It would seem that throughout the anarchist milieu, wherever you turn, there is a community being ravaged by rape, by sexual assault, and by abuse. These cycles are neither new nor unique to anarchists. — Betrayal: a critical analysis of rape in anarchist subcultures
Radicals have always dealt with crises involving rape, sexual abuse, harassment and other forms of patriarchal destructiveness. Currently, the issue seems to have exploded seemingly from nowhere and has enveloped multiple radical communities throughout the world.
It is highly unlikely that radicals worldwide have just become patriarchal all of sudden and for no reason. Quite the contrary, rape and abuse have existed among anarchists and socialists and other radicals for as long as these communities have existed. What does seem to have changed among the current generation of radicals is that the patterned logic of the cover-ups is no longer working.
In comparing the way these issues have played out, we see a classic pattern in the ways that patriarchy is repeatedly covered up by organizations and the people surrounding the men in question. The cover-ups aren’t working because people are recognizing these patterns and because there seems to be a call and response of feminists around the world–from India to Egypt, from Ireland to England to the US–to inspire each other to resist.
The most severe and the more subtle cover-ups involve similar, sometimes overlapping patterns of cover-up, defense, and slander. If the cover-up doesn’t sweep everything under the rug, organizations or political affiliations are sent to defend the men, as allegations against a single member are deemed an attack on the organization or group itself. Of course, many of those participating in the cover-up would claim that the accusations themselves are a threat to organizational legitimacy, which only reinforces the need for a cover-up. Slanderous narratives emerge that follow a specific pattern of discrediting women, their forms of organizing and survivors, while defending the abuser.
There are the actions of those who hide information from broader view, there are those who do not believe accusations of abuse and avoid disclosing it and there are those who simply look the other way while all of this occurs. There are also those who claim they are dealing with it while actually doing very little. There may be varying levels of guilt in a cover-up but regardless of the motivation, when your actions assist a cover-up you are complicit in the act itself.
One recent case that highlights the similarities of the patterns is the eruption of allegations in a large section of the radical community in Portland, Oregon, directed at the behavior of a single individual. In only a month, his defense followed the pattern outlined above. What may be surprising is that the behavior in the Portland scene–where a large part of the active radical left is self-identified anarchists or anti-state communists–mirrors the machinations of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain.
Hiding the details of abuse reproduces the patriarchal structures of society which, like all forms of oppression, thrive off of open violence while finding cover beneath the shameful underbelly of daily life. Too often, survivors are sent off to hide silently in the shadows while abusers are allowed to develop new relationships–and new victims. Unlike colonial armies which organize mass sexual assaults and rapes of subject populations with the active participation of the state, in interpersonal relationships it is merely the acceptance of patriarchal attitudes–rape and abuse apologism and victim blaming–that allows abusers to thrive. When we allow this to occur–when we participate in a cover-up–we strengthen patriarchy rather than challenge it.
Such is the case in both Portland and London.
In Portland, a survivor and her support team brought concerns to an organization concerning a charismatic member, who is also often in leadership positions. Over the years, two different organizations in Portland of which he has been a member conducted “internal investigations” and found “nothing actionable” and only reported their findings as “he made mistakes.” It has recently surfaced that despite these investigations, the same behavior has been ongoing and has come to involve more than just the first woman, and is a bit more significant than a few mere mistakes, but is a laundry list of destructive patriarchal behaviors made public in several different platforms–taking over accountability processes and undermining survivor autonomy and consent in several different actions, not backing off these processes when asked, putting a survivor in danger, slandering multiple survivors by spreading dangerous rumors about them while supporting abusers, questioning whether or not a survivor had been raped and doubting her, organizing to isolate survivors and undermine support, discrediting them politically and personally through lies and character judgments and intervening without considering the impact on survivors. He is also accused of taking credit for political work largely created and carried out by women.
In the SWP, initially the leadership told their members that one of the leaders of the group was guilty of merely “inappropriate behavior”–just as in Portland the phrasing was of a pattern of destructive behaviors being mere “mistakes”–but over a couple of years the news leaked out that the SWP leader was actually accused of rape. As with the organizations in Portland, the SWP in England also conducted an internal investigation. A Disputes Committee conducted an “internal investigation” into whether the rape actually occurred, led by many of the accused rapist’s friends, including an ex-partner and many people who served with him in the leadership of the SWP. (In Portland, the internal investigations were also led by close friends of the accused). They asked the survivor questions like whether she enjoyed having a drink. They allowed the accused to see her testimony and consider it in response without giving her the same opportunity in return. In short, they conducted a trial which hoped to minimize the accusations rather than defend the survivor. Unsurprisingly, the kangaroo court pronounced her claims to be “not proven.” All of this would have been swept under the rug–as it always has in the past–until a transcript of the Disputes Committee report was leaked to the Internet and picked up by major newspapers in Britain.
At some point, the SWP leadership should have extended support to the survivor and acted to ensure that this never happened again. Instead, they allowed the accused rapist to continue as a paid leader of the group and continue leading highly visible campaigns with a national profile. In Portland, rather than make sure that this person never enacted similar behaviors after the original case, he was allowed to continue involving himself in situations to the detriment of survivors even spread rumors about them. The young woman in the SWP, who was between 17 and 19 over the period she was raped, continued demanding some sort of accountability. Her courageous refusal to allow herself to be sidelined–in the face of a party that responds to any criticism as an attack on their entire political tradition–forced the leadership to take their non-action to the Disputes Committee. It wasn’t until this superficial internal investigation was leaked to the public that people began to learn the truth about the experience of the survivor and the damage of the SWP leader’s behaviors. The cover-up stopped being effective when the public became a witness.
In Portland, though the people supporting the accused complained that “nothing was good enough” for the survivor and her support group who first brought concerns, her persistence–in the face of internal investigations that failed to lead to accountability or behavioral changes–also led to the allegations being made public, and subsequently other stories surfacing in the community. Her survivor support team attended a feminist panel in Portland and spoke out during the following discussion, leading others to speak out either publicly or in private. Since then, the same pattern of defense has emerged in both Portland and the SWP.
DEFENSE AND SLANDER
The more public face of the cover-up is the broad participation in a predictable narrative of apologism and a defense of the person called out. The steps taken by his supporters to construct these narratives often look the same–speak to the merit of the comrade who has been confronted and maybe gather others who have not been hurt by his actions to do so. Assist in any logic that allows him to seem like the victim of the survivor, including viscous and inaccurate depictions of the survivor’s behavior. Shift the scrutiny onto the survivor or the feminist grouping at large, or thoroughly examine their methodology to see if there is fault there. If there is a political fall-out, blame the women for having caused polarization and division. Some form of this narrative emerges, with every case, as part of the cover-up–in order to complicate, distract from or question the accusations.
In the Portland case, the feminists who held the event in which attendees came forward with their experiences have said that they have been wrongly held responsible for the subsequent fall-out, for simply holding an event in which attendees spoke openly following the panel. Others attest that the fall-out may have been avoided had it not been for the defense campaign launched by friends of the accused, and if there had been an honest attempt to remedy the behaviors. Similarly, SWP members who raised concerns about the process were told they were going against the democratic decisions of their recent party conference, which voted to accept the Disputes Committee report after only briefly hearing the details.
The SWP has notoriously blamed the problems created by the upheaval as a result of “creeping feminism” that threatens their decades-long political tradition. Of course, the fact that this is such a concern is a far greater tarnish on their tradition than anything else. In fact, a little more feminism would have helped them see through the mess they were creating before their actions turned it into the disaster that it has become.
In Portland, where these concerns would not fly, the accusation has arisen that those defending the accused have been silenced by feminists. Those who continued to raise concerns were accused of a single, “authoritarian” application of feminism–without anyone knowing what this alleged form of feminism is. When that argument was insufficient, the concern arose that men were being silenced as well. Perhaps we could create a male-dominated movement to accommodate these poor wretches.
In London, the accused was a visible leader who appeared on the BBC and built up anti-racist and anti-fascist organizations like Unite Against Fascism and Love Music Hate Racism, known well outside of the radical ghetto. The years of work put into these campaigns continue to be threatened by the horrendous behavior of “Comrade Delta,” as he has become known. His achievements were neither minimal nor unnoticed on the national stage. But now, the racist enemies of these campaigns in the English Defence League are gloating over this mess, using it as proof of their superiority.
The SWP openly talk about how concerned they are about this information falling into the hands of a competing organization, who might use it against them. Rather than look at the disaster created by their own cover-up, they blame the “bourgeois press” for exposing their behavior. In Portland, the blame is directed at an event in which the allegations surfaced and at the Internet, where people have published statements. In Britain, SWP members are told by their leadership that they spend too much time on the “dark side of the Internet” and need to focus on the real world. The ability to spread information, it seems, is a new threat to the cover-ups.
Survivor stories are rarely made up and our starting point has to be believing and supporting the survivor. Once you go down the road of disbelief and questioning, however, the logic of rape and abuse apologism is inevitable. In fact, in our society this apologism is simply common sense and anybody without an explicit political understanding and critique of this apologism will most likely fall into these same patterns.
One of the leaders of the SWP recently complained that one of his critics “treats allegations as proven facts,” as though an act of intercourse can be deemed as being rape by any other measure than the assertion by the survivor that they did not want it to occur. Somewhere, it would seem, there is a “fact” of a rape having occurred that can be conclusively discovered–or not, in which case the allegation is “unproven” and everybody continues as they were. Except the survivor, of course, who is left demeaned and humiliated in the face of the respect granted to the leader who raped her. The same goes for the case in Portland where, rather than believe and take seriously the concerns of not only the survivor and multiple people in her support group, there were not one but two investigations instead, yielding “nothing actionable” (as the accused has written in his own defense). Given that people are now claiming that the behaviors have been ongoing, and the slander has come to include feminists who held a public event, it seems clear now that this person was confident that the concerns were probably not going to be taken seriously.
Though there are surely key differences between the SWP and the Portland case, the organizations internalized concerns with their members as an attack on the organization as a whole, and as a result participated in cover-ups, defense, and slander as a way to sheild abusive and patriarchal behavior carried out by members of each group. In both cases, we see that the legitimacy of the organization and the value of these (male) leaders is held to be primary. Accusations of abuse threaten the legitimacy of each group to carry out their work and everybody who is not politically clear on the serious nature of the accusations and how to deal with them digs in their heels at the threat of exposure. Rather than reaching out to the survivor(s) and believing her, they protect the abuser for the legitimacy of the overall project, even at the pain and discredit of the survivor. This is the logic not a of a radical group dedicated to overthrowing oppressive structures but of institutions like the Catholic Church that are more concerned with their own legitimacy than anything else.
There have also been concerns raised about the “complexity” of these issues, as though abusive and patriarchal acts are somehow complex. This reasoning is reminscent of the conservative discourse in the 1990s concerning sexual abuse during the Anita Hill hearings, that “there was a grey area.” During this time even liberal feminists responded that actually power is pretty “black and white.” This “complexity” idea takes the varying concerns for both the survivor and the abuser and places them on the same level. In London, an investigation was carried out to determine whose story was accurate. In Portland the same, and we are asked to consider whether survivors should be “in charge” of an accountability process, and whether there is a tension between survivor support and abuser accountability. Inherent in both cases is an even handed approach that places the survivor and the abuser on the same level. As with all “even-handed” approaches, it cannot help but reinforce the dominant forms of oppression in our society. There also seems to be an underlying concern, in both cases, that the survivor is reckless and erratic and just might bring all of our good work down if we let them. It is hard not to see this sort of attitude as patriarchy reproduced in our movement.
Once the news was leaked about the rape cover-up and members of the SWP demanded further discussion, the leadership went on a full assault to insist that everything had been taken care of and the new round of questions was the real problem. A list of some 500 members who defended the cover-up was was distributed to try to intimidate the opposition. After enormous pressure, an emergency conference was held but not before numerous members wrote documents defending the leadership and the party line against the accusations. One submission written by a leading member in Scotland even called for an end to the “witch-hunt”–against an accused rapist!–“that has done serious damage to the party as a whole, forcing us to focus on internal matters to the detriment of building the fight against austerity.”
In Portland, the phrase “witch-hunt” has also been used in caution of feminist discussions about patriarchal behavior, to the dismay of those who understand the witch-hunt of being a real historical occurrence of subjugating women through the use of violence. Additionally, raising concerns about a single person have been called “a damage to the movement.”
The logic in all this is unseemly–how can we allow this one person to be “taken down” when he is so critical to the functioning of an organization, not to mention the community as a whole? The fear is that some indispensable organizer will no longer be allowed to thrive due to the accusation of some unreliable person. Rather than worry about him being taken down, we should be equally worried about him being “propped up” to continue this behavior. Rather than see his work as critical to the movement, we should also see how such conduct is damaging to the movement. What is left unasked is why we would shield somebody in our community as being so critical to our efforts rather than see him as a liability–and why the survivor is not seen as equally or more critical.
If it were simply a matter of encouraging one person to admit guilt and correct some behavior it would all be easy enough. However, any brave soul who steps forward is suddenly a critic of the status quo and ends up slandered as well as the person who originally bought concerns against the accuser. After all, the unraveling of any cover-up has the potential consequence of unraveling all of them, exposing years of action and inaction that kept abusers thriving and survivors in the shadows. The legitimacy of the organizations is at stake as the unseemly actions of radical leaders in hiding these abuses threatens their ability to lead in the future. Some men even begin to wonder whether they can continue using the group to shield their patriarchal behavior.
While some are actively hiding closeted skeletons, others simply know at some level they are guilty of looking the other way for far too long but are able to maintain their cognitive dissonance through defensive maneuvers and hostility to those who make the accusations. There is no point in attempting to read their minds–in practice, these approaches all play out as essentially the same thing.
These are not the actions of radicals. These are the actions of parties who have their own reputations to protect first and foremost.
The end result of these attitudes is a series of behaviors that ought to shame any radical, such as slandering women who already survived a previous trauma because, after all, they must be lying about something to attack a leader so worthy. Or perhaps their trauma has demented their rational thinking to the point where they just can’t let anything go and nothing is good enough. In some situations, the accusations are conveniently perceived as an attack not just on their leader but on the organization itself. Convenient primarily for the abuser, of course, who is now able to mobilize a cadre of radicals in defense of his own innocence. Everybody hunkers down in defense of their comrades, otherwise they face the social wrath of the defenders.
The organizations involving members who have enacted abuses are in a unique position to either heal the community and create a safer environment by holding their member accountable, or to further pain, trauma, and silence by actively defending the accused. Students in the University of California system have eloquently laid out the pain and safety concerns that abound when groups shield members.
What is missing in London and Portland is a survivor-focused approach to accountability–surprisingly, this basic concept has become an actual point of contention in Portland. Without a political approach which begins and ends in solidarity with the survivor and their needs and the necessity of enacting a feminist praxis in all levels of organizing, the force of patriarchal attitudes is far more likely than not to overwhelm any attempt at accountability. The cover-up is a direct result of a perspective that does not put these issues at the center of its politics.
Dealing with these issues is not an optional task that is occasionally convenient to include but is fundamental to challenging capitalism and oppression. Whether or not our goal is creating a community that is literally prefigurative of a post-capitalist society, we need to maintain principles that reflect the struggles we hope to build and an environment that is safe for those who participate in our organizing. If we cannot build organizations that are consistent with our principles then we cannot claim to have these principles at all, and if we cannot provide a safe environment for women then we are writing off half the population.
Our communities cannot possibly be immune from the oppressive characteristics of capitalism. If they were, we would hardly need to get rid of capitalism–oppression could be easily resolved by everybody simply joining a radical group and patriarchy and racism would simply wither away. Of course it is not that easy. The struggle against oppression needs to be carried out within our own communities in order make us fit to challenge the status quo.
Patriarchy will not be defeated without a contentious struggle, including within our own movements. The crises that have broken out about rape, sexual abuse and harassment are a result of not only a cover-up but also a resistance. These issues are not new, but what is new is a generation of feminists who will no longer stand idly by while they and their comrades are abused. The disarray many of us are going through now has always existed, but it was merely covered up and ignored. Thanks to the courageous stand taken by many throughout the world, at least some of these cover-ups will no longer be permitted to happen.