Updated Sept. 26, 10:45 a.m.
When Tarana Burke calls for solidarity against sexual violence, Philly shows up.
Burke, a local activist who founded the #MeToo movement years before the Harvey Weinstein revelations came to light, called on survivors across the country to walkout and march at 1 p.m. on Sept. 24. Dubbed #BelieveSurvivors, the local demonstration drew more than 100 people to City Hall in support of the two women who have come forward with sexual misconduct allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Speakers shared their own experiences with sexual assault and detailed the often equally traumatic process of going public. And while Kavanaugh was the context for the march, protesters repeatedly singled out a local pol who has been reckoning with his own #MeToo allegations: State Sen. Daylin Leach.
Emily Woods is one of the eight women and three men who have alleged that Senator Daylin Leach made sexually inappropriate gestures toward them. Speaking at the demonstration in Dilworth Plaza, Woods offered more details about her experience with Leach — both as a former staffer and later as his accuser. She also recounted two other instances where she said she was violated by predators in positions of power.
“I know what it is like to not be believed,” Woods said. “I know what it is like to be sexually humiliated while my assailant laughs along with everyone else. I was deemed a crazy, lying slut.”
Blessing Osawuza recalled the aftermath of her own on-campus sexual assault as a freshman in college — the guilt, the lack of support, the school’s failed response, the suicidal thoughts. Then she turned to Leach. As a survivor, she said she was infuriated by the state senator’s January op-ed in the Inquirer responding to the allegations, and his subsequent remarks toward his accusers and their allies.
“The way you shame and shun these women and victims, who come forward with these stories and then make yourself out to be the victim — how dare you?” Osawuza asked, turning to stare into a news camera. “When you posted that article about what you’ve learned and used the hashtag #MeToo, do you know that hashtag, created by a black woman, is not for you to use to amplify your voice when it should be used to amplify the voices of the people who you’ve silenced? Do you know that, Mr. Leach?”
After Osawuza, local activist Gwen Snyder also detailed two personal accounts of sexual assault — which occurred at the past Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia while she was working as a delegate — and the incredulous reactions that followed from colleagues.
Snyder then asked protestors to tweet out #BelieveSurvivors messages to Leach and Sen. Chuck Grassley.
From there, the protest took to the streets, looping around City Hall with a police escort as passerby snapped photos and videos of the crowd. Chants included “End rape culture!,” and “What’s up? #TimesUp! When is it up? Now!”
Billy Penn asked two young protestors why they showed up in the middle of a Monday to join the #BelieveSurvivors march. Marley, a young woman who declined to give her last name, said she was also a victim of sexual assault.
“The idea that someone isn’t being heard or believed because ‘this much time has passed,’ that’s just an excuse to come at [Ford] further… I feel like that is extremely important to focus on because at a young age you’re so fucking vulnerable. People who are older don’t feel any less vulnerable. For someone to be put in that position now and to dismiss her like that horrifies me and I want to change that, for myself and for everybody else in the world.”
Cara, a protester who also declined to provide her last name, was yet another sexual assault victim, she said.
“When I brought my case against a professional football player forward, there was a lot of backlash and I’m expecting there to be even more now,” she said. “I think it is really important for people to believe those who step forward and say that they were sexually assaulted because it is so hard to do so, but with the rape culture right now, it is very easy to automatically blame the victim. I’ve been through it personally, and I’ve seen my friends go through it, and it is sickening.”
In a rousing speech before the march, Nina Ahmad, a board member at the National Organization for Women and former president of the Philly NOW chapter, emphasized that the #MeToo must push forward in the face of dismissiveness.
“This is not going to be over today,” Ahmad said. “Rape culture is endemic in so many societies and in so many countries and in so many different cultural norms, so we have to work harder to undo that. We have to be brave about holding people accountable. There’s a price for that, but if we are not willing to pay that price we will forever be second-class citizens.”