Category Archives: Blog posts

Listening Space Reflection

By Lani Parker and Marion Damnit

Part 1

The coronavirus pandemic and the response to it has exacerbated attitudes and structures of ableism, racism, classism and cis-hetero-patriarchy. Many of us are building spaces where we can support each other and mitigate the effects on the most impacted. This includes spaces for healing and repairing injustice. The Listening Space was an experimental, multiracial space for peer listening and support, aimed at disabled people and people with long-term health conditions. This was not counselling, and it was not about ‘fixing’ ourselves or saying there is anything wrong with us. It was to make connections and support each other, share our experiences, knowledge and wisdom, and strengthen our listening skills at a time when we are particularly isolated. 

We ran the Listening Space weekly for 6 weeks from 16th April to 21st May, when the COVID-19 pandemic was in its early stages in England. It was led by Lani who is an experienced peer support facilitator in London, and assisted by Marion, an experienced organiser, in Manchester. We based the space in an intersectional understanding of disability and ableism as inextricable from other forms of oppression (racism, classism, cisheteropatriarchy) and capitalism. We drew on a Disability Justice perspective, developed by disabled, queer and working class people of colour in the US (although as facilitators, we are both white). 

Why listening?  

Listening deeply can be a way to be by someone’s side, which can bring about connection and change. We can use deep listening to process our personal experiences of oppression, listen to others with different experiences, think about those experiences and how they relate to our own, become part of something bigger than just ourselves and build collective power. These practices have been used in the consciousness raising movement and in popular education.

Neoliberal capitalism encourages us to talk, for example, through the mental health industrial complex. But are we really listening? Oppression encourages us to focus on our differences and be suspicious of other marginalised people who have different experiences, or to pretend that we are all the same. Neither of these practices involve really listening to each other. If we could really listen to each other’s pain, perhaps we could listen to the ways we have been complicit in that pain and the systems that support it. Perhaps we would do things differently. 

Really listening to people and being listened to can be scary as it can bring up things we are not expecting. Many people are traumatised and there is very little deep long-term support for trauma which honours all of our identities and does not try to ‘fix’ us. We may numb ourselves in order to survive. Even if we are not traumatised, many of us are acting on stress responses all the time, both in the present and from our past.1 It makes it hard to engage with these difficult, deep issues in the long-term way necessary to really create a different society without oppression.

A thought on trust and accountability

We tend to get defensive or protective of people if somebody says they feel bad about something. We want to reassure them that they are doing their best. I (Marion) have often experienced this from counsellors or friends. But deep listening would be to support the person to be accountable and make the changes they want to make.

It may be obvious to say, but it takes time to build the trust needed for deep listening. In our personal experience of ‘activist’ spaces, it can feel like there is an expectation for us to already be perfect and this can inhibit us from really being ourselves and building authentic connections. Relationships can feel conditional on knowing the correct language and doing or being a particular way. For the two of us, this has sometimes led to us feeling disengaged from spaces and engaging in what feels like a superficial, performative way, while leaning on other sources for emotional and practical support. We wanted the listening space to be a place where people could be themselves while also engaging in anti-oppressive practice.

Listening is an important part of allowing people to be themselves. But being yourself is difficult when parts of your identity are marginalised. It can be difficult to put your own stuff aside and listen to others if you have a deep need to be listened to yourself. For example, disabled people often feel we are not really listened to. But how we’re listened to and how we listen to others is shaped by all aspects of our identity. As white disabled facilitators, we are aware that whiteness often shows up as a sense of entitlement to speak and to question others without needing to be vulnerable or our safety being compromised. But mutual aid means reciprocity and building deeper solidarity. If ‘we refuse to listen until we are heard, will not be allies until we have allies’, nothing changes (Aurora Levins Morales).

Listening is an important part of accountability and potentially in restructuring power relations. But this is hard to achieve in reality. Much of the recent thinking about accountability has come from prison abolitionists. We are trying to learn ways to hold each other to account which are not carceral, meaning about reparation, not punishment. In this we have found the work of D Hunter useful. He writes about times when he has harmed others and others have harmed him, and about his attempts to find ways to hold them to account and to be held accountable for his actions. Prison abolionists, such as the generation5 collective, engage with questions of serious harm such as child sexual abuse. We agree with Hunter that we need to engage in a similar way with the small everyday acts of harm as well. If we don’t deal with the small things we can’t deal with the big things…

Check the blog next week for Part 2 on how we applied this in practice.

1 The Listening Space was not a safe space for people in active mental health crisis.

Rethinking Hate Crime Laws, Misogyny and Disability

by Lani Parker

UK Hate Crime law is currently being reviewed by the Law Commission, and civil society groups will be invited to respond to the consultation. The aim is to assess whether to treat crimes motivated by or demonstrating hostility or prejudice against women (i.e. misogyny) or hatred of older people as hate crimes. The Law Commission is therefore surveying the scale of these problems in order to decide whether to award higher sentences for such offences. The police trialled treating misogyny as a hate crime in Nottingham last year, which revealed that offences targeting women were ‘highly prevalent’.

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It’s not difficult to agree that directing violence and abuse at someone because of who they are, because of their identity, should be stopped. It’s also not difficult to see what a devastating impact acts of violence like this have on individuals, families and communities. So it is completely understandable that organisations that represent marginalised people might want to have these incidents recognised as specific acts of violence that target people for who they are. When I worked within the disability sector supporting survivors of hate crime, I saw the trauma that constant harassment causes and I also saw the impact of violence. When people did come forward to report their experiences to the police, which was quite rare, they wanted to feel safe in their neighbourhoods. They wanted justice to be done and they wanted to be heard and not dismissed by the authorities, or anyone else.

In my experience, the reporting of a hate crime, whether it be related to disability, race or sexual orientation, started off a process where the survivor had to recount incidences and document if and how it continued. The reporting in itself could sometimes give a feeling of being listened to by the authorities, but this was often short-lived as the process for proving that harassment is a hate crime is long and drawn out. Reporting at a police station can be re-traumatising for many people, particularly those who have experienced police brutality, and the reporting itself certainly doesn’t necessarily stop harassment if it is ongoing.

There is an understanding amongst disabled people’s organisations that experience of ableism, misogyny, racism and homophobia do not happen in a vacuum – they are part of the everyday oppression of disabled people. Here, I want to address this bigger system, and specifically the use of prisons and punishment within it, in order to raise concerns about advocating for increased sentences or police powers of criminalisation, even when it appears to be on the side of those experiencing violence, in this case hate crime.

What are prisons really for?

Whenever we are dealing with the criminal justice system, and incarceration in particular, we need to understand the wider network of surveillance and criminalisation it relies upon – namely the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). Empty Cages defines the PIC as: “the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems… the mutually reinforcing web of relationships, between and not limited to, for example, prisons, the probation service, the police, the courts, all the companies that profit from transporting, feeding and exploiting prisoners, and so forth”. This definition is a starting point to understanding how the PIC works as a tool of control, particularly targeting people of colour, other working-class people and disabled people.

We can see this in particular ways. For example, recent statistics show that black women are more than twice as likely to be arrested as white women in England and Wales. We can also see this in increasing state powers such as Prevent and immigration powers to criminalise migrants. This control is necessary to ensure that marginalised groups do not rebel as easily, and are deterred from doing so – it’s a tool of segregation, as were workhouses, and as psychiatric hospitals and segregated schools still are. All serve to define, segregate and incarcerate.

The British state and other states, particularly settler-colonial ones, have used prisons as a tool of control as part of their imperial projects, going as far back as the colonisation of Australia as a penal colony. Later on, directly following the Indian Rebellion of Independence in 1857, the British set up a penal colony in the remote Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. They went on to build a massive prison there based on Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon design, in which every inmate knew that in any moment they could be watched from a central guard point in the centre. The rise of prisons was part of European capitalist imperial expansion, and the creation of the concept of the individual upon which capitalism relied: As Angela Davis points out, “Before, the acceptance of the sanctity of individual rights, imprisonment could not have been understood as punishment.”[1]

Today, prison sentences are disproportionately given, and disproportionately long, according to ethnicity. A 2011 study by The Guardian of over 1 million court records found “black offenders 44% more likely than white offenders to be sentenced to prison for driving offences, 38% more likely to be imprisoned for public disorder or possession of a weapon and 27% more likely for drugs possession.”

There are high proportions of people with learning difficulties in particular incarcerated or caught up in the legal system. According to a recent report by the Prison Reform Trust, 7% of people in contact with the criminal justice system have a learning disability compared with only 2% of the general population. We also know that a high proportion of prisoners experience mental health issues, although the government has no recent statistics. In 2009, the Prison Reform Trust estimated that 70% of prison inmates had two or more diagnosed mental health illnesses.

Systemic change, not punishment

Abolitionists understand violence as systemic, rather than as occurring in a vacuum outside of the wider context. There is an understanding that violence is produced by society and is a product of racism, patriarchy and classism. For instance, recently in the UK the government has implemented policies which have exacerbated racism and ableism, including the hostile environment policy for migrants and austerity policies which have hit women of colour and disabled people the hardest. In 2016 the Women’s Budget Group and the Runnymede Trust calculated that by 2020 black and Asian women will have lost nearly double the amount of money to white men, as a result of tax, benefit and public service changes since 2010.

We therefore need a radical, structural approach which is based on accountability, not segregation and punishment, and which produces systemic change, not more violence.

What might this look like? It’s clear that when people experience hate crime they want justice. They want the violence to stop, or for it to never have happened, and for the person or people causing harm to be held accountable for what they did. I did have one person say to me that they wanted the person causing them harm to be locked up and to ‘throw away the key’. But even when we look at it on an individual level, in general, accountability and justice does not look like punishment through prison. It looks like changing the conditions that produce the harmful behaviours. For instance, the Nottingham trial’s evaluation concluded that the solution most favoured among those who had experienced offences categorised as misogynistic was not criminal remedy, but rather education to ensure that people know such behaviour is not acceptable.

Responses to violence need to be built by communities; we cannot rely on the state, as it plays a big part in producing this violence. Abolitionists work to shrink the surveillance powers of the state and the state’s ability to criminalise people. Because if we see it as a whole system, each new law adds to the ways in which the state can control people. Abolitionists also work for good housing, healthcare, and education as a remedy for poverty, discrimination and violence. They aim for ‘non-reformist reforms’; in other words, reforms that are not about developing or expanding the PIC, but rather about shrinking it and replacing it with what we need to build a world without oppression and structural violence.

The consequences of advocating for more laws which punish more people for violence caused by systemic, structural factors, risks further criminalising and controlling individuals and communities. Thus, making misogyny a hate crime would not be a non-reformist reform, one which shrinks state power, but would expand the power of the state to control us. In addition, I would suggest that these efforts also often unintentionally take away energy from challenging the causes and consequences of oppression. Although we can argue that changing laws helps educate people about what is and is not acceptable, it would be better to put our energies into education projects and creating survivor-centred ways of keeping people safe, and fighting for the resources we need in our communities. Misogyny is about the hatred of women. How we so often grow up feeling smaller than we are, being constantly undermined, frozen out of spaces we should be in. Expected to do the work, often dangerous work, and for most of that work to be unrecognised as valuable. Misogyny is ingrained into society. It is in the ways we are denied resources, the ways we are violated, objectified, imprisoned, and the ways we are killed. This is part of the system and so is the PIC. Let’s trust that we can create alternatives to violence that do not create further systemic violence.

[1] Davis, ‘Are Prisons Obsolete’ in Ethics: Theory and Contemporary Issues, 2003, p.46. For more detail, I’d recommend Angela Davis’ book, Are Prisons Obsolete?

Growing like trees

Trees in temperDSC_0563ate climates grow outwards; they cannot grow indefinitely upwards because the roots would not be able to transport the nutrients needed for the top of the tree if the tree is too tall. Even Redwood trees have a limit. Trees grow by concentrating cells in one place, for example at the edge of branches, so that they can grow outwards unlike humans where cell growth takes place everywhere. Roots grow downwards and outwards. The system of roots can be as deep as the tree is tall. Roots provide structural architecture; they can harvest enormous quantities of water and mineral resources. The stems divide into nodes which are points at which the leaves are attached, and internodes, the length of stem between the nodes. Shoots can be separated into long and short shoots on the basis of the distance between buds. Some buds can lie dormant, ready to re-grow when conditions allow.

On 2 December 2018 Sideways Times facilitated a workshop with rashné and Lani (the person writing this post) at the Our Bodies Know event, hosted by Arteries. In designing the workshop, we wanted to find ways in which we could look at movements for change and learn from other ways that change is made. We applied the way that trees grow and sustain themselves that I outlined above to thinking through ways in which change happens and how we see ourselves in that process.

We looked at the tree and found some important similarities, in particular the way they exist as a system. When you are in a particular place it’s difficult to see that there is a bigger system of change that you are part of.  In my experience, this is one of the elements that can leave people feeling isolated and burned out. In looking at the tree we can notice that everything is connected – each part communicates with the others, and are in tight mutually reinforcing relationship. Through seeing this, the  workshop gave space to talk about our own positions at the moment, and encouraged a non-judgemental approach. The idea of dormant buds seemed to be particularly powerful. As the buds only grow when conditions are right, waiting in a dormant state until they are, we can recognise that our own dormancy allows us to gather resources, and acknowledge that the conditions may not be right for us. The acknowledgement in itself provides us with power.

Dormant buds also connect to the cycles of growth that the trees go through, in response to external conditions, and also internal conditions, for example if there are not enough nutrients, or it is too cold, the tree will die-back and then start growing again when conditions change. Expansion and growth then is not a continual process, but goes in cycles which include dormancy and recuperation. So in terms of social change, dormancy can be a signal that there are not enough internal resources, and/or that we are reacting to external conditions. Leaves also fall off the tree when they have given all they can at that time, and so become nutrients for the soil. Applying this, we talked about how for people this is also often to do with conditions not being right for them and burning out, as well as lack of support. We discussed this ‘falling off’ as a powerful process which could communicate something important to the system, and also could allow for a different role to be taken up of becoming nourishment for the system.

One of the things that I loved about thinking about how trees grow is that realisation that growing outwards is an effective way of growing. For me again, it focuses my attention on making connections and expansion, with an openness to the world. This connection is grounded by communication – the different elements all talk to and support each other, giving the growth strength. So while it can appear as though the new leaf or new shoot is fragile and out on its own, it is actually held up by another part of the system that is far away.

The way that trees grow seemed to really connect with people and the metaphor opened up conversations about our relationships to movements for change. For me I came to appreciate exactly where I was and appreciate more deeply others’ positions and work. I saw in a new way how important it is to support each other and communicate to strengthen our relationships and understand how we connect.

To Be Grateful

Gratitude is a practice; it is a practice which can make someone feel alive and heard in the world, and one which can make someone feel small, unwanted and worse. Perhaps here I’m talking about two different kinds of gratitude.

For a long time I resisted the idea of cultivating a gratitude practice mainly because I saw the expectation to be grateful as a way which oppression manifests itself in the society in which I live. Children are often told to be grateful for what they have as a remedy for either seeing injustice or directly experiencing injustice. In the Protestant tradition, as far as I can see, being grateful became a virtue which was put onto others. The poor should be grateful for what they have; those people over there should be grateful that we came to civilise them; the disabled people should be grateful that we have not left them to die. It is wrapped up with charity and toleration of your circumstances rather than a window to liberation. The way that expectations of gratitude are structured and repeated become a tool to disconnect and separate people.

Used in this way gratitude is a way of indoctrinating people, telling them that their ways of life are not the right ways. Expecting and telling people to be grateful as a way of infantilising them. When I use the word infantilising it implies that a child is less than fully human. In my mind this brings us straight back to the

gratitude jarstripping of humanness that structures of gratitude do in the world. The practice of expecting gratitude has been and continues to be a tool of oppression. One function of this is to stem anger about injustice. This adds weight to the sense that anger is not a good thing, and it is not easily tolerated. But part of working towards liberation is to make space for anger, to take up space with our anger. This is a form of resistance.

There are of course many types of gratitude practice, and of manifesting gratitude, not all of which operate to stem anger, infantilise, or oppress. Appreciation for what is now, for the good things in life, for small things; appreciation for the work you do, how you survive and for your skills and strengths; for the fact that you are here and that you are enough, no matter what. This kind of appreciation cultivates a sense of belonging and a sense of groundedness.

This kind of gratitude practice, appreciating the small things that you are grateful for, is about connection rather than disconnection. Connection to what is happening now, to humanness, nature, the world and your place in it, to the beauty in the universe and to the people around you. Being grateful for the small things makes it easier for me to be grounded in what is happening now.

But then what about the place of anger?  The difference here is between something that is given to you that you should be grateful for and something that is innate, your innate human connection. Perhaps we should refuse to be grateful for the things we are ‘given’, and refuse to honour the expectation of gratitude which keeps silence, allows smallness and diminishes everyone. Instead, we should work to honour our innate right to follow a life of joy, love and anger, using a practice of being grateful for it all.

by Lani Parker

Being and building otherwise: a conversation between rashné and Lani – Part 2

This is a continuation of the conversation we began, using Harsha Walia’s Undoing Border Imperialism, to explore organising spaces, interdependence and relationship building.  

Part 2 picks up on the theme of slowness and preparedness in organising, as well as the necessity of centering relationship-building in a world of scarcity and precarity.

This is not a “polished piece.” And, of course, it doesn’t reach some kind of end point but we hope that it can serve as a something to continue from…

Lani

I really love what you said and made me think a lot things I hope that some of it makes sense.

Slowness and responsiveness also relates to building as well as being: the current system forces us to be reactive because it is full of scarcity and fear. We are built to be both reactive and responsive, I think, but the responsiveness is the element which allows us to build. What does it look like to really build together?

One of the principles of disability justice that came out of a group of disabled people of colour in the States emphasises collective liberation: what does it really mean to move together, to be responsive together, and not be simply reactive? I feel there are a lot of times when I’m trying to organise with people that I feel, and probably am, slower than others. I can be both slower and faster – perhaps we all can be.

Sometimes I think that it doesn’t look like much to be slow, that you can’t really “see it” – perhaps it is more of a feeling. I know that for me access is more of a feeling; it’s not so much about whether I can get into a building but how people react, how people are flexible, how people see me. Like you said, if you slow down, you can often see better. Learning to really see each other seems to be part of the work. Being doesn’t always mean being slow and I often really don’t know how to be collective about that. I guess it’s about holding each other. But how does that look? It doesn’t always look like waiting. It would mean grappling with deep-seated feelings of loneliness and grief and also fear. I think that both disability justice and healing justice work can see some of this.

I hear what you’re saying for yourself in terms of being selfish and needing to find people who nourish you and to let go of those who don’t…. And the fact that this is lonely work. It made me think about how much it is possible for me to create those spaces by being different. Not necessarily letting go but holding gently, giving space. How much do I have the resources to not get sucked in by negative energies or situations (as I do have a lot of resources in this power structure!)? Perhaps this is about the ways that we are connected.

From the moment we are born we are betrayed – born into a world that does not meet our expectations, even when we are born into the arms of people who truly love us we are disappointed by them and betrayed by them in small ways which are painful and enormous ways which are painful. This conversation is also making me think about the way that we learn and unlearn patterns of behaviour and intergenerational trauma. There is a lot of talk about the importance of vulnerability, about how we do not know how to be loved, about how we cannot bear it and that the only way we can do it is to actually show that vulnerability.

 

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rashné

Our conversation makes me think, on the one hand, of something obvious – that to be in community is to be in relationship. And we often do describe organising spaces as community. On the other hand, precisely because to be in relationship requires a certain kind of work – of building intimacy, of making oneself vulnerable, of holding some form of responsibility to one another – we may actually tend to place a separation between this organising community and other relationships, i.e. relationships outside and beyond organising ‘communities’. I know I have been guilty of this for certain. And of course, in the context of facilitation and mediation, we see that there’s various groups needing support around “accountability”. But isn’t this all about learning how to be in relationship?

As you say, this is possibly because we are constantly living within a dynamic of scarcity. There’s too little time, too little energy. And so what we have we use on cultivating (hopefully) nourishing private lives. In a previous blog post I wrote: “Precarity, then, is a concerted strategy to disallow collectivity and solidarity. In this circumstance, the fight against precarity must be the fight to create and maintain the conditions for solidarity.”

This brings us back, of course, to capitalism. And to lies, too, maybe. But if scarcity and precarity is what disallows us from forming organising communities as relationship – not just as places of action, of work – then surely a critical political task is to do precisely that, i.e. build organising spaces as relationship?

This is what I mean when I talk about the misuse of decoloniality. Oftentimes in organising spaces we talk about being in community, building community. But if we were to actually try to practice this, it would require a radical – “decolonial” – rethinking of what politics is, of what our work is. But I’m not sure we do that. We take up ideas without really thinking through what it is to practise them. So, perhaps we are building our own “alternate” web of lies?

I think all of this is quite related to disability justice – please correct me if I am wrong. The way I understand it is, disability is constructed around these very notions of scarcity, precarity, of a certain kind of lack (and speed/slowness being an aspect of that lack). I don’t want to make some kind of simple comparison between those that identify as disabled and those that don’t, but I do think it is necessary to ask ourselves about all the ways in which we have been disabled by colonialism and capitalism. What kinds of sense of wholeness – or fullness may be a better word – have we been denied? And do we refuse to recognise, because to do so would be too dangerous?

 

This post has also been published on rashne.li.

Thanks for reading this far – hope you liked it. We’re hoping to keep the conversation going so we’d love to hear your thoughts too; if you want to pick up on any of the themes, feel free!

 

being and building otherwise: a conversation between Lani and rashné, part 1′.

Over the past few years we have been having various conversations with various awesome people in our lives about organising and the sustainability of movements in the current climate. Thinking about questions like: what is it that we need? How do we envision ways of being that do not rely on the colonial capitalist logics that are so normalised in our everyday. How can we be, now, in ourselves and with each other, the ways we would want to be in other imagined worlds?

Many people have said  and written numerous useful things on these topics. Our initial conversations were deeply influenced Harsha Walia’s Undoing Border Imperialism and led to a “collaborative correspondence on issues like the form of organising spaces, on the possibility of building different kinds of relationships, and the meaning of emotional justice and community care.

Below is a bit of this conversation – it is split into two blog posts. Part 1 starts off the conversation by looking at being and doing, reacting and responding, and grief and loss.

This is not a “polished piece.” And, of course, it doesn’t reach some kind of end point but we hope that it can serve as a something to continue from…

 

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Lani

We are human beings not human doings! Today I held a small baby who I love very much and was reminded of this as she cried and sat and looked into my eyes and smiled playing with her hands, interested in everything.

The system of colonial capital relations has stolen the being from us and made them into something else, into a fiction, a figment of our imagination, to strive towards something that doesn’t make any sense at all. Not only has it stolen the being, it has distorted and stolen the human. Continue reading being and building otherwise: a conversation between Lani and rashné, part 1′.

Anti-racist feminist statement on Islamophobia

Following Boris Johnson’s column in The Telegraph on the 5th of August, in which he mocked and belittled women who wear niqabs and burqas, there has been an intensification of (already prevalent) Islamophobic language, arguments and attacks in the press, on social media and in the streets. While couched within an ostensibly liberal argument against a ‘total ban’ of niqabs and burqas in public places, Johnson’s comments were clearly and very deliberately aimed at stoking already entrenched anti-Muslim racism and appealing to the right of the Conservative Party to build support for his likely leadership bid.

It is important to note that amid his dehumanising descriptions of women who wear niqabs and burqas, Johnson’s argument contained echoes of a liberal feminism, both in his description of these garments as oppressive and in his argument that ‘a free-born adult woman’ should not be told ‘what she may or may not wear, in a public place’ (hypocritically stated just after claiming he should be entitled to ask a woman to remove parts of her clothing in his MP surgery). In affecting a concern for Muslim women’s rights while peddling Islamophobia, Johnson is treading the well-worn path of gendered racism. The demonisation of Muslims in western political discourse originated with the orientalism of European colonisers, and has always proceeded on highly gendered terms, with the figure of the ‘oppressed Muslim woman’ operating as a symbolic shorthand to justify all manner of imperial foreign and domestic policy interventions.

Continue reading Anti-racist feminist statement on Islamophobia