A group of women who live and work in Baltimore -- primarily in the North Charles Street corridor in Mount Vernon -- plan to take to the streets tonight to draw attention to rape and other violence against women.
Their approach goes beyond the traditional "Take Back the Night" march. The women argue that police involvement in rape cases is ineffective and that women need to take control of the issue of rape for themselves.
The march, which will start at 7 p.m. at North Charles and 29th streets and end at McKeldin Squarein the Inner Harbor, is the second organized by the loosely knit group of friends.
They were brought together last fall when reports spread of a string of rapes along North Charles Street involving women who worked in galleries, restaurants or other businesses that stayed open late.
None of the rapes was reported to police, and city police say they were unaware of a problem in the area.
But employees of local businesses felt so strongly about the issue that about 40 men and women decided to march down North Charles Street Dec. 6 to draw attention to their belief that the well-lighted commercial corridor was not as safe as it looked.
Several protesters spray-painted the words "Rape Free Zone" on the sidewalk around the Washington Monument, and five were arrested during an emotional confrontation with police.
In the months since then, the women have become even more convinced that the police can do little to stop rapes from happening and that their involvement brings only more trauma for the victim.
"We've got to have more support out here for each other," said one group member, a 44-year-old woman who asked to remain anonymous. "We're responsible for ourselves, and we're going to have to change society's thinking."
Instead of waiting for an overworked police force to respond, they say, women must take control of the effort to stop rape. And they must warn other women that rape in Baltimore is a frequent occurrence. Last year, 687 rapes were reported to city police -- almost two a day.
Police say it is irresponsible not to report rape to the authorities, because rapists who aren't caught can rape again. But in light of a significant jump in reported rapes last year -- 27 percent -- they agree that women need to make rape prevention more of a priority.
"Based on my knowledge and experience, women must start taking some responsibility," said Detective Jeanne Mewbourne, a 27-year veteran of Baltimore's Sex Offense Unit. "Nothing else has worked."
The women involved in the Charles Street march say police are too swamped to investigate all rape cases thoroughly. And when they do investigate, the victim's actions are called into question, they say.
"When you deal with the police, you're going to be on stage," one protester said. "Again, the victim will be blamed."
The women have only a rough outline of how to approach the problem. But it doesn't involve handing out whistles or demanding police patrols. It involves educating the public about the widespread violence against women and fighting pornography and stereotypical portrayals of women.
Though they don't feel comfortable giving their names, these women say they must speak out about violence they experience.
"A woman out alone isn't safe," one protester said. "But there has to be an end to getting by with what you're handed."
Another idea is to reach out to otherwomen who have been raped or abused by men they know.
"A number of women we were in jail with had gone and gotten back at their attackers," said the protester, who had been arrested during the December march. "What if they got together and talked about it?"
Counselors at the Sexual Assault Recovery Center in Baltimore see both sides of the issue.
For many people, reporting a rape is a step toward taking control of the gripping fear that rapists impose on their victims, said Elizabeth A. Style, program coordinator for the center.
But for others, rehashing the experience is more than they can bear, she said.
"They're afraid of having to tell the story again, the feeling they're not going to be believed and that the police will be insensitive," she said.
Police have become more sensitive to a rape victim's trauma, Ms. Style said, but the citizens who make up juries are not always so understanding.