Feminist Struggle vs. Facebook Fragmentation


facebook fragmentationOur piece, “Building Capacity for Complexity”  generated a lot of controversy this spring,  and serious responses from the organizers of the Patriarchy in the Movement event, in addition to comrades in Seattle and other West Coast cities.  This is our attempt to respond to these critiques and to share our perspective and decisions on the core issues at stake.

Black Orchid is a feminist collective existing in a larger male-dominated radical milieu that is often inhospitable to our development as militants.  Given this reality, we were eager to see the Patriarchy in the Movement event happen in the first place, and we find it unfortunate that the current divisions it has caused are overshadowing the common ground we have with many of the participants when it comes to organizing ourselves against patriarchy in our society and in our movements.   It is patriarchal social structures, as well as male chauvinistic behavior that create the sources of these divisions- not primarily feminist responses.  But how we all choose to respond as feminists can influence whether these issues are confronted effectively or not.

We also want to avoid a navel-gazing focus on our narrow radical scenes; we’re hoping to link these struggles to broader social struggles against patriarchy from here to Stuebenville, Egypt, and India (of course, this would involve recognizing the different conditions in each setting and not romanticizing far away struggles.)

In any case, we were excited about the event and we were looking forward to developing a more unified, aggressive, strategic, and timely set of responses to patriarchy in the movement and in society in general.   Instead it seems the result has been fragmentation and demoralization of feminist forces.

Much of the tension has centered on accusations raised publicly against P, a prominent radical in Portland, and his comrades such as E, who read the statement at the event.  We are close to P, E, and their circles in Portland (though we have no formal organizational ties with them.)  We have never hidden this fact.   They have supported some of us in the past in our struggles against patriarchy in movements and organizations we have been a part of.  Despite this, our immediate reaction was NOT to automatically take P’s side.

Some have accused us being pawns of P (or his “apologists”), but they have not provided any evidence for this.  E was first accused of this and we criticized people for dismissing her on this basis;  as a consequence, we have been labeled apologists as well.

We think this is insulting.  Why would a collective that is almost entirely womyn and gender non-conforming folks, including folks of color, in Seattle, allow ourselves to be used as a tool by one white, male-assigned person  in Portland?  We are perfectly capable of thinking for ourselves, and suggesting that we cannot is totally disrespectful.  It insults our intelligence and it denies our agency as feminists.*

We also question the tactical wisdom of dismissing all of the feminist (and mostly female assigned) comrades who are closest to P.  What are the goals of the people who are doing this?  Are they trying to transform P’s behavior?  If so, wouldn’t it make more sense to try to enlist our help in this task, instead of alienating us?  Are they trying to punish P by ostracizing him?  If so, wouldn’t that require reaching out to the people closest to him and providing evidence to convince us to break off ties with him?  Instead of trying to convince us, our critics have labeled all of us as apologists without any evidence, unnecessarily polarizing the movement.  What are the political criteria behind this polarization?

We’re not too surprised this is happening, since it reflects a broader emerging problem in the movement.  When comrades think someone’s actions are having harmful effects, they often assume their motivations are also harmful.  So in this case, because some people claimed our piece might be used to justify patriarchy, they claimed that we are therefore apologists for patriarchal men.  Instead of critiquing our action (writing the piece), or it’s possible effects, they criticized our very character, suggesting we are no longer trustworthy.

We are not saying that good intentions are enough.  Good intentions, including feminist ones, can still lead to harmful effects in practice; if so, we should still criticize the harmful effects and should try to stop them.  But understanding someone’s motivations is crucial if we see them as a comrade who can be convinced to change, instead of an irredeemable enemy.

There is too much of this ostracism and not enough transformative struggle going on in West Coast revolutionary circles right now.  This trend threatens to  make it hard for radicals to relate to folks outside of narrow subcultures, especially in workplace or neighborhood settings where you’re likely to run into deeply flawed people over and over again, and it’s not practical to instantly make enemies out of everyone the minute you think they are engaging in fucked up behavior.   In many cases we need to challenge each other to change instead of calling each other out and walking away.

No individuals are wholly pure and conscious revolutionaries and no individuals are damned and unredeemable patriarchs.  The movement is not separate from the rest of society; it inherits its patriarchal social relations, while rupturing towards something better.  We can only work out this contradiction as we transform ourselves through struggle –  just like everyone else in this society.  A revolution consists of millions of fucked up, flawed people transforming ourselves and each other.

We’d like to clarify a few points:

*  Our critique of white cis-feminism was not a critique of the survivor who criticized P or her support team. We are not accusing anyone involved in the Patriarchy and the Movement event of racism, transphobia, heterosexism, or cissexism because of their actions during or after the event.  We wouldn’t make those kinds of accusations without providing specific details and evidence.  But these are problems that do exist within feminist milieus more broadly, and we brought them up as a reminder of why we need to maintain open feminist debate – because if not, then perspectives of women of color and gender non-conforming folks can get shut down as they have been in the past.

* Some comrades have suggested that our criticisms of gossip and shit talking were sexist caricatures of how women communicate. But we were not only criticizing female-assigned comrades, we were also criticizing male assigned folks.

We agree that gossip and shit talking are tools that are often used to uphold a patriarchal status quo;  when feminists speak up, these tools are used to silence us.   We know this because most of us have faced this kind of hostility when we’ve spoken up against sexism in past movements and organizations.  However, we still stick by the claim that shit talking and gossip do contribute to breakdown of trust, and they can especially cause damage during accountability processes. A strong revolutionary movement needs to break from these practices.

* We did not know about the specific allegations made against P until after the Patriarchy in the Movement event.

* We are not questioning the survivor’s account of her experiences of abuse or her claims against the original abuser. Period.

(Online there have been mix ups, so to clarify: the original abuser is not P).

Which Side are We On?

We understand that the survivor and her support team have criticized P’s role in trying to hold the abuser accountable, and of P’s behavior toward her since then.  We don’t know the survivor, her support team, or the perpetrator, so we didn’t think it was our place to comment on the accountability process itself, and our original piece did not comment on them.  Instead, we stuck to addressing the events that happened during the Patriarchy and the Movement forum and afterward.

As a result, some have assumed we were taking P’s side.  Others have thought we were making an argument for fence-sitting, or that we were deflecting the discussion into a theoretical debate instead of dealing with the concrete, traumatic situation.  None of this was our intention.

We do not think there can be any principled middle ground in this situation and we are not arguing for one.  The key question is whether P engaged in the specific harmful behaviors he’s being accused of, or not.   If he did, we need to confront him on this and put pressure on him to change his behavior.   If he didn’t, then we need to defend him from unsubstantiated accusations.

A firm response like that would require that we understand the specifics of what happened and that we hear from all sides and weigh the evidence each side provides to come to a conclusion and take action based on it.  That’s a basic principle for us.

Some insist we should act based on hearing only one side of the story, that we should denounce and condemn P without being able to hear his reply to the accusations being made against him.   We are not willing to engage in that way.

However,  we have been given the choice of either engaging that way, or not engaging at all.  Our critics have made it clear that any attempt on our part to weigh the evidence from both sides and come to a conclusion will be considered patriarchal, an attack on the survivor, part of an abusive coverup attempt, etc.   For example, someone who self-identified as Julia commented on the Hella503 organization’s statement on the situation, which was posted on our blog (for consistency, we have changed the accused person’s name to his first initial “P” in the quote below; everything else remains the same in the quote):

So Hella decided that (at least) six (the survivor, her entire survivor support team, plus a liaison with the perpetrator) of a total of eight people (not including P) who participated in the initial accountability process are making “false accusations” against P. Outstanding. What happened to not replicating what the courts do to abuse survivors? Evidence? You have six different people speaking to their direct experiences with P, in this process alone. Do you want DNA evidence? Tape recorded messages? It’s clear the voice of one abusive man has more weight with you folks than the six of us.

I really hope Hella does not put any more survivors of P’s patriarchal behavior through what we have been put through by that organization.

Also, I want to say right now that Hella, nor BtR, nor any members or former members of those orgs have sought permission from the survivor to circulate intimate details of her abuse (either by the initial abuser or by P), and any distribution of her personal details is WITHOUT HER CONSENT.

I don’t care if some info is already circulating, P has already viciously robbed her of control over her own life and privacy, now Hella is threatening to do the same.

This statement is very similar to other statements posted on facebook and on listservs that accuse anyone who tries to hear the evidence Hella503 has provided of engaging in abuse against the survivor.

We hear the point that  the survivor doesn’t want details of the situation circulated widely.  As we argue below, we think it’s a mistake that this debate has happened over the internet, and we wonder why a panelist at the Patriarchy in the Movement event mentioned it over a live-streamed broadcast in the first place if the survivor is saying she doesn’t want it discussed widely.

Many of the survivor’s supporters have made widespread accusations against P, yet they have forbidden any sharing of information among people in the movement, not just public sharing.  They are asking people in the movement to take action against P without providing the info we would need in order to decide whether or not to agree to their requests.   Given this situation they’ve created, we are choosing not to intervene any further.  We are not for fence sitting, but there is no way for us to intervene responsibly given the way this has developed.

Some might wonder why we can’t just set aside our insistence on weighing contradictory narratives and evidence.  It’s because we are trying to act in a principled way and we we do not want to set harmful precedents.   Confronting sexist behavior in our circles is part of the alternative to capitalism that we’re trying to build.  We want the way we confront sexist behavior to also be a part of that alternative.  We think the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” is not an inherently capitalist or patriarchal idea – it is an idea that was fought for over the centuries in revolutions that the capitalists crushed and co-opted.  It is a principle that the current court system pays lip service to but hardly ever practices, especially when working class folks, women, gender non-conforming folks, and people of color are on trial.  We think this principle needs to be part of the alternative to capitalism we are trying to build and we want to put it into practice where patriarchal white supremacist capitalism has failed.  For that reason, we’re unwilling to engage without hearing from different involved groups / individuals.

One of the arguments against weighing evidence from both sides comes from a justified reaction to the court system, particularly the ways it perpetuates rape culture.  When survivors of sexual assault raise accusations against their perpetrators, they are almost always blamed, shamed, dismissed, or retraumatized by the courts.  The problem is not that the perpetrator is innocent until proven guilty; the problem is that the survivor is deemed guilty until proven innocent even though the survivor is not the one on trial.  This is oppressive and should not be replicated in the movement, but unfortunately it often is.

When we say we want to hear “evidence” from both sides in this current situation with P, we want to make clear that how we are responding  is different from how we’d respond if one comrade raped another comrade.  In debates around the Patriarchy in the Movement event, quite a few people have equated how we respond to P right now with an accountability process against rape, and have used this to bolster arguments against requiring evidence before taking action against P.   This is not helpful, because P is not being accused of rape.  How the movement should deal with rape is a much needed conversation that should happen on its own terms; the lines drawn between “sides” in this conflict will not be the same lines drawn in that discussion and linking them is confusing.

In many rape cases, the only evidence is the survivor’s account because only survivors can determine whether their boundaries have been crossed or not.  Survivors’ testimonies need to be central and survivors should not be undermined or shamed.

Due process is still necessary, especially since there is a long history of Black men being unfairly accused of raping white women, and getting lynched for it – in white supremacist American society there is no due process for Black folks.

But all of this is another whole conversation, because P is not being accused of rape.   Many of the accusations against P involve actions that he took jointly with other people, as part of an accountability process within the broader movement, which allegedly  undermined the survivor or coddled the perpetrator.  In these situations, the survivor’s account of P’s actions are crucial evidence.  But they are not the only evidence we should be able to consider because P’s alleged actions are part of a larger set of decisions involving other people.  So, what other people who were involved experienced, said, did, and wrote in these situations should also be relevant.   We are not asking to see intimate details about the survivor’s character, about the original domestic violence situation,  etc. None of that would be appropriate.   We are simply asking for the ability to hear evidence about what P and other members of the accountability and support teams did or didn’t do.

Some might say it is pompous to talk about evidence, allegations, etc… they might say that members of BOC are acting like we are the judge in a courtroom.  But we are not saying that it is up to us to come to some final verdict that should dictate what everyone else should do about the situation.   We are simply trying to figure out how we should respond, since we’ve been asked to respond.  Should we cut off ties with P, try to hold him accountable, stay neutral, or defend him from accusations?

Some might say it is not BOC’s place to even weigh in on this at all since we were not part of the Portland radical community in which these actions occurred.   But the accusations against P were made at a public forum that was promoted as the “movement” on the West Coast coming together to address its own patriarchal shit on a multi-city basis.   We are a part of that movement, and if we are expected to take action against P, we need to see evidence.

When we talk about evidence, we  are not talking about highly specialized forensic evidence (DNA samples, etc.).  To require that would is not be appropriate for this situation and would be setting the bar impossibly high.

Finally, we understand that movements are messy and complex and there may be crisis situations when it is not possible to weigh all the evidence and yet it will be necessary to make an immediate decision to the best of our ability.  There were a lot of situations like that in the Occupy camp and radicals in the movement made some good interventions and also made some serious mistakes and that we need to learn from.   But this is not a situation like that – this is a situation where it should be possible to hear all sides before taking action.

Engaging this conflict over the internet is really dangerous

There are some major security issues that arise when conflicts like this unfold over facebook, anonymous blogs,  etc.

We all know the history of COINTELPRO, the FBI’s program to fragment revolutionary movements by turning revolutionaries against each other.  For example, the FBI fabricated threats, insults, and political polemics against Karenga’s U.S. organization and attributed them to the Black Panther Party – and vice versa. This lead to violent conflict between the organizations, and the death of Bunchy Carter on the UCLA campus.   We also know the FBI has engaged in coordinated attempts to disrupt and contain the Occupy movement and that there have been police raids, FBI visits, indictments, and the Federal Grand Jury targeting radicals in the Pacific Northwest.

We are not being paranoid or alarmist – we do not think this signals a generalized crackdown on all radical activity.  Instead, it’s likely that the state is trying to socially map the movement, to figure out who is who and how people respond.  It’s also likely they are trying to shape the movement in some way to make it more predictable or less effective. This could involve undercover operatives infiltrating the movement, or COINTELPRO-type interventions to shape how radicals relate to each other and to the rest of society.  Part of this might involve strategically generating conflicts among radicals.

From the outset, we want to emphasize that we are not accusing our critics –  or any specific individual in the movement – of being a police agent or snitch (confidential informant).   “Snitchjacketing” – accusing someone of being an agent or snitch – is something that COINTELPRO agents themselves have done in order to disrupt the movement.  Radicals should never accuse someone of being a state asset without clear evidence.

However, we do suspect that state security agencies are probably observing this whole situation unfolding and thinking about how they can utilize the dynamics created by it to implant agents in the future.  That means we need to respond in ways that avoid setting dangerous precedents.

If it becomes normalized in the movement to engage in these kind of conflicts over the internet, that can make the state’s job easier.  Facebook in particular trains us to become used to being surveilled; it makes us comfortable with processing our individual reactions to  intense personal/political conflicts in front of total, anonymous strangers and possible enemies.

Of course, the state can also monitor cell phones, emails, etc. and they may have informants in face to face meetings, so these settings are not necessarily immune to surveillance and disruption.  However, if there are agents or informants embedded in face to face, non-anonymous settings, they can only engage in so much disruption, oppressive, or manipulative behavior before people will start noticing that they are the consistent sources of the problems.   If historical precedents are any indicator, the state is generally very hesitant to expose its assets and will go out of its way to avoid doing so.  So this can limit how much COINTELPRO-style intervention is strategic for them to engage in.

If we continue to develop a culture of online denunciation, and anonymously raising serious allegations without evidence, then we take away this limit.  So many conflicts can emerge at once online that it can be difficult to track the sources of particularly disruptive, unstrategic, or oppressive interventions into the conflicts, which might appear to be coming from one, two, or multiple sides of the conflict.  Some of these interventions could be the state shaping the conflict in ways that harm the movement, either through anonymous online interventions, or impersonations of known movement participants on one or more sides of the conflict.  These crises might be opportune times for ineffective strategies, perspectives, and methods to be introduced and proliferated in the movement, with long term negative effects.

Also, the internet leaves a semi-permanent record, which means that issues might be resolved at one moment, but then state agents or other opportunists could dredge them back up years later and present fragments of information to new groups of people who were not involved in the original conflict, reopening the issue all over again in order to disrupt ongoing movements at crucial moments.

Of course, there is also a long history of male chauvinist and racist organizations accusing feminist and anti-racist critics of being police agents in order to silence them from raising sharp, direct internal criticisms.  We are NOT arguing that.  In fact, we think the movement needs MORE direct, real-time, collective confrontation of oppressive behaviors, strategies, and practices in our midst.   We simply think that if someone is going to be accused of being a sexist, a racist, a cop, a snitch, etc., that this should happen directly and decisively within movement circles, not publicly over the internet; evidence should be provided, and the person should be given a chance to respond.  We think that the movement needs to get better at dealing with our own internal shit, so that we can become a credible and attractive alternative to capitalism.

So far,  radical movements in the US in general have often failed to effectively deal with abuse, sexual violence, and other situations where radicals engage in oppressive behavior toward each other.  We try to handle these issues without relying on the patriarchal, racist, and hostile state, but we often fail.  We need to all come together to build our capacity to confront these behaviors more effectively.  There is an urgent need for some kind of common movement debrief of recent struggles so we can criticize ourselves and each other, and can learn from all of this in a safer, non-sectarian setting.

When we argue that struggles against oppressive and harmful behavior should happen in movement circles instead of on the internet, we are NOT saying that these issues should only be dealt with privately or in closed-off small organizations.  We are worried that organizations will react to the climate of hostility generated by this conflict by folding inwards and withdrawing from collective struggle, and we are writing this partially to prevent that outcome.  When defensive barriers are built between tiny organizations and the rest of the community, these small organizations can tend to become internally dysfunctional and can either shield their members from necessary criticism, or they can  implode under the pressure of trying to hold their members accountable.  The same thing applies to informal affinity groups or other forms of informally organized “non-organizations”, milieus, crews,  or scenes.  No one has shown in practice that they have the solution to these problems.   We think a larger, multi-tendency effort needs to be developed to deal with these issues fairly and decisively in the larger movement – the embryo of a popular, anti-state judicial assembly.

As we said above, the people who first disclosed this conflict over the internet need to be criticized for that and need to take responsibility for some of the fragmentation that has emerged as a result.   So do people who are making unsubstantiated accusations on anonymous blogs.

We recognize we contributed to this online fragmentation by writing our own response to other statements that had already gone up on various blogs and facebook.  We think it was a mistake to put our piece on the internet, and we apologize for not talking directly with the organizers and more participants instead.   When we wrote our  statement, we were considering the organizers statement, multiple written personal accounts on Facebook, and phone conversations with multiple people who attended the event. Writing our statement was not our primary error. Instead it was publishing it online rather than sharing the statement internally within the movement in order to allow for more direct conversation, feedback, and clarification.

Concerning alleged threats:

The Patriarchy in the Movement blog includes the following statement:

“Since the event a handful of organizers and panelists have in fact been subtly threatened in a variety of ways, received inappropriate emails and phone calls, have been told to step back from organizing or have been directly marginalized from organizing, and have undergone many false accusations.”

We want to make it absolutely clear that we are opposed to any threats or acts of violence against anyone involved in this conflict.   We are trying to establish open lines of communication with comrades who are willing to engage,  to make sure that the state doesn’t try to impersonate us and make threats against other radicals in our name, or vice versa.   We are also concerned that the state might try to engineer or provoke some kind of attack on our critics and then blame it on us, or vice versa.  For these reasons, this is a dangerous conversation and it is unsafe for us to continue to engage with it any further over the internet.  If folks would like to discuss the issues we have raised here, we welcome discussion offline.  

Conclusion

Interpersonal violence or conflict is not a private matter. We must address it directly and in as real time as possible. In doing this, we are also committed to developing direct-democratic due process that is a viable alternative to capitalist forms of social management. Due process includes weighing contradictory accounts and perspectives. The internet and Facebook, although often they feel therapeutic to be connected to supporters (and easily dismissed haters), do little to nothing to help movements resolve our struggles dealing with and preventing interpersonal conflict and violence.

This entry was posted in Gender, Group Statements, Organizational Practice, What's up in Seattle and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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