St. Lawrence student’s question ignites a firestorm
(this post has updates below)
For a crime that often relies on darkness, sexual abuse on college campuses has had a recent beacon of light shown upon it.
At a John Kasich town hall in Watertown, N.Y. late last week, a college freshman asked Mr. Kasich what his approach would be if he were elected president.
“Being that I’m a young, female college student, what are you going to do in office as president to help me feel safe and more secure regarding sexual violence, harassment and rape?”
After a somewhat convoluted answer, Ms. Clemmey interjected with a follow-up. “It’s sad though because it’s something I have to worry about—”
“I’ll give you one piece of advice,” he responded by interrupting her sentence. “Don’t go to a party where there’s a lot of alcohol.”
Blowback & Cleanup
Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the Internet lit up with reaction—ranging from victim-shaming furor to support for common-sense, fatherly advice. But without Clemmey’s persistent questioning we might not be having this discussion at all.
That determined audience member—as yet unknown and unnamed by the media—is Samantha F. Clemmey, a first-year student at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. And she also happens to be my goddaughter; and yes, I’m very proud of her. But we set aside our personal relationship and agreed to talk exclusively and on the record about her experience at the town hall.
Without Clemmey’s persistent questioning,
we might not be having this discussion at all.
Clemmey, an enthusiastic politics wonk, arrived early so she could get a good seat at the event and, she says, to be as engaged as possible. (As you can see in the video, she got seated in the front row.) She and a college friend decided to attend together with an open mind and lots of questions.
“I don’t necessarily support Kasich, but he’s the most likable GOP candidate,” she says. “We found out that it’s the first time a GOP candidate had come to Watertown since Teddy Roosevelt. So that was a big deal.”
She adds that she noticed his sense of humor right off the bat, and that he was personable and event telegenic.
“I would’t vote for him, but he’s the smartest and least-radical Republican on the ballot right now,” she says. “I’m a moderate Dem so I agree with some of the stuff he says, mainly economically because the rest is a little right-leaning for me. I went with a open mind and I’m always open to other people’s points of view. I’m not so hard-left that I shut down to what other people have to say.
“I went in with high expectations, so the fact that this is what came out of it kind of disappointed me to be honest,” she adds.
Clemmey’s follow-up, off-mic comment was only part of what she wanted to ask him. “I was going to ask him if he supported Vice President Joe Biden‘s ‘It’s On Us‘ campaign and if he’d be willing to continue it if he gets in office. But I was cut off before I had the chance to ask.”
Kasich’s comment clean-up came fairly quickly afterward, but with mixed results, she says.
“His account tweeted all sorts of things after the fact—about the budget—so why didn’t he say any of that when I asked him the question? All he talked about is what he’s done in Ohio, and that wasn’t my question. As president, in office, what are you going to do to help protect women on college campuses who are facing sexual assault? He didn’t answer any of that.”
After the Ride
The reaction to Kasich’s comments went viral almost instantly, but Clemmey only learned of the uproar by the time she drove the 60 miles back to school.
“When he first answered me it didn’t hit me right away,” she says. “Once I got back in the car I was thinking about it, and we got a call from someone saying ‘Your friend was the one who asked the question. does she realize what’s happened?’ After that it really blew up.”
Clemmey still isn’t sure that Kasich understands the impact his comments had.
“I’m not sure if he realized it was victim-blaming,” she says. “I’m glad there’s video of it. The exchange hasn’t completely changed my opinion of him, but his advice was ‘I shouldn’t go to parties with alcohol,’ and that’s ridiculous. I’m a college student; part of student life is the social aspect of it. So he’s telling me that if I were to be assaulted after attending a party with alcohol that it’d be my fault? That’s insane.” [listen]
As with so many controversies in the age of social media, core issues get clouded and drowned out by booming reactions, she says.
“There’s too much focus on the fact that he messed up and not enough focus on the issue,” she says. “The CNN article by Cassie Spodak is pretty good because in the end she cites statistics and brings much more light to the issue. But nobody else is really talking about the numbers.”
Clemmey cited this post from MaddowBlog’s Steve Benen as accurate:
The problem with such a response should be obvious. If a woman goes to a gathering and gets assaulted, it’s insane to think it’s her fault for having gone to a party where people were drinking. The solution is for men to stop committing sex crimes; encouraging women to make different choices in their social habits badly misses the point.
Nearly one-quarter of women have reported unwanted sexual contact on college campuses. Analysts say, though, that the number could be higher due to unreported incidents and fear of coming forward. Nearly 11 percent of female college students, according to the CNN article, have reported that the contact involved unwanted penetration.
‘Creating a Scene’
Even though having the issue of campus assault addressed through the lens of presidential politics is a positive development, Clemmey told me of another, darker shade to this event in Watertown. As a biracial Asian-American, she felt uncomfortable from the amount of attention she says she was receiving from the event’s and the candidate’s security.
Related: Kasich’s ‘lady attorney‘ comment sparks outrage
“Before the rally started, I got pulled aside by someone and they said ‘Hi, I’m the head of the Kasich security detail. Can you come with me please?’ I was wearing a tan trenchcoat so maybe he thought I was suspicious.”
After Clemmey was escorted to a back hallway, the man told her that he’d received word that she had been flagged as someone who “might create a scene.”
“I was completely shocked,” she says. “I’m a little concerned by it. This has happened to me other times because I’m Asian, and I’ve been profiled like that before. I was in a room full of white people, and it’s North Country so I completely understand. But there was something very off about it.”
After Clemmey was escorted to a hallway, the man told her that he’d been told that she was a suspicious attendee and “might create a scene.”
She continues: “The guy said ‘I’m just doing my job.’ and I told him, ‘I don’t have a gun. I’m a 19-year-old freshman student, and it’s my first time in this city. I don’t know why I’m being targeted.’ I didn’t risk asking ‘Is this because I’m not white?’ because I didn’t want to risk getting kicked out of the event. It definitely put a damper on the time while I was there. I felt very uncomfortable.”
A Day of Notoriety… and Irony
Clemmey may have been profiled at the event, but if the security guard had done a deeper dive in to her history, he would’ve found an op-ed Clemmey penned on how she supports Kasich on the GOP side.
“The funny part is that I just wrote an article about how I was supporting Kasich for those people looking to vote republican. If anything, I was just saying don’t vote Trump or Cruz,” she urged in her article for The Hill News. If a national news outlet had contacted her, she would point to her social-media accounts and this article to show that she’s keeping an open mind.
“I went because I think Kasich makes some good points,” she says. “I’ve never been to a town hall before with a presidential candidate, let alone see one in person. I’m a political junkie so going to this was a huge deal for me. I wanted to hear what he had to say.”
Clemmey adds that voters deserve to be able to attend and listen to candidates of all stripes, regardless of background or affiliation.
“Going to a town hall shouldn’t be limited to people who identify with that party,” she says. “You should be able to go to whatever event you want no matter what political party you’re from. You could be a Libertarian and be able to attend a Republican town hall. It just shouldn’t matter.” ❏
UPDATE: In an attempt to walk back his comments, Kasich appeared yesterday on CNN’s State of the Union and seemed to dig an even deeper hole for himself.
UPDATE 2: Samantha Clemmey topped USA Today’s “5 College Students who Owned This Election Season.”
Will Pollock is an Atlanta-based freelance multimedia journalist and author of two books (Pizza for Good & Leaving Triscuit), with more on the way. Sign up for the mailing list, follow on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram—and check out the book links below.