On April 27, 2017, not long before of the 30th anniversary of Take Back the Night, the streets of Morningside Heights were silent.
The event, which has taken place every year since 1988, is a familiar to many students by the image of its traditional march: participants march side by side with fervor down Broadway, across College Walk, and down Amsterdam Avenue, past Frat Row, Riverside Park, and 120th Street. For the first march, the participants hoped to break the silence surrounding issues of sexual violence. Over 300 women chanted things like, “Women unite, take back the night,” and, “We’re gonna beat, beat back those sexist attacks.”
Take Back the Night has become an annual event that, as the years went on, tweaked and adjusted itself to reflect the evolving values and issues that the Barnard and Columbia community faced. The event is traditionally tripartite—beginning with a rally and ending with a “speak-out,” at which any individual could share personal stories; the march was the third part, the centerpiece and the locus of its most pronounced evolution. In 1995, participants used the public event to draw attention to the lack of a University-wide sexual assault policy, chanting, “Rape is a felony even with C.U.I.D!” up until they crossed College Walk, where they remained silent to mirror the college’s response to issues of sexual misconduct. In 2008 the march was opened to all genders for the first time; in 2012 it became fully gender-neutral. But without exception, the march has, throughout the years, been a loud and powerful reclamation of space.
In 2017, crowds congregated in front of the Diana Center for their rally instead. The recitation of well-known chants, still loud and proud, melded with the pitter-patter of the rain. Participants stood next to votive candles placed on the grass to represent beacons of support and waited for the keynote address delivered by Take Back the Night’s former co-presidents, Alana Petett and Sofia Rosenberg-Klainberg, both current seniors at Barnard College. Later, they moved, as per tradition, to the Altschul Atrium to partake in a more somber and intimate speak-out session.
In its 29 years of existence, Take Back the Night has adjusted its guidelines and revised its message, but it has never stopped the march. Last year, its organizers decided to tackle a problem the organization has faced since 1988—the pressures of mandatory police presence. They also contended an issue that had become increasingly clear over the years: the march’s reinforcement of racial and class privilege. In doing so, the Barnard/Columbia chapter of Take Back the Night has had to reckon with a larger question surrounding its purpose: what is being taken back?
In compliance with New York City laws, every public demonstration involving a march or amplified sound requires a permit from the New York Police Department at the precinct of the event. This means police presence at the march is unavoidable. While officers have not historically interfered with the march, their presence was discomforting to many students, particularly those of color, because of the police’s history of brutality against marginalized communities, according to Petett, who, along with Rosenberg-Klainberg, made the decision to extract the march from last year’s event. A shift from a march around Morningside Heights to a rally on campus would eliminate the presence of police, while also making the event more accessible to students with disabilities.
The issue of police presence at the marches has actually seen student opposition since the very first march, though the reasons for aversion have evolved. In April 1989, Leah Kopperman, a senior at Barnard then and one of the coordinators for the first Take Back the Night march, wrote a letter to the editor of the Columbia Daily Spectator titled “Police Not Invited,” in response to a Spectator article that incorrectly stated Take Back the Night had asked for police accompaniment. Kopperman explains that the event’s organizers explicitly asked that the police accompaniment not march with them––a request that was ignored by both the NYPD and Barnard Public Safety. But for Kopperman, concern around police presence was less about the violence of police brutality and more centered around how police presence would collide with a basic tenet of the march: “that women do not need male protection, but must unite to empower themselves.”
Today, Kopperman is still a proud activist and is doing nonprofit work with Keshet, a national organization working to make Jewish life more inclusive for LGBTQ+ members. She tells me that she doesn’t believe the police escort ever deterred students from marching, but that students did notice the officers and found their presence unnecessary. To her, the march was a declaration that survivors and women were taking back their power, and having the police accompany the participants felt contradictory—a symbolic hindrance to the idea of reclaiming space.
The evolution of the perceived meaning of police presence has not been linear: In 1997, Ilana Nossel, of the Columbia College Class of 1998, actually recalls little protest against police presence when she helped to guide the march. In fact, Nossel admits that, to her, having the NYPD accompany the march was somewhat empowering. “We shut down the street to publicize the issue of sexual violence, and requiring NYPD involvement was kind of, in a way, garnering institutional support for that goal,” she says.
But today, in its effort towards making its activism more inclusive, Take Back the Night acknowledges that police presence takes on yet another meaning, different than the “male protection” of the 1980s or the “institutional support” of the 1990s: it is a symbol of state violence. “The fact that the march itself still required police presence is very uncomfortable for many students, including myself as a woman of color, as a black woman,” Petett says.
In addition to the need to move away from police involvement, Petett also talks about how the march is a product of a history of sexual assault activism that the organization wants to move away from. She says it comes from a “second wave feminist era” that ignores the racial dimensions of sexual violence and the problems associated with attempting to reclaim the streets of Harlem while perpetuating harmful “stereotypes of black men being like hyper predators.” Her observation is further explained in the organization’s Facebook statement explaining the switch from a march to a rally was an opportunity for Petett and Rosenberg-Klainberg to reflect on the history of sexual assault activism.
The former co-presidents recognize that the early marches sought different goals: to break institutional silence on issues of sexual violence and to be used by survivors for empowerment and agency over their bodies. However, given that Columbia and Barnard students back then were predominantly white, the group’s rhetoric of taking back the night and the streets was underpinned by white privilege.
Moreover, members have indicated a growing acknowledgement of the incongruousness of participants marching around Harlem and demanding that it is their space. “In a lot of ways, as Columbia and Barnard students, it’s not,” Levy says. Finally, the march ignores that the issue of sexual violence was never just on the streets—students of all generations agree that sexual assault can be traced to almost any building on campus, from Greek life housing to first-year dorms. “We can no longer host an event which sells this single narrative about sexual assault, delegitimizes experiences, silences survivors, and perpetuates ideas we do not support,” the group’s statement declares.
As a senior at Barnard, Rachel Knowles is one of the few people left on campus who were present at the 2015 Take Back the Night events—the second to last year the event still included a march. She recalls that one of the speakers, after giving a passionate, spirited speech at the rally, refused to march because she felt uncomfortable with police escort. The fact that the police had to accompany every march was a constant droning noise in most students’ ears––Petett struggles to explain the destabilizing feeling. “It was something that I was definitely aware of and or something that everyone was aware of … we knew that in order to change that, we were going to have to get rid of the march.”
And so the Barnard/Columbia chapter, in putting an end to the annual march, breaks away both from the national organization as well as its own long history of holding marches. This decision holds important implications for what the Take Back the Night movement looks like and the form it takes from here on out.
Even independently of Take Back the Night, marches are perhaps the most recognizable tool of activism. This particular symbol of protest has largely been effective and powerful for the entirety of the group’s lifetime. As participants of the 1997 march stormed Frat Row, they were cheered on by fraternity members. Nossel calls this memory one of her most powerful to date. “We walked by their home, their space, and they came outside and were supportive of it,” she said. The power of the march lies in its bold invasion of public space and the attention it undeniably receives from passersby. For sexual assault activists in particular, marches eradicate the veil of secrecy and shame that survivors often feel; the strength in numbers and the loud chanting shatter the idea that one should cope with sexual violence alone.
As Petett and Rosenberg-Klainberg discussed discontinuing the march, one of their biggest concerns was how symbolic of the Take Back the Night movement the march had become. The spirit of the marches spans generations—both Levy’s and Ryan’s mothers marched during their time at University of Michigan and University of Vermont, respectively. Levy has what she calls a “proud and supportive Take Back the Night mom,” who regularly shares articles about the Barnard/Columbia chapter marches on Facebook. The march was a “tradition that we were going to be, you know, squelching,” she says.
The Barnard/Columbia chapter decision to switch out the march for a rally is also not unique. Yale University’s Take Back the Night chapter made the switch in 2015 in hopes of building a more inclusive environment that did not portray a “very narrow version of being a survivor.”
When I ask Levy how her mother reacted to the shift, she admits that it took her longer to understand the factors that went into making the decision. Levy’s mother’s initial question was whether the Barnard/Columbia chapter could demand more from the police and create an alliance of sorts. But the problem the organization saw has evolved to more than what the police represents—violence and systems of surveillance—and now instead lies in the fact that a march fails to provide that safe space to support survivors of sexual violence.
The current co-presidents describe the rally as having the same energy and atmosphere of the march––it’s everything but the actual walking. They highlight the speak-out portion of the night, where the emphasis is on providing a community of solidarity and empathy for survivors. Last year’s rally, they admit, did not live up to their expectations of what the event would be, as the combination of the novelty of it and the rain deterred students from participating. In hopes of finding that balance between making a public statement while remaining close to the student community, Ryan and Levy have planned this year’s rally on Low Steps, right in the heart of the Morningside Heights campus.
The more I speak to Ryan and Levy, the more I question if they still believe in the name of the organization: Take Back the Night. The group now faces what Petett calls the “next big hurdle,” whether or not their mission at Barnard and Columbia in this day and age still aligns with that of the 1989 marchers and of the organization itself. Levy calls the switch to the rally and speak-out as part of a move past “second-wave feminism” to make activism on campus more intersectional.
If they decide to pursue a name switch, Levy and Ryan may turn to Harvard as an example. In 2016, Harvard’s chapter changed the name name of the group from Take Back the Night to Hear Me Now. One student was quoted in the Harvard Crimson saying, “We think that’s a more suitable title for the event because not all sexual assault happens at night, and you could not take it back.”
Kopperman tells me that when she helped coordinate the inaugural march, she had no idea that generations of students would walk down the same streets she did. Just the fact that the Barnard/Columbia chapter has still retained the organization’s name and basic format is astounding. But she is supportive of a name change. “They can call it what they want to call it; they should call it what’s meaningful to them.”
Nossel echoes Kopperman’s sentiments. “I really defer to the current students, who I think are in the best position to know what kind of messaging is the best to choose to raise awareness about sexual violence. So if changing the name is part of that, then I support them for their efforts.”
As we sit chatting in the Diana Center, Ryan and Levy exchange glances full of resolution and optimism. Levy turns to me and wistfully says, “It really only takes one year for a tradition to switch.”