New Orleans, nine months post-Katrina. Within days of my wide-eyed arrival at the volunteer headquarters of Common Ground Collective, housed in an abandoned three-story school in the Upper 9th Ward, I learned that alongside all the vibrant, sun-browned enthusiasm for “solidarity, not charity,” and in addition to the haunted feeling of the classrooms — stopped clocks and wrecked bulletin boards; cots and duffel bags where desks and backpacks used to be — something was wrong.
For months, there had been a spate of sexual assaults against volunteers.
I joined a small ad hoc group of women to develop a policy for response and accountability. Didn’t really go anywhere.
For one thing, we were told (by male leaders) that “this is a war zone” and “we have more serious problems to deal with,” like Black men being rounded up or killed by state police. For another, we were advised (by male leaders) that the best way to deal with sexual assault was to tighten up security around the school. Not allow strangers on the premises. Issue makeshift ID cards to all registered volunteers. In other words, beware of random locals roaming in off the streets for a free meal, company, or a drink of water. This even though the vast majority of reported sexual assaults were white-on-white, volunteer-on-volunteer.
In a terrific article originally published in make/shift magazine, Courtney Desiree Morris cites this very same Common Ground conflict as an example not only of inadequate response to intimate violence in activist communities, but of dangerously fertile ground for informants and informant-style behavior.
Informants are sent by the state (FBI, CIA, etc.) to infiltrate radical political groups, gather information, and stir up trouble from the inside. (Case in point, Morris writes: white activist Brandon Darby, whose exposure as an FBI informant I remember particularly well, since he had worked closely with some of my friends at Common Ground before moving on to Austin.)
And in some respects, gender oppression acts like a miner’s canary for infiltration, signaling danger to the entire group.
Because of the pre-existing social terrain, Morris observes, if infiltrators are going to disrupt, poison, and commandeer, chances are they’ll do it in ways that intentionally or unintentionally reinforce heterosexist culture. Ways that are anti-woman, anti-queer, domineering and transphobic. Even if that’s not their primary goal, it comes with the territory — thanks to the patriarchal leadership styles, both stark and subtle, pervading much of Leftist culture. Sexist, racist harm is an almost inevitable byproduct of any serious state attempt to corrode radical communities from the inside out.
Besides, even if they’re not employed by the state, when people enact gender violence in revolutionary communities they are achieving the state’s objectives all the same. As Morris puts it,
Most of those guys probably weren’t informants. Which is a pity because it means they are not getting paid a dime for all the destructive work they do. We might think of these misogynists as inadvertent agents of the state. Regardless of whether they are actually informants or not, the work that they do supports the state’s ongoing campaign of terror against social movements and the people who create them. When queer organizers are humiliated and their political struggles sidelined, that is part of an ongoing state project of violence against radicals. When women are knowingly given STIs, physically abused, dismissed in meetings, pushed aside, and forced out of radical organizing spaces while our allies defend known misogynists, organizers collude in the state’s efforts to destroy us.
So what’s the solution?
As with dhamma, it’s not about casting out the “bad stuff.” (To use Morris’ terms, we’re not advocating witch hunts.) Rather, the goal is to build movement communities that do not allow informant-friendly culture to take root. Working diligently to create an environment where the “bad stuff” doesn’t get fed. It has no traction, and every time it arises it soon withers away.
Meanwhile, we continue feeding and nourishing the positive qualities. Thich Nhat Hanh often uses this metaphor when describing strategies for reducing suffering:
The fourth petal of the flower is virya paramita, the perfection of diligence, energy, or continuous practice. The Buddha said that in the depth of our store consciousness, aayavijñana, there are all kinds of positive and negative seeda — seeds of anger, delusion, and fear, and seeds of understanding, compassion, and forgiveness. Many of these seeds have been transmitted to us by our ancestors. We should learn to recognize every one of these seeds in us in order to practice diligence. If it is a negative seed, the seed of an affliction like anger, fear, jealousy, or discrimination, we should refrain from allowing it to be watered in our daily life. Every time such a seed is watered, it will manifest on the upper level of our consciousness, and we will suffer, and make the people we love suffer at the same time. The practice is to refrain from watering the negative seeds in us.
We also recognize the negative the negative seeds in the people we love and try our best not to water them. If we do, they will be very unhappy, and we will be unhappy also. This is the practice of “selective watering.” If you want to be happy, avoid watering your own negative seeds and ask others not to water those seeds in you. Also, avoid watering the negative seeds in others.
We also try to recognize the positive seeds that are in us and to live our daily life in a way that can touch them and help them manifest on the upper level of our consciousness, manovijñana. Every time they manifest and stay on the upper level of our consciousness for a while, they grow stronger. If the positive seeds in us grow stronger day and night, we will be happy and we will make the people we love happy. Recognize the positive seeds in the person you love, water those seeds, and he will become much happier. In Plum Village, we practice “flower watering,” recognizing the best seeds in others and watering them. Whenever you have time, please water the seeds that need to be watered. It is a wonderful and very pleasant practice of diligence, and it brings immediate results.
Unfortunately, in our accustomed working environments, we water seeds that produce misogynistic (and therefore informant-supportive) behaviors. Consciously and unconsciously, we water seeds of aggression. Condescension. Righteous anger. Shaming. Compartmentalization. (Keep that personal stuff out of the real work — we don’t want all that drama.)
Likewise, though we may say we want diverse, healthy revolutionary communities, we somehow can’t find the time or resources to devote to transforming our environment, our (agri)culture. We can’t spare any water for those other seeds. Deep Listening. Humility. Nonjudgmental compassion. Forgiveness. Holism.
Not today. Not while there’s pressing work to be done.
By pointing out the connection between gender violence and infiltrator disruption, Morris is helpfully highlighting only one of the many harmful karmic consequences (based on laws of cause and effect) of (a) watering negative seeds, and (b) neglecting positive ones. I’m grateful to her for making those links so clearly and eloquently, and touching so many of us with her analysis.
At the same time, her prescriptions for moving forward (  Support gender-oppressed movement members in a “collective process of healing;”  Engender “collective dialogue about how we want our communities to look and how to make them safe for everyone;” and  Create a just, personal-is-political system “for collective accountability”) are very broad and open-ended. In a sense, they should be. Each community has different characteristics, needs, and priorities, and communities themselves evolve over time.
So the next step is identifying tools to suit a given community at the present moment. Plainly identifying a working repertoire, and then committing to using it — exploring the full extent of its potential. Otherwise, the dialogues, the healing processes, and the accountability models remain mystified. Easy to invoke; impossible to enact.
I’m by no means suggesting that a dhammic community model is the only good system for healing misogyny and transforming discordant, informant-friendly revolutionary cultures. Many queer and allied womanists, feminists, and all kinds of engaged groups already have exciting tools for intra-community gender liberation that don’t take dhamma as a foundational support. I was fortunate to learn some ways and means in NOLA, both through formal organizations and trained activists (folks from People’s Institute for Survival And Beyond; the Catalyst Project; and others), as well as local organic leaders like Ms. Donna Banks and the families at the Common Ground Women’s Center (autonomous collective transitional housing for women and children Katrina survivors).
Now, looking forward, I’m eager to explore a new framework. A dhammic repertoire for healing gender violence, starving heterosexism, and thereby strengthening our loving opposition to state terrorism.
great piece overall. and, ive never heard framing in terms of pro informant culture but its really right on at a literal and symbolic level. yes lets make arrangements for when ur in town!!
Wow, you were a volunteer at Common Ground? I was too – I was there from September to December of 2007. There was so much violence and dysfunction in that scene that I think that it all indirectly lead to me getting into Buddhism and meditation later on.
I’m wondering, did you know someone there named “H.D.”? She was a volunteer coordinator there for some time, before my time. I met her at the Illinois Vipassana Meditation Center where she is center manager there.