Reimagining Right and Wrong

As Norma discussed in her most recent post, we recently had the privilege of attending a screening of the powerful documentary Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four last week. Following the film was a conversation with members of F2L, a NYC-based group of individuals doing support work for queer and trans people of color facing time in the state prison system. Their insight both complemented and challenged the film, inviting sustained dialogue on the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and policing. One of the volunteers highlighted the documentary’s emphasis on innocence: as a viewer, it is easy to support the cause of four women who are “innocent” and to lament their “wrongful imprisonment.” But what if we instead proclaim that all imprisonment is inherently wrong? What if we reject the so-called criminal justice system in its entirety and dare to radically reimagine a world without prisons?

I have been circling back to these thought provoking comments throughout the last two weeks, as themes of criminalization and policing continue to emerge in our readings and engagement activities. Two particular works (which we viewed as enrichment events) have left me grappling with notions of innocence, guilt, and the hyper-criminalization of people of color: the play Pipeline and the film Moonlight.

Pipeline is a new play written by Dominique Morisseau and directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz. The work is centered on Nya, an inner-city public high school teacher, and her teenage son Omari. As the play unfolds, we learn that Omari has gotten into a physical altercation with a teacher at his elite private school upstate, where his mother had sent him in pursuit of better opportunities. Another student recorded the interaction, and the school is threatening to expel Omari in addition to pressing criminal charges.

Moonlight is an award-winning (Best Picture!!!) 2016 coming-of-age film written and directed by Barry Jenkins that was adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” The story is told through three stages in the life of the main character, represented by his three names: Little, Chiron, and Black. It chronicles his struggles with his identity, sexuality, and childhood abuse. While Moonlight deals less explicitly with the school-to-prison pipeline, themes of crime and criminalization underlay the film. After neighborhood bully Terrel coerces Chiron’s friend and love interest, into brutally beating him, Chiron returns to the classroom and strikes Terrel over the head with a chair. He is arrested and sent to juvenile detention.

In both works, the audience gains insight into the mindset of the individual committing the the “crime.” We see not only their singular act of violence, but also their entire lives. Omari and Chiron are both guilty in the technical sense–both physically assaulted another individual in the classroom. But in knowing their stories, their struggles, their reasons for being pushed to violence, the viewer cannot help but be overwhelmed with empathy (to the point that many audience members started cheering when Chiron struck Terrel). When we cast aside the learned stereotypes of black boys as men, as violent, as animalistic, as criminal, and instead recognize them as individuals fighting for their humanity in a society that constantly and creatively seeks to deny it, even the “guilty” are worthy of love. When we acknowledge the complex and layered reasons that these boys were pushed to act violently, imprisonment no longer feels like an acceptable answer.


Take that, Pat

Image result for anti abortion fetus poster

An example of a poster used by anti-choice protesters

Two Saturdays ago, I returned to Choices at a painfully early hour to escort patients past protesters and into the clinic. Saturdays are one of the busiest days at Choices, as many women are working or unable to arrange for childcare during the week. Patients come for a number of services, from an annual Pap test to a medical or surgical abortion. And as the patients arrive early on a Saturday morning, so do the protesters–though “protest” seems too gentle of a word to describe the vile and violent actions of these fervently anti-choice individuals. They held up graphic posters of bloody, supposedly aborted fetuses, distributed medically inaccurate pamphlets, and ranted about the baby killing and racial genocide that they claimed was happening behind the clinic’s doors. I spent the morning escorting patients and their partners, companions, and even sometimes children past this angry crowd and into the clinic doors, attempting to minimize contact between patient and protester and generally de-escalate an intense situation.

Because I have had little contact with people whose views on abortion differ drastically from my own, at least outwardly, it was important for me to come face to face with people who actively and vehemently oppose abortion. It also reminded me that the stakes are incredibly high. I had to be careful about using names, or wearing any clothing that would allow me to be identified, as these protestors are connected ideologically–if not personally–with individuals who are willing to commit violent atrocities to scare patients, volunteers, lawmakers, and providers away from abortion. Even after women have surmounted all of the barriers to even arriving at an abortion clinic, they are met with violent harassment outside the door. These people are willing to lie, coerce, physically block, or perhaps even become violent in order to prevent women from holding autonomy over their bodies. I left Jamaica that morning with an increased sense of urgency in my commitment to reproductive justice.

AG Schneiderman with Merle Hoffman

Today, a historic step was taken to prevent these protestors from infringing upon reproductive rights. Standing on a police-barricaded street in front of Choices’ back door, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced a federal lawsuit against a group of 14 anti-choice protestors who repeatedly harassed and threatened patients, families, escorts, and staff at Choices. (One of these is an individual named Pat who had some particularly peculiar things to say on the morning that I escorted, lamenting my indoctrination in Communism and asking how many times I had sinned by “fornicating.”) The motion seeks to establish a sixteen-foot buffer zone around the Choices premises, which would require protestors to remain on the other side of the street and could set an important precedent for such legal protection of abortion clinics around the country. This lawsuit has been more than five years in the making, and includes a lengthy list of alleged illegal conduct by the protesters, which you can read more of here.

I feel privileged to have witnessed such an important moment in reproductive justice legislation and immense pride for the bravery and commitment of the staff that I work with every day. Though it is only the beginning of a long road of legal proceedings, I am cautiously optimistic. And as someone looking to approach issues of gender equity and reproductive justice from the legal front, I hope to follow in the footsteps of these impressive lawyers and advocates. As Merle Hoffman proclaimed this morning, this injustice must stop.

“I’d put a baby in you”

During the Fortin Foundation DukeEngage Academy in early May, I attended a session with the wonderful Debjani Roy of Hollaback!, a gender justice organization seeking to bring visibility to street harassment and end all harassment in person and online. We discussed the pervasiveness of street harassment around the globe and its particular prevalence in New York City, and learned strategies for both reacting to harassment targeted at us and intervening when others are harassed around us.

Like many (all?) young women, I’m no stranger to being the target of inappropriate and unwelcome attention from men. I’ve kept my head down and picked up my pace as men and boys have harassed me at various volumes and in at least a handful of languages. So I came to New York mentally prepared for a barrage of unwelcome attention, armed with headphones and a couple snappy replies. But after my first work week in the city, I was pleasantly surprised by how little harassment I had noticed. I relished in the sense of anonymity the crowded city gave me–everyone was far too busy to pay me any attention. Maybe the street harassment isn’t so widespread.

It’s no surprise that my luck didn’t last. This past Saturday afternoon, I walked a single avenue block near Times Square. In just three to four minutes, I was harassed by more than half a dozen men, some alone and some in groups. The comments were delivered casually and effortlessly, but their vulgarity left me feeling vulnerable and violated. Despite strategically planning how I would respond to such situations, all I felt capable of was lowering my gaze, speeding up my pace, and instinctively pulling my jacket tighter around my chest. How do you prepare for a stranger suddenly acting out the sex act that he would like to perform on you, as you walk down the street on a sunny afternoon?

Today over lunch, a coworker told me about a man who waits near a deli to harass her as she walks to work. He pays attention to her schedule, and has “flirted” with her nearly every day for an entire year. “I don’t usually pay these guys any mind,” she said, “but I’m starting to worry that he knows where and when I work.” As I left work today, I was met with a few harassing comments of my own. “Hey baby,” sneered a young kid, no older than 16. Less than a minute later, a slightly older boy was more explicit: “I’d put a baby in you.”

My coworker and I spend our days working at an organization that proudly asserts the humanity of all women and fights for our bodily autonomy, only to be blatantly objectified on our commutes. I wish that I could end on a more positive or empowering note, but I am frustrated that after working to take up space as a woman, a few vulgar words from a stranger can make me want to shrink myself smaller. But I am eternally thankful for the supportive communities of women that I feel safe sharing these frustrations with, and for the powerful organizations like Hollaback that are fighting this type of violence and discrimination every day. I am again reminded of women’s resilience in the face of near constant attempts at subjugation, and of the critical importance of the work of all of our partner organizations.

On blogging, intersectionality, and challenge

I consider myself a strong writer in academic spaces. Traditional academic writing, with a thesis and transitions and a few buzzwords like “hegemony,” “dichotomy,” or “postmodern” is something I can handle. I love writing essays—so much so that I am, perhaps somewhat insanely, choosing to pursue a senior thesis. But when it comes to the narrative style of blogging, I am both less experienced and less confident. Attempting to blog for the first time, I sat cross-legged in bed, repeatedly typing and deleting single words and phrases as I struggled to articulate my thoughts.

Thankfully, I found guidance and inspiration in my fellow women (for about the millionth time). I scrolled through the writing of past Moxie cohorts, and was struck by a post from this time last year. In her post “Who Am I?”, Kelly Atherton wrote about her natural science background and consuming Pre-Med identity. She explained that she had never identified as a feminist, coming from a largely Christian community and rarely discussing issues of sex or reproduction. She (bravely) shared comments from close friends that dismissed her budding feminist beliefs and her need to conceal the work she would be doing.

At first glance, Kelly and I could not be more different. My name is Anna Katz, and I am a rising senior who has spent three years avoiding hard science classes like the plague. I am pursuing a double major in African and African American Studies and Global Health, with a somewhat accidental but altogether fascinating minor in History. Even outside of my specific areas of study, my courses are firmly rooted in the social sciences and humanities: Sociology, Public Policy, Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies, Literature. I strongly and proudly claim Feminist as an identity, an assertion made easier by my upbringing in a diverse and very liberal suburb of Cleveland, and I was eager to tell anyone and everyone about my upcoming summer of reproductive health work.

But in reality, Kelly and I have much in common. Like Kelly, I will be working at Choices Women’s Medical Center, where I’m sure she left big shoes to fill. Though I don’t plan to pursue medicine, I too believe in health as a human right and am committed to working toward equity of health and care. I am specifically interested in sexual and reproductive health and rights, as well as the ways in which the various facets of our identity—gender, race, employment, class, citizenship, sexuality, ability—shape our health and access. I hope to build a career in the realm of women’s health and reproductive justice, and I am eager to learn through my work at Choices.

I can also relate to Kelly’s hope to deepen her understanding of feminism and its importance through Moxie. Despite my robust feminist identity, I want to challenge myself to become more intersectional in my feminism, rejecting the exclusivity of white feminism and intentionally taking a more nuanced approach to equality. In the words of Flavia Dzodan, “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit!” I aim to critically analyze my own behavior and complicity in systems of subjugation, and to embrace the discomfort that can come with such confrontations of privilege and oppression.

I have also recently been thinking about the fluidity of sexuality and gender, and how my feminism can recognize and include these spectrums. By summer’s end I hope to have expanded my understanding of womanhood, reaching beyond mere bodies and genitalia for a more comprehensive definition of the power that is woman. I want to learn more about how the feminist movement has been exclusive of trans and non-binary folk, and blend my feminist values with a larger understanding of gender fluidity.

As I begin this adventure of a summer and embrace the challenges that come with it (blogging included), I am grateful for my wonderful support systems and strong communities of women. And I am especially lucky to be adding my Moxie cohort and the generations of budding leaders before us. A special thanks to Kelly for her blog inspiration—I’m sure you crushed the MCAT.