Thursday, 13 March 2014

Rainbow Gathering... here we go...

Little bit before I start: this blog post is only in reference to the Australian Rainbow Gathering from January 31st - March 1st. I am fully aware that there have been many, many other Rainbow Gatherings, and there is massive diversity in what a Rainbow Gathering can be.

Looking for another escape from the fetid, drunken, shrieking carnage of Sydney, I decided to go on my second trip to Tasmania. Tasmania is an impossibly stunning little island, brimming with pristine wilderness, easy to hitch around, and is host to everything from beaches to rainforests, from craggy cliffs to dizzyingly high mountains. It was also a perfect setting for my priorities of having some quiet time and read some books 1. Holding my own holiday to ransom, I had some demands: I wanted to be left alone but not completely isolated from company. I wanted somewhere calm. I wanted to be away from alcohol for a bit. And I didn't want to spend much money.

So I went to the first Australian Rainbow Gathering of 2014.

For the uninitiated: Rainbow Gathering began in Colorado in 1972 and inspired by a Native American prophecy of "one rainbow tribe" rising from a ravaged earth, the Rainbow Gathering has since exploded into an international phenomenon, with many gatherings occurring frequently all over the world. Temporary intentional communities based on non hierarchical collectivity and anti-commerce, organisers take over land in order to create a space for "spiritual and personal growth" and "healing" 2.

It's for hippies, basically.

Now, I enjoy a good pair of Thai fisherman's pants and the occasional chunk of yoga, but I also have a tendency for pre-morning coffee nihilism and post-morning coffee sarcasm. And I also listen to music that features people screaming about things that annoy them over aggressive guitars. Having known many people who've been to Rainbow Gatherings, I've always presumed them to be dens of remorseless optimism. In terms of attitude, Rainbow and I are definitely not good bedfellows. But I find it a bit difficult to be completely down on a space which is anti-capitalistic, anti-hierarchical and collectively organised. It is a space where people with broadly similar attitudes can get together without being made to feel like lonely freaks. I think back to all the punk gigs I've attended and organised, and how they provide exactly the same function. And so, loaded with elitist anti-hippy prejudice and genuine curiosity, I hitched into the Tasmanian bush for my first Rainbow Gathering.

The site was beautiful. A huge open grassy space, bordered by bush and a highly swimmable river. The blazing Tasmanian sunshine almost immediately burning my stupid Anglo skin. A woman came up to me and asks if I've just arrived. I said yes. She joyfully greeted me with "Welcome home!" and gave me a hug. This, it turns out, is the traditional Rainbow Gathering welcoming. There are tons of hugs, snuggles and cuddles happening all the time. And while my inner Thai fisherman pant-wearer goes "awww", my inner cynical bastard just rolls his eyes at what looks like a bunch of sexy backpackers 4 trying to fuck each other. My cynicism was confirmed in part by overhearing a few conversations between seperate groups of men and women, where the main topic was who they wanted to fuck. This dynamic isn't exactly surprising, but a huge drawback to open community of Rainbow is that it aids the replication of hetero-normative environment with standard gender binaries. Rainbow's presumed intent is to create a space away from all the shithouse stuff that happens in the world. In this aspect, it fails. I'm not accusing Rainbow of bigotry. What I am saying is any space will preserve the status quo if there is no active challenge to it, the result being that, potentially, people who identify as queer or trans may not feel welcome. During a meeting, one guy stood up in front of a number of people and requested "ten or twelve blokes" to help carry some solar panels. As far as I'm aware, I was the only person who raised the point that "women can carry things too". This was subsequently ignored. But then, I didn't continue with the complaint either, mainly because I genuinely felt that everyone would think I was making a fuss about nothing. Me and my stupid "women can do stuff too" views.

Where this Rainbow succeeded was in creating a peaceful atmosphere, and fostering a culture that discourages drug use. While there was tobacco, alcohol and other drugs on site, it was (except for tobacco), never overtly present. One person held a discussion group on dealing with substance addiction.  This is an often marginalised issue in radical communities. I have a friend who is in drug and alcohol recovery. She is a part of the anarchist community and a punk fan, and due to the circles she mixes in she is almost constantly in the presence of intoxicating substances. Her staunchness and courage humble me. At Rainbow, the discouragement of intoxication demands respect, and should be considered by other radical spaces. There is nothing radical about getting fucked up. There is everything radical about maintaining focus and encouraging it in others.

The self-organisation aspect of Rainbow is also hugely impressive. A seed camp - starting weeks before the official start date - arrive to set everything up. This includes shitpits, teepees and even a whole kitchen structure. Water comes from the river to taps via solar-powered pumps. There are several communal firepits. By the time I've arrived, there's a whole system is operation. Cooking is done collectively for breakfast and dinner. Frequent pass-it-on shouts of "HELP IN THE KITCHEN!" are heard, and people respond, chopping wood for the fire, prepping food and playing guitar to stave off the tedium of chopping 150 people's worth of the same vegetable. Thankfully, there were a number of very talented guitarists, where as I initially assumed the Rainbow soundtrack would be an endless, moping rendition of Hallelujah 5.

The centrepiece of each day is perhaps the food circle. Everyone gathers around the sacred fire (the fire lit at the beginning and kept constantly lit throughout the month-long Gathering. It's a Native American and Indigenous Australian tradition. More on this kind of thing in a bit), joins hands and sings songs. The food circle can be massive - it was pretty big at 150 people. I've heard tale of good circles with thousands of people in them. Boggles the mind. After the songs, everyone does a bow to the ground (this was never really explained, so I used it as an excuse for a decent stretch), then sits down to wait to be served their food. Then volunteer servers come dishing out the food, and everyone settles in.

I'm a huge fan of communal eating. Less a fan of cultural appropriation. There are specific Rainbow songs. Going through the song list at Rainbow's unofficial website, some are described as "Christian-orientated". In some of the songs, there were references to "the Lord", which baffled me, since this was not a Christian camp. However, Rainbow isn't fussy about where songs come from. They are taken or directly influenced by a huge variety of cultures: Rastafarianism, Native American, Jewish, Sanskrit... they even have a Beatles modification in there.

I'm not sure where most of the songs at this Gathering were from, but mashing up a load of different belief systems into the same singalong is just kind of weird to me. I guess, to the Rainbow Family, the origins of these songs, or even having consistency in what they sing about, doesn't really matter. What matters is that everyone is singing together and being happy. But seeming indifference to themes and origins threatens to rip certain songs from their roots. This Rainbow Gathering, for all its veneer of "openness", was almost exclusively made up of people from relatively privileged backgrounds. So if, say, a Native American chant is used, the Rainbow Gathering threatens to co-opt a song from a decimated culture. This process of co-option contributes to the further silencing and marginalisation of oppressed groups. There is potential for communities like Rainbow Gathering to be a factor in the mechanics of oppression. 6

Even more to the point, there was no acknowledgement at this Gathering of being on Aboriginal land. While in past Australian Rainbow Gatherings links have been established with Aboriginal people, on this one it clearly slipped through the net. Some other people I spoke to were also disappointed with this. I made a reference before performing a poem at one of the cabaret nights, but I wish I'd made more of a point of it. While the acknowledgement is often tokenistic  etiquette, it is an important one. Sometimes you have to acknowledge that your awesome time is occurring on blood-soaked, stolen land, especially when your "tribe" is inspired by other indigenous cultures. Sorry for killing your buzz and everything.

This, and the Rainbow rituals generally, can be a little intimidating at first. Here's a huge group of people who all seem to know the whole shebang. They know all the words to all the songs. They even know some dance moves. All the social groups seem so tight. Arriving on my own, having never been to a Gathering before, was initially a little confronting and slightly isolating. However, after a few days I got used to the huge spectacle, and began to be more open to chatting with people. Most were very open, lovely and generous. This is another positive aspect of the Rainbow Gathering - it really does foster an openness in people which struggles in a more atomised environment. There was even a woman there who's partner in the UK is best friends with the leader singer of one of my favourite punk bands. I got to have chats with some people who'd visited Hackney and, like myself, had squatted there. I got to learn how to make a decent pot of chai. Away from the main spectacle of Rainbow, there were many camps into the bush to go and relax and chat the afternoon away. Even though politically Rainbow irks me, I found these times particularly gratifying - just time spent quietly, practising my dreadful guitar playing, practising my non-existent Spanish, practising my mediocre juggling,  and swimming. I realised that, most of the time whilst travelling, I don't get (or make) very much time for just myself. Was very pleasant to rediscover my own company, even though I find myself quite irritating at times. 7

Like I say, it's difficult to be completely down about it all. But while it provided what I personally required from my time away, there is a bigger picture to consider. The problems I have with Rainbow are mainly anchored in its assumptions. The Rainbow Family seem to assume that because you have entered a Rainbow Gathering, nothing more needs to be challenged. Whereas I would argue that not organising structures to constantly challenge oppressive behaviours, wherever you are, mean that oppressive behaviours will doubtlessly - and did - rise to the surface. If all a community does is replicate the fucked up things in our society, how is it going to bring about any meaningful change? It assumes it is a tribe unto itself, implying that it is like an Indigenous tribe. If it is one, it is not the same as an Indigenous tribe. The Rainbow Gathering is not under attack from colonising forces, nor are the individuals who attend. How can this tension be addressed? How can we move forward to creating and defending spaces liberated of commerce? I don't claim to know the answers, these are huge questions. But I firmly believe if your belief system does not address the material effects it has on the world, and if it does not reflect on or challenge itself, then it will remain adrift from the real world. If that's what you want - fine. Just don't be surprised when grumpy, self-righteous punks write passive aggressive blogs about it.

1. My cheery holiday reads were Richard Adams' rabbity bloodbath Watership Down and John Kersey's nightmarish account of post-nuclear wasteland Horishima.

2. Rainbow Family Australia website

3. The best joke I heard at the Gathering: "What kind of tobacco does a hippy smoke? Your tobacco".  

4. There really weren't that many Australians there. The Gathering was mostly comprised of backpackers. 

5. This happened too. Why do people constantly insist on covering this song? Isn't everyone bored of it by now? There's tons of other great songs out there that not ever twat covers. And why, when people do it, does everyone listening go into a trance, quietly mumbling along, staring at their shoes or wistfully into the distance? Why, WHY? 

6. I'm less bothered about The Beatles songs.

7. Irritating habits include: being too loud, constantly talking regardless of whether my opinion is needed/valid, making drinks for myself to sit down with and finishing them on the way to where I'm sitting down, eating too quickly etc.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

A true fable on material possession...

This story is, like, totally true. Apart from all the bits where I've tried to squeeze real life experience from memory and then translate it into useful, but artificial, medium of written language. But anywho...

I used to spend loads of money. Throughout university, throughout most of twenties, I spent well beyond my means. Socialising (i.e.. drinking heavily) can be pretty expensive. Due to my cultural interests, I collated tons of awesome films to show off. I hoarded albums from all genres to fit my multitude moods. I coveted my books on all subjects, many I had owned since I was a teenager. Although never much of a collector, after a while I had what is known amongst sociologists as "a shitload of stuff".

In 2011, after many failed attempts at squatting, I finally bit the bullet moved into a squat in Dalston, East London. I didn't want to cart my cornucopia of possessions through the ever-changing landscape of squatworld, so I took advantage of my friend's massive basement and stored everything there, apart from a few essentials. All fine, all dandy. And off I trotted.

Six months later. Helping run a squatted social centre and working part-time in a youth club, I was hardly left wanting for things to do.  I was kept constantly occupied by the lovely and/or unhinged people I lived with. There was a constant flow of stuff that needed doing. The lifestyle, whilst rough around the edges, was plentiful in personal fulfilment. I didn't need the possessions in the basement, so I'd - a little selfishly - put off doing anything with them. Even more selfishly, I also didn't give a thought to share them. I guess unconsciously, I wanted the best of both worlds - to not utilise my possessions, but also still retain power of them. Not a great attitude when you're claiming an anti-private property position and squatting.

(Now, I'm not believer in God, destiny, signs, omens, portents or any of that cow-pat. But if was, I would probably introduce the next bit of the story with something like: "and then fate came around to teach me a lesson". However, since I have a belief system based on evidence, I'll say something like: "and then there was a random, chance occurrence that made me rethink my political position on such issues as property and possession" instead.)

I was working at the youth club one sunny afternoon. If memory serves, I was probably doing something really vital to the future of young Britain such as eat falafal/biscuits, drink tea or listen to punk rock. In the midst of this important work, I get a phone call from the friend in who's basement my possessions were festering.

The conversation goes something like this:

Me: Alright mate?

Him: Alright.

Me: How's it going?

Him (slightly distractedly): Err.. yeah, alright.


Me: What's up?

Him: Well, there's been a flood.

Me: Okay...

Him: Outside the house. A waterpipe burst. The whole street's flooded.

Me: Shit!

Him: Yeah... er... the basement's flooded too.

Me: Oh right.

Him: Yeah, all your stuff... it's gone.

Me: There was no chance of getting it?

Him: Basement filled up in seconds.

Me: Fuck.

Him: Yeah. Sorry mate.

Me: Oh, er, no worries... there was nothing you could do.

Him: Yeah... anyway, pop over later.

Me: Yeah, alright.

I hung up. A weird feeling came over me. I went in and told my boss. He seemed to be as horrified as I should've been. My head felt like a massive piece of fluff. It was like I should be feeling something but just couldn't. He sent me a photo of a car outside his house, up to its windows in water.

I went round to my friend's house that day. I picked through the soggy, drowned mess. There were a few things I was upset at being destroyed - obscure punk records, little known/unread books... but for the most part I just didn't give a shit. Over the time I'd been away from my possession, it had become abundantly clear just how little a part they played in my actual life.

I still see the attraction of having a huge collection of stuff. Art, tools, whatever... these are very, very great things indeed. But it is clear that this can easily lead to an unhealthy attachment to material possessions. I was owning this stuff simply for the satisfaction of owning it. If we arranged our social dynamics more equally and openly, then maybe we could utilise our possessions to greater effect. Wouldn't this be more mutually beneficial? Wouldn't it be more fun? Fuck the material value - what about the social value of communal ownership? In our own little ways, we can practice these things in our day to day lives. Sounds way healthier to me than letting your stuff rot in a mate's basement. *

* unreserved apologies and thanks to my friends who helped support my ludicrous lifestyle choices.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Filthy, irresponsible hippie scum

One of the most common criticisms anarchists face is being considered "irresponsible". This is presumably because anarchists (and activists or counter culture peeps in general) are perceived as workshy rich kids who whittle away their trust funds on ketamine and young person's electronic music. We are perceived as lazy drop outs, organising protests just to kick off for no reason. We are said to be parasitic scum.

The accusation of "irresponsibility" or "laziness" makes my blood boil. Obviously, it relies on a ludicrous stereotype of the anarchist, ignoring the tireless organising many anarchists, often within their workplaces. Because, y'know, some of us work. We are forced to, after all. (Not that there's anything wrong with wishing to avoid the daily authoritarian hell of the workplace if you can...) Wanna talk hard work? Any activist will recount horror stories of the punishing swamps of tedium they've had to wade through whilst organising demonstrations, fundraisers, direct action, strikes and so on. Many do this around studies or full time jobs. It is time consuming. It requires initiative, resourcefulness, and sheer bloody mindedness. It can be emotionally and physically draining. And, particularly within anarchist structures, you cannot palm the responsibility on to an authority figure. You are the organisation.

Anarchism does not reject responsibility. We envision total responsibility over our lives and communities. We want the freedom to shape our present and future how we wish, and not have it shaped for us by capitalist, State or hierarchical agendas. You call us "irresponsible"? The accusation can be fired back ten-fold. I cannot think of anything less responsible than voluntarily - even happily - offering up portions of your time on this Earth to a boss, or control over your existence to politicians. Because that is exactly what the structure does. It demands that you relinquish your autonomy. Anarchism seeks to take it back.

Any resistance to this state of affairs is the most responsible thing a human being can do.

Friday, 29 November 2013

On the twaddle of personal liberation

"Liberation is not an insular experience; it occurs in conjunction with other human beings" - Peggy Kornegger - Anarchism: The Feminist Connection

I hear the concept of "personal liberation" being bandied around all the time in radical circles. This is expressed in several different, but equally vague ways. Sometimes the term "shifting consciousness" will be used. A friend's zine once put it this way: "the revolution won't happen in the streets, but in our hearts". It's never really made clear constitutes "consciousness" or "hearts", because they are nebulous phrases intended to have emotional, rather than rational impact.

But regardless of muddy lexicons, what is it supposed to mean? In anarchist terms, it seems prioritise a change in individual perspective over structural changes. Indeed, individual perspectives and structural changes are sometimes conflated - as if the State and capitalism only exist in our minds, and changing our minds will make it disappear. It seems to require either a disengagement from these systems, ridding of your systemic conditioning, or both.

We need to be perfectly clear: no one can fully liberate themselves, as an individual, from capitalism or the State, or its conditioning. You will still be dependent on those systems in some form, even if it just living off the waste of that system. Besides, even if you did have the choice, what kind of an ethical decision would that be? Leaving everyone else in the shit whilst you and your mates frollick around getting your food out of bins? I am certainly not opposed to the freegan lifestyle, but it has its limits - it is not a sustainable way of liberating everyone. Many people are more embedded in these systems, having families to support and so forth. Liberation is pretty meaningless if everyone's not invited to the party. It is the inescapable totality of capitalism that is so horrendous. The fight is against that totality - not our own little escape route.

Besides, an emphasis on personal liberation has an underlying implication that other, unluckier, less well educated people aren't aware of their oppression. It implies that others need to be "awakened" in some sense from those who are already "enlightened". This is arrogant, and obviously bollocks. Not every worker (or every activist, for that matter) is aware of the finer points of capitalist theory, or their "consciousness". But every worker knows that their boss will cut their job in favour of profits. Every worker is fully aware of how their circumstances work against them. No worker can personally liberate themselves out of this situation. They have to organise collectively, based on their shared experience, and attack the material conditions that operate against them. Everyone victimised by oppression, and excluded from the wealth that is obviously abundant in the world, knows they are victimised by a system that survives on inequality. Individuals may have differing perspectives on how this should be corrected, but they are aware that they are being fucked over.

And this is where anarchists come in. We need to spread propaganda, not because it enlightens anyone, but because it helps contextualise an oppression that people are already aware of. While an overview of anarchist theory is probably necessary, it doesn't have to be academic. I love reading up on history and politics, but a nerdfest circle jerk over an A3 blow up of Kropotkin's face isn't going to change the world. Simply expressed ideas at the right time just might.

"Personal liberation" means nothing. It means nothing because the individual is nothing without communities around to nourish it. It is brought up in the environments of the world. They are completely intertwined. And, likewise, total freedom depends on our focus on our shared enemies, rather than billions of individual struggles.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Utopias? I shit 'em...

"We don't have to worry about the boredom of utopia - we shan't get there." - Colin Ward, Anarchy In Action

We ramble rhapsodies for a future world. We explain, as thinkers did over a hundred years ago, how we do not need governments. We explain that our communities would be better off looking after their own affairs. We explain that a world based on free association and mutual aid is more desirable than one where we compete and conflict. The listener, who may be sympathetic, still smiles ruefully and shakes their head. They say that it's all well and good, but it's our ideas are too far fetched. They say we demand a perfect world. They say we demand utopia.

Anarchism, for me, does not reach for a utopia. An anarchist society simply lays down social and economic conditions in which individuals and communities will be happiest, most productive and most creative. These fundamental ideas (as covered comprehensively in Colin Ward's above quoted book) are naturally apparent in society. When relieved of their compulsory functions as workers, consumers and/or subjects of government, people practice anarchistic ideas without realising it. We all know people who garden, write, sew, mend, paint for hours outside of their jobs or studies. And they are willing to share these skills without expecting anything in return. They do this because it is a good within itself - it is emotionally healthy, and strengthens communities. Our social groupings are based on non-compulsory free association, as are clubs centred on special interests. They don't threaten arrest or the sack if you don't turn up. They presume, correctly, that individuals are happier making free choices.

And then there's the letter of the law, the government's imposed boundaries and limitations on our behaviour. I do not know a single person who is fully devoted to obeying the law. This isn't just anarchist circles, it's everyone. Everyone breaks laws, usually if a) it doesn't hurt anyone and b) they can get away with it. We do not feel naturally attached to the State's law, but we do feel naturally attached to unwritten social laws. It isn't because of law that we don't indiscriminately stab people, it's because we know, deep down, it's really unpleasant 1. Essentially, when possible, we will disregard the idea that a government can order us about.

These are not images from a utopia. This is how we behave when we are free from hierarchy and coercion, even if it's only for a short time. The egalitarian mindset necessary to work within an anarchist society is already within us.

But why would we even want to aim for a utopia? Why would want a world where everyone agrees and lives in perfect balance? It sounds so boring. No differences, no discussion, no changes... utopia is the death knell to our development. Fortunately, nothing is developing exponentially to perfection, and nor should it. The world is constantly changing, tumbling through social and natural evolution. We, similarly, are in a constant state of change. We are inspired by new ideas and new environments. The more we experience, the more our perspectives shift and broaden. This inevitably creates tensions, but these tensions are not to be avoided as aberrations. They are to be confronted in order to produce meaningful change, whether that be personal, social or global.

You may be thinking that this is hippy bullshit. You may be right. But the point stands: a utopia is a pointless thing to strive for. I reject the notion that I am searching for one. I want to see a society where people and communities are unfettered in their free development, and only bound by natural laws and communality. It is the current system of governments and capitalism that is annihilating this process of free change. It is destroying and demeaning us all. Anarchists want to release the world from these shackles and see where we end up. If we don't focus on spreading discontent with our horrendous situation, then we are going to end up in a very unpleasant place indeed.

1. This is, of course, when individuals do not reproduce their conditioning from an inherently violent society, which is all too inevitable. When this occurs, terrible things can happen - everything from prejudice to murder. I do not mean to disregard the awful things that happen in the world, I am merely demonstrating that when relieved of this, people are generally caring and interested in helping themselves and others.

Monday, 4 November 2013

What can men do to combat rape culture?

TRIGGER WARNING: This article talks about issues which may be triggering to those who have been affected by rape.

Some disclaimers before we begin:
  • I use the term "man" as perpetrator and "woman" for convenience as these are the most common forms of rape. I certainly do not mean to say the gender roles cannot be reversed, nor do I wish to exclude trans, gender queer or queer people from the topic as either perpetrators or survivors.
  • I write from the perspective as a straight, cis-gendered man as this is the only perspective I can give clarity to. I do not wish to attempt to account for other perspectives This article is mainly aimed at other cis-gendered men as we are the the most likely to rape. But if the advice is considered useful, I fully encourage those who are not cis-gendered men to take the advice.
  • I'm not claiming to be an authority on rape or rape culture. These are just thoughts I've had over the past few months whilst considering the topic. I hope in some way they will inspire thought, debate and action, and contribute to the struggle against power structures exist everywhere. Corrections, thoughts and comments are welcomed!

Rape culture is a perspective I've only recently been exposed to. Previously, I was aware that rape is treated insincerely by police and courts. I was aware that it was treated unrealistically by mainstream media. And I was aware that it was more frighteningly domestic and normalised than most people would believe. Considering rape culture, though? I didn't fully understand. What does it mean to have a culture centred on rape? Further reading and discussion has shed some light, but I'm still far from having a full grasp.1

Rape culture is the term used to define a society which not only misunderstands and misrepresents rape, but also encourages it and excuses it. Rape culture is the product of a society that harbours an irrational hatred of women, a hatred which has threaded itself throughout history in infinite forms. A binary is established and exploited: if women are perceived as lesser than men, then society must assure that lesser place for them. If this is achieved by the twisting and denigration of female sexuality, then they will become sex objects. To concrete this oppression, men are required to become active participants in this process. Women become viewed as something men are sexually entitled to. They become rape objects. And this, by my understanding, is rape culture: the disempowerment, oppression and silencing of women through sexual coercive and violence.

When we use the word "rape", there's a ready-made image that prickles our consciousness: the stranger in the shadows of the grimy nightclub with his bottle of Rohypnol, the knife-wielding creep waiting for his prey in the alleyway. Doubtless, these people exist in some form or other. But an awareness of rape culture obliterates these images. Rape is more than random sexual attacks, and rapists are more than strangers. Rape can, and does, occur in any situation it can, slithering its ugly way into the very fabric of our every day relations. It is in the long-term partner assuming silence is consent. It is in the seemingly gentle luring of a drunk friend into bed. Submission has many faces.

This makes all men potential rapists. If you are a man and have a sexual history, the chances are high you have raped. I do not exclude myself from this. Every time coercion is used, every time refusal is ignored or manipulated, rape has occurred. Whether through purposefully intoxicating someone, whether through verbal persuasion or physical dominance, or the millions of other forms we manifest rape as, it is something men are conditioned to do. Our natural sexual urges have been fucked with. They have been warped by a societal structure that defines itself by competition for power and dominance. In this combative landscape, rape becomes a weapon.2

Distressingly, it is so embedded in our minds, so normalised, that tackling it becomes a huge problem. But tackle it we must. But how do we do this? 

The first thing to do would be to increase our awareness. Whilst I personally loathe "raising awareness" as an end result, it is a necessary first step to tackling a problem. Read up on rape culture, its manifestations, its power and its workings. Talk to female friends, colleagues, relations about how are they are treated by a male-dominated society. A comment by a friend years ago first got me thinking of the topic. She was describing her constant harassment by men. This occurred whenever she went anywhere. In exasperation, she said: “It's all the time”. This is a key point: women are in the constant shadow of sexual objectification and rape, and, because of this, will have the most insightful comments and observations. Take their comments and recommendations about male behaviour very seriously, even if you do not immediately agree with them.

To struggle against rape (and any) conditioning requires intensive self-reflection. We must critically examine our sexual histories, whether in a relationship or not. We must reflect on our sexual behaviour, in and out of relationships. We must reflect on our thought processes, words and actions. How much do we take comfort from the image of the monster rapist, whilst secretly knowing that "monster" is inside all of us?

I must emphasise that this is not a lone struggle. We all suffer from rape culture conditioning. Organise group discussions regarding rape culture. Have cis-gendered male-only discussions as well.3 Help create independent systems where rape survivors and perpetrators can seek support, help and healing. Systems of oppression rely on us being fragmented and atomised. To combat this, it is essential to communicate with each other, to discuss, to analyse, to share. To know - not to feel, to know - you're not alone in your isolation is a truly liberating experience.

I've used the word struggle throughout for good reason, because it is exactly that. No meaningful change will occur without a struggle, and while there is plenty to struggle against in the outside world, we often neglect our internal conflicts. We must struggle against rape culture at the risk of discomfort and upset, and at the risk of admitting that we may be guilty of atrocious, grotesque behaviour.

To combat rape culture effectively, we need to be emotionally strong and brutally honest with ourselves. And we can only achieve that if we work together.

1. maybe, as a straight, white cis-gendered male, I will never be able to have a full grasp, as my life will never be lived with the constant threat of rape in the background.

2. A weapon against women and men. Whilst rape of men is in the minority, it is, like rape against women, underreported.  In both cases, while a rape is committed by a male against another, it is still the product of misogyny - the aim is to denigrate the survivor through feminising them. There are also reports of women taking advantage of men, which I would still consider it a reproduction of behaviour patterns created by patriarchy.

3. I feel this is necessary. Given the binaries we have been born and forced into, I personally would not feel comfortable discussing many aspects of how rape culture affects me in front of women. Male-only groups are necessary for the same reason female-only groups are: so there can be an open and frank discussion about one's experience within that enforced gender.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

In Defence of ACAB

    ACAB is an acronym that has been shouted, spraypainted, tattooed and banner-dropped the world over. In case you're not in the know, it stands for All Coppers Are Bastards - a phrase which concisely states a disdain for police, whatever those reasons may be. It is a phrase not without its detractors, which have ranged from ridiculous to rather reasonable. 

In the former camp: After a man was filmed being beaten by police at 2013's Mardis Gras in Sydney, an anti-police brutality march was organised. While some friends and I held a banner that bore the infamous acronym, a man approached me and angrily asked: "So if a gay person beat someone up, would all gays be bastards then?" It was an interesting attempt to conflate anti-police attitudes with homophobia, which I deflected by stating: "Being gay isn't a systematically oppressive job".

     In the latter camp, where people aren't pumped full of inarticulate rage, I would hazard that most would not deny some level of corruption or bastardry within the police force. But they would balance this with something along the lines of: "I know there's a few bad apples, but we need police to protect us and all up, they do a good job. Not all coppers are bastards".

     It is the generalisation - the all, in ACAB - that most take issue with. This is appealing, as it sounds like the most sober and level-headed analysis. Yes, ACAB is obnoxious. It's reductive. And definitely a little bit naughty. But to say it's wrong is to deny it a rationale that is definitely worth exploring.

     I'll kick off with the positives (don't worry, it won't last long). Obviously, police can be lovely individuals. Everyone's met nice cops. I have family friends who are police. In my job as a youth worker, I have liaised with police who I consider genuinely concerned with the local community. I'm sure police officers love their kids, love their partners, feed their goldfish on time and do the washing up.

     So it is unfortunate that the individual personality of a police officer has little bearing on their behaviour within the institution. Individuality is not something that is encouraged, as it would betray the uniform mindset necessary to impose a uniform system of law. To achieve this, orders are obeyed within a regimented hierarchy. This leads to a complete relinquishment of  individual conscience in favour of the collective power of the police force. "I'm just doing my job"... "I'm just following orders"... these are the defensive refrains that police use repeatedly when challenged.

     To compound this counter-rationality, strict internal codes are in place. Social dynamics and future job prospects are wholly defined by a police officer's loyalty to these codes. They must support (or, at least, not vocally oppose) the institution's behaviour. I met a police officer socially once, and her description of the social pressures, mutual protection and favour dealing sounded horrific. To put it bluntly, you have to be part of the gang.

     As a result, every police officer protects police brutality and corruption. It is not just a few individuals - the "bad apples" - but an intrinsic part of being a police officer. This is regardless of their position in the force. Whilst kettled in a protest in London, a friend of mine struck up conversation with a police officer. The latter expressed his annoyance at the illegality of police unions in the UK, saying he would definitely join a union if he could. My friend is a veteran with worker's rights, and was impressed with the attitude of who he called a "lefty copper". But what happened after that? The terrifyingly robotic riot squad lined up and, with systematic viciousness, violently dispersed the protesters. Do you think "lefty copper" stood against this violence? Of course he didn't. Individual conscience and decision-making is not required of police - "lefty" or otherwise. He obeyed his orders and protected the perpetration of police violence, as all police do.

     When a police officer commits murder or assault on duty, they are shielded from the law by a whole institution which is biased towards protecting police. What happened to the police who shot and killed Jean Charles De Menesez in London in 2007, believing the Brazilian electrician to be an Al-Qaeda terrorist? 1. What happened to the officer who batoned Ian Tomlinson to his death at the G20 protests in London in 2009? 2. What happened to the officers who shot and killed Mark Duggan in 2011, and purposefully obfuscated the events surrounding his death? 3. Nothing. A inquiry may be set up to publicly parade the pantomime of democracy. But after these reach vague conclusions and the furor has died down, relatives and communities are left with nothing but powerless grief. And this is just in the UK. I could go into the thousands of extrajudicial killings committed by Thai police in the 2003 War on Drugs. Or the various examples of police violence that the the Occupy movement suffered the world over. Or the current connections between police and militant fascist groups in Greece. Or, or, or, or...

     It's a well worn question, but no less valid: what would happen to you if you committed any of these acts? If you pumped seven bullets into an innocent man's head believing he was terrorist about to conduct a suicide bombing, how would the law respond to you? Why is police violence treated differently? It is because the law is not for police to abide by, it is for them to enforce. Laws are a facade of the guarantee of individual protection. The reality is that government structures break their own laws on a daily basis, and will attack you if they perceive you as a threat to their social control. The hypocrisy is there, every moment, for all to see. Just ask Chelsea Manning.

      Because of their preoccupation with preserving the status quo, police target those they consider the greatest challenge to it (whether in reality they are actually a challenge or not). Talk to people in ethnic, cultural or religious minorities. Talk to queers and trans people. Talk to striking workers and political radicals of all stripes.  Talk to people from poor communities, where police do little to alleviate poverty but much to punish those who are victims of it. These people will have  frequent contact with police, and will have stories of harassment, abuse, brutality, false arrests, trumped up charges and, sometimes, murder.

     A female friend of mine called the police to report a sexual harassment, and was made to feel as if she had provoked it. Another friend of mine went to the police to report an assault, and the police attempted to pressure him into stating that the perpetrator was black when he was not. The vile, intersecting prejudices of classism, racism, transphobia, homophobia and sexism are intensified by the uniform social codes in the police force and unleashed, knowingly protected by a fortress of silence.

     I recall being in Byron Bay, Australia in 2012. I witnessed a police car pull up next to a park where a group of homeless guys were drinking. The two officers got out and walked over to them, fully aware that their presence is intimidating to people who are clearly underprivileged. The officers stood over them, talked to them for a couple of minutes, then walked back to the car. I approached the officers and asked them why they bothered doing that. Their response? 

     "Because we can," said one. 

     "Because we're police," said the other. 

     And with that, they got into their car and drove off. 
     Probably unbeknownst to those officers, they concisely outlined the twisted logic of police culture: that any police action is justified simply by virtue of being in the police. Individual ethical conduct is not a concern to them, and so to criticise ACAB as a "generalisation" is to miss the point. In a regimented, uniform institution where individuality cannot exist, all members of that institution are bound by the same codes. They debase and generalise themselves as human beings. They commit acts of ruthless brutality or give tacit consent to that brutality by remaining silent and protecting it. 

If some are bastards, then all are bastards.

 "A few bad apples"? 

The whole orchard is rotten to the roots.