A thousand quilt squares inscribed with messages of empowerment and stories of rape and sexual assault covered two shut-down blocks of North Avenue, between Charles and Howard streets, yesterday afternoon. The display, titled "Not Alone Baltimore," was the largest yet from the Monument Quilt, a project of FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, the national art activist group founded in Baltimore by Rebecca Nagle and Hannah Brancato.
The quilt squares spread from the street into the Ynot Lot, where they spelled out the words "NOT ALONE" in front of the stage as poets and musicians performed and speakers discussed combating rape culture in the city throughout the day. Singer-songwriter Ama Chandra led multiple processionals along North Avenue with dancers, berimbau players, and children while burning sage. Drivers rolled down their windows and slowed past.
Written by survivors of sexual and domestic violence and their allies, the quilt squares continued to grow in number throughout the afternoon as visitors were invited to sit at tables set in the middle of the road, where they could record their own testimonies. In a tent mounted at the Howard Street end of the display, emotionally-burdened visitors could receive massages and reiki treatments and talk with other survivors or one-on-one with healer Shameeka Dream. A knitting circle formed on couches and visitors enjoyed slices of pie at tables—a healing station called "Carle's Comfort Kitchen" was run by baker Krystal Mack and Gather Together, a sexual violence survivors support network established by Brancato as part of her Open Society Institute-Baltimore community fellowship. At one table, a young woman recalled the first time she created a square for the Monument Quilt—it was the first time she had ever been vocal about her sexual assault.
The quilt squares have been amassing since the project's launch in 2013. Since then, FORCE, which was previously best known for its viral parody of Victoria's Secret lingerie, has toured and organized quilt-making workshops across the country. Here, the pieces lay flat on the road while visitors sidestepped and jumped across the pieces and a buzzing drone shot aerial video footage from above.
"We've actually collected over 1,500, and so there were 500 quilt squares that we're still sewing together and backing and processing," Nagle told City Paper.
"I contain multitudes; I am still whole," "2 Drunk 2 Talk = 2 Drunk 2 Fuck," "I trust you," "I just now realized it was abuse," "Language is Power," "It Gets Better," read a few of the squares, which were stitched onto 8-by-8-foot blocks of red fabric. Some depict detailed drawings of vaginas, some were stitched with soft sculptures, several carried the phrase "Free Marissa" or "We Stand With Marissa" in reference to Marissa Alexander, a Florida mother who was convicted and incarcerated for firing a gun near her abusive husband (she was released after three years in prison last year and has one more year of surveilled house arrest remaining). More contained vivid accounts of sexual assault, or regrets of failing to prevent or stop the assault of a friend or family member.
At the Ynot Lot stage, mayoral candidates David Warnock, Sheila Dixon, Elizabeth Embry, and Carl Stokes participated in one-on-one forums led by emcee Kiara James, who presented each candidate with the same questions, created using input from over 100 survivors at a town hall last Wednesday. James asked each candidate to pledge support for various models and proposals aimed to combat rape culture in Baltimore.
These included requiring that at least one third of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice's Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) be made up of sexual assault and domestic violence survivors, establishing a homeless shelter specifically for LGBTQ individuals ("We've heard from trans women that Baltimore's homeless shelter system is not safe and is in fact a place where trans people trying to escape violence have been assaulted again," James explained), supporting comprehensive sexual violence prevention and consent education in city schools and working with the Family League to ensure the same for community schools ("When one in three women and one in six men and over half of trans people are assaulted before the age of 18, prevention [education] in college is too late," James said), and preventing gender bias and dual arrests in policing through training to avoid the frequent outcome of domestic violence response calls that leave the victim ignored or even arrested for practicing self-defense against their abuser.
All four candidates agreed to the requests, and all added that not only shelters, but transitional and permanent housing options will be available for the LGBTQ homeless population. Warnock promised that in the first six months of his administration, survivors, the religious community, and the police would convene to discuss rape culture.
Dixon said she would establish a commission with survivors to work with all city agencies including the police and health departments.
Stokes called for prevention education to start as early as elementary school and for health professionals to accompany police officers on all domestic violence calls.
Embry pointed to her previous work as the Deputy State's Attorney, when the office created the Domestic Violence STAT and required that anyone who filed criminal charges against another civilian would need to be interviewed by the State's Attorney Office. This, she explained, was to prevent charges being brought against the actual victims after the initial domestic violence call.
"Sometimes it's not a dual arrest at the moment of the crime; the abuser will go to the court commissioner and swear out charges against that victim," she said. "So it’s not just at that moment, it's also being sensitive to how the criminal justice system is being abused."
James said that the candidate's full responses to the questions would be posted on FORCE's Facebook page after the event; as of this story the responses were not yet available.
By Nagle's estimates, over a thousand people visited the display on Sunday. Next fall, the Monument Quilt will embark on a west coast tour, continuing to grow in size until its final culminating display on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., scheduled for October 2017.