Organising Against All Oppressions (Voices of Women and Gender Minorities)

Article originally published in Fightback magazine’s special issue dedicated to paid writing by women and gender minorities.

By Kim McBreen.

Talking and thinking critically about our experiences, goals and strategies are important parts of organising.  All of our activism must be consistent with our long term goals, but there are often contradictions.  This article will look at examples of short term approaches moving us further from our long term goals, and alternative paths suggested by US group INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence.  Focusing on the experiences of women of colour exposes many contradictions in common approaches, allowing more holistic strategies for dismantling oppression.  

Organising against violence
Whether it is patriarchy, the criminal justice system, colonisation or poverty, oppression is violence.  And these oppressions interact.  When we treat oppressions separately, we ignore that their interactions make some populations far more vulnerable to violence, and we risk contributing to that violence.  For example, when organisations working against family violence lobby the State to bring in harsher punishments, they ignore the combination of patriarchy, white supremacy and classism within the criminal justice system.  The result entrenches existing power structures and actually increases violence against those most vulnerable by increasing their exposure to the State.  Where organisations working against prisons focus on the experience of men in the criminal justice system, they ignore the different experiences of marginalised genders in that system, as well as the need for real community safety and accountability.  Again this only entrenches existing structures of power.  Such organising is both unappealing and dangerous to those who know most about oppression.  

US prison abolition group Critical Resistance and INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence argue that anti-violence and prison abolition movements must come together to fight all violence:

“activists/ movements that address state violence often work in isolation from activists/ movements that address domestic and sexual violence.  The result is that women of color, who suffer disproportionately from both state and interpersonal violence have become marginalized within these movements.  It is critical that we develop responses to gender violence that do not depend on a sexist, racist, classist, and homophobic criminal justice system.  It is also important that we develop strategies that challenge the criminal justice system and that also provide safety for survivors of sexual and domestic violence.  To live violence free lives, we must develop holistic strategies for addressing violence that speak to the intersection of all forms of oppression” (INCITE & Critical Resistance 2001).

Our communities desperately need strategies that make all of us safer, but our work to dismantle one oppression must not strengthen another.  By bringing our understanding of oppressions together to see how they re-enforce each other, we are better able to tear them all down.  Uniting anti-violence and prison abolition organisations has resulted in a new approach based on building community accountability, and has created a new movement.  There have been several books, huge conferences, and now many organisations tackle violence in a holistic way based on this work.  
Organising against white supremacy
Andrea Smith (2006 and 2010) looked at ways that white supremacy pits communities of colour against each other, giving them a stake in racism.  She identifies three pillars supporting white supremacy in the US:

  1. Capitalism depends on the logic of slavery.  Slavery commodified Black people.  “[T]he capitalist system ultimately commodifies all workers: one’s own person becomes a commodity that one must sell in the labour market while the profits of one’s work are taken by somebody else. . . . [T]he logic of slavery applies a racial hierarchy to this system. . . . Anti-blackness enables people who are not black to accept their lot in life because they can feel that at least they are not at the very bottom of the racial hierarchy—at least they are not property” (Smith 2010).
  2. Colonisation depends on the logic of genocide, requiring Indigenous peoples to disappear.  “[N]on-Native peoples then become the rightful inheritors of all that was indigenous—land, resources, indigenous spirituality, or culture” (Smith 2006).  Dying is the ultimate disappearance, but Indigenous people are also made invisible when they are not recognised as ‘really Māori’ because they don’t look or behave how we expect.    
  3. In the West, war depends on the logic of orientalism—specific peoples, nations and religions are framed as a constant threat.  Our borders must be protected.  New Zealand supports imperialist wars and frames ‘asian immigration’ as dangerous.  Both direct our attention from ongoing colonisation and other state violence.  

“What keeps us trapped within our particular pillars of white supremacy is that we are seduced by the prospect of being able to participate in the other pillars” (Smith 2010).  This has implications for how we organise against specific forms of white supremacy, such as colonisation, anti-immigration, and other anti-asian, -Māori or -Pasifika racism.  With limited knowledge of others’ experiences, we risk gaining small victories for one group, while entrenching white supremacy overall.  We need relationships and accountability to other communities—solidarity that allows us to “check our aspiration against the aspirations of other communities to ensure our model of liberation does not become the model of oppression for others” (Smith 2006).

Models for Organising

Liberalism has become so normalised, we often find ourselves fighting for a less awful system, rather than for a world we actually want.  There are many ways that our energy is diverted away from dismantling oppression and towards making cosmetic changes to oppression.  

A common pathway for activists is from organising on an issue, to developing an organisation or programme providing a much needed service, that then becomes increasingly dependent on external funding and state support, and therefore respectability.  State funding is dangerous, but so too is support from large philanthropic trusts: “While the [prison industrial complex] overtly represses dissent, the [non-profit industrial complex] manages and controls dissent by incorporating it into the state apparatus” (Smith 2009).  Funders have influenced the direction of movements using grants, leadership courses and career pathways to lure activists into service delivery rather than movement building, and to change the focus of organisations from structural change to individual relief, from revolutionary to reformist goals.  It becomes harder to fight the structures of power when we depend on their money.  

For example, when we see children going to school hungry, a service model would focus on how to get the money to feed the children.  This is a simple solution, but by positioning ourselves outside the community, we risk framing children as the problem and the State as the solution, whereas State and capitalist violence are the actual problems.  A revolutionary model recognises these communities as experts on poverty and State violence.  Who better to dismantle oppression?  We need solutions that meet our immediate needs, and that also move us towards that goal.  This requires community mobilisation.  

“To radically change society, we must build mass movements that can topple systems of domination, such as capitalism.  However, the [non-profit industrial complex] encourages us to think of social justice as a career. . . . However, a mass movement requires the involvement of millions of people, most of whom cannot get paid.  By trying to do grassroots organizing through this careerist model, we are essentially asking a few people to work more than full-time to make up for the work that needs to be done by millions” (Smith 2009).  The service provider model has taken power away from collective organising, and invested that power with funders and service providers.  

Each of these three examples has led to new ways of organising.  Together, they show that those most oppressed have the most effective strategies for dismantling oppression, and that the more we reflect and talk together about our experiences and dreams for the future, the sooner we’ll get it done.

(For further reading, see The Color of Violence, The Revolution Starts at Home, and The Revolution Will Not be Funded, all published by South End Press)

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