Month: September 2016

Interpersonal Political Violence and its Half-Apologists

by Matt Stannard

Between the end of the primaries and last week, we hadn’t heard much more about physical assaults at the Real Estate Tycoon’s political rallies. But then at one event, video captured a man grabbing a male protester and slapping a female one; at another, police have charged a man with assaulting a 69 year-old woman. Video at another event shows a private security guard working for team Tycoon yelling an obscenity straight into a man’s face, while a video released just prior to these events shows a montage of racist and sexist emotives throughout several events. I’m guessing there are many similar events not captured on video.

As a former legal and resource advocate for domestic violence victims, and a survivor of abuse, these events viscerally disturb me. Even thinking about these things happening to people fills me with a philosophical disgust. Those triggery feelings don’t come from the rough physical contact itself; in sporting or other contexts hard contact doesn’t bother me. It’s that the acts are violative, filled with invasive claims to power, non-consensual and micro-politically oppressive (like the Tycoon’s politics). I’m not trying to describe those feelings as theoretical categories, either. The acts are trauma-inducing to their victims and to hypersensitive observers like me. I also understand that they are utilized as media spectacle, of which I’ll say a little more below.

I’ve felt frustrated trying to articulate these feelings publicly, both because they draw attention to my hypersensitivity over abuse and because this horrified rejection of the Tycoon (and an accompanying concern with stopping the movement he represents) doesn’t lead me to the Democratic Party or compel me to vote for its presidential candidate. That inevitably awkward discussion aside, I’m not comfortable placing my trauma-stress near any of the three dominant political orientations towards the Republican nominee and his followers’ fits of violence.

Those three categories of response are: 1. Republican critics of the Tycoon. They see the violence as an unfortunate and tangential distraction. 2. Democrats. They see the violence as indicative of a temperament unfit to lead. 3. Lefty “half-apologists” for the Tycoon. They see the violence as an inconsequential spectacle and a manifestation of the systemic violence propped up by both parties.  

Intellectually, I am closest to #3, but only with the second of its two holdings. That is, the media may make a spectacle of people getting punched in the face, but it’s not inconsequential and it’s real to its victims and those around it. The problem with proponents of #3 (and they’re a solid presence on the left blogosphere) is that they seem to understand violence systemically but not interpersonally, leading to poor rhetorical interaction with good people who are sincerely and unapologetically voting to stop it; people for whom the horror of bloody masculinist violence perpetrated by a wealthy white male narcissist (and alleged rapist) is indeed enough to compel them to vote for the candidate they deem most likely to defeat him.

I can’t bring myself to blame anyone for making that calculation, and this is a very good illustration of making one decision while not faulting people for making a different one. The substantially lower risk of having someone beat the hell out of you at a Democratic event than a Republican event is real, and there are political reasons for that difference that add to an egalitarian critique of systemic violence. Dismissing a priori the fear of brutality, or simply telling the people who are afraid to toughen up, is to put theory over person and practice. Genuine transformative thinking requires that we understand why, in this unstable and unhinged world, when mechanisms of emancipation are so elusive and inconvenient, many people will vote on which candidate seems less like an abusive predator.

I agree that the order propped up by Clintonian neoliberalism contains (both possesses and hides) equivalent interpersonal violence. I understand the ways liberal politics both depends on and masks systemic and specific violence. And I think it’s possible to understand that, and commit to fight against it, and reject lesser-evilism and vote for the candidates you want to vote for, all while acknowledging the unique horror of the Real Estate Tycoon’s incipient fascist politics. I think it’s possible to say “I share your concern and fear, and it leads me to a different response.” All it takes is some sensitivity, respect for nuance, and willingness to sit out pointless social media arguments that you probably should have avoided in the first place. Stop blaming Democratic voters for being really, really afraid, and start building the alternative we keep insisting must be built. Those actions will build the movement. Acting insensitive and throwing macho bullshit around won’t.

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Sept. 9 Inmate Protesters “in this struggle for the long haul”

An update, and interviews with some inmates, on tomorrow’s prison protest events. 

Tomorrow, September 9, inmates in prisons from California to Alabama will rise in protest and civil disobedience against the inhumane conditions, underpaid labor, and socioeconomic oppression of the American prison system. Activists in states from Washington to New York, Michigan to Texas, will gather in solidarity with those prisoners. As I wrote in an article published yesterday at Occupy.com, this is a strike against American corporate capitalism itself, because the prison is the “ideological muscularity” of economic injustice. Punitive incarceration (as opposed to the detention of unstable and dangerous individuals) is a policy farce, which even intelligent conservative legal theorists are hesitant to defend. But what happens in American prisons is even worse–American policymakers have accepted the inevitability of micro-violence, an entire paradigm of inmates’ loss of agency over their bodies, behind prison walls. Even most of the international human rights community reluctantly accepts the inevitability of compulsory labor as part of imprisonment. But radical egalitarian thinking does not, and the politics of 2015-2016 have brought egalitarianism onto a bigger stage.

The events have been in planning and promotion stages for several weeks now, but apart from a fine article in The Nation that also ran yesterday, national media coverage has been lacking. The protest at Standing Rock — a stand by Native Americans and allies against the economic interests that run over indigenous land — have also overshadowed other activist news, and it’s worth noting that the protests there are connected with prison resistance at the deepest levels. The extraction-exploitation economy uses the cheapest human labor it can find, and fights to dig energy out from all land, no matter how sacred to those connected to that land. Dig stuff up, throw people in prison, keep planet and people in a state of dependence and desperation.

The authenticity of the prison fight, and the discomforting intimacy of its demands, make it easy to pass over in our daily quest for a smooth ride from dawn to dark. But that doesn’t fully explain the pervasive public indifference to the inhumane conditions of our prisons, or to the hollowing out and economic disenfranchisement of the incarcerated, effects that, even if they were ethically defensible, would still be pragmatically counterproductive.

That indifference was on my mind as I wrote both of my Occupy.com articles on the September 9 events, and activist Ben Turk provided his perspectives on public indifference for yesterday’s article. “The state has done a good job of convincing us to reduce prisoners to whatever crime they were convicted of,” he said, “regardless of all the circumstances and unreliability of the criminal legal system.”

Someone forwarded the same questions I asked Ben Turk to two incarcerated people with deep involvement in prison demonstrations and, last night, through an intermediary, I received answers  best presented in their entirety.

From the Ohio State Penitentiary, I heard from Siddique Abdullah Hasan, a prison Imam and organizer on death row, a sentence related to the death of a police officer in the 1993 uprising at Southern Ohio Correctional Facility.

Matt Stannard: I think it’s a fair question to ask: What is it about prisoner resistance that causes such dissonance and reactance in the public? Many people I know have friends or family members that have been in prison. But, despite the numbers, prisoners are really at the bottom of the heap for the political priorities of even “progressive-minded” people. What are your thoughts on that?

Imam Siddique Abdullah Hasan: There are several factors contributing to this “dissonance and reactance.” One of them being the overexposure of violence, crimes and wars by the national media. It is an undeniable reality that a large percentage of what the public internalizes emanates from the national media who routinely portrays prisoners, their rights, and their ongoing resistance against mass incarceration, prison slavery, and super economic exploitation, in a negative light. When one actually analyzes the colossal negative exposure that are given to prisoners by the national media, it is amazing that prisoners’ rights and their resistance stand even on the bottom of the heap when it comes to the political priorities of “progressive-minded” people.
My personal observation has confirmed that the media, especially mainstream media, devotes a considerable amount of time demonizing prisoners and characterizing them as uncaring, unsympathetic, and incorrigible monsters that deserve to be in prison for the crimes they are suspected of committing against society as well as their fellow citizens. No coverage at all is given to those innocent souls lingering in prison, and very little coverage is given to those whom were wrongfully imprisoned and whom are catching hell trying to put their nightmarish experiences behind them. I submit that if the media were to give some fair coverage as to what causes most people to commit crimes and violence in the first place, then more people would become sympathetic toward prisoners’ rights and resistance. I also submit that if society were to remove the causes to crimes–unemployment, poverty, illiteracy, drug, alcohol, and unlimited access to guns–then there would be no mass effects, viz., robbery, rape, murder, burglary, assault, property crimes, to name a few. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, robbery, rape, murder, burglary, and violence are the most often committed crimes in the United States, and this writer is certain that many of your friends and their families have been either the victims or the secondary victims of these crimes. As a result, the overwhelming majority of the people in society have become detached and desensitized toward prisoners’ rights, their resistance, and their struggles. This detachment and desensitization will only change when the people in society come into the realization that prisoners’ struggles and their struggles are actually one and the same, and that the same government that is oppressing and economically exploiting those in prison is the same government that is oppressing and economically exploiting those in society. Therefore, we should not allow our common enemy to divide and conquer us, nor to pit one group against another.

MS: How would you characterize the significance/importance of the September 9th events? Like, at the risk of sounding shallow, what would be a “win” for the cause in the context of these events?

ISAH: Events on September 9th will be extremely significant in pushing our fight to revolutionize the prison-industrial complex, and to put their corporate friends on notice that we will no longer passively accept their super economic exploitation of either us or our hardworking families. Our objective is to level the playing field by creating both the circumstances and conditions where the prisoncrats will have to compensate us for our labor and afford us the same benefits and protections as traditional workers. Moreover, our objective is to ultimately eliminate prison slavery. We are American citizens, not her slaves, and we are rising up as one and refusing to be treated as such. We will go forward in the spirit of our ancestors, as well as their allies, who fought too hard and too long in this country for their descendants to still be treated as slaves in the 21st Century.
I’ve learned early in life that nothing beats a failure, or a loser, but a person who doesn’t try. We emphatically understand that this movement to eliminate prison slavery is going to be a protracted struggle; therefore, an initial “win” will be to simply stand up to this oppressive government. But, the ultimate “win” will come when we succeed in abolishing prison slavery and mass incarceration. We will accept nothing less. These two issues are nonnegotiable. So come what may and let the wind blow wherever, for we are in this struggle for the long haul. And, that’s real talk!

I also received a message from Greg Curry, also on death row over the deaths in the ’93 Ohio uprising (as the Ohio ACLU points out, Hasan, Curry and others continue to declare their innocence and are denied face-to-face contact with media in retaliation for their argumentativeness). Curry’s message was obviously conveyed via text message, and I’ll post it that way.

I think society, in general, feel if your in prison u get what treatment u get and rumor is we have cable TV !!!microwaves etc. society also feel if we innocent the system will straighten it all out!!! so basically no one wants to see the sausage made. also every oppressed community know A GUY that BELONGS in prison, so each of us viewed through that lens, help explain why its such a disconnect . one other key point is ACTIVIST, MOSTLY, don’t take the time to get to know the prisoner they aim to help. if r children had play dates, or we married, or got matching tattoo s !(smile) then ur working from awhole other sphere! ALSO PERHAPS its time to call out the AS CALLED PROGRESSIVE, the NAACP, etc. the sameway we would call out TRUMP at a local fish fry. all should b held accountable. people and places raise funds off their so called help to prisoners. . no one should b afraid to .MEASURE THE MOVEMENT. in regards to that, by this being a .multi state prisoner driven effort it has already been successful!! the fruit of the labor may not of been tasted as of yet but this is the start of endless possibilities!!!! FREEDOm FIRST, GREG. p.s. evidence on .y case is at GREG CURRY.ORG. … one other thing for .matt… you ask what the win would look like, I should mention what the LOSE look like.. that is to say more of the same abuses, free labor forced compliance, and hopelessness amongst prisoners. that losing has a foul smell to it ,in a losers eyes there is a absence of LIFE. we NEED some VICTORY!!! GREG

If protest involves a “rhetoric of confrontation” by the powerless, which forces us to examine both our own privilege and the massive excavation of planet and living beings necessary to maintain even higher levels of privilege, and does so at the risk of great discomfort, the prison uprisings are exemplary to this. They will make many of us uncomfortable.

With great reverence and respect for those who are risking their necks behind prison walls, I conclude this by urging everyone reading to do something, confronting your discomfort and awkwardness, if you have it, and help these actions and these incarcerated human beings tomorrow.  The Prisoner Resistance list provides the following possibile actions, most of which are explicitly for non-prisoners:

1. IWOC hotline: prisoners facing retaliation for strike activities can call the IWOC hotline collect anytime of the day or night at 816-866-3808. Send that number to your inside contacts, or call it yourself if you hear from someone needing help. You can also email IWOC at iwoc@riseup.net.
2. The National Lawyer’s Guild has offered to file an individual “notice of claim” on behalf of each prisoner against abusive and retaliatory prisons and guards. Filing a notice of claim tells the prison that a suit could be filed and puts them on notice that abuse has happened. *It is not the actual suit*, but it gives violated prisoners time to find local lawyers. Please send details to newjersey@nlg.org and to massdef@nlg.org. Prisoners can also reach out directly to: NLG Mass Defense, 132 Nassau Street, Rm. 922, New York, NY 10038
3. Constant pressure! IWOC has set up a phone zap system to make it easy to make all the needed anti-repression and support phone calls, and to get reminders. Please commit to spending 30 minutes every couple of days to making calls. Visit https://goo.gl/forms/v3kTjt00s6ybO2Of1 to get started.
4. Donate! Support all the great work IWOC is doing, and make sure that Sep 9 is just the beginning of a new chapter of ongoing prisoner struggles by chipping in here: https://rally.org/endprisonslavery
5. Solidarity Actions! Join the over 50 actions across the country! March, rally, organize a mass call in or letter writing campaign, drop a banner, plan support, get inspired by all the amazing plans compiled by ItsGoingDown.org here: https://itsgoingdown.org/spreading-strike-solidarity-actio…/
6. Educate! Learn more about the strike, and tell others, share it on social media through #EndPrisonSlavery, #PrisonStrike, and prisonstrike.com. Find tons of articles and information at SupportPrisonerResistance.net, where people can also endorse the strike, join this mailing list, and find organizer contacts in your area.
7. Volunteer! There are dozens of easy, but time-consuming tasks involved in maintaining this support infrastructure. If you have any interest in helping out with checking emails, maintaining websites, transcribing letters, handling media people, answering calls or mail, please please please reply to this email prisonerresistance@gmail.com and we’ll plug you in. Thank you.

Everyone reading this can at least do one of these things. Do it and see how it feels–that stretching of yourself into solidarity.

 

Matt Stannard is policy director at Commonomics USA.