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Tech Giants, Free Speech and Hate: Where Do We Go from Here?



Mourners and passersby left flowers and messages of support and love at the intersection of Wilkins and Murray Avenues about a block away from where the attack on Tree of Life Synagogue took place Saturday, October 27. Photo: Justin Hayhurst/100 Days Appalachia

In the past few weeks, America has experienced the deadliest anti-Semitic terrorist attack in its history, the largest political assassination attempt recorded when pipe bombs were mailed to prominent members of the Democratic Party, and the murder of African American grandparents by an avowed white supremacist at a Kroger. Two of these events– the shootings at a synagogue in Pittsburgh and a grocery store in Louisville– happened in the heart and on the outskirts of Appalachia.

This comes after the country experienced its deadliest high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, its deadliest mass shooting at a country music concert in Las Vegas and the hate-fueled assassination of nine African Americans during a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. All of these events happened in just the past four years.

Many recent American terrorist attacks have shared something in common: killers who were radicalized, at least in part, online. For years, extremist groups around the world have used social media networks both to connect with people who share their ideology and to recruit people who may be sympathetic to their beliefs. And now, Americans are seeing the results of homegrown terrorists who use the internet both to become radicalized and to radicalize others.

On Saturday, October 27, Robert Bowers posted on the social media network Gab that Jewish refugee resettlement nonprofit HIAS “likes to bring invaders in that kill our people.” He continued, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Two hours later, 11 people were shot and killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Prosecutors have charged Bowers with their murders. At the top of his Gab profile were the words, “jews are the children of satan.”

Gab, was founded by Andrew Torba, an avid Trump supporter who says he launched the site because of perceived liberal bias on larger social media sites. Since its inception, Gab has been a favorite of alt-right extremists. Although nothing in the site’s policies references the alt-right or white nationalism, its 2017 annual report brags about having “over 50 million conservative, libertarian, nationalist, and populist internet users from around the world” and notes that “[t]hese users are also actively seeking alternative media platforms like,, [and],” three other websites known for promotion of white nationalism.

The day before the Pittsburgh massacre, Cesar Sayok had been arrested in Florida, after allegedly attempting to mail bombs to at least 12 high-profile reporters, liberal activists and Democratic politicians, including Pres. Barrack Obama, George Soros, Hillary Clinton, New York Times reporter Sarah Jeong, and Parkland survivor David Hogg. He had posted numerous threats on Twitter, including, “Your Time is coming,” “Your days are over,” “your next,” and “Hug your loved ones real close everytime U leave your home.” He repeatedly hurled threats at one target at a time, before moving on to the next.

As more details come to light on these men’s internet lives, more people are asking the question — Should tech companies be doing more to shut down hate speech on their platforms?

After Saturday’s massacre at Tree of Life and the revelation of Bowers’ posting history, other tech companies quickly severed ties with Gab. Over the weekend, Gab was removed from app stores, payment processors and hosting providers. By Sunday night, Gab was forced offline. This “de-platforming,” said Gab, was a violation of its right to free speech.

To a growing group of people, mostly on the right, silencing hate speech has become akin to censorship and is perceived as a violation of their First Amendment rights. A growing number of right-wing politicians and pundits have jumped into the debate, with people like Ted Cruz joining the likes of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones in equating the enforcement of community guidelines in digital spaces as an act of “tyrannical censorship.”  

The alt-right uses these opportunities to stroke fears of censorship. “If it happens to us,” they ask, “could you be next?” Phrases like “the First Amendment” and “my right to free speech” are often thrown around.

Unfortunately for those who believe any of this is connected to the First Amendment, internet companies silencing hate speech has nothing to do with the constitutionally protected right to free speech. Actions by private companies, by definition, do not violate the First Amendment.

The First Amendment is a limit on the government.

The First Amendment states:

Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Over the centuries, and because of additions to the Constitution, the Supreme Court has found that the First Amendment also applies to state and local governments and the other branches of the federal government, in addition to Congress. But the key is that it only limits the government.

All “free speech” has limits.

Even the most ardent defenders of free speech rights admit that the First Amendment has limits. The Supreme Court has always recognized that certain categories of speech are exempt from protection. These categories include including child pornography, “true threats,” and speech that is both intended and imminently likely to incite violence. This is because these types of speech can have serious, even deadly, consequences, while adding little or no value to public discourse.

For all of its railing against censorship, even Gab has censored users. In August, after Microsoft threatened to drop Gab from its hosting services, Gab removed anti-Semitic posts from a high profile Neo-Nazi who said that Jews should be raised as “livestock’ and he wanted to destroy a “holohoax memorial.” Child pornography has never been allowed. And Utsar Sanduja, the now-former Gab COO, reported threats he received on Gab to law enforcement. These, too, are limits on speech.

Private companies have First Amendment rights, too.

After their site went down on Sunday, Gab implored Trump take action on their behalf, via tweet:

Ironically, this tweet asks President to violate the First Amendment rights of companies that no longer want to do business with Gab.

With the exceptions of protected classes like race, sex national origin, religion, and disability status, contained in civil rights laws, businesses and people have a constitutional right to choose with whom they do business. Anyone may legally refuse to do business with others who, for example, traffic in hate speech or violent rhetoric. People, businesses, and organizations all have a right to free speech and free expression. The President stepping in to force companies to do business with one another would violate their First Amendment rights.

Gab is gone (for now), but the underlying problems still remain.

Social media networks don’t exist in a vacuum. Before PayPal and Stripe terminated their relationships with Gab, they processed payments for them. GoDaddy previously hosted both Gab and Dylan Roof’s white supremacist manifesto. And without app stores and hosting providers, websites that relish in hate speech could cease to exist.

It’s easier to be hateful on the internet than it is in person. But hateful and violent rhetoric don’t end when we close our web browsers. As hate speech has increased online, it has also increased in our daily lives. And as hate speech increases in our daily lives, so do hate crimes. Not only are hate crimes in general on the rise, far-right extremists have nearly three times as many terror attacks in the United States as Islamist extremists.

The digital connection to hate is not a new phenomenon. For years, tech companies have been fielding complaints from users about hate speech and threats, with little to no action — or worse, the wrong action. Facebook’s Community Standards and and Twitter’s Rules both purport to remove threats of violence and hate speech, but a quick search on either platform for a racial slur or demeaning term for a woman will show that many such posts remain. But it doesn’t stop there. Facebook has also determined that it is “hate speech” to say “men are trash” and “men are scum,” and routinely bans women for such comments, which are picked up automatically by an algorithm. And yet the racial and ethnic slurs remain.

What tech companies say.

Tech companies give a number of answers when asked about content moderation after attacks like the ones we have experienced recently. Facebook, while continuing to expand as fast as it can, says there are just too many users and posts to catch all hate speech and threats. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, known to Twitter users as @jack, is frequently tagged by users who are asking him to ban Nazis. In 2017, after outcry over the growing number of vocal white supremacists, Twitter decided to give users more characters for their display names. (Yeah, I didn’t get it, either.) Many Twitter users responded by using their additional characters to protest and ask Jack to remove hate speech, with usernames like “Would Prefer You Ban Nazis” seen across the site.

Some even go as far as to invoke the Civil Rights Era, when the government and KKK alike used violence and intimidation to stifle the speech of protesters and activists. Many argue that censorship is a slippery slope, and what is done toNazis today could be done to Black Lives Matter tomorrow. After a number of large companies refused to continue to do business with Neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, resulting in its temporary demise, internet civil liberties organization EFF put out a scathing statement, stating, “In the Civil Rights Era cases that formed the basis of today’s protections of freedom of speech, the NAACP’s voice was the one attacked.”

Is it really that hard to moderate violent content?

In a word, no. Tech companies could, and should, do much more to stamp down violent rhetoric. Arguments that it will be too time-consuming and expensive for social media websites to police their users in this way often ignore that these companies already have software to filter out hate speech — they just don’t want to use that software here.

After World War II, many European countries enacted laws making it a crime to deny the Holocaust happened. Violation of these laws can result in criminal penalties and hefty fines.

This past summer, after Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg came under fire for comparing Holocaust denial to simply being mistaken, Germany quickly reminded the tech giant that Holocaust denial is a crime in Germany. German Justice Minister Katarina Barley tweeted, “There must be no room for antisemitism. Verbal and physical attacks are part of that, as well as denying the Holocaust. The latter is being sanctioned here and is being persecuted consistently. #Zuckerberg.” Under German law, social media networks are required to remove flagged content within 24 hours of receiving a report. When it comes to Holocaust denial, rather than removing the posts entirely, Facebook simply uses geotagging software to make those comments inaccessible in countries where they constitute crimes. Any argument that it would be too expensive, or too complicated, to ban hate speech in the United States is refuted by the fact that the software already exists and is used across the European Union.

It’s not as difficult to protect historically marginalized groups as some would have you believe. For example, there is no civilization on Earth where women are not marginalized and discriminated against. There is no country on earth where LGBT people are not discriminated against. Refugees and asylees are, by definition, persecuted. Identifying these groups, even across cultures, is not difficult.

Violent racism, anti-Semitism, and all manner of hate crimes are on the rise. We’re living in a time where hatred and nationalism are globally on the rise, in a world where people can use Facebook to incite genocide, and in a country where terrorist attacks and mass shootings are regular occurrences.

Slippery slopes are rightfully terrifying when they come from the government, which has the power to deprive people of their liberty. But for individuals, distinguishing between Nazis and civil rights activists shouldn’t be difficult.

We shouldn’t have to wait for mass murder for tech companies to take responsibility for the proliferation of hate speech and threats of violence on their platforms. In this moment, tech companies have a chance to take actions to try to stop violence and radicalization.

If tech companies don’t want blood on their hands, they have an obligation to do a better job of monitoring, and not just monetizing, the content they host. If the powers that be find this task to be too difficult, perhaps they should not be the ones in charge.

So, what’s next?

I’ve been politically engaged for most of my life. Until recently, I never seriously worried about Nazis in the U.S. Now, a former leader of the American Nazi Party is running for Congress near my hometown of Wonder Lake, Illinois. This Nazi, and many others like him, use social media to disseminate hate.

The way that companies like Facebook and Twitter currently operate puts much of the onus on the site’s users. Most posts have to be reported by users in order to be removed (although the platforms have repeatedly come under fire for failing to remove hate speech and threats even after being reported by users).

The most effective way to get tech giants to sit up and listen is to hit them in the pocketbook. For many, just leaving social media together may not feel like a viable option. Social media websites can be incredible tools to connect loved ones and share news about important events. Journalists, activists, and politicians rely on social media networks to connect to people. But leaving isn’t the only way to have an impact.

Increasingly, users have launched successful protests by targeting the money behind the problem, alerting brands when their ads appeared in sites carrying sexist, racist or anti-Semitic content. Breitbart quickly lost a number of advertisers in 2017 when a social media campaign targeted companies like Mercedes-Benz and Nordstrom for putting their money there.

If users want tech giants to start to listen to our concerns, we have to hit them where it hurts the most: in the wallet.

Jamie Lynn Crofts is a constitutional and civil rights attorney in Charleston, West Virginia. She is a graduate of Northwestern Unversity School of Law, a former federal judicial law clerk, and previously worked as the Legal Director for the ACLU of West Virginia.

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Who’s More Compassionate, Republicans or Democrats?



An anti-abortion advocate in Jackson, Mississippi, March 2018. Photo: Rogelio V. Solis/AP

It’s a common refrain of American voters: How can your party be so heartless?

Democrats want to know how Republicans can support President Trump’s policy of separating babies from refugee families. Republicans want to know how Democrats can sanction abortion. But does either party really care more about compassion?

In my research into the public’s support for a variety of government policies, I ask questions about how compassionate someone is, such as how concerned they are about others in need.

These questions are integral to understanding how people feel about who in America deserves government support.

Some people are more compassionate than others. But that doesn’t break simply along party lines.

I find that Democratic and Republican Party voters are similar, on average, busting up the cliché of bleeding heart liberals and uncaring conservatives.

And then there are Trump voters.

Supporters hold up signs before a rally with President Donald Trump in Tupelo, Mississippi, Monday, Nov. 26, 2018. Photo: Thomas Graning, AP.

Beyond partisan stereotypes

Compassion is defined by many psychology researchers as concern for others in need and a desire to see others’ welfare improved.

The similarity in compassion among voters of both parties contrasts with other measures of personality and worldview that increasingly divide Republicans and Democrats, such as values about race and morality.

Republicans are not less compassionate than Democrats, but my research also shows that there is a stark divide between parties in how relevant an individual’s compassion is to his or her politics.

Public opinion surveys show that you can predict what kind of policies a more compassionate person would like, such as more government assistance for the poor or opposition to the death penalty.

But for most political issues, the conclusion for Republicans is that their compassion does not predict what policies they favor. Support for more government assistance to the poor or sick, or opinions about the death penalty, for example, are unrelated to how compassionate a Republican voter is.

In my work, I find that the primary policy area where compassion is consistently correlated to specific policies for conservatives is abortion, where more compassionate conservatives are more likely to say they are pro-life.

Democrats predictable

When Democratic voters say they are compassionate, you can predict their views on policies.

They’re more supportive of immigration, in favor of social services to the poor and opposed to capital punishment.

Yet, while Democrats may be more likely to vote with their heart, there isn’t evidence that they’re more compassionate than Republicans in their daily life.

When it comes to volunteering or donating money, for example, compassion works the same way for Republicans and Democrats: More compassionate voters of either party donate and volunteer more.

Presidential candidate George W. Bush in 2000 made ‘compassionate conservatism’ a major campaign theme. Photo: Thomas Graning, AP.

The real difference

My research suggests that voter attitudes about the role of compassion in politics are shaped not only by personal philosophy, but by party leaders.

Political speeches by Republican and Democratic leaders vary in the amount of compassionate language they use.

For instance, political leaders can draw attention to the needs of others in their campaign speeches and speeches on the House or Senate floor. They may talk about the need to care for certain people in need or implore people to “have a heart” for the plight of others. Often, leaders allude to the deserving nature of the recipients of government help, outlining how circumstances are beyond their control.

Democratic politicians use compassionate rhetoric much more often than their Republican counterparts and for many more groups in American society than Republican leaders do.

Do citizens respond to such rhetoric differently depending on what party they affiliate with?

When their leaders use compassionate political language, such as drawing attention to other people’s suffering and unmet needs as well as the worthiness of the groups in need, Republicans in experiments are actually moved to be more welcoming to immigrants and to support state help for the disabled.

This explains how Republican voters responded positively to Republican Sen. Robert Dole’s campaign for the rights of the disabled in 1989. It also explains the success of presidential candidate George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” in 2000, which one Washington Post columnist wrote “won George W. Bush the White House in 2000.”

It also suggests that it’s not necessarily the public, but the party leaders, who differ so significantly in how relevant they believe compassion should be to politics.

Families with young children protest the separation of immigrant families with a sit-in on July 26, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo: Thomas Graning, AP.

Trump supporters the exception

Despite political rhetoric that places them at opposite ends of the spectrum, Republican and Democratic voters appear to be similarly compassionate.

Democrats view compassion as a political value while Republicans will integrate compassion into their politics when their leaders make it part of an explicit message.

There is a caveat to this: I asked these survey questions about personal feelings of compassion in a 2016 online survey that also asked about choice of president.

The survey was conducted a few days after Republican presidential primary candidates Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio had dropped out of the race, making Donald Trump the only viable Republican candidate for the nomination.

In their responses to the survey, a large percentage of Republican voters said they would rather vote for someone other than Trump, even though he was the unofficial nominee at that point.

The Republican voters who didn’t support Trump were similar to Democrats on the survey with respect to their answers about compassion. Their average scores on the compassion items were the same. This is in line with the other survey data showing that liberals and conservatives, and Republicans and Democrats, are largely similar in these personality measures of compassion.

But Trump supporters’ answers were not in line with these findings.

Instead, their average responses to the broad compassion questions were significantly lower. These answers showed that Trump supporters were lower in personal compassion.

While a lot of the Republican voters in the sample may well have gone on to support Trump in the general election, the survey respondents who were early adopters of candidate Trump might continue to be his most steadfast supporters today.

We know that public officials’ rhetoric can influence public opinion on political issues. This leads to another important question: Can political messages influence how much people value compassion more generally? Or even how compassionate people consider themselves to be?

The research indicates that appeals to compassion – if made by trusted leaders – should work for voters of both parties.

But it also indicates that if such messages are absent, compassion is less likely to be seen as important in politics and the positions people and parties take.

Meri T. Long, is a Lecturer of American Politics at the University of Pittsburgh.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The ‘Hard Truths’ of Dismissing Rural Philanthropy



Independent libraries, like this one in New Mexico, are becoming anchors for new local economies built on food, culture and recreation. Photo: Shawn Poynter/The Daily Yonder

Rural communities are creative and resourceful when it comes to community development. They have to be. Foundations that avoid rural investment are missing opportunities for innovation and success.

Eduardo Porter’s recent New York Times piece, “The Hard Truths of Trying to Save the Rural Economy,” is misguided and patronizing, even if his intention is not. Unfortunately, he is not alone as an urban-based influencer who passes judgment on rural places from urban bubbles. Large national and regional urban-based philanthropy also can be misguided and patronizing.  

Just as Porter has no rural experience but somehow believes he has the answer for the poor rural folk, our experience in working and observing 25 years of philanthropy across the country has too often seen these large urban funders dismiss the relevance of rural America as places for philanthropic investment, or importantly, for advancing strategic thinking in the field. And like Porter’s admission of lack of context for his already formed rural perspective, big philanthropy continues to be influenced by staff and boards without rural experience or curiosity, but with already formed answers on why rural isn’t worth the investment. 

During the past summer and fall, our team embarked upon a journey around the country to take a look at how rural funders and rural communities were working hand-in-hand toward advancing solutions to the some of the most critical issues affecting their communities — childcare, obesity, immigration, community infrastructure, equity. What we found were examples from which city folk would be wise to learn.  

In rural New Hampshire, we saw early childhood educators from rural places working with state-level experts to build a stronger field and influence state policy for the better, with investment from the Endowment for Health. We learned how multiple nonprofit partners in the small city of Waterville, Maine, are using funds from Maine Health Access Foundation to transform the area’s food systems, replacing food insecurity with greater self-sufficiency. In Eastern Washington, we saw how Empire Health Foundation leverages more than $100 million in public and private funds to create regional networks that do everything from reducing obesity by replacing preprocessed school lunches with scratch-cooked ones, to helping families in the child welfare system heal faster, to ensuring that Native American tribes control their own pathways to better health.  

We also saw examples of how wise philanthropic investments in rural places led to increased economic activity. Throughout Northeast Iowa, small towns are using funding, connections and influence from the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque to create new markets for alternative energy systems and for cultural and environmental tourism. And in some of New Mexico’s smallest rural hamlets, independent community libraries – yes, libraries – are becoming anchors for new local economies built on food, culture and recreation: work in which Con Alma Health Foundation has chosen to invest.  

Underlying all these investments is the fact that rural communities, even those of just a few hundred people, are often intensely creative and resourceful when it comes to solving their own problems. They have to be. In every case, the biggest contribution by funders wasn’t the money so much as the belief in rural communities and the space and structure in which rural residents can put their heads together to develop new ideas and innovative approaches.   

What successful urban investors learn here in rural America is the power of true community, working side-by-side with those around you, despite physical, economic or ideological differences. Only here can a funder, a guy from the auto body shop, a kindergarten teacher, and the leader of the church auxiliary meet on equal footing and share power — preferably as they’re sharing Monday’s red beans and rice special at the local coffee shop. This is the root of deep community development and connection that urban-based funders can only dream about.  

Once we understand the drive, cooperation and commitment that is embedded in rural American life, it is impossible to hold Porter’s “truths.” Nor should we. In philanthropy – where urban funders so often talk of “community based strategies,” “systemic change,” and “equity” — dismissing rural is extremely short-sighted.  

Allen Smart spent more than two decades in leadership roles with rural funders in the Southeastern U.S. before launching RuralwoRx, a national consultancy aimed at increasing and improving rural philanthropy across the country.   

Betsey Russell is a writer and philanthropy consultant. She has written a novel, Other People’s Money, which she describes as a “philanthropic thriller.”

This commentary was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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Failure Was What I Needed Most



Crossovers, Greenbrier Roller Vixens team practice, December 2013. Photo: Diana Clarke

This piece was originally published in Scalawag, which amplifies the voices of activists, artists, and writers reckoning with the South. You can read the original here.

Follow the Greenbrier River down from its headwaters at the north end of Pocahontas County, West Virginia, where the East and West Forks merge at Durbin. Meander with it south, past Hosterman, Cass, Stony Bottom, and Clover Lick. This is the longest unblocked river east of the Mississippi. As it rolls lower, it skims the base of Droop Mountain, then crosses into Greenbrier County. Thirty road miles later, the Greenbrier takes a sharp left under the bridge at Ronceverte. This is where we bear right, and head into the brief grid of residential streets between the water and a steep slope.

Here, under fluorescent lights at the Lions Club gym on North Avenue, I spent September 2013 learning to fall down.

When I arrived at my first practice with the Greenbrier Roller Vixens (now the Greenbrier River Rollers), I was sick with heartbreak and couldn’t stay upright on a pair of skates. I didn’t speak about the heartbreak, but I couldn’t hide my lack of skill. In my first months on the track, I slammed over and over again into the floor of the basketball court, skates flying out from underneath me. “That’s alright,” my teammates told me, “the way you hit the ground is great. Minimum impact on your joints, a quick stop. The rest will come.”

It did. I practiced skating, falling, hitting. And from my first week on the team, I was included, radically and completely. The Roller Vixens assumed that if you wanted to be there, you belonged.

The New River, Hinton WV, shot while getting lost on the way to a derby event, December 2013. Photo: Diana Clarke

In a derby match, called a bout, the crucial thing is to land well and get up quickly, because a skater on the ground is, legally, an obstruction, no longer in play. If someone from the opposite team trips over the fallen skater, it’s a foul, and the fallen player will get sent to the penalty box for a low block. A bout lasts an hour and is composed of two-minute jams. In the course of those two minutes, each team’s jammer will try to bust through the pack of blockers first, then whip around the track as many times as they can. After the first loop around the track, a jammer’s team wins points based on the number of players from the opposite team that the jammer manages to pass.

Mostly I played blocker, settling into position with three of my teammates at the start of a jam, locking hip to hand to shoulder. Our main job was keeping the other team’s jammer from getting ahead of us while helping our own jammer through. Our secondary job was causing havoc, intentionally or by happenstance, for the blockers on the opposing team.

Often I blocked with Ziggy, or Jac, or Bombshell. Ziggy frequently played the informal role of lead blocker, wearing the pivot panty on her helmet to indicate her status, calling out plays and instructions to the rest of us, and skating backwards when necessary to act as the apex of an especially effective three-pointed block. Ziggy is a lawyer by day, and as a blocker she was a master strategist with a keen ability to shift tactics on the fly. Jac was the team’s anchor; off-court, she acted as its good-natured mayor, organizing us to skate in a Christmas parade and jump in the river at Blue Bend for the annual Polar Bear Plunge. Bombshell veered from enthusiasm to anxiety, bringing her full self to each bout. She was the one who levelled with me about how long it might take to skate well enough to play, and she cheered the hardest when I finally did.

But it was Peaches-n-Scream who gave me my player number when I became a bout-eligible member of the Roller Vixens. A nurse and parent of four children, Peaches had an easy, unflappable way with people – except for referees, who often sent her to the penalty box when she cussed them out for a bad call. Teasing me mercilessly and lovingly for my big chest (Is that why I was off balance all the time, so easily knocked over?), Peaches asked for my bra size when I passed my skills test. Soon after, the back of my brand new jersey read “30G.”

When he found out I was skating roller derby, my friend Harley fished dozens of pairs of old-fashioned skates out of a dumpster in Lewisburg and left them on the porch of my trailer, January 2014. Photo: Diana Clarke

Roller derby is primarily played by women (an identity I shared at the time I skated with the Vixens, though I no longer do), and it is visceral, violent, and very fast. Every week, my most skilled teammates pushed themselves to do better, to circle the track faster, to hit harder, to stay upright longer, and to get up quicker. Hard and soft, ambitious and welcoming – how can roller derby be all these things at once?

Skating fast on the track, to hurt someone or knock them over, you have to get right up next to them, toppling their body using the force of your own. It’s incredibly intimate, and freeing, to know that, on skates, your trajectory is bound up with your opponent: the momentum of taking down another skater might knock you over too.

Racing to knock a jammer out of play, I fell and I broke my coccyx twice. My teammates dug up a pair of padded shorts for me, and I kept skating, kept falling, obstructing the opposing team and clearing pathways for our jammers to get through. For a full year, my hips and thighs were covered in bruises. I never stopped falling, but I learned to get up faster, and once I had wheels underneath me, I knew how to move.

Roller derby challenged me to fail (fall) at a time when I was torn open with sadness and ignorant about asking for help. And it required me to see falling (failing) as an essential skill, a tactic necessary to win. My friend Laura later introduced me to the Jesuit theologian Richard Rohr, who writes about the idea of falling upward, of growth made possible only by reckoning with our shadow selves – with shame, hardship, and vulnerability. I’m Jewish and I’m from Massachusetts, but West Virginia roller derby saved my soul.

Skating in formation. Greenbrier Roller Vixens team practice, December 2013. Photo: Diana Clarke

When I joined the Roller Vixens, I was doing the ongoing work of recovery from an eating disorder, and I was newly naming my queerness. I was learning to appreciate my body for what it could do, instead of for how little space it could take up, and I imagined that I might find queer community on the team. There were some other queer and trans people on the teams I skated against, but on my home team I found something I didn’t even know I needed: a community of women where anger was permitted and explicit, where catharsis was collective, where violence was celebrated on the track and then left there. I watched a teammate break an ankle during a bout as she took a fast turn and got caught between skaters from the opposing team. I watched the game halt while every player took a knee so medics could get to her. (Revisiting this memory in 2018, I’m struck by the solidarity and the unanimity in this gesture, and the way a similar gesture in football, used to protest police brutality towards Black people, has been met with shame and exclusion.) A few months later, I watched the injured player step shakily back onto skates, then help us win a game. I hadn’t imagined that caring relationships could be so physical, that belonging could feel so implicit.

Off the court, the Roller Vixens held each other’s hardships both with intensity and a casual ease. They cared for each other’s children, vented about the ordinary and crushing pressures of making a living in West Virginia, and offered meals and couches when home was too far away after a long bout. They held a fundraiser when a teammate’s child was hospitalized, and they offered advice to a new mom who had recently graduated high school and whose mother also skated on the team. Every question of survival was welcome. To be perfectly honest, I found making conversation on that team really difficult, but conversation wasn’t the point. My body knew it was safe there, knew that I was safe.

If you live outside of Upper Appalachia, then you might not know that the state of West Virginia, with a population of just two million people, supports eight major roller derby teams.

When West Virginia is covered in the national media, it’s usually because of a “natural” disaster. The chemical spill on the Elk River, which originates in Pocahontas County; the flooding of the Greenbrier the following year. Coal mining, for which the state is best known, is a long slow disaster in its own way. In a place that’s been handed so much harm, roller derby matters because it provides a concentration of catharsis.

In the course of writing this piece, I spoke to a number of former teammates who described the ways, that roller derby provided community they didn’t have elsewhere, or a space to take out anger that was unacceptable in other areas of their lives. How it allowed them to address harm, loneliness, and trauma – a catharsis just as powerful, but more intimate in scope. The track gave trans woman players a space to claim their gender, and my friends who had experienced assault an opportunity to articulate power in their bodies. My friends who felt isolated got to work collectively, and my fat friends got to take up all the fucking space they wanted.

By the end of my year on the team, I had, finally, quit communicating with the former partner I was so heartbroken about. I was eating when I was hungry, and speaking my queerness in public. I was exploring sitting in silence on the bench because conversation wasn’t necessary. What would it mean to believe I was wanted without having to perform intelligence, without having to entertain? Why was playing this game, which I was never especially good at, so much more healing than telling stories to myself or my friends or in my journal, again? What good is it to try writing about this experience in which words failed me, where failure was what I needed most?

I’m scared to make this sound like I’m healed, or like I’ve figured anything out. Even when when my team had won a bout, there was always another one to play. With healing, too, there’s always more work to do, even if it’s not work as we’re taught to think of it. The work of healing, as I experienced it in roller derby, is the work of physical play, of holding each other, skating fast, knocking each other down on the track. It’s a way to learn that falling is safe and recovering from it is possible. Trauma lives in the body, in community, and healing must live there too.

What if the work of healing must be collective, and ongoing? What would it look like to build a community in which all our bodies are loved and necessary, in which the harm we’ve experienced can be turned into collective physical force that allows us to win? Roller derby allowed me to start asking questions, but it doesn’t answer them, or even finish the conversation. Whose body is safe on the track? Whose body is able to be there? Who gets to live on the land where harm happened? What harm does the land carry in its own body, and what do we risk when we let that land carry us?

Author’s Note: “With tremendous gratitude to all my teammates, who shared their stories with me for this piece many years after they taught me how to skate.”

Diana Clarke grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Haudenosaunee and Osage land. They are a doctoral student in History at the University of Pittsburgh, and a managing editor for In geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies.

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