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Feminist scholars to Obama: End prosecution of Palestinian survivor of sexual torture

Originally published in The Electronic Intifada
Sign petition here: http://www.iacenter.org/rasmeaodehpetition/
Learn more about the Nov 4th Court Action in Detroit.

Feminist scholars to Obama: End prosecution of Palestinian survivor of sexual torture

10708529_866559093356974_8244619295410734892_oBetween 1969-1979, Rasmea Odeh served ten years in an Israeli prison. Her sentence was based on a confession she made in the midst of 45 days of sexual and physical torture while in detention. Following her release, she was exiled from her Palestinian homeland and eventually immigrated to the United States from Jordan in 1994 as a legal resident where she tried to put her memories of torture behind her. She later became a naturalized citizen.

In the US, Rasmea settled in Chicago where she became the associate director of theArab American Action Network, a social service and community organization. There, she established the Arab Women’s Committee, a grassroots collective that promotes leadership among Arab immigrant women, challenges systems of oppression that impact Arab women’s lives and secures a positive and safe political, economic, social, and cultural environment for Arab women and their communities. In 2013, the Chicago Cultural Alliance granted Rasmea its Outstanding Community Leader Award in recognition of her devotion of “over forty years of her life to the empowerment of Arab women.”

Now, Rasmea is being persecuted again for not giving account of her time in jail after her torture 45 years ago on her naturalization application in 2004.

On 22 October 2013, the US Department of Justice arrested Rasmea Odeh at her home in the Chicago Suburbs. The Department of Justice alleges that Odeh failed to disclose on her naturalization application that she had served time in Israeli jail – even though her sentence was based on a confession she made in the midst of weeks of torture. Rasmea faces up to ten years in US prison, fines up to $250,000 and potential deportation and de-naturalization.

The Israeli state avoids any blame for the politically motivated abuse and imprisonment of Rasmea. The criminal charges she faces for alleged immigration fraud in the US are also politically motivated. They are based upon naturalization papers she filed ten years ago in 2004 and sprang from an illegal federal investigation of 23 Palestinian and anti-war activists that violates First Amendment rights.

They are also connected to a long history of federal authorities using fear and repression to silence Palestinian-American activists and intimidate immigrant women from participating in social justice movements.

Rasmea Odeh has suffered enough already. When the Israeli military arrested her, they also arrested her family members shortly after her arrest and destroyed her family’s home. Odeh’s 1969 conviction in Israel was determined by a court system that systematically abuses Palestinians’ due process rights, has a record of torture and sexual abuse of Palestinian women, men, and children, and convicts Palestinians at a rate of 99.74 percent.

As feminist scholars, we call on the Department of Justice to drop the charges against Rasmea Odeh. We extend our deepest support to Rasmea in the face of injustice. We recognize her as a leader in the international struggle to empower women and end violence against women. We recognize the pain and suffering she endured in Israeli prisons and we honor her for testifying before a United Nations Committee in Geneva as a survivor of sexual torture.

We honor her decades of feminist activism on behalf of Arab and Muslim immigrant women living in poverty in Chicago. Rasmea built the Arab Women’s Committee and its base of nearly six hundred Arab immigrant women from scratch when she went door to door as a recent immigrant herself and made phone calls to households with Arabic names from the white pages.

She developed an infrastructure for disenfranchised Arab immigrant and refugee women to obtain social services and support and she established English as a second language courses through which immigrant women perform plays, write their immigration stories and form deep friendships, sisterhood, and solidarity.

Because of Rasmea’s work, immigrant and refugee women who came to the US from countries facing war and political crises – like Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, Syria, and beyond – now have a place to seek support, gain empowerment and community and call their home.

Rasmea’s story encompasses some of the most urgent feminist struggles of our times – violence against women and the use of sexual violence as a tool of colonization and war; the impact of racism and anti-immigrant policies upon women; the criminalization of women of color; and the use of intimidation to thwart feminist activism.

Rasmea’s trial is set to begin 4 November 2014, in Detroit, Michigan.

We call upon all feminist movements to stand with gender justice and centralize Rasmea Odeh’s struggle within all of our movements.

We call upon President Obama and the United States Department of Justice to drop the charges against Rasmea Odeh.

  1. Sarah Abboud, Post-Doctoral Fellow, University of Pennsylvania
  2. Stéphanie Latte Abdallah, Researcher, CNRS (IFPO)
  3. Diya Abdo, Associate Professor, Guilford College
  4. Rabab Ibrahim Abdulhadi, Associate Professor, San Francisco State University
  5. Lila Abu-Lughod, Professor, Columbia University
  6. Fida J. Adely, Associate Professor, Georgetown University
  7. Jocelyn Ajami
  8. Nadje Al-Ali, Professor, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)
  9. Dina Al-Kassim, Associate Professor, University of British Columbia, Vancouver
  10. Deborah Al-Najjar, University of Southern California
  11. Lori Allen, Lecturer, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)
  12. Paul Amar, Associate Professor, University of California, Santa Barbara
  13. Anjali Arondekar, Associate Professor, University of California, Santa Cruz
  14. Barbara Aswad, Professor Emerita, Wayne State University
  15. Sa’ed Atshan, Postdoctoral Fellow, Brown University
  16. Elsa Auerbach, Professor Emerita, University of Massachusetts Boston
  17. Kathryn Babayan, Associate Professor, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  18. Paola Bacchetta, Associate Professor, University of California, Berkeley
  19. Joanne Barker, Professor, San Francisco State University
  20. Janet Bauer, Associate Professor, Trinity College
  21. Leila Ben-Nasr, Ohio State University
  22. Sherna Berger-Gluck, California State University, Long Beach
  23. Amahl Bishara, Assistant Professor, Tufts University
  24. Elizabeth Bishop, Associate Professor, Texas State University
  25. Jennifer Brier, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
  26. Victoria Brittain, Journalist and Author
  27. L.M. San Pablo Burns, Associate Professor, University of California, Los Angeles
  28. Louise Cainkar, Associate Professor, Marquette University
  29. Piya Chatterjee, Scripps College
  30. Julia Chinyere Oparah, Professor, Mills College
  31. Andreana Clay, Associate Professor, San Francisco State University
  32. Maria Cotera, Associate Professor, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  33. Ephrosine Daniggelis
  34. Angela Davis, Distinguished Professor Emirita, University of California, Santa Cruz
  35. Lara Deeb, Professor, Scripps College
  36. Christine Taitano DeLisle, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign
  37. Gina Dent, Associate Professor, University of California, Santa Cruz
  38. Lisa Duggan, Professor, New York University
  39. Zillah Eisenstein, Distinguished Feminist Scholar, Ithaca College
  40. Omnia El Shakry, Associate Professor, University of California, Davis
  41. Nada Elia, Independent Scholar
  42. Hoda Elsadda, Professor, Cairo University
  43. Anita Fábos, Associate Professor, Clark University
  44. Roderick Ferguson, Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
  45. Ellen Fleischmann, Professor, University of Dayton
  46. Cynthia Franklin, Professor, University of Hawai’i
  47. Rosa Linda Fregoso, Professor, University of California, Santa Cruz
  48. Nancy Gallagher, Research Professor, University of California, Santa Barbara
  49. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Professor, Graduate Center, City University of New York
  50. Sherna Berger Gluck, Emerita Faculty, California State University, Long Beach
  51. Layla Azmi Goushey, Assistant Professor, St. Louis Community College
  52. Marame Gueye, Associate Professor, East Carolina University
  53. Elena Gutiérrez, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
  54. Elaine C. Hagopian, Professor Emerita of Sociology, Simmons College
  55. Sondra Hale, Research Professor, University of California, Los Angeles
  56. Hala Halim, Associate Professor, New York University
  57. Najla Hamadeh, Independent Researcher
  58. Michelle Hartman, Associate Professor, McGill University
  59. Nadia Hijab, Author and Human Rights Advocate
  60. Grace Kyungwon Hong, Associate Professor, University of California, Los Angeles
  61. LeAnne Howe, Professor, University of Georgia
  62. Constantine Inglessis
  63. Jacqueline Khayat Inglessis
  64. Joyce Inglessis
  65. Bushra Jabre, The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
  66. Lynette Jackson, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
  67. Amira Jarmakani, Associate Professor, Georgia State University
  68. Suad Joseph, Distinguish Research Professor University of California, Davis
  69. Mohja Kahf, Professor, University of Arkansas
  70. Ronak Kapadia, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
  71. J. Kehaulani Kauanui, Associate Professor, Wesleyan University
  72. Laleh Khalili, Professor, School of Oriental and African Studies
  73. Sharon Heijin Lee, Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow, New York University
  74. Pardis Mahdavi, Associate Professor, Pomona College
  75. Lisa Suhair Majaj, Writer and Editor
  76. Jean Said Makdisi, Writer
  77. Harriet Malinowitz, Lecturer, Ithaca College
  78. Rania Masri, Associate Director, American University of Beirut
  79. Victor Mendoza, Assistant Professor, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  80. Hasna Mikdashi, Arab Women’s Studies and Research, NOUR, Cairo
  81. Maya Mikdashi, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Rutgers University
  82. Minoo Moallem, Professor, University of California, Berkeley
  83. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Distinguished Professor, Syracuse University
  84. Scott L. Morgensen, Associate Professor, Queen’s University
  85. Norma Claire Moruzzi, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
  86. Susan Muaddi Darraj
  87. Nadine Naber, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
  88. Margo Okazawa-Rey, Professor Emerita, San Francisco State University
  89. Jennifer Olmsted, Professor, Economics, Drew University
  90. Geeta Patel, Associate Professor, University of Virginia
  91. Suvendrini Perera, Professor, Curtin University
  92. Jasbir Puar, Associate Professor, Rutgers University
  93. Michelle Raheja, Associate Professor, University of California, Riverside
  94. Aneil Rallin, Associate Professor, Soka University of America
  95. Barbara Ransby, Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
  96. Robin L. Riley, Assistant Professor, Syracuse University
  97. Eleanor Roffman, Professor Emerita, Lesley University
  98. Judy Rohrer, Assistant Professor, Western Kentucky University
  99. Rachel Rubin, Professor, University of Massachusetts Boston
  100. Rosemary Sayigh, Researcher and Visiting Professor, Center for Arab and Middle East Studies, American University of Beirut.
  101. Susan Schaefer Davis, Independent Scholar
  102. Laurie Schaffner, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
  103. Malini Johar Schueller, Professor, University of Florida
  104. Sarita See, Associate Professor, University of California, Riverside
  105. May Seikaly, Associate Professor, Wayne State University
  106. Sima Shakhsari, Assistant Professor, Wellesley College
  107. Simona Sharoni, Professor, State University of New York, Plattsburgh
  108. Setsu Shigematsu, Associate Professor, University of California, Riverside
  109. Irene Siegel, Assistant Professor, Hofstra University
  110. Andrea Smith, Associate Professor, University of California, Riverside
  111. Samera Sood
  112. Ahdaf Soueif, writer
  113. Rajini Srikanth, Professor, University of Massachusetts Boston
  114. Maria Francesca Stamuli, National Library of Naples
  115. Neferti X. M. Tadiar, Professor, Barnard College
  116. Kim TallBear, Associate Professor, University of Texas, Austin
  117. Sunera Thobani, Associate Professor, University of British Columbia
  118. Miriam Ticktin, Associate Professor, The New School for Social Research
  119. Judith E. Tucker, Professor, History, Georgetown University
  120. Karyn Valerius, Associate Professor, Hofstra University
  121. Sherry Vatter, California State University, Long Beach
  122. Maurice L. Wade, Professor, Trinity College
  123. Lee Ann Wang, Assistant Professor, University of Hawaii
  124. Jessica Winegar, Associate Professor, Northwestern University

Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation

Black feminist anti-violence activist, professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and INCITE! co-founder, Beth E. Richie, released a powerful new book entitled Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation.

Girl Talk will host a discussion with Beth on Thursday, June 21st from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m at Depaul University Student Center, 2250 N. Sheffield Ave, Room 324, Chicago, IL.

Here is an excerpt from an interview with Beth at Salon.com about  the relationship between dominant anti-domestic/sexual violence efforts and the “prison nation.”

You describe the U.S. as a “prison nation.” What do you mean by that?

The prison nation, which is a broader concept than the prison industrial complex, for me represents the combination of both incarceration in the literal sense – an influx of people into the criminal legal system in all of its apparatus: jails, prisons, detention centers, etc. … [It is an] increase in arrest and removal of people from their communities into facilities, but it also represents the ideological shift and policy changes that use criminalization and punishment as a response to a whole range of social problems. Not just crime, but also things like policing people who are on welfare, using the child protective services system to control families, the ways that schools have become militarized. So it’s a broad notion of using the arm of the law to control people, especially people who are disadvantaged and come from disadvantaged communities.

How does this affect violence against black women?

It’s kind of an interesting parallel and a convolution of things. Anti-violence work has been going on in this country for years and years, and many people see the early 1990s as the time when there were big shifts in public consciousness about the problem of violence against women, as well as changes in policies that really took the crime of violence against women – domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, etc. – more seriously. So there were new laws, there were more sanctions, police were trained, domestic violence courts were opened up – there were a lot of policy changes that made the problem of violence against women a crime. And a lot of that harsh sanctioning of violence against women really grew out of, not feminist organizing to end the problem of violence against women, but a parallel criminalization of everything. The Violence Against Women Act really lined up right against the other crime bills that were passed primarily in the mid-1990s. So on the one hand, this is good news for anti-violence activists, in terms of criminalizing violence against women. But on the other hand, these crimes disproportionately impacted black communities, and so it was kind of a mixed result for African-American people. It created a schism, especially for African-American women, but also I think for African-American families and communities more generally, because we were taking position against mass incarceration at the same time that mass incarceration was being used as a tool to respond to the crime of violence against women.

This is an interesting development given the “everywoman” emphasis of the ’60s feminist anti-violence movement — which argued that all women, regardless of race and class, were vulnerable to domestic violence. 

Yes. We began doing training to try to raise public consciousness and make public the private care of domestic and sexual violence, in particular, by saying: This is not an isolated problem, it can happen to any women; it’s not just an issue for poor families or families of color. So — regardless of your religion, your race or ethnicity, your income, what region of the country you live in, what age you were … it didn’t matter what you wore, it didn’t matter if you didn’t cook well – there was nothing demographically or behaviorally that would protect women from male violence. We used that as a kind of anchor to our analysis: It can happen to any woman. And I think we were successful, at least initially, in making sure that it wasn’t another stigmatizing problem that was associated with other social problems of poverty and racism, etc. And people heard us. There was an increase in general public consciousness, and in particular, there was an increase in attention to the problem of violence against women by power elites – by executive decision-makers at corporations, elected officials, presidents of universities.

And when power elites started paying attention to it, they took seriously what could happen to women in their social context and started designing services for and passing laws that would protect women in their social context. So it became ultimately paradoxically kind of a narrowing of an understanding of the problem. That white middle-class or wealthy heterosexual married women or women on elite college campuses were at risk of violence against women and the attention, the resources, the analysis, went toward protecting those women at the expense of women who didn’t fall into those more normative categories. So it became hard to understand how a prostitute could be raped, for example. Or how a woman who is a substance abuser could be battered in her household. It became a sense of victimization tied to a sympathetic image of who could be hurt and how terrible it was that those women were hurt, as opposed to the real everywoman that we were trying to argue for.

You can find the full interview here.

In Defense of Brontez—and the Rest of Us Too Proud or Too Trashy to Go Down Without a Fight

Originally published at Kenyon Farrow’s blog; republished with permission.

In Defense of Brontez—and the Rest of Us Too Proud or Too Trashy to Go Down Without a Fight
by Kenyon Farrow

Let me first state that there is no pretense of objectivity or an emotional distance here for several reasons.

One, Brontez Purnell is a very close friend of mine.

Two, this issue cuts at the core of some thoughts and problems I have with existing frameworks of victim, and the demands made on victims of violence to behave (past or present behaviors) in a fashion acceptable to others in order to claim one has been victimized; the role of police and questions of political alignments and authenticity; and the demands on victims to recall and script every fact in exactly the right chronology in order to be seen as credible.

Last week, I received a phone call from Brontez—again, close friend and musician/dancer/writer who lives in Oakland, California. It was the day after he and friend/bandmate Adal had left the Paradiso nightclub when two Black men with some Caribbean accent began harassing them as they left the club. Adal is not queer, but the two men, according to Brontez, assumed that they were a couple, and began calling them “batty boy” and other epithets. Finally, they made the statement, “if we were at home you’d be dead by now.”

Brontez, clearly enraged, went the fuck off. After more words were exchanged, and Brontez says he spit at the car the men were in, and then he was punched in the face. Brontez says he then hit the man’s car with his bicycle lock and they assaulted Brontez and Adal (who’s face was broken in five places). The police were called but no arrests have been made.

After talking to Brontez about the attack—I read an article in the Bay Citizen, followed by a pretty vigorous debate in the comments section. The debate mostly sparked by comments made by Kevin Bynes, who is known for his work in HIV prevention for Black gay men. Bynes, a bay area resident said he witnessed the incident nearby (and I know of Bynes through my own work in HIV prevention), and that Brontez was lying about the details of the incident noting:

I’m sorry I have to tell the truth because I live in this area and saw the entire incident. The so called victim rode around on his bike yelling at the two guys in the black SUV repeatedly and it wasn’t until the so-called victim spit on the driver and tried to break his window with his bike lock that the two accused “gay bashers” reacted by chasing the guy away. This man TOTALLY provoked this situation and initiated the violence. He took the first swing, spit in the man’s face and tried to damage his car. I’m a gay man who lives in this area and the club they were leaving used to be a gay club that was there for 20 + years and the area is VERY safe for gay people. That was NOT a gay bashing and I think it is dangerous for us to suggest that everytime a gay person gets into a fight its a gay bashing. The guy that is being called a victim really harrassed these guys and they did not attack him because he was gay they acted in self defense. In fact the only gay slurs that I heard came from the victim. I’m so sorry that I didn’t speak to the police this morning.

To which Brontez responded:

Yo, this is Brontez. You SADDEN me Mr. Bynes (whoever you are). We we’re unlocking our bikes and these guys stared harassing us. How did you see “everything”? It was only us four outside in the beginning! You act like we just saw these dudes and went in on them and thats a lie. Ive attended the Paradiso since it was Cabel’s Reef and have NEVER had anything like this happen. Me cursing, and yelling at them is true like after someone threatens you with VIOLENCE who wouldn’t? Sorry im NOT the type of girl whos gonna cross her legs and act fucking nice after some jock tells me im “at the wrong club” two blocks from my own fucking house! FUCK YEAH I YELLED BACK AT THEM. If your such a sensible homosexual why didnt you HELP US when these guys were fucking with us? And also my bandmate who was sitting on the sidelines got his face broken and we did NOTHING to warrant that. WE WERE THE VICTIMS OF VIOLENCE, verbal and otherwise. I threw my bike lock AFTER they punched me and Adal (who wouldn’t?) I used this tactic to pause them long enough to get their plate number. You call someone a “batty boy” threaten them with violence and then hit someone that didnt provoke you YES THAT IS A HATE CRIME. I was REACTING to being fucked with. How dare you?

My problem here is not that Bynes disagrees with Purnell’s timeline of the events or that he was “disgusted and ashamed” by Brontez’ behavior.

First, Brontez and Adal both say that the men had been saying shit to them from jump, for which Bynes (in my opinion) was likely out of earshot or just didn’t hear. Brontez is just not the type, drunk or not, to start a fight with two other men for no reason, having been out in San Fran, Oakland, and all over NYC with Mr. Purnell over the years of our relationship—even where it is clear that Adal was trying to convince Brontez to let it slide. But as Brontez himself said, and I very much believe, he wasn’t going to just let that shit slide. Brontez actually states in the article what Bynes re-asserts in his comment—he didn’t expect to be threatened with violence at a place he’d frequented for years (both men live in the neighborhood where this incident took place), so I am not sure why Bynes re-states this point in his comment—unless he flat out does not believe anything at all transpired to make Brontez angry in the first place (The Bay Citizen published a second story where Adal corroborates Brontez’s assertion that the men started harassing them first). Bynes’ assertion that the club used to be a queer space but is still frequented by queers seems to ignore the realities many of us know from experience. Many of us have been at “the club” in any city USA that used to be a queer bar, and the straights who then take it over act brand fucking new and further marginalize queers who continue to go there. And since when did neighborhoods or establishments with lots of LGBT people mean they were free from homo/transphobic violence? That doesn’t make any kind of sense.

So the question for me here, and where I vehemently disagree with Bynes, is how one defines “provocation” and who judges what then is the socially acceptable response. I tend to agree with Brontez. Too often people who are targeted for violence have to have their motivations and their recollection of all the “facts” or chronology of all the events hyper-scrutinized beyond recognition if they at all do anything other than lay down and take the abuse (or in the case of sexual assault, you’re accused of lying if you don’t have any physical evidence that you fought back, or you choose to try to still (and steel) yourself to try to avoid further violence, or are simply in a state of shock). And what is more true than not, most of us, in some way, respond verbally or physically fight back.

I think Brontez was enraged by the situation and responded accordingly. But rage, as bell hooks once stated, is an appropriate response to oppression. I actually have never seen Brontez angry to the point of fighting the way he clearly must have been that night. But any of us, caught at the right place at the wrong time, may have responded similarly. People get tired of this bullshit. I am tired of it. I have had people hurl similar epithets and make threats to me. One day I may walk away. Another day, I walk right into that fire. Once, similar to what happened to Brontez—two Black men started with me, but when I didn’t run or back down, they punched my non-black friend instead—who once they engaged, thought was going to be an easier target. So I know what it means to reach that point where you say to yourself, Fuck it. I don’t give a fuck what happens today. I am not going to be disrespected and let you walk away from here thinking that shit is OK to do. Not now.

That’s what happened to Chrishaun McDonald, a Black transwoman in Minneapolis currently on trial for murder. She was outside one evening this past spring when she and some friends were approached by a white man who hurled both racist and transphobic remarks. I don’t know who threw the first blow, but that man was stabbed (many say not by Chrishaun) and is dead. I don’t celebrate his death and yes those trans women could have done a million things to try to get away from him. But maybe they were tired of running, or were so bold as to think they didn’t have a reason to run.

I am reminded of Sakia Gunn, when she told a man to leave her friends alone—they were lesbians. I don’t know if she kicked his car, or flipped him the finger. I don’t know if she told him he had a dick smaller than hers, called him a faggot or some other name to push his buttons. But he did what patriarchal men do—he assumed it was his right and Christian civic duty to accost them, and “check” them for being “out of hand.” He got out of the car. She, or one of her friends, may have punched him first. She may have spit in his face. But he killed her. Was that justified? Was she “at fault” for provoking him? Should she have collected her friends and run back into Newark Penn Station? She could have done any of those things, but maybe, even at 15 years old, she decided she was tired of running, or it never occurred to her to run.

I think of the New Jersey 4—originally the group of seven—young Black lesbians also from Newark who one night in a “gay friendly” part of town, NYC’s West Village, were walking and a man made a disparaging comment about them being lesbians, and a fight ensued, with the man being stabbed, which he later described as “a hate crime against a straight man.” They could have went to the other side of the street. They could have decided to leave the Village and go home. They could have quoted Bible passages at him. But they didn’t. I don’t know if one of them struck him first. Nor do I care.

I respect these young women for, despite the enormous consequences that none of them could forsee, making a choice to not live in a world where they could be denigrated for being lesbians, bisexuals, aggressives (AGs), queers or however they think of their identities. And they, like Brontez, don’t present as “victims” in the way our society constructs, because they didn’t just let that shit go. They didn’t run. They saw the danger, decided to move towards it and do what it was trying to do to them, even if it meant they might not win. The “behavior,” like Brontez’s was not befitting of any victim—most people in the moment are resisting being a passive victim (and this is not to also say that people who choose not to fight back in certain moments are less than heroic, nor am I glorifying violent retribution). But it is to say that I think anyone who tries to condemn someone for not allowing themselves to be intimidated by people, especially in this case who are saying if they were a few thousand miles away they’d just as soon kill you for simply existing. I don’t know how I’d react.

And if we’re going to claim that we don’t want to see more Black men going to prison potentially, I totally agree, but if that’s your position then it means that we have to find ways to help and de-escalate situations, even if you think someone is in the wrong and not wait till after cops are called to raise judgement about whether someone exhibited exemplary model citizen behavior in the midst of being threatened. Also, I think that those of us who think critically about calling the police (because of the nature of policing and the prison industrial complex as an anti-Black project) have to be clear that we do not begin to use this as a reason to excuse violence, or question a person’s Blackness or other racial/political authenticity against a person who, for whatever reason, calls the police in a particular moment. It’s not as though Brontez is someone the police don’t also target, threaten and violate. And while the fact that these men were likely Caribbean immigrants invokes racist narratives about Black criminality and homophobia in the Caribbean, clearly these men were quite willing to try to intimidate Brontez and his friend using those very same narratives when they declared “if we were at home you’d be dead by now.”

I think Bynes is making an assumption that even if Brontez had never responded, he and his friend would have been safe (on their bikes!!!!) from those men once they turned the corner, even if they were supposedly trying to avoid an altercation right then and there—maybe they were initially shocked that a Black gay man would have the audacity to even respond back to them. Maybe they were trying to impress the women they were with, and they clearly got a response they weren’t prepared for. I don’t know their motives, but I don’t believe Brontez decided to just pick a random fight with two dudes leaving a club he frequents regularly (as a musician this fucks with your ability to make money), two blocks from his own house, in a community he has to continue to live in.

I do hope that rather than starting a war of words (and I have to admit I was mad as hell when I first heard there was some backlash calling one of my best friends a liar), this can actually give us pause to think about what standards we’re holding people to who have been threatened, when one day, it might be you, for whatever reason, who decides not to take the high road.

Kenyon Farrow has been working as an organizer, communications strategist, and writer on issues at the intersection of HIV/AIDS, prisons, and homophobia. Kenyon is the former Executive Director of Queers for Economic Justice—an organization dedicated to organizing, research, and advocacy for and with low-income and working-class lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. Prior to becoming ED, Kenyon served as the National Public Education Director, building the visibility of progressive racial and economic justice issues as they pertain to LGBTQ community through coalition-building, public education, and media advocacy. Currently he serves on the Executive Committee of Connect 2 Protect New York, and the Center for Gay & Lesbian Studies (CLAGS). Kenyon is working on a new report on the Tea Party and LGBT Politics with Political Research Associates, as well as working as a book editor with South End Press.  Check out Kenyon’s blog here.

Stereotypes, Myths, & Criminalizing Policies: Regulating the Lives of Poor Women

Statement from New Orleans-based Women’s Health & Justice Initiative, July 2011

Since the beginning of the year, we have witnessed a surge of legislative attacks targeting poor communities through bills calling for mandatory drug testing as an eligibility requirement to receive federal aid under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF[1]) program in over two-dozen states.

  • On January 25, 2011 U.S. Senator David Vitter, R-Louisiana, introduced The Drug Free Families Act of 2011, (S. 83), which would require all 50 states to drug test all TANF applicants and recipients.
  • On May 10, 2011, Missouri state legislature passed Senate Bill 607, which require welfare applicants and recipients to pass a drug test in order to receive public assistance, if ‘reasonable suspicion’ is raised by a social worker; and on July 12, 2011, Democratic Governor Jay Nixon signed the bill into law.
  • On May 31, 2011, Governor Rick Scott, R- Florida, signed legislation into law requiring adults applying for welfare assistance to undergo drug screenings.
  • And for the fourth consecutive year, Louisiana State Representative John LaBruzzo aggressively tried to get similar legislation passed before House Bill 7 died in the Senate on June 21, 2011 after winning approval in the House.

The targeting of welfare recipients – under the false pretense of “saving tax dollars from supporting someone’ s drug addiction” or by “helping drug addicts become productive citizens” – is nothing more than the continual use of stereotypes and myths to criminalize the lives of poor women and their families through invasive and unconstitutional regulatory policies of economic violence.

The Women’s Health & Justice Initiative (WHJI)[2] condemns these coordinated federal and state assaults on recipients of public cash assistance.  The legislative actions of Governor Scott, Senator Vitter, State Representative LaBruzzo, and others criminalize the poverty of welfare recipients, exploit low-income women’s economic vulnerability, and stereotype welfare recipients as illegal drug users by publicly presuming welfare recipients’ socio-economic status as linked to addiction.

Punitive, Criminalizing, & Discriminatory Attacks

Using the ‘Get Tough’ rhetoric of the War on Drugs; reproductive regulation; and neoliberal austerity measures to attack poor and marginalized women (who rely on government subsidies for financial support) irresponsibly exploits their economic vulnerability by falsely implying their assistance is the cause of the country’s financial woes.  Although recipients of public assistance are no more likely to use illegal drugs than the general population, they are often disproportionately targeted by elected officials as social burdens in need of governmental regulation.

At both the federal and state levels, Senator Vitter and State Representative LaBruzzo have tried unsuccessfully for years to restrict public assistance eligibility through mandatory drug testing under the disguise of helping recipients with untreated drug addictions. Despite the fact such testing has been ruled unconstitutional by the Sixth Circuit in 2000, Vitter and LaBruzzo continue to promote dangerously punitive policies.

If passed, Senator Vitter’s Drug Free Families Act of 2011 would amend part A of The TANF Program and thereby require all states to drug test all TANF applicants and recipients.  The bill will deny assistance to individuals who test positive for illegal drugs and those convicted of drug-related crimes.  Not only will this Act further restrict the privacy and agency of women who are daily portrayed as deceitful, deviant, oversexed, and addicts—all because of racialized gender-based misconceptions of what it means to receive public assistance- it will also subject them to various forms of discrimination with regards to housing, employment, education, and their voting rights.

Additionally, Louisiana State Representative LaBruzzo’s House Bill 7 would have required twenty percent of TANF recipients to submit to drug tests as a condition to receive public assistance – a similar measure attempted by former State Representative and Klu Klux Klan member David Duke in 1989.

Under this year’s version of Representative LaBruzzo’s bill, a participant who wouldn’t sign a written form granting ‘consent’ to a drug test would not have been eligible to receive or to continue to receive cash assistance.  Consenting to a drug test is an infringement of one’s constitutional right to privacy and equal protection, yet refusal is a denial of public benefits and a presumption of drug addiction. Clearly, this legislation was designed to both publicly demonize and undermine the agency of welfare recipients – because placing women in a position to “choose” between their right to privacy and the care of their family is not an exercise of “consent” but a blatant form of coercion.  The use of coercive policies to compel welfare recipients to submit to drug testing ignores the complex structures of poverty and poor women’s daily battles for subsistence, as they often bear the brunt of income and housing related poverty, violence, and discrimination.    By placing women in such positions, LaBruzzo and others are able to justify these systemic forms of coercion by dehumanizing the lives of poor women and their families.

Lastly, legislation signed into law by Governor Scott of Florida on May 31,2011 and by Governor Nixon of Missouri on July 12, 2011 both require adults applying for temporary cash assistance to undergo drug screenings.  The Florida law took effect July 1st, which requires the Florida Department of Children and Family Services to drug test all adults applying for TANF assistance.  Applicants are responsible for the cost of the screening and will be reimbursed by the state only if they pass the drug test.  Those who fail can enter a drug rehabilitation program and reapply six months later or designate someone on their behalf to receive their child’s benefits.  Governor Scott claims, “we don’t want to waste tax dollars…and we want to give people an incentive to not use drugs.”  His statement equates public assistance with ‘waste’ and exploits the vulnerability of women’s economic status by violating their Fourth Amendment rights under the pretext of deficit reduction.

In Missouri, the recently signed law allows officials with the Department of Social Services to drug test recipients of public assistance if there is ‘reasonable cause’ to suspect illegal drug use.  If an applicant tests positive, they must complete a substance abuse program.  And if an applicant refuses to take a drug test or attend a substance abuse program, they won’t be eligible for assistance for three years.  This law, like the others, stigmatizes welfare recipient’s economic status and equates their subsidy status with addiction.

The Truth Behind the Legislation

Not only is drug testing unconstitutional, it’s ineffective and costly.  Drug testing does nothing but further marginalize and stigmatize TANF recipients. It implies that recipients are to blame for the nation’s current economic deficit, as opposed to the wasteful spending of public resources on the corporate welfare giants of Wall Street and the War on Drugs; militarism; and the over production of unnecessary commodities that negatively impact our environment. The aggressive use of punitive neoliberal policies like these rely on fear and racist stereotypes to falsely frame low-income families as economic burdens of the state, while ignoring the disastrous economic burdens of corporate welfare.

Stereotypes and stigmatizing labels associated with welfare are dramatically different in reality than what is often decried by elected officials. The racial and gendered subtext of prevailing welfare stereotypes of ‘laziness,’ ‘uncontrolled sexuality,’ and ‘drug addiction,’ implicitly informs the negative treatment of people on food stamps; landlords refusing to accept subsidized housing vouchers as rent; the general perception that welfare recipients only have children to receive a “welfare check;” the regulation of low-income women of color’s fertility; and the scapegoating of recipients as constantly burdening the government to take care of them.  Despite the fact that the current TANF program carries a 5-year term limit, along with a variety of other requirements and restrictions, the false perception of low-income women of color having endless benefits to support drug habits persists.

Nationally, financial assistance to poor families represents approximately 0.7% of the federal budget. Here in Louisiana, the number of people receiving cash assistance through TANF has been declining since President Bill Clinton signed the 1996 welfare reform legislation; and since Hurricane Katrina, the numbers of families receiving assistance has decreased by 74 %.

Despite the claims of lawmakers like Rep. John LaBruzzo, cash assistance payments in Louisiana represents less than 1% of the state budget, with:

  • Less than .3% of the population receiving assistance through the Family Independence Temporary Assistance Program or FITAP (13,237 people out a population of 4.5 million)
  • The average public assistance grant being only $189 a month for a family of three, and
  • 74% of receipts in the state being children (only 3,656 of the 13,237 recipients are adults)

The reality of welfare in Louisiana clearly illustrates drug testing has nothing to do with saving tax payers dollars and balancing state budgets, but much to do with who’s perceived as receiving benefits.

What We Need

These current actions represent yet another attempt by conservative legislators to pass criminalizing policies to restrict and police the sexuality and reproductive autonomy of subsidy-reliant women under the pretext of saving taxpayers’ dollars.  The same women whose fertility and motherhood become routine targets of public debates, reproductive legislation, and policy mandates are the same women who are falsely accused of being economic burdens on the state and punished through government funded programs for being poor, thus becoming disproportionately subjected to racialized gender related poverty, violence, discrimination, and displacement.

We need legislators to take real leadership in addressing budget shortfalls — not by weakening the capacity of women to care for their families, which will ultimately create more social and economic cost in the future, but by targeting inflated costs of corporations that pose dangerous risks to our communities. The efforts that have been employed to police the lives of poor women could be better used to:

  • Regulate dangerous industries and out-of-control military spending that threaten the social, economic, and environmental health of families and communities;
  • Increase the efficacy and availability of social programs designed to improve the living conditions of poor communities;
  • Support responsible, accessible, and affordable public services and resources that respect the reproductive and economic autonomy of women of color and low-income women;
  • Prioritize poor women’s economic and social needs to take care of their families in safe and healthy environments.

Legislation that is appropriately funded and provide for childcare resources, family treatment programs, mental health services, non-discriminatory employment opportunities, affordable and decent housing, and safe and non-coercive health care services is needed to assist low-income families — not punitive, ineffective, and expensive drug testing initiatives that restrict the opportunities and life chances of low-income women and their families.


[1] TANF is a federally funded, state- administered aid program created when President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996C (PRWORA), which abolished Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). It is more widely known as the Welfare Reform Act.

[2] Formed in 2006 to address the hidden and persistent racialized gender-based forms of violence, neglect, and inequality laid bare and exacerbated by the disasters of 2005, the Women’s Health & Justice Initiative (WHJI) is a feminist of color organization based in New Orleans that engages in public education campaigns, research projects, and grassroots organizing activities to improve the social and economic health of women of color and our communities. WHJI advocates against punitive social policies, practices, and behaviors that restrict, exploit, regulate, and criminalize the bodies and lives of low-income and working class women of color most vulnerable to violence, poverty, and population control policies of blame, displacement, and social neglect.  Our organizing challenges the social invisibility of the various forms of social exclusion, violence, marginality, and socio-economic vulnerability women color and poor women experience, contend with, and fight against —by staving off attempts to further undermine our human rights—while forging new opportunities to build the capacity of our communities to address the social justice implications of women’s economic and social needs to live in healthy and safe environments.

The Revolution Starts At Home Anthology is Out & On the Road!

After seven years of hard work, the anthology, The Revolution Starts At Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities, edited by Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, is finally printed and out!   And there are tour dates!  Here’s more about the collection:

“Was/is your abusive partner a high-profile activist? Does your abusive girlfriend’s best friend staff the domestic violence hotline? Have you successfully kicked an abuser out of your group? Did your anti-police brutality group fear retaliation if you went to the cops about another organizer’s assault? Have you found solutions where accountability didn’t mean isolation for either of you? Was the ‘healing circle’ a bunch of bullshit? Is the local trans community so small that you don’t want you or your partner to lose it?

“We wanted to hear about what worked and what didn’t, what survivors and their supporters learned, what they wish folks had done, what they never want to have happen again. We wanted to hear about folks’ experiences confronting abusers, both with cops and courts and with methods outside the criminal justice system.”

— The Revolution Starts at Home collective

Long demanded and urgently needed, The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities finally breaks the dangerous silence surrounding the secret of intimate violence within social justice circles. This watershed collection of stories and strategies tackles the multiple forms of violence encountered right where we live, love, and work for social change — and delves into the nitty-gritty on how we might create safety from abuse without relying on the state. Drawing on over a decade of community accountability work, along with its many hard lessons and unanswered questions, The Revolution Starts at Home offers potentially life-saving alternatives for creating survivor safety while building a movement where no one is left behind.

For more information:
http://southendpress.org/2010/items/87941
http://revolutionathome.tumblr.com/
revathome@gmail.com

The Revolution Starts at Home authors and editors are taking these conversations on the road.  Keep up with upcoming book events and author interviews at their blog: http://revolutionathome.tumblr.com/

More dates will be happening throughout the year – if you’re interested in organizing an event in your community, please email revathome@gmail.com.  If you can’t make a book event, please buy the book direct from South End Press, through your local independent bookstore or through Powell’s Books.

~ Northeastern North American Leg of the Revolution Starts At Home Book Tour ~
Accessibility details listed under each event!  Please come fragrance free — more deets below!

NEW YORK, NY:
Saturday, May 14, 2011
7:30pm – 9:30pm
Bluestockings Bookstore, Café, & Activist Center
172 Allen St. New York, NY 10002
www.bluestockings.com

RSVP to Facebook event here: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=186702164710124
Come to the launch party for this long-awaited, beloved book!
With co-editors Jai Dulani and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and contributors Gaurav Jashnani and RJ Maccani (Challenging Male Supremacy Project), Jessica Yee (Native Youth Sexual Health Network) and Timothy Colm (Philly’s Pissed, Philly Survivor Support Collective.)
Access: Wheelchair accessible space, tiny tiny bathroom. We’re reserving seats for folks who need to sit due to disability and chronic illness/pain.

AMHERST, MA:
Sunday, May 15, 2011
5-7 PM

Food For Thought Books
106 N. Pleasant St, Amherst, MA
413-253-5432
http://www.foodforthoughtbooks.com/event/revolution-starts-at-home
Co-editors Ching-In Chen and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha will be in attendance, read, sign books and answer questions.
Access: Fully wheelchair accessible, including bathrooms. We’re reserving seats for folks who need to sit due to disability and chronic illness/pain.

PHILADELPHIA, PA:
Wednesday, May 18, 2011

7 PM

A Space

4722 Baltimore Avenue

Philadelphia, PA

Facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=171659686221316&ref=ts
Contributor Timothy Colm,  O.G. co-editor Sham-e-Ali  Nayeem  and co-editor Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha will read, do Q and A and sign books.
Co sponsored by Philly Stands Up! (www.phillystandsup.com)
Access: Wheelchair accessible to get in.  Non-accessible bathroom. We’re reserving seats for folks who need to sit due to disability and chronic illness/pain.

TORONTO, CANADA:
Thursday, May 26
6:30 PM – 9:00 PM

Toronto Women’s Bookstore

73 Harbord St
Moved location for more space!
  New location:
Gladstone Hotel

1214 Queen Street West
Toronto ON

http://www.gladstonehotel.com/events/event-listings/upcoming-events/event-detail?eid=3516
Facebook event here: https://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=150230461710560
Come to the launch party for this long-awaited, beloved book!
Featuring readings, snacks, discussion and book signings
DJ’d by Syrus Ware
Contributors Jessica Yee (Native Youth Sexual Health Network) and Juliet November, and co-editor Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha will attend and read.
Access: Wheelchair accessible to get in. Non accessible bathroom. Reserved seating for folks who need it.  ASL interpretation and Livestream info forthcoming – watch this space!


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS:
 We want to acknowledge that all these events take place on stolen Indigenous land and that it is at Indigenous people’s expense that we occupy this land. Community accountability is work that Indigenous communities have been doing outside of and in resistance to systems of state power since before the arrival of colonial settlers, and continue to do. We thank the Three Fires Confederacy, Mohawk, Anishnabe, Lenape, Nipmuc, Ohlone and Miwok Nations for allowing us to be on their land.

ACCESS IS LOVE & JUSTICE: See above for specific accessible notes about each venue. We were 90% successful at getting wheelchair accessible spaces and are reserving seating for folks who need it due to pain, disability or illness. It really, really sucks that we didn’t have funding for ASL interpretation for this tour, but we will post videos of some of the launches with text transcription on our tumblr, http://revolutionathome.tumblr.com/. If you have access concerns or questions, please email revathome@gmail.com.

Fragrance free is hella love!  So that beloved community members including some editors and contributors can be present without throwing up or having to leave, please come to this event fragrance free! This means no cologne, perfume, essential oil and also switching to unscented products. We know folks have a learning curve around this, but if you can ditch the scented (yup, even with ‘natural’ scents) detergent and fabric softener, it’ll go a long way. Awesome scent-free list here: http://eastbaymeditation.org/accessibility/scentfree.html

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Black Women Re-Defining Agency, Organizing for Reproductive Justice

by Alisa Bierria

Right-wing organizations continue to purchase billboards that attack black women and our reproductive lives.  Purchased by a group called That’s Abortion, one billboard recently showed up on the corner of  Watts Street and Sixth Avenue in New York City, featuring a photo of a black girl and the caption, “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.”

Lamar Advertising, which owns the billboard, agreed to take the ad down, but this isn’t the first time these kinds of ads have gone up (last year, it took a movement of women of color in Georgia to battle similar billboards in the state) and, as ColorLines rightly notes, it won’t be the last.  Indeed, the Georgia billboards have now shown up in Los Angeles.

Sistersong & Trust Black Women, released some helpful and sharp talking points to counter the violent messaging of these billboard campaigns.  One of the talking points that I particularly appreciated highlights the agency of black women:

Reinforce agency of black women
African American women have struggled to control when and how we have children for centuries. Access to birth control and abortion services are vital to our ability to have lives with dignity. Every African American woman who utilizes her full range of health care options, including abortion services, does so based on her own private circumstances and must always be able to do so with dignity and safety. We trust black women and recognize that each woman who chooses abortion does so, not because she is ill-informed or a dupe, but because she is making the best decision for herself and her family.

This is very much on point, and I think it’s interesting that we have to make a case for black women’s agency.  How do we describe an agency that is exercised on a terrain of political conditions designed to dehumanize and undermine us?  As it relates to reproductive rights organizing, is the mainstream pro-choice framework useful when the available options from which black women can “choose” often reinforce punitive reproductive policies that threaten black womens’ bodies, reproduction, and lives?

Myth-making & the perils of “choice”

Consider the following cases of black mothers acting as agents to protect their children:

Kelly Williams-Bolar, an aspiring teacher and single mother in Ohio, experienced a break-in in her home and filed 12 different police reports related to crime in her neighborhood.  Worried about her children’s safety, she “chose” to falsify records to gain access for her children to a safer school in another district.  She was jailed, fined for thousands of dollars, and could potentially lose her ability to teach because of a felony record.

Specialist Alexis Hutchinson, an army cook and single mother in Georgia, was called to deploy to the war on Afghanistan, but her mother, who initially agreed to take care of Hutchinson’s son, could not do so because she was “choosing” to care for her own child, a sick sister, and a daycare center based in her home.  Faced with the threat of her child being put in foster care by the state, Hutchinson “chose” to not go to Afghanistan until she could figure out a different plan.  She was arrested, nearly court-martialed and incarcerated, and has lost some veterans’ benefits.

These black women are agents and acted deliberately to protect their children, but the political and social conditions in which they acted — racialized poverty, militarism, education inequity, gender violence — criminalize their mothering acts.  Further, when black women analyze and describe the context of racism and misogyny that shapes the options available to them, they are accused of not taking responsibility for their actions, of not recognizing their own agency.  See this comment on the Kelly Williams-Bolar post on this blog as an example.  Suggesting that black women in situations like Williams-Bolar’s do not take responsibility for their actions is a disingenuous position because there is a legacy of black women being constructed as intrinsically blameworthy no matter what they choose.

If black women choose to have abortions, will we be publicly demonized, criminalized, and ostracized in our own communities?

If we choose to have children, will we be pathologized and publicly blamed for creating social burdens on the state?

Flyers from C.R.A.C.K./Project Prevention who disproportionately targeted black neighborhoods with flyers like this one. Their original billboards read "Don't Let A Pregnancy Ruin Your Drug Habit."

If we choose to take birth control, will we be coerced into taking dangerous, provider-controlled contraceptives or risk being subjects of potentially fatal experimentation?

If we choose to protect our children, as Williams-Bolar & Hutchinson did, will we be criminalized and denied access to social resources and opportunities to live in safe environments?

Many of these consequences of “choice” land differently depending on where black women are socially located with respect to class, disability, skin color, sexuality, gender expression, formal education, etc.  However, the targeting and the blaming are often premised on a mythic construction of black women in general.  For example, Dorothy Roberts describes how a caricature of black women motivated blame-based legislation during the health care reform negotiations.  She writes,

Under the program envisioned in the House bill, government-sponsored medical professionals are charged with exhorting fertility control among poor women, based on the mistaken premise that reproduction among the poor leads to crime, neglect, low educational attainment, and dependency. …

The House health care bill codifies some of the worst stereotypes of low-income mothers, suggesting that bad reproductive choices and misguided family practices make their families poor.  Similarly, the provision blames low-income mothers for raising criminals and accuses them of maintaining unstable and neglectful home lives for their children.

Black mothers in particular have been subjects of deeply-embedded stereotypes about sexual and reproductive irresponsibility that have supported a long legacy of repressive state policies, including sterilization and coerced birth control.  The mythical “welfare queen,” portrayed as a black woman who deliberately becomes pregnant to increase the amount of her monthly check, was propaganda used to support welfare reform.  Several state legislators even proposed bills requiring women to use birth control or undergo sterilization as a condition of receiving welfare benefits.  Immigrant women and other women of color have suffered similar injustices that devalue their reproductive decision making, as well as their parental rights and family practices.

Stereotypes such as “welfare queen,” which is grounded in a long history of myth-making about black women, become entrenched as “common sense,” so it seems obvious to some that black women’s reproductive and sexual choices are causing “social problems” such as crime, poverty, disease, etc.   This view puts black women in the absurd position of not being imagined as human, but still somehow held responsible as bad choice-making agents.    This perverse “logic” is then used as justification for why others (the state, corporations, and even our families and communities) must violently wield control over black women’s bodies.

We might also consider the “choices” available to black women as political agents in a moment when there is a comprehensive movement to end affordable abortion services and access to  birth control.  This includes the recent House passage of a bill to completely defund Title X, which provides funding for community-based health clinics — including local health departments, tribal organizations, public and private nonprofits, faith-based organizations, hospitals, and community health centers — relied on by low income women for reproductive and sexual health services.  This is clearly a vicious attack on women and our right to health care.

However, some services funded by Title X are not always safe for women of color, sometimes traffic in racialized population control programs, and, because they rely on funding from the state, are constantly vulnerable to policies that harm women such as “gag rules” which prohibit doctors from  discussing abortion with and providing truthful information to their patients.  (For details, please check out Roberts’ groundbreaking book, Killing the Black Body, especially chapter 5.)  We should resist the organized assault on sexual and reproductive health care from the right, but we must also question the “choice” to either mobilize for a health care system that can be deeply problematic for women of color or risk the very real possibility that more women with low or no income will be without affordable reproductive health services.

Can we reach for a politic that’s not just about access to options that result in punitive consequences and reinforce violent perceptions of black women, but instead centers our humanity, dignity, and the real conditions of our lives?   Can we create openings for black women to complexly define ourselves as agents on our own terms?

Self-definition & insurgent agency

If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.  - Audre Lorde

Cover of Outlaw Midwives, Vol 2. Art by Soraya Jean Louis

Agency is a politicized experience.  Oppression can distort any choice we make into some racist and sexist fantasy of expectations, which, however untrue, is  legitimized with institutional power and can be used as a justification to hurt us.  However, we can develop insurgent agencies that acknowledge the conditions of oppression that shape our lives, but also make space for us to actively invent alternative definitions, options, and opportunities that reflect our actual selves.  This helps us make choices that don’t instantly trigger blame, but instead allows us to be creative, responsive, deliberate, and genuinely accountable.   There are many organizers, collectives, and mothers who are gathering testimonies, shifting paradigms, and making space for this kind of work.   Here are just a few examples:

The upcoming book, This Bridge Called My Baby: Legacies of Radical Mothering, which is still open for submissions (deadline: April 1, 2011).  From the call:

All mothers have the potential to be revolutionary. Some mothers stand on the shoreline, are born and reborn here, inside the flux of time and space, overcoming the traumatic repetition of oppression. Our very existence is disobedience to the powers that be.

At times, in moments, we as mothers choose to stand in a zone of claimed risk and fierce transformation, the frontline. In infinite ways, both practiced and yet to be imagined,  we put our bodies between the violent repetition of the norm and the future we already deserve, exactly because our children deserve it too.

The amazing outlaw midwives zine.  Download the zine here.  From the contribution of Black Women Birth Resistance:

Our mission is to gather birth stories that name the traumatic birth incidences of Black women & lift up our resistance to the social control of Black women’s bodies by the birth industry in the South.

We will use these collective stories to build strategy and action towards responding to and transforming our birth experiences.

Young Women United in Albuquerque is mobilizing against the criminalization of mothers and Mamas of Color Rising in Austin is organizing for increased access to birthing options.  Together, they have launched a survey to learn more about the lives and experiences of mamas of color in the US:

Concerned with the way our US society and government treats caretakers, especially poor and working class mothers of color, this survey was created by members of Young Women United in Albuquerque, NM and Mamas of Color Rising in Austin, TX as well as individual women across the country.

We put together this survey as a way to hear from you, Mamas of Color, about your experiences, feelings, ideas, and knowledge as a parent in the US. In gathering this information, we hope to identify issues affecting our lives, find common experiences and collectively organize as Mamas of Color.

These organizers, and many others, are creating breathing room for us to define ourselves rather than being interpreted through a distorted logic that create set-up scenarios disguised as “choice.”   These strategies support us to conjure and create subversive opportunities to actualize insurgent agencies for self-definition and movement building.

Alisa Bierria is a member of INCITE! and the New Orleans Women’s Health & Justice Initiative.  She is also a grad student in philosophy at Stanford and works with the UC Berkeley Center for Race & Gender.

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Violence against Women and Immigrant/Refugee services oppose new directive from Canada Border Services Agency

Violence against Women and Immigrant/Refugee services oppose new directive from Canada Border Services Agency

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – February 14, 2011

Toronto, February 14, 2011: Women’s rights experienced a serious set-back when the Canada Border Services Agency issued a new policy directive that will impact immigrant and refugee women who are seeking safety from abuse across Canada.

Over the last two years anti-violence against women service providers, migrant women and anti-racist organizers with the Shelter | Sanctuary | Status Campaign (SSS) in Toronto have mobilized forums, rallies, protests, press conferences, delegations and actions to ensure that women fleeing abuse can access services without fear of deportation. These actions led the Greater Toronto Enforcement Centre of the CBSA to pass a policy that it would prohibit their officers from entering any space that serves survivors of violence to arrest undocumented women. The policy was originally signed in October 2010 with the endorsement of Violence against Women organizations in the GTA.

On February 11, 2011, the National Office of CBSA called a meeting with organizations that work with women who experience and are fleeing violence in Toronto to announce that a new national policy would be implemented immediately, that would replace the previously agreed to policy. Women at the meeting were shocked to find that a policy that would be effective in ensuring that women with precarious immigration status could receive essential services was being replaced by a much weaker one, which reiterated the CBSA’s priority to conduct surveillance at and enter women’s shelters in the name of national security.

Women’s advocates present at the meeting with CBSA voiced their concerns about this policy and the complete lack of consultation prior to its implementation. The lack of consultation and absence of a gendered analysis of immigration policy, including the enforcement of deportation orders in violence against women spaces, raises serious concerns about the commitment to uphold women’s rights under provincial, national and international legislation and covenants.

In response to the new CBSA policy, Eileen Morrow of the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses states, “Services that work with women and children who experience violence are dedicated to keeping women safe from violence and maintaining their confidentiality.  That is our mandate and it is the mandate of all services that work to end violence against women.  We’ll continue to follow that mandate. If CBSA isn’t prepared to comply with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada, we still are.  Services will need to make decisions about how they can do that to protect women and their children from violence.”

We will continue to oppose any policy or action on the part of the CBSA or any other government agency that endangers women and their children.  We demand that the policy that was enacted on February 11, 2011 be revoked immediately, and that the policy that was originally endorsed by anti-violence organizations be reconstituted for Toronto and the whole of Canada.

- 30 -

For more information contact:

Eileen Morrow – Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses, 416-977-6619

Notisha Massaquoi – Women’s Health in Women’s Hands, Toronto, 416-593-7655

Check out this website for more info on the campaign: http://toronto.nooneisillegal.org/sss

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