Ask Governor Brown to Sign AB 420 (banning suspensions/expulsions for “willful defiance” and for K-3 students)

UPDATE: Governor Brown signed this bill into law on Saturday, September 27, 2014.

AB 420 (California) is at the Governor’s Desk which would ban school expulsions for willful defiance for students in 4-12 grades and ban suspensions and expulsions for willful defiance for children in K-3 grades.  it would also encourage the use of restorative justice methods for school discipline.  This is important because children of color (particularly those with disabilities) are vastly disproportionately suspended and expelled for vague reasons such as “willful defiance.”   A suspension/expulsion dramatically increases the likelihood a student will end up in the criminal justice system.  And suspensions/expulsions have been shown to negatively impact overall school performance.

A fact sheet on AB 420 can be found here.

Please send a letter of support to Governor Brown by September 5.  Below is a sample letter:

The Honorable Edmund G. Brown, Jr.
Governor, State of California
State Capitol, First Floor
Sacramento, CA 95814
Fax: (916) 558-3160

RE:     Request for Signature for AB 420 (Dickinson) – Limiting School Removal for “Willful Defiance”

Dear Governor Brown:

[ORGANIZATION if any ] respectfully urges your signature on Assembly Bill 420 (Dickinson), which eliminates the most extreme uses of harsh discipline under the category of “willful defiance” by limiting its use as a ground for in-school and out-of-school suspension for children in kindergarten through 3rd grade and as a ground for expulsion. Instead, AB 420 encourages the use of alternative means to hold students accountable.  AB 420 is a strong step in the right direction and it will help reduce drop-out rates and save the state from wasting money on a failed remedy.

Sadly, California issues more suspensions than diplomas each year.  Far too many are for the one category of “willful defiance” (48900(k)), just one of 24 different ways to suspend a student.  It was identified as the most “severe” ground for 43% of all suspensions—more than any other grounds for suspension—and approximately 6% of all expulsions (about 500 expulsions) in California in 2012-13.   Under this subjective category, students can be suspended for up to 5 days or expelled from the school district and denied valuable learning time for anything from failing to turn in homework or follow directions, or not paying attention —and even for just one isolated incident.

This subjective category is being applied inequitably. Data released by the California Department of Education reveals a stunning inequity in the rates of school exclusion for African-American children and youth. One in seven African-American students are more than three times as likely to be suspended as white students. These disparities worsen as the grounds become more discretionary yet the punishment becomes more intensive. In fact, the number of out-of-school suspensions per 100 students for disruption or willful defiance was 3 times higher for African-American students in California when compared to white students.

Suspending pupils wastes money and has substantial economic and social costs for the state in lost wages and taxes, increased incarceration and violence, and lost human capital. One comprehensive study found that suspended or expelled students are 5 times more likely to drop out of school. Children who drop out cost the state $46 billion a year, including $12 billion in crime costs alone. Students who graduate from high school are more likely to be wage earners and less likely to become dependent on public assistance or become involved in the criminal justice system.

A suspended or expelled student is also 3 times more likely to be involved with the juvenile justice system within one year, compared to similar students. The state spends anywhere from $150,000 to $215,000 a year to incarcerate a juvenile, not including the cost of arrest, adjudication, or appeal. By comparison, the state will spend less than $8,000 per student on education in the coming year.

The State should take the lead in moving away from a failed solution.  More than two decades of research has confirmed that harsh school discipline does not work for students, schools or the state.   Contrary to perception, it does not improve student behavior.  In fact, it often exacerbates the problem, as the children who are most often disciplined for these offenses come from homes with the least supervision and have themselves experienced violence and other trauma.  Research shows that schools with high suspension rates are not safer; instead, they have a less stable school staff and are more chaotic. Finally, the bill does not impact the 23 other Education Code provisions for suspending students that are more clearly defined and teachers are still allowed to suspend from their classroom for up to 2 days this offense.

In conclusion, keeping young people in school results in high returns. It has a real economic impact on the health and safety of our communities in decreased crime and vandalism and increased chance that our young people will become graduates and wage earners. Society and the State of California will continue to pay higher costs in remedial education, clinical treatment, public assistance, and incarceration when we remove students from school instead of helping them.

Thank you for your consideration and (Name of Organization if any) respectfully urges your approval. If you require additional information, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Sincerely,

 

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Beyond the Pros and Cons of Trigger Warnings: Collectivizing Healing

Beyond the Pros and Cons of Trigger Warnings: Collectivizing Healing
Andrea Smith

When I used to work as an anti-violence crisis counselor full-time, a counselor in another agency confided in me that she was currently being battered by her partner. She did not want anyone to know, however, because she feared losing her job. “People won’t think I have my act together enough to be in this movement if they know what I am going through,” as she explained why she did not think she could tell anyone. She was part of an anti-violence movement that she did not feel would support her. She had to address this violence on her own.

I was part of a larger collective that organized human rights/legal training for Native boarding school survivors. Frequently, survivors would drive literally hundreds of miles to attend at considerable expense because they really wanted this information. But when they arrived at the training, flashbacks from their years of boarding school abuse literally prevented them from walking through the door. A healing movement for boarding school survivors was being created that did not actually create space for survivors.

I was teaching a class on gender/racial violence when I noticed that one student repeatedly look disengaged and distant during the class. I presumed they were not interested in the material until one day they confided that one of authors we had read had abused them. They had tried to keep this information to themselves because they wanted to be a “good” student, but they were finding it too difficult to stay engaged in the class. I had created a learning space on racial/gender violence where a survivor of violence could not participate.

There is a continuing debate about the politics and efficacy of trigger warnings within activist, social media and academic spaces. There are merits to the various arguments on all sides of this discussion. However, sometimes what is missed is the larger context from which trigger warnings emerged. In particular, this intervention emerged from the recognition by many of us in the anti-violence movement that we were building a movement that continued to structurally marginalize survivors by privatizing healing. We had built movements that were supposed to be led by bad-ass organizers who were “healed” and thus had their acts together. If we in fact did not have our act together, this was an indication that we had not healed sufficiently to be part of the movement. We built movements around an idealized image of who were supposed to be rather than the people we actually were. The result was that we created a gendered and capitalist split in how we organized. Healing was relegated to the “private” sphere and became unacknowledged labor that we had to do on our own with a therapist or a few friends. Once we were healed, then we were allowed to enter the public sphere of organizing. Of course, since we continued to have problems, we continued to destroy our own organizing efforts internally with no space to even talk about what was going on.

Indigenous organizer Heather Milton-Lightening once prophetically declared at an Indigenous Women’s Network gathering many years ago that our movements were shunning people who might have issues, such as substance abuse. She called on us all to embrace whoever wants to be part of our movements as they are rather than as who we think they should be. The challenge for us, she noted, is to build movement structures that take into account the reality of how personal and collective trauma has impacted all of us.

Thus, trigger warnings cannot be viewed in isolation. Rather, they are part of a larger complex of practices designed to de-privatize and collective healing. They came out of the recognition that we are not unaffected by the political and intellectual work that we do. These practices also recognized that the labor of healing has to be shared by all. Trigger warnings are one of many practices that insist that one does not have to be silent about one’s healing journey – that one’s healing can occupy public and collective spaces. And healing can only truly happen when we take collective responsibility for creating structures and practices that enable healing.

Of course, all organizing strategies and practices can be co-opted. As Dian Million so brilliantly details in Therapeutic Nations, the colonial state has attempted to co-opt indigenous healing movements by framing Indigenous nations as dysfunctional people requiring therapeutic healing provided by the state rather than as nations requiring decolonization. And yet, as she also details, the fact of this co-optation cannot make us lose sight of the interventions made by indigenous healing movements, particularly those made by indigenous feminists. In particular, these movements have demonstrated that historical trauma impacts us on the individual and collective level and that we cannot decolonize without centering the impact of trauma in our organizing. And as Million further argues, rather than privatize our traumas, how can we rearticulate trauma as a place from which to develop what she calls “felt theory”–a place from which to understand our social and political conditions?

Thus, in the case of trigger warnings in particular, it is certainly the case that this intervention can be and is misused. I have seen white students say they are “triggered” by having to hear about racism. The intervention of trigger warnings also often shifts from asserting a public space to organize around trauma to creating a safe space from it. But just as Christina Hanhardt shows us that there is no such thing as a “safe space,” Roxane Gay shows us that there are no such things as “safe words.” Trigger warnings as well as ANY organizing practice we develop will be co-opted in order individualize and domesticate its potential impact on movement-building. But this reality should not make us lose sight of our larger vision of building holistic movements for liberation.

In the end, the question is not really about the pros and cons of trigger words. The questions are around, what are the organizing practices and strategies for building movements that recognize that settler colonialism, capitalism, white supremacy and heteropatriarchy have not left us unscathed? How do we create spaces to experiment with different strategies, as well as spaces to openly assess and change these strategies as they inevitably become co-opted? How do we create movements that make us collectively accountable for healing from individual and collective trauma? How do we create critical intellectual spaces that recognize that intellectual work is not disembodied and without material effects? How do we collectively reduce harm in our intellectual and political spaces? And finally, how can we build healing movements for liberation that can include us as we actually are rather than as the peoples we are supposed to be?

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Special Education Advocacy

Below is a link to special education advocacy manuals from Disability Rights Legal Center.  After you put in your zip code, you can scroll to bottom an find “Education Advocacy Manual” in English and Spanish. DRLC is in California but most of the information will apply to most states since IDEA is federal.

http://www.disabilityrightslegalcenter.org/education-advocacy-program

To find information specific to your state, a good place to start is the Protection and Advocacy agency in your state. This link has the list of agencies by state.

http://www.acl.gov/Programs/AIDD/Programs/PA/Contacts.aspx

If you are in Inland Empire in California, feel free to contact me through the Disability Rights Legal Center at 909-460-2026 or Andrea.Smith@lls.edu

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Transformative Justice Strategies for Addressing Police/Vigilante/Hate/White Supremacist Violence

Los Angeles Incite!/LA COIL/Youth Justice Coalition/Dignity and Power Now/ People’s Education Movement/CURB

Principles/Concerns/Strategies/Models

Working Document
February 7, 2014

NOTE: These ideas have been generated from the Transformative Justice and White Supremacist Violence workshop held in LA (January 20, 2014) along with the twitter conversation that has emerged from it.  These groups do not necessarily endorse any particular strategy.  We recognize that what works in one community may not work in another community, and that some of these strategies may not work in any community.  The purpose of this document is to provide ideas and to spark the development of additional strategies that may help us think of ways to address white supremacist/hate/police/vigilante violence without relying on the criminal legal system.  This document will continue to grow as new ideas emerge.

Background Information
Transformative Justice emerged out of critiques of the criminal legal system’s response to gender violence and child sexual abuse.  There has been a growing movement to abolish the prison industrial complex because of its brutality, violence, and inability to address social problems in just manner.  Anti-violence advocates, however, have often relied on the criminal system as the primary strategy for ending gender violence. As a result, legislators could easily get “feminist” support for repressive anti-crime bills by putting violence against women provisions on them.  In response, increasingly more anti-violence organizers have resisted this co-option of the anti-violence movement by calling for strategies that address gender violence without relying on state violence.   Constantly, organizations began to develop strategies for community accountability that did not rely on the legal system.

One alternative to the criminal legal system has been the model of “restorative justice.”  “Restorative justice” is an umbrella term that describes a wide range of programs which attempt to address crime from a restorative and reconciliatory rather than a punitive framework.  That is, as opposed to the U.S. criminal justice system that focuses solely on punishing the perpetrator and removing him (or her) from society through incarceration, restorative justice attempts to involve all parties (perpetrators, victims, and community members) in determining the appropriate response to a crime in an effort to restore the community to wholeness. These models seem to have much greater potential for dealing with crime effectively because if we want perpetrators of violence to live in society peaceably, it makes sense to develop justice models in which the community is involved in holding him/her accountable.  Under the current incarceration model, perpetrators are taken away from their community and are further hindered from developing ethical relationships within a community context. The problem, however, with these models in addressing sexual/domestic is that they work only when the community unites in holding perpetrators accountable.  However, in cases of sexual and domestic violence, the community often sides with the perpetrator rather than the victim.   Thus, if we are going to develop “community” based responses to violence, we cannot presume a romanticized notion of community that is not sexist, homophobic or otherwise oppressive. And we cannot even presume a community to begin with.

Hence the “transformative” justice model builds on restorative justice to hold that our goal is not to restore a community to a state that was structure by oppression but to create and transform communities so that are less oppressive.  In addition, whereas restorative justice models generally operate through the state through sentence diversion programs, etc – transformative justice models operate outside the legal system all together.

For more on transformative justice, see this summary from Generation Five.

http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=5&ved=0CEEQFjAE&url=http%3A%2F%2Fprisonbookscollective.files.wordpress.com%2F2010%2F10%2Fg5_toward_transformative_justice-booklet.pdf&ei=jnPuUvKKB8yGogSU1YKYBw&usg=AFQjCNENMQ9wrob0x5pVff9rallfW0Mzww&bvm=bv.60444564,d.cGU

See also this Community Accountability Toolkit from Creative Interventions:

http://www.creative-interventions.org/tools/toolkit/

Many communities have begun developing transformative justice practices.  However, probably because this movement developed out of the anti-violence movement, these practices have generally presumed that the perpetrator is someone in the community or someone for whom that group has a connection.  But what happens when violence is committed by the police? Or a vigilate? Or by someone committing a hate crime?  We tend to default to the criminal legal system for these cases. And yet, as the verdicts for Trayvon Martin, Kelly Thomas, Oscar Grant and countless others show, the criminal legal system completely fails to enact justice.  So what would it mean if we did not presume the criminal legal system would have the last word on justice for these acts of violence?  What could we do instead?  The LA Workshop on Transformative Justice and White Supremacist violence was organized to begin brainstorming on what we might try to do.

Concerns/Questions to Ponder/Issues

1) How do we build our TJ organizing efforts to mass scale?  There are many small TJ local organizing projects, but these are not sufficient to challenge the prison industrial complex. How do we coordinate them and grow them so that they can challenge the current system?

2) When the police or vigilantes perpetrate violence, we see them as wholly outside of our communities. But these perpetrators live somewhere. What if we stopped seeing these perpetrators and wholly outside and began developing connections with their communities.  Part of the logic of the prison industrial complex is to expel people from society. Sometimes our TJ practices have followed the same logics of the PIC – we have been context to expel people without addressing fact that perpetrators will go somewhere else and perpetrate violence.  So what if we stopped seeing some communities as that to which we have no concern or connection and began to build those connections so accountability would be easier to create?

3) Large numbers of people see nothing wrong with the prison industrial complex and do not see themselves as people who would ever be affected by police or hate violence?  How would we build a mass movement for transformative justice that would appeal to peoples who do not see this as of concern to them?

4) Many TJ practices for violence within communities or organizations are not working that effectively? How do we address challenges of enacting them for violence outside the community?

5) When we try to address state violence directly, we will have to directly deal with state repression. In particular, people of color who fight back from attacks are often arrested (such as Marissa Alexander) How do we address these realities?

6) Restorative justice models often operate because they are backed up by the state if a perpetrator of violence does not follow agreements. What do we do as a back up if someone doesn’t follow accountability agreements without relying on the state?

Transformative Justice Strategies

1) Tie TJ to a larger praxis about beginning to run society ourselves – including our own education, health care, etc.  Thus, we can attract folks who might not have an issue with the PIC but would be interested in building better governance and economic systems they see directly impacting them.

2) Door-to-door organizing. Begin to know all the people in your neighborhood to be able to create more systems of accountability.

3) Develop city-wide TJ rapid response networks for cases of police violence.

4) Monthly conference calls/social networking to connect local groups with each other so we start building to a bigger scale from the beginning. Also, this breaks down isolation that can occur when one feels they are doing this work in isolation from others who are also struggling?

5) Learn from models both historically and today who don’t haven even a semblance of police protection.  What did people do under connections of slavery, indigenous genocide, etc, death squads, etc.

6) Integrate TJ into all the work we are doing, particularly in educational reform.  So people learn how to hold each other accountable as a matter of practice.

7) Develop our own abilities to do investigation – examples would be groups like Black And Missing http://www.blackandmissinginc.com/cdad/

8) Develop a neighborhood check-in system (not a neighborhood watch).

9) Begin hosting TJ events that are not just in our comfort zone or the usual people we talk to

10) Expand our knowledge base of various TJ practices that exist around the world.

11) Begin community based tracking systems to document violence.

12) Organize peacebuilders, including youth peacebuilders who know community well and can address problems as they arise? We can also organize peacebuilders in the schools.

13) Develop networks with religious communities that might have connections to more conservative sectors of society where perpetrators of hate violence might live.

14) Need to broad-based education on need to divest from law enforcement and PIC

15) TJ is a positive project rather than a negative project. Until we have alternatives, we may have no other option but to go to police in some circumstances. That does not make us less radical.

16) Develop community centers that use tranformative justice

17) Develop processes in advance that can help violence from happening in first place. Don’t wait for the crisis to happen.

18) Develop alternative economies of trade so we have less direct contact with the state.

19) Develop effective conflict resolution and de-escalation skills/

20) Develop networks of resources for accountability

21) Reclaim streets – create “no police” zones.

22) Film officers

23) Engage in acts that disrupt criminal legal proceedings

24) Find where perpetrators live. Call them out in their own context.

25) Develop Truth Commissions where we hold our own trials.

26) Be open to trial and error and making mistakes.

27) Develop our own security systems and processes

28) Develop emergency responses teams in cases of natural disasters so we don’t have to rely on law enforcement.

29) Take over gentrifying spaces. Bring them into the community.

30) Develop a collective response team on each block in our neighborhoods.

31) One group that was being targeted by KKK decided to go to them directly instead of being mediated by the state. Try to take on hate groups directly.

32) Develop websites where we can exchange TJ ideas

33) Develop relationships with malcontents in the police who might be interested in holding other officers accountable.

34) Develop autonomous mental health resources and economic resources so people who are homeless or who have psychiatric disabilities are less likely to be in contact with the state./

35) Campaign to end police presence in the schools.

36) Know your rights campaigns for educators, youth, community members, etc.

37) Autonomous emergency response services

38) Co-counseling

39) Skill sharing spaces

40) Community-based 911s.

41) Document work we’re doing, including our failures

42) Push for the decriminalization of drug use

43) Change school discipline policies and get TJ programs in schools.

44) Social media campaigns to alert peoples of perpetrators of where we can find them

45) Connect to employers of perpetrators; find them in their social context.

46) Create structures of accountability using familiar structures to attract more people (such as alternative student councils or radical neighborhood watch programs)

47) Integrate anti-oppression education in work to a bigger scale to prevent this violence from happening.

48) Don’t try to reform police; try to replace it with something better.

49) We are taught to call police department but not to talk to one another?  Differences between DV and say witnessing ‘petty theft’

50) De-escalation strategies

51) Develop alternatives to criminalizing youth

52) Challenging policing in all areas of life

53) Challenge concept of property ownership. Protection of property leads to police intervention

54) Create economic shares to alleviate need for “stealing”

55) Create local, intergenerational, community based freedom schools.

56) Intergenerational conversations on accountability.

57) Develop tech based alert systems – cell phones, etc.

58) Create community safe (or safer) spaces

59) Theater of oppressed to brainstorm on ways to deal with the situation

60) Focus on strategies that stop the violence from happening rather than afterwards.

61) Response teams using all sectors (including business) such as Audre Lorde Proejct “Safe outside the system” in Brooklyn

62) Model TJ responses in our organizations

63) Take responsibility for safety of our communities by replacing police w/ community self-defense groups:

64) Develop responses to violence on campuses that don’t rely on campus administration or law enforcement

65) Start developing local responses then grow to regional, then to national, then to global responses to hate/police violence

66) Instead of trying to put someone in prison, have them financially support family for life.

67) As intermediary step, use civil rather than criminal approaches that allow for more creative forms of redress but also have less of burden of proof so more likely to get result you want

68) Look outside how the criminal justice defines “violence.” Many forms of violence that need redress that are not legally addressed at all in system.

69) If you come up with a relatively functioning TJ situation, have at least 2 of those folks leave and start another one so the models proliferate.

70) Document our work, including our failures

71) Build connections with groups that we don’t have anything in common with and even disagree with so we can build accountability when needed.

72) Don’t presume certain sectors are “permanent enemies.” Many Native peoples have developed successful campaigns with racist white people because they didn’t presume they would always be enemies, but start building connections.

73) Rethink what “justice” looks like on a mass scale so justice doesn’t equal going to prison.

74) Resist idea that best way to deal with a bad thing is to make it a crime.

75) TJ models often break down because so intensive. Need to build in self-care and long-term sustainability.

76) Need to learn our previous histories of TJ so we don’t always reinvent the wheel.  Archive our work.

77)   Shouldn’t just address law enforcement violence, but also military violence.

78) Begin organizing in sites of work, the way dentist associations passed resolutions against Vietnam.  Start planning TJ ideas wherever we are already working.

79) Develop small alternatives in a bigger way by connecting the small alternatives with each other.

80) Build more connections with those in PIC so we don’t think of it as “out there.”

81) Take collective responsibility for all who do harm.

82) Must address harm we do in our own orgs. How can we stop PIC when we can’t stop violence in the NPIC?

83) Need more common public spaces to interact with each other.

84) Watch out for TJ getting co-opted by stated and integrated into legal system.

85) Develop clear says to share experiments

86) TJ must address issues of accessibility – disability, age, who has access to social media, education, etc.

87) Address school to prison pipeline with teachers/students/community to stop folks from ending up in contact with law enforcement

88) For state officials, shut down the streets where they live. Got to churches they attend, etc.

89) Use social media to shame and expose but without focused on getting law enforcement to do something

90) Trauma puts limit on ability of our communities to be resilient. Need both structural change and healing.

91) You can organize an informal coalition to address IPV & bring whatever assets you have. Maybe it’s a car, access to space, food

92) Use families and social networks as places that will find justice rather than the police.

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Interlopers on Social Media: Feminism, Women of Color and Oppression

By Mariame Kaba and Andrea Smith

Before writing this piece, we thought about whether we should bother. Was this a discussion worth engaging? Ultimately, we decided that we had some thoughts to share and that it was worth it to add our voices to the ongoing discussion about the nature of online dialogue within feminism. As women of color who identify as feminist and who engage online, we are implicated in this conversation. We hope that the following words, written quickly, will resonate with some. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

Once upon a time, not long ago, there existed a place online where everything was civil and nice. In that place, people were able to engage in enlightened and evolved dialogue and they felt happy and safe. All of this changed when unruly and fearful invaders entered that place in significant numbers. The civil and nice space in Cyberland called “Twitter” became mean and unproductive. Soon the ‘pioneers’ of Cyberland vociferously expressed their disapproval and most importantly their fears of the invaders. They used their loud speakers to broadcast their displeasure and to castigate the new arrivals for making Twitter toxic.

This is obviously an oversimplified description of what’s currently being called the “Feminist Twitter Wars.” However, what’s been happening online on various platforms is really a raucous and contentious discussion about who owns feminism. The traditional story that’s told in the U.S. is that there have been 3 (sometimes 4) historical “waves” of feminism. Usually, women of color appear in significant numbers in the third wave seemingly out of nowhere to join the struggle. When they join however, they bring disruptions through their demands for inclusion and their insistence about addressing previously overlooked issues. These disruptions are portrayed almost always as particularly jarring to the white women ‘founders’ of U.S. feminism. This incomplete and selective telling of a feminist history has been contested by many women of color over the years. Yet the idea that women of color (particularly black women) are interlopers and disruptive presences within the feminist movement has persisted.

In an ideal world, women of color’s critiques of a feminist future would be welcomed as gifts. Because the truth is that in order to build a mass movement that will uproot oppression, we are going to need everyone. Because we know that organizing means failing more often than not, new voices and ideas would be embraced as helping to end global oppression. After all, how much better is it to have a platform for sharing and discussing ideas that can encompass thousands rather than just a dozen of your friends? This should be seen as a boon and yet it is not. We need to ask why…

Over the past 10 to 15 years in particular, feminist spaces have been concerned with and consumed by an Ahab like quest for building and enforcing “safe space.” As women of color, who live under white supremacy, settler colonialism, heteronormativity, capitalism and more, we know that such a place doesn’t actually exist. More importantly, what we have seen over the years is that “safe spaces” usually mean excluding us. They sometimes mean using “safety” as a substitute for “never uncomfortable spaces.” In this conceptualization, safety is often used as a cudgel to silence and to further marginalize.

Christina Hanhardt’s important new book Safe Space, addresses some of these concerns:

“I, too, am not convinced that safety or safe space in their most popular usages can or even should exist. Safety is commonly imaged as a condition of no challenge or stakes, a state of being that might be best described as protectionist (or, perhaps, isolationist)…The quest for safety that is collective rather than individualized requires an analysis of who or what constitutes a threat and why, and a recognition that those forces maintain their might by being in flux. And among the most transformative visions are those driven less by a fixed goal of safety than by… freedom.” (p. 30)

by Favianna Rodriguez

by Favianna Rodriguez

Those of us committed to an inclusive and revolutionary feminism value liberation and freedom over safety because we know that struggles against oppression are always perilous. Addressing structures of oppression generally leads to conflict because these structures shape our ideas, our values, our everything. We don’t know how to live outside of oppression because it is like the weather, ever-present and so we replicate it, all the time. But we want liberation and so we must work towards it. And that work involves criticism, analysis, and grounded practice. As people who have and will continue to build projects and organizations, we understand that discussion/analysis and grassroots organizing are co-constitutive. Also, there isn’t a neat separation between the online world and a separate place called the “real world.” In the 21st century, these places are one in the same. As such the concept of “twitter feminism” strikes us as dismissive and probably a misnomer.

Anyone can identify as feminist because it’s a label that one adopts and is not bestowed. This has and will continue to cause all manner of consternation because some are invested in being gatekeepers. Mainstream feminism (MSF) has traditionally operated under a politics of inclusion. It benevolently offers to “include” the voices of some who are marginalized, particularly women of color. The problem MSF faces, however, is that you cannot substantively “include” women of color and/or trans women into feminism without radically transforming it. And basically, this is what we are seeing today, the backlash that results when increasingly more Black, Native, Latin@, Asian, Trans women claim the term “feminist” and in doing so, radically change what feminism signifies.

As the power and control of white feminist gatekeepers diminish, they have rushed to individualize women of color’s critiques. The trope of the “bad feminist” has been deployed as a disciplinary mechanism for re-establishing and maintaining power and control. Rather than substantively engage Black feminist critiques, for example, gatekeepers demonize the bad Black feminist who is not nice to white women. The analysis of “twitter” wars then quickly devolves into a battle among individual personalities. [Feminism actually needs less focus on individuals and more on the collective struggle to uproot oppression.] Ideological differences are painted as hysterical grievance. The “bad” feminist’s anger is labeled as irrational and as a permanent/perpetual condition. It’s all affect with little basis in actual material realities of oppression. Proximity to the “bad” feminist becomes a liability insuring that they are further marginalized and delegitimized. In some cases, white women who choose to associate with the bad feminist are shamed into silence by being called “performative.” One must possess power to successfully construct and then deploy the trope of the “bad feminist.” White feminist gatekeepers have it and most individual women of color do not. The playing field is not equal

This strategy is enabled by the fact that women of color generally occupy the space of ethnographic object within the mainstream. We are there to be “understood” “theorized about” and “reflected upon” by white feminists in order to facilitate their self-reflection and personal education. As women of color, we aren’t supposed to theorize ourselves, to resist being understood or saved or to question the white feminist ethnographic gaze. Because our task as women of color is to be “known” by white feminists, our theoretical genealogies can be simply apprehended and easily digested. This, importantly, is one reason mainstream white feminists become confused when two different seemingly “authentic” women of color informants give them completely different political analyses. Communities of color are supposed to be singular in our infinitely knowable aspirations and hence devoid of political complexity and contradiction– such that the assumptions behind our political positions require no further engagement. Thus it becomes possible for one individual – one “bad” feminist to be the stand in for women of color in all of feminism. Furthermore that individual feminist becomes reduced to her “bad” critique. Exploring or interrogating the person’s intellectual contributions becomes unnecessary because it is presumed that we do not have a real intellectual contribution to make.

In an ideal world, critique, even if it is inaccurate, would be embraced as an opportunity for engagement and perhaps growth. Even if someone’s critique seems “inaccurate” to us at first blush, it is usually based in something real. As importantly, no event or organizing project is immune from critique simply because they include the participation of some marginalized voices. If we recognize that in fact all of us are shaped by white supremacy, heteronormativity, settler colonialism and capitalism, then we should actually presume that most of the things we do are seriously problematic. In our years of organizing events and conferences, almost every single one has been critiqued by someone for being oppressive on some level. Whether we agreed with those critiques or not, we learned from all of them when we took the time to actually listen and hear what was being said. If you don’t want critique – then never organize anything!

We’ve been involved over the years in various transformative justice and community accountability efforts. We know something about the importance of allowing for mistakes. We all make them. We understand something about intentions (good and bad). But we also understand the imperative that when you know better you should try to do better. And here’s the thing. Many white feminist now know better (or they should) but they simply refuse to do better. That’s the truth. The pain, anger, and frustration that emanate from this must find their place. Often, that place is online.

Our contention is not that incivility and/or meanness don’t exist online. Some of us have personally experienced trolling, insults and harassment on social media. We’ve surely also been uncivil to others at one time or another. What we reject is the framing of incivility or toxicity as unidirectional and confined mainly to social media. We object to women of color consistently being portrayed as “bullies” or as “mean.” When applied to black women in particular, these characterizations are especially fraught. Under this frame, black women’s stories of harrowing racist and sexist attacks are easily dismissed. Black women are portrayed as the bullies and never the bullied. As Saidiya Hartman and Jared Sexton have noted, black suffering is always made illegible. Yet white women are portrayed as sympathetic and worthy of our concern.

The only way we can avoid toxicity is to actually end white supremacy, settler colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy. Women of color know that when we leave the supposed “toxicity” of Twitter, we are not going to another place that is not toxic. Thus, our goal is not to avoid toxicity, as if that is even possible, but to dismantle the structures that create toxicity. The work of feminism whether online or off must be to create space for a critical and engaged discussion on a global level about how to end oppression. Then we must mobilize to take actions to make it so.

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