When Philly Woman Reported Sexual Assault at the DNC, She Got Little Help

Vourvoulias: Gwen Snyder hopes to transform her experience into a movement toward justice.

The Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. | Photo by John Locher/AP

The Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. | Photo by John Locher/AP

It was 2 a.m. Wednesday, and after having been at the Wells Fargo Arena since the gavel dropped at the Democratic National Convention at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Gwen Snyder was hungry.

She had a cup of Wawa macaroni and cheese in her hotel room, but no fork with which to eat it, so she went down to the hotel’s bar to ask for one.

Snyder was a whip for Pennsylvania’s Bernie Sanders delegation, and one of the two delegates she noticed sitting at the bar was a delegate assigned to her. Her job as whip was to get her assigned delegates to the big Bernie Sanders meeting and make sure they received and understood communications from the Sanders team. But all she could think about at that very late moment was that perhaps the delegates would let her slip between them to get close enough to ask the bartender for the fork she needed to finally eat something.

As luck would have it, the delegates wanted to chat, and Snyder fielded questions about her day. “You need a hug,” her assigned delegate said after he heard her unenthusiastic assessment.

Snyder hesitated, then reached to give him what she describes as “an arm hug, a glorified pat on the shoulder.” 

But he pulled her into a bear hug instead, according to Snyder. And then, she said, he began aggressively licking her breast.

When Snyder yelled and pushed him away, he grinned, she said. “I’m sorry. We’re still friends, right?” she said she heard him say.

The U.S. Department of Justice defines a sexual assault as any kind of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Snyder, 30, the executive director of Philadelphia Jobs with Justice and a Democratic committeewoman in the 27th Ward, said she knew she had just been sexually assaulted — what she didn’t know was what exactly she could do about it.

“I just kept asking party leaders from Pennsylvania what the process was to address the attack and get my attacker’s credentials pulled, and no one knew how, or even if there was an official process,” Snyder said. “I was never put in touch with anyone trained to deal with sexual violence. After a reporter gave them the heads-up about me, a couple of DNC staffers did contact me to take a report, but didn’t make any commitments and didn’t seem willing to involve me in discussions about assault policies moving forward.”

Snyder filed a police report later on Wednesday. When she informed the hotel, she said she was told that the delegate who had assaulted her would not be expelled from the hotel because the company’s policy was to evict both the person accused of assault and the accuser, or neither. 

None of this is how it should have been.

Were DNC volunteers and staffers trained to respond to assault and harassment reports? Were there signs publicizing the DNC’s anti-harassment policy, and the mechanisms for reporting it? Were code of conduct and FAQs outlining what to do to when witnessing or reporting harassment in every delegate’s “swag bag?”

Snyder says that she never saw any anti-harassment policy signage in public places, or on printed materials she received. Neither does she remember signing any code of conduct agreement — something the DNC reportedly employed to strip credentials from a delegate who had an “inappropriate interaction” with another delegate right after the convention first convened on Monday.

“No one on the [DNC committee] staff was aware or had received any reports about this alleged incident during the convention,” said April Mellody, the deputy CEO of communications for the 2016 DNC, in an email. “The safety and security of our delegates is our top priority, and the Democratic convention has no tolerance for harassment or sexual assault as underscored in our party platform.”  

Mellody also said that since the matter has been brought to the attention of the DNC committee, it has been in contact with Snyder and is “taking her thoughts, concerns, and suggestions for the next convention seriously.”

In response to my questions about a written code of conduct or anti-harassment policy postings, Mellody pointed me to Section II(C) of the DNC’s Call for Convention. “While delegates are under the direct purview of their individual states,” Mellody’s email reads, “our rules state (language from Section II(C) of the Call) that delegates are presumed to uphold the values of the Democratic Party.”

This is that part of Section II (C):

“It is presumed that the delegates to the Democratic National Convention, when certified pursuant to the Call, are bona fide Democrats who are faithful to the interests, welfare and success of the Democratic Party of the United States, who subscribe to the substance, intent and principles of the Charter and the Bylaws of the Democratic Party of the United States, and who will participate in the Convention in good faith. Therefore, no additional assurances shall be required of delegates to the Democratic National Convention in the absence of a credentials contest or challenge.”

It is in essence a “good faith” policy — which is in many ways astonishing given that the past few years have seen a lot of high-profile fights centered on sexual assaults and harassment at conventions across the nation. Many of those fights have pitted institutions with a preference for broad and sketchily spelled-out anti-harassment policies against attendees — particularly women — who have advocated for specific language, and consequences for harassment listed in the policy itself.

In 2014, GeeksForCONsent and the Con Anti-Harassment Project, for example, spearheaded campaigns to change the anti-harassment policy at San Diego Comic Con. At the time the mega-convention’s policy read:

“Attendees must respect common-sense rules for public behavior, personal interaction, common courtesy, and respect for private property. Harassing or offensive behavior will not be tolerated. Comic-Con reserves the right to revoke, without refund, the membership and badge of any attendee not in compliance with this policy. Persons finding themselves in a situation where they feel their safety is at risk or who become aware of an attendee not in compliance with this policy should immediately locate a member of security, or a staff member, so that the matter can be handled in an expeditious manner.”

“For many fangirls, women and LGBTQ cosplayers, going to cons often includes sexual assault and harassment. Comic Con has refused to create a full harassment policy,” stated a GeeksForCONsent petition to institute a more formal policy. In it, the group demanded training for volunteers on how to respond to harassment reports, information for attendees on how to report harassment, and a zero-tolerance enforcement of the policy, among other items.

In 2012, Readercon — a Boston-area speculative fiction convention — saw itself embroiled in controversy over its anti-harassment policy as well, even though it had a zero-tolerance policy in place. “The failure of process at Readercon in 2012 was the organization’s failure to follow its own stated, published policy,” said Rose Fox, then the program chair and now a member of the programming committee. “After a great many complaints from attendees, including several past guests of honor, the organization reversed its decision, followed the policy that was in effect, and banned the harasser for life. We also issued a full formal apology and set out a plan (with deadlines for accountability) for creating a better policy.”

That included removing the single-paragraph, zero-tolerance policy and developing a set of detailed documents instead. “One is a code of conduct for attendees, which clarifies what’s expected of Readercon attendees beyond ‘don’t harass people,’” Fox said. “One is a set of summarized policies, which is basically a FAQ for attendees: What will happen if I report a problem? What will happen if someone says I caused a problem? The third contains detailed procedures for the organizers regarding who receives reports, how to handle them, how to document them, what penalties are, and so on.”

“Having all three is so important,” Fox added. “Without a code of conduct, no one knows what behavior is encouraged or discouraged, much less permitted or forbidden, and so you default to the status quo, in which those with more societal power get to do whatever they like to those with less. Without an explanation of what happens when a complaint is filed, people will be very reluctant to complain even when it’s warranted. And without procedures for the organization to follow, reports will inevitably be mishandled, misplaced, or never addressed, and the people who make those reports may not be treated with appropriate care or respect.”

In addition, the convention instituted formal training in handling reports of harassment for Readercon committee members and safety staff. “I think this training is absolutely imperative for anyone wearing an organizer or staff badge at an event,” Fox said. “Basically, if a person who’s just been assaulted might look at you and think, ‘Aha! This is someone I can go to for help,’ then you had better be trained in taking their report or making sure they get to a person who can spend as much time with them as they need and offer them immediate support and assistance.”

Tech-centered folks at Geek Feminism, LinuxChix and Ohio LinuxFest have also developed anti-harassment policy best practices in response to what Wired has called the diffusion of responsibility in large groups when “responsibility isn’t explicitly assigned — say, a convention with no clear guidelines for what constitutes harassment, or for reporting and intervention.”

For Snyder, what is important now is that the DNC “institute a hotline, support structure, survivor-affirmative protocol [meaning, giving the survivor a say in the process, including whether to call the police, whether to expel the attacker, etc.], and [for the DNC to] explicitly specify in venue contracts that survivors have the right to demand the eviction of their attackers from the venue.”

To that end, she has written an open letter to Vice President Joe Biden and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, asking them to work to ensure that those protocols be instituted at future conventions.

“I have an ask,” she writes. “Let’s organize. I am asking you personally — please help me transform this experience from a nightmare into a movement toward justice.”

Sabrina Vourvoulias is an award-winning columnist with bylines at The Guardian USCity & State, Tor.com and Strange Horizons. Her novel, Ink, was named one of Latinidad’s Best Books of 2012. Follow her on Twitter @followthelede.