Student anti-rape activists at Columbia University issued an extra-long Fuck You to the school's administration today by dumping a mock-check written on a mattress in the University President's office. The delivery featured the same kind of mattress the students were fined for damaging when they used them to protest their school's atrocious record on handling complaints of sexual assault.
In September, Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz, who says she was raped by a classmate who has been accused of sexually assaulting two other female students, began carrying her mattress around in protest of the school's ineptitude, a project she called Carry That Weight. By October, the movement had spread; later that month, students participating protested by carrying 28 mattresses—one for every Columbia student who signed on to a Title IX complaint against the university over its mishandling of sexual assault. The movement brought national attention to Sulkowicz and embarrassment to Columbia. Exactly the sort of attention that one would think an image-minded institution would be keen to avoid.
Until they responded to the protests by slapping its participants with a $471 fine for damaging their mattresses.
The nonprofit group Ultraviolet offered to pay the fine, but Carry That Weight wasn't done rubbing the Columbia administration's nose in it.
This morning at 10 o'clock, students from the group carried the giant novelty check/mattress across campus, until they arrived at University President Lee Bollinger's office. Once they were there, they read the following letter aloud:
Dear President Bollinger,
On October 29th, hundreds of students gathered in the pouring rain to protest Columbia University's treatment of survivors of sexual and dating violence. Student activists and survivors organized the rally with Carry That Weight, an organization committed to ending violence on campuses. We marched with mattresses to your house, chanting "Rape culture is contagious, come on Prezbo, be courageous!" We left 28 mattresses on your doorstep, representing the 28 students who filed a Title IX complaint against Columbia, and delivered a list of 10 demands. After months of inaction, we hoped you would take this opportunity to finally step up and address our urgent concerns.
Instead, you threw our mattresses in a dumpster and slapped us with a fine for $471. The mattresses are a symbol of the burdens that survivors struggle to carry with them each day on this campus. This response makes your priorities abundantly clear: You value the reputation of this institution over the safety of your students, and would rather throw out survivors' pain than acknowledge the harm your administration has caused. President Bollinger, you are making us pay for the trauma that we have endured. This is reprehensible.
Survivors and activists in our community have been calling on you to effectively prevent and respond to sexual and domestic violence for over a year. On April 24th, 2014, 23 students filed a Title IX complaint against this University. In August, 5 more student survivors joined the complaint. Also in August, you released a new GenderBased Misconduct policy without any student input and ignored the policy proposals we wrote at your request. Since then, Emma Sulkowicz's senior thesis Mattress Project: Carry That Weight has called national attention to the injustices survivors have been forced to carry alone for too long. You have not responded once to this piece, and her serial rapist remains on campus today.
Your administration is still punishing students who commit rape and abuse with merely a slap on the wrist, and failing to provide survivors with the protections and support we need. Our goal is and always has been to work with your office to address these critical concerns. However, if you continue to ignore our needs and retaliate against us for speaking out, students on this campus will remain unsafe, and this conflict will continue to escalate.
Today, we will pay the fine your administration has tried to minimize as a "clean up charge." But let's be clear: If this fine went to support the maintenance workers who, under your instruction, did have to carry the 28 mattresses to a dumpster, we would readily pay them. This money will not go to those individuals. (And this is not the first time you have tried to hide behind University workers for your administration's mishandling of sexual assault.) This is not a cleanup fee, but a punishment for speaking out and it will go into the bank account of a University that has silenced us.
We dragged our mattresses to your home in an act of desperation: We do not feel safe on this campus, and we fear for the students that come after us. There are rapists in our dorms, our dining halls, our libraries. There are survivors dropping out of school because no one is there to support them. We call on you to take immediate action: engage directly and meaningfully with students, and take our demands seriously. When students on this campus are unsafe, we need a President who will take action. When students demand to be heard, we need a President who responds. When the community is in crisis, we need a President who leads. It is time you listen to us and help us make this community safe for everyone. Be courageous President Bollinger, your students need you.
The Columbia students of the Carry That Weight campaign
At press time (blog time?), a spokesperson for Carry That Weight tells Jezebel that they have yet to receive a response from President Bollinger's office.
We reached out to Columbia University's office of the President for comment on the protest and received the following email:
As we've said before, given our longstanding commitment to robust free speech, there is never such thing as a fine for any group because of its views and we support students in peaceful protest. These are entirely typical matters in apportioning direct costs for facilitating student events which student sponsors understood and acknowledged in advance. And, in fact, the University chose to underwrite the costs of the main campus cleanup.
Images via Carry That Weight. Used with permission.