Easy Chair — From the July 2017 issue

Occupied Territory

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One morning, as I walked on the quiet, mostly wooded King Mountain trail above San Francisco Bay, a dog not much smaller than I and possessed of much sharper teeth made straight for me, growling. I tried to get away; it butted me roughly. When its owner came around the bend with a second dog, I said, the snot from the first still gleaming on my pants, “You need to keep your dogs under control.” “My dogs are under perfect control,” the woman replied with asperity. The point was clear: She could control them but didn’t care to. She didn’t share my belief that a person should have exclusive jurisdiction over her body.

Indignant, I strode away through the live oaks and the bay trees and the coyote brush. My mind was on its own track. Decades ago, I spent several minutes with my left thigh inside the jaws of a boxer, an episode that left me jumpy about dogs in the same way that a series of threats and assaults has left me anxious about strange men. The encounter on the trail hadn’t just alarmed me—it had offended my principles. I passed by wood ferns, maidenhair ferns, sword ferns, without seeing them. All power, I reflected, can be understood in terms of space. Physical places, as well as economies, conversations, politics—all can be conceived of as areas unequally occupied. A map of these territories would constitute a map of power and status: who has more, who has less.

At the start and end of that particular trail, you can look out across the bay to San Quentin State Prison, whose old stucco walls from that distance can look inappropriately idyllic, shining golden against the blue water. Up close, however, the penitentiary—the oldest in California—is a grim, ramshackle place, draped in razor wire and surrounded by gun towers. Every so often, I go inside those walls to visit Jarvis Masters, a writer who is doing his third decade on death row for a crime that the evidence convinces me he did not commit.

When I went earlier this year, Masters and I sat in the little cage into which prisoners are always locked with their guests. After an hour and a half or so, I needed to leave, but nobody came to usher us out—the staff were busy with the basketball playoffs, Masters told me. A further sixty minutes passed before a guard arrived to perform the elaborate rite of departure. Masters, in a familiar routine, turned around, put his hands behind his back, and was cuffed and led away; I was allowed to exit the cage on my own, then buzzed out at the fortified doorway and released into the open air. Masters was amused at my impatience—I’d been delayed by a mere hour, he pointed out; he’d been delayed more than thirty years.

On the trail, I turned away from the view. There are two kinds of borders: those that limit where we can go and those that limit what people can do to us.

Masters, who is confined to a cage most of the time, has a knack for calling me when I’m out in the world and reminding me, simply with his presence on the phone, of my considerable freedom. As it happens, he called me on January 28, when I was at the international terminal of the San Francisco airport. I was protesting, along with more than a thousand other people, the executive order Donald Trump had just signed, a week into his presidency: “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” The order summarily denied people from seven countries, all of which have majority-Muslim populations, the right to enter the United States. The administration’s rationale was that these people posed a threat to the safety of U.S. citizens, but the measure was clearly just the first part of a broad campaign to expand the space available to a select group of people while curtailing that available to everyone else. As human rights lawyers circulated inside the terminal, the rest of us filled the road outside, blocking it to through traffic to protest the blockage of the travelers, some of whom had been caught midair when the order came down and were now being held at the airport. I put my phone on speaker so Masters could listen to the crowd shouting and chanting. He was delighted—for the duration of the phone call, he was part of the multitude.

It felt strange to be, for that brief time, a bridge between a person who couldn’t get out and others who couldn’t get in; it felt good to be in a throng of people who wanted to aid and support the latter. One of the fundamental arguments in this country is about whether there’s enough to go around, about whether we can lift everyone up, to use one spatial metaphor—or, to use another, whether we must live by a sort of lifeboat ethics, not letting certain people on, as if there were room only for a few. At our best, we invite people into spaces that belong to us and defend their right to sovereignty over their own. At our worst, we invade or shut out, whether by land grabs or street harassment or travel bans.

Many men and white people fear that they are on the losing end of social change. The anxiety is at once well founded—after all, moving toward equality requires them, us, to cede territory—and wrongheaded. It is an analysis predicated on scarcity, on the notion that abundance depends on exclusion. Why consider this a zero-sum game? Must one person’s gain be another’s loss?

The King Mountain trail is in a part of northeastern Mount Tamalpais where the wealthy locals haven’t yet restricted access by preventing street parking near trailheads. The route traversing this foothill of Mount Tam is circular once you summit a steep and sometimes muddy fire road, and a sudden right turn onto a narrow trail leads into the forest. Repeatedly, the trees thin and a vista appears, then they close in again, enfolding you in green shade and the world nearer at hand. This opening and closing of vistas is one rhythm of the trail; the other is its undulations uphill and downhill after the initial ascent. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a rapist and serial murderer known as the Trailside Killer roamed the area, one of myriad assailants who curtailed my sense of freedom as a young woman. He, too, is now a death-row inmate at San Quentin.

You can start at any point and make connections that constitute a story about where we are and why, though the pursuit of those connections can feel like bushwhacking through a thicket. Yet there are a few clear trails, a few undeniable facts that shape our experience. Some of my freedom comes from my race. Jarvis Masters is black; I am white. The writer Garnette Cadogan, who is also black, responds quizzically when I talk about hiking and camping, because he feels unsafe in such spaces—wide open, but not to people like him. However, he often walks all night around New York City alone, an unthinkable exercise for me. My race and gender determine the borders I can cross, the places I can go, just as yours do for you.

Feminism has long been a campaign to open closed spaces—to provide women access to education, employment, political power, to enable us to move freely in the world. And to close spaces that groping bosses and domineering husbands have historically treated as open. Misogyny is territorially expressed in ways both trivial—men manspreading, say, or monopolizing the conversation—and violent. What is a rape but the insistence that the spatial rights of a man—and by implication all men—extend to the interior of a woman’s body, the insistence that her rights don’t extend even over her own person? As Danielle L. ­McGuire relates in At the Dark End of the Street, her counterhistory of the civil rights movement, for centuries Southern white men used the rape of women to intimidate black communities. The fight against sexual violence and interracial rape “became one crucial battleground upon which African Americans sought to destroy white supremacy and gain personal and political autonomy.”

Rape is a common tool of war and even of genocide. During the recent conflict in Sudan, for example, it has been documented that mass rape has been used by the Janjaweed to torture and intimidate the population. Women have been beaten and taunted with slurs such as “I will give you a light-skinned baby to take this land from you,” according to a 2007 report by Refugees International. But the women were also vulnerable to being punished and stigmatized by their own communities. In Syria, the threat of rape is among the reasons some families have fled their country.

Just as fear of assault keeps women out of too many spaces too much of the time, whether it be the corner store at midnight or the wilderness alone, the threat of hostile entry of bodies can define the space that entire groups are allowed to occupy; an attack on an individual can lead to a collective retreat, on a scale that ranges from a neighborhood to a nation.

The domination of space by the powerful might be called structural violence. We are still a nation that, despite the lip service to representative government and equality under the law, has never managed to elect a governing body that is remotely representative of the population. Around 70 percent of Americans are not white men, but about 80 percent of Congress is, as were forty-four of our forty-five presidents. Our only non-white president saw his right to govern continually challenged, notably by baseless charges that he was born overseas, a proxy for the sense that he could not possibly claim legitimate ownership of the seat of power, did not belong inside the institutions he presided over. Though the views of politicians vary, and certainly some endeavor to represent the interests of people unlike them, a case can be made that equal people would take up equal space in government.

Even when women do rise to power, their right to occupy that arena is contested in any number of ways. Exclusively male for almost two centuries, the Supreme Court is still two-thirds male. (The first two women on the court have numerous stories of the obstacles placed in their paths.) Male Supreme Court justices interrupt their female colleagues three times as often as they interrupt one another, according to scholars Tonja Jacobi and Dylan Schweers, who observe that this is not merely unpleasant for the female justices—it is consequential. Not being given room to speak often prematurely terminates a person’s arguments and renders her less effective in shaping the course of justice.

When I was young, some people argued that women were fundamentally better than men, kinder and less bellicose, and that governments led by women would be less inclined to aggression and invasion. Others cited conservative, hawkish female politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi to disprove the claim. (Today, of course, we have Marine Le Pen and Ivanka Trump among the women who support right-wing policies and are, like conservative blacks opposed to affirmative action, useful counterweights to any argument that demographic differences matter.) You can argue either side: We won’t actually know what women might do with power until they’re a majority in the House or the Senate or the Supreme Court, though there’s evidence that it might lead to change.

Worldwide, women hold barely more than 20 percent of parliamentary seats—a vast improvement that is nevertheless inadequate and changing so slowly that at its current rate another half-century may pass before parity is reached. In no country do women constitute a legislative majority. Political scientists Tali Mendelberg and Christopher F. Karpowitz found that it was only when women were a majority in decision-making bodies—when they made up 60 to 80 percent of a group—that they spoke up as much as men and were heard. Under these conditions, they tended to emphasize the needs of the vulnerable and to argue for redistribution of wealth. But equal space and equal security should not be considered rewards for virtue; they are rights in and of themselves, unrealized in innumerable ways as yet.

Almost twenty years ago, while taking care of a friend’s dog, I took the animal out for a stroll. Along the way, three tall young men came walking directly toward us, a situation in which I always give way, step aside. But I had a pit bull on a short leash. I walked right through those men like Moses parting the Red Sea. I never tried that again, but I never forgot what I learned in that moment: So deeply had I known who owned the sidewalk that I’d always yielded, without even noticing. Since then, I’ve read accounts of trans women who found, after their transition, that they were constantly bumping into people or being bumped into—as women they no longer owned the right of way.

As a child, I somehow absorbed the idea that getting in the way of other people or wasting their time was a terrible offense. I have been scrupulous about standing to the right on escalators, not blocking aisles, not showing up late. Underlying my anxiety are implicit assumptions about whose time and space matters, perhaps matters more than mine. Yet in recent years I’ve become overloaded with work, and a contrary impulse has taken hold of me: to move as fast as possible through crowds or traffic, sometimes through conversations and social obligations. When Jarvis laughed at me for being anxious about an hour’s delay, he wasn’t thinking about the press of deadlines and obligations hanging over me, or rather hovering behind me, urging me onward. It’s easy to see how readily this feeling of urgency could become a sense that everyone else is in your way, that your rights and needs matter more—could become, ultimately, the sort of self-absorption that renders others invisible. To believe that my important business is more important than others’ is the path of entitlement, the antithesis of any ideal of equality.

As a writer, I’ve been given more and more space to occupy, and my voice reaches further and further. The only justification I can think of for such disproportionate influence is to use it to advocate for others, to invite in those who have been excluded. And to listen, because when you’re not a conduit you may as well be a dead end. The woman I met on the trail with the dog was approximately the same race, age, gender, and, presumably, class as me, yet we disagreed profoundly about the one thing we discussed. As my own status has risen and shifted, I’ve felt the pull of something that isn’t exactly conservatism but may fuel it. Sometimes the force you need to resist is yourself.  

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