The fight against these sexists is just beginning

October 5, 2018

An anti-sexist movement in response to Brett Kavanaugh's nomination has exploded into the streets — where our power is, writes Danny Katch.

AS THIS article is being written, millions desperately await the decision of a handful of wealthy white senators over whether to send to the Supreme Court a man accused by three different women of sexual assault.

Regardless of whether Brett Kavanaugh is successfully rammed through the confirmation process by hateful politicians hiding behind a sham FBI investigation, a few important things have become clear.

The first is that sexual assault has become and will continue to be a defining political issue in the Donald Trump era. The second is that survivor-led protest has the potential to be a powerful radicalizing force in this deeply sexist society, and the building and development of this movement should be a high priority for the growing socialist movement.

Protesters stage a sit-in against Kavanaugh's nomination on Capitol Hill
Protesters stage a sit-in against Kavanaugh's nomination on Capitol Hill

The Senate testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh last Thursday provided a powerful collective experience of inspiration and then indignation. For a few days, this reaction was confined to social media, but this week it made the crucial leap off of the internet and into the streets — thanks in large part to socialists.

In New York City, the International Socialist Organization and Democratic Socialists of America worked with many other groups to lead a 3,000-strong march to the Yale Club (Kavanaugh mentioned that he went to Yale no less than four times during his testimony), followed by a sit-in at Grand Central Station.

On Thursday, walkouts took place on college campuses and workplaces from West Virginia schools to New York City legal services workers in response to a call put out by the International Women’s Strike, while thousands more marched on the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., and then occupied the Senate’s Hart office building.

In the initial days after the Senate testimony, Kavanaugh’s defenders generally refrained from directly attacking Dr. Blasey Ford and his other accusers Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick.

But just as a growing civil rights movement provoked racists to become openly violent and hateful, the last few days have seen the rape apologists go on the offensive, from Trump’s disgusting mockery of Dr. Blasey Ford at a Mississippi rally to the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee releasing an uncorroborated account of Swetnick’s sexual history as a teenager.

The Republicans’ aim, as always, is to fire up the reactionary minority to come out and vote during the November midterm elections.

But their stoking of male fury has dangerous consequences beyond the outcome of the elections or Kavanaugh’s confirmation. In trying to push rape accusations into the right-wing netherworld of fake news and conspiracy theories, they are dangerously whipping up anti-woman hatred among the dregs on their far-right fringe, from woman-hating “incels” to street thug Proud Boys.

THE YEARLONG consciousness-raising about sexual assault that we commonly refer to as #MeToo was in part directly provoked by the ascension of a serial sexual abuser to the White House, who provoked the largest protests in U.S. history — the Women’s March — on his first day in office.

But while Trump is a uniquely grotesque human being, he is a hideous but accurate reflection of the nasty sexism that persists in the heart of U.S. society. As Jen Roesch explained in Socialist Worker, the gains of the feminist movement of the 1960s were simultaneously too limited and used intensify some aspects of sexism by denying its existence:

Women are told that they can participate in public life, but they must do so on profoundly unequal terms. When they run up against barriers to full participation — like sexual harassment and violence or simply the impossible choices posed by the demands of home and work — they are told this is their own individual problem.

The victim-blaming that is so hideous and obvious in cases of sexual assault and rape is not confined to this alone — it exists in all realms of women’s lives, and serves to place the blame on them for all of the diminished expectations they face.

This oppression is intensified by increasing poverty and the disintegration of social safety net programs from welfare to food stamps to child care funding, all of which increase the dependence of many women on staying with partners and makes them more vulnerable to domestic violence.

The last decade of austerity and increasing inequality has intensified the crisis for millions of women. Writing in the International Socialist Review a few years after the Great Recession of 2008, Tithi Bhattacharya wrote:

It is now a well-documented fact that the financial crisis caused a rise in gendered violence. In the UK, domestic violence rose 35 percent in 2010. In Ireland there was a 21 percent rise in 2008 of the number of women who accessed domestic violence services compared to 2007, the number rose even further in 2009, up 43 percent from 2007 figures. In the United States, according to a 2011 private survey, 80 percent of shelters nationwide reported an increase in domestic violence cases for the third year in a row; 73 percent of these cases were attributed to “financial issues” including job loss.

JUST AS the Black Lives Matter movement that exploded in reaction to filmed police murders exposed the lie that we live in a “post-racial” society, #MeToo and the protests against Trump, and now Kavanaugh, are decisively proving to millions that sexism is not just ignorance that is gradually going away but something more tenaciously intertwined with the many other obvious injustices of our world.

Of course nobody could have better made the point about the relationship between sexism and class inequality than Brett Kavanaugh himself, with his enraged entitlement and repeated protestations that he went to Yale.

It’s ludicrous for spoiled rich prep school bullies like Kavanaugh and Trump to complain about due process when they’ve been given kid gloves treatment and the benefit of the doubt at every stage in their lives, including during this week’s joke of an FBI “investigation.”

But just like racist tropes about immigrants stealing jobs and African Americans exploiting “welfare,” the right-wing lie that any man is now in danger of having his life ruined by one false accusation has the potential to resonate with the precarity and powerlessness experienced by millions of men who work in non-union jobs and can be fired at the whim of their supervisor.

That’s part of the urgency of building a movement that connects the fight against sexism to the vast anger at corporate greed and the One Percent. It’s a good sign that socialist groups were at the heart of organizing some of most vibrant protests against Kavanaugh.

Far from being a “distraction” from populist “class” demands, as many Democrats alleged after Trump won the White House, anger at sexism and sexual assault is in fact at the cutting edge of working class issues — and it always has been.

From slave-owning rapists to creepy sweatshop foremen to today’s epidemic of sexual harassment against McDonald’s employees and farmworkers, gendered violence and threats have always been one of the most intensely personal forms of class power and violence.

THERE WAS a lot of talk among speakers and attendees of yesterday’s protests in Washington, D.C., about taking this fight to the polls.

But the fact that two of the five senators riding the fence were Democrats ought to show that simply winning a Democratic majority doesn’t guarantee us anything. Instead we’ve seen that we can shift politics, in our vast numbers and our individual stories.

One of the most powerful protests this week was the West Virginia occupation by 18 women of the office of Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, one of the five fence sitters. A 15-year-old, her mother sitting beside her, tearfully told the story of her assault last year.

When one of Manchin’s staffers complained that “this makes me uncomfortable,” the protesters spontaneously shouted “Good!”

During the occupation, the women were able to get a phone call to Manchin, who tried to play for time by urging them to wait for the result of the FBI report. Emily Comer, a leader in last spring’s teachers’ strike, was having none of it, and their exchange is worth quoting at length:

Comer: We don’t need an FBI investigation to know that Brett Kavanaugh is bad for women and is bad for Americans quite frankly. Even before the assault allegations we know where Brett Kavanaugh stands on reproductive rights. We know where Brett Kavanaugh stands on health care. We know where Brett Kavanaugh stands on unions. And he stands directly opposed to all of those things. Speaking as someone who is a sexual assault survivor, who is a union member, who just went on strike with workers who were 74 percent women against austerity...

Manchin: I was right there with you.

Comer: If you really were with us, Senator, you would know how to vote already and you would have known how to vote in June when he was announced because he’s anti-union.

Manchin: Don’t you believe in the rule of law? This is a country with a rule of law.

Comer: I believe in looking at a judge’s voting record and seeing that when he votes consistently against unions every single time and sides with bosses and corporations, that man is my class enemy...And you don’t need an FBI investigation to tell you that.

As I write this article, the video of this exchange has been viewed over 60,000 times. That’s good, and hopefully it will join the clips of Christine Blasey Ford’s incredible testimony as touchstones for a new movement that won’t rest until all the Kavanaugh’s and all their cowardly defenders are finally held accountable.

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