Meet Tarana Burke, Activist Who Started 'Me Too' Campaign to Ignite Conversation on Sexual Assault
Amid the ongoing fallout from sexual assault and harassment allegations against Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, a former contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice” has subpoenaed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign for all documents relating to her and any other women who have accused the U.S. president of unwanted sexual contact. We look at how this has reignited a conversation about sexual assault with women using the #MeToo hashtag, and speak with activist Tarana Burke, who started the campaign about a decade ago.
“'Me Too' is so powerful, because somebody had said it to me, and it changed the trajectory of my healing process,” Burke says. We also speak with Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, and Soraya Chemaly, a journalist who covers the intersection of gender and politics.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: “Know My Name” by Courtney Love. Courtney Love said this week her 2005 public warning to women about serial predator Harvey Weinstein got her blacklisted by the powerful Hollywood talent agency Creative Artists Agency, writing, “Although I wasn’t one of his victims, I was eternally banned by CAA for speaking out against #HarveyWeinstein #rape.” This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan GonzÃ¡lez, as we talk about the latest news right now.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: Well, those allegations were not being made against disgraced—
SUMMER ZERVOS: [He repeated my words back to me]—”Get real”—as he began thrusting his genitals. He tried to kiss me again, with my hand still on his chest. And I said, “Dude, you’re tripping right now,” attempting to make it clear I was not interested.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: Those allegations were not being made against disgraced Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, but against now-President Donald Trump. That is Celebrity Apprentice contestant Summer Zervos describing her 2007 encounter with Trump in which she says Trump kissed her on the lips, pressed his body against hers and groped her breasts, all without her consent. Zervos was among a series of women who accused Trump of sexual assault during the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump, in return, called her and the other women liars. She has now subpoenaed Trump’s presidential campaign for all documents relating to her and any other women who have accused Trump of unwanted sexual contact. On Monday, Trump was asked about the subpoena at an impromptu White House news conference. This is his response.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: All I can say is it’s totally fake news. It’s just fake. It’s fake. It’s made-up stuff. And it’s disgraceful, what happens. But that happens in the—that happens in the world of politics. John?
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: Meanwhile, in New York City, police detectives are probing two credible allegations of sexual assault against Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. The allegations are separate from a 2015 case brought against Weinstein after an NYPD sting operation caught him on tape confessing he groped Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez. At the time, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. declined to prosecute the case against Weinstein. One of Weinstein’s lawyers at the time donated $10,000 to Vance’s election campaign only days after the district attorney dropped the case. The New York City charges come as Scotland Yard is investigating five sexual assault charges by three women in Britain. More than 40 women now, including some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, have come forward with allegations of rape, sexual assault or sexual harassment against Weinstein.
Weinstein’s legal team is continuing to fall apart after learning the extent of the allegations against their former client. This includes entertainment lawyer Charles Harder, who threatened to sue The New York Times for their report on Weinstein’s history of sexual harassment. Harder has a history of taking on the media, and successfully filed a $140 million lawsuit against Gawker on behalf of Hulk Hogan that led to the outlet’s bankruptcy. Harder is the third lawyer to leave Weinstein, following Lisa Bloom and Lanny Davis. Bloom told Good Morning America that not only was Weinstein’s behavior illegal, but that, quote, “there was misconduct for a period of years,” end of quote. One lawyer to join Weinstein’s team is one of Hollywood’s biggest criminal attorneys, Blair Berk, who has represented actors like Mel Gibson.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, last week’s report that Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was also a sexual predator has reignited a dialogue on sexual assault in many ways. And one of them became a trending topic on Twitter this weekend, when women began posting messages on social media to show how commonplace such misconduct is, by using the hashtag #MeToo. A flurry of messages appeared Sunday on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, after the actress Alyssa Milano shared a post in which she revealed she had been sexually violated and included a screenshot of the idea that, quote, “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote 'Me too.' as a status we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Milano then wrote, quote, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write 'me too' as a reply to this tweet.”
While many reports suggested Milano began the “Me Too” movement, she didn’t. It was actually started about a decade ago by our next guest, the activist Tarana Burke. She says she began “Me Too” as a grassroots movement to aid sexual assault survivors in underprivileged communities, where rape crisis centers and sexual assault workers weren’t going. Tarana Burke is now a program director at Girls for Gender Equity. In Washington, D.C., we’re joined by Soraya Chemaly, who’s a journalist who covers the intersection of gender and politics, director of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! We’re going to begin right now with the woman who started “Me Too” in 2007. Tarana, talk about how this has taken off and why you started it back in 2007. What I want to say is, Alyssa never claimed she started it.
TARANA BURKE: No, right.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s the rest of the media—
TARANA BURKE: Right, right.
AMY GOODMAN: —that is talking about her starting it.
TARANA BURKE: Right. And it makes sense to me, right? Because that’s how media works. I have been working with young people for more than 25 years. And I worked in the South in 2007. And as a survivor of sexual violence myself, as a person who was struggling trying to figure out what healing looked like for me, I also saw young people, and particularly young women of color, in the community I worked with, struggling with the same issues and trying to find a succinct way to show empathy. Right? We use a term called “empowerment through empathy.” And “Me Too” is so powerful, because somebody had said it to me—right?—and it changed the trajectory of my healing process once I heard that.
And so, because the rape crisis centers in the community I was working didn’t go out to the schools, they didn’t do outreach, and I’m an organizer by training, it made sense to me that you have to bring—you know, you have to bring it to people. People are not going to seek it out. And so, “Me Too” was about reaching the places that other people wouldn’t go, bringing messages and words and encouragement to survivors of sexual violence where other people wouldn’t be talking about it.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: And your response now that we’ve had—it’s almost a succession of one big name after another being accused of sexual assault—Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Donald Trump and now Harvey Weinstein?
TARANA BURKE: R. Kelly, yeah. No, it’s not a surprise, right? And I think that—you know, I say all the time, I’m never surprised at these allegations. For every R. Kelly or Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein, there’s, you know, the owner of the grocery store, the coach, the teacher, the neighbor, who are doing the same things. But we don’t pay attention until it’s a big name. And we don’t pay attention 'til it's a big celebrity. But this work is ongoing, because this is pervasive.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Soraya Chemaly into this conversation, of the Women’s Media Center Speech Project. Talk about this latest—these revelations, these rolling revelations, against Harvey Weinstein, because of The New York Times exposÃ©, followed by The New Yorker exposÃ©. The New YorkerexposÃ© is only there because the author went to NBC, Ronan Farrow, and he worked on it with them for months, and then they killed it, which is leading to, to say the least, enormous questions within NBC—what was their connections to Weinstein?—putting a lot of pressure on the president of NBC. Talk about this, when this will even be reported, and the level of the women who have to make the charges for this to get this kind of attention, these A-list stars.
SORAYA CHEMALY: I think this is a very good example of the way overlapping systems of fraternity work to silence stories like these. We know that it takes a tremendous outpouring of, really, trauma from women, working together in a campaign like “Me Too,” to make people sit up and pay attention. But what we’re really talking about is making people believe what women are talking about, because we have a very deep-seated distrust of what women say. And when women say it, it’s very easy to dismiss and trivialize.
And part of that process of stereotypes and myth making comes directly from media. And media frames questions, decides which questions to ask, how to report, what language to use, and also whose voice matters and whose experience matters. So, in an instance like this, we see very clearly that a person with extreme power and status in one industry was probably leveraging that power and status across industries, able to tap people possibly in the criminal justice system, people in the media system. And again, this, I think, is really common. It’s not rare. It’s just that we’re seeing it at a very high level.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: And could you talk about this in the context of a president, in a presidency which itself, Donald Trump, has been repeatedly accused of sexual harassment?
SORAYA CHEMALY: So, I think that what was most interesting in the wake of the Trump tape that was released a year ago was the difference in responses between men and women to what happened. And we saw a huge gap in understanding and empathy, honestly, during the debate that followed immediately after that tape was released. The tape was released, and millions of women were traumatized and shared stories with the #NotOK hashtag, very much like they did now. But when the debate happened in the immediate wake of that, there was a large-scale analysis done by Facebook of what people were talking about, what was important to them, and it involved looking at millions of comments and posts from around the world, but especially, I believe, in the United States. And it showed that, for women, what Trump was saying and what it represented was a priority. It was either number one or two on the list of top five. But, for men, it didn’t make the list at all.
And I think that’s important, because our media systems and our legal systems and our political systems are still overwhelmingly dominated by men, overwhelmingly white men. So we’re talking about 80 percent-plus in almost all of those arenas, certainly of senior management. And that experiential difference, which is transformative in terms of producing knowledge, like really understanding what’s going on, is missing in these institutions. And so it takes this immense amount of energy to just try and get institutions to recognize the harm that’s being done by dismissing and trivializing experiences of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment, if you even think about the term, is a term that reflects the perspective of harassers. Women who are being harassed, men who are being harassed, this isn’t a sexual experience for them. It’s an experience of fear and threat and violence. It’s very intimidating. There’s always retaliation involved. So, even the perspective of the framing of the language reflects the problems that we face.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Alicia Garza into the conversation, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, special projects director for National Domestic Workers Alliance, speaking to us from Los Angeles. Your experience that every—about everything that has just been unfolding, now going from the charges, the allegations against Harvey Weinstein to, you know, both Scotland Yard and the New York Police Department investigating him criminally, and then the massive response to Tarana’s “Me Too” movement, that started really 10 years ago but now picking up steam like we’ve never seen before?
ALICIA GARZA: Well, I first have to just say a deep thank you to Tarana for creating this space for survivors like myself. Without that space, I wouldn’t be able to tell my story, and thousands and thousands of other people that I know would not be able to tell their stories. And you and I share someone in common, who you are a mentor to, and when she reached out to me yesterday and said, you know, “My mentor Tarana started this, and I want to make sure that black women’s work is not erased,” I had to—I had to agree.
My thoughts about this are that—exactly what Tarana said earlier, that this kind of violence is as American as apple pie. I am both heartbroken by all of the stories that I have seen being shared—there’s more stories being shared every day. And lots of people that I know, that I’m in community with, and people that I don’t know, are asking themselves, “What do we do about this epidemic of violence—violence against women, violence against women color, violence against black women, queer people, trans people? And even, what do we do about violence against men?” Right? Cis men, trans men.
This kind of patriarchal violence really functions off of shame and silence. And it’s not lost on me that every single person who told their story about Harvey Weinstein talked about how they were silenced, how they were encouraged not to speak up, how they were embarrassed or ashamed to speak up. And so the power of this movement of “Me Too,” this power of empathy, this power of connection, is really about empowering people to be survivors, to be resilient, and also to make really visible that sexual violence is not about people’s individual actions, that this is a systemic problem that then requires different types of responses to deal with how systemic this problem actually is.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: I’d like to ask Tarana, as the founder of this movement: Where do you think it needs to go, from here on?
TARANA BURKE: So, the movement, the work that I’m doing and this movement is really about survivors talking to survivors, right? “Me Too” is about letting—using the power of empathy to stomp out shame. And so, we need to keep talking about it, right? It doesn’t need to be—I mean, I appreciate the hashtag, and I appreciate the hashtag elevating the conversation, but it’s not a hashtag, right? It’s not a moment. This is a movement.
The reason why people didn’t know my name is because people don’t think about this unless there is something big happening. So what needs to happen is that we need to stop just, you know, popping up when somebody famous does something. And we need to really look at the numbers, look at the people, look at the survivors and think strategically. I think like an organizer. This is an epidemic, pandemic even, right? If you applied the numbers around sexual violence to any communicable disease, the World Health Organization would shut it down. There would be all kind of, you know, experiment and research around it.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think a vaccine could be developed against it?
TARANA BURKE: Oh, god, imagine, right? If we could stomp it out with just “Get your polio vaccine, and stop sexual violence.” But in actuality, it is that pervasive. And so, we need to stop thinking about it in spurts, and think about it as something that we need to constantly work on.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us. Tarana Burke, thank you so much, founder of the “Me Too” campaign; Soraya Chemaly with the Women’s Media Speech Project in Washington; and Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter.