other riots

The following are Mike’s ruminations on Buy Nothing Day 2011, his tenth observance of the holiday. Originally published on Raise the Hammer.

It was only November 1st, but the grocery store I happened to be standing in was already piping in a soundtrack of syrupy Christmas carols. The Halloween candy was just moved out of prime real estate into discount bins, and the familiar Christmas-themed displays were already taking root.

Good economic news is hard to come by this year, so retailers are obviously pulling out all the stops to push the sublime ethos of the holiday season: sales, sales, sales.

Not just about the November-long price point adjustments on long-languishing products, or the Black Friday doorcrashers, but also the big numbers accountants want to see in year-end statements. With $10.7 billion scooped up by retailers on Black Friday last year, no one wants to miss an opportunity to seize a buck.

Black Friday is the Super Bowl of shopping events, and though our neighbours to the south are the undisputed champions of the retail arena, this year some are blanching at the thought of the shopping day starting with 12:01AM sales.

Maybe they are finally noticing that the endless lineups, teeming, trampling crowds and $100 flatscreens seem out of place on a day reserved for giving thanks and resting after the great family get-together.

Not coincidentally, in a nod to the greatest day of the retail calendar, the day when (as the myth goes) many bean-counters finally get to pull out their black pens, Buy Nothing Day is also celebrated on the last Friday of November.

The appeal of the holiday is simple: Nothing is more peaceful than sidestepping Black Friday’s commercial orgy in lieu of a day off from the consumer treadmill.

I’ll admit, fighting the compulsion to buy is tough, but over the years I’ve come to appreciate a brief abstinence from this comforting feedback loop. A few minutes of retail therapy followed by a rush of endorphins is enough to get most people to happily agree that ending is better than mending, but BND challenges consumers to break that neural circuit.

Around this time ten years ago I began my long-term relationship with Buy Nothing Day when I helped organize my alma mater‘s first observance of the holiday. The anti-consumption message was a tough sell at a university anchored by a business school, so we celebrated BND as a friendly, end-of-semester Open House instead.

Setting up shop in a prime location in the student centre was a no-brainer since it was already basically a mall. This high-traffic area would normally be the home of tables pitching high-interest credit cards to students, or cheap posters for dorm room walls, but not on BND.

By booking all the space in the concourse months before, on Buy Nothing Day we effectively shut down the campus mall for a few hours while handing out free coffee and homemade treats. Passers-by were only asked to consider the social and environmental impacts of their consumer choices, and to consider trying to go the rest of the day without buying anything.

Of course there were no hard feelings if people wouldn’t or couldn’t. We all understood that even our “free” snacks were made with ingredients purchased a few days before, so BND had only temporarily shifted our consumption patterns.

But that wasn’t really the point, and the following year I told Kitchener radio station as much: that the real goal of our BND party was to build a community of people at our school who thought about their consumption on a daily basis, not just once a year.

My words obviously hung around long enough to spite me, because exactly one year later I was left in a grocery checkout, listening to Christmas carols. Our community had grown larger than the year before, and we’d run out of coffee cream.

As I handed over the cash, I felt only a little pang of guilt while ruminating on my hypocrisy. My guilt was eased by reflecting on an exchange I’d overheard earlier that day: a fairly radical anti-capitalist professor acknowledged that he’d traded away his idealism that morning for a litre of milk destined for his kid’s cereal bowl.

Buy Nothing Day or not, life goes on.

And it’s a good thing, too, that those events didn’t devolve into an alienating pissing match over ideological purity. Slowing down the consumer impulse will only make a shred of difference if it’s taken up by the mainstream, because modern living is increasingly defined by consumption.

Our economies and our identities are increasingly driven by the need to consume. It seems as if the only route away from a future threatened by environmental, economic and social collapse is one that challenges this paradigm that a better life or world can be bought off the shelf.

So if you’ve not already planned your getaway to Buffalo’s outlet malls, or set your alarm for 4AM to get the best deals online, think about forgoing that reassuring little shot of brain chemicals today. Leave your wallet or purse at home, pack a lunch for work, and try a little retail celibacy for a day – you might find you like it.

 


 

 

The following is a review of the book, The Spirit Level, by British researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, originally published on Raise the Hammer.

As fires burn and looters run amok across the UK, speculation abounds as to the root causes of the shocking violence. Though the civil disorder that has spread from London was initially triggered by the police killing of a 29-year-old father of four, it is hard to imagine that the memory of Mark Duggan is well served by these waves of violence.

To some observers, the source of the mayhem is obvious. Since his coalition government was elected last year, British PM David Cameron has embarked on an austerity program that has aggressively cut services, including social welfare programs that many Britons rely upon.

Cameron, meanwhile, has pinned the blame on a culture of entitlement and lack of personal responsibility that has apparently reached an ignition point.

Rhetoric aside, the arguments made by those claiming the UK’s economic problems are to blame carry much more empirical weight. As with Egypt and Tunisia, two other countries that witnessed revolutions led by legions of unemployed and disenfranchised youth, the unrest in the UK is more likely the result of economic policies that have widened the gap between elites and those just struggling to get by.

It was mere coincidence that as London burned I was deep into one of the best non-fiction texts I have ever read. Published in 2009, The Spirit Level (Bloomsbury Press) by British researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett is available at the HPL, and is a fascinating study of how socioeconomic inequality acts to tear societies apart.

This exhaustively researched book is built on a solid academic foundation, yet written for a mass audience. Its premise is as simple as it is powerful: using dozens of empirical studies by social scientists, economists and epidemiologists, Wilkinson and Pickett draw an indelible link between inequality and nine different social problems that plague Western society.

In chapter after chapter, the authors demonstrate that social dysfunction is not only correlated with, but is likely caused by large gaps in income within countries. From murder rates to teen pregnancy, mental health problems to mortality rates, socio-economic inequality (as measured by the ratios of income garnered by the top and bottom 20% of earners) predicts the prevalence of social problems with a remarkable consistency.

The authors convincingly argue that the gap between rich and poor, not average income or absolute poverty levels in a society, is the main culprit. A case in point is the effect of income on life expectancy.

Using readily available, official data, the authors show that a baby “born in one of the poorest western democracies, Greece, where average income is not much more than half of that of the USA,” and where the government spends less than half as much on health care, has a life expectancy of 1.2 years longer than an American baby (pp. 79-80).

Moreover, citing peer reviewed studies, Wilkinson and Picket write, “Inequality is associated with lower life expectancy, higher rates of infant mortality, shorter height, poor self-reported health, low birth weight, AIDS and depression” (p. 81).

Meanwhile, they pile on evidence that conservative attitudes like David Cameron’s are hopelessly self-defeating, cheating both the poor and rich alike.

Take crime and punishment as an example. The Spirit Level is not the first book to argue that punitive laws do nothing to lower crime rates, but the book clearly and succinctly explains how this approach to punishment is like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Not only does the prevailing trend towards long, punitive prison sentences do nothing to lower crime rates, but “there appears to be a trend toward higher rates of re-offending in more punitive systems (in the USA and UK, re-offending rates are generally reported to be between 60 and 65 percent)” compared to 35-40 percent in less harsh systems (p. 154).

And this analysis doesn’t even take into account the massive cost to taxpayers of building, maintaining and staffing prisons! Fighting inequality could accomplish far more, and cost less than imprisoning larger numbers of the poor (lower income folk are much more likely to be imprisoned than those higher up on the social ladder).

Without descending into Marxist polemic or revolutionary paean, The Spirit Level methodically lays out evidence that the growing gap between rich and poor is a recipe for social dysfunction and unrest.

The book also manages to chip away at the idea that “a rising tide lifts all boats” – the convenient myth that general improvements in the economy help everybody. There is an observable ceiling to this effect, and the West reached it two generations ago.

The benefits of development increasingly enrich a small elite class, but as The Spirit Level demonstrates, not even the rich can escape inequality’s ill effects.

 


 

The following is a letter Mike sent to Ward 2 Councilor Jason Farr in regards to Hamilton’s plan for Light Rail Transit (LRT), and originally published on Raise the Hammer.

Dear Councillor Farr:

Recent media reports have inspired me to write you to express my ongoing support for a Light Rail Transit line in Hamilton. It seems as though council is beginning to waffle on the idea of a east-west light rail line that has been extensively studied over the past three years, and which was unanimously endorsed by council in 2008 as a preferred option for our city.

As you well know, many of those councillors still represent their wards today, so this uncertainty regarding a a project that would be so transformative for downtown, including Ward 2, worries me greatly. It is all too reminiscent of the flip-flopping that characterized last year’s search for a Pan Am stadium site, and as a Ward 2 resident, I do not want to see yet another beneficial project slip between our fingers.

It is with this in mind that I hope that you will consider taking a leadership position on the issue of LRT in Hamilton. As we’ve seen in some (formerly great) American cities, the hollowing out of a city’s downtown is often the first step towards a long, painful decline.

I would love for Hamilton’s lower city to avoid the same slow death currently afflicting Detroit and Cleveland, but this means taking proactive steps now to ensure that downtown is a desirable place to live and invest.

Study after study has demonstrated the city-building benefits of LRT, and surely it is this optimistic vision of the city that inspired your colleagues on council to support LRT in the first place.

Taking a leadership role on this important initiative need not be overly difficult, or involve re-inventing the wheel. As a new face this term, I am confident that you are able to rise above some of the existing cleavages on council in order to re-direct your colleagues’ attention to the many proven benefits of a well-planned transit system that includes LRT.

Investment in this plan could be the biggest thing to happen to downtown Hamilton in a generation, but if media reports are accurate, it will not happen without a dedicated champion for the project.

I will keep this short, but let me re-iterate: please consider acting as an advocate for LRT on council, and impress upon your colleagues the positive vision that accompanies this large investment in our city’s future.

I acknowledge that financial considerations are important, but as council demonstrated by investing Future Fund monies in the Ivor Wynne refurbishment, funding for projects of this magnitude must be viewed as a long-term investment that can pay enormous dividends if done properly.

Thank you for your time, and I wish you the best in continuing to represent the best interests of the residents of Ward 2.

 


 

The following is the full-text of an exchange Mike had with with Kelly Crawford, a local activist and student, presently attending the University of Toronto and Lindsay Hutton, a local feminist activist, writer and editor. Both are members of the SlutWalk Hamilton steering committee.

Edited portions of this interview were used in a May 2011 article posted on www.raisethehammer.org.

 

The media has been reporting more than 60 SlutWalks being organized across the world, from Toronto to Boston to London, England.  Why do you think these events are so compelling?

(Actually, there more than 70 walks that have occurred or are in the process of being organized at this time.)  During our first meeting as a collective, many said the same things about why we wanted to organize a SlutWalk: Many of us identify as survivors, and none of us felt like we had access to a process that could adequately offer us justice or respect. We were tired of being forced to police our sexualities, or how we present, with the fear of being tagged as a slut, or similar words. Every single one of us at the table had either experienced slut-shaming or victim-blaming first-hand, or had seen it happen to someone we love. That’s the reason why SlutWalk is so compelling. There are thousands of us that feel the same way.


At its core, is the SlutWalk a feminist movement?

Card-carrying, and without apology. You can’t have conversations about sexualized assault, slut-shaming and victim-blaming and deny these hit on larger questions of misogyny and gender-based violence. Sexualized assault isn’t about sex, it’s a violent articulation of power used against those perceived as weak or lesser beings: usually those that identify as women; children; and people who are marginalized and criminalized because of their race, class, ethnicity, sexuality or ability.

A feminist analysis includes some other ways of looking at sexualized assault beyond gender: we recognize the presence of systemic racism, colonization, heterosexism and ableism in our culture. Women of colour, psychiatric survivors, Aboriginal and Métis women, sex workers, dis/abled women, LGBTQ people and other marginalized communities experience a disproportionate number of sexualized assaults and harassment, and worse, have far less access to justice and support. So feminist, yes, but we are also confronting larger, systemic issues as to why many communities don’t have access to the same amount of respect, protection and justice.

 

The movement was catalyzed by a comment from Toronto cop when visiting the York University after a spate of sexual assaults on campus. What specific changes can police forces make to their public safety campaigns in order to respond to accusations of victim blaming? How can they be more effective in communicating risk-reduction measures while steering clear of “slut-shaming”?

Our protective services need to take more direction from community agencies and organizations that work with and for marginalized communities. This work is going on, and it needs to continue. But before we can see more progress, the police need to look at their own organization, and confront the fact that police culture is a major perpetrator in allowing sexualized assault be a largely unprosecuted and ignored crime. Sexual assault cases are successfully prosecuted far less than other violent crimes.

Survivors are afraid to go to the police for many of the same reasons they rarely tell anyone of their assault: for fear of public scrutiny, that they won’t be believed, or for fear of repercussions from their attackers. The majority of sexualized assaults don’t happen in a dark alleyway or are committed by a stranger. Most occur in private residences by someone the survivor knows.

With that in mind, public safety and risk-reduction strategies need to start with focusing on consent, and creating better spaces for people to seek justice. Doing so calls for a massive overhaul on not only our protective services, but also our judicial system, and how we talk about sexual assault in our classrooms and in the media. This work, mainly led by sexual assault centres and other anti-rape activists, continues. But more resources are needed to first evaluate, and then address, these problems. Job one for the police is to allocate funds for an outside task force to look at where and why they are falling short.

 

Have SlutWalk Hamilton’s organizers met with representatives of Hamilton Police Services? What was their response?

At the demonstration on June 5, the police will be presented with a list of demands, some testimonials from attendees, and a petition. We’re open to them inviting us, along with representatives from our partnering agencies, to talk about these demands, which we are still working on with some community agencies that work closely with survivors, sex workers and other marginalized/criminalized women. We’ll be releasing our demands soon, but you can read about some of them in our mission statement.

The police work for and are funded by us. So they need to contact us after they are presented with our concerns to talk about them. If they don’t, a community forum will be organized where they will be invited to address our demands publicly.

 

The use of the insult ‘slut’ as a central part of the branding of this movement has raised the hackles of some members of the public, and even some feminists. On rabble.ca, Meghan Murphy wrote that “Slutwalk pressures women (and men!) into accepting this word, a violent word, as part of their empowerment discourse…” Why is it important that the word slut be reclaimed?
Nowhere, in any SlutWalk materials, in any city, does it say that we are pressuring people to accept the word and use it in their day-to-day lives. Some of us want to claim it, to reinvent it, some of us don’t. We’re not prescribing the buzzwords to anyone’s liberation.

We’re not celebrating the word, or prancing around encouraging people to present or dress in a “slutty” way. SlutWalk is about marching together with anyone that has been degraded, shamed or hurt by the word, or ones similar to it. Claiming ownership and being comfortable with one’s sexuality/sexual expression, even calling oneself a slut, is NOT something to be ashamed of, but the people who use the word to shame others think it is.  Ultimately, taking up the mantle of “slut” regardless of how you dress or act is an act of solidarity to unite everyone across lines of gender/sex/sexuality/etc. and to say that consensual, safe sex is something is to celebrate, not something to be actively shamed for.

 

The mainstream media’s coverage of SlutWalks is almost always accompanied by colourful images of young women in various states of undress, some with SLUT written across their bodies. Do you worry that the publicity for SlutWalks may be earned at the expense of a larger message about respecting women, and can this contradiction be reconciled?  For example, are these objectifying images empowering, and what does it mean when a rally about sexual assault becomes sexualized?


Bodies, especially women’s bodies, are always going to be sexualized; we didn’t start the trend with SlutWalk. Sexuality isn’t the problem, no matter how we present. We’re not going to apologize for that anymore. People who commit sexualized assault and harassment are the problem. The institutions that deny us justice and respect are the problem.

The media is going to choose to show photos of young, white women “in various states of undress” because those images help sell papers, and encourages people to navigate to their websites. Those fit that bill, even though they’re entirely unrepresentative of SlutWalk. We’ve spoken with more than half-dozen organizers of in various cities; less than 10% of people attending SlutWalks dress in anything more interesting than jeans and a t-shirt. We invite people to dress how they feel most comfortable.

Do these photos depoliticize us, render us a bunch of young, stupid hussies that think our liberation begins and ends with a pair of 4-inch heels? To the minds of many, including some who call themselves “feminists,” absolutely. But that in and of itself indicates why SlutWalk is happening: we’re confronting the reality that some of us, because of mere fashion choices, are viewed as lesser beings, deserving of disdain, abuse and pity.


Critics like the Globe & Mail’s Margaret Wente accuse the SlutWalks of being driven by highly educated, privileged young women, going as far to say, “SlutWalks are what you get when graduate students in feminist studies run out of things to do.” How do you respond to these critics?  Does this movement represent all women, or is support coming primarily from young women and students?

Her observation as to who is organizing SlutWalk is incorrect. Some of us have piercings and mohawks, some of us wear office attire. We have men, parents and LGBTQ people in our collective. Some of us are students, some of us work at Tim Horton’s, others are professionals working in different industries. We’re a diverse bunch, but we recognize we need be more representative of the communities hit hardest from victim-blaming and slut-shaming.

No movement can adequately represent everyone, but we always need to be working to do better, to broaden our analysis. So we’re reaching out to other communities to learn more about their work and how we can support them. Building these partnerships take time. That’s the real work, the real “activism,” and we’re committed to continuing it long past June 5th.

We’re getting support from a lot of different people; we’ve been attending a lot of local community events to start conversations about our work. I think one of best conversations I (Lindsay) had was with a group of men in their fifties attending the James North Art Crawl. They backed what we were doing completely; they knew as fathers, grandparents and husbands that it  wasn’t fair that survivors should be to blame for “someone else’s bad behaviour.” I remember one of them said this: “I’ll tell you what I told my boys: I don’t care what she’s wearing. When she asks for it, she’ll ASK FOR IT. Until then, keep your goddamned hands to yourself.”


In talking with men about SlutWalks, I’ve found that some think the movement is man-hating, and others seem confused as to what it is about. Does SlutWalk have a message for men?  How can it empower men to communicate with each other about sexual assault?

Men experience sexual assault, too – most stats suggest 1 in 10 men will experience it in their lifetime. A tiny proportion of men ever report it as a crime to protective services; more work needs to be done to address this. We don’t name it as something that just happens to women from men, though statistics indicate that those cases make up a considerable majority. That’s the reality, but we don’t believe in demonizing men. Part of the mythology of sexualized assault is that women should dress and ask prudently so as not to “attract” negative attraction from men. It’s bullshit; it’s offensive to women, and it’s offensive to men. It assumes men are inherently violent and latent rapists; what we know is that people that commit sexualized assault are a very small proportion of men – the reason why it occurs so often is that those that perpetrate it do it again and again.

Our message to men is the same as it is to everyone else: sexualized assault affects everyone, everywhere. The work required to fight against it needs to include everyone. Calling for the end of slut-shaming and victim-blaming, and asserting our right to enjoy safe, consensual sex without justification or apology didn’t start with SlutWalk. We’re helping to move those conversations along. Anyone is welcome to add their voice to it.

 


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