By Yardain Amron, Columnist
Published November 25, 2014
Last week, affirmative action group By Any Means Necessary shut down what’s usually a humdrum monthly Board of Regents meeting and pressured administrators to flee behind campus police escorts.
It was an unruly outburst even by the group’s spirited standards. BAMN had wanted to pack this last meeting; specifically, by mobilizing activists passionate about ending rampant sexual assault on campus.
So two weeks prior to the meeting, Kate Stenvig, a BAMN lead organizer, attended the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center 28th Annual Speak Out along with 300 other people. The space had been pre-declared safe and confidential for survivors of sexual violence to share their personal, traumatic stories.
Stenvig spoke briefly about her personal experience dealing with sexual abuse, and mostly about BAMN. She appealed to the audience to join her group in protest at the upcoming regents meeting. At the end of the event, a second BAMN member positioned at the door, flyered the exiting attendees with BAMN materials.
The promotional move irked many, but would have remained a small blip in what otherwise was a powerful night for survivors — if not for what BAMN did next.
In an open letter SAPAC published Monday in The Michigan Daily, the activist group claimed BAMN members had been speaking in classrooms “retelling stories shared at Speak Out without the consent or knowledge of survivors.”
If true, this would be an egregious violation for multiple reasons. First off, for many survivors of sexual assault, their stories are the one power they can still claim over their rapists, who have already violated their bodies. For another, you never know who’s listening; whether the rapist himself, or his friend who knows the story is in the room.
If you still don’t see why this is a big deal, it might be as helpful to you as it was to me, to read the first few graphs of the Rolling Stone piece about rape at University of Virginia (warning: extreme trigger warning).
I interviewed Stenvig and asked her if SAPAC’s allegations that BAMN had violated anyone’s privacy or confidentiality were true.
“ ... Completely false,” she said. “We have never used anyone’s name or specific story.”
A part of me was skeptical, so I tracked down students who were in those classrooms and a different story quickly emerged. LSA senior Sarah Goomar, a SAPAC member, wrote to me that two male BAMN members gave a presentation in her International Studies 401 class and “one of the men retold a story shared at SAPAC’s Speak Out.” In a separate interview, LSA senior Lydia Lopez, a classmate of Goomar’s, corroborated the story. Lopez is unaffiliated with SAPAC and did not attend the Speak Out, but recalled that two men, one of whom “was talking about how he went to the Speak Out and one of the survivors said X, Y and Z.”
In a separate art history class, LSA senior Bianca Wilson, a SAPAC member, wrote to me that BAMN members used a couple of examples from the speak out to both talk about the outrageous way the University handles sexual assault and incite students to help them “pack the regents meeting.” Wilson also sent me a photo she snapped of the presenters, and I’ve confirmed one of the faces as Stenvig.
At this pivotal moment, with sexual assault and racial diversity finally in the spotlight, I cannot reiterate enough just how unfortunate this situation is. We need groups like SAPAC and BAMN fighting for these issues, but we need them doing it thoughtfully. BAMN’s tactics were uneducated, insensitive and hurtful.
And it makes sense: the group only this year added sexual assault prevention to their list of demands. Historically, their focus has been almost exclusively on minority enrollment.
Stenvig and BAMN may have had good intentions. But in the end, intentions matter little next to results. And at this moment, the result is that survivors feel betrayed by BAMN. Instead of support, BAMN knowingly or unknowingly tried to incite passion using pain that they have no right to and that they clearly don’t understand. In an attempt to push an agenda and fix an institutional pandemic, BAMN forgot the most fundamental piece of the reality: the human beings. You can’t fix a problem by disrespecting the very people whose problem you say you’re trying to fix.
Stenvig had multiple opportunities to admit her and BAMN’s error, and to apologize to the survivors whose stories the group co-opted.
Unfortunately, the most she could muster was “I have no problem apologizing if I’ve hurt someone, but I don’t think that’s the case.”
If you are a survivor of sexual assault that spoke at the Speak Out and feel hurt by BAMN’s actions, I ask that you help me convince Stenvig and BAMN of the damage they’ve done. Send me your feelings, and I will pass them along. An apology can’t take back the betrayal, but it’s a better first step than pervasive hatred.
Yardain Amron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Survivors of sexual violence on campus can contact the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center at (734) 764-7771 or visit its offices in North Quad. SAPAC also has a 24-hour crisis line at (734) 936-3333.