Reverberating in the spaces of Barnard LeFrak Gym's sprawling ceiling and through the open streets of New York City, the voices of survivors of sexual violence and their allies spoke individually and cohesively against assault.
"There's something about using your individual voice and allowing it to join the collective roar where you can really assert your individual experiences, but also let it be strengthened by the experiences of the community that you're in," said Stephanie Davidson, CC '08 and Take Back the Night co-organizer.
Organizers estimated about 500 students marched in Thursday's Take Back the Night, tracing a serpentine path through Morningside Heights. Following the march, survivors told their stories from behind screens at an emotional speak-out in a dark LeFrak. The movement started in Belgium in 1976 as a protest against the promotion of violence in pornography and evolved into an international student-led march to combat sexual violence at large. In 1988, Barnard and Columbia adopted the movement, largely in response to a student's assault in Butler Library.
Originally, only women were allowed to march. After the 1991 formation of Columbia Men Against Violence, men could join in only at the end. Thursday night saw the pioneering of an experiment in which men could march for the entire duration of TBTN, a development organizers attributed to logistics and fresh leadership. Yet some passersby commented on the proportionally small number of men among the marchers.
A women-only front section helped prevent discomfort among those who might feel the need for a safe space without men.
Students came to support friends who have survived assault and who speak against sexual violence. "My friends, who are here, have friends who have had some rough times," Caroline Lang, BC '10, said.
Many say that since its controversial inception in 1988, the tone of the march has transformed from hostile to inclusive. As the group approached 120th Street, chanting phrases like "Rape is a felony, even with CUID!" a policeman raised his arms, beckoning them to raise their voices. "It tends to come out more as chanting and hooting. It's not so much screaming as it is saying particular phrases that feel really empowering," Davidson said.
The march's path through frat row was at one time confrontational, since, according to political theory Professor Dennis Dalton, a TBTN participant, the fraternities distributed sexist propaganda and made catcalls. Recent years have seen an attitude turnaround, as fraternities have taken to hanging signs and rallying by their windows in support of TBTN. "I feel that the force of nonviolence ... is a transformative power, and that [it] has worked its way towards changing attitudes," Dalton said. "Frat row, they have received this transformative power and have been changed by it."
Davidson said that a focus of this year was specifically to recognize sexual violence in context with other hate crimes, and to view all incidents as connected.
As the group marched by University President Lee Bollinger's house on 116th Street and Morningside Drive, some protestors took to calling his name. The president traditionally leaves his light on to support the protest.
According to the National College Health Assessment Survey at Columbia University in 2005 and 2006, 10.1 percent of students reported being touched in a sexual manner against their wills, and 1.6 percent reported non-consensual sexual penetration.
Survivors at Columbia can turn to the Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Program and the Rape Crisis Center for help. Maura Bairley, director of SVPRP, said Talk Campaign strives to "create the space, to change the culture, so we create the culture of help-seeking, of mutual support, a culture that's against secret keeping, for reducing the stigma."