Every 107 Seconds…
This is a story about sexual assault and how communities either allow it or don’t.
We begin by recognizing that violence against women is rampant in our society, and that the narratives justifying it are structured by the idea that men are naturally more aggressive, more intelligent, and lead more important lives than women.
Men are told to be aggressive and talk more; women are told to be submissive and talk less. Men are trained to take up lots of space and be proud of everything they do; women are trained to feel guilty and apologize for taking what they need. The violation of women’s physical and emotional boundaries is the inevitable result of such social conditioning, and leads to the everyday practices that make rape and sexual assault commonplace.
The proportion of the violence is astounding. In a study recently conducted at the University of North Dakota, one-third of male college students surveyed asserted that they would rape a woman if they would face no repercussions.
But if we want to create a better world, one where we support each other to confront large-scale injustices, we must confront this conditioning and create safe spaces for us all.
“Your word against his” is the catch-phrase for the normalization of sexual assault as a juridicial commonplace. The rationalization of judicial equivalences in the societal perception of sexual assault means that the burden of proof is often on the survivor. For survivors of sexual assault, nothing could be more jarring than being told that the story of your rapist is just as good as yours. Police and prosecutors often do not even charge sex offenders with crimes, because they doubt that a conviction will result. The fact that the scales of public perception are weighed down with such catastrophic skepticism, particularly towards women and LGBQTTI people, renders the silence of friends and social groups often too much to bear. “Solve the problem yourself or go away”—that is what society tells survivors. And many people do leave, or even commit suicide, quietly, and with little discussion, allowing abusive people to continue in their patterns with no accountability.
Is it enough to state plainly that in the US someone is raped every 107 seconds? The unfortunate truth is that many people think addressing sexual assault and rape is a divisive issue, typically concerning men punished by angry, irrational women (Google “divisive” and “rape,” and nearly half a million hits will come up). And in the radical community we often find the same problem, with the additional worry that “irrational women” are now sent by the police as agents provocateurs, presumably sent to encourage accountability and restorative justice processes (incidentally, the converse is true: the FBI maintains a horrifying record of hiring sexual predators as infiltrators). But the reality is that we are trained to trust men and distrust women—men are rational and have privileged access to reality, while women are emotional and fickle.
Our willingness to question women and trust men is the mirror image of the structure that consigns us to strict, binary gender categories, and then privileges men with more rights, more opportunities, and more prestige.
This is the reason why so many stories of rape are met with unreasonable skepticism, aggressive questioning, and victim-blaming. But this article is about a different kind of story. It’s one of oppressed people speaking out and the community listening, in spite of a local weekly’s chauvinistic opportunism. It’s a story of a community growing through trauma into a better-organized movement against patriarchy and injustice.
Call-Outs Are Often Unsurprising
The process was kicked off when Hart Noecker, a relatively well-known activist in Portland, was called out for sexual predation and assault. The first call-out came through Facebook, and was followed by a period of confusion amongst some male activists—likely due to fears and insecurities that male privileges across the board were being threatened. It rapidly became apparent that those demanding more evidence were missing the point; Knoecker’s attitude and actions made him anathema to egalitarian collectives, and several people had already refused to join groups he was part of; his presence was stifling the movement. The proof is in the numbers, as female identified folks avoided the spaces were Knoecker frequented, including meetings of the local activist group, Bike Swarm, which rides along with protest marches to halt traffic, often putting their bikes and themselves between the people and the police.
While some demanded evidence and others bleated, “This isn’t a court of law!”, some 20 people came forward either privately or in public about Noecker’s behaviors, establishing a pattern of sexual assault and emotional violence in the community dating back to 2011. In the end, these people’s stories, ranging from gas lighting to rape, made perfect sense. For many male-identified people, the cascade of callouts against Noecker were depressing, but unfortunately not surprising.
Having known Hart for three years, we have to say that many of us anticipated and encouraged these callouts for quite some time. One of us, Alexander Reid Ross, has written about Noecker inCounterPunch before, as he became the apparent target of the police in a campaign of intimidation around the Don’t Shoot PDX protests late last year. In the article, Ross nearly identified Hart as “a Pechorin,” but later removed the term, thinking it would come off as poor journalism, or, at best, an overly esoteric literary reference.
We have always disliked and kept our distance from Noecker, seeing him as an infiltrator, a misogynist, or a special combination of the two—but then, almost everybody did. You had to live under a rock in Portland to have missed the cacophony of complaints about his behavior redounding throughout the activist community. Noecker was just extremely talented at using certain people at the right time to grab positions that placed him in our groups, rendering them unsafe.
Profiling a Perpetrator
Noecker was always careful to give the appearance of importance and being central to any given movement through his seemingly-exceptional social media skills. This was particularly the appearance he wanted to cultivate for the folks he targeted; meanwhile, his constant barrage of Facebook selfies taken with women projected the image of being “just a ladies man.”
In reality, Noecker did little work, he was a liability and security risk to other group members, and some women came forward saying that the selfies were taken non-consensually. He was a bike activist who specialized in pissing people off. It was not his organizational skills or roles that were central or defining to the groups he was part of, but his attitude and the environment he fostered—that being one where the systems of patriarchy festered.
While we among other friends attempted to shake up the patriarchal composition of the groups that Hart had wormed his way into and expose his misogyny, we were met with the posturing that Hart was “just an asshole to everyone.” The response, “That still makes him a misogynist,” was only greeted with a kind of stubborn refusal to look at the facts. In a sense, while trying to rebel against the Portlandia branding of passive aggression and smarmy elitism, those who ignored Hart’s problems only played into the larger narrative of “Portlandia”—a brand matched by Noecker’s exploitation of hipster style, veganism, and feminism to cover up old-fashioned bullying, patriarchal manipulation of others, and alienation of activist groups from mainstream organizers and social movements.
But when the voices of the survivors began to piece together a mosaic of assault and predation, the majority of men supported them, drowning out the deniers and apologists. In the ensuing days, Hart was cast out of the groups in which he took part—the Bike Swarm, the Climate Action Coalition, and the Right to the City Coalition—and a new wave of organization emerged.
A Cascade of Testimonies
After Hart was called out, a woman who volunteers with Food Not Bombs (FNB) also spoke up about a separate series of incidents involving another person with predatory patterns, and then another person in the community was found to have a conviction for attempted sexual assault against a minor on their record—the former even had the gall to show up at a group meeting regarding Noecker to intimidate the survivor while stories of identical abuse was being told by Noecker’s survivors. It became obvious that the calling out of sexual assault has domino affects, and when that cascade is not repressed, it can lead to incredible growth in a community and the way that it organizes. This is what the world can be when none are silenced.
After a large group of people met together to listen to the stories of assault against Hart, we met with several other organizers from a variety of PDX groups, like Free Hot Soup, Bike Swarm, FNB, Trans and/or Women’s Action Collective (TWAC), and an intentional community. We decided to form an anti-patriarchy hub.
A meeting of Food Not Bombs (FNB) activists was called, and a larger number of people were called into a Men and Patriarchy meeting to establish the hub and TWAC, which is a burgeoning model for urban social and ecological justice spinning off of the Earth First! ecodefense group, Trans and/or Women’s Action Camp. At the first Men and Patriarchy Group meeting, about 20 core activists banded together and agreed not only to commit to a singular group, but to form clusters of groups throughout the city based on their geographic location. Hence, a biweekly Men and Patriarchy Group meeting, consisting of a multiplicity of regional groups, has commenced with the intention of discussing the practice of smashing patriarchy on a personal, quotidian basis, and eventually doing outreach to other communities like high schools and colleges to talk about rape culture, warning signs of potential predators, and how to connect with other male-identified people to smash patriarchy.
And so it is that the PAMPS/TWAC collaboration has developed out of a crucial process in which many within the community have come to terms with their own toxic power dynamics. These meetings are safe spaces where survivors can speak up, and there is support.The nascent Trans and/or Women’s Action Collective (TWAC) joined the Men and Patriarchy Group in a connected, but separate, meeting. The group discussed group constructs and functions. A common goal united those present- to smash the patriarchy in all systems of oppression, above all to smash it within our own radical communities. To smash said patriarchy, the TWACs curiously broached the delicate balance of providing support, while avoiding a hand holding (also known as the doing their work for them) approach to the People with Access to Male Privilege (PAMPs). What would this look like? At the end of the meetings, spokespeople for both groups informally met to discuss the threads of collaboration and mutual aid. The Men and Patriarchy Group and its clusters of PAMPS is committed to taking leadership from TWAC and supporting the trans and women’s communities in the area.
How Patriarchy Asserts Itself
One key point is that patriarchy is never only about men against women; it can begin with power dynamics of men above other men, where trans folks and women are reduced to a lower threshold. Sexual dynamics of exploitation and abuse often come about amidst rigid, static hierarchies; for instance, there are three rapes every hour in the military. Hart, himself, was not well-liked by most men in the activist community, but he managed to grab positions of power within organizations that people trusted. He used his radical militancy as a way of pushing off criticism. This was only made possible by the tacit approval of men whom the community held in higher esteem, and who should have known better.
It is also worth recalling that Hart postured as “more radical than thou,” using his veganism and feminism to condescend to and upbraid people. He also took the lead in condemning police, to the extent that he led a splinter faction from the Don’t Shoot PDX movement through a middle class neighborhood singing anti-cop Christmas carols—a stunt that was condemned by the people of color who have lead the movement, and received terrible press. Don’t Shoot organizer Teressa Raiford commented, “[Portland is] probably the only city where white allies are telling black people they are doing it wrong. I don’t think that’s doing it better.” Noecker is no longer welcome at Don’t Shoot PDX events.
The very fact that few people regarded Hart with much esteem has led some to question what would happen if the person being called out was more popular. If a man in the activist community whom people respected was called out by ten women, would it have polarized and torn the community apart, rather than bringing it together? What if there was only one survivor? One thing we have heard from some people is that they had only knew of one instance where Hart had committed sexual assault prior to the series of call-outs that were aired more recently. One instance of sexual assault should be enough to call someone into account, and the fact that those who spoke up against Hart were isolated and marginalized until the other shoe finally dropped does not bode well for the future—particularly if the person called out is more well respected.
The Men and Patriarchy Group will have to face these hard questions by turning inward, exposing toxic power relations in a loving way, and moving toward solidarity and swift, collective response. The state will not help us form safer communities—in fact, the state wants to tear us apart.
Shortly following Hart’s exposure in the community, a group of boisterous, mostly-male bar denizens who convene for a local barroom talk show were shocked when a woman who frequents the event was drugged, pulled into a van and sexually assaulted. As the sexual assault was happening, the organizer of the event was seen on Facebook describing himself as hustling to the scene of the crime and preparing to beat the perpetrator, who was reportedly an event regular. The organizer’s next post was that the cops had already arrived on the scene and were seen high-fiving the perpetrator. This is precisely what happens when safer spaces are not respected.
And the Gaslight of the Year Award Goes To…
In the midst of all this, some of Hart Noecker’s survivors were contacted by the Portland paper Willamette Week. Reporter Aaron Mesh assured them that his only goal was to report on the community’s response, and its support of the survivors, which he claimed to appreciate. Instead, he wrote an insidious propaganda piece stuffed with every conceivable bit of misinformation, and violating numerous principles of professional journalism.
The subtitle of Mesh’s piece, “A Portland radical gets banished by the group he once led,” seems to connote that Noecker once shepherded the radicals of Portland before a cabal of spiteful Maenads cruelly tore his future from him like limbs from the body of Orpheus. The stories of 20 brave women (Mesh falsely reported only 6) were branded as “subjective” and belittled in favor of the trite, patriarchal narrative framed as one man struggling against the hysterical and jealous influence of women.
The day before the story was published, Byrd Jasper, one of the survivors whom Mesh interviewed, was curtly informed that the paper was required to include their teenage shoplifting conviction to remain “balanced” and to comply with the law. In reality, this history was used to lower their credibility. Amidst a sea of personal details about Noecker, making him appear to be a good person, Byrd receives a mere three details: her job, her high school, and a petty shoplifting conviction. Despite the many hours Mesh spent interviewing the survivors, details of the abuse were minimal, and buried within a maze of praise for Hart Knoecker.
Mesh also approached Byrd’s simple request that the Willamette Week use they/their pronouns with the same snarky and condescending attitude that he took towards their political views. Mesh initially writes that Byrd failed to go to the police due to their anarchist values, yet several paragraphs later it states that Byrd has contacted police, and is scheduled to meet with domestic violence detectives. Mesh goes on to falsely state that the survivors were just complaining about acts “they acknowledged were consensual,” and then makes the truly miraculous claim that only one of their stories constituted sexual assault—if it was true. The actual number of people calling out Noecker for specific instance of sexual assault against their person at a single meeting that Mesh pretended to describe in detail, but didn’t actually attend, numbered at least five, and the number of people calling out rape was no less than two. This is not a list of the number of times, but the number of people, and counts only those brave enough to come forward publicly, at that. Mesh’s article contains glaring inconsistencies and misrepresentations of the facts, as it purposely misleads readers. Those survivors penned a damning letter to the editor on Thursday, stating powerfully, “While we are not naïve, and we anticipated the fact that the media would cherry pick language and detail, we are dismayed by these breaches of our trust and the falsification of information, and do not endorse this article.”
The role of Willamette Week is not to tell us what is or is not assault—this is a legal question they claimed they would steer clear of to avoid lawsuits. The Willamette Week’s job is also not to tell us whether the claims of sexual assault are true or untrue. Their job is to report the news. Instead of bringing us accurate information, Aaron Mesh paints a bizarre fantasy-scape with lurid details about Noecker’s “chiseled legs” while pondering aloud whether community members should feel guilty for “acting outside the legal system.” As the survivors state, “We understand that legally the Willamette Week is, at this juncture, unwilling to speak about our experiences in detail, and that it is only because Byrd Jasper has met with a domestic violence detective that they have given Byrd’s story the light that it deserves. However, the way in which this article is written implies that Byrd is the only person with ‘severe’ allegations. Aaron Mesh, at least, knows for a fact that this is not so.” Mesh’s narrative makes no sense and doesn’t have to—it is simply meant to cover up another narrative, and it is backed by the unyielding idiocy of violence.
Mesh interviewed at least two people, a man and a woman, about the accountability and restorative justice process used by the community, but he twisted the story around to suit his own desires. The woman was not quoted at all, and the man was given an excessive amount of article space—but it gets worse. While Mesh did not quote the man about the restorative justice process, under the auspices of which the interview had taken place, but went so far as to mistakenly paraphrase him to manufacture the false appearance that the interviewee remained neutral about the proceedings. Mesh’s actual quotation bears repetition for its self-contradictory character: “[The activist]—who took part in the expulsion of Noecker—says he’s spoken to Noecker and says he hasn’t reached any conclusions about what to believe.” If the reader can make it through the fairy tail being spun about an activist who has expelled Hart from groups and is attempting to explain the accountability process taking place, but still somehow doesn’t know which side he’s on yet, they will find the same activist in the comments section of the WW’s website complaining of being paraphrased out of context: “I indicated to Aaron [Mesh] that I have myriad personal feelings about Hart (w/out further qualification),” he states, “but I did not indicate that I doubted survivor stories. To the extent the reader can reach that conclusion by reading the paraphrase above, I challenge that interpretation.” In the end, Mesh patronizingly describes the accountability process as “an improvised sort of justice” and “a sort of trial,” rather than a place where the community listens to survivors and works together to fight sexual assault.
In his adoration of Hart’s “leadership” and “chiseled legs,” Mesh is blatantly participating in the same kind of denial and preferential treatment that structures abusive relationships in the first place. Abusers threaten retribution to cover up their intimate violence, and make their survivors believe that no one will believe their story. By broadcasting this inaccurate, victim-baiting narrative across the entire city, Mesh has created a rallying cry for “men’s rights activists” and helped make the city less safe for survivors to come forward and get help. But why should activists expect anything better from the sleazy underbelly of yuppie condominiums and self-congratulatory back-slapping that has become practically the trademark of Portland’s gentrified bubble?
It is important to hit on this note again—this is taking place in a mostly-white community, and in the context of an activist who once used the Don’t Shoot PDX group to have his way. Patriarchy is, by default, a racist force, since it is historically situated in the Imperial domination by European men over the world. How many articles do we have to read/publish about the connection betweenwitch trials and colonialism, or the convention of rape and torture that was the slavery before people start to understand? Is the sexual violence behind the “new Jim Crow” made so totally invisible that people cannot see it through the veil of whiteness that shrouds the State of Oregon?
In communities composed mostly of people with white privilege, an echo chamber begins to take form where issues related to people of color are marginalized, due to a quiet racism that maligns diverse voices for raising issues that people with white privilege do not want to comprehend. People with white privilege react to people of color’s stories the same way that men approach stories about sexual assault—with skepticism, because they are afraid of losing their own privileges. If it’s true that when you scratch a men’s rights activists, you always find a misogynist, it’s generally true that you’ll also find systemic racism. In fact, our racist society makes misogyny so much worse. The PAMPS/TWAC is developing people of color caucuses to foreground and act upon the demands of communities of color.
Rather than wringing our hands in guilt and shame, we are taking action, and mobilizing against the reactionary posturing promulgated by Hart and those men who were seduced by the power he seemed to offer them. The PAMPs/TWAC collaboration is a new attempt based on an old tradition to compose councils and meet the needs of people throughout the city. Our influences range from the Kurdish democratic autonomy movement to the women’s participation in the Spanish Revolution, as well as the writings of Black feminists such as bell hooks and Angela Davis. Food Not Bombs has participated in this emerging community, and the collaboration is also talking about the potential for self-defense and mental health collectives. We hope that the model, coming out of a community that has matured considerably since the catalytic events of 2011, will grow and share power. This process is very new, and the possibilities are endless.
Your heart is a muscle the size of your fist. You can use it both to smash patriarchy and take apart the system that holds you back through community accountability. If you have survivor stories, we encourage you to share them with people you love and trust, and organize to shut down patriarchy. We contacted friend and fellow-activist Chris Crass out of Tennessee, and he sent us some great resources for men starting anti-patriarchy groups to listen to survivors and work towards accountability. Let’s organize against patriarchy, and let’s get free!
Alexander Reid Ross is a co-founding moderator of the Earth First! Newswire, he works with Bark, and is a member of the Portland Men and Patriarchy Group.
Stephen Quirk is an activist with Portland Rising Tide. He sits on Bark’s Forest Watch Committee, and is a member of the Portland Men and Patriarchy Group
Sara Phillips is an activist with Rising Tide, Bike Swarm, and Portland Trans and/or Women’s Action Collective.
Tori Cole also contributed important feedback for this article.
http://paulkivel.com/issues/gender-justice — check out their discussion questions and exercises for men’s groups.