A pine green air mattress floats through the Columbia University campus, climbs the steps toward the library, passes a line of reporters and a couple of girls clutching worn white pillows, and settles into the back of a crowd of students wearing hoodies with sleeves marked “X” in red tape. A few steps up, more people are holding 28 bare white mattresses like protest placards, one for each Columbia student who has signed on to a Title IX complaint against the university. Each mattress is taped up with a slogan: “IX,” for the federal law that’s meant to prevent sexual harassment on campus to ensure equal educational opportunities for women; “NO RED TAPE,” for an administration that some students believe is failing victims of sexual assault; or just “MOCKTRIAL” and “CU SWING,” signs of solidarity from slices of the school’s social scene. In front of them, the small circle of Columbia students who have emerged, in the past year, as national leaders against sexual assault on college campuses pass a megaphone to women who share their stories, and activists who call out the school’s response. Thin navy mattresses ripped from dorm beds form a halo around them; auxiliary air mattresses dot the crowd.
Since September, Columbia senior Emma Sulkowicz has been hauling her own dorm mattress around campus every day, everywhere she goes. Part protest, part performance art, Sulkowicz’s mattress serves as a visual reminder that the student she says raped her—two other Columbia women have filed sexual assault claims against him, too—is still free to attend the school without formal consequences while she carries the burden of the alleged attack. (Columbia doesn’t comment on individual cases, but Sulkowicz says that a disciplinary hearing found the man “not responsible”—a decision that sparked her protest against the school. The man has never commented on the matter.) The mattress has also become a calling card for “No Red Tape,” a Columbia activist group launched by Sulkowicz and another student, Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, who also says the administration brushed off her rape report, and began rallying other victims and activists to hold the school accountable.
When Sulkowicz steps out on campus, friends and strangers emerge to help her lug the thing around. Now, the phenomenon has transformed into an international activist movement. On Wednesday, students around the world pledged to help “Carry That Weight” for victims of sexual assault, propping up a mattress in the quad of Iowa’s Drake University, clutching colorful pillows at Oregon’s Pacific University, and raising a mattress above their heads at Bangor University in North Wales.
Carry That Weight offers a symbolic upgrade to the anti-rape activism that’s been waged on college campuses for decades. Take Back the Night, which bubbled up from radical marches in the 1970s before calcifying into annual campus programming in the ’90s, symbolized the need for women to walk the streets safe from sexual violence. Carry That Weight acknowledges that most college assaults are committed by acquaintances of the victims, often in their own dorm rooms; carrying a mattress out the door exposes that private scene in the public square. Plus, every college student has access to a cheap mattress, and transforming the university’s property into a challenge of its policies supplies an obvious thrill.
The image of a young woman hauling around a mattress for weeks on end is a powerful one, but as the symbol replicates, it risks being diluted. In an opinion piece published last week in student newspaper the Columbia Spectator, Sulkowicz made a bid to preserve her artistic vision as it spread beyond her grasp. “I understand that many of you are considering carrying a pillow on this day of action,” she wrote. “I hope that very few of you end up carrying pillows. Pillows are ‘light,’ ‘fluffy,’ and may detract from our message. … If we flood the Internet with images and the inevitable ‘selfies’ that look like they came from a slumber party, we will fail to communicate what I think we all believe: Sexual assault is neither a ‘light’ nor ‘fluffy’ matter, and we cannot treat it as if it were.”
At Wednesday’s protest, activists circulated a list of 10 demands for Columbia’s administration, ranging from the general (the first asks the school to “prioritize the voices of survivors and activists” in its policies) to the specific (the third commands Columbia to “remove deans from the decision making roles in the disciplinary process”). But just a few steps out from the protest’s nucleus, outsiders appeared to co-opt the crowd for their own purposes. Reps from Columbia patrolled the perimeter, passing out a one-page university statement with 10 bullet-pointed defenses of the school—its brand-new campus rape crisis center branch, 24-hour support hotline, and three full-time “survivor advocates” represent a response that’s “unparalleled among the nation’s colleges and universities,” the flier read. A representative for New York City Public Advocate Leticia James sought student signatures, e-mail addresses, and phone numbers for a petition to end sexual assault on all college campuses. Two older women circulated the crowd, pressing glossy cards hawking a talk between a prominent communist activist and a famous socialist intellectual into students’ palms; one told me that the gathering was the perfect site to propose an “end to all forms of human oppression.” And journalists like me sidled up to X-marked students to extract packagable stories; when I approached one woman to fish out a quote, she looked like she might actually gag. “The reporter response has been really aggressive and not what I expected,” Sulkowicz told the Cut last month. “It is a sensitive subject, and I can’t be accosted in the middle of campus to talk about it. One guy, while I was carrying the mattress, he just opened up my backpack and threw his business card in, which was a real violation of my space and made me really upset and triggered a lot of memories of being raped.”
Sulkowicz’s symbol attracted an audience, and now Columbia’s activists are hashing out who it will serve. Is this a press stunt? A support group? An art project? A political platform? A symbolic gesture? Or something more personal? Rebecca Breslaw, a Columbia student who joined No Red Tape in its infancy, says that as the movement gains an “even bigger presence in the national spotlight, dealing with the amount of new people in the group—and figuring out how to organize for Columbia with the greater purpose of eradicating rape culture everywhere—is something that’s been really present in my mind.” These activists are balancing those interests the best they can—refining their message as they amass intel about the university’s response, crafting bystander intervention workshops when student groups express interest, and bringing in select professional advocates, like Hollaback!’s Emily May, to help distill their message into international talking points. But they’re also still young women grappling with their own experiences.
When Sulkowicz seized the megaphone to deliver the rally’s final speech, wind and rain drew listeners closer. “I don’t need to say his name,” Sulkowicz said of the man she says attacked her. “You know who it is.” She was speaking among friends and classmates here, not journalists or admirers who will never run into him at parties or sit next to him in class. When she finished, the students—mostly women, but lots of men, too—lifted the 28 mattresses over their heads and marched down the street to Columbia President Lee Bollinger’s home, stacked the mattresses on the sidewalk, and affixed the list of demands to his door with another X of red tape. The list—after offering recommendations for online evaluation forms and comprehensive reviews and disciplinary processes—ended with a personal appeal, for the university to re-open Sulkowicz’s own case. As students dispersed, journalists closed in on the group of activists with cameras, mics, and booms, but the students held them off to pose in front of the mattresses for cell phone pictures shot by their friends. “Give us a minute,” Ridolfi-Starr told me. “We just want to be able to remember this.”