Monday, September 10, 2012

shack up (modernist witch oct. 2012)

I write a column for Maximum Rocknroll. This is an upcoming column.

It’s not like unjustified fear is anything new in US political rhetoric, but this 2012 electoral cycle has really been a banner year for the kind of ignorant and hateful commentary that is meant to keep large swathes of the public – essentially, those of us who are not rich white cis men – on the defensive, responding to said statements rather than defining the terms of the debate for ourselves.  We spend our time and energy locked in circles, swallowing our own tails, feeling defeated before we even begin.

Of course, that is not to say that pushing back against the Todd Akins, Paul Ryans and Jim Greers of the world – the bigots who want to retain their policymaking power at all costs – is not important. But it is only half of the picture. There is organizing to do, there are projects to develop, there are networks between community organizations to nurture, and somewhere in there we need to take care of our own hearts.

I’m not the only one who is feeling completely drained at this point in time; every conversation I have with a colleague or likeminded friend who pays attention to politics seems to go this route: “Do you feel like you just kind of can’t even with the world right now? Yeah, me too.” We turn off our blogs, stop reading the news for a moment, step away from our computers, stop having the same discussions over and over again because they are so draining to have. Not only do we live in a culture in which police (or those adopting police tactics, like George Zimmerman) claim that their murders and beatings and sexual assaults were justified (and many people believe them), not only do we live in a culture where rape victims are afraid to step forward because of the way we fear we will be treated by the system based on past precedent, not only do we live in a culture where unions are vilified for even daring to challenge an employer on something like the provision of health care for their employees, not only do we live in a culture where Black and Latin@ voter suppression is an obvious part of the right’s political strategy – but we spend most of our energy trying to prove those things are even happening even when they’re easily documentable, even to those within our own movements.

The feminist environments I grew up in, for instance, took as a given that mainstream feminism as we knew it had been a movement in which white cis women had been allowed to define the terms of rhetoric and spaces to privilege their own voices and exclude those of women of color and trans women. (There are any number of histories and personal memoirs that speak to these experiences.) We looked at the segregated nature of ‘70s feminism and looked forward to building a movement in which we would not replicate the mistakes of past generations. This is not to say that the feminism of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s did not have many of those same issues, but it was an environment in which those conversations flourished, in which we did not have to prove over and over again to those who were supposed to be our fellows that something documentable (and obviously wrong) was indeed happening. These days, I see those kinds of 101 conversations that are really a step backward happening everywhere all the time, as mainstream feminist websites delete comments that merely question where the voices and viewpoints of those who are not white cis women are.
We live in a political environment where nuance is frowned upon (tl; dr), where the rise of Twitter as a news source has condensed sound bites even further into hashtags. The news cycle is absurdly quick these days – it’s been speeding up since the invention of the newspaper, but these days it can be a matter of minutes. I think sometimes that’s one of the reasons we have the same conversations over and over again so many times – because the amount of information out there is so enormous, and because the life cycle of the headline or the popular blog post is so short, memory has to accommodate for both. Sloganeering becomes survival.
I’m not saying that the sky is falling or trying to say that It Was Better Then – it was just different, and we have new media to contend with  - as the music and publishing industries, both mainstream and DIY, struggle with electronic media, so does politics. Since Atwater days in particular, the US right wing has done a really phenomenal job of messaging, of introducing terms into the debate that end up defining the debate, of keeping the left wing on the ropes, attempting to make up the distance. This isn’t a new critique by any means, but I see in this critique the source of my own personal exhaustion – it hurts to be having the same conversations over and over again about rape, about abortion, about police violence, about body autonomy, about economic justice. These are the subjects close to my heart, close to my own survival and the survival of people I love dearly, and when our survival is threatened in rhetoric and policy proposal by those who have the power to make the policies that will have very real impact in our lives, I start sending out SOS signals. Being in a state of constant SOS, constant vigilance, being tensed to fight every day, is beyond exhausting.
Fear motivates me too, in a way. It is a very different fear than the unjustified fear and hatred that motivates so many politicians. It is the constant fear that I live with that I will be attacked in my own home, walking down the street in any neighborhood, just because I exist – that amongst the members of my community there will be someone who will hurt someone else I love and that that community, much as the justice system at large, will not be supportive or understand.  That is a fear that is wholly justified. As a white cis woman, my fear of being erased by someone hateful just because I exist is less than others, because there are not as many people who feel threatened by my presence enough to strike out or kill as there are for, say, someone like CeCe McDonald (you should read up on her case if you aren’t familiar). The political environment constantly reminds me that not only my existence and autonomy are constantly being challenged but that the existence and autonomy of people I love dearly is constantly under attack. How do we hope to fight back, when we have such a disadvantage?
We go back to the basics. We organize, we talk, we have continued conversations where we listen to one another seriously and offer true help and solidarity to one another – not the kind of solidarity where you get what you came for and then you’re gone, not the kind of solidarity that tramples some by capitalizing on the struggle of others – we need the kind of solidarity where those of us who have more resources offer without caveat those resources to others fighting against systemic marginalization while still respecting the ability of those others to organize themselves and build their own movement, the kind of solidarity that does not have ego.  We start defining the terms of our political debate in-house ourselves, and then bring those terms to the public sphere. We need to figure out how we are going to use new media to our advantage without forgetting that some of us don’t have as much access to technology as others. And we need to give ourselves time to rest, time to breathe, time to be light. We need to study our history carefully as we look to our organizing strategies for the future.

Friday, September 7, 2012

an open letter to judge jacqueline hatch (tw: rape, victim blaming)

To the Honorable Jacqueline Hatch:

It was with dismay and disgust that I read today about your ruling in the case of the sexual assault committed by Arizona police officer Robb Gary Evans and your remarks to his victim.

Unfortunately, I was not surprised.

You see, I am a survivor of multiple sexual assaults. One happened when I was 13; I reported it, with the help of a school counselor, to the local police. No charges were filed, even though I knew the names of the people who raped me. The clothing I had on the day I went to the police station was questioned. My behavior was questioned. My prior relationships with the boys who raped me were questioned. I do not believe the boys themselves were ever questioned.

When I was 18, I was raped by someone I was dating and an associate of theirs. Not wanting to deal with the police again, and far from home during my first year of college, I reported my rape - and subsequent pregnancy - to the school I was attending. I was forced to attend "mediation" with the two people involved, deprived of choices about what to do with the resultant child (I miscarried), and dropping classes I had with those two people was an incredible chore that dragged on forever. It was a small campus. I saw them everywhere. I was not safe. (I transferred as soon as I could.)

I have been very public about my status as a survivor and the way that I was treated by police, college administration, therapists - institutions that are ostensibly set up to help victims of a violent crime or at least refer them to the correct other institutions, institutions that have the ability to mete out one form of justice/aid or another - because very little has changed, and I want other people, other survivors, to be able to receive support and understanding when they come forward. I received that kind of support from some places in my life (and I am thankful for it), but not from institutions who I was told that I was supposed to trust with my well-being.

I would imagine Evans' victim may have felt similarly as I did when she heard your words and saw your ruling.

We hear these messages EVERY DAY, we women. We can't drink, we can't wear certain outfits, we can't flirt, we can't change our minds: we led him on. We can't go outside. We deserved it. Some women - women of color, trans women - get this message more intensely and it manifests in different ways from the mainstream message - some women's bodies are deemed more worthy of protection, justice and autonomy than others. There is a wealth of literature, research and survivor testimonials out there on all of this, and one thing is clear from all of it - there is nothing we could ever do that would make rape justifiable. Someone who understands consent, who is not a rapist, backs off when there is any sign that a woman does not welcome his attentions - even if she did before. It has nothing to do with the victim's actions and everything to do with the rapist's.

I see that you have apologized to the victim; that's a good start. I really do hope that you apply what you've learned from the public response to your callous remarks to future cases, and that there is some way for  Evans to be punished for his crime - losing his job would be a good beginning. Sending the message that behavior like his is completely unacceptable is crucial. I hope you understand the fact that your ruling was unjust - a civilian would have been menacing enough, but a police officer who abused his authority in order to assault a woman? Evans is not the first or last, and it is an especially heinous abuse of power. I hope you truly understand the force your remarks had and how truly traumatic it is hearing a system reinforce the idea that you did something to bring your assault upon yourself.

Perhaps you can take this opportunity to work with a rape crisis center or another advocacy organization of that sort to educate fellow members of the judicial community. I can only hope. All of us survivors can only hope. Your voice as a member of the bar, as someone who sits on the Coconino County Superior Court, has more political weight than mine. Please use it for true justice, for true change.


Jessica Skolnik
Chicago, IL

Thursday, September 6, 2012

when hell's near

A lot of the collective organizing I find myself engaged in is that which some dismiss as "identity politics," but which I really believe is a politic of survival - the necessary agitation needed to disrupt a system which both historically and currently restricts access to resources to certain people based on race/gender/class/sexual orientation/ability.

When the sheer fact of your existence in the world means that you are subject to potential violence, when you are not safe walking down the street because your body scares people who have more power than you do, when you are cut off from the resources you need to support yourself and/or your family, you do what you can to get by. You hustle, you organize, you use what voice you have to advocate for yourself.

I agitate for my own survival, of course, and for/with others facing the same challenges I do - but I'm also not that far down the chain of power, personally, and so I believe that supporting others who are further down the chain from me in their quests for their own survival is critical. That can manifest in many ways, the most common being sharing resources (financial, informational) on a micro-level and using what platforms I have to boost others' voices, ideas, and organizations.

It should not ever mean busting into discussions that don't directly involve me, insisting that I know better than someone else what they need in order to survive, thinking any of this makes me a better person than others, talking over others, insisting I deserve praise for my Good Deeds, ignoring preexisting community networks in favor of my splashy new organization, hogging the spotlight, making a career out of my participation in an oppressive system and criticism thereof (when perfectly good and voluminous criticism already exists from those who are oppressed by that system). It should not ever mean becoming so enveloped in my movement that I defend the ways in which it's flawed and shout down legitimate criticism.

It involves a lot of listening and a lot of reading. A lot of thought. A lot of meaningful personal relationships. It is not easy or simple and it can't particularly be packaged neatly or sold because it's so practical and conditional.

This is a politic of personal survival as well as collective survival. This is the only thing that matters to me: that we still live in a massively fucked and weighted world that favors those who already have the resources and who are given the benefit of the doubt and are treated with full humanity, who live in this world with less fear of personal harm every day than others, and continues to shaft those who don't.

One more thing: should you dismiss rhetoric (as we are in hyperelectoral mode as a country in the US right now), it matters. It matters because rhetoric is used to enact and justify policy, and policy has real life effects.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

you better be doubtful

I feel a lot like I harp on/concentrate on the same social topics over and over to the point where I may become one long drone - sexual & relationship violence/consent, institutionalized violence, body autonomy, economic justice, dismantling whiteness, gender equity, and so on. There is never a day when these matters are not crucially important to me.

But there are some days when I want to just lie face down on my bed and not talk or hear about any of it. I don't really have the luxury of doing so most of the time, and I'm very much aware that those rare moments when I'm not forced to confront such things simply because I live in my body in this world are because of fucked-up social structures that I benefit from also because I live in my body in this world.

I've felt like that for pretty much all of 2012.

It might be that I have narrowed my access to information so that the headlines I get are particularly tailored to my social concerns, or it might be that this election cycle - and the proposed Republican platform specifically - feels particularly threatening to me personally. This is not new news, but it feels particularly urgent right now. Much of the dialogue I'm reading from left-activist corners feels like it's failing really basic stuff (like an intersectional analysis that takes into account the impact of race, gender, class and sexuality all at the same time as opposed to focusing solely on one axis), and so I find myself reading (and sometimes writing) a lot of necessary 101 responses - but they are the same kinds of responses people have been making to ignorance in activism for the last FORTY YEARS.

I am tired. Tired. Tired. I am not the only one.

There are a few things I am taking solace in: making music. Building things. Being with the people I trust and love. Good food and books and records and movies.

I am glad I have those things in my life.

But I am so tired.

At the same time, I feel like I have to pick myself up, dust myself off, and keep fighting no matter how little energy I have, because times are so incredibly critical. I try to use my voice where it's useful, try to promote others' voices where that's what's needed, try to share the resources I have and help community organizations connect with one another if I can.

Sometimes I feel very lonely. Other times I feel lucky, surrounded by others who understand, others who are fighting too, others who I look up to.

This is going to be a pretty short piece, but I just wanted to acknowledge that I feel lucky to have this space to share my thoughts, as I am lucky to have the people around me both virtually and in my "real" life that I do. If anyone else is feeling isolated and alone in this horrendous political climate, feeling small against institutions that were built broken and have further corrupted, let's squeeze one another's hands for support. Let's lean on one another.