I’ve always felt like the kid who missed the revolution. Born in Berkeley in the early 1970s to parents with deep and generations-long ties to Cal, I came to consciousness as the powerful protests and activist groups of the 1960s and 1970s were disappearing. Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to the research I do: I get to interview the people who were there, those whose stories haven’t always been told as widely as they should be.
One of the most profound lessons I’ve learned from that time is that internal divisions and the rupturing of coalitions were among the root causes of the crumbling of these powerful activist movements. There were other causes, of course, most notably intense state violence and political resistance, burnout, and in the case of gay liberation a devastating pandemic. But what seems like the most preventable of these turned out not to be. Divide and conquer is a time-honored strategy for defeating an enemy, and activist movements appear to be particularly good at doing it to themselves.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised, then, to see it happening again. Especially this spring, I have experienced, witnessed, or heard about a rapidly growing number of incidents of lateral violence: attacks, including verbal ones, that spark across a plane of power rather than reaching down or up the hierarchy. Lateral violence typically takes place between people who belong to the same group, although they may differ in other ways, like when a cisgender queer person attacks a non-binary queer person. It can also happen between members of different groups at similar levels of power, such as attacks between people of color with different racial or ethnic backgrounds. Lateral violence turns our resistance to oppression inward; rather than directing the intensity of our anger toward the sources of the oppression, we attack each other. Lateral violence destroys coalition; it destroys activist movements. Let’s not do this again.
Forty years ago, activist, singer, and scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon wrote that “coalition work is not done in your home.” She didn’t literally mean that we don’t do coalition work in our apartments or houses; she meant, to quote her again, that “it is some of the most dangerous work you can do. And you shouldn’t look for comfort” ( 2000: 346). We make progress in activism when we can all come together to support each other’s causes: there is both strength and safety in numbers. But when we all come together, we also disagree. We may share little in common other than our commitment to justice; working through or around the rest is difficult and at times impossible. Coalition is not where you come to feel comfortable or safe; it’s not where you go to recharge your energies or heal your wounds. That space is home, and truly generative activism is not done there.
The past year and a half has knocked most of us back. Some have lost jobs; many of us have feared the loss of jobs. In the academy, and especially for scholars from oppressed groups, a lost job may mean not only financial devastation but also the end of a career. Many people have come under greater threat of violence in the past year; others have had to watch as violence against their communities replays endlessly on the news and in their social media feeds. People have watched loved ones die from violence and from disease, have watched or experienced themselves the devastating effects of long COVID, returning trauma, depression and anxiety and suicide attempts, financial ruin from medical bills and COVID closures. So many of us stretched ourselves to breaking, getting out in the streets to protest, volunteering, teaching, caregiving, and trying to stay afloat and alive. Now, as many people’s worlds begin – unevenly – to open up again and as we face new challenges with kids unvaccinated, mask mandates banned, inequities in access to vaccines, ongoing threats of insurrection, and new spikes in racist, xenophobic, and anti-religious violence and mass shootings, a lot of us just need home.
But for many of us, home isn’t there anymore. The people are gone, the spaces are still closed or have gone out of business, we can’t go out because some of our loved ones are still at risk from the virus, and most of us are intensely sick of the four walls we’ve seen day in and day out for more than fifteen months – if we even have four walls anymore. We’re looking for home in our coalitions instead, and when they fail us we’re exploding them from the inside.
I began to experience violent verbal attacks in early January. At first it was just one person, responding to concerns I’d raised with scarcely-concealed sexist invective that he simply repeated more loudly no matter to whom I went in an ultimately fruitless search for justice. Then, as winter rolled over into spring, a pattern started to form. I’ve been shouted down in meetings, told in no uncertain (but very uninformed) terms how to do my job, attacked for offering a professional perspective I had been invited to give. In only about half of the cases did anyone who witnessed this behavior even say anything to me afterward; almost no one intervened on my behalf in the moment. I’ve witnessed or heard about straight members of oppressed groups relentlessly attacking queer members of the same groups, queer people taking down trans folks, blatant racist attacks on colleagues and scheming behind the scenes for racist purposes. Most, if not all, of these attacks are lateral violence. We’re using each other as punching bags because we can’t punch the bigger problems. We’re trying to make our coalitions home, and attacking other members of them when they fail to feed our hunger for safety and healing. We’re destroying our coalitions, and with them our movement for justice. We need to stop.
It’s so hard to do this work when we’re burned out, scared, injured, backed against the wall. It’s so hard to rebuild our energies, to create a space of home, recharging, healing, when our spaces have been destroyed and our homes may be gone. It’s so hard to take the time away when the work feels more urgent than ever, when we want to stay on the battlefield until the war is won. But we have to find a way to do this. Rather than break our coalitions, we need to take breaks from them, so that we can come back stronger and able to handle the hard, dangerous work that takes us far from home in our struggle to create a more just world. We have to stop the lateral violence before we replay history and shatter the movements we’ve so carefully rebuilt.
Stop the violence. Build the coalitions. Change the world.
Bernice Johnson Reagon.  2000. “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century.” In Barbara Smith, ed., Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.