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¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 A history and critical reflection on the Feminist Phone Intervention project, also known as the “bell hooks line,” by one of its anonymous co-creators. She considers the questions: How did race factor into its usage and media coverage? What are the possibilities for creating powerful agit-prop, and can art also function as a usable tool for safety from gendered violence? How does claiming anonymity as a feminist strategy work for and against movement-building? How might public art in the streets and activism in the digital commons converge?
Origins and Adaptations of the Project
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 3 The idea for the Feminist Phone Intervention came to me after the Elliot Rodgers shootings in Santa Barbara, California. Media sympathy for Rodgers, portraying him as a spurned lover, induced additional rage and alienation. That week, a close friend of mine was stalked at her job in a bookstore, and several other female friends all experienced violence in public spaces. It was in this moment of grief and disgust at the violent sexism saturating our culture that my collaborator and I set up the phone line.
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 2 Often women and feminine-presenting people are not sure how to say no, or worried — with very good reason — about how an aggressor will take rejection. Many move through the world constantly making these exhausting mental calculations: How do I let this stranger down gently, so he won’t hurt me or insult me? How do I manage this situation where a stranger feels entitled to my time, my contact info, my body? Am I really responsible for explaining to this person why his actions are not appropriate? The Feminist Phone Intervention aims to provide an outsourcing of what I’ll call “the labor of explanation,” giving people a way both to preserve their privacy and to talk back after experiencing a dicey situation.
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 2 Since its creation in June, the bell hooks line has received 44,565 calls and 109,997 texts (although we turned off the texting service after about a week, due to safety concerns). It has been shared hundreds of thousands of times online, and for a week or two, there was a raging debate about the project on Twitter. A friend counted more than 50 news pieces on the subject, and it was featured notably in Time, Forbes, the Huffington Post, Bitch, the Forward, ColorLines, and many other publications. It will also be featured on radio and TV in Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, and France. But how did the media frame it, and what allowed this project — with its origins in anarcha-feminist thought — to adapt so well to the mainstream news? Was our “hack” diffused or amplified by the media? How can a project balance the agit-prop impulse with offering a practical intervention against everyday harassment?
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Initially the Feminist Phone Intervention also featured texts which were randomly generated, to simulate actually having an SMS conversation with bell hooks. This lead to some delightful graphics, but we were concerned about safety: people commonly send a text immediately to share their number, say, after meeting in a bar. We tried to delay the responding text, perhaps ten minutes later, to let a person get away from the scene, if necessary. But how long is long enough? It seemed impossible to predict or manage. That’s the spot where tension arose between agit-prop and having it be a functional service. Although it was more fun and playful for people to interact via text with the “bell-bot,” it wasn’t worth the risk.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 2 Those first few days, I was terrified that I would wake up to bad news, that it might have gone awry somehow, that a person would be rejected using the bell hooks line and get violent or track someone down another way. It was never meant to be a perfect system, but another option. Some commenters have argued that giving a fake number is “cowardly,” or that “women should grow up and be honest.” This grossly underestimates the cumulative experience of harassment, and deflects judgment away from the aggressor onto the responder’s virtue. We maintain that the weight of scrutiny must remain on the harasser, and not how a person chooses to respond.
On Anonymity as Feminist Tactic
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 2 Of the many requests for an interview which I received, the most frequently-asked question was “Why are you anonymous?” It ranged from this heavily leading question, asked by a New York City news reporter: “There have been some notably vicious reactions to women speaking out against oppression in the media lately … Is this why you have chosen to remain anonymous? Are you, as a potentially public feminist activist, concerned about the repercussions of internet activism for your career or future life?” She implied that anonymity was primarily a veil of safety between me and the “notably vicious” public reactions to feminism, rather than an activist strategy in itself. Another reporter from ABC-Univision wrote not to discuss the project, but to request that I reveal my identity and personal reasons for creating it. This framing sensationalizes the project and seeks to reduce it to the product of a single, victimized woman. He didn’t see the irony in demanding to know the identity of a woman who had just set up an entire cyber-feminist project dedicated to protecting women’s privacy!
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 5 I remain anonymous because this project is about asserting one’s boundaries, about rejecting the idea that we owe our names, our time, or our bodies to anyone else. And of course, “bell hooks” is itself a pseudonym and a tribute to the writer’s grandmother. Anonymity also creates more space for collective action. There’s a long tradition of using it, especially in feminist movements, as a way to prevent the media from choosing a leader and erasing the real collectivity of the movement (think Kathleen Hanna with Riot Grrrl). This project is designed to be reinvented by people in different regions speaking different languages, and I think having a single face attached to it would only limit its adaptability. In an article for Radical Philosophy about the Russian agit-prop group Pussy Riot, Maria Chehonadskih asks, “What is authorship in digital activism?” Her friend responds: “Authorship means to make something work.” That, to me, is a compelling way of thinking about the issue.
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 4 I also want to talk a bit about anonymity in relation to comradeship, a word that is not used as frequently as “allyship” these days, but which is central to my worldview. While allyship centers on supporting another’s causes, I see comradeship as a commitment to being with others within and beyond the bounds of activist communities. I don’t think comradeship can be built on false or easy or unearned intimacy; it can’t develop from simple commonalities of race or gender. That’s why I like to use the model of comradeship in conversation with the model of woman of color feminism. As fellow Jewish and Puerto Rican feminist Aurora Levins Morales writes, “This tribe called ‘Women of Color’ is not an ethnicity. It is one of the inventions of solidarity, an alliance, a political necessity that is not the given name of every female with dark skin and a colonized tongue, but rather a choice about how to resist and with whom.” Two phrases in that passage are key for me: “the invention of solidarity” and “a choice about how to resist and with whom.” It affirms that solidarity can and must be invented, worked for, and not taken for granted; and it offers an expansive idea of being together and being for each other in everyday life. My ideal feminist intervention, then, would be designed to take place within the realm of the everyday. When someone uses the bell hooks line for oneself, they are now sharing in this common act; they know that thousands of others have also used it, creating an imagined community of fellow feminists who are all using it to speak back, individually, but within a kind of diffuse community.
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 2 How can we visualize this kind of cyber-comradeship? At the end of the documentary The Future is Unwritten, about Joe Strummer of the Clash, his friends reminisce about him around bonfires on different continents. Strummer believed that civilization began the moment humans gathered around a bonfire and told stories. The camera pulls back to show animation of many bonfires on many islands, with people arranged in concentric circles telling stories around the world. I still visualize this as the metaphor of digital organizing, except instead of bonfires, it’s the masses sitting in concentric circles before the glow of laptop screens. The Feminist Phone Intervention, however, is not an app or an email service — although we also planned to set up a Gmail account with the automatic message, “Thank you for your note, but I am on vacation — from the patriarchy.” Rather, the communities of feminists and mainstream media are what allowed it to spread, and the technology of digital robots facilitated its function of rotating messages. The project’s interactive aspect is entirely based on phone lines, which I thought would be more effective. (I don’t have a smartphone or use Twitter myself, and I didn’t want it to use a platform that would exclude people of different generations.)
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 4 In the documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, the incandescent singer Lisa Fischer — who floats her notes on a pillow of air, and follows the melodies with exquisite pleasure — reflects on her long career as a backup singer. Others comment on her incredible talent, but she speaks with such evident pleasure of anonymity and reveling in her art. That moment in the film stayed with me as metaphor: what it means in America to have the most gorgeous voices become ubiquitous on the radio, and for the Black women producing this brilliance to themselves be erased. And for Fischer to take up space within the role of back-up singer, and claim that space without seeking the spotlight! Other singers in the documentary describe acts of resistance from space of singing backup, such as on “Sweet Home Alabama,” where her voice soaring on the chorus subverts the white male singers’ main verses. That kind of interruption from the “sidelines,” from the backup singers and the chorus, resonates with me as a model of complex cultural intervention that grants (circumscribed) power in the tension between anonymity and ubiquity.
Analysis of Media Representation
¶ 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 I was fascinated by the media coverage, which sometimes portrayed it as a gimmick or another form of pepper spray, and sometimes described it as an emergency hot line without engaging with the project’s deeper politics. Initially, the Huffington Post attributed the project to “feminist blogger bell hooks.” I was also shocked at how invasive journalists could be: some contacted me for a story via Facebook and LinkedIn, having figured out my identity. A reporter for a major TV station wrote to ask me about my identity — that was all they were interested in, revealing the “women” behind the project and asking salacious questions about whether we’d been raped ourselves. I received emails from a very persistent reader, who noticed that in one interview I said I am Latina, and in another interview (for the Jewish Forward) I talked about the history of the Jewish radical press. She wanted to know which source got it wrong — as though there is some irreconcilable contradiction between being Jewish and Latina that prevents all aspects of my identity from existing simultaneously! One reporter assumed that my collaborator and I are both white women (wrong on both counts). Another reporter cut 90% of the interview — the part where I talked about the project’s politics! Watching a coiffed newslady on the Huffington Post slowly read aloud the manifesto that I had written two days earlier — reading it slowly, while looking right into the camera — was a surreal experience. My words were literally read back to me in a new, mass format, and with sympathy; but they also framed it as purely a personal self-defense tactic, without engaging its wider critique of sexism.
¶ 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 1 In the initial Huffington Post piece — before they changed the attribution to “anonymous activist” — you can see the ways the radical potential of the project was curtailed: it is compared to the Rejection Hotline, which defuses its critique of harassment; it refers to “sketchy guys,” using both gendered language and again minimizing the threat of violence; and finally, it assumes that bell hooks is a “feminist blogger” who would set up a phone line quoting her own work!
¶ 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 2 Watching the idea move into reality, and then into the realm of a product or a meme rather than an intervention, was unanticipated. But I do think it is a strength to be able to address people outside of committed feminist activists. Do we want to make a better movement, or make a better society? Do we want women to move more freely in the world, or to turn more deeply into small radical communities? I hope that we will learn to speak with an open vocabulary, and to cultivate a diversity of tactics. In the original text, for example, I was careful to use non-gendered language in the section describing possible uses, while specifically naming misogyny targeting women in the explanatory section.
¶ 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 2 I have received many thank-you notes from women who feel gratified by the project. Here is one of my favorite personal responses to the project: I appreciate how she discusses the project in the language of spiritual non-violence. She concludes, “…generally i want to approach other humans as humans, and lonely humans as lonely humans. and men, particularly black men, i approach as my brothers, my family. but there need to be tools for humans who treat me like property and/or make me feel unsafe. and i need it to not be my responsibility to risk my safety for the teachable moment. i need something in between a self-defense chop, screaming, and submissive kindness or avoidance. i need this number.“
¶ 32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 3 We try to grant people’s requests for a phone line in their area code, and have added lines in places where the cost per call would remain below two cents. That, of course, is dependent on the infrastructure of their nation: looking at the chart for Twilio rates essentially breaks down all the countries in comparison, for example, Tel Aviv vs West Bank is a difference of about 42 cents per call! We got around that by adding a line in Abu Dis, which is technically in the same area code as Jerusalem but is an Arab village. We await the Arabic reader to choose a passage from a feminist writer local to the region, but since the outbreak of war, it has been postponed.
¶ 33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 3 We reached out during the first few days to friends in Toronto who are Inuit activists, and they were excited to add a line in an Inuit language. We are also working to add lines in Spanish for Mexico, which will feature quotations by Gloria Anzaldua. While the project was mentioned in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, the recording has not yet been made in Hebrew due to the many differences of opinion about how to translate hooks vs selecting a Mizrahi feminist passage.
¶ 34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 1 My collaborator, who’s a very talented programmer and tech educator, made a page explaining all the steps of open-source code. This is part of our commitment to making it as adaptable to others’ cultures as possible, and keeping the technology fluid.
¶ 35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 1 Activists in Germany set up a line with quotations from Rosa Luxembourg and Simone de Beauvoir, among others. The German feminists did translate bell hooks:
¶ 37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 5 Activists in Portland, OR set up a line that works as a public shaming, posting the numbers of people who sent in harassing messages. That’s their project — I would not want to do that because there’s no way to know if someone was just playing with the bell-bot vs. unknowingly calling it to harass someone they’d just meant. We’ve gotten requests from Santiago, Chile; Ireland; a few cities in the UK; the Netherlands; Tel Aviv; Australia; etc, etc. We even had someone donate her old phone number in Texas when she moved, and offered to record messages in Portuguese! I like how there are all these digital dialects, if you will, of how people would like to make their own version, responding to the particularities of gender in each region. In fact, I was in a pub in London recently, speaking with a group of women whom I’d just met there. To my amazement, they all knew about the phone line. It does make me feel safer, to travel alone and know that there is a phone line in that area code.
On Public Art
¶ 38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 3 I worked as a muralist for years, organizing and directing large-scale community public art. It’s a similar project in that I contribute by organizing large groups of other people and teaching techniques for art-making, which are then adapted by communities themselves. With both the phone line and arts organizing, ideally my identity fades into the background while encouraging others to make their own creative variations. With both public art and the phone line, the question for me is always: how can I design a system to make the project as collaborative as possible? Whether it’s scaling up youth’s artwork into massive two-story murals, or something as intimate as managing the messages on your phone, I am interested in creating interventions into the status quo of public space. In the article on our project in Forbes, the brilliant feminist street artist — creator of the “Stop Telling Women to Smile” series of wheatpaste posters — comments on the affinity in our projects.
¶ 39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 3 I briefly considered using Yoko Ono quotations, in homage to her own conceptual phone project — but her “phone intervention” centered on erasing the boundary between artist and audience. Her other famous performance pieces, such as “Cut Piece” (1965) — in which she posed in stillness, inviting audience members to use the scissors to cut her clothing, thus submitting her body to the audience — performed vulnerability, itself a demonstration of bravery.
¶ 40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 3 I recently read a book by danah boyd called It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. The most compelling section to me argued that after the collapse of a public commons available to young people, teens turned to the internet as a replacement. If parents want their kids to spend less time online, then, a public social commons will need to be created again. Linking digital spaces with public spaces is what this project is about, I think, in terms of a digital resource for social interventions — or the dream of it. That’s one of the exciting things for me about creating an open-source version of the phone line, where people can record and program their own messages from whatever region they live in. Would bell hooks’s work speak to the issues faced, say, by feminists in Tunisia? I can only create a platform for others to use, letting it extend beyond my own experience and my knowledge of how gender politics vary across cultures. I hope that it will be adapted by others and contribute to the expansion of our political creativity about confronting sexism in everyday life.