The struggle to define who is worthy: mass incarceration and mass deportation

I just finished watching an interview with Susan Burton, author of “Becoming Ms. Burton” and founder of A New Way of Life, a re-entry program for women of color who are adjusting to their new lives after prison, and Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” on Democracy Now!. Alexander wrote the introduction to Burton’s book, in which she tells her story of losing her five-year-old son in a hit-and-run by an LAPD detective (the department never acknowledged her son’s death) and falling into depression, alcoholism, and eventual drug use. The War on Drugs had been powerfully in effect since the 1960s (see here for background, especially as it pertains to the criminalization of antiwar Black activists by the Nixon administration), and poor people of color, as an extension of what Alexander and others describe as the surveillance state, were being locked up for minor drug offenses that often received long sentences. Burton’s initiative is a powerful reminder that the U.S. narrative around this does not break from our generations-long tradition of other-ing Black and Brown people justified under various forms of political obfuscation, policy-making like gerrymandering and redlining, and media depictions that demonize people of color as simultaneously a threat and a problem to be solved.


This resonates powerfully with the parallel track of immigrant existence in this country – to which Black Americans in fact historically belong (slaves were the first immigrants, along with their captors) – which has been threaded into our story as a nation of White, Anglo people. Immigrants then and now maintain a position of lower-status people waiting to adapt and assimilate, often taking up blue-collar and unstable work that includes abuses and exploitation as part of the modus operandi. While this is not news for those of us who read and think on the progressive side of things, the connection made by Alexander in the Democracy Now! interview between the abuse of people of color and of immigrants heartened me. Under the script of settler colonialism, which arranges social relations via the White Western settler-as-savior/Black slave-as-laborer/Indigenous people-as-uncivilized-savage-awaiting-enlightenment, both Black Americans and immigrants are positioned to serve the dominant (White) state-supported control and use of resources inside our national borders. Those resources, recursively, include the labor of these individuals which is poorly compensated or even amounts to indentured servitude under corporate investment in prisons (in the case of convict lease, which some argue still happens today).

Alexander and Burton’s work makes a stunning claim: that we have choices about the way we look at drug use and the individuals who struggle with it. They speak of the ways in which we criminalize people, including poor women of color who have suffered trauma, abuse, and isolation in and out of prison, with the reckless malice which has resulted in the destruction of lives, families, and communities. This, Burton argues, itself is criminal, this seeing people as expendable, consumable, convert-able into fodder for the political fire and brimstone bursting from nativist, racist political pulpits. Alexander adds that immigrants, especially immigrants identified as people of color, are now suffering such similar depiction under the banner of racial politics that discursively justify punitive social controls which result in the dehumanization and division of people from each other:

Today, the enemy has been defined as those ‘brown-skinned immigrants sneaking across the border,’ and, you know, Donald Trump has been banging the podium, you know, saying, we must get rid of them…If we had risen to the challenge of the War on Drugs the way that we could have and should have, the system of mass deportation would not exist today…

And then:

I’m hoping that in the months and years to come that we’ll see more coordination and more unity between the movements to end mass incarceration and the movements to end mass deportation, and come to see it’s the same struggle to define who is worthy, who has dignity and value, and who is disposable, and ultimately, we are trying to birth a new America…

This speaks to the powerful need for social imagination, which Marx, Habermas, Stetsenko, and many others offer as a means of engaging with the possibilities always inherent to our realities and authoring ourselves and change through these possibilities. This world and its arrangements are contingent, open to disobedience as Hannah Arendt argued, and changeable.

Watch the full interview on Democracy Now! here (25:18-59:02).

Capturing, captivated by the feminine mystique

  • Spoiler alert: I will not reference Betty Friedan’s book in this post (click here for free PDF) though it’s on my short list for the week.
  • I am listening to Satellite by Guster while I write this as well. More on this…

I was walking on Newbury Street in Boston, MA last week, a good spot for window shopping and not much else if you’re on, say a grad student’s budget. No complaints here, though — it hasn’t snowed yet and all of Beantown is praying, global warming or not, that the white stuff will stay away for a bit yet.

On my walk, I saw this picture tucked into one of the myriad entrances to little boutiques on my way to the Boston Common:

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Apologies for the quality. But I think the image has a lot to say, and I’ll bring in Guster (who I just learned is from Boston, in fact) song lyrics to frame the conversation:

Shining like a work of art
Hanging on a wall of stars
Are you what I think you are?

Now, luscious, elusive associations with night-driving aside, I for one am disappointed and yet unsurprised by a song written from a straight male perspective to capture how a love interest is seen. I chose the word “capture” intentionally here. What is it about the male-singer-female-hearer dynamic that so resonates with what we consider “true” in hetero relations?  Being captivated seems the role of the female fan, screaming her head off and losing control, all the while sweaty and gorgeously tilted forward, waiting to be plucked for the deserving flower she is.

Source: “One Direction – From The Beatles to One Direction: 50 years of frenzied fans,” The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/10252245/From-The-Beatles-to-One-Direction-50-years-of-frenzied-fans.html?frame=2648003

Guster sings to the beloved:

You’re my satellite
You’re riding with me tonight
Passenger side, lighting the sky
Always the first star that I find
You’re my satellite

Ornamental, beautiful, obscure, ready at hand and yet mysterious is she (are we, the women). (Oh, and ps I do really like this song.)

Bringing the conversation back to the picture I sneered at–er, saw. The image shows a woman captured, bound by a metal collar (likely gold or platinum, from the indulgent shimmer on it) that leashes itself to a pin of a poodle covering her left breast.

I am not a feminist scholar (yet), nor a critical race scholar (likely, ditto), but between the racialization of the Lisa Bonet look-alike model with light skin and dreads, the bondage chic, and the sexualization/dehumanization of this young woman to fit under the social lens of White male gaze we all walk around using…well, I’m happy I felt something. I think this is precisely the problem: that the mystification of women is just plain regular.

I’m ranging around on this post with a flush of creativity perhaps in part because I’m getting back to the page after months-long silence and it’s a long overdue stream of speak. However, emotions can drive potent expressions of the real. Part of me is compelled to connect an indignant moment in an out-of-reach shopping district I had in downtown Boston with theory. We are interpellated in society, according to Althusser, positioned as subjects by our simultaneous response to and participation in the reinforcement of ideology, in this case, a patriarchal one, i.e., that men are the watchers, the truth-sayers, and women are the observed and the attendant, the ornaments, the ones waited to be captured/captivated.

Yet I have to be honest. Emotionally speaking, I resent, as foolish as it is, the fact that in the romantic marketplace, I am already too old to be objectified as a fainting-away fan or a target of cash-spending, upwardly-mobile eyes. And I am angry that I am drawn into the dialectic of my own femaleness and society’s way of boiling it down to variations on a theme, a conversation I have been raised to be fluent in.

Maybe you will always be
Just a little out of reach

Guster’s last verse (sorry guys) leaves us with deceptively simple. What is out of reach, to whom? Who is “you,” to whom? Is my story out of my own hands, as soon as I open to the first page?

Black lives matter

I went to the Millions March Boston demonstration in downtown Boston today. What an incredible experience. I’d never participated in something like that before: strangers raising their voices in unison to call for justice (“No justice — no peace!”), an end to racist profiling by police across the country, and solidarity among disparate groups with a common cause. We marched from the State House to the Suffolk County Jail, where inmates banged on their windows to let us know they heard us…

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Seeing fists striking solid plastic from the inside, men sitting and watching from high above, brought tears to my eyes. What a luxury we enjoy walking through the streets protesting and hollering. We have our freedom, our lives, things that neither Michael Brown or Eric Garner, nor these inmates have. What a strange thought that we can just pick up a sign, get on the T, and go anywhere we want to meet with new people and form a march. What power in this freedom that we rarely truly understand.

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The power of “I don’t know”         

We are supposed to have opinions, have things figured out. Taxes, gasoline, housing, transportation, diet, clothing, schooling. “You should do this…” “I read that…” “But you know, it’ really not about…” We respect people who speak with authority and affirmation. In PhD programs I think we are given a lot of latitude to be Authorities on Stuff. We get a special immunity from critique in the outside world because we’re supposed to know a lot of stuff and we’re ostensibly smart enough to become professional students. (Know, by the way, that this is the polar opposite within the towers of academia; there, unfortunately, people are also smart enough to smell bulls**t a mile off.)

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At CUNY last night, we had an open house to host prospective students who wanted to learn about the program. I sat with different people and heard a wide range of impressive things: someone who had started his own mentoring program, another person who worked as an advocate for students with disabilities, a third who had created fashion videos for an online course for a friend who wanted to connect education and design. Of course very impressive, and for the billionth time already, I asked myself, “Am I supposed to be here? Everyone here is so sure of themselves!” But I remember one young woman sitting at a table with me and a couple of other people. She quietly listened, focused yet with a different motivation, it seemed, that many of the rest of the people there. I asked her what she was interested in, what she might want to do in a PhD program.

“You know…I don’t know.”

I loved that. How true, how real to say that to someone in a situation where most people are trying to seem casual about how amazing they are while also being mildly impressive with their perfectly crafted elevator speeches! I told her that that was where real learning started, and that she was in the perfect place to start to figure out her big questions.

Thinking about what is going on in today’s world, everyone is trying to have The Answer. With the no-indictment decisions in both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, bloggers and journalists are scrambling for their laptops to write the groundbreaking story on “the only way to end police violence.” This story in the Daily Beast, for example, does point to an important issue – the historical dehumanization of Black people in this country as a direct cause of both the violence and the ignorance/ignoring of this violence in the dominant White community in this country – but I’m taking issue with the headline.

Are we in an era when we need to act like we know, even when we don’t and can’t completely know? You could argue that a thoughtful, critical mind should be reading as many of the news sources of the moment to understand what’s going on in the world right now, and I think that’s a priority especially when our country is rupturing into a wild and heaving cry that we haven’t heard for eons about racial prejudice and oppression as a community issue rather than a sectarian, political, or academic one.

Yet it’s the weeping that keeps catching our ears even as we read, as we seek to disappear into the words of others about the deaths, the destruction of Black lives and Black families, rather than give this grief our full attention. Perhaps it cannot be until we truly listen – until we truly say, “I don’t know” – that we can begin to understand more fully. When we stop acting as though we with the pedigreed degrees and affirmative, wordy ways of speaking know what is true, and start listening, really listening, to what is going on, to the depth and rawness and madness and pain of our neighbors, our lovers, our strangers, our country…maybe that’s where real learning can start. It is a howl, a moan of grief that has been woven into our country’s voice for years. Let’s hope we – and I mean all of us, as Americans – haven’t forgotten how to listen.

La Guitarra
by Federico García Lorca

Empieza el llanto
de la guitarra.
Se rompen las copas
de la madrugada.
Empieza el llanto
de la guitarra.
Es inútil
callarla.
Es imposible
callarla.
Llora monótona
como llora el agua,
como llora el viento
sobre la nevada.
Es imposible
callarla.
Llora por cosas
lejanas.
Arena del Sur caliente
que pide camelias blancas.
Llora flecha sin blanco,
la tarde sin mañana,
y el primer pájaro muerto
sobre la rama.
¡Oh guitarra!
Corazón malherido
por cinco espadas.

(translation)

The weeping of the guitar
begins.
The goblets of dawn
are smashed.
The weeping of the guitar
begins.
Useless
to silence it.
Impossible
to silence it.
It weeps monotonously
as water weeps
as the wind weeps
over snowfields.
Impossible
to silence it.
It weeps for distant
things.
Hot southern sands
yearning for white camellias.
Weeps arrow without target
evening without morning
and the first dead bird
on the branch.
Oh, guitar!
Heart mortally wounded
by five swords.

Translation taken from http://allpoetry.com/La-Guitarra.

“Go ahead, make my day”: Videos and citizen-police confrontations

Of course everything going on in Ferguson and the rest of the country is on people’s minds nowadays. In New York today there was a demonstration that many people joined in midtown to show solidarity with protesters all across the U.S. There are commentaries on every side about what the purpose of such demonstrations are, how they’re different from the 1960s (lower risk, more like a publicity stunt than actual protests), what will happen 3-6 months down the road…but no matter what, it’s on people’s minds and lips. And that’s a good thing.

I saw today a headline that caught my eye: “Black Man Detained By White Police Officer For Walking With His Hands In His Pockets.” The video was made over the weekend and takes place in Pontiac, Michigan, where a police officer was called because, well, you saw the title. Insane…ridiculous…and yet not so surprising given what our country’s lazy, noncommittal view of racial profiling has been over the last few years.

When I watched the video, it struck me as absurd – yet so indicative of our technophilic culture – that both the man being stopped by the camera and the cop used their phones to record what was going on in video. Was it fear? Was it a desire to document what he thought might get ugly? Or was it just that anything that happens in any social sphere – be it a birthday party, a drunken mishap, a disaster, a case of (a probably White) someone calling the cops because they thought (a Black) someone else looked suspicious – must be transformed into an externalized event and put online for all to see?

It was like four people, not two, were at the scene in Pontiac, Michigan. But yet I imagine Black men all over this country are making sure to bring their cell phone with them, in case something happens. Now that the police are under fire, perhaps it’s the same with them. While I get it, I get the apprehension about the guy on the other side of what has become a nasty dividing line, it saddens me that a little more distance and tension even than usual have been put into place between them.

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Whites and the Brown conversation

I’m writing from a cafe with wifi now which is closing soon, but I suppose that’s a good thing. Today I don’t have much to say in light of everything going on in this country related to the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO and the verdict not to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who shot him. So much has been said, so many angry and sorrowful and uplifting images shared, so many powerful moments yet to come.

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A quick comparison: Fox News published a quick summary of its version of the events of August 9th, 2014, in which Wilson told his side of the story and said there was “no way” Brown’s hands were in the air and that his conscience was clear. Case closed, right?

A different version came out today in U.S. News and World Report to detail the myriad mishandlings of the case put before the grand jury in Ferguson, not the least of which included the prosecutor’s poor management of evidence and procedure, as well as his possible bias due to his own (White) police officer father having been killed by a (Black) man 50 years prior.

My only thought here is: Fox, you’re wrong. The case is not closed, even if Wilson and you and other nervous White conservatives want it to be. The Brown conversation will continue, and we will all be a part of it, whether you like it or not.

The performance of suffering for the rich white audience

A friend of mine posted a video on Facebook today featuring Anuradha Koirala, a Nepalese activist fighting sex trafficking in her country and in neighboring India, being honored at the CNN Heroes Award ceremony in 2010. The courage with which she fights for the rights of girls and women to have control over their bodies, to live with dignity, and to rediscover their right to freedom and self-determination, inspires and moves any viewer without a doubt.

I guess it’s my fault I got a little distracted.

While I was watching the video of the ceremony, introduced by Demi Moore, I found myself irritated by shots of audience members getting teary-eyed through the presentation of Koirala, whom the women she has helped save call “elder sister,” and her mission. Moore’s voice broke with emotion as she spoke…but weirdly, I wanted to holler at her. I became tearful, then annoyed with myself, while I sat and watched the music, the video clips, Koirala’s earnest plea to “take each child as your daughter” and remember that it is in solidarity that we can stop such abominable practices. I felt a sense of distant yet palpable anger: How convenient it is for me to sit, safe, untouched, in my dining room with my laptop and shed a noble, clean tear for poor women thousands of miles away whose suffering I could never understand!

The convictions and missions of people with brown faces in this country, either home-grown movements like the civil rights movement or international causes like human trafficking, have always been framed by white, wealthy voices, voices that include those of Hollywood actresses, activists in the same cause, or politicians. I don’t mean to say that the publicity of such missions has no merit; quite the contrary – they need to be heard. But there’s a process of cooptation, of reappropriation, that takes place once they pass through the dominant discourse of charity and social change, which normalizes them for the public. In a way, the weeping of rich white women at the awfulness of the truth of kidnapping and enslavement of girls in Nepal makes the mission more real to us, safer to view through the shared lens, while in some ways it acts as a distancing performance of the much more savage and brutal existence – it cannot be called “life” as we understand it – of the women who are kept as slaves.

Weirdly, these survivors are objectified once again through the lens of Hollywood, even as their story is told. And we rich white Americans get to sit here in our lives of ease and convenience and enjoy our easy moment of catharsis before getting back into our days.

Varietévorführung im Haus Vaterland