Less than a week ago, allegations against Ben Hopkins, the singer of formerly-upcoming queer punk band PWR BTTM, surfaced on social media. The story spread on social media for a few days, before being picked up by increasingly prominent media outlets. Stories by NPR and Billboard brought the issue to national attention.
The allegations against Hopkins came as a surprise to many. The band themselves were vocal supporters of queer rights, a position which is fundamentally opposed to sexual misconduct. In my opinion, the situation around PWR BTTM and Hopkins demonstrates the need to reassess the way in which our communities are built.
Hopkins was seen as a champion of the queer community – a community which is vocally opposed to sexual assault, and a community which holds no quarter for those who commit sexual violence. It’s also a community awash in alcohol, which is the most common date-rape drug.
In many ways, the collective consumption of alcohol is the base on which queer communities are built. In Providence – we have gay bars, we have liquor companies sponsoring pride. Poetry slams and musical performances are all held at venues that serve alcohol – whether it’s ProvSlam at AS220, queer dance nights at Aurora, almost every queer identified event in Providence happens within fifty feet of a bar. Having a few drinks with someone is routine – until something goes wrong. I believe that activist communities need to seriously assess their relationship with alcohol. Everyone assumes that they can be responsible – especially in activist communities, where it’s easy to think “oh, we’re not a bunch of frat bros, we’ll be fine.”
Feminism has given us a detailed language that analyzes the interpersonal dynamics at play within incidents of sexual assault. We call for affirmative consent in sexual relationships, while recognizing that drunken “consent” is not valid. Though there is push-back to these conversations, the language has gained traction. This creates a major problem for our communities – the fact that someone is able to speak the language of affirmative consent and healthy sexual interactions doesn’t guarantee they will actually behave in this fashion.
I believe we have to analyze the structure of activist communities. There is no overall structure to progressive/leftist movements. Instead, there is a very loose faction of organizations, which may have some degree of political conflict with each other. This hampers effective communication between organizations. If someone accused of sexual violence is expelled from community A, what happens when they show up in community B? How do we prevent them from becoming another person’s problem?
For now, Hopkins’ music career is over. But there are many almost-famous artists out there. The real challenge is five years from now, when NPR is no longer interested in PWR BTTM and the allegations against Ben Hopkins. However, the activist left is highly reliant on news sources which exist outside of the movements. Activist movements take years to build – yet we are so often reliant on media that operates on a commercial news cycle. Mass media – whether it’s the NBC Nightly News, or digital media such as Buzzfeed that imagines itself as part of an activist movement – are fundamentally incompatible with the needs of long term community organizing projects.
Ten years from now, Hopkins is still going to have some form of community. That community needs to know what is happening right now. For that to happen, we cannot rely on NPR and music journalism to serve as the only archive of what happened.
The election of Donald Trump brought some of the largest protests in contemporary history. I expect we will see a long term surge in political organizing. This means we will likely see many new organizations coming up. Let’s say that out of our incoming stream of new activists – some of them fold into existing groups, and then some venture off and start new groups. Within existing groups, transferring the institutional memory can happen. However, one can start to see where the breakdowns in information transfer happen.
Unfortunately, these are not rhetorical questions. Over the past 18 months, I am personally aware of three incidents of sexual assault or domestic abuse happening within activist communities. Dealing with these incidents is unpleasant, difficult, and tiring work. I – and the organizations I have been part of – have dealt with legal threats, threats of suicide, and threats of violence. Throughout these times, I have made many mistakes. There are many things I wish I could have done differently. However, the best option that is available at this point is to share that experience.
Looking over all of this, I would consider three critical points for individuals and communities.
First, an ongoing assessment of risk. One of the simplest things that can be done is changing the norms around alcohol consumption. I keep coming back to alcohol use because it is so commonplace.
Second, an ongoing mapping exercise to determine connections between activist groups and communities.
Finally, a defined plan for incident response. One of the most common reactions is that the victims should just contact the police. The reality is that while sexual assault is a crime, the legal system is not an effective avenue for producing justice. The highly publicized case of Brock Turner is an excellent example of how the legal system fails at handling sexual violence. The case against Brock Turner was the “ideal” case for the prosecution – you had multiple eyewitnesses who intervened in the situation. Yet Turner got off very easily.
When it comes to incident response, there are specific timelines to focus on. Personally – I would think about a few specific “deadlines” that should be considered after someone comes forward about having experienced sexual violence. Think about what needs to happen within 15 seconds, within an hour, by the end of the day, and by the end of the week.
Within activist communities, there have been calls for transformative justice. The idea being that individuals who commit sexual violence undergo an accountability process designed to change the individual’s behavior. Given the failures of the legal system to address sexual violence, and given the inequities within this system, community-led accountability processes are often the only option. The challenge here comes down to assumption of liability that this process entails. In the event that a community group is going to declare an individual reformed, there is substantial liability associated with that process. There needs to be a clearly defined process by which information related to these processes is shared. Personally, I am opposed to the notion that individuals who commit sexual violence should be completely excommunicated. This makes it very easy for the individual to simply disappear.
Revelations like those against Hopkins are a painful wake-up call, both at the community and personal scale.