– by The Shitty Activist
Oppression in activist movements is real. According to the Anti-Oppression Network, the definition of oppression is “the use of power to dis-empower, marginalize, silence or otherwise subordinate one social group or category, often in order to further empower and/or privilege the oppressor.”
You might tell yourself that, since you’re an activist, there’s no way you can be oppressing anyone. But, if you’re a part of an activist group that doesn’t have an anti-oppression policy, you might be part of the problem.
I’m proud to belong to a forest defense group that requires all of its members to sign an anti-oppression policy before joining. Of course, just because someone signs a document doesn’t mean their heart is really in it, as I’ll explain shortly. But first, I want to talk about the positive things our anti-oppression policy has accomplished.
We’ve made it a priority to address the most prevalent form of discrimination in the world, the oppression of women. Though sometimes we forget, it’s important to remember that women were banned from voting in this country until 1920! Which is why the majority of our members identify as women.
What if you aren’t a cis male or woman (for those who don’t know, someone who is cisgender identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth)? That’s fine too, as we welcome transgender folks with open arms and have a zero tolerance policy for any kind of transphobia whatsoever.
Same thing with sexual orientation. We don’t care if you’re attracted to men, women, both, or neither, it’s all cool with us.
Racism in our group is, needless to say, 100% completely and utterly unacceptable. We are totally inclusive of all races, cultures, and nationalities.
Sadly, despite having an anti-oppression policy and requiring all members to sign it, there can still be problems…
For the past year, we’ve had the same group of forest activists attend our meetings. All of them are close personal friends, or friends of friends from the college.
But a few weeks ago we heard a knock on the co-op’s front door (it’s where we hold our meetings). I opened it up and it’s this old dude. Mostly bald and wrinkles around his eyes, I seriously thought he was someone’s dad. But no, he said he was a longtime forest activist and though I didn’t recognize him, someone else in the group said she had seen him in a movie about the early forest defense movement from almost twenty years ago (before a lot of us were even born!).
Right away, we handed him the anti-oppression agreement, which he barely skimmed before signing. He didn’t say anything, but you could tell what he was thinking: Sure, I’ll sign, as long as it’ll shut you up.
That day happened to be our workshop on white privilege and throughout the two and a half hour lecture and discussion, he didn’t have one thing to say. Just sat there quietly listening like some FBI informant. He had so little respect for the topic that he got up twice during the talk so he could “stretch his legs,” since he said it “hurt” for him to sit on the floor for so long, the poor baby.
Another tipoff was he didn’t twinkle when he agreed with something someone said, or use any of the appropriate hand gestures, for that matter. And we were horrified when, instead of the term “person of color,” he actually said “black,” like he was living in the 1950’s or something!
He attended the next three meetings, which were focused on nonviolent communication, sexual consent, and patriarchy. He did the same thing he did before, hardly said anything, got up a few times to stretch his “sore” legs, and when he did speak, used the term “girl” instead of “woman!”
At the end of the meeting he asked if he could say something. We agreed that he could. He said how he “appreciated” the work we were doing on race, gender, sexual orientation and “stuff like that,” and how he had “learned a lot,” and wished the early forest defense movement had been more aware of these issues. But—we knew there was going to be a “but”—he was wondering when we would start planning a forest defense campaign, since we were a forest defense group.
We reminded him that we couldn’t work together on forest defense if we hadn’t learned to trust each other on these other issues. He said that “made a lot of sense,” but was still curious when we would get started on the forest campaign, since the Forest Service was planning to clearcut thousands of acres in the next few weeks. He babbled on about how the forest was in our drinking watershed, how at least three threatened species lived in this particular old-growth stand, how the lawsuits to stop the logging had failed, and that we were the only chance at stopping the chainsaws.
By the time he had finished ranting, most of the group had already gotten up and left. Since I was one of the only people remaining, I told him we appreciated his perspective and we’d bring it up at the next meeting.
Of course, there wasn’t going to be a next meeting. At least not for him. All thanks to this backwards old geezer who was so far behind the times, we had to take down all our posters inviting new people to meetings. We’re not sure if he came around for the next meeting, because we held it at the park instead of the co-op.
If he did, we hope he learned his lesson: that you can’t have a successful activist movement as long as its members are unwilling to take a hard look at how they discriminate against those who are different from them.