Dozens of people, including students, administrators, attorneys and police officers, took the microphone on Wednesday to speak at Occupy McKeldin, Preventing Sexual Assault’s third annual sit-in to raise awareness about sexual violence.
From 10 a.m. until about 8:15 p.m., the event attracted hundreds of students by hosting speakers, workshops and activities to advocate for sexual assault survivors, giving them space to share their stories and educating the campus community about the issue.
Tables and chairs were placed on the grass directly in front of McKeldin Library, and an elevated podium for speakers stood centered on the nearby steps. Booths and tables representing CARE to Stop Violence, University of Maryland Police and the Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct formed a small semicircle around McKeldin Mall’s west end.
“The purpose is to make people listen,” senior journalism major and PSA co-president Cristina Johnson said. “Someone can be walking who doesn’t want to talk about this and doesn’t think this is an issue, and they’re gonna hear it and [it’s] gonna register.”
Throughout the day, organizers and attendees alternated between listening to speeches, participating in yoga or meditation sessions and talking and playing games. Empowerment songs such as Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire” and Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter” blasted across the mall.
That usually isn’t allowed under university policy, Johnson said with a laugh, but the group “finagled” its way into getting permission in an effort to attract as much attention as possible.
“Today can be kind of triggering, but at the same time, it can show people that they’re not alone, and there’s other people going through this and fighting for them,” she said.
Those affected by sexual violence were encouraged to sign a large white poster board, with the words “we believe you” and the “#MeToo” hashtag propped up near the library steps.
Talia Metoyer, a sophomore elementary education major who volunteered with PSA at the event, said the movement has helped bring visibility to the issue — a process she thinks should continue.
“It’s a conversation that needs to be had by absolutely everyone at every age,” she said. “I think we’re moving in a positive direction.”
Lindsay Ashwal, a former special victims prosecutor and university alumna, spoke at the event, encouraging struggling survivors to seek help if they felt comfortable doing so. She told the crowd, “If we could give one victim the strength to come forward, to hold her assailant responsible, she may save so many other victims from being raped.”
“When you look at what’s happening in society, I think being able to give people the strength to come forward — whether that applies to sexual assault or any crime — is always powerful,” she said. “To be able to hold people accountable for their behavior is always powerful.”
Attending PSA’s first Occupy McKeldin in 2016 helped Johnson realize she was a survivor, she said.
After being in denial about her previous experiences, attending the event and hearing survivors and activists speak about sexual assault “made [her] face it head on,” she said.
“Wait — that wasn’t okay,” Johnson recalled thinking. “I shouldn’t just accept that.”
The following year, she returned as a member of the group’s executive board; on Wednesday, she returned as its co-president.
“Everything we do here is personal for me,” she said.
Signs with “trigger warning” in bold red lettering stood at both ends of the sidewalk that intersected the event, which PSA secretary Alex Wilson said was to warn people that they were walking through a potentially upsetting situation.
“In a way, if it’s not triggering, then we’re not removing the taboo about sexual assault,” she said. “It’s kind of a necessary evil.”
Title IX Director Catherine Carroll spoke to students at the event about this university’s resources for handling cases of sexual assault on the campus and federal guidelines surrounding the process.
In December, the U.S. Education Department opened its third investigation into how this university handles sexual violence reports. Last month, a U.S. District Court judge dismissed a former student’s lawsuit against this university The former student claimed he was wrongfully expelled after being found responsible for sexual misconduct; which reaffirmed the school’s Title IX procedures.
Occupy McKeldin attendees had the opportunity to write letters to university President Wallace Loh about their experiences with surviving and reporting sexual assault. Johnson said PSA sent about 30 letters to Loh last year but didn’t receive any responses.
She said she hoped the letters — and the event as a whole — would help make the university’s administration more aware of survivors’ concerns, namely their desire for more OCRSM funding, stricter punishments for people found guilty of sexual assault and a faster process for reporting complaints.
“We’re trying to make our campus better for them in any way that we can,” she said.