From Ground Zero Tolerance
Journalist Geroge Will was chosen to speak at MSU commencement this coming Saturday and to receive an honorary doctorate in humanities. What has George Will done to deserve this honor? If you Google his name now, you will likely only find references to his Washington Post article in which he blatantly identifies himself as a rape apologist. Will claims that “victimhood” is a “coveted status that confers privileges,” which makes “victims proliferate.” Will disputes the seriousness and pervasiveness of the campus rape epidemic and berates students whose “tender sensibilities would be lacerated by unexpected encounters with racism, sexism, and violence.”
As a survivor of two campus rapes, I can assure you that “victimhood” offers no privileges other than ridicule, blame, ostracization, and thousands of dollars in debt for the necessary treatment that is rarely covered by student health insurance. The “tender sensibilities” that survivors of sexual assault often have are a very real disorder (like PTSD) that profoundly affects the normal functioning of their brain and body. Any person (ahem, George Will) who is not “lacerated” by racism, sexism, and violence is the real problem here.
With MSU in the middle of a federal investigation for mishandling sexual assault cases, we voiced our concern that George Will is not an appropriate embodiment of the Spartan spirit and asked MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon to rescind his invitation as other universities have done.
All we have been given from MSU administrators is pure disregard for our concern and complete unwillingness to even admit that Will does not represent the mission of MSU. President Simon replied to the emails she received from me and other survivors with only a dry, prepared statement (many of these letters shared incredibly heartbreaking and personal stories about rape and how George Will speaking at their graduation will shroud in darkness what should be one of the brightest days of their lives). In this statement ironically titled “Reaffirming Values in Challenging Times,” President Simon attempts to clarify “what George Will’s upcoming visit to campus means—and what it does not.” She stands by her decision to honor Will because he is “not our first controversial speaker” and cited Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Desmond Tutu, and Elie Wiesel. I don’t really get the comparison of this misogynistic journalist to US Presidents, an American civil rights activist, a peaceful leader of apartheid opposition, and a Nobel Peace Prize-winning survivor of Auschwitz. I know what “controversy” these speakers have sparked, but none of them blatantly disregard the struggles of millions people like George Will has continued to do. Will has stood by his Post article, and in a commencement speech at Miami University, responded to one survivor’s question of whether he thought the cost of her treatment was worth it (one of the “privileges” of rape) with “Yes. I do. But of course, these resources should go to REAL survivors of REAL rape.” There is no “fake rape.” And I’ve posted before on false rape accusations and stand by the fact that they are very, very rare (although still terrible), but the “false until proven true” treatment that reporters of rape receive severely discourages other survivors to report these crimes. We need to stop acting like false accusations are the norm. You can do whatever kind of fact-checking you want for a legal investigation, but the first thing that needs to be available is medical help for the survivor. It’s not that hard for a trained trauma specialist to figure out if someone is “really” traumatized.
President Simon’s letter goes on to state that “this isn’t about George Will. This is about us…serving the public good by creating space for discourse and exchange of ideas, though that exchange may be uncomfortable and will sometimes challenge values and beliefs.” The exchange is more than “uncomfortable,” it’s absolutely insulting and there really isn’t any exchange or discourse here since commencement speakers only speak AT the students.
In most cases it’s great to encourage and respect differing opinions, debate, find common ground, etc., but in some cases–as in recognizing the seriousness and pervasiveness of the sexual assault epidemic–there is just right and wrong. And George Will, and the MSU administration by supporting him, are on the wrong side. I truly believe that there is no middle ground here—you either support victims of sexual assault or you support the rapists. Knowing how to support someone after such a horrendous experience can be confusing and scary, but we are telling you that what we need right now to feel safe and supported is for MSU to withdraw George Will’s invitation to speak at commencement and rescind his honorary doctorate in humanities.
I understand that George Will is being honored for his long-standing career in journalism, not for his views on campus rape. And I understand that he probably will not mention campus rape at all, but when you give this kind of honor to someone, you have to consider whether their moral character matches the mission of the university.
The following are some of MSU’s Guidelines for Selection of commencement speakers:
“The nominees should be individuals whose accomplishments and values are exemplary. The speaker selections should enhance the ceremonies without deflecting attention from the graduates, whose academic achievements are being recognized.”
“Someone having broad appeal. A speaker who will recognize that the commencement audience is a large group of individuals with a diverse range of values, interests and concerns.”
“Someone who is considered an exemplary role model.”
And MSU guidelines for awarding honorary degrees also include that “nominees should exemplify the values inherent in MSU’s mission.”
President Lou Anna K. Simon, I think we understand “what George Will’s upcoming visit to campus means—and what it does not.”
So I went to President Simon’s office today with a few dozen other MSU undergraduate and graduate students , faculty, staff, and community members to hand-deliver our signed petitions. We were there for over 3 hours, and she refused to come to her office or speak to us on the phone when all we requested was to “confirm that she received the petitions.” We provided 70,000—SEVENTY THOUSAND!—signatures from people who do not want George Will honored in this way. The boxes in this picture are filled with signatures (add yours here!), and the duct tape represents how we were silenced.
As one demonstrator, nearly in tears, put it: “It’s like the world is burning down.” It really is. We are not exaggerating this problem. EVERYONE is affected by the rape epidemic.
News crews were briefly allowed in the President’s office before they told us that only eight people could be in there at a time, and we were not allowed to have our planned SpeakOut in the office. So we spoke out in the hallway outside the office.
Survivors shared their stories of being silenced and mistreated by people and organizations like campus administration. We read aloud messages received from those who could not attend, and the following is the account that I read (which can be found here, with many others). I leaned heavily against the water fountain to keep my pounding heart from knocking me over as I read this:
Three and a half weeks ago, I was raped.
I’ve tried several times to form the words to explain what happened, but my language always seems to fail me when I need it most.
All I can do is feel his bristly mustache and hear that stupid Daft Punk song in the background.
Ironic, really. The song about getting lucky playing during a rape. I swear he moved to the beat of it.
I can hardly picture his face. I don’t know the color of his eyes because I couldn’t bear to look in them but I remember how his bony fingers felt inside me. I showered five times the day after but I could still smell him.
The first three nights I did not sleep at all. Now I have nightmares. I relive my rape every single night.
I have been raped before, but never by a stranger. I didn’t think anything could feel worse than being taken advantage of by a friend, but I am a thousand times filthier now. I couldn’t fight back, I couldn’t speak other than to mumble, “No, no, no, no.” I couldn’t do anything more than silently cry as he was on top of me, behind me, inside me. and I have no idea what I’m supposed to do now other than pretend like it didn’t happen and move on. I’ve done it before, I can do it again. I have to, if I want to survive.
I shared what happened with a close professor of mine, who was required to report it to the Office of Inclusion. I was told I would be getting an email from both that office and the MSU Police outlining my options for where to go from here.
I have yet to receive any emails.
I’m afraid I didn’t do enough to stop him. I’m afraid of returning to the bar where he works. I’m afraid of somehow running into him in public; East Lansing isn’t so big, after all. But I’m most afraid of making the wrong decision about officially reporting it or not.
I have never felt more afraid of living on this earth. I need to escape this city.
My name is Jillian Coy. I’m a senior at MSU and eventually I will no longer be a victim. I will be a survivor.
With the hallway outside President Simon’s office in tears (and the secretaries within the office listening to Christmas carols), I then angrily read my prepared statement:
“MSU commencement is not the place for exchanging ideas that breed ignorance and bigotry. George Will’s viewpoints are absolutely insulting and honoring him promotes an unfair and unfounded viewpoint that does nothing but harm. When you bestow an honorary doctorate degree to someone, you have to consider whether their moral character matches the mission of the university. And if that’s the case with MSU, then I ashamed to be a Spartan today.
I was drugged and raped at a fraternity house when I was 17 years old. I was raped again at a college house party when I was 20. When I told my best friend what happened to me, she never spoke to me again. Others told me that I shouldn’t have been drinking, I should have known better, and you don’t do anything drunk that you don’t secretly want to do sober. I didn’t tell anybody else for years, partly because I didn’t know if what happened to me “counted” as rape and partly because my mother told me that if my father ever found out, it would surely kill him. We need to end that kind of shame and blame with this generation, and supporting the viewpoints of George Will brings us right back to where we started when parents were ashamed of their children for “getting raped,” when rape was thought to be a rare occurrence, when false rape accusations were thought to be the norm, and when the responsibility to “not get raped” lies solely with the victim rather than the perpetrator. Instead of blaming victims for not immediately going to the police, we should blame ourselves for creating a culture in which silence is safer than speaking up.
We will survive. We will not back down. And we will not shut up until this shit stops.”
Everybody politely snapped (yes, snapped…like Beatniks) to show their support and I sat back down feeling both empowered and hopeless. The hallway remained silent for what seemed like an eternity after that, and I just kept thinking about Jillian Coy, whom I’ve never met but whom was brave enough to allow someone like me to share her story. And in THREE-AND-A-HALF WEEKS, she still hasn’t heard back from the MSU police and the Office of Inclusion. There were three police officers standing right next to me as I read her story…
“If the police spent half the time investigating sexual assault cases as they did looming over peaceful demonstrators, campus rape might not be as big of a problem.” –spoken in front of those police by @mcbyrne
I wished I could just run over to Jillian and hug her and tell her everything was going to be okay, but I found myself wondering if she was even still alive. In January 2012, when I finally felt like I wasn’t going to survive another second, I stumbled into the MSU Counseling Center, and all I could say was, “I need help.” I had to spend the next thirty minutes in a cubicle filling out computerized surveys about how I was feeling, but I could hardly focus on the screen that was whooshing back and forth in front of my face (I was in the middle of alcoholic withdrawals). I was finally called from the empty waiting room to see a counselor, to whom I told everything. I told her I had been raped twice. I told her I was afraid to eat because I didn’t want to gain weight. I told her I drank and used drugs all the time. I told her I just realized I was a lesbian and I didn’t know what to do about it. I told her about my suicide attempts and that the last few days I thought I was going to die because I wasn’t drinking. For the first time in my entire life, I spilled my guts to something other than a toilet. When I finally stopped talking, she looked at me and I could tell she didn’t know what to say. She told me I should go to the hospital and gave me a four-page list of phone numbers of local agencies I could call in the meantime. She made sure I wasn’t suicidal, not by really asking me how I was feeling, but more by coercing me into saying I wouldn’t kill myself—“now, you’re not going to hurt yourself, right?” in a patronizing tone that reminded me of a mother dropping her kid of at the babysitter. She told me they would review my case the following week, and I left disheartened. I called one of the organizations on the list, but they didn’t get back to me for several days. I didn’t think anybody was ever going to help me. The Counseling Center called me back a week later, but I absolutely would not have survived that period of time if I hadn’t in the meantime met with a doctor at Olin health center who got me in touch with all the right people on campus (They do exist! thank you Becky Allen and Lisa Laughman). A week is too long when you are in an acute crisis, and I know MSU students who have waited a month or more just to be told there are no resources for them.
I was finally able to take one of the eight spots in the President’s office that were allowed to the demonstrators. In the 45 minutes I was in there, people were calling the office asking MSU to rescind their invitation to George Will, and the disgruntled secretary just kept saying “I’ll pass your message along to her,” without writing anything down. We asked the Vice President if she could get President Simon on the phone just so we could let her know that these petitions are in her office. She refused, saying that the President was at a funeral. Then, when the VP said she was meeting with the President at 5:30, someone asked if we could go with her to meet the President. You’d think we told her that we were going to kill a puppy with the look of shock and terror on her face and physical repulsion of her body from us. “What!? I don’t even know why you would ask me that. Of course not.”
Starting at 4:45, the disgruntled secretary (who sounded like a resentful flight attendant) warned us three times that we needed to “vacate the office.” A detective then read us a statement that declared our gathering “unlawful” and that we were violating some laws regarding business operations and threatened to arrest us if we didn’t leave the office. Here is the detective making her threats (that’s me in the stripes!):
The sign behind my head says “We support YOU!” My fellow demonstrators made a couple of these signs to face those of us inside the office. Thank you for supporting us! We’ve apparently gathered a lot of other support too. While I was in the office, U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (an MSU alum herself) released a statement that she was “deeply disappointed” in MSU’s decision to honor George Will.
The MSU Women’s Resource Center, MSU Sexual Assault Crisis Intervention Team, MSU Union of Nontenture-track Faculty, the MSU Women’s Council, the MSU Women’s Resource Center, and the MSU Center for Gender in Global Context, showed similar disappointment in the University’s insensitive decision and called for Will’s un-invitation (click links for their official statements).
The Associated Students of MSU passed a resolution calling for MSU to rescind their invitation to Will and to allocate the funds that would be awarded to him (which could be more than $50,000) to hiring more sexual assault counselors (currently there are only TWO for the entire university).
The MSU Council of Graduate Students called for a similar allocation of funds to counseling resources.
So who exactly (besides George Will) is President Simon supporting now? After getting kicked out of her office, we had one more hour until the Hannah Administration Building closed, at which point arrest would be threatened again. I quietly said, “I might be willing to get arrested if it would help…” and an UltraViolet representative flew over to me like a moth to the flame (weird analogy I know) and told me they’d provide “jail support.” I said I wasn’t making any commitments yet, and she reminded me that I have 45 minutes to make a decision. I ended up choosing not to get arrested because I really couldn’t see how that would help our cause at all. Maybe if the police officers were being totally disrespectful to us, I would have made them arrest me, but they were being pretty polite. I would die for sexual assault survivors to get the respect and treatment they need, but I know I won’t be able to do anything if I’m dead, and the same goes for being in jail.
In the end, we took the elevator down one-by-one to prolong the “peaceful evacuation,” while chanting “arrest rapists, not demonstrators!” And as I was riding down that wood-paneled box alone, I thought about the man who came out of the Administrative Services office earlier and said, “As the father of two college-aged daughters, I support what you’re doing.” Maybe we at least made a difference to him. And I know we made a difference to each other. Thank you to everyone who was there, and to all those who sent your support otherwise.
I will end with a 12-01-14 statement from President where-are-you-now Simon herself:
“Sexual assault is everyone’s problem, and it’s on all of us to take action, whether that means protecting a fellow Spartan from sexual violence, providing support to a survivor, or raising awareness on campus or in your home. Members of the MSU community must not be passive.”