Two movements have dominated American politics in recent years: #MeToo and the Movement for Black Lives. Both have incited a long-overdue reckoning with men who abuse their power. As a result, many progressives claim to be “intersectional” simply by using both hashtags. Yet organizers know that a truly intersectional approach requires internalizing the deepest lessons of both movements and developing strategies that advance both agendas. We also know that failure to do so might result in disastrous unintended consequences.

Anyone looking for a solid foundation on which to build intersectional strategy should read Aya Gruber’s recent The Feminist War on Crime. It is not just an important contribution to the growing literature around “carceral feminism,” a term coined by Elizabeth Bernstein to describe overly punitive approaches to enforcing gender justice laws. It also provides a succinct explanation of how white feminists played a central role in the rise of mass incarceration — and what must be done to reverse this trend.

What I found most relevant to organizers is the consistent way Gruber grapples with what it takes to work with low-income people, particularly in communities of color, to address the many intersecting injustices they face. Organizers understand the ways poverty, racism, and other systemic injustices create innumerable day-to-day stresses and indignities, which make intimate relationships difficult to handle. Gruber provides a comprehensive overview of the scholarly literature to back up what every organizer intuitively understands: the more white supremacy and our economy rob people of their dignity, the more they lash out at each other, often violently. Violence feels like the only thing within their control. 

Gruber examines a wide range of policy areas and movements, from campus rape to sex workers. Along the way, she convincingly demonstrates how white feminism proved to be an essential ally of mass incarceration, cloaking it with moral legitimacy. Although welfare rights organizers and radical feminists in the shelter movement of the 1970s were committed to this structural analysis, “legal feminists” — dominated by elite white women — portrayed domestic violence as a problem of individual, violent men. Removing individual men, namely through the criminal justice system, became the obvious solution. 

But rarely are the choices so simple — or the dynamics of intimate relations so easily reduced to innocence and villainy. In fact, one unintended consequence of “feminist” mandatory arrest laws has been a rise of incarcerated women, who are about as violent as men within the home. Low-income women also often suffer more economic distress when an income earner is removed from the home. In turn, men feel even more powerless once subjected to the criminal justice system and may retaliate with more violence when they are released. 

Gruber jokes that her alternative to carceral feminism can be summarized as: “give women money.” More seriously, she describes her framework as “neofeminism”:

...a three step path away from criminal law and towards noncarceral gender justice. The first step is to adopt a new theoretical framework...that continues to prioritize countering gender violence but rejects feminism’s victimization narrative, reliance on criminal authority, and prioritization of (white) women’s interests over larger social equality. The second step is to withdraw support for existing and future carceral programs erected in the name of gender justice that produce neither gender equality nor justice. The third step is to redistribute feminist financial, academic, and political capital toward programs that address gender violence and counter mass incarceration.

So much of this is common sense, but organizers who know what it takes to move criminal justice reform will recognize the practical challenges this agenda poses. Violence against women is a powerful justification for advancing mass incaracertion, particularly among liberal politicians. Gruber notes, for example, that even liberal California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law yet another set of mandatory minimums under the rubric of closing “loopholes” in rape laws. 

Gruber’s argument is a subset of John Pfaff’s, which challenges the liberal myth that mass incarceration can be solved by focusing on releasing “non-violent drug offenders.” As Pfaff writes, only 16 percent of state prisoners (the overwhelming majority of prisoners in America) are convicted of drug offenses, and only six percent of them are both low level and non-violent. In fact, most inmates have some kind of conviction related to violence. In other words, if campaigns against mass incarceration want to avoid the same mistake that white feminists made, they ought to focus squarely on addressing the root causes of mass incarceration: racism and economic exploitation. Messaging that centers innocent “nonviolent drug offenders” — just like campaigns that center individual, violent men — just won’t be effective. As organizers, we need to ensure that the full, complex lives of the members of our communities are at the heart of our campaigns. 

That’s why prison abolition must be taken seriously. Notably, leaders of #MeToo, including many organizations led by women of color, recently released the “Survivor’s Agenda,” which challenges a criminalization approach to sexual violence. Though not endorsing abolition, the agenda is a giant step forward nonetheless. 

My only words of caution in applying Gruber’s framework to our craft come by way of the practicality of terms like “neofeminism.” Just like “carceral feminism,” it’s hard to imagine using the term at the doors or during a one-on-one. The term “white feminism,” as opposed to “legal feminism,” is a little easier to understand and connotes the flavor of Gruber’s insights more clearly to an activist base. On the other hand, I cannot imagine trying to build a coalition with white women in a meeting where feminism itself is treated as a dirty word. It seems important to have the modifier white to make clear that equal rights for women is not in itself problematic — it only becomes so when this goal is narrowly pursued. With those qualifications in mind, Gruber’s core argument is one that I can imagine many young gender justice activists being receptive to, so long as it is not lost in translation.

Finally, it would be useful to put Gruber’s arguments in the context of restorative justice traditions among Indigeneous peoples. Vine DeLoria’s excellent American Indians, American Justice demonstrates how tribal courts serve as living, breathing alternatives to American criminal law. Too often, non-Indigeneous policymakers approach thorny problems as if western, industrial governments were the only ones to craft solutions. For anyone tired of hearing plaudits for Scandanavian countries, there can be no more “American” example than tribal nations, which are operating alternative justice systems right now.  

These caveats aside, organizers committed to intersectional strategies ought to familiarize themselves with Gruber’s case. Not only will you move past hashtag sloganeering into the heart of how movements, technocrats, and lawmakers really navigate relations of power, you will emerge with practical insights that can be applied to the next campaign. More importantly, the basic beliefs we hold as organizers — in the agency of our community members, in the wisdom of their experiences  — is wonderfully affirmed in this book. The overwhelming sense one derives from Gruber’s argument is that the last fifty years of American history could have turned out remarkably different had a multiracial movement of working-class people built the power necessary to shape public policy. Undoubtedly, today is a moment of second chances, a rare opportunity to learn from the past and fundamentally alter the trajectory of the country.



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