Tag Archives: structural oppression

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’.

prison

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?