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Social media rallies activists to remove Stanford rape-case judge

Just two weeks after news of the sentencing hit Twitter, millions have signed petitions and are attending events aimed at removing the judge from the bench.

A student protests during Stanford's commencement ceremony earlier this month.

Ramin Talaie/Getty Images

The music stopped the moment Shelby Belfast came on stage Wednesday night.

Belfast, co-organizer of the local chapter of GRLCVLT (for "girl culture"), asked people to raise their hands and say "I'm a survivor." Slowly, about 200 men and women at the Starline Social Club, in Oakland, raised a hand and looked around in silent solidarity against what GRLCVLT calls "a culture of rape."

The attendees then took action, signing petitions to remove Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky, who brought the internet to a boil by sentencing a Stanford student to six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.

"Take my anger as just passion to want things to change," Belfast said, adding she was appalled by the sentence. "We're done with being second-class citizens."

Credit social media for the outpouring of fury and action, which galvanized support less than two weeks after Persky sentenced Brock Turner on June 2. Persky said he factored in Turner's age and said the student had "less moral culpability" because he was drunk and had no "significant record of prior criminal offenses," according to The Guardian.

Prosecutors were seeking two years for each of the three felony sexual assault charges the 20-year-old was convicted of in March, for a total of six years.

Usually the story ends there. Not this time. The day after the sentencing, the 23-year-old victim wrote a 7,244-word statement to Persky protesting that sentence. BuzzFeed printed her statement in full. It went viral, racking up over 17 million views.

Shelby Belfast and Stephanie Reeder of activist group GRLCVLT say the judge in the Stanford rape case should lose his job.

Shelby Belfast (left) and Stephanie Reeder of activist group GRLCVLT say the judge in the Stanford rape case should lose his job.

Terry Collins/CNET

And on June 5, Stanford law professor and sociologist Michele Dauber posted to Twitter a statement made to the court by Turner's father, who said six months in jail was a "steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action."

That post became a social-media call to action. There are now 16 petitions on related to the Stanford rape case. Some petitions ask for Turner to get a maximum 14-year prison sentence. Most petitions, however, are calling for Persky's removal from the bench, an elected position that Persky won again this month after running unopposed in the California primary. One petition currently holds more than 1.2 million signatures.

Another petition, organized by women's advocacy group UltraViolet, has received nearly 1 million signatures. Co-founder Nita Chaudhary hopes to remove Persky and "send a clear signal that rape apologists will never be tolerated on the bench."

Nicole Sekeres of San Francisco signs a letter urging the recall of Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky.

Nicole Sekeres of San Francisco signs a letter urging the recall of Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky.

Terry Collins/CNET

Persky didn't respond to multiple requests for comment. A Santa Clara County court spokesman didn't immediately return emails and calls seeking comment.

People are also coming together in the real world, like the gatherings in Oakland, New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday organized by GRLCVLT, which describes itself as a "secret society" of online feminists.

The movement against Persky had its first victory. Earlier this week, the Santa Clara County district attorney forced Perksy off another sexual-assault case.

Dauber, who's spearheading an official Persky recall effort, said Wednesday that removing Persky will take more than widespread outrage. Such a recall campaign could cost upward of $1 million, Dauber added.

"If every one of those people who signed the petitions gave us $1, we'd have all of the funds that we need to get his name on a [recall] ballot," she said while in Washington, DC, where she was seeking funds.

But while social media galvanized millions of people in less than two weeks, a recall election probably wouldn't happen until next year, said John Trasviña, dean of the University of San Francisco Law School. Persky would likely fight such efforts, Trasviña said.

That's not stopping organizations like GRLCVLT from pushing ahead. With punk-rock music blaring at the Starline Social Club, attendees -- some wearing black #fvckrapeculture T-shirts -- rushed to grab pens and sign prewritten letters demanding Persky's recall. Those letters will be mailed to the California Commission on Judicial Performance.

More than 700 letters were signed.