Last week after demonstrators gathered in Millennium Park and the South Loop to protest the Chicago Police Department’s delayed release of the video of officer Jason Van Dyke shooting Laquan McDonald to death, members of the activist communities in Chicago and across the nation proudly posted photos of the marchers and speakers on social media.
But there was at least one person in Chicago, a 22-year-old woman, who wasn’t pleased to see the name and face of one particular leader of the activist group Black Youth Project 100 across her social media accounts. (Out of concern for her personal safety, she has asked to be identified by her first initial, K.) Instead of a hero, she saw the face of someone she says sexually assaulted her three years earlier. She asked her friends to stop posting the leader’s picture where she could see it. Her friends, in turn, tweeted her story to BYP100.
K. was aware that, in the history of black activism and civil rights movements, there’s been a long tradition of studiously ignoring allegations of sexual assault or abuse within the ranks. Leaders have argued that any sign of internal problems could harm the movement as a whole.
But in a nearly unprecedented step, by the afternoon of Wednesday, November 25, the day after the protests began, Charlene Carruthers, the national director of BYP100, had responded to the tweets with a direct message and made arrangements for BYP100 leaders to meet with K. over the weekend in a neutral space to discuss the situation. The person K. had accused was not present. On Saturday, BYP100 posted an announcement on its website that one of its leaders had been accused of sexual assault and had been placed on “a mandatory membership hiatus.”
“As an organization rooted in a Black queer feminist framework, we take reports of sexual assault extremely seriously,” BYP100 leaders wrote on the group’s Facebook page Saturday. “When this allegation came to our attention, we immediately embarked on our accountability process.”
The announcement added that BYP100 was meeting with both the accused and the accuser to work out a restorative justice process, and its leaders requested that everyone refrain from victim blaming or defamatory comments about the accuser. It did not mention either party by name. BYP100 spokeswoman Camesha Jones declined to comment further.
“Black women are expected to keep quiet about assault within the community,” K. said in an interview Monday. “A lot of women felt the way I felt, that there’s this air that men are the most important thing.”
This, she hopes, will change.
K. was a sophomore in college when she met the BYP100 leader in question at an event just before Thanksgiving 2012. They made plans to go to a movie together that weekend, after Thanksgiving dinner. On the way to the movie, they talked about his social activism and K.’s own work as a sexual assault educator on her college campus.
“He told me sexual violence prevention was something he was really passionate about and I felt relieved to finally be around someone who understood,” K. wrote in an open letter that several of her friends posted on Facebook on her behalf in order to protect her identity. “Because I thought he was a safe person, I disclosed to him that I had been assaulted a few months prior and that I was in the middle of a court process that was equally as traumatizing as the assault itself. He seemed outraged and concerned. I felt like I could trust him.”
After the movie, K. says, he asked if he could come up to her north-suburban apartment for a cup of coffee before he had to drive home.
“But when I offered it to him,” she wrote, “he said he didn’t actually want any, and just wanted an excuse to come upstairs. He made a few sexual advances, and each time I asked him to stop. I was clear that I did not consent, and I thought he got the picture that he’d made me uncomfortable. But because it was late, at some point I dozed off and I woke up with [his] fingers in my vagina.”
K. says at that point she asked him to leave. The next day, she sent him a series of text messages explaining that he had sexually assaulted her. “He was apologetic,” she wrote, “but did not understand why what he did to me was assault. To this day, he still refers to what occurred between us as ‘a misunderstanding.'”
A representative for the accused attacker says he has been advised by his legal counsel to make no comment at this time.
After her previous experiences with the criminal justice system, K. decided she didn’t want to file a police report or press charges. “I’d already gone through the court process [around the prior assault],” she says. “It was more traumatic than the rape.” Instead, she decided, she would rather try to educate him.
She did tell her friend and fellow activist Sarah Carthen Watson about what had happened. “[K.] does extensive work with survivors of sexual assault,” Watson says. “She worked at our campus office that handled sexual assault. She was a gender studies major. There is no way [K.] would make a false accusation.”
K. also considered talking about the incident more widely. But she and Watson were aware of the BYP leader’s growing prominence as an activist and the unspoken rule within the movement that, as Watson puts it, “you’re not supposed to air dirty laundry. Survivors’ stories have to wait.”
“We can’t go forward with our leaders assaulting women. Black women deserve liberation, too.”
—Activist Sarah Carthen Watson
Instead, K. began researching the history of rape within the civil rights movement. During a volunteer training session at Rape Victim Advocates, a Chicago nonprofit that works with victims and petitions for changes in the legal system, K. learned about Recy Taylor.
One Sunday evening in 1944, while walking back from church in her hometown of Abbeville, Alabama, Taylor, then 24, was kidnapped at gunpoint and gang raped by six white men. She reported both the kidnapping and the rape to the Abbeville police, who did nothing. Rosa Parks, then the NAACP’s leading investigator of sexual assaults, led a national campaign to bring Taylor’s rapists to justice. Although the case went before two grand juries, both juries, composed of white men, declined to issue any indictments. Within a few years, Recy Taylor was forgotten.
“The black men in the movement wanted to keep that part quiet,” K. explains. “They didn’t want it to be the focus of the movement. They didn’t want black women to appear ‘loose’ or sexually available. So no one knows this history. These stories have been erased out of the collective consciousness and black history.”
So have assaults within the movement. Although Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chairman Stokely Carmichael famously stated that “the only position for women in SNCC is prone,” and although black leaders and celebrities such as Huey Newton, Bill Cosby, and R. Kelly have each been accused of raping multiple women, the default position within the community, K. notes, is to assume that victims are lying.
So before last week, K. mostly kept silent. She graduated from college and began adult life in Chicago. She would periodically hear from friends in the activist community about this “great guy” who spoke at rallies in support of women. And then she would learn it was the man she says assaulted her.
“I was getting frustrated,” she says. “I thought he needed to be educated. But I didn’t want to destroy his reputation.” She considered writing a private letter to the leaders of BYP100 telling them her story in the hopes that they would use that information to protect other women within the organization. “My intention wasn’t to disclose it to the world.”
Then last week, her frustration boiled over. She began having panic attacks. Watson and other friends tweeted to BYP100 on her behalf.
“We can’t go forward with our leaders assaulting women,” Watson says. “Black women deserve liberation too.”
As word spread, both K. and Watson braced themselves for the onslaught of accusations and victim-blaming comments that usually accompanies accusations of sexual assault. But much to their surprise, very few came. “I only got one negative response,” Watson says, “someone asking, ‘What have you done for black liberation?’ The response on Facebook, the number of people who said that he needs to be held accountable, has been really heartwarming.”
Other people on social media began asking for more details, so K. wrote the open letter that Watson and other friends posted on Facebook on Friday. She made a point of placing her assault into the larger context of history within the black community:
When I came forward this week, there were activists who messaged my friends saying that sharing my story was damaging to the community, and that I needed to be quiet . . . because it was inconvenient timing. But liberation isn’t convenient, or easy. We don’t get to say “Hold up while we free these people real quick and then we’ll come back for the rest of you,” which is in essence what Black women have been told throughout history. Solidarity is for Black men and white women, not us.
As a Black woman, the idea of a “safe space” is currently a fallacy for me. I am not safe out in the world, I am not safe in my own community, and I am not even safe in activist spaces around people who claim to be working towards my liberation. You can’t fight for me while I’m awake then rape me while I’m asleep. I want be a bigger part of the movement, I want to join protests, I want to organize, but I can’t do that when the person who hurt me is a figurehead in those spaces.
K. is pleased by how promptly and decisively BYP100 responded to her complaint. She attributes to this response to the fact that, unlike other black liberation and civil rights groups, which have been led by men who are only too happy to take over the microphone and tell women to be quiet, BYP100’s leaders are queer black women.
BYP100’s restorative justice procedure is still a work in progress, K. says. (Typically, restorative justice involves a reconciliation between the perpetrator and victim.) She hopes that the BYP100 leader will be able to return to that role in the organization—but only after learning about sexual assault and consent and coming to admit that what happened that night three years ago in her apartment was not a “misunderstanding.”
“I’m very impressed that BYP is willing to take the time to go through the accountability process,” she says. “I hope he’s willing to listen and be changed. He’s in a pretty powerful position. Not a lot of people who have been accused of assault are listening to survivors or want to learn. We need someone in the community at the forefront of the movement to do that. Black male social and sexual scripts have hurt a lot of people. Black men have to learn not to do that, to come out on the other side and be aware.” v