What Do We Want?! : Slutwalk Bmore 2011

What Do We Want?! : Slutwalk Bmore 2011

Michelle Gaeng

“What do we want?”  

“RESPECT!”  

“When do we want it?”  

As the crowd marching down The Block screamed “NOW!”, we drowned out the traffic and the passers-by, who didn’t seem to realize that their slurs and catcalls were the reason we had all come out in the chilly rain.  The name of the march, that stormed through Baltimore, on Saturday, September 17, was: SlutWalk.  Some of us had never been called “sluts” before, some of us were used to it.  And for most of us, that was beside the point.

That’s why “respect” was a fitting chant.  Yes, it made for a catchier response than, “The end of victim-blaming in sexual assault and accountability for the widespread, devastating effects of rape culture!”  

But it was also an inclusive demand that united us across gender, race, class, age, nationality, sexual identity, and history.  Baltimore’s SlutWalk that Saturday, placed a heavy emphasis on workers’ rights, and many participants sought to highlight issues of race, class, and gender.  The fight, as speaker Corey Reidy proclaimed, was against “oppression on all fronts.”  

The air was thick with empowerment, there was no question about that.  But as for the success of the message – well, it depends on who you ask.

UNPACKING SLUTWALK

“Our main goal is to raise hell!” exclaimed Shawna Potter, founder of Hollaback! Bmore and organizer of SlutWalk 2011.  “To go viral.  Even if the whole city of Baltimore isn’t hear to witness the walk, they’re see it online and they’ll know it happened.”

SlutWalk, an evolving international movement, is less than a year old.  It began last April, in Toronto, when a police officer uttered the now-infamous advice that, “...women should avoid dressing like sluts in order to not be victimized.”  

The appalled (but probably unsurprised) feminists of Toronto responded by launching the first protest of what became, over the next few months, a global phenomenon.  SlutWalks have since been independently organized in cities across every continent except Antarctica (where I gather most of the marching is done by penguins).  It has been credited with both reinvigorating and disgracing modern feminism.

The major criticism of SlutWalk, thus far, is its admittedly attention-grabbing brand name.  Although each city’s event is unique, they have all reaped the attention and momentum generated in Toronto.  Many people have expressed concern that SlutWalk delivers a narrow message of reappropriation -  and celebrates a sex-positive, sex-plentiful lifestyle - minimizing victims and allies who don’t conform to that model.

“I have very mixed emotions about the word slut,” Potter confessed.  “We decided very early on that our purpose was not reclaiming the word.  Some of the attendees might want to reclaim the word ‘slut’ as a sex-positive thing, and that’s fine.  But as a whole, we’re just here to bring attention to the original event that sparked this movement, and discussion on victim-blaming and victims’ rights.”

 

Audio from the day: Listen

 

“This is supposed to empower me, too,” stated a local, seventeen year-old,  trans-activist,  “I am a survivor.  It’s not really something that I talk about that much, so this is my way of coming to terms with it in a public way, in a supportive place.  My experiences have been minimized in the past, simply because I am trans.  This is a trans-space with visible trans-people, and I feel like I will be supported here.”

Indeed, many participants in the march seemed largely unconcerned with the ‘slut’ controversy.  “I just want to support victim’s rights,” said Christie White, a rape survivor from York, PA, with a sign that read, Just because he was acquitted doesn’t mean he’s not guilty.  “It’s therapeutic and empowering for me to carry this.”

 

Previous SlutWalks have also come under fire for being racially exclusive, echoing larger, longstanding divisions within the feminist movement.  “A lot of people don’t like SlutWalks because they think it’s a white, middle-class type of thing,” explained Melanie, a student from Columbia, MD.  She and her friend Cassandra agreed that as People of Color, they “didn’t feel left out.”  But it was hard to ignore the fact that Saturday’s crowd had a distinct majority of white people; disproportionate in a city where whites comprise a little over 30 percent of the population.

“As someone with white privilege, the best I can do is reach out and let people know I want to hear their voices,” Potter continued.  “We had a diverse group of organizers and volunteers.  This is for everyone; if you don’t feel like you’re a part of it, that’s totally fine.  I don’t feel like I’m a part of everything either.”

Some participants, however, marched in defiance of racist stereotypes: Afiza, a student from California, recounted how she and her friend have both been mistaken for prostitutes, “... just by virtue of being black women, in white neighborhoods, at nighttime.”  

“I felt gross, icky.  I sort of felt violated, even though nothing physical had happened,” her companion, Malika, added.  “Lots of people here are taking it like you should be able to wear whatever you want.  But even if you’re wearing regular clothes, you can be mistaken for something you’re not.”

HOW IT WENT DOWN

Freedom from the patriarchal gaze, that polices our bodies and behavior, was the simple and monumental demand.  On September 17th, citizens of Baltimore and beyond, marched from the Inner Harbor to City Hall, and we were all "totally asking for it".  We had short skirts, long pants, boobs, boots, baseball caps, body piercings, corsets, sweaters, fishnets, vaginas, penes, jeans, t-shirts quoting Mean Girls (“fugly slut”), and more.  Some people showed up with elaborate handmade signs; others asked what exactly was going on and, upon hearing, if they could join us.  The crowd swelled in number and volume as we approached City Hall, where the rally on the lawn transpired with vigor despite the rain.

“This is huge,” said Kate Bishop, a Mount Vernon resident with an electric pink Pussy Power! sign.  The rapture in her voice made it clear that she wasn’t just referring to the number of people present.  “I’m excited.  I’m reinvigorated in my own feminism.”

The organizers – Potter, Alana Smith, of the International Socialist Organization, and Brennan Lester, who initiated the event – brought a somewhat diverse line-up of speakers.  (The omission of trans-voices was notable, considering the size of the trans-community in Baltimore and their involvement in the march.)  

Author and activist, Rodkell James, opened the rally with a poem about the road to empowerment, “Tape Player,” which can be seen on youtube.

Reidy, representing the United Workers’ campaign against human rights violations at the Inner Harbor, recounted the painfully common experience of ,“Sucking down my feminist identity to get tips in my pocket.”  

On one occasion, she was forced to apologize, after telling a customer off for repeatedly “slapping her ass.”

Comedian Lucé Tomlin-Brenner, injected the rally with brash humor and sex positivity in her charmingly sarcastic stand-up routine.  She proved comedy an effective tool for activism, pointing out one misogynistic cultural fallacy after another, with disarming honesty and wit (“I just found out last night that I am actually a slut!  It was this random guy on the street that told me...am I fucking too many or too few people on my way to and from the Metro?”)  It was a testament to the crowd’s trust in her, and in one another, that almost everyone raised their fingers dutifully for a mass rendition of the staple drinking game Never Have I Ever.  

Kate Rush-Cook, the keynote speaker, told us about her own kidnapping, rape, and appalling treatment by the justice system, which acquitted her rapist on the grounds of Rush-Cook’s clothing and un-victim-like demeanor.  The story was horrifying, but she refused to let her audience wallow in its sadness, instead projecting the strength and humor of a seasoned activist.  “As a community, we need to support these victims when they report their crime,” she commanded,  “NO ONE asks to be the victim of sexual violence.”  

The crowd, which had been consistently vocally supportive throughout the rally, exploded in applause.

In the closing speech, Raquel Rojas, of the United Workers, delivered stories of appalling harassment and abuse inside the Harbor restaurants we all know and love to patronize.  She summed-up the group’s cohesive message, if they could be said to have one: “We are one voice. We are all human beings. We all deserve the same rights.”

REFLECTIONS

“We kept it varied enough that there were some laughs, some tears, there was some straight information, and I think it was very beneficial for everyone in the crowd,” Potter told me afterward, practically bursting with joy at the success of the march and rally. “Everyone had a great time and got the message, and that’s the most important thing there is.”

“I don’t really see the point of it,” a middle-aged male bystander chimed in.  “But I guess it raised my awareness.”

“I had no idea that it was this bad,” my sister Michelle confided after Rush-Cook’s speech.  “It’s ridiculous for me to go for nineteen years thinking that because this isn’t around me, it doesn’t happen.  This has been extremely eye-opening.”  (On a personal note, I guess I need to bring up rape culture more often at family dinners.  They’re still digesting the idea that gender is a construct.)

Rachel Levy, a local activist and writer, took issue with the decision to march through The Block, a section of Baltimore St. home to many forms of legal and illegal sex work.  “I thought it came across as ignorant at best, patronizing at worst, for a group of mostly-educated, mostly-white twenty-thirty-somethings to chant about re-claiming the word ‘slut’ to a street crowded with older, less privileged sex workers,” she blogged after the event, “Having worked with sex workers in Baltimore City, I can tell you that The Block is a hotbed of sexual exploitation.  Judging from the looks on their faces, ‘yes means yes, no means no, yay sluts’ were NOT messages that resonated.”  

Many participants, however, told stories of vocal support from women on The Block.

Sari Marsh of Baltimore, sporting an "Even Voldemort thinks rape culture is evil" sign, was immensely grateful to bring SlutWalk’s message outside the feminist blogosphere.  “A lot of people my age and younger, and even older – a lot of their ideas of being proactive and getting involved in social justice efforts is mostly online,” they explained.  “Seeing people’s voices, actually hearing someone tell their story in a public space is very powerful. I think we need something like this routinely in Baltimore.”  

SO, WHAT NOW?

Although most of the participants I spoke to cited personal empowerment, as their reason for attending SlutWalk, many expressed a desire to see the movement continue in Baltimore – and to expand beyond the supportive confines of the march.  

“I don’t know if there are going to be results,” admitted one attendee.  “But I like the visibility this is bringing.  I’m hoping this will become a regular thing, or at least it will open up a dialogue in the greater Baltimore area – not just in the social justice scenes.”

 

“It’s going to be a really long, uphill battle,” agreed Sarah.  “It’s very difficult to make change on society and the way society is.  Rape culture is our culture.  Teaching children how to treat others with respect, especially women with respect, is the best thing that can be done.”

“All criticisms aside, it’s really important to have these types of marches,” Levy continued.  “It’s great that Slutwalk is igniting a whole new generation of feminists.  I am just crossing my fingers that SlutWalk 2012 will learn and grow from SlutWalk 2011’s mistakes.”

Potter, who hopes to serve as a consultant, rather than spearhead, for next year’s march, expressed a similar sentiment.  “I would want more involvement from people that don’t normally participate in movements or activist events,” she explained.  “I want this next generation of feminists, who may or may not even call themselves feminists, to come forward and plan it next year, because they’re gonna have a bunch of great ideas I haven’t even thought of.”

 

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All Photos Credited To: Michelle Gaeng