Fighting Fear

Activists in Northside take to the streets to protest increasing violence against women

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click to enlarge Cincinnati Radical Feminist Collective organizer Jen Mendoza (right) leads an Oct. 11 march in Northside.
Cincinnati Radical Feminist Collective organizer Jen Mendoza (right) leads an Oct. 11 march in Northside.

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n the early morning hours of Oct. 2, two teenagers approached a woman near the corner of Chase and Virginia avenues in Northside and assaulted her. Police records show that after strangling her and beating her with a rock, they raped her, stabbed her and took her cellphone and other belongings.

But before they could escape, the woman wrested a knife from one of her attackers and stabbed him in the leg. A teen suspected of involvement in the sexual assault later showed up at a nearby hospital to get treatment for a similar wound.

The terrifying incident wasn’t an isolated occurrence in Northside, which has seen a spike in reports of of violent rapes and sexual assaults. But activists are fighting back against the rise in gender-based violence in the area and have used the incidents to open up a wider conversation about cultural attitudes toward violence against women. 

They’ve organized rallies and marches to draw more attention to the issues, including an event Oct. 11 in Hoffner Park that drew more than 100 people. Another in August drew a similarly large crowd.

“We’re sick of seeing our sisters and mothers and our friends and our coworkers being afraid of their own neighborhoods because they’re scared that they’re going to get raped — it’s disgusting,” said co-organizer Abby Friend, a member of the group Cincinnati Radical Feminists Collective. “We want our neighbors to walk where they want, when they want and how they want. We’re doing this to empower all of you to not be afraid anymore.”

Police records show at least seven sexual assaults have occurred in the neighborhood in the past year, and many say a number of others have gone unreported. In July, a woman was raped after a man grabbed her on busy Hamilton Avenue, stuck a gun to her side and forced her to walk behind an apartment building, where he sexually assaulted her. He then forced her to take money out of a nearby ATM machine.

Cincinnati Police Department’s District Five, which encompasses Northside, Clifton and surrounding communities, has seen a 15-percent increase in the number of rapes this year over its normal three-year average, even as sexual assault reports in the city as a whole haven’t increased in that time period.

Activists like those with the Cincinnati Radical Feminists Collective say the recent sexual assaults in Northside are horrifying and must stop. But their message also transcends those specific incidents, taking on societal attitudes that contribute to what they call rape culture.

“This kind of rape we’re encouraged to talk about,” says Ri Molnar, who spoke at the rally, of the recent attacks. Molnar has facilitated self-defense workshops for women for more than a decade in a number of cities across the country. Molnar says it’s important to be aware of dangers like the recent violent incidents in Northside, but to also keep in mind that most sexual violence is perpetrated by acquaintances, friends or partners.

According to data from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, 82 percent of sexual assaults involve a person the victim already knows. What’s more, Molnar and others say, the legal system and cultural atmosphere often don’t bring justice to many who suffer from sexual violence, including those raped by their spouses or partners and those in the transgender community.

“Four-fifths of the rapes that happen, we’re encouraged to silence,” Molnar says. “It sucks that trans women are raped and murdered at rates that no one is even studying. And it sucks that most of us are raped by friends and boyfriends and teachers and caregivers, but that all of the legal repercussions are targeted at strangers.”

Many survivors of sexual assault told their stories at the Oct. 11 rally, recounting times when friends and acquaintances committed acts of sexual violence against them.

Friend is one of those survivors. As a teen, she was raped by an acquaintance after he drugged her at a church festival.

“You are taught to be silent,” she says. “You don’t bring it up in your friends groups because it was one of your friends who did it. All I did was internalize all my feelings.”

Friend says she was blamed by family and friends and that the lack of support was almost as traumatic as the rape itself.

“I’ve found a group of really strong women who have helped me through a lot of shit, but unfortunately this is something I’m going to have to live with for the rest of my life,” she says. “And there are so many other women out there who are just like me who feel the same exact thing every single day.”

The increase in violence against women in Northside and the pushback by activists comes as resources providing support for sexual assault survivors are in question.

Cincinnati Radical Feminists Collective co-organizer Jen Mendoza points to recent political battles over Planned Parenthood. The organization’s Elizabeth Campbell Medical Center in Mount Auburn has been denied a license to provide abortions by the Ohio Department of Health and could shut down soon pending the results of an appeal in federal court. If it does, rape survivors will be down a very important resource, Mendoza says.

“Right now, women are being raped all over Northside and Clifton,” she says. “Meanwhile, our access to abortions is being denied.”

Another local resource for those who have survived sexual assault is also in flux, activists say. In August, controversy arose over the University of Cincinnati’s RECLAIM program, which provided peer advocates with 40 hours of counseling training to respond to student reports of sexual assault. UC administration has delayed that training. Advocates say they were told the program was going to be canceled, though the university has denied that.

Among the speakers at the rally were two former peer advocates for UC’s RECLAIM program. Though UC officials say RECLAIM will start back up this year, thus far, training for the program has not resumed. UC Vice President for Student Affairs Debra Marchant says the program is on hold for now, and that the school is waiting for a new director to take the reins at UC’s Women’s Center later this month. But advocates for the program are doubtful.

In the meantime, says former RECLAIM peer advocate Lucy Eisenhard, “students no longer have the opportunity to meet with a peer, another student available to be with them and help them navigate the system of reporting and resources at UC.”

Eisenhard said the recent incidents in Northside underscore the need for more resources dedicated to confronting sexual assault.

Mendoza says those dwindling resources make rallies like the one at Hoffner Park all the more vital.

“These attacks on women aren’t anything new,” she told the group at a candlelight vigil

before the march down Hamilton Avenue. “But we’ve gotten to the point where we are now because women before us organized. Please keep showing up.”

In addition to providing solidarity and raising awareness, the group is also providing more tangible help. Activists brought a box of more than 600 emergency whistles purchased with funds from community members and local business Northside Supply Co. to distribute to rally attendees. 

But organizers say change will take

more than a few arrests, self-defense classes

and cries for help. 

“Arresting one person isn’t going to change anything,” Friend says. “There are still people among us who want to do harm to us. We need to not only catch the people who are doing this, but to change the society that we live in. We need to stop allowing people to perpetuate rape culture and stop allowing people to treat women as objects.” ©

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