Commentary Violence

“I Can’t Forget What Happened, But No One Else Remembers”

Soraya Chemaly

"We want to build a national monument to survivors, because we want to live in a country that holds public and supportive space for survivors to heal," adds co-founder of FORCE, Hannah Brancato, "Because we want to live in a country that believes rape can and must end."

These words are the full text of a poem by an anonymous rape survivor. Last week, they were floated in the Reflecting Pool, with symbolic resonance, between the Lincoln and Washington Memorial in Washington, DC. The letters were put into the pool yesterday afternoon by the guerilla art movement FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture. Over the course of several weeks, the FORCE team created giant, red styrofoam letters in order to assemble the words. The simple poem illustrates verbally and graphically the isolating and silencing experience of rape in the United States. No need to go into the facts again. There’s an epidemic of rape in the United States and globally.

It was beautiful and haunting to those who saw it.  I was there and spoke to people who, casually sightseeing, stopped to talk and think about what we were quietly doing on a sunny, cold day on the Mall. Along with Holly Kearl, the founder of StopStreetHarassment, I ended up helping FORCE mount the poem on the steps of the Memorial.  How does this help anything? Why would anyone do this?

And then the newspapers were filled with news of Reeva Steenkamp’s death. She was the woman shot by Oscar Pistorius.  It was an act of small-arms-in-the-home domestic violence that resulted in her death. To read the news reports you’d easily lose this central fact in stories filled with “paralympic athlete,” “bikini-clad, vamping photo spreads.”  That and the message that, despite past incidences of violence, as was the case with Katrina Perkins and Jovan Belcher, many people on editorial boards really wants us to know that “they had a healthy, fabulous, relationship.

The news of this murder surfaced on the same day as the V-Day One Billion Rising global strike against violence against women.  In my lifetime there have not been many transnational strikes for women’s rights. I went because women and men who defend their rights chose to transcend difference and speak peacefully with one voice. The global diversity of participants spoke directly to how the manner forms of violence against women are broad and manifest themselves differently in different contexts. Their root cause—brutal physical domination that is the core of patriarchy—is the thread that binds them. But, there is also one other – the degree to which it is hard to face, digest and deal with. It’s sad, grim and depressing. But ignoring and sugar coating the reality only perpetuates it.

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FORCE doesn’t just want us to openly confront and dismantle this culture. They want to create safe public spaces where survivors of violence can find affirmation and healing. FORCE is dedicated to changing the national conversation around violence against women, specifically, sexualized violence.

“We built this temporary monument as a call to create a permanent monument to survivors of rape and abuse in the United States.  It is the first of many actions and the beginning of a larger campaign,” explains Rebecca Nagle, one of the founders of FORCE.

The floating poem is the latest in a series of actions undertaken by the group. You might recall their recent  panty prank “PINK loves CONSENT,”  a fake website pretending to be Victoria’s Secret. The site was filled with underwear printed with consent-themed slogans like “ASK FIRST” and “NO MEANS NO”.

Last Fall, the group projected RAPE is RAPE unto the US Capitol Building.  The group exists, as they put it, “to upset the culture of rape and promote a culture of consent” and they are doing a good and creative job that captures the public imagination. And with a seriously difficult topic. 

“We want to build a national monument to survivors, because we want to live in a country that holds public and supportive space for survivors to heal,” adds co-founder of FORCE, Hannah Brancato, “Because we want to live in a country that believes rape can and must end.”

Some think that people like Rebecca Nagle, Hanna Brancato, Holly Kearl – people who attended VDay events around the world – and I are deluded in believing that this can happen.  I think they’re part of the problem and we need to stay focused. No matter how long it may take. Setting aside a moment to dance or to create art (a luxury and privilege to be sure) puts aside in favor of common humanity, ever so briefly, the sad and persistent brutality at the heart of rape and domestic abuse violence. Art doesn’t just reflect culture, it presages change.  


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