Feminism in the age of Michael Brown (and Eric Garner, and Trayvon Martin, and Kimani Gray, and Ramarley Graham, and Kendrec McDade, and Timothy Russell, and Ervin Jefferson, and Patrick Dorismond, and Ousmane Zongo, and Timonthy Stansbury Jr., and Sean Bell, and… )
In the wake of this year’s UCSB Isla Vista shooting, after 22-year old Elliot Rodgers killed six people, his manifesto was circulated widely through the nether-realms of social media. Clearly the accumulation of defensive and painful rationalizations from a disturbed young man who may have benefited from better mental-health care, this document wretched with a too familiar narrative: women have all the power in sexual relationships, women are cold and unfair in declining the propositions of men; in short, women are at fault for the violence enacted upon them.
In many ways, Elliot Rodgers was not a lone gunman. He was the inevitable conclusion of the ideology of Men’s’ Rights Activism (MRA), of libertine pickup artists and neg-hitters, and of every movie and tv show about a nerdy, down-trodden guy. In Rodger’s mind, he was entitled to “win the girl;” failing this was a great injustice.
In a welcome break from the lone misogynist com monster narrative, thousands of women took to the internet to express outrage toward this ideology. The #yesallwomen campaign gave a voice to the sexual aggression most women face every single day for their infuriating crime of walking around in public space. With #yesallwomen, and in many more forums, outrage was directed not at Elliot Rodgers, but at the rape-culture in which he was raised; at the constant social violence toward women that is denied as often as it is committed.
Still, the term “culture” fails to fully encapsulate the way systemic power works. Discussing the Isla Vista shootings, activist Jen Roesch writes, “sexism is the set of ideas that both flow from and serve to justify the unequal status of women.” In other words, ideology is born from already unbalanced power relationships, and then serves to reinforce or maintain those in power. It is no accident, for instance, that the “Mommy Myth” (of idealized motherhood) soared in popularity at the conclusion of each World War when men came home to reclaim their position in private production, or that Weight Watchers was created in tandem with the Women’s Liberation Movement.
Behind every lone-gunman is a cultural ideology, and behind each cultural ideology stand the institutional and systemic forces of oppression. Pointing to the ideology is a good start, but ultimately we must address our social institutions. In the case of Isla Visa, this means demanding change from the universities that stage mock-trials in their own kangaroo courts, the police precincts that fail to process rape kits, and the criminal justice system that is somehow still completely beguiled about how to take victim testimony seriously.
And women are not the only people who can’t walk down the street without being harassed. In 2012 alone, 136 unarmed black men were killed by police officers and security guards. From then to now, an unarmed black man has been killed every 28 hours – and that’s just the body count. Let us not forget the constant barrage of micro-aggressions experienced by people of color on a daily basis: being followed, being stared out, being touched without consent – these last examples will sound familiar to #yesallwomen.
And just like Elliot Rodgers, the police officers implicated are not lone gunmen, but the result of institutional and systemic oppression. In this avalanche of murders, such systemic oppression includes the discriminate policing of black neighborhoods, suspension of basic civil rights at the discretion of law officers, and failure to prosecute police or “white on black crime.”
And yet, in remarks uncomfortably similar to the ugly idiom “she was asking for it,” last week, the New York Times published an article claiming Michael Brown “was no angel.”
This is just one of a many of strains of ideology that holds people of color responsible for the way they are treated by the police. The ideology insists that black culture creates young men that don’t know how to behave themselves (a myth, by the way, that has been debunked by social scientists more than once), and in turn, are killed for their own insubordination. “If he hadn’t demonstrated aggression…” “If he hadn’t talked back…” “If he had just dropped his cell phone...” …he’d still be alive. But rest assured: he was no angel.
Angels don’t exist; neither do monsters. Many of these young men have been defended by their families and communities who exonerate their characters. And even if a single one was not a total pillar of community and goodness, was not a followed by an ethereal orb of light to alert all passersbys of his saintliness; even if any one of the young men killed was, I don’t know, a real human teenage boy, then murder is as justifiable a consequence for copping an attitude as being raped is for wearing a low-cut blouse.
So, what about feminism in the wake of Michael Brown? The proponents of women’s rights must consider not only the interests of all women; we must consider the interests of all people. Like untying a knot made from multiple strings, to set one loose, you must untangle the others. Concerning one social justice movement in the interests of another is the quickest way to see past the lone-gunman, past the ideology, and onto the social institutions that are invested in subjugation of both women and people of color in order to maintain the status quo of current power relationships.
- Written by Victoria Silva, MA