Radicalism is not an excuse to disrespect survivors either

There was a session I went to at Creating Change on how to mobilize against unfair treatment of LGBTQ people interacting with the criminal justice system. The panelists came from a variety of organizations in Southern California, many of which mostly serve LGBTQ people of color, and indeed many of the panelists were themselves people of color. Because some of the people on the panel work at anti-violence programs and similar, there was some conversation about survivors of different kinds of violence (police violence, hate violence, sexual violence, etc) who might be interacting with the criminal justice system. The various LGBTQ anti-violence programs do a lot of great work, including advocacy for survivors of violence who are going to court or police stations. Many are structured a lot like rape crisis centers, except covering a broader range of interpersonal violence, and focused on LGBTQ people. I’ve referred people who have experienced hate or police violence to them a whole bunch of times.

During the Q&A, there was a person, a white person, in the audience, who was very distressed by what was being described – not the violence, the work done by the panelists. This person was upset that some of these organizations help survivors of violence report to the police and prosecute cases, instead of discouraging them from doing so. They wanted to know how such an approach could be compatible with anti-racism given that people of color are targeted by police and by the criminal justice system. Keep in mind, again, that this was a white person, saying effectively that survivors mostly-of-color wanting to access the policing and criminal justice systems are wrong because anti-racism.

The panelists answered this with good grace. I’m not sure I would have.

I had a previous series of posts about sexual violence in which I talked about how you shouldn’t force people who experience sexual violence to report to the police, why you shouldn’t force them to report, what needs to change about policing in order to make reporting a remotely friendly option for many people. Those posts were inspired by Rolling Stone’s coverage of sexual violence at UVA, and the discussions that I saw around it both when it first came out and in the wake of parts of it being called into question. I was very critical of Rolling Stone’s emphasis on police involvement, their dismissiveness and condescension to survivors and advocates who don’t want to report. I said, and I maintain, that Rolling Stone’s disrespect for the autonomy of survivors should have been a red flag, and that movements for greater justice are not advanced by stepping on survivors.

You know what? Everything I said there applies to radicals, to anti-police-brutality and anti-criminalization activists, to prison abolitionists, too.

As the panelists in relevant organizations explained, they believe in letting survivors’ needs and decision-making guide their approach. That doesn’t mean that they encourage police reporting or prosecution – they don’t – but it also means that they don’t discourage it. They help provide information, options, and resources. If the survivor wants to report, or otherwise go through the system, they help them do that, and if not, they don’t, and don’t pressure them. This is in line with best practices in anti-violence work. But it’s not in line with some radicals’ conceptions of radicalism.

Radicals who try to dictate how other people should properly respond to violence in order to be acceptably radical come off really terribly. They come off like a bunch of more-radical-than-thou douchebags. White radicals trying to dictate how a group consisting mostly of people of color should respond to violence in order to be acceptably radical look even worse. White radicals who think that survivor-serving institutions (often led by white people) should be policing the responses of survivors-mostly-of-color to violence against themselves, to make sure that it’s acceptably radical, and should coerce those found wanting into being more ideologically appropriate by denying them information or services, are being both terrible and hypocritical. And of all the words I might use for that, I don’t think “anti-racist” is one of them.

A few years back I was part of a small group within a larger leftist group, that was working on a safer spaces policy for the larger group, mostly focused on sexual violence and harassment (in the end, the larger group mostly dissolved before we finished). I drafted a policy that included an affirmation of our respect for survivor decision-making, and explicitly said that we would support survivors’ decisions to either go to the police or not. Not everyone in the group liked that. They liked the idea of supporting survivors’ decisions in theory, but thought that we should reject interaction with the police and criminal justice system altogether. Which, guess what, if that’s what you think, you are not actually supporting survivor decision-making, you’re supporting survivors doing things that conform with your ideology. It’s the same thing that people whose ideology includes “Crimes should be reported to the police, because we live in a society of laws and order” are doing, just inverted. And much as people who want survivors to report to the police need to do that by addressing the problems that make that unappealing, people who want to build alternative institutions of accountability based in transformative justice, need to address the problems that make them an unappealing option for survivors.

In the first of my Rolling Stone posts, I said “My point is, people who don’t respect survivors’ decisions aren’t survivor advocates, whether they think they are or not. Movements are made of people. The survivor movement is made of survivors. Don’t sacrifice the people to the movement.” That still applies, and it applies here. This seems to be something that a whole lot of people, regardless of ideology, still need to learn.

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