In 2014, the police shooting of Michael Brown brought young people pouring into the streets. Their anger, their courage, their commitment quickly flowed beyond Ferguson and police to challenge multiple forms of institutionalized and structural racism of this country. A new generation marched into the streets. Rage and grief sparked their activism, conviction and solidarity sustain them.
On June 2, Judge Aaron Persky gave Brock Turner, the Stanford rapist a slap-on-the-wrist sentence of six months in jail, which means he’ll probably serve three. An eloquent 12-page statement from the Stanford rape victim sparked outpourings of anger and support. Rather than marches in the street, protest took the form of women telling their own stories of sexual assault, of a million-signature judicial impeachment petition, of at least 10 prospective jurors refusing to serve under Judge Persky in other cases, and of statements of solidarity including an open letter from Vice President Joe Biden.
Turner’s sentence clearly reflects the privileges of race and class. The judge and defendant are both white males. The defendant is a Stanford athlete, the judge a former Stanford athlete. Turner’s father wrote that he shouldn’t be punished harshly for “twenty minutes of action.” A friend, in a letter to the court, asked, “where do we draw the line and stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists.” (She has since withdrawn her statements and apologized.)
In a similar rape case, a black Vanderbilt football player was sentenced to 15 to 25 years in prison. Contrasting the two cases, Shaun King wrote in the New York Daily News:
“One man will spend the entire prime of his life in prison for his crime — the other will be out of jail before the summer heat disappears. One man is black and the other is white. I won’t even ask you to guess which is which. This is America.”
This case finally focuses national attention on rape culture, as described by Emilie Buchwald:
“A rape culture is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm.”
The Stanford rape case and the victim’s powerful statement show rape culture at its ugliest. While she remains anonymous, “victim” is hardly enough to describe her. Her words make her a warrior, strongly speaking truth to challenge ugly power. In her own words, she has become “a lighthouse” for the rest of us:
“On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought everyday for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you. As the author Anne Lamott once wrote, “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” Although I can’t save every boat, I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere, and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you. To girls everywhere, I am with you.
Dozens, hundreds, thousands of women responded, speaking up to tell their stories, after years or decades or a lifetime of silence. Athena Pelton told her story in Three is a tragic number | A story of sexual assault(s):
“Staying silent hasn’t made the emotional scars of my attacks go away, and it hasn’t held the men who victimized me responsible for what they did to and stole from me. I’ve realized all too late that our voices are our strongest asset.
“Speak up. Stop assault. End rape culture”
In an open letter to the Stanford victim/warrior, Vice President Joe Biden wrote:
“Your story has already changed lives.
“You have helped change the culture.
“You have shaken untold thousands out of the torpor and indifference towards sexual violence that allows this problem to continue.”
Today, I feel hope for change that I haven’t felt since the heady days of the civil rights, anti-war, and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Now, as then, much of that hope grows from the energy and commitment and courage of young people.
If the movements of my youth did not succeed, neither did they fail. They moved the arc of history, just not nearly far enough. Now my generation must join and follow today’s young activists, moving farther toward a new world, a world open to all of them, all of us, at every shade of the spectrums of race and gender and ethnicity and citizenship.