When I finished reading the recent Rolling Stone article A Rape On Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, I was horrified. The article brought tears to my eyes. One feeling that did not come was shock. Rape happens everywhere; it happens here at Virginia Tech. One of the problems is that rape victims don’t report their rapes (or when they do, they are ignored), and another problem is that rapists are rarely prosecuted let alone convicted. However, the biggest problem is that for most of human history, the general public doesn’t get angry about rape. We shrug our shoulders and go about our day apathetically, ignoring the fact that violence against women is common and hard to prosecute. While a majority of rapist walk freely without shame, a majority of women think to themselves: I would never be raped.
The next morning, I saw another article—simple reporting by a local Charlottesville paper saying that the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at UVA had been vandalized the night after the Rolling Stone article was published. While most of the American public was sleeping, a group of anonymous Cavaliers vandalized the house of the alleged rapists, breaking windows and spray painting “UVA Center For Rape Studies” and “Rapists” all over the majestic colonial bricks of the house. Many saw this vandalism as a marker for chaos, civic unrest and lawlessness. Erdely, the author of the Rolling Stone article tweeted in response to the vandalism, “The Phi Kappa Psi house was vandalized last night. Don’t do that, people. Not constructive.” The next day the Managing Board at Cavalier Daily, UVA’s independent student newspaper, wrote that “destructive behavior is not an acceptable response to disturbing events.” Vandalism is illegal, but is it merely destructive? I don’t buy it.
The article condemns the vandalism and describes the act as a “violent, emotional reaction” and encourages “the community to channel its anger into constructive change.” However, this assumes two things: First, that institutional change is both possible and that it will incite broader social and ethical changes in the campus community. And secondly, that the vandalism at Phi Kappa Psi has no constructive value.
While I agree that vandalism of private property is illegal, we ought not be so quick to categorize this incident as some chaotic result of public unrest akin to looting. The vandalism of the Phi Kappa Psi house was a distinctly political act, a performance of moral disapproval, and a call for the community to bring criminals in their midst to shame.. The vandals were not a group of easily excited, violent individuals who just got a little bit too angry one night. Instead, they saw the article as an opportunity to publicly condemn what they feel is an unjust institution. Not only did they vandalize the house, but they sent a list of demands into various newspapers and threatened to escalate.
This group of Cavaliers is constructive. Here is why: Rapists are almost impossible to prosecute. The fact that rapists aren’t convicted is not because alleged rapists are innocent but because of difficulties in the collection of evidence and (dis)proving consent. Therefore, rape often goes unpunished and unnoticed by the general public, which passively relies on the law to deal with crime in our communities. The shame of being called an alleged rapist, on the other hand, could be the impetus behind widespread social change, and it is exactly this impetus that the vandals were betting on.
In 1914, one hundred years ago, famous suffragette Emily Pankhurst got together with other female activists and went to a prestigious golf course that was frequented by the statesmen of British parliament. In the middle of the night, these educated, upper-class women methodically poured acid all of the manicured lawn. This wasn’t a riotous act but rather a meticulous political statement. In the morning, the phrase “Votes for Women!” could be seen clearly on the golf course. These very acts, acts of vandalism, are taught in British textbooks today as a cornerstone of the movement for women’s suffrage. To take another example, do we consider the Bostonians who threw millions of dollars worth of tea into the Boston Harbor vandals? No, we have made them heroes. Only time will tell if the illegal acts on UVA’s campus will be judged as vandalism or politically effective strategy, but in our current moment, we ought not be so quick to judge.