Some 240 years ago, the “green” across from the Bergen County Courthouse in Hackensack was a campground for both British and American troops during the Revolution. For the past 20 years, the green has been witness to a different type of uprising, a groundswell of emotion from victims of domestic violence, who are saying—in words laden with grief and anger, but energized by firm resolve—that this form of human tyranny must end.
The words of the victims appeared on t-shirts—t-shirts they had made themselves, each one sending a message to the world, calling attention to the scourge of domestic violence and reminding us that it is happening in our own communities here in Bergen County. The t-shirts were strung, clothesline after clothesline, criss-crossing this way and that, message upon message, all across the green, more than 1,800 of them, blanketing the plaza on a splendidly bright summer day.
It was September 18, a day when public officials, social service agencies, and citizens converged on the courthouse green to mark the 20th anniversary of the Bergen County Clothesline Project. The initiative began nationally in 1990 in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and was started here in North Jersey a few years later by the Rape Crisis Center (now known as healingSPACE) of the Bergen County YWCA.
Lydia Pizzute, founder of the Bergen County Clothesline Project, said that the program “has given us an opportunity to bring awareness of domestic violence to the community, literally taking it to the streets. It has offered victims and survivors a way to speak out without having to identify themselves.”
Making a t-shirt and seeing it on display in public, she said, has given women a sense of empowerment, and seeing the t-shirts made by other women with similar stories to share has built camaraderie and a feeling of connectedness to fellow survivors. About 10 years ago t-shirts made by male victims of abuse were added to the project.
“Each shirt signifies someone who made a change in her life and made a decision not to be a victim any more,” said Lil Corcoran, Associate Executive Director of Shelter Our Sisters, one of the first agencies in the nation to offer shelter to battered women.
“These are hard stories to hear,” noted State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, “but we have to publicize them to break the chain of violence.” Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan added, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could meet someplace and have no t-shirts to display? We can all work toward that day.”
Speaking eloquently and from direct and painful experience on the subject was Desirae, a domestic violence survivor who said, “I was held captive. Abuse controlled my life, my voice, my ability to grow.” She dropped out of community college when she was pregnant.
Desirae found help and hope through Shelter Our Sisters, discovering “a nonjudgmental atmosphere where optimism was encouraged.” Today she is a dean’s list student at Fairleigh Dickinson University, majoring in psychology and criminal justice … serving an internship at a homeless shelter … taking care of her son … and building a new life.
“This event marks how far we’ve come,” said State Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle. “We still know we have a long way to go.” Long a supporter of domestic violence legislation, Rep. Huttle is now focusing on efforts to stop human trafficking, yet another vestige of oppression against girls and women of all ages.
For each survivor who finds freedom from oppression and domestic tyranny, who finds a liberated voice to express their own Independence Day, the Clothesline remains a tribute to their indomitable spirit and resolve to end the scourge of violence against women and all of humankind.
Where to find help in Bergen County:
The Shelter Our Sisters 24-hour emergency hotline is 201-944-960.
The 24-hour hotline for HealingSPACE—A Sexual Violence Resource Center (formerly Rape Crisis Center) is 201-487-2227.
The 24-hour hotline for Alternatives to Domestic Violence is 201-336-757.