On organising Afem: Lessons I learned on access and privilege, the importance of feeling uncomfortable, and of challenging things we find comfortable
“I am very sorry to have to say this, Corinne, but from your post, I think you are either incredibly politically naïve or a troll. Either way, I don’t think you are a suitable person to be moderating this list.” Gail Chester
People try to take away from Afem and its organising something positive. I think positive is not synonymous with constructive. This text is not meant to make you feel comfortable. If your involvement in anarchafeminism is about you feeling like a great person doing great things and congratulating yourself about it, this text is not for you. If your involvement with anarchafeminism is about being challenged, being made uncomfortable, reconsidering what you did or did not do, and trying to improve yourself slowly and with great humility, thinking of the way you still have to go, without great pats on the back of self gratification, welcome, friend.
After St. Imier, French organisations tried to organise an anarchafem conference, but the plan quickly fell through. I contacted T from Afed, to know whether Afed had also given up or if they were still planning something. They answered that C was looking into it, at which point I got in touch with her to know whether I could be involved, but never heard anything back from her.
The main reason I thought it was important that someone like me was involved from the start was because of the situation with the French Anarchist Federation, which I won’t detail here, see Afem’s communiqué on their exclusion as an organisation for more info. I had translated on behalf of Afed’s members a number of documents pertaining to this sordid case of harassment of anarchafeminists within anarchist organisations. When members who talked to me seemed to think things were ready to be brushed under the carpet, I constantly warned them about the French fed’s habit of fake apologies, and pretend reform, which has been their modus operandi for as long as I can ascertain.
I was not contacted before the 2013 Anarchist Bookfair, and I was not contacted afterwards. Since the St. Imier idea was to have an international conference though, the French Anarchist Federation was contacted, against all common sense or decency towards French anarchafeminists.
When I finally made it onto the organising email list thanks to friends, not only nothing was said about the French federation history of harassment, but I read that £500 were to be spent on a website, paid in half by Afed and in half by the French fed. During over 10 years as an anarchist militant, it is the first time I hear of a website costing anywhere near as much, and there were no indication of any function it would have that would legitimate the cost. This was also a proposal from members of the organisations which did not detail either what we would get for such a price, or who would get the money (with the horrible argument, well, since we are paying for it, we are deciding that, which goes against everything I believe in in matters of organising). I grew really worried as one of the main abusers in the harassment case is a rather unsuccessful computer programmer who, when he is not spamming anarchafeminists’ inboxes and blogs until they can’t use them any more, apparently designs websites. I asked details about this again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and was given the silent treatment once more. I actually still have to receive an answer about who was contracted for these £500, but no-one has bothered to alleviate or confirm my fears. This decision was actually abandoned rather than its specifics being made available to the organising committee.
The silent treatment is a technique favoured by bureaucrats of all stripes, and many people will have suffered it from managers: you ask to be treated like a human being, I will not answer your emails and prevent you from doing your job. It is psychologically devastating, despite it bringing us back nostalgically to playground tactics. Of course, for a long time, I doubted myself, thinking I was being paranoid. But a friend from Afed put my mind at ease, saying that C openly said on ACOD that she was intentionally ignoring my requests for information and that it was a jolly good thing to do because I was not a nice person (from what I gathered, I didn’t have access to ACOD, not being an Afed member). By the way, it is true, I am not a nice person, I am challenging and obstinate, I rarely give cookies when people do their job satisfactorily, and I usually point it out when they don’t, my social skills leave a lot to be desired. Whether this is a reason to exclude me from an anarchafem conference and its organising, that is debatable, see the first paragraph of this article. So I stopped being distressed about not having an answer, and started being distressed at the fact my friends and former comrades were having a great laugh about my distress (meta distress, yay!). From that point on, I cried pretty much every day until I finally “quit” the organising committee.
All was not doom and gloom though, at the same time as this was going on, I was working at making this conference — which was mainly being organised by white, middle-class, cis women — more open to other perspectives by actively engaging with anarchists I knew who were not from that demographic and talking to them, presenting them the project, trying to reassure them that it wouldn’t be exclusionary to them, and that they could get involved. Signing people up was possible thanks to a facebook friend who happened to be in charge of signing people up to the mailing list and was not inclined to use this power as a way to filter out people they didn’t like (which some might think doesn’t deserve special cookies, but given other behaviours witnessed, it really stands out). People who directly sent an email to the address provided on the public information were not as lucky, and were added after weeks or months of delay, or not at all. But, as more diverse people got involved in this, I felt like the problems we had would diminish (and they did).
Getting people who were not from Afed/Solfed involved was important to me, because, as much as I recognise the efforts that these organisations are making in being more inclusive, I also know that they are not perfect and that consequently many (most?) anarchafeminists, especially when they suffer from multiple oppressions, organise outside organisations. However, some people are unable to go beyond the long-standing antipathy between organisational anarchists vs. anarchists deemed “non-organised” (organised in smaller groups, federated in occasional open gatherings rather than yearly private conferences), and the insistence to aim the conference to “organised” anarchists clashed with attempts to address intersectionality practically.
There seemed to be very little care given about who accessed what information and through what connection. There was very little awareness of the power structures of inclusion/exclusion at all.
Dealing with this, I ventured into the world of twitter. I am no twitter fan, I have a private account that is not public and which I have almost never used. But twitter seemed a good way to reach people more fairly (that is, randomly). So I started considering tweets as space, and thought that the first thing for Afem was to establish its intent to be a platform for often silenced and marginalised people. So I followed and retweeted announcements from antifa demonstrations to anti-ableism advice. And something great happened: I saw that some people who rarely considered class struggle were retweeting stuff about the CNT strike in Spain from our account, and that some anarchist groups who rarely considered anything else than the class struggle retweeted stuff from autistic activists too. Every time this happened I felt like this Afem thing was indeed useful.
Of course, twitter comes with arguments. And this did not fail to happen. Being accessible by more people means being accessible to criticisms and call-outs (and that is kinda the point, if you ask me). When people used twitter to express their discontent with Afem’s policies or meetings, I did what I have always been told was the right thing to do: listen and reexamine yourself. How do you ‘listen’ on twitter? I thought that retweeting people who called us out was a first step to acknowledge we were listening. I also emailed their concern to the email list for the whole group to ponder. I thanked them to take the effort to help us improve ourselves and explained what was being done regarding the issue they had raised. I do not regret anything I have done on the twitter account, I think it was right, I think it did give a good image of the conference and attracted some very interesting people into the organising group, and I regret no-one had the confidence to continue when I left and the twitter account was silent, no longer a platform for anyone except a couple of announcements about Afem for Afem by Afem.
I think maybe that is enough for now, I do not feel like documenting the events and my ensuing mental breakdown in much more detail than that, apart from a few points which are of interest:
-unrealistic expectations of “safety” which involuntarily amount to silencing. Since no-one had mentioned the elephant in the room that was the harassment from the French federation, and some people genuinely had no idea. It had to be explained. Again. And again. And again. Because some people were not ready to listen. Someone on the list got triggered by the words “victim” and “perpetrator” and would refuse even for people to use them in emails clearly labelled as containing them. Those two concepts are key to a whole lot of anarchafeminism, and eventually one of them was used on the timetable of the conference itself. This was by far not the worst thing when it comes to things that made fighting the French federation and its defenders hard, but it certainly did not help. Carving out safer spaces for victims of abuse should not make the task of defending other victims of abuse harder, or something is going very wrong.
-complete ignorance of any concept of a safer space or safer proceeding by people who are actually members of groups which have safer spaces policies. When there finally was an attempt to solve the issue of the harassment of some anarchafeminists by the French fed, safety was not even considered. The format offered was “people who care can fight it off on a private discussion thing”. Perpetrators and victims alike, no moderation or anything, just a simple free for all where perpetrators could freely continue their harassment (which they had done on the organising email list). It was objected to that that the organising group did not have a SSP at that point. Of course, drafting one was a good idea, but not having one drafted does not mean things should be dealt with completely unsafely either, especially among a group which had explicitly expressed their love for SSPs. As much as it is great to have people able to draft SSPs, and without taking any merit away from them, a policy is only ever just that, and what matters in the end is what happens and is implemented, and while an explicit SSP can help, the absence of one, or the fact that it sadly does not cover a situation, should not be used as an obstacle to the defense of the safety of victims of abuse. Neither should the acceptance of a SSP be any kind of amnesty for behaviours dating back from before this acceptance.
-I do not wish to defend G, who called me a cisphobic troll which caused me to leave the organising group, but it was pretty clear from the minutes of the first organising meeting that her views were that she only wished to organise with cis women, and her transphobic views were shown, and explained at length by her at several points during the organisation of Afem. Accusing her of holding transphobic views is legitimate, accusing her of deceit seems to disregard the fact that if people were indeed “deceived” it could only be because they were ready to look the other way because she is Someone Important (with access to ressources such as a meeting place in London). Someone (me) left the organising group after being called a cisphobic troll by her, and nothing at all was done to hold her accountable for this event (as far as I know, then again, it’s a pretty weird event, since, being cis myself, it was really just a general display of cis power without any particular designated victim, but that argument was punctuated by statements like “Or do my feelings not count because I am not trans* or a sex worker?”). It is not really surprising that after this experience, she feels confident in doing what she did.
-the inability of anyone to tell C she was doing anything harmful. From the start, C was the one person in charge, Afem was her conference, and that was not going to be great in terms of democracy, effectiveness, representation of diverse views, or anything that this conference was nominally about. Her attitude was not conducive to anyone else being granted access or confidence to do anything, which would feed her feeling of being the only one who did anything, etc. That’s a pretty classic thing in anarchist groups. In my first anarchist group we had a saying: no-one is indispensable. Because it means the group falls apart if they are arrested. Because it is bad for their health. Because it gives them power whether they want it or not. C’s refusal to share info also meant she couldn’t delegate anything. She would be paranoid of anyone else getting involved as having a hidden agenda (well, apart for G, whose hidden agenda was actually pretty explicitly stated, but no-one cared). She would rather just have meetings between gender oppressed people who are in Afed and Solfed and their international sister organisations than reaching out to anyone who has been sidelined for so long by these organisations (why I am not sure as I have never met anyone in Afed or Solfed who didn’t say they were very certainly infiltrated by the police and other unsafe people). If someone called us or her out, she would immediately act defensive, as a way of not listening or discussing the matter at hand. Whether she uses her overcommitment as an excuse for acting in such a Stalinist/neoliberal managerial style or whether she is genuinely overcommitted and cannot do her job satisfactorily, I do not wish to know, and do hope it is the latter, but in any case there is only one solution: for her to take time off and leave some space for others. She has held one mandate or another for the Anarchist federation for way longer than is healthy for anyone who is concerned about informal power distribution anyway and this is causing issues within and outside the federation. No-one must be indispensable or be allowed to make themselves so. For their own good as well, although that is not what I care most about personally.
Was it worth it? Well, the French fed did not get to wash their image by “funding” an anarchafem conference (although, whether it is funding a conference when you get to decide on your own what and who your money will be spent on, that is debatable anyway), the statement which was issued after I left concerning them is mostly the one I had drafted (because no-one else wanted to do it, and it is consequently pretty harsh, which is great). I do not know whether the anarchafeminists who had been harassed by the French fed attended the conference in the end or not, or whether they felt it was safe-ish enough to do so. I did not feel it was safe-ish enough for me to go, but that was mostly because of tiredness from travel and bookfair making me very tense. When I contacted the safer spaces people about my possible attendance they were very friendly and helpful, which makes me hopeful.
In this process, I did meet a number of people who immediately understood my frustration and did not understand how I could be in a situation of fighting for months for something pretty basic. They did help me a lot for immediate care as well as for keeping hopes up about what is possible for the anarchist movement. It also allowed me better to understand power struggles, passive ways of silencing people. There were also a number of groups ready to help with a possible mediation process (from a feminist group in Germany, to the Black Rose federation in the US) so this possibility of support does exist if (when?) a similar situation arises. Was there a way to do this without the ensuing breakdown? I hope so, but I failed to find it, and I hope that next time people will be able to find this magical way, and be effective without going in for an all-out soul-destroying ordeal. But anarchafeminism is pretty sweet, even when it is an all-out soul-destroying ordeal, which is often.