Assessing the Year-Long Inaction Regarding Charges of Sexual Violence in the ISO (Updated)

At last year’s convention, many members recoiled in horror at the complete mishandling of the allegations of sexual assault brought against “Comrade Delta,” a leading member of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP). It was at this same convention that comrades discussed the case of an activist in Boston who had recently been accused of multiple cases of sexual assault. What the majority of those in attendance at the 2013 Convention did not know was that at least one member of the ISO’s Steering Committee had heard similar reports of sexual misconduct from a long-standing member in “Xville” six months prior.

The existence of these allegations emerged just over a week ago in a document included in Pre-Convention Bulletin #19. The authors of the document, “Addressing Allegations of Sexual Misconduct Made Against Members of the ISO,” argue that the current procedures of the organization do not go far enough in seriously addressing issues of sexual harassment, assault, or other forms of intimate violence. While we in the ISO Renewal Faction agree with that conclusion, when presented alone it is, at best, myopic in its understanding of the organizational dynamics that allowed a much-liked, long-term member to remain a member and elected leader of the organization a year after the allegations of the assault first emerged.

According to the Xville document, “Daniel” (the pseudonym the Xville comrades use) was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in July 2012. Though several members of the branch, including those on Branch Committee (BC), knew about the allegations, they wouldn’t become public knowledge until the following year, when an activist mentioned the case on Facebook in July 2013. Then, and only then, did this become an official branch matter.

Daniel, who had remained on the Xville BC in spite of the allegations, resigned from the BC during a meeting called to discuss the incident. He did not contest the survivor’s account, said that he would concede to any disciplinary actions “without resistance,” and left the meeting. It was at this same meeting that the Xville BC formed an investigative committee, which was tasked with reaching out to the survivor. The investigative committee asked the survivor to produce a written complaint, which she agreed to do. This complaint, however, was not produced, and the Xville Branch Committee and Investigative Committee then contacted the national Disciplinary Committee to find out how to proceed. It was at this time, well over a year after the initial charges had been brought against Daniel, that a member of the national Steering Committee advised the Xville BC to suspend him immediately. After this suspension, Daniel resigned from the ISO.

Despite Daniel’s resignation, the Xville Branch Committee decided to move forward with their investigation should Daniel decide to rejoin at a later date. They once again appealed to the national Disciplinary Committee, who refused to move forward without an account written and signed by the survivor. As of Xville document’s submission, Daniel’s membership status remained unresolved. On the date of its publication (6 February 2014), Daniel was expelled from the ISO by the Xville branch.

While outlining the trajectory of the case, the authors of the document also present a series of arguments about how to handle cases of sexual assault. The principal conclusion they seek to draw, however, is that the current procedures of the organization are not sufficient to seriously address issues of sexual misconduct. They write:

The primary failure in this situation was that no ISO member suggested or took the initiative to contact the victim directly to get her account of what had happened. This mistake was made by every member who was in some way aware that an accusation had been made, regardless of their position in leadership or their dedication to fighting sexism. We are not claiming that any ISO members acted in bad faith, but that is precisely the point: Even with the best of intentions, our established procedure produces huge failures. (PCB#19, 17)

By the authors’ own admission, it is clear that mistakes were made at every stage in the handling of this case. However, the argument that the central failures were procedural both exonerates the Steering Committee member who “advised” the branch on this case, as well as the overall culture in the organization that led that same Steering Committee member to assume Daniel’s innocence.

This assumption of innocence was accorded to Daniel from the very beginning of the incident onwards. The authors of the document write that “no fewer than five Xville comrades” knew about the allegations before they were brought forward publicly in July 2013. Among these five were two members of the Xville Branch Committee, meaning that all but one member of the Xville BC knew about the allegations and allowed Daniel to remain among their ranks without attempting to investigate the allegations.

This is not just an issue of one branch’s incompetence in dealing with sexual assault, just as it is not simply an issue of ill-formed procedures. The events in Xville unfolded in consultation with the Steering Committee. Members of the Xville branch brought the case to the attention of the Steering Committee at least twice. The first time was between July and September of 2012. The authors of the document asked the Steering Committee member who was initially contacted about the case to recall what happened. The Steering Committee member reportedly replied that they were “told in September 2012 that the issue had already been resolved because [the victim] wanted to move on with her life and didn’t want to press charges.” (PCB#19, 17)

The Steering Committee was contacted a second  time in March 2013. Of this, the document’s authors write:

In March 2013, a member of the Xville branch contacted a member of the ISOSC [Steering Committee] to report the fact that a third party had accused ‘Daniel’ of attempted rape. The ISOSC member said that they assumed the accusations were false and did not connect the Xville member with the ISODC [Disciplinary Committee]…The ISOSC member communicated that they brought the issue to the ISOSC , that the ISOSC discussed it and deemed it a local issue. (PCB#19, 18-19)

In both instances, it is clear that the Steering Committee was fully aware of the case, but chose not to intervene on behalf of the survivor. In assuming Daniel’s innocence and refusing to connect Xville comrades with the Disciplinary Committee, the Steering Committee granted what amounted to a summary dismissal of the case. Yet, what the Steering Committee or the Xville Branch Committee assumed or “felt” about the allegations was entirely irrelevant, and should have been treated as such. In allowing Daniel to remain not only a member in good standing, but an elected member of his branch, the message, both to the survivor in this particular case, and to others inside and  outside of the organization is clear: the ISO prioritizes the protection of “leading,” “dedicated activist[s]” over the serious investigation of allegations of sexual assault.

In cases of sexual assault, the burden of proof should never fall on the survivor. To require that a survivor of sexual assault “prove” her case to a socialist organization, to a Steering Committee thousands of miles away, for any serious investigation to be done is not only preposterous, but is reflective of the mainstream attitudes in society that require that survivors advocate for themselves in order to have their experiences of harassment, assault, or misconduct addressed at all. The presumption that sexual assault allegations are false, as happened in this case, is a defining characteristic of what many refer to as rape culture. Sexual assault is disturbingly common in our society and vastly underreported. We do not live in a society where false allegations of rape are rampant.

Furthermore, the idea, put forward by a member of the Steering Committee, that the case would be “resolved” should the survivor choose not to press charges is reflective of a similar logic. Any serious organization committed to anti-sexism should address allegations of sexual misconduct regardless of whether or not the survivor has “dropped it” or not, particularly given how hostile our legal system and broader society are to survivors who speak up. These are the most basic expectations: a revolutionary socialist organization ostensibly committed to combating sexism and fighting for gender liberation should realize that its internal standards must be far more rigorous than this.

As of this writing, the so-called “General Disciplinary Procedures” that prevented the Disciplinary Committee from reviewing this case without a written and signed statement, have yet to be ratified or even distributed to the general membership of the ISO. The authors of the Xville document have proposed a series of changes to those draft procedures. While some of them seem positive, it is impossible to evaluate their proposed changes without access to the full draft. Why these have yet to be shared with the general membership on the eve of the Convention remains unknown.

The authors of the document suggest that “secret factionalism” compounded the crisis in their branch after the allegations became public knowledge. This is further reflected in the conclusions they seek to draw at the end of the document. “Do not form unannounced factions,” they write, “and be aware of informal discussions that could amount to that.” (PCB#19, 19) Beyond failing to see any factional activity within the account they present, we furthermore think this is irresponsible in the extreme.

It was not the peril of “informal discussions” but the presumption that a “good” comrade could not possibly have sexually assaulted someone that brought about the crisis in Xville.  What’s more, the document’s denunciation of “informal discussions” that could lead to the development of “unannounced factions” is deeply troubling. In reality, the development of an organizational culture that actively discourages the discussion of all issues of relevance in both formal and informal settings tends to exacerbate unhealthy and undemocratic tendencies within the organization. And such tendencies inevitably inhibit the development of the type of anti-sexist, anti-racist organizational culture that we as revolutionaries seek to create.

The authors suggest that the branch “factionalism” was finally solved when a Branch Committee slate was voted through with relative unity. Yet this “united” BC remained paralyzed on the key question of Daniel’s status. How this is a sign of strength, we do not know.

Many of us have been members of the organization for many years–we responded with horror when reading about the handling of this case. As members of the ISO, and of the U.S. left, we felt it necessary to publicly address this case. It is necessary to presume the innocence of the accuser rather than assume the innocence of the accused. By instinctively disbelieving a woman who brought a sexual assault complaint against a “leading” man; by exhibiting the same instrumentalism that puts survivors beneath the “promising futures” of assailants; the Steering Committee’s actions have reflected the sexist and patriarchal logic of capitalist society. This is all the more distressing after the crisis in the British SWP, which should have shook the whole left out of its complacency. The authors of the Xville document gesture towards this, and for that, we laud them. However, they fail to indict the Steering Committee for its gross negligence in dismissing the case. Had these charges not been presented publicly on Facebook, it is possible they would not have been addressed at all.

Resolutions

The ISO must hold all its members to anti-sexist principles, including and especially its leadership. There must be accountability: comrades who made grievous errors must reflect on their mistakes. Furthermore, the organization must undertake a thorough self-investigation and self-criticism; and publish the results thereof.

The ISO Renewal Faction proposes the following resolutions for the Convention:

  1. Convention demands to know the identities of the Steering Committee members who communicated with the Xville branch about the “Daniel”case.
  2. Convention bars the Steering Committee member who was contacted by the Xville Branch in September 2012 from holding any leadership and/or paid position in the ISO until the next Convention.
  3. Convention similarly bars the Steering Committee member who assumed that the allegations against “Daniel” were false and failed to intervene or involve the Disciplinary Committee.
  4. Convention directs the National Committee to name a commission to investigate the failure of the ISO’s national leadership and disciplinary bodies during the “Daniel” case; and to publish its report and recommendations in Socialist Worker. The commission may not include any members who sat on the Steering Committee or the Disciplinary Committee at any time from July 2012 through Convention 2014; or who otherwise have a conflict of interest. The commission must include at least two comrades who are not, nor have even been, members of the ISO.

Update: At a comrade’s request, we have redacted the name of the city, referring to it as “Xville.”

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8 thoughts on “Assessing the Year-Long Inaction Regarding Charges of Sexual Violence in the ISO (Updated)

  1. I’m not an expert on cults and how they operate but I have had experience in a particular cult that I think might shed some light by comparison. I’ll keep the details of my experience vague just because it’s the principles that matter.

    As young seminary recruits we were told that the friends we made within the school would be the best and most durable friends of our lives. We were also warned against having, “special relationships.”

    I think what it boiled down to was that the authorities wanted to know the content of our private conversations. If our friendships were grounded in loyalty to “Mother Church” all was well. If we developed any doubt or skepticism, or god forbid, criticism, or disloyalty, then our friendships were “special” and dangerous. we were supposed to love only the church. In practice “love for the church” meant love for those who were running the church.

    The ISO document states:
    “Do not form unannounced factions,” … ,“and be aware of informal discussions that could amount to that.” (PCB#19, 19)
    This ISO language is not quite as veiled as the language used by the Catholic Church; but it still seems indicative to me of a similar kind of dichotomy. Friendships and informal discussions are OK as long as they don’t turn in a direction disagreeable to the leadership. In other words, within a hierarchical organization, there is plenty of room for abuse with this concept of “unannounced faction.”

    How would one determine at what point one’s “informal discussion” had entered the forbidden territory of an “unannounced faction?” It seems that anytime 2 or more people discussed an organizational problem they could be accused of an “unannounced faction” if they hesitated before taking their concern to the proper designated authority.
    Probably the only way to maintain yourself completely clean and above reproach would be to immediately report any personal doubts or skepticism about the organization to someone above you in the hierarchy. In the Catholic Church this is institutionalized in the form of the Confessional. And just to be sure that no-one could ever accuse you of anything untoward, you might want to snitch out anyone you suspected of any kind of criticism or disloyalty.

    There is an additional factor that leads me to question whether the ISO has become a cult. It is contained in this sentence from the internal document #19 describing the Daniel rape case. “it is almost beyond comprehension to imagine that this person, whom you probably look up to, and likely trust implicitly, could behave in such an oppressive manner”. Here is a definition of “implicit” from Dictionary.com “2. unquestioning or unreserved; absolute: implicit trust: implicit obedience; implicit confidence”.

    Any organization that encourages “implicit” trust as opposed to healthy skepticism towards it’s leadership (along with skepticism toward everything else in the world) has to seriously ask itself if it has become a cult.

    My apologies to the ISO for perusing your internal documents and delivering this criticism if it turns out I am misinformed. If you are a cult you deserve every bit of it. If you are not a cult, you could begin to prove it by not adopting a hostile stance toward me and instead explaining calmly and logically where you think my argument has gone astray. Your internal culture appears to have become dangerous to the point of requiring exposure and an explanation to the wider community.

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  5. Did you by any chance communicate with the survivor about any of this before spreading her story on the internet to try to score political points? It wouldn’t surprise me if you hadn’t considering your messiah Shaun is a sexist supreme from what his former comrades have told me about his shouting over women ways.

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