Power, Dignity, Choice, and Bobby Seale

I have a favorite story that helps me understand and explain a fundamental aspect of how power works.

Of course power is complex, and of course there are countless major social theories about its operation in the world. But like other complex and rich social phenomena, it isn’t as if we understand nothing without knowing the words of these theories. We have a rooted sense in our bodies and minds of how power from our own experiences with it, either from having power enacted upon us, enacting it upon others, or watching it play out around us. When I taught Intro to Sociology every semester, I actually used to introduce this conversation by showing an episode of the Office, which lead to a conversation about Weberian authority. Important for us today: no one has authority unless the people below see them as legitimate i.e. bestow them some kind of authority. But I digress, because that is not exactly the example I want to talk about.

The real point I want to make here is the related idea that when you really think about it no one can actually make you do anything. Human beings always have some kind of agency. They may have a very limited (or constrained) agency, when faced with a very bad set of options, for example: do something or be killed. But they can always choose to refuse and be killed. You have not actually “made” the person do anything. You have given them a crappy choice. This difference is more than semantic.

Here is my favorite example to illuminate that further.

Color drawing of Bobby Seale, bound and gagged in a seat, pen and paper in hand.
Courtroom drawing of Bobby Seale by Howard Brodie. Held by the Library of Congress.

In the fall of 1969, Bobby Seale, at the time the National Chairman of the Black Panther Party, was on trial in Chicago. Seale was being tried in the aftermath of the 1968 convention in Chicago. The charge was using interstate transportation to incite a riot.

Originally Seale was the only African American on trial alongside seven others, a group that included Abbie Hoffman. The trial was a circus, which was to some extent intentional on the part of the defiant, countercultural defendants. Apparently one day two defendants wore judge’s robes to court and then wiped their feet on them. Eventually Seale’s case was severed from the other seven.

Bobby Seale and his lawyer asked for a delay for his portion of the case because his lawyer was sick and couldn’t represent him, but Judge Hoffman refused, saying that Seale could just be represented by the defense lawyer representing some of the others. Seale insisted on his right to represent himself in that case.

It would seem that this violation of his right to a lawyer outraged Bobby Seale and he continued to complain about it in an attempt to stop the trial from going forward without him being represented by his own choice of counsel. The judge, in turn, wanted to stop Seale’s outbursts and to keep the trial moving.

Of course in the United States due process requires that defendants must be present in order for them to be tried. What generally happens in this situation is that judges threaten to hold defendants in contempt of court, a crime which can include significant fines or jail time. Dear reader, you may have already gotten there: this does not actually solve the problem unless the defendant chooses to change their behavior to avoid further penalty because the defendant must still be in the courtroom for the case to go on.

Bobby Seale was a trained revolutionary, who did not expect justice to be issued in a US court because he sat quietly and waited for it. He was not moved by being held in contempt of court.

In this case, an extraordinary (and horrific) measure was taken. Judge Hoffman ordered that Seale be bound and gagged inside the courtroom. Even more extraordinarily however, this act could not quiet Bobby Seale. Even bound and gagged he found a way to use his voice to disrupt the unjust proceedings. The UPI headline read “Bound, gagged Bobby Seale still manages wild scuffle in court.”

They could not silence Bobby Seale, because no one can actually make another person do anything. Power must be consented to in some way, shape, or form for it to work. It can be difficult to risk, but we do have the choice to try it, especially when we can get together with others and train ourselves to do so. The judge could not make him be quiet, even using significant force.

Bobby Seale is still alive and free to tell the tale.  Do not consent if you do not believe it is the right thing to do. Power is not power without legitimacy and consent from those subject to its will. Whenever it feels like I have no choice, I think of Bobby Seale.

the fear of being out

I can remember that it all started when the ringleader boy looked at my legs and commented on their hairiness. The ringleader was a tall kid who was one of the first to pubescence, new to school and had a lesbian mother – none of this seems accidental in retrospect.

After that, he was able to engage almost every boy in the class with the exception of a few in giving me sexual nicknames, commenting on my body, checking my back for a bra strap, and, most damagingly, chasing me around and touching all over my body nonconsensually.  This lasted for most of the school year and was targeted at me individually.

When I was in sixth grade, I was the target of organized sexual harassment by a gang of boys in my public school.  At the first peak of awkward transition to adolescence almost every boy I knew touched my body in unwanted ways and made fun of me. I was not protected by anybody. I was effectively terrorized for being a girl, for not being enough of a girl, for not being the right kind of a girl.

silenceisnotprotection

Silence ≠ Protection by Crista Facciolla, Print. Organize. Protest.

I would now call this experience sexual violence. And yes, as an adult I can see that these boys probably participated more out of their own fear of being singled out and having their masculinity questioned than for any other reason. None of that makes it ok, however, or frankly matters very much to me, because if we didn’t live in a rape culture shot through with toxic masculinity in the first place, this wouldn’t have happened. And it was traumatic.

I felt like I had to hide what the boys were doing to me. I was made complicit in their terrorism. I’m still not sure I’ve disentangled why I didn’t feel like I could tell anyone. The simplest reason is shame. It was just so fucking embarrassing. If I was going to tell someone – an adult – I would have had to also tell them the insults and the things that the boys said. This would have meant discussing sex with that adult and relaying the insults that were said about me. I was way too embarrassed to do either thing.

If I told an adult what the boys were saying about me, I would have had to repeat the insults that were flung at me. In retrospect, it takes an awful lot of self-confidence to repeat the heinous thing someone else has said about you. Repeating it seems to just make it actually real.

After several months of this experience, something happened right in front of my teacher. I hoped that finally this would put a stop to the torment I was experiencing without me having to tattle, but the teacher did nothing. (There can also be no way he hadn’t observed anything before that because there were several incidents every single day.) It has taken me 25 years to tell this story to anyone, perhaps because when my teacher who I loved and trusted failed so completely to intervene, I decided that there was something wrong with me or that there would be no point in talking.

Instead I tried to find ways to resolve the problem myself.  Apparently I tried to fit into the kind of femininity that was suggested. If my back was going to be checked for bra straps, then I was going to wear a bra every day. No matter that I didn’t need one, that they were uncomfortable, that my mother was confused and that I was too embarrassed to even be seen looking at them in the store. I was going to be wearing one each time some boy checked my back and maybe they’d move along and not yell about it.

I went home and shaved my legs. I didn’t ask for any help with that either. I didn’t want to start a conversation or argue with my mom about whether I was too young, so I opted for stealing supplies in the shower and cutting the shit out of my legs instead. At least the cuts indicated that I had taken the hint and shaved. I was complying.

But something happened when I watched the Hannah Gadsby special Nanette. I wanted to tell this story for the first time. In the special, Gadsby tells the story of being beaten up by a man who thought she was hitting on his girlfriend, and the thought struck me like lightning: have I continued being just on the right side of feminine out of fear of exactly this kind of male violence?

Like Gadsby, I too was a raised in a household where there seemed to be anxiety about my sexuality and sometimes openly expressed fear about how difficult life would be if I turned out to be gay. It was clear that it would supposedly be ok but it would also make everyone somehow sad. Much of this fear was just that, fear, and it was well-meaning, but it transmitted to me as a message that only certain ways of being were OK. Simultaneously, no adults were protecting me from the risks at school of male violence and I was under constant pressure at home to be more feminine.

I don’t think I can draw a straight (hah) line to explain how or why anything happened, but as I grew up I adopted a style that would hide my feminine body to deflect attention and yet I think I made modifications to remain “female.” At least just female enough. I didn’t want to (re)create the possibility of violence by being too masculine, nor did I want to attract attention with my body.  I’ve never felt as if I “belonged” in most highly feminine clothes, but looking back now I see what has held me back from going full-on butch despite the attraction it has always held. I was receiving so many messages about the possibility of queer-bashing at home, in the media at large, and from my own experiences that it was much easier (but more damaging) to just pretend to be straight  in a heteronormative world.

It’s not just that women, or those of us assigned female at birth or gender non-conforming in various ways are subject to overwhelming rates of sexual harassment and violence. It’s also that we, along with our sisters, girlfriends, friends, cousins, and classmates, experience so much sexual harassment and sexual violence that the threat of male violence regulates us so completely, so thoroughly, that it actually creates who we are.

Unsurprisingly my silence did not, as Audre Lorde says, protect me. Not my silence about the sexual violence I experienced in sixth grade, nor my silence about my queer sexual and gender identities. Instead they left me with a legacy of confusion, pain, and fear.  I was, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, afraid that I would do “woman” wrong and that I would be found out. Living a non-normative life is not easy, just as my family and Hannah Gadsby’s family predicted. But neither is living a life full of silence and shame. Silence is fragile, and carries so much less power than I thought when I was only a small person. Coming out of our silence is terrifying, and it is very hard, and it subjects us to real risks. But it also allows us to write our own stories, to try to create our own lives, and most importantly, to find each other.