Confronting Vigilante Responses in Accountability Work: The Need for Accountability in Everything We Do

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by Romina Akemi

This piece was originally published in Perspectives issue #28 by the Institute for Anarchist Studies which is available for purchase from AK Press.

On June 7,th 2014 multiple organizations in the Los Angeles-area hosted an event called “Transformative Justice: Our Movements and Our Struggle” at the Asian Americans Advancing Justice space in downtown Los Angeles.  The event sponsors included the LA Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Communities Organizing in Liberation (COiL), La Voz de l@s Trabajadores, and included the efforts of multiple other individuals in Los Angeles and other cities.  Participants came from as far as Portland, Oregon and Minneapolis, sharing their own experiences with accountability processes and transformative justice.  The event was ambitious because it was a daylong event, separated into multiple areas of discussion.  Due to the subject matter and the need for discussion, the organizers found it necessary to set up an unusually long set of presentations and discussions.  Close to one hundred people participated in the event throughout the day.  The majority of participants were women of color, workers, and college students.

The Transformative Justice event was organized in response to a series of incidents of both sexual assault and major disagreements in our organizing spaces about what to do with perpetrators of assault.  Those who came together and the organizers of this event realized that the heart of the problem was that our organizing spaces never held serious discussions about the subject.  We were all aware of our opposition to patriarchy, sexual assault, and gender violence, yet there was no commonality about how to support survivors of assault and how movements should engage with perpetrators.  

Many revolutionaries and activists found themselves conflicted since California is where the prison industrial complex exploded and our political work has been impacted by questions of prison abolition.  How can we oppose the police and prisons and yet support acts that parallel state violence?  There were also assumptions being made that because we are all part of social movement organizing that we share similar visions of how to confront these issues.  These disagreements led to long lasting fissures in our political circles. This was not a development particular to Los Angeles, and there is a striking similarity with political debates in other cities. 

Below is the transcript of one presentation at this event.  The purpose of the presentation is to outline a series of harmful acts that a group of people in the Los Angeles-area carried out in the name of survivors of assault, but were actually being done on their own accord.  In this case, vigilantism (or as another speaker at the event referred to it, as militant allyship) is when a group of individuals take a cause and carry out acts such as spreading disinformation, disrupting political meetings or events, and threatening or enacting violence on other individuals.  These acts are done in the name of a moralistic cause, loosing sight of the needs of the survivor, and the possibility of challenging a perpetrator’s behavior.

You can read more about the event and collectively written document written by the organizers here

Thank you all for attending this event and taking part in this conversation. The title of my talk explains what I plan to address. However, my talk is broken down into three areas: my story, problems with vigilante responses, and what we have learned.

My Story

The best way to introduce a difficult topic is to specify why we—those who organized this event—have decided to dedicate time and energy in putting this event together. I believe that it is just as important to place this in both a collective and a personal narrative.

Some years ago I organized a short accountability process for a previous partner who physically and sexually abused me. During that process, I discovered that most of my female and male friends abandoned me. Some female friends stopped being my friend when I returned to my abusive partner. Male friends wanted to avoid involvement and one thought that my partner’s jealousy towards him was my doing. In the end it was one female friend who stood by me and without her, I am not sure what I would have done.

I offer this story not to gain credibility as a survivor, but to offer a little insight as to what I learned from that experience. Most people (even my parents) were not prepared and did not have the tools to help someone through such a difficult situation. But it is important to educate each other, which is the only way we can offer useful support and begin to combat gender violence and oppressive behavior. This former partner was Ecuadorian of Black-Chinese-Basque background. I had seen him experience police harassment and knew about his childhood trauma with physical abuse and bullying. For those reasons when his physical abuse escalated I found myself unable to report him to the police. Instead I ran out of our apartment and cried on the sidewalk. I cried because I knew too well that reporting him would not help my situation or alter his behavior. I moved out and convinced him to attend anger management and therapy. I followed up with him for many months. At a certain point I decided to move on and cut off all communication with him. My process was not his process, but it did give me some piece of mind in being involved during that period.

Problems with Vigilante Responses

Over the course of the last year and a half, I was forcefully placed in a whirlwind situation based on how to interpret an accountability process that began some years ago. This is in relation to a series of events that affected multiple communities across the US. During that time, I observed the destruction of various communities, friendships, and political collaborations primarily due to the politics of militant allyship and unaccountable behavior. Another factor that allowed such destructive behavior to develop into a powerful force—even if it was mainly coming from five people via the internet—is that our own movement organizations have not taken the time to discuss, understand, and create measures for addressing gender violence, racist violence, and other forms of oppressive behavior in our social movements.

Vigilante Responses to Accountability

For revolutionaries it is impossible for us to say that we outright oppose vigilante responses. In a similar way, we also do not state opposition to property destruction.   But both forms of actions have to be looked at critically, depending on the circumstances and taking into account who will be affected. There is danger in absolutist interpretations that forget that the means to our ends do matter.

While I am not a pacifist, I am cautious about vigilante responses that have developed in our social movement spaces. Overall, vigilantism replicates aspects of state violence that does not take into account the complex spectrum of oppression, constructing strong binaries and the use of violence to force someone to comply to behave or not behave a certain way. Vigilantism has a complicated history in the United States. There is a long and violent history of white supremacist actions against people of color that includes lynching, destruction of property, and forceful removal from lands. At the same time, some people who have experienced state and systemic violence have responded with acts of self-defense and revenge. However, it is a mistake to glorify or romanticize such actions, since most are rooted in a desire to protect oneself or loved ones, not because such actions are an answer to every form of oppressive act.   We know very well that when the state or—as in the case of the US—white supremacist gangs that are supported by the state are viewed as a necessity to protect the social order, it is only those of us who resist who are deemed violent. But what happens when acts or the promotion of acts of violence within our own social movements begin to appear? Is it the same? Why does it occur?

Some forms of vigilantism in relation to survivor autonomy are rooted in feelings of disempowerment due to failures by our movement to confront oppressive behavior. Lack of organizational engagement in confronting gender violence, racism, classism, abelism, etc. creates a sense that your fellow comrades do not care. In most cases, individuals do not know what to do and lack the tools to deal with such matters in a useful, productive, and supportive way. The more these questions are discussed, processes are developed, more individuals in our social movements will feel equipped to offer support and react more effectively, giving vigilantism less space to develop as a de facto reaction.

Do You Know of a Positive Accountability Process?

Many individuals who have participated in multiple accountability processes have encountered at least one positive example. Positive outcomes are rarely discussed. Because of the many failed attempts at accountability some conclude that it is a waste of political energy. Others believe that labeling accountability processes an absolute waste of time is a betrayal of our principals as anarchists.

What are some typical negative experiences with accountability processes? The perpetrator refuses to partake in an accountability process, the perpetrator’s reputation disproves the assault, survivor is silenced, survivor’s credibility is questioned, organizational cover-up to protect the group’s reputation. The reason I mention these negative experiences with accountability will allow me to frame some of the problems that developed in Los Angeles. I understand why a group of people promoted vigilantism and determined accountability a failure. However, I don’t understand or support their desire to destroy the lives and political reputation of everyone who expressed political disagreement with them.

What we saw develop in the Los Angeles area was a self-declared militant ally group centered around a group of friends who were graduate students at UCLA and UC Irvine. The initial reason why individuals from this group formed the Cassandra Solanas Collective was to support someone they all knew in the area. The case revolved around Seth Miller from the Progessive Labor Party (PLP), in which he and his organization refused to comply with an accountability process and the demands of the survivor. However, as little advancement was made on that front the group quickly took on a series of other cases. Many of those cases were related to individuals not in the area and they were not necessarily the prime support team for the survivor/s. This is when the Cassandra Solanas Collective shifted from a survivor-centered collective to a group-centered project with shared political beliefs. These shared beliefs were so strong that it meant that survivors had to either agree with them or they would act only on their behalf in connection with their views. Since the Cassandra Solanas Project functioned on a common vision based on how to confront perpetrators, it was the group ideology and presentation that became key. Anyone outside their friendship group or anyone who expressed disagreement with their approach was deemed a “rape apologist” and “supporter of patriarchy.” Since their focus became the perpetrator, it was automatically assumed that support for the survivor was based on what was to be done to the perpetrator. In fact, these are two distinct processes. Furthermore, as the Cassandra Solanas Project began to enforce their political views and demands through the use of intimidation, the needs of the survivor/s was forgotten and/or ignored. This highlights their lack of accountability for their own actions, which obfuscated any pushback with accusations of rape apologism.

Why Did this Happen?

There are three issues that I wish to discuss that underline some of the problems that developed from this particular experience. Those areas are: survivor-centered vs. perpetrator-centered actions, the repetition of group-developed narratives, and political difference dealt with through intimidation.

When offering a survivor support in which accountability of some form is being planned, it is necessary to begin by asking a lot of questions to better understand the range of needs the survivor might need and what those in the supportive role feel comfortable or able to do. This ultimately means being a good listener before action is taken or information is disseminated. Some key questions are: What can I/we do to support the survivor? Are their immediate needs—including their safety—being addressed? Other questions include: what does this process seek to do? What are the individual and group boundaries? How to uphold survivor agency? This might include the pace of activity and the dissemination of information.

In the perpetrator-centered process certain problematic behavior arose. First, there was a “with us or against us” point of view. This meant that if you expressed disagreement, including not feeling comfortable participating in some aspect of what was being done, the person would automatically be labeled a “rape apologist.”

Second, the Cassandra Project wanted all spaces to be perpetrator-free. However, this did not include asking spaces, organizations, or unions to create better processes to confront oppressive behavior. Instead, demands were placed to exclude someone that had been through an accountability process in the past. They also began to replicate state narratives of “stranger danger” and the need to quarantine offenders. This often means pushing them into the most marginalized communities. In other words, keep “our” spaces/neighborhoods safe and free of sexual deviants. Those of us who have done work around gender violence know that most perpetrators are individuals close to the victim, not outside strangers.

The third problematic development was demands for information about an accountability process and other related information. There are some survivors who do not want information to be made public and some who do. The issue about how to proceed requires a lot of discussion. Also, how a survivor’s story is described requires a lot of input from their part or else their narrative can easily be distorted. A survivor of abuse is already dealing with feelings of disempowerment and for their supportive group to misrepresent their wants can be a deep violation of trust.

The repetition of group-centered narrative might seem like a strange concept. But when the political views of a group become central, they also construct narratives as a group and because several individuals repeat them it can appear as truth. One example is directly related with me. A few individuals within the Cassandra Solanas Project found out that a [former] partner of mine had been through an accountability process some years ago. Based on that information several of them concluded that this former partner must have been abusing me. They never asked me directly whether this was true — and it was not. Instead they all confirmed with each other that this was true and began to contact acquaintances of mine in other cities to tell them that. They also contacted those who participated in my former partner’s accountability process.

After so many individuals were contacted without my knowledge, by the time I figured out what was happening many did not believe me. When I confronted one of the people spreading this rumor about me, they spoke to another person in their group and began to tell people that I had Stockholm Syndrome. They not only invalidated my agency but they also refused any sort of accountability for their actions. In response, the Cassandra Solanas Project began to spread the word that I was a “rape apologist” with the intention of further isolating me from my political circles of support. Another aspect that gave the Cassandra Solanas Project legitimacy was the many younger activists not experienced with accountability processes or transformative justice. Being recently exposed to a series of radical terms they often repeated things said that sounded militant, wanting to be on the right side. It came out of a good place even if they contributed to harmful behavior.

The last aspect is the use of intimidation when political difference is expressed. I already explained that when I stated that rumor that my former partner was abusing me was not true the response was intimidation. There were other examples, involving those in the Cassandra Solanas Project who opposed transformative justice claiming that it promoted the idea of reformed rapists. There were others—including myself—who held strong political disagreements with the Cassandraists, as we expressed support for transformative justice as an important aspect of our anti-prison work.

In the end, the Cassandra Solanas Project remained unaccountable and negatively affected many individuals in the surrounding community. Because of their lack of direct accountability they were able to disengage at will, they had no sense of accountability to the survivor/s they claimed to represent.

What We Learned?

I cannot offer an elaborate conclusion, since the question of accountability really does depend on the particular situation and the individuals involved. But there are two important developments that we have learned.

First is the importance of maintaining a survivor-centric, and not perpetrator-centric, process.

Second—and one argument that this event is pushing for—is the need to build capacity.

We are encouraging all political spaces, including unions and organizations, to have discussions about how their group plans to confront oppressive behavior. Does your organization have a process? Has your union discussed what to do if a coworker does something harmful to another coworker? How can various organizations that share social movement spaces support each other in doing this work? While we all want to end gender and racist violence, we might not all share the same means or even know what to do. Building capacity is the beginning of the process of working on those means.

Romina Akemi is Chilean-American, raised between Los Angeles, California and Santiago, Chile.  For many years Romina worked as a garment worker and is currently a graduate student studying Chilean labor history.  She is a member of the LA Industrial Workers of the World and the Black Rose Anarchist Federation. 

Event document: https://transformativejusticela.wordpress.com