Sitting in front of a group of about 20 students, activists and community members Thursday evening in Mason Hall, Kate Stenvig, organizer of By Any Means Necessary, led a public “tribunal” to encourage conversation and organize action against rape and sexual assault. BAMN and Stop Trump Ann Arbor jointly hosted the event, which addressed current issues impacting the University of Michigan community, such as the sexual assault allegations against Music, Theatre & Dance professor David Daniels and the recent closure of Pangea Piercing due to allegations of abuse, sexism and white supremacy by owner J.C. Potts.
Stenvig opened the discussion by mentioning Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s recent appointment despite being accused of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford, a professor at Palo Alto University, in September. She noted how speaking out against sexual assault and rape is painful for survivors, but can lead to a sustained movement against what she said is a current “epidemic” of assault and human rights abuses.
“Our fight for our own dignity and freedom and equality is completely tied up with a collective fight that can actually lead the movement toward defending democracy, opening borders and really building the new civil rights and human rights movement that can defeat Trump,” Stenvig said.
Along with Aarefah Mosavi, keynote speaker and anti-rape activist, Stenvig denounced a culture of victim-blaming that often surrounds those who choose to speak out against their abusers. In May, Mosavi filed a case against Mount St. Antonio College in Walnut, Calif., alleging former student and friend Chester Brown raped her while on campus. Now, Mosavi is touring college campuses around the country to speak candidly about her assault and experience reporting the event to her college’s administration.
“The sexist illogic and victim blaming, trivializing our experiences and slandering women as liars or promiscuous temptresses who are asking for it still remains pervasive in our courts,” Mosavi said. “In my own case, defense attorneys demanded to know why I trusted Brown, as if the act of trusting one who you believe to be a friend is a crime.”
Mosavi further discussed her experience encountering sexism when reporting her rape to the college’s administration and, eventually, to the state courts. She said Brown was often given privileges of privacy and respect while her information was made public, putting her in danger.
“At every turn, I was denied the same rights and privileges the man who raped me was afforded,” Mosavi said. “But just as civil society has demanded the ousting of inept judges who sympathize with rapists or who blamed rape survivors, so too must we continue to say ‘no’ to victim blaming.”
Ann Arbor resident Alice Held, who was introduced by Jessica Prozinski, president of Stop Trump Ann Arbor, spoke about her experiences with Potts’ abusive, racist and sexist behavior. Pangea Piercing closed Thursday following months of protests and temporary closures. Held said she has recently felt empowered to speak out against her abuser after having suppressed it out of pain and fear.
“About a year and a half ago, I went and I got my nipples pierced from J.C. and I had no idea that he actually already had a reputation for bringing up racist topics and being misogynistic and just a real ass during his piercings,” Held said. “So I went and I did that, and he commented on my body when he was taking the measurements for the jewelry and said that my breasts and my curves were ‘blessed.’ And that made me really uncomfortable, but I’m really used to people in power making comments like that when it’s really not appropriate, and I’m used to minimizing it and brushing it off so that’s exactly what I did.”
This past Saturday, Held was getting ready to protest outside of Pangea when she remembered details about her abuse that she had previously repressed. Held said her memory has given her power to take action against Potts’ behavior.
“Eventually I had this breakthrough where I realized that I hold the truth in this situation and in some way that’s going to protect me,” Held said. “The truth is going to protect me and I have to have faith in that.”
An LSA freshman who requested to remain anonymous said the tendency for universities to ignore or diminish sexual assault claims is especially painful for those who have experienced abuse in the past.
“I was a victim of sexual abuse, I was groomed for two years, and it has very deeply impacted my mental health,” she said. “I’m finally able to seek therapy and help for it, which is very nice to finally be able to do that, but it’s horrifying to me that something so traumatic and something that impacts people on such a deep and personal level and which can destroy you is being neglected just because somebody wants to make the university look better.”
Stenvig ended the conversation by noting how difficult and brave it is for survivors to make their experiences public to find some semblance of justice. She also said sexual assault has become so commonplace that speaking out is necessary, but often bears no reward for the survivor due to victim-blaming.
“We shouldn’t have to be subjected to abuse to be at the University of Michigan,” Stenvig said.