Article of interest – Invest in caring, not killing: Our collective experience as a grassroots international network of women and men

This article was written by Global Women’s Strike and Payday for the French website Ritimo, where it was printed in the June 2017 edition of their magazine Passerelle, “Féminismes ! Maillons forts du changement social” (“Feminisms! Strong links for social change”), in both French and Spanish. Below is the article in English.


By Phoebe Jones, Global Women’s Strike, and Eric Gjertsen, Payday men’s network

“Holding a vigil for Lt Watada on the street, we met two mothers who held a weekly picket of the city Department of Human Services (DHS) to demand their children back. This is when the DHS Give Us Back Our Children group was formed. We soon found that Philadelphia at the time had the highest rate of taking children of any city of its size in the country. One in ten children in the city have dealings with the child welfare system, and the rate of removal and adoption of Black children is disproportionately high. Lack of housing can mean losing your kids, and Philadelphia has an ongoing housing crisis.

“In the course of organizing, we trained ourselves in a number of ways. We learned how to make a video, and used this to tell the story from the point of view of the mothers – which has rarely been done. (You can view it here).  We learned how to deal with hostile social workers and lawyers who refuse to speak to their clients. (The lack of accountable lawyers, even women, continues to be a deep problem. They are not used to taking direction from poor women or confronting the state on their behalf.) We learned how to gather support inside and outside of court, when to organise public demonstrations, and how to educate and cultivate journalists and academics. We stuck to our principles of self-help, and insisted that the women and men who come for ‘help’ write down a concise summary of their own case so they can work with others but be in charge of the direction.”

Eric Gjertsen (EG):  I am a family caregiver, campaigner, and tech worker in Pennsylvania in the US. I am part of Payday, a multiracial network of men working with the grassroots network of the Global Women’s Strike (GWS), and we are writing this article together. We demand the return of military spending to the community, beginning with women, in order to build societies that invest in caring, not killing.

We approach women’s participation in struggles for social transformation from the perspective of our collective experience as a network. We address the power relations among us as different sectors of women and men. As Payday men we work to ensure that our demands do not undermine the demands of women and children. This is the only way we can work together and strengthen each other. We believe how we do things reflects what we want to accomplish, even more precisely than a description in words.

All of us contribute particular skills and life experiences. I came into contact with the GWS  as it was being formed by the Wages for Housework Campaign, through my support for the anti-globalization movement that famously shut down the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle in 1999. That was the result of decades of grassroots organizing by the Global South against the exploiting tentacles of US and other multinationals.

At the time, in my 20s, I was looking to make my skills as a tech worker available to the movement. In retrospect, working full-time for a company that services the pharmaceutical industry, despite decent wages and workplace conditions, was driving me to an early grave. The chance to apply my skills in campaigns for justice, and to refuse to spend my life making money for corporations, was too great a temptation: I switched to part-time and never looked back. I don’t mean to understate the difficulty in doing this, especially in the US where so many of us are struggling with student debt, low wages, health insurance tied to a job, with little or no welfare to fall back on anymore, and with mouths to feed at home. But when the movement is strong enough, many of us – particularly young people – find ways to refuse despite these obstacles, and I was one of them.

Payday men are trying to refuse the jobs capitalism wants us to do for them. We are fathers and other caregivers, subsistence farmers, men on disability income, immigrants, queers, musicians, children’s librarians, unwaged translators, draft dodgers, ex-social workers…

One focus has been to support men and women who are ready to stand up to the military’s killing work, sometimes taking great risks to expose what the military is doing. Our website, www.refusingtokill.net, since 2002 has publicised and supported campaigns of military refusers, whistleblowers, veterans seeking justice and compensation for themselves and for civilians, including military rape survivors, and others in various countries. We organise with family members – often mothers, aunts, sisters, partners – who are doing the day to day justice work and are the voice of loved ones when they are unable to speak publicly. We gather support and publicity for their struggle.

Since her imprisonment and torture in 2010 we have campaigned internationally in support of US Army whistleblower and trans activist Chelsea Manning, together with our sisters in Queer Strike, and we are absolutely thrilled that she won her freedom when President Obama commuted her 35-year sentence  in January. We also campaign with prisoners in the US and UK who are refusing to be killed or tortured by years of solitary confinement, such as the prisoner hunger strikers in California, who have been blowing the whistle on their conditions inside.

Phoebe Jones (PJ):  In June of 2006, two women from the GWS, Selma James and myself met Ehren Watada, a first lieutenant in the US Army on the eve of his refusal to deploy to Iraq. A Hawaiian man of Chinese and Japanese descent, Lt. Watada was the first commissioned officer to publicly refuse to deploy. In August of that year he gave an electrifying speech to the Veterans for Peace national conference in which he called on other soldiers to refuse to obey illegal and immoral orders, and understand that they could be party to war crimes in an occupation undertaken “by choice, for profit and imperial domination”. He called on the wider movement to support those who resist, to give others the courage to act, and “to convince them no matter how long they sit in prison, no matter how long this country takes to right itself, their families will have a roof over their heads, food in their stomachs, opportunities and education.”

The speech set fire to a movement increasingly opposed to Bush’s ‘endless war’, which helps explain the thousands who came to support Lt. Watada. First of all his parents: his mother Carolyn Ho, his father Bob Watada and step-mother Rosa Watada.  Veterans, military refusers, Chinese- and Japanese-Americans (including World War II internment camp survivors), students, religious supporters, and others took up his struggle as their own. Much of the day-to-day organizing was being done by Carolyn Ho, but her work – like the justice work that so many mothers take on as an extension of caring for their children – was invisible to the public and even to the movement. To remedy this, and to make the strongest public case for Lt. Watada, we organised a national tour with Carolyn Ho in which she spoke about her son’s decision and her own transformation from worried parent to proud spokesperson for her son and for other refusers. She was joined at several events by Gloria Pacis, mother of gay Private Stephen Funk who had served five months in military prison for refusing to deploy to Iraq, and by Helga Aguayo, wife of Army Specialist Augustín Aguayo who faced court-martial for desertion in Germany. Payday organized regular vigils for Lt. Watada.  People in at least 13 countries participated in the international days of action.

In the court-martial in 2007 (which we attended), the government’s case against Lt. Watada fell apart in a mistrial, a sign of how strong the movement had become. After playing Lt Watada’s speech in the courtroom, they could not rely on the panel of officers, including three people of colour, to find him guilty. Both Watada and Funk are men of colour.  Latinos Camilo Mejia, Pablo Paredes, and Agustín Aguayo, and African-Americans Jonathan Hutto and Andre Shepard are other men of colour who refused to be killers for the US Army and strengthened the movement against war.

* * * * * *

EG: Five years ago, my partner and I moved in with her mother, who is in her eighties, to help take care of her. She was seriously injured in a car accident, and has lasting physical and cognitive trauma that mean she needs full time support for daily activities. She is truly a wonderful person to care for. Despite this, and even having crucial social supports, we are sometimes overwhelmed with the stresses of being responsible for another human being around the clock – particularly my partner, who is her primary caregiver.

Like many women facing the “double day”, I often feel that my waged work is the easier and less stressful of my jobs. And like many men and women, I still feel the pull of waged work as a place where (in fantasy at least) my contribution is recognised. Is it any wonder that most men who have jobs prioritise them over sharing the unwaged workload of caring for their children?

When you set out to truly care for someone, particularly someone as vulnerable to abuse as an older person with disabilities, you soon find yourself in a struggle against an industry that focuses on making money off the ‘care’ they provide. This is the real source of the stress in our lives, a part of our responsibilities as caregivers that is not on the radar. In a society dominated by the market, you have to really fight to care for someone, to support and protect their right to choose the care they want. Nursing homes have an army of agents, including lawyers, doctors, social workers, even our own family members, who think they know better than primary caregivers, and with whom we must constantly struggle to protect our loved one’s ability to make her own decisions as long as she is able.

This has also been our experience when campaigning with mothers fighting for the return of their children removed from their care by the state. Overwhelmingly, children are taken not because of abuse or neglect, but because of poverty – and the racism and sexism that denies the value of the bond between mother and child, particularly for Black mothers. The child welfare industry in the US emerged in the aftermath of President Clinton’s welfare reform (1996). This ended any entitlement mothers had to money for the work of raising children. It was followed by the Adoption and Safe Families Act (1997), which encouraged states to fund adoption programs. The money that once went to mothers now goes to agencies and professionals in their hire, institutional lockups for ‘difficult’ juveniles, pharmaceutical companies and others who have an interest in maintaining a steady pipeline of traumatised children into the foster care system. Many of these children are then profiled directly into prison. The rate of post-traumatic stress disorder in children in foster care is twice the rate of Gulf War I veterans.

This model is now being pushed in other countries. One mother who attended meetings dealing with children taken into care (I used to give her a lift), said “I feel like I’m in some kind of Nazi camp”. Anyone who has witnessed a hearing in family court can affirm that.

PJ: Holding a vigil for Lt Watada on the street, we met two mothers who held a weekly picket of the city Department of Human Services (DHS) to demand their children back. This is when the DHS Give Us Back Our Children group was formed. We soon found that Philadelphia at the time had the highest rate of taking children of any city of its size in the country. One in ten children in the city have dealings with the child welfare system, and the rate of removal and adoption of Black children is disproportionately high. Lack of housing can mean losing your kids, and Philadelphia has an ongoing housing crisis.

We were helped by a most extraordinary colleague: Professor Dorothy Roberts, who wrote the landmark book Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, exposing the deep sexism and racism of the child welfare system. She has made herself available to the movement in a way that very few academics do.

The GWS network in Los Angeles, Welfare Warriors in Milwaukee, and a number of other grassroots women’s organizations across the US and in London England, have started similar self-help groups. We discuss how to fight these cases, support each other and change policy.

In the course of organizing, we trained ourselves in a number of ways. We learned how to make a video, and used this to tell the story from the point of view of the mothers – which has rarely been done. (You can view it here).  We learned how to deal with hostile social workers and lawyers who refuse to speak to their clients. (The lack of accountable lawyers, even women, continues to be a deep problem. They are not used to taking direction from poor women or confronting the state on their behalf.) We learned how to gather support inside and outside of court, when to organise public demonstrations, and how to educate and cultivate journalists and academics. We stuck to our principles of self-help, and insisted that the women and men who come for “help” write down a concise summary of their own case so they can work with others but be in charge of the direction.

EG: Payday often returns calls to men seeking help with their or their partners’ cases – and we always ask if the mother or other primary caregiver can speak with one of the women in our group. We do not generally get involved if the answer is ‘no’: we will not support men against their partners. The child welfare system often pits fathers against mothers. More often than not they reinforce sexism by taking the side of the father. Sometimes the father, having more financial resources, can walk in off the street after years of not being involved at all in their children’s lives, and get the same or more rights than the mother who’s been raising them for years.

One of the most common excuses for taking a child, shockingly, is  domestic violence against mothers, who then are accused of failing to protect their children.

But we find many fathers and grandfathers who stand with their partners and daughters. We’ve seen single fathers who are primary caregivers treated with a disrespect and suspicion similar to the sexism that mothers face.

* * * * * *

EG: One of us in Payday is a subsistence farmer who won a seven-year struggle to keep his parents’ farm, an informal nature sanctuary, out of the hands of developers.

For small family farmers, “saving the environment” is a question of life and death. Whether the crops planted to feed the family and sell for some income will survive this season is an immediate concern.

The work of Indigenous and other small farmers (including urban ones), gatherers, pastoralists and fisherfolk is a massive contribution to human survival – they are almost half of the world’s people and grow 70% of the world’s food. In Africa, some 80% of the population depends on women’s subsistence farming. Myriad plants and animal species depend on the land and waters these families and communities protect from corporate land grabs. Industrialised agriculture causes half of global warming. Our sustainable agriculture regenerates the soil’s health and produces food that is healthy; it enables carbon to be returned to the soil whence it came so we can reverse global warming. Indigenous and other community farmers are on the frontline of the fight to protect the planet.

Everywhere in the world, we are under attack by the fossil fuel, mining, agribusiness, real estate, pharmaceutical and other industries intent on stealing our lands and waters.  The Southern Peasant Federation of Thailand are demanding justice and protection for human rights defenders in farming communities; four have been murdered in the past five years, including two women, while demanding their legal right to community land titles against relentless attacks from palm oil and other corporations. We are part of an international initiative gathering support for SPFT’s demands for justice and protection. No one has been convicted for the murders so far.

* * * * * *

PJ: Every one of our struggles refutes the terms of the global market – they are not central, we are. Our politics must express the needs of those who are dedicated to caring, for the land and waters, and for each other.

The movement against Trump and all the fascists on the rise in the US and elsewhere is growing.  Millions are refusing not to care by turning up at airports, at borders, at pipelines…. to reverse the immigration bans and protect the environment.

We joined the massive Women’s March on Washington DC, which included in their platform demands from many sectors, including Black and trans women and sex workers. It was a breakthrough for women to be seen to spearhead the movement against Trump.

We see the rise of Bernie Sanders in the US, of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell as head of the Labour Party in the UK, of Podemos in Spain as a rise of the international movement against the uncaring global market, a movement that has been building in the global South for decades.

We work with women and men in Haiti, India, Ireland, Peru, Southeast Asia, the UK, including a large group of asylum seekers from mainly African countries, and in support of Palestine. Domestic workers, Indigenous people and subsistence farmers, sex workers, people with disabilities, queer and trans people, of different races, ages and nationalities, are part of this network.

We focus on crossing sectors while each sector retains its autonomy, and confront the power relations among us so we don’t undermine each other.  Each can then make a contribution and add to the strength and breadth of the movement. So the International Prostitutes Collective and Women of Colour in the GWS can come out in support of women (and men) with disabilities, and vice-versa, and make visible how much we have in common.

Ringing in our ears are the words of the people of Haiti. The first to overthrow slavery, they have been refusing it in all its forms ever since, including by refusing the results of fraudulent elections orchestrated by the US. Their slogan is “We will not obey.”

Ringing in our ears are the words of the California prisoner hunger strikers: “Now is the time for us to collectively seize this moment in time, and put an end to more than 20-30 years of hostilities between our racial groups.” 30,000 Black, Latino, Asian and white prisoners took part across prisons, and won the release of thousands from solitary confinement.

And ringing in our ears are the words of Lt Watada: If we want people to refuse we must make sure their families can eat.

We have an expectation of mutual accountability. We are not only concerned with our narrowly-defined interests, but in winning something that helps us all. This is why we have launched a campaign for A Living Wage for Mothers and Other Caregivers and for the RISE Act, a bill in the US which reinstates the original aim of welfare – ending poverty.

The market must serve people, not people the market. We know what happens when the market is in charge. Trillions of dollars of bombs are dropped on some of us while the guns of austerity are trained at others of us. Rape, domestic and other violence escalate with it.

The GWS is taking part in the International Women’s Strike organizing for 8 March 2017. Women in over 40 countries are expected to take part, taking whatever time off they can – the whole day, an hour or minutes – from their waged job and their unwaged caring work, to protest against all forms of violence: economic, political, sexual, domestic . . . As men we support the struggle and demands of our sisters – it is in our own interest. We want to build a caring society.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>