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
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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.

The Compartmentalization of Injustice

May 09, 2014 By: Mel Category: Criminal Injustice System

Cecily McMillanIt is all over the news that 9 out of 10 jurors who voted to send Cecily McMillan to prison have written the judge asking for a lenient sentence

The letter follows initial reactions of shock and regret from some who served on the jury—which was not informed of the verdict’s severe sentencing guidelines during the trial—once they learned McMillan could be incarcerated for years. One juror expressed “remorse” to theGuardian on Tuesday, stating, “Most just wanted her to do probation, maybe some community service. But now what I’m hearing is seven years in jail? That’s ludicrous. Even a year in jail is ridiculous.” Martin Stolar, criminal defense attorney affiliated with the National Lawyers Guild and co-counsel for McMillan’s case, said two other jurors had contacted him with similar expressions of regret, according to the Huffington Post.

During McMillan’s trial, the jury was not informed of the severe sentencing guidelines for the verdict, as is the standard in the United States, except for death penalty cases.

When I was on grand jury duty we were told again and again that we were not to think about the consequences. When people asked what the possible punishment could be – because they clearly did not think the person should go to prison – the prosecutors would refuse to answer. When people had questions about the legality of searches, the prosecutors would tell us that the defense attorney would worry about that. When people asked questions about the flimsy evidence, the prosecutors told them that those matters would get settled at trial – knowing full well the case would never go to trial.

I tried to muster up some sympathy for the other jurors. I reminded myself that they had not spent the last decade learning about the torture in our prisons. But try as I might I could not find it in me to let go of the rage. It isn’t just that I was in a room full of people who remained willfully ignorant about a system that affects tens of thousands of their neighbors in this city. It was that there has never been a time in my entire life when someone would have told me not to think about what might happen at the end of the line and I would have just saluted and gone along.

What kind of person does that?

Clearly the cop in the room does it. He was the most vocal about us needing to follow the law. He was the one who reminded people that they weren’t supposed to think. He was the poster child for the banality of evil. It was someone just like him who stamped the transport papers for train rides to Auschwitz. But what about the rest? So much obedience ending in so much disaster. What creates that? More importantly, what uncreates it?

On my better days I tried to focus on just how hard the system works to keep us compartmentalized. Without compartmentalization, the whole system would fail. As obedient as the people in that grand jury room were, had they had the opportunity to determine the actual consequences, I believe many of them would have refused to send people to prison. And I say that knowing that they were almost completely unaware of what happens in those places.

Our lives are entirely compartmentalized. We are pressured to limit our thinking all the time. We study in silos of academic disciplines. We work in factories or offices where we have little idea where our tasks fit into the whole. We draw lines through our work and personal lives so that the filth we do to earn a living might not dirty the rest of our lives. We allow ourselves to be cogs in oppression machines.

We have to stop compartmentalizing. We have to stop taking the easy road of choosing to follow orders because resisting is hard. It isn’t o.k. to just go along.

Is It A Death Sentence if You Were Never Convicted?

April 24, 2014 By: Mel Category: Criminal Injustice System

A follow-up to my last post about people sitting in jail without having been convicted of a crime.

Just in case you had not heard the full details about the homeless veteran who baked to death in a cell at Rikers last month. He was there because he was too poor to make bail.

Homeless and looking for a warm place to sleep on a cold night in February, Murdough was arrested for trespassing on the roof of an apartment building in Harlem. He was presented with two options: (1) either pay the city $2,500 in order to be released — a cost-prohibitive sum for someone without a job or a home, or (2) be detained on Rikers Island and wait for his case to be adjudicated, a process that can take months or even years.

You can read the rest on the Pretrial Justice Institute blog here.

You’ll also read about Kalief Browder who was arrested at 16 and held for almost three years without ever having been convicted of anything.

Who is the criminal here?

 

Incarcerated Until Proven Innocent

April 22, 2014 By: Mel Category: Criminal Injustice System

Infographic on bail in America

http://www.pretrial.org/the-problem/

I am officially finished with grand jury duty. Which means I now get to start the process of unloading on you all of the frustrations of watching our injustice system in action. And I think I’ll start with an article I came across just an hour after leaving the prosecutors’ offices.

Marktain Kilpatrick Simmons, 43, was jailed in November 2006 for the stabbing death of Christopher Joiner and yet his case has not yet gone to trial. Hinds County Judge Bill Gowan denied bail for Simmons, saying he wanted to hear more evidence of Simmons’ mental problems, according to The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi.

Similarly, Lee Vernel Knight, 47, has been in jail without trial since December 2007, accused in the Christmas Day stabbing death of his brother, Michael Palmer. Knight, who has been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, had previously been committed to the state hospital. Gowan ordered Knight committed to the state hospital in 2013, but there have been no beds available there.

If you are counting, that means those men have been in jail awaiting trial for six or seven years. Let me just let that sink in for a moment. They have been locked up for years without having been convicted. Their cases are some of the most egregious that I have heard, but they are not alone.

As I was listening to one of the cases presented before my grand jury, It dawned on me that the accused had been in DC jail for a very long time. In fact, he will likely be in jail for about two years before he goes to trial. I confirmed with the prosecutor that he was indeed being held waiting for trial and not on some other charges. I asked her if that was typical. It is. She estimated a year and a half wait for trial. She didn’t say how many of those people are waiting in jail.

But as you can see from the Pretrial Justice Institute infographic posted here, 60% of the people in jail nationwide are waiting for trial. And just in case the loss of freedom for months or years is not enough of an injustice for you, how about this.

Research shows that among defendants facing the same charge and who have the same criminal history, those who are kept in jail before trial receive worse plea offers, are sentenced to prison more often if they are found guilty, and receive harsher prison sentences than those who are released under court-ordered supervision.

Studies also find that just two to three days in jail pending trial can have a significant and lasting impact on a defendant’s family, such as the loss of permanent employment or, for single parent households, a child being placed in state custody.

If they were rich, they would be waiting for their trial at home. We have a system where Bernie Madoff gets to walk around while he waits to be tried for a $50 billion Ponzi scheme, but the poor and homeless and mentally ill will spend months or years in jail without having been found guilty of anything.  Many of them will eventually be acquitted of the often petty crimes they are accused of.

And meanwhile the bail bonds people are raking it in. There are “15,000 bail bond agents work in the U.S., who write bonds for approximately $14 billion every year. Those companies are backed by multibillion-dollar “insurance giants.” 

Amazing how much money people make off of the poor.

According to this Christian Science Monitor article, DC is one of the better places when it comes to holding poor people for minor things on bail they cannot afford. But even those accused of murder are still only accused. What is all that nonsense we are told about our rights to a speedy trial and innocent until proven guilty?

 

Is Applying PREA to Immigrant Detention a Good Thing?

March 04, 2014 By: Mel Category: Criminal Injustice System

The Department of Homeland Security announced “that it has finalized regulations to prevent sexual abuse in immigrant detention centers.” Their announcement follows the 2012 Obama administration directive that the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) apply to those in immigration detention and not just Department of Justice Facilities.

PREA was passed in 2003 in response to public campaigns against prison rape. You might think that a bill requiring increased reporting and a “zero tolerance” policy toward sexual abuse would have helped. But reports of sexual abuse are actually rising. Prison officials claim this is due to an increase in reporting, not in incidents. Not a surprising claim if you consider that about half of the sexual assaults reported are guard on prisoner.

It so happens that I have been reading some back issues of Tenacious: art & writings by women in prison. In the mother’s day 2013 issue, Dawn describes how little the PREA has helped women prisoners. In fact, she says “the only people who suffer because of PREA are the same ones who were supposed to benefit from it.” According to Dawn, what “zero tolerance” has actually meant is that women are forbidden any physical contact. She was once admonished for giving another prisoner a high five.

A few abusive guards were removed and charged with crimes since PREA passed. But the Department of Corrections (DOC) also implemented their own new rule. The new rule makes it a serious infraction for a prisoner to falsely report to authorities.  Dawn says that, since they added the new rule, many women won’t make reports because

history has proven that any kind of reports true or false are found to be false. When it was found to be false the people were immediately found guilty and sent to administrative segregation (ad. seg.). One lady was only having a conversation with an officer, not ‘reporting’ anything, just telling him a rumor she’d heard about a guard putting money on an offenders account for ‘favors’. This officer went and reported their conversation and she was cuffed, taken to the hole and subsequently written up for Class 1 False Reporting and placed in Ad. Seg.

Does it sound to you like a few new policies are going to make a difference when people still accept the mass dehumanization and incarceration that creates such an ideal environment for abuse without consequences?

P.S. If you click the above link for Tenacious, it will tell you how you can subscribe. Get your information about prison straight from the imprisoned.

Book Review – Resistance Behind Bars

March 02, 2014 By: Mel Category: Book

Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles Of Incarcerated WomenResistance Behind Bars: The Struggles Of Incarcerated Women by Victoria Law

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A while back, I wrote about how frustrating it was that people were not paying attention to the prison hunger strikes in California and elsewhere. But as little attention as men’s resistance gets, women’s resistance gets even less. And while it is true that there are many more men than women in prison, it is also true that, per the sentencing project:

The number of women in prison, a third of whom are incarcerated for drug offenses, is increasing at nearly double the rate for men. These women often have significant histories of physical and sexual abuse, high rates of HIV infection, and substance abuse. Large-scale women’s imprisonment has resulted in an increasing number of children who suffer from their mother’s incarceration and the loss of family ties

Long before Orange is the New Black, Victoria Law wrote about the history of prisons and how women have resisted. The book is broken down by issues – health care, sexual abuse, education, labor… For each issue Law shares the stories that prisoners have shared with her about how the system has affected them. She puts their stories in historical and political context. And she shows how those women pushed back.

I’ve read a lot of books, articles, and research about women in prison over the last 10 years, but this book covered new territory. Most people focus only on the victimization of the women. Rarely do you hear from the women themselves. Even more rarely do you hear about the grievances, court cases, self organized groups, hunger strikes, whistle blowing – about the women’s agency.

And unlike most of the material I come across, this book is written from a radical perspective. It doesn’t set out a handful of legislative reforms that could make things better. In fact, it shows how legislative reforms have hurt the women. Even reforms like The Prison Rape Elimination Act that were ostensibly meant to help prisoners, ended up hurting women prisoners. Women are written up for sexual misconduct if they have any contact with other women in the prison. No hugs. No high fives.

Instead of legislation, you will get an extensive list of recommended reading, some resources for prisoners, and encouragement to reach out to these women and support them in how they chose to resist.

View all my reviews

 

 

What About the Hunger Strikes?

July 23, 2013 By: Mel Category: Change, Inequality

Over the last several years there have been prison hunger strikes all over the country - North Carolina, Ohio, Georgia, California… What has been going on in California is just incredible.

Inmates in two-thirds of the state’s 33 prisons, and at all four out-of-state private prisons, refused both breakfast and lunch on Monday, said corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton. In addition, 2,300 prisoners failed to go to work or attend their prison classes, either refusing or in some cases saying they were sick.

Think about that for a minute. Think about the amount of coordination it took to organize 30,000 prisoners. Think about the obstacles for people trying to organize, not just within a prison, but between prisons. And many of the organizers are in solitary confinement.

The organizing crossed racial lines and gang affiliations. The collective that organized the strikes put out a statement committing to end all racial hostilities, recognizing that the prison system uses those conflicts and prejudices to keep the incarcerated divided and disempowered.

In conclusion, we must all hold strong to our mutual agreement from this point on and focus our time, attention, and energy on mutual causes beneficial to all of us [i.e., prisoners], and our best interests. We can no longer allow CDCR to use us against each other for their benefit!!

I’ve written about these strikes a few times and linked to stories about them. And I’ve been continually frustrated that few people seem to be paying any attention. People’s lives are at stake. Prisoners died after the last actions. Several of the current strikers have required medical attention. And the California Department of Corrections is retaliating against the spokespeople. Our attention could actually save someone, or at least make retaliation a little more difficult.

I’m going to be honest with you. And I’m probably going to piss people off here. But I don’t understand why my inbox is filled with announcements of protests and actions for Trayvon Martin and absolutely nothing about the hunger strike.

Not. One. Thing.

I’ve been trying to figure out why that is. Is what George Zimmerman did to Trayvon Martin more tragic than when a cop shot an unarmed 14-year-old hiding in a shed? Is it more racist than the school to prison pipeline where 90% of New York school arrests are children of color? Is it more infuriating than the rapes and murders that regularly occur in juvenile detention centers?

For a whole lot of people it seems to be. And I really don’t understand it. But I saw something on Facebook this weekend that gave me pause. It said something like “calling Trayvon a thug is like calling JonBenet Ramsey a whore”.

I get it. Trayvon wasn’t doing anything wrong. But what if he was? What if he had gotten into a fight or stole a car or sold drugs? Would we be talking about him? What if George Zimmerman had a badge and a gun? Would we still be talking about it? As of 2011, there were 63 police shootings in Miami-Dade county alone that were under perpetual “investigation.” Twenty-five of those involved fatalities. Who is talking about them?

Sometimes people need a symbol to get them motivated. And the temptation is to chose one that is pure and innocent. Rosa Parks wasn’t the first person to refuse to give up her seat for a white person. But some leaders of the civil rights movement didn’t want a pregnant teenager who was too low class and too dark to be their rallying cry.

But this isn’t 1955. Our injustice systems depend upon criminalization. They depend upon us accepting that “thugs” deserve what they get. Or at least some people don’t merit a public outcry when they are shot in the street, or executed by the state, or tortured and raped in prison. It isn’t o.k. to only rally around the pure and innocent any longer. We have so many laws that nobody can even count them anymore.

The whole game is to make sure that they can discredit people to keep us in check.

I really hesitated to write this post. I was hoping somebody else would do it. I try to write mostly about things I have some experience with. And I have absolutely no way to wrap my head around what it must be like to have a child, much less one that has to face so many risks. But getting shot in the street by a vigilante is a lot less likely than ending up behind bars being tortured by the state.

I know that many of the people organizing Trayvon Martin protests are focused on the bigger picture. They are connecting this shooting to systemic issues of policing, racial profiling, the school to prison pipeline… I love those kids who occupied the Florida governors office.

But not everyone is making those connections. And too many of the emails I am getting are from people who have their necks permanently stuck looking up at power. Lobbying to overturn stand your ground laws or protesting ALEC or getting those few people who have disposable income to stop buying things is not going to smash this system. But a movement led by the people who have been most pummeled by the system just might. These people have signed do not resuscitate documents. They are ready to die for their rights and we are ignoring them.

Not to mention that, while they have managed to coordinate 30,000 people across prisons, we (who are in relative freedom) can’t even manage to coordinate amongst ourselves enough not to have competing Trayvon protests.

I really don’t want to shit all over the organizing that is going on right now. I hope that this case starts something huge. I hope all the actions are successful. But I can’t bring myself to focus on them and ignore the hunger strikes. So I’ll be spending my free time contacting prison officials and prisoners. I hope some of you will make some time to do the same. The addresses and phone numbers are here.

Thoughts on Societal Mental Illness

September 21, 2012 By: Mel Category: Drugs, Sex, Violence

Make a claim that one snort of cocaine makes you irredeemably insane and people will line up behind laws that lock cocaine users up for life. But read that 73% of incarcerated women have mental health issues and many of those same people will find it a compelling argument against mass incarceration. (Private prison companies, of course, just see it as another opportunity to make money.)

Why?

There is a really interesting article about pedophiles on Wandervogel Diary. The thing that struck me the most was this.

Studies have consistently shown that pedophilia is associated with anomic states (war, famine, epidemics) and with major life crises (failure, relocation, infidelity of spouse, separation, divorce, unemployment, bankruptcy, illness, death of the offender’s nearest and dearest).

Few things cause a social panic quite like pedophilia. I don’t think most people ask where it comes from. It is seen as some individual aberration. If anyone wonders what went wrong, they probably blame it on porn or a lack of religious morality.  Which is ironic given that porn may actually prevent sex offenses and religiosity increase them.

If war is associated with pedophilia, then pedophilia is not an individual aberration. It is a societal disease. We are creating pedophiles in the same way we are creating self-medicating soldiers. And when we put people in prison for doing cocaine, especially if they end up in solitary, we may actually end up creating someone who won’t be able to function in society.

Perhaps at some level we realize that these are all monsters of our own making, that the things we do out of fear end up creating exactly what we are afraid of.

There is more I want to say about this. But I’m cutting myself off because I really want you to read this post on the scapegoating of “crazy”.  Love to hear your thoughts.

 

Victims, Villains, and Heroes

September 14, 2012 By: Mel Category: Inequality, Violence

Clint EastwoodWhen I first started delving into the drug war and criminal injustice system, I saw it as a process of dehumanization that I couldn’t ignore. While I had friends who were caught up in the system, as one of the least targeted people, the only connection I saw to my personal life was what I had learned as the grandkid of holocaust refugees.

People ask how atrocities could happen and a whole society be blind to them. While I don’t want to make comparisons between concentration camps and prisons, it isn’t hard for me to see how a whole country could have shut their eyes. People are tortured, raped, and murdered behind bars in this country now and most of us don’t even notice.

But the more I learned about how this particular dehumanization works, the more I realized the special role that I play in it. I’m the victim that excuses the violence.

If you have never read Ida B. Wells on lynchings, you need to. Despite the fact that the majority of black men who were lynched were not even accused of rape, the defenders of lynchings always used the rape of white women as their cover for murder – or as one Southern newspaper put it “the barbarism which preys upon weak and defenseless women.”

How ironic that white men used the rape of white women as their excuse. How many of us in the colonized world are a product of the rape of black and indigenous women by white men – what the Mexicans like to refer to as La Gran Chingada (the great rape)? But women of color are not generally the victims of our national narrative. They are mostly invisible.

As a white woman it is my job to be a victim to excuse the bloodthirst. The boxes people have tried to cram  me into my whole life – weakness, dependency, purity – are really just about playing that role. If you refuse to be defenseless. If you refuse to be appropriately dependent. If you refuse to be fallen. Then there is hell to pay. It isn’t just about control of women and their sexuality. It is that our role as victims is key in a narrative that holds up the authoritarian system.

If there are no victims and no villains then what need do we have for heroes? Our heroes are, of course, violent. Usually, they wear a uniform. Sometimes they might take it off for a night to do their lynchings undercover. But whether it is a cop or a soldier or a vigilante, we accept the armed and violent hero only because we believe in the helpless victim.

The racialized and genderized victim/villain/hero narrative undergirds everything. It is part of the lynchings of 100 years ago. It was there when we were accusing Chinese men of defiling white women to get opium laws passed. It is built into the criminal injustice system that targets men of color. It is part of every war that we fight, the way we use women as an excuse to bomb countries.

And what does it do to the people who are trying to live up to their role as hero by picking up those guns? In order to fit into that hero/man box you have to become a killer. You have to be broken down until whatever it is in you that recognizes another person’s humanity is gone. There is no coming back from that, certainly not for the thousands of soldiers who come back and kill themselves. Not likely for the prison guards either.

I’m not trying to infer equivalency between the experiences of someone sitting in solitary confinement and what is going through the head of the person who put them there. I’m not saying that a white woman’s fight to get out of the victim box can be compared to being lynched. The full weight of the system does not hit us all evenly.

Nor am I saying that people are never victimized, that some of the people in prison have not done horrible things. But most of those people have also been victims. We can all be victimized, villainous, or heroic. The system needs to wedge us into narrow categories in order to feed itself. It needs to provide a narrative that makes it seem like the armed thug’s job is something besides protecting the power and privilege of a handful of people.

We need to understand the connections. If we don’t, we will inevitably end up fighting against one part of the narrative while upholding another.

White women who fight the violence against them in a way that supports, rather than challenges, the racist criminal injustice system will never make life better for women. Black men who fight the criminal injustice system but hold a view that tries to put black women on the same purity pedestal that white women are chained to will never make life better for black people. Anti-authoritarians who don’t understand the role that racism and sexism play in upholding the state will never see it smashed.

For me, understanding the connections means being a really terrible victim. It means refusing the accept the villainization of men – especially men of color. It means refusing to accept the heroization of people with guns – even the ones I may have some sympathy for. It means focusing on the criminal injustice system and the war machine and any other victim/villain/hero narrative that keeps this state alive.

Because if we break those narratives we all get out of our boxes, real and metaphorical. We break the fear. We stop so much of the torture and violence and suffering.

No more victims. No more villains. No more heroes.

Some Thoughts on the GA Prisoner Strike

July 30, 2012 By: Mel Category: Change

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.

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More info on the Black Agenda Report