Philly Stands Up: Inside the politics and poetics of transformative justice and community accountability in sexual assault situations
 
 
Philly Stands Up: Inside the politics and poetics of transformative justice and community accountability in sexual assault situations Esteban Kelly describes the journey of Philly Stands Up and Philly's Pissed, two groups that emerged in response to sexual assaults within Philadelphia's anarcho-punk community. - Courtesy: Noura Kamal
 

Philly’s Pissed and Philly Stands Up emerged in response to a series of sexual assaults that consumed the anarcho-punk community during a summertime festival in Philadelphia in 2004. Both arose as expressions of a community grounded in a “do-it-yourself” anarchist politics, accustomed to political organizing in times of need, particularly crisis. Though our community differs from those earlier days, Philly Stands Up has gleaned important lessons from nearly one decade of on-the-ground work responding to sexual assault situations and directly engaging people who have caused harm. Our organization resists dichotomous approaches to this work, balancing national organizing with local education and community-based anti-violence work. This article is an account of our journey, organizational transformations, lessons learned and the politics developed through this vital organizing.

Roots and radicals

Philly’s Pissed (Pissed) and Philly Stands Up (PSU) started as volunteer collectives consisting almost entirely of white, cis-gendered,* mostly heterosexual but also queer, punk-affiliated anarchists in their early 20s to late 30s. When a series of high-profile sexual assaults devastated the punk community of West Philly in the summer of 2004, some community members decided that they had had enough. West Philly punks who were survivors and bystanders to sexual assault that summer and throughout their lives were “pissed,” and they got organized.

Philly’s Pissed set out to be a group by women for women. When they first organized, the collective viewed women as a category of people who are primarily targeted by sexual assault. Therefore, women — as the survivors of this violence — were best equipped to provide emotional, psychological, legal and general support. As in many communities, the women who established Pissed had had a lifetime of informal experience in supporting friends or family through the trauma of sexual assault. Enough was enough, in their eyes, and they decided to get organized around this work.

Shortly after Philly’s Pissed was established, men in the West Philly anarcho-punk community responded. They recognized that they had a role to play and organized a complementary collective that would work with men who had perpetrated sexual assault. A vibrant queer community existed in West Philly in 2004, some of whom were involved in these groups, but months passed before a critique challenged this traditional gender bifurcation. The shift came from PSU as questions of internal accountability brought about a radicalizing opportunity.

In October 2004, a large crowd had gathered for the monthly PSU meeting. Earlier that week, a member of Pissed had pulled aside one of the few original members of PSU to say that it was necessary to raise a tough issue at the forthcoming meeting. Without betraying the anonymity of the survivor with whom Pissed was working, the senior collective member called out another person in PSU (“Charlie”) for sexual assault. Charlie was highly regarded within the punk scene and was widely admired by many anarchists. He vehemently denied any culpability, insisting that he could not possibly have been involved in a situation. The room unquestioningly agreed with Charlie. Charlie was a stand-up guy. Any further pursuit of this situation would be a waste of time.

Among the nearly 30 members attending the meeting, only two men thought otherwise. No one was aware of a back story, but in their minds that did not matter. If someone was being called out for sexual assault, was it not PSU’s raison d’etre to pursue the situation and hold that person accountable? Despite changes, overlooking situations of sexual assault remained the norm in most punk/anarchist communities.

Those gendered dynamics reproduced previous iterations of men’s groups in which men rallied around one another, at times falling over themselves to demonstrate allegiance to men of stature. The familiar hallmark of patriarchal behavior has not diminished within grassroots, politically active groups. On the contrary, thinly veiled male supremacist public declarations and social posturing are rendered more legible by the structures and tight connections within pockets of organized communities.

Consensus decision-making was the default process for PSU. Lack of consensus to ignore the situation and the “accusations” against Charlie, PSU’s mandate was to persist with an accountability process. Since time had run out during that meeting, a date was set for the November meeting. When only two people showed up for the next meeting, they still met as PSU. The two met again the following week, but were joined by a new member. By December, three more people had been recruited to the group, and PSU has, since then, remained a small, semi-closed collective of committed organizers who do not believe that status can elevate someone beyond reproach.

Reconstitution and shifting points of unity

Formerly an amalgamation of straight and closeted men, PSU now became a tight-knit posse consisting of out queer and gender nonconforming members. For the first time, the group was not all white. It was semi-open, with new members requiring approval to join the collective, although anyone could request this privilege.

Each collective had been characterized by casual, consensus-based decision-making processes, and had begun as open groups in which anyone who attended a meeting automatically “joined” the group. Pissed and PSU adopted explicit Points of Unity — principles to which all members agreed and which spelled out the commitments that grounded their work. These living documents were constantly amended to reflect the shifting politics of our nascent movement and its members, and were a critical reason for the endurance of both groups. Since much of our work is with men who have caused harm, our members must hone a sharp analysis of patriarchy and apply these understandings to struggles with internalized male supremacy that arise in our interventions.

In the process of joining the collective, new members are asked to review the Points of Unity. Prospective members must affirm the document’s politics or submit changes to improve it. Disagreements are understood to challenge and develop the collective as a whole. For example, one suggestion asserted that assaults were not limited to women; anyone, regardless of gender, sexual identity, or any other factor can be a survivor of sexual assault, and, likewise, anyone can be a perpetrator of sexual assault. Several PSU members, including cis-gendered men, realized and confided in the group that they too were survivors of sexual assault. In this light, PSU formally acknowledged that it would cease to be a “men’s group” and invited people of any gender identity to join the organization and work with people who have caused harm. Gender and cultural diversity expanded the reach of the individuals and communities with whom we felt equipped to work, thereby strengthening our work.

Since our organizing revolved around countering sexual assault, we discussed how fellow members could only be effective if they had a solid analysis of the interconnectedness of systems of oppression, including the dynamics of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ableism, citizenship status, etc. A shift at Pissed followed soon, so that their organizing expanded to include people of any gender in their collective. This strengthened their capacity for working with survivors of all gender identities. Over time, members of the Pissed and PSU collectives moved fluidly between the organizations whenever the work became overwhelming or the other group was more suited to an individual’s needs.

The relationship between Pissed and PSU changed over time. In the first year, accountability went one way, with PSU sharing its notes and business matters with Pissed. Pissed issued work assignments. PSU’s Points of Unity were informed by Pissed, they followed Pissed’s directives, and were beholden to the survivors at the core of each accountability process. In the early years, accountability meant “consequences,” ranging from smear campaigns using fliers that warned people of perpetrators’ misdeeds to sanctioned violence in retaliation for uncooperative offenders.

Both organizations grew uncomfortable with this relationship. We all recognized that to be effective, the groups needed to be respected, independent and autonomous. This goal was impeded as long as PSU remained subservient to Philly’s Pissed. That dynamic drained rather than sustained energy, and it bred mistrust instead of generosity between the groups. Over time, Pissed members developed increasing unease with a politics of spite and retaliation. With PSU dealing with perpetrators, enough distance was created between members and Pissed and the “screw-ups” in our community as some members of Pissed called them. The integrity with which PSU approached its work increased the comfort level within Pissed as PSU grew more autonomous and eventually became independent (while remaining closely aligned). This somewhat accidental structure afforded members of Pissed the distance they needed from those who caused harm. They could give their own needs as organizers and survivors the attention needed for healing. In short, the less energy they put into chasing down people engaged in assaulting others, the more capacity they had to fully invest in the healing and prosperity of survivors.

Who we are now

Despite the enhanced capacity Pissed gained from transforming its politics and relationships, it would be too little to sustain the group and prevent burnout. After over four years of organizing, its membership diminished to the extent that the few remaining members could not support the weight of the work. In 2008, the organization dissolved, but its legacy was a punk-anarchist community in West Philadelphia with a sophisticated perspective on sexual assault. The efforts of Pissed and PSU are at the foundation of that complex understanding.

PSU, an unincorporated, grassroots volunteer collective, has between four and eight members. It seeks to create community-based responses to sexual assault through direct involvement with those who have caused harm in those situations. Central to its organizing efforts are the needs of survivors of sexual assault, whom members believe, support and attempt to re-empower. PSU meets face-to-face with people who have caused harm and works with them to understand and change their behavior. Much energy is dedicated to public education, with the aim of preventing future assaults, fostering a culture of sexual responsibility, and cooperating with efforts to abolish prisons. Our demographic profile has changed over the years. All members live and work in West Philadelphia and are primarily connected to queer, trans and gender nonconforming communities with explicitly left politics. All of us are in our 20s and 30s. We work with youth, elders and support parents as organizers.

PSU pays no one to do this work. Our usual business is conducted during two-hour meetings, supplemented by special work sessions and retreats. Self-education is part of our routine and we designate every fourth meeting to contemplating complicated questions and polemics or to strengthening our analysis and expanding our knowledge. Our stable core of five or six people receives support from concentric circles of ex-members, interns and allies in the form of childcare, information technology or direct work with people who have caused harm. Although their numbers have never exceeded the size of the core collective, the outer ring has been invaluable in sustaining the group.

Above all, we are friends. Even when incorporating a new member into the core, the level of trust and intimacy that this work demands always drives us to nurture genuinely close friendships. We feel accountable to one another with respect to tasks and logistics, political allegiance, representation of our work and philosophy, and the responsibility to maintain our reputation. The latter is an irreplaceable currency that gives us the access needed to work with people who have caused harm; survivors also gain the trust that restorative elements can be infused into demands and the process of healing.

From restoration to transformation

Working on individual situations can be a quagmire, but those of us in Philly Stands Up and Philly’s Pissed nonetheless held regular discussions about alternative justice philosophies. What are we really doing? How does it fit into frameworks of justice? What systems and practices have other communities created elsewhere or in the past to think through hurt, healing and accountability?

In the winter of 2006, one member and a friend from our community introduced the notion of “restorative justice” to both collectives. We were instantly and irrevocably intrigued. Shortly thereafter, we plunged into a torrent of research. We incorporated generative discussions into our weekly meetings and the groups jointly held analysis-building potlucks. A recurring topic was the assertion in the restorative justice (RJ) literature that sexual assault cases were among the few instances in which these processes did not work or could not be applied. We questioned why sexual assault would be exceptional. Why was something that felt “so right,” professed to be so wrong?

The primary inspiration PSU derived from RJ was the validation of our approach to working with people who have caused harm. Rather than shunt them off as pariahs, we recognize them as complex, connected members of our community who are thus worth keeping around. In part, this conceptualization popularizes the idea that when sexual violence takes place, everyone is affected. Therefore, all of us must heal from the incident. All of us have a role to play in holding the person who triggered the harm accountable, and in rebuilding the trust we lost in them due to their behavior. Our work departed from traditional RJ practice mainly in that we never asked the survivor to sit down with the person who caused harm. In the aftermath of a sexual assault, this experience would be tremendously retraumatizing and unproductive.

Still unresolved on the matter, we attempted to overcome the limitations of RJ by salvaging its core principle: that, in all these situations, we are all affected, we all need to heal, and we all involved in restoring the community back to the way it was. Yet, in the process of restoration, what is it that we are restoring? Would these efforts lead us to the same troubled, problematic world plagued with patriarchy, homophobia, fatphobia, insecurity, heterosexism, racism, anxiety, depression, ableism, and all of the other conditions that feed into sexualized violence in the first place? If sexual assault is a catastrophe that rips through an entire community, how can that crisis be transformed into an opportunity? Could restoring our community also advance our work toward a socially and economically just world?

PSU members observed that the people moving through our accountability process emerged as changed individuals. The goal of restoration aside, people were never the same after a sexual assault. This was true even if those who had caused harm had taken ownership of their actions, interrogated their own egos, and reflected on their frames of analysis and interpersonal relationships. People involved in the accountability process now so clearly understood what had taken place that they augmented their behavior and relationships.

In short, our efforts towards justice produced a transformative impact. We plugged into the work that queer, gender-nonconforming and women of color-led organizations were doing to explore and promote a transformative justice (TJ) framework. For the first time since the reappraisal of our work had begun, the restless disquiet that had permeated our attempts to graft restorative justice onto our organizing work was hushed. Moreover, TJ offered a conceptual apparatus that directly linked our sexual assault work with the various political projects and leanings in our lives, from economic justice to radical mental health, and, most substantially, prison abolition. Working from a transformative justice framework means that PSU acknowledges the broader systems of oppression (e.g. racism, male supremacy, capitalism and the prison-industrial complex) that instigate sexual assault. Furthermore, we do not assign sole culpability for the assault on the perpetrator or the person who has caused harm. Rather we ask: What did the community do to create and support safer spaces or to ensure cultural competency in communicating sexual needs, desires and boundaries?

Our work no longer aims to restore our community as it was. Instead, we seize opportunities to use community organizing to push back at the injustices inflicted by capitalism and the state, including intimate partner violence, child sexual abuse, rape, sexualized violence within incarcerated populations and the broad spectrum of behaviors that can be understood as sexual assault. All are instances in which capital and the state can be challenged and communities and individuals can be transformed.

Toward a culture of care

Working toward community accountability in cases of sexual assault can be arduous, exhausting, disappointing and scary. It gives rise to self-doubt, insecurity, bad dreams and feelings of isolation. Central to PSU’s functioning is individual and collective well-being. Being honest about needs allows us to persevere and gain strength as a collective. For the work to be sustainable, we must adhere to certain guidelines that support everyone in the group. These precepts acknowledge that effectiveness in organizing can only be achieved through a politics of care.

Although often dealing with crises, PSU cannot operate in an environment of crisis. We recognize the paralyzing consequences of internalizing panic. To avoid being consumed by the work, we maintain a sense of long-term movement-building and always stay active in projects outside PSU. Capacity is finite and real, and a group should take on only a sustainable level of activity. Members regularly check in concerning capabilities and desires and work is redistributed as necessary within the group. By nurturing a balanced organizational culture, we act responsibly to fulfil commitments while valuing care.

Encouraging one another to do the things that make us feel awesome requires intimate knowledge of how each of us works, plays and struggles.

We have developed an organizational structure that facilitates many levels of involvement. Someone’s participation can be limited to attending meetings; preferring not to work with perpetrators of assault is not a problem. For those needing a break, we ask only for clear communication so that responsibilities can be covered during their absence.

Above all, we love one another and are proud of one another. We challenge and trust each other. Ours is a family with considerable room for difficulty and a great capacity for creativity and magic. Believing in one another and in what we are creating together takes us much further than one might imagine.

It takes a village

Our collectives and our community pushed forward a stable accretion of compassion, layered upon healing support, genuine friendship and a sense of social justice. Any success in this experiment of transformative justice and community accountability would require each component.

Survivors and their supporters became comfortable enough to bring their situations to PSU. In their view, we could be completely trusted with confidential information and capable of maintaining the anonymity of the survivors and those who had caused harm.

Much of this confidence flowed from the public trust Philly’s Pissed vested in us. Together, Pissed and PSU were reliable, accessible and delivered results. Our community felt secure in confiding in us. Our help was enlisted to squelch rumors when questions arose about any given person. If a cautious approach to a community member was appropriate, people knew that we would make them conscious of that fact. Being privy to confidential information, we could assess whether people who had caused harm were a high or low risk at conferences, dance parties, as intimate partners, housemates, or just walking down the street.

Trust in this system expanded due to our reliance on social networks that communicated information in both directions. When issuing alerts, care was taken not to smear reputations. We generally refrained from publicly broadcasting a “risk factor.” (Sometimes it was deemed necessary, especially in cases of outright uncooperativeness or genuine threats to our community). This is done out of respect. We seek to maximize openness, hoping to encourage people who have caused harm to work with us. Friends serve not as a gossip circuit, but as vital eyes and ears that ensure safety by warning others or removing unsafe individuals from group situations.

Over time, positive results from this organizing enabled us to expand efforts to design a culture of sexual responsibility in which all individuals and local institutions could play a role. If Pissed insisted that we bar a particular band from playing in our community, community members complied by removing those acts from shows. If PSU recommends that the security team for a punk fest undergo training on creating safer spaces, the event organizers trust that we are looking out for the community’s best interests and invite us to facilitate it.

Through this work, our community has realized that tremendous power can be marshalled through organization, trust and a commitment to a more humane politics. With power, the West Philly punk anarchist community shifted away from politics rooted in weakness and insecurity. It no longer demanded to know the identity of every perpetrator, or that each of them be chased out of town. Once it started to slow down and tune in these buzz words of “restorative” and “transformative justice,” our community moved from being pissed to being curious.

Bringing about this social climate was not a magical process, although there was a poetic glimmer to it. Our contribution was imaginative, but rooted in the fact that real and lasting change requires patience and a long-term view.

PSU is now discussing non-imperialist ways of building solidarity with local communities and organizers who are not enmeshed in our environment of grassroots TJ, or in the movement to abolish prisons and liberate the incarcerated human spirit from the prison-industrial complex. As hip hop MC Slug, of the group Atmosphere, says, we “got a lot to teach, but even more to learn.” In integrating our beliefs and practices, we realize how far we must go to bring the world we envision into being. The dynamics of silence, hurt, male supremacy, strained communication, intimate-partner violence, and sexual assault are ever-present even within the community of care that we work to nurture. Creating a culture of responsibility and compassion is a long-term goal. It begins with practice in our everyday lives and in a firm conviction that neighborhoods are better equipped than lawmakers are to break harmful cycles and redefine accountability to foster, rather than destroy, community. Every practice has its component skills. Each day we strive to expand our skills, to hold, to watch and to listen.

The author has been a core member of Philly Stands Up since the end of 2004. His perspective is unique as a queer, black, cis-gendered man, a parent, and the longest-standing member in the history of the group. The voices of past and present members of Philly Stands Up are woven throughout this piece. Special thanks to Philly Stands Up member Jenna Peters-Golden for invaluable contributions, insights and support, all of which made this article possible.

*The term cis-gendered refers to people whose biologically assigned gender aligns with their gender identity.

**Our working definition is based on Generation Five’s articulation of accountability in their 2007 document, Toward Transformative Justice: A Liberatory Approach to Child Sexual Abuse and Other Forms of Intimate and Community Violence.

The original version of this article appears here.

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Esteban Kelly