Phones Imperil the Powerful

Womenspace has closed its walk-in center, focusing its intake resources around its 24-hour crisis line. Intervention against domestic violence and the constellation of related services Womenspace has provided Lane County since 1977 are more needed than ever. So why close the walk-in center? Domestic abuse hasn’t changed, but the telephone has. Womenspace’s hard decision points out a worldwide cause for optimism.

Every autumn, Bill Clinton’s Global Initiative gathers world leaders to survey the planet’s future prospects, both good and bad. Reports often focus on the dangers ahead, but that’s only half their work. Positive developments have gotten less attention than they deserve.

No. 4 on this year’s optimism list was the expanding opportunities for women worldwide. Voting rights in Rwanda won’t help a woman in Junction City who fears for herself or her children, but skip to the top of this year’s list. Clinton’s No. 1 reason for optimism for the world is the availability of cell phones and the empowerment they bring.

Anyone who keeps their power by controlling others has reason to fear how cell phones are changing the world. Husbands prone to violent rages are no different than Middle East dictators in this regard.

Not very long ago, controlling the wires was all it took to control the people. But no more. A woman seeking protection can make a phone call now from the bathroom or a street corner or during a grocery trip. There is no wire that can be cut.

Invisible connections are strengthening all around us, but we don’t see them. A disabled car on the side of the road now prompts passersby to offer the use of their phone to a stranger. The same happens routinely on a bus if somebody seems lost or disoriented. Anyone who demonstrates a need in public is almost automatically offered a phone to make a call if they need one.

Violent crime rates have plummeted in the United States over the past decade, but prognosticators have been stymied to explain it. (Historically, crime and unemployment rates track on similar trajectories.) Theorists have credited the removal of lead from our environment, high incarceration rates, even the Supreme Court legalizing abortion nationwide 40 years ago. Cell phones are seldom mentioned, but they should be.

Never has so much empowerment been added so quickly to so many purses and pockets.

Four years ago, I visited a refugee camp in northern Iraq, near their border with Turkey. About 100 families were living in dozens of Red Crescent-provided tents. Their only running water was a nearby stream, but each tent had a cell phone tied to the center pole. Gasoline was trucked to this remote location to power small generators for recharging phones and radios.

Controlling connected people always has been difficult. Not long ago, an employer could be guaranteed a worker’s undivided attention for eight hours straight by forbidding personal calls while on the job. Now bosses have to watch for downward glances during staff meetings. Employees may be ignoring that Powerpoint budget graph, instead swapping text messages — possibly with one another. Plotting against the powerful is now that easy.

Potential clients for Womenspace’s services sometimes have the strength and opportunity to act, but only for a moment. Making a phone call — even from a borrowed phone — is the necessary first step. On the other end of that call will be a well-trained volunteer who knows how to react if danger is imminent.

Psychologists who study trauma have learned that a person in the midst of a crisis needs a solution, not a choice. We normally love choices, but the question 911 operators hear most often is “What should I do?” Even more often, it’s not a question at all: “Just tell me what to do.”

Womenspace now can publicize their number as the singular first step.

Sure, it would be nice if the Womenspace walk-in center could remain open. We miss phone booths and Fotomat kiosks too, but things change — sometimes for the better.

That’s exactly what women who feel trapped in their homes need to know.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs. The Womenspace crisis line is 541-485-6513 or 800-281-2800.