Silent Protest: We take care of our own

The Sexual Violence = Silence Protest is the largest and longest running protest of its kind on the continent. After three years of doing it, STUART THEMBISILE LEWIS reckons the most important part is what happens the day after.

Ever been inside an aircraft hangar? This is exactly the same thing. But instead of housing a private jet or a commercial airliner, in here there are a dozen or so tables covered in art supplies.

Though the ceiling is two and a half stories above my head and the walls are ten metres away, there are 13 people in this whole space.

On Saturday, there were 1,700, all dressed in purple shirts, most with black duct tape over their mouths. They marched silently through the Rhodes University campus at 7am.

Over lunch, they prostrated themselves in front of the library in a voiceless simulacrum of all the lives lost in the war of sexual violence.

At 5pm, they filed down High Street to the cathedral, again only to the sound of their own feet.

Once inside, they turned to each other and slowly removed the tape. A handful stepped up to the microphone and, sometimes haltingly, sometimes in a rush of words, told their stories of how they had been raped or abused.

No one comes out of an experience like that “okay”. Either you were forced to confront your own experience or you remember a pain you thought you had forgotten. Simply listening to someone else’s story might be enough to break you.

Come Saturday morning, we’re still not okay. So we come here to this hangar and we make things. We paint and we draw and we talk to each other.

The truth is, standing up to protest the horrifying statistics on rape in this country, even if it’s part of a massive crowd, is incredibly traumatising. So last year the organisers started the Debrief Café.

The space is designed to help protesters cope with the lingering pain left in the wake of the protest and testimony. There is no structure or programme. But there are coffee and doughnuts.

First envisaged by Kim Barker, the coordinator of this year’s protest, the idea behind the café is that it functions as a safe space for people to chill out, make art and talk about their experiences.

“You can get a cup of coffee, orange juice, have a doughnut, have something to eat, engage with art materials. It’s a different space to reflect on what is happening and your experiences,” says Sarah Green, one of the professional psychologists stationed inside the café in case they are needed.

“There should be a space where everyone can go and talk about what has happened to them without being disbelieved. Then healing can happen once we feel safe.”

Out in the real world, spaces like the café don’t exist. Out there, when you get raped, people tell you that you asked for it or that you were irresponsible. Despite what the Sexual Offences Act says nurses at clinics refuse to provide you with anti-HIV treatments, antibiotics or the morning after pill unless you have opened a case with the police first. Police officers will ask you what you were wearing or how much you had had to drink when it happened.

Out there, there are no safe spaces.

In here, in this massive room only, everyone is safe. At one table, a media studies lecturer and a counselor exchange professional observations about the protest while making things out of clay. At another, a handful of students paint and complain about how ridiculously problematic Iggy Azalea is. By the coffee machine, a priest listens earnestly as a woman half his height talks quietly.

“In an ideal world, this kind of thing should be happening inside people’s homes and larger institutions like schools and workplaces and so on,” says Green. “You should have the freedom and opportunity to just sit down and do and be.”

We end our conversation there. An enthusiastic-looking woman has just shown up and wants to lead the room in a square dance.


Stuart Lewis profile picStuart Thembisile Lewis is currently in his third year of a Bachelor of Journalism degree at Rhodes University. Essentially a leftie, pinko socialist, his Twitter bio is a collection of all things he does when he’s not stuffing around on the internet. Follow him on Twitter.