It is my personal desire to tangle work and play so completely that the things which I do for fun or inspiration are the things which are my vocation. So when my lover Abigail came to visit before New Years, I asked her if she was willing to do a workshop on Bystander Intervention at Twin Oaks and at the newly formed income sharing community in Richmond, Quercus. Abigail agreed to the workshops, not knowing what she was getting herself into.
Abigail does interactive theater. This means, among other things, that she creates workshops with role plays of problematic scenarios where participants are given the opportunity to practice intervening in the scenes and experience how they work. By practicing interventions, and receiving real time feedback about what works and what doesn’t, participants get the lived experience of stepping in as a bystander, and are more likely to actually intervene the next time they are faced with a situation where someone is potentially being harmed.
Bystander intervention is the idea that it is not enough to chat about how to create healthy and safe culture. When you see someone oppressing or threatening someone else, you have to do something about it.
The problem is, unlike physics or history classes, bystander intervention almost never has one right answer. Those willing to stand up to bad behavior have to evaluate the losses and gains associated with various strategies. It is never all gains.
I learned the three general strategies for addressing situations where a bystander should intervene. These are called the “3 Ds” and were originally outlined by Dorothy Edwards, Executive Director of Green Dot:
- Direct Intervention
Direct Intervention is where you take on the oppression straight on. There are lots of different ways to do this. In one role play, a guy at a party was trying to have sex with a gal who was intoxicated. He knew she did not like him sober, but was hoping “she would be frisky when she was drunk.” Ash from Quercus intervened by asking him if it would not be better for him to look for someone who really wanted to have sex with him. A question so obvious it was completely disarming.
Some of the most powerful interventions of the workshops were shocking. In a role play where people were betting on the gender of a new barista, Jillian intervened by asking the perpetrator, “Do you have a penis in those pants? You want to show us?” The shocked perp wanted to know why she was asking. She calmly replied, “You were so interested in what was happening in the barista’s pants, that I was curious about yours.”
Hawina, in the workshop done at Twin Oaks, did the slut shamers one better. After they had spoken briefly about how terrible one woman was who had been involved in multiple romantic interactions, Hawina stepped into the role play and said, “Yeah, well, it says in the Bible that whores should be stoned to death!” When the shocked slut shamers said this might go too far, Hawina replied that they seemed to be completely on board with the belief that women who were ‘too sexual’ ought to be shamed and punished. It was another brilliant and disarming example of a comment that made the perpetrators re-evaluate their own behavior.
Perhaps appropriately, during the workshop in Richmond, I actually had to do an intervention. There was a transient person who was hanging out at Quercus who was extremely drunk. His name was Glib. It was clear from even before the workshop that Glib was in no state to be a workshop participant and would be interrupting the event if we did not discuss his involvement. He was quiet for the first few moments of the workshop and then started his non-stop talking. I asked him to step outside with me and chat. It was not an easy conversation. He was occasionally defensive, he resented being singled out and being talked to. At moments our talk got heated, but we did agree in the end that if he could respect that people were there to attend the workshop and not listen to him, then he could participate. Mostly he stayed out of the event, but for the last 20 minutes or so, he attended and was respectful of what was happening.
Distraction has many forms. Often it is fast and simple. The intoxicated gal who the creepy guy was trying to seduce was rescued by one bystander who came in and said “It is time to go,” grabbed her hand and pulled her away. This is classic distraction. The perp is left without the person they are coming on to. It interrupts the problematic behavior, but not by directly confronting it.
The advantage of this format often is that there is fairly little risk, unless the target of the abuse does not cooperate (or desire the intervention). The intervener said that she has done this before with people she does not know. The danger here is if there is some interest on the part of the target in the perpetrator, you can end up in a tug of war with the perp.
Unlike direct intervention, distraction often leaves the perp without any strong message that their behavior was problematic. There is no “educational moment.”. And here the trade off can be, “Do I get my friend out of this jam?” versus “Do I try to take care of my community which has this problematic person in it currently?” Again, there are more trade offs. Getting your friend away may be all you feel like you have energy for. If you are in a bar or other public setting, it can be quite difficult to confront the perp in any meaningful way that takes care of others. And the risk of direct confrontation goes way up when you are sticking around to discuss or negotiate with the prospective assailant.
Delegation is the final tool and perhaps the hardest one to use in these anarchist identified communities.
During the role play of the drunk person at a party, someone jumped into the action and said, “I am her brother” (referring to the intoxicated woman). This was a lie, but it still might be an effective technique. Other possible persons for delegation are hosts of the party, or friends of the guest who is a possible threat. Just because you could confront someone, does not mean you should, and there are often more effective people to confront them.
One problem with delegation is that it disempowers the prospective victim. In the role play, when this technique was used, the target person did not feel comfortable having to depend on some external man to take care of her. Contacting the police may raise similar issues. Many communities are reluctant to call the police on their own membership, especially for minor violations. (That said, none of the communities I work with take the rights of survivors away, so the survivors can always choose to bring in law enforcement if they think this is best.) Adding to the complications of this work, you may not easily find a solution which works for all parties.
Both workshops went well, despite one needing an intervention. The role plays were entertaining, informative and got at key issues both times they were offered. What we found over the 90 minutes of discussion and theater was that people got more animated and daring as the problems became more deeply examined. And daring is definitely what is needed.
Building community is tough. Founding residential, income-sharing urban communities edges up against impossible. Nonetheless, we feel it is important, so we try to do it anyway.
Most communities never make it. The bonds between the prospective members are not strong enough, the money does not come together, ideals get lost in policy design or in-fighting and the group never coalesces. There are a dozen reasons that great plans for communities don’t make it. Group discussions about difficult policies are particularly ripe for potentially sinking a group.
Recently, Point A’s discussion about its expulsion policy took a more negative turn. The community does not even exist yet, and who the members are, or will be, is still unclear. We’re still getting to know one another, and forming those community bonds. And in the middle of this, a member of the community took other members to task for being unwilling to ban people accused of sexual assault, based upon a past experience in another context.
The details are hella messy, but it does not matter. Sexual assault is an oft silenced and systemic problem that progressive organizations need to be sure they are not supporting. I care deeply about this issue, intimates in my life work on this full time. My most recent arrest was around raising consciousness on this issue. I write and do workshops on building good consent culture.
In the context of Point A, it makes sense to look at this issue in our expulsion policy. You would just expel someone for sexual assault. It is that simple: this type of behavior is unacceptable, so we need to protect ourselves and our loved ones from it. Right?
Perhaps. But wouldn’t it be better if the community could reintegrate perpetrators and survivors? Wouldn’t we prefer to figure out how everyone can get what they want and need and still live together? Shouldn’t community be the test bed for restorative justice solutions, rather than simple exile?
Clearly this type of work is generally crazy difficult. But since building community in the first place is crazy difficult, shouldn’t we be striving to craft our beautifully robust model in hopes that its good design will increase its chance of support and replication?
Without a residence and even a fully specified group, it makes no sense to ban someone who is accused of sexual misconduct. Rather, it makes all the sense in the world to look at a vexing example of this type of behavior and challenge the group to be open to more holistic solutions rather than simply throwing out the trash.
When Bush I invaded Kuwait, a number of billboards went up which were unusual. They had a black background and white print and no indication of who funded them.
One of these appeared in Richmond right beside the highway. I was visiting friends in the city and this had Jesse furious. As a Christian anarchist, this was singularly offensive to her.
Jesse spent some hours making an addition to this billboard. It read “Trust God? Obey him: Thou shall not kill” It was perhaps 20 feet long and a bit rough in terms of penmanship, but it got the job done. When she announced she was going to scale up the side of the towering billboard at 4 AM and put it up, i quickly volunteered to be part of the crew that was going to install it.
What most people don’t realize about billboards is that they are massive structures. This one in particular towered over the adjacent 4 story warehouse. A warehouse we had to climb up the side of to get to the stairs to the billboard.
In the dead of night, Jesse myself and a couple of other urban activists started climbing up the outside of this perhaps abandoned warehouse using the fire escape.
Fire escapes don’t usually make it all the way to the roof. This one didn’t. We climbed to the top of it and then had to pull ourselves onto the roof. Jesse went before me, into the pitch dark night. I pulled myself up and then the two of pulled ropes that were on the big banner to get it up onto the roof. We stepped backwards pulling the banner ropes.
Then i heard something crunch beside me and the sound of breaking glass. I spun around and saw that i had started to step thru a skylight which was flush with the roof. I could see dimly that the beneath the skylight there was at least a two story drop.
i cursed as i started to fall toward the skylight and what certainly would have been my doom.
Jesse grabbed me and pulled me back to safety. My heart was racing.
“Are you okay?” She asked after a minute
“Sure.” i lied to her. “Let’s get this banner up.”
We got our comrades and the huge banner up to the roof. The climbing onto the billboard itself was relatively easy and eventless. We got the banner installed below the billboard and felt pretty good about ourselves.
We climbed down and as the sun was starting to come up we called the local newspapers, so they would get a picture.
By 8 AM our banner had been removed. Patriotism was expedient that day.
There are pivotal moments, when a simple comment or action changes everything.
Ten years ago, I inadvertently created one of these. We were having a recruiting meeting at Twin Oaks and Kate said,
We should contact sociology professors at nearby colleges and get them to pay us for coming in and speaking to their classes.
I replied, “Well, that is not happening.” And with this single comment (and Kate’s tenacity), I insured that exactly this would happen and I would be completely wrong.
The same thing happened recently at an Acorn naming party. One sentence changed the course of our collective history.
Acorn has naming parties. We don’t name cars, or most buildings, like Twin Oaks does. But when someone shows up with the same first name as someone else, we typically have a naming party.
So it was with visitor Mike. A talented musician and soft spoken young man, he was clearly not to be confused with member Mike. For a while, without much reason we called the visitor “Mike the Interloper.”
Sean facilitated Mike’s naming party, which was lively and entertaining. A very long list of names was considered and Mike was open to a large number of possibilities. It is considered good form to allow the focus person of the naming party to eliminate names they are sure they will not take. Mike eliminated very few.
When there were about 3 names left Sean opened the floor to impassioned speeches. A few not especially inspiring speeches were made, and then Port very quietly said,
Taco Cat is a palindrome.
And I watch the tide in the room shift. Palindromes (words or phrases that have the same letters ignoring spaces going forwards as going backwards) are cool. If Mike the Interloper could have a palindrome name, we should take it.
What I did not know until Abigail pointed it out to me later is that both “taco” and “cat” are very often suggestions by OK Cupid for new user names for people who are trying to choose a user name, but someone else already has that name.
Foolishly, I did not believe Abigail at first so we went into OK Cupid and tried to create a profile for “memeticist” which is the handle I already use. Sure enough, OKC suggested “Memeticist the Cat” and “Memeticist Taco”.
So apparently putting a bunch of clever humans in a room looking for an original name, using a strange selection technique, can mimic the automatic name generation software for a free online dating site.
On Nov 27th, there was a shooter at a planned parenthood office in Colorado Springs. He killed three people and injured a dozen more. There was an hours long shoot out/stand off with police.
Some Americans had especially clever things to say.
Oh, and you are really going to love this one.
Here is what GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger had to say:
“Regardless, if somebody is targeting Planned Parenthood, it’s not indicative of what folks that are opposed to what some of the practices Planned Parenthood commits. We saw these barbaric videos and that is something many of us have a legitimate concern about. That doesn’t mean we’re gonna take guns and walk into Planned Parenthood clinics.”
So where does this leave us? In a racially and reproductive rights divided country, clearly. [These images and quotes are from AddictingInfo.com]
Early efforts to find motive for the crime have eluded the media, other than finding he had a history of small violent crimes, including shooting his dog, pushing his wife thru a window and peeping tom charges. We do know he told the police, “No more baby parts.”
So we were unsurprised when Dear shouted across the courtroom that he was guilty and a warrior for babies.
What we know is that, after killing 3 people, including a cop, and wounding 9 more, and holding over 100 officers in a standoff for 5 hours, he was captured alive. Dear was white and, in this circumstance, it matters.
We know that white men who kill large groups of people are not called terrorists. We know that persons of color, like the recent San Bernadino shooters, will be called terrorists.
We know that, despite the president’s desire and the will of most of the American people, these assault weapon attacks on civilians in the US will not result in any significant change in gun legislation in the US, because the NRA does not want it.