Community Accountability: Emerging Movements to Transform Violence

Social Justice, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview
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Community Accountability: Emerging Movements to Transform Violence


   and know we are not safe ...
   we're learned to fear
   for our lives ...
   Can I stir her back to life
   with so much death surrounding us?--Cherrie Moraga
   the irony of power,
   those who are vulnerable
   are a source of strength-Sista II Sista collective

WE HAVE ALWAYS KNOWN. RACE WOMEN, (1) INDIGENOUS WOMEN, AND WOMEN of color feminists have a long history of exposing the connection between the violence committed by social and state institutions (and their representatives) and the intimate violence experienced by women. Activists have continuously identified and organized around key moments that demonstrate how the state produces and sanctions gendered violence while leveraging prisons as violent tools of racialized population control.

Ida B. Wells publicly critiqued how the issue of rape was exploited to justify ongoing lynchings of black people, stressing that they were organized acts of police-sanctioned sexual violence and torture. The 1974 grass-roots movement to free Joan Little--a black woman convicted of murdering a prison guard who attempted to rape her during her incarceration--sparked dynamic coalitions among anti-prison activists, black nationalists, and antiviolence feminists. It also exposed the role of the state in the politics of intimate violence against women, especially women who are treated as if they were disposable. According to Antonia Castaneda (2005: 87), coloniality has historically constructed the bodies of Indian women and women of color "to effect territorial and political conquest, [while] women constructed and used their bodies, both symbolically and materially, as instruments of opposition, resistance, and subversion."

The insights of these activists and movements echoed throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, which witnessed the pervasive expansion of unchecked policing and imprisonment. The prison system expanded through an onslaught of regressive policies, such as privatization, "law and order" policies popularized by leveraging white fear, anti-immigrant policies such as the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which increased criminalization of migrants and imposed mandatory detention, the unyielding War on Drugs, and the 1994 Crime Bill and Violence Against Women Act.

The prison project landed in communities as a ubiquitous force of violence, with as many as two million people caged. It also relentlessly inhabited our imaginations, creating an epistemic occupation within antiviolence work that shaped political priorities and marginalized dissent. As antiviolence work became "officiated," activists found that similar syntheses stemming from the politics of our everyday lives as people of color were increasingly rare in "official" antiviolence work, which rapidly became less oppositional and more fundamentally integrated with prison and police imperatives. Although some have called this transformation a "depoliticization" of the antiviolence movement, the politics of antiviolence work were not rendered neutral. Rather, they were dislocated and repositioned into the repressive state's powerful, and largely successful, conservative agenda. In this repoliticization, violence against women did not diminish. The prison project invigorated the colonial agenda of racial, classed, gendered, and sexual violence against indigenous peoples and communities of color, while attempting to stymie and redirect consciousness and social movements.

The Color of Violence Conference, which took place on April 28 and 29, 2000, at the University of California, Santa Cruz, brought together over 1,200 people, mostly women of color, who were enlivened by a promise of something different. Since this gathering focused on indigenous women and women of color, (2) their histories and knowledge of violence led to calls for building a social movement that focused on the sources of that violence, including state institutions.

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