Your Organizer Voted for Trump, Now What?

By Raffi Marhaba &  Lilia Trenkova, Collectively Free Founders

Whether you’re part of an activist community or an organizer yourself, chances are you have had to deal with conflict in your network. Conflicts come in many shapes and sizes and can be as small as a disagreement or as large as activists/organizers no longer believing in your mission; they can range from cases of microagressions to actual infiltrators. We like to look at conflict as an opportunity to become stronger – to use a metaphor by a friend of a friend, “Whenever there’s a bone fracture, the new bone solidifies stronger than the original one.”

Just recently we had to deal with a conflict that took us by surprise. It came to light that one of our prominent organizers had voted for Trump, and that, in a separate conflict, he was using his cis, straight, white, macho privilege to speak over and for other people, as well as unconsciously exhibiting transphobic behaviors. People were hurt and were not being listened to.

This is someone we have a connection with and admiration for, someone we have shared countless of successful actions with. On the other hand, we have a connection and duty to our own values as individuals and to the core values that Collectively Free embodies. CF’s values protect, prioritize and empower those affected by oppressive behaviors.

We’d like to provide a case study on how we handled this conflict with the hopes of inspiring other organizations to take action and full accountability, and to never sweep problematic behaviors under the rug.

To be clear, cases like this should not be treated as mere personal conflict but rather as conflict of values. We have seen time and time again organizations use the “personal” excuse not to deal with the real conflict.

Create values that specify exactly what you stand for (and what you stand against).

When a group of people or an organization are trying to figure out who they are as a collective, values and mission can be a bit too vague. As the group evolves, it helps to focus values on concrete stances. 

Fine-tuning the collective values and goals establishes the base for actions, behavior, as well as conflict resolution; it solidifies the group as an entity.

Create a document that specifies which behaviors are acceptable (and which ones aren’t).

Again, be as specific and detailed as possible. Make sure the activists in your network see this document and agree to it. We call ours the Safer Space Agreement. In case of conflict, we can always go back to this document and say, “You agreed to our Safer Space Agreement, but your behavior says otherwise.”

Have a conflict resolution model already in place.

We have dedicated over 80 hours to creating a conflict resolution model. Why? Because conflicts will always arise; and when they do, we need to be ready to take action.

For the following case study, we will be using our own conflict resolution model to explain how the situation unfolded.

On Monday
We listened to the main aggrieved. We received the news, from organizer B. (aggrieved) that our organizer M. (aggriever) had voted for Trump and that, in a separate conflict, which has no direct relation to Collectively Free, he kicked the aggrieved out of a project they had together, and without consulting the other members involved.

We proposed that both the aggriever (M.) and aggrieved (B.) have a mediated talk. B. did not wish to pursue reparations with M., nor be in a call together.

We listened to others involved. In addition to B., we asked the other two activists involved for their side of the story. Both expressed very similar concerns about M. (the aggriever) and brought up that his behavior was possibly grounded on (perhaps unconscious) transphobia and machismo, which is something that concerns us even if the circumstances didn’t directly relate to our CF.

We made a breakdown of the issues.

  • M. voted for Trump.
  • M. knows first hand our organizers’ fervent stance against Trump.
  • M. did not share with us that he intended to vote for Trump or that he eventually did.
  • M. participated in our anti-Trump action in DC before we knew he had voted for him.
  • M. spoke over people, using privilege to oppress and make executive decisions. Such behavior can easily ripple into how he acts as an organizer under the CF banner.  
“Cases like this should not be treated as mere personal conflict but rather as conflict of values. We have seen time and time again organizations use the “personal” excuse not to deal with the real conflict.”
On Wednesday
While one organizer remained focused on the aggrieved (B.), another organizer had a call with M. That organizer listened, questioned and then proposed the beginning of a possible reparation.

What did we find out?

  • Yes, M. did indeed vote for Trump.
  • M. claims he regrets the decision deeply, that he would undo it if he could.
  • M. lists his reasons for voting for Trump as believing Trump had “better” proposed policies on war and trade than Clinton.
  • M. claims he is against the Muslim ban (that had just been imposed a few days prior).

During the call, we made it super clear that it’s not just the act of voting, the ticking of a name on a piece of paper, that’s problematic but the fact that Trump stands literally against everything that we stand for and that we fight for.

  • M. claimed he wanted to work things out with people. We recommended he make a post in the CF organizers private communication space, so that people can hear it first-hand and so we can collectively decide what happens to him as an organizer.

Side note: it’s very important to demand a public apology because it serves as an opportunity to take accountability and admit the fuck-up, as well as stop the explanations and justifications.  Transparency is the first step in the right direction! (The close second is humility.)

We had daily check-ins with B. and the other aggrieved to see if there were any news or if anything had changed. There was nothing.

We scheduled another talk with M. At this point we had all the necessary information we needed. Since we had neither seen any public posts nor a post in the private CF space, we decided to step in.

Talk without judgment and foster a space where the truth can come out.
We’d be lying if we said we weren’t feeling a huge disappointment by this point. We had to prepare ourselves mentally to not say things like, “Didn’t you read any of our posts about Trump?!”, or “What the fuck were you thinking?”, or “You do realize a lot of us are also members of the LGBTQ community, right?” etc.

Instead, we had to remember that people fuck up. We all do. And that as believers in and practitioners of transformative justice, we needed to give M. a chance to do the right thing.

Our goal in the call wasn’t to make sure his feelings were protected or to express sympathy because he was scared people were going to humiliate him. No, the goal was to ask him, “What kind of person, activist and organizer do you want to be? Do you want to be the guy who did some really cool things for animals but just betrayed the core values that you said you shared with your community? The guy who stayed silent in anti-Trump posts? The guy who used his privilege because he could? The guy who decided his feelings and his feeling too scared to admit the truth were more important than a possible reparation with the people you share space with? More important than telling the truth to the people he says he respects and admires?”

Silence echoed between our lines – we knew we shouldn’t be too hopeful. We asked him to consider our request and give us an answer asap.

The Following Monday
We followed up, and M. said he had decided not to make a public statement. Instead, he voluntarily stepped down as an organizer and wrote a long message filled with explanations and justifications. Things such as, “I have also decided not to make a public post about this latest issue. I am choosing this not out of a desire to avoid accountability (the word is already out and whoever wants to take jabs at me certainly can now), but rather I am just looking to avoid exacerbating this drama any further.”, “If people are going to continue to perpetuate rumors without asking me directly for an explanation, then so be it.”, “If it helps preserve your and CF’s names, throw me under the damn bus lol.”

Red flags:

  • Justification rhetoric rather than sincere apology: when people start coming up with explanations instead of a simple “I fucked up”, it’s likely that they still haven’t taken accountability for their actions.
  • Playing the victim while maintaining a “noble” stance: things like “go, ahead, throw me under the bus for the greater good” is the equivalent of patting oneself on the back while stepping over the other person. (Raffaella adds, “I used to use this formula when I was 15 and I wanted my girlfriend to break up with me because I was such an awful person but oh, look at me, I do have some decency and am doing something good for you.”)

Different Outcomes
If M. had decided not to make an apology and then not step down as an organizer, our next step would have been to confirm with B. whether the only solution would be removing M.; at this point we would also involve the rest of the organizers team. Since in our case B. already showed no interest in a resolution and M. refused to take accountability, it would have been the logical next step had M. not stepped down on his own. That said, we do made sure M. knew that the doors would be open for him to do real accountability work if he committed to it.

If M. had decided to make a public apology and investigate himself, there would have been two possible outcomes, and both would start with finding out what a resolution might be for B. and the other aggrieved.

Option 1: B. doesn’t accept the apology. We discuss it with the entire team, since it also affects us. The goal would be consensus and restoring the community, but if B. says they cannot even share a space with M. and are not willing to resolve, we prioritize their decision as the victim.

Option 2: B. accepts the apology. We start a process where we check-in with M. regularly to report what kind of actions he is taking to better himself.

“When people start coming up with explanations instead of a simple “I fucked up”, it’s likely that they still haven’t taken accountability for their actions.”

In B.’s, the aggrieved’s, words: “Though I would say that if there is any conflict, it is not conflict between me and [aggriever] – rather it is between public M. and private M. (or public white myn violences vs private white myn violences), and many people can speak to the inconsistencies. Or conflict between M.’s role/investment as an organizer for CF vs. CF’s own internal values and work.”

And that is absolutely true. Keep in mind that situations like these are much more complex than just a conflict between two or more people. Rather, they represent the way in which people channel their own shit to the world and at others.

One last important thing to ask ourselves is what can we do to better assess organizers who want to join us? From our experience as a collective, a lot of issues end up coming to surface only after people have been involved with us for some time. So for us, now is the perfect opportunity for us to revise our recruitment process. And let’s not be discouraged when conflicts like these arise; let’s remember, “whenever there’s a bone fracture, the new bone solidifies stronger than the original one.”

Q: It seems like you’re asking too much from people. Someone may be anti-capitalist, anti-speciesist, anti-ableist but still not get anti-heterosexism. Does that mean they are not welcome at all?

A: Of course not! We are not looking for “the perfect” person who will have it all figured out – guess, what? We also don’t! (Check out this amazing video by Reg Flowers on what is and what isn’t intersectionality.) 

However, we are looking for people who are always eager to learn, who constantly interrogate themselves and who carry humility in them – because you need these things in order to grow. People who want to do their homework and not only become better activists but become better people are the kind of organizers we seek.

We most definitely welcome more experienced people as well!

Q: It seems like if people start showing that they don’t quite grasp one of your anti-oppressive values that they are kicked out.

A: Let us clarify – that couldn’t be further from the truth. When people struggle with an oppressive behavior, we offer them the opportunity to work through it together. For example, one of our organizers used to call people “psycho” and “murderer”. What we did was we created a resource blog post listing a whole bunch of oppressive language, what are the issues with them and alternative to those words.

That organizer could have acted in two manners:

  1. Feel personally attacked because we made a blog post to discuss this.
  2. Embrace the new knowledge and say “I’ve been doing it wrong all this time!” Thankfully this is what they chose!