How to Survive: Community Organizing in Times of Oppression

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Katie Byron

I'm a twentysomething queer feminist cat lady. I generally can't even and I'm only rarely sorry.

Last week, I had lunch with a former professor. I assumed she would instill me with hope after the election, tell me inspiring stories about resistance, and leave me confident that we would be okay. Instead, she said, “Your generation is going to have to learn how to do your own abortions,” and laying out practical concerns about the need to relearn organizing and community building underground and without the internet.

While our conversation was not the feel-good inspiration I thought I was getting, it did remind me of the ways people have organized under oppression. I thought about the Jane Collective, which I read about years ago at the recommendation of that same professor. In the years before the Roe v Wade ruling, a University of Chicago student started connecting women she knew who needed abortions with doctors she knew could provide them. The Collective grew, taking calls from women desperate for help ending their pregnancies, and helping them seek care. Eventually, the women of Jane learned how to do the procedures themselves, providing an all-encompassing abortion service in the world before Roe. In the four years they were active, they performed nearly 12,000 abortion procedures. This group of women came together, learning how to provide this essential service outside the medical system and for a price people could afford.

Left: Jane Abortion Service sign at a march. Right: A Jane takes a phone call for the service. Photo from “How Chicago Helped Bring Safe Abortion Access to the Midwest”.

I think every marginalized group has a story of creating ways of surviving that do not depend on the state. Stories of providing services the state is trying to deny. The Black Panthers social programs are a paradigmatic case. The first organized free breakfast program in the country came out of the Black Panthers in Berkeley, California. By the end of 1969, the Black Panthers were feeding 20,000 children a day across 19 cities. The federal government did not start providing free breakfast in schools until 1975, and when it did, it drew inspiration from the Black Panthers. And the breakfast program was only one of the services the Black Panthers provided. They ran health clinics, the People’s Free Medical Centers, in 13 cities across the country to provide health education, advocacy, and basic services in their communities. And all that in addition to their youth institute, newspaper, and other community programs. When the government ignored the needs of black communities, particularly poor black communities, the Black Panthers created the social programs that the state refused to provide.

Bill Whitfield, member of the Black Panther chapter in Kansas City, serves free breakfast to children before they go to school, April 16, 1969. (AP Photo/William P. Straeter)

Queer communities also have their stories of community and resistance. Certainly, the early HIV support groups provided critical services and community for those impacted by the epidemic while the government censored information about the disease. But these were certainly not the only ways queer people gathered and made community. Lesbian or dyke separatists, marginalized both from gay rights movements (who were less interested in working with women) and feminist movements (who feared the “lavender menace” AKA: lesbians infiltrating the movement), created their own worlds where they could exist freely. In the ’70s and ’80s, separatists claimed Women’s Land across the US and Canada. While there are valid critiques of the ways that the separatists operated (and it’s highly inconsistent inclusion of trans women), the separatist movement did carve out a space for women where they could truly have power. There were separatist food co-ops, publishers, record labels, and credit unions. Outside of structures from the state or other liberation movements, the lesbian separatists asserted the radical power of queer women thriving in community.

“DYKE SEPARATISTS WANT YOU ♀,” Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, New York City, June 27, 1976. Photo by Bettye Lane

We live in scary times where we are reminded of the disposability and devaluation of the lives of women and all marginalized peoples. But we have always known how to exist without the state’s validation or love. We have always known how to build our own communities for surviving and thriving under oppression. We have always known that the love we show each other will always exceed the love we receive from the state. We may be scared, but we have always known how to survive this.



Header image: The Black Panthers’ Breakfast Program.