An almost funeral-like procession of about 100 somber Stanford University students marched from White Plaza to the Main Quad in complete silence Wednesday afternoon, carrying dorm mattresses above their heads in symbolic solidarity with survivors of sexual violence.
Some students wore black tape over their mouths. Some carried pillows instead of mattresses. Others held cardboard signs that read, "Do better Stanford," "This is the weight of sexual assault" and "Stanford, will you carry the weight?"
Wednesday, Oct. 29, was a national day of action on college campuses, dubbed "Carry That Weight" for a Columbia University senior who has decided to carry her mattress with her everywhere as long as the fellow student who allegedly raped her remains on campus. Emma Sulkowicz's case wasn't heard by Columbia until seven months after the incident was reported, and the visual arts student has been carrying with her everywhere on campus a heavy, blue twin-sized mattress identical to those carried at Stanford on Wednesday for more than a month as her senior performance art thesis.
Stanford students who organized the Wednesday protest broadened their campus action to include issues of race and gender, demanding that traditionally silenced groups sexual assault survivors who are people of color (especially women of color), queer, transsexual, non-binary (those who don't identify as being strictly male or female), poor and undocumented be recognized.
"The weight of our mattresses are not the same, and we must design solutions with that in mind," said Adorie Howard, a black sophomore who along with about 20 other black female students, arrived at the protest wearing black T-shirts and pieces of black tape covering their mouths.
The group stood in complete silence, holding signs that read, "Black women's lives matter," and "We want to talk about black C.A.P.S. (Counseling and Psychological Services) counselors," until Howard took the stage. She asked all audience members who identify as black women to join her, and they stood behind her as she read a spoken-word-like piece titled, "Song of Resilience." (Listen to Howard's speech here.)
"Why are certain voices more stifled in silence? Is it the combination of enduring sexual and racial violence? Or maybe it's because we don't know where we can turn to. How do you relate to a C.A.P.S. counselor who don't look like you? I fear black women being nullified in yet another conversation."
"Today we're here to ask the question, when you think of a survivor, who do you see?" said one of the event organizers, Elisabeth Dee. "At Stanford today we acknowledge the pain, fear and anger that sexual-violence survivors carry with them every day. We especially demand that attention be brought to the weight of silence experienced by survivors that are rarely portrayed in mainstream media and movements."
Dee also read a set of demands survivors are asking for from the university administration, including mandatory, evidence-based education initiatives for all students, faculty and staff around sexual assault and relationship violence. The university this fall rolled out a new sexual-assault education program for new students incoming freshmen and transfers but has yet to implement something campus-wide.
Dee also demanded expulsion become the default sanction for students found responsible for sexual assault -- a call that Stanford has heard before.
A new sexual-assault task force -- created this June after student uproar over the issue this spring -- has been tasked with looking at the possibility of expulsion as a default penalty for serious sexual assault. The task force, made up of students, faculty and staff, has been asked to make a set of policy recommendations to Provost John Etchemendy this fall.
Stanford law professor Michele Dauber, a staunch campus advocate on sexual-assault issues, said a student who has been found responsible for sexual assault is "by definition a danger to the community" and should be removed from the university.
Dauber cited Dartmouth College, which recently adopted a mandatory expulsion policy for serious sexual assaults, urging Stanford to "lead from behind" and adopt this policy as well.
Dee, who planned to carry a mattress with her the rest of the day, also said additional resources in the form of support groups and community-specific programs for survivors at Stanford must be provided for those who might be on the margins of the conversation. Another student speaker, Elliott Bomboy, who identified himself as a queer, non-binary survivor of sexual abuse, spoke to the impact the lack of support can have.
"Without acknowledging that specific cultural trauma, one that I know very personally (but) one that many people do not know about, I cannot come into a survivor space and feel comfortable," he said. "These are the experiences of survivors across many communities who do not feel comfortable in these spaces, who feel like they don't have a right to be in a space where they are saying, 'I have survived; I am standing here before you to speak to you about this.'
"We do not have the competency to understand where they are coming from and that it is a different place from ours," he added. "This is a real weight that we must carry."