Creative Protests

penn state mattress

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale direct your attention to some striking protests against sexual violence by students in the United States, India and Britain.

Over the last couple of years there have been many high profile protests against rape at universities in different countries. They show how it is possible, with very modest means, to mount actions that are effective, and enormously moving for the participants.

We start with Dartmouth college, in New Hampshire in the US. Dartmouth has an entrenched culture of rape in the fraternity houses. In 2013 the Realtalk Dartmouth group decided to do something. Hundreds of prospective student recruits and their parents had come to visit Dartmouth. The Realtalk students walked into the room shouting about rape, sexual violence, and racism on campus. Here is a video. Enjoy.

The impact was enormous. For more on Realtalk, visit their website,

A student at Columbia University in New York took another approach. Emma Sulkowitz was raped, and complained to the university, which did nothing to discipline the rapist. For the rest of the year she carried the mattress from her dorm room with her everywhere she went on campus – classes, the library, the canteen. Soon large numbers of students rushed to help carry the mattress whenever she appeared. Here is a video:

Inspired by Sulkowitz, students organised mattress demonstrations on 130 campuses in October, 2014.

Here is Cal Arts:




and Centenary College of Louisiana

centenary college of louisiana

For more information, see the Facebook page of Carrying the Weight Together at

Students at Jadavpur University in Kolkota, India adopted very different tactics. Kolkata is in West Bengal, and Bengalis have a very rich tradition of militant protest. As part of that workers on strike often ‘gherao‘ the boss: surround him in his office and refuse to let him leave, or go to the toilet, until their demands are met. At Jadavapur, Abhajit Chakrabarti, the university Vice-Chancellor (the equivalent of an American college president) refused to do anything about a case of sexual violence. So students gheraoed him in his office.

The police went onto campus in the middle of the night to break up the gherao. Here is an 11 minute video of women and men students fighting both plain clothes police and riot cops as they attempt to enter the campus. The footage is confusing, but it gives an electric sense of what happened:

Here is a more conventional TV news report:

In response, the students organised a march of between 100,000 and 200,000 people (estimates vary):

ju march links


jadav protest police violence

Here is a student sit-in demanding the Vice-Chancellor’s resignation:

jadav_student sit-in demands v-c resignation

Here is a useful article on the protests by Tithi Bhattacharya:

After that the continuing protests at Jadavpur were on such a scale that there was ‘no academic activity was happening at JU for four months’.

Students went on hunger strike. Here are some of them:

hunger strike

On 12 January 2015 the Chief Minister of West Bengal state sacked the Vice-Chancellor. The students had won. They celebrated:


ju celebrate 7


ju celebrate 4


ju celebrate 5

These protests are inspiring. But not everyone is as confident, or as organised, as Bengali students. The Oxford University vigil in 2014 is an example of the kind of impact you can make with a modest approach.

Two women reported that Ben Sullivan, the president of the Oxford Union student debating society, had raped them. The police attested Sullivan, but the union stood by him.

Students protested in two ways. First, they had to wear formal dress for some examinations, and they pinned ribbons to their gowns to mark their concern about rape culture on campus.

whie ribbon oxford

That alone had an electric effect. But the students also organised a vigil outside the Oxford Union as people went in for a debate:


Here we quote from a previous blog on this site: ‘There were about 250 people, almost all young, about two thirds women and a third men. The people who came were frightened. They had been told that what they were doing was illegal. And they were also afraid in the way that we are almost all afraid to tell the truth. They were quiet, and nervous.


‘One of the organisers spoke into the megaphone. She reassured us that our vigil was legal. She said that we would be orderly, and we would not sit down and block the road. Then she asked if anyone wanted to speak.

‘A woman from the crowd took the megaphone. She said  she had been raped at this university, and had told no one, because she knew no one would believe her. It took her years to recover from that experience. But now, she said, she could see people who would believe her. When she finished speaking, the organiser took back the megaphone back and told us all to sit down and block the road. We did.

‘One speaker after another, maybe twelve, maybe fifteen, got up to say she had been raped too, and had been silent, and today meant so much to her. Given the nature of the event, there must have been at least ten men in the crowd who had been raped as adults or boys. None of them rose spoke. That was still too hard. But that vigil will have made them stronger.

‘As we sat on the road, we cried like almost everyone else. But we felt such a joy to hear the sound of silence breaking.’

That protest did not work. The police dropped the charges against Sullivan, and protest died down. But these kinds of protest against sexual violence are only beginning.

For more on protests against abuse and sexual violence, see our longer article on Sexual Violence and Class Inequality  this blog at Or you can download the pdf here: nljn31jan15final.


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