If you or someone you know has been domestically or sexually assaulted, contact the police or the Tompkins County Advocacy Center. The center provides free services for people of any race, ability, religion, immigration status, gender identity or sexual orientation. The 24-hour hotline is (607) 277-5000 and more information about the center can be found here.
ITHACA, N.Y. – “Who’s in charge of your choices? Who’s in charge of your body? Who’s in charge of your consent? Who’s in charge of what you wear? Who’s in charge of your boundaries? Who’s in charge? Who’s in charge?” Naomi Barry called out to the crowd at Ithaca’s 40th Annual Take Back the Night rally on Friday, as a strengthening chorus of “I am, I am, I am” echoed off the walls of the GIAC gym.
The rally was moved indoors due to Friday’s heavy rain, but domestic and sexual violence survivors, allies and advocates from Cornell, Ithaca College and throughout Tompkins County nevertheless turned out to join in solidarity and reclaim their power.
Barry, an adult community educator at the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County, welcomed participants with a call to end the culture of victim blaming and impunity for perpetrators.
“We come together in a united voice,” Barry said, “to protest the actions and attitudes that allow domestic violence to continue.”
Around the gym, signs proclaimed messages of strength: “Yes means yes, no means no, whatever we wear, wherever we go,” and “Shatter the silence, stop the violence.” Overhead, t-shirts from the Clothesline Project displayed words and art from domestic violence survivors in Tompkins County.
In the past year, calls to the Advocacy Center’s 24-hour hotline increased by about 35%, according to a domestic violence counselor who spoke Friday. About 1,500 people affected by domestic or sexual violence turned to the center for support. Much of the uptick comes from the conversations started by the #MeToo movement locally and nationally, the counselor said, but there are still many people who don’t come forward when they experience violence, or who aren’t believed if they do.
The theme for this year’s rally, “Light out of Darkness,” called attention to survivors’ stories that deserve to be heard.
A handful of stories were aired publicly Friday, as speakers took the mic to find strength in a room of supportive listeners. These were just a sliver of the stories of abuse at the hands of family members, partners, dates and acquaintances that could be found throughout the community. RAINN estimates about 17% of American women and 3% of men have experienced rape or attempted rape, and rates are higher for transgender and gender non-conforming people.
“Tonight is about a light out of darkness. But we intend to do that not just tonight, but every night, every day, 365 days a year,” said Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, director of GIAC and the night’s keynote speaker.
McBean-Clairborne, who immigrated to the U.S. from Guyana, shared her story of growing up in a culture where women were seen as inferior, wives were treated as property of husbands, and “if your husband didn’t beat you, it meant he didn’t love you.”
“Something deep inside me told me that that was wrong,” McBean-Clairborne said. “I had to break the cycle.”
She said speaking out against domestic violence led to being somewhat ostracized, “but that was alright with me if I knew I was taking back my power.”
McBean-Clairborne recognized that even for allies it can be easy to fall into victim-blaming thought patterns, judging women for what they wear or how they act. But she urged everyone to notice and shift those patterns, when they catch themselves lapsing or hear others doing it. “My dress is not an invitation to abuse me, and neither is theirs,” she said.
McBean called on the crowd to help each other take back power and to hold government accountable to creating policies and programs that curb sexual violence and support survivors.
Related: Take Back the Night: 1,300 people in Tompkins sought help for domestic and sexual violence in 2017
Vice Mayor Deb Mohlenhoff read a proclamation declaring the city’s commitment to listening to and supporting survivors.
“We recognize that the responsibility to bring an end to domestic and sexual violence lies with all of us, and whereas we acknowledge that our culture of victim blaming, patriarchy and sexism supports structures of power that leave oppressed groups vulnerable to violence while failing to hold perpetrators accountable… specifically highlighting the disproportionate levels of violence faced by women of color, individuals with disabilities, and the LGBTQ community… whereas this, Ithaca’s 40th annual take back the night theme ‘light out of darkness’ welcomes us to shine the light on survivors’ stories, survivors’ courage and survivors’ strength…. (the mayor) proclaims Friday, April 26 as the day to take back the night,” the proclamation says.
Those who shared their personal stories Friday recognized the importance of being listened to and believed. They also called for action: for leaders in schools, community groups and government to protect them, and for the criminal justice system to hold perpetrators who they’ve named accountable.
Changing the culture will take time and tireless effort. As the room lit up with candles in show of solidarity, performer Angie Beeler sang over loops of her of own voice, creating ayers of harmony. “It’s helpful to have back-up,” she said.