Just a day after appointing James “Carr” McLamb Jr. to the North Carolina State Board of Elections earlier this month, Governor Roy Cooper rescinded the nomination amid allegations of abuse from McLamb’s ex-girlfriend.
Speaking with The News & Observer, the woman said she had called the governor’s office the week before to quietly disclose her story but didn’t get a reply. So she decided to publish her experiences on an Instagram account aiming to provide a safe space for survivors of abuse: The NC Protection Alliance.
All summer, the alliance had been sharing stories of misconduct in the restaurant, bar, and tattoo industries in Raleigh. These stories, which often named the men they accused, had prompted several businesses to fire employees, issue apologies, and, in some cases, choose to close.
When Governor Cooper rescinded McLamb’s appointment, it became clear that a social media account that had begun as an informal avenue for women to share their experiences of sexual harassment in the Raleigh service industry had, in a few short months, expanded into something much bigger. The alliance wasn’t just making an impact in North Carolina’s bar and restaurant scene—it was shaping its politics, too.
The NC Protection Alliance started as a way to publicize a story that its founder, Wendy, kept hearing. (Wendy and other members of the alliance requested that we use their first names only, due to the repeated harassment the account has received.)
Two years ago, a close friend told Wendy that a man from her work had raped her. This man was a staple in the downtown Raleigh service industry scene. He frequently hung out at Kings—the music venue upstairs from Garland, the restaurant where he was employed at the time—and floated through popular late-night dive bars like Ruby Deluxe.
Wendy had heard rumors about the man. But most of them were vague and suggested what felt already evident: He was a little creepy and desperate. She avoided him on the advice of an ex-boyfriend and warned friends to do the same.
Then, this summer, another friend told her that the man had raped her. Wendy realized in that moment that what had allegedly happened to her two friends could have happened to other women, too. Simply whispering warnings to each other was not an adequate way to handle the threat this man posed.
So she decided to put out a call on her Instagram story, writing, “If anyone has a story about Adam Atashi, I’ll post it on my stories and cut out your name.” Nearly 20 women replied with their own experiences, according to Wendy. Five times as many reached out with stories about other local men.
(Atashi, who no longer works at Garland, was not able to be reached for comment. Garland co-owner Cheetie Kumar said that she was unaware of any allegations against Atashi at that time and regrets that she ever employed him.)
“All of these stories were about a very specific network of people in central downtown Raleigh,” Wendy says. She noted that celebrity restaurateurs and bartenders were coming under fire after years of accolades. “The pandemic made it possible, in some ways, for people to begin speaking out.”
This summer, many service industry employees found themselves out of work as public health restrictions prompted bars and restaurants to close down. Amid this forced industry hibernation, conversations that had been bubbling beneath the surface for years boiled over on social media.
Allegations of racism had recently come out against the owners of Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana, followed by allegations of sexual harassment and assault against their bar manager, Jordan Hester.
These conversations weren’t just happening in Raleigh. Local service industry stakeholders were reckoning with similar allegations in Greensboro, too. Wendy was in touch with a woman there, and they discussed the need for these conversations to go beyond their own social circles and find a more communal, digital place to live.
So they created Instagram pages for their respective cities that shared the same name: NC Safety Alliance. Other cities across North Carolina soon followed their lead—Charlotte, Asheville, and Durham, among others—and began publicizing stories about known abusers and harassers in their town. So far, though, arguably none of these pages has made a bigger impact than the Raleigh chapter.
Absent other avenues for accountability, social media has become a popular platform for survivors looking to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault. In 2017, women posted about their own experiences on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram using the hashtag #MeToo. This year, in Egypt, a woman’s anonymous Instagram post detailing accusations against a rich and influential young man on her university campus ballooned into what some are calling the country’s own #MeToo moment. In 2015, social media fervor surrounding the story of a woman in Turkey who was killed after trying to stop a man from raping her escalated into street protests.
Survivors of sexual assault, largely women, can find support on these platforms that can be difficult to locate otherwise. Filing a police report or testifying in court can put women in a position where their experience is interrogated, potentially re-traumatizing them.
Even outside the criminal justice system, the social cost of accusing someone of sexual harassment or assault can be huge, especially in a tight-knit scene where the lines between work and social life are blurred.
Janelle, another member of the Protection Alliance, dated someone who she says was popular in the downtown Raleigh scene. She says that after they broke up, she told some mutual friends that he had assaulted her, but they didn’t believe her. After she decided to post her story, multiple women responded with stories of their own.
“When other women came forward and said they had had the same experience with him, it was so validating,” Janelle says. “Obviously, you never want anyone to go through what you went through, but I felt like what had happened to me was real.”
After that experience, Janelle asked to join the Protection Alliance team. She has been working with them ever since.
The alliance has created a Google form for survivors who want to submit their stories. The form asks them to share their experience and their preferences regarding its publication, such as whether they want comments to be disabled on the post. At the end, whoever is submitting the story checks a box to certify that what they have shared is true to the best of their knowledge.
“We have a process for accepting stories and we have a process for following up on stories,” says Lauren, who helps Wendy and Janelle run the account. “It’s a multi-tiered process where Wendy will read it, then another person will read it. If there is any sort of question, or it doesn’t make sense, then we’ll get in touch with the survivor to follow-up.”
Typical posts from the Raleigh account include trigger and content warnings, then slides with text from the survivor’s story. Each post is captioned with the name of the accused, if provided. If comments are turned on for the post, the alliance actively moderates them.
Early on, every page developed its own style for sharing these stories. The Greensboro account preferred to tag the accused harassers and assaulters, as well as people close to them. They included photos of the accused, too.
In contrast, the posts by the Raleigh chapter functioned less like pillories for public humiliation and more like curated conversations. People comment and offer support for survivors, share their own experiences, and sometimes ask questions.
“We are trying to be very careful about protecting survivors and making sure each post is free from harassment and bullying,” Lauren says.
But the alliance has also come up against its fair share of obstacles.
It has been hard to keep a consistent group of individuals working to moderate the account. Submissions can be difficult to read, and the comments they receive can be dismissive, abusive, and mean. For instance, in September, the Raleigh account posted a story about a popular tattoo artist. Wendy estimates they got about seven thousand new followers after that post. But they also got a huge influx of harassment.
“Lots of trolls and other people tell us that we are trying to destroy people’s lives,” Janelle says. “What we want them to understand is we’re not. We’re helping survivors. Whatever happens because these stories come out happens. But we’re just focusing on the survivors.”
Even if they work to moderate comments, they still receive hundreds of DMs, many of them harassing the account from burner accounts. Men and women who know the accused often write them to complain, but they also receive criticisms from people with no connection to the stories.
“I love answering criticisms,” Lauren says. “Ten percent are genuine criticisms, while 90 percent are trolls. But even with the trolls, I can recognize real criticisms with their responses. Sometimes in answering them, there can be a productive conversation.”
After receiving a cease-and-desist letter from one of the men who was accused, Wendy and other members of the alliance met with a lawyer, who advised them to start an LLC to protect themselves from legal liability. By forming an LLC, they would also be able to collect and distribute money to survivors to connect them with resources like legal representation, crisis counseling, long-term mental healthcare, or mediation.
They asked the chapters in other cities if they were interested in joining, and all but two—Greensboro and Winston-Salem—said yes. Now an LLC, the group would henceforth be known as the NC Protection Alliance.
Soon after, a mock account appeared on Instagram with the same logo and a similar handle. It claimed to be trying to hold the Raleigh chapter accountable and posted accusations against the owner of a local bakery who, the mock account alleged, had provided free bread for a Raleigh chapter event.
The account was quickly shut down.
“What was so refreshing for me to see was when we were feeling overwhelmed and responding to all of this, the community started to respond in support of us,” Lauren says. “We really trust the community, and a lot of people really validated our work and how we were doing it.”
When the story came in from a survivor who alleged that the newly appointed McLamb had abused her, Wendy was initially nervous. But Lauren reassured her that this was no different than other stories they received. So they decided to publish the story.
In the post, the ex-girlfriend says that McLamb pressured her into sex, filmed their sexual encounters without her consent, and once held her against a wall and screamed at her.
The next day, Governor Cooper rescinded the appointment.
“This is why I started this,” Wendy says. “For real change to happen.”
Inspirational stories about women sharing their experiences of sexual assault often stop with the act of sharing, as though the sharing itself were a bow that ties the story together and resolves the trauma. While speaking out does not provide automatic closure, the story of the Protection Alliance does show that it can provide opportunities for healing, justice, and—ultimately—deep community.
“We’re still limited to North Carolina and Raleigh, which makes this feel like a real community conversation,” Wendy says. “This stuff used to only be discussed in small conversations between two, three people—close friends. Now we’re talking about it openly.”
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