Wednesday, December 19, 2012

a short piece on sexual assault and activism in Southern California

      It's been a while since I've put anything on the blog.  I've been caught up in the process of putting together a draft for the dissertation, along with the stuff of everyday life, but I thought I would put that aside to deal with a fairly significant issue within radical politics in Southern California, although it has national implications.  A recent campaign was started by a small number of activists in the area in response to the sexual assault of an anarchist activist by a Progressive Labor Party (PLP) member, Seth Miller in 2006.  In the succeeding years, a number of attempts have been made to confront Miller and to get the PLP to take action and hold Miller accountable for his actions.  The party did nothing at the time, and it continued to stall when another group tried to bring up these issues six years later in the summer of 2012.  At this point, Miller is still an active member of the party in New York, and the party has demanded the silence of those who are still seeking his accountability.  You can read a brief description of this process, as well as a call to action here.  The program that they ask to implement is, in fact, fairly minimal, requesting that the PLP be excluded from the institutions, structures, and spaces of the activist community as long as they continue to protect Miller, and refuse to take the issue of sexual violence seriously as a political, rather than private issue.

      Unfortunately, these issues don't come as a surprise to many of the activists that I have been in conversation with.  The Progressive Labor Party has a reputation for not taking issues of sexism seriously within its own structures, and has been more than willing to overlook the poor behavior of its activists.  Although I have heard nothing specific, from the sounds of activist conversations, it sounds like this incident is not isolated within the structures of the party.  This issue becomes apparent in its treatment of the situation with Miller, as it has refused to engage with activists on the issue, and has engaged in a series of victim blaming.  Just as notably, as the necessary means posting notes, "The party has, however, asked that the activist and her allies stop spreading “gossip” about Seth because they see the activist’s rape as a private matter rather than a political matter."  The party has, in effect, dismissed decades of work on the part of feminists, and is attempting to enforce a set of divisions between the public and the private, the political and the personal, that has largely been rejected by even bourgeois social structures.  Those structures of division go back to the party's reactionary investment in the nuclear family, a position that is derived from a limited and problematic reading of Friedrich Engels's The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, which falls into a similar defense of the nuclear family, despite its recognition of the structural linkage between state domination, private property, and the construction of the patriarchal family.   It's also worth noting that Miller is the son of significant party members, giving him additional protection from the implications of his actions.

        The party's refusal to act then has to be understood within a nexus of a set of problematic theoretical positions, along with a selfish desire to protect its cadres at the expense of the larger activist community.  This situation is the danger of the kind of cadre and vanguard structure that is created by organizations like the Progressive Labor Party, placing the care of their members above the social justice and needs of the community, particularly those who are privileged members, ensconced within its multi-generational structures.  Additionally, these benefits don't seem to be given merely on the basis of seniority, and are far more frequently granted to men.  Within this context, it's hard to take the PLP seriously as an organization committed to the fight for social justice.  It's members and fellow travelers need to be challenged in this regard, and those who continue to participate in its structures and defend its policies need to be excluded from activist spaces.  Social justice cannot function as long as there are princes in its midst, along with the patriarchal structures that go along with those figures.  As long as we allow the organization to engage in the forms of obfuscation and dissemblance that it is involved in, because of their commitment and meaningful contributions to other struggles, we become complicit in the organizations refusal to confront sexism and reinforce the contemporary sex/gender system.  To put it simply, we become complicit in the injustice of the world.

        It's also important not to make this a sectarian issue, for a number of reasons. To begin, the issues that we see in PLP are neither restricted to it as an individual organization, nor are they restricted to cadre organizations as a particular type of organization.  I've seen sexist men allowed to get away with atrocious sexist behavior because of their prestige within the informal networks of anarchist activism, for instance, and within other progressive structures.  If this generational defense of Miller is an issue of a particular type of cadre and vanguard organization, we see other forms of the defense of men who commit acts of sexual violence and contribute to the sexism of our society as a whole.  Far too often, criticisms of other types of organization become a way of refusing to deal with the real problems in their own organizations.  As the call for action in Necessary Means notes, this moment should be a point for reflecting on our own informal and formal organizational behavior, to confront the sexist and patriarchal behavior that exists within ourselves, collectively and individually.  Additionally, making the issue sectarian offers the Progressive Labor Party far too many easy narratives out of the issue, transforming it into an issue of red-baiting, or other distractions.  We need to focus our attention on the ways that this situation is symptomatic of larger, structural issues within our communities, rather than transforming it into another petty anarchist vs. marxist turf battle.  Along with this, there is something deeply problematic in the way that women's struggles are instrumentalized in service of these sectarian fights, a way that those fights are no longer understood within their own terms, but only in the service of another type of struggle.

      To stick to the kind of critical self-reflection that I am insisting that others engage in, these issues certainly have their analogues in Irvine.  The kinds of sexist structures within that context tended to be informal, tied into the networks of friends and allies that made decisions about the structure and nature of demonstrations in the early part of the protest movement.  It was notable that these networks were dominated by men, and were nearly exclusively made up of men.  Some of the folks who made up those networks had ties to PL, but the anarchist networks had very similar issues.  It's notable that in my time in Irvine that no one has set up lessons on how to facilitate a meeting, network, or set up an action.  These issues have gotten better over the years.  I don't think that we see the same issues that defined the years of 2009-2010, but I think we have a long way to go.  Within that context, I feel it's worth noting that I didn't do enough to challenge those problematic structures of the early period of mass protest, all too often trying to establish myself in those circles, and contributed to the problems of creating activist structures that were not open to the participation and contributions of women.  I've never been terribly fond of the confessional, and have often agreed with Spinoza that those who repent are twice wretched.  But for the very little that it means, I apologize for my mistakes and contributions to the often problematic and sexist environment of UCI activism.  Perhaps more significantly, I will try to avoid these pitfalls in the future.

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