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On Self Defense from Cops, Men, and Slumlords

August 17, 2011

Been a little under the weather, on and off, over the last few days.  Downsides: pain.  Upsides: opportunities to observe pain, and taking time to lie low and read hella articles on the Innernet. Here are three of them which happen to be about self-defense.

  • Deadly Secrets: How California Law Has Shielded Oakland Police Violence

    Oakland Police Headquarters in Downtown Oakland, CA. (Photo by Jorge Rivas/Colorlines.com)

    Colorlines has a meticulously researched article about the secrecy and opacity shrouding Oakland police personnel reports.  Some say that if the public had access to these files, they could be used to weed out ‘loose cannon’ cops before their aggression leads to fatal shootings.  But problems with policing go way deeper than that, if you ask me — including pro-ruling-class trends in the laws that police are paid to enforce as an arm of the state.  In any case, responses to OPD brutality seem to fall into three camps: individual lawsuits; accountability/reform measures; and resistance/defiance.  I was sensing some author bias toward accountability, but you can read for yourself.  One of the only mentions of on-the-streets resistance to OPD brutality, the riots following Oscar Grant’s murder, is glossed over in a somewhat awkwardly placed sentence: “Rachel Jackson, an organizer of the Bay Area protests of Oscar Grant’s killing, says the indictment on murder charges of ex-BART Officer Johannes Mehserle, following widespread public outcry, is proof of the point: ‘If there’s street heat, they’ll do something.’” [Emphasis mine.]  On one hand, I appreciate that the author is illuminating OPD murder cases besides Grant’s.  On the other hand, the lack of elaboration on Jackson’s crucial political claim seems, uh, strange. Given that we regard OPD murder patterns as a problem (to say nothing of other types of police-on-people violence, like sexual assault), what are our best strategies for self-defense? Shouldn’t we discuss that underlying orientation?

  • In a very different and awesome take on community safety and protection:

    __

    I found this photo and excerpt, re-blogged and -tumbled a buncha times, through my friend Aneeta. (hey Aneeta!)

    The founder of the gulabis is the fearless Sampat Pal Devi, 40, who was married off at the age of 12 to an ice-cream vendor and had the first of her five children at 15. The gulabis, whose members say they are a “gang for justice,” started in 2006 as a sisterhood of sorts that looked out for victims of domestic abuse, a problem the United Nations estimates affects two in three married Indian women. Named after their hot-pink sari uniforms, the gang paid visits to abusive husbands and demanded they stop the beatings. When obstinate men refused to listen, the gulabis would return with large bamboo sticks called laathis and “persuade” them to change their ways. “When I go around with a stick, it’s to make men fear me. I don’t always use it, but it helps change the mind of men who think they are more powerful than me” says Pal. She has assumed the rank of commander in chief and has appointed district commanders across seven districts in Bundelkhand to help coordinate the gang’s efforts.

    Pal’s group now has more than 20,000 members, and the number is growing.

    Sounds interesting, right? Reminds me of Paula X. Rojas’ description, in her essay “Are the Cops In Our Heads And Hearts?”, in the collection The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, of a certain sector of the Movement of Unemployed Landless Workers of Brazil (MST):

    The “gender work” includes safety patrols of MST members, armed with machetes and trained in gender issues. They intervene in domestic abuse situations and bring offenders to community accountability sessions. This organizing work breaks with the traditional revolutionary mold and centers activities that most nonprofits could never dream of getting away with.

    But wait: it gets really fascinating. When I traced the gulabi quote back to the original article in Slate (19 July 2010), I found this:

    Pal has a long list of criminal charges against her, including unlawful assembly, rioting, attacking a government employee, and obstructing an officer in the discharge of duty, and she even had to go into hiding. Her feistiness has secured notable victories for the community, however. In 2008, the group ambushed the local electricity office, which was withholding electricity until members received bribes or sexual favors in return for flicking the switch back on. The stick-wielding gulabi stormed the company grounds and proceeded to rough up the staff inside the building. An hour later, the power was back on in the village.

    Daaaaang, son! Rolling up on gender violence and economic violence, demonstrating how they overlap. Slutwalk, are you taking notes?

    And then there’s this:

    As women have gained political power, through initiatives like the affirmative-action bill, dispossessed rural women have realized that they can instead respond boldly and collectively to abuse. Why aren’t they turning to political activism as opposed to vigilantism? To begin with, the gangs offer more immediate benefits than politics does. Another reason is that female politicians rising to power from the lower castes have been dismal role models. These politicians have the potential to inspire poor women more than dynastic leaders like Sonia Gandhi, but they have disappointed the women they claim to represent by being as corrupt and criminal as the male politicians they despise.
    . . .
    When Mayawati [the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and the first female dalit] first heard of the rise of the pink gang, her first concern was not what she could do to help but whether it might pose a political threat. She tried to quash the group, then finally offered Pal the opportunity to run for local elections under her party’s banner. Pal refused this offer, as well as others she received from major national parties. As long as corrupt practices persist among both male and female politicians in India, many vigilantes will feel they have more to gain by staying out of politics than entering the fray.

    Super interesting. As a Buddhist, I don’t know if I would participate in beating abusers/slumlords, but the collective action and self-activity of these women is inspiring enough to make me consider it. Pal sums it up beautifully:

    “My real strength is not in the stick, it is in numbers,” Pal told the Hindustan Times. “And one day, we will be big enough to shake up Delhi, too.”

  • And finally, an article on Shapely Prose about how to not seem like a rapist.My least favorite of the three, partly because of the heteronormativity and cisgender bias, but nevertheless well written and seemingly effective — not in its stated goal of helping men hit on women in a polite and compassionate way, but in validating and normalizing experiences for many women readers who have been told they’re overreacting or being unnecessarily bitchy to Nice Guys (TM) who just wanted to get to know them, jeez man.

    I especially related to this section:

    The third point: Women are communicating all the time. Learn to understand and respect women’s communication to you.

    You want to say Hi to the cute girl on the subway. How will she react? Fortunately, I can tell you with some certainty, because she’s already sending messages to you. Looking out the window, reading a book, working on a computer, arms folded across chest, body away from you = do not disturb. So, y’know, don’t disturb her. Really. Even to say that you like her hair, shoes, or book. A compliment is not always a reason for women to smile and say thank you. You are a threat, remember? You are Schrödinger’s Rapist. Don’t assume that whatever you have to say will win her over with charm or flattery. Believe what she’s signaling, and back off.

    If you speak, and she responds in a monosyllabic way without looking at you, she’s saying, “I don’t want to be rude, but please leave me alone.” You don’t know why. It could be “Please leave me alone because I am trying to memorize Beowulf.” It could be “Please leave me alone because you are a scary, scary man with breath like a water buffalo.” It could be “Please leave me alone because I am planning my assassination of a major geopolitical figure and I will have to kill you if you are able to recognize me and blow my cover.”

    On the other hand, if she is turned towards you, making eye contact, and she responds in a friendly and talkative manner when you speak to her, you are getting a green light. You can continue the conversation until you start getting signals to back off.

    For me, this brings to mind a time, years ago, when I was sleeping on a subway during a ride from Washington, DC to Maryland. And a guy comes over and wakes me up because his desire to get my number, or give me his, was just so important. Not cool, Navy Submarine surgeon doctor dude, or whatever your business card said that you did.

    Anyhow, I prefer feminist actions like support networks as a response to rape culture, but I also think there’s a need for this kind of education that reminds everyone that men are not actually entitled to rapt attention, beaming smiles, and instant trust from every stranger who strikes their fancy. And we’re not being ‘mean’ or out of line for asserting our desire to be left alone, if that’s what we want to do.

So much more could be said about self defense! That’s all I got for now, though. Thoughts?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Cat permalink
    August 18, 2011 8:32 am

    Haha, I’ve seen you post that Rojas article a bajillion times and we still haven’t talked about it face-to-face! Must be corrected. I think the Colorlines article is mainly an expose/investigation. They’re not focusing on solutions so much as they are describing in detail the problem. I found the article fascinating—I think it is mainly a critique of our police state and how the legal system has been built to protect cops. It’s why I love Colorlines.

  2. August 22, 2011 4:01 pm

    Lol, yep, let’s fix that. I noticed there was a roundtable discussion of the whole book recently in Oakland or Berkeley.

    Yeah, I’m all for getting information out, but I really did see a pretty strong underlying current in the article that used a vision of police reform to justifying *why* the information is important. For example:

    In response, jurisdictions around the state created independent review boards to investigate complaints of police misconduct. These boards became the primary vehicle for communities to hold both individual officers and departments accountable for their interactions with residents.

    . . .

    Oakland is one of the cities where Copley has had the most significant impact on independent civilian oversight.

    . . .

    A Few Dangerous Apples (subheading)

    . . .

    Merrick Bobb, one of the nation’s foremost experts on police reform, said most officers rarely fire their weapons, and the ones that do have a greater propensity to use force on suspects. “There are correlations between officer-involved shootings and other use of force incidents in the life of an officer,” Bobb said.

    . . .

    But records obtained through a California Public Records Act request support Bobb’s analysis: A small cadre of Oakland police officers are responsible for a disproportionate amount of controversial use of force incidents. Sixteen officers currently in the Oakland Police Department are responsible for 40 of its shootings from 2000 to 2010—or, nearly half of the total 85 shootings. Misconduct allegations filed with the CPRB against these officers would have been public records before the Copley ruling; they are now confidential.

    Just a few examples of why the framework or tone of the piece, to me, seems to clearly be about police reform, not about resisting the state.

    To be clear, I’m not at all against trying to change things about police impunity, which is why I was in favor of all the Oscar Grant demos that pressured the state to charge and convict Mehserle. And I do think that more transparent information would be helpful to communities confronting police forces. I just think that confrontation should be more about building participatory, collective, direct action than about setting up relatively small review boards to try to improve police training and get particularly dangerous cops fired. To me, this misses the point that the whole police system is a danger to working class and poor people’s collective self-determination. No amount of reform will change that.

  3. September 10, 2011 11:31 am

    I really wish there were more of these: Feminist Karate Union http://www.feministkarateunion.org/about.htm :)

  4. September 11, 2011 9:16 am

    :) word. I’ve been thinking lately about gender-differentiated relationships to weapons. Not for fending off stranger rapists in dark alleys so much as other reasons. For example, one of my favorite movies since I was a child, and too young to really understand its significance beyond a cool good-guys-bad-guys story with great songs and dancing, is NEWSIES, a musical about a newsboys’ strike and unofficial union in turn-of-the-century New York City (starring a young Christian Bale). The scrappy, mostly-orphaned newsboys, all under 18, have to physically fight scabs and cops in order to protect their strike. From what I understand, defense on the picket lines was a huge, huge issue during the wave of union organizing in the early 20th century, and basically a major factor keeping scabs from crossing the line was fearing for their own safety. Anyway, things are different now with widespread gun use (in NEWSIES they use fists and slingshots, with bad guys using clubs (cops) or brass knuckles), but I’ve been thinking about gender and self-defense along those lines lately, too. How do you imagine the Feminist Karate Union being deployed? :)

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