cw: References to sexual assault
If you were near Hamilton City Hall at around 6 p.m. on Sept. 19, you would have heard throngs of people yelling “revolution!”. If you had taken a closer look, you would have seen Danielle Boissoneau, the coordinator for Take Back The Night, standing behind a microphone on a makeshift stage and prompting each shout from the crowd with an exuberant “joyful!”
Together, they formed a chorus — a call honouring this year’s Take Back The Night theme: Joyful Revolution Always.
Take Back The Night is an annual event organized in Hamilton by the Sexual Assault Centre (Hamilton), a non-profit organization that supports survivors of sexual assault. Traditionally, Take Back The Night has been an opportunity for women and gender non-conforming folks in the community to speak out against sexual violence and to advocate on behalf of survivors. It has also celebrated with music, performances, art and tables for local organizations that support women and non-binary folks.
The first instance of Take Back The Night in Hamilton dates back to 1981. This year marks the event’s 38th year in the city and its first year in recent history without a march.
The Take Back The Night march began as a symbolic protest to the violence that women experienced when walking alone at night. Since then, it has grown into a method of raising awareness of all forms of violence in the community as well as a way to show support for survivors.
On Sept. 12, however, SACHA released a statement on their blog to announce that they decided not to march this time. The organization cited safety as a main concern, though the matter swiftly became a discussion of not only safety, but also about relationships with the Hamilton city police.
“On Sept. 4, 2019, the Take Back the Night (TBTN)Committee hosted a ‘TBTN Community Townhall on Safety’ — we wanted to hear right from the community what safety looks like for them … What was interesting was that no one mentioned the police as a place of safety,” wrote a representative from SACHA in their official statement.
The situation snowballed into a series of meetings. In consideration of the feedback and turnout from previous Take Back The Night events, SACHA attended a meeting with Ward 3 Councillor Nrinder Nann, intending to ask for four street lanes to be closed instead of the one lane that Take Back The Night attendees used in previous marches. They were surprised to find out they were not allowed to follow the usual route used in previous Take Back The Night events.
In an effort to reach a compromise, an alternate route for the march was proposed. However, this second option required the inclusion of five paid duty officers, an unexpected fee that SACHA was unable to pay. In a prior Take Back The Night event, the city had provided SACHA with funding for three officers. There had been no such offer this year.
“We took it upon ourselves to revisit the table with the city and the police. We tried to work out an agreement … and then the agreement started to fall into bad faith negotiations, because they started trying to sneak in things at the last minute that were not acceptable,” said Boissoneau.
In the end, SACHA decided it was best to cancel the march.
Lisa Colbert of the Woman Abuse Working Group said she had not been sure at first about SACHA’s decision. As she prepared her organization’s table for the event, she admitted that the march was something she enjoyed. However, although the energy might feel different this time, she recognized that to march despite the predicament with the police would be to do the opposite of empowering those who were marching.
Similarly, Kat Williams of the Workers’ Arts and Heritage Centre said that a successful partnership with the police and all public servants would not be possible while those in power continued not to listen.
“In order to serve the people who are in the margins, the people who are suffering — those are the people we need to elevate. It’s especially important for the police industry to listen to those people, and I don’t think that has happened at many gatherings recently,” she added, taking care to emphasize that her views do not necessarily represent that of her organization.
In the same regard, Gachi Issa of the McMaster Womanists expressed support for SACHA’s decision. Taking into account Canada’s history with the police, she believed SACHA did the right thing by prioritizing the needs of the most marginalized communities.
With this in mind, Issa said that the presence of the police was always something that should be contested.
“The police had never been safe for the most marginalized communities and have been created and set up in a way to marginalize us further and to kill us. My hesitation is to always critique the involvement of police and police presence,” Issa said.
For Boissoneau, the change in this year’s Take Back The Night event was a reminder for community members to hold institutions accountable. Institutions like the police and SACHA, she said, must focus on their responsibilities to the people.
When asked whether she believed the cancellation of the march had a profound effect on Take Back The Night this year, Boissoneau stated that it had. She admitted the people were disappointed about not having a march — but this disappointment, at the same time, was causing them to re-evaluate how they defined reclamation.
“A lot of people are like, we must march to be able to be powerful. I don’t necessarily think that that’s true. I think that people have the ability to reclaim their autonomy … There’s so many different ways to do it. Marching is only one of those ways,” said Boissoneau.
Jessica Bonilla-Damptey, SACHA’s director, did not agree that there was a palpable difference. She acknowledged that the march had always been a big component of Take Back The Night but that despite its absence, joy was the dominant feeling in this year’s event.
“I am seeing lots of folks — folks from everywhere, all different nationalities, all different walks of life, all different languages. Everyone is smiling, everybody’s participating. Everybody’s around the tables, looking at what kind of resources are available in our community and everybody’s celebrating … I see joy and I hear joy around me,” she explained.
For Bonilla-Damptey, the priority was to embody this year’s theme of joyful revolution. The importance was in the community coming together to celebrate each other and show support for survivors, regardless of the role that the police played in the event-planning process and regardless of what might have been different this year.
Issa felt that the same sentiment was applicable to the idea of community care.
“We are safe because of each other. Not because of police or because of security. We make each other safe. In order to get to a revolution, we have to be able to sustain each other and to find joy within each other,” she said.
On Sept. 19, there were no buses waiting to accommodate people who could not march alongside the assemblage and, as the sun set over Hamilton City hall, there was no crowd following SACHA’s usual route.
There was, however, music and spoken word. There were tables that belonged to groups that supported women-identifying and non-binary folks. There were t-shirts and there were signs that said We Believe You and Empower Others.
Despite the aftermath of SACHA’s nuanced relationship with the police, Bonilla-Damptey stressed that one facet left unchanged in this year’s Take Back The Night was its ability to facilitate connections within the community.
Attendees lined up for food. They took buttons and pens as they stopped at each table to speak to the person running it. They gathered to hear the story of Lucy, an elderly survivor for whom the crowd chanted, “We believe Lucy!”
People tend to believe, according to Boissoneau, that revolution began at an individual level. She argued, however, that when individuals get together and collectively reclaim their space, as hundreds of people did on Take Back The Night — that was revolution.