A candlelight vigil for sexual assault survivors garnered support and criticism from the Knox community. The SASS sponsored event was originally scheduled for Tuesday, March 9, but rainy weather prompted organizers to postpone the vigil until Wednesday, March 10.
Former SASS vice president senior Ashley Atkinson said that she has been pleased with the campus’s response to recent reports of sexual assault.
But the organization felt that some elements of the discussion were lacking in representation.
“The forum was really good. People were civil, which I was really surprised about considering,” said Atkinson in reference to the student-run sexual assault open forum held on March 1.
The purpose of the vigil, she went on, was to “focus on the survivor.” SASS met to discuss alternative ways to allow students to express their feelings on sexual assault.
“We wanted to find a way to acknowledge the harmfulness of what really happened without yelling at each other,” said former SASS secretary sophomore Charles Ely. Ely suggested that SASS’s action take the form of a candlelight vigil.
According to Ely, about 15 students attended the vigil.
“There was a diverse enough mixture of people that it felt like it really was reaching across campus boundaries enough to say that the assaults were really something that affected campus,” said Ely.
Additional discussion of the event was posted on the vigil’s Facebook event page. The number of reactions the vigil generated impressed Ely.
Some reactions were not as positive as others. Junior Ndaya Farrell did not attend the event.
“I found it offensive,” she said. “Vigils are for people that are dead, people that need to be remembered.”
Although Farrell appreciated the sentiment behind the vigil and those who attended, she felt that it was not the best mode of expression.
“Having a vigil focuses more on the event than what the survivors have accomplished since that event,” she said. “I’m not just a sexual assault survivor. I’ve done so much more in my life.”
Sophomore Monica Prince had similar feelings towards the event’s title.
“It was a good idea in concept, but the name kind of threw me off,” she said. Ely suggested that negative reactions to the vigil might be the results of a “miscommunication.”
“It’s a way of communally showing grief over something, which is mourning, but maybe that can be the seed for change rather than ‘we’re gonna cry over this,’” he said.
According to Ely, students reached out to SASS in a time of campus tumult.
“There were people who wanted to hear from us,” he said.
“We perceived so many people reaching out to us saying, ‘we want to know what you’re doing.’”
Ely was distressed by the negative feedback SASS received from an anonymous posting to the group Knox PostSecret.
“The other response [on PostSecret] was ‘keep out of this’ which was not going to happen,” he said.
Atkinson also found the criticism troublesome.
“Instead of attacking SASS, people need to be proactive,” she said. “If they want to attack anything, the real issue is sexual assault.”
Despite opposition, Atkinson and Ely considered the event a success. Attendees gathered on the steps of Old Main before setting out on a route that took them past Seymour Library and The Hard Knox Café.
“At first there was some awkward milling about, but once it got started, you could tell everyone cared about what we were doing; what our mere presence was saying,” said Ely.
“The feeling was somewhere between solidarity and wanting to be seen and acknowledged,” he said. Those in attendance were encouraged to stay silent.
“The choice for silence is … a visual representation of what many people have felt is the silence enforced on survivors,” said Ely.
“It was much more a of a solemn occasion,” said Atkinson.
Professor Magali Roy-Fequiere attended the event.
“Although the vigil was small, it was important,” she said.
Both Ely and Atkinson hope that the event made an impact on the Knox community. A community, in Atkinson’s opinion, that is largely in denial.
“People who passed us couldn’t look us in the eye,” said Atkinson. “If they couldn’t look us in the eye, how could they confront this issue which is a lot larger than our march?”