TAMPA — Emotional testimonies ringed downtown's Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
Love should not hurt.
Love is not abuse.
Written on T-shirts hanging on clotheslines strung around the park, those messages came to life Sunday as survivors of sexual violence and their supporters spoke out at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay's annual Take Back the Night.
The day marked "a celebration of transformation" for Cynthia Clark, a survivor of sexual abuse who gave the Tampa Bay Times permission to print her name.
Working with the Crisis Center, her perspective has shifted from victim to survivor.
"It's no longer, 'This is something that happened to me,' " said Clark, 37, of Davis Islands.
She stomps her foot and shouts: "It's, 'This is what I did! This is how I healed!' "
In the time since the episode happened in another state, she has met her husband and moved to Tampa.
Her husband, 40-year-old Courtney Connell, was among 273 men who took a pledge not to remain silent on sexual abuse.
"It builds the commitment," Connell said. "It's more than just saying it."
Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers player Ian Beckles led the pledge alongside Tampa Bay Lightning CEO Tod Leiweke, Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan and former state Rep. Jim Davis.
Take Back the Night has outgrown its roots in Hyde Park, said Marilyn Bray, the center's outreach and empowerment coordinator. The annual event drew more than 100 volunteers and about 80 collaborating organizations to Hixon park this year.
"We're all in this together," Bray said. "We don't have to suffer in silence."
A statistic repeated throughout the day: One in four women experience some form of sexual violence. For men, it's one in six.
Tampa police Chief Jane Castor called upon the community to spread the understanding that violence against women is unacceptable.
"It's everyone's responsibility," she said.
University of South Florida student Matthew Rooney felt inspired to take up the cause.
"It's really a men's issue," said Rooney, 28, a volunteer with Men Stopping Violence Against Women. "It's up to us to speak up and stop the violence."
At Sunday's event, hundreds reveled in a flash mob and followed survivors in an empowerment march around the park, past law enforcement officers standing watch in front of their vehicles with the lights flashing.
During a candlelight vigil, survivors and supporters guarded their lights carefully against the wind to spread a flame from a single candle.
At the end of the night, some survivors took turns standing at a microphone, letting their words amplify into the big city space. Through poems and stories, they spoke of rape and survival.
People lingered late, past dusk, to listen. When they left, they walked past the clotheslines of T-shirts again, the messages still strong.
To a woman named Karen, her family scrawled in purple marker on a shirt:
"We are so proud of you. You won, you walked away & stayed alive for us."
Stephanie Wang can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.