Activists have to stand up for victims of abuse within our movements
Daniel Shular / The Grand Rapids Press via AP

WARNING: Readers are advised that this article includes discussion of sexual assault, rape, and physical violence. 

I became familiar with sexual assault at the age of 13 as I sat on a school bus in the summer between 8th grade and my freshman year of high school. During those early morning bus rides, I would often close my eyes, until one time I opened them to find multiple boys grabbing at my breasts and pulling my shirt down. This didn’t just happen to me; most of the young girls on our bus faced the same treatment.

I remember being made to empathize with my assaulters because… “Boys will be boys,” or because they had a difficult life. But why did that justify them being able to make my life harder, too?

Early on in my freshman year, I stayed after school for dance team. When we took a break, I found myself wandering to the vending machine where one of those same summer school boys would begin a flirtatious conversation with me that resulted in him dragging me into the boys bathroom.

It was clear that I didn’t want to be there as I held the edge of the wall. But I lost my grip, and he successfully pulled me in, cornering me, and pressuring me to perform oral sex. I kept my eyes closed and my head turned away from him as he held me against the wall. The fear I experienced would become a trend throughout the rest of my life.

I thought it was important to share these very beginning experiences to set the tone for the rest of what I have to say. While I do not plan to detail any more of the trauma I’ve experienced, after these first encounters, the reality is I would go on to be sexually assaulted 11 more times, including rape, and physically assaulted twice.

Most of these experiences did not happen in political organizing settings, but they are still important for me to share because harm clearly exists in our activist spaces, and some of us come with a long history of trauma.

While I am grateful for those who offered support, I personally felt disappointed by many in my movement community following an incident where many of us, as victims and survivors, came forward concerning an abusive organizer. We asked for our community to stop working with this person and to help begin a community accountability process based in transformative justice.

In response, we were gaslighted and victim-blamed for our experiences. Some people portrayed our coming forward as a “public lynching,” when all we wanted was accountability and to feel a sense of safety in spaces we have helped organize and create.

There was a divide in our community as some people refused to approach the situation with seriousness and sensitivity towards victims. These reactionary responses are not only letting down those of us who have been harmed, but it fails our movement, the work we do, and the future we envision.

I won’t name the organization, but the experience shaped how I decide where to devote my activist energies. The willingness of organizations to be accountable in order to move through conflict and harm is absolutely a determinant on where I participate as an organizer.

So many of us in activist circles constantly talk about having a radical imagination, and part of that is envisioning a safer community. We are the ones who are fighting for a better world, but how can we win if we cannot address and move through the harm done mostly by men? The refusal to even just acknowledge gendered violence is going to cost us winning the world we want to see and is ideologically hypocritical.

We will not be awarded with liberation for all if the community cannot confront abusers and their abuse and embrace and center the victims. We will not succeed in the struggle for socialism if we do not show up for women and queer people when it matters most.

We must fight to dismantle all oppressive systems, including patriarchy and the heterosexist agenda. We have to confront the sexist violence that exists not only in our movement, but throughout our nation and throughout our world. It will be difficult and uncomfortable to face these demons, but it is imperative for our struggle that we do so.

I truly hate some of my abusers, and while I can understand that everyone comes from different backgrounds, I do not actually empathize with those who have intentionally harmed me; in fact, I refuse to offer empathy to the men who have ruined my life. Anytime I am re-triggered, I have panic attacks, flashbacks, and I struggle to get through the day.

I deserved empathy and respect from these men, but given how some of them have completely dehumanized me, they are undeserving of my empathy. Needless to say, I am an incredibly understanding person, but I do not want understanding to get confused with empathy. Those that have caused harm must be accountable for themselves; that cannot be forced, although they might be guided by those closest to them, but not by those who enable and tolerate such dangerous behaviors.

As an abolitionist, I do not believe that simple policing and carceral punishment can create systemic change, but transformative justice can. I am convinced that grief, harm, and conflict are a collective responsibility—including on the part of the community that has been affected. My radical imagination takes me far and wide to picture opportunities and space for my community to heal, and for me to heal as well. I just want to feel safe, and in order to do that, I need others around me to realize that the work cannot just be on the shoulders of victims and survivors.

Movement work is meant to be intimate and intentional. We are supposed to build trust and sustainable relationships. We should have solidarity and act in camaraderie, but the violence that exists within our spaces is holding us back from our truest potential. We are all capable of hurt, harm, and abuse—the sooner we acknowledge that, the sooner we can move through it.

Making mistakes will be inevitable, but there is a difference between an honest mistake and a choice that inflicts harm on somebody else. There’s also a difference between hurt and harm. Intentions can make a difference, but it doesn’t erase the fact that impact is greater than intention. We are not allowed to decide how our actions make others feel, but we can decide to change our behaviors and offer apologies and amends where necessary, whether they are accepted or not.

We have to engage in transformative justice and politics in order to change the ways the patriarchy affects our activist spaces. The things we say mean nothing if we are not putting it into practice. If we want to have a world that is inclusive for women and queer people, then we must fight against the ways the system oppresses us, and that must include men and anyone with power in our community standing up not just for us, but beside us.

Men must utilize the power they have to hold other men accountable for their less-than-satisfactory behaviors. We need radical change, and in order to achieve that, we have to be able to confront the harm that exists within our spaces. We love and believe in our community, we care for our community, but we must see reciprocity. We need our community to care for us by showing up for us and addressing these problems head on, in a restorative and transformative way.

Of course, I am aware that even when enacting these more radical practices, harm and abuse will still exist. Transformative justice doesn’t mean there are no consequences, it just means that we can experiment more with other methods and strategies that may work better than isolating the abuser and/or the abused. This is an intentional method of addressing harm and creating a clearer picture of what happens when someone causes such harm.

This is not about canceling someone; it’s about protecting everyone. This framework still has to be carefully analyzed, but what’s the worst that can happen that hasn’t already? We must try and do better by our women and queer community. We have to take apart the structures that led us here because we deserve to live in a society with more trust, safety, and care, and we must do that by centering victims and survivors and treating them with radical love.

If we care about fighting an incredibly violent system, we have to care about the ways it shows up within ourselves, and we must be prepared to address that. We have to grow and rebuild our communities to be stronger, and it is vital that we start within. It is up to our organizing communities and movement spaces to truly be accountable and reach towards change by being the change, otherwise we will fail and lose our fight against the system.

Despite all the trauma I have experienced and carry with me, I still find myself holding onto optimism that my community can do better, and that with time and effort, so can the rest of the world.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


Sammie Lewis
Sammie Lewis

Activist Sammie Lewis is a member of the Detroit CPUSA. She organizes and speaks on local struggles over housing and racist policing, as well as against U.S. imperialism and U.S. military intervention abroad.