Violence Within Activist Communities

There are no acts of violence that are purely personal or isolated. As a function of oppression, violence follows a social structure and purpose. This is why I find it so upsetting when accusations of violence are dismissed or at best treated as isolated, interpersonal incidents.

Last month I received the following cancellation notice for an event that was supposed to take place at Bluestockings, a bookstore and activists center in New York City:

Wednesday, February 23rd @ Cancelled
Reading: Nick Cooney "Change Of Heart"

Tonight's event with Nick Cooney has been cancelled by Bluestockings. This is unusual. We've taken this action because we’ve become aware of plans to disrupt his talk by folks who strongly object to his presence at Bluestockings.

Bluestockings is service to truth, and our mission aims us toward participatory movement building for a more just world. However, Bluestockings has neither the mission nor the ability to mediate specific interpersonal conflicts within the greater activist community. Bluestockings is not a party to this dispute and cannot referee it. As such, we have cancelled this reading because we are unwilling to knowingly put visitors and attendees in the middle of this conflict.

We apologize for this late notice of cancellation.

This cancellation notice does more to obscure the reasons the event was canceled than anything else. At the time the event was to take place, fliers stating the following where given to people who attempted to attend the canceled event:

Nick Cooney: Abuser of Animals and Women

Nick Cooney has an ugly history of violence against women, including instances of physical, sexual and emotional violence against partners in relationships and other activists. These assaults have come in the form of sexual coercion and bullying, emotional manipulation and intimidation. At least four women have reported experiencing abuse by Cooney. Furthermore, Cooney has also threatened to harm women's companion animals in an attempt to intimidate and control both partners and other women in the activist community. When these issues first came to light, a formal attempt to start an accountability process to get him to confront his actions, take responsibility for the damage he's done, and change his behavior was undertaken. Nick refused to cooperate with this process. Since that time, Cooney has used slander, denial, misrepresentation, and flat out lies in an attempt to escape responsibility for his actions.

Bluestockings canceled today's event upon learning of these past abuses from allies of an abuse survivor who provided a detailed account of abuse by Nick, as well as multiple statement[s] corroborating her claims by individuals involved in the failed attempt to organize an accountability process.

Until Nick Cooney has a change of heart and agrees to take the steps outlined by the accountability process he failed to complete in Boston, people who care about stopping abuse should:

- Not buy or endorse his book.

- Not organize or promote speaking events for him.

- Either refuse to attend his speaking events or challenge him at these events to be accountable for his actions.

For more information or to report abuse by Nick Cooney email stopabuse@mail.com.

My intention in posting this is not to condemn or attack Cooney, rather I want to focus here on the ways in which accusations of violence are (mis)handled and/or (not) addressed within activist communities.

Violence Disrupts Our Communities

The accusations in the flier, whether true or not, are extremely serious, yet in the cancellation notice, Bluestockings goes to great lengths not to acknowledge those accusations at all. So while the cancellation makes it sound as if Cooney's presence is being "disrupted" for... who knows what, the flier clearly focuses on accusations of physical, sexual and emotional violence against women.

I think the (mis)framing of accusations of violence against women as a disruption makes a strong statement in and of itself. It suggests that women (and others who are targets of violence in their activist communities) should shut up and stay quiet so as not to be divisive thereby disrupting important activism. For Bluestockings it's apparently the accusations of violence that are disruptive, as if violence within activist communities isn't a disruption of both activism and activists' lives. This reproduces within activist communities the institutional support that allows perpetrators of violence to thrive, and does so at the expense of survivors of the violence being perpetrated.

The Interpersonal is Political

Bluestockings describes the accusations of violence an "interpersonal conflict." It's a sad irony when a supposedly feminist bookstore denies how the personal is political, especially with regard to accusation of violence against women. Violence within activist communities is a collective and political issue and needs to be framed as such.

Given the bookstores' (mis)framing of this issue, I find it hard to believe that Bluestockings is sincerely concerned with "service to truth" or anything like "participatory movement building for a more just world." When violence against women and other oppressed groups in activist communities is dismissed as an interpersonal issue, it simply reinforces the structural oppression that targets those groups. The cancellation is a failure to acknowledge how violence works to control and limit certain groups' participation within activist communities while privileging others. As Kimberlé Crenshaw points out, "This movement inadvertently participates in exclusionary politics because some of us fail to comprehend the anti-violence movement as an anti-oppression movement."

Our Community is a Collective

By stating that Bluestockings is "unwilling to knowingly put visitors and attendees in the middle of this conflict" the bookstore is actively depoliticizing violence within activists communities. The claim that any of us are not involved in the social dynamics of violence that take place within activist communities denies the very reality of those structures of oppression under which we all live. It is privilege that enables some of us to sit on the sidelines while others are the targets of violence and oppression within our communities.

Refusing to involve ourselves and others in addressing violence in our communities supports the status quo. Ultimately we are all involved whether we like it or not. Those of us who have been targets of violence within activist communities know this perhaps better than most.

For instance, where do you think a position like the one Bluestockings has taken leaves survivors after we have been the target of violence? Basically this mean our so-called "community" collectively turns its back on us when we need them most with the claim they're simply not involved. Consider the way this works to institutionalize the isolation and exclusion of survivors of violence while securing the inclusion and privileges of perpetrators of that violence.

Confronting Violence Within Our Communities

Before accusations of violence can even be considered as valid or not, there needs to be a means of supporting survivors to come forward and a process for the community to hold perpetrators accountable. Regardless of whether Cooney did or didn't do what the flier is accusing him of, the (mis)framing of the cancellation by Bluestockings helps perpetuate a social structure that privileges perpetrators and furthers the oppressions of those of us who are the targets of violence. I believe Bluestockings' notice of cancellation and refusal to take seriously accusations of violence within the activist communities that it serves, ultimately represents the cancellation of the possibility of developing an accountability process and support for survivors.

Violence within activist communities needs to be seen as something that affects those communities collectively and understood in terms of the social structures under which it is perpetuated. We fail to do this when we treat violence within activist communities as isolated, interpersonal conflicts of "he said, she said." In other words, when we don't understand violence within our communities as an anti-oppression issue, we help facilitate the perpetuation of violence against certain groups of people within our communities.