(Originally published by Alaska Commons on January 29, 2017.)
On Thursday night, over the course of a four-hour period, three women were robbed at gunpoint by two assailants who remain at large. Alaska Dispatch News reported on the robberies Friday morning, and by Friday afternoon the Facebook comments section for the article was a hotbed of vitriol. Predictably the responses centered around four major themes –
Women need to learn how to protect themselves.
Women need to carry firearms.
Women need to learn basic self-defense.
Women need to know better than to go out late at night.
Regarding that last sentiment, the first robbery was at 6:34 p.m. with the last occurring at 10:22 p.m. These are normal business hours — not the dead of night. This outbreak of violence comes less than a week after the publication of an article about the high rate of stalking in Alaska.
A 2015 study conducted by the state Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault and the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center revealed that more than a third of Alaskan women have been stalked.
In real numbers, that is approximately 80,000 women with nearly 15,000 reporting they were stalked a year before they took the survey. Factor in the 2012 Forbes article identifying Anchorage as one of the most dangerous U.S. cities for women, and Alaska loses its innocent charm.
Last night I went for a walk, alone.
I thought about the backlash I would face after revealing that on the day after three women were robbed, I went out for an evening walk without my husband. I also thought about the fact that I am exactly what every commentator clamored for in their rebuttal. My parents were ex-military, and my father taught me how to defend myself. On my thirteenth birthday, I was given a manual on hand-to-hand combat that included techniques on how to kill a person with your bare hands. When questioned by my mother about the unusual (and graphic) gift, his response was simple –
“Kid needs to know how to fight off an a—— who thinks that just because he has a [penis] he can do whatever he wants.”
My father, himself a perpetrator of domestic violence, gave me the very skills I needed to fight off men like himself. The irony was not lost on me. I know how to handle myself because I’ve been in situations where I had to manhandle someone or lose my life. My experiences have taught me to wear flat shoes in case I need to make a fast getaway, and to always have a weapon somewhere on my person.
Yes, I carry concealed.
As I wound my way through the rutted foot-path carved into the unplowed sidewalks of Spenard, I thought about the hard truth that even with these advantages I’m still at risk. Situational awareness is second nature after years spent living and hunting in the woods of Mat-Su, but the potential for being taken by surprise remains. Despite popular belief women are just as aware of the potential dangers in their surroundings as men. We know that there are people out there who wish to do us harm, and will specifically target us because they believe we’re an easier mark. We are aware that preparedness can give you an advantage, but we also know that all the training in the world is not an automatic guarantee that we will come out on top in a bad situation.
The same holds true for men.
I knew one of the victims of the serial killer that plagued Anchorage for several months before dying in a shootout with police. It wasn’t until the Own the Night event, organized by Rep. Ivy Spohnholz (D-Anchorage), that I set foot on the trail winding through Valley of the Moon Park. It was the area where they died, an area that I used to enjoy jogging and biking through after work, and now avoid.
Staying true to form, like most Alaskan women I fall into several categories of the social ills affecting our gender. I grew up in a house where domestic violence was the norm and sexual boundaries were crossed. Like the majority of child sexual abuse survivors, my offender was a family member who had access, but I fall into the minority because the perpetrator was female. I have also survived a very sad attempt at a sexual assault that was more assault than it was sex. It ended with a deranged meth head running up and down the hall outside of my apartment cutting himself, and screaming vulgar sexual filth at my door.
I am also part of that cadre of 80,000 women who have been stalked. The first time was when I was thirteen by the son of a neighbor. The situation was so bad his parents had to move out of state. The second was by another adolescent boy after we went mudding together online. The third was by a neighbor who harassed me to the point that I had to move out of Eagle River for my safety. I had to avoid social media for almost a year after he kept stalking me on Myspace and Facebook. In the last two years, my husband has witnessed a new stalker situation that involved the theft of my personal effects and a disturbing letter being sent to our house.
To be honest we women do not know why men, (and some women), stalk us. It certainly isn’t because we led someone on or secretly enjoy the attention or some other asinine myth. I don’t enjoy looking over my shoulder, changing my phone numbers, and having to randomize my routine in case this person decides to go postal. I don’t get what is so blasted interesting about me that someone would possibly do the unthinkable to my spouse, one of my relatives, or my friends and colleagues because of a perceived sleight. Women have been killed by their stalkers, and the way most stalking laws work – including here in Alaska – law enforcement cannot intervene until the person makes a dramatic move.
Naturally that leads one to wonder that if women, (like men), are already taking the necessary precautions to avoid delinquents; what more can be done? There are multiple agencies focused on addressing the high rates of sexual and physical violence against women in Alaska. There are boots-on-the-ground organizations providing support for victims and building interagency networks to bridge any gaps. We have marches, protests, PSAs, op-eds, and everything else to raise awareness through a combination of media and grassroots activism. Yet, the problem remains.
From my perspective, as both an advocate and survivor, the answer lies in the communities themselves. Individual action is great, but it is nowhere near as powerful as the action of an entire group. That much was clear during Own the Night when residents collectively declared that they would take steps to ensure that Valley of the Moon would not be the scene of another robbery, rape, assault, or homicide. We must decide – as a community – that the high rate of violence towards the women in our city must stop, and take action to make it so.
I mulled over the grim reality of being a woman in a municipality deemed unsafe for my gender, while eyeing three men talking outside the nearby pawn shop. They were in their twenties, Russian, and talking in their language about something they found humorous. Our eyes met and then passed as they went back to their conversation, and I continued to the warmth of the old Church of Love. My friend and fellow activist, Oscar Avellaneda-Cruz, was hosting an event showcasing the work of local photographers. Light conversation about community and creativity provided an opportunity to get out of my head and think about something else. I called my husband to let him know that I had arrived safely, and would like to be picked up in an hour.