27. nov. 2011

Safety in a Very Complex Movement

"Patriarchal sexual division of labor, according to
 which household and caring work should be done by
 female activists, while male activists should take over
 technical and intellectual tasks, would catch the
 movement lying faster than what it is being
 unsuccessfully accused of by cynical commentators
 for this whole time; it 'doesn’t know what it wants'
 because of its name fight for. Something else would
 also catch the movement lying: its inability to create
 a public space, where members of sexual, ethnic,
 class and other minorities would feel safe; so a place 
 where they—we—are not afraid of
 alienation or/and violence."

I arrived in Ljubljana the day after protesters occupied the platform in front of the Ljubljana Stock Exchange. Activists talked about mass participation, about variety of people and different calls that marked the protest on 15 October, and about the support granted after a successful occupation of this place that became public only because of it. I started searching for photos in the Internet to find out what I missed and I found a photo showing a female activist sweeping the floor between tents in front of the stock exchange building in one of the most popular media. I completely overlooked the figurative meaning of the photo (Sln. “sweeping in front of “foreign” doorstep” meaning ‘mind one’s own business’, which is ‘foreign’ only because it finally alienated the excess value of our work from us) because I had my mind on the thought that the media wanted to reduce the meaning of the new political space and public being created in any way or another.

There were readers who equated the photo with the actual division of work in the movement being created and the photo confirmed their suspicion that it should not be taken seriously because it uncritically copies behavior patterns calling for a popular feminist graffiti from the time of Socialism: “Proletarians from all lands, who washes your socks?” Female readers and certainly some male readers, whose beliefs were only made stronger by the photo that the presentations of women in Slovenian media are terrible, continue to support the movement anyway that tries to function in an egalitarian and inclusive way. Patriarchal sexual division of labor, according to which household and caring work should be done by female activists, while male activists should take over technical and intellectual tasks, would catch the movement lying faster than what it is being unsuccessfully accused of by cynical commentators for this whole time; it “doesn’t know what it wants” because of its name fight for. Something else would also catch the movement lying: its inability to create a public space, where members of sexual, ethnic, class and other minorities would feel safe; so a place where they—we—are not afraid of alienation or/and violence.

I kept returning in front of the stock exchange and saw women and men switching their tasks and hanging out: female activists were sweeping, opening cans, chopping vegetable, making tea and offering it to passers-by who stopped to chat, or to what Mrs. Ana did who brought two jump ropes (“This will warm you up when you’re cold.”), candles (“For more pleasant atmosphere.”), and a home-made strudel with a promise it will be followed by new ones “if you will like it and so that my support won’t be only moral”. Some female activists moderated autonomous gatherings, initiated and led workshops, made and distributed leaflets, edited and wrote the www.15o.si blog, transported chairs from Metelkova City to the stock exchange, changed gas bottles and did (more than) what guys did. Despite the impression that everything is ok, I asked some of my new and old female acquaintances if they felt safe in front of the stock exchange; among them a sociology student, a writer, a doctor and an artist-single mother who cried after the first night of work in a new club in Ljubljana* because hostesses were harassed and inappropriately touched. Some of them were surprised why they shouldn’t feel safe. The others didn’t understand what I wanted to find out and I said that I wondered how it looked like to share a tent with people you didn’t know, especially with men. And about the fact that police watched you day and night. I added I understand that the occupation is something special, that you are enthusiastic, that you smell a revolution like you smell winter coming, and that everything seems cool to you because of all that.

“It’s too cold to sleep in a tent,” said the first one. “I’m here only when I’m on duty and I do it with my friends.”

“The police don’t interfere, except when writing punishments to guys who peed around the corner,” said the second one laughing and added that at gatherings, when discussing general behavior rules, it was clearly stated that a respectful attitude toward all participants is expected and alcohol is discouraged because they want to avoid violence.

I was wondering if they had to deal with homophobia, sexism, racism, and attacks on other minorities who would require more rigid rules in front of the stock exchange. My acquaintances shook their heads and I was happy that my questions about Ljubljana went in the wrong direction.

On Tuesday, 15 November, an incredible month of ‘the fight for’ passed by. During the “month walk” past the court, the bank Nova ljubljanska banka and the parliament which was attended by, as reported, about hundred people, I sat at work and remembered Angela Davis’s solidarity statement to activists in New York. Black activist, lesbian, once a member of the Black Panthers and American KP, which investigates “the prison-industrial complex”, which she experienced on her own skin, said to them: “You’re changing political space. You’ve revived our common desire. You reminded us that protest groups could still be created. You are devoted to collective work and you reject class, ethnical, and sexual hierarchies.” She added that the decision for a collective act, a unified protest, brought great responsibility, because we had to find an answer to the question how to combine forces without oppressing or simplifying complex relationships between individuals involved in the movement. How to create a complex and emancipating community? Angela Davis answered it with a quote by a black lesbian and feminist poet Audra Lorde: “Tolerance is not enough; we have to understand differences as being a source of inevitable polarity, where our creativity dialectically appears. She concluded that only in a complex community we could say “yes to life, yes to happiness, yes to community, yes to education—free education—yes to equality, yes to imagination, yes to creativity, yes to hope, and yes to future.”

A long list of workshops, discussion, statements, and public appeals moved to the 15o.si web site in just a month. But among them I still miss what Angela Davis talked about (the discussion on traps of simplified impressions about the movement as something homogenous) and even more the discussion on how division of labor affects women, especially older women, poor women, lesbians, and women from ethnic minorities in Slovenia. Because the person who proposes a new event at gatherings is expected to (co)organize it, I could conclude there are neither feminists nor lesbians in the Ljubljana movement, who are willing to talk about it. I didn’t give a chance to the possibility that feminism in Slovenia is unnecessary because we, women, as I often hear, have achieved equality a long time ago. I rather wondered if this means that the 15o movement is not inclusive enough despite all this or that other female activists have different priorities or that feminists and lesbians are invisible because there is to little of us and because we aren’t connected to each other?

Even in towns where feminist and related groups help to create a movement (I mainly observed how American groups function), more attention to safety of all participants was paid only when it turned out it was hard to ensure safety at large-scale gatherings, which is evidenced by numerous reports on intimidation, harassment, and also rapes. Some movements have agreed on principles and practice of safe gatherings before the sexual assault occurred but it was clear that even the most well-intentioned statements couldn’t stop violence, and female activists therefore organized separate tents for sleeping, in which men were not allowed. In some places, female experts were invited to participate and then they led workshops on consensus, on supporting victims of sexual violence and abuse, on handling racism, and on ways how to oppose domination techniques and male chauvinism. What do American activists imagine under the term “a safe gathering”? The Women Occupy group from New York defined it as a chance for women “to initiate discussions on the effects of social inequality, to participate in them, direct them and also conclude them” and as “a possibility for them to do all this in an environment without police violence, without sexual harassment, and without objectification. We need women in the fight,” group members concluded, “but all mentioned takes power away from them.”

On the Occupy Patriarchy! web site, feminist activist Lucinda Marshall analyzed decisions and the language of statements, with which activist groups responded to cases of sexual violence in their midst. She also discussed the case from Glasgow, Scotland, where a group of men raped a minor girl. The first reaction of the Occupy Glasgow group? Minors were banned from sleeping overnight in the occupied park, which means they rather punished the more vulnerable ones (minors and thus indirectly also the rape victim) than provided safety for all participants. Moreover, activists distanced themselves completely from the crime and the victim in their first statement. Her sex was not mentioned at all (“we regret injustice caused to a person in the park”), and they wrote about “an alleged sexual assault” instead of a group rape. Considering activists’ comments arguing that this was an isolated case and couldn’t be generalized to the entire movement, it wasn’t difficult to conclude that many people were more concerned about bad reputation of the movement than abuse of the girl. This statement was replaced by another one overnight. They wrote in it that they extensively discussed “this despicable and unacceptable crime and its consequences” at the gathering on 26 October and that they are obliged to strictly observe safety rules established at the beginning of the movement. They organized a vigil for the victim and asked local feminist and LGBTI groups to join the movement. This means that these groups weren’t visibly involved in the Occupy Glasgow movement until then. I couldn’t find out why not and if they accepted the invitation, which must have sounded quite bitter, if we take into account that activists remembered a minority in their circles only when they had to face brutal consequences of sexism. “A movement that allows sexism discourages women from participating and when women leave the movement, only men—including sexist men—speak on its behalf,” said Lucinda Marshall in the end.

We know what follows: in groups dominated by men, sexual harassment is fast reduced to the victim’s “personal problem” and, in economic discussions, the respect of sexual division of labor is considered as “moving away from the problem” or as “a particularization of the problem”, which is class-oriented “in its basis”. Slavoj Žižek played the same tune at Wall Street saying that the western left first gave up “the so-called essentialism of class struggle” and replaced it with numerous anti-racist, feminist and similar struggles, but now it appears that “the correct name” of the basic problem is, however, capitalism. Well, as it seems, patriarchate, which is older than capitalism, will survive the latter without major troubles. If anyone, feminists and other minorities will cause trouble because they can’t agree on the homogeneity of the left and the dictate of the activist majority.

In the end it should be repeated that the actual egalitarianism and openness of each social system, including new political movements, is measured by the level of safety, support and integration felt and experienced by minorities and not by the majority. If we don’t want that contents, tactics and protest scene disappear from an activist repertoire, which are anyway excluded as personal, private, apolitical or trivial stuff by institutionalized understanding of politics, then the understanding of the term protest should also be changed so that it won’t only include mass demonstrations against injustice but also one’s will to search for alternative strategies of survival and of daydreaming about a very complex but better world for everyone.

The column was originally published in Slovene on November 24th 2011 in the Perspectives & Reflections section of LifeTouch, a project organised by Maribor -European Capital of Culture 2012.  

On December 2nd, it was re-published on the website of Radical Education Collective where 'occupy care' commented: "I think you’ve mixed up two different stories here. There was tragically a rape at Occupy Glasgow. But the woman was in her late 20s. The quote you mention has never come from us (the occupation was at that time in a Square not a park). You’re right that some people used the word ‘alleged’ when first talking about it, until better informed, as did (and does) much of the media. The statement agreed in a GA and published on the website is here: http://occupyglasgow.org/news/21-statement-from-occupy-glasgow-in-light-of-recent-events.html"

My reply: "Thank you for noticing my mistakes and simplifications. The Occupy Glasgow safer spaces policy says people staying overnight have to be over 18 years old. It is true, I did not manage to find information about the age of the rape victim and assumed too much by making a connection between the safe spaces policy and the rape. Occupy Patriarchy reports about a case of a minor (girl) raped in Dallas, so you are right to correct me – these were two different cases I shouldn’t have mixed. I apologize. I have quoted from the link you mention. Since I wrote the column in Slovene and the translator did not check the original quotes (or consulted me before putting the article online), the terminology (‘despicable and unacceptable crime and its consequences’) is inexact (Occupy Glasgow statement says ‘abhorrent and intolerable crime and its repercussions’). From what I understood, the occupation in Glasgow started (and the rape happened) in George Square and only later moved to Kelvingrove Park and the financial district. I do think that the latter two simplifications (‘park’ instead of ’square’ and the over-translation) do not disqualify my concern over safety in Ljubljana where the occupation continues, especially since it (safety) has not been seriously discussed yet, supposedly in good faith that informal exclusion, sexual harassment (or even rape) cannot and will not happen ‘here’."

*The name of the club deleted on December 13th 2011.

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