As I was leaving “Preventing Violence, Promoting Justice,” the first ever summit organized by Sakhi for South Asian Women (an anti-domestic violence organization based in New York City that focuses on South Asian communities), I witnessed a young couple (both were people of color) arguing in the street. The young man was in the woman’s face aggressively yelling and cussing at her. This was not a mere lover’s quarrel. I remember what that’s like and my body tensed. The day’s discussions about structural oppression, supporting abuse survivors, and detaching from outcomes flashed through my mind as I figured out how to respond.
I stood back and watched the couple’s interaction, and looked around at passersby who would stare but kept walking. Though I wanted to ask the sister if she was okay, I was afraid…and then I felt ashamed for being scared. It’s New York City and people are unpredictable. I’m 5’3 and not very large in stature but I started to size up the dude to see if I could take him just in case something popped off (I swear I’m 6’2 and 250 lbs in my head). I only saw another man of color stop and watch; we locked eyes in an eerie unspoken solidarity.
I thought about what would happen if someone called the police and reflected on the morning plenary, “Overcoming Structures and Uncovering Systems of Oppression,” which broke down how history, culture, public policy, and ideology intersect to maintain a hierarchy. The panel which was wonderfully moderated by our own Samhita Mukhopadhyay, featured Lynn Paltrow from National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), Kim Dadou & Jaya Vasandani of the Women in Prison Project, and Deborah Small of Break the Chains. Though the panelists advocate for women differently, they are all fighting systems that punish women through institutions like incarceration, and the intangible such as shame, fear and guilt. There was a powerful juxtaposition of the personal and the political. Kim Dadou spoke about her life after 17 years in prison for defending herself from her abuser, followed by Lynn Paltrow’s presentation of how political structures facilitate pregnant women being shackled, forced to have C-sections, and incarcerated for drug-related offenses based on junk science.
Through their testimonies, and those of the Women in Prison Project and Break the Chains, we know that dealing with the police and the courts does not solve problems of violence against women. If anything, it often exacerbates it. Deborah Small pointed out that we don’t think about how men are treated in prison and how that affects their relationships with women when they come out. I thought about Kim Dadou and her struggles to find a job and pick up her life after prison. I also reflected on her words on helping women in abusive situations: “pay attention, listen…tell them you are there for them.”
Watching what I perceived as fear and anger in the young woman’s face as she’s getting screamed at in the middle of 6th Avenue, I wondered about how often this happens to her, her barriers to escaping this situation and if she ever “fought” back (I’m still deconstructing what that even means). Jaya Vasandani from the Women In Prison Project presented their work supporting the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, which would allow for shorter sentencing for domestic violence survivors defending themselves against their abusers, or community-based alternatives to incarceration. I’m reminded of her words that in most situations, we have to use the structures that oppress us as solutions.
Then I started to wonder if she was an immigrant and if this dude was too. That brings another set of structural complications. According to the Applied Research Center, 77% of immigrant women exposed to violence seek help from non-traditional resources meaning they don’t call the police or go to hospitals primarily because of fear of deportation, that the police would believe the man over her, or language barriers. Regardless of their immigration status, they were still young people of color who are very likely part of the 99%. As Loretta Ross said in the luncheon plenary: ”If you are a person of color interacting with the state, you’re already 15 steps behind.” She also spoke about the necessity of bringing our justice movements back to radical politics where we helped each other without relying on the state, police, or the government. What would that look like and what does that mean right here and now?
When I looked at the man who stopped to observe with me, I pictured Ramesh Kathanadhi of Men Stopping Violence and his words at the luncheon plenary: “Men need to do everything they can even in times of crisis to resist violence alongside the women that they love.” I felt proud that it was a man of color who stopped to care. Kathanadhi also spoke about how men of color are set up to be seen as perpetrators of violence but that they can show up by listening to the women in their communities. I never spoke to the brother who was my co-witness but I am thankful for him.
In maybe three minutes, this small sidewalk corner became this microcosm for our larger society. It was this tiny unintentional community repeating the same dysfunction and ambivalence. Fortunately, as as soon as it began, it was over. The couple started to walk down the block. He was still yelling but with this “But baby I’m only being scary, aggressive and violent because I really love you” tone. I couldn’t help but feel saddened.
In trying to process, I thought about the final panel I attended on finding sources of strength (through faith, spirituality and other healing methods) for ourselves as we support others. Sally MacNichol, M. Div, Director of Programs at Connect NYC said she often reminds herself that many things are true at the same time as a way to help be accepting and be present. That is particularly true when we think about all of the intersections of violence with gender, race, class, sexuality, and more. I also remembered the group’s important discussion about detaching from results and how it’s challenging since humans are about fixing things and creating outcomes. However, when you can let go you get a tremendous spaciousness in your spirit.
As people continued about their daily business, I realized I was triggered particularly as someone who has been on both sides of violent behaviors. Deborah Small from Break The Chains said that when we are triggered, the Universe (or whatever spiritual being you happen to believe in, if you do) is showing us something we are unwilling and unable to be with. Was it feelings of dis-empowerment as a woman in a society which normalizes and supports violence through law, media and socialization? Was it feeling powerless in helping this young sister walk away from a violent man? Was it shame and guilt about ways I’ve used my own “power” to diminish men?
The emotional testimony of Kim Dadou returned to me. She emphatically stated that we need to create a world where it’s unacceptable for men to hurt women, women to hurt women, men to hurt men or women to hurt men. These kinds of spaces like what Sakhi provided are where we can start to do this. They plant seeds and encourage individuals to work together and help us understand all the ways in which movements intersect. Only when we recognize this can we begin to create change from within ourselves and our communities…in the “radical” ways that many of the speakers advocate for.
Finally, I’m reminded how important it is to be present and to ask ourselves the tough questions about our beliefs and behaviors. As Rev. Madison Shockley, speaker and pastor from the Pilgrim United Church of Christ, advised us: “We never know when this kind of work is going to knock on our door.”
For those of you in the Twitterverse, check out #sakhisummit to get the full recap of the conference.