Column: Survivors stand up for ‘Care Not Cops’ campaign

Published: 11/19/2020 10:20:15 PM
Modified: 11/19/2020 10:20:04 PM

Sexual assault survivors often do not turn to police to address harm done. On Nov. 15, 2018, seven of us filed a sexual harassment class action lawsuit against the board of trustees of Dartmouth College. We were joined by two more plaintiffs, and the nine of us settled the lawsuit with Dartmouth in July 2019. The settlement was approved by the U.S. District Court in Concord this summer, but the legacy of trauma that propelled this endeavor still lives within us.

Our collective experiences covered the gamut of sexual violence and gender-based discrimination, from rape to retaliation, from verbal abuse to career sabotage. The services that helped keep us afloat were mental health counseling and the advocates at WISE. Not one of the nine plaintiffs, nor to the best of our knowledge any of the 70-plus women who received distributed justice from the settlement as class members, relied on the support of local police.

We understand the devastating nature of sexual and domestic violence, and we recognize the fundamental importance of a sense of safety for victims/survivors. But our intimate awareness of our own and each other’s trauma taught us that being interrogated by a gun-wielding stranger does nothing to alleviate distress or provide a sense of safety.

One of us, Vassiki Chauhan, who was examined by a sexual assault nurse examiner at Dick’s House two days after being assaulted, actively made the choice not to report to the police and filed a Title IX complaint instead.

What we wanted, along with the other participants in our class action suit, was acknowledgement of the harm done, not to see our perpetrators locked in a cage. We did not want the police interrogating us about the most traumatic moments of our life: asking us about our orifices, where his hands were, every excruciating detail. The criminal justice system not only delays healing, but is also traumatic in itself.

The resurgence of the movement for racial justice in the U.S., amid a global pandemic, facilitated a conversation about whether the onus of mitigating harm lies on individuals or institutions. Active dialogue about whether policing is racist by design or if some “bad apples” within the system make it discriminatory is reminiscent of rhetoric we had to engage with through the course of our lawsuit. It strikes us as particularly strange since the metaphor was drawn from the proverb “a few bad apples spoil the bunch.” If the bunch is spoiled, then it’s time to start fresh.

As psychologists, we are also aware that implicit bias training administered to individuals to address systemic racism is mostly ineffective. The authors of the Implicit Association Test state that this tool is never meant to serve as a diagnosis for racism, but as evidence that all of us carry unconscious biases that come from the cultural and political milieu in which we are embedded. From our vantage point, truly addressing these biases requires a cultural and political engagement from communities, rather than punitive or reformist measures enforced on individuals.

The strength of our conviction has led us to greater involvement — Chauhan as co-chair of the Upper Valley chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, and Brietzke as co-chair of the chapter’s Police and Prison Abolition working group.

Through our lived experience of workplace assault, harassment and discrimination, we have come to believe in the power of collective bargaining and the necessity of a critique of the racist, misogynistic and colonial history of capitalism. In the case of the “Care Not Cops” campaign in Lebanon, we believe reallocating funds from the police department toward mental health services and victim advocacy groups — services that helped keep us alive during extraordinarily painful times — will do more to help keep survivors safe than the police.

We believe that a true democracy involves political engagement from all of its constituents, and as nascent organizers, our hope is that the reallocation of the police budget in the city of Lebanon goes beyond simply supporting human services departments to make the case that systemic change is possible if we are willing to put our weight behind demanding it.

Vassiki Chauhan and Sasha Brietzke are graduate students in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College.

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