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).

“Who are you?”: Art as disruptor, generator of public space

At a graduate student conference called Radical Democracy at The New School a couple of weeks ago, I attended a panel in which several students discussed art and artists who sought to disrupt the status quo about how information is shared and important social issues are discussed among the people of any society. Institutionalized processes of dissemination and control of discourse can constrain access, as well as the range of response, to these issues, making it a less a representation of all voices in the community and more inclusion by selective bias (which tends to benefit those closer to centers of power.

The artwork presented by one of the students in the panel offered an alternative vision. Pasha Cas, a brilliant young Kazakh student who has been creating public art in postsocialist Kazakhstan since he was 16 years old, calls himself a “street artist” and engages passersby with important social issues like nuclear waste, international conflict, and human alienation and loneliness in new forms of capitalist labor arrangement and extraction in the 21st century. The goal: to disrupt the ways in which people access such debates — which influence each and every one of us — and to generate public discourses that are fresh, dynamic, and immediate at the visual level of the passersby. Such an approach abdicates the power of intellectual and art-world elites to control the narrative and determine the direction and scope of public engagement with our daily struggles in shared spaces. This is activist in its generation of public space at a time when we are atomized by exhausting work schedules and other experiences of isolation, suspicion, and fear. He thrills us by asking, “Who are you?” in his latest video (link here), a quesitons that seems too rarely asked in a world that appears to be more interested in the individual as consumer and the community as basis for homgenization.

“WE DANCE!” (2016) BY PASHA CAS (TEMIRATU, KAZAKHSTAN)

See more examples and a brief interview here. Pasha Cas’s manifest video, «This Is Silence», can be found here.

Swamp Monster Betsy Devos: Nominee for Secretary of Education

Going to protest the possibility that Betsy Devos could become the Secretary of Education of this country tomorrow at BMCC in lower Manhattan. Watch her avoid responding substantively to any questions about equal protections for all students who have disabilities, who suffer bullying, who take out student loans, who are taken advantage of by for-profit career colleges.
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Here are some of the reasons why I’m demonstrating tomorrow:
  • Devos is a dominionist, which means she believes in Christian education and doesn’t believe in the separation of church and state
  • She is a billionaire whose family has funded anti-LGBTQ social actions in the South
  • She is pro-charter school, pro-privatization, pro-voucher (which Senator Hassan (D, NH) in the first video pushes Devos to say she will make available to students with disabilities, instead of signing away their rights to protections they have now), anti-public school and anti-protection at the federal level of fair and decent public education for American children
  • She still has not completed her ethics questionnaire and thus has dodged the proper vetting procedure needed to evaluate her fitness as the country’s lead figure in determining education policy
  • She has never worked in a public school as an educator or an administrator
  • Her work has signaled a desire to protect corporate profits over the needs of children of color, children with disabilities, children who are poor, children who are non-Christian, and other children whose civil rights have consistently been compromised and attacked historically
  • She clearly is unfamiliar with federal laws like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and debates about “growth” vs. “proficiency” (see the Franken video)
I love this last exchange in the first video:
Hassan: “I would urge you to become familiar, should you be nominated, with the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, and I do have to say, I’m concerned that you seem so unfamiliar with it, and that you seem to support voucher schools that have not honored, you know, have made students sign away their rights to make sure that the law is enforced. That’s very troubling to me.”
Devos: “Senator, I assure you that I, if confirmed, I will be very sensitive to the needs of special needs students and the policies surrounding that.”
Hassan: “And with all due respect, it’s not about sensitivity, although that helps. It’s about being willing to enforce the law to make sure that my child and every child has the same access to public education, high-quality public education, and the reality is that the way that the voucher systems that you have supported work don’t always come out that way…”

Of the people, by the people, for the people

Watching a video of an interview with Edward Snowden, NSA whistleblower, fugitive and public intellectual living in Russia. I saw Citizen Four, the movie about his decision and actions to release information about the widespread NSA surveillance both in the United States and around the world, last night. The story impressed me, not in small part because it featured Snowden in his humility, his philosophical thinking, his challenge of the contradiction between the American value of the right to privacy — encoded in the Fourth Amendment — and the justification for gathering data about millions of Americans under the Patriot Act.

The video I’m watching contains a set of lines from Snowden that I love and resonate deeply with conversations I’m having with colleagues and friends about the question of government and governance (for they are not the same thing) and what it means to live in a democracy:

…We should be cautious about putting too much faith or fear in the work of public officials. At the end of the day, this is just a president…If we want to see a change, we must force it through ourselves. If we want to have a better world, we can’t hope for an Obama, and we should not fear a Donald Trump. Rather, we should build it ourselves.

Can we have a people-powered movement, a change that flies in the face of corporatism and cronyism and doublespeak and corruption of not only democracy but also critical thinking? Can we have a government, again, of the people, by the people, for the people, as Lincoln once mused?

Paciencia, then. Estamos plantando. Let’s start planting.

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PAINTING BY A. BALLESTER

Getting started

It’s a funny title for a post, since I’ve been writing this blog since 2014. However, what began as a scholarly exercise, to be executed faithfully but unhurriedly, has shifted in my mind. The stream of conversation now, in the aftermath of Donald J. Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, has become a torrent of great anger, anxiety, sorrow, and uncertainty, with smatterings of told you so’s and many predictions for the future. I am writing this now to exercise my voice and to contribute what I can, as a PhD student, a professor, and a reader and writer about immigration and education. As both aspects of the conversation about the future of America very much need defense and advocacy, I commit myself to doing this as much as I can, both here and elsewhere in my work.

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COALITION OF IMMOKALEE WORKERS PROTEST ON MARCH 10, 2012
SOURCE: HTTP://WAGINGNONVIOLENCE.ORG/FEATURE/WHY-IM-WALKING-200-MILES-WITH-THE-IMMOKALEE-WORKERS/

Last night I read a Truthout article about the increasing influence of big donors on public education. Entitled “Are Wealthy Donors Influencing the Public School Agenda?“, the piece detailed the shifts in education policy at the local and state level that have occurred more and more via the donation of big money from wealthy “reformers” (the discursive construction of the term reform will be the topic of a future post.) These philanthro-barons come to the proverbial table with disproportionately loud voices, silencing participation from smaller (read: less well-funded) participants on decisions relating to educational policy taken by local school boards. Donations from such “education reformers” — who are often not members of the communities to which they donate — have influenced the ways in which school board elections come out, using the power of media representation to undercut messaging from competitors with smaller coffers. Aside from skewing the democratic election process, the influence of wealthier, more powerful donors brings the increasing presence of the values they espouse, which, according to the article’s authors’ background research (see here and here), differ significantly from most people in the United States. These donors tend to hold neoliberal perspectives rooted in market-driven solutions like “school choice” (code for controversial voucher programs and the increase in the number of charter schools, which are meant to provide alternatives to struggling district schools and compel those in existence to ‘step up their game’) and “accountability” (code for highly problematic data-driven decision-making which supports funding cuts and staff reductions for underperforming schools).

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CAT WITH A CIGAR BY LOUIS WAIN, COURTESY OF WIKI COMMONS

The issue resonates with the 2016 presidential election for me, not because of the “fat cats always win” crowing I’m doing along with many other folks. Instead, I see this as part of a conversation we in the United States need to have about the role of the media and messaging in shaping our public discourse. The Truth-Out article includes the story of a local school board candidate who, like me, works in the education of adult immigrants. He states the following:

It [money] changes the discourse…their [the reform candidates] message is the only message. Not just the dominant message anymore. It’s the only message people are hearing.

Why is this the case? Are parents and communities literally unable to get access to a diversity of perspectives in decisions about education? Is it the fact that we are so overloaded at work, so wrapped up in the latest Netflix series that we can’t find the time to talk to the other people on our street or on the bus or subway? The blinding and deafening of corporate media blitzing, which likewise draws strength and influence from the strategic controls of wealth, may have something to do with this. The news tells me the schools are struggling, teachers are not doing their jobs, students are innocent and must be saved, our families are under fire, and other messages that induce panic. We must make change. Enter…reform. Exit community togetherness, dialogue with equal sharing of the mike.

Money massages us into forgetting that we don’t need saving by outside angels. We forget that we have our own tools. Can we recall that in a democratic country all voices should be equal, not some “more equal than others” because they come from throats swathed in silks printed in glossy campaigns that inundate and lure us away from critical thinking and connection to our neighbor?

Pro-immigrant activism in Boston

Yesterday morning I went with organizers from the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (https://www.miracoalition.org/) to the State House in Boston to advocate for the support of amendments to the state budget which protect immigrants’ access to housing, in-state tuition, education, and health care. We spoke with representatives and their aides and interns about this complicated but yet very human process of passing laws. Inspiring to think about how shaking hands, seeing people face to face (if not eye to eye), can still influence change. We are all civically connected!

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I’m also attaching the a link to the documents which listed the talking points we brought with us to speak with the representatives. MIRA made it accessible and real for everyone involved. A great model to follow in considering how to participate in the health and protection of our community in partnership with our elected leaders!

MIRA opposes Public Housing Discrimination 1
Please co-sponsor these amendments_&_opposed amendements for action

Discourse, voice, and rightness in an animal rights activist talk

Tonight I attended a talk at the Blue Stockings Bookstore on Allen Street in lower Manhattan with a friend, where we partook in a conversation about animal rights called Animal Rights Campaigning and Racism. Interesting questions framed the talk:

  • How can we campaign for animal liberation while being self-aware of privilege, xenophobia, imperialism, and the ongoing instrumentalization of animal welfare issues by racist parties and groups?
  • Who has the “right” to criticize “other” cultural practices?
  • What role does our language and imagery play?
  • Which targets should we choose?
  • How are we to remain sincere to our anarchist, emancipatory ideals for total liberation?

My friend, a near-vegan and animal rights proponent, had invited me to join her and I was looking forward to learning something new, especially with such a critical frame. Topics like decolonization, anthropocentrism, and speciesism came into the thread, and some of the important racist dimensions of the construction of animals-as-inferior, which include anti-indigenous and genocidal practices in the past and present, were discussed by the moderators, three young people of color who had studied, participated in, and taught about animal activism.

I struggled with some of the discourse generated by the talk. A recurring theme was the indictment of the White Eurocentric settler colonialist tradition, which is absolutely important to discuss in terms of topics relating to oppression and consumption. Yet at times it seemed reductive. American thinking tends to be very race-centric as a way of constructing difference, and there is so much more to explore when thinking about the cultural relationships we have to our environments as human beings, including geography, religion, economics and labor relations (though capitalism and neoliberalism, in fairness, were referenced a couple of times). At times where someone brought up a point not considered supportive of the overarching theme mentioned above, like a comment by a young woman about food deserts, it was shot down fairly quickly either by the moderators, or with their support.

This is good to observe, as a budding professor and future moderator of conferences (I hope). I felt that the way the moderators spoke implied (a) a strong belief in one’s rightness, which was drawn from what were assumed to be common understandings among the group, and (b) an emphasis on pontification and proselytization. As a participant, this became a sort of drone that I ended up taking little away from.

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This really signals the important question of voice, which resonated with questions I have about how to manage my classes in a way which is fair and values all participants. Rather than give a blow-by-blow account of the night (it went on too long for my taste, with too much showing-off of knowledge, intermingled with teary accounts of one’s deep convictions and struggles), I’ll just say that events like this are instructive. They remind teachers like me that any leadership posture we have in a group confers power over internal norms and language use, terminology, processes of inclusion and exclusion, and other ways of shaping how the group interacts. And I hate to say it, but after this, I don’t know if I ever want to be a part of a “group” like this again.