Monday, March 10, 2014

Rape Culture in Left Organisations - Drawing Lessons from Recent Experiences in the US ISO

Lisbeth Latham

(This post was written several weeks ago but I haven't had a chance to publish it until recently. Since I wrote it the handling of the case has been raised by ISO Renewal Faction here - the RF were expelled from the US ISO at ISO's convention. The US ISO's national leadership have responded to the RF in Socialist Worker and the RF have in turn responded. I will be writing some comments on the exchange between the ISO and the RF shortly).

The pre-convention internal discussion documents for the US ISO were published in early February at the Charnel House Blog. This site is run by Ross Wolfe who is a bitter opponent of intersectionality and thus many of his posts reflect deeply racist, misogynist and transphobic ideas. This is said as a warning for those perusing the site rather than having any reflection on the bulletin’s contents or the veracity of the bulletins themselves. While many of the articles in the bulletins are fairly standard fair – there are a number of interesting articles including those discussing the ISO’s shifting attitude to feminism and intersectionality
(which is a partial and conditional acceptance of the idea of intersectionality as it emerged from Black Feminism but an absolute rejection of both those aspects of intersectionality that emerged from post-modern theory and concepts of privilege in any form) however of interest to me is an article in the final bulletin discussing the handling of rape allegations against a leading ISO member in the San Diego branch – the publication of the article had been signalled in earlier contribution on problems of sexism and transphobia in the San Diego branch.

The article is an outline of the experiences of the San Diego branch’s efforts to deal with allegations of rape against a member of the San Diego Branch Committee (SDBC), the difficulties they encountered in handling this, the limitations of the support provided by the organisation's national leadership and in the organisation's formal procedures for handling allegations against members.

Before proceeding it is important to note that the article is written from members who view themselves as loyal ISO members who believe “The ISO as an organization, and all ISO comrades as individuals, are committed to fighting for a better world free from exploitation and oppression. We are also committed to practicing our fight on the terms of the oppressed. Not only is this the right thing to do morally, but we consider it fundamental that the overthrow of capitalism will require the confrontation of oppression by the oppressed themselves. We must therefore do everything we can so that victims of oppression can feel safe in the ISO and with ISO comrades, in order that they can fully participate in the struggle.”

Moreover they state that “We are not claiming that any ISO members acted in bad faith, but that is precisely the point: Even with the best of intentions, our established procedure produces huge failures”, so the article is written from a framework of wanting to both strengthen the organisations formal procedures in handling complaints of rape and assault against members and to combat any complacency – rather than arguing any deliberate failing by the organisation or its members.

While in general, from what is described in the article, the members who initiated and conducted the investigation sort to take allegations of violence from a survivor seriously, however there were clearly serious deficiencies on the part of the ISO, and it would be stretching credulity to argue that this was all done in good faith.

So what happened is that in July 2013, an activist from a different socialist group made comments of Facebook referring to a local leading member of the ISO in San Diego, referred to throughout the text as “Daniel”, as an attempted rapist, with other activists also stating that a cover-up had been carried out by the ISO at a local and national level. The response of some of the branch’s members was to seek to work out who might have made the original accusation, i.e. to not see the allegation as a fabrication but based on a concrete experience, and to speak to that person and get a firsthand account of what happened.

According to the article – the survivor (described throughout as “the victim", I’m not really sure why they didn’t give the survivor a pseudonym rather than depersonalising them in this way) described the incident in full – and stated that she did not want “Daniel” to be expelled from the ISO, but that she thought it was wrong for him to speak about women’s rights. In response an emergency meeting of the SDBC was called. The difficulty was that of the four members of the SDBC, one was “Daniel”, one recused themselves as they were “Daniel’s friend”, another member had been accused of the cover up and the final member was relatively new. So they had an impromptu branch meeting that initiated an investigation into the incident.

The incident had happened a year earlier and it became clear that five members of the branch had been aware of the allegations prior to them being raised in July 2013 (including two members of the SDBC), as they had been told by friends of the survivor and that their had been rumours circulating. Members of the ISO’s Steering Committee (ISOSC) had also been made aware of the allegations prior to July 2013.

The reasons given at the local level for not investigating the allegations in 2012 were due to “how it [the allegation] was brought (on facebook), and that the person bringing it (that they were hostile to the ISO). Also people didn’t want to bother the victim about it”. While a member of the ISOSC informed them "I was told in September 2012 that the issue had already been resolved because [the victim] wanted to move on with her life and didn’t want to press charges."

But the ISOSC impression was based on the view of the SDBC member(s) who in 2012 (without doing any investigation) thought that the actions described did not amount to attempted rape, as the third-party accuser had characterized it, nor did they think that there was a violation of consent. The existence of a complaint was also brought to an ISOSC member’s attention in March 2013, when a member of the San Diego branch contacted them to report the fact that a third party had accused "Daniel" of attempted rape. The
ISOSC member said that they assumed the accusations were false and did not connect the San Diego member with the ISO’s national Discipline Committee (ISODC).

The branch response to the allegations were hampered by the approach of the ISO to dealing with complaints, where the national bodies refused to intervene, despite requests from the branch to do so, this was because their policy requires formal written and signed complaint for the national body to intervene.

Based on their experiences the San Diego members draw a number of lessons and make recommendations for changes to the ISO’s procedures . The lessons are “Political context:

  • False accusations of sexual abuse made by people who face gendered oppression are incredibly rare. It is, however, disturbingly common for assaults to remain unreported or be unjustly dismissed. We must therefore approach every accusation as though it is almost certainly true.
  • No one, including the most militant anti-sexists, are immune to living in this deeply sexist culture. 
  • Education is needed for ISO members on consent, intimate violence, and other interpersonal expressions of gendered oppression (or any oppression for that matter).
  • When the ability of the BC to function is compromised, the only substitute is the full branch.
When an accusation is made:

  • Make every effort to get a firsthand account as soon as possible.
  • Ask for endorsement of the account from the accuser if notes are taken by a third party.
  • Even in the absence of a formal complaint, the allegations must still be dealt with by the branch.
  • If the accused departs the ISO during an investigation, the organization must still resolve the investigation to make a determination about the member’s status.

During the investigation:

  • Every accusation must be taken seriously, regardless of how it was brought, or who is making it.
  • Taking allegations seriously should never be met with hostility by any member.Those who may bring an allegation forward in a way that can be seen as problematic, unserious, sectarian, emotional, etc. should not be attacked for doing so.
  • Members close to an accused comrade should be especially conscious of reflexive defensiveness by themselves and the accused toward those taking allegations seriously.
  • Do not form unannounced factions, and be aware of informal discussions that could amount to that.
  • Disagreements will arise among members in a situation like this. Bringing them up early to the branch as a whole is the best way to diffuse tension. It is the responsibility of the BC to make space to discuss the progress of a case like this early and often.
  • Be aware of the tendency to form cliques. Informal networks should not be the basis to develop political currents in the branch.
  • Even when an allegation is made in a public forum in a way that’s meant to harm the ISO, members should respond prudently and thoughtfully. We should be aware that we can be held publicly accountable for anything we say, even in private or online.”

The recommendations that were made for the ISO's policy are that organisation drop the requirement for a signed written statement written by a complainent in order for the ISODC to investigate, and instead accept either a written statement (not necessarily written by the complainant personally, or an audio recording of a statement made with the consent of the complainant) and to add a protocol to the complaints proceeding that "If an individual ISO member makes or hears about an accusation of sexual misconduct, they should make every effort, with the help of other ISO comrades as necessary, to contact the alleged victim and obtain a formal statement, if they wish to give one. The statement should then be forwarded to the ISODC and the local BC.

“If the alleged victim does not wish to give a formal statement, the member should take the accusation to the BC. If the member is concerned that the BC is compromised, such as when the accused is a member of the BC or is closely tied to a majority of the BC, the member should bring the accusation to the whole branch".

While the members who responded to the allegations in July 2013 would appear to have responded genuinely and with a motivation for justice for the survivor, I don't think that it would be unkind to say that this has not been the case with all of the responses by the ISO in this case. Moreover the assumption that all members of the ISO, or any other organisation in this society, are acting in good faith if they fail to act around allegations, and having a focus on maintaining internal dynamics of a branch during an investigation ignores the reality that internal opposition to such an investigation is likely to reflect sexist and misogynistic attitudes amongst members. While attempting to lower the trigger for the ISO's Dispute's Committee to start an investigation is positive, the recommendation to reduce the requirements in relation to the type of formal statement being made ignores the fact that progressive organisations should be proactive in seeking to exclude sexual predators from their organisation - and that to rely on survivors making formal allegations both ignores the social and personal pressures on survivors that can make reporting difficult, but also makes making activists spaces safer the responsibility of survivors rather being a collective responsibility. The recommendation idea that there would be regular discussion of an investigation into a rape at a branch meeting is also deeply disturbing - such discussions would:
  • violate the survivors right to confidentiality and privacy
  • it makes the investigation and its findings something that is up for general debate (highlighted by the fact that nowhere in the document are specifics as to what was alleged in this case and all we are left with are the various assessments as to the character of what was alleged)
  • it has the capacity to enable the spreading of gossip and disinformation against a survivor to publicly undermine their credibility both in the organisation and in broader activist circles
  • trigger survivors in the branch, and make branch meetings unsafe
  • It will also act as a deterrent from reporting as it sends a signal to survivors of what they can expect if they raise a concern

The discussion in the article of the investigation makes the investigation more than it should really need to be. The purpose of the investigation shouldn't be to convince the branch membership, or the friends of the perpetrator of the perpetrator’s guilt, if that is what is seen as being required then there are some serious problems that need to be addressed through the avenue of politics rather than through an "investigation" and how its proceeding. Ultimately why would anyone want to talk about the ins and outs - of the investigation? Doing so risks recreating in the organisation the worst elements of the bourgeois legal system's treatment of survivors. Moreover as a community the left, whether within an organisation or more broadly needs to shift it’s orientation to one of zero tolerance of violence, particularly to violence towards oppressed communities – this opposition to violence should be premised on the basis that it is the right thing to do in building empathy, solidarity and empowerment rather than some instrumental motivation of making it easier for people to be involved in your organisation.




Ross Wolfe May 9, 2014 at 7:33 AM  

Lisbeth, I'm not sure where you're getting this idea that I hold to any racist, misogynistic, or transphobic views. There have been attempts to discredit me, not least by the ISO, by publishing heavily editorialized accounts of things I allegedly said or wrote (all of which I have addressed). Some of these are blatant fabrications, moreover. Don't believe everything you read.

Perhaps you could point out somewhere that I said something allegedly misogynistic, transphobic, or racist?

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