No Red Tape Columbia

These Mattress-Carrying Students Were Fined For Making A Mess During Their Anti-Rape Protest -- See How They Paid

When's the last time you saw a novelty check for social unrest?

When you think of giant novelty checks you probably think of lottery winners or game show contestants smiling like lunatics. You probably don't think of widespread protests and social unrest.

On Monday (Dec. 15), however, a novelty check scrawled on a mattress conveyed just that as Columbia University students continued their fight against the way the school handles allegations of sexual assault.

A refresher: Protests started on Columbia's campus this September when Emma Sulkowicz started carrying a mattress around the school as part of a performance art piece titled "Carry That Weight" -- a piece that also served as a protest against the fact that her alleged rapist is still on campus after both the school and police failed to bring him to justice.

Sulkowicz's piece sparked a movement, culminating in a National Day of Action, according to Buzzfeed, during which college students around the world carried mattresses for a day in solidarity.

At the day's end, 28 Columbia students -- one for each student that signed a Title IX complaint against the university for how it handles sexual assault -- left mattresses on the street outside University President Lee Bollinger's house.

The result of this protest? A $471 fine for the organizations involved to cover removal of the mattresses. Although feminist group UltraViolet offered to pay the fine, the students instead took the opportunity to make another statement, according to Jezebel, dropping off a mock-check scrawled on a mattress in the president's office today. After doing so, they read the following letter:

Dear President Bollinger,

On October 29th, hundreds of students gathered in the pouring rain to protest Columbia University's treatment of survivors of sexual and dating violence. Student activists and survivors organized the rally with Carry That Weight, an organization committed to ending violence on campuses. We marched with mattresses to your house, chanting "Rape culture is contagious, come on Prezbo, be courageous!" We left 28 mattresses on your doorstep, representing the 28 students who filed a Title IX complaint against Columbia, and delivered a list of 10 demands. After months of inaction, we hoped you would take this opportunity to finally step up and address our urgent concerns.

Instead, you threw our mattresses in a dumpster and slapped us with a fine for $471. The mattresses are a symbol of the burdens that survivors struggle to carry with them each day on this campus. This response makes your priorities abundantly clear: You value the reputation of this institution over the safety of your students, and would rather throw out survivors' pain than acknowledge the harm your administration has caused. President Bollinger, you are making us pay for the trauma that we have endured. This is reprehensible.

Survivors and activists in our community have been calling on you to effectively prevent and respond to sexual and domestic violence for over a year. On April 24th, 2014, 23 students filed a Title IX complaint against this University. In August, 5 more student survivors joined the complaint. Also in August, you released a new Gender­Based Misconduct policy without any student input and ignored the policy proposals we wrote at your request. Since then, Emma Sulkowicz's senior thesis Mattress Project: Carry That Weight has called national attention to the injustices survivors have been forced to carry alone for too long. You have not responded once to this piece, and her serial rapist remains on campus today.

Your administration is still punishing students who commit rape and abuse with merely a slap on the wrist, and failing to provide survivors with the protections and support we need. Our goal is and always has been to work with your office to address these critical concerns. However, if you continue to ignore our needs and retaliate against us for speaking out, students on this campus will remain unsafe, and this conflict will continue to escalate.

Today, we will pay the fine your administration has tried to minimize as a "clean up charge." But let's be clear: If this fine went to support the maintenance workers who, under your instruction, did have to carry the 28 mattresses to a dumpster, we would readily pay them. This money will not go to those individuals. (And this is not the first time you have tried to hide behind University workers for your administration's mishandling of sexual assault.) This is not a clean­up fee, but a punishment for speaking out ­­and it will go into the bank account of a University that has silenced us.

We dragged our mattresses to your home in an act of desperation: We do not feel safe on this campus, and we fear for the students that come after us. There are rapists in our dorms, our dining halls, our libraries. There are survivors dropping out of school because no one is there to support them. We call on you to take immediate action: engage directly and meaningfully with students, and take our demands seriously. When students on this campus are unsafe, we need a President who will take action. When students demand to be heard, we need a President who responds. When the community is in crisis, we need a President who leads. It is time you listen to us and help us make this community safe for everyone. Be courageous President Bollinger, your students need you.


The Columbia students of the Carry That Weight campaign

MTV News has reached out to both Columbia University and Emma Sulkowicz for comment.