Despite being led into the street in the middle of the night in handcuffs, a West Virginia woman says speaking up on behalf of sexual assault survivors like herself was worth the fallout.“I knew there would be a risk of arrest going into the situation,” said Caitlin Gaffin, of Charleston. “But I also knew it was worth it for me to put my body on the line in that way, because the alternative of Kavanaugh’s confirmation was more terrifying than anything that could have happened to me as a result of participating in the action.”
On Monday, Oct. 1st, a group of roughly 20 women including Gaffin staged a sit-in protest at the Charleston, West Virginia campaign office of Senator Joe Manchin. The women—many of whom were sexual assault survivors—were there to persuade the Democratic senator to vote no on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh. The group included representatives of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, Vote With West Virginia Women, and Our Children, Our Future. “It was beautiful how the women involved in the sit-in came together through almost a whisper network that took place just a couple days before,” Gaffin says. “Women from around the state were messaging each other, asking if we’d be able and interested to participate in an action at Senator Manchin’s campaign office to urge him to vote no on Kavanaugh’s confirmation. I didn’t hesitate to say yes once I was asked. As a sexual assault survivor, I was feeling hopeless and re-victimized listening to the current news cycle and knew that I needed to act in any way possible to attempt to help Manchin understand just what was at stake for so many of his constituents—especially women, survivors of sexual assault, people of color, LGBTQIA+ folks, and poor/working class families in West Virginia.”
The women spent the day camped out in Manchin’s office while livestreaming updates on Facebook Live that included reading stories submitted by other survivors. After locking the office doors at 5 p.m., some staff members stayed in the office and allowed the women to remain but wouldn’t allow anyone else to enter.
Later in the evening, the women participated in a group call with Manchin, during which several of them shared their own stories of sexual assault, and pleaded with Manchin to vote no on the nomination. Manchin refused to commit to a decision on the vote.
Shortly after midnight, police arrived to remove the women from the office. Nine of the women were arrested and charged with trespassing. It was just one dramatic moment in a period that has been a draining emotional roller-coaster for many.
Though I don’t live in West Virginia, I felt a real kinship with Gaffin and her fellow protestors. As an assault survivor living in Pennsylvania coal country, I also am very passionate about the challenges and struggles faced by blue collar, working-class Americans, particularly women. I am also all too familiar with the concept of burying trauma and the anxiety related to sharing your story. For women like Gaffin and myself, recent events have prompted an exhausting combination of painful memories and frustrating realities.
The events of the past few weeks have been emotionally tough on Gaffin. “The hearings and other events of the past week have had me not only reliving the trauma associated with being sexually assaulted multiple times as a teenager, but also the trauma I’ve experienced in speaking out about those experiences as an adult.”
Gaffin found the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford to be inspiring—but the subsequent treatment of Ford to be disturbing. “Dr. Ford’s powerful testimony had me weeping and raging alongside her, with her story being so similar to my own, and to many other sexual assault survivors out there. But it’s been the cruel reactions from politicians, commentators, and others who attempt to invalidate Dr. Ford’s experiences of being sexually assaulted that have affected me the most. These reactions are not unfamiliar to so many survivors of sexual assault and are sadly one of the reasons why so many of us feel unsafe in sharing our stories.”
The ultimate goal for survivors like Gaffin is just to have their voices heard. “I’m hoping Senator Manchin hears us, his constituents—and I mean, really hears us. Though we did eventually speak with Senator Manchin on the phone during the sit-in, he disappointingly still refused to take a stance on not supporting the confirmation of Kavanaugh. I’m hoping that by continuing to share our stories and speak out, that we can get through to Senator Manchin and open his eyes to just how dangerous a threat Kavanaugh’s confirmation would be to West Virginians, especially West Virginia women. I’m hoping that Senator Manchin will choose to take a stance and support survivors of sexual assault, women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ folks, and poor/working class families in West Virginia by voting no on Kavanaugh.”
This is an issue that transcends party lines and goes way beyond politics, Gaffin said. “Kavanaugh’s confirmation is deeply personal, because it stands to dehumanize me and other survivors of sexual assault even further. It sends a message to West Virginia women that our bodies and safety are secondary to political gain. Kavanaugh’s stances on Roe v Wade and the ACA are dangerous to West Virginians, and especially West Virginia women.”
Despite her arrest, Gaffin has no regrets about her role in the protest. “I participated in the action Monday because I refuse to be dehumanized. I refuse to let my autonomy and safety be dismissed. It was worth it for me to put my body on the line and risk arrest, because the alternative is even more terrifying.”