This letter is a response to "Protesters Would Impose Censorship," a guest editorial in the Bellingham Herald (June 4, 1990) by Chuck Robinson.
Chuck Robinson was, at the time of the publication of this letter, co-owner of Village Books and Vice-President of American Booksellers Association (ABA) and its newly formed Foundation for Free Expression. [In January 1989 Village Books and the ABA joined other plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the city of Bellingham, Washington. Using the courts, Chuck Robinson et al. were responsible for blocking an anti-pornography civil rights' ordinance that would have allowed legal recourse to those who could prove they had been harmed by pornography. The ordinance, written by Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, had been voted into law in November, 1988 by over 60% of the city's voting residents.]
Nikki Craft, at the time of the publication of this letter, edited a newsletter called the ICONoclast which identifies and confronts child molesters and pornographers operating in the nudist/naturist movement. She is an unrehabilitated multiple offender, most recently arrested for tearing into male supremist magazines in Chuck Robinson's bookstore. Her trial is July, 16, 1990 in Bellingham District Court.
Dear Chuck Robinson,
I would like to make it clear I did not "beg" to have the charges against me dismissed after I entered Village Books on May 23 and ripped up four copies of Esquire magazine.
However, one of my supporters did ask you to send the magazines back to the publisher to hold them accountable -- the publisher, after all, foots the bill for damaged (or shall we say "enhanced") copies. At that time this supporter also asked you to drop the charges. This action could have upheld my "free speech" straight back to the publisher. Asking is not begging: you should know that.
In a desperate bid to boost their readership, Esquire has made a big mistake. As many publishers do, they profit at a great expense to women. I want the world to know what a snooty, cheap, sleazy magazine they produce.
Whose speech was blocked here anyway? How could I "silence" a publication that distributes inciteful trash to 700,000 men monthly and has been printed for 57 years? Did I chip away at their power and profits by destroying 4 copies? No. In fact I probably sold their magazines for them.
My actions have instead given voice to other women, women who would be drowned -- silenced by the great roaring misogyny that Andrea Dworkin calls the "flood" of male speech in the mass media.
The legal facade that a corporation has rights equal to those of an individual -- including the "right" of "free speech" -- must be dispelled. It is a malicious fiction that serves to disguise the fact that corporations actually wield disproportionate power and influence in our society, and most often cannot be held legally or ethically accountable, as an individual person would be, for their crimes against the public.
It is interesting to note that when men own printing presses, whatever malevolence (male violence) they irresponsibly crank out is cradled in the arms of civil libertarians as sacred expression. But when women, who own so few of the presses and get so little opportunity to speak, are able to work effectively, through flamboyant, creative civil disobedience, those same libertarians trivialize this speech. They dismiss it as a media ploy, cheap publicity-seeking, or action not motivated by any real social, moral or political conscience. There are many ways to silence an idea.
Misrepresenting and trivializing the messenger is one sure way to keep the concerns of an oppressed people -- the voice of an oppressed people -- from being heard. I think you did that when you said, in your impressive-looking opinion piece, that what we were doing wasn't civil disobedience at all (yourself and other men being the authorities on the subject). Only an armchair advocate of civil disobedience, instead of someone making it a lifetime commitment, would mystify it as you have done. I doubt you have any idea what Martin Luther King did behind the scenes, tactically, to deal with any of his arrests.
I've never put myself in the company of Thoreau (never did read his essay on civil disobedience) or King (don't like some of his exploits with women) or Gandhi (too non-violent to suit me). But since you put me there, consider this: if any of these men were around today, I think we would find them to be just people, grappling the best they could to seize power away from their oppressors. Though they are worthy of our respect and admiration, I don't think any of them would claim they possessed the last word on the practice and ethics of civil disobedience. Besides, my work has been inspired more by the proud tradition of Emma Goldman, Susan B. Anthony, and, strategically, Malcolm X and Abbie Hoffman. I believe that each of them would especially appreciate my tactics.
You exclaim, with a great rhetorical flourish, that when one idea is censored, then no idea is safe. Where, then, is your concern for the systematic silencing of women's voices, by any means necessary, that has always ensured the subjugation of women to men? What of the idea of women's freedom? What ethic would place any idea above equality and justice?
- The silent, smiling model, peering out from the page, selling the toothpaste, the magazine, the car, the lifestyle -- she knows what censorship really is. The pornographed model, a woman in chains, gagged, spread-legged, mouthing words that she never spoke, "Oh, I love it when you hate me so much." She also knows.
- The prostitute who says, "He raped me, but the law will do nothing for me" -- she knows censorship in a way that no white man could ever know.
- When The Man says "you suck my dick or I'll kill your puppy," the child swallows hard and forgets her childhood and becomes a shadow of herself: she, too, knows what censorship really is.
- The woman who is told that she talks too much whenever she dares to open her mouth knows what censorship really is. So does the activist who cannot afford to print her leaflets.
It is easy to silence women: criticize those working inside the law, criticize those working outside the law. I think you did that. Ridicule them. Call them prigs, say they're angry, uptight, fascists, sick, weird, bitter, ugly, lesbians, fat, and -- god forbid -- man-haters or anti-male. Your friends and colleagues do that. Chuck, you say that one thing people can do is to challenge what others say about women: When people tell lies about anti-pornography activists and other media critics do you?
It is legal to silence women. Always refer to he and forget she. Keep women out of the constitution and the penal code -- all too often the "penis code." My temporary release from Whatcom County Jail reads: "You are hereby authorized to release him from custody."
Deny women protection under the law. In a society where the right to sue is as sacrosanct as male privilege, do not allow women to redress our grievances in court, even when we can prove that we have been harmed by pornography. Deny that this harm even exists. I believe you did this.
You warn us that there are no quick fixes or magic cures. I do agree. Then you kindly give us a few suggestions: write letters to men in power -- beg them for better laws -- but only the legislation that you agree with, of course. As paternalistic as your suggestions are, I'll grant that it is more than most First Amendment Fundamentalists will offer. Many scream that women must be silenced so that the First Amendment and free, unfettered expression of male misogyny can prevail. Period. No discussion. But surely somewhere in this discussion of the bookstore's so-called "right" to sell, the consumer's "right" to buy, the publisher's "right" to publish and the author's "right" to speak, there must be some talk of the responsibilities involved therein: a recognition of the fact that hate-speech does real, tangible harm to real human beings.
There must also be a recognition of the rights of women as a class not to be portrayed as sex slaves and the property of men, whether it be in Esquire, pornography, or advertising. Surely you recognize that there are long-standing, highly respected limits to speech -- limits founded on the idea that some speech is harmful to others. The law protects what it calls "intellectual property." There are laws against slander and libel. Private property rights and even trademark laws often limit the free speech of political dissidents. The kind of extreme sexism published by Esquire slanders women as a class. What is needed now is class action.
Your suggestions, which you admit are "only starting points," are activities that I have done on a daily basis for two decades, activities that women have done for generation after generation. Yet, in 1990, as if we had only just begun to fight, you have the gall to characterize our call to civil disobedience as a "first action." It's nice to know that Village Books stocks an exceptionally good women's section. Perhaps the co-owner should browse there now and then.
It takes less time than I have been allowed in the law library while incarcerated in the Whatcom County jail, researching the past and present atrocities that have been and are still being committed against women, to learn that we have been fucked in more ways than one.
Women, in case you have not noticed, have reached the end of our rope. It's time, don't you think, that you liberal white boys let go of the leash?
In the last century there has been a considerable analysis of oppression and exploitation by those who struggle against it. Frederick Douglas probably explained it best when he said: "The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those they oppress."
You have said, Chuck, that "Nikki Craft knew the consequences of her actions and she hopes the costs were worth it. So do we." Three weeks -- even if it had been months -- incarcerated in Whatcom County Jail to take responsibility for the crime of destroying $11 worth of magazines is a small price to pay, knowing the consequences of not taking action.
Death to the Partriarchy,
Whatcom County Jail
With special thanks to Lucy Colvin, Pete Steffens, Stephen Paskey, Sharon O'Connell and David & Joan Pollack.
Above Photo: Myth Whatcom County Beauty Pageant Protest, Bellingham, Washington, May 21, 1990 by David Pollack.