Be advised: This post contains material some may find offensive.
To view a slideshow of the GoTopless Rally click here
Dozens of women bared their breasts in Pack Square Sunday afternoon, ostensibly in a show of support for what the rally’s organizer calls their constitutional right to appear topless in public. Quoted last week, Jeff Johnson, the Hunstville, Ala., man who filed permits for the demonstration, said that while there is no right to toplessness enumerated in the U.S. Constitution, the document does guarantee equal treatment for men and women. Some men in attendance wore bras in what they said was solidarity with the societal constraints placed on women.
Asked why he organized the rally in Asheville, Johnson said that it “is one of the few enlightened cities that does it this way.” Opponents feel that Asheville is targeted because of a permissive attitude in its leadership and law enforcement.
There is currently no state or local law prohibiting women from displaying their breasts. Opponents argue, however, that the rally-goers’ antics constitute sexually explicit behavior, which is prohibited when minors are present.
There were numerous children present at today’s rally, but the event was unexpectedly sedate and orderly compared to a similar rally last year.
Hundreds of spectators thronged the square, and the dominate percentage of the crowd was male. Though the rally was supposedly intended to empower women, the topless demonstrators were the recipients of unwanted — and often vulgar — sexual provocations. Any woman wearing no top quickly drew a crowd of men who took pictures with their cellphones and cameras. Some of the men asked to have their pictures taken with the topless women.
Above: Topless women attracted crowds of men
“They’re kind of, like, ruining the whole point of this event,” said topless participant Sarah Cohen, “by taking pictures, by ogling. They’re being really condescending and misogynistic. I had a whole slew of guys being like, ‘Hey baby, can you take your shirt off?’ They’re ruining the whole thing. But I kind of half expected it.”
Some of the topless women, however, didn’t object to the attention. Ava DeShenelle, who drew cries of “Hell yeah” and “Are those real?” when she removed her shirt, said, “I think everybody’s very kind and polite. Gentlemanly.”
Above: Ava DeShenelle said she thought the behavior of the rally’s men was “gentlemanly.”
Another woman said the conduct of the men was “just acceptable.”
The GoTopless event and its accompanying media circus have generated much controversy, recalling the conflict around a similar — but much more raucous — event a year ago.
Last year’s event was organized by GoTopless.org, a website founded by Raelians, a religious group that believes in divine extraterrestrials. Several self-identifying Raelians were present at last year’s rally and subsequent counter-protest. Johnson says that he is not a Raelian, but holds many of their beliefs, especially concerning women’s equality.
Johnson was joined Sunday by Donna Newman, of Florida, who described herself as a Raelian and spoke to the crowd about women’s equality before Johnson stepped up to the microphone. Both speakers equated the GoTopless rally with historic civil rights and suffrage protests, including the Montgomery bus boycott sparked by Rosa Parks.
Above: Rally organizers Donna Newman and Jeff Johnson.
The most vocal opponents to last year’s event — local conservative firebrands Dr. Carl Mumpower and Chad Nesbitt — were not in attendance, but have expressed spirited opposition. Through their website, GoBrainless.org, they sponsored a photography contest encouraging attendees to document the behavior of the demonstrators. Mumpower, a former Asheville city council member and candidate for U.S. Congress, decried the lack of response to last year’s rally by city officials and police, as well as what he called a complicit media.
In response to this year’s rally, the current Asheville City Council said in an open letter to the public that it is pursuing a response that would prohibit further rallies of this type, but that it is hindered by state law. The Council encouraged citizens to avoid the rally. In a response on Friday, rally organizer Lara Terstenjak said that Council members “are just covering [their] political butts” in an election year.
Sunday’s rally drew no significant counter-protest, though three men carrying large crosses walked through the square as the rally wound down. They stated that their appearance was not in response to the topless rally.
“It is absolutely not a counter-protest,” said the lead cross-bearer, Michael Lombardi. He added that the trio did not represent any particular church, but that they had the support of several churches. “This is about bringing the relationship with Jesus Christ, which is a love relationship, to the people of Asheville.”
“We don’t protest anything,” he added. “We embrace the cross, we embrace Jesus.”
The crowd began to disperse after around 90 minutes. Officer Ray Ward of the Asheville Police Department reported at around 2:30 p.m. that there had been no arrests.
A personal note worth mentioning: Due to the counter-protesters’ focus on photographing the event, and the likely escalation of the demonstrator’s antics in response, I expressed misgivings about covering today’s rally. My concern is that local media may be unwittingly participating in the conflict, rather than merely documenting it. In a response yesterday, Xpress publisher Jeff Fobes shared his thoughts on why it is important to cover the GoTopless rally:
1. Xpress’ mission is to promote local dialogue.
2. Xpress’ perspective is to promote each person’s sense of autonomy and creativity.
3. Xpress’ local focus is a way of addressing both #1 and #2, because local issues and local focus are the areas where locals have the best opportunity of making a contribution and being a part of a dialogue.
4. Our bodies are something for which each of us feels we have some authority and autonomy. They are, arguably, the most local of all issues. And they are something about which each of us feels we have some expertise and basis for entering the dialogue.
5. Sexuality and our emotion-driven psyches are, arguably, the engines for our cultural and social evolution. This event is more connected to those two engines than others that may seem more “civilized” and “civically important.”
6. Xpress has over the years taken a leadership role in promoting thoughtful, respectful local dialogue. We have a stewardship responsibility in the community.
7. Asheville for various reasons is an unusual community in terms of the way it values and exhibits its local focus and its sense of individual autonomy and creativity.
8. Stewarding Asheville through times like tomorrow’s event is an important and perhaps even crucial role. Mainstream media is unlikely to be of much help and, indeed, may be corrosive and counterproductive.
9. The event is in some ways an important and risky crucible. We have an intensely local issue (people’s bodies) resonating with national and transnational issues (human’s attitudes about sexuality and women’s rights).
10. Because of the event, Asheville will likely find itself in the national and perhaps international spotlight. Protecting Asheville’s relatively fragile local-oriented culture will be a challenge given the attention we’re likely to get from national/global players who’ve already altered the course of the 20th century, viz, radical cultural intermingling and clashes (which are both exciting and mortally dangerous). One source of danger in this case, in my view, is that getting caught in the global spotlight triggers attention from global players — and such players, by their very nature, operate from a top-down perspective. Because of that they fail to promote or properly esteem local community and individual autonomy.
11. My hope is that Xpress will help us Ashevilleans maintain our thoughtful, respectful community-based dialogue. Xpress should champion the local core of our dialogue, and help Asheville retain its amazing and precious willingness to honor individual autonomy and creativity as we (humans) to struggle to move toward our potential.