It’s probably not true that 99.999% of pregnant people are cis women

Esteemed feminist opinion writer Katha Pollitt – who has long been a friend of and fundraiser for abortion funds (I think she even donated to my fundraiser page one year) – caused a stir yesterday with a piece in the Nation. She wrote about how it’s a mistake for an increasing number of abortion funds to use TGNC*-inclusive language (e.g. referring to “pregnant people” instead of “pregnant women”), because it minimizes women and minimizes the gendered aspects of abortion politics.

As a board member at the first NNAF-affiliated abortion fund to go TGNC-inclusive in our language**, and that was cited in Pollitt’s piece as an example of something that bothers her, and also as someone who has been pretty active on this topic as an individual within the abortion funding world, I have thoughts about this. Many thoughts! And I plan to post a more in-depth ideological examination of Pollitt’s piece! But as a numbers geek, one bit in her piece that jarred my numbers geek brain was her claim that (cis) women are “99.999 percent of those who get pregnant.” “Is that really true,” I wondered, “that only 1 in 100,000 people who get pregnant are trans men and/or nonbinary people with uteruses? I don’t think that’s an accurate number, even as an approximation for rhetorical purposes.”

That number might not be the most important part of what she wrote – I can almost hear some of my activist friends saying “She’s questioning the rightness of trans inclusivity and you’re posting about a number?” as I write this – but it’s not a trivial part either. Part of Pollit’s argument is that TGNC people seeking abortions can reasonably be ignored in language about abortion because they’re so rare as to be almost a hypothetical posed to divide feminists, rather than real people who might see language centered around cis women and wonder if a fund or other abortion-related service will be respectful, will even be willing to work with them. So I’m cranking out a post just to push back on the 99.999% number.

I couldn’t find numbers on nonbinary people’s pregnancies or abortions at all, and I couldn’t find numbers on trans men’s pregnancies or abortions in the US. I did, however, find numbers on trans men’s births and abortions in Australia pretty easily (though only some of Australia’s states collect abortion numbers, period), so let’s run with that.

In 2013, there were 54 babies born to trans men who were willing to disclose their gender to Australia’s government-run universal healthcare program, and 44 trans men willing to disclose their gender to the system who had abortions or D&Cs (which are coded the same way in the system). I suspect that these are undercounts because some trans men might not be willing to disclose their gender to healthcare providers out of fear of discrimination or harassment, but they’re the numbers we’ve got. In the same year, there were 308,065 babies born in Australia, and an estimated 80,000 abortions and D&Cs.

If you do the math, that comes out to trans men accounting for approximately 1 in 5700 births in Australia in 2013, which is already a very different number from 1 in 100,000. It gets even more interesting, though, if you do the abortion/D&C math – nearly 1 in 1800 of those are trans men! So out trans men’s abortion-to-live-birth ratio was over 3x higher than the overall rate, and they’re about two orders of magnitude more of the abortion-having population than Pollitt figured.

It’s not a stretch to think this would more or less extrapolate to the US. The best estimates that we seem to have of the TGNC population in the US say that TGNC people are 0.5% of the population, and in the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, which attempted to get a representative sample, trans men were about 26% of the TGNC population, which would make trans men 0.13% of the whole population. Using the Australian rates calculated in the previous paragraph, the most recent US population figures (using a figure of 50.8% of the US population being women, the most recent I could find), and the number of abortions in the US in recent years, we could expect about 1 in 1000 trans men (amounting to more than 400 trans men in all) and 4 in 1000 cis women in the US to have abortions each year. That’s a disparity, but hardly an overwhelming one that makes the idea of a trans man seeking abortion a hypothetical.
And that’s looking only at trans men. We have no numbers for nonbinary people with uteruses. I can’t think of any reason to assume that they get pregnant or seek abortions less than trans men. Nonbinary people were 14% of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey’s sample, and 78% of those were assigned female at birth, so that’s another chunk of non-cis-women, a good 40% the size of the trans men’s chunk if that sample is representative of the TGNC population, who could get pregnant or have abortions.

Since abortion funds tend to fund people with lower incomes for obvious reason, it’s also worth looking at the household incomes of TGNC people. The NTDS says that both trans men and nonbinary people are more likely to be low-income than the general population, with 31% and 27%, respectively, having household incomes under $20,000/year, compared to only 13% of the general population. That seems relevant to abortion funds, which ought to be actively inclusive to people likely to need to seek their help.

Finally, I can’t stress enough that the Australian numbers include only those trans men who were willing to be out as trans men to a government health agency. In the US’ National Transgender Discrimination Survey, only 51% of TGNC people were out to “most” or “all” of their healthcare providers.

So while there’s very little data to go on, what we do have suggest that it’s blatantly not true that 99.999% of people who get pregnant are women, and blatantly true that a lot of TGNC folks with uteruses have been and are affected by abortion politics. If anyone finds more data, especially US data, please let me know in comments!

If you’re TGNC and pregnant, or know someone who is, you might be interested in ButchBaby (a line of pregnancy clothes for pregnant men, nonbinary people, and masculine women), and Trans Birth (a directory of TGNC-friendly OB/GYNs, midwives, doulas, and other pregnancy-related care providers).

*There are tons of terms out there that people use for “anyone who is not cis, whether they’re transitioning from one binary gender and/or sex to the other, or are nonbinary, or genderfluid, or bigender, or what have you.” I’ve seen trans, trans*, trans+, trans/genderqueer, trans/gender nonconforming, gender variant, gender nonconforming, T/GQ, T/GNC, and TGNC all used in this manner. I’m using TGNC here, but different people, communities, and contexts will have different preferences and usages.

**[notseriousrivalries] That’s right, we did it a good two years before NYAAF, which always gets portrayed as the big pioneer in stories about this issue. Eastern Massachusetts pride! [/notseriousrivalries]

The anti-racist-policing movement has done fine

In the wake of the DOJ’s report on Ferguson, there’s been a lot of people talking, correctly, about the terribleness of the Ferguson police report. There’s also been people complaining that the DOJ’s finding Darren Wilson’s story credible enough not to prosecute means that Mike Brown wasn’t a good case to focus on, “Hands up, don’t shoot” isn’t a good slogan, skeptics like themselves were right all along. This isn’t a new complaint. Too many liberal white

Mike Brown's memorial outside Canfield Green, October 2014.

Mike Brown’s memorial outside Canfield Green, October 2014.

people have complained that black people and those acting in solidarity with them should have springboarded a movement off of a different case, that the movement would be doing so much better if it had focused on someone more (in their eyes) sympathetic.

First of all, the DOJ’s finding doesn’t mean that the activists were wrong on the merits. The bar for a federal civil rights prosecution is quite high. One version of what happened being credible enough that the evidence doesn’t reach a given bar of our criminal justice system, doesn’t mean that version is or has been endorsed by the government as What Really Happened (do all the people who think that legal innocence equals truth-telling and moral correctness in Darren Wilson’s case also apply that standard to OJ Simpson?). And it is not only reasonable but obvious for people to turn out in protest when a white person voluntarily working for what can only be called, based on the DOJ report, a racist protection racket, kills a black teenager in a confrontation spurred by the black teenager walking on a residential street.

Second of all, that’s not how movements typically work. There wasn’t some group of black overlords who sat around saying “Hmm, let’s look at all these police killing cases – which one is sympathetic enough for us to use to start a movement?” People were reacting to a terrible thing that happened in their own town, and were met with overwhelming and vicious force, and then more people reacted to what was going on there.

Finally, this sentiment implies that the movement hasn’t done well, and that it hasn’t done well because it didn’t center around the Perfect Victim. Here are some of the things that have come out of the protests in Ferguson over the killing of Mike Brown:

– There’s this DOJ report (are people forgetting that without the protests the DOJ wouldn’t have been investigating?), which will hopefully lead to some consequences for the powers that be in Ferguson and St Louis County.

Update 3/9/15: As a result of the DOJ report, Rep. Cleaver (D-MO) has introduced a bill to make policing for revenue a federal civil rights violation.

– A massive national (international?) movement has blossomed and taken up the causes of lots of other black, and to some extent brown, people who have been killed by law enforcement, in cities from New York to Madison to Los Angeles to Cleveland. That in itself is huge, that this is now being treated as a national mass movement issue rather than something that spurs a few local protests when it happens.

– Ferguson and Chicago activists got to testify to the UN Committee Against Torture about police brutality in the US, and UNCAT included a section on police brutality against black, brown, immigrant, and LGBTQ people, in its report and recommendations to the US.

– Legislation has been introduced or policy changes proposed by government officials in Missouri, Pennsylvania, New York, and at the national level to require special prosecutors for officer-involved killings.

– Legislation has been filed or pre-filed in California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia, to require at least some police to wear body-cams.

– As the linked article in the previous paragraph states, there have been more than 40 bills introduced in Missouri, by both Democrats and Republicans, to change police or court procedures, to address not only police accountability but the way that municipal courts are funded (something discussed extensively in the DOJ report).

– Congress passed, and President Obama signed, a new version of the Death in Custody Reporting Act (which is meant to make local law enforcement report how many people they kill), that has more enforcement teeth than previous versions.

– The governor of Missouri created a whole commission, the Ferguson Commission, to study and make recommendations on both the police and state violence concerns raised by the Ferguson protests, and the underlying social and economic issues, and one of the people appointed to the Commission is a Ferguson organizer.

– The Obama administration, because of the Ferguson protests and the police response, did a review of federal programs to give equipment to local police forces and how they are broken. It also created a task force on policing and provided a giant pile of money for police retraining and cameras.

– Plus, Ferguson activists got to meet with Obama. Causes can go an awfully long time without presidents even acknowledging them. This one got recognized very quickly in the wake of the Ferguson protests.

– The Congressional Black Caucus, inspired by the Ferguson protests, is sponsoring “about 15” young Ferguson activists for their Political and Education Leadership Institute Boot Camp, an “an annual political-leadership boot camp that focuses on leadership development, political campaigns and issue advocacy.” That seems like some fantastic long-game planning right there – the training that those activists get could pay off years down the road.

– From Oprah to the TV show Scandal, the mainstream is now talking about the issue of racist policing and killings of civilians by police. The mainstream might not always be talking about it very well, but the conversation is important if this is going to go anywhere.

– And the protesters have now made Ferguson an Alternative Spring Break destination, with five one-week sessions that will provide college students with opportunities to spend a week “registering new voters, running food banks and cleaning up streets.”

So, um, given all this, I think people who are saying that focusing on Mike Brown was bad strategy need to take a step back here. Because the activists who focused on Mike Brown – and the movement that they springboarded – are doing just fine. This is an incredible amount to have accomplished in seven months!

No, the Homan Square story is not overblown

The Guardian’s and the Intercept’s coverage (see links at bottom) of Chicago’s Homan Square detention site has been making a splash lately. As you might guess, I am glad to see this story making a big splash. I’ve seen a range of reactions, from appalled to cynical and more.

But while many people have been horrified, some people don’t seem to get why this story would be a big deal. There’s no talk of waterboarding or force-feeding. There’s stories of physical abuse, but they aren’t as sensational as Chicago’s Jon Burge era torture stories. There’s this attitude that calling it a “black site” or presenting it as torturous and horrifying is overblown – okay, so they didn’t get to talk to a lawyer for many hours, they didn’t get booked right away, unfortunate perhaps, but not so terrible in the grand scheme of things.

Some of this is people not taking non-sensational-sounding physical abuse as seriously as they should. Punching restrained people, stepping on their genitals, putting them in “kennels,” sensory deprivation, deprivation of food and sleep, forced exposure to extreme temperatures…guess what, that’s all really bad. I don’t think that’s the whole story, though.

I think people who see it as overblown have not thought hard enough about what it would be like to be grabbed and taken to a place where nobody knows what happened to you, there’s no record of what happened to you, you are just gone, erased from the world for as long as the people holding you want, kept completely at the mercy of people who are hostile to you. If “as long as the people holding you want” turns out to be “only” 12 hours, or 24, that doesn’t make the psychological impact of not having known how long it would be go away. It’s not overblown to report that such a thing is happening as a major and horrifying story.

Three of the people who have spoken about their experiences at Homan Square were protesters at the 2012 NATO Summit hosted in Chicago – one of the NATO 3, and two others who were arrested with them. I was also at the 2012 NATO Summit protests, acting as a street medic. I didn’t know about specific facilities, but I remember it being pretty widely known that they’d been disappeared for a few days. I remember reading it on my phone in articles about the arrests. This was something activists on the ground were talking about. It was really scary, especially in the context that we were all in where the police were constantly watching, following, sometimes detaining people walking down the streets or raiding a place. I was constantly worried about being targeted while I was there – after all, only a few days before I’d arrived, a bunch of street medics were harassed and briefly detained while eating pizza. And police were always watching the medic headquarters. One of the first things I was told when I checked in was not to walk anywhere alone. Though sometimes I had to, to get back to where I was staying, and the first night of the protests I was followed away from the protests to the train at night by someone who was probably an undercover. So yeah, I was worried about being disappeared, and I wasn’t the only one either.

I’m speaking here from an activist’s perspective, rather than that of a black or brown person living in an overpoliced neighborhood, because I am the former and not the latter. But especially given that black and brown police accountability activists were aware of this facility where people were disappeared because stories got around (see links below), I expect that what I felt for a few days, some of Chicago’s residents felt all the time. Imagine walking around your neighborhood in fear of just being erased – probably only for a day or two, but you don’t actually know – and maybe if the story seemed overblown to you at first, it won’t anymore.

Coverage of Homan Square:

All the Guardian’s ongoing coverage
NATO Summit arrestee “TarheelDem” tells his Homan Square story back in 2012
The Atlantic interviews a police accountability activist about Homan Square
The Intercept interviews former detainees
CBS interview with former detainee and member of the NATO 3 Benjamin Church
The Beachwood Reporter podcast
Al Jazeera talks to lawyers whose clients were detained in Homan Square
The Columbia Journalism Review looks at why the Homan Square story isn’t being widely covered in Chicago
The Beachwood reporter has a nice roundup of interviews

A response to Monica Potts on trans students at women’s colleges

Update 2/22/15: It has been brought to my attention that there are parts of this post where through lazy language use I conflated assigned-female-at-birth nonbinary people and all nonbinary people. I apologize for this and have updated the post to fix this, placing my edits in brackets and italicizing them so as not to be misleading about what I said pre-updates. Thank you to the person who raised this issue with me.

I had an interesting conversation with a friend the other day about that Monica Potts article about trans people at women’s colleges in The New Republic (which I had been griping about). The person honestly didn’t understand, at first, why I considered the article transphobic. They noted that Potts never said that either trans men or trans women shouldn’t be at women’s colleges (something Potts has also emphasized on Twitter), and they did feel weird about the fact that trans men, who are, after all, men, would be pushing for greater acknowledgment in a traditionally women’s space. They agreed with Potts that this seemed misogynistic on the part of trans men, and didn’t think the article had much to do with trans women at all. I thought our discussion was good, so I decided to make some of my points into a post.

– Potts repeatedly uses the term “transgendered” which is widely considered to be a dispreferred term for trans people. It may once have been commonly accepted, but it isn’t anymore and hasn’t been at least since I started college in 2003 and became aware that trans people existed – this article compares it to calling a black person “colored,” another formerly respectable term that became less so as language evolved.

– The article really glosses over nonbinary people, who, like trans men, might object to women-centric language on the grounds that it excludes them (in women-dominated spaces that I’ve been in, like abortion access spaces, this sort of language debate is at least as much about the status of [female-assigned] nonbinary people as about that of trans men). Presumably, one of the points of women-centric language like “sisterhood” or default she/her/hers pronouns is that most of the world is still a men-centric space and it’s important to carve out space away from that. Now, I think it’s a little too simple, for reasons I’ll explain below, to suggest that trans men should simply back off because they’re men in what is traditionally a women’s space and the rest of the world is men-centric. For nonbinary people, though, [regardless of how they were assigned at birth], it makes even less sense. Nonbinary people don’t have nonbinary-centric educational institutions to go to ([and as far as I know, male-assigned nonbinary people aren’t even allowed at women’s colleges, though female-assigned nonbinary people are]). They’re a small, marginalized population that isn’t even acknowledged to exist by the US government or most of the public. And like women, they often (see table on page 9) face gender-related violence and discrimination. Potts’ article would have you believe that [a subset of] this group of people seeking inclusion at anti-gendered-oppression institutions is misogynistic, but I think this is a misunderstanding of the power dynamics here.

– The piece was ostensibly about the implications of trans activism for the mission of women’s colleges in the US. Quite a large portion of trans activism at women’s colleges is about the inclusion of trans women, since trans men and [female-assigned] nonbinary students have long attended women’s colleges but trans women have been traditionally excluded. When you claim that “transactivism” – not specifically trans men’s activism, but trans activism – is threatening the mission of women’s colleges, even if you toss out a couple of examples involving transmasculine people, you are including activism by and in solidarity with trans women in your criticism, and causing, at the very least, splash damage to trans women. Given that activism by and in solidarity with trans women around access to women-centric spaces is often characterized as misogyny and/or a threat to women’s spaces by transphobic women, it doesn’t come off well to write a piece about how trans activism is endangering the mission of women’s colleges even if you say later that you’re fine with trans women being there. You’re playing on traditional transmisogynistic tropes, even if you don’t realize it!

– While we’re on the subject of traditional transmisogynistic tropes, Potts used the phrase “born women” to refer to cis women. I’m not sure if she’s aware of this, but “born women” is language associated with people who want to exclude trans women from women’s spaces.

– The idea that trans women must be considered “allies” to (cis) women – which is the very, very strong implication of phrasing like “Women-only institutions can welcome as many male or transgender allies who want to join…” that lumps trans people together regardless of gender – is transmisogynistc, because it says that trans women are something other than women.

– We see further evidence that she’s not differentiating between trans people of different genders, that she’s lumping all trans people together as a gender apart from cis men or women, when she lumps together transmasculine activism around language with a Mount Holyoke theater group’s cancellation of the Vagina Monologues, and, in a later paragraph, lumps together fights to erase references to women with cancellation of “plays [like the Monologues] where women’s bodies are celebrated, where women speak openly about abuse from men.” The trans criticism of the Monologues has nothing to do with the fact that it’s a play about women, or that it’s a play where women speak openly about abuse from men, and the Mount Holyoke cancellation had nothing to do with transmasculine activism around language. The Mount Holyoke cancellation was because 1) the conflation of having a vagina with experiencing life as a woman isn’t inclusive of trans women (see, not about trans men!), and 2) the students were uncomfortable with how it presents race and class issues. This is not shoving women, or talk of women’s bodies, aside (indeed, the student theater group decided to write and perform their own play on these topics), it’s deciding not to perform one overrated play because they don’t like how it relates to some subsets of women.

Potts says, regarding the Monologues, that “Calling oneself a woman and noting that other women do, in fact, exist hardly ignores the existence of transgender individuals and other people who don’t fall neatly into either category. It’s just, in that moment, not about their fight.” Trans women, unless they are also genderqueer/genderfluid women, are not “people who don’t fall neatly into either category.” Trans women are women, trans women are not outside the category of women, trans women’s fight is as much women’s fight as any other subset of women’s fight is. Trans women’s complaint about the Monologues is precisely that they call themselves women and note that other women exist, but that the Monologues don’t usefully acknowledge this.

Relatedly, what the heck, a surprising number of reasonably feminist people on the Internet appear to think a feminist student group deciding to perform a feminist play that they wrote themselves, instead of a feminist play that somebody else wrote and won’t let them modify, is some kind of unspeakable and misogynistic betrayal. Do they realize how weird that sounds? Don’t you want more feminist works, and more young feminists exercising their own power? Why are you so attached to this one play at the expense of the young feminists, whom you seem to think are all suffering from internalized misogyny by wanting to do their own better work instead of uncritically repeating a 20 year-old one, themselves?

– Oddly, she follows up the talk about the Monologues with comments about how abortion access is under attack. This is quite accurate, and also an important issue! It is a major issue for cis women! It is, however, not only an issue affecting cis women. It’s also an issue affecting all those trans men and nonbinary people she’s been complaining about, who can and should be important members of any coalition to fight for abortion access. There are trans men and [female-assigned] nonbinary people, people who could potentially need abortions themselves, who are active in abortion all over the country, from the boards of directors of abortion funds to the hotlines of abortion-provider coalitions to reproductive care providers themselves. This has nothing to do with who should have what status at women’s colleges, but it seems worth mentioning.

– Look at this quote: “It’s only women who would respond ‘So sorry!’ and retreat to the sidelines. Women aren’t supposed to talk about themselves, to champion their cause without reservation, to put their own needs above others’. We’re so uncomfortable with female power that we fight it on the smallest scales. Women, especially young ones, hold power so delicately and uncomfortably they’re ready to give it up as soon as someone accuses them of being selfish.”

Trans women are women. Trans women are women. Trans women’s power is female power. Every time you say “women” and you actually mean “cis women” you are excluding trans women. Trans women are women.

A final note: The topic of how trans men interact with women and traditionally women’s spaces is a complicated one, and I’m not going to get too far into it here (some spaces have responded to this by becoming “everybody but cis men” spaces). I have definitely met misogynistic trans men, and trans men who refused to acknowledge that being men gets them certain benefits and privileges. I know that some folks oppose trans men attending women’s colleges because they’re, well, men, but also that trans men have been attending women’s colleges for many years and that some trans men don’t realize that they’re men until after they’ve started college. I know that a large subset of trans men previously believed themselves to be queer women and are very immersed in and have support networks in queer women’s culture (a well-represented culture at many women’s colleges), and that trans men, like other trans people, have reason to fear violence from cis men. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that communities recognize the people, all the people, that they’ve voluntarily admitted to their spaces – as women’s colleges have done with trans men – for who they are, that they acknowledge the existing reality of their student bodies, even if it compromises language purity. So I’m not sure that, as RH Reality Check’s Emma Caterine asserts in her response to Potts, trans men’s struggle for inclusion at women’s colleges is as simple as misogynistic trans men’s male entitlement. But I also think there are some issues with it, and with women’s colleges accepting people who already know themselves to be trans men as applicants to college, in the first place. This one is tricky for me.

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.

Creating Change quick recap

I’ve spent the last few days in Denver at Creating Change, the huge annual LGBTQ activism conference. This is my third time going, and, as always, it’s been a lot of fun. This post has a short list of observations from the conference. It’s not complete, but it’s a few things that come to mind as I sit tiredly in my host’s guest bedroom.

– The recent shooting of Jessie Hernandez, a queer, gender nonconforming Latina teenager, by the Denver police, was a big deal at this conference, what with it being in Denver and the victim being a fellow LGBTQ person. Workshop facilitators were asked to have a moment of silence for Jessie during their sessions. There was an altar for her, with cards and signs made by participants in the day-long institute on policing and criminalization of LGBTQ people, in the main lobby area. There were memorial signs with pictures of her posted all over the conference. Near the start of the opening plenary, a group of mostly-local young people and trans women of color marched on the stage, took the microphone, and spoke about the shooting and other killings of trans people of color – among other things,

The Jessie Hernandez altar at Creating Change, surrounded by attendee-made cards and signs.

The Jessie Hernandez altar at Creating Change, surrounded by attendee-made cards and signs.

calling out the conference for inviting the mayor of a city with, according to them, an unusually high rate of police killing people, to speak at the plenary – and chanting and waving signs, as much of the audience (at least, the parts that I could see) had their fists in the air and chanted right along with them. Interestingly, the mayor then did not speak at the plenary. There was going to be a march, but Hernandez’s family changed their minds about whether they were okay with that, so the march was replaced by a speakout at the altar.

– In general, Creating Change seemed way more interested in police violence and protest-based action than in the other years that I’ve gone, which I suspect is because of Ferguson and Black Lives Matter. It was the first time since I started going that there was no uniformed contingent from the host city’s police department. There were workshops, including one that I ran, on protest/direct action, which I don’t remember in the two previous years – this was the third year that I’d proposed that workshop, and the first that I got it in. The three queer black women who founded Black Lives Matter got an award. There was a whole delegation of queer Ferguson activists there (one of whom spoke on a panel at the day-long institute on policing and criminalization of LGBTQ people), there was a workshop session on Ferguson featuring Ferguson activists, and the opening plenary was on Ferguson. I thought it was great that they had a plenary on Ferguson, with speakers of color, but given that there was a whole delegation from Ferguson sitting right there in the front, I don’t understand at all why they didn’t have somebody from Ferguson on that stage as a speaker.

– More-radical-than-thou-ism is not particularly attractive. Neither are white radicals pretending that they know better than people of color what is useful for people of color or how to best ally with people of color. I think I’m going to do a follow-up post on the specific incident that I’m talking about because it reflects a phenomenon that I’ve seen variations of often enough that it deserves more than a bullet point.

– Even though the facilitator never showed up, the session on challenging biphobia led to one of the best discussions on biphobia that I’ve seen. Once it became clear that no facilitator was coming, the attendees just got in a circle and discussed biphobia ourselves, and it was wonderful. People were coming from a lot of different perspectives, from people who are experienced bi activists and/or part of established communities, to people looking for community when they have none back home, to people struggling with their own internalized biphobia. There were participants who, after the session, stated that they were now willing to come out to non-bi people as bi for the first time.

– I learned about an area of activism that I’d never heard about before, fair judiciary/fair courts activism. I do a lot of activism, so it’s pretty cool when I learn about something that’s completely new to me. One of the people on that panel was a gay Latina (that was how she described herself) who is a justice on the Colorado state supreme court, and I learned from her that there have only been three out LGBTQ state supreme court justices in the US, ever.

– I thought it was neat that at the end of the day-long institute on policing and criminalization, we actually got the chance to do several small actions around police and state violence. I already mentioned the making of decorations for Jessie Hernandez’s altar. We also had the chance to sign a couple of positions, sign up any organizations that we represented for a campaign to stop prison rape in Texas, and write a letter to a trans prisoner. Small things, yes, but it’s nice to get to do and not just talk.

– Going to the session on Deaf Allyship 101 (presented in American Sign Language, with ASL-to-English interpreters for us non-ASL-speakers) a few hours before I presented my own session was, in addition to being generally educational, immediately applicable. One of the things we did during the Deaf Allyship 101 session was think about and discuss ways to make our own events more accessible to Deaf people. I was able to incorporate a couple of them into my own session, and it turned out that one of my audience members was Deaf.

– The 16th Street Mall (a pedestrian-oriented downtown area) in Denver is really nice, and really beautiful at night. I loved just walking up and down it, and did so several times. I can’t figure out how the pedicab drivers make any money though, because there’s so many of them just on the Mall. I wouldn’t have thought there were enough pedicab customers in such a small area to support that many pedicab drivers. Also I did not expect Denver to be so warm in February – don’t get me wrong, it was great, but I don’t expect anywhere north of the Deep South to have highs in the 60s at that time of year.

– There was an immigrant youth group, the IYC, that posted an open letter to the Task Force (which runs Creating Change) this evening, calling out the conference for, among other things, being cost-prohibitive for most poor and working-class people (they are definitely correct about this), fetishizing and tokenizing youth while not giving them decision-making power within the conference, holding the conference at a choice of hotel such that conference were crossing a picket line, and having too many sessions where people were presenting about a marginalized group that they don’t belong to (particularly undocumented immigrants) and doing things that were distressing to audience members in that group. I really hope that the Task Force addresses these complaints. Through action, not just talking.

Escapist entertainment isn’t the enemy

The Super Bowl just happened, and with it, that time of year where lots of people who don’t like professional sports make smug comments about “sportsball” (I thought this was funny and clever the first time I heard it, but that was hundreds of “sportsball” comments ago) and complain about people paying too much attention to the Super Bowl and not enough to more important things.

I’m not into professional sports. I followed them a little bit as a kid, but I never have as an adult. I actually didn’t know which teams were in the Super Bowl a week before the game, even though one of them was my home team. However, I get pretty tired of people complaining how pointless the Super Bowl and other major sports events are.

In 2012 I went to medic four days of protests at the NATO Summit in Chicago. It was deeply traumatic, and when I got back, I was reeling from it for quite a while. And over the next few months, I obsessively watched the A-Team. I loved watching the show, watched two or three episodes a day, in all its cheesy, poorly-acted glory. As my spouse pointed out, there was some obvious logic going on – at its heart, the A-Team is about a group of people resisting unjust authority, and that was something I sorely needed at that time. But there’s a lot of prestige media that has some sort of theme about resisting unjust authority, and there’s also no shortage of real-life stories (many of which I was actively avoiding at the time) about people resisting unjust authority that I could have been reading or watching. So why the A-Team? Because it was about resisting unjust authority and it was escapist, and it was fun. I wasn’t looking for something that hit too close to home. I was looking for something ludicrous and entertaining.

When I was in my early and mid teens I was a bit of a snob about media. I scorned summer blockbuster movies and anything in the “action” section of the movie rental store, and headed straight for the “drama” section, looking for serious plots about topics like war or the meaning of life. I didn’t watch popular TV shows. The music that I genuinely loved was mostly critically well-reviewed, but I’d deny that I liked top-40 type songs even when I kind of did. I would I read popular genre fiction – for some reason I never had the level of snobbery about books that I did about other media – but also forced myself to read a bunch of Serious Literature, even when I didn’t like it, because I believed that it was Good (this culminated in an ill-fated attempt to read Finnegan’s Wake, one of the few novels I’ve ever started and not finished). I had my more, er, mainstream tastes – I liked watching pro wrestling with my dad – but basically I was seeking out media that would give me Important Messages and Meaningful Experiences.

My tastes in entertainment are so much more escapist as an adult than they ever were when I was younger. Not that I don’t ever get Important Messages or Meaningful Experiences out of it – I find plenty of serious content that makes me think in Marvel movies and Dresden Files novels – but I no longer have much interest in gritty realism for the sake of gritty realism, or seriousness for the sake of seriousness. I like screwball comedies (well, some of them anyway) now. I like a lot more fluff and pulp mixed in with my serious, thoughtful content, I have to be in the right mood for anything really emotionally intense, and I care a lot more about pure fun.

What happened? My real life got a lot more gritty realism in it, that’s what happened. There’s the ordinary gritty realism like stressing about work, paying the bills, coping with one’s own or one’s partner’s illnesses and injuries. But beyond that, increasing activism introduced a lot of gritty realism into my life. I saw people in desperate conditions. I saw people in positions of trust commit violence against the people they were supposed to serve. Through hotline work, I talked to dozens, by now probably hundreds, of people who had been sexually assaulted or raped, some of whom were suicidal, or trapped in abusive situations, or children (or all of the above). Through LGBTQ legal helpline work I talked to people who had been discriminated against, who had been gay/bi/trans-bashed, who were being tortured in prison by guards or fellow inmates. I don’t want to make it sound as grim as it probably does, because I get tremendous satisfaction working with all those people, addressing their physical or emotional injuries, helping them recover or protect themselves or stick up for themselves or just make their own lives better. It’s amazing when that happens, when I know I’ve made a difference, and it happens more than enough to motivate me to keep doing it. But it can also be very intense. Hence, the appeal of escapist entertainment.

Other people have their gritty realities too – some, for reasons of class, race, and so on, have much less choice about certain gritty realities than I do. And in my experience, most people – geeks and committed activists, the two groups I tend to see complain about sports events a lot, no less than others – have their diversions, their escapes from regular life. Maybe, like me, you’re not into professional or college sports. Maybe instead you’re into a TV or literature fandom (or ALL of the fandoms!). Maybe you write fanfic or make fanvids. Maybe you do CrossFit. Maybe you really like knitting and crocheting, with yarn that you spun yourself. Maybe you really like tabletop RPGs, or board games, or video games. Maybe you’re a burner. Heck, maybe for you, artsy indie movies and award-winning “literary” fiction are your fun escape or diversion, and that’s fine too, I’m not trying to pull some sort of reverse-snobbery thing here.

I get that it’s annoying when the Super Bowl (or the World Series, or March Madness, or whatever) takes over everything for a while and you feel alienated and left out. But I don’t think being snobby about it serves anything. And I really don’t think assuming that other people are silly, unintelligent, uncultured, or brainwashed, because of their entertainment and hobbies, serves anything. Escapist fun isn’t wrong or mockworthy. And it’s not inherently the enemy of caring about what’s going on in the world.

“You’re just an Internet activist” is a bad argument

I was originally going to write a response to the much-discussed Jon Chait “political correctness culture” essay that so many people have been talking about. But, well, so many people have been talking about it, and I’m not sure I have a lot of points to make that haven’t been made in someone else’s essay already. Instead, I’m going to respond to an argument that I’ve been seeing in the short-form (e.g. blog comments) discussion of Chait’s essay, and that I’ve seen before. That argument goes something like this:

“I work or volunteer in a field where [I work on behalf of oppressed and marginalized people/I am one of the few women, people of color, etc in the field]. I’m a foot soldier in the fight for social justice. But then these people who are merely talking on the Internet argue with me about social justice and are critical because I don’t have all the current vocab down or made a minor mistake. Who are they to do that? They’re all talk and academic jargon and no action.”

Here’s the thing. I used to be one of the people coming from that point of view. I had considered myself a feminist since I was a young kid, because I was a tomboy and a geek, and a lot of the activities and fields that I was interested in were very dominated by boys and men. And I got a lot of flak and bullying for that as a kid, and experienced a lot of isolation and alienation over it. I was sort of a baby second waver, not that I knew what that meant – my feminism was a reaction to the exclusionary or hostile attitudes that I experienced and saw in the male-dominated environments I wanted to access, and to phenomena that I had read about like pay gaps and hiring discrimination (it also included a ton of internalized misogyny, which deserves its own post). As I got older and more aware, it incorporated other issues, like abortion rights and comprehensive sex ed. As I went through college at a tech school and moved in the direction of a science or engineering career, it took on a new dimension because I was now about to enter a male-dominated working world. But I wasn’t very familiar even with the discourses of privilege and oppression that are now somewhat mainstream, let alone anything more radical than that, until perhaps 2006.

When I first discovered the Social Justice Internet, I was confused, and also rather put off. All these people were talking about feminism and the LGBTQ movements and anti-racism, all of which sounded great, but I didn’t understand their words, or their usages of common words (like “sexism” or “racism” referring to power + prejudice, not merely prejudice) and I also hadn’t thought deeply about institutions and systems and power dynamics and how they were relevant here. I couldn’t understand how these talky people with academic-sounding language could be positioned as doing more than people like me who were out there fighting sexist assumptions and the like through our lives.

What got me over this attitude was the fact that a few of my slightly older friends, whom I respected and who were also geeky scientists and engineers, were among these talky Internet Social Justice people (in fact, I’d found the Social Justice Internet through their links). I knew they were smart and reasonable, so I figured I should at least keep reading for a while and try to figure out what was going on. And lo and behold, I did! It didn’t even take very long to get a basic grasp of them, and decide that they made a lot of sense, once I committed to engaging with them! Of course, that wasn’t the end – I still learn new things and adjust or refine my views all the time on the Social Justice Internet (and elsewhere).

I don’t even think this is a particularly unusual sort of story. I know a bunch of people who didn’t know from privilege when I met them and now they do. Few people are raised to think or talk about privilege and oppression (though I hope more will be in the future), or taught it in grade school. They don’t spring from Social Justice Zeus’ head as fully-formed Social Justice Warrior Goddesses. And yet, over the last several years, the numbers of people who think and talk about such things appear to be growing, and their mainstream influence is increasing. How do we think that happened? Magic? More likely, people listened and read, and talked and wrote, and shared works and ideas with each other, and the Internet helped enable this. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we shoudn’t try to make our language more accessible – as someone who trains people who may have no experience with the subject on sexual violence issues, I’m a big fan of having some spaces where people make an effort to make the language accessible and to explain jargon terms – but people do learn this stuff.

So now that I’ve given my relevant backstory, let me explain what’s wrong with the “I’m out there doing things, those SJWs on Tumblr and Twitter are all talk and no action” argument.

1) Talk is action. I – someone who spends a huge portion of my free time on social justice activism, who spent four hours last night talking to sexual assault survivors on a hotline, who will be running two workshops at a social justice activism conference later this week, who has been motivated enough (and privileged enough) to travel to places from Ferguson to Palestine for social justice activism, who’s currently in fact facing charges over my commitment to social justice activism – just got done telling you how I came to my views, and accordingly to this commitment, by reading talky people’s words on the Social Justice Internet. The people who write about social justice on the Internet are learning new things, practicing concepts, refining their views, influencing others.

Chait wrote at The New Republic, possibly the most famous center-left opinion shop in the US, for many years. He’s an opinion writer at the New Yorker. This sort of sociopolitical opinion reading and writing and responding is literally his career. The various social justicey parts of Tumblr and Twitter and the blogosphere are basically opinion shops! They’re just newer, heavily-volunteer-based, decentralized, more raucous opinion shops, with less gatekeeping. How do you say how talk isn’t action while talking about how someone’s opinion piece resonated with you and what you think it means for politics? Why are you taking the time to write your own opinion on the Internet if you think talk isn’t action? Aren’t you figuring, or at least hoping, that what you say might have an influence on someone?

It’s so easy to mock Internet activism as a concept, and it can be so tempting, especially if you do offline activism and you feel like you’ve used so much energy, taken so much risk (because people who talk about social justice on the Internet never face repercussions for that oh wait they do), and sacrificed so much more for the cause. First of all, this feeds into really harmful ideas widely held by both activists and non-activists, about how activists should be martyrs and martyrdom matters more than effectiveness (or is necessary for effectiveness). Second, it’s ignoring the different circumstances in people’s lives that might be preventing them from participating in different kinds of activism. We all, activists or not, really need to knock this off.

2) Just as the people you’re talking with on the Internet don’t usually know about your job and your volunteer work and all the great stuff that you’re doing when you’re not talking on the Internet, you don’t know what they do when they’re not talking on the Internet. Quite aside from everything that I just said in point #1 about how these people are engaging in social justice work whether or not any of that work takes place outside of the Internet, what basis do you have to assert that they aren’t doing any other work? I’ve had people try to assert that with me before. It’s always funny. Assumptions can backfire, it turns out. Most of the people I know who do Internet activism also do some offline activism.

3) However much terrific work you do, that doesn’t mean that you never screw up. It doesn’t mean that you have nothing left to learn. It doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t say something if they think you screwed up. I’m not beyond reproach, the person reproaching you is not beyond reproach, and you’re not beyond reproach. Now, how exactly that reproach is done is another issue – one that the Social Justice Internet has been talking about for years. But your work shouldn’t exempt you from criticism, including criticism from people who are at earlier stages of their lives or work or haven’t (yet) accomplished as much as you.

The question I got asked a lot about my Palestine trip

This is part of an occasional series about my experiences with the American Jews for a Just Peace Health and Human Rights delegation to Palestine in June 2014. You can read all posts in the series here.

One question/comment that I got a lot about the delegation, before and after, in various forms, was about my own safety, from simply expressing concern to asking whether the delegation had an armed guard (no, it did not). This is not necessarily an unreasonable question, as travel in a foreign country and culture, especially if you don’t speak the language, means some amount of risk, and there are many dangers in Palestine. However, it was sometimes clear that the real question was whether I was in danger from Palestinians, and that the speaker was speaking from an assumption that Palestinians are unusually dangerous [for an American Jewish person] people to be around.

To answer these questions, to the extent that there were dangers, they weren’t coming from Palestinians, but from the IDF, and to a lesser extent from settlers. That has come up in other posts. I found Palestinians as a group to be extremely friendly and welcoming, even very protective, toward internationals. In most places I wasn’t even concerned about normal street crime. Sometimes there were little kids trying to sell us cheap crap, but it was no worse than the requests from street canvassers that I might get walking through Boston’s Downtown Crossing shopping district in the middle of the day. When our delegation, which had no men, got lost after dark in (gorgeous) Beit Sahour walking back to our guesthouse from dinner, a group of rambunctious teenage boys on bikes came across us, figured out where we were trying to go, and led us there. When I was by myself in Ramallah trying to navigate the Service (pronounced sehr-VEESE, the Palestinian shared taxis that serve as a sort of Palestinian public transit in the West Bank) system, a random man helped me find the garage where the Services were leaving from and then find a driver who was going to Abu Dis for a fair fare.

Pretty much everywhere we went as a delegation, including into Services shared with random Palestinians off the street, we introduced ourselves as being from American Jews for a Just Peace, and nobody had an issue with this. When fellow delegate MF and I were on the bus in East Jerusalem chatting about our Qalandiya experience with some random English-speaking Palestinian that we met, he knew that we were Jews from the US and didn’t blink. The biggest threats to my health posed by Palestinians were probably being overfed to the point of bursting any time we went to someone’s home – regardless of the time of day or whether the visit was pre-planned, our hosts wanted to feed us a meal and dessert -­ or maybe overcaffeinated from all the coffee.

There was one time when we were in a potentially dangerous situation on the road, as our vehicle drove into a situation where Palestinian teens with rocks were on one side of the road, and armed, threatening IDF soldiers were on the other. We shut the windows and all ducked down, our driver (a Palestinian refugee camp resident) drove us through, and in fact the rock-wielding teens stopped throwing to let our van through safely.

At one point, AR, a highly experienced delegate, was showing a movie that she made to teach US Jews about the Nakba, to an audience of Palestinian college students at Al Quds University. While most of the comments were positive, the first person to comment, an assertive young guy, started his review by welcoming AR and the other delegates to his country as honored guests. As I told AR (who took his irate criticism with grace) later, “I knew, when he started out by welcoming us like that, that he was going to say something really negative -­ if it was a positive comment he wouldn’t have bothered to spell his welcome out, it would have been assumed.” She laughed and agreed with me. Incidentally, while we encountered many people who favor one or more binational states during the delegation, that guy was literally the only person I met who expressed a view that Jews should just leave Israel altogether. Most Palestinians who told us their views made a point of emphasizing that that wasn’t what they wanted, that they wanted equal rights with Jews and to be able to return to ancestral towns, not to run anyone out.

I wrote this post because I think that the assumption that Palestinians are especially dangerous is a politically important one. There’s a strain of liberal thought that I’ve heard often, that I would summarize as “Israel’s being a big bully with its Occupation and it needs to stop that, especially since it aspires to be considered a peer of Western liberal democracies, even though Palestinians are unreasonable, violent, unsympathetic people who make doing the right thing hard.” This is a pretty racist (or Islamophobic, depending on your basis for it) sentiment, and even when it’s held by people who are anti-Occupation, it props up the oppression of Palestinians. It makes it easy to believe Israel when they claim that there’s no partner for peace, or when they try to blame all the atrocities that they commit in Gaza on Hamas. It makes it easy to blame Palestinians when peace talks fail, and to assume that if they get arrested by Israel they must have done something terrible to deserve it. It scares people away from supporting Palestinian Right of Return. ­I’ve been accused several times, since the delegation, of magical thinking, for supporting Right of Return, by people who think that adding a bunch more Palestinians to Israel, even gradually and with heavy international monitoring, would mean genocide against Israeli Jews. It puts Palestinians at a permanent disadvantage in US discourse. And that’s a real problem given our historically large role in attempting to address the Israel/Palestine situation.

The Civil Rights Movement, disruptive protest, and harm

This is the promised follow-up to my last couple of posts – I said I would talk about disruptive protest and the potential harms it can do to uninvolved parties, so I am.

An argument that I’ve been seeing a lot is that disruptive protest is wrong because it causes negative effects for innocent bystanders. I do think that for both ethical and strategic reasons, it’s important for protesters to balance the potential usefulness of what they’re doing with the risks posed to others – to not lose sight of the potential consequences of an action for other human beings. But let’s look at what people are actually saying when they say that protests are automatically bad, discredited, if they have negative impacts on others. Let’s look at what they’re actually saying when they say that if you protest in these disruptive ways, you’re just hurting the cause, because people will be angry and alienated. Let’s look at it through the lens of the movement that US protesters are so often told to emulate – the Civil Rights Movement.

There are a number of Civil Rights Movement actions that we could look at. Selma-to-Montgomery marchers blocked (at different times, either part or all of) the US-80 highway with their marches. Several hundred students and others, marching to the State Capitol in Montgomery in response to violence against the Selma protesters, marched in the street and were surrounded by the police (who eventually attacked them), causing a road to be blocked, as you can see in this photo. And according to Gary May’s Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy, 400 people blocked the entrances and exits of the Los Angeles Federal Building in solidarity with the Selma protesters. Are we really meant to believe that repeatedly blocking a highway, blocking a main road in Montgomery, and stopping people from entering a federal building – all part of the campaign, now recognized as heroic, that won the Voting Rights Act – gave no inconvenience to innocent bystanders, caused no emergency or other important vehicles to have to find another route or be delayed, had no negative effects?

However, I don’t think any of those are the best examples to look at when it comes to the question of negative impacts on bystanders. Let’s look at the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the celebrated and legendary campaign kicked off by Rosa Parks’ arrest for refusing to give up a bus seat, that brought Martin Luther King Jr into the national public eye and was the seminal event for a major wave of civil rights activism.

Within roughly a month of the boycott starting, it resulted in bus company losses of $0.22/mile, throwing it into serious financial trouble. The company cut back on service, reducing total miles traveled each day by 31%. Eight bus lines were completely discontinued (see link in next paragraph), and others were rerouted, with most service to black people and quite a bit of service to white people being dropped. The company was struggling so much that, as you can read at that 1956 New York Times article I linked to at the start of this paragraph, fares were raised by 50%, and a new transfer fee equivalent to a full 50% of the old adult fare was added, such that poor and working-class people of all races who depended on the bus to get to their jobs, the grocery store, medical care, shopping, suddenly found it unaffordable. By the end of the boycott, not only was the bus company brought nearly to bankruptcy, but the city lost thousands of dollars in tax revenue – tax revenue that, as in any city, paid for essential services for the whole population – and local businesses lost millions of dollars.

The boycott had a devastating effect on the rank-and-file employees of the bus company – not only drivers, who were working people simply enforcing the rules that they were told to enforce, but mechanics/handymen and lower-level workers, who hadn’t been enforcing those rules at all. In the first round of layoffs, which came with the first set of service cuts, 39 drivers lost their jobs. As the boycott went on, the bus company workers suffered mass layoffs (including the layoffs of the few black workers, none of whom were drivers). Some drivers avoided job loss by taking demotions to menial work, but many more were put out of work completely.

As you might imagine, many Montgomery-area locals, especially white ones, were upset about this disruption to their lives. White elders and other white residents wrote letters to the local paper speaking about the inconveniences they faced as a result of the service cuts. Boycott opponents felt that they had the moral high ground because of the negative impact of the boycott on so many people, and that the protesters had gone too far. Other letter-writers characterized the protest as a group of reasonable people co-opted by a small number of radicals (which sounds oddly familiar right now, somehow), or acknowledged that there might be a point to the cause but complained that illegal protests wouldn’t help.

I’ve been asked, regarding protests that block traffic, what did all those people who now can’t get to work or school on time, or miss their flights, or were just trying to get to appointments, do to deserve that. Well, what did the random citizens of Montgomery, the ordinary non-policy-setting people who bore the brunt of the negative impact, the transit workers and their families, and the bus-taking elders, and the employees of the local businesses that lost millions of dollars, and the people of all races whose commuting routes were cut or who could no longer afford the bus fare, do to deserve that? Does it make one of the US’ most famous and celebrating protests wrong, that that happened?

I acknowledged previously that disruptive protest risks causing a backlash. And I’ve certainly been hearing a lot about how various anti-racist-policing/Black Lives Matter protests are hurting the cause because they will cause (or are already causing) such a terrible backlash! So what sort of backlash was caused by the Montgomery Bus Boycott? Local backlash, especially from working-class white people (including the laid-off bus drivers) was so severe, that roughly two months into the boycott, the local White Citizens Council (WCCs were pro-segregration white supremacist groups, called “the uptown Klan” by Thurgood Marhsall) was the largest white group in the area. Over the course of the boycott its ranks doubled, and it was able to draw over 10,000 people to its events. And the city commission received “hundreds” of messages applauding them for taking a hard line against the boycott, as the commissioner accused boycotters of trying to “destroy our transportation system.” Backlash, even the angriest backlash, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll lose in the end.

Do I like that a lot of social change work in the streets causes problems for random people? No, I don’t. Am I endorsing an “anything goes because the end justifies the means” approach to tactics? Nope. I actually have pretty strong negative views about certain kinds of tactics, and as I said, people should think through both the ethics and the strategy of their tactics. I don’t think people should risk harm to others wantonly. I have sympathy for people who are severely inconvenienced, and I especially am not happy when the negative effects hit people who are already struggling or marginalized. But I don’t think there’s a bright line at “inconveniences other people,” or even “is disruptive to the lives of other people.” I don’t think there’s a bright line there because history shows that if you draw the bright line there, you effectively shut down social change.

If you want to argue that the black voting rights activists, or the Montgomery Bus Boycott activists, were justified in the level of disruption that they caused, but that modern activists in various movements aren’t justified because their causes aren’t just enough to warrant it, that’s an argument you can make. But then you’re arguing substance, not tactics, and in that case you should stop pretending to argue tactics.

If you truly believe that any protest that might have a negative impact on others is wrong, that it’s never justified, that’s also an argument you can make. In fact, I think that’s a coherent ethical position! But if that’s the position you’re taking, you need to understand the implications of that position. If that’s the position you’re taking, then you should believe that the Selma campaign and especially the Montgomery Bus Boycott were wrong. You should believe that the gains they made weren’t worth it. You should shake your head at positive reviews of the Selma movie. When your kids learn about MLK and Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement in school, you should teach your kids that whatever the benefits of their actions, they were doing unethical things that hurt innocent people, and that your kids should never be part of something like that. Because that is what that position means in real life. That is literally what it means to say that disruption and inconvenience discredit activism.

While you do that, I’ll be over there with the people trying to make the world a more just place, negotiating and balancing the ethics of doing so the best they can.


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