It was October of 2017. The California legislative session had drawn to a close, and the deadline for the governor to sign legislation was fast approaching.
The passage of the bill I was working on—AB 1312, the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights, which would be a landmark piece of legislation if it passed, guaranteeing a minimum of protections to survivors of sexual assault—seemed in peril.
I sprang into action. As part of an incredible coalition of survivors’ rights advocates, I worked to garner local support in the South Bay. That meant letters of support from leaders like Supervisor Cindy Chavez and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. We were able to demonstrate that there was strong community support for the Survivors’ Bill of Rights, and at the last moment, the governor signed it into law. History was made, in the single largest expansion in civil rights for survivors at the state level.
Despite all the work that’s been done to date, though, more remains.
While the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights was an important step forward, it requires more work in order to implement it at the local level. That’s because the vast majority of cases in the criminal justice system in California go through the county level.
That means that while the state can mandate reforms, it’s up to county and municipal leaders to work to implement them. For us to truly move forward requires that we elect leaders who understand the importance of supporting survivors, not just through their words, but with concrete policy change.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but under the current pandemic, it can be difficult for other important causes to break through. In fact, Covid-19 has made a focus on sexual assault more important than ever.
Early reports indicate that rates of sexual assault and intimate partner violence are on the rise as people are forced to shelter in place, regardless of the safety of their living situation. In the midst of all the other concerns around COVID-19, these stories are being lost, and we must do more to fully serve the needs of survivors.
I’ve worked on the issue of survivors’ rights for years, at all levels of government, both within and outside of the criminal justice system. Being an advocate on this particular issue means that people will come to you and ask for help, or simply need to share their story. Over the years, I’ve heard from countless survivors who didn’t know where else to turn. Many of them were failed by the criminal justice system, or other systems of power, which all too often only serve to protect the interests of offenders.
Turning the page on our country’s sexual assault problem can’t be done simply through the criminal justice system. It will require rethinking and unlearning everything from the thousand small acts of casual misogyny that people face every day, to the broader systemic ways in which power looks after its own interests, failing survivors every step of the way. Nonetheless, we must work to reform existing systems even while we imagine a better world. In part, that will require electing leaders at the local level who understand the complexities of protecting the rights of survivors.
Most of all, it means restructuring those systems to empower every survivor.
One month of awareness can’t come close to capturing the complexities of the issue. Survivors don’t have the option of boxing their experience—pain, trauma, healing, and everywhere in between—into just one month.
With hope, we can work toward a world where they won’t have to.
Sergio Lopez is a nonprofit leader and candidate for Campbell City Council. He graduated from Yale, works in youth leadership and civic engagement, and sits on the Board of Directors of the Campbell Historical Museum Foundation. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside.