All too often, stories about young women being drugged at a public venue in Missoula remain shrouded in rumor. At worst, the victims’ accounts are flat-out ignored by venue organizers, or at best, given lip service and dismissed without any meaningful action taken — leaving the culprit free to drug again.
That was not the case after a recent incident at Free Cycles, the nonprofit on First Street that welcomes the public to come by and build themselves a bicycle — for free — and regularly hosts community events and fundraisers. Everyone in Missoula, but especially those who own bars, clubs or spaces where people gather to let down their guard and have a good time, should take note of how the folks at Free Cycles handled this scary episode. Better yet, they should model their own response to similar situations after the example set by Free Cycles Executive Director Bob Giordano and program manager Emily Jensen.
As detailed in a Missoulian report last weekend, the community bike shop hosted a band on June 17 that drew a small crowd. After the show, two women noticed they were feeling disoriented and began to suspect someone had drugged their drinks. As word spread, the band that played that night took to social media to identify the person suspected of drugging the women, soundly condemn his actions and promise to watch out for any suspicious behavior at future shows.
Instead of excusing themselves from any responsibility for this alarming violation, the folks at Free Cycles took it upon themselves to act swiftly, with accountability to the individuals involved and with great regard for their greater community responsibility.
They banned the man believed responsible for the drugging from the shop. They met with one of the victims. And they invited the community to make itself heard as well.
This is one very important way to make real, lasting progress in the ongoing battle against sexual assault. As anyone who has lived in Missoula for the past decade is well aware, the community has fought hard to overcome an unfair national reputation as the “rape capital” of the country, as a writer for Jezebel described it in 2012, the same year the U.S. Department of Justice launched its investigations into rape reports at the University of Montana. The 2015 narrative “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town” by bestselling author Jon Krakauer didn’t help that image either.
Yet those accounts forced Missoula to take a hard look at its response to reports of sexual assault, and that led to groundbreaking new policies and procedures that became the model for an entire nation.
The Justice Department agreements with the University of Montana, Missoula Police Department and Missoula County Attorney’s Office set out best practices not only for responding to rape reports, but for providing training and prevention. The county attorney’s office, for one, now has four full-time prosecutors in its Special Victims Unit and three victim witness coordinators, as well as a training coordinator and liaison.
Missoula’s legislative delegation also led the way in pushing for major updates to outdated state laws that helped give county prosecutors the tools they needed to finally bring offenders to justice. Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, who played a key role in brokering the deal between the Justice Department and Missoula County Attorney’s Office, has continued to focus on improving the statewide response to sexual assault by putting together a special task force and initiative to begin processing the backlog of sexual assault evidence in storage, commonly known as rape kits.
But all this hard-won progress, all these policy updates and improved responses, mean little if the people — all of us — don't recognize our own responsibility in making the community a safer place for everyone.
Free Cycles ought to be applauded for its leadership on a hotly charged issue, and for helping to break through persistent misconceptions. As a family-friendly venue that might have a pot luck one weekend and a theater production the next, the nonprofit is not a place most visitors would think of as risky. Yet sexual assault can happen anywhere.
It’s also a mistake to assume that a single solution can be identified, implemented and then forgotten. Meaningful change is hard work, and must be constantly evaluated and adapted. Free Cycles, for one, is re-examining its allowance of alcohol at certain events, and may even hire a part-time events coordinator.
As Jensen told the Missoulian, “I don't think there's a right answer, but (we want) continuing conversations and empowering people and holding folks accountable for inappropriate or unsafe actions and behaviors."
Again, this is an especially important message for those who run bars and other venues that offer evening events and/or alcohol. A June 2017 study from the Missoula City-County Relationship Violence Services revealed that a disturbingly high percentage of bar-goers in Missoula had experienced sexual harassment in the previous year. Of the 321 Missoulians who responded, 81 were women — and 84% of these women said they had been verbally or physically harassed at least once at a bar in Missoula in 2016. Some 65% reported unwanted sexual touch, and 37% reported being followed from the bar to their next destination.
These numbers, while chilling, will come as no surprise to anyone who frequents a favorite local watering hole. As prevention special Brenna Merrill stated, “These stories and things I've heard working with advocates across the city is that every bar has had patrons that's experienced some form of sexual harassment. It's not specific to a certain bar or a certain place in town. It really can happen anywhere.”
That same study also noted that 15% of respondents thought something was slipped into their drink. But reports are rarely shared with police.
Free Cycles is moving to effect change, by helping to empower its visitors to watch out for one another, speak up when they see something wrong, and trust that their accounts will not be swept under the rug. Let’s all echo their example, and resolve to do the same.
Not sure where to start? Because Missoula is on the vanguard of sexual assault awareness and education, the City-County Relationship Violence Services offers intervention training and workshops in two-and-a-half hour sessions. Call coordinator Brenna Merrill at 406-258-3838 or visit makeyourmovemissoula.org to learn more.