By Beth Leventhal, Executive Director of TNLR
Inspired by the Egyptian Tahrir Square uprising and the Spanish acampadas massive demonstrations by young workers, the Occupy Movement began in September 2011 on Wall Street as a nonviolent, leaderless resistance movement to end corporate greed and corruption in the United States. In the few months since its inception, the movement spread to hundreds of cities world-wide. The main slogan of Occupy, “We are the 99%”, refers to the fact that those in the top 1% income bracket control almost half of the wealth in the country. While those who occupy the encampments are activated around a wide variety of social and political issues, the “99%” campaign focuses first and foremost on capitalist-based oppression.
As an organization concerned with oppression, we at TNLR see important connections between our work addressing partner abuse, and Occupy’s work addressing corporate corruption. At TNLR we believe that the sense of entitlement to control one’s partner that is characteristic of abusers both reflects and perpetuates the oppressive culture at large: through various forms of oppression, such as racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and others, US culture condones and rewards interpersonal, institutional, and corporate abuse of power in order to control and exploit specific groups of people.
At TNLR, we understand that corporations exploit workers by taking advantage of workers’ vulnerabilities (often based on criminal background, class, ability, veteran, immigration and familial status, etc.), in a way that mirrors abusers who take advantage of their partner’s vulnerabilities due to homo/bi/transphobia and other forms of oppression in order to gain control in the relationship. Control is assured through a complex web of tactics meant to undermine the worker/partner’s emotional, financial, sexual, physical, and cultural well-being, autonomy and sense of self-worth. Just as some corporations deny a living wage and benefits to workers with impunity, so too do some abusers deny their partners access to their bank account or medications. Because corporations and oftentimes abusers are financially in control in their relationships with workers and survivors respectively, the latter depend on the former for their livelihood. Consequently, workers and survivors alike lack power to negotiate better terms or to leave their abusive situation.
Apart from our common roots in anti-oppression organizing, we see in Occupy a reflection of our own struggles with coalition work. Much of the attention paid by the alternative media to Occupy has been highly critical of oppressive power relations that are occurring within the movement itself, focusing on everything from who runs the General Assemblies, to the very name of the movement. Many of our own internal conversations at TNLR about Occupy Boston have resonated with those arguments. But while we may not approve of every single thing that goes on at Occupy Boston, it is important to remember that we are concerned by it because we find connection to it.
This is both the beauty and the heartache of coalition work. Occupy reminds us that coalition building is difficult and takes time. It is inherently risky. Bernice Johnson Reagon wrote, “You don’t go into coalition because you just like it. The only reason you would consider trying to team up with somebody who could possibly kill you, is because that’s the only way you can figure you can stay alive.” So yes, coalition work necessitates that we confront the ugly – in our tent, and in the tent next to ours. It is also, therefore, a declaration of faith in the future. To do broad-based coalition work, the kind that is happening at Occupy, people make a commitment to talk through that ugly with one another. We commit to sitting with the discomfort of discovering that not only have we been stepped on by others, but that we, too, have done some stepping on of others. And together, we all must move forward into trying to figure out how to be accountable to that, so that our violence should be an opportunity for transformation, rather than more violence.
In the end, a strong coalition does not work towards comfort, but rather leans into discomfort. As Audre Lorde wrote, “We don’t have to be the same to have a movement, but we do have to admit our fear and pain, and be accountable for our ignorance. In the end, finally, we must refuse to give up on each other.”
The Network/La Red (TNLR) is a survivor-led, social justice organization working to end partner abuse within lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, BDSM, polyamorous, and queer communities.