Back the Night, and the Agenda
took a little determination last Thursday evening (April 27)
to head inside from the gorgeous spring sunshine to the oppressive
South Mall concourse for Albany’s annual Take Back the Night
rally. Of course it’s hard to predict April weather, so this
was the safer route in terms of comfort. The psychology of
being in what for me was a somewhat claustrophobic space may
have also been apropos, if not exactly liberating.
Take Back the Night is a powerful event—I almost called it
institution, but that’s not right. More of a cultural meme,
like Gay Pride. The first marches and protests under that
banner were held in the late ’70s in Europe and the United
States largely to draw attention to how widely under-reported
and under-prosecuted the crime of rape was and to resist a
culture that told women it was their fault and they should
stay in at night (among other things) to stay safe.
That’s a fight that is still not won, though it has improved.
And many Take Back the Nights have conscientiously expanded
to address all forms of sexual assault—happening, as the Albany
event’s literature was careful to point out, to different
genders and at all times of day.
This evolution is a good thing in many ways, since stranger
rape is only a small portion of the sexual assaults that happen,
and many others are even harder to address. It was good to
see more men present at the rally, and a man represented among
the survivors who spoke.
It also means that the focus has been shifted heavily toward
hearing the stories of survivors. The four survivors who spoke
on Thursday were brave and articulate, and each had extremely
different stories that defied the imagination even as they
sounded terrifyingly familiar. A women attacked and nearly
choked to death in a public place by an ex, who then only
got one day in jail. A boy beaten viciously by his father
who turned to friends for safety was instead sexually molested
They also spoke of courage and recovery, taking back their
lives, and the crowd applauded each time they mentioned key
steps they’d taken toward healing—kicking an addiction, speaking
out about what they’d experienced. This was not an event about
The final speaker also spoke movingly of coming to several
Take Back the Nights, often in a support role for others,
before she came around to realizing she needed to deal with
her own history of abuse.
This is the kind of role such events can play—creating a space
to publicly affirm that such stories are not shameful, reminding
everyone that there is still work to do.
It can be an awkward transition though, from such intimate
sharing to protest march, two very different venues. After
the survivors and some poetry, thanks to the efforts of the
Hudson Valley Writers Guild, which sponsored a poetry contest
on a Take Back the Night theme (disclosure: I was one of the
readers), the group moved directly to marching. It took at
least a third of the route (across Lark Street and down State
to the Capitol) for the group to get some of the suggested
chants going—this was partly due to a lack of a rhythm section
or experienced chant leaders (it’s harder than you think to
get a large, moving group of people to say the same thing
in unison). But I suspect it was also due to the abrupt change
in tone and energy from the rally.
It took me until the next day to realize that one of the transitions
that may have been missing was action items. Why were we marching?
Were we angry or mournful or defiant? What were we demanding?
Who were we speaking to? What does Take Back the Night mean
in a world where everyone knows the phrase “No means no,”
even if they don’t all respect it?
No one at the rally had mentioned changes to push for or support
in legislation or law enforcement, programs that needed more
funding or neighborhood watches to attend. There were no references
to state legislative interns or the only recently stabilized
status of the county Crime Victims and Sexual Assault Center.
There was also no discussion of more individual things like
learning the warning signs that a friend is in an abusive
relationship, challenging attitudes that lead to sexual violence,
or taking self-defense classes.
Much of this and more was in fact present in the literature
at the many tables staffed by various sponsoring organizations.
I speculate that the involvement of government agencies in
sponsoring the event may have made it dicey to select any
particular platform to promote.
In any case, the rally was about survivors and their stories,
and was addressed to other survivors to encourage them to
step forward. A powerful and worthy thing to do. But marching
isn’t as good a venue for that. Perhaps if it had actually
been after dark, then just being out in the streets in a group
would have had more resonance. (“It was supposed to be Take
Back the Night,” noted one marcher, “not Take Back Just Before
One survivor I spoke with afterward said she thought the march
had felt more relevant in previous years when the rally had
been held in Washington Park and the march had gone “through
the student neighborhoods.” It had felt, she said, like they
had a more specific message of empowerment for a specific
These are small questions of tactics. In the long run, much
as with gay rights, it will be the slow steady changing of
culture that comes with people telling their stories, being
visible and putting their feet down about unacceptable behavior
that will have the most effect.
But if, as one of the organizers did, you want to say “Hopefully
we won’t have to be back here next year,” it might not hurt
to give people some intermediate goals to strive for, so that
when they are back next year, it can feel like something
has changed, even for those who are not survivors who have
just worked up the courage to break the silence.