Battle on Frat Row: Brothers vs. those who fear them at the U

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Kayla Pederson's assault was one of the incidents that prompted River Co-op's protest signs. Lucy Hawthorne

The week before school started at the University of Minnesota, frat row came suddenly, almost violently to life.

Rae Sremmurd blasted from a speaker, and University Avenue looked to be caught in a hailstorm of Solo cups. At Delta Tau Delta, brothers grilled and milled while girls with gleaming hair played cornhole. It was the first football game day of the season, and almost everyone wore unisex “gopheralls”—striped maroon-and-gold overalls that look like they’re from a school-spirited prison.

I’d heard Delta Tau described as a libertarian frat. To show support for the Second Amendment, it sometimes flies a flag with a gun on it. On election night in November, the brothers reportedly played Kool and the Gang’s “Celebrate” in the wee hours.

They’re also next door to the East River Co-op, a house where young people live together in organized liberal chaos. It’s like a frat, in a way, but co-ed, and without a national headquarters looming in the background.

You can tell it’s different on sight. Frats have manicured lawns, shiny grills, porch chairs branded with Greek letters. The co-op’s yard is a tangle of foliage. A beige couch, not unlike a potato, sits on the porch. On that first game day, it was accompanied by a menagerie of eight wooden signs, wrapped in barbed wire or chained to porch pillars. “FRAT BOYS STOP RAPING PEOPLE,” read one. Another, about the size of a sandwich board: “STOP PROTECTING PERPS + SILENCING SURVIVORS.” Still another flag-sized sign proclaimed in pink caps, “THIS STREET IS A DANGER TO HUMANITY. FRAT BOYS ARE 3X MORE LIKELY TO SEXUALLY ASSAULT THAN OTHER COLLEGE MEN!”

A co-op resident made the signs back in February, shortly after the Minnesota Daily ran a story on a series of sexual assaults at a frat. She hoped to “put the frats on blast” for enabling sexual violence. Even months-old and rain-damaged, her signs made the stucco co-op look like it was ceaselessly screaming.

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Vandalism skyrocketed when the signs went up at the co-op. Lucy Hawthorne

Rush week, the five days each fall when frats recruit new members, was starting soon. As institutions, frats are at their most vulnerable and self-conscious during this time. No one will join without first seeing them as cool and fun and non-sinister. Would recruits ask awkward questions about the signs? Would frat guys get mad?

A random moon-faced guy at Delta Tau, shirtless under his gopheralls, declined to speculate. He wasn’t supposed to comment on the signs, he told me pleasantly. (He was not the first or last to tell me this.) Behind him, a clear hose snaked down from an upper-story window—a three-story beer bong, he explained. We laughed. Frat row is fun, I thought. I also thought, Someone’s going to drown in that.

***

Just by not being a frat, the co-op has always been at odds with its neighbors. Last summer, before the signs went up, someone cut down a chest-high stand of sunflowers in the co-op’s yard, and frat guys have long tried to steal the bike mounted above the door. (It’s like the sword in the stone, a co-opper observed.) The hijinks flow both ways, if not in equal measure. The co-op has room for 29 residents, and there are 1,700-plus frat guys. Still, a co-opper once stole a porch chair from a frat, and they would steal Delta Tau’s gun flag if they weren’t afraid of getting shot.

When the co-op’s signs went up in February, though, things changed. Vandalism skyrocketed. The house was egged, and many signs were smashed or stolen. Strangers had always drunkenly peed in the co-op’s yard, but they were growing more intentional, harder to shoo away. One resident stopped sitting on the porch alone, worried about harassment from drunk passersby, “always white males.” She didn’t know if they were in frats, but she had heard them yell “slurs” and “phrases suggesting [co-op residents] needed to be sexually assaulted.”

It was the frats, though, that complained to the school.

In his Facebook photos, Simon Beck looks like Tom Brady. He’s the president of the Interfraternity Council (IFC), the body that governs all but one of the frats with houses—or the “white frats,” as some rightly call them. (The U’s fraternities are 85 percent white, and many students of color are in multicultural frats without houses.) Beck submitted an official complaint to the U about the co-op’s signs. In an email, he explained that the signs featured “anti-fraternity rhetoric,” as if this were an acknowledged type of hate speech.

The school investigated Beck’s complaint, but found the co-op wasn’t breaking any rules. The signs stayed up. Frat guys weren’t happy.

“They hated it,” said George Abdallah, a lanky ex-Alpha Tau Omega brother. “They’re just upset that an organization is attacking their culture, their identity, their family.”

The signs did prompt spirited discussion. “There were a few that agreed with the signs, that it was a big problem that needed to be addressed,” said Caleb Walters, a double-major in microbiology and genetics who was last year’s Phi Sigma Kappa president. “Others straight up were angry and just, ‘Screw this, screw that, this is bullshit.’”

Walters wasn’t angry. Neither was Abdallah. In fact, Abdallah went to a spring march against sexual violence on frat row. It pissed off some brothers so much they told him to “fucking quit” the frat, but he ignored them. He cares about consent. He says he always asks before he kisses a girl—and he kissed a lot of girls when he was in ATO.

Still, Abdallah breathed an “exhausted sigh” when he saw the co-op’s signs. As a “millennial Arab Californian,” Abdallah, who’s Lebanese, has always been liberal. He joined ATO, in part, because the frat’s president was a Bernie Sanders supporter. “Co-op people are my people,” he said. “I just hate the way they’re going about it.” He thinks the signs alienate potential allies, and could, over time, strip Greek life of its more reform-minded members, leaving behind only “the shit.”

Walters’ frat shares a parking lot with the co-op, and he could easily pose as a member. He had shoulder-length hair when I met him in August, and he was once a competitive gymnast. Walters had been to a storytelling event at the co-op, and he knew that residents “didn’t like overgeneralizations... [or] harmful stereotypes.” But weren’t the signs exactly that?

A co-opper he spoke to worried about that too, he said, but told him it was more important to “bring light to the issue.” When we met, Walters had largely shrugged off his discomfort. He’d just invited the co-op and the other nearby frats to co-host a block party. The co-op replied to him before any frats did. To his surprise, they said yes.

***

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The co-op didn’t make the signs cooperatively. One resident made them alone after two frat scandals at the U. (She asked to remain anonymous to avoid harassment from frat guys, school administrators, and “red pill bros.” We’ll call her S.)

First, in January, an image of degrading handwritten notes on The Bachelor contestants surfaced on Twitter. They were reportedly the work of Delta Chi brothers, honing their Bachelor brackets. Many viewers treat Bachelor Nation shows like March Madness, betting either money or chunks of dignity on their outcomes. The notes termed one female contestant a “slut,” another a “chink” with “nice tits.” They went viral.

Then, in February, the Minnesota Daily published an exposé on Delta Upsilon brothers accused of sexual assault.

S. was “constantly feeling unsafe” on frat row. During her sophomore year, she says, she was raped by a partner. She knew plenty of people who’d had similar experiences with frat guys. She’d also heard about Abby Honold’s case.

In 2014, Honold—a 19-year-old undergrad at the U—was raped twice by a Sigma Phi Epsilon brother. They met at a party in the courtyard at FloCo apartments, an upscale complex near campus where leases include free tanning. The brother, Daniel Drill-Mellum, lived across the street, and invited Honold to go to his place and help him pick up some liquor. When they were alone in his apartment, he attacked her.

He reportedly laughed while he raped her, and shoved his fingers down her throat so violently he tore tissue inside her mouth. He was convicted of two counts of rape in Hennepin County court and sentenced to six years in prison.

S. was haunted by Honold’s case and others. So she made the signs with scrap wood and pink paint, which struck her as “cute and sassy and kind of ironic.”

Not everyone at the co-op was comfortable with them. Austin Young, a co-op president at the time, recalled receiving “a lot of complaints.” Koto Watanabe, a co-opper who moved to the U.S. from Japan as a teenager, found the phrasing of the signs “passive aggressive.” She wished their rhetoric could be more like “Black Lives Matter”: positive, while still calling out systemic issues.

Another co-opper felt that S., in an argument over consent, hadn’t gotten their consent for the signs. L.—who asked to be anonymous because her job “would not be pleased with my name being out there”—remembers S. telling fellow residents that anyone who criticized the signs was perpetuating rape culture and didn’t deserve to live in the co-op, even if they agreed with the signs’ underlying message.

S. doesn’t recall this, but remembers feeling “unwell” and frustrated with her housemates at the time. As for concerns her signage was overly general: “I literally could not give a fuck less about any frat guy who’s like, ‘I never raped anyone.’ You need to hear people’s anger.”

Last March, she moved out of the co-op. The signs remained.

***

The first day of rush week, a sunny Saturday, I saw a heated argument. It was outside Sigma Alpha Epsilon, a frat with two gold lion statues flanking its walkway, a few doors down from the co-op.

A lone, swarthy protester stood outside, lofting a sign that claimed the frat painted the lions “the color of the underwear of Virgins Deflowered” in the house. I heard a similar rumor, that the brothers painted the lions red every time one of them had sex. It sounded impractical. Wouldn’t that require a lot of painting?

The protester held a petition, with two signatures, to get the frat “out of here,” whatever that meant.

Two agitated frat boys argued with him. His sign was wrong! They had just painted one lion maroon for game day, and left the other gold. School spirit!

It was true. One lion was painted on game day, though it was more of a deep red than a maroon. Sign guy said the hue was obviously “panty red,” matching accounts he’d heard from “various sources.”

We don’t know where this rumor came from, the frat guys said. But you can’t just...

He could, of course, and he stayed, exercising his right to flip out about strangers’ virginities. I wished he was onto something. I could love a frat row whose biggest problem was bragging, via lion, about the consensual fucking of virgins. That’s not the frat row U of M has.

***

Kayla Pederson loved the co-op’s signs on sight. “I felt like someone was personally reaching out to me,” she told me over coffee.

The co-op’s signs went up right after the Daily published Pederson’s story. She’d filed a complaint with the U, claiming she’d been assaulted twice in one night by two different brothers at Delta Upsilon’s 2015 spring formal.

The formal was held in a cabin in northwest Minnesota over the course of several days. But it didn’t have enough beds.

The weekend first went off the rails when a frat boy lured her away from the group, Pederson says. He needed help finding his phone, she said, but when they were alone in a laundry room, he “came at me... I was kind of drunk at the time, so my first reaction was to kiss him back.”

Yet she couldn’t quite grasp what was going on. “Everything happened so fast.” The boy placed her on an air mattress, fingered her, and rubbed his face on her breasts, according to Pederson’s complaint. Pederson “did not touch [him] with her hands,” according to her complaint, and the encounter ended when she said she was uncomfortable.

(The brother did not respond to repeated interview requests. When City Pages reached out to his lawyer, Hillary Parsons, she declined to put us in touch with him. But according to documents from his university hearing, he says Kayla touched his penis over his pants, so he believed the moment was consensual.)

Pederson couldn’t leave the formal. It was hours away from Minneapolis. Later that night, she tried to sleep in a crowded bedroom. Another Delta Upsilon brother, who she says had wordlessly slapped her ass earlier in the evening, claimed the bed she was sleeping on as his. He seemed drunk. According to the second complaint she filed with the U, Pederson told him to find a new bed, but he instead crawled on top of her and started kissing and groping her.

She froze, afraid he would turn violent, then told him she had to go to the bathroom. It was around 4:30 a.m. In the bathroom, she stared blankly at herself in the mirror. She then found a chair and “just sat there until the sun rose... I think I was in shock,” she said.

(The Delta Upsilon brother did not respond to repeated interview requests. In his response to Pederson’s complaint to the U, he said he’d only had two or three beers that evening, and never slapped her ass, kissed, or groped her. He didn’t know if he slept in the same bed as Pederson, though conceded it was possible.)

A year later, she went public with her story, only to find herself isolated. Delta Upsilon had been one of her go-to hangout spots, but many of its members rallied around the men. A girl in her friend group even dated one of the accused.

Ultimately, both men were found “responsible” for misconduct. (The school doesn’t use the term “guilty,” because there’s a lower burden of proof in a U hearing than in court.) One was expelled. The other was suspended for just over six months.

***

The co-op is cozy inside—a cross between the Weasley family’s home and a vegan cafe. The common area brims with squashy couches; the indoor bike rack is packed. An orange papier-mâché orb hangs in the common room like an indoor sun.

I first visited in June for one of the co-op’s bi-weekly house meetings. These begin with introductions. The mostly white residents, who favor Tevas and patterned Patagonia fleeces, go around in a circle, saying their names; the pronouns they prefer to be referred to by, a signal of gender identity; and their house duties. Then, they answer a check-in question, like: If you could be a piece of kitchenware, what would you be? Throughout, they use special signals that simplify large-group conversations: silently wiggling your fingers, for instance, means “I agree.”

I felt like I had entered a secret world. I told them I would be a cast iron skillet.

“I love that,” said Harper Ciha.

Ciha is entering her senior year, a first-generation student majoring in Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies. She owns at least two Hot Topic anime skirts: one decorated with Pikachus, the other with Sailor Moon characters.

Ciha was drawn to the co-op, in part, by the signs. They “spoke social justice to me.” She liked that they named concepts like “rape culture”—the bundle of myths and beliefs that make rape seem normal, not so bad, even flattering. She’s a rape survivor, she says, though she’s quick to note this doesn’t make her an anomaly. Ciha identifies as a transsexual woman. Roughly half of transgender people experience sexual violence in their lifetimes.

Other co-op residents noted that passersby, women especially, thanked them for the signs. One co-opper thought they made frat row safer. I didn’t even ask if the signs were worth it. The answer seemed obvious.

Still, nothing was simple. Mallory Mitchell, a yoga teacher who considered joining a sorority as an undergrad, noted the co-op couldn’t quite pin down why their parties were safer than frat parties. They’re similar in many ways: boozy, dimly lit, crowded with friends of friends. The co-op even owns a shot-ski. (“It’s the most bro-ish thing we have,” a resident said.) When I asked them how they would deal with an in-house sexual assault allegation, they weren’t sure. They’d take it seriously, but it had never come up.

“So far the biggest issue we’ve had to deal with is a fight over a couch,” co-president Ellery Wealot told me.

When I went to a second house meeting, turnout was lower, and vandalism was up. The co-op’s pride flag had been repeatedly stolen, and residents were reporting even fairly innocuous incidents to the police, building a paper trail in case something serious happened down the road. Watanabe wasn’t sure what each additional day of signage was accomplishing. She’d prefer feeling safe to “keeping old signs that everybody has probably already seen.”

Ciha thought rewording the signs could make sense. “I understand that the word ‘rape’ is very triggering for people,” she said. In other words, S.’s activism could dredge up other survivors’ traumatic memories.

This is not just hypothetical. In April, the U’s Interfraternity Council hosted Walk A Mile In Her Shoes, a fundraiser for victims of domestic and sexual violence. Danger Collective—an activist group that aims to end sexual violence and often protests the U’s frats—organized a counterprotest to draw attention to the walk’s perceived hypocrisy. Some Danger Collective organizers were sexual violence survivors, but other survivors complained that they felt triggered by the counterprotest. In activism, as in everything, you can’t please everyone.

“We can’t necessarily take the signs down, because then we lose and we stop fighting against sexual assault,” Wealot said. “But then leaving them up opens all these other weird doors.” 

Case in point: Danger Collective planned to disrupt rush week, and the co-oppers worried they’d get blamed for whatever happened. (Though co-oppers share Danger Collective’s goals, many of them are skeptical of the group’s methods.) Some co-op residents thought the house felt unsafe in the summer, when frat row was a ghost town. How would they feel in September, after a confrontational protest?

***

Originally, the Danger Collective protest was a vigil, and a quiet one. The Facebook event said participants would be “silently recognizing and mourning with the many victim-survivors of fraternity sexual violence,” starting at 9 a.m. on the Sunday of rush week. Activists gathered on the steps of the student union early, lighting candles and setting up signs. “Frats produce men who are 3x as likely to commit sexual violence,” read one, echoing a sign at the co-op and at least two peer-reviewed studies.

Prospective frat members trickled past, ignoring the display. They were meeting in Coffman Union’s Great Hall before heading off on house tours. The activists planned to unsettle them when they flooded back out Coffman’s front doors.

There was just one hitch: Coffman has a lot of doors. Confrontation was not guaranteed. On the spur of the moment, the seven activists packed up and moved inside the building.

“Hey hey, ho ho! Rape culture has got to go!” they chanted at boys entering the hall.

The boys didn’t look at the signs. They continued yawning and texting. Only one person engaged with the protesters: Ron Atkinson, an advisor in the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life. He told them he supported Danger Collective’s rights, but that campus police would arrest the group if they tried to get in the hall. Then he offered his card. Protest “loses its merit” if it’s not starting a dialogue, he explained.

The word stuck with me: “dialogue.” It suggested two parties, equals, working together to reach an understanding, a solution. It sounded nice.

After the boys were in the hall, the protesters stuck around, chanting at the closed doors for almost an hour. They texted while tripping over tongue-twister chants and laughed. An hour is a long time.

Finally, they discovered the meeting was over; boys were silently streaming out a side door. When Danger Collective moved to that door, boys started exiting through the door the activists had just abandoned. Still, they kept at it—“Fuck the frats! Fuck the frats!”—until Coffman was empty.

I asked a lingering bro if the frat guys could hear the protesters when they were inside the hall. He said no; the meeting went “great.”

He reminded me of something Abdallah told me. I asked him if frat leadership would talk to prospective recruits about the signs or anti-frat activists in general. He didn’t think they’d feel the need. “The majority of the student body thinks the co-op’s kind of like... radicals,” he said. “They’re radical lunatics.”

***

During the 2016 election season, Ciha started having flashbacks. They were vivid images of the first time she was raped, causing such sharp physical pain in the center of her chest that she couldn’t do her homework. In the flashbacks, she was 16 again, on a back road with a guy she met online. They were just north of her conservative hometown—Backus, Minnesota, population 250—fooling around in his truck. She was a virgin. “It went too far for too long,” she said. “I didn’t know that I had the power to tell him to stop.”

But she felt too responsible to call the encounter rape, so for years afterward, she didn’t. She went to college. She realized she was transsexual and started transitioning. She went on estrogen and testosterone-blockers—medications she’ll be on for life—and came out to her roommates, all of them “accepting” football players.

“They didn’t embrace it,” she deadpanned, “but they didn’t hit me.”

Then the flashbacks started. She went to therapy, started using the word “rape.” It helped. She’s in healthy relationships now, she says. She’s also scarred, literally. She has several dark diagonal stripes carved into her leg, and three crooked scar-bracelets around one arm. She did them herself, but she’s careful to differentiate them from self-harm. They’re “scarification,” a form of body modification that’s symbolic to her. Victimhood is the initial cut. Survivorhood is the scar.

“It’s very beautiful to me,” she said.

Minutes later, she mentioned the block party the co-op was hosting with its neighboring frats. To my surprise, she was excited for it. She saw it as a chance to make new friends. It was an unexpected moment of hope for the future of frat row.

***

Frats are portals into the past. Alumni give back to them so handsomely that at a national level, they’re multimillion-dollar organizations.

Alums orbit the chapter houses, too. Over the summer, one alum—Don Powell, who gives his age as “a very active 72”—resigned as the U’s Delta Upsilon chapter adviser in a 3,300-word email. In it, he mocked Pederson’s claims, saying she “might as well have been at Disneyland and got fingered by GOOFY!” He expressed a desire to slap Pederson “across the face” to knock some sense into her.

As a counterpoint to her story, he attached two graphic photos of what sexual assault “usually” looks like. Both show the face of a middle-aged woman after her boyfriend sexually assaulted her armed with scissors. (The woman released the images to raise awareness of domestic violence.) The photos show her with a vivid purple-black eye, her face smeared with blood. Her mouth is so full of blood you can’t see her teeth.

When I initially spoke with Powell, a Minneapolis native who lists “The Velvet Hammer” as his nickname on Facebook, he didn’t apologize for his email comments about Pederson. He did, however, display great sensitivity to current Delta Upsilon brothers’ feelings.

Delta Upsilon’s international headquarters (IHQ) suspended the frat’s U of M chapter in February, shortly after the Daily’s story came out, and the chapter remains on probation. In August, the frat gave up the lease on their house. Membership has dropped to fewer than 10, and the remaining members have been criticized over their brothers’ actions. As Powell put it, they’ve been “beat up to death... just torn apart.”

Powell, too, has been criticized. IHQ suspended his alumni membership when his resignation email became public. In a statement, the frat called his comments “sickening and abhorrent,” adding that they have “no place in our society.” Powell never expressed concern for himself, but he grew more and more concerned about the remaining brothers.

“Please give them a chance to survive,” he wrote, asking me to pull his initial comments from the record. I declined.

***

On the last night of rush week, Wealot saw something odd from the co-op’s porch. A full marching band—complete with drums and sousaphones—was jangling down frat row. It was a protest, or maybe a dance party. Participants in ski masks and bandanas lofted a hot pink flag, adorned with cartoons of a knife and brass knuckles, and the message “KILL RAPISTS.”

Others carried flaming torches, striking an eerie chord less than a month after Charlottesville. They flipped off the cop cars tailing them, sirens blooping sporadically, and shouted at the frat guys on their lawns. 

Wealot felt it was a bridge too far. The co-op’s signs were productively uncomfortable, but this was something else. “I have nothing against peaceful protest, but I find examples like this to not actually be peaceful,” he wrote. “This is an effort to show... force and induce fear.”

Wealot said the sentiment on the co-op porch that night was similar—roughly, “Hold on. Let’s not kill anybody.” To his and Ciha’s knowledge, no co-oppers were involved in the event. After it happened, I noticed a blocky message stenciled on the sidewalk on University Avenue: “MAKE RAPISTS & RACISTS AFRAID.”

In video footage, the frat boys don’t visibly react. A strange passivity reigns on frat row. 

I saw it two nights before the marching band festivities, sitting on the co-op’s porch hoping to catch a vandal. But I just watched boys walk by, single and in flocks, ignoring the signs. One boy looked at them twice in quick succession, but he didn’t say a word, let alone yell one. No one did. I imagined Atkinson’s disappointment: no dialogue.

The implied goal of a dialogue is resolution, though, and sexual violence doesn’t resolve cleanly. Both Ciha and Pederson have found that even when it ends, it doesn’t. The aftermath is part of it, too: the not talking about it; the flashbacks; the friends asking you when you’ll get over it; the reporters telling you, as I told Ciha, that she had experienced so much sexual violence that I just didn’t have room for it all in the story.

Ciha started laughing. “Excuse me,” she said, trying to stop. “I’m finding humor in it.”

I told her not to apologize. Survivors get to laugh at absurdity and be alive, just like the rest of us.

This is a strength of the signs. They aren’t alive. They never laugh, or co-host a block party. (The block party, incidentally, was postponed until spring.) They stay steadfastly furious at “PERPS” and their bros who don’t hold them accountable. Sexual violence doesn’t un-happen, and the signs don’t calm down.

Or at least, they didn’t for months. At the end of rush week, the co-oppers painted over several signs that were near-illegible from weather damage. The blank boards remained on the porch for weeks.

It’s a logistical issue. It’s hard to get co-oppers together to make non-urgent decisions, like what the new signs should say. But it’s also hard to know what to say. Any new signs could spark a chain reaction that spirals into the future, beyond frat row, fizzling out who knows when. 


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