Some further thoughts on Omar Hamed, abuse and the response to it

This post is a follow up to the Open Letter About Omar Hamed that I posted on this blog yesterday.

Omar had been living in Wellington in 2010, working for Unite! Union and being politically active in Socialist Aotearoa (SA). He had displayed a pattern of abusive behaviour throughout the year, and despite being challenged by a number of people, including friends of his, he had refused to even genuinely acknowledge that his behaviour was unacceptable, let alone change it.

At the end of the year, Omar moved back to Auckland, where he continued (and still continues) to work at Unite! and be a part of SA. A number of the people in Wellington who had worked to both challenge Omar’s behaviour and to ensure that people who interacted with him knew about it were extremely concerned that Omar would not simply be able to return to Auckland and continue the same pattern of behaviour that he exhibited in Wellington. In order to prevent that from happening, a small group of us in Wellington (including me) wrote the open letter back in February/March of this year.

On March 11, and in the days after, we sent the letter to a wide range of individuals and groups (mostly in Auckland, but also other parts of the country) who we knew or thought were likely to have interaction with Omar. We had a few responses, including from some Auckland people who said they would try to work with Omar to get him to sort his behaviour out. As far as I am aware, these people were forced to give up after Omar repeatedly refused to engage in any real sense with them.

A couple of days ago, Omar was prominent in the occupation at the University of Auckland (UoA). He spent much of the time controlling the megaphone, and was also shown and interviewed in the media reporting of the event. Several Auckland activists who knew of Omar’s abuse were understandably angry/upset/worried about this [For example, see the post Students; please learn]. In support of their efforts to get the We Are The University group (who organised the protest) to address the issue of a known abuser holding a prominent position in their activities, and in order to help ensure that people involved in the UoA struggle knew about Omar’s past, myself and another of the authors of the open letter decided for the first time to publish the letter publicly – on the 3 blogs that we are involved in – Anarchia, Capitalism Bad; Tree Pretty and The Hand Mirror. We also posted links to the open letter in several Facebook discussion threads related to the issue.

In the 6 months between sending the letter out and posting it publicly, we recieved no formal response from either Unite! or SA, the two organisations Omar has the most involvement with. Informally, SA as an organisation has consistently shown itself to be interested in covering for and covering up Omar’s behaviour (some individuals within SA have tried to challenge Omar, and should be recognised for that). Even yesterday this continued – I posted a link to the open letter on the SA Facebook page, but this morning it was deleted and the page settings changed to disallow posting from all accounts except the official SA account.

The main reason I’m writing this post is to respond to a few of the most frequently heard things from this whole saga. Some come from when people were challenging Omar in Wellington, others are from responses to the open letter being made public. The thing they all have in common, however, is that they all miss the problem. So, to make it clear:

Abusive behaviour is the problem, not challenging it. The fault lies with those perpetrating abuse, not with those they abuse or those challenging their abuse. What is needed is for the person who engaged in abusive behaviour to a) stop, b) acknowledge what they have done, c) work to ensure it never happens again and d) respect the wishes of people who no longer feel safe/comfortable around them.

Fallacy #1: Making these issues public needlessly divides activist movements

See the first part of the paragraph above: “Abusive behaviour is the problem, not challenging it.” An activist movement that welcomes abusers is one that is already divided. Is it really unsurprising that many women (and others) won’t feel safe or welcome at an occupation when one of the most prominent people at that occupation has a history of sexual assault?

Challenging Omar’s behaviour does not distract us from the struggles that We Are The University exists to fight. Omar’s presence in these struggles prevents involvement in these struggles (to various extents) from a number of people.

In looking at issues of abusive behaviour, it is vital that we do not place blame on those who make us look at what may feel to some people like uncomfortable truths. It must always be remembered that what causes people to speak up about abusive behaviour is the existence of abusive behaviour. If you don’t want the former to happen, we need to work towards the elimination of the latter.

Fallacy #2: This issue is between Omar and the authors of the open letter

It has been suggested that this could all be “resolved” in a meeting between the authors of the open letter and Omar. This could not be further from the truth.

Firstly, the authors of the open letter all challenged Omar’s behaviour (in a variety of ways) while he was living in Wellington. His responses are detailed in the open letter, but suffice to say he refused to genuinely acknowledge that what he had done was wrong, or to commit to changing his behaviour to ensure it did not happen again.

Secondly, and more importantly, this fallacy implies that the issue is between the authors of the open letter (on one side) and Omar (on the other). It is not a personal squabble between people, but rather a small group of people challenging the behaviour of a person. This situation won’t be resolved by us making up with and forgiving Omar – it can only be resolved by Omar taking the steps I listed above: “a) stop, b) acknowledge what they have done, c) work to ensure it never happens again and d) respect the wishes of people who no longer feel safe/comfortable around them.”

Omar has repeatedly engaged in manipulative behaviour to attempt to avoid being challenged on his abusive behaviour. To some people who have challenged him, he has appeared apologetic, sometimes even pretending to acknowledge that what he has done was wrong. His continuing the same patterns of behaviour, and his abusive behaviour towards people who challenge him that he doesn’t feel able to manipulate, however, clearly show that any admissions of wrongdoing are not genuine, and only serve to further give him breathing room to continue in the same pattern of abuse.

Additionally, those who call for a meeting such as this assume that all those who wrote the open letter feel safe and/or comfortable around Omar. The last time I saw Omar, he was being physically ejected from a party he had been repeatedly told he wasn’t welcome at, after he had tried to physically attack me. He was screaming “The next time I see you, I’m going to kill you!” Now, as it happens, I’m not personally particularly afraid of him following through on his threat. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that I have very valid reasons for not wanting to be in the same space as him. Some of the other authors of the open letter may feel the same or similar, but I wouldn’t presume to speak for them without asking.

Fallacy #3: There is no reason to air these issues in public, it could all be resolved by private emails/phone calls/discussions

Some people have taken issue with the fact that the open letter has now been posted publicly. In response to that, I offer two words:

Six months.

It has been six months since the letter was sent to you. Six months for you to respond. Six months for you to ensure Omar doesn’t have a prominent and public space in your organisation. Six months for you to challenge Omar’s behaviour. Six months for you to stop sheltering him. Six months for you to support other people challenging Omar. Six months, in short, for you to have done something. So don’t try to say it should have stayed private.

The best assurance of safety is for those who might interact with Omar to know about his behaviour. The best way to make Omar change his behaviour is to ensure he can’t go anywhere without being challenged on it. Both of these require the history of his behaviour to be made public.

Further, the lengthy period of time detailed in the open letter is unlikely to be the start or the end of Omar’s history of abusive behaviour. Publishing it may allow other women who have been abused by Omar to come forward and let it be known, or at least to know that they aren’t alone, and that there are people out there who support them, and are working towards ensuring that Omar isn’t able to hurt anyone else.

 

There is so much more I could say about this, but for now I will leave it here. My final thought on this is a massive outpouring of solidarity and support to those up in Auckland who have challenged, and continue to challenge, Omar’s behaviour since he moved back up there.

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18 Responses to Some further thoughts on Omar Hamed, abuse and the response to it

  1. maria says:

    This is a great post – I have heard about these issues only from this side so I am still reserving judgment on Omar, but the problems I had with it becoming so public have been addressed, and I support the publicity. Nevertheless, I hope it doesn’t damage the causes he is involved with.

    Last thing is, I’d like to point out again that those six months nothing has been done is pretty abominable, but not to tar the ‘we are the university’ group – people in there have been shocked to hear about this and are currently working out solutions and processes to dealing with this.

  2. [...] Anarchia has written a great post on Omar, his abuse and various responses to it. I recommend taking a read, and if your involved in organising in NZ, to take it seriously. [...]

  3. Tania says:

    Thank you for posting your thought on your blog, which I came across through a link on FB.

    I just can’t help but feel that it is terribly one sided and non-objective (as you are welcome to be on your own board), but I am inclined to add my two cents, if I may.

    My problem with this whole issue is this ongoing online flaming and I am terribly disappointed at what is being done to actually address and solve the problem, rather than the ton of verbose complaints that has arisen to stress and amplify the apparent seriousness of this problem.

    As is so stereotypical of anarchist organizing, there is lots of talk, but no real solutions.

    So this begs the question:

    What do you want from Omar? an apology? compensation? state your demands openly and demand that they be met.

    Secondly, I think that it seems like you have (inadvertently or not) put Omar on a pedestal of leadership for this movement.

    Isn’t that what you’re meant to be NOT doing, as an anarchist?

    And by repeatedly vilifying Omar as the leader of the student campaign, don’t you think you are invisibilizing the efforts of dozens of countless Others who have worked hard all day and night for the campaign, sacrificing sleep, health and rest to pound the lecture theatres everyday leafleting, lecture speaking, flyer printing, postering for the campaign?

    Don’t you think you are being unfair to everyone else who has worked hard for the campaign by focusing on Omar alone? Shame on you!

    FACT: there are at least 3 or more key people organising and leading the university protests. I know for a fact that when the group met with the AUSA, the person who was the most vocal and stood out was NOT Omar, it was Jai

    I can’t help but think that this whole backlash from Omar’s chequered past is now tainting the Auckland University students’ campaign.

    FACT:
    The campaign is NOT an *anarchist/socialist/indigenous-rights/revolutionary* campaign. It is simply a University based campaign, with 3 key messages:
    a) the passing of VSM
    b) the VC’s commercialization of university life – by taking away academic staff’s conditions, and university wide clampdown on student meetings, on various bureaucratic pretences.
    c) rising fees

    So I think you are also being unfair to the Others who have worked hard to set up a campaign, many students here have no anarchist or socialist sympathies or intentions – most of them just want the University to stop commercializing and to start paying attention to students’ needs and interests.

    Most of the organisers have little to no socialist or anarchist activist backgrounds – many organizing for the first time, even.

    Think you overstate your case, and in doing so marginalize the voices of the students who no real interest or regard for Omar and his tribulations.

  4. Mikey says:

    I think these are very valid points. And I think discussion and open airing is all good. What I have a problem with is that whenever I have seen this situation occur within the activist scene, and I have seen this sort of response to it, I have never seen any positive result come about. I have to wonder if there is some better way to deal with this issue than what comes across as public demonizing, as valid and justified as that demonizing may be it simply makes me feel uncomfortable and automatically step back from the situation altogether.

    I haven’t seen this approach ever result in anything positive for the activist community, or the persons involved, perhaps that is a sign that another approach needs to be thought of. I don’t know what that approach is, but I’m certain there are persons outside of the activist movement with skills in these areas that perhaps should be learned from.

    That’s just my two cents.

  5. DG. says:

    What do you want from Omar? an apology? compensation? state your demands openly and demand that they be met.

    It says pretty clearly in the original letter (linked at the top of this post). Check out the bullet points near the bottom.

    Secondly, I think that it seems like you have (inadvertently or not) put Omar on a pedestal of leadership for this movement.

    Asher just says,”A couple of days ago, Omar was prominent in the occupation at the University of Auckland (UoA). He spent much of the time controlling the megaphone, and was also shown and interviewed in the media reporting of the event.” Is any of this factually incorrect? (Hint: it’s not). It pretty clearly indicates Omar’s “prominent position” in the organising of the WATU campaign.

    And by repeatedly vilifying Omar as the leader of the student campaign, don’t you think you are invisibilizing the efforts of dozens of countless Others

    What are you talking about? This post is about Omar and his behaviour. What have any of those people got to do with it? Nobody has described Omar as the “leader” of the WATU campaign except you.

    Don’t you think you are being unfair to everyone else who has worked hard for the campaign by focusing on Omar alone? Shame on you!

    It’s a criticism of Omar’s behaviour. It would be pretty unfair to all those people to talk about them when the direct topic at hand doesn’t really have all that much to do with them (except inasmuch as they work with Omar).

    I can’t help but think that this whole backlash from Omar’s chequered past is now tainting the Auckland University students’ campaign.

    So… you’re saying that airing this in public is going to hurt the movement? You know, that sounds familiar…

    Think you overstate your case, and in doing so marginalize the voices of the students who no real interest or regard for Omar and his tribulations.

    If people are going to be around Omar, it’s important that they be aware of his pattern of behaviour.

  6. Asher says:

    Maria – First up, thanks :)

    Secondly, for sure, I know that there were a large number of people involved in the struggle up at UoA who didn’t know about Omar’s past. Obviously, the We Are The University group didn’t exist when we sent the letter out back in March so they didn’t recieve it then. I know some people involved in the UoA stuff did know about Omar’s history, and some have tried to challenge him at UoA previously (see the Students; please learn blog post that I linked to in my post above for example) which is awesome. Great to hear that people involved are organising a response and I’d love to hear what comes out of this – either on this blog or via email :) And obviously if there’s any way I can assist from down here just let me know.

    ———————

    Tania – “What do you want from Omar? an apology? compensation? state your demands openly and demand that they be met.”

    This has been done repeatedly. Firstly in personal interactions between the authors of the open letter (and many others) in Wellington with Omar when he was living here. Secondly when we sent the open letter out 6 months ago. And now here again. As I said in my post above: “What is needed is for the person who engaged in abusive behaviour to a) stop, b) acknowledge what they have done, c) work to ensure it never happens again and d) respect the wishes of people who no longer feel safe/comfortable around them.”

    Omar has not done any of the above things. In fact, these issues were mostly being ignored by people that knew about them in Auckland and continued to work with Omar without challenging his behaviour. Making Omar’s behaviour public over the last few days on blogs & facebook has forced some people to stop ignoring the issue, and hopefully that will help pressure Omar into acknowledging his behaviour and fixing it.

    I’ve got no doubt that there are a lot of good people putting in a lot of good work into the UoA campaign. It certainly wasn’t my aim to make their work invisible, and if any of them feel that I have then I apologise for that. But, in my mind, I can’t see how this has happened – I’ve barely mentioned the UoA campaign. The only reason the UoA campaign is relevant here is because Omar was publically prominent in recent days – spending a good chunk of the occupation on the megaphone and doing media interviews. This is obviously extremely problematic, in that it shows he is still welcome at activist events, which by default means that a lot of people conversely are NOT welcome at these events – people who have been abused by Omar, their friends and supporters, and people who know of Omar’s behaviour and don’t feel safe around him.

    “most of them just want the University to stop commercializing and to start paying attention to students’ needs and interests.”

    Surely a key interest of a student struggle is to make that struggle open to as many students as possible. Having someone publicly involved who has a history of abusive behaviour, including towards fellow UoA students, goes directly against that.

    ———————–

    Mikey – Like you, I’ve seen a number of instances of sexual assault / abuse / rape within activist communities over the years I’ve been involved. And I agree that often the response to these from the radical communities/organisations/individuals has been poor. We aren’t experts, but we can learn from our mistakes (and I know that I personally have made many, in the various community responses I’ve been involved with over the years). Though, having said that, I should note that 2 of the people in Auckland who attempted to challenge Omar and work with him to sort his behaviour out after he moved back up are professionally trained in this area and do similar work for a living, so there are some people who could be classed as experts.

    But, and this is a pretty big but, the main factor I see that has prevented most (not all) of the men who have engaged in abusive behaviour from acknowledging it and sorting themselves out IS NOT the community responses. The primary factor is the fact that they have not been willing themselves. All the brilliant community response in the world won’t be enough to produce a positive result if the person who has engaged in abusive behaviour isn’t even willing to do admit they’ve done wrong.

    Too often, men who have engaged in abusive behaviour are able to avoid being challenged – some have moved to different parts of NZ or overseas, others have dropped out of political and/or social circles, others still have managed to keep a segment of their political communities onside who will defend them against those seeking to challenge their behaviour.

    Perhaps the primary lesson I take from all this is that silence is deadly. The reason people are able to avoid being challenged is often because they surround themselves with people who won’t challenge them, and people who don’t know about their past behaviour. By being open and vocal about instances of abuse, we can at least remove the people who don’t know about the behaviour from the equation.

    ——————

    The last thing I want to note in this comment is around the issue of Omar’s presence hopefully not meaning that we discount the struggles he may be present in.

    Obviously, I would say this is important, but equally it is a personal decision what people participate in and not wanting to be around / not feeling safe around Omar is a perfectly legitimate reason not to attend a protest / be involved in a group where Omar might be present.

    If people feel comfortable to though, of course they should continue their involvement – Maia talks about this a bit in relation to Omar and other abusive men who were among the defendents in the Operation 8 case in the comments of her blog posting of the open letter – http://capitalismbad.blogspot.com/2011/09/open-letter-about-omar-hamed.html#comments

    Likewise, I had similar issues around Operation 8. Another example is the industrial struggle of the workers at JB Hi-Fi in Wellington, who went out on regular strike action for months. I went along to a number of these pickets even though I knew Omar would also be there in his role as a Unite! organiser (the workers were Unite! members).

    So yes, it may be possible to continue involvement in a struggle, but it is JUST AS VALID a choice not to, if being involved would mean being in a space where one didn’t feel welcome/comfortable/safe.

  7. Maia says:

    Tania I want to address two different ideas that you put forward two different ideas that you put forward. The first is that Asher, or any other writers of the letter, have the power to provide solutions to the problems of Omar’s behaviour. The letter was an explicit recognition of that – this was the most we could do. I would like Omar not to behave in a sexually predatory way. I don’t want anything more from him than that – certainly not an apology or compensation – the letter was particularly clear on that.

    Second you seem to think that this is directed at WatU – the letter certainly wasn’t – it was written before WatU was formed. You are assuming a lot of criticisms of WatU that Asher is not making.

    Maria – I know how hard it is to be part of a political whirlwind like WATU – where things are really exciting, because so much is going on – but there’s huge amount to do. I haven’t commented on that before, because there is so much I want to say about how important it is, but I have tried to be involved down here in Wellington, and I fully support student fightback.

    Mikey – Like Asher I have also seen a lot of shit in ‘community processes’. I may write a very long blog post of what I’ve learned from that (short version: Support survivors, and the only other thing we can do is speak out about what happened). No one I’ve met actually knows how to respond well to abusive activists, and that’s really hard to deal with (including professionals).

    DG – exactly

  8. ludditejourno says:

    Asher – wonderful and clear. Much respect. The limits of community response in a situation where someone will not acknowledge their ongoing abusive behaviour are to name, refuse to condone, try to inform so as to prevent possible future abuse, and support those who have been abused. The original letter and the ongoing discussions here and elsewhere are working towards all of those things. Thank you.

  9. Kim says:

    Kia ora Asher, this is a great post. it’s sad/ outrageous that it has come to the point when so publicly outing Omar’s behaviour is the best option.

    reading the comments, Maia and Asher have covered most of the points I would make. Except in response to Mikey–I have seen positive results from outing people who are behaving in abusive, sexually exploitiative/ violent, misogynist ways.

    One positive result is that at least we know about it–women are safer if they know that Omar doesn’t care about consent, that it is not safe to be drunk around him, or alone with him. It may not seem like much, but it is something.

    Another is that at least one woman who felt shit because of Omar’s abusive, sexually exploitative/violent, misogynist behaviour, feels a little better (m, who commented on maia’s post on thehandmirror).

    Another is that, by talking about consent, men who are confused about what is or isn’t abusive behaviour (because they’re surrounded by the messages of a rape culture) may be a little clearer.

    Another is that men who don’t care about consent will see that other people do, enough to publicly shame them if they abuse or sexually exploit/ violate women.

    These are real and positive results. I am so relieved that there are people brave enough to persist with this. ka nui te mihi ki a koutou.
    Kim

  10. Mikey says:

    Thanks Asher and others who commented. Definitely appreciate it. And when I thought about it more after posting I realised that I seen positive things occur in the past, maybe not perfect results, but at least positive. I’m personally struggling to understand what makes me feel so uncomfortable when tackling issues like this, and I think your replies have helped me a bit with that. I guess part of it for me is just not knowing how to act. I can think of at least 5 situations where activist friends of mine, some rather close to me, some who I even lived with, ended up carrying out sexual assault on other friends, or just plain assault of their partners, and I have always found it hard to know how to approach.

  11. [...] Asher has written a lot about people’s responses to the statement. [...]

  12. Reader says:

    This issue reminds me of something Martin Pugh wrote about fascism: Fascism “is frequently defined in terms of negatives: anti-Communist, anti-liberal, anti bourgeois. But on the positive side fascism exalted the authority of the state against what it regarded as a divisive and outworn individualism; it emphasised loyalty to the group, the promotion of national unity, belief in generating national consensus, and the cult of leadership. Although obviously hostile to democracy, fascism cannot simply be equated with tyranny or dictatorship, for it sought to channel popular emotion into support for the great leader and into building national unity.”

    This concept of generating an ecstatic group consensus and passion for a charismatic leader sometimes feels uncomfortably close to the form of leadership present in groups like GPJA, Mana, and other socialist groups, which is surprising to me. I don’t understand how it is that groups naturally coalesce around a radiant male figure but it obviously isn’t a good idea; even though I think many of the male authority figures in these groups seem like excellent men, the potential for problems is clear. What I don’t understand is how to solve this problem.

  13. [...] sidebar with relevance to this aspect, it is suggested in some quarters that Mr. Hamed is more dangerous to activist Left women than he is to the status quo). Audio of cluster fire (cluster fire is the [...]

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