We Are the Ones

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

Dear UTA,

When I saw Victoria Law’s article, “Protection Without Police: North American Community Responses to Violence in the 1970s and Today” in UTA 12 (conveniently on the back of the toilet of a sweet friend’s bathroom) I jumped for joy, or something like it. I’m a feminist nerd, so I was really excited that she referenced and cribbed from my first, OG feminist anti violence anthology. Fight Back: Feminist Resistance to Male Violence was Cleis Press’s first publication. A giant, 9”x 14” book that would be way too expensive for a tapped out print industry to consider publishing now, Fight Back traced a much broader vision of resistance to gender violence than would be true for mainstream anti partner abuse and sexual assault nonprofits did 20 to 30 years later. Fight Back was full of first-person accounts of DIY collectives who organized without funding to place sculptures that read “A Woman Was Raped Here” in English and Spanish on the streets of Boston; who conducted 30 days of powerful ritual and street theater about workplace sexual harassment, rape, and battering on the streets of LA; who firebombed places that carried porn (which I don’t agree with, but it’s certainly more militant a tactic than many nonprofits know); and who formed armed self defense street patrols. The survivor movement advanced a politics that was sexy and fierce, where poetry, rage, and direct action defined a movement, people set up rape crisis hotlines in their basements and worked there for free, and community-led response was not a question but a reality. No one was looking for funding, and the air was alive with juicy, multiple new possible strategies for a brand new movement. Cement sculptures to the middle of City Hall in the middle of the night? Why not? Law’s article returns us to this time.

I loved and appreciated the way Law drew connections between inspiring examples of community-based projects intervening in violence like the Dorchester Green Light Program, which “provided identifiable safe houses for women who were threatened or assaulted on the street,” and linking it to current projects like We Make It Better, an initiative by a group of Black men in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn who volunteered to walk women home after a series of assaults in the neighborhood. I appreciated hearing the concrete ways the Green Light Program worked – that there was a phone number you could call if you wanted to get involved. Folks went through a basic screening and training, and then put a green light in their window, turned the light on when they were home, and provided a haven for anyone fleeing violence. 

This article made me hungry for more information. Is We Make It Better still meeting? Their Facebook group is unclear. How did they sustain themselves past the initial, emergency response energy they began with? What stresses did the Green Light Program face in trying to keep their work going? Did they leave their documents and lessons anywhere? It raised questions and challenges for our movements and communities to engage with. As we alternate between urgent action and long-term struggle, how do we carry each other through the work? It’s easy to be enraged and reactive to an immediate incident; but when the initial crisis response mode ebbs, what practices allow us to sustain our work? 

Ejeris Dixon, who worked at Audre Lorde Project for many years and was a key organizer with ALP’s Safe Outside the System collective, used to say, when talking about the moment we’re in, “There is no movement ambulance.” I am hungry to know: what would we need to build one? In terms of money, the amount of available energy we have, somatics, compassion, tools, time, networks? What would a Green Light Program for 2011 look and feel like? The questions ahead of us are exactly the questions Law raises in the next to last paragraph:
For example, what happens if activist attention wrongly falls on an individual? What if a perpetrator refuses to be held accountable or refuses to participate in an accountability process while paying lip service to the concept of community accountability? What if a person uses a community accountability process to further ostracize or control another person? There are no simple answers and, unfortunately, many activists will be familiar with these scenarios. But while these situations are difficult, they should not dissuade activists from trying to develop community responses that are less reliant on the police. As the state has moved to criminalize more behaviours, vigilante tactics like those used by 1970s feminists are now more likely to result in arrests not of the perpetrator but of those seeking retribution.

As June Jordan (not Obama) said, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. So: how do we breathe, take in those rapids in the river of the work, and experiment to create real genius answers to these issues? Where do we want to be next week, next year, ten years from now, in our homes and hearts? Most importantly, how do we keep bringing the juicy excitement to this struggle? A sense that, yes, this work is hard and complicated and frightening, but also dizzy with excitement? I love these questions, and I look forward to finding many complicated and needed answers, together.

In love and struggle,
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
Toronto