Being anti-state does not equal being pro-freedom: Misogyny and the imagined "Circle of Protection" in progressive communities

This post is not intended to be a blind celebration of the police. Let’s not pretend as though the police are not largely representative of  white male power and authority. But that does not mean I am anti-criminalization or anti-state. As feminists and as women, we need the state on our side.

When I read two posts published recently, addressing “safe space” and misogyny in activist communities, specifically in the Occupy Vancouver community, I had high hopes. But that sentiment was quickly replaced by a sinking feeling. Building a safer space, according to these two pieces, “Safety Within Social Movements Is Everyone’s Responsibility” & “On Safer Spaces,” meant depending on the activist community to protect you. Specifically, women and other marginalized folks were meant to rely on a “Circle of Protection” to defend them from harassers and abusers.

It sounds nice in theory. As a young person, first delving into radical theory and, specifically, anarchism, I too dreamed of a utopian community that would defend their own. No need for the cops! Abusive and violent men would be shunned and ostracized by egalitarian communities – “kicked off the island,” one might say.

On one hand I was glad that activists were addressing the fact that oppressive structures and behaviours like racism and misogyny are often replicated in progressive spaces:

“The fluid community of Occupy Vancouver has been plagued by abuse, neutrality towards that abuse and even support of that abuse. Calls to “just let it go” or “move on” are demeaning to the safety of the women, people of color and other marginalized groups in our movement and will no longer be tolerated. “

But the solution troubled me. The suggestion that women in progressive movements should depend on a “Circle of Protection” that exists within those communities  is one that, from my perspective, misses the fact that women are often violated and assaulted by the very people who are meant to protect them. It is not uncommon for assault to go unreported in anarchist and activist communities specifically because women are discouraged from calling the cops, essentially leaving these men free from accountability.

When women are abused by those who claim to be their protectors and then are told not to involve the police because the police are the real oppressors, where do they go?

There have been numerous accounts of women being raped in situations and settings that are meant to be freeing or liberating. Festivals like Woodstock ’99 saw horrific accounts of women being gang raped while bystanders continued with their fun and dancing. Rainbow Gatherings, the hippie-peace-free-love ethos is pushed on women in order to pressure them into letting go of their boundaries (aka: letting douchey dreadlocked white dudes give them massages). There are many accounts of attempted (and, I’m sure, successful) rapes at these Gatherings. The entire “free love” movement of the 60s has been called out repeatedly by feminists who say that all it did was to apply “a new set of imperatives on women’s behavior, a compulsion to say yes that was as inhibiting as the injunction to say no.”

And even if we we don’t consider these events or movements to be necessarily activist movements, the point remains that self-described progressive communities have never protected women from abusive men. Often, a libertarian or anarchist ethos has been used to pressure women into accepting misogynistic treatment silently and peacefully.

Above all that, I just have a really big problem with discouraging women from involving the police when they’ve been victimized. Under reporting is a huge problem – many statistics say that between 75%-95% of rapes go unreported. We are all well aware that most women who experience domestic violence don’t report either. Basically, men who abuse think they will get away with it because they do, for the most part, get away with it.

Let me tell you a story about a self-proclaimed “progressive,” anti-cop community. During my mid-twenties urban-girl-has-quarter-life-crisis-that-leads-her-to-believe-she-must-live-in-a-tent phase, I moved to a small, rural, island community. These places are attractive to city folks who have fantasies that, somehow, these kinds of places have escaped hierarchy and are more liberated, community-minded, progressive, and peacey than cities are. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. In part, because these communities often hang on to these fantasies themselves.

In my experience, the “oh how wonderful that all the adults and the kids and the teenagers all go to the same parties – we’re breaking boundaries!” thing is less “good, clean, community fun” than it is “old drunk guy offering to drive young drunk girl home while everyone turns a blind eye or is too high to care”.

When I arrived on this island, I was told almost immediately, by several people, that there were no cops on the island for a reason. Not only did “we” not want them, but “we” didn’t need them. The “we” who were telling me this were, in large part, white men. These men also explained to me that there was no need for police on the island because “the community” would take care of its own. That “we” (again, the “we” = white men) would take care of abusive men by physically throwing them off the island and/or by insuring these misogynists knew they were not welcome. And yet, strangely, there were still stories of assault and abuse on the island. Many of these men still lived and partied in this community while many others turned a blind eye. No one wanted to upset the fantasy, which also meant that a lot of oppressive behaviour and abuse went unaddressed.

The truth was that many in the community believed themselves to be above the law and/or wanted to avoid the law because they were doing illegal things. They weren’t about protecting women, they were about protecting themselves.

We heard rumours about teenage girls being violated at parties and hit on by 50 year old men. And yet no one was being kicked off the island. And still, according the white men, “we” still didn’t need cops sniffing around on the island.

Eventually, when I left an abusive relationship, I called the cops. And, strange thing – people stopped speaking to me. They stopped making eye contact with me. I was being ostracized. Not the abusive man. Nope. He was still at all those parties, driving home drunk with teenage girls in his truck. I was uninvited. I was longer welcome on the island.

The men who had explained to me that “we” didn’t need cops because “we” lived in a progressive community wherein “we” took care of one another turned out to be either the abusers or the ones who protected the abusers. It was a greater crime to go to the police than it was to abuse women.

And therein lies my concern with “Circles of Protection”. I simply don’t trust a “Circle” of anarchists or radicals to protect me. If I am assaulted I want to not only be able to call the cops and expect them to address the issue, but I want to be encouraged and supported in doing that. Not shamed for “going to the man”. I want the state on my side. I need the state on my side.

In one of the posts I reference above “On Safer Spaces,” the author writes that this “Circle of Protection” is based on four goals:

1.Empowerment – To trust in our possibilities, in our concepts and our own definitions. We must build this power because we come from dis-empowered positions.

2.Autonomy – The refusal to rely on existing structures to act from our own positions of empowerment outside of institutions entrenched in oppressive power structures. Building our own methods and structures so that we are creating the world we want now.

3.Self-Defense – Our inherent right to defend ourselves from aggressors/abusers.

4.Safety/Safer Spaces – A space where emotional, physical and spiritual well-being are respected. When these are challenged, we are able to maintain our autonomy and right to self-defense so that we may act to make our spaces safer.

Let me just start by saying this. I do not want to have to defend myself from my abuser. I simply don’t want to be abused. I want existing structures and institutions to understand power and the dynamics and gendered nature of abuse and assault and to address that via legislation. I do not want, in any way, to have to rely on some self-declared “Circle of Protection” that may or may not include abusers, to defend me.

Having the “right to self-defense” and having “autonomy” in a space that discourages state intervention or criminalization of abusers does not feel safe to me. To me, making progressive change and creating an equitable society must move beyond individualism, which is what this statement seems to represent. Maintaining my autonomy means that my government, the government that is meant to represent me, creates laws that protect me.

I appreciate the goal of creating a equitable society but I also believe that the only people in society who have the freedom to reject the state and to denounce the criminalization of abusers are people who already have a huge level of privilege and who already feel safe in progressive communities. If you walk around this world feeling free, then it’s easy to say that you don’t need the protection of the state and that you don’t need the law. If you already have power and privilege it’s easy to argue that you can protect yourself, that you don’t need the police to protect you.

Michael Laxer wrote, in a similar vein:

“Rules and law protect regular and innocent people. They are safeguards against arbitrary actions by corporations, governments or self-appointed vanguards and we should not get rid of them. Our forebears on the left died to create the context in which we now work and joining the right in trying to rip it down will help no one.”

In other words, structure and law is not the enemy. Those who oppose the state and who are opposed to criminalization in it’s entirety* are fooling themselves if they think this is a progressive move. Wonder why the far right is anti-state? Because without it, the privileged and the powerful would have even more freedom to reign without restriction.

Ostracizing abusive men from progressive communities doesn’t work because progressive communities are full of abusive men (just like everywhere else in this world). Feminists have fought for decades to get legislation that protects their rights – and we are supposed to give this up in favour of relying on activist men to protect us?? I don’t think so. You don’t get to protect your weed crop at my expense, my hippie friend. Your illegal activity does not take precedence over my right not to be abused.

When I am assaulted I will call the cops, not the anarchists.


*edited on May 5, 2012 for clarity



Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.