The following reflection on conflict, care and pain in political organising was submitted on condition of anonymity.
This is not a call out.
This is an expression of hurt and pain. It’s an attempt to let go.
It’s a sharing of a story of a group I was part of that fell apart. And in the process people got hurt. It’s just my take on it, I think others were oblivious to some of it and others will see things in totally different lights. And that’s fine.
So anyway. A little while ago I was part of a group. We were getting together to campaign / take action on an issue that we all cared about (and I’m sure we all still do). It felt pressing and urgent so we were in a rush to get started. And for a while it worked. We pulled things off, we achieved incredible things, we made material differences to people’s lives. It wasn’t purely symbolic, though it was that too. It felt great at this time. I felt like we were powerful and effective.
But the rushing had it’s costs. Right from the start I felt there were tensions. There were bubbling conflicts that sometimes spilled over. Sometimes they played out in ways that you might expect when it came to power and identities. Sometimes it was blurrier than you might think. But then ‘hurt people, hurt people’, so it’s not really that surprising.
The rushing to get started, the urgency meant that relationship building between us took a back seat. The initial bonds of trust between us were a start but they needed strengthening to sustain us for the long haul. I don’t think we really put this work in and this showed later. People also felt harmed in the rushing. Communication wasn’t clear, someone felt misled and wronged. Some of this harm was as a result of my own choices and actions, so I don’t come at this from a place of purity or victimhood.
So we were rushing. And we got things done in this rush. Things that we felt no one else had done before. The bumps along the way were tiring but it was worth the victories.
Then came the repression. The state wasn’t going to allow these kinds of actions without consequences. Sometimes repression is short, sharp and violent. Other times it’s grinding, drawn out bureaucracy. It felt like the latter most of the time for me, maybe others experienced it as the former I don’t know, but the threat of the former was lingering in the background too.
I don’t want to exaggerate this, I do think the impacts of state repression exaggerated tensions within the group, but I can’t go as far as to say it’s because of the repression. I feel like we treated each other badly regardless, it just made things way worse through stress.
During this period, people rallied round us. Media stories were whipped up to generate support for the cause and for us. We were presented in friendly media outlets as ‘good people’, the victims of injustice, standing with those in need and a unified group, going through this together.
This external perception has always felt jarring to me. I’m not a big fan of media activism so I have my biases. And I don’t like it when the spotlight shines on me rather than the politics or the systems. But what was extra jarring was that during this time I didn’t feel like I was part of the group, I felt quite alone, marginalised, powerless and unsupported.
Around this time, I felt like I was getting into conflict with others in the group. I tried, in no doubt flawed ways to address this conflict, but it wasn’t met with any effort from other parties, or not that I am aware of. It was ignored. Others tried to help processes but none got anywhere. So it was dropped. And the individuals in question carried on doing important external work for the group and I felt I had no way to engage with decisions any more.
External perceptions / image: a solid group, who do good things, together in adverse situations
My experience: isolation, conflict, no ways to overcome disagreements
This period of time carried on for quite a while. And then it slowly ended. The pressures from the state concluded. People attempted to carry on with the group, but it slowly faded. It died with no official end. Though some external pressures hold us together in lighter ways, it’s pretty much finished.
When I think about this group now, I feel lots of things, but mostly I feel like a failure. I feel like we had a huge opportunity to build something and we missed the chance. It feels like a loss of potential. And I feel like a personal failure, like if I had handled conflicts in a different way then we could have worked through them and we’d still be active now. I’d still be active now.
Through chatting to friends active in other groups though I know this example is just one in a wider pattern. Almost every group that I know well enough to hear about internal dynamics has or has had some level of intense conflict that nearly breaks the group or did break the group. These conflicts are endemic to our movements. And because they’re everywhere it feels like there’s no choice: we either learn to rise to them or we let them destroy our groups and movements.
And in a time when the themes of abolition and transformative justice are becoming prominent, it feels like we need to learn these things to go beyond punitive justice.
I believe we can do it. I feel it in my body and in my heart that we can do things differently and meet harm with care, support and accountability. But it does also feel such a monumental task and it’s daunting. But I’m grateful to Kazu Haga’s book Healing Resistance, a talk by Rosa Zubizarreta and the work of Mia Mingus which all highlight the need for baby steps, for training wheels to learn to handle the small stuff, so we can work our way to handle the big stuff when it comes.
This still isn’t a call out. But it’s not a call in either. Some of the relationships from the conflicts I’m thinking and writing about don’t feel worth the energy to try and rebuild them, so I’ll leave them be.
Instead maybe it’s an ask for myself, for the groups that I am still in and for anyone who reads this to think about – what are the small things we can learn to handle together now? How can we build our relationships or processes now, when things feel good, to help us with the harder times when they come?
Photo Credit: Jane Boyd