BroadSnark

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
Subscribe

Reparations and Aspirations: In Response to Coates and Connolly

June 25, 2014 By: Mel Category: Change

Acoma Pueblo New MexicoThanks to Ta-Nehisi Coates, people are talking about reparations. Which is great. But we appear to be dancing around what facing our history would necessarily mean for our future. And we don’t appear to be able to talk about doing anything outside of lobbying the very same political system that got us here.

One reason reparations seem impossible is that we cannot wrap our heads around a conception of justice that is meant to repair harm. We live in a society focused on retribution, not restoration. We send people to prison for decades for selling weed. We let poor women die in prison because their kid skipped school. We put the mentally ill in solitary confinement. We barely blink when the imprisoned are raped by guards, even juveniles. As a society, we stopped talking about rehabilitation a long time ago. Now we only talk about “paying” for crime and compete with each other to see who can be more cruel “tougher”.

Is it really surprising that people are afraid of what justice would look like?

What if, instead of retributive justice, we had restorative justice? In a society where people can only think in terms of retribution, an honest accounting is impossible. In a restorative justice process, an honest accounting is the first step toward repairing the harm done to individuals and the community. A restorative justice process is meant to transform the participants in a positive way and decrease the chances of future harm. Unlike our current system, the aim of restorative justice – including reparations – is not to make the perpetrator(s) suffer.

To talk about reparations is to acknowledge our need for an entirely new conception of justice, one that applies to all of our society. But we also need a hell of a lot more than that.

I found myself nodding in agreement to part 1 of N. D. B. Connolly’s response to Coates’s article. How did reparations to Israel from West Germany turn out? Not so great for the Palestinians. How often are relatively wealthy black people participants in the subjugation of poorer black people? A lot. What happens when you try to address one injustice without addressing the others? A mess. What became of our government’s attempts to look at the history of its crimes? Nothing much.

Our systems are systems of subjugation. Success within our society is dependent on oppression. It is essential but not sufficient to try and repair the damage done by slavery and white supremacy. We live in a complex hierarchy where your position is determined by your race, hue, ethnicity, gender, class, possessions, sexual preference, physical abilities, mental abilities, certifications… If all reparations try to do is bring more black people into the current definition of success, we will fail miserably. There will still be workers having their paltry wages stolen by McDonalds. There will still be migrant farm workers dying of sun stroke. There will still be poverty and an epidemic of teen suicides on reservations. We will still be drone bombing brown people in countries around the world.

In part 2 of Connolly’s response to Coates he makes some suggestions on what we should do about our toxic system. Unfortunately, despite his recognition of how problematic is the “tendency…to propose modest solutions within established government structures,” that is just what he did. It isn’t that I am against reinstating felons right to vote. It is that we should be talking about prison abolition. It isn’t that I don’t recognize the problems with the castle doctrine and stand your ground. It is that the castle doctrine and stand your ground have little to do with the epidemic of police violence (and police kill many more people than vigilantes do). It isn’t that I cannot see the value of removing the need to show discriminatory intent. It is that suing for discrimination does nothing to transform our injustice system or to put our workplaces in the control of the workers.

No amount of constitutional amendments or court cases are going to transform our government and economic system to one that is not based on hierarchy and subjugation. We need to think bigger. We can have a society based on cooperation and mutual aid. We can have community control and direct democracy. We can abolish prisons, democratize the workplace, and dismantle the military industrial complex.

I know many of you think I am too radical (or maybe delusional). But there is no other way. We cannot repair any part of our damaged society without a radical transformation of its values and institutions. Conversely, for those of us who have been working for radical changes, we cannot be successful unless we face the white supremacist core of everything we are trying to change.

You cannot, for example, talk about the prison industrial complex without acknowledging that it is part of a continuum from slavery to present. The thirteenth amendment said “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime.” And today we have millions of people, disproportionately of color, laboring behind bars for pennies an hour to make some of the richest companies in the world even richer. And if that 37 cents an hour isn’t enough to cover your overpriced commissary tampons for the month – too bad for you.

Perhaps this seems overwhelming. Perhaps you are wondering where would we even start. The good news is that we have already started. You just might not have noticed yet.

There are already restorative justice organizations all over the country. There are already schools taking different approaches to conflict resolution. There is already a movement for change being led by tens of thousands of people who are incarcerated. We already have workers who refuse to just roll over for the owners, workers who are taking control and democratizing their workplaces. We even have communities with truth commissions.

No real radical change has ever come from above. The kind of change we need has always started with communities, churches, communes, and street corners. Processes that are grounded in community are based on and build relationships of trust. They are processes where the people are participants and not just spectators. And if our movements are rooted, they have a chance of withstanding the inevitable onslaught by those who don’t want real justice.

Also, processes that are grounded in community can adjust to local history and circumstances. Because restorative justice in Birmingham is going to look very different from restorative justice in Acoma Pueblo. We need to talk about what happens on reservations and on the Mexican border too. We need to remember that the history of the United States is not only the history of following Europeans as they crossed the continent. It is not just the history of that portion in the East that we call North and South.

There can be no repair without a radical transformation of our society. There can be no radical transformation of our society without an honest accounting of where we have been. And there can be neither repair nor transformation from the top down. In fact, we should be aiming to eliminate the hierarchies that got us into this mess to begin with.

Poor Man Can’t Eat, Rich Man Can’t Sleep

December 28, 2009 By: Mel Category: Core, Criminalization

I used to shoplift as a kid.  When I was about fourteen, I was busted with a purse full of makeup and banned from Rite Aid for life.

My father was unusually rational about the whole incident.  Clearly, all the crap I had in my room could not have been purchased with my babysitting money.  And my parents weren’t giving me money to buy clothes or makeup or anything else.  I don’t think my father had lost his business or had his stroke yet, but it was only a short time away.  I suspect he was feeling guilty or inadequate about not being a good “provider”.

So instead of my parent’s usual tirade and grounding my father simply explained to me that I was hurting people.  He said it probably didn’t seem like a bit of makeup from a huge company would even be noticed, but thousands of people doing what I did added up.  And that company, he said, wasn’t going to let their profits suffer.  They were going to raise prices or lower wages to make up for it.

I never wanted to hurt anyone.  And I never stole anything again.  But if I were starving and couldn’t see another option, I would steal.

I confess my past (and possible future) thievery because of a post last week on The Freethinker.  Apparently, a Yorkshire vicar told people that they should shoplift if they need to. A couple of us godless actually had to side with the vicar on this one.  Not surprisingly, others objected.  One commenter, Ash Walsh, pointed out that

Criminality only entrenches poverty. If a Thief gets a Criminal Record, the Thief will find it a lot more difficult to get a job thus starting a poverty cycle that is difficult to break out of.

That is absolutely true.  But why do we place the blame squarely, and solely, at the feet of the thief?  Doesn’t the community also bear some responsibility?  If the thief was stealing out of necessity, the community failed in providing its members with the things they need to survive. If the thief (like my fourteen-year-old self) just didn’t see the harm they were doing, then the community failed to educate them.   If the thief didn’t care that they were doing harm, then the community failed to teach them morals.

And if our system of retribution ensures that a thief has virtually no opportunity to turn their life around, then the community has failed yet again.

I was lucky.  My father felt some responsibility for what had happened and so reacted with compassion instead of just harsh judgment.  And it wasn’t just him.  Had the manager of that Rite Aid called the cops, I might have ended up in juvi instead of home with my parents.  Things could have gone very badly.

But all too often thieves receive no compassion at all.  They are dehumanized and vilified to the point that we accept whatever is done to them.  We don’t blink when someone gets a life sentence for theft or shot by people “protecting” their property from “looters” after Katrina.

We live in secure buildings in gated communities with alarms and trained dogs.  We authorize armed guards, police, and mercenaries to shoot anyone who breaches security.  We are terrified of being robbed by our fellow citizens.  And all the while, the biggest thefts are happening behind the scenes and are perfectly legal.  Where’s the guard to protect your pension from Goldman Sachs?

Not long ago, a would be robber in Long Island was thwarted by the owner of the store he was trying to rob.  The store owner showed him some compassion, gave him some money and bread, and didn’t call the police.  Months later, the robber repaid the store owner and sent the man a letter saying that he got his life back together.

I’ll bet they both ate that day and slept really well that night.

Torture Investigations and the Right’s Imaginary Race War

September 01, 2009 By: Mel Category: Politics

It’s no secret that race is the central issue for many of the people who oppose Obama (but pretend to oppose his policies).  Glenn Beck has taken a lot of heat for saying that he thought Barack Obama was a racist, but Beck is not the only one.  And now that conservatives are feeling nervous about a torture investigation, even the most polished organizations are getting blatant.

Yesterday’s Morning Bell from the Heritage Foundation was titled Politics Before Justice at Obama’s DOJ.  Agreeing wholeheartedly with their lord and master, Dick Cheney, they claim that Eric Holder’s investigation is only an attempt to attack the previous administration.  Then they go on to cite other examples of where politics has trumped justice with Eric Holder.

Example number one – Black panthers who intimidated voters in 2008 had their cases dismissed.  Example number two – Bill Richardson will not be charged with any crime related to the pay-to-play scheme that was under investigation and which cost him his post in the Obama administration.  Example number three – Holder was said to have pushed for pardons for members of the FALN and Los Macheteros, Puerto Rican nationalist groups.

Are we noticing a pattern here?  Eric Holder dismisses charges against brown people, but goes after the good ole boys at the CIA.  Now the Heritage Foundation is not quite that blunt.  For the blunt version, you need to head over to Free Republic, where commenters are more than willing to spell it out.

True. Most obama advisors hate whites,
but Holder advocates violence and threats against whites,
and has and will continue to use the US Government
to protect those who assault whites
— even at voting booths.

This is the narrative that is developing over the torture investigations.  It is only going to get worse.  There are a lot of people out there who know they broke the law and know they have very slim protection.  They are powerful and they aren’t going down without a nasty fight.

The narrative is already spreading.  A quick search showed coverage in the Examiner, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Philadelphia Enquirer.  We better be ready to ridicule this thing out of existence.

Number 1 – The black panther case that the right is in such an uproar about involved two men standing outside a polling place in Phili.  One was an official poll watcher with every right to be there.  Judging by the video below, the only one there scared by the black panther’s presence was the fox news correspondent sent to the polling place to sensationalize.  Although I’m sure Faux News viewers were peeing in their pants at the site of an unarmed black panther.

Number 2 – Bill Richardson was investigated and the DOJ decided not to pursue the matter.  They haven’t said why.  Republicans and Fox News are insinuating that they are letting him off for political reasons, but they don’t know that.  Moreover, as TPM reports, the DOJ isn’t exactly exonerating him.  They just don’t seem to think they have a case.

Number 3 – FALN and Los Macheteros did plan bombings and I don’t condone violence.  But the people pardoned by Bill Clinton (with reported pressure from Eric Holder) had not been convicted of bombings or of any crime where people were hurt.  Moreover, clemency for those individuals was being pushed for by prominent human rights defenders, including Jimmy Carter.  Whether or not you think the pardons were appropriate (and I personally thing presidential pardons are a bad idea), the right is leaving out most of the story when they just say Holder released terrorists.

The kicker to the Heritage Foundation’s email was this doozy of a quote.

Now, as the head of DOJ, Holder’s political decisions are undermining core rule of law concerns including the integrity of elections, ethical governance, and national security. Holder reports directly to his boss, President Barack Obama. Someone needs to be held accountable.

Can you believe those guys can actually write that?  It’s like they live in a parallel universe. The people who testified before congress that the Supreme Court was right to stop the 2000 recount are worried about the “integrity of elections.”  The people who insisted that human rights protections didn’t apply to people not in our territory are worried about ethical governance?

They are right about one thing.  Somebody needs to be held accountable.

The Bailout: Sacrificing Justice for Temporary Stability

March 26, 2009 By: Mel Category: Conflict, Politics, Seeking

I’ve been thinking a lot about justice lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how often people try to convince those seeking justice to set aside that desire. I’ve been thinking about how often we are told that holding people responsible for their actions would cause more suffering.

The economic disaster is a perfect example. Billions of dollars are being lost into the ether as we bail out the scoundrels who got us into this mess. We are told the vacuuming up of our present and future resources is necessary in order to mitigate short-term suffering and instability.

People are less and less inclined to believe bailout justifications, in large part because we see that those responsible are not suffering any consequences for their actions. After reading Matt Taibbi’s recent article, it’s hard not to believe that the bailout is just a scam to transfer our resources into the grubby hands of Goldman Sachs and friends. So long as our government shows no signs of bringing the people who caused this mess to justice, our distrust will grow.

Let’s take this out of a financial context for a minute. This past weekend I watched The Reckoning. The film is about efforts to get the International Criminal Court (ICC) up and running. The film highlighted the situations in Uganda and Sudan, but it could easily apply to hundreds of other situations in the world. Whenever the leaders responsible for genocide, rape, and crimes against humanity faced prosecution; they used the threat of more suffering to defend themselves.

In Uganda, the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) went on a campaign to convince Ugandans that the ICC warrants for LRA leaders’ arrests were an obstacle to the peace process. (Never mind that there was no peace process before the warrants.) The LRA presented the people a choice between peace and justice. When a warrant was issued for the president of Sudan for human rights violations, he retaliated by kicking out humanitarian organizations and putting millions of Sudanese without the assistance they desperately need.

The case of Sudan is clear. There are people who will suffer in the short term because of the warrant issued. It’s possible that the other cases, including our financial disaster, also present a choice between mitigating short term suffering and pursuing justice. But if we keep sacrificing justice for short term needs, won’t we just ensure that we will keep dealing with the same problems over and over? If people without morals see that they can get away with abusing their power, why would they ever stop?

One final observation. When I was in Guatemala I was struck by how defeated the people seemed. Nobody believed in the system. Time and again powerful people got away with outrageous crimes. Military leaders responsible for mass atrocities don’t just walk free, but run for president. Former presidents who absconded with the people’s money live like royalty in other countries. The more people see impunity, the more hopeless the situation seems. The more hopeless the situation seems, the less agency they feel. The less they participate in political life, the more power the abusers have. It is a downward spiral and we can’t afford to allow that to happen to us.

Justice is not an obstacle to stability and peace, it is a prerequisite. People who don’t want to face justice are using our fear – fear of violence, fear of starvation, fear of financial collapse – but it is by caving in that we assure all of those things will go on forever.

Greedy Whiners and Misleading Statistics

March 09, 2009 By: Mel Category: Politics, Stratification

The March 7th issue of the National Journal asks the question:

President Obama has announced plans to raise income taxes on the wealthy and curb various tax breaks for upper-income Americans. What percentage of income taxes is now being paid by this group, compared with 1986?

According to them, the percentage of income taxes paid by the top 1 percent of earners jumped from 25.75% to 39.4%. The percentage of income taxes paid by the top 25 percent jumped from 76% to 86%. When you put it like that, it sounds like the rich have had some serious tax hikes in the last couple decades.

Before you start sending sympathy cards to Donald Trump, let’s take a look at those figures a little more closely.

Tax is a percentage of your income. More income means more tax. And the richest Americans have been taking a larger slice of the income pie. In 1986, the richest one percent earned only 11% of all income. By 2005 they were earning 21% of all income. The top 25% went from collecting 59% of all income to collecting 67.5% of all income.

Let’s break that down into numbers that a person like me can wrap their heads around. Let’s say that America consisted of 100 people and the gross income pie was 1 million dollars for both years. What would that have looked like in 1986 and 2005?

In 1986

  • 1 person would have earned $110,000 for the year
  • 24 people would have received about $20,000 each
  • 75 people would have received about $5,466.67 each

In 2005

  • 1 person would have earned $210,000 for the year
  • 24 people would have received about $19,375 each
  • 75 people would have received about $4,333.33 each

In this (admittedly over-simplified) example, in 1986 one person lived well on $110,000 a year while 75 people scraped by on $5,466.67. By 2005, that one wealthy person nearly doubled their income by skimming a little off the top of those who could least afford it.

Remembering vs. Forgetting

February 03, 2009 By: Mel Category: Conflict

What’s more important, revenge for your ancestors or peace for your children?

When there is tragedy, be it personal or social, there is a tension between the need to remember and the need to let go. At best, we want to remember so that we can avoid future tragedies, so that we do not make the same mistakes over and over.

But remembering does not guarantee that the same mistakes are not made. I’ve heard “never again” used to justify the Israeli government’s “self defense” and as a rallying cry for human rights activists fighting against those same actions.

At worst, people remember out of anger. They remember because they want revenge, although they would almost certainly couch that revenge in terms of wanting justice. Revenge is an understandable emotion, especially if you have suffered greatly at the hands of another.

Forgetting doesn’t work out so great either, especially if not everyone forgets. When we invaded Iraq, the Muslim world had visions of crusades and colonialism. They have been invaded by western christians many times. The western christians seem to have forgotten.

But the remembering that comes with violence and anger condemns future generations to the same fate. Retribution will never bring peace. What if letting go would ensure that future generations would not have to suffer the same fate? Isn’t that worth the price?