TODAY'S PAPER

#MeToo rally organizers in NYC share frustration, empowerment after meeting on Twitter

Two New Yorkers brought together by the viral #MeToo hashtag have been planning a Manhattan rally in support of sex abuse survivors, yet they met face-to-face for the first time less than 10 days before the event.

Connie Vasquez and Annmarie Haubert had only known each other as “that little circle that I see on Facebook,” for the better part of a month, but as they sat in amNewYork’s office on Friday it appeared as if the two had been friends for years. It was the first time the women had met in person despite what they described as a nearly 24/7 planning process for their labor of love: #MeTooRallyNYC, set to be held on Dec. 9 in Columbus Circle.

On the surface, Vasquez – a 57-year-old lawyer who lives in upper Manhattan – and Haubert – a 24-year-old EMT practical skills instructor living in Middle Village – couldn’t be any more different from each other. It was their personal experiences of sexual abuse and shared need to do more for others who have suffered that united them under a common cause.

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“It started with a tweet that I sent out. I saw the Twitter moment for the march in L.A. and I tweeted something out . . . about how I wished that I had something like that here,” Haubert recalled. “Connie saw that tweet and replied to me, saying that she was trying to do something like that in New York, asking if I wanted to partner with her. And from there, this was born.”

Vasquez and Haubert are sexual abuse survivors, both enduring trauma in their youths but decades apart, and although their individual experiences are different they shared a common theme.

“We have so many differences and little things that make our stories different, but the one thing, that it wasn’t talked about enough, is what brought us together,” Haubert said.

Planned almost exclusively through Twitter DMs and Facebook Messenger, Haubert and Vasquez have spent weeks organizing #MeTooRallyNYC. The two barely even spoke over the phone, choosing instead to send late-night messages and fire off emails during lunch breaks.

So when Vasquez and Haubert met for the first time, emotions ran high.

“Now, meeting you in person, this is something incredible that we’re doing,” Haubert said. “We’re different ages, different lifestyles, different jobs, and we just have this one thing that bonds us together and that’s being survivors.”

The hope, according to Vasquez, is that people who attend the rally experience something similar to her first meeting with Haubert: “That there’s this kinship, there’s that ‘I see you’” moment.

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#MeTooRallyNYC aims to actualize the message of the online movement in the streets of New York City by bringing together survivors to show the sheer number of people who have been sexually abused.

Rape reports across New York City increased by more than 15 percent in November when compared with the same month in 2016, according to the NYPD. So far this year, 285 people reported a rape that occurred last year or earlier – up from 255 people making those types of reports in 2016, Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce added.

“I don’t want to have this rally of victims. The intent is, very much for me, there’s strength in numbers and look around you and look how many of us there are and we have survived and this is really a healing opportunity,” Vasquez added. “That’s really what’s important for me in this.”

It was equally important for them as organizers to acknowledge Tarana Burke and the roots of #MeToo, she added.

“[Burke’s] whole focus has been bringing in marginalized individuals – I don’t even want to say just women – individuals of color,” Vasquez said, adding that they had reached out to Burke out of respect for her being the “genesis” of the “me too” movement, but hadn’t heard back.

Long before hashtags were commonplace on social media, Burke created a program to help young women of color who are victims of sexual abuse through her nonprofit Just Be Inc., which was launched in 2006. The program, titled “me too,” was inspired by a real-life experience Burke had with a young girl who confided that she had been sexually abused, Burke says on her website.

About a decade later, amid a firestorm of backlash as the sexual assault scandal involving Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein unfolded, the hashtag #MeToo was brought into the spotlight by Alyssa Milano. The actress has been vocal about how Hollywood treats women in the industry since the original New York Times article on the Weinstein allegations was published on Oct. 5.

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Milano’s tweet urging victims of sexual abuse to share their stories and show their solidarity under the hashtag #MeToo quickly went viral. It received nearly 40,000 replies and 30,000 likes in less than 24 hours.

The hashtag spread to other social media sites as well. #MeToo was shared in more than 12 million Facebook posts and reactions within the first 24 hours, according to a CBS News and The Associated Press report.

“You’ve got Tarana Burke, who has been working her fanny off for 10 years,” trying to put marginalized communities in the forefront of these issues, Vasquez said. “I get all of that.”

The pair has worked diligently to make the rally as inclusive as possible, Vasquez added, lining up a host of speakers from local organizations, including NOW-NYC president Sonia Ossorio and Protect NY Kids founder Gary Greenberg.

Time magazine on Wednesday named "The Silence Breakers," including the #MeToo movement, as its Person of the Year for 2017 – a move that Vasquez and Haubert said helps validate their work in speaking out against sexual abuse.

“We feel Time handed us back a part of something that was stolen from us; something we've fought so hard to reclaim; something we've wrestled demons over; something we've wanted to scream every time we see reports of people questioning why we wait so long to speak,” the pair said in a joint statement on Wednesday. “Time handed us a bigger megaphone and a bigger platform to catapult our voices. We are now seen, heard, and believed as never before. It is all of us and we are #silencebreakers.”

So far, the #MeTooRallyNYC Facebook page lists over 500 people who plan to attend, and more than 3,000 have expressed interest. The organizers said they will gather at 1 p.m. on Central Park West between 60th and 61st streets, across from the Trump International Hotel.

Neither woman has ever organized a rally before, which they both described to be “frustrating” and “empowering.”

“I feel like I am helping other people because if this [movement] was something that happened 10 years ago, I may not have kept my mouth shut when I was younger,” Haubert added. “Connie and I putting this rally together and getting the word out there, it can help somebody who is 14 now. It can help so many people and that’s empowering for me.”

Vasquez and Haubert insisted, however, that victims who are not ready to make themselves vulnerable by taking part in the rally should not feel forced to do so.

“We want to all stand together in solidarity, but if you’re not ready to speak about what happened, you’re not being forced to,” Haubert said. “This is the end of you being forced. So, we will stand there and we will rally for you.”

With Meghan Giannotta and Alison Fox