Merkin Karr was 19 years old when she found herself in an abusive relationship, but for many years, she refused to believe she was a victim.
“I thought that smart, strong women like me don’t have things like this happen to them,” Karr said as she stood on a stage Saturday during the Durango #MeToo March and Rally. “Too long, society has tried to dictate what it means to be a victim. We have been victim-blamed and told we are falsely accusing ... and yet we persist.”
More than 300 Durangoans on Saturday stood alongside those who have been sexually assaulted, harassed and victimized to say #MeToo and to speak out against such behavior.
The march was sponsored by the Women’s Rights Committee of Indivisible Durango and co-sponsored by Durango Sexual Assault Services Organization and the Women’s Resource Center.
The crowd assembled outside the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad depot, and as they marched along Main Avenue, people chanted phrases like “When we say no, we mean no.” After stopping at Buckley Park, they listened to speeches by Dr. Jude Harrison and Fort Lewis College students Karr and Natalia Sells.
Retired Navy Capt. Gail Harris gave opening and closing remarks at the rally. In 1973, Harris became the first woman to serve as an intelligence officer in a Navy combat job. She was also the highest-ranking female African American in the U.S. Navy when she retired in December 2001.
Harris spoke publicly for the first time about being sexually assaulted.
“I’m a rape survivor,” she told the crowd. “You can experience it and come out on top. We come in peace, but we mean business.”
The crowd, a mix of genders, sexual orientations and races, carried signs with such statements as, “And we still aren’t getting equal pay. Why?” and “Nobody asks what my rapist was wearing.”
Rally participant Joanna Atencio said she was stunned and angry after being harassed at her workplace. She believed she was alone in her experience until she reached out to her co-workers.
“People were losing their jobs and being intimidated and bullied,” she said. “When it happened to me, it was so aggressive, I thought, ‘Wow, how could this happen?’ These women are being belittled and intimidated by the power and it’s not fair.”
Social activist Tarana Burke created the “me too” phrase in 2006 as part of a campaign to empower women of color and publicize the pervasiveness of sexual assault and harassment. Then, the #MeToo hashtag gained traction on social media in October after more than a dozen women accused Hollywood media mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual abuse, providing a platform for hundreds of thousands of people to share their experiences of sexual harassment and assault.
The #MeToo movement is inclusive.
Ryan Garcia, representing Planned Parenthood at the rally, said there is a misconception that the movement is exclusive to women.
“I think anyone and everyone can be affected by sexual violence,” he said. “It is amazing to see the amount of people who turned out for this. It is amazing to see solidarity across Durango.”
Marchers said they want to empower change in society without resorting to violence.
“I want to be a part of this peaceful dialogue,” said participant Brenda Marshall. “I feel that women are coming with peace and love, and that’s the solution I want us to seek. I want our men and boys to feel respected and have that in return.”
Some cried during rally speeches, but there was also joy as the crowd danced together in Buckley Park as Christina Aguilera’s song “Fighter” played loudly.
Sells, FLC’s reigning Miss Hozhoni, was a voice for Native American women. “I interviewed very strong and brave Native students at Fort Lewis, and hearing them share their stories about sexual violence committed against our tribal members opened my eyes,” Sells said. “We are taught what to do when we are raped, not if it happens.”
Sells shared statistics from the National Congress of American Indians.
“American Indians and Alaskan Natives are at least two times more likely compared with all other races to experience rape or sexual assault,” she said. “One in three Native American women have reported being raped in their lifetimes.”
She said #MeToo has changed lives.
“The movement has given a voice to women ... who have been silent for far too long, and given a voice to Native and indigenous women,” Sells said. “I hope that through this movement and future movements that one day my siblings and grandchildren will not have to post #MeToo on their social media.”
Harrison, a longtime doctor in Durango and a transgender man, was a voice for the LGBTQ community at the rally. On the prevalence of sexual violence in society, he said, “As I expanded what sexual harassment and assault means, I realize that I stopped counting at 15 when I was between the ages of 12 and 22.”
According to a 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 47 percent of transgender people are sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime.
“Many transgender people are sexually assaulted as children,” he said. “If we are a sex-positive culture and a female-positive culture, and recognize gender identity and respect that ... we will form bridges and get through this.”
Harris punctuated the rally by leading marchers in singing “We Shall Overcome.” But she added a sense of urgency to the message of the civil rights-era song and urged the crowd to sing “we shall overcome today” instead of “we shall overcome someday.”
<PARAGRAPH style="Shirttail">mrupani @durangoherald.com