Illustration by Samantha Schuyler

A grassroots activist collective for grrrls takes back the rape culture conversation on their terms.

After two attacks on women happened less than 24 hours apart in early August, Gainesville’s collective frustration hit the Internet.

Facebook was alive with real-time comments following the attack. Statuses voiced concern over safety, chewed out the perp and urged women to walk in groups.

But one status in particular drew interest from women all over the city, said Erica Merrell, co-owner of Wild Iris Books.

“It was like, ‘I’m so tired, I just want to take to the streets and make it stop,’” she said. “Something very simple like that.”

Shortly after the status was posted, women replied in droves to pitch in their support. The conversation rapidly gathered momentum; the women were germinating a plan. They agreed to gather in person and talk. They set a date.

About 40 women, trans and queer-identified people met at the Civic Media Center on Aug. 12 and sewed together the beginnings of a collective, what is now called Gainesville: End Sexual Assault Culture.

The group is a grassroots activist collective comprised of volunteers from around the city who want to empower and protect women, while also educating the public on the topics of rape and assault.

Organized primarily through the Facebook group “Gainesville: End Sexual Assault” — once called “GNV grrrls” — Merrell said the group plans to act as a resource hub; create and promote events and services that help women protect themselves from sexual assault; and provide a safe space for members to feel empowered and respected.

“We didn’t know what we were going to do; we didn’t know how we were going to do it,” Merrell said. “But we knew we were pissed, and we knew that we were tired of the constant victim-blaming and backlash.”

The group plans to use volunteered labor and spaces to launch programs such as self-defense courses, meetups and support groups. They’ve talked about providing a space for victims of assault who are not ready to file an official report with the police but want to talk. They also plan to be trans-inclusive to support a community that, though also affected by sexual violence, has not been as visible in the public discussion of rape.

“We are going to rewrite this narrative in our neighborhoods and with the women in our lives and with the queer people in our lives,” Merrell said. “We’re going to protect each other.”

The day after the first meeting, about 20 members banded together to protest at the UF vs. Kentucky football game. They wore black and brought signs demanding everything from “Cut off the rape tool” to simply “End rape culture.” The response, Merrell said, was fascinating.

One man heckled them by saying he loved raping women. A middle-aged man asked them if they were doing this because they had all been raped.

At the same time, she added, the protest was also inspiring.

“Women came up and hugged us, and little girls looked at us and internalized it,” she said. “Lots of middle-aged women who gave us the silent head-nod.”

After the game, the group met again to discuss future plans, said Shirley Roseman, intern at Wild Iris Books and volunteer with UF’s LGBT Affairs. In only 16 hours they had organized a successful protest, she said, and they wanted to do more. They were already fueled by the same passion for justice and equality. The next step was to put their disparate skills together.

“We come from different backgrounds,” Roseman said. “But we connected with this main theme and goal, and we created something tangible really fast and really beautifully.”

The group, which is currently working internally to build a sustainable infrastructure, is made up of students, business owners, teachers and more, Roseman said. Folk and punk musicians work side by side. And many of the members have never done activist work.

“To see them all together, passionate and engaged in the same thing, is beautiful and inspiring,” Roseman said. “There is a lot of love in the collective being shared around.”

Because they are a collective, each member has equal weight in decisions. Everyone has different goals. And with 315 “likes” on their Facebook page before they’ve even gone public, juggling everyone’s wishes can be challenging.

Despite this, Merrell said that members treat one another with respect. At meetings, no one can talk over anyone, and no one can attack another person’s opinions.

“We also force ourselves to live up to the standards of respect and consent that we’re fighting for,” Merrell said. “We just try to bring it back and remember that we’re all on the same team. It’s going to take all of us.”

But the biggest goal is to make something sustainable for the community, Roseman said. With that in mind, the group has split into subgroups to cover as much ground as possible. That way, they can satisfy everyone’s needs while maintaining balance.

“You can have all the fire in the world,” Merrell said. “But if you don’t have a framework, you’re gonna burn out. You’re not gonna be as effective.”

The group is in its beginning stage — refining their righteous rage, Merrill said — and taking it slow. They want to help without causing any harm, Roseman said

“It’s because we love our community, and we love each other, and we want each other to be safe,” Merrell said. “We’re trying to bring that together and build something very lasting — something that’s really going to shake shit up.”