College screens “Surviving R. Kelly” documentary for Sexual Assault Awareness Month

The fifth inning of game one was underway and Clackamas Community College’s baseball team was tied with Chemeketa when R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” began blaring — scratchy, of course — through the field’s speakers, pinging off the eardrums of lethargic fans and players.

Just three days earlier and barely a quarter mile away, the college screened an episode of “Surviving R. Kelly” in a sparsely populated Community Center room. The screening was one event of several being put on for Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) by the Associated Student Government.

The six-part documentary details sexual abuse allegations against Kelly, a 52-year-old Grammy-nominated musician who’s recently been indicted on similar charges by Chicago police — 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse to be exact.

The glaring juxtaposition offered between the two occurrences was an apt reminder of the way in which power can insulate an abuser from consequences, one of the primary motifs of the documentary itself.

On one day, a serious look at accusations of heinous crimes against an artist that are finally coming to a head. A few days later, that same artist’s song is just another one to nod along to as the innings dissipate into a gray and dispirited sky. For years, an analogous story played out for Kelly: accusations of sexual abuse against minors loomed while he and his art were still received warmly; he maintained fame, riches and until recently, his freedom.

“Part of the draw of it was that it’s something that’s been a big part of national dialogue,” Mary Vest, campus Sexual Assault Advocate, said while referring to the intention behind showing an episode of the Lifetime docuseries. “We wanted to be able to spark more dialogue about things that are happening and impacting our community and have been really present with national media and dialogue.”

The screening certainly did touch on a relevant subject — even if only a few students attended.

“I think it’s typical for our college for events,” said Ray Atkinson, transportation system analyst for CCC and one of those in attendance. “I’ve worked here for about a year now and it’s about average attendance.”

One of the few students making an appearance, Ali McCready, had a different take on what could be behind the lack of engagement.

“I feel like with a situation like sexual assault, and this being a specific event about that, people are less likely to show up because it’s a topic that makes people uncomfortable,” McCready said. “They don’t want to look at something that makes them feel unsettled. They don’t want to see something that makes them question their perspective of an artist or an industry.”

Whether the student turnout was typical or influenced by the subject matter, the objective was the same for those who helped plan the event.

“Part of what goes into planning events like this is thinking about what are the ways we can reach our students that are gonna feel relevant or meaningful and that’s a hard one to figure out because we have so many students from a lot of different backgrounds and life experiences. And also just with various times they can be available for things,” Vest said. “So we try to have a lot of different event offerings that can work for different people and films often can be a helpful tool.”

After the screening there was some discussion among attendees, especially surrounding the way in which several people in the episode admitted to essentially turning a blind eye to Kelly’s actions because of the power dynamic involved and Kelly’s celebrity. The discussion, however small the scale, did seem to accomplish the intention behind the showing. Afterward, McCready spoke on what she gained from the experience.

“It brings awareness to an issue that’s really personal for me. It makes me happy seeing videos like this because it’s getting more momentum and it’s actually getting people to talk about it,” said McCready. “A larger network like Lifetime — I’m really happy they decided to pick this up. Who else will tell their story?”

The screening will give way to another this week, this time of “The Bystander Moment.” The film is led by Jackson Katz and seeks to illuminate the role of bystanders in sexual violence while offering an innovative approach to changing rape culture and preventing sexual assault. Vest framed the upcoming event and subsequent discussion on bystander intervention as a way for anyone to get involved.

“I think the nice part about bystander intervention is that it allows everyone to sort of have a role they can play that feels sometimes more accessible,” Vest said. “A lot of the film next week is about intervening earlier than when an incident is actually happening, although that is still important. I think that’s a nice way to think about how we can take action. Because a lot of people maybe feel like they care but don’t really know quite what to do. And that’s a way to bring that awareness into action.”

For those still looking to get involved a few events remain: the aforementioned bystander intervention discussion will take place on April 17 from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Fireside Lounge in the Community Center. While the 24th will see be both National Denim Day celebrated on campus and a discussion about consent taking place from noon to 1 p.m., also in the Community Center.

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Jason Sisson

2019-2020 editor-in-chief       @NewsmanJay