ENVISION VOICES is a blog written by Project Envision NYC members to start healthy dialogues around the root causes of sexual violence.
“The ability to claim abuse is intricately related to possessing the symbolic
and material capital that allows the claim to be heard, and thus does not
reflect the proper power of balance that the claim is supposed to unveil.”
-Ilana Eloit, London School of Economics blog, Engenderings, July 2015. Site: Sarah Schulman
I want to write about a personal experience of trauma – an act of sexual violence that brings out
the vigilance and fear too familiar for women living under patriarchy. It was scary. It was wrong.
It was surreal. And yet… I need to do some unpacking.
I think it was the winter of 2006. Chicago.
I was walking home down a quiet street from the California Blue Line train stop – maybe from
work, or maybe from a bar – talking shit on the phone with a friend. I passed Logan Square’s
Darwin Elementary School (where at some point, “Fuck Darwin” had been sprayed across the
playground slide). I swung right down the familiar alley that bordered the East side of my
apartment building. As I turned left onto the quiet half-block long side street, I had my phone to
my ear and put the key in the lock of 2147 West Medill Avenue.
At that moment, I felt a sudden jolt between my legs, as a hand jerked up from behind me and
firmly grabbed my vagina over my pants. It all happened so fast. I blood-curdle screamed. My
friend on the phone panicked, “What the hell? What happened? Are you ok?” I immediately
started laughing. This happens sometimes when something hard happens; I have an
uncontrollable laugh response. In that split second I turned around, now assuming it was a friend
who often threw rocks at my window late at night, still laughing, to see an unfamiliar man dart
away, sprinting down the alley.
So that violent crotch-grab just happened.
Shaken and blurry, I assured my friend I was ok, quickly turned the lock to get inside the
building, climbed the stairs to my apartment, got off the phone, and thought about what to do. I
deliberated a bit. Would he do this to someone else? Was this trending in the neighborhood?
What if it escalated next time? How could I protect other vulnerable women?
I decided to call the police – a decision that might surprise my friends today.
“A man just grabbed me on my street. He grabbed my crotch, then ran away. I don’t know how
to report this, but is this happening in the neighborhood?”
“Can you tell me what the man looked like?”
(Well….Medium build. Medium height. Latino...)
“Um…. Do I have to give a description?”
“Huh. Alright, that’s ok. I don’t want to make a report. Thanks.”
While some feminists might have told me to curb my white guilt and actively intervene to
prevent reoccurrence, I’m glad I didn’t report the incident. Who was The Community? Who
would feel safer? Who would be heard? Who would be identified as a threat?
Statistically, the people who hurt us are usually people we know, people we know intimately. I
can personally attest to this emphatically. But this was actually that whole stranger-in-a-darkalley
trope – it fit the narrative we like to tell about sexual violence. It felt odd to me. Was I the
innocent white female attacked by the scary man in the alley?
No. There was more to this story than that.
I mention Medill Avenue because in 2006 I was at the forefront of gentrifying Logan Square, a
neighborhood I would be priced out of today. It was a predominantly working class Mexican and
Polish neighborhood with an ongoing history of community-based organizing to protect
affordable housing. People talked about the gangs and rampant gun violence – measures of street
cred for young white arrivals. I think I paid $250 for my first apartment there.
Today, Logan Square hosts farm-to-table food and has recently revamped the local $1 OldStyle
pitchers-plus-crack, plus bar fights, plus smoke-inside dive bar, into a high-end cocktail joint. As
beloved as Helen’s Two-Way Lounge is (was) to me, I guess my friends and I kind of took over
that neighborhood institution too.
In 2006 Logan Square, I felt brazen enough to walk home drunk and alone at night – maybe
partially as a defiant testament to my toughness, but also due to my privilege. Yet I would still
feel fear when johns pulled in the early pre-dawn mornings along Fullerton Avenue for a hook. I
hated men. Stay away. You’re disgusting. But why would I feel insulted? How could I not
imagine they might perceive me to be working the well-known strip? What shame and
judgement was I casting on street-based sex work, particularly in a poor and working class
Something we don’t delve into around street harassment is the underlying issues of gentrification
and power. In Logan Square, I was participating in the displacement of poor people and people
of color. Albeit unintentional, this was an act of “Power Over”. Gentrification is an act of Power
Over. And isn’t street harassment as well? But how does power play out when a white woman
accuses a man of color? Where is the power play there? We have the historical and ongoing
murder and policing of men of color to tell that story.
I am not justifying this man’s act of violence. I am complicating the intersections of white
supremacy and the punitive systems we have in place to address or not address both
interpersonal and systemic violence. I survived an act of violence. And I was also participating in
violence against communities by my existence within them.
In her controversial new book, Sarah Schulman asks us to think about the impact of putting the
efforts to end interpersonal incidents of violence into the hands of the state. Moving away from
the grassroots foundations of the anti-violence movement, we see that an increased reliance on
police means “the antidote to violence at home [is] now officially violence of the state” (96).
That night, I could have easily accessed state violence to punish the Latino men in the
neighborhood whom the police were set to incriminate.
This is not to negate the vigilance and, sometimes, fear I feel walking down the street as a
woman. But this fear of violence is all too familiar for many black and brown folks relentlessly
policed and imprisoned, for undocumented people and their families, for people perceived to be
Muslim (during Trump and before Trump), for folks working in the sex trade, for day laborers
waiting on corners for work, for migrant workers picking the food we eat, for trans and gender
non-conforming people carefully navigating restroom use, or for other people living with layers
of heightened, and often visible, vulnerability. It could be a guttural fear of street violence. It
could be anxiety about making it to the subway safely every day. Or it could be the ever present
fear of state violence that pervades every aspect of your life.
Shulman states, “People from privileged groups, or who overlap with the groups society is
designed to serve, have expectations that their complaints will be heard. Obviously white and
bourgeois people are more likely to have their accusations take seriously than the undocumented,
poor, trans, and people of color…” (90).
I was and remain in a place where I can access state violence to protect my cisgender, white
femininity – the same state violence that continues to incarcerate and murder entire communities
who, in our racist society, have come to symbolize a threat to my white femininity. What about
Black femininity? Or Indigenous Sovereignty? Does the state serve to protect or to eradicate
these individuals and entire communities of survivors?
I want to honor my trauma and my survivorship. I want to name the sexual and physical violence
I have endured throughout my life in a world bent on keeping women and queer people down. I
do believe that we need to make room to honor the violence we all experience and not move only
from a place of scarcity. As I have seen in my personal relationships and my communities, a
measured hierarchy of pain is sure to tear us all apart.
But in a world based on scarcity, I must recognize my participation in violent systems, in
displacement and racist profiling. I must name the limited access to safety available to some and
not others. Only by doing these things can we be truly accountable in the movement to end
sexual violence and other forms of violence and oppression.
We can be survivors and we can commit harm. Naming this is not a solution. But it is a step
— Sydney Kopp-Richardson