Last night, just past 9pm in Bushwick, more than 100 people stood in line on Meadow Street holding typed letters and stamped envelopes, waiting to get inside Holyrad Studios, where a capacity crowd of 150 stood like sardines, listening to bands whose members belonged to the secret Internet group, GRLCVLT. At the makeshift bar, a long line had formed for donated beers and free cocktails whose names were “FUCK gRAPE(fruit) CULTURE,” “THE UNSEATER” and “STILL NOT ASKING FOR IT.”
In a few minutes, from California, Michele Landis Dauber—the chair of the committee to unseat Judge Aaron Persky, who gave Stanford rapist Brock Turner an 89-day sentence in county jail—would be Skyped into the crowd of hundreds of young women and a not-insignificant number of men. While the band played, a meticulously organized letter-writing station with 1,500 pre-stamped envelopes, addressed to the Commission on Judicial Performance in San Francisco, held letters with a simple message: “I am writing this letter in support of the recall of Judge Aaron Persky,” it began. “My dissent at his bench assignment is a reflection of my larger dissatisfaction with the proliferation of rape culture in the United States.” Before Landis Dauber appeared live, projected onto a large white curtain hanging from the ceiling, I got to the front of the drink line.
“I’ll have a gRAPE CULTURE,” I said to the male bartender. Then I corrected myself, looking at the menu, “I mean a ‘FUCK grape Culture.'” “So many people have been scared to say that word!” he yelled back at me, over the din and the music and general surge of energy that existed in every person, excited to be present together in the space. Then he threw his fist in the air saying, “Fuck rape culture!”
On the Facebook invite to last night’s community event to unseat Judge Aaron Persky, organized by GRLCVLT (the secret (though now less-secret) club, begun in 2011 in Los Angeles, and whose New York city membership alone is near 3,000, led by Brooklyn photographer, model, and activist Remy Holwick), 1,200 people confirmed they would attend; 2,000 indicated interest.
From the get-go, GRLCVLT’s purpose was simple: to create a place where women could speak their minds, in a secret and supportive environment, about anything. When Holwick took over the New York City Chapter (the biggest of all chapters among a handful across the country, including the original one in LA; smaller branches also exist in San Diego, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and internationally in London), she told me it had nothing to do with rape culture. But due to recent events—and the sheer number of women in the group who have been victims of sexual assault and rape, herself included—the group has become more than a source of general support. “This has made the group mean far more to me than it’s ever meant to me before,” Holwick told me, wearing a white T-shirt with simple red lettering that read “Don’t Touch.”
Inside, Michele Landis Dauber, the chair of the unseating committee, had appeared live in front of the packed crowd. Everyone yelled ecstatically when her face appeared in front of them. “Thank you so much to GRLCVLT for inviting me and for holding this rally that is so important, to speak out about this outrageous case,” Landis Dauber began. “I just came from the House of Representatives for a live reading of the survivor letter published in places like BuzzFeed. All in attendance were crying and it was very powerful.”
Normally, at a capacity gathering in Bushwick, it would be hard to achieve silence in a cross-country Skype conference. But all eyes were peeled on Landis Dauber, and attention was collectively rapt, albeit interspersed with resounding cheers of solidarity and approval as she spoke about Judge Persky’s message that, if a privileged person committed sexual assault or rape, he did not have to experience consequences; that his future was more important than that of the victim’s; that an 89-day sentence is a slap in the face to survivors of sexual assault everywhere.
While the near 1,000 signed letters from Brooklyn would help, she said, ultimately, it is the constituency in Santa Clara County whose petitions can unseat the judge. Still, support like that at Holyrad, as well as financial donations, is crucial to raise awareness of the cause.
“You can get a longer sentence for tampering with a fire hydrant than you can for a grim, horrible, grotesque sexual assault of a young woman in the dirt next to a dumpster,” said Landis Dauber. “Enough is enough. Help me send that message”
Holwick, outside of her professional work, is a celebrity within the context of her leadership at GRLCVLT, I was told by another member. As she walked through the crowd, people were grabbing for her attention left and right, wanting their picture taken with her, or just hoping to introduce themselves and thank her. When I caught her, she explained we had to make a run for outside, or we’d never escape.
“We’re all sick of being sad about the news,” Holwick told me, standing on the sidewalk and giving me her full attention despite the fact that so many others wanted it. “We have voices, we can do something to change it—it’s not hard, politics can be fun, it can be loud and drunken, and we’re still not asking for it.”
Earlier in the evening, Holwick’s long time friend Jessicka Addams, known for her band Jack off Jill, had also Skyped in. For the first time, publicly, she recounted her own rape. “Nobody made it through without crying. [Jessicka] made it through stronger than I did,” said Holwick. “She was told not to report it by everyone around her, even though she had a witness.” If she did, Addams had been warned, she would lose her record deal.
“When I told my mother about my rape, it was one of the most difficult times for my family,” Holwick said. “That’s what rape culture is. Rape culture is my mother supporting me but still wondering what went wrong,” when, in fact, “Nothing went wrong. I was living, and then I got raped.” Since then, Holwick clarified, she has gained the support of her whole family. But that stigma—not just of men, but moreover of other women questioning the actions of the victims of sexual assault and rape—is rape culture. Holwick’s goal, and that of GRLCVLT and everyone present that night, is to deprogram that mindset. “Rape culture is why we’re here, and this”—Holwick says, referencing the campaign to unseat Judge Persky—”is part of it.”
Finally, the line to enter Holyrad was dying down. The bands had stopped playing, the live Skype-ins had ended. Past 10pm, the crowd had dissipated, though many still waited around to talk to Holwick.
“Activism is great, but what can awareness do? You gotta get on the floor, you gotta get on the street. It’s different,” Holwick explained, in contrast to things like Facebook messages. “It’s so inspiring to see what people can do. It’s wonderful.”
Before she turned to talk to a group patiently waiting next to us, I asked what she would do tomorrow, after the success of the night’s event, and her 20-hour days in preparation for it.
“Tomorrow,” she said, “I’m taking a nap.”
All photos by Louise Palmberg