Abuse and Accountability in the Arts Scene: A Reckoning
By Maura Callahan and Rebekah Kirkman
Illustrations by Kirsty Hambrick
Lindsay asked Bob why he tweeted something sexual at a friend of hers, and Bob got violent.
“He slammed me down on my back, pinned my upper arms while digging his nails into them, screamed in my face and spit on me while screaming,” she says.
He left large, hand-shaped bruises on her arms, which she showed to some close friends, some of whom still didn’t believe her—that Bob had hurt her. He told some of their mutual friends that she did it to herself. He continued to harass and threaten her over the phone and email for at least six months after he broke up with her.
“The threats always involved discrediting me to my friends, especially friends in the art scene, or making sure I ended up ‘with nothing’ if I told anyone what he did,” she says.
He was involved in the local art and noise music scenes. She’s a poet, which she says didn’t count to Bob as being an artist. A few of her close friends were supportive and tried to keep him away from her, but she was still afraid and stopped going out to shows. Many of her and Bob’s mutual friends in the art scene alienated her. She says their response to his abuse felt like shunning: They called her crazy or attention-seeking, they said she’d made it up.
“I think they valued having one more male art friend over my safety or health,” she says, adding that a friend of hers curated Bob’s artwork in a few shows even after finding out about the abuse. “It was always about how charming and silly he was, like he could do no wrong, like creating visual art and also being abusive to women can’t occur concurrently.”
Lindsay wanted people who were aware of her situation to know that she was coming forward, but still wanted to maintain some anonymity, so we’re only using her first name. Her ex-partner’s name has been changed. Other names in this story have been changed or cut, too, because the victims and artists who shared their testimonies with us feared physical or legal retaliation from their abusers or ostracization from the art scene.
In a community as small and tight-knit (yet in many ways fractured) as the one that enfolds Baltimore’s galleries, small theaters, studios, and warehouses, these fears are valid. But despite the dangers of speaking out—despite putting their careers, their creative practices, their senses of belonging at risk—survivors of abuse like Lindsay find that silence is not sustainable.
We see notes of warning scrawled on bathroom walls, we hear concerns from friends and friends of friends, we see more and more semi-public social media posts from survivors fed up and needing to talk about the abuse they have endured.
Over the last few years, we’ve tried to pay attention to these issues particularly within the art scenes we cover for City Paper. Stories and names circulate every now and then, and what we’ve suspected becomes more tangible. Public statements from survivors are met by (mostly) validating support, and serve as warnings to other vulnerable members of the arts community. People ponder what can be done to stop enabling abusive behavior, to make our scenes safer, but still the scene is the same. The names of abusers continue to appear on lineups at shows, on the boards of nonprofits, in press releases announcing award and grant recipients, in directorial positions at institutions with growing clout.
Incidents of abuse are always unique and absolutely complicated, which is all the more reason for a collective local effort to try and untangle the stories when they come into the public realm, to reconsider what this somewhat haphazard community stands for.
There is not one but many artist communities in Baltimore, clusters that often overlap while others remain stubbornly (or forcibly) isolated. Here, we refer primarily to a pocket of the “scene” for which Baltimore is fairly well known despite existing ostensibly under the DIY and “under-the-radar” label—a certain prestige and detachment that make for an environment suitable for unchecked abuse. Experiences of abuse elsewhere are no less significant, but we can’t speak to every experience. What we can do, though, is examine how, in this particular microcosm, abusers are enabled and what the community can do to about it.
We believe that effort begins with centering survivors, not abusers. We’re also more interested in searching for accountability and resolution, not punishment.
Even though we use them in this piece, we recognize the limits of labels—that “survivor” versus “abuser” reinforces a false binary of good person versus bad person; that being a survivor doesn’t preclude you from causing harm to others; that having a history of abusive behavior doesn’t mean you can’t change.
So, we decided to put this story together to contribute to this conversation, largely without details identifying abusers and survivors. This is a collage of experiences and ideas from survivors, supporters, activists, and others about what resolution could look like in a world held up by inherently misogynist and racist social structures, and how art and its surrounding communities both ease and complicate trauma.
I. THE MASCULINIST BOHEMIAN
During Lindsay’s relationship with Bob, he would tell her that she couldn’t relate to his problems because she wasn’t an artist.
“I was 32 and not an ‘art girl’ no matter how much I wrote or readings I put on, so I didn’t serve to further his career,” she says.
A lot of Lindsay’s conversations with Bob went back to his art and his struggle, and she says she felt like it was on her to make things feel OK.
“Because someone is an artist and also a male you must nurture them, ask no questions, expect no maturity, expect no equanimity,” she says. “They’re entitled to their temper because they’re so fragile in their creative headspace, and that’s more important than anyone else’s physical well being.”
Artist communities are prime territory for misogyny and abusive behavior in ways that are reflected in the rest of society but persist through avenues that are in some ways more navigable here. Because these communities exist under the guise of the avant-garde or even activism—ostensibly freed from the ties that bind society at large—patterns of sexism, racism, trans/homophobia, and abuse regularly go on unchecked: We’re not like the rest of society, therefore we do not share its diseases that, on the surface, we condemn. Or, we’re not like the rest of society, therefore we do not have to follow its moral codes. Maybe it’s easier to pretend that your scene is so cool and warm and progressive because the misogyny and racism and predation and abuse that do exist are simply more coded than their louder and more widely recognized forms. Sometimes you find that your abusive artist ex has more in common than you thought with your midwestern cousin’s shitbag Trump-voting husband who hits her and treats her like she’s nothing.
We raise up “The Artist”—especially the male artist, especially the white male artist, whose creations have long been the default, the canon, the exalted—to the point that, like God The Creator Himself, they are above reproach. While the white male artist pushes the right shades of colorful mud around a canvas in his very special way, he doesn’t have to take responsibility for his treatment of others even when he’s harming them. His friends or cohorts shake off allegations; at most they might say he’s being an asshole (which doesn’t really cover it), boys will be boys. This is a corollary to the way that patriarchy operates in general, along with how, often, these men’s female partners are expected to take care of them.
It’s important to note that everyone is capable abuse, including women, but men have misogyny on their side.
“While an overreliance on gender as the explanation for domestic violence undermines efforts to address same-sex domestic violence, most abuse is committed by men against women, with approximately eighty-five percent of victims being female and ninety percent of perpetrators being male,” writes Jane K. Stoever in the Vanderbilt Law Review, citing studies by the Department of Justice, the American Medical Association, and the Department of Health and Human Services. “Despite concentrated efforts to combat domestic abuse, each year approximately 1.3 million women in the United States are physically assaulted by an intimate partner, and women experience over five million physical assaults and rapes by intimate partners yearly.”
In the arts scene, patterns of abuse often continue unimpeded, perhaps out of an unspoken, collective fear that interrupting it would “sterilize” a culture that prides itself on dirt and darkness, the selective rejection of established values and that hot, continually misunderstood or deliberately redefined buzzword, “censorship.”
It’s tough to grapple with, when you love the art and hate the artist. Many complain that if we condemn Great Men like Bill Cosby and Woody Allen and Paul Gaugin and Bob Dylan and Roman Polanski and Charlie Chaplin and Pablo Fucking Picasso, we’ll have no culture left. It’s true that if you dig deeply enough (or not much at all) you’ll find unsavory accounts of abuse at the hands of a good chunk of the names in your art history textbook. But the withholding of forgiveness does not equal cultural erasure (look, we don’t want to live in a world without the music of Michael Jackson, either).
The point is not to eliminate the art. It’s to prevent the actions, the behavior, the harm from repeating. They got away with it then; they shouldn’t get away with it now. Looking to the future: If you’re concerned that active awareness and confrontation of abusive behavior will prevent the fruit of “genius” from entering our cultural canon, consider all the brilliant artists who never received due recognition or even the opportunity to create because they were abused, silenced, and written off as nothing more than muses (the ultimate consolation prize), femme fatales, or madwomen by those Great Men.
The Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta reclaimed space—as an exile, as an immigrant, as a woman of color—by pressing her body into the earth. Sometimes these impressions (which exist to us today through photographs and videos) are then layered with water, blood, sticks, stones, and flowers, these things that could be symbols simultaneously of pain and oppression and light and care, these realities that she faced. On Sept. 8, 1985, Mendieta got into a fight with her partner, artist Carl Andre, and either threw herself out their apartment window or was pushed. Andre was tried and acquitted of her murder.
“The ‘Silueta’ series shows the imprints of a woman’s body in the earth. Mendieta’s body cracking an imprint in concrete 35 stories down. It is partly because of the power of her art that her death cannot be extracted from it,” writes Maya Gurantz in her essay “‘Carl Broke Something’: On Carl Andre, Ana Mendieta, and the Cult of the Male Genius.”
Andre, still living today, received his most recent retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles last April, the final stop of a worldwide tour. Said Philippe Vergne, director of MOCA and co-curator of the retrospective: “We are a museum, not a court of law, and he is one of the most important artists of our time.”
Art itself—theater, painting, filmmaking, music, literature, everything in between—is steeped in a history that champions male “genius” and silences or diminishes everything else. Only in the last century has that pattern even begun to be publicly challenged. For centuries, male artists have quite literally gotten away with murder and certainly the abuse and creative theft of their women counterparts. The ensuing distress these women experience as a result of their abuse and silencing is written off as hysteria. But when you step back (or understand from experience) the “mad” behavior actually seems a proportionate response to the weight of abuse and silencing that cannot be fought. Some things are truly maddening.
In her book “Heroines,” about the wives and muses and sources of the men of Modernism, Kate Zambreno writes of T.S. Eliot in reference to his tumultuous marriage to the historically she-demonized writer Vivienne Haigh-Wood (who died in an asylum): “He played the part of the martyr to perfection. Strange, is Tom wearing green face powder? All of Bloomsbury sided with him. ‘You see, sir, one must make allowances for artists.’ Genius always excuses ill behavior. And she? She with the clever words? She who lacked discipline? She who preferred life to writing? He the object of pity—she of scorn.”
Catherine Pancake, an artist and founder of Baltimore’s Transmodern Festival, says she left Baltimore in 2010 in part because she wanted to be part of a more progressive scene, and to escape the scene’s toxic pattern of misogyny and abuse. She found that too many artists and organizers had this attitude that inappropriate or extreme behavior was just “part of the package” of being in a subculture that champions abnormality and the avant-garde.
“Sometimes the men that I saw in those scenes [and] women in the scene, including myself, were tolerating a kind of aberrance that could also lead to great creative ideas,” she says, “but that same aberrant lack of boundaries would spill over into assault and attacks.”
Pancake is gay, so although she wasn’t romantically involved with these men, some of them were misogynistic, homophobic, and occasionally physically violent toward her too. One time, she spent the night with a woman who told Pancake that she was in an open relationship. “And then that was followed by that person’s other male partner getting up in the middle of the night and basically verbally screaming at me a bunch of homophobic slurs,” Pancake says. “And they said I had to leave the warehouse. I had never had that in my life until I came to Baltimore.”
When she lived here, Pancake was aware of other men, some prominent artists, being physically violent toward women—beating them, pushing them down stairs. “That’s the painful thing, it’s a super friendly communal scene,” she says, “so when there are these bad actors, kind of like a small town, I feel sometimes like people are like ‘oh yeah yeah, I know, but you know he’s always lived on bric-a-brac street’ but you’re like ‘yeah, but he hits people!’”
Experiences like Lindsay’s and Pancake’s throw a wrench in the idea that the “Baltimore arts scene” as it currently exists is one cohesive and supportive community—unless you’re looking at it from the side of an abuser. Even if there’s not outright shunning of survivors, there is a heavy complicity in silence.
And while there are many people who do speak out against abuse, who support survivors, who fight against different forms of oppression, and work towards shifting the current paradigm those things ought to be the impulse.
“He’s always seemed nice to me”—a common response from men when confronted with claims of another man’s oppressive behavior. For cisgender men, sexism is always secondhand. They may never witness this behavior from a notorious misogynist, or the behavior might not register as oppressive because they themselves have never experienced it—which is why to argue that because they’ve never seen a particular man behave that way means they do not behave that way, and that they are innocent, is illogical.
“When these kind of men are called on their shit or even criticized, frequently they freak out,” Pancake says. “You spend all your time creating work that’s so subversive that you attack people in your work, you’re very critical of people in your work, and then the minute [someone’s] like ‘I’m not gonna tolerate this’ or ‘this is not acceptable’ then there’s this kind of complete freakout, denial.”
Obviously, the “masculinist bohemian,” as Pancake calls him, is far from unique to Baltimore. You’d be hard-pressed to find an artistic or intellectual community anywhere free from the pandemic of misogyny and abuse left unchecked in the name of creative progress. Last year, Jia Tolentino wrote for Jezebel about abuse accusations leveled against Thomas Sayers Ellis, a poet, musician, and former professor at Case Western, Sarah Lawrence, and the Iowa Writers Workshop. “The accusations against Ellis portrayed him as a familiar sort of figure. The story of the important, inappropriate literary man is so common and entrenched as to feel depressingly unremarkable. Women often circulate warnings about them in private, never sure what to do: they talk about incidents that are disturbing but often shy of criminally reportable, and they distribute warnings via hearsay, and they tell you they wish they, or their friend, or their friend of a friend, had known to stay away....In terms of artistic value, this man is often phenomenal, the type that can define and support an institution; in terms of his effect on half the women writers he encounters, this man frequently adds up to shit.”
The “important, inappropriate literary man” here may as well be the important, inappropriate thespian man, or noise musician man, or photographer man, and so on. Different artistic mediums and the communities that surround them offer different opportunities for harm, some more than others. The world of theater, for one, is particularly ripe for abuse. The primary medium is the body, and actors make themselves emotionally and physically vulnerable by performing in front of an audience. Last summer, the Chicago Reader published an alarming story on the physical and verbal abuse that went on behind the scenes—and onstage, unbeknownst to audiences—at Profiles Theatre, a nearly 30-year-old, highly-touted company in a Chicago storefront known for dark and gritty productions. Several young actresses alleged that Darrell Cox, a co-artistic director, actor, and director at the theater, had sexually harassed them, screamed at them during rehearsals, and ignored choreography during sexual or violent scenes, instead engaging in real acts of violence and violation onstage with actresses—among other forms of misconduct. Profiles closed permanently not long after the Reader story came out.
One young woman involved in the small theater scene in Baltimore left the city after an abusive relationship with the director of the company she worked in heightened her struggle with mental illness. The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, wrote to City Paper:
“In the beginning, he talked with me about his past failed relationships, and his addictions. While he sort of admitted to cheating and lying to previous partners (he called it failed polyamory—a classic misogynist tactic), he never mentioned the physical abuse or stalking. At times, he seemed to be really attempting to be a better person, at least when we talked about his ‘ex’ and our relationship together. But, agreeing to have a relationship with someone half his age (me), and who he then hired as an employee, was probably not ‘the next right thing’ for his newfound desire to improve on past slimy/grimy behavior. He eventually became verbally abusive toward me and discouraged me from getting mental health treatment when I really needed it. My untreated mental illness flared during my time working with him, and I have since left the theatre scene and Baltimore area altogether to seek treatment.
I want to return to Bmore someday, but I doubt I will return to the small theatre scene because of this experience—and I will definitely never fuck the director again. Lesson learned.”
Players in artist circles seem to forget that even if their work exists in the DIY or otherwise on the fringes of society, it’s still work, and therefore “professionalism” isn’t entirely without meaning. So, whether or not say, a director making sexual advances toward a young performer, intern, volunteer, or stagehand should or should not be considered offensive behavior is, on one hand, beside the point: A superior coming on to a subordinate in a place of work is unprofessional and can create a hostile work environment, simply because it occurs within an imbalanced power dynamic. In the arts, especially, when opportunities are hard to come by, the subordinate in this situation will often feel pressured to succumb to their superior’s advances.
Whether or not this is an abuse of a person, it is certainly an abuse of power.
II. NOT JUST RAPE
Over the course of several years, Wanda, a local artist, was psychologically abused by two men in separate, consecutive relationships. (Because she feared retaliation, all names have been changed.)
She describes both of those men as narcissists and says that one was psychologically abusive in more overt ways, the other more covert. The first one, Earl, a musician, was more overt; he was physically and verbally abusive too. “He would just scream at me, drill sergeant style,” she says. He would berate her constantly and compare her to other women, making her feel like she “deserved” to be treated badly because of her appearance.
If she showed that she was hurt by something he did or said, she says, it would damage his ego—and he would attack. One night she was at Earl’s house, and he got violent.
“He said something that hurt my feelings,” she says, “and all he did was he saw my face drop.”
He screamed in her face, called her crazy, told her she’s “so bad at controlling [her] emotions.”
He yelled at her to get out of his house. When she told him she didn’t have any money for a cab, he grabbed change and threw it at her face. He wouldn’t let her get her shoes, so she walked a few miles barefoot to get home.
After that relationship eventually ended, it took Wanda about three years to stop feeling terrified all the time that she might run into Earl. Around that time, she started seeing Tom, a musician she’d known loosely for years around Baltimore.
Their relationship hit the ground running, in ways that Wanda says felt enthralling at first, though retelling it now, she views his early intense affection as manipulation. He toyed with the definitions and boundaries of their relationship constantly—pulling her in and pushing her away, telling her he loved her and then not talking to her for days. If she expressed discomfort with any of that she says she would “get kinda punished for it,” or he’d give her the silent treatment. Tom did other subtle things that made her feel diminished and insecure: He’d make her second-guess her art; he’d make fun of her taste in music and art; he’d boast about past sexual experiences with other women in ways that made her feel like she had to do those things too; he’d let her use his computer and purposefully leave up his chat windows with other women he was talking to.
“I feel like he manufactured this intense attachment,” she says, “and then intentionally does this thing to watch you squirm because it does this thing that makes them feel really powerful.”
Often, emotional abuse is not considered to be as serious as more overt forms of abuse, like physical and sexual assault—and still, even these more overt forms of abuse are too often met with complicity, victim-blaming, and even condonation. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about how microaggressions and abusive behaviors are intertwined, all rooted in the control and subjugation of another person. Abusive behaviors overlap, but not always—someone may be psychologically abusive but never hit their partner, or they might do both, or they might do that and/or verbally abuse and/or sexually abuse.
For a survivor, unraveling what they went through—the insidious manipulation, the abuse, the behaviors that built up over time—and understanding how it all has affected their logic and emotions, both short-term and long-term, can be difficult to work through, or to even try to describe it to someone else.
“It’s a really complicated mindfuck,” Wanda says. “But if you’re still in it and you’re still paying attention to it, you’re not going to believe it’s a mindfuck. You’re going to think it’s just you.”
Sometimes even simply listing out the behaviors and signs of emotional abuse can seem to undermine their severity: He embarrasses you; he doesn’t listen; he undermines your work; he flirts with others in front of you; he diminishes your problems but expects you to deal with his own; he condescends to you about your taste in art, music, and films; he talks shit about your friends and family; he keeps tabs on you and your time and who you’re with; he deflects blame—always. These behaviors pile up. He’s sweeter when he sees you pulling away. And then the cycle starts again.
“That pattern of abusive behavior starts with relatively minor, smaller things and over time just sort of grows into more of a prominent pattern,” says Dr. Sara Nett, a Baltimore-based clinical psychologist who provides evidence-based psychotherapy for people who have experienced trauma and interpersonal violence.
As Nett puts it, conflict, or “bad behavior,” is “a one-off, or something a partner is working on that isn’t showing up repeatedly,” whereas abuse is a pattern of behavior that doesn’t change, that builds up over time, and often escalates in severity. “Sometimes you can have an undesirable behavior that’s maybe sort of more mood-based versus something that’s intentionally done to establish and maintain control over another person,” she says.
Another distinguishing factor in recognizing abuse, Nett says, is fear—often, an abuser will cause their victim to feel like they have to tiptoe around an issue or conflict because they don’t want to anger the abuser.
This type of abuse is common: According to a 2010 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on intimate partner violence (IPV) in the United States, 48.4 percent of women and 48.8 percent of men have experienced “psychological aggression” by an intimate partner in their life.
Statistics vary and instances of IPV can be hard to measure because they’re often underreported. And because it can be so hard to quantify, some studies on IPV don’t even include psychological abuse, like a 2015 Bureau of Justice Statistics report—which here includes rape, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault—which found that between 1994 and 2010, four out of five victims of IPV were female.
Power struggles can exist in any relationship, but abuse is not simply a power struggle. It has everything to do with gaining and maintaining power and control over someone, and nothing to do with victims themselves: They don’t bring it upon themselves by acting a certain way; it’s not that they’re too insecure or timid or defenseless. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) defines the abuse of power this way: “In relationships where domestic violence exists, violence is not equal. Even if the victim fights back or instigates violence in an effort to diffuse a situation. There is always one person who is the primary, constant source of power, control, and abuse in the relationship.”
In other words: To describe a relationship as “mutually abusive” suggests that there is an equilibrium in power dynamics—but abusive relationships are, by nature, unequal. If someone’s fighting back, it’s often in defense. That’s not to say one person is always entirely in the right and the other entirely in the wrong, that a relationship cannot be mutually toxic, but abuse itself is not reciprocal.
The NCADV describes the abuser’s behavior as “manipulative and clever” in order to instill fear in the victim (they often manipulate friends and others in their circle, too); the abuser’s tactics include cycles of “periods of good times and peace and periods of abuse”—the cycles often repeat and intensify with time. There’s also often a cycle of abuse after the relationship ends which can last a very long time.
Nett says that within these cycles, the abuser might offer up an apology without taking actual responsibility for their actions, and instead will externalize blame: The abuser might make the victim believe they did something to bring it upon themselves, the abuser might blame an addiction that they’re struggling with, or their own past experience having been abused by someone else.
“We know that a lot people who are hurting others have been abused in the past, but certainly being abused doesn’t mean someone’s going to be an abuser, so there’s definitely a break in that link there for a lot of individuals,” Nett says.
A person who’s been abused will often go through periods of anxiety, depression, and feeling low about their self worth, according to Nett, in addition to “even confusion about their own perception of what’s going on, so, really doubting their own intuition or doubting their own opinions about what’s happening in their own relationship or in their life.” They might lose their ability to trust not only themselves and other intimate partners but others in their lives too. Abuse can distort the survivor’s ability to find a healthy balance of power and control in their relationships: “When you’re in a relationship where someone is dominating and dictating, it can be really difficult to share responsibility, to assert oneself, to own an opinion, to ask what you need,” Nett says. “Those ideas around give and take in relationships can get really difficult.”
After her relationship with Tom ended, Wanda agonized over him—and today, she still fears running into Earl.
“It zapped me of my creative ability to do anything,” she adds. “For a while I thought I’m the one who caused the destruction of the relationship because I’m so crazy or because I’m so needy, I’m so obsessed with this person. So instead of being able to take care of myself and go on with my life I’m stuck in all these ruminations of what happened and why it happened.”
Wanda feels like she lost a year of her life after her relationship with Tom ended. She still made art and performed here and there, but it wasn’t the same.
“I was definitely struggling inside to be somebody or to do anything or to have a voice because I felt like I was so devastated,” she says. “I felt like I was damaged in a way that I could not have relationships.”
She saw Tom’s name in local publications (including City Paper) often, and fliers for Earl’s band in and around her home, which she says would paralyze her. “When it’s somebody that’s prominent, it’s hard because there’s this other layer of feeling,” she says, “this jolt of fear and trauma every time you see them mentioned and you have to work extra hard to block them out because they are a prominent person.”
III. SPEAKING UP AND CALLING OUT
When Alain Ginsberg’s poem was published on an online literary journal recently, they shared the link to it on Facebook, along with their story about someone who they say raped them a few years ago.
They had been silent about the assault for years because until recently, they didn’t feel like they had enough social support to do it.
“I didn’t feel comfortable with the friends I had begun to make after [the assault], and now I do have that kind of friendship but that’s something you need to build over time,” Ginsberg says.
Opening up about this has been difficult for Ginsberg, but they said it felt necessary—they already felt cut off from some of the queer/arts community because the person who assaulted them is several years older and is friends with some people who are understood as the scene’s gatekeepers.
“From both an artistic standpoint and a health standpoint it just didn’t seem feasible for my sanity to keep it under wraps while trying to move on and continue doing performances and writing and art and stuff,” they say. Ginsberg is from here and wants to live here—simply moving away to get away from their abuser isn’t an option for them.
Since they went public about it, Ginsberg says, people have reached out and offered support, and it’s all still freshly bewildering for them. Nothing yet long-term, in terms of accountability, has begun.
The community or scene becomes not only implicated but actively involved in an abusive situation in the wake of what some often dismissively deem exercises in “call out culture.” Decades ago, this may have looked like fliers plastered around the city or graffiti in a bathroom stall warning people of a particular community member’s harmful behavior—or simple word of mouth. In 2017, this more often looks like a social media post (though you’ll still see the occasional word of warning in the Crown’s feminine spectrum bathroom, for example).
To dismiss public denunciations or warnings as simply “call out culture” or spectacle reinforces the misplaced notion that by naming their abusers and describing their abuse, people are simply seeking attention or retribution (or money, in the case of high-profile civil suits). As we detail here, the poor treatment of victims is not attention worth seeking. Between two and 10 percent of reported sexual assaults are proven false (this variation is due to inconsistent methodologies and definitions from study to study)—and men are more likely to be sexually assaulted than falsely accused of sexual assault. An estimated 63 percent are never reported to the police to begin with. There are reasons for this, and they’re often the same reasons why abused individuals avoid coming out about other forms of abuse (criminal or otherwise) on public platforms.
In artist communities, survivors who speak up risk not only the aforementioned retaliation from their abuser, but ostracization from the scene altogether. In thinking about coming forward, they face a troubling series of what-ifs.
“If I speak up against him,” Catherine Pancake postures, “I’m never going to get a show at such and such venue or I’m going to get cut out of this grant because that person might be on the grant panel or might be on the board of something. And those people are going to reject me.”
It’s not that simple for allies of survivors, either. A member of a local small theater company who wished to remain anonymous says she continued to work with a man who she knew to be abusive from the firsthand account of a friend. She felt that she had no choice but to remain silent to respect the privacy of her friend, who had come to her in confidence—if she were to refuse to work with them, she felt that she would have to share her friend’s story with the rest of the company. Ultimately, it is the survivor’s choice to come forward.
Another man involved with her theater company, this artist says, tried to “parlay rehearsal work into requests for inappropriate touching” and had no problem looking down her shirt in a public social setting. But again, she decided that to continue working with him would be preferable to coming forward to her company and facing possible retaliation from the accused and potentially his cohorts.
“Which isn’t my favorite decision that I’ve ever made, obviously,” she said, “but as a result of that dynamic, I produced a show and directed a show with two guys who do this, and just swallowing that and dealing with it, as so many of us are good at doing because it was the easiest way through—though not at all comfortable.”
The art scene has no structures to keep harassment in check—no HR rep; no union, in most cases; no established, accepted, and enforced code of conduct. For people like this artist, there is no clear or secure course of action for dealing with workplace harassment.
All this is just scratching the surface of what people face in coming forward about mistreatment and abuse. Describing abuse can be re-traumatizing, and again, fear of physical or legal retaliation is not unwarranted.
But still, at a certain point the feeling of isolation, the inability to freely participate in the community, and the fear that an abuser will continue to abuse others outweighs the risks.
And so, survivors speak up.
As Kat Stoeffel wrote in a piece for The Cut aptly titled “It Doesn’t Have to Be Rape to Suck,” about abuse accusations against writers Stephen Tully Dierks and Tao Lin, “what it seems most women want is to warn other women about a category of jerk courts have no name for: a guy who can’t be trusted not to exploit his power over her.”
That’s not to mention the incalculable value of validation. Too often, people who are abused are made to feel that their anxieties and pain are unimportant or just wrong, even crazed—either by way of gaslighting from their abuser, or self doubt that is almost inevitable in a culture that is designed to diminish women’s suffering.
Being abused is damaging enough, says psychologist Sara Nett, but when a survivor finally decides to tell someone else about what they’ve gone through, only to be met with dismissal, “it’s sort of damage upon damage.” It’s part of a larger cycle of trauma: You’ve recognized that what you went through was destructive and abusive, and then you tell someone, hoping for validation, but they try to tell you that that’s not what it was.
The discovery that others have had similar experiences—affirmation that no, you’re not crazy, you’re not overreacting, you’re not alone—can be crucial in moving forward. For the survivor, public disclosure of abuse, what is too frequently written off as careless “witch hunting,” may have nothing at all to do with retribution, but everything to do with seeking the validation necessary to make the trauma at least marginally more bearable.
“Once the person is no longer being abused, or is in a safe environment, one of the things we know is incredibly important is social support,” Nett says, “having those really important relationships with people who will listen without judgment, who will provide the kind of support that’s needed . . . someone who is not going to judge, blame, deny, or dismiss the things that the person describes having experienced.” How someone responds to a survivor’s story is a crucial part in the survivor’s healing process.
Ginsberg says that writing about their sexual assault—laying down the trauma in front of people by way of performance and publishing—has been helpful in their healing process, allowing them to be “able to speak about it without speaking about it.” Over the past several years we’ve witnessed this plea or demand from survivors that the public help deal and reckon with the impact of abuse and assault, too. Baltimore’s FORCE travels the country with its Monument Quilt, making quilt squares with survivors about what they experienced, which are later pieced together and displayed to transform public areas into healing spaces. Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz famously carried a dorm mattress around with her everywhere she went for the duration of her senior year, after her school dismissed her claims that she was raped in a campus dorm, and failed to adjudicate her rapist. The statement given by the woman who Brock Turner raped, which she shared with BuzzFeed last year, was a devastating piece of excellent writing about a horrible trauma and its impact on her life. Transmuting horrific experiences into art often helps not only the survivor who made it but also other survivors. At the same time, these works confront the general public and demand that they pay attention and do something about it.
“Public communal denouncing done in connection with rethinking and changing how we treat each other is not the same as public shaming,” writes Oakland-based artist and writer Heather Clark in her zine “Scorched Cunt,” in which she describes being raped by an acquaintance, and then offers concrete steps toward accountability that her abuser and his friends/community could take. Clark initially shared her story with a selected group of acquaintances—people she knew to be friends with the person who raped her—on Facebook, hoping for some resolution and support. She says only about a quarter of those people responded, and it was mostly women thanking her for sharing. Someone told Clark that her testimony emboldened them to talk “semi-publicly” about their own assault.
In that initial post Clark named her rapist and Baltimore, where the rape occurred, but in the zine she released out into the world a few years later (available at Red Emma’s and Normal’s and as a PDF on the web) she anonymized both the rapist and the city. Removing those details was an attempt to make the conversation seem more approachable and inclusive, rather than focusing on her own “social microcosm,” she says. “I could be angry and write an angry zine about rape, but it would only reach other persons as angry as I was,” she says to City Paper over email. “I needed to try my best to get to any and everyone—including the kinds of people who didn’t believe me or didn’t want to get involved or who were too afraid to help.”
In 2011, Shawna Potter, singer for the locally based feminist hardcore band War on Women, founded the Baltimore chapter of Hollaback, a national network of localized anti-street harassment movements, to provide a platform and support system allowing victims to document and share incidents of harassment in Baltimore. Victims and bystanders of harassment can submit descriptions or photographs of the encounter to Hollaback’s website, which maps the location of the harassment.
“You can take a photo of your harasser and put it online in case anyone sees that person; they know to avoid them or maybe [the harasser’s] boss sees it or their wife sees it—it gives them a consequence to their actions where there wasn’t one before,” Potter says. “That also applies to a general call out on Facebook. . . . It’s a consequence to actions, whereas otherwise, maybe that person would just keep going and no one would ever know what kind of behavior they’re engaging in.”
Potter believes that while public disclosures are not the end-all solution in the fight against abuse and harassment in communities, victims should be given the space and support to deal with their abuse however they choose.
“I don’t blame any victim for how they respond to their own abuse,” she says. “It’s a terrible thing to go through. So if you need a public call out to feel better, to process, to start to heal—good, do it. If you don’t want to deal with all the comments maybe saying, ‘oh but isn’t it your fault’ or whatever and you don’t want to do a public call out, also understandable, I get that. If you don’t want to tell anyone for a long time because you’re just trying to live your life, I also understand that. It is up to you 100 percent.”
But public or semi-public naming of abusers, now more than ever and often through social media, is not without significant pitfalls. Online platforms, in particular, can be messy, and just 13 years into Facebook, we have yet to figure out exactly how to harness them for these purposes in a productive, harm-free way.
“Our awareness of the prevalence and magnitude of sexual assault has outpaced the systems that expose and adjudicate it,” wrote Tolentino for Jezebel.
For victims of abuse, the existing structures for seeking resolution—the police and criminal justice system, namely—are notoriously ineffective. That’s a whole other issue, but in short: Survivors either receive no help of any kind, and when they do, they may be retraumatized in the legal process only to see their abuser acquitted, or sentenced, leaving prison only more angry and troubled, and not at all rehabilitated. And for abuse that is not physical but emotional, there is no legal recourse. In any of these cases, it makes sense for a survivor to seek other means of justice. But those paths are also imperfect and without guidelines.
“It feels so gratifying to take a person down and say ‘that man who hates women, get him out of a position of power,’ or ‘that white person who hates black people, they should lose their job,’” says Lola B. Pierson, a playwright and co-director of the Acme Corporation, a Baltimore-based theater company. “And often I believe that—that person should be removed from power, that person should lose their job. But the court of public opinion is fickle and is not always fair and does not always listen to the evidence, and there’s a reason social structures exist. And the problem for me is that those social structures are founded in really racist, sexist, classist origins, and so they still function that way to protect the status quo in that way.”
Disclosing abuse, whether publicly through social media or privately among allies or through art, can be a necessary means of addressing the problem and rallying much-needed support, but that alone won’t end abusive behavior. Real resolution is much harder, and there’s no manual.
“I think the right answer is very unsatisfying,” says Pierson. “We have to work together [toward] building new systems that don’t champion capital, and don’t champion domination to deal with this stuff. And that’s a very unsexy, unsatisfying answer, but that’s what I think.”
IV. SMALL CITY SYNDROME
Rahne Alexander has spent over 15 years in Baltimore observing and participating in the scene as an artist, producer, musician, and performer, and comes from “a long line of queer feminist organizing.” She’s seen these patterns of abuse repeat themselves, sometimes bubbling up to public awareness years after the fact. Again and again, she’s watched fellow artists try to cope with their traumas by attempting to navigate around their abusers.
“If I’m abused by someone emotionally or sexually, and then I still have to live in the same town as them, I can do my best to not go to the places where that person goes. If I’m an artist and a performer, I still have to try to do what I do and what I’ve set myself up to do career-wise.”
That’s easier said than done.
Artists know better than probably anyone in Baltimore that this is a small city—infinitely layered and complex, but small. We pack plenty of studios, galleries, venues, and theater companies especially into the city lines, but still, most everyone in the DIY community is connected, and opportunities are sparse. This makes for an artist-run scene unlike those of Brooklyn or Chicago or really anywhere, and that has its benefits: Artists are less beholden to creating what will sell (that’s not even really in the charts for most), and collaboration is encouraged and practically necessary, which makes for a (sometimes) healthy exchange of ideas.
It also means that if you’re, say, a performer who’s been abused by a director or venue manager or promoter, you’re shit out of luck. If you don’t want to perform in front of your abuser, let alone have him telling you what to do, you’d best move to another city—and, as we’ve seen, some have.
“If I’ve experienced abuse from a person within an organization or by an organization, and especially in a town as relatively small as Baltimore, if I’ve lost a venue to perform in that’s a huge thing,” Alexander says.
Even if an abuser makes amends and takes the right steps toward changing their behavior, the victim may still hold trauma that prevents them from feeling comfortable or safe in their abuser’s presence, and those feelings may never disappear.
Shawna Potter offers one possible solution: It could mean “literally getting a neutral party—a mediator—to help you both plan your schedules so that you’re not going to the same show the same night,” she says.
When possible, this can prove an ideal resolution: The victim can move freely and comfortably through the city, less hindered by fears of running into their abuser. And—also important—the abuser isn’t totally ostracized and sent away to inflict their abuse upon people in other communities. “If we’re doing that, if we’re sending all of our abusers away,” says Potter, “well, then every other town is sending them here too.”
Mediation can and has worked for some, but it requires both the victim and the abuser to be on board. No one can be forced into these kind of agreements.
In the case of alleged abusers in positions of power, there’s the possibility of removing that person from their post, either permanently or temporarily while they attempt some kind of rehabilitation.
“That’s part of the apology process,” Alexander says. “You can’t continue to hold all of your power because the way you accumulate power is by hurting people.”
Though this, too, seems a potentially ideal solution, getting someone to step down—as we have seen in our government—is not easy, and it can be hard enough to get their cohorts on board. Because funding and resources are sparsely available to creators in Baltimore, artist-driven projects require multitaskers, leaders who can take on many jobs at once. The result can be extraordinary feats accomplished through the blood and sweat (and, often, privileges tied to race and gender and diplomas and trust funds) of a few. The problem: Those who have a hand in many parts of a whole cannot be removed without the whole project falling apart. Collaborators are all the more reluctant to cast off their partners even when their presence is toxic to others and, by extension, to the mission and outcome of the project itself. It seems by removing one person, the band, company, or organization collapses, labor feels wasted, and—in the case of projects that serve as significant creative platforms—the future of the entire scene and even the city at large seems even more uncertain.
And so, abusers have the potential to shape the scene, determining not only who can participate (people who won’t speak up) but by extension what art is valued.
To compare how abusive behavior plays into artist communities beyond Baltimore, we spoke to Katya Grokhovsky, a New York-based artist and curator who established and moderates the roundtable discussion series Feminist Urgent. Paired with an online presence, the series roams from state to state at various venues where artists and others gather to vent and diagnose issues facing women and non-binary people within and outside of the art world. The inaugural discussion focused on the legacy of artist Ana Mendieta in response to the aforementioned retrospective (co-organized with the Dia Art Foundation) on her husband Carl Andre, whose acquittal for her 1985 murder is still challenged. Since then, Feminist Urgent discussions have centered around themes of emotional labor, the online abuse of female voices, the 2016 election results, to name a few. Earlier this summer, Grokhovsky was invited to return to the Philadelphia artist-run venue and collective Vox Populi, where she was previously a curatorial fellow, after an installment in a feminist performance series was cancelled when multiple scheduled performers pulled out due to allegations of abuse against a Baltimore-based male performer on the lineup.
Grokhovsky describes the presence of misogyny and abuse in the New York art scene as more prevalent toward the market-driven, commercial gallery level.
“I’m heavily involved in the New York nonprofit world—it’s mostly women,” she says. The people involved in such organizations, she explains, tend to be more clued-in to public awareness and more communicative about patterns of abuse. “It’s quite a supportive environment. The minute it goes a level up, like medium-range commercial galleries, for example, that’s where it changes immediately. There’s still a lot of women of course, gallerists, but . . . it’s like they have to play the game because money’s involved.”
But even with capital taken largely or entirely out of the equation—at the artist-run, DIY, rent-a-cheap-space-and-make-it-work level—it’s all still there, now under the guise of grassroots solidarity.
“It’s all like happy community, you almost don’t think anything like that could happen—but it is,” Grokhovsky says. In the Bushwick scene, she’s noticed a “buddy-buddy” kind of environment dominated by young male artists helping out other young male artists, sometimes at the expense of others. But, she says, there’s plenty of female and gender-diverse camaraderie forming in the scene as well.
With Baltimore’s art scene being considerably smaller and mostly limited to the DIY and nonprofit front, we wondered if survivors and artists wary of misogyny and abuse have more ability to navigate around these things in larger cities like New York.
“Yes and no,” Grokhovsky says. “It’s tricky. I’d like to believe I’m that free, like any artist. I have experienced microaggressions at every level . . . because the world is like that. If it’s really really bad then I would leave the place. But also people change; there’s a high turnover in places in the arts. People leave all the time and they move to different places. So I have had this a lot happen to me, like one place will be horrible, next thing they have a new director and she’s amazing and it’s all changed. That’s something that happens a lot here and you sometimes have to wait it out.”
Even in a city with a population of eight and a half million, people in the arts tend to have their hands in many projects and venues, and avoidance or waiting it out isn’t really a viable solution when it comes to navigating around abusive people or groups while maintaining some semblance of an art practice. In Baltimore, with just over half a million people, it’s even harder. We’re not sure waiting it out would even occur to someone here, where some major players in the scene have been here for decades, maybe moving around at times but ultimately getting pulled back. Artists in Baltimore have fewer places to look for opportunities than they would in Chicago or New York or L.A., and so platforms here feel all the more valuable, even with known or suspected abusers at the helm.
But being a small city can allow for a more widespread reflection on creating a fair and safe community for artists.
“There’s also a potential in that for more accountability,” says Pierson, “and I would like to think that as a working artist I have learned a lot more about being accountable and taking my position of privilege realistically here.”
Because smaller cities are typically more affordable and arts communities within them are ostensibly more tight-knit, artist and comedian Christine Ferrera says she thinks our small city of Baltimore could be a role model for accountability and support. “Baltimore’s smaller size could make it easier for grassroots efforts to affect change, but only if those in power are open and willing to change,” she says. “I think it is incumbent upon all of us cultural workers (especially those in positions of power) to reach out to others in a meaningful way and push beyond our own comfort zones.”
V. SAFE VS. SAFER
“Safe space” is something of a buzzword commonly used as placeholder for an ideal often unrealized and endlessly debated. To city agencies that fear catastrophes like the fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland, California, that killed 36 people, it means following fire safety and housing codes. To people who seek out these spaces, it means much more: inclusion, community, affordability, and, for artists, the freedom to create and showcase without fear or silencing, among other, less tangible or defined qualities. For some, the promise of these things outweighs the risk of living or working in physically dangerous buildings. For the artists who lived and created there, Ghost Ship was, in some ways, a safe space, as was the now-shuttered Bell Foundry in Baltimore, which offered sanctuary to a community of queers, women, and people of color.
Venues and art organizations have taken note of the term’s power and promote themselves as “safe spaces”—but some stop at the infrastructural definition of safety. Or they claim to embody inclusivity, but fail to follow through with the attention that requires: moving beyond surface-level, for-appearances diversity, for one; proactive condemnation and prevention of discriminatory or abusive behavior, for another.
“When I see somebody who I think is acting in bad faith toward their stated goals, it really makes me wanna not support them,” says Rahne Alexander.
Part of Alexander’s work is assisting arts organizations in operations and development, and her experience has brought her up close with organizations that are proactive in creating safe spaces—which, to her, means much more than following fire codes—as well as some that are more negligent.
“There’s many organizations that could be doing a lot better by its constituents and by its artists, and making it so that as an artist you can go into a space and feel like you can perform without having to stare your abuser in the face,” she says. “That’s hard. Having done it, it’s hard, having supported other people through that.”
Shawna Potter believes communities and organizations can prevent those kinds of situations and abuse as a whole by targeting the root of the problem; that is, fight the disease starting with the earliest symptom.
“That’s why I got involved with street harassment as an issue,” she says. “I just thought if we can get to the point where we can teach—you know, statistically mostly men—if we can teach men how abusive this behavior is, how troubling it is, how weird and fucked up it is to feel entitled to tell a stranger what you think about them—if they really recognize that, why would they then go to touching someone? They would already know, well, don’t even fucking say anything that’s weird, let alone touch someone or assault them.”
In addition to its online platform for recording harassment, Hollaback Baltimore offers response training to local businesses and organizations—many of them art and performance spaces. The training teaches the staff or volunteers at the organization how to provide support and safety for people who have experienced harassment or abuse (or seek refuge) in their space. Venues that have gone through the training and taken the “Safer Spaces Pledge” include Red Emma’s, The Crown, Ottobar, Baltimore Free Farm, Wide Angle Youth Media, Joe Squared, Metro Gallery, Baltimore Rock Opera Society, Sidebar, and the now-closed Charm City Art Space, among others.
The operative word here is “safer”—as opposed to arguably unattainable ideal, “safe.”
“You can’t control someone else’s behavior,” says Potter, who stepped away from her directorial position at Hollaback Baltimore in 2015 but is still involved as an advisory board member and currently the sole trainer behind the Safer Spaces Campaign. “So it’s not like nothing bad will ever happen in this space. The point is when it does, the people that are in charge of this space know how to deal with it appropriately, in a victim-centered way.”
In brief, here’s how it works: Potter meets with the entirety or majority of the pledging organization’s team for in-person training, and starts with the basics—what is harassment, why is it harmful, and so on, to ensure everyone at least understands why it’s important to create nonthreatening and supportive environments. From there, Potter guides participants in “unlearning” the victim-blaming mentality instilled in most by society; and then on to crisis response skills “so that’s if someone’s really in crisis mode, triggered, physically unable to answer your questions or tell you what’s wrong or what they need,” the staff can use grounding techniques and other methods to help discern the situation and the victim’s needs. And then, how to come up with creative, effective responses that meet those particular needs and are reasonable given the specific nature of the situation and the responder’s role.
The key, Potter says, is to empower the trainees—this is their space, and in these situations, they wield enormous influence.
“Then I can tell them OK, cool,” she says, “this is how you can approach someone in a confrontational way; this is how you can approach someone in a sneaky, playing-dumb, distracting way; here’s a line you should draw where you should kick the person out no matter what the victim wants, and here’s what you can do if the victim doesn’t want you to kick them out.”
After the organization completes the training, they receive a resource packet as well as a certification to be posted visibly in the space so visitors know they can go to the staff if they experience harassment. Hollaback also provides retraining following staff turnover.
Potter understands that no two situations and no two victims are alike, so it’s not about following a single, standard manual: Responders have to know how to come up with and provide the victim with an appropriate set of options. Sometimes victims will approach staff not seeking answers, but just someone to listen, to believe them—and in some cases, that’s enough to make them feel secure.
VI. THINKING THROUGH COMMUNITY ACCOUNTABILITY
Some people shy away from taking a stand because they say they don’t want to meddle in people’s personal situations; it’s none of their business. Within the arts community, that response is fraught.
“To say that it is their personal life and that has nothing to do with their capacity as an authority in the art community is preposterous because there are people who can’t work in their space, and also any festivals or spaces that they’re affiliated with, and also people that enable their behavior,” says Ferrera.
And since artists of all stripes often rely partly on social capital and clout in order to get booked, to show their work and spread it around (this is certainly the case in Baltimore), here’s where the community determines whether it’s creating a safer environment for survivors—listening to their stories, understanding what kind of support they want and need, and standing up against the abuse—or whether it’s siding with the person causing harm, through dismissal of the survivor and their allegations, silence, or alliance with the abuser.
“I think communities have to acknowledge first that [abuse] is real,” Lindsay says. “They don’t have to get pedantic or hypervigilant about it but a good first step is not prejudiciously discrediting the survivor. We can’t jump to restorative practices on the abuser without acknowledging that this did occur.”
The conversations we’ve been having with people about accountability, and the reading material we’ve waded through on the subject, are naturally discursive and usually open-ended and necessarily based in hypothetical situations. The ways we talk about abuse and assault are always evolving, and so are the ways we deal with these problems. There’s no perfect model for accountability—every abusive situation is different, every survivor is different, every community has different dynamics.
Even mediation processes—where an unconflicted and objective third party tries to help negotiate between the abused and the abuser—can be difficult to navigate and place even more work onto the survivor, who may feel like they’re standing trial and reliving their trauma.
The only way to talk about this accountability stuff is in hypotheticals, but when the community recognizes the influence and responsibility it wields, it can both support survivors and hold abusers accountable—which ultimately benefits not only the survivor but the whole community and, hopefully, the abuser too, in that they will understand the harm that they have caused and can make amends on whatever terms are deemed appropriate by the survivor.
In her book “Conflict Is Not Abuse,” Sarah Schulman explores the community’s role in making sense of conflict and abuse (distinguishing between the two, in part), and its duty in finding resolution and repair rather than relying on, say, police intervention or punitive measures. “The community holds the crucial responsibility to resist overreaction to difference, and to offer alternatives of understanding and complexity,” she writes.
This could start really simply for those who are close to the people in the relationship, for example: You notice someone’s behavior has changed, or that they’re not going out as much as they used to, or that in general they seem more timid, or anxious. Another person seeing those signs, expressing concern, and listening can be crucial for the person who’s going through this experience and who might be feeling like their network is shrinking.
“And also supporting decisions people are making along the way [can help],” says Sara Nett, as opposed to “putting pressure on them, or conditions around support, like ‘I’m here, I’m supporting you, but only if you leave this person.’” Providing an “open, supportive stance” can make the person who has been or is being abused feel safe—or safer.
One fairly recent, working-example of community accountability is Chicago’s Not In Our House, a support group and collective that started the Chicago Theatre Standards initiative to protect people working in non-Equity theaters (that is, theaters that do not belong to the actor’s union) in the wake of the reported abuse at Profiles Theatre. Twenty theaters volunteered to be part of the CTS pilot project and to implement a code of conduct for their theaters.
According to NIOH co-founder Laura T. Fisher, the standards are not meant to limit or hinder theaters from putting on plays that contain nudity, rape scenes, or “racially-charged” content. “Instead they’re meant to serve as a tool to encourage communication between cast, crew, and management, and help them work out for themselves and the production how everyone should be treated,” she told the Chicago Reader this year. “And to make sure that when theater directors do include difficult subject matter in their productions, they think about the impact on the people who will be performing them.”
If someone in a position of power is causing harm and people are afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation, blame, or being discredited, it reinforces what many call a code of silence.
“In a way it’s sort of like self-censorship, you just end up leaving,” says Ferrera. “Or going somewhere else, finding a new community, new collaborators, new friends. With art it’s all tied together, with a lot of things it’s all tied together. But with art it’s very much tied together.”
When Ferrera is feeling optimistic about the arts community in Baltimore, she’s thinking about the dozens of artists she knows and has worked with who actively try to make people feel “safe, respected, and included” which are some of her personal core values. “[Art and performance are] very collaborative, and so collaboration doesn’t work well with a code of silence and the cycle of abuse,” she says. “I think most people want there to be what I would call a virtuous cycle, which is that it’s a really positive, loving environment.”
Ferrera wants the guiding principles of these accountability conversations to be empathy and humility, rather than punishment or retribution. “A big part of that for me is believing people’s experiences,” she says, “also not protecting and enabling one person over the collective safety of everyone.”
Setting core values and standards, as a community, can seem like a difficult first step, especially when, well, the community’s sort of already been established, and maybe the whole notion of “community” in a place like Baltimore sometimes seems fractured, cliquish, segregated, and mythical. But it is necessary to figure out what you stand for and what you don’t. If you’re going to call it a community, it has to actually be one.
The local activist group Strvnge Encounters hosts a series of somewhat informal, non-dogmatic workshops and discussions in the DMV area primarily to address issues within communities of color, says Aayesha Aijaz, who co-founded the group with Salsabeel Abdelhamid. These workshops usually center trauma and healing, whether those traumas come from conflicts around the world or more local issues of interpersonal violence and community accountability. “We’ve come to learn that in order to have a process that works for a situation, it has to be an adaptable one, and all parties must be on board,” Aijaz says.
Sometimes instances of intimate partner violence can be resolved without any community involvement, but other times, they can’t.
“It’s also important for community members to be comfortable to speak up when they see things that make them uncomfortable and for this reason, we must all be educated in what constitutes as violence,” Aijaz says. That means educating ourselves and our people on how to recognize things less blatant than physical or sexual abuse, such as emotional abuse and its tactics.
Gracie Greenberg has helped facilitate a workshop with Strvnge Encounters on community accountability. Greenberg describes herself as an anarchist and a prison abolitionist, and she organizes with Baltimore Palestine Solidarity and Baltimore Jail Support; for her day job, she works with adults on the autism spectrum. She’s hopeful that these practices and structures could be built and sustained in Baltimore. Overall, these processes are favorable because they don’t have to involve any kind of state intervention. At the core of Greenberg’s day job and her organizing work is compassion. “I believe all harmful behavior is rooted in unmet needs or undeveloped skills and can be changed given the right environment and attention,” she says.
Greenberg says that the workshop she helped facilitate with Strvnge Encounters started with a brainstorming session in which attendees listed some typical societal responses to harm, and the core values that drive those responses—punishment for wrongdoing was one response, practicality, productivity, and convenience were some values—all things that we value under an oppressive, white supremacist, capitalist, heteropatriarchal society. The group then considered more radical alternatives, suggesting compassion, change, and breaking down binary thinking—like good/bad, wrong/right.
Setting core values within a community may not totally prevent abusive behavior, but the logic follows that if everyone is all on the same page in terms of ideals of safety and care, the community won’t stand for it when those values are threatened. The community needs to be equipped with how to respond to abuse, through those accountability and justice processes.
“You can never predict the intricacies of any given conflict,” Greenberg says, “but just really starting to bring our attention more to what the values are that we’re trying to uphold in the world and starting from that, instead of starting from ‘OK what should we do if X happens and X happens?’”
Greenberg notes that people have always had to deal with these issues, but particularly those in poor, queer, and POC communities, which historically have had to fend for themselves because the state does not help them—and disproportionately hurts them.
“Having to deal with a harm or a transgression within the community is something people have always done because people who are marginalized by the state have always not had the state to turn to,” she says. “Think about immigrant communities where your partner might be physically abusing you but that doesn’t mean you want him to be deported. I think there’s a lot of experiential knowledge there that needs to be uplifted and learned from too.”
In Heather Clark’s zine “Scorched Cunt,” a section of text paraphrases portions of a transformative justice model put out by the prison abolitionist movement Critical Resistance. This passage reinforces the idea that people (particularly cis men) within a community have a responsibility to stand up to bad behavior, including ostensibly minor microaggressions: “Even if you don’t know the best way to do it, try something, it’s better to speak up then be silent! Think of the people in the future who you could be saving from trauma by correcting this person’s behavior now. Maybe the transgression isn’t that big of a deal, or it doesn’t particularly bother you, all the more reason to take the opportunity to address the issue before it gets worse.”
Clark asked people she knew to be friends with the man who raped her to hold him accountable—don’t book him for shows, encourage him to go to therapy, talk and educate each other on consent, among other things. Some of these requests have been honored, while others haven’t, as far as she’s seen. She feels a bit discouraged by the process but still holds out hope that community accountability and healing are possible.
“I’ve seen how even some of the most radically-minded communities often are only in the baby steps of putting these beliefs into practice,” she says. “As a culture, we have to normalize acknowledging rape and taking it seriously before we can normalize seeking accountability and healing that holds up survivors.”
While harm can’t be undone, it needs to be reckoned with. And it shouldn’t be on the survivor alone to deal with it.
Artists have the skills to change—or at least challenge—what’s considered normal and acceptable. In communities of individuals with this kind of power, then, the first step toward accountability starts at home.
“It’s not about what community we’re in—it’s that we’re in a community,” Potter says. “It’s just prevalent in society all over the world. What you have control over, though, is your community and what you’re gonna do about it. Once you hear it’s a problem, don’t pretend that you haven’t heard that. You know this is an issue—what are you gonna fucking do about it?”