The mayor of the city of Charleston said Wednesday afternoon he wants a group of women planning a topless protest for downtown on Saturday to hold the event on a different day.
Wednesday night, after discussion among themselves, the organizers said they had no plans to change the date of the event. They said that they would, however, push the protest from 5 p.m. back to 6:30 pm, after the conclusion of FestivALL children’s events.
Nearly 200 people have RSVPed to the “Free the Nip Top Freedom Rally” on Facebook. Organizers want to defy the expectation that women must wear shirts and bras, lest other people become aroused or offended. Participants plan to show their support in different ways — by going topless and/or braless, using body paint or participating fully clothed.
Kearston Jackson and Sarah Starks, two of the organizers, said last week that they want to encourage women to love their bodies and be less concerned about other people’s reactions to them.
On Wednesday, Mayor Danny Jones said his office wants the group not to hold the protest on Saturday.
“We’re getting a lot of feedback and complaints from folks that are going to have children downtown,” he said. “They don’t think it would be in the best interest of everybody concerned to have a bunch of naked women parading through Summers Street with all these kids, and there will be a lot of children because of the library event.”
Jones’ office also sent a statement in which he called the protest “a naked spectacle.”
“If they are unwilling to consider another time for the march, that would indicate to me that they are simply seeking to parade naked in front of young children,” he said in the statement.
The Children’s Art Fair is scheduled for Saturday, in front of the Kanawha County Public Library, on Capitol Street. Protest organizers orginally had planned the event for Capitol Street, but already had agreed to move it to Summers or Court, to accommodate the city.
West Virginia’s indecent-exposure law does not prohibit women from exposing their breasts. The law states that a “person is guilty of indecent exposure when such person intentionally exposes his or her sex organs or anus or the sex organs or anus of another person, or intentionally causes such exposure by another or engages in any overt act of sexual gratification.”
Charleston’s indecent-exposure code includes similar language, but also says it is unlawful for any person to “intentionally expose the private or intimate parts of his body or the body of another person” while “knowing his conduct is likely to be observed by others who would be affronted or alarmed.”
City Attorney Paul Ellis said cases in other states suggest that “private or intimate parts” should not be interpreted to include breasts.
Starks posted earlier this week, in the Facebook event, that the mayor had spoken to her and said the city would support the protest.
The group met Wednesday evening, to make posters and other supplies for Saturday.
Following their meeting, the organizers released a statement. They plan to hold the protest at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, beginning on Summers Street.
“The female body is not a spectacle,” they said. “We are not ashamed of our natural form & we will hold our march on Saturday at 6:30 PM.”
They added, “we cannot in good [conscience] allow our beliefs to keep families from enjoying the beliefs tirelessly planned by amazing and hardworking organizers with FestivALL.”
When asked about alternate locations, Jones said, “We really don’t have anywhere to go.”
“If they go to Court Street, then they’re right downtown there at the mall, and there’s actually not a good location while all this stuff’s going on downtown. We’re also worried about the ‘elements’ — some of the people downtown that may want to join in at the parade that really don’t have a lot to lose.”
Jones clarified that he was referring to people who are homeless as “elements.”
“They may just involve themselves because that’s the very nature of what they do,” he said. “It’s a concern, and plus, we’ve got police all over the place, because of the FestivALL event. I would want to protect people like this. I wish they wouldn’t do it. I would request they not do it this weekend.
“You have to remember, I’m a lot older than you,” the mayor added. “I’m very well-acquainted with all the elements that exist in downtown Charleston on a personal basis. Anything can happen.”
“Nothing’s going to happen,” said Walter DeKeseredy, director of the Research Center on Violence and the Anna Deane Carlson Endowed Chair of Social Sciences at West Virginia University.
“They’re not at increased risk of violence by strangers,” he said, before noting that sexual harassment could occur. “A woman’s risk of violence is mainly at home and with someone she knows.
“He’s making the assumption that homeless people are violent. The vast majority are not. Also, many of us are one paycheck away from being homeless in West Virginia, which is in an economic downturn. It could be you and me.
“On the other hand, there’s a considerable amount of violence directed at homeless people,” DeKeseredy said. “A sizable portion of homeless women, in particular, have experienced abuse at home.”
DeKeseredy, whose research focuses on violence against women, lived in Ontario, Canada, during a similar movement there. He noted that toplessness among women is common in many other countries.
“This is not a rare thing, by any means,” he said. “The mayor may think this is ironic, or others might, but they want to be seen as human beings.”
DeKeseredy also pointed to a body of research that suggests nudist colonies are “one of the most asexual places you can possibly imagine.”
“Nudist colonies are known for being extremely asexual,” he said. “You would think logically, if you followed those myths, that a nudist colony would be a hotspot of sexual assault, but it’s not.”
“And nudist colonies also have children,” he added.
Jones said police were reaching out to protest organizers Wednesday afternoon.
“What Plan B is, right now, I have no idea,” he said. “We’re actually not looking to pick a fight with anybody. When I first heard about it, I thought it was funny. I never thought they’d actually go through with it.”