Category Archives: Politics: World

Take Back The Night: Thoughts On Reclaiming Space For All Survivors

Photo sourced from official Take Back The Night Foundation site

This post may be triggering for survivors of sexual violence.  Please be safe.

Last night, I marched with Take Back The Night, an annual event in the city where women and trans people take to the streets, make a hell of a lot of noise and reclaim the right to walk the streets without fear.  This year was, from the reports of many, one of the biggest turn-outs here in Toronto.  This is no surprise to me, given the recent wave of public sexual assaults concentrated in the Christie Pits vicinity.  Women are angry that while the news media are actually reporting on sexual violence, nothing really seems to be happening on the policing front.  I have to confess that I don’t count on police to help with sexual violence:  I didn’t report my assaults after a Criminology professor I once had implied that women cry rape after leading men on, among other disgusting comments that I knew many survivors had heard from the mouths of law enforcement.  Standing up in solidarity tonight was far more freeing.

I cannot recall how many times I have been sexually assaulted.  I can tell you which incidents left indelible marks on my psyche.  I can tell you which memories haunted my suicide attempts, which images tormented me in flashbacks and destroyed my healthy sexuality for years.

I can tell you about the man whose name I couldn’t even speak aloud after his betrayal of a longstanding friendship and former romance.  I can tell you on dark nights that I look him up on Facebook, that he has two daughters I fear for.  I fear, you see, because as a pre-teen, he watched a male friend violate friend’s younger sister and neither intervened nor spoke up.

I can tell you of the family that took advantage of me, of how they left me ashamed of my body.  I can tell you how seeing their friend requests on, yes, Facebook struck terror in me and made me want to recoil like a child.  I can tell you how they, my peers in age, were sexually interfered with by teenage girls on our block, only to take that out on me.

I can tell you of the time last year where a man sexually assaulted six women in a general admission concert crowd, that five men watched and did nothing as each woman protested and fled until I became number six.  I can recall how I punched him and grabbed him by the throat even as he still tried to touch me, and how my request for help in restraining him for security was ignored by the men behind me.  The women, however, helped, as did my male friend.

I can tell you of the time I was followed down a dark street past midnight and how I approached the doorstep of a lit-up townhouse and faked ringing the bell.  I can still see him lingering on the sidewalk before mercifully giving up and walking away.  I can tell so many stories of my own and so many of the survivors I know.  I can tell you why women and trans people need to take back their right to walk – to live – without fear.

But I could also tell you of the ex-boyfriend who was repeatedly molested by male babysitters from age 10-14, and how that damage lingered.  I can tell you of the male survivor friend I have and how his experiences have dramatically affected him.  I could share with you how isolated he feels, how he doesn’t believe he belongs anywhere as a survivor.

I cannot disagree with his concerns, and it is here that I find myself struggling mentally and emotionally with the mandate that cisgendered men are not invited to the march portion of Take Back The Night (they are welcome to the rally and to stand on the sidewalks and support women).  Women and trans people are unquestionably disproportionately affected by sexual violence.  However, in that understanding of sexual assault as a crime “that happens to women”, male survivors are silenced withing a unique layer of shame.  We are survivors all, but just as my male friend will never understand the experience of walking the streets as a woman, I will never truly understand survivorship as he experiences it, either.

In recent years, those of us involved in the fight for an end to sexual violence have tried to dispel that shame, that emasculation pain that rape culture thrusts down the throats of male survivors.  More men are speaking out and demanding justice for themselves and that is such a good thing.  In opening this space, we have given these men a voice, and with that voice, cisgendered males are asking why they cannot march with Take Back The Night, why men must stand aside or go to a workshop to be better allies.  I noticed several questions along these lines.

I don’t have any answers.

The fact is, the dynamic of this discussion is changing from the year of the event’s inception.  Trans men and women both participate.  On a personal level, I would be comfortable walking with my male survivor friend at my side, in acknowledgement of the pain men have inflicted upon him.  Then again, the fact remains that cisgendered male survivors are still safer than I am at night.

I am torn because I need the space of this march to rage against the fear and oppression I cope with as a woman.  I want that space.  But the friend in me sees how desperately the male survivors I know need a space – and women as allies – as they heal themselves and also combat the gender role bullshit they face in our rape culture.  Maybe it’s because I have been hugely involved in the Tori Amos fandom that I am acutely aware of these silent men; her music draws them in just as much as female survivors.  The why doesn’t matter.  What matters is I hear their voices, too.

What is the answer?  Again, I do not know.  I just see the dialogue between the lines and know that we need to reach out into the ether and address it.  Perhaps instead of only a workshop on allyship for men during the march, a safe space could be offered for male survivors to unify and affirm each other’s experiences.  Maybe we need another annual event where all survivors of all gender identities and walks of life unite together and raise our collective voices.  What I do know is isolation.  I know how it feels to believe you do not belong, that you are somehow branded or tainted as ‘other’.  I know shame.  I don’t wish this on my brothers.

One woman noted feeling unsafe after an anti-psychiatry speaker gave their talk at this year’s rally – that the mentally ill were stripped of a safe space.  Men who ask and are told no, you cannot participate even as a survivor of sexual violence perhaps feel they, too, are stripped of a safe space.  Having had my safe space ripped away so many times, I just want there to be safety for all survivors.  Perhaps this post will open a door to that space for men like my friend, my assailants, my ex.  It need not be the space female-identified survivors claim; perhaps it should not be.  But they, too, have voices.  Maybe it’s time we listen for those whispers.

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Collected Thoughts: Medicinal Marijuana and Decriminalization

Were I availed of more free time and energy, I might craft a coherent thought piece on this subject, one that I feel rather strongly about.  However, given lack of the above, here are excerpts from a discussion on Facebook on the issue, which encapsulate the bulk of my beliefs.

Note:  There is an America-centric slant to these comments, despite my being Canadian; the discussion centred on American laws and thus, I responded accordingly.  Don’t even get me started on Harper’s “ZOMG! Growing pot plants deserves more mandatory jail time than child rape!” omnibus crap…

Part One:

Who are you to judge what these so-called “regular people” are doing with a substance on par with alcohol? By your logic, alcohol should be abolished, because people consume it to enjoy a concert or movie or night out, or celebrate events. Further, psychological self-care includes leisure time – which may, horror!, include smoking pot on days off for fun. Whether intentionally taken for a medicinal cause or not, it does reduce anxiety, does enhance appreciation of stimulus and so on – unintentional medicinal effects.

Further, pleasurable enjoyment of marijuana and its pervasiveness – and the support of those individuals – is why the medicinal marijuana movement has had enough clout to make ANY leeway, why anyone realized its uses at all. Do you really think, if a so-called pothead hadn’t suggested pot to cancer patient family or friends, or those with anxiety, etc etc. that we would have seen studies that benefited the medicinal cause?

Last, how do YOU know the exact psychological reasons why a “pothead enjoying a movie” appreciates marijuana? I often smoke for, from outside appearances, recreational purposes. You can hear mention of this and throw shame at me for “ruining” a movement that came long after – one I support. I support it because I have gastro issues, anxiety, mood disorder and chronic pain. I choose marijuana for my recreation because it slows the racing of my bipolar brain, reduces anxiety, eases my constant pain in my joints and thus, allows me to mentally be happy and recharge. It is both recreation and medicine at once, but all you see is my atypical cheery mood and sense of ease while watching Pink Floyd DVDs.

Don’t bite the hand that feeds power into a movement you purportedly support, and don’t make assumptions about people whose lives you don’t live. I could write an essay on West Indian and Jamaican racial oppression and systemic issues that likely feed the connection between Marley and weed, but I shouldn’t have to connect the dots.

Part Two:

Marijuana is not often the drug of choice for a substance abuser, but people do indeed abuse it. People also abuse Oxycontin, or Percocet, drugs that someone needs to be able to get out of bed, drugs I have needed for injuries before to function. You can’t shun or slander everyone who uses a substance for non-medical reasons because of an experience that is personal and not objective.

Why do you care if I want to have three drinks at a concert? How is my choice affecting you? How is my choice to smoke a joint before a concert your business, or affecting your life? As a caveat, I hate people who are obnoxious substance users who DO impact others’ experiences; I’ve told off belligerent drunks at concerts before because they are screaming in my ear or falling over on me. I’ve also told off sober people infringing on me in the same way. That’s moot and a whole other area. But if I am sitting in my seat at a concert, enjoying the music, and happen to be high, why do you care? How is it affecting you?

While you may see the medicinal marijuana issue as “more important” than general decriminalization, you are failing to acknowledge that it came second to those who cannot fathom how a substance less dangerous than/no worse than alcohol or tobacco is a criminal offense, an evil substance, fighting to have it legalized. The reason pot smokers are so eager to support the medicinal movement is because it is one more reason in their argument for decriminalization. Tobacco helps no one. Alcohol helps no one. Marijuana does help people, and also happens to be recreational. The fact of the matter is, celebrities or not, the moral majority do not give a shit about suffering people. They do not give a shit about medical and scientific data that shows there’s no good reason to prohibit marijuana. The more people in the public who fuss, kick and fight to their government, the likelier it is they’ll throw their hands up and quietly give in. Medical marijuana is a stepping stone in a movement that already was, and members of that older movement were already espousing the medical benefits.

Governments are lobbied by churches and big business, especially pharmaceuticals. They have big, financial reasons not to decriminalize, not to approve medicinal marijuana. Who will buy all the pretty painkillers? How will doctors make money off narcotics and treating addiction to them? How will the government justify taxes and thousands of prison jobs if they’re not locking up African Americans and lower class Caucasians and Latinos for dealing a few dime bags? Think of all the social programs they can’t excuse themselves from funding if they stop spending money charging, prosecuting and imprisoning people for pot. Think of all the cop corruption cases they can’t throw out anymore for waiting too long for trial to start when the dockets are cut in half after pot is decriminalized. Think of the nasty business of the DEA having to focus on more international drug issues and treading on toes when they can’t keep busy chasing twenty-somethings from impoverished neighbourhoods for growing a few hundred plants.

Systemic oppression and corruption are the big picture, and that’s something everyone – from to the casual potheads – can get on side with.

THAT is why shitting all over users is really offensive. As for those in your life who used it as a crutch? Ask yourself what was going on in their lives that they felt they needed to self-medicate. Ask what was lying beneath the abuse. It’s an illness. Just like gastroparesis.

Think larger. Stop being so narrow-minded, please. That sort of division is exactly what the government wants, and it sets back the cause you care about.

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London Riots: Anarchy, poverty, politics? Check all and then some.

Spent the last hours watching the reports flood in on the London Riots that are fast becoming the UK Riots, should things continue on.  As the first-gen Canadian child of a Brit, I have a special place in my heart for London and the UK.  My great-grandfather fought in WWI for Britain.  My voice slants into a British accent upon contact with my family, as if it were tucked away within my DNA, waiting to be triggered.

Watching London burn is heartbreaking.  It’s also terrifying, because as much as American and Canadian media want to diminish coverage, they should be paying close attention.  This is what’s coming very soon.  The foundations of human behaviour that breed riots will always be there, a stack of kindling looking for a spark.  It is the sociopolitical factors that are fuelling the fires within the citizens of the world, and the Conservative governments people have shortsightedly supported in North America and London will only worsen matters.

Collective behaviour theories: a brief discussion of how riots evolve

Collective behaviour theory seeks to understand precisely that: how we behave as groups – collectively – and why we do so.  Despite the numerous articles on the subject, no one theory seems to be accepted as the be-all, end-all answer to riots, panics, and lynch mob mentality.  I first examined collective behaviour as a course in my Crime & Deviance program, and it was by far one of the most fascinating and also frustrating topics I studied.

For those wanting a review of all of the key theories, you can start with this wiki-link that outlines most in brief, and this article, which goes into greater detail and covers more theories, including one of my personal preferred explanations, threshold theory.  As threshold theory serves as a strong basis for the riots in London, given the facts, I’ll focus on it.

Threshold theory argues that within each of us is a personal threshold that dictates if and when we will engage in a form of collective behaviour.  For some, the threshold is zero – meaning these people will engage in the action without anyone else starting things up.  These are the instigators of a group.  Some possess relatively low thresholds – for example, if two people begin to tip a car over and break windows, some may be duly motivated to join in and continue the behaviour. Some possibly have a 100% threshold – they will never act, unless the entire population is also acting.

Thresholds are theorized to be based upon a cost-risk analysis of sorts, making collective behaviour rational by this theory.  If someone is a criminal with history who cannot find a job and is starving, he will have no threshold to stealing food because the risk (arrest) does not sway him.  Someone who is wealthy and respected in the community will not steal food without a great deal of motivation, because she has a lot to lose and fear if caught.

But this isn’t the whole story, in my mind, because it fails to account for those who feel genuine shame after the group disperses, or who do suffer great costs for the behaviour later that could and should have been predicted.  This is where we dash in emergent-norm theory.  Put as simplistically as possible:  the group becomes a new entity, an almost society in which norms ’emerge’ that may be the opposite of usual personal norms.  It allows for ‘good’ people to be drawn in over time through pressure of the group; ‘disobedience’ becomes the ‘new normal’ and people inherently prefer to blend in or belong.

London Riots: theory applied

I’ve wrestled with explaining this on Twitter tonight, but basically, we have two unique groups within the rioters, who may be partially spurred by the same political and socioeconomic factors, but have a very different inherent set of norms and beliefs that come to the table.  We have instigators, and we have the general masses who have merged in and joined the looting and destruction, to varying degrees.

In threshold theory, the instigators are people already prone to riots.  The groups noted as organizing on Blackberry Messenger (BBM) and social media? The ones who dropped flyers like this?

These are the zero threshold people.  They would riot as long as possible, no matter what the crowd did in response.  Their motivations at present moment:  to screw with the government, with societal structure and the law.  Anarchy is their flavour of Kool-Aid.  How they became anarchists with such low thresholds for the behaviour that they would not only organize, but lay in wait for opportune settings like the killing of Mark Duggan, one can wager many guesses.  I’m going to go with a sense of disenfranchisement, hopelessness about the future, lack of connection with the law and government and being harassed for the sheer crime of being young/of a minority background.

Surprised?  Why?  Blaming youth has been a prime strategy of moral panics for decades now; for a thorough examination, locate the book Blaming Children by Bernard Schissel.  Youth crime has overall been on the decline in Canada – crime in general has also been declining – but from the media and government, you would never know it.  They are scapegoat du jour, the ‘asshole punks’ who steal things and ‘are up to no good’ on the street corner.  In London, that has never been more apparent:  youth centres were cut to save money, and peaceful protests went ignored by government and media alike.  The city was ripe for the anarchy-minded, just waiting for that match to meet the kindling.

In an eerily prophetic article on July 29th in the Guardian, the warning signs are laid out:

Others worry that a perfect storm of unemployment, the withdrawal of the Education Maintenance Allowance and a squeeze on programmes to help disadvantaged youths could bring more than just a rise in crime figures and result in a “lost generation”.
“The young people in Tottenham, they are not so much a community within a community, they are a community beyond the community, with their own rules, their own codes, their own hierarchy,” said Symeon Brown, 22, who helped run a campaign to prevent the cuts in Haringey. “How do you create a ghetto? By taking away the very services that people depend upon to live, to better themselves.”
Professor John Pitts, who has researched gang behaviour for more than 40 years, says the “annihilation” of youth services, coupled with academies likely to favour middle-class students over disadvantaged children, could further disconnect young people from society and result in more entrenched gangs.
“Services are not just being taken away from young people, they are being taken from poor young people,” he said.
“At a simple level that could mean an increase in antisocial behaviour and vandalism. In the longer term, if you withdraw state protection then there will be ever greater reliance on the groupings that emerge in that vacuum.”


But that’s not even the whole story.  Check out this article from the Guardian, outlining numerous other protests within the last year, and noting that since 1998 there have been over 300 deaths in police custody, with not a single officer charged for any of them of course, and the Mark Duggan incident becomes the clear straw breaking the proverbial camel’s back.

The protesting began peacefully outside a police station, demanding answers over Duggan’s death.  Insert a few instigators who are angry in general at the police, shake with impoverished people who have little to lose and emotions running high, and serve over fiery police cars and broken windows.

The riots would be over by now, if the instigators were apprehended or felt dissuaded enough to hide away, waiting for their next prime moment to strike.  The trouble is, with all of the anger, poverty and desperation felt by so many, the threshold lowers and people who may have never imagined looting are suddenly joining the masses.  The fact that some are looting diapers and basmati rice of all things speaks volumes.  Some are more enterprising and seeking items of value to sell later to survive.  Some are just acting because, as emergent-norm theory predicts, when thievery becomes normalized in a group, they figure, “Why not?” and start grabbing their own TV or sneakers.

Wait, you ask:  are you justifying these horrible actions?  No, absolutely not.  There are plenty of horrified Londoners who are sitting home, with no intentions whatsoever of looting.  There is always a choice to make in group behaviour, although it is admittedly harder in a throng of people all doing the opposite of what is normally done.  But we cannot excuse government, police and societal culpability.  Police stopping and searching people – youth in particular – of race and in certain areas breeds contempt and a lack of respect and insulted dignity.  Cutting programs aimed at engaging troubled youth or assisting impoverished youth in obtaining education that may hoist them out of their dreary cirumstances has a price, and London’s paying it.

Then again, those looting and protesting are not hurting the government or the structures that have created such a chasm between the haves and have-nots.  Breaking into people’s homes and cars is disgusting and not remotely justifiable.  All these people have done is further divide a people that now, more than ever, should be collectively resisting the government’s failures.  For all of the genuine and understandable rage behind the actions of many over the last three days, they are accomplishing nothing for their cause.

Well, neither did peaceful protest, sadly.  In an amazing and insightful blog posting from Laurie Penny, she quotes a telling NBC report:

“Yes,” said the young man. “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?”

“Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.”

Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere ‘’’

So what is the solution?  How do we prevent this?  How do we punish the guilty?  These are the questions ringing out on Twitter tonight.  I have no simple answers; there are none.  In almost two centuries, sociologists have yet to agree on a theory of collective behaviour itself.  But I do know this:  more of the same is coming.  And even if governments were to back up and desperately attempt to curb off the angst, it would be far too little too late to defuse the ticking time bombs.  Our instigators are well-organized and waiting to strike, and there will always be people with too little to lose to resist.  Such is the way of our capitalist system of purchased democracy.

Further Reading:

A very detailed and academic look at Threshold theory
An article about the Mark Duggan shooting, which spurred initial protests that evolved rapidly.
Google map showing locations of all verified riot activity
Amazing moment by moment coverage of the rioting Monday (flip back for past rioting)
An article detailing how the youth ‘had nothing to lose’ – bringing it back to threshold theory…

A powerful blog from a past resident of Croydon, that asks a key question: why aren’t we giving the looters and rioters a voice?

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