For the last five years, the left-wing political community of Birmingham has been involved in a community accountability process that takes collective responsibility against sexual violence. Here an anonymous participant shares their reflections on that process.
This is the third in a series of articles reflecting on the community accountability process. Please note that this article contains candid discussion of sexual violence throughout.
This process has been one of the most difficult projects that I have taken part in. It has affected me in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Now five years later it’s proving to be difficult to put my feelings and thoughts down on paper and just as a disclosure, I’m not a very eloquent writer, and there may be quite a few mistakes, sorry.
I went into this process with a lot of my own baggage. I had been sexually assaulted when I was 19, I had gone to the police, he was charged with rape and sexual assault, to which I had to testify in court, and finally it had ended with no conviction as the 4 judges that deliberated on my case found no “malicious motivation” on behalf of the perpetrator. Throughout the two years that it took for the state to drag me through this process, all our mutual friends turned their backs on me and continued their friendship with my perpetrator seemingly unfazed. It took me a long time to recover, and what I found surprisingly painful was the betrayal I felt from my community, who couldn’t recognise and see what had happened to me as real and worth acting on. I felt isolated but I moved to university and had the opportunity to make new friends. I made a lot of friends through the student political group called Defend Education.
I trusted my new friendship group.
Our politics aligned and we had come together because we agreed on what behaviour was moral, and what wasn’t. These new friends were feminist and were outraged when I told them how my old friends had just continued their friendship with my perpetrator unfazed. This was important for me, as it helped validate my experiences of trauma.
So, at 23, after 4 years on working on my own recovery I was told that a friend of mine, someone I liked and held in high esteem, who I had opened up to about my own abuse and who had helped me get extenuating circumstances from university, had this whole time, either abused and raped his girlfriend, or effectively silenced her.
I found out just before the letter was distributed, because a close friend of mine was in the first group tasked with disseminating the letter and each person in that group could tell one person for emotional support. I was that emotional support.
I was so angry that I had been put in the same position my perpetrator had put all my old friends in. It seemed so simple to me, support the affected comrade, legitimize her experience and make sure she’s ok. I found out that no one in Birmingham had sent her messages of support and this outraged me further. I didn’t know her, but I felt deeply that I could relate to her experience.
The group that were tasked with disseminating the letter had huge rifts in it by the time I knew anything. There had been arguments, someone had left the group calling it a smear campaign and from what I understand the people chosen to be part of this group positioned as either friends of the affected comrade, friends of the perpetrator (“critical friends”) or friends of the perpetrators current girlfriend.
I don’t know too much about this time, but it was messy, emotionally charged, and difficult. All I know is hearsay, and I don’t feel like it is my place to comment further. All I could do was try and support my friend and wait until the wider community were told.
I wasn’t present at the first meeting as I was abroad, but my attendance started from the “welfare meeting” set up a couple of weeks later. This, like many left-wing student meetings, ended up being very procedural and frustrating for those who wanted to talk about how everything was emotionally affecting them. This was a constant problem. Do we assume everyone can talk openly about their emotions or do we create structures and spaces so that these discussions can happen? We chose the latter, which retrospectively assumed that people in the community don’t trust one another, and don’t feel safe enough to discuss these matters openly. Although after one of you turns out to be a rapist, why would there be this trust?
We set up an email, came up with rules on how to organise in a manner that would make everyone feel as able as possible to be involved, we had rotating agenda groups, a coordination group, anything we could think of to horizontally organise without forming an informal hierarchy.
My first disappointment was when attendance immediately dropped. We sent out emails about meetings to around 60 people, and less that 10 showed up. We had organised an elaborated organisational structure to make people feel able to engage, we had rotating groups, agenda groups, tasked changed to try and fight against the formation of informal hierarchies whilst still organising horizontally. We organised meetings at the university keeping in mind accessibility needs, we emailed the agenda 2 days before the meeting giving people time to read it and add to it. I was putting all my time into ensuring that people felt that they could engage.
Many just found it too difficult, with other things going on their personal lives, the meetings were tense, they were formal, anxious, with welfare go arounds as the only form of emotional sharing, which was awful in its own way as you’d share into this empty ether, with no real response. Then the meeting would immediately jump into a complex conversation of patriarchal structures in society. And informal hierarchies of some form did develop, I was on the coordination group the whole time, as everyone else wanted to step down before me and no one wanted to volunteer to take my place. I was in this position for 5 years which inevitably gave me informational power. I could organise meetings, people knew about my involvement, and came to me with grievances.
We carried on with dwindling numbers, the lack of engagement from many I considered friends, affected these friendships. It was all I could think about. We had an opportunity to work together to figure out how to organise in a way that doesn’t end in sexualized violence, I could not understand why people weren’t keener to get involved.
A contact group was set up after 6 months. I wasn’t part of this, but worked closely with people who were, and as I was the only one in Birmingham who had maintained friends who were still friends with the perpetrator, I often found myself using these social connections to try to mediate between the contact group and the perpetrators “critical friends”.
I feel that those that chose to be in contact with the perpetrator and state their involvement as being a “critical friend” were somewhat in an impossible situation. As maintaining friendship is easily seen as rape apologist, but this guy is manipulative as fuck. He knows what to say to get his way, and has on many occasions given 101 different reasons for why he hasn’t gone to a therapist, or told anyone politically or personally about what he had done.
He chose a type of therapy that was inappropriate, and when he was told that the process group would not support this, he used this as a reason not to seek any therapy at all. He argued that telling people about his past would put them at risk of emotional turmoil, and it was our responsibility to ensure those people had support. He had effectively victimised himself in this situation, and it’s fucked up, but my point is that he is manipulative, as many abuses are, and the concept of a “critical friend” is a failed one, created so that perpetrators can insulate themselves against being held accountable.
Sometimes I feel like this is a term thrown around and politically we all feel like it is part of some moral obligation to be that “critical friend”, but its fucking hard, and honestly sometimes I feel bad that I didn’t feel able ever to meet up with him and be critical and other times I’m so fucking angry that people decided to be his friend without accepting the cold hard fact that he raped someone repeatedly. The pressure needs to be constant, every time you meet you need to have those uncomfortable conversations: “Hey have you told everyone that you’re politically organising with that you used your past political power to excuse rape? Have you signed up to therapy yet?” Its shit, and it’s exhausting, and the person you should be angry at is the perpetrator. But who am I to say anything? My perpetrator said to our friends he’d get therapy – that shut everyone up. (He never did.)
After 7 months I was asked by a few friends of mine who were a part of another support group to do one task for them – give this other perpetrator a letter written by this support group.
This letter detailed his actions and notified him of the existence of a support group, and it had a few demands – maintain contact with the group, get therapy etc.
I was chosen, because of my activity in all the meetings, my politics on this matter and because I knew both the affected comrade and the perpetrator, but I wasn’t close to either. So, I somewhat naively thought that was all I had to do, that I’d do my bit and concentrate on this process and the university course I was on at the time. I completely underestimated how difficult this task would be, and how responsible I would feel for the wellbeing of the affected comrade, and by doing this I became inextricably tied to this other process. This process was a lot smaller, consisting of less than 10 people, many whom were already organising around the community accountability process detailed on this website. It was also all a secret and attempted to be all three groups in one – victim support, community accountability, and perpetrator contact group. This ended badly, the victim didn’t feel supported, the perpetrator moved away, and the small community just felt like everything they were doing was causing more harm, many were holding themselves accountable to impossible standards in an impossible environment. With people’s personal problems overlapping (I was studying to be a teacher and had to drop out as I could not deal with the responsibility) the process collapsed, and many friendships fell apart.
This situation reminded me of the sensation I had after I was assaulted, the more I spoke out, the more people would come tell me their stories of sexual violence in confidence, the worse the world felt and the more difficult it was to process my own assault.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy I got to share those moments with my friends, and that in those times we felt heard and could share our stories.
I feel it is important to speak out when you feel you can but finding out that rape is a common denominator between you and a lot of the people around you is overwhelmingly depressing and demoralizing.
When we collectivise the processing of trauma from sexual violence, we are collectivising certain aspects victims experience in their recovery. Being part of a support group around sexual violence makes you aware of all the other sexual violence. This can be overwhelmingly depressing and demoralizing.
Due to the pressure that we were all putting on ourselves, the dwindling attendance at meetings, we decided to organise meetings less frequently, from twice a month to once a month. The capacity of the group lessened steadily from there. There was less coherency in the discussion, in attempts to create some form a structure to the discussion we came up with a list of questions, or agenda points that we would work through slowly, but we didn’t get far, and many in the group felt ready to start writing.
I disagreed as we had only started going through this giant bank of questions, so we compromised, those who wanted to start writing could, and each month at the meetings we would discuss what had been written, those who weren’t ready to put pen to paper or didn’t feel they had the writing skills could still engage in discussion, and those who wanted to produce a written piece of work could get started. Thinking about it now I think that was a lot of pressure to put on my fellow comrades to have a monthly meeting scrutinizing what they had written. Although, maybe due to that pressure, these ‘editorial’ meetings never materialized, in the first ‘editorial’ meeting we were told that the draft that had been written was too long and to underdeveloped to be read and properly discussed in a group setting, and that we should cease all meetings until this written piece was finalized and ready.
I wanted to engage with this process and felt that any opportunity to do so – unless I started writing – had been taken away from me. I am not a confident writer; I am bilingual and written language is definitely not my strong suit. So, for all intent and purpose I had quit this process, I was angry and frustrated and gave up, telling people to get in contact once they had finished their “masterpiece” never really trusting it would happen.
It wasn’t too long till people in the writing group started quitting.
I can organise meetings, so I asked to join helped organise some meetings, and keep up some level of motivation, although to be honest I had have written very little of this article, and all the credit should go to my friends and comrades.
I’m writing this reflection late, the decision on whether to name the perpetrator or not, was the last meeting I organised, I personally think it a good idea to name the perpetrator, also more importantly I think everyone who worked in making this website possible had the right to be consulted. This like everything was dragged out and prolonged, but I am happy that finally we have been able to have something to show for the last five years.
This shit is toxic, it makes you question everyone’s motivations constantly, you lose trust in the people around you and feel like you’re not trusted either. To add to this people were smoking a lot and there was a lot of paranoia – which definitely didn’t help. So if you’re reading this and thinking about starting a community accountability keep that in mind.
I have accused my comrades of treating this purely as a political exercise and not seeing the emotional labour of fighting to preserve a community so that we could say yes, we together experienced that, held ourselves accountable and transformed as a community. I do believe that people who have been part of this still see themselves as members of the “left” but I wouldn’t necessarily say that the community still exists – although I do believe we would have all grown apart eventually anyway.
If I had to go back, I don’t know what I’d be able to do differently. I was harsh and outspoken and angry. I wish I could just list things here, but I can’t as every time I do, I remember our reasoning and our limited capacities, so despite everything I believe if I went back in time I’d still do it all again.
Lastly, I just want to say that we never gave ourselves the space to mourn the person we all thought the perpetrator was, if that makes sense. I was shocked when I heard, and I despise anyone who says shit like “I’m not that surprised this person seemed a bit off etc” like fuck off. It makes me as a victim feel like it’s my fault like, I didn’t have good judgement of character. It’s ok to be shocked, it’s ok to feel betrayed by a friend, and to be sadden and angry about it. Like I thought he wasn’t capable of doing something like this, and it makes me sad to know that he is.
For further information on the community accountability process please visit: https://commacct.uber.space/