Column: The politics of privilege and suppression

Robert Downen, Opinions Editor

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For more than two weeks now, Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz has carried her dorm room mattress to every class she attends.

She won’t ask for help, can’t ask for help—doing so violates the terms of the project.

But every morning, she wakes, readies for class, has breakfast, throws the 30 pound, twin-sized mattress over her head and walks the prestigious, Ivy League corridors, the mattress hovering above her always. Students ask to help, and, sometimes, she’ll allow it. But at day’s end, help is only temporary. This is her weight to bear. She knows that.

Two years ago, she was raped on a mattress much like the one she touts on campus today.

Two years later, the student who assaulted her still walks campus, still haunts every moment of her days and nights.

“Every day, I am afraid to leave my room,” Emma wrote in Time. “Even seeing people who look remotely like my rapist scares me. Last semester I was working in the dark room in the photography department. Though he wasn’t in my class, he asked permission from his teacher to come and work in the dark room during my class time. I started crying and hyperventilating. As long as he’s on campus with me, he can continue to harass me.”

Two other students have filed separate rape allegations against Emma’s attacker. Both were dismissed for “lacking evidence.” 

And so, backed into a corner, dejected and afraid, Emma chose her mattress as a symbol of that injustice, of the weight she carries every day. The message is simple enough: “I will stop carrying my mattress when my rapist is removed from campus.”

Sadly, Emma’s story isn’t unfamiliar. In recent years alone, we’ve seen college administrations across the country suppress claims of rape, seen them treat sexual assault as a public relations problem rather than one of violence, seen them blame victims rather than rapists, seen them turn around and deny those victims even a modicum of justice. 

No campus has been spared. 

We’ve seen it at Stanford University. We’ve seen it at Florida State University. We’ve seen it at Harvard, University of Michigan, at University North Carolina, at Notre Dame, and at, yes, even Eastern.

Few students seem to remember (or maybe they just choose to forget), but barely two years ago, our own administration made national headlines for washing from the Mellin steps a victim’s cry for help: “my rapist still goes here,” so bold and assertive. 

The administration’s response? The school needed to clean the steps because it was “looking a little trashy.”

I had a thought that day. It was the same one I had yesterday, watching a broadcast of protests at Columbia, watching five different women break down as they recanted their own stories of rape: why does it take such extreme, drastic events for society to be shaken into awareness? 

Why are victims in this country so often reduced to pleading for help or screaming for justice? Why does it take a mattress protest or a gigantic chalk message for us to talk about issues we all well know exist? How often do victims in this country need to grab us by our collective head, teary-eyed, terrified, and scream in our faces ‘Look, you idiots! I NEED HELP!” 

And when I ask these questions, I’m not being specific to rape alone. No — I’m talking about a much bigger, systemic issue in this country, one concerning drastic disparities between the powerful and the weak, between the privileged and the non. 

Far too often, it seems victims in this country are pushed to the brink, forced to scream for help, and only when those screams become too intolerable to ignore — when they become too loud, too deafening to turn a shoulder — do we decide to care.

It took an elevator video of Ray Rice beating his wife for us to talk about domestic violence. It took a gruesome, 45-minute botched execution for us to talk about capital punishment. It took 28 dead schoolchildren for us to talk about gun control; took the body of an unarmed black kid spread across a cold Missouri street for us to talk about racism.

What will it take for us to talk about the next big issue? I’d rather not find out. 

Robert Downen is a senior journalism major. He can be reached at 581-7912 or [email protected]