Taking Back the Block: organizing against sexual violence
By: Ann Beatty
On September 15, hundreds of women, trans people, kids and men supporters gathered in the Parkdale neighbourhood of Toronto for the 30th annual Take Back the Night (TBTN) community fair, rally and march. The march was loud and spirited, marching on both major streets and quieter residential ones. The chants and music brought some residents out on to the sidewalks and waves from balconies of the many apartment buildings in the neighbourhood.
Recent Sexual Assaults in Toronto
While TBTN is always an important, empowering event for women and people working against sexual violence, it seems to have particular relevance to Toronto this year. While the vast majority of sexual assaults take place in private settings, such as homes, this summer in Toronto has seen a number of attacks on the street in different neighbourhoods. On Saturday October 20th Police arrested and charged a 15 year-old boy with 14 counts of sexual assault in relation to the particular string of assaults in the Christie and Bloor area dating back to the summer. While these attacks have garnered more media attention and resulted in a public demonstration on September 3rd, multiple assaults have also taken place in other neighbourhoods.
Sexual assaults like these, in public spaces and by strangers, provoke a specific response from police, media and politicians. Too often, the message to women is familiar: stay home, be careful and, in the words of Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s neice, Krista Ford, “don’t dress like a whore.” These responses are incorrect and insulting, as there is no link between how women dress and assault. They are also limiting as they put the focus on individual women, rather than on the men that perpetrate – obscuring any potential and responsibility of communities to organize against them.
Potential Strategies for Response
Public demonstrations like Take Back the Night and the demonstration in Christie Pitts park create a starting point to counteract these harmful responses, but are in no way sufficient. Anna Willats, of the Assaulted Women and Children Counsellor/Advocate program at George Brown College, addresses the serious limitations of focusing only on public assaults: “lots of attention is given to stranger assaults, but most sexual assault is in the home. We could respond to public stuff, but it wouldn’t address violence against women. The key is equality of women. Responses have to be systemic. Most women who are victimized are isolated, struggle with poverty, with lack of housing or childcare, or fear of deportation. There is no quick fix response; it must be systemic and long-term.”
For Willats, the keys to preventing sexual assault include long-term community-based projects led by women and increasing support – such as funding for childcare and housing – that make it possible for women to leave abusive relationships. Both Willats and Darlene Lucas, a member of a Parkdale group formerly known as Parkdale Anti-Violence Organization, (soon to be changed to Parkdale Women’s Advocacy) highlight in particular the upcoming cut to the Community Start Up benefit.
Community Start Up is a benefit that can be accessed by people on OW and ODSP to set up or maintain housing in various circumstances, including when leaving an abusive situation or when moving from a shelter. Lucas describes how women who leave abusive relationships will be affected by the cut: “Women who struggle to leave abuse, take their kids to a shelter, go on social assistance... Then they look around for a place to live and find a little place. They need money to set it up. As of January 1st, they’re going to take it away. And we’re going to stop it.”
Plans to oppose the cut in Toronto include mass clinics to assist people on OW/ODSP in applying for the cut, and public demonstrations. On October 17th OCAP held their first public clinic, with over 50 participants filling out Community Start Up Benefit paperwork and marching to the deliver them to the main welfare office en masse. The elimination of this benefit puts low income women at greater risk of abuse. It puts women in the impossibly difficult situation of having to choose between either violence or extreme poverty and homelessness. Fighting against the cut while emphasizing it's particular impact on women opens up strong possibilities for united struggles against austerity and violence.
Broader Community and Workplace Strategies
There exists both a serious need and diverse opportunities to take up organizing against sexual assault in all areas of activism. In our neighbourhoods, we can work to create spaces for ongoing organizing and struggle. Following TBTN community members met in Kensington Market and at Ryerson University in Toronto at an event called Take Back the Block. These rallies created space for community members to meet each other and discuss possibilities for ongoing organizing. Public demonstrations open up space for survivors to connect and discuss. They push back against messages of individualized shame and promote collectivized, organized anger against patriarchy and sexual assault. When we resist the shaming of survivors by police and media, when we march and assert ourselves in our communities, we make this a public issue and create spaces to organize and build long-term struggles against sexual assault and patriarchy.
In the west end of Toronto, the Parkdale Women’s Advocacy group provides a model for longer-term community struggle. Lucas, a member of the group, describes how it is currently supported by agencies such as Parkdale Community Health Centre and Parkdale Community Legal Services, but is open to all women, including those who live outside Parkdale. The group organizes around many issues facing women, as well as building leadership skills and mutual support for women involved. “This group is open to any woman who wants to make a change,” says Lucas, “There are a lot of strong women in Parkdale, and when strong-willed women get together, we can do it.” Parkdale Women’s Advocacy provides a strong model for how neighbourhood based groups can organize long-term against violence by taking a broad approach, which includes working on other issues, and building capacity and support among its own members.
In our workplaces, we can organize to pressure our employers around issues of sexual assault, sexual harassment and safety. Following two assaults this summer in the area around McMaster University campus in Hamilton, the teaching assistants’ union local CUPE 3906 took action when the administration failed to inform students and workers of the incidents. Members of the union distributed a letter and held public meeting on the issue, and pressured the university to make a practice of informing workers and students of sexual assaults on or around the campus. According to statement sent around by the union, other universities, such as York University and the University of Toronto, already do this – but McMaster has resisted and the fight around this continues.
Both in communities and in workplaces, on our own streets and in campaigns across the province and country, we have opportunities to develop strategies to prevent and respond to sexual assault, to fight patriarchy and violence in our daily lives. What is most infuriating about the recent street-level assaults in Toronto is that they are not a statistical high, but a tiny, better-publicized moment in the high number of women facing violence and abusive every day across the province. Our struggle, in response, must also be constant, multifaceted and ongoing, until all our streets and homes are places of safety, respect and equality.