Power and witness: Social media activism and coming forward after assault
Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP

In Michigan, several tattoo artists, bartenders, photographers, and medical practitioners have recently been called out for some alleged bad behavior that, most often, has gone unpunished. From Detroit to Kalamazoo, assaults, harassment, and druggings have continuously been swept under the rug. Whether ignored by the police completely or having cases closed prematurely, these acts of violence have gone mostly unnoticed. And it doesn’t end with sexual predation either: transmisogyny, racism, homophobia, pedophilia, and anti-sex work attitudes prevail as well.

This is a growing issue—or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it’s an issue that’s finally being taken seriously. An issue that deals with power dynamics. An issue that affects some people when they go to work or seek services from professionals every day, manifesting in intimate settings such as a doctor’s office or behind a curtain in a tattoo parlor. Some places of employment are taking accountability seriously, while the accused individuals themselves are all too often shirking it.

This problem goes well beyond Michigan’s borders, though. One activist group, the collective known as WEKEEPPORTLANDSAFE (We Keep Portland Safe), reached out to People’s World following earlier reporting on the issue in these pages. They hope to bring attention to things that have been happening in the Pacific Northwest.

Earlier this summer, Ryan Mason, a tattoo artist in the Portland area, became the focal point of WEKEEPPORTLANDSAFE’s work—which uses social media to give survivors of assault a voice while maintaining their anonymity. Once employed at Scapegoat Tattoo, he left in May of this year. However, months later, Brian Wilson, Scapegoat’s owner, posted on social media that the company was taking accusations against the company’s former employee seriously. In the post, Wilson stated a “process of accountability and healing” would begin.

Like other tattoo parlors that once employed artists who have harassed and assaulted clients and fellow employees, Scapegoat (although some say it’s mostly running damage control in order to keep the company’s name clean) is taking proper steps to rectify the situation.

Another recent incident involved someone coming forward regarding Ryan Wieser, who previously worked as a barber at Clash Beauty Collective. One anonymous source told People’s World that Clash did not renew Wieser’s contract after allegations against him came to light.

A cursory glance at the Portland-based collective’s recent posts shows that several people have been impacted and have either been too afraid to come forward or did, in fact, file police reports but to no avail.

Collective activism like the work done by the Detroit Solidarity Movement and WEKEEPPORTLANDSAFE has brought up a number of questions, though. The number one criticism raised is how much credence should be given to anonymous witnesses. How can their claims be evaluated, especially when they’re made on social media platforms? But what gets missed when we focus on this question is how quickly people are willing to believe everything else on social media—from the trivial to the political.

Somehow, the testimony of a survivor of some terrible violence falls into the category of being “nuanced” and unverifiable. We already know the crime of rape is not taken seriously by police most of the time, but what we need to interrogate is why we only trust accusations when they come from specific sources—especially when race, class, or gender play into it.

The truth is that being a witness in the social media age hasn’t changed all that much; there are simply more mediums open for witnesses to come forward. The problem of being a witness has also remained the same. On the one hand, witness testimony is always coveted, yet believing a witness will always be trivialized. On the other, witnesses can help others by coming forward and sharing their experiences so as to stop perpetrators. Yet there are immediate repercussions to the individual when doing so. Being a witness to a crime puts one in a situation of facing immediate doubt and, possibly, imminent danger.

On top of this, witnesses are often only tolerated or embraced when they favor the side of power—when either the witness’s testimony already favors the powerful. Which is to say, society only tolerates witnesses when they don’t make us question anything about the systemic status quo. That’s a big hurdle to jump as a witness once you realize it’s there.

Then there is the safety issue. Given the availability of personal information online, being worried about coming forward as a witness today is not a question of paranoia or empowerment—it’s a question of protection. It is not a matter of “if” a witness will be tracked down, harassed, and threatened, but rather of “when” and “to what extent.”

The advantages of social media activism have been clear since the days of the Occupy Movement. However, even videos and images of experiences are still doubted or given lesser authority precisely because they’re posted to social media. Thus, being a witness who comes forward on social media and insists on anonymity opens up new levels of doubt and danger.

The common response to people coming forward with allegations is that this is somehow threatening. We can’t just “believe” them, because what if someone is falsely accused of a crime? What every case of physical assault and rape demonstrates is the reversal of the old problem of the law: People see the punishment, but they do not see the crime. We’re left to wonder, who is the law meant to protect?

We should not fear the anonymous witness while the anonymous racist, misogynist, transphobe, homophobe, etc. can roam freely within the same open space with impunity. Whether they hide behind an avatar or a Klan hood, a bank account or a job title, we ought to fear the autonomy of the attacker and question why they are ignored and thus protected by the law.

Coming forward anonymously on social media is no more discountable than coming forward in any other way. Although we like to hold onto the dream that if someone were to come forward to the police, the department would “look into it” and verify how truthful things are. However, we cannot seem to learn this lesson enough: It is not in the interest of power to relinquish that power, especially while the police are in the business of protecting it.

This is undoubtedly a crisis of power: one that is the same old violence but in a new form. This is simply the new terrain that no longer aligns with the old map. While survivors of physical, emotional, and sexual violence are continuously doubted and can only trust other survivors, these collectives and their activism will be the only medium for their justice.

The role we must play in hearing them is allowing these survivors to take their power back. When one person shares their story, many more come forward and feel empowered to share their own experiences. When the dynamic has only served to strip these people of any sort of power, let alone security, coming forward with one’s story (owning it, being heard) is the first step toward their justice.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


Andrew Wright
Andrew Wright

Andrew Wright is an essayist and activist based in Detroit.  He has written and presented on topics such as suicide and mental health, class struggle, gender studies, politics, ideology, and philosophy.