What are men doing to challenge and stop gender violence?

(Facebook / We Make Us Better)

A group of men in Bedford-Stuyvesant called We Make Us Better formed in 2010 to re–establish a positive male influence in the community. (Facebook / We Make Us Better)

I’ve been writing a lot about domestic violence this fall, both in the wake of the publicity surrounding Ray Rice’s beating of his then-fiancée Janay Palmer and because October was Domestic Violence Awareness Month. As I’ve rifled through my files to dig out examples of community organizing against gender violence, I’ve realized that most of the examples concentrate on women organizing against gender violence. This made me wonder: What are men doing to challenge gender violence, both individually in their daily lives and collectively as part of their political organizing? So I began asking that question on Twitter. I have a bunch of followers who are male-identified, so I figured they’d all chime in and we’d have a mini-discussion, right?

Wrong. Instead, I started noticing that people were unfollowing me. To be fair, not all of them may have done so because of my constant variation of the question: “MEN (cis and trans): What are you doing to challenge #DV (individually or collectively)?” appearing in their stream every other day. But the near-silence that met my question every time I sent it out was more than a little unnerving. While I don’t personally know all my followers, I do know some of them, including men who identify as feminist or say that they don’t put up with violence against women. I figured that, at the very least, they would speak up, right?

Wrong again. No one I know responded. (I did get two responses from people I don’t know. I’m very thankful that they responded.)

Around this time, I was asked to write a piece for Jacobin critiquing carceral feminism, which is the kind of feminism that sees an increased police response, prosecution and harsher prison sentences as the solution to gender violence. While writing the piece, I started becoming annoyed that, when we (radicals, anarchists, communists, socialists, what-have-you types of leftists) talk about domestic violence and problematic ways of addressing it, we tend to direct our anger towards carceral feminists, pointing out all the ways in which policing and increased criminalized responses have placed marginalized women at increased risk of state violence.

But we rarely seem to look in our own circles and ask, “Well, what are we doing to create alternatives to relying on the state to stop domestic violence?” Why is this only a discussion among feminists (and feminist women at that)? Where is the rest of our so-called movement in these discussions and in these actions? Why isn’t challenging domestic violence, abuse and other forms of gender violence incorporated into our social justice organizing and into the beliefs that we’re espousing?

I’m not trying to say that no one is doing work on this front. After all, I did get three responses to my repeated Twitter question over the course of a month, and there are a couple of recent examples of men addressing gendered violence.

In 2010, after a rash of muggings and robberies in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, men in the neighborhood decided they needed to take action. They formed a group called We Make Us Better and began escorting people home from the subway station, making it less likely that people would be targeted. But they didn’t stop there. The group also sponsored a neighborhood outreach walk, stopping to talk to young men hanging out on corners and encouraging them to become involved in their community. The following year, the group provided prom tuxedos for the 30 graduating senior men at the local high school. To get a tuxedo, the young men had to attend a course on etiquette before the prom. While the idea of an etiquette course may conjure up images of great-aunt Millie telling you which fork to use or the proper way to eat shellfish, that wasn’t this course.

“We want to re-establish a positive male influence in our community,” Titus Mitchell, a co-founder of We Make Us Better, told NBC New York. “A lot of these kids don’t know how to open the door for a young lady or tie a tie. If they don’t have any male figures around, how will they ever learn?”

I’m not sure if the group is still active. Both their Twitter and Facebook pages show no activity since 2012. In the face of the neighborhood’s rapid gentrification, it’s possible that some got priced out, others moved away and overall momentum for the group faded. But what we can take away from this group’s example is that, for over a year, men in the neighborhood acted to not only prevent the immediate threats of violence that targeted women, but also begin to address underlying assumptions about masculinity and acceptable male behavior in their own communities.

Last year, utilizing October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Emotional Justice Unplugged, the Chicago Taskforce on Violence against Girls and Women, and Free Marissa Now launched a month-long letter writing campaign called #31forMARISSA. The campaign urged men to write letters of support to Marissa Alexander, a Florida mother who was arrested after firing a warning shot to keep her abusive husband from continuing to attack her. Although her conviction had been overturned in September 2013, she was still in prison the following month. Eventually, she was released on bail; the prosecutor has vowed to seek a 60-year sentence against her when they go to trial in December 2014.

The campaign #31forMARISSA urged men to share stories of violence experienced by the women in their own circles, donate funds for her trial fees and become engaged as active allies in the domestic violence movement. Their letters were posted on a Tumblr while paper copies were printed and mailed to Alexander each week. Over 100 people responded to the call.

This year’s campaign is entitled #31forRay and asks men to write about childhood experiences witnessing domestic violence, its impact, and the actions of men in their family and community to stop the violence. Interestingly, this particular call seems to have garnered much less participation. There were two letters when I checked. Hopefully, by the time this column is published, there will be many more.

Addressing domestic violence and other forms of gender violence need to be seen not just as a women’s issue. We can continue to be angry at carceral feminists’ reliance on policing and imprisonment as the solution to gender violence, but until everyone in our communities takes steps to create and implement alternative responses, people will continue to see that as the default solution.

So let me throw down the gauntlet and challenge all men to take concrete actions towards ending gender violence, both in their individual lives and in their political organizing work. It’s not going to be a short and sweet task, but if we truly are committed to transforming our world, then we need to make those commitments.

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