A conversation with organizers Mariame Kaba and Shira Hassan. (Shutterstock.com)

From “Me Too” to “All of Us”: Organizing to End Sexual Violence, Without Prisons

To transform the conditions of sexual violence, we must not rely on violent systems of incarceration.

BY Sarah Jaffe

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What does it mean to actually center a survivor who is harmed? What does it mean to actually support people who have caused harm?

Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators about how to resist and build a better world.

Mariame Kaba: This is Mariame Kaba. I am an organizer and an educator. I run an organization called Project NIA, an abolitionist organization focused on ending youth incarceration. I also have a long history of doing work around ending racialized gender violence, having worked in domestic violence organizations, as well as anti-sexual assault organizations. I currently organize with a formation called Survived and Punished, which I helped to cofound. Survived and Punished works to support and uplift the stories and lives of criminalized survivors of violence. I am also a part of a collaborative called Just Practice.

Shira Hassan: My name is Shira Hassan. I am the founder of Just Practice. What Just Practice does is work to give people the space to put into practice how community accountability works. Community accountability is the idea that we can solve problems without using the police or state systems. Specifically, Just Practice looks at sexual violence and intimate partner violence without the use of social services or state systems. It is the survivors who want that. Just Practice is a community project that works to give people the opportunity to work out what that looks like and to create safe space for people to grow and make mistakes while they are learning how to hold people accountable.

My history and what brought me to Just Practice is that I spent the last 25 years working with young people in the sex trade industry through a harm reduction lens. Our work required us to solve problems without the use of police and state systems, because we are very often pushed out of those systems or criminalized if we try to act within those systems. We had to come up with other solutions. We spent years refining those ideas. Now we are trying to put them into practice in the larger world.

Sarah Jaffe: Sexual harassment and sexual assault are in the news because of a powerful, famous man. I wanted to start off with a question for both of you, who have been doing this work for a while. Do you feel like the public conversation around these people—in the media, on social media or wherever you are hearing it—has progressed at all? Does it look different right now from when you began doing this work?

Mariame: The conversation is absolutely different from when I started doing work around sexual assault. I began doing anti-sexual assault work on my college campus. That was in the late 1980s/early 1990s. The focus at that point was really on the question of date rape on campus, and the conversation revolved mostly around people drinking and then assaulting people.

I also came of age before social media. The conversation was very much limited to having talks with your friends. It wasn’t this kind of generalized conversation that is not even really a conversation. It’s more often a one-way harangue or a one-way rant or just venting. It really wasn’t like that. You had to talk to people you knew. Beyond that, you were talking with folks in a support-group setting, storytelling and divulging that you had been raped. It wasn’t this environment of compulsory confession, where you were being forced into disclosing that you were a survivor of sexual violence. It didn’t feel like you had to premise your conversation on disclosing your own experience before you could actually speak to this in a real way. I, yes indeed, am a survivor of sexual assault and violence, but it just felt different at that time. It felt somehow more intimate and less tied to media and social media.

I don’t know when the movie The Accused came out. I often see that movie in my trajectory of coming into my own and understanding sexual violence. That movie felt like a moment that made sexual violence connect much more with the larger media conversation. But, maybe I am remembering that wrong.

Shira: I totally remember when that movie came out, and it really did change the conversation. Bless Jodie Foster.

I think the conversation has definitely changed. We have the conversation much more publicly. It is a lot different from writing people’s names on the bathroom walls, which is what we were doing in the 1990s. Facebook has become the bathroom wall, in a way. I think the way we have the conversation changes. Then, I think because it is a more democratized platform, to some degree, different people are in the conversation than used to be. I do think that, by and large, the people who are having the conversation are still the same, though.

I don’t see this conversation happening in the same way about young people in the sex trade, for example. A lot of the young people I know are more street-based: The idea of sexual harassment is something that people are thinking about and angry about. Gwyneth Paltrow is not commenting on their experiences. She is commenting on actresses in Hollywood. I don’t want to diminish or demean how important those experiences of violence are. At the same time, it is a certain kind of survivor and a certain kind of violence that we are all talking about. I think that part is the same.

Sarah: One of the things about this big public conversation is that, for me, it actually feels more overwhelming. What Mariame called this culture of compulsory confession feels smothering. It just feels like there is nothing we can do. You have been doing work around this for a while and dealing directly with survivors. How do you fight that feeling that this is never going to end?

Shira: There are stories that overwhelm me and stop me in my tracks. But they are also the stories of people I love, and there is a face to the story most of the time for me. The feeling of being overwhelmed is something that I counter with action and I counter with healing. This idea of healing justice, where speaking out is part of that healing. I feel connected to that as an action, not so much connected to that as a burden. I feel like it is a blessing to be amongst survivor stories. I don’t actually feel overwhelmed by survivor stories. I feel overwhelmed by inaction around survivor stories.

Mariame: For me, it is the difference between the question of asking what I can personally do, versus what we can do. When I think of what I can do as an individual person, it feels more overwhelming. It is like, “Well, a lot of my friends are survivors. A lot of people I care and love are survivors. I can’t personally take responsibility for making all of their lives and their pain, I can’t take all of that on.”

You can’t also just take on everybody’s joy either. When I think about it in that kind of individualistic way, it can feel overwhelming. But I have worked towards a collective idea of healing and a collective idea of action and organizing. I don’t think that the issue we have right now is that we have too many organizers. I think we have too few organizers, and that can also feel super debilitating when there is a lot of handwringing or a lot of outrage, but without any direction. I think that can feel overwhelming. Since 1988, since I have been in this field, what has kept me going is that collectivity. And seeking to actually understand and to heal and to be part of that healing process with other people.

Sarah: We end up with this story of one survivor who has to come forward and file charges with the police, and then this one perpetrator will be held accountable. But that doesn’t work.

Mariame: And it doesn’t happen. I think that is another aspect of this, for people who are counting on a criminal punishment response to this. I understand feeling completely depressed and debilitated, because that system doesn’t actually know how to hold firm for survivors. It doesn’t know how to transform harm that occurs. It is a system that most people don’t access, and most survivors still never access for lots of reasons: because they don’t want to, because they have been traumatized in the past by the system, because they don’t want the person who harmed them necessarily caught up in the system. There are a million reasons. Because they don’t want to be raked over the coals themselves. Because they try to solve problems in community.

When people do access the system, they are screwed over by it, literally, in all different kinds of ways. They then feel a sense of disempowerment. I can understand that, if the way you think we are actually going to solve this problem is through that system, I can understand that sense of complete debilitating depression, because that system actually can’t do that.

Shira: Not only can’t the system do it, but I think our belief that it can is part of why we feel so betrayed. Some of us who have let go of that betrayal, because we have just stopped trying to get water from a stone. Frankly, the stone is being thrown at us. So, we are now trying to build shelter from the stone and talk to everyone who is coming inside the shelter about what we can do. That, for me, is perhaps why I feel less overwhelmed. It isn’t that I don’t feel like “Wow, we have an unbelievable amount to do,” because I do feel like that. But, I do feel like we have so many more things to try away from the system than with it. What we have begun to create is this shelter together, where we really can focus on who is inside this huddle and work with each person who is there in a more meaningful way to move forward.

Sarah: In the wake of the Weinstein revelations, one of the things that some people have been talking about is the whisper network. This is the way that women warn each other about certain men in their political circles or in their work circles. And yet, these feel inadequate too—they are not particularly accountable for the people making accusations, which is less a problem than the fact that they just end up assuming that it is still our job to avoid perpetrators.

Mariame: You can’t force somebody into being accountable for things they do. That is not possible. People have to take accountability for things that they actually do wrong. They have to decide that this is wrong. They have to say, “This is wrong and I want to be part of making some sort of amends or repairing this or not doing it again.” The question is: What in our culture allows people to do that? What are the structural things that exist? What in our culture encourages people who assault people and harm people to take responsibility? What I see is almost nothing.

That means, for example, people continue to be rewarded when they do bad things to other people or take negative action against people. We are in a situation where people try to argue over semantics. We don’t have a sense that people are prepared to say, “There is a spectrum of sexual harm. Not everything is rape. And yet, everything that feels like a violation is harm.” We just don’t have that within the larger culture that allows for people to feel like they can take responsibility and that they can be accountable.

The other thing is, we do have the threat that if you do admit that you do this, you might be caught up in the criminal punishment system. You might see the inside of a jail. So your inclination is to deny, deny, deny until the very end. There is just no incentive for you to “come clean” and be like, “I actually did this. Yes, I did rape this person. I did sexually assault them. I did harass them. I did molest them.” We are in this adversarial model where you don’t admit it, and the person who is actually being placed on trial is the survivor, to prove that you actually did this.

I understand, within that, why people feel like they have to whisper and why survivors then have to take on the weight of actually figuring out how to “bring somebody to accountability.” The incentive structure is set up this way.

Sarah: And, of course, not all survivors are women.

Mariame: Exactly. This is what is, to me, the work that we have to do. We have to make community members understand what sexual harm looks like, what it feels like, why it is unacceptable. We have to make violence unthinkable in our culture. We have to make interpersonal violence unthinkable. It has to become that. This is not about punishment, but about organizing. Most people don’t want to organize around these things. That, to me, is the nexus. That is the place that we have to work from if we are really going to transform this into something where it isn’t the survivors or the victims who have to carry the load all the time.

Shira: I want to add one thing: where the history of those lists come from. Those kinds of lists got started with people in the sex trade, in particular transgender women of color, who started creating bad date sheets. These were informal sheets, literally, that were written down and passed around through the community. We used to photocopy them, copy them down and hand them out with people’s physical descriptions. The rest of the world looks at people in the sex trade as completely disposable, but we borrow their tools all the time when we feel disposable.

I want to be sure that we recognize the history and legacy of the tools that are being used, how they are being used and why they are being used before we say that they are not working or important. Because the next thing just has to grow out of that. What is the next thing we are going to do with those lists? We went from the bathroom wall to Facebook. We went from photocopying the sheet with descriptions to passing it around online. We do have the power and capacity to think of “What next?” but we haven’t quite yet. In part, it’s because we don’t have solidarity with each other, and we don’t recognize that the spectrum of sexual violence is something that is happening to all of us. We live in rape culture, and all of this is going to keep happening to us until we can collectively figure out what we are doing here.

Sarah: You have done work around the way that survivors of this violence are often criminalized, themselves. I am thinking about black women and black trans women like Cece McDonald and Melissa Alexander. Talk about that as an understanding that has to also come into these discussions of, “What can we do?”

Mariame: In terms of Survived and Punished, we have come together nationally to put a spotlight on the fact that when you look at who is actually incarcerated and criminalized in the current criminal punishment system, in terms of women and gender nonconforming people, in particular, often these are people who are survivors of sexual violence and domestic violence prior to their criminalization and prior to their incarceration. They have been violated in the first place. They end up criminalized within the system, often for defending themselves against violence or for criminalized survival actions like having self-medicated and used drugs in order to get over some of the stress that they have been put under, being brought in under conspiracy charges for their abusive partner who coerced them into actions. Taking their kids and fleeing and then being charged with kidnapping. All sorts of survival actions.

We understand that the link between criminalization and domestic and sexual violence is inextricable and undeniable, and people find themselves caught up in the system and end up re-violated and re-traumatized within that very system. Then, you are in prison or in jail or an immigrant detention center and those institutions basically are rapists, themselves. People come in, they have to be patted down, they have strip searches, women are made to shower with male corrections officers watching them and leering. Sometimes people are raped in those particular institutions.

We have to be mindful of the fact that the very thing we say we want to end—violence—is being perpetrated by that very same system. We are trying to end violence with more violence. It just doesn’t make any sense. Our work has been to uplift the particular cases of people who have been criminalized by the system and make those connections. It is not just that we are lifting up those cases as exceptional cases, as cases that prove that this “one good person” needs to be released or this one innocent person needs to be released. We are making a broader case that everybody should be free, because almost everybody within these systems has these histories that they bring with them and these institutions are re-traumatizing institutions. They make no one better. In fact, they make everybody worse.

Recently, we organized to help free Bresha Meadows, a 14-year-old girl who killed her father in self-defense. We came together, initially, through the work that so many of us had been involved in in terms of freeing Melissa Alexander. We are part of a long tradition of defense campaigns for Joan Little and Cassandra Keaton and any number of other survivors of violence who have been criminalized for defending their lives or for actions they took in the attempt of surviving. We are trying to bring together many, many different kinds of people, groups, ideas, to leverage this in order to be able to free more people. These are freedom campaigns.

As Shira mentioned early on, who are the survivors we are actually uplifting? Who are the people? What is sexual violence? When we put people in prisons and in jails, often we are sentencing them to judicial rape because we know they are going to be assaulted when they go inside. Yet we are still putting people in that environment to be assaulted. How are you going to be an anti-rape advocate or organizer and still be pressing for people to be put into rape factories?

We have to complicate this conversation around sexual violence and see all the different ways that it is used as a form of social control across-the-board, with many different people from all different genders and all different races and all different social locations. If we understand the problem in that way, we have a better shot at actually uprooting all of the conditions that lead to this, and addressing all of the ways in which sexual violence reinforces other forms of violence. Our work over a couple of decades now has been devoted to complicating these narratives that are too easy, these really simple narratives around a perfect victim who is assaulted by an evil monster and that is the end of the story. The “Kill all rapists” conversation, which just kind of flattens what sexual violence really is, that doesn’t take into consideration the spectrum of sexual violence, therefore minimizing certain people’s experiences and making others more valid.

The last thing I want to add here is my concern over not just the “perfect victim” narrative, but also this idea that we all have the same experience because we have been raped, and we all think the same way about how to address it, and that for all of us being a rape survivor becomes your identity. We were raped. Something bad happened to us. We are trying to address that, but we are not taking on the survivor as a totalizing identity for everything we do in our lives and how that matters. I want more of those kinds of conversations to be happening in public, but somehow, we can’t have those. We can’t have complicated conversations about sexual violence because then you are accused of rape apologia or you are accused of coddling rapists. That is very, very limiting. It means that we are not going to be able to uproot and really solve the problem ultimately.

Shira: I don’t know what is going to happen with Mr. Weinstein, but I know that he has enough money to make what he wants to happen a possibility. The consequences that are going to happen to him, they may never measure up to the harm that he created. Yet we see wide-scale harm happening for people who may ultimately want to be accountable. Sexual violence is very nuanced, and the system that we have is not.

Prison is as not feminist. That is one of Mariame’s famous points. Prison isn’t feminist, because it recreates the same sexual violence and the same fear, the same kinds of oppression. It is the pin on the head of the racist and sexist system that we live in.

That does not mean, however, there should be no consequences. It means real consequences. Consequences that really matter. It means transforming the conditions that exist in the first place for this to even have happened. It is really critical for people to think the difference between punishment and consequences. Punishment often is actually not the same as transformation. Even though it feels good to wear the “Kill the rapists” t-shirt, that isn’t the thing that is actually going to get us the world we want to live in.

Mariame: I also want to talk a little bit about what is hopeful about what is happening in the world around these issues. Shira and I just spent three and a half days in Chicago with 50 people from around the country doing trainings and facilitating discussion and dialogue about how we do community accountability to address sexual harm and interpersonal violence. These folks came together from all around the country and took that much time out of their day, because we understand this as a moment of opportunity for something different. A lot of people are talking now, and there is much more awareness around the fact that the prison-industrial-complex has churned communities and people through a meat grinder, devastating people. Yet, people don’t feel safer. People don’t feel as though violence is “curbed” in any way.

We have to build up the skills of being able to ask questions like: What does it mean to actually center a survivor who is harmed? What does it mean to actually support people who have caused harm? What does it mean to take responsibility for saying, “We refuse in our community to condone when this happens”? One of the things that is so important is that harm causes wounds that necessitate healing. That is what so many people are looking for—a way to begin to heal. How are we going to create in our communities, spaces that allow people real opportunity to heal?

Again, this will not necessarily be accomplished through compulsory confession in a public way. But, how do we hold that people who have been harmed deserve an opportunity for that harm to be addressed in a real way? Often, that is all people want: a real acknowledgement that, “I was hurt. Somebody did it. I want them to know that they did it. I want to see that they have some remorse for having done it and I want them to start a process by which they will ensure to themselves, at least, and be accountable to their community for not doing it again. That is what I am trying to get as a survivor.” I think there is hope in that.

People are doing this work all around the country. People want to be able to engage this. Maybe if more of us do this, maybe we will be talking in 20 years about something totally different, a landscape that is totally different, a way that people start taking accountability for actions that they do that are harmful to other people in a totally different way.

Shira: I think about the Malcolm X quote all the time, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there's no progress. If you pull it all the way out that's not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made.” What we are doing right now, that we are all actively committed to, is figuring out not only how to heal the wound, but how to transform the conditions we are living in. The premise of the community accountability weekend that we spent together was not only around skill transfer, but about reclaiming our imaginations. How do we reclaim our imagination from what the prison-industrial-complex has forced us into thinking are the only solutions that we have? How do we reclaim our imaginations from how capitalism and oppression has divided us? 

Sarah Jaffe is a former staff writer at In These Times and author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kelley called “The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

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