* Trigger Warning: Discussion of challenges related to survivor centered accountability processes.
On February 28th, 2013 there was an important discussion on “Patriarchy and the Movement” held in Portland. We value the efforts of the organizers and panelists to share publicly the theory and methods generated by their experiences in anti patriarchal struggles.
We are heartened by the words of one of the panelists, that “solidarity looks like taking feminism seriously enough to allow emergent, contradictory strains that are intellectual, personally true, and liberatory.” There have always been debates in feminist and gender liberation movements around differing visions of liberation and relationships to struggles against other forms of visible and invisible oppressions such as race, class, ableism, and colonization. These rich legacies and our own experiences of gender oppression have shaped us. On the one hand, the patriarchal left lumps feminists as a tokenizing, homogenous whole. On the other hand, some of us feel pressure to conform to certain forms of feminism, imposed through other forms of coercive power such as gossip, back biting and mischaracterization of disagreements. We are perpetually reminded that “womyn” as a flattened, undifferentiated category is not reflective of our experiences as womyn of color and female-assigned gender non-conforming people, and instead, has historically been used to serve white cis-feminism. We recognize that “serious, comradely, and contentious disagreements keep feminism alive and if we are not rigorously challenging our own assumptions, then feminism is dead.” It is in this spirit that we would like to dialogue with other passionate and militant feminists.
Members of Black Orchid Collective (BOC) were not able to be present physically at the event in Portland and we thank the organizers for recording the event to expand its accessibility. We have since been following the sequence of events through the published statements and the recordings.
We recognize that there are many important points that have been raised throughout the event, such as the need to examine the culture and structures within our organizations / groupings, the serious, urgent, and shared responsibility of addressing sexualized and gendered violence, the complexities of feminist solidarity and feminist response, and mujerista and decolonial feminisms. We have been asking ourselves how do people go from being “patriarchal individuals” to anti-patriarchal individuals? Or maybe more importantly and broadly, how do people change? We appreciate and intend to engage with these points in subsequent posts as well.
Organizers of the Patriarchy and the Movement event published a statement regarding the events after the panelists spoke. The final panelist had referenced a specific accountability process that he had been part of in Portland and expressed regret for the way he had participated in it along with another male-assigned person (“X”). Some audience members spoke to their experiences around this specific accountability process in the discussion following the panel. One person who spoke (a female assigned person) attempted to read a letter (the organizers’ statement referred to it as the “pre written statement”). The letter spoke to her and others’ work to address the charges and behavior of “X” who was not the perpetrator, but had been a member of the accountability process. The letter ended with a series of questions that highlighted the difficulties coming out of doing this work. The female-assigned person was stopped from reading the letter. *
It appears that the “pre written statement,” for all its intended purposes, may have unfortunately triggered individuals in the space, and in fact, was not the best method for raising the necessary questions. It may be that people present interpreted the questions to be reminiscent of patriarchal invalidation of their experiences of sexual trauma and patriarchy. Having some distance from the event itself, we did not read the questions in that light.
We hope that our desire to consider the questions raised by our comrades will not be mistaken as disregarding the ways that individuals may have felt triggered in the space.
Our intention in re-posting these questions is also not to retrigger anyone. Instead, our reasons for reposting these questions come from a place of having been involved in many failed accountability processes even with the best of our intentions and that of others involved. Even though we always began from a desire to validate other survivors and support their healing processes, we have not always known how to do so in healthy ways and have made mistakes that we are still learning from. We wonder how individuals engaging in accountability processes can support healthy boundaries. We have asked similar questions as those posted below ourselves and we do not have the answers.
Having been survivors ourselves, and having had to use a range of strategies in our survival, we recognize with pain that patriarchy exists as a social relation even among those we love, including our chosen and biological families, and in our trusted relationships. We also recognize how we and others, as survivors of trauma too, have perpetuated trauma in the lives of vulnerable people in our lives. We have sought a variety of strategies for addressing patriarchal behavior and actions. At times, we have found expulsion of some patriarchal people from our lives as an important step along our healing processes. Other times, we have not excluded those individuals from our lives, either by choice and/or circumstance, and have chosen instead to work through things as part of our own healing processes.
We appreciate the way Shannon Perez-Darby frames the complicated healing and coping strategies of survivors in their article “The Secret Joy of Accountability: Self-accountability as a Building Block for Change” (published in The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities).
They write, “This binary [survivors are angels and perpetrators are evil] allows us to think of batterers as people who exist somewhere else, in fantasy and stories, but not in our lives, communities, and homes. Our fear of what surviving really means compels us to grossly oversimplify the experiences of both survivors and people who batter. Put on the defensive, we react to victim-blaming – like ‘it’s all your fault’ and ‘she was asking for it’ – by drawing borders around who we think survivors are (and are not). We’re careful not to let in any scary, wicked, nasty words. By creating systems that can’t hold complexity, we are unable to see all the things survivors do in the context of surviving abuse. These things aren’t always beautiful and noble. And we’re killing each other by not talking about it.”
“The term ‘survivor’ is only effective as long as it serves me. Sometimes I cling to the term because it describes the hurt and hiding. It’s a tool to get to the bottom of a relationship that brought me to my knees. It’s helpful because sometimes I find healing in the words of others who call themselves survivors. The word survivor means a thousand things I can’t claim; it’s perfectly imperfect and I want that to be ok.” (p101-102)
In light of this, we would like to open discussion of the questions that were raised in the pre-written statement. We hope the authors are able to elaborate where there may be confusion. We hope to learn from others’ experiences:
- Why have the forms of accountability processes that we’ve seen in radical subcultures so regularly failed?
- Is there a tension between supporting a survivor’s healing and holding perpetrators accountable? Should survivors be in charge of the entirety of both such processes?
- How should accountability processes or other forms of grassroots justice differ from the punitive models of state-enforced “justice”? What does this look like in practice?
- How can we develop feminist anti-violence politics that undermines rather than reinforces the gender binary system? If abuse is not always a matter of men abusing women, does a feminist politics around this look like?
- Is there room for people to make mistakes and be supported in learning from them in the movements we are building? Should we ostracize comrades who fuck up?
- Is it possible or desirable to purify a righteous scene or movement? How does fighting patriarchy look in the context of millions of people, damaged products of this system, making history together?
*The female-assigned individual who has been associated with the letter is a revolutionary feminist whom we have organized with and who has supported us through our own traumatic experiences in patriarchal organizing spaces. We understand that a component of feminist sociability and solidarity is to acknowledge and learn from the effort of other feminists in addressing patriarchy ranging from patriarchal interactions in spaces to sexual assault, even if we may have critiques of those efforts. We appreciate our comrade’s humility in admitting to the challenges they have faced in the accountability processes they were involved in and their willingness to be vulnerable by sharing them.
We do find it disappointing that our female assigned comrade was silenced in the space which was intended for feminist conversations around confronting patriarchy. As the organizers’ statement describes, told they were “emboldening perpetrators” for raising questions around their experiences in accountability processes. It appears as if their efforts in addressing patriarchal behavior were unacknowledged, and instead, they were assumed to be uncritical allies of person X, a cis white man. We question whether centralizing cismen and negating the efforts of other feminists, especially when they raise questions drawn from their experiences in dealing with patriarchy, is feminist solidarity and sociability in practice.