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Reclaiming the Canon

Campus | April 22, 2019

The narrator is a group of survivors speaking under ‘I’ as a single voice

CW: Sexual assault

I was first raped almost ten years ago, and again just last semester. The pain is still raw and ever-present; I can barely sleep, eat, handle seeing my rapist around campus, or walk past the place where I was assaulted. So, on the night of April 1, when we painted the cannon green with the words “support survivors” and “believe survivors,” covering the existing red paint with green felt right to me. In Green Dot, Tufts’ bystander intervention program, a red dot represents instances of sexual assault and a green dot represents an act of bystander intervention. I was reclaiming the cannon, a space that I still associate with my rapist, by painting a message of survivor support. That night, for the first time in a long time, I was not trapped in my usual pattern of crashing from exhaustion after being kept awake by vivid and inescapable memories of my most recent assault. For once, I was able to sleep, and I was hopeful.

The next morning, I returned to the cannon, hoping to get a better photo of our paint job in the daylight. Instead, I saw that our message had been painted over with “#MAGA.”

My body’s immediate response to reminders of my trauma is to freeze, to dissociate. Seeing “#MAGA” painted in bright red over “support survivors” induced that same feeling, but it felt somehow more existential—more real and threatening than when I encounter something like a triggering scene in a movie. I suddenly felt significantly less safe on Tufts’ campus. As if the culture surrounding sexual assault at this school wasn’t bad enough already.

Tufts is not a survivor-friendly environment. When I have disclosed my experiences of sexual assault to my friends and peers, I have often been met with a stunning lack of support, sometimes in the form of complete silence, a disregard for my disclosure, or a complete avoidance of the topic in the future.

Sometimes, it came in the form of guilt, derailing the conversation into me comforting a friend when I had sought them out to comfort me in the first place. Sometimes the lack of support came in the form of blatant ridicule. When I told my friends not to tell a rape joke, I was met with laughter—even from those who knew I was a survivor. Given how often my trauma is treated as a joke, I am disappointed but not surprised that Tufts culture is hostile to survivors. But even knowing this, it was still shocking and triggering to see a message of survivor support ruined by the campaign slogan of our president, a predator we elected despite his admission to sexual assault. The new message was an ideologically driven attack on survivors. Moreover, the problem isn’t limited to Trump—rapists are everywhere on the political spectrum. I often wonder if this community only believes survivors when it is politically convenient.

This act intensified Tufts’ toxic and hostile environment for survivors. We were under attack. So I skipped class to repaint our message of support. I convinced a friend passing by to skip class and come with me. Others met me there. Some confused and tired students meandered by us as we painted. Sometimes they slowed down to see what we were doing, or even thanked us. But the unsettling feeling remained, a cocktail of anger and sadness and anxiety that would grow and leave me exhausted throughout the day. I skipped my evening class. That night, I had nightmares about my most recent assault.

The incident was widely publicized on social media. Replying to one of the tweets about the cannon, several Tufts alumni posted calls to action for the University. The consensus was that such behavior was disgusting. Many called the event—and the lack of response—“classic Tufts.” For days, the University responded with nothing. Tufts’s lack of immediate response to the defacement of a nonpartisan, non-ideological message of support to survivors of sexual assault contributed to silencing the voices of survivors. Tufts did not necessarily feel the need to immediately respond, because we managed to catch the issue early and repaint the original message in an effort to protect survivors who otherwise would have seen the defamatory note. We cleaned up the mess. We, the survivors and the allies. But in order to condemn such actions within the community, we needed Tufts to validate our pain, to call out the people who were ignorant enough to disrespect our message to support survivors.

After three days of silence from the administration despite repeated calls for an official University statement, Green Dot met with President Monaco, who told them that the University is “working on a response.” It took three days of exposing our pain and frustration online for them to even begin to think about doing anything about it. Must we fight so hard for the smallest shreds of decency? Must the burden of responding and pushing for a University response fall on the survivors, who are the ones most impacted by this incident? This needs to change.

Having everyone wear green for Green Out Day was affirming, but this response is not enough. Unless accompanied by action, it is merely performative allyship. The Green Dot Instagram story shared a video of Tony Monaco wearing green socks and a green tie to that meeting. Tufts sees survivors as nothing more than a prop to make this school appear to be a survivor-friendly community when we really are nothing of that sort––Tufts’ silence is more telling than wearing green accessories.

The Tufts administration initially declined to comment about what happened. At a senior dinner, I spoke with President Monaco and asked him about a University response. He told me what happened was disrespectful but that the University couldn’t respond to every little thing that happens on campus. Students had already painted over the “#MAGA” message, so there was no explicit action that needed to be taken. The University can’t police free speech, he said, adding that what happened wasn’t a hate crime. He excused himself to get water.

What President Monaco failed to address was the threatening aspect of the message, the unsafe feeling that permeated the community of survivors after it was painted. Instead, the University chose to put the incident into a convenient grey area, ignoring the implications of the message and treating it as a political statement. This felt like an easy out for the University to take in order to avoid scrutiny.

I felt like my pain and trauma had been dismissed all over again. I stood there floundering for words to express myself. I felt like I couldn’t argue the point. This is nothing new to any survivor; I was dismissed first in the moment my rapist ignored my lack of consent, again as I fought to be believed, and now once more as the University spent so long in silence on this issue over taking action to affirm the original message of survivor support. Every time our pain is dismissed, we are forced to fight.

Eventually, ten days after the cannon was painted, an email from Student Life addressed this incident. I had given up on the University by this point and felt little relief from the message of support they had sent too late.

The Tufts administration ultimately failed to take the necessary steps to support us survivors, but the community response helped to soften the blow. Several of my friends reached out to check in with me after seeing the photos of the cannon on social media. One friend offered coffee and a chat after class ended; another text read simply “I saw the tweet—how are you doing?” These were moments of brightness. I am lucky to have those people in my life.

You do not have to know what it is like to be assaulted in order to show support for survivors. Don’t just post a comment online if you disagree with the “#MAGA” message; your action must go beyond this. Ask us how we would like you to check in, or even if we would like you to check in at all. Do not treat us any differently than your other friends because of our trauma. It is isolating enough to be sexually assaulted, and not checking in with your friends because of a feeling of taboo feels even more isolating. Believe us and do not question our experiences.

But supporting us requires more than just belief and reassurance. Your anger and rhetoric mean nothing unless you take action to make this community less complicit in the culture that allows sexual assault and invalidates our experiences as survivors. Through these actions, we can make the Tufts community a place where we believe and support survivors and eradicate opposition to supporting survivors of sexual assault. Actions speak so much louder than words.