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On an autumn of activism and a rally next Saturday / by Nicole Sullivan

It was a warm June afternoon in 2012. I was nervously sitting on the Boston Common while close to 45 women waited around me. When it seemed liked no one else was coming, I asked the crowd to gather in a circle and handed out an agenda. In the next two hours, we discussed patriarchy, violence, and its intersections with white supremacy. Most importantly, we asked ourselves, “why does the women's movement keep failing at these intersections, and how can we move forward?” From this informal discussion, Boston Feminists for Liberation (BFL) was born.

Since that afternoon two springs ago, BFL has organized rallies, film nights, and an ongoing reading group that meets every month. Earlier this year, we hosted speak-outs against the pro-choice struggles. Last year, we held a March Against Rape Culture and Gender Inequality through the streets of downtown Boston. And this Saturday, we’ll host out fourth rally, Break Out! March Against Mass Incaceration, to protest the massive amounts of racist and sexist state violence committed towards women, gender and sexual minorities at the hands of Boston's prison industrial complex. The march comes at an appropriate time, at the end of an autumn that has seen similar feminist prison reform organizing done by not only BFL but other Massachusetts-based groups Jobs Not Jails and The Prison Birth Project.


The roots of Boston Feminists for Liberation are within a very different movement. In the winter of 2011, a police officer told a group of college women that to avoid rape, they should avoid dressing like sluts. From that one comment, the Slutwalk movement was born. Women marched through the street, telling the world they could dress how they want, fuck how they want, and live how they and no, that doesn't not give anyone a reason to rape them. It was incredibly powerful in its bluntness. I would know-- I helped organize the largest Slutwalk here in Boston. I thought I was changing the world for all women. It soon became clear that I was dead wrong.

Slutwalks began popping up all over the globe, but at the same time, so did criticisms. These criticsms came from unexpected voices. Instead of men telling us to get back in the kitchen, we had hundreds of women stating one thing very clearly: “You do not speak for us.” From the Open Letter from Black Women to Slutwalk Organizers to countless blog posts, it became clear that Slutwalk missed the mark by far. Sexual violence is not just an issue of backwards cultural belief, it is a tool and weapon used by various institutions on our society- especially by white supremacy and colonialism. Without that structural analysis, Slutwalk was effectively useless in creating meaningful systemic changes in women’s lives.

By the time I sat down with those 45 people in June 2012, I knew that to host Slutwalk again would be a slap in the face to all the women who spoke out very clearly against this. I also knew that I could not make that decision alone. I called for an open meeting that day in June to decide the fate of Slutwalk. Through the explosion of political activity in the past year (from Occupy to Tar Sands Blockade to Trayvon Martin), people had begun to see women’s oppression as inextricably tied to class exploitation and white supremacy and that lead to the decision to scrap the Slutwalk and build something better.

Boston Feminists For Liberation’s October 2012 March Against Rape Culture and Gender Inequality. Photo by Chase Carter.

While BFL did not become an official named entity until a few months later, we quickly established the basis of our politics. We rejected the neoliberal choice rhetoric of mainstream feminism in favor of an analysis the centers capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy in terms of women’s subjugation. We decided to organize within the gaps that traditional feminist organizations overlook. This analysis very quickly drew us to the issue of mass incarceration.

Feminism has long used the carceral system to meet its end goals. It has consistently advocated for more policing and imprisonment as a solution to the vast problem of violence against women -- despite women of color once again very clearly speaking out against this. It is people of color who are still being regulated to second class citizens via mass incarceration. It is people of color who are murdered by police officers. It is people of color who do not have the luxury to ignore state violence to mobilize around interpersonal violence. Female revolutionaries from the civil rights and gay liberation movements (such as Angela Davis and Sylvia Rivera) constantly would draw this connection between state sanction violence and interpersonal violence.

Basically, the theoretical and practical frameworks for a revolutionary feminism had long been laid. All we had to do was listen. As BFL started to organize, we prioritized educating ourselves on the historical failures of feminism and seeking out ways to work in coalition on the issues feminism have yet to step up on. Through that framework, BFL began organizing the December 7th event, Break Out! March Against Mass Incaceration. This march hopes to begin to force this issue into mainstream feminist discourse while drawing attention to the growing movement against prisons. True to our radical roots, the march is designed to point a finger at the very institutions that are manufacturing the violence created by mass incarceration while ending in a musical celebration of strength and struggle at the Break Out! after-party.


This event is timely given three major campaigns brewing in Massachusetts at this time. The first campaign, Jobs Not Jails, is one that is the most ambitious and has the potential to radically shift the way Massachusetts deals with incarceration. (Full disclosure: I am on the Steering Committee of jobs not jails). The campaign, called for the by the Worcester based organization Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement, is a massive grassroots effort that is bringing together community organizations from across Massachusetts. Its goals are simple. They aim to stop all funding for new prison construction, pass widespread criminal justice reform, and direct the 2 billion dollars slated to prison construction over to economic reform geared towards the most impoverished communities in the state. It is an incredibly large effort that may be the final push to bring mass incarceration to center stage for social justice activism.

The second campaign is one that could facilitate an ideological shift in feminist organizing. In Massachusetts, it is completely legal to shackle incarcerated women while they are giving birth. The Prison Birth Project, based out in Western Massachusetts, has been working on passing a bill to outlaw this practice for the past ten years. However, this bill has long been ignored by mainstream reproductive rights groups. Reproductive justice and bodily autonomy for all women has been long overlooked in favor of a reproductive choice framework that really only serves the middle class. While white middle class women were fighting for birth control, poor, black and disabled women were fighting not to be sterilized. This is now being changed as lobbying powerhouse, NARAL has committed to working on the bill as well as Boston Feminists for Liberation.

Compared to Jobs Not Jails and the anti-shackling bill, BFL's final campaign may seem odd. Throughout the fall, BFL committed to building a bail fund for people who are arrested under prostitution laws. On the surface, there doesn't seem to be much connection to the greater issues of mass incarceration. But according to a BFL representative and worker in the sex industry, that assumption is incorrect. “Police forces will often be given huge amounts of funding in order to ‘rescue’ people from the industry,” says A, who wishes to remain anonymous. “What this really means is that they get large amounts of funding to increase surveillance and policing of communities already deemed criminal, in the public eye. Woman often get ‘rescued’ and end up handcuffs.” She goes on to explain that sex workers face huge risk of sexual assault and abuse at the hands of police and that trans women are most at risk for this abuse. She emphasizes that the bail fund is not nearly enough, but it’s a first step to mitigating the violence perpetuated against sex workers by the state.

Break Out! March against mass incarceration aims shine a light on all three of these campaigns and drive home the fact that incarceration is very much a women’s issue. Will mainstream feminism listen?

BREAK OUT! MARCH AGAINST MASS INCARCERATION meets this Saturday, December 7, at noon at the Boston Common. The march will leave the Common at 12:30 and last about 1.5-2 hours.

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