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Stopping the War on Women of Color
Notes from the INCITE! Color of Violence Conference 2005
Vanessa Huang is a social justice and anti-prison organizer and a writer who attended The Color of Violence III conference.
Cara Page stands in front of nearly 1000 radical, multigenerational Native feminists, feminists of color, and our allies. "There is a wall," she says. "On one side stands / three Billion dollar government tanks / stealth bombers shooting stars / Hummers & / Fundamentalism / And capitalism / privatizing our rights / Behind Bars."
Page then goes on to paint a picture that reminds us, perhaps all too well, of why we do the work we do, and what exactly is at stake. "On the other side of the wall," she continues, "stand the people who suffer from these contradictions. Brown Skinned / Black Skinned / White Skinned / Poor people / Enslaved by these war crimes. We are handing over our ammunition / For resolution. Handing over our sacrifice for peace."
Page poignantly captures these sacrifices, among them: A black woman who hands over the wall her tumor-filled breast. A Latina woman, her bruised womb. A Palestinian woman, a limb of her child. A Vietnamese child, her mouth. A Filipino child, blindfolded, who hands over his eyes. A girl with no face who hands over her vagina. Panama and Guatemala and all Third World countries, their land. East Timor, its independence. An imprisoned woman who hands over the wall her newborn child. A Muslim woman, her veil. The Hip Hop generation, its poetic license.
And the poet herself, pushing over her rhyme.
Page urges, "See past this wall of destruction / Challenge US Government Coup elections / Hear Haiti and Cuba's cries and US led dictatorship lies." And closes, "Remember that we are only guests here / refugees / nomads here / Where the buffalo once roamed "
Artistic director of Deeper Water Productions, Page is one of the many powerful artists, organizers and educators who performed and spoke at the opening plenary of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence's March, 2005 conference, the Color of Violence III: Stopping the War on Women of Color (COV-III). As Page illustrates, there is a war on women of color and our communities. And the full dimensions of these global assaults include both institutionalized violence -- i.e. colonization, enforcement violence along, within, and across borders and prison walls, war and militarism, reproductive violence, economic violence -- and interpersonal violence -- i.e. domestic and sexual violence.
But, as Julia Sudbury of INCITE's mothership would later remind us, we came together to stop this war, refusing to let the scars of our wounds silence us. At the evening's close, we flooded out of Louis Armstrong Park's Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans' historic Treme community. The park is home to Congo Square, which in the 18th and 19th centuries was the only place in the US where free people of color and enslaved people could gather together. Calling on this strong tradition of people of color organizing over the next few days, we connected with other radical feminists of color from around the nation and the world to share experiences, knowledge, and strategies, and to build our analysis, vision, and movements for liberation.
Building a movement for gender justice
While much of the movement-building work we engaged in at COV-III was shaped by the evolution of INCITE's work over its five year history, a relatively new challenge for INCITE also emerged. I first learned about INCITE's engagement with this issue in my registration packet, which included a statement about gender justice. "As an organization which has consistently centered the experiences and leadership of women of color," it explained, a new challenge is "how we frame, analyze, and address violence against transgender people of color, some of whom may not identify as women of color, but who nevertheless stand, as we do, at the intersection of power structures based on race and gender."
"It is clear to us that a gender binary system," the statement continued, "has been a necessary tool of colonialism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. It is also clear to us that the violence experienced by transgender and gender variant people of color in our homes, communities, and social institutions shares important similarities with racialized, gender-based violence against women of color, who are often punished for our failure to conform to, and our inability to attain, representations of white womanhood."
The statement announced that INCITE is beginning a process to determine how best to act on an analysis of violence against transgender and gender variant people of color rooted in an understanding of both the similarities and differences between the experiences of the two communities, and to "create a space where we can respectfully struggle together toward a vision of justice and freedom from gender-based violence."
Rickke Mananzala of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in New York City, and another speaker at COV-III's opening plenary, became part of the story behind this commitment by submitting a workshop proposal to COV-III as a gender-oppressed organizer who does not identify as a woman of color. "The movement for women's liberation and the movement for trans liberation clearly have much more in common than not," he said. Given that patriarchy cannot work without transphobia, Mananzala emphasized the importance of thinking about what this means for our movements' organizing strategies. Incorporating a sharper gender justice analysis and practice, he said, would strengthen -- not "water down" -- our message and work.
Mananzala hoped the next Color of Violence conference would be more truly inclusive and less tokenistic with regards to transgender and gender variant people of color. Nevertheless, he said, "It's a great statement and a great step forward," and shared his vision of women and transgender and gender variant people of color working together -- shoulder to shoulder, with linked arms and raised fists -- in the struggle for liberation.
Sharing community-based liberation strategies
Other movement-building work at COV-III focused on our need to challenge an over-reliance on systems that may jeopardize our movements' sustainability and that negatively impact our communities.
One front on which this battle has been raging is through INCITE's critique of the nonprofit industrial complex. Organizing COV-III itself really brought that lesson home, according to Beth Richie of the COV-III organizing committee. In 2004, a foundation withdrew a substantial amount of general operating expenses earmarked for COV-III, pointing to INCITE's statement of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for self-determination. Still, conference organizers committed to making it happen, perhaps testifying to the viability of funding our own movements.
Amara Perez, organizer with Sisters in Action for Power, of Portland, Oregon, urged us to learn from that lesson. She shared her experiences with the evolution of Sisters in Action for Power to illustrate how working within a nonprofit 501(c)3 model can encourage an over-reliance on foundation support -- which can not only threaten the sustainability of the organization's funding, but also compromise political integrity.
Another area where we were able to further community-based liberation work was by sharing successful strategies and challenges in creating responses to violence that empower people in our communities and/or that keep decision-making power within our communities. Much of this work has evolved from INCITE's continuing commitment to and leadership in addressing the war in our homes against domestic violence, sexual violence, and child sexual abuse, while also responding to the violence of colonization, militarism, and the prison industrial complex, and the rape culture from which these institutionalized forms of violence operate.
Organizers, including Alice do Valle, campaign coordinator at Justice Now of Oakland, CA, emphasized that prisons themselves reinforce this rape culture by reinforcing a culture of domination, homophobia, and misogyny. "Relying on imprisonment as a solution to violence against women," she said, "is like trying to extinguish a fire with air."
Indeed, there were several opportunities throughout the weekend that allowed organizers to share successful strategies and challenges in holding the state accountable for the violence it perpetrates as well as in ending our communities' reliance on the criminal justice system when responding to interpersonal violence within our communities.
For instance, Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment (FIERCE) of New York City shared its model for documenting police harassment against queer, transgender and gender variant people of color. According to Rickke Mananzala, FIERCE's campaign coordinator, the model is part of FIERCE's cop watch program, whose aim is to hold law enforcement accountable to the community. Through this program, organizers arm themselves with cameras and microphones and monitor areas where Mananzala says they "know cops will be out." Once they document incidences of police intimidation or violence, organizers speak directly with the survivor and offer them the footage, should they want to use it in court.
In another instance, Eboni Colbert and Xandra Ibarra, organizers from Communities Against Rape and Abuse (CARA) of Seattle, Washington, distributed CARA's Community Accountability Principles document. "A one-size-fits-all community accountability model is not a realistic or respectful way to approach an accountability process," the document warns. Still, in order to maximize the safety and integrity of all parties -- the survivor, the aggressor, and other community members -- CARA has found it helpful to recognize everyone's humanity; prioritize the survivor's self-determination; create a simultaneous plan for safety and support for survivors and community members; anticipate the potential consequences of any strategy; organize collectively; ensure that everyone shares a political analysis of sexual violence; share that analysis and subsequent demands with the aggressor; consider help from people close to the aggressor; and be ready to be a part of the process for "the long haul."
Sharing transnational analysis and strategy
In addition to creating a space for organizers to connect about liberation strategies that are rooted in our communities, COV-III also allowed us to share analysis and strategy for doing this work in transnational context.
One workshop that disseminated transnational analysis and strategy was a conversation about the Boarding School Healing Project (BSHP), which works with reservation-based Native women in South Dakota to link their struggles for reparations for boarding school abuses to reparations claims by indigenous and Third World people from around the world.
Andrea Smith of INCITE's mothership, who participated in the workshop, describes BSHP and some of the issues it has raised regarding the reparations claims of indigenous peoples in relation to transnational work in "Boarding School Abuses, Human Rights, and Reparations." In the article, she discusses some of the tensions that indigenous peoples have faced in participating in a global movement for reparations. These include the movement for reparations for African slavery calling for forty acres and a mule -- she quotes Pamela Kingfisher saying, "You can have the mule, but the forty acres are ours," a formulation problematic for many Native people -- and how the US government has demanded that Native people give up claims to land in exchange for financial compensation.
This reluctance to work together in a global movement for reparations has not been one-sided, as African American reparations organizers have feared that working in coalition will diminish their specific demands. In response, Smith writes, "The issue at stake is whether we wish to formulate reparations as a reformist, even potentially reactionary demand, or as a radical demand for social transformation." She continues, "Demands that simply call for individual payments for human rights abuses under slavery do not fundamentally challenge the economic structures that keep people of color oppressed."
Still, Smith also discusses the critical need for indigenous peoples to make these transnational linkages. Smith argues that thinking about reparations "less in monetary terms to compensate for social oppression than as a movement to transform the neocolonial economic relationships between the US and people of color, indigenous peoples, and Third World countries," illustrates just "how critical this [global reparations] movement could be to all of us."
INCITE launched three new national campaigns
at COV-III to amplify its work against militarism, police violence,
and reproductive violence. To connect with INCITE and/or its campaigns,
contact INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence at email@example.com.