A Reply to Lauren Southern’s “Why I’m Not a Feminist”

Dear Lauren,

In the last couple days, I have seen your video “Why I’m Not a Feminist” pop up a few times. In the video, you describe why you are not a feminist. At the heart of your message is the assertion, “I am not a feminist because I believe both genders should be treated equally.” Setting aside for a moment the problems with your assumption that gender can be reduced to a binary of male/female (here’s a decent introduction to that if you want), I want to talk about the misinformation you offer in your video: misinformation about feminist activism and scholarship, and misinformation about domestic violence and rape. I don’t often find engaging in these types debates online to be the most fruitful use of my energies, since people that produce anti-feminist content generally are not very open to meaningful engagement with feminist thought, however I’ve been stewing over your particular video for a day. I think it’ll be under my skin until actually take the time to I address it.

So, let’s tackle some of your claims one by one. I will try to offer some specific references to actual feminist work so that you can see where my assertions actually come from. Hopefully this might also help you go out and check up on some of your claims, since it appears you haven’t taken the time to engage much feminist work before forming your argument and lambasting feminism to your wide viewership. Alright, onto your assertions…

1. You ask: “Why don’t we see equal representation [by feminists] of both gender’s issues?”

Lauren, I think if you look at the history of feminism, the answer to this question is pretty clear…Feminism emerged out of women’s rights movements. Thus, the roots of feminist scholarship and activism come from a challenge to the inequality of women. Feminism today exists as an agglomeration of past and present efforts to address forms of inequality facing women, including: the inability of women to be recognized as full citizens; women’s lack of rights over their own bodies; women’s lack of protection from violence in the homes and on the streets, and their unique experiences of violence in times of war; the restriction on women’s ability to pursue the same opportunities as men; the gendered norms that constrain women’s ability to freely express their gender, personalities and their bodies; the lack of attention and respect given to women’s voices and experiences; the devaluation of women’s labor; the lack of freedom to love who they wish and the assumption of their heterosexuality; the absence of women in the arenas of power where decisions are made about their lives; and, the pervasive inequalities shaped by race, ethnicity, colonialism, citizenship, gender identity, sexuality, ability, and language that work alongside gender. As you hopefully know, all of these issues remain deeply persistent sources of women’s inequality, and therefore addressing how they operate in the lives women remains at the heart of the feminism.

This does not mean that feminists hate men or that they do not care when men are harmed, nor does it mean that feminists themselves are somehow sexist. There are real and serious inequalities that continue to face women, and it is not unreasonable or sexist for a movement for gender equality to focus primarily on those problems. Would you tell those working to address racial inequality that they are racist unless they also work to address all of the problems facing white people? Maybe you would, Lauren, but I really hope not.

Now, that being said, I actually think that feminists do focus quite a lot on issues impacting men. As I describe in #2 below, the gender regimes that impact women also impact men, and feminists offers many tools to challenge them alongside one another. Don’t get me wrong though, this doesn’t mean that feminism is only important and legitimate when it is also useful to men. There are serious issues of security, freedom, and equality uniquely facing women, and if you are only willing support movements to confront these problems when they also benefit men, then you are missing the point.

2. You say: “Feminists remain silent” on the issues of male suicide, male workplace deaths, male combat deaths, and male homicide death.

Actually, Lauren, a long history feminist analysis of gender does give us some pretty profound insight into a lot of these male deaths. In particular, feminists demonstrate how norms of femininity and masculinity entrench ideas about appropriate male and appropriate female behavior, which deeply shape the conditions of these banana beachesmale deaths. Take the issue of combat deaths, for example. Feminists have written extensively about gender and war pointing to how norms of masculinity are deeply implicated in producing a society in which men are expected to embody sacrificial stoicism, masculine physical virility and strength, while women are expected to be weak, passive, and in need of (male) protection. To engage with a fraction of this literature, check out: Cockburn 2007; Cowen 2008; Daniels 2006; Dowler 2001, 2011, 2012; Eisenstein 2008; Enloe 1983, 1989, 2010, 2014; Fluri 2008, 2011; Goldstein 2001; Jacobs et al 2000; Mohanty et al 2008; Moser and Clark 2005; Puar 2007; Sjoberg 2013; Tickner 2001; Yuval-Davis 1997.

As a means of illustration though, feminist Iris Marion Young (2003) has written about this as “the logic of masculine protection”. She writes, “In this patriarchal logic, exposing menthe role of the masculine protector puts those protected, paradigmatically women and children, in a subordinate position of dependence and obedience” (2). Feminists have challenged this logic of protection in multiple contexts, pointing both to how this robs women of agency, and to how it shapes male participation in war, and subsequent injury and death. Cynthia Daniel’s (2006) book Exposing Men deals extensively with the way that male soldiers–and specifically, their reproductive health–are injured, and how ideas of masculinity (like that “a man should be verile, not weak”) also contribute to the lack of medical help men seek for these injuries. Trust me, Lauren, feminists are writing about this.

I’ll just add on the note of male combat deaths, though: part of the reason it’s disproportionately men is because sexist policies in the U.S. military have historically barred women soldiers from combat roles. If you want equality in solidering, you might want to check out some feminists, like Cynthia Cohn or Megan MacKenzie (among others), who have both written persuasively about the myth that women can’t fight and challenged the exclusion of women from combat positions.

To your other examples (workplace death, suicide, and murder), there are also feminists who illuminate how notions of masculinity shape labor forces and the willingness of workers to use safety equipment, such as my college Arielle Hesse who examines masculinity and worker safety in the (largely male) natural gas workforce of Pennsylvania. Or Miles Groth, whose book “Boys to Men: The Science of Masculinity and Manhood” describes how stereotypes about what it means to “be a man” impacts high suicide rates among young men. Groth argues that feminist efforts to abolish restrictive gender norms offer vital pathways to address the problem. (There are others who discuss this connection too—just google it. You can also google masculinity and crime/gangs to help think through the ways feminism could be a helpful way understand the male murder statistics. I also recommend Melissa Wright (2011), who has written about murder of both men and women in Mexico through a feminist lens).

3. You say: “Almost half of all domestic violence victims in the U.S. and Canada are men.”

Given that you do not cite your source here, Lauren, I do not know where you found this statistic. However, depending on where you look, you may find dramatically different numbers. Some will show what you describe (a relative gender symmetry) while others show that it is largely women experiencing intimate partner violence (IPV). So, why are there such different numbers? Actually, Michael Johnson (2011) has a pretty good article that will respond directly to most of your claims–it’s called Gender and types of intimate partner violence: A response to an anti-feminist literature review, but I’ll try to lay some of it out here. Since other people have already done this work for me, I’ll quote Kelly and Johnson (2008) on the topic:

“For over two decades, considerable controversy has centered on whether it is primarily men who are violent in intimate relationships or whether there is gender symmetry in perpetuating violence. Proponents of both viewpoints cite multiple empirical studies to support their views… These two viewpoints can be reconciled largely by an examination of the samples and measures used to collect the contradictory data and the recognition that different types of intimate partner violence exist in our society and are represented in these samples… Based on hundreds of studies, it is quite apparent that both men and women are violent in intimate partner relationships. There is gender symmetry in some types of intimate partner violence…”

So, then we break down the data! What you’ll find is there are a few important, but different, types of IPV (which are differently documented in the statistics you find):

  • Coercive Controlling Violence: This is what most people think of when they envision domestic violence. This type of IPV is routine and used to control the partner through multiple forms of coercion (economic threats, leveraging children, blaming, isolation, sexual violence, emotional abuse, intimidation, and physical violence.) This type of violence is more likely to result in serious physical injury or death. While men can be victims of this type of violence, on the whole it is overwhelmingly perpetrated by heterosexual men against their female partners. This type of DV is rooted in patriarchy and misogyny. As Johnson and Kelly describe, data obtained from women’s shelters, court-mandated treatment programs, police reports, and emergency rooms are more likely to report this type of violence.
  • Violent Resistance: This type of IPV accounts for the fact that some people respond to coercive controlling violence with violent resistance (akin to “self-defense” but that has a specific legal meaning). The vast majority of violent resistance is done by women against male coercive controlling partners, but charges are sometimes filed in these cases and they contribute to the patterns in the statistics. Unlike the coercive controlling partner, violent resistance is reactive and the intention is not to control.
  • Situational Couple Violence: This is by far the most common type of IPV, and is perpetrated by both men and women close to gender symmetry (although men still slightly higher). This generally results from the escalation of an argument between partners, but is not representative of chronic violence, intimidation, or stalking. Although it is serious and can be lethal, on the whole it tends to involve more minor forms of violence (pushing, shoving, grabbing), and is much less likely to result in serious injury. Fear of the partner is also not a characteristic of men or women in this form of IPV. Large-scale survey research, using community and national samples, account more for this type of violence and therefore report greater gender symmetry in the initiation and participation of men and women in partner violence.

So, yes, Lauren, you’re right that men are victims of intimate partner violence too. Both men and women commit violence in both heterosexual and same sex relationships. All of this violence does matter. But when you’re talking about systemic violence, violence rooted in fear and control, and violence that results in serious injury, the vast majority of assailants are men and the vast majority of victims are women. At least a third of all female homicide victims in the U.S. are killed by male intimate partners (compared to 2.5% for men). On the whole, gender symmetry in IPV tends to be clustered at the lower levels of violence, as the statistics you quote do not distinguish based on severity, frequency, whether an attack was in self-defense, or if it was part of a pattern of fear and coercive behavior. Also add to this that men are more likely to call the police on their partner, more likely to press charges, and less likely to drop charges.

This does not mean that feminists don’t care when violence happens to men, or that they don’t want to see men protected from this violence, cause they do. However, given the realities taking place when you examine the numbers closely, it’s not surprising that most feminist energy addressing IPV is focused on women facing (coercive controlling) violence. Plus, consider the ways that IPV is still shaped by systemic, legally-enshrined patriarchy in this country. Until recently men had the legal right to beat their wives. In fact, as recently as the 1980s, police would delay responding to domestic violence calls, and often wives had no legal recourse to demand protection from the state. This logic about male dominance over women is not wiped from our history yet, Lauren, and it continues to shape the treatment of women by partners and by the state which is supposed to protect them.

It is also very important to add that your claim that men don’t have access to victims services is also incorrect. The Violence Against Women Act, which feminists championed in 1994, legally protects both women and men (in both heterosexual and same sex relationships) who are victims of domestic violence. And, the VAWA does offer male victims all the same services and protections that are available to women.

While there are many feminists who work on the issue of intimate partner violence, if you want to check out some more I particularly recommend the work of Rachel Pain and Dana Cuomo (both links will direct you to some of their work).

4. You say: There are more men raped in prison than women, but “feminists remain silent on the issue”.

The claim that feminists have remained silent on this is just plain false. First of all, feminists fought front and center to change the federal definition of rape to include male victims (and to include other forms of rape, like statutory rape), which it previously hadn’t. It was the Feminist Majority Foundation and Ms. magazine that launched a campaign called “Rape is Rape”, culminating in changes to the old definition that didn’t include men. Second, feminists led the broad coalition advocating for the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, which works to protect all prisoners from sexual assault (the majority of whom are men). (Relatedly, you may also note that women and feminists have been at the forefront of challenging rape in the military, which also affects many men.) Prison rape remains a really serious issue that affects thousands, and is certainly something that deserves more attention than it currently receives, including among feminists. However, among those who are fighting on this issue, feminists are there and they are not silent. For more feminists working on issues of incarceration or detention (some specifically dealing with rape), try Angela Davis (2003, 2005), Dillon (2012), Gilmore and Loyd (2013), Jackson (2013), Lamble (2013), Puar (2007), Sabo and Kupers (2001), Sundbury (2005), and others.

5. You say: “Feminists place a blanket statement on all men that they are all privileged, and that all women are oppressed.”

This is a warped characterization of what feminists argue. Yes, feminists argue that being a male in a male-dominated society has particular privileges—whether it’s being paid more, having greater representation in seats of power, having your voice privileged in many spaces, or so on. But, feminists do NOT assume that all men equally benefit from these systems of privilege, nor to they assume that all women are equally marginalized. The complexity of privilege and oppression underscores why feminist turn to the notion of intersectionality (Hey! It is “Feminism 101”!). Intersectionality notably emerged from critiques of white feminism by women of color and Third World women, who called for a feminism that was more attentive to the way the race, class, colonialism, and other systems of power worked alongside gender. Again, not all women are marginalized in the same ways, and the privileges that come, say, with being wealthy or being white can play a large role in how or whether someone might feel oppressed due to their gender.

Feminists do NOT claim universal oppression among women. In fact, the assertion that all women are oppressed is one of the very issues that galvanized postcolonial feminists and feminists of color in their critique of second wave feminism. There had been (and to some extent still is) a tendency by white feminists to characterize women of color and Third World Women as universally oppressed by their cultures and their men, and thus in need of others (white feminists) to rescue them or to speak about them, or for them. This is what Spivak meant when she argued that brown women do not need white men (or women) to save them from brown men. If you want to learn more about this discussion about feminism and oppression, try checking out Gayatri Spivak’s article “Can the Subaltern Speak” or Chandra Mohanty’s “Under Western Eyes”. These insights are a cornerstone of what is generally understood as Third Wave Feminism, which you claim is about universal oppression.

So, yes, feminists do talk about the way that patriarchy and sexism overlap with other structures of race, class, sexuality, nationality to produce unique violences in women’s lives. But, as you can hopefully see, it is a much more nuanced argument than your characterization. (On the issue of privilege/oppression, you may also be interested in the wide writing of feminists who challenge the idea that men are natural perpetrators or aggressors and women natural victims. Here is one example. Another good source would be Clark and Moser’s (2001) book Victims, Perpetrators or Actors, as well as many of the others I mentioned earlier who write about gender and war.)

6. You say: “As a woman, I will almost always win custody in a divorce case.”

Again, you might look to the extensive feminist literature about gender to craft a meaningful analysis of why this occurs. Undoubtedly, the issue of women being more likely to be granted custody cannot be understood separately from the gender norms that assume that women (not men) are natural caregivers and naturally nurturing, or that assert their primary and most important role is motherhood. In contrast, in our society men have historically been thought of as the breadwinners and the productive citizens. Feminist have challenged these ideas for decades, since they profoundly restrict the options available to women, and contribute to the devaluation of women’s labor both in and out of the home (Mitchell et al 2003). Just a few examples of the impacts of this assumption (of women’s natural role is as the office party planningmothers) include: stigma toward women who don’t want to or cannot have children; the devaluation of work in the home such that it need not be paid or treated as productive; lower pay for women working outside the home (“her income is just to supplement that of her husband”); the characterization of women who don’t fully embody the motherly norms of nurturing caretakers as “pushy”, “overly assertive” or “bitchy”; or even the assumption within workplaces that women will be naturally good at domestic responsibilities, and are therefore are disproportionately expected to do domestic labor in the office, such as cooking, party planning, decorating, and cleaning. (We all remember Phillis, Pam, Angela and Meredith doing that work!) I could go on, but I’ll stop with the examples there.

Anyway, men who are invested in reshaping ideas about their male parental rights may be surprised to find that gendered assumptions about women’s inherent motherliness (which feminist critique) also carry over into how society perceives them as parents (think of the attitudes towards men who are stay at home dads). They may actually find that feminist goals align closely with their own, in terms of changing the gendered expectations about child rearing. Further, in terms of family policy, feminists have actually advocated for many policy changes that benefit men, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act and paternal leave policies.

7. You say: As a woman, I will “actually have my rape and assault claims taken seriously.”

Lauren, how often do you read about rape cases in the United States? Do you really think that it’s fair to say that women have their rape and assault claims taken seriously? Really? Seriously, really? Women are consistently blamed for their own rapes (“she must have led him on”, “she shouldn’t have been dressed provocatively”, “she shouldn’t have been with him in the first place”, “she shouldn’t have drank so much” and so on). There is SO much documentation of women not being believed for their rapes that your claim here is actually really disturbing. This is particularly true for women of color, who are even less likely to be taken seriously. Here are just a few articles to reinforce what I’m saying: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. In terms of feminist efforts to address rape in the U.S., Title IX legislation which feminists have fought for on college campuses offers protection from sexual harassment and assault for all students, including men.

8. You say: As a woman, “I won’t be laughed at for not being manly enough.”

i need feminismYou’re right, in most instances, you probably won’t be laughed at for not being manly enough. But as a woman, you may be laughed at for being too manly. Crossing borders of accepted gender behavior (a man expressing femininity or a woman expressing masculinity) can be difficult for both men and women, and again, there are a LOT of feminist resources that will help give you the language, strategies, and support needed to confront and challenge the harms experienced by both men and women due to gender norms.

As a related caveat, however, if you’re a woman in a male dominated field like the military, policing, firefighting, etc then you likely will come up against the standards of “not being manly enough”. Again, turn to feminists to help understand this (e.g. women in firefighting, women in the military).

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Anyway, Lauren, I hope that helps clear up some of your issues with feminism. I also hope it will encourage you will do a bit more research on the work that feminists do and reconsider your position. If you want to learn a little more about ways feminism has helped men, here are one and two more sources on that for you. You might also find it useful to talk to some feminist men sometime about why they are feminists.

All the best,

A feminist

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FOLLOW UP MAY 4, 2015: Lauren ended up replying to me after I wrote this letter, and asked if I wanted to do an online debate about feminism. We decided to do a call-and-response style discussion where we post questions and replies to one another. My contributions are posted on this blog, and hers are on her youtube account. The discussion is currently on-going. If you would like to follow alone, here is the progression of the conversation: 1) the announcement of the format for our discussion, 2) my first prompt for her, 3) her first video reply, and 4) my second post for her. We hope the conversation continues to be fruitful, and we both welcome you to follow along and participate in the discussion!

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References:

Cockburn, Cynthia. (2007). From where we stand: war, women’s activism, and feminist analysis. New York: Zed Books.

Cowen, D. (2008). Military Workfare: The Soldier and Social Citizenship in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Cowen, D. and A. Siciliano. (2011). Surplus Masculinities and Security. Antipode. 43(5): 1516-1541.

Cuomo, D. (forthcoming). Security and fear: the geopolitics of intimate partner violence policing. Geopolitics.

Daniels, Cynthia. (2006). Exposing Men: The Science and Politics of Male Reproduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Davis, Angela. (2005). Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture.

Davis, Angela. (2003). Are Prisons Obsolete. Dillon, S. (2012). Possessed by death: the neoliberal-carceral state, black feminism, and the afterlife of slavery. Radical History Review. 112: 113-125.

Dowler, L. (2012). Gender, Militarization and Sovereignty. Geography Compass. 6/8: 490-499.

Dowler, L. (2011). The hidden war: The “risk” to female soldiers in the US Military. In S. Kirsch and C. Flint (Eds.), Reconstructing conflict: Integrating war and post-war geographies (pp. 295-314). England: Ashgate.

Dowler, L. (2001). The four square laundry: Participant observation in a war zone. Geographical Review 91(1/2): 414-422.

Enloe, C. (2014). The recruiter and the skeptic: a critical feminist approach to military studies. Critical Military Studies. No issue number.

Enloe, C. (2010). Nimo’s War, Emma’s War: Making Feminist Sense of the Iraq War. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Enloe, C. (1989). Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics.Berkeley: University of California Press.

Enloe, C. (1983). Does Khaki Become You: The Militarization of Women’s Lives. London: Pandora Press.

Fluri, J. (2011). Bodies, bombs and barricades: geopolitics of conflict and civilian (in)security. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 36: 280-296.

Fluri, J. (2008). ‘’Rallying public opinion’ and other misuses of feminism’ in R. Riley, C. Mohanty, and M.B. Pratt. (Eds.), Feminism and War: Confronting U.S. Imperialism, London: Zed Books. Pp. 143-160.

Gilmore, R.W. and J. Loyd. (2013). Race, Capitalist Crisis, and Abolitionist Organizing: An Interview with Ruth Wilson Gilmore, February 2010. In J. Loyd, M. Michelson, and A. Burridge (Eds.), Beyond Walls and Cages: Prisons, Borders, and Global Crisis (pp. 42-54). Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Goldstein, J. (2001) War and Gender, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jackson, J.L. (2013). Sexual Necropolitics and Prison Rape Elimination. Signs. 39(1): 197-220.

Jacobs, S., R. Jacobson, and J. Marchbank (Eds.) (2000). States of Conflict: Gender, Violence and Resistance.London: Zed Books.

Lamble, S. (2013). Queer Necropolitics and the Expanding Carceral State: Interrogating Sexual Investments in Punishment. Law Critique. 24: 229-253.

Laliberte, N., L. Dowler, K. Driscol-Dreickson. (2010). ‘Advances in Feminist Thought: Geography’s Contribution to International Studies In Political Geography: InternationalStudies Compendium’, C. Flint (Ed.), Malden: Blackwell

Loyd, J.M., M. Mitchelson, and A. Burridge. (2012). Beyond Walls and Cages: Prisons, Borders, and Global Crisis. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Mitchell, K., S. Marsten, and C. Katz. (2003). Life’s work: An introduction, review and critique. Antipode. 35(3): 415-442.

Mohanty, C. (2003). Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity.

Mohanty, C. (1988). Under Western eyes: Feminist scholarship and colonial discourses. Feminist Review. 30: 61-88.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and Robin L. Riley. (2008). ‘Introduction: feminism and US wars—mapping the ground’ in C. Mohanty, M.B. Pratt, and R.L. Riley (eds), Feminism and War: Confronting U.S. Imperialism. New York: Zed Books, 1-18.

Moser, C. and F. Clark. (Eds). (2005). Victims, Perpetrators or Actors? Gender, Armed Conflict and Political Violence. London: Zed Books.

Pain, R. (2015). Intimate war. Political Geography. 44: 64-73.

Puar, Jaspir K. (2007). Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Sabo, D., T. Kupers and W. London (Eds.) (2001). Prison Masculinities. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Sjoberg, L. (2013). Gendering Global Conflict, Toward a Feminist Theory of War, New York, Columbia University Press.

Sundbury, J. (2005). Global Lockdown: Race, Gender, and the Prison-Industrial Complex. New York: Routledge.

Tickner, J.A. (2001). Gendering World Politics: Issues and Approaches in the Post-Cold War Era.New York: Columbia University Press.

Wright, M.W. (2011). Necropolitics, Narcopolitics, and Femicide: Gendered Violence on the Mexico-U.S. Border. Signs. 36(3): 707-731.

Young, Iris Marion. (2003). The Logic of Masculinist Protection: Reflections on the Current Security State. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Yuval-Davis, N. (1997). Gender and nation. London: Sage.

Disrupting Consumption

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Last Saturday, December 6, hundreds of protesters gathered outside of Houston’s largest mall, the Galleria. Standing on all four corners of the busy intersection of Westheimer and Post Oak, the protesters held signs decrying the systemic devaluation of black lives and the lack of accountability when police kill unarmed black men. While the cases of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Houston’s own Jordan Baker may have served as the most recent catalysts, their cases are not isolated incidents and protesters demanded (and continue to demand) long-overdue attention to widespread patterns of state violence against people of color.

Amid a tidal wave of demonstrations across the country, the decision of Houston organizers to locate their demonstration at a shopping mall was not unique. All around the U.S., protesters responding to the events in Ferguson and beyond have located their demonstrations, rallies, and die-ins in commercial space. With the November 24th Grand Jury decision in the Michal Brown case happening just days before Thanksgiving and the biggest shopping day of the year, activists rallied around the hashtags #NotOneDime, #HandsUpDontSpend and #BlackoutBlackFriday, which encouraged people to boycott the shopping day. In St. Louis, Boston, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and elsewhere, Black Friday demonstrators marched through malls, in front of Target stores, and outside department stores. Alongside the chants that “Black Lives Matter” were calls to move “Out of the store, into the streets.” As the activist group Blackout for Human Rights describes, the Black Friday shopping boycott aimed to raise awareness about the issue, demand an end to the violence, and maintain pressure on those in power. The trend didn’t wane after Black Friday, however, as rallies around the country continued in malls and other spaces of consumption. In Durham, North Carolina, protesters held a march in a shopping center that culminated in a “die-in” in remembrance of Michael Brown at a Nordstrom. In Seattle, demonstrators entered a pair of shopping malls during a tree-lighting ceremony. Similar events took place in Pittsburgh, Northern Virginia, Quaker Bridge (New Jersey), Winston-Salem, and even London.

Like the protests elsewhere, last week Houston demonstrators also ventured into the mall, where they peacefully chanted as they walked through the Galleria, periodically laying down in remembrance of those who have died at the hands of police. Some shoppers even joined the demonstrators. While the protesters did not (and never had any intention to) damage property or loot, several stores closed their doors while they were inside. Meanwhile, outside the mall, protesters walked along the sidewalks outside of nearby stores, including The Container Store, Marshalls, Nordstrom Rack, Old Navy and others. They chanted for “No Justice, No Peace.” And they also chanted “No Justice, No profit.”

In Houston, the responses to the demonstration in and around the Galleria were mixed. During the protest, some honked and waved in support, many took video or photos of the demonstration on their phones, and still others shouted angrily and flipped off demonstrators. As the newspapers (e.g. Houston Chronicle) posted their reports about the demonstration that evening, the news articles prompted a disheartening number of deeply racist comments. Others comments, however, revealed a frustration, confusion and profound lack of understanding about why a demonstration on this particular issue would be held at a mall. It is this latter set of responses that I want to try to address in this article. Let’s start by taking a look at some of their comments:

“Why don’t they go protest out in front of the Police Academy?”

“Protesting at the Galleria in Houston will really show those cops in Ferguson what is up.”

“I’m so mad at the airline industry. I think I’ll go protest in front of a train station.”

“Don’t these people care about those who work at these stores to provide for their families?”

“And the shop owners and businesses have what to do with this issue?…Protest in front of police stations, courts, your congressperson’s office, but geeze, be smart about it.”

[In a reply to another post about the protest being at the mall] “They’ve been accused of many things including lazy and unemployable, but never smart.”

There is spatial question evident in all of these comments: Why are protesters at the mall? Or more specifically, why would a protest about state violence be held in commercial space? Do these protesters know what they’re doing? What does a shopping mall in Houston have to do with any of these issues? These questions merit a deeper exploration and explanation, and I want to propose some answers (although there are surely many more). While I cannot and do not speak for the organizers of the protest, the choice to hold the protest at the mall is certainly not an indication of unintelligent protesters who have confused their message by gathering in the wrong space. There are incredibly significant reasons why commercial space is an important, and strategic, site for protests about injustice. Although the reasons I will offer arguably overlap, let’s tackle them separately. Folks these days do love lists, right?

1. When the injury, disappearance, and death of people of color is made invisible, a busy shopping mall is a good place to make them visible. Media bias in both the amount and quality of coverage offered to violence against people of color has been well-documented. Most people are familiar with the “Missing White Girl Syndrome”, a term applied to “a tendency by the news media to cover the murders and abductions of affluent or middle class white girls far more than those of boys, poor kids and kids of color, especially African-Americans.” This pattern, however, can be extended much further. According one investigation of extrajudicial killings, a black man is killed every 28 hours in this country. Most of these deaths get little coverage. In part, this is because only 4% of American law enforcement agencies even report police-involved shootings, leaving not only the nature of these shootings opaque, but their very occurrence largely erased. Further, in addition to being largely invisible in public records, these deaths are often relegated to the back pages of the newspaper, if they are covered at all. When they are covered, the media treats white suspects and killers better than black victims. Media coverage is more likely to suggest that black victims are criminal, dangerous, or otherwise to blame for their own deaths, thus their death is seen as normal, expected, deserved, and unworthy of attention and outrage. Given that so many disappearances, kidnappings, injuries, and deaths of black and brown bodies are made invisible (or treated as normal), an obvious and inevitable strategy is to bring the message to a space where it will be seen. With 35 million annual visitors, particularly in the month leading up to Christmas, the Galleria exemplifies such a space. It is one of the most visited attractions in Houston and has the highest sales of any mall in the Houston area. As a protester at a New Jersey mall highlighted, these types of commercial spaces allow demonstrators to get their message to a wider and more diverse audience: “It doesn’t do us any good to preach to the choir.” Those who have not already seen (or are unwilling to see) the fear and the loss experienced by people of color need to see this.

2. When the state privileges business interests over the interests of citizens, disrupting consumption is a strategic way get the state to care. I know it’s old news to say that business interests have a tremendous influence in politics. But it merits saying again. This is particularly true in light of the 2010 case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which eliminated the ban on corporate and union funding of elections, and gave corporations “the green light to spend unlimited sums on ads and other political tools.” As the New York Times writes, “Citizens United unleashed a torrent of money from businesses and the multimillionaires who run them, and as a result we are now seeing the corporate takeover of American politics.” The patterns in big money spending have also been shown to exacerbate racial inequalities as elections are funded primarily by wealthy, white donors. Further, the centrality of business interests in the daily operation of our city, state, and federal government goes much deeper than just campaign finance. The aftermath of the economic crises of the 1970s ushered in the start of a new era of economic and political policy, which is generally referred to as neoliberalism. Neoliberalism can be simplified as “the desirability of the market as the central plank for the organization of social, economic and political life” (this definition comes from the 2010 Dictionary of Human Geography). Neoliberalism has contributed to a number of erosive policies, including but not limited to: 1) the privatization of public space (parks, sidewalks, etc.) and of public services (e.g. city utilities run as businesses, social services run by NGOs, prisons run for profit) to place them under corporate control, 2) the deregulation of various industries (e.g. less regulation on pollution, industry oversight, labor practices, or Wall Street), 3) the implementation of business models in public education exemplified by high stakes testing, and 4) the increase in social/economic inequality due to both the retreat of the welfare state and the systemic benefits given to corporate interests.

Needless to say, none of these foster a state that will be responsive to citizens, particularly when citizen demands are emerging from more economically and socially marginalized populations. With this in mind, disrupting business and consumption are one way to gain political leverage. As one protester on Black Friday told Forbes, “What we’re saying is that economic boycotts have not only worked in the past but they’re often the only thing that a hyper-capitalist economy like ours responds to.” While certainly there are many among the protesters who are deeply critical of the ways our capitalist system produces inequality, it’s important to note that this method of disrupting consumption is not a tactic reserved for those on the left or far-left who critique captialism. In fact, leveraging consumer power is one of the most tried and true methods of political persuasion, and is practiced by groups across the full spectrum of political leanings. Those protesting Israeli state practices in Palestine boycott Israeli products. Many protested the South African policy of apartheid by boycotting all South African products. Even U.S. Republicans–the vanguard of protecting business interests–have led boycotts, including boycotts of Target, Starbucks, and General Mills over their support of marriage equality, and more recently the boycott of the Affordable Care Act’s health care exchange. The disruption of consumption in the protests at the Galleria are just another in a long line of movements leveraging consumer power to influence the state.

3. Protesters do not need to protest at the police station in order to get their message to cops, because the police show up in force to guard sites of consumption.

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For those concerned that the message of protesters would not reach the most pertinent audience, the police, they can rest assured that the police were certainly present in large numbers (including many on horseback) during the protests at the Galleria. The Houston Police Department’s (one could argue, excessive) response to the peaceful protesters at the Galleria is indicative of a further aspect of the government’s protection of corporate interests: spaces of consumption are physically guarded and protected with great effort to keep out those who might threaten consumption. An article by a couple geography colleagues/friends helps to illustrate this practice. In their research, Massaro and Mullaney (2011) trace “a recent, aggressive state crackdown on public gatherings of African American youth in the streets of Philadelphia’s commercial districts.”  The mere presence of groups of black teens (which were dubbed “flash mobs” despite there being no choreographed dance or organized action) in shopping areas was characterized as “terrorizing.” But Massaro and Mullaney argue that it was not a result of any aggressive actions on the part of the youth that prompted the crack-down; rather “it [was] seemingly their non-consumerist behavior that mark[ed] these gatherings as out-of-place in a city structured and protected as a node of capitalist development.” The city’s narrative of dangerous black teens was nonetheless used to justify the aggressive policing of these young people, forcing their removal from commercial spaces. Mapping this example onto Houston, we might ask whether the demonstration of police force that was seen at last week’s protest would have taken place if the protest had been held elsewhere or if it had not disrupted consumption.

4. Protesting in commercial space exposes just how destructive contemporary ideals of citizenship are. We should all be disturbed by the vitriolic reactions to protesters at the Galleria, particularly when they are juxtaposed against the celebration of the consumer-citizen. Here are just three examples of responses to the Galleria demonstration: 1) “Just a bunch of numb nuts who can’t afford to shop at the Galleria.” 2) “All this does is cause a disruption and inconvenience for [the people inside the stores]…Every one of them should be arrested for causing a public disruption.” 3) “I wish I had nothing better to do than go to the mall and lay down…good grief you idiots! Add some value to society versus leaching off the gubment.” In a sense, these commenters are chastising the demonstrators, not for the content of the protest itself, by rather because they were presumed to be bad consumers. Take another very different example: in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush called for citizens to go shopping–to be good consumers. “Get down to Disney World,” he said. This typifies contemporary consumer nationalism (or, in social theorist Jaspir Puar’s words “market citizenship”), in which consumption is characterized as a more patriotic and meaningful act of citizenship than the public exercise of free speech against pervasive patterns of state violence. This is a corrosive model of citizenship, which diminishes the value of public speech and amounts to money serving as the signifier for membership in the nation-state. It has been made visible through these protests and it needs to be called out directly.

5. Inconveniencing and annoying some people is virtually unavoidable. This isn’t really an issue confined to protests at malls, but I just wanted to raise this point since it has been a complaint of many in response to protests not only in Houston, but all over. Disrupting the status quo and jolting people out of their normal routines is a normal aspect of protest. Think of basically any social movement (the U.S. women’s suffrage and women’s rights movements,  the U.S. Civil Rights movement, anti-colonial movements around the word, labor protests), and the demonstrators likely caused discomfort and inconvenience for those who wanted to maintain the status quo. If protesters waited for everyone to be comfortable, the issued would never be addressed. The slight inconvenience you face at a stop light near the mall may briefly disrupt your routine, but imagine the inconvenience you’d feel if the color of your skin meant you were 31% more likely to be pulled over by a cop on your way to work. Then add onto that, the potential fear or insecurity you might feel knowing that you have to be particularly careful of your movements because your actions are more likely to be interpreted at threatening. Then consider the loss of loved ones that many have experienced, and reconsider your irritation.

6. State violence against certain populations (people of color, poor people and the homeless, transgender people, immigrants/migrants) is deeply connected to our economic system. Finally, as protesters have continued to eloquently argue across the country, this isn’t about one or two individuals, it’s about a system that treats some lives as less valuable. This inequity is reflected in much more than just police brutality. It’s evident in the number of people who don’t have access to health care. It’s evident in the inequity of school systems, where uneven access to pre-k, insufficient school resources, and patterns of educational tracking (and policing) make it possible to predict how many small children will need prison beds when they reach adulthood. It’s evident in the number of people who are homeless or living in poverty and don’t know where their next meal will come from or who have to physically withstand all the pains of changing seasons. The examples go on and on. The point is that these too are violent. They also produce injury and premature death. In geography, some theorists talk about these in terms of they way they treat people as disposable, or as human waste. These issues are reflections the structural violences that link together racial injustice with gender, class, sexuality, nationality, and ability in people’s lives. Calling out the role of the economic system–embodied and symbolized by economic centers like the Galleria–is part of a larger project for justice that asserts that “all lives should matter” and that exposes the ways they currently are treated as if they do not. Alright, that’s all for now. There will be another protest at the Galleria TODAY (Saturday, December 13 at noon).