Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, abolitionist, anarchist who likes the letter A

Archive for July, 2012

Some Thoughts on the GA Prisoner Strike

July 30, 2012 By: Mel Category: Criminalization, Seeking, Stratification

Sadly, most people don’t seem to be paying much attention to all the prisoner strikes that have been happening across the country. In Georgia, two prisoners went without food for more than 47 days. You really need to watch this video.

One of the things that struck me about that interview was the part at the end where Bruce Dixon talks about how it is not just race but also class that increases a person’s chances of being in prison.

African Americans, who are one eighth of the nation’s population, make up over forty percent of this nation’s prisoners. Latinos, who are another one eighth, make up an additional thirty percent and their numbers are climbing. So that means that between blacks and Latinos, who make up one fourth of the nations population, are three fourths of its prisoners…

Back in the days of Jim Crow, Jim Crow was inflicted on all black people regardless of class.  The enormous numbers of African Americans who are in prison now are not your African Americans who have been to college. A college educated black man now stands perhaps one third the chance of going to prison than he did 25 or 30 years ago. Whereas a young black man who is a high school dropout has six times the likelihood of going to prison than he did 30 years ago. So the prison state visits its afflictions upon us not just based on race but by a combination of race and class. The prison state targets lower economic class blacks and Latinos.

In The South it is a little different too. I should say. I’m from Chicago, from The North. When you go to the criminal courts building in Cook County in Chicago you hardly see a white face. In The South they actually do

lock up white people – poor white people – but there is a significant percentage of whites in the prisons in Georgia. Lastly I should say too that there are white prisoners among the leaders of this prison strike and the hunger strike. The prisoners standing up for their rights are black, brown and white –  something which is the opposite of what we hear or think of when we think of prisons in the United States. Prisoners are standing together across those lines.

At one of the events I was at about mass incarceration, someone asked how to get white people to care. Of course, by white people, they meant a certain kind of white person. Michelle Alexander responds to a similar question during this talk as well.

As an advocate, I had thought of my job as how do you persuade kind of those mainstream white voters to think differently. And much of advocacy has been geared towards (civil rights advocacy I mean) has been geared towards how do we make that group of people think differently and care about our issues, our concerns, and our needs. Well I think at this stage of movement building, my own view, is that the first order of business is how can we get our communities to care about each other. That the first order of business is consciousness raising and developing a sense of care, compassion, and concern within the communities most affected by it before we really even begin to address kind of those mainstream white swing voters that we are ultimately going to have to persuade through our advocacy work. And I say this in part because one of the things that I have been really struck by in my own work on these issues is that, with Jim Crow, African Americans were stigmatized, but they had their own businesses. They had their own churches, theaters, workplaces. There was a sense of solidarity within the community. There was a degree of racial solidarity and community. Well mass incarceration has turned the black community against itself, has turned communities of color against itself. And I think we first need to begin to build unity and a common understanding of the nature of this system and kind of an agreement of what must be done about it.

She goes on to talk about lessening the stigma in communities and working with former prisoners and their families. I agree with her for the most part. But I’m not sure that Alexander focuses enough on class when she is thinking about what needs to be done. What I mean is, she does not say that there is a class divide that needs to be bridged when you are talking about getting communities of color to care.

She also completely misses talking about what people in prison can do, are doing, and have historically done. And just like in that Attica uprising in 1971, the Georgia prisoner strike cuts across racial divides. All white people are not middle/professional/managerial class swing voters. There are a lot of “poor white trash” out there that are directly affected by the system. When people talk about how to get white people to care, they seem to write those people off. We’ve been so convinced that poor white people are hopeless.

We should be paying attention to these prison strikes. They are a very important part of how we are going to end the prison state. We also need to be careful when we talk about the most affected. We need to consider that those people are going to look different in different places, that class is a major factor in incarceration, and that classism is a major obstacle to ending it. We shouldn’t just write off the poor white people who are targets. And we sure as hell shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that those liberal, white voters are going to be more likely to tip scales in the right direction. I think they are – for the most part – going to be dragged kicking and screaming.


More info on the Black Agenda Report

Activism and the Unbearable Dissonance

July 27, 2012 By: Mel Category: Change

Playa ChacalaI’ve been thinking a lot about why more people don’t get involved in activism. Which means I have been thinking a lot about what compelled me to get involved.

I’ve known that things were fucked up since I was a tween. I may have more data and a different analysis now, but the sense has been there for a long time. That sense didn’t lead to activism for me. Seeing so many of my young friends die and so many older people live miserable lives just led to drugs, angst, and a compulsion to have as much fun as possible before I died too.

I had no real conception of how things could be different, much less the steps that I would take to make it so. Over time that changed. Over time I began to have vague notions about how I wanted to live and how I wanted other people to be able to live. And I began to believe that it was actually possible.

It wasn’t how fucked up things were that compelled me to act. It was the unbearable dissonance between how things are and how things could be that compelled me.

Radicals often find ourselves preaching to the choir. The same faces show up for meetings, events and protests. We are constantly focused on educating people about the details of the great fuckedupedness. And we wonder why we can’t get more people interested. Do people not care? Do they not know? Are they scared?

Perhaps the problem is that the details are necessary when you are trying to figure out what to do. But if a person needs to reach the unbearable dissonance first then the details come later. The details are for people who have already decided they can’t live with things the way they are, people for whom activism is survival, people who already have some vision of what they want things to be like.

Which means the starting point is sparking the vision.

We can’t talk about prisons without talking about conflict resolution, restorative justice, and ways of living that wouldn’t push so many people into drug abuse, violence… We can’t talk about the economic system without talking about alternative ways of managing resources. People need something to fight for and not just something to fight against.

It also means we need to be very conscious of what kind of world we seem to want. When I looked at the occupy camps I always had mixed emotions. I appreciated that many people were discovering different ways of making decisions and interacting. But I couldn’t help wondering what people on the outside thought about a camp as a model. Most people in the world are trying not to have to live in tents without running water.

I feel equally ambivalent about blueprints of how we could live. I appreciate many of the ideas of participatory economics, but I also find the detail oppressive. Instead of blueprints or a visual representation of something that many people will not identify with, we should be like good writers.  A novelist doesn’t list every item in a room. They provide a few details and let the reader fill in the rest with their imagination, experiences, desires.

Once you have a vision, once you reach the unbearable dissonance, you really have no choice but to seek out the information you need. You are going to find ways to deal with fear and take risks. You are going to seek out the people that have similar visions and are confronting the same obstacles. You’re going to do something.

Things You Might Have Missed

July 25, 2012 By: Mel Category: Misc

Tequila ShotJust back from LA this morning where I learned far too much about Aaron Sorkin’s proclivities. I also learned that you can get a tequila shot and a beer for $4. Both kinda gave me a headache, but the tequila shots were way more fun.

Related to the above in ways that will make no sense to you, make sure to read Charles Davis’s piece in The New Inquiry about drones, Obama, and misguided kooky leftists who think they should actually care about that shit.

I suggest keeping this info on hand should you ever have a DC cop try to tell you that you cannot film them.

My friend Andy wrote an article about “the queer dimensions of D.C. punk’s.” It is a couple years old, but since I only just read it…

Looks like Pussy Riot got six more months. If you are in the DC area, there is a protest in front of the Russian embassy on Friday.

Turns out that Men Without Hats were wrong. We can’t dance if we want to.

I think it is more than a little weird to be putting pregnancy tests in bars so that women can see if they are pregnant before they start drinking. I mean isn’t it the drinking that often leads to the pregnancy? Somebody really needs to invent a contraceptive alcohol. What they should not have invented was a DSK “aphrodisiac beverage.” The rapiest drink around?

Have I mentioned lately how annoying Steven Pinker is? This post breaks down very nicely why his claim that violence has decreased is total bullshit.

Very interesting critique of The New Jim Crow.

From Washington DC to Zimbabwe sex workers are getting harassed by police. Laura Agustin adds some context.

And finally, you can keep up with the North Carolina prison hunger strike at the Prison Books Collective website.

Communication. Understanding. Action.

July 23, 2012 By: Mel Category: Seeking

One of my most deeply held beliefs is that people shouldn’t just jump into things without spending a lot of time understanding the situation. And that goes a bazillion times more when we are talking about the actions of activists who are working on issues that affect others more than themselves.

Perfect understanding is impossible. We can’t be paralyzed by our lack of it. But if you find yourself imagining how the most affected people might feel, pondering how to get them involved, or fretting about why those who were involved are not any longer…

For fuck’s sake! Stop what you are doing!

Yet, as deeply as I believe that, I found myself caught in rescue mode, providing life support for a group that no longer had any of the things that drew me to it to begin with. I’m ashamed that I didn’t see it sooner.

I’m still processing all the things that went wrong, but it is clear to me that we tried to skip right to the action part and neglected to build the communication and understanding that would have made it work. It’s always a difficult balancing act. The problems are so huge and so urgent that they just scream for action. And it is working with people that builds the kinds of relationships where communication, understanding and trust become possible. That pull towards a certain kind of action is hard to fight.

But we really need to fight it. Doing something is not always better than doing nothing. And building relationships is not nothing. In fact, it is the core of what we need to do – an almost impossible task when so many of us have been brought up isolated, segregated, mistrustful, and socially retarded.

In short, I fucked up and I am sorry. I’m particularly sorry to those people who have been waiting for me to fulfill commitments I made and then dropped because I was trying to rescue something that I shouldn’t have been.

Live and learn.

Dear Reformists, You’re Welcome

July 20, 2012 By: Mel Category: Core, Politics, Seeking

You're WelcomeThe problem with people who focus on reform is that they don’t seem to understand how reform actually happens. They want to focus on influencing the people in power by gaining access. That almost never leads to change, or at least not the kind of change that we need. Reform happens in one of two ways:

1. You find an insider who agrees with you and they perceive that they can do something without suffering any political consequences. That is incredibly rare. And the only things that don’t lead to political consequences, like a loss of political contributions, are things that are not going to significantly change our lives.

2. The people have already decided to ignore or challenge the rules and reform becomes self preservation. If enough people decide that they are not going to bow down to the powers-that-be then the powers have two options. They can increase repression or they can change the rules to reflect what the people have already decided to do. Otherwise, their power is completely delegitimized.

My aim is to delegitimize the state. If the state wants to make some reforms in order to hold on to power a little longer, and those reforms help some people, that’s cool. My aim doesn’t change. And since my aim is not reform, I am not going to stop pushing when reform happens. Reform is not an end, but a delay. That doesn’t mean we vilify reformists for delaying the evolution. The only way to ensure that we don’t replace a horrible system with an even worse one is to be patient enough to have most of the people on the same page. That takes time.

But reformists need to stop vilifying radicals as well. That isn’t only because of their misunderstanding of how change happens. It is also because they are not appreciating how much the uncompromising rabble-rousers outside help them. The more radical we are, the more reasonable they seem. The more reasonable they seem, the more access they have. Without us, the people who want to use “insider strategies” aren’t going to get a foot in the door.

Lets take the civil rights movement. The minds of people had changed. And the people most affected by racism decided that they were no longer going to obey. There were sit-ins, bus boycotts, freedom rides. And because so many people’s minds were already changed, many joined those first few. Now, not only was the United States embarrassed on a worldwide scale (claiming to be a beacon of freedom while attacking peaceful protesters with dogs and hoses), but they risked a complete breakdown of authority. So the laws changed. Do not kid yourself that they changed because of the huge heart of the people sitting in the Whitehouse. Perhaps other leaders would have chosen the full-scale repression route, but ultimately it was self preservation.

What’s more, the existence of more revolutionary groups pushed the state to work with the part of the civil rights movement that was asking for justice within the current structure (as opposed to the part that wanted to bring the whole thing down). While you could argue that the Civil Rights Act had serious political consequences for democrats, ultimately it legitimized the state. If you don’t believe me, try having a conversation with a liberal about social justice and why it was direct action and not something LBJ signed that ended segregation.

So next time some reformist gives you crap for being “unrealistic” or “not serious” or “naive” or some such bullshit just say “you’re welcome.”


Things You Might Have Missed

July 18, 2012 By: Mel Category: Misc

BDMS Piñata Says "Hit Me"That piñata is so great. If only I had a kids party to go to. What is inside, do you think? P.S. If you are ever bored at work, googling “BDSM Piñata” is hours of entertainment.

Three quarters of the world’s inhabitants now have mobile phones. That’s amazing. My tweet of that story led @KevinCarson1 to ponder the possibilities of “high-tech, networked insurrection.”  I’m more skeptical. I think that technology can be a useful tool, but that the core of organizing has to be built on much stronger, face-2-face relationships. Technology can also be used against us. How many of those phones are tracking our every move? What say you?

DC has an alternative currency called the Potomac that is really struggling to take off. I feel like if we followed the Colombian model things would turn around.

Also in Colombia, some indigenous people have had enough of the military and the FARC and decided to take matters into their own hands.  Perhaps they heard Chief Clarence Louie’s speech about not expecting the government to help them.

Honduras is not a good place to be a journalist.

Good summary of the key elements needed for managing the commons that Elinor Ostrom identified. On a related note, this two year study in Africa is interesting. I’d love some thoughts about the push for titles, often led by the most marginalized people, from an anti-private property perspective.

Really important brief on the criminalization of gay and transgender youth. This is not talked about enough.

I cannot wait to read this book about how the movement to address violence against women fed into the criminalization regime.

This is what happens when the authorities enforce anti-prostitution laws.

I know. I know. Too many petitions and you don’t believe they do shit. But sign this one anyway, if for no other reason than that ONEDC occupied a parcel of land long before the whole occupy movement thing started. And doing so really pissed off their fundors and made their lives a lot more difficult.

Tosh and the Problem with “Rape Culture”

July 16, 2012 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Stratification

Daniel ToshBy now you have no doubt heard that Daniel Tosh suggested it would be funny if a woman in his audience was gang raped and the internets are ablaze with talk of rape culture. I wasn’t planning on weighing in on this. Frankly, I just wasn’t that interested in the controversy. But since a friend of mine asked for my thoughts, here they are.

If Dave Chappelle can make slavery funny and Mel Brooks can make The Holocaust funny, then anything can be funny – even rape. In fact, since rape was a huge part of both, they kinda did. Comedians can be, not just the most incisive social critics, but true artists. An artist is someone who is able to turn something painful and ugly into something beautiful, thought provoking or challenging.

Tosh is no artist.

The problem isn’t so much the subject matter, but the fact that so much of our popular culture is designed for people who do not want to think and who have enough privilege not to have to. Sometimes it is asshats who entertain people by trying to be as offensive as possible. Sometimes it is What Not to Wear. We all need a little escapism, but that shouldn’t mean a constant stream of distractions to feed willful ignorance.

But to be honest, I am not much more impressed with the backlash against Tosh. Something always gnaws at me when I read articles about rape culture. It is that they so rarely make any connections between the rape of women by men and other forms of violence.

We live in a violent, authoritarian culture. The lower you are on the hierarchy, the more likely you are to experience violence. And if you want to gain status in our society, you do it by perpetrating violence. If you are a woman, black, brown, gay, trans, poor…abusing you is the means by which other people climb the ladder.

Every person who supports war, prisons, policing, and violent bonding rituals contributes to a culture of violence. Every person who admires someone because of their ability to perpetrate violence – whether it is a cop, a soldier, a street thug, or a movie hero – is contributing to the culture of violence that enforces our social hierarchies.

I am not saying that people should not talk about the specific ways that oppression manifests itself. It is a huge mistake to try to gloss over those differences in order to come together. When people say that we should just focus on how we are all oppressed as “the working class” or some other supposedly all-encompassing label, I always cringe a little. Efforts for unity without specificity always serve to do the opposite of what is intended. They erase people’s experiences and so end up dividing us more.

But neither can we speak about the specifics without making the connections. Rape won’t end if we speak about rape culture without connecting it to all the other manifestations of violence and subjugation. If we can learn to speak about how the systems affect us (making sure that the most targeted and erased people are front and center) and with an understanding of how things are connected, then we might start to get somewhere.

Encouraging (in)Visibility

July 13, 2012 By: Mel Category: Core, Seeking, Stratification

I am one of those people who would rather be in the coffin than delivering the eulogy.  I am also one of those people who takes a while to get to know someone, especially when I’m thrown into a whole group of new people. The result of those two things is that I am often “encouraged” to speak more in groups or on panels…

While I sometimes kinda sorta appreciate the sentiment behind it, mostly I get pretty fucking irritated.

Much of this “encouragement” comes in the form of “we need more women’s voices,” as was suggested to me in the context of the criminal (in)justice committee. That’s true.  But women aren’t interchangeable. We don’t need just any woman’s voice. We need the women who are most affected by the issues we are talking about.

There are women out there who have been in prison. There are women out there who have been taking care of their kids, their brother’s kids, and their neighbor’s kids while everybody else is in prison. And they have been doing it making poverty wages, living in low intensity conflict zones, and completely erased from the public eye – unless it is to vilify them as crack whores or welfare queens.  Those are the women who need to be heard and who probably have a damn good idea of what needs to be done.

And even when people are seeking out the women who can actually speak to the issue in question, their participation is just a diversity box that people are checking off.  It is infuriating when someone suggests that “gender balance” has been addressed by having one woman on a panel full of dudes, as someone I was working with recently claimed.

Admittedly, even under circumstances where I should speak more, I don’t do it. I realize that is a problem. And while there are plenty of men out there who also hate being the center of attention, it seems to be something that the women I know struggle with more.

We are socialized in a way that encourages men to  expect to be center stage and women to expect to be invisible. There are a lot of women who are brought up to be housewives and secretaries, to do invisible work, to be “the woman behind the man.” Not to mention how often visibility means a whole lot of unpleasant attention.

And all of us are brought up to believe that the only people that count are the dudes that make pretty speeches. That’s why everybody knows who MLK was and almost nobody knows who Ella Baker was, much less Diane Nash or any of the other women of that era. What I would really like to know is – Who typed MLKs speeches? Who kept track of all the vehicles that drove people around during the bus boycotts? Who brought the food to the nightly church meetings so that entire families could come out and plan direct actions?

Speeches are inspiring. But speaking is not doing.

The challenge for a lot of us women is that the expectation of being invisible often leads to wanting to be invisible.  That’s a problem. But I think the challenge is even more difficult for those people who not only expect to be center stage, but don’t even seem to see all the invisible work that the charismatic male leader is just a symbol of.

We don’t need to be checking gender boxes. We shouldn’t be falling into the trap of thinking that center stage means more important.  And we damn well shouldn’t be “encouraging” people to play symbolic roles.  What we should be doing is thinking about what our role should be in a given context and then stepping up or stepping back accordingly.


July 11, 2012 By: Mel Category: Misc

HelloooooAnybody still out there?

I keep trying to get back to this blog and life keeps conspiring against me. But if I don’t do it soon, my new roommate is likely to walk in on me ranting out loud in a way that may compel her to have me institutionalized. You really have to introduce people to your crazy a little at a time, ya know.

So I am back to writing every morning no matter what.

This morning the only thing on my mind is tonight’s criminal (in)justice meeting. This is where I decide if we are all close enough in vision and commitment to make it work or if I need to say goodbye to the whole thing.  I suspect I will be downloading some lessons learned about that experience in the near future. Which is to say I may have much more time for this blog soon.

In the meantime – Positive Force is screening a new documentary about The Clash this Saturday night. You should come out if you are in town.