In the summer of 2006, a drumming teacher from South Korea was invited to teach a week-long drumming workshop at a Korean cultural community centre in Oakland, California. After an evening of singing, storytelling and drinking, several students stayed the night to rest and recover for the next day. For over two decades, the cultural centre had developed a safe space for the teaching of Korean drumming and dance, community performance and cultural and political exchange. That night, safety was shattered when the drumming teacher sexually assaulted one of the students.
People staying at the centre immediately heard what had happened, and centre leaders quickly pulled together a direct confrontation involving the members and their community-led board. The next day, members and board members gathered at the centre to denounce the sexual assault and support the victim. She refused to name herself as a ‘survivor’—finding ‘victim’ a better description of her experience of violence.
Liz, the president of the Oakland cultural centre at that time, recollects the next day’s meeting. “When we got there, the teacher got on his knees and knelt in front of us, which is the deepest sign of respect. And then he asked us, begged us, not to tell his organisation back home. We said we couldn’t do that. ‘We’re not here for your apology. We’re here to tell you what happened, what we’re going to do, and that’s it.’ He made a big sign of remorse, taking his drumming stick and breaking it. He put it on the ground like ‘I’ll give up drumming for this.’ Most of us were disgusted.”
What followed was a series of actions, including a set of sexual assault awareness workshops for the centre members and members of other local drumming groups. The board made an immediate telephone call to the head of the drumming centre in Korea. Their leader expressed his profound shock and unconditional apology. This call was followed by a letter with a list of demands. The Oakland organisation demanded that the Korean institution establish sexual assault awareness trainings for their entire membership ranging from college students to elder farmers in the village, a commitment to send at least one woman teacher in their future exchanges to the US, and a request that the teacher step down from his leadership position for an initial period of 6 months and attend feminist therapy sessions directly addressing the assault. Even though it was culturally difficult for the Korean American group to make demands of their elders in Korea, everyone decided this was what needed to be done. The group in Korea also did not question these demands. They respected them and did not make any complaints.
The Korean American organisation also made contact with a sister drumming group in Korea, one that had dealt with their own experience of sexual assault in the past. That organisation had organised their one hundred members to address a sexual assault that had occurred among their membership. In that situation, the person who had committed the assault went through an extensive process with the leaders and members of the group, leaving the organisation but following through with a public apology posted on their website and retained relationships with drumming group members.
Inspired by this story of community accountability, the fact that it had been made public and a process in which the person doing harm took responsibility and offered a public apology, the Oakland organisation followed with a series of events that reversed the usual silence and victim-blaming accompanying sexual assault. The annual October festival was dedicated to the theme of healing from sexual violence. Facts regarding the incident were printed in the program and shared as a part of the evening’s festival, not as a shaming act although it may have indeed shamed the teacher, but as a challenge to the community to take collective responsibility for ending the conditions perpetuating violence including collusion through silence.
This story reveals other painful lessons about community violence and the limitations of our community-led processes. The Korean cultural centre came together with a unified response to violence but grew divided as the process continued. What became a long drawn-out period of institutional reflection and engagement sapped the energy and spirit of the organisation and the friendships that had held it together. The victim never returned. The continued presence of the teacher at community festivities in South Korea were viewed with resentment and suspicion by Korean American visitors who participated in drumming events in Korea. His eventual removal from the institution did not necessarily lead to the sense of justice that people desired.
Liz, the centre’s president, reflected on this set of events and the uncertainties accompanying the process of community accountability.
“Some people asked us later why we didn’t call the police. It was not even a thought in anybody’s mind. I know that a couple folks, her close friends, tried to break in, to kick his ass, but they couldn’t find him. Luckily they didn’t. Luckily for him and the organisation, too, because I think if they did that we would have just been in a whole world of fucking mess. Well, I don’t want to say luckily because the victim even felt at some point, ‘maybe we should’ve just kicked his ass. Now, I feel like I’ve got nothing. I don’t have the police report. We didn’t throw him into jail. We didn’t kick his ass. We didn’t do nothing.’
“We talked to her and said, ‘We didn’t move forward on anything without your consent.’ We asked, ‘What else can we offer you?’ We offered her to go to counselling and therapy. We offered her whatever we could do at the time. In retrospect, I wish we could have spent more time to just embrace her and bring her in closer.”
The story further explores the role of force and violence in our response to violence. Frustration over a long and complex process of accountability spurred discussions among the members of the Oakland organisation over the potential benefits of violence. Liz reflected on a member’s remark as they considered retaliation. “That’s what the teacher wanted. He wanted that. When he was making that apology, he wasn’t necessarily saying ‘beat me up.’ But he was saying, ‘do anything you want to me, I deserve it.’ That way, once you do, he can walk away and say, ‘Okay, now I’m done, wipe my hands and walk away. They’ve done everything they can already.’” While some may most fear a violent response, some could also welcome a quick but symbolic pay back. ‘Kicking ass’ can also substitute for a process of repair and change.
(Adapted from the transcript A Cultural Organization Deals with Sexual Assault available from StoryTelling & Organizing Project (STOP) www.stopviolenceeveryday.org)