Over the last few years, both nationally and internationally, there has been growing awareness about sexual assault within the Left and the determination of survivors and their supporters to speak. The International Socialist Organization, as a national organization, has considered this to be a pressing question for our movement. Recent events in Columbus and sharp debates among activists about the way forward has prompted us in ISO-Columbus to write this statement about our approach to combating the problem. While we stand firmly behind the statement and the principles behind it, we invite dialogue in the Columbus Left and beyond so we can all do better to eradicate sexual assault and rape culture from within social justice movements.
After learning of allegations of sexual violence and abuse of power by one of the main organizers of the Bend the Bars Convergence, ISO members and other activists initiated dialogue with the organizers involved in the Convergence to learn more about the situation, and to support the accuser’s request to us and to others that the accused activist step down from their position of leadership until a process of accountability had been completed.
We know through individual conversations with the organizers of the Convergence that they took these accusations seriously and conducted their own investigations when they were brought to light. However, we also believe it was a mistake not to take the additional step of asking the organizer accused of such serious misconduct to step aside from their position in the conference, pending a more formal accountability process, which is still yet to take place.
We believe a policy of “temporary suspension without assumption of guilt,” whenever there are accusations of sexual assault in the activist community, is a necessary step toward protecting the accuser and other potential victims from further harm and potential marginalization in our movements. It is also necessary because it provides a public demonstration of the seriousness with which activists handle such accusations, and therefore protects the integrity of our organizing and educational spaces.
While there will always be some chance that we are temporarily suspending an activist who is innocent, we do not believe any specific event or coalition is so important that the suspension of one individual from it should be of greater worry than the very real chance that the accused represents an ongoing threat to our community. Likewise, failing to take accusations of sexual assault seriously will create the perception that our movements regard sexual assault as a secondary matter only to be addressed when organizing is complete. Such a stance is incompatible with any conception of social justice worthy of the name.
Temporary suspension from organizing without assumption of guilt is not a punishment, nor is it a violation of the basic principle of due process. Instead, it is a necessary safeguard to ensure that a thorough accountability process will occur within the community affected, and that survivors can safely continue to participate in organizing if they desire to do so in the meantime. To not take this step of temporarily suspending the accused could in effect suspend survivors from participating.
Given that police infiltrators have both used accusations of sexual assault and, more frequently, actually committed sexual assault to weaken movements in the past, due process following a suspension may give us an opportunity to uncover these political machinations. Given also that racism has historically factored into who gets accused and who does not, we must take due process seriously to guard against biased claims. And yet, we know from research that in the vast majority of cases such accusations are not made lightly. Indeed, it also has been documented that an effect of rape culture is that victims are much, much more likely to remain silent out of fear of others not believing them or blaming them, and that false accusations are exceptionally rare.
We cannot simply wait to deal with these issues or to take action until the relevant activists or organizations have created and agreed upon full models for accountability and restorative justice. While we are supportive of efforts to create a process of accountability where those accused can receive some form of due process and perhaps even of rehabilitative programming (when possible and desired by the survivor), deciding what this process will consist of should follow the immediate action of suspending the accused from their organizing roles.
We have to be very sober about where we are as a community. It would be incredible if the entire activist community could come together and design a common set of principles and procedures--binding for all activists--for addressing accusations of sexual assault within our ranks. But we believe we are very far from such a situation in Columbus. In our present circumstance, it goes against every principle of social justice organizing to let an accused or self-admitted perpetrator of sexual violence continue on as if nothing happened -- while the survivor and others are told to wait for an alternative to emerge.
We hope that this practice of temporary suspension without assumption of guilt will become the norm on the Left in general, because we believe it is necessary to protect survivors, and it will create more urgency around hearing and resolving accusations of misconduct when they arise. Too often these accusations are met with silence and inaction, and we must do better.