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(the following was sent to the Common Ground leadership and other allies in early 2006.)

This is it!

figuring out how to be Common Ground

Dear compañer@s,

I write in solidarity, several days after leaving New Orleans. I invite you to read this letter in the spirit it is written: with an open heart. I will make bold statements to attempt provocative clarity; please remember that I'm painfully aware everything is much more complicated than this.

Over the three weeks of my direct participation in the life and work of Common Ground, I interviewed over thirty people and experienced various aspects of the formal and informal process of the organization. I learned more about the history of New Orleans, the racist context in which the "disaster of Katrina was made a tragedy", and the incredible reservoirs of cultural resistance in its black communities. Along with every single person I spoke with, I believe that Common Ground is doing powerful and important work.

Common Ground is coming to the end of a period of intense external pressure and internal conflict, as the organization struggled to deal with thousands of college students on spring break. Many of the site coordinators and other organizers deeply involved in that work have decided to leave Common Ground at the end of March; some have left already. There are various reasons for this, but dissatisfaction with process and concern that important lessons aren't being learned is often mentioned as a critical reason for leaving earlier than otherwise anticipated.

This is not the first time there has been this kind of crisis, and Common Ground has continued to grow. For many of the founders and long-term organizers, there is significant concern that time “invested” in process and communication work (debriefing, conflict resolution, developing new structures) is a waste of energy; there have been repeated examples of “pointless fiascos” that seem to justify this perspective.

I understand this feeling. Common Ground has achieved all that it has not through agonizing attempts to develop the perfect process, but by leaping into the fray, mistakes and all, with whomever was willing to join. And Common Ground has achieved more than anyone thought possible, weaving together black and white radical traditions (and a whole bunch of regular folk) -- perhaps more substantially than any time in the last 40 years -- to create a small, partial, but functioning social economy that supports dozens of fulltime volunteers, assists thousands of residents, and provides remarkable scope to explore and demonstrate the social relations of the world we want to become. As Malik says, “No one's ever done this before”.

But it's just for that reason that I invite you to consider Common Ground's struggles around organizational structure and support, trust and power, communication and respect to be at least as important as the houses gutted and clients attended, the actions planned and media worked. In a global political and ecological emergency, isn't the the key question whether we the people will learn to organize ourselves effectively in a rapidly changing environment of many different perspectives, identities, and values? Common Ground has taken us a big step forward. We don't have time not to learn from our experiences, our successes, our mistakes. Common Ground may change deeply, it may cease altogether, or it may grow exponentially; regardless, the activists and organizers who spend a week or a year engaged will carry their lessons into a thousand other projects and movements.

May those lessons be as complete as we can make them.

I intend this letter to provide my brief initial reflection of the situation of Common Ground, some perspectives on how Common Ground is functioning, and specific challenges expressed by various parties. I will conclude with some suggestions based on input from a wide variety of participants in Common Ground, to stoke conversation. An appendix includes information on my biases and a list of people interviewed.

But before that, a final introductory word. The people I met and interviewed at Common Ground are without exception committed, passionate, thoughtful, curious, perseverent, energetic, and strong. I know that several of you have deep suspicions and antagonisms towards each other. I know that all of us are human, frail, and susceptible to numerous faults and failings. But I deeply believe that each of you deserve to be respected, and that with enough open humility, listening, and understanding (even as you work and organize and fight), you can help facilitate grassroots organization capable of building a soulful, healing N.Orleans. And if that, why not all of us the world?

Walking, we ask questions. May we learn from our many answers, many wisdoms, many voices.


I ultimately intend to complete a polyvocal “political ethnography” of Common Ground. Most of the interviews I conducted were recorded, and I intend to make excerpted transcriptions and the full audio of those interviews available on the web, along with summaries that draw out divergences and similarities. However, that will take time; I decided to write this letter to allow some of the helpfulness and relevance of your collaborative reflections to be available for you right away, even if through my own voice.

This, then, is only an initial summary sketch rooted in my verbal memory, to be shaded in more fully as transcriptions and deeper textual analyses become available. More importantly, I hope that this work may stimulate ongoing conversation(s), in voice and text and perhaps online.


Areas of agreement

Common Ground is doing remarkable work. Formed in the days after the Storm by Malik, Sharon, and a couple white activist allies, it has grown by leaps and bounds in ways no one planned or predicted. Initially made up of a small but rapidly growing number of white radicals and organizers from around the country camped out at Malik's house (and his neighbor's yard!), the organization initially focused on a free clinic, distribution work, and tarping roofs in Algiers. However, it has rapidly expanded in a staged series of "crises": first expanding primary relief activities across the river into the upper 9th ward; then drawing in hundreds of additional volunteers into the cramped new Pauline St. quarters with the Roadtrip for Relief over Thanksgiving; then another deluge of college students over Christmas break, combined with expansion into the little blue house in the lower 9th ward; and finally with the nearly concluded "Second Freedom Rides" alternative Spring break, with over 2000 short-term college student volunteers. Over the same period, relief work has expanded into other parts of New Orleans and the region: Houma, Plaquemines Parish, St. Barnard Parish, and the Art Egg in mid-City, with smaller projects in Gentilly and New Orleans East.

Despite repeated internal and external challenges, this pattern of continued expansion into areas of critical need has allowed Common Ground to distribute more food and water, gut more houses, and see more patients than other agencies in its areas of operation. This expanding practical relief work, so palpably appreciated by city residents, is repeatedly identified by CG participants as a key source of pride and a reason for continued engagement. Nonetheless, each crisis has also been associated with a wave of “burn-out” and the departure of significant numbers of organizers.

At the same time, CG has rapidly diversified the scope of its activities. Beyond the "distro, gutting, clinic" core of standard relief work, a whole host of projects have been launched as part of the organization, generally through the inspiration and instigation of a volunteer with a particular passion. Such additional projects range from legal advocacy to bike repair, from afterschool programs to a newspaper, from a media center to a women's shelter, bioremediation to worker's co-ops, (online) radio broadcasts to re-evacuation preparedness work. A large proportion of long-term CG volunteers that remain in the region are now primarily involved in these projects.


Divergent perspectives

What is Common Ground's organizational ethos? Here is an attempt to outline some of the paradigms I hear people use:

  1. (Moving towards) standard authoritarian leftist organization, seeking to subordinate and expand its base to propel the power (electoral or otherwise) of its leader(s). Commonly a perspective of relatively recently-arrived anti-authoritarians, many of whom leave CG or remain peripheral to its organizing.

  2. A grassroots relief organization with a locally-rooted leader, similar in form to other charities but more effective because of minimized bureaucracy and greater opportunities for innovation. Associated with many non-radical or "liberal" participants, apparently an increasing proportion.

  3. A network of relatively autonomous project collectives, experiencing significant miscommunications and occasional micromanagement by a centralized collective of long-time organizers. Aspects of this understanding described both by relative newcomers and by some organizers in leadership roles.

  4. An "anarcho-military" organization (without guns), in which limited authority is given or taken for specific needs and tasks, and the capacity for a "centralized push" in crisis situations is afforded those with the courage to undertake it. Aspects of this understanding described by various organizers in leadership roles.

  5. An organic, ever-changing family of committed individuals organized under the principle of collaboration despite differences ("common ground"), united by bonds of trust and respect, like the Black Panthers but always open to change. Aspects of this understanding described by many long-time or founding organizers.

I think Common Ground includes all these dynamics and more; that is part of what makes it work and keeps it so interesting, but it also leads to significant problems as the organization grows. Originally small enough for challenges and differences to be smoothed over by direct personal charisma and friendship, Common Ground has experienced successive waves of new organizers resulting in functionally subordinate infrastructures (eg. the housing sites) in which coordinators don't have strong personal relationships with the leadership, Malik in particular. While the distinction between the Collective and the Relief organizations has been used to identify this changing situation, there is still a great deal of miscommunication and confusion over who is part of the Collective and how it functions. Moreover, even full formal membership in a decision-making structure doesn't necessarily address the breakdowns in informal communication and engagement experienced during organizational growth.

I think how to address growth is the key organizational challenge facing Common Ground.

The distinction between Collective and Relief is an initial formal recognition of the structure that has emerged organically. However, another model with greater differentiation has recently caught on among Common Ground organizers: “1's” are short-term volunteers, one or two weeks; “2's” are longer term volunteers (work crew leaders, special project workers, etc.); “3's” are project and site coordinators; “4's” are mediators and liaisons between inner decision-making circle in Algiers and “3's”; “5's” are core advisors and decision-makers with Malik.

Clearly this analysis strikes a chord, and is true in some valuable ways. Some people respond positively, emphasizing the importance of clearly defined roles. Others respond with resignation or distaste, particularly organizers that come from non-hierarchical political traditions. Even though most are willing to "endure" the foreign organizational form in the interest of solidarity, they experience intense personal angst and discomfort with it. This amplifies the difficulties all large organizations have with communication with the “higher-ups”, especially since many such organizers have little experience working with hierarchical organizations except to leave and/or attack them.

However, I think that what's crucially important, and is missed by the oversimplistic “1” to “5” analysis, is that Common Ground's “hierarchy” is exceptionally loose, fluid, and dynamic. Compared to most organizations of its size, there is remarkable access and engagement between different “layers”, opportunities for autonomy and innovation, and little workplace discipline or “class” distinctions in terms of living conditions or workload. Many organizers with a background in black radical or other more hierarchical traditions find the situation inefficient or presumptuous; it's a testament to the commitment and open-mindedness of everyone involved with Common Ground that they are willing to be engaged with such unfamiliar processes.

Example concerns of “3's” and responses of “5's”:

Important decisions are frequently made by central organizers (particularly those on West Bank) with limited direct experience or knowledge of “facts on the ground”. This undermines effectiveness of decisions. Relatively new and inexperienced (not to mention young and white) coordinators are expecting a level of authority that is inappropriate and that would undermine the capacity of the organization to be truly responsive to community needs, which are best known and understood by Malik and others.

Some members of core leadership yell at, and otherwise disrespect site coordinators. They do not show any understanding of the amount of work done, provide organizational support, etc. Coddled young privileged activists need to learn the world doesn't revolve around their needs, and if they're not up to the task they're welcome to leave.

Organizational decisions and practices effectively disregard health and safety (esp. of short-term volunteers). While as much as possible has been done to provide protection and medical support, short-termers are told they're entering a disaster zone, and it's presumptuous and patronizing to argue that college students should expect a danger-free experience when residents and long-term volunteers have had to, and will continue to endure far worse for much longer.

Example concerns of “5's” and responses of “3's”:

By threatening “strike action,” site coordinators are breaking solidarity both with the founders of Common Ground and the people of New Orleans. Without dramatic measures, central leadership is unresponsive to repeated pleas for help and suggestions for workable solutions to pressing problems, through the standard channels (ie. “4's” and coordinators' councils).

Organizers and activists with concerns and practical suggestions complain among themselves, rather than coming and discussing matters with Malik and others, or going out and implementing changes directly. There's no time; coordinators are drowning in work load! Moreover, a culture of distance, being overruled, and being scolded for 'insubordination' undermines confidence that new ideas will meet with organizational support.

Young white activists seem unwilling to recognize the need to follow local leadership of color and to learn humbly from some of the most experienced black radical organizers in the country. Local leadership is not fostering engagement of other community members in organization, undermining implementation of “solidarity not charity” and interactions outside of white volunteer subculture.

These and similar concerns and the responses to them have not yet found an adequate vehicle for expression and mutual understanding in Common Ground. Instead, they tend to be repeated over and over “to the choir”, reinforcing polarization, reducing the prospect of authentic communication when engagement does happen, and undermining opportunities for creative solution of problems and transformation of the organization. Many people on various “sides” of the divides feel insulted, angry, and frustrated by this pattern.

There is no easy or pat solution to this kind of problem, involving both organizational structure and personal relationships. But I think there are strategies that will help. I suggest a clear recognition that Common Ground is multiple things at once, a commitment to address issues that seem opaque or minimal from one's own perspective, and a willingness to try multiple modes of solution to a given problem. For example, breakdowns in communication can be addressed as they might be in a hierarchical structure (regular opportunities for reports, consistent feedback from leaders, creation of human resources infrastructure), and also in more informal ways (actively encouraging socializing across banks of the river, autonomously creating a new project focused on relationships, facilitation, organizing subs, and providing other forms of communication support).

Indeed, there continues to be deep commitment among Common Ground's leaders to a spirit of inventiveness and change, even as the scale of the organization makes it more challenging. This offers an incredible opportunity to organizers and activists from a variety of traditions to try out various tactics in a spirit of respect, camaraderie, and serious engagement with the questionable sustainability and potential for growth of our alternatives to Empire.

In that spirit, I close by offering the following ideas for new roles towards a more sustainable Common Ground, potentially grouped together as a “social ecology” project:

Plug-in person(s): Receives volunteer information from registration, meets with long-termers to get a sense of skills/availability, keeps database/rolodex of “personnel” and “job openings”, recruits internally (perhaps externally as well) for needed roles, solicits identifiable short tasks from project groups, etc.

Facilitation crew: Coordinates facilitation trainings, directly facilitates important meetings, etc.

Communication liaison(s): Focused on listening to concerns, gripes, frustrations, suggestions, affirmations, etc. and communicating in appropriate ways (respectfully, efficiently, directly) to relevant other parties; known, trusted, and respected position.

Ethnohistorian: Solicits, collects, archives, and presents various internal and external perspectives on structure, work, and lessons of Common Ground. Could include role of communicating history and dynamics of organization to newcomers, allies, and community members.

Sustainability support: Organizing substitutes for days off, (co-)counseling, R&R opportunities, massages, etc. Could include providing short regular news summaries of developments in Common Ground, N.Orleans, and the world (easy to feel cut off).

Conflict resolution (post-emergency): Developing group agreements, providing mediation, scaling up into group process (only) as necessary.

en la lucha,

.brush 3/22/06

Reflexivity and bias

Brush: white male radical activist and thinker, 30 years on this planet.

Personal political history: rooted in a wide variety of North American approaches and movements, from the anti-authoritarian white subcultures of forest defense, squats, train hopping, and street blockades, to the anarcho-patriarchal legacy of the rainbow gatherings; from global justice summit-hopping convergences to long-term wobbly union salting; from forming student housing coops to living and working with “informal settlement” organizers in South Africa; from academic conferences to lumpen crime; from spiritual wisdom traditions to apocalyptic revolutionary Christianity; and many things in between.

Global analysis: world history (for the last 500 years dominated by an emerging white supremacist, capitalist global Empire) is entering a period of deep uncertainty: apparently hard external limits to growth and resulting internal instabilities offer opportunities for unexpected, potentially positive systemic disruption and change.

Operating dogma: to be agile enough to respond to rapidly changing conditions, and to be capable of exponentially growing coherence in favorable circumstances, our primary work is to learn to build resilient, redundant, effective, and articulate relationships between the foci of transformation in all kinds of movements, communities, identities, and ideologies.

Self-appointed role: one part diplomat, one part anthropologist, and one part witch, with a side of self-management consultant. (But never happy without my hands and feet dirty.)

A partial list of interviewees.

(for audio recordings, see this index)

Recorded (in no particular order):







































(* limited scope)

Posted Fri 09 Nov 2018 06:33:20 PM PST

Dangerous Questions: Politics Beyond "Denunciation"

An open letter

May Day, 2014

Dear Kristian,

I was dismayed by your article, "The Politics of Denunciation." Dismayed because the story it tells leaves little political room to move towards our shared intention: stronger cultures of accountability that more effectively reduce sexual assault and intimate wounding.

Your article was widely propagated, and in some cases misused. But I assume that many readers resonated with it because they are frustrated by the tearing asunder of radical communities into camps that seem not to be able to speak to each other.

I write to you, and to those readers, to describe what I think it will take to talk across that divide: empathy made practical. I argue that the most effective way to engage the practice of a politics beyond denunciation, is not by demanding that survivors and their allies humanize those that hurt them, but by growing political contexts in which we're able to trust each other enough to ask dangerous questions.

I was dismayed by your article, because I share many of your concerns and desires. I have worked in this letter not so much to refute your arguments, as to open a doorway of mutual understanding. My hope is that you and others will read it, share it, and respond to it in kind.

Show/hide full text

Framing for others reading over our shoulders

This letter is a response to Kristian Williams' "The Politics of Denunciation", available here.

His article responded, in turn, to the statement by the organizers of the 'Patriarchy and the Movement' event in Portland in February last year, available here.

Both pieces focus on the uproar at the event when Eleanor presented a written statement she and Geoff wrote in response to criticism of the behavior of a prominent local and national organizer, Pete. The full statement is available here.

During the event, Pete's behavior was described as undermining survivors involved in an accountability process. Pete, Geoff and Eleanor have all affirmed that Pete made mistakes. I do not know the details of the process Pete was involved in, and this letter does not speak to them. Rather, it examines the impact of how they were represented during the event, the fallout since then, and what it would take to discuss accountability differently. In effect, "Pete" is being used as a stand-in for a generic powerful man who has made mistakes dealing with accountability. I think the framework and suggestions I outline are appropriate regardless of what a person like Pete did or didn't do, regardless of the accuracy or intentions of any of his critics.

I consider myself friends and comrades with all of those named, and at least one of the organizers, as well as many others impacted by the fallout over the last year. I am using names when they're already all over the web, to emphasize that among other things this is a circle of living relationships. I appreciate the conversations that have already happened, and intend that by making part of it visible, others may join us in finding a way forward.

Caveats and confessions

I write as someone who has been working to facilitate feminist transformation in radical communities -- and specifically accountability processes -- for almost 15 years in Portland. I write as someone who has been called out for causing wounds in close personal relationships, and participated in an accountability process connected to my patriarchal behaviors and my fuckups. I write as someone who has been a co-facilitator over the last year and a half of an accountability process that connects some of the people near the core of the conflicts described here (though none of those named).

I write as someone radicalized as a feminist, for whom the wounds of patriarchy are visceral and at the heart of my antagonism to the empire. I write from my experience and assessment that unless we get much better at growing organizing cultures that transform patriarchal attitudes and behaviors -- that proactively heal wounds among us as well as "out there" -- we will be ineffective at most other things. I write with male privilege: not to debate what women and survivors should or shouldn't say, but to stoke a conversation about what allies can do to be most effective.

I could not attend the 'Patriarchy and the Movement' event, though I was excited about it. I have not kept up on the Facebook wars or many of the other online disputes, though friends have told me stories. I do not pretend to represent the event organizers; I will not even represent myself perfectly. I have been confused about what to think and how to respond, as have many others. In working with and through that confusion, I'll take some risks; but because confusion is also an appropriate response to this murky and wrought antagonism, I'll stay open to learning and changing. I ask that you help, as readers, by investing in generosity.

Context matters

I begin by looking in more detail at our understanding of the moment with which "Denunciation" begins: Eleanor reading the questions in the statement, and the response of the audience.

The article launches its political argument by excerpting an extended post from the organizers of the event, available here. The selection is interpreted as follows: "[T]he 'Patriarchy and the Movement' organizers declare certain questions off-limits... These questions cannot be asked because, it is assumed, there is only one answer, and the answer is already known. The answer is, in practice, whatever the survivor says that it is."

Immediately before the excerpt, however, the organizers say: "The “questions” within the pre-written statement did not appear to actually be questions for discussion; rather, these were the type of “questions” which in of themselves asserted a conclusion, and a certain line... The conclusions, or political lines, that these “questions” asserted are lines that are classically used by perpetrators and/or those supporting [them.] ... [T]his “political disagreement” was asserted in a specific context of responding to X being called out... as a way to shield [him]." The post elaborates in detail the way that hearing the statement by Eleanor and Geoff, in that context, was triggering for some in the room and deeply unsettling for many. "The room seemed to fall apart in this moment."

The way I read this, they are not arguing that any specific issues are out of bounds for political discussion. Rather, they are explaining why they think the context turned the political effect of the statement into something hurtful. This is important, because it offers another way to understand the organizers, and the way forward: rather than excluding conversations about accountability, choosing appropriate contexts for them.

Context matters. Most of us will agree that political arguments do not exist in an abstract vacuum; they have meaning as part of a material process of evolving relationships. The same words "mean" different things depending on when and how they're spoken. The organizers are saying that, regardless of the intentions of the questioners, the effect was to undermine the legitimacy of those that were calling out patriarchal behaviors. I think their assessment of the effect on the bulk of the room is clear and persuasive, and lines up with what I've heard from others that were there, as well as the text of the statement that was read.

The statement was read in a large room of people, many of whom didn't have a strong personal or political relationship with Pete, Geoff, or Eleanor. Many had gathered based on a common experience of sexual violence in radical communities, and were opening up to each other in a vulnerable way. Just prior to Eleanor's reading, people had expressed personal stories of how they'd participated in or witnessed survivors being undermined, making such issues explicit in public. So when the statement says, "We do not consider a public forum to be a space where it makes sense to report our findings ... We are interested in moving away from personalized attacks on comrades and toward more general political lessons...," we can see how it was interpreted as deflecting attention from specifics about Pete and towards abstractions. This then colored the questions that followed, about survivors' role in accountability. It is to be expected the people in the room would hear them as undermining those most harmed.

I know Geoff and Eleanor, and believe that they are honestly committed to improving our ability in radical community to change patriarchal dynamics. In fact, I think they model admirable courage and humility in their public apology, where they repeat the basic point: "We can see how [reading the statement] was interpreted as an attempt to shield an individual and felt silencing." It was not their intention to do so, but "good intentions are not enough for good practice." (See this link.)

"Denunciation" starts with the argument that the audience at the event illegitimately shut down a reasonable set of questions, and that the organizers defended the shutdown based on a politics that pre-empts debate. It does not acknowledge that the audience was reasonable in interpreting Geoff and Eleanor's questions, in context, as undermining survivors.

I think this is crucial, if we are trying to understand how to change the overall pattern. I think this is the key moment to leverage change: the context in which we ask such dangerous questions.

Otherwise? Polarization is revealed and deepened, with reason.

Whose side are you on?

Why is it that the relatively interconnected political networks in Portland have felt so polarized to so many over the last year? For me, it's a familiar experience in the context of sexual assault and accountability. I think it's something we need to move beyond, but in order to do that I think we first need to understand more about why it happens.

"Denunciation" argues that the organizers of the event were in practice propagating a theory of dealing with accountability for sexual assault, in which a political community is duty-bound to enact sanctions demanded by survivors, without question. It implies that in general, this pattern means that when perpetrators are called out, the complexity of their humanity (and others) is reduced to a simple, comforting dualism; patriarchy as a system of oppression becomes depersonalized into roles, with a narrative of "right" and "wrong" that forces people to line up and denounce.

In my experience, this is not a theory or practice universally shared among those outraged and hurt at the event. Indeed, I think the "politics of denunciation" is out of touch with what the organizers actually argue. Everyone I know personally who's been doing sexual assault accountability work for more than a year or two, is far more nuanced and thoughtful than the article's caricature. Its oversimplification occludes this complexity, which is politically counterproductive.

But I also want say that there's truth in the story, too. Some people practice such a politics, at some times. More to the point, I've done it myself: I've been core support for a survivor, in a process trying to hold their former lover accountable, and when he waffled, when he backed away, we ostracized him in order to either force him to change or protect others. What you narrate is real, some of the time.

I want us to understand why people might do this. (There are many reasons; these are some.)

I'll take it as uncontroversial that we live in a society that structurally reproduces intimate wounds -- both through specific acts of violence, and through general patterns and collective scars. All of us experience this; those socialized as women tend to be hurt in ways that reinforce powerlessness, victimhood, voicelessness, isolation, and fear. Despite lip service, this continues in radical circles. Often, this takes the form of prominent men being granted the structural benefit of the doubt, and women relegated to tending wounds in private, or among each other, as "personal matters". This is the primary polarization, the source of the ensuing tensions.

So far, so good. Sounds like a zine we've all read a dozen times. Yawn

But do we get it? Words, especially abstract political language, feel insufficient to really get at the gutwrenching wounds caused by the interplay between intimate violence and patriarchal dominance of groups and process.

So here's an experiment.

Dear reader, if you're willing, please stop for a moment, close your eyes, and reflect on how damaging all this intimate wounding is. Use whatever personal experiences are relevant. Let it settle. Feel your feelings, in your body.


If you're like me, you'll get really sad, really angry, maybe scared, maybe fierce. This goes to the heart of the thing. To oversimplify, I think that at some level, I'll trust you if I can sense that you're outraged, too. That this feeling is central to how you respond to others' experiences of sexual violence. That you notice it, and won't sideline it, even if it's not as all-consuming for you as it can be for those most affected. This, I think, is what I and maybe others mean by "getting it".

When I "get it", I want to disrupt and overthrow that patriarchal pattern, by any means necessary. I want to support people that have been silenced and sidelined, by organizing in solidarity, by joining our voices together in clarity about what's not OK, and standing firm when the patterns of delegitimization emerge. If my comrades "get it", I expect them to join me. During times of "business as usual", they all agreed on general feminist principles; so I expect they'll respond in ways that I can recognize as supportive when the shit hits the fan.

If they don't, I feel betrayed, confused. Many with more personally traumatic wounds, feel profoundly unsafe. Still others never trusted the mostly male-assigned comrades that agreed on the theory, but didn't embody the empathy, and find this distrust confirmed. In this kind of environment -- the environment that many people experienced at 'Patriarchy and the Movement', and afterward -- the primary polarization is made visible.

If the response to this visibility isn't empathetic and open, there's a danger -- I've seen it many times -- of a drawn-out political impasse, exhaustion, and potentially the conclusion by many of those with most to lose that maybe it's better to just stay quiet. This, to me, is the worst outcome, an outcome that silences those whose voices we need to amplify most of all.

To avoid this outcome is why many people choose to defend themselves from those they don't trust.

If the choice has to be this: between depersonalizing and denouncing someone with power who repeatedly doesn't "get it" when the chips are down, vs. breaking solidarity with those who've faced their fears and stood up in outrage against patterns perpetuating patriarchy -- if that's the choice, the choice is simple. Denounce!

Asking questions

But I think we need to find a way beyond the two options above, beyond that desperate choice.

My hope: if you readers of this letter who resonated with "Denunciation", see that demonstrating practical empathy may create a context in which important questions can be asked, you may open to understanding your own responsibility in creating those conditions. Then, perhaps, self-defense on the part of survivors will be less necessary.

So, a risk. The organizers of the 'Patriarchy and the Movement' event were spot on: questions like those Eleanor and Geoff raised are often used as tools to destabilize feminist solidarity. And yet, I've had deep and heart-wrenching conversations with my closest accountability-process allies over just such ambiguities. I've been uncomfortable raising them publicly, because I don't want them to be misused against vulnerable allies.

But now I am. This is an exercise in experimental trust.

It goes back to context. If participants in a conversation can trust that the others "get it", then we can talk about questions in a profoundly different way.

On the one hand: answering the questions Eleanor and Geoff asked, as determined by the context they asked in, the event organizers wrote a well-argued set of answers that I encourage folks to read on their blog.

Now, on the other hand, I want to ask and answer questions that take the same form, but in what I hope can be a profoundly different context. In which you sense that I "get it". Where you trust that I am passionately committed to being survivor-centered. (By which I mean: prioritizing the experiences and needs of survivors, and the fabric of people, mostly women, who have been most wounded by patriarchy.)

Addressing survivors' needs starts with direct, tangible actions. But once the groundwork is done to sustainably meet those needs, I think the process can expand to include transforming those whose actions cause wounding. Creating such a culture involves working with complex, dangerous questions. Like these:

  • Why have the forms of accountability processes that we’ve seen in radical subcultures so regularly failed?

I have been part of ostracizing 'men who assaulted' in political community. Years later, rooted in many conversations with survivors, I have concerns about what we did. It did not result in the changes we wanted -- changes in the 'perpetrator', changes in our movements. And it contributed to effects we didn't want -- retraumatization of the survivor, and splits within radical communities that resulted in more 'rape-friendly' spaces that amplified patriarchal behaviors. This is far from the only way that processes "fail" -- and many "succeed" -- but it's part of the story.

  • Should we ostracize comrades who fuck up?

I think that statically defining some people as 'perpetrators', and then treating them as damaged goods (ie. 'demonization'), can be counterproductive to the kinds of change we need, because it creates an unrealistically simple image that there are good guys and bad guys. I think most of us are damaged, and cause wounds through patriarchy on a broad spectrum. More of us should be called out, more often, more easily. If we make the key criterion not whether people 'are fucked up' in a static sense, but whether they're willing to invest in good faith in listening to those who have feedback ('calling out'), to being open to change, and to doing the work needed to rebuild trust -- then I think we have a much better chance of actually transforming our radical cultures. With better, more effective ways to reduce harm, enforce change, and rebuild trust, ostracism can become a rare final recourse.

  • 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?

Rooted in some of the groups of a decade ago (esp. Philly's Pissed & Philly Stands Up), and many conversations with allied accountability-oriented feminists, I think that it can often be dangerous and unfair to survivors to lay primary responsibility for accountability on them. It should be on 'the community'. If at all possible, I think it is much better to have a group separate from the survivor support that is oriented to working with the 'perpetrator'/'assaulter'/'aggressor'/'person whose actions did harm' to help them heal the wounds with the community -- while, of course, being responsive to the needs of the survivor. This works best if both teams trust each other, and there's a larger political fabric that is experienced as supportive of feminist transformation.

If my risk pays off, then this is a different way of asking these questions. It gives them a contrasting political meaning: instead of, "It's not fair to attack Pete!", they say, "We can support survivors in ways that are resilient to mistakes by people like Pete." They say, "We can support Pete, in holding him accountable in ways everyone can see." Perhaps they even say, "Pete can be part of the solution!"

The only way these questions can be heard this way by survivors and allies, and changes can really happen in how we're accountable, is if we can build trust that we are actually centering survivors and the needs of those systematically oppressed by patriarchy. If readers use my vulnerable sharing above to undermine survivors, then you make it very hard to justify anything other than shouting you down. But if you use them as a doorway to understanding, then I welcome the questions we can ask, and answer, while walking together.

Taking actions

So to reprise: What does it take to build the trust we need? When it comes to working with intimate wounding, I think the questions are: Do you really 'get it'? Am I safe opening up to you -- as speaker, and listener? Are you going to hold my heart -- yes, with a strong political understanding of how patriarchy works -- but also in a way that takes my complexity and frailty generously, that is strong enough to stay there even when I'm off the wall, when I lose it, when my pain gets the better of me?

It's hard. I screw this up -- in my personal relationships, and my political ones. Maybe I'm screwing it up right now. But I keep trying.

I hope we can all keep trying. Especially those -- mostly silent -- who've been in the complex betweens, connected to all sides.

What does trying look like in practice? Some possibilities:

  • Action: Pete's comarades assess the context of the 'Patriarchy & the Movement' event better, and do not read the prepared statement, instead sharing how they empathize with the wounds of those that have spoken. Pete's allies listen carefully, and ask tangible questions about others' experiences, not abstract ones.

  • Action: The groups that have investigated the situation involving Pete share appropriate details, especially what mistakes Pete has made, what changes he has committed to, and how he's accountable to those changes.

  • Action: Allies who share a desire for a deep self-examination about accountability, work to build a discursive space in which more people wounded by patriarchy feel relatively safe having the conversation.

  • Action: Kristian and other skilled writers craft complex, nuanced depictions of the issues, demonstrating openness to learning, curiosity about where others are coming from, and empathy for those most harmed.

  • Action: I and other accountability workers get together early and often to find ways to make publicly visible the complex, dangerous work we've done, the doubts and confusions we have, and the passion we share for being responsible to bequeath healthier relationships to those that come after.

I do not focus on actions that could be taken by people most harmed, because I do not see building trust as primarily their responsibility -- nor is it my role to say what they should do. I'd encourage others with relative privilege around intimate wounds to focus on what we can do, rather than others. If "owning our shit" means anything, surely it means this.

Doing our part to rebuild trust.

Let's move our politics beyond denunciation. It's going to take work to get there; if you're willing. I'd like to do some of that work with you, growing a radical public conversation better rooted in mutual understanding and respect.

In solidarity and struggle, your friend and companer@, .brush


Posted Thu 01 May 2014 10:45:54 PM PDT

it's may day!

welcome to a new space for old urges, 
for sharing creativity 
that more may grow
for new urges
that grow in old spaces
deep in the soul of brushwork
deepen the sole
Posted Thu 01 May 2014 12:07:21 PM PDT