Guest Hoyden Bio: This Guest Post from Sarah Langston was co-authored by Dr Miriam Giugni and blogger Wildly Parenthetical. Sarah Langston is an early childhood educator working with non-profit organisations. Dr Miriam Giugni is an activist, artist and academic affiliated with the London Metropolitan University. Wildly Parenthetical is an academic cultural theorist.
On Tuesday morning at about 9am, as I was arriving at work, I started a petition with Change.org protesting what I saw to be a unforgivable failure of the justice system. Specifically, the failure to keep Man Haron Monis, the man at the centre of the Sydney siege at the Lindt cafe in Martin Place, off the streets.
As a survivor of street violence and domestic violence, I was horrified at the thought that a lapse of justice and judicial processes resulted in death and what I imagine to be indelible psychological scars for those trapped in that cafe for sixteen terrifying hours. The petition now stands at over 108,000 signatures. It exploded as I went about my day at work, and I watched in a degree of shock and disbelief as the numbers rose.
People who have signed this petition are rightfully angry and concerned about the murder of Tori Johnson and Katrina Dawson and the traumatisation of the hostages taken during the siege in Sydney this weekend. Violence in our community is deeply troubling.
The original conversation this petition started was around the laws in place regarding bail, in response to information released revealing that Man Haron Monis was out on bail at the time that he shot Tori and Katrina. Many people, including myself, have had an instinctive reaction to this information – anger, concern, and a desire to act.
People raised questions yesterday about Monis’ long history of violence against women. This conversation quickly evolved as more information and advice from community members and experts came to light. This alerted me to the generative nature of this particular petition that I now see as a productive conversation starter and opportunity for a more nuanced discussion and debate.
In the last 24 hours much has been written in response to public anger about bail laws. Media coverage of the issue has meant that many voices have brought insight to processes of the justice system that were not clear. The shock value of how a focus on ‘bail laws’ hit the broader media and disempowered people in their potential participation. This realisation has enlightened me, and as I see it, added depth and breadth to our collective knowledge.
Meaningful and important concerns have been raised about the following:
That stricter bail laws will make bail inaccessible for those to whom it should be more accessible;
That stricter bail laws would impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, particularly the women of these communities who are unjustly overrepresented in rates of incarceration in our jails as a result of living with poverty and systemic violence. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women already face higher rates of remand despite their offences being mostly around property or drugs, not violent crime. (http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2014/s4066806.htm)
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are often more likely to be denied bail, not because they are a risk to the community, but because of default systemic and institutional discrimination – the perception by judges that they are less likely to present to court, and economic injustice in the form of not having the financial ability to post bail.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are also incarcerated as a result of Apprehended Violence Orders being violated by abusive men, when they have sought to defend themselves and have been charged, and statistics clearly show that their contact with the law often comes as a result of living in areas where they have little access to services. The targeting of Aboriginal women by the justice system has been well documented and discussed. (http://www.sistersinside.com.au/conferencepapers2014.htm and http://www.wipan.net.au/publications/WomeninPrisonPaper_WIPAN_130814.pdf).
That stricter bail laws would disproportionately affect the alarming numbers of people with disability, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability, in contact with the justice system, usually due to poverty, high levels of victimisation by violent offenders, a lack of support services, and discriminatory attitudes. (http://fpdn.org.au).
Stricter bail laws would only exacerbate an already unjust situation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and people with disability, and put them at further risk.
That stricter bail laws would not necessarily have helped prevent the loss of life and trauma to survivors of the Sydney siege due to the circumstances of Monis’ prior convictions, bail conditions, and the fact that he was still awaiting trial (The Drum: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-12-17/barns-stricter-bail-laws-would-be-an-assault-on-our-rights/5972018);
That stricter bail laws undermine the civil liberties of many who should have access to bail in response to the extreme actions of very few. Bail is a fundamental civil liberty we all should have access to before we are proven guilty in a court of law (The Drum).
This is not to say all people should be granted bail, all the time, but it is to say that making it almost impossible for a whole range of people to have access to bail with blanket laws that are reactive, because of public pressure, will ultimately be bad for the welfare of too many.
I am thankful to those that have expressed these ideas and I am grateful for the opportunity to be called into this conversation, and the opportunity to consider them.
Through these conversations, I’ve stumbled into some stark quandaries about the pitfalls of our responses to violence in public discourse. And I have some burning questions to ask as a result.
Single issue petitions on websites like Change.org, and others of their ilk, tend to be focused on the simplest messages one can extract from an issue. The hardest line and most sensational language is encouraged to guarantee two things: the most possible signatures, and bountiful media coverage. On first glance that seems like a good thing, but what is missed with this push?
My understandable, human and heartfelt response to the tragedy of the Sydney siege was all of those things, but only those things. It was informed by my own past trauma, which are legitimate parts of the conversation but not the whole of it. It was not nuanced or critiqued, and it did not engage in community consultation. I simply said aloud and formally what many were feeling, before the facts had come into play. Swept into a maelstrom of commentary and an unanticipated furious public response, I was left reeling and scrambling to begin the consultation that should have been the foundation of any campaign. I was also navigating my personal response to public trauma that directly tied into memory, post traumatic stress, and immediate feelings of safety and wellbeing – an experience a large number of the public were also navigating.
Single issue petitions, particularly those that garner significant attention, are handled in a particular way that at best constitutes pressure and at worst constitutes the exploitation of sometimes vulnerable individuals. Petitions often come from a place of heady feeling, feeling born of trauma. Media opportunities were lined up by Change, and statements were prepared for me because I was working full time while trying to surf the explosive nature of the petition outside of that.
The attitude from Change towards building a more nuanced response to this violence was that it would “happen in time” as the petition rolled out and gathered momentum. My protests that I was increasingly uncomfortable, and that members of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities had spoken about their discomfort with the petition with me, were met with an encouragement to “build that in” eventually. Updates for the supporters of the campaign were written for me in the most incendiary terms, and pushed until I simply stopped responding to their emails. Nobody told me to slow down: instead, I was urged to go faster. In distress, I reached out to my community of peers and colleagues, who came on board to consult and help me find a way out of a campaign I no longer felt comfortable with.
When the lived experience of marginalised communities, people’s wellbeing and healthy debate are at stake, what is the responsibility of the organisers of single issue petition sites? What is the responsibility of the professionals who respond to people with a cause? Duty of care and a consideration of the ethics of how we engage in public discourse seem to be dangerously de-prioritised. The consequences are potentially devastating and not just for the individual: if new bail laws are pushed through in response to this petition, the damaging effects on our community may be profound and for some lives, permanent.
Simultaneously, if a nuanced public discourse about the judicial processes and how they are produced politically is now open, then there is some merit to what has occurred and attracted the signatures of an overwhelming many.
The burning issue at the heart of this remains, for me, that violence chiefly by men against women is distressingly common. It is rarely taken seriously enough in decisions that weigh into judicial processes; and these decisions are made by members of our community. But it is also not taken seriously by our communities – that is, by most of us. Over the years, increasing numbers of high profile cases of vicious male violence, sometimes fatal, towards women and children have been a provocation for public comment, and discussion about how to respond to this violence. (https://www.facebook.com/DestroyTheJoint/photos/a.419017344812682.83661.418382174876199/800446483336431).
That was what bothered me most yesterday morning – and upon reflection I’ve concluded that bail is not the issue, but instead a broader issue of fairness, equity and cultural nuance in judicial processes are, and there is more we need to talk about as a community.
It is shocking that one in three women will experience violence in an intimate relationship in their lifetime (http://somethingincommon.gov.au/dig-deeper/freedom/violence-against-women). When I refer to women I use the term to signal all women – transgendered, cisgendered or otherwise – noting that trans* women are at a much higher risk of violence than other women (http://www.transgenderlaw.org/resources/transfactsheet.pdf). Further, women with disability are over 37.3% more likely to experience domestic violence than other women (National Council to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children, 2009).
If you are on a bus, or a train, look around you. One in three. Count how many women that is and consider how much collective trauma that is.
Having had time to critically reflect, this is what concerns me even more: that in this conversation, oriented around our justice system, we are not talking about what we are doing in our own lives, every day, to call out and confront violence against women.
When high profile cases of vicious male violence receive media attention, the public wants to believe these men are monsters. We talk about them in terms of good and evil. This discussion of undoubtedly brutal violence makes it easy for us to dismiss the fact that these are men who actually represent the common, not the unusual. They’re human, not supernatural; violence is something that goes on every day – they are part of us, not separate from us. We can and should act upon this.
There are concrete ways we can dismantle that violence, one person at a time and together. Additionally, we can collaborate to engage politically to remind, inform and work with governments to make these changes in ways that reflect community needs and desires.
Even before Monis was before a court, he was committing horrific acts against women. As with a terrible majority of situations where men are violent to women, there were likely bystanders, people who knew of these acts of violence, who were silent and did nothing, perhaps this reflects the part that fear plays in our culture. This permits this trauma to happen, repeatedly, and we cannot expect the justice system to do all – or even most – of the work in responding to it. The justice system is always focussed on the past: seeking to respond to the aftermath, but never to prevent it. But we, in and with our communities, can work in collaborative ways towards undoing this culture of violence.
These events are a call to arms, but perhaps not to the action we first thought.
I would like to empower and encourage each person reading this to think about how they they are calling out and confronting violence against women in their lives, and how they are supporting and believing the women who experience it.
What can you do?
Our Watch is an initiative by combined State and Federal governments with a host of Aussie celebrity support that tells you exactly what you can do:
“Challenge stereotypes. Call out sexist attitudes. Speak out if you hear excuses for violence or victim blaming. Spread the word that violence is never an option or a solution and there is NO excuse. Acknowledge respect and equality when you see it. Celebrate our role models.” (www.ourwatch.org.au).
Yes! Think about the friend whose male partner belittles and controls her. Say something – to her, in support and to provide safe spaces, and say something to him. Don’t condone his actions with your silence.
Think about the friend that confides in you that she has been raped. Believe her, listen, ask how you can help.
Think about the abusive men you continue to have friendships with, despite knowing that they have been violent towards their female partners, family members and friends. Hold them accountable, be vocal about your attitude towards their actions. Support the people they have victimised by providing practical and emotional assistance. Shelter, a listening ear, whatever is needed to the best of your ability.
Think about the men you see catcalling and harassing women in the street. Speak up to them. Men especially should take on this role and acknowledge that calling out men is not something lots of women feel safe in doing. This is your job. It is within your power.
Think about your neighbour and the violence she experiences during arguments with her husband, or her father, or her brother. Don’t stand by and watch – say something.
When I was violently attacked on the street in 2012, two young men and their mother ran from their house and helped me, chasing off my attacker. I am forever grateful to those people who saw something, and helped. I’ve also experienced partner violence, and the too-loud silence that came as a result of members of my community not speaking up, or trivialising my experiences.
The endemic issue of violence against women and community inaction may seem larger, trickier and less tangible than the issue of bail, but it is the issue at hand here. It is the thing we all have immediate influence over. You can start that change today.
Many people and organisations are already actively addressing the massive problems of violence against women in your community, and you can support them. Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia is an incredible organisation that provides telephone counselling 24 hours a day for women and men who’ve experienced domestic violence and sexual assault, and you can support them here – http://www.rape-dvservices.org.au/Get-Involved
Rather than asking what the justice system is doing for us, let’s think about what we’re doing for each other.