Last week, I went to Take Back the Night, organized by Peel Committee Against Women Abuse. The first Take Back the Night event happened in Philadelphia in 1975. The protest march was a direct action to highlight violence against women after the brutal murder of Susan Alexander Speeth, who was stabbed to death while walking home alone. Since then, Take Back the Night events have taken place on campuses and in community spaces, with the aim to educate, organize against, and ultimately prevent gender-based violence in all its forms.
Please note that the event organizers, the organizations present, and as I write this piece, I am using an inclusive definition of woman, women, and women’s organizations. This means that the definition of “woman” is inclusive of transwomen and that trans, non-binary and Two Spirit people are welcome in women-only spaces. Sadly, there are still feminists out there who are not inclusive to transgender people and sex workers. We call them SWERFs (sex worker exclusionary radical feminists) and TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists). Thankfully, they were not present.
The event took place in the public square in front of Brampton City Hall. This year, the organizers invited sex workers to speak about the importance of decriminalizing sex work. I went to lend a hand to my fellow sex work organizers. I was curious to see how we would be received by more mainstream feminist organizations and the public.
First things first, the event itself was really well organized. The folks at Peel Committee Against Women Abuse ensured that all the booths were ready to go for the participating organizations. The snacks were delicious and nutritious. They even had coffee to warm us up in the evening. They gave everyone Take Back the Night t-shirts. City Hall had free parking, and they left their doors open so we could use the bathrooms. There were good vibes all around. It felt very life-affirming to see so many people get together.
Organizations that participated included sex work organizations, public and community health centres, HIV/AIDS organizations, organizations who support sexual assault survivors, and organizations who support gender-based violence survivors and their families, just to name a few. It warmed my heart to see that bit by bit, slowly but surely, mainstream feminists and women-centred organizations are accepting of, making space for, and working on meaningfully including sex workers in their work. It’s such a huge difference from the “porn hurts women” narrative that used to dominate feminist circles. As for members of the public, only two women gave me funny looks when they approached my booth. So, I summoned my inner Disney Princess, got obnoxiously cheerful and in the end, they walked off wearing pro-sex work stickers.
The event promotion flyers mentioned that there would be a uniformed police presence. I thought it was decent of the organizers to give the public a heads up. Police presence is often controversial at events by and for marginalized communities. For example, Pride is a commemoration of the Stonewall riots. There is a definite irony in police presence at an event that started as an act of rebellion against the police who surveilled, criminalized and brutalized the LGBTQ+ community. But Take Back the Night was ending in a march, so I figured they would escort the march in their squad cars and that would be that. I internally grumbled, but accepted it as a pedestrian safety measure.
What’s interesting about a vast majority of Take Back the Night events is that men are not invited to the march. The plan in Brampton was that cisgender women, and trans, Two Spirit and non-binary people would march, and cisgender men would stay behind for an allyship activity.
Here’s where things get weird: four giant policemen showed up; three of them were white. So the march where women take to the street as an effort to reclaim public spaces in light of gender-based violence was going to be escorted by armed men. The irony didn’t escape me – it stayed with me and turned to anger.
They jeered at the sex workers who gave speeches during the event. A good friend of mine, who is a Black woman that works for a mainstream, feminist non-profit came to the event with a volunteer, who is a young Black man. They noticed that the cops kept putting their hands on their guns when racialized folks, particularly young Black men, passed by the police. At first, I didn’t see it; I’m a white woman. But after my friend and her volunteer told me about their horrifying experience, I couldn’t unsee it. Cops kept touching their guns as racialized community members were walking around the square. The presence of police did nothing to make participants feel safe. If anything, they felt crushed under the proverbial racist, patriarchal boot.
For whatever reason, one patrol car decided to drive from behind the marchers, forcing us to move out of the car’s way. The cops did the opposite of making us feel safe. As we were marching and chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!”, it turns out that the street wasn’t ours, not even for that fleeting moment. It’s like when the call comes from inside the house in a horror film – thanks for making sure we don’t get mowed down by an incel in a van, but then you’re being a risk to hitting pedestrians or marchers.
Then I got to thinking about how cops are often unsympathetic to sexual assault survivors, and the rates of domestic violence in the police force. I thought about the murder of Sarah Everard that rocked London, England last year – she was raped and murdered by a cop while walking home. The people of London took to the streets and solidarity marches across the world followed.
I’ve written in previous columns about the harms of criminalization. One of the harms is that sex workers are often targeted by the police. In a recent, Canada-wide study, only 5 percent of sex workers were assisted by police when confronted with violence on the job, compared to 40 percent who were helped by their fellow sex workers. We know cops don’t keep us safe. We know the current laws don’t keep us safe. This week, the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform is in court with their constitutional challenge. They are arguing for the full decriminalization of sex work. (I’ll be writing a column about the four days of court proceedings next month.)
Decriminalizing sex work is a step towards making the streets ours.
We cannot expect to end gender-based violence and give survivors any form of justice, when the police, the frontline workers of the very same justice system, cause so much harm to the communities they are sworn to “protect and serve.”
Defunding the police is a step towards making the streets ours.
Defunding the police would free up much needed funds for grassroots organizations that are actually protecting and serving marginalized communities. Imagine how much good the organizations that participated in Take Back the Night could do with that kind of money.