Thursday’s gloomy weather did not rain on the parade of activists participating in the 37th annual Take Back the Night rally.
The event was hosted by the student organization University Students Against Rape and the Ann Arbor chapter of Michigan Takes Back the Night, and was funded and sponsored by Central Student Government.
The rally began at the Michigan Union where marchers gathered to watch performances by singer Hope Thomas and the dance groups Salto Dance Company and Liem Irish Dance. Several members of the organization spoke throughout the performances before the march, and one survivor gave a testimonial.
LSA freshman Hayley Walton informed attendees of the organization’s new resource on the Take Back the Night’s website, which allows survivors to share their stories with the option of anonymity.
Many ralliers, like LSA freshman Rachel Beglin, noted sexual assault as a pertinent issue.
“I haven’t had as horrible of an experience as some, but I have been definitely personally exposed to the way people talk on campus,” Beglin said. “It’s really not OK and that’s what we’re saying tonight.”
Campus and community organizations set up tables to advocate for their causes related to sexual assault awareness and prevention. Planned Parenthood, Students For Choice, Free Hearts, I Will Week, the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, SafeHouse, What the F magazine, Students For Reproductive Justice and promoters of the app Companion all had tables at the event.
Take Back the Night also had tables selling T-shirts and distributing wristbands and stickers. They also had a table where marchers could write a message of hope on a balloon which would be released during the march.
Organizers signified themselves by wearing teal-colored shirts, and counselors for anyone who needed help during the event wore white armbands. Survivors were encouraged to wear teal arm bands if they felt comfortable doing so.
One of the speakers on behalf of Take Back the Night noted the organization’s frustration with the lack of attention University officials have given to the prevention sexual assault. They said when they reached out to University President Mark Schlissel to speak at the event, he said he was unavailable, but would send someone else from his administration. However, they said, no one from the administration came. Members of the organization took this as the University not making sexual assault prevention a priority.
Quinn Davis, organizer and community member, listed off statistics about the rate of sexual assault, as well as defining consent. She said one-fifth of women and one out of 71 men are raped in their lifetime; one-fourth of all women and one-sixth of all men experience sexual assault in their lifetime. She also said a majority of individuals are raped before they turn 24 and 42 percent are raped before they turn 18.
“Are we making any progress? Yes,” Davis said. “The Rape Abuse and Incest National Network estimates that the rate of sexual assault has fallen by more than 50 percent in recent years.”
Before the march, Gretchen Whitmer, former Michigan Senate minority leader, expressed her experiences in combating sexual assault. Whitmer is an advocate of speaking against sexual assault. During debates in the Michigan Senate in December 2013 when a proposed healthcare law would not cover abortions for rape victims and the legislature would not allow anyone to be brought in to testify, she did.
Whitmer discussed her decision to break her silence as a survivor at 42 after being raped her freshman year of college. She recalled the frightening decision to finally speak about her experience after years keeping it private.
Whitmer was upset when her testimony did not sway any votes and characterized it as the worst time while she was in office. However, her outlook changed when she realized how important the moment was for her when she went to her office to find her e-mail inbox and voicemail full with messages from other survivors thanking her.
“That’s when I realized it did have value to talk about it,” Whitmer said. “It added to the conversation that is long overdue in our state and in our country, long overdue. To the extent that I was involved in to encourage someone, anyone, to share their story, it was worth talking about. It’s at events like these that help women like us to know we are not alone, that we do not have to be silent. We are not alone. And we do not have to be silent.”
After she spoke, organizers asked men to sign a poster pledging to stand against sexual assault. About 50 men signed the pledge. LSA freshman Yong-Joon Kim said he believes sexual assault affects everyone on campus.
“Sexual assault and the problems that this culture faces with rape and the gender gap really drove me to come because it’s a really important issue for me,” Kim said “I have a younger sister and I want the best for her. This isn’t just an issue that affects women, it’s an issue that affects every gender on campus. I feel this is a really big thing, and with the University of Michigan still on Title IX’s watch list … it’s just something I feel has to be changed.”
The U.S. Department of Education is currently investigating the University’s handling of allegations of sexual misconduct.
Organizers took turns reading demands from a list of initiatives they hope will result from the night’s events. Their demands included: a call for the end to sexual assault and violence, acknowledgement that “no means no,” that consent is only active and sober, that domestic violence and assault be considered human problems instead of women’s issues and for recognition that victims are never responsible.
Throughout the past week, there have been demonstrations against sexual assault on campus in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Tuesday, there was a Sharing with Survivors Speakout in the Michigan League hosted by Michigan Takes Back the Night, and a Diag Day on Wednesday hosted by SAPAC to inform students on consent.
The ralliers left the Union at 8:30 p.m. and marched approximately 1.6 miles for one hour around Ann Arbor to Liberty Street before returning back to have an electric-candlelight vigil in the Union to the song “Lean on Me.”
Armed with makeshift drums, signs, and a handout of chants, approximately 200 people of all ages took to the streets. Organizers led chants such as, “We have the power. We have the right. The streets are ours! Take Back the Night,” and “Hey hey, ho ho, sexual assault has got to go!”
On Thompson Street, marchers were asked to be silent and link arms to honor those who have died as a result of sexual assault, as well as release the balloons. Kim noted this as the part of the march where the ralliers unified.
“Definitely, at the beginning I had a little bit of apprehension, people seemed like we weren’t shouting loud enough and there wasn’t really this cohesiveness,” Kim said. “In the middle of it, after we were silent, I just felt this cohesiveness together and I just felt like all of our voices were getting louder and louder and louder and it was just an empowering experience.”
Ann Arbor residents left their homes and apartments, and diners and restaurant staff left businesses to watch the ralliers go by. People in cars and on buses took photos, honked and chanted along with the group in support.
The march was not only attended by University students — Washtenaw Community College junior Michelle Smolarski said her girlfriend encouraged her to attend the event and that she felt powerful during the march.
“I felt very amazing and brave and very uplifted,” Smolarski said.
Ann Arbor residents Ann and Pat Rogers said they read about the event in a University paper and said it sounded like a good cause to them.
“With the attacks on women’s rights these days, it’s been important for years, but I think now it’s particularly important,” Ann Rogers said. “And that’s why I made an effort to come tonight.”