A few notes on anti-racist sex work organizing and the prison industrial complex

On December 12 2009 I graduated from the Anne Braden Anti-Racism Training for White Social Justice Activists in the San Francisco Bay Area, California. It has been an unbelievably valuable experience, heart wrenching, incredibly inspiring, just one of the best damn things I’ve ever done. The program consists of weekly classes, a placement with an organization working for racial and economic justice as well as a mentorship from another white anti-racist organizer (mine was the inimitable Amy Sonnie). At the closing ceremony, I gave this speech on what I learned about anti-racism and sex work organizing from being placed with Critical Resistance, Oakland. There is so much more to be said about this, but this is what I did with my five minutes. Feedback warmly welcomed.

A few notes on anti-racist sex work organizing and the prison industrial complex

Hello everyone, my name is Juliet November and I am a sex worker and sex work organizer from Toronto Canada and as of a today a very proud graduate of the Anne Braden Program.

I’d like to begin by recognizing that we are gathering on Ohlone territory and extend a special welcome to my friends and family who’ve come from Canada to be here today and to my sex worker comrades in the audience.

I chose the Anne Braden Program because I wanted to deal with the the ways that I have seen racism and white supremacy divide and destroy our movements and squander our ability to work together eye-to-eye and arm-in-arm. In short, I watched racism painfully and repeatedly fuck things up and completely frustrate my desire to see justice, kindness and peace in my lifetime.

I became a sex work organizer about five years ago when I found out about the mass murder of dozens of sex workers in Vancouver, Canada where my family lives. All were poor and street-based workers, most were aboriginal. I am here today fueled by a very specific goal: to see sex workers stay alive.

So I came to the Anne Braden Program to find out more about what it would take to create safety, justice and self-determination for sex workers who were made disposable through systems of colonialism, white supremacy, capitalism and patriarchy.

I grew up poor but spent six years in university and this really only went so far in helping me learn about white anti-racist organizing (ha!). I wanted access to the theory, ideas and histories of anti-racist organizing, but I also wanted to go do it by learning from organizers working primarily in communities of colour.

One of the very unique things about the Braden program is that it includes a placement in an organization working for racial and economic justice. I asked to be placed with a prison organization because of how criminalization affects every aspect of sex worker’s lives–but in particular sex workers of colour–and I wanted to better understand how i could support and build a kick-ass powerful movement with sex workers of colour.

Catalyst staff matched me up with Critical Resistance, an 8 year old national organization committed to ending society’s use of prisons and police as a solution to social problems. CR challenges the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe and instead, believes that basic necessities such as food, shelter, and self-determination are what really make our communities safe and healthy.

Critical Resistance has 6 chapters across the country and the Oakland chapter’s work includes working to stop prison expansion, to end discrimination and provide re-entry services for those returning home from prison, advocate for government investment in communities not prisons, to produce a bilingual newspaper called The Abolitionist written by prisoners, former prisoners and community advocates and to correspond with hundreds of prisoners who write in each month to CR, seeking support, resources, connection and hope.

And that’s where I began. Every Wednesday, I would go into the CR Oakland office to read and respond to prisoner mail. Sometimes I would provide information about legal services or pen pals, I would send out copies of The Abolitionist or books. Through this, I helped build relationships with those most directly affected by punishment and prisons, inviting them and their families to become part of the movement to end what we call the Prison Industrial Complex. Mostly I offered hope that there were those of us working to transform the systems that led to their criminalization and imprisonment.

For those who are new to this concept of the Prison Industrial Complex–or PIC–it refers to a system situated at the intersection of governmental and private interests that uses policing, surveillance and prisons as a solution to social, political, and economic problems. It depends upon the oppressive systems of racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia.

I remember my first day at CR, sitting down at a little desk with prisoner letters in front of me. I didn’t know anyone in the CR office yet and I was a bit nervous. What would I learn? Would I do a good job and be useful? Would people like me?

Despite my nerves I showed up every week and offered to help. Slowly the CR staff began to connect to me into other projects and rely on me for other help and support as needed. If I came in and the development director needed signs for the fundraiser, I made some signs. Or called the phone repair guy. Or typed up the notes from the town hall. Or talked about relationship dramas over lunch. I just did what was needed to the best of my ability. It wasn’t very fancy and it was fabulous.

Because actually this is the work. And in doing so, in just showing up and offering to help, I learned critical lessons that have already changed the way I organize.

First, I learned about hope and vision–my heart was so unburdened when I first understood that the tragedy of the PIC, the violence, labour exploitation, isolation and white supremacist capitalism underlying our prisons and policing are not necessary and not inevitable. That what we know in our gut and hearts is true: punishing people does not keep any of us safe, or heal us when we’ve been harmed, prevent harm or hold the those who’ve harmed us accountable.

AND THEN–this is the really exciting part– through the course of my placement, through conversations I had with CR staff and other volunteers over morning coffees, through the¬† Town Hall and chapter meetings, it finally got through to me that we already have the tools we need to creatively respond to harm together, to heal, to transform and to prevent violence. We. You and me. The folks in this room and the folks currently locked up. I really didn’t know this: we can do it!

If I am taking anything away from my 6 months working with CR it is in the astonishing power of vision. Critical Resistance is rooted in a big bold vision of a fair and just society, and in practice what that looks like is concrete grassroots community organizing where we are always learning from each other by working together on the immediate problems our communities face. I realized that it is vision that keeps us going and sustains us through the hard times, that brings us back to working together when we are angry, demoralized, when we totally mess up and when we want to give up on each other.

Like most folks, I saw the criminal legal system as a necessary evil. When someone hurts us, what else are we gonna do? What other choice do we have? I needed to see how communities, primarily communities of colour who are the most negatively affected by the PIC were coming together to find solutions to harm and violence that don’t do even more damage. Because as Audre Lorde put it, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

So as an organizer, I’ve gone from feeling bitter resignation about the inevitability of policing, prisons and punishment to feeling totally inspired that we can definitely develop the solutions we need to keep ourselves safe without relying on the very systems that criminalized and endangered us in the first goddamned place.

How could we not search for alternatives when aboriginal women in Canada represent 3% of the population and 29% of the prison population? When 25-30% of sexual assaults on sex workers are committed by police? When a serial killer could hunt women for over 20 years until he had killed up to 59 of them while the police did nothing as our sisters disappeared year after year after year?

To quote Rachel Herzing of Critical Resistance: Shit is complicated. I learned that if we want sex workers to stay alive, we have to actively confront the ALL systems that oppress and endanger sex workers lives: colonialism, white supremacy, capitalism and transphobic patriarchy and how those lead to a lack of housing, economic opportunities, health services and so and on.

And because what endangers our lives are broad systems, we have to form broad alliances with allies working across multiple issues. Seeing how Critical Resistance works in coalition with dozens of organizations helped give me a vision of safety, justice and self-determination for all that includes those who’ve done us harm or that we’re in conflict with. From corresponding with prisoners I learned how we box people into this category of “criminal” and from there, no longer consider them worthy of human consideration, of value, of love or of hope for transformation. In short, disposable.

But we’re all in this.

And it is in that sense that I feel most connected to the sacredness of this work, this very ordinary work of making signs or meeting with a new volunteer or answering a prisoner’s letter. This is sacred work because it binds us to each other’s humanity, in resistance to the ways that white supremacy has ruptured our deepest desires for connection and dignity. We are all in because we are all worth our lives. All of us or none.

I want to finish by thanking Catalyst for the incredible work they have done to create the relationships with the organizations we partnered with and to the Braden Leadership Team who supported our work at each step of the way, and finally the folks of Critical Resistance, who taught me so much, who blew my mind, and who so warmly welcomed me in.

in love and solidarity, thank you.

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