Of Sects and Sexual Misconduct: The Story of the ISO Renewal Faction Fight (Part IV)

by Brandy Baker on June 4, 2014

Sunday, February 16th. 10AM, the Disciplinary Committee Report

“given their rarity [of complaints of sexual misconduct] in our organization”

(”A Response to Slander”, ISO Steering and National Committees, February 19, 2014)

With Renewal gone, the convention reconvened Sunday morning and the Disciplinary Committee, the same committee that declared the “Daniel” /Chuck Stemke case “a local matter”, delivered their report. The witness accounts are not wholly uniform, but what can be agreed upon is that at least five complaints of sexual misconduct were discussed during this time, including the “Daniel”/Chuck case and another that was discussed in the pre-Convention docs. At least two cases were brought up by the Disciplinary Committee and at least three from the floor. The five cases have taken place in the Southern and Western parts of the United States. Very little details were given on these accounts except that most were handled locally. (Nine members of the ISO Steering Committee, including Ahmed Shawki, were contacted for comment by e-mail and phone. They did not return e-mails or calls.)

Some have said that these cases occurred over the past seven years. Even if that is true, it still flies in the face of the “rarity”claim in the ISO’s article, “A Response to Slander”. Five cases divided by 84 months is roughly one case per 18 months. That is not rare, and those are only the ones that were reported during the Disciplinary Committee’s report. In a revolving door organization like the ISO whose membership mostly consists of young men and a mainstream rape culture that has become more widespread and brutal in the past 40 years, there is no possible way that they could know how rare or prevalent these cases are. None of us know how often this occurs in any of these organizations. Many of us would like to find out, which is why Left organizations should share information about cases without naming any specific details in order to protect survivors so that we can know what we are truly dealing with. They should share across organizational lines, and within the organization, which is clearly not occurring here. Working together will be the only way to address this; hiding and worrying more about your organization’s reputation on womens’ rights than actually fighting rape culture will not help to address sexual assault on the Left. Chuck Stemke in his articles on Mayor Bob Filner says: “standing against sexism, harassment, assault and rape requires liberals and progressives….to join the call for Filner to resign immediately. To do otherwise would be a betrayal of principles”.

And based on these witness accounts of Sunday morning, it is doubtful that the many complaints that Ahmed Shawki discussed last fall with two ISO members were any part of the DC’s report. Two long-term members of the ISO, each with over a decade of experience report that Ahmed told them both that there have been many complaints of inappropriate sexual misconduct waged against ISO members, the first one was waged after the 2013 convention.* So we are not really sure specifically how many cases there are, but they are not “rare”. And why has only one hour on Sunday morning been devoted to discussing this within the organization?  Were the political, organizational perspectives and the Renewal bullyfest more important than opening up the dialogue on rape culture, sexual assault, and its presense in the organization? The delegates were all together on a weekend. This would have been the ideal time to deal with all of this. Almost the entire agenda, most especially the beatdown of Renewal, should have been scrapped in order to address this problem. It is not the ISO’s fault that there are complaints of sexual assault, as they can only organize in the world in which we live, but to expel Renewal for publicly criticizing the Steering Committee’s handling of the case especially when they are discussing at least four others the next morning is unreasonable and inexcusable, as is refusing to address the case of “Daniel/Chuck Stemke. the public calling out of the Steering Committee’s inactions on the “Daniel”/Chuck Stemke case, and the public discussion of ISO internal business, are the true reasons why Renewal Faction members were expelled. Concern for the survivor’s confidentiality, and bogus “snitch-jacketing” charges were manufactured diversions.

Two days after the public release of the Pre-Convention document #19 which deals with the “Daniel”/Chuck Stemke case, Sharon Smith flew out to New York to speak to roughly 70 ISO members on various topics, including Marxism and feminism, or seemingly, Marxism v. feminism. She never mentions the Chuck Stemke case or any other case of alleged sexual misconduct in the organization. If there was ever a time besides the convention to bring all of this up, a meeting of this nature would have been it. But has keeping the membership informed really every been a priority with ISO leadership? I contacted several members of the ISO Steering committee to get their response to some of the member accounts in this article. They never returned my calls or e-mails. In 2012 on the North Star, Pham Binh brought to light the the 2010 CERSC purchase of Caterpillar stock, a clear violation of BDS. Members who responded to that story clearly were not aware of the purchase until they read Binh’s article. It is unlikely that members knew that my articles were coming out, even though the leadership were informed.

Last year, in the wake of the Martin Smith rape case in the Socialist Workers’ Party, the ISO went back to the board on feminism, which they had historically rejected after 1983, the year when Cal and Barbara Winslow were removed from the organization. In the words of Solidarity’s Peter Drucker, the Socialist Workers’ Party-UK and the ISO “turned away from learning from broad social movements and towards a more self-promoting version of Leninist party building. It dissolved the autonomous women’s paper it had sponsored, Women’s Voice, declared that Friedrich Engels’ book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State was still a sound basic text on women’s emancipation, and essentially purged Winslow when she protested.” The ISO, after 1983, took its orders on womens’ oppression from two crude male chauvanists (both deceased) whom they still celebrate today, Chris Harman and SWP founder, Tony Cliff, who, in the 80s would say publicly at various talks, “Comrades, politically, there is illusion and reality. The illusion? Raquel Welch. The reality? Chanie.” Chanie Rosenberg, his wife, now widow, the mother of his four children, and the breadwinner of the family, as Cliff was a full-time organizer and as an undocumented immigrant in the UK, he could not work. This is what Cliff had to publicly say about his wife and this is who the ISO took their marching orders from on feminism.

After the SWP rape case broke, the ISO had begun to be open to intersectionality and some of the membership, including Renewal Faction member Vanessa Beck (Chicago, 2008-2011; Philadelphia, 2007-2013; DC, October 2013) were fighting to include privilege theory in the ISO’s analysis on racism. This year, at the meeting on feminism that Sharon held where there was no mention of the Chuck Stemke case, they seem to be going back to Engels. A female ISO member who was present at this meeting notes: “It all amounted to Sharon trying to walk back on some of the opening up in the group on questions of oppression and intersectionality and was basically a ‘greatest hits’ of good quotes from famous Marxists on the question of sexism.”

So not one mention of the sexual assaults, or the Chuck Stemke case two days after Document #19 was publicly released in a five hour public meeting in New York City, a five hour meeting where feminism/womens’ liberation was a significant topic of discussion.

Monday, February 17

The Renewal Faction was expelled on Monday morning, the day after the Disciplinary Committee delivered their morning report. One of the sessions that appear on the agenda from Sunday is, “Recentralizing the ISO”. I strongly suspect that the strategies discussed in this forum will put an end to the freer, less-centralized, healthier climates in the smaller branches like Cambridge and Providence where Shaun Joseph and others learned to challenge, debate, argue,and introduce new ideas without fear of ostracism.

After their Monday expulsions, the members of the faction each had to ask that dues not be debited from their accounts any longer, including Shaun Joseph, who was a not a member when he was expelled and had not been since the summer of 2013.

Today 

The ISO is in deep decline. As I reported in the first articles of this series, many branches at the February 15th-17th convention have reported that they are losing members and that their branches are “in crisis”. The attendance at Chicago ISO meetings has taken a significant hit. It has recently been mentioned that people are not coming out to hear the latest ISO instruction on 1917, Zinovism, and the united vs. the popular front.

“I wish they’d just get on with it and openly be the NGO with the book publisher that they are, and drop the whole socialist club thing,” says Vanessa Beck. “they are just wasting everyone’s time and hurting people.”

The leadership ignored this case at least twice because the humanity is gone from the politics and individuals cease to matter. Or as we saw with the way Chuck Stemke, a valued member, was allowed to continue in the organization without the ISO leadership investigating the allegations against him, so some individuals matter more than others. And there are clearly more cases than the Chuck Stemke incident, but in a culture of secrecy amongst the leadership, they do not seem to be addressed or discussed. In the  ‘Response to Slander‘ piece the National and Steering Committees write: “A group of former members is claiming that the International Socialist Organization exhibited “indifference” and “inaction” toward allegations of a sexual assault. This is simply a lie.”

The leadership were indifferent and they were inactive around the Chuck Stemke case, they immediately believed Stemke over the survivor without investigating the case. And they lied about those mistakes. If they are going to lie and cover up their errors in the Stemke case, can they really trusted to deal with alleged sexual misconduct in their organization? And why is the membership allowing the leadership to get away with their lies in the “Response to Slander” piece? (http://socialistworker.org/2014/02/19/a-response-to-slander)

Meanwhile, at the ISO’s Socialism 2014 conference in Chicago, a session will be held titled: “From Criminalization to ‘Rape Culture': Rethinking the Politics of Sexual Violence”.

Brandy Baker, who can be reached at: [email protected], thanks all of those whom she interviewed for these articles. She hopes that they will find some peace as they move forward.

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  • Aaron Aarons

    Five cases [of sexual misconduct?] divided by 84 months is roughly one case per 18 months. That is not rare [...]

    Whether it is ‘rare’ or not is a subjective judgment, and depends on, among other things, how broadly or narrowly “sexual misconduct” is defined, as well as the size of the population in which the acts occur. Certainly, if there were that many forcible rapes or attempted forcible rapes in an organization of at most a few thousand members, it would be a mistake to treat such occurrences as “rare”. But that frequency could be considered to constitute rarity if all instances of, e.g., uninvited touching were being counted.

    In a revolving door organization like the ISO whose membership mostly consists of young men and a mainstream rape culture that has become more widespread and brutal in the past 40 years, there is no possible way that they could know how rare or prevalent these cases are

    What is the evidence of “a mainstream rape culture that has become more widespread and brutal in the past 40 years”? Can the author point to any studies that show this? And isn’t the last clause, “there is no possible way that they could know how rare or prevalent these cases are”, both true and a non sequitur?

    • bob

      I suspect that the second paragraph is a misprint.

      The fact that you wrote this, Aaron Aarons: “But that frequency could be considered to constitute rarity if all instances of, e.g., uninvited touching were being counted” is fucking appauling and shows how deep the misogyny is on some aspects of the Left. Uninvited touching IS sexual assault.

      Get a fucking clue, son.

      • Aaron Aarons

        I have no objection to including at least some kinds of “uninvited touching” in the category of “sexual assault”, but, if it is included, then I stand by my statement that one occurrence every 18 months of “sexual assault” so broadly defined in an organization the size of the ISO would make it almost a rarity, and certainly more of a rarity than it was four (or five-plus) decades ago when I was a young left activist.

        And, yes, before I’ll believe that “rape culture” has become more brutal in the past four decades, I’ll need evidence other than subjective impressions of people who, if they were alive four decades ago probably have rather incomplete memories of the time. I’ll also need a definition of “rape culture” and some indication of what parts of the world concerning which you claim to know that the assertion is true. And while individual memories may have some value, assertions of personal knowledge of anything are worthless as evidence if the bona fides of the entity making the assertion cannot be established. In other words, an unidentified “bob” can legitimately make arguments based on public information, but any personal statements made by such a cyber-entity are worthless in argumentation.

        • Guest

          A case every 18 months is not rare in any organization, and it definitely is not rare in a tiny group like the ISO. And those five cases are only the cases that were discussed on Sunday morning. What about the cases that Shawki is discussing with long-term members that happened in the past year? What about the fact that someone accused of attempted rape was allowed to write an anti-sexual harassment article for the ISO when the leadership reviewed the case and did not believe the victim? “Aaron Aarons” is missing the forest for the trees. And inappropriate touching of a sexual nature (breast, thighs, buttocks, genitals, forced kissing) does count as sexual assault, it is not up to Aaron or anyone else to make that determination, the legal system has already done so.

          • bob

            and with all due respect, anyone who is not familiar with the realities of modern day rape culture is out of touch.

            • Aaron Aarons

              I’m still waiting for somebody to actually make an argument, based on evidence, that “rape culture has become more brutal in the past four decades”. Assertions by one or two anonymous posters to the effect that this vague assertion is obviously true and that there’s something wrong with me for not seeing it don’t constitute an argument.

          • Aaron Aarons

            I am not arguing that the kinds of touching mentioned don’t constitute “sexual assault”, but the last entity that I would respect regarding the making of such a determination is the legal system of the capitalist ruling class.

            • guest

              This current legal system is all that women have in this current system. There is no revolutionary socialist courts that women can petition for justice in our current system.

              • guest

                -in this current capitalist system-

              • Aaron Aarons

                We are here discussing the internal disciplinary processes of a left organization, not a case in the capitalist courts. Those processes don’t have to depend on determinations made by capitalist courts or capitalist legislatures. Moreover, there are many forms of social pressure and sanctions that can be used to deter sexual assault, not just the extremely unreliable capitalist court system. And talking about that system providing any kind of “justice” is a sad joke.

                • gus

                  The point I think being made here is that even the reactionary capitalist courts see “inappropriate touching” as sexual assault, which would place them to the left of Aaron Aarons as well as the ISO. And you can’t really discuss the “internal disciplinary processes” because there were none, which is what Aarons seems to be missing.

                  Finally, it is not up to the ISO to dole out justice, but to protect their people from predators by getting those predators out of their organization. The ISO showing that they are serious about feminist practice would be a great deterrent. But as the author says in part 2, the ISO is more into rhetoric and posturing than in women’s’ rights.

                  • Aaron Aarons

                    Another anonymous commenter jumps into the ring against the only one here, aside from (presumably) the original author, who uses a name by which lots of real human beings personally know them! Apparently, all of them like to snipe without taking responsibility, as persons or even as persistent cyber-personae, for what they say.

                    1) I made no comment on whether or not one elastic category, “inappropriate touching”, should or should not be seen as a subcategory of another elastic category, “sexual assault”. However, I did indicate that some acts described here as being in the former category should, in fact, be included in the latter. But that latter category, even more than the more general legal category of “assault”, covers an extremely wide range of actions and behaviors, the effects of which on the victim range from transient anger to major, long-lasting trauma. While even the former should be actively discouraged, I am also disturbed by the fact that many people who can’t afford good lawyers or bail money wind up being convicted of acts that get them labeled “sex offenders” and treated as pariahs without rights for the rest of their lives.

                    2) I don’t see why I ‘can’t really discuss the “internal disciplinary processes”‘ when the criticism of those processes, and their inadequacy, is what this series of articles is mainly about.

                    3) I do agree that it is a responsibility of the ISO or any organization “to protect their people [and others who are in contact with their people through their organization] from predators by getting those predators out of their organization”, but the question is precisely what “internal disciplinary processes” can be established and refined to establish who is or is not a “predator” who needs to be ostracized.

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  • Rey Saenz

    This seems to now be a site that would rather completely disintegrate than ever allow free debate over issues to take place. That is pretty sad really.

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