January 24, 2012 by tristan savage
What can the anarchist labor movement teach us about solidarity in the fight against sexual violence? [published simultaneously at Feminist Mormon Housewives]
In part 1 of this piece, I introduced the Wobblies’ iconic approach to ‘solidarity unionism’, and ways that we can take the lessons of class struggle literally in the joint fight against sexual violence. In part 2, I look at two examples of the role of feminism in anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian struggle.
Rape survivors organizing against capitalism
Most of what I would like to say here is said better, and from experience, by Liberté Locke, a barista and organizer of the Starbucks Workers Union (IWW), in her piece “My Body, My Rules”. I’ll make extensive references to her account in this post, but it’s worth just reading it in its entirety first.
In my previous piece (Part 1), I argued that abusers often learn how to abuse by brutalizing women, and then afterwards branch out to brutalizing men. This is obviously overly schematic, but it’s one more reason why men might want to face down misogyny from the beginning instead of letting it take root – because it comes back to bite us eventually, too. It also helps us to understand oppression in its more generalized forms (i.e. modern capitalism), so we should pay special attention to the sexist or racist origins of some kinds of violence if we want to be able to achieve liberation for everyone. And that’s not a bad basis for ‘solidarity’ between genders in the fight against sexual violence even when we recognize that men and women have dramatically different experiences and risks.
I’ll begin with the ways feminism can help us develop a general theory of oppression.
Liberté Locke starts her essay this way:
I was raped by a boyfriend on August 18th, 2006. The very next day I held back tears while I lied to a stranger over the phone about why I was unavailable to go in that day for a second interview for a job that I desperately needed. When I hung up the phone I saw a new text message. It was from him. “It’s not over. It will never be over between us…”
The next day I went in for the second interview. It was inside of the Sears Tower Starbucks in Chicago. I took the train to the interview constantly looking around me and shaking. I needed work. I had just been fired from Target two weeks prior and had no prospects. I knew I would have to go through a metal detector in order to enter the building so despite every instinct in my body I did not bring a knife with me.
She got that job, and Liberté eventually became one of the most active and notorious organizers of the IWW Starbucks Workers Union in New York City. Where mainstream ‘business unions’ have decided that the high turnover and low-paying service sector is too difficult or unrewarding to unionize, the IWW is trying to fill the gap and support organizing among the ‘unskilled’ and low-wage workers that make up the majority of America’s postindustrial workforce (this is essentially the same thing that happened a hundred years ago, which was why the IWW was originally founded. With the IWW, Liberté fought for wage increases, health care, the right to organize, and an end to sexual harassment. But once a year, on the date of her hiring, she has
annual reviews where I generally get to argue with someone younger than me who makes significantly more than do about why my hard work, aching back, cracking hands, sore wrists, the bags under my eyes, the burns, the bruises on my arms, the cuts on my knees, the constant degrading treatment by the customers, the “baby, honey, sugar, bitch”, the “hey, you, slut…I said NO whip cream!”s, the staring, the following after work…I get to argue why all that means I’m worth a 33cent raise rather than 22cents.
Liberté says this annual review is the one reason why she still remembers the anniversary of her rape.
Ultimately, she argues that throwing an abusive boyfriend off your back and organizing at work are similar tasks, and carry similar risks:
After nearly six months of therapy we hit a revelation. He was always manipulative, always verbally abusive. He preyed on my self-esteem and wanted me miserable so that I felt I needed him. So I’d crave his approval and attention. The few days leading up the assault I had started standing up for myself, not taking his shit as much. Refusing sex when I thought he was being an asshole when in the past I would had caved even after he would insult me. My therapist presented the idea that he raped me because he felt he was losing his control over me. It was meant to break me…as you would a horse.
Through therapy I started to feel like I was worth something and that he was the sad loser. Not me. He wanted something from me and getting that something wasn’t enough. He wanted my spirit and body. Ownership over things uncontainable.
When I started to feel stronger and less afraid I really stopped being able to put up with rude customers. Not putting up with rude customers meant facing the bosses’ wrath when the customers complained which then meant I had to stand up to my bosses. Finally the real opportunity came and not wanting to live as a victim anymore took the form of signing a union card with the Industrial Workers of the World.
The bosses were very manipulative. Abusing you for many shifts in a row, refusing you breaks, calling you stupid, promoting people that sexually harassed you, giving you schedules that made sleep impossible, refusing raises based on petty things like whether you always remembered to wear the required black socks or cover your tattoos. Then when we started organizing they would do this behavior for days and suddenly throw a pizza party. The majority of workers would thank the boss and talk for weeks about how much they really cared about us. How kind they were. How lucky we were.
Suddenly all the abuse faded away and grudges were dropped. Bosses were welcomed back into group conversations and invited to baby showers.
I see no difference between this scenario and the boyfriend hitting his girlfriend in the face and then showing up with flowers & candy and the cycle starting all over again.
Boyfriends and Bosses
In his books Endgame and The Culture of Make Believe, Derrick Jensen writes about abuse. He draws from his own experience being beaten and raped by his father, and seeing his father do the same to his mother and sister. In Jensen’s books, “abuse” is a general term: it is what brutal cops do to people of color; it is what Coca-Cola CEO’s do to India’s aquifers; it is what Rumsfeld does to Iraq; it is what rapists do to women; it is what bosses to to baristas. The slippage is intentional, but it can be disorienting at first. After all, we live in a world (finally!) where a strange man raping a woman he does not know in a parking lot is called a ‘criminal,’ whereas a hedge fund manager whose home is financed by the clearcutting of hundreds of acres of Indonesian rain forest is ‘successful’, and a middle-level manager who tells a distraught employee to get back to work is ‘proactive’ and ‘effective.’ But Jensen’s Great Big Insight is that these are all forms of abuse. And, furthermore, that these forms of abuse are intimately related. They are related because abusers use the same tools to get away with exactly as much as they calculate they can get away with – and they sharpen those tools on women and the earth. As Liberté puts it, the purpose of organizing is to stop abusers’ “use of our bodies for their own desires”. And –I risk repeating myself– our job as men, if we don’t want to risk getting cut, is to stop the sharpening before it starts. Women carry the scars to tell us what the blade is like; when it is likely to strike; what we will feel when it begins to slice; and perhaps, how to fight back.
The Politics of Gender in Occupy Nashville
One axis of oppression is not more important than another.
But in the breathless post-2011 world, where for once class warfare might swing in the favor of the workers rather than the bosses, where even people that know better suspend their judgment and chant “we are the 99%” as though we really all were in the same boat, just because it makes such a handy slogan. . . in this atomized and until-recently-hopeless world, where we all crave a Big Movement that can make some Big Changes, it can be tempting to choose simplistic ‘unity’ over the more challenging road of solidarity.
First, I should point out that women have been at the forefront of Occupy Nashville since the beginning – facilitating, direct action planning, getting arrested, running jail support, fundraising, and everything else. It’s also worth pointing out that the consensus process Occupy is so famous for was developed by the pioneers of the Women’s Liberation movement; in many ways we are already, structurally, a profoundly feminist movement. That’s one of the reasons it has been so tragically ironic and disturbing that so much sexism persists in our encampments and working groups.
I’ve been operating in ‘activist circles’ for a few years now, and the misogyny I encountered while joining Occupy Nashville was a shocking reminder of how deep the wounds of sexual violence are in our society. In the fairly utopian activist circles I’m used to, fighting patriarchy is usually about making sure men don’t interrupt women or dominate the speaking time in meetings, but in the cross-section of broader society I encountered in Occupy Nashville, misogyny is deeper and more pernicious. I wasn’t ready to deal with the constant threat of sexual assault, the open and sneering dismissal of female occupiers as second-class, as hysterical, as bitches, and if they ever brought it up, as “femi-nazis” (in the most recent example I’m thinking of, the recipient of this verbal abuse was both female and Jewish from a holocaust-survivor family). Interrupting was just the tip of the iceberg.
We had a sexually-aggressive man living at the encampment, who was arrested during our battle to defend Nashville’s Legislative Plaza for free speech on October 27th and 28th. A woman confronted him and other men leapt to his defense; I found myself in a pizza parlor with a group of friends berating her for being too confrontational, insisting and that he was ‘a good guy’. She didn’t back down, and at some point the tension had mounted enough to spark a re-evaluation, and I realized that now could be my chance to do things right for once, after all the dozens of times I had gotten it wrong, been complictly or unwillingly recruited into the Brotherhood of All Men, stood with the abuser instead of the abused, and been called out for it. I told her she was right. I told the other men that she was right. In the end, we all agreed that he wouldn’t stop unless we stopped enabling him and covering for him. I include this story to point out that while the gender politics I’ve seen at Occupy Nashville are sometimes overwhelmingly bad, there is hope, and people are changing (though that change can be arduous and painful).
Occupy Nashville’s problem has not just been that women get abused there. More broadly, our problem is that when men and women call out that abuse, they are told that ‘that’s not what this movement is about’ and that feminism is a distraction from our larger goals, the goals that supposedly unify all of the 99%. While this kind of dodging doesn’t always fly, it works surprisingly often. When it does, the supposed nobility of the larger movement-at-hand acts as a free license for us to act out our internalized misogyny unchecked. That’s when, for all its sometimes-utility as a combative slogan, “we are the 99 percent” backfires. In those moments it becomes a tool used against women rather than a tool for inspiring democratic experiments.
On the many contentious email threads of Occupy Nashville, we are often admonished to ‘leave feminism out of this’; or, if the author doesn’t want the liability of being specific, just to ‘leave our agendas at the door’ and (it always seems to be white men saying this) ‘focus on our core issues’ – presumably, the twin goals of getting money out of politics and ending corporate personhood, rather than the issues of ending identity- or body-specific violence, like that against women, people of color, or people overseas. [I assume that other activists are familiar with these online flame-wars, but if you’re not, thank your luck and read on.] While few if any of those people calling for feminism to be ‘left out of this’ in Nashville are anarchists, this is something in anti-authoritarian circles that we refer to as “manarchism” – essentially, the idea that your anticapitalist militancy is so badass that you don’t have to treat others with kindness or take feminism seriously.
Abusers are the 1%
There’s not an easy solution to this problem. Some say it is what tore apart the Black Panther Party and SDS back in the late 60′s, and even after the ‘successful’ Cuban revolution women have spent the last 50 years struggling to approach full equality with men. But how about we try this: if you’re an abuser, you aren’t with us. You may not be rich, but you’re on the side of the 1%. That’s because the tools you’re collecting, sharpening, and deploying are the tools that make inequality possible and durable; some bosses use those tools to entrench economic injustice and political corruption, and other bosses use them to make sure that women can’t leave the apartment after they get raped. If our goal is to experiment with democracy and create a radical alternative to the hierarchical government and economy that disregards the poor and powerless, feminism can’t be an afterthought. Let’s start there, walking with women like Liberté and the women of Occupy Nashville and learning from them how to identify the enemy and how to make him run.
[apologetic note: I’ve written this piece in pretty heteronormative language (I talk a lot about women and men, rather than about queer folks of all kinds). That’s not because I’m intentionally trying to exclude trans or gay people from this discussion; I’m just still trying to figure out how to think and write about that aspect, and thought I would start with where I’m at now.]