, it’s brushed off: “Oh, there’s not enough evidence.” For example, I don’t know if you remember the case of Brock Turner. He literally was in prison for three months for brutally sexually assaulting a girl, but someone could go to prison for a couple of years for having possession of marijuana.

Hailey: Step one would be to stop putting people in power who are sexual predators. That leads back to why we did it: other people are seeing Kavanaugh’s confirmation and thinking this is okay. And they’re seeing that Blasey Ford came forward, and her allegations weren’t even taken seriously.

Riley: And maybe it needs to start in health classes, talking more about consent. And it’s sad that you even need to say that.

Sabrina: But the fact that they don’t do it in school...I’ve never heard a teacher talk about consent.

Hailey: And why do we even have to ask for that? Why do we have to ask them to teach us what counts as rape? They need to teach students how to get consent, and that it can still be rape even if you’re in a relationship.

Sabrina: We’re talking [with each other and in the group chat from the walkout] about going to a school board meeting to get them to do real education on consent.

Hailey: I’m currently working in a local group to focus on getting sexual consent education signed into law. Only eight states currently require schools to teach consent, and that needs to change. Consent needs to be taught in schools if we’re going to change rape culture.

HIGH SCHOOL seems like a very particular context to be organizing in. What advice do you have for other high school students who might be considering doing something like this?

Sabrina: One of our administrators said it would be very controversial — if we had a specific issue we wanted to talk about, and another group would oppose it, it would bring a bunch of conflicts. She said it would be better if we just did it on our own outside of schoo]. Just warning us what we might be facing with our peers.

Riley: I think high school is a dangerous place to be expressing our views, because there’s always going to be backlash.

Hailey: And you’re going to have backlash anywhere you do it, that’s just how it is, but [high school students have specific constraints]. We couldn’t connect the walkout to our school. We can’t have our school connected to this controversial thing. Outside of school, you have a lot more freedom.

Sabrina: You don’t need permission. Stand up for what you believe in. There will be consequences, always. But if you really believe it, go for it.

Riley: Don’t be afraid of the backlash. Go for it, because I can almost guarantee you won’t regret it. I don’t regret it one bit.

Sabrina: In the beginning, when I was getting all the backlash from it, I felt bad about it. Seeing how much people would hate on a subject and hate on the people that stood up for it, that was painful. But then later on, it didn’t matter. I did what I thought was right and I made a statement.

Riley: I lost quite a few friendships after doing the first walkout...

Sabrina: Yeah, so did I.

Riley: And that just really showed to me, if you won’t be my friend because we have opposing views, then we probably weren’t meant to be friends.

Hailey: You’re going to get backlash anywhere you go, and that’s just how it’s going to be. So if you want to make a change, you need to make a bold move to go and do something and take action.

Sabrina: You can reach out. Just talking to someone, you can find out if they care about those things but they’re scared to show it. You can meet people and try to get them to stand up for what they believe in.

SO WHAT do you do when you’re talking to someone who agrees with you but is scared to speak out?

Sabrina: Well, you encourage them. I don’t push them. I just tell them that if you believe in something, it’s okay to speak up.

Hailey: As an organizer, I think it’s important, for example, if they want to go to an event, to say, “Oh, I’ll go with you,” especially if it’s their first time doing it.

Riley: I’d tell them about my experience. I’ve had a generally good experience with being able to speak my mind. I’ll tell them how empowered it makes you feel when you speak up and you have a whole community who believe in the same thing.

You’re never alone: if you’re scared that you’re going to have backlash for speaking up and being the only one who believes something...

Sabrina: You’re never the only one. It’s like my teacher always says in the classroom: “If you have a question, there’s a 100 percent chance someone else has that question.” It’s the same thing with your beliefs.

HAVE YOU heard from anyone for whom that first walkout was their first time doing something like that?

Sabrina: For most people, that was their first.

Riley: It was easily accessible. It was near school. That gave a lot of opportunity, and I think that helped a few kids be inspired to get more involved.

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