Beth Richie on how anti-violence activism taught her to become a prison abolitionist
This post originally appeared on Feminist Wire and was written by Dr. Beth Richie. Dr. Richie is engaged in several research projects designed to explore the relationship between violence against women in low-income African American communities and violence. For more information go to http://www.uic.edu/depts/wsweb/people/faculty/richie.
By: Dr. Beth Richie
Sometimes we learn our most profound political lessons in the contours of our everyday activism. This is certainly the case for me as I recount my journey as a Black feminist activist working to end gender violence for the past 20 years, during which the United States was engaged in building itself up as the world’s leading prison nation. My journey began in Harlem, the renowned community in New York City that was at the center of struggles for racial and economic justice. The on-the-ground work at the time included organizing for material changes (safe and affordable housing, better schools, accessible health care, jobs that offered a future, political representation, neighborhood businesses that support the local economy, and the end to growing expansion of the prison industrial complex). The organizing work was sustained by rhetoric about the “liberation of our people” and the vision of what our community would look like if we could sustain grassroots activism in the service of broad-based social change.
As many Black and other feminists of color will remember, the promise of liberation within racial justice formations was critically hampered by the lack of an analysis of how gender oppression figured into the work. Indeed, despite our demands that the analysis include: 1) how women experience injustice (like poverty or incarceration) in particular ways 2) that the particular oppression that women suffer (like sexual assault by individuals or state agencies) be included into the activist agenda and 3) that women’s leadership be recognized and supported as critical to political advancement, we were disappointed.
This disappointment was part of what propelled me to immerse myself in the anti-violence movement against rape, battering, sexual harassment, emotional abuse, and economic exploitation of women and the non-gender conforming. These activist organizations provided a temporary relief, and my commitment to feminist ideas was rejuvenated. But the respite provided by local and national anti-violence organizations was brief; very quickly I became aware of the political limitations that a gender-essentialized notion of violence held for a truly transformative agenda related to women of color. Indeed, substituting a gender analysis that did not include a very well articulated position regarding racial or class hierarchy was as much a roadblock as a racial justice project that does not include gender. In particular, an analysis of gender oppression that did not include state violence excluded a large part of the abuses that Black and other women of color experienced because of their position as racialized bodies in a heteropatrichal society. A second major disappointment.
The ongoing work of trying to find the political crossroads that link racial and economic justice with an analysis of gender oppression became more difficult in the 1980s and 1990’s when the United States deepened its commitment to building itself up as a prison nation. The complications looked something like this. First, both the public and private sector committed more and more resources to the prison industrial complex while at the same time elite leaders advanced an ideological campaign to frame public “risk” in racialized terms. Second, neoliberal policy decisions lead to the divestment of economic resources from already disadvantaged communities who suffer deepening degrees of material and political liabilities that turned social problems into “crimes”. Third, political organizing strategies used by both anti-violence organizations and racial justice groups got coopted by a “not-for-profit/social service” mentality that served as a distraction from the root causes of structural inequality and the violence that results from it. Groups organized to resist racialized oppression or class exploitation or gender violence orother monolithic formulations, treating them as separate issues. And they lost focus on how the state colludes to construct a hierarchy of oppression that cannot be agreed upon or changed.
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