I was in the middle of writing my post last week when the St. Louis County Prosecutor decided to hold a press conference and vent about his hatred of social media (oh and to give a side-note-level announcement of his sham grand jury’s decision). The announcement, although not a surprise, upset me more than I anticipated so I never finished my post. Well, Thanksgiving has now come and gone and the fallout from that useless press conference is ongoing, but that shouldn’t stop me from giving thanks right? Either way, here’s what I meant to post last week (with some timely enhancements). Enjoy!
For some, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning while for others it’s a day to pig out with family and proclaim what you’re thankful for. Whatever the day represents for you, there’s no question that it’s a great time to do some reflecting on the past and/or present. This year, I decided to do a bit of reflection and think of a few things I’m personally thankful for. Today, I’d like to share with you two of the bigger things I came up with (in no particular order):
The amount of attention rape & sexual assault have been getting recently
If you’re a regular reader than you probably know I’ve been doing sexual assault prevention work for about twenty years now. In that time my colleagues and I have been toiling away, fighting a thankless and likely endless battle. On bad days things could feel pretty hopeless. Even on the best of days the victories were small (but definitely meaningful). It often felt like no matter what we did, the issue was never going to get the level of public attention needed to make significant cultural change. This year however (well the past few years really), things seemed to suddenly change. Thanks in part to the Department of Education’s use of Title IX to bring colleges and universities to task for decades (more like a century+) of ignoring campus climate issues and doing things like sweeping assaults under the rug and letting perpetrators off with little more than a slap on the wrist. But even more powerful than the DOE’s focus on the issue has been the activism and efforts of students, survivors and allies who have truly taken things to a whole ‘nother level.
News reports and articles in major magazines have helped students to shame big institutions into action and spark campus protests, demonstrations and other acts of civil disobedience. These efforts have kept the pressure on administrators, many of whom would prefer to ride out the PR storm until things calmed down again. By the way, isn’t it ironic that people spend so much time complaining about the apathy of Millennials when they have managed to blow the doors open on this issue in a way previous generations of feminists never did? I don’t mean to minimize the hard work of my generation and those who came before, but lets give credit where credit is due… Millenials are bringing down the house right now!
But it doesn’t just stop with universities. Rape in the military has entered the national conversation as well and even sexual predators who happen to be famous are no longer safe. People like Woody Allen, Jerry Sandusky, Jian Ghomeshi, Jimmy Savile, R. Kelly and even the much beloved Bill Cosby are no longer being taken at their word simply because they’re rich and powerful. The voices of their victims are finally being heard in ways survivors never were before and it’s getting harder for those around them to remain silent as these men sweep their crimes under the rug. Once upon a time survivors accusing a public figure were immediately shunned attacked and not believed, which don’t get me wrong still happens today to a disgusting degree, but slowly in some places we’re beginning to see a shift.
At MIT where I work, the release of a recent climate survey has led to an increased focus on the issue and a requisite flood of resources. And what about UVA? In the wake of the Rolling Stone article what’s happening down there is simply mind-blowing. A fraternity forced to contend with the type of public shaming usually reserved for a survivor brave enough to accuse someone powerful or famous? Amazing! A whole fraternity system suspended? Unheard of! For the first time in 20 years of this work I’m starting to feel the tide shifting and it has me felling very hopeful for the future. There’s still a damn far way to go, but please excuse me if I take these things as signs of progress.
The protestors in Ferguson, MO and beyond
Similarly, the shooting of black boys, girls, men and women by police officers and ordinary gun-toting citizens has started to receive unheard of levels of attention, thanks to the ongoing protests across the country. Surprise, surprise… It’s an issue that black folks have dealt with and been talking about for decades (again, centuries). Yet somehow what we see happening in Ferguson and beyond feels like the start of something bigger. Some have even started to question if what we’re witnessing is the beginning of a new civil rights movement. I certainly hope so.
I have to admit something here. The last in-person protest I participated in was during the lead up to the Iraq war (over 10 years ago when the second Bush was president). Sadly, those protests failed to stop the impending war and I became very jaded with in-person protesting. I questioned its usefulness in the internet age as it seemed online protests were the future. But a lot has changed since ’02-’03 and it seems that instead of weakening the tactic, the rise of social media has given it even more power. Thanks to social media and the protests it sparked across the country Michael Brown’s murder is not going to be swept under the rug as so many have before. We may have even had our era’s John Carlos and Tommie Smith moment thanks to five St. Louis rams players (pictured above).
I’m thankful for the sacrifice of these protestors and I’m with them as they fight the good fight. Again the journey has just begun, but it’s hard not to feel the energy that’s building and get hopeful and excited for what the future holds.
Look, I get that it’s just as easy to look at these situations and feel as hopeless as ever. I’ll be the first to admit that I can be a cynic when it comes to these things… as a cultural critic it’s much easier for me to see what’s wrong than what’s going right. History tells us there’s a chance these movements will, like so many before them, amount to nothing more than flashes in the pan. That’s one way to look at things. but despite myself, these movements have me feeling hopeful.
There is still much work to be done. Overwhelming amounts of work and the backlash and doubters are strong and vocal. Regardless, I’m optimistic that these events are mere signals of some major changes headed our way in the arenas of race relations and rape prevention. No matter what happens next, I’m thankful for them and I’m certainly going to do my best to make sure the momentum continues.