Revolution #161, April 12, 2009

Taking out Issue #158 in Harlem and the Debate Over the Beating of Rihanna

Note from the editors: The following is from a group of Revolution distributors. It describes their experience in Harlem taking out issue #158 “A Declaration: For Women’s Liberation and the Emancipation of All Humanity” and working to bring forward people around the newspaper:

There is a deep wellspring of outrage in Harlem that is most often buried and atomized, that we are fighting to tap into and unleash and lead for the revolution. The paper is getting into the hands of women and men of all ages and nationalities, there is a lot of curiosity and openness. Where we are getting sharper in taking out that this is the revolution that can change all this, challenging people to get with this revolutionary movement now and contending sharply with the prevailing norms, this starts to open people’s thinking up in different directions.

In our approach to getting out issue #158 we drew people’s attention to the photo enlargements on the back page that showed a badly bruised Rihanna and this focused up the touchstone question of women’s oppression. While the response among younger people is broadly similar to what was learned from the recent Boston survey that found that half of young men and women both think in some way her beating was Rihanna’s fault, we have also had serious engagement with young boys and men (12 and up) who look seriously at the back page of #159 and want to understand why this happened and express their opposition to it. A newspaper seller described a scene where 5 young boys, 12-13, talked seriously with us about the Rihanna case—and this is significant, as it is very difficult to engage this age-group of young boys. This group was divided: two of them were firm that this was wrong. One said, girls hit too, and she hit him first. They were curious about what we were saying about why this happens and how to stop it and pooled their change to get one paper (#158) between them.

Much of the initial response to people seeing issue #158 (and #157 on International Women’s Day) has been to view women’s oppression as a societal problem “over there” (meaning somewhere in the world besides the United States) and to come at the question here as the responsibility of individuals and individual choices in one form or another, all locked within the bounds of patriarchy and the family: “real men don’t hit their women and I wouldn’t;” “she shouldn’t have gone back;” “I know all about that and I don’t have that problem/ wouldn’t put up with it.” We summed up that the terms shifted somewhat after the Oprah show to more references to “battered woman syndrome” and more discussion of how to mediate (escape on an individual basis) these conditions within the overall framework.

Wherever we went we were aiming to open up speaking bitterness, and to connect this with the full-out revolutionary solution.

We got this report about a domestic violence workshop at a local college that one of the newspaper sellers happened upon while on campus and the social worker leading the discussion allowed them to sit in and participate in the discussion:

There were 35 women, mainly young with maybe four over 40, Black and Latino, except for one young white woman, seated in a circle. A young social worker stood in the middle of the circle leading the session which involved one woman after another talking about what they had gone through. There was something significant in the fact they were even able to open up to others and tell about their experiences. Nearly all of them talked about feeling ashamed that they had been assaulted and didn’t want people to know. They didn’t want people to know that the marriage was not the ‘ideal’ or that they would ‘let’ themselves be treated this way. They talked about feeling stupid for believing and wanting to believe that ‘their man’ was not what he clearly was. They gave example after example of torture, death threats, and a state that not only would not protect them, but sanctioned their vulnerability. What they had to say was at once moving, horrifying, and deeply challenging.

Half the women bought the paper. Nine gave us ways to get back in touch with them after they read the Declaration. I told them we’d be interested in hearing what they thought about this and maybe an article could be done for the paper.

Many of these women are in a GED class taught by a teacher who has gotten the paper from us on occasion and recognized us.

The social worker’s confidence that our paper seller would sit in and participate in a positive way stands out in this, and we plan to follow up with both her and the women’s group. We promised them that we would return and write something with them for the paper—this is a very important group of people to involve in the Rihanna debate and overall.

In Harlem, there has been some polarization and debate and some of the women in particular have jumped in to work with us in various ways. At a major Harlem intersection where we regularly sell the paper, a woman who has related on and off with the local Revolution Club showed up on March 21.

Charlene is a Black woman in her mid-20s. She is sometimes homeless and destitute. She has been through hell as a woman. She said that she had come by the corner the week before but nobody was there. [It turned out she came by after the newspaper selling team had already left to go to a nearby project.] This day Charlene jumped right in and helped with the Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund benefit leaflet. She listened to the agitation and watched others as they sold the paper. Somebody talked to her briefly about the Declaration and before long she was selling the paper with flare and talking about ending the oppression of women.

When we were packing up to go the projects, a man and woman were walking across the intersection arguing. The woman said something like “You said that you can’t relate to how I ....” She was nearly in tears. He said “I don’t like how you...” Charlene yelled to the woman, “If he can’t relate to you, we can. We revolutionaries on this side of the street and we ain’t about no mistreatment of women.’

What Charlene did was significant. She was in effect challenging the man. She felt able to do that in the company of the revolutionaries. There might have been a little street posturing but the main thing going on was unleashed fury—deep anger and outrage at the oppression of women. And, she felt that not only was it okay to express it, but the revolutionaries had her back.

A couple of other experiences that stood out:

—A jewelry vendor who is overall friendly and has alternately bought the paper and tangled with us, most vociferously about religion— when we showed her the Declaration she started pointing to outrages that she felt concentrated what we needed to speak to. She brought over a newspaper article on the local politician who was arrested for cutting his girlfriend, telling the selling team, “Talk about this.” And she brought over the New York Times story about the 80-pound, 9-year-old girl in Brazil who had been impregnated with twins by her stepfather and had a state-approved abortion, and everyone except the father had been excommunicated by the church (a decision that was later reversed on “mercy” grounds), and said to us “Talk about this.”

—The 12-year-old daughter of one of the French-speaking African women vendors who often gather on the corner—listened carefully to our agitation, bought the paper, and then told us that she thought we weren’t talking enough about how “boys talk bad to girls on the street.”

We are working to bring forward organized ties around the paper at the center of a revolutionary movement. In one project where we are focusing our blitz efforts, over 100 of #158 have been distributed door-to-door or in the courtyard outside one building where we have now been twice, and there are several people who want to be involved.

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