Monday, December 5, 2011

On White Privilege and Going to Jail Part II

I was arrested last Tuesday night/early Wednesday morning at the "peaceful" eviction of the OccupyLA encampment. I was released late Thursday night on my own recognizance, with a notice to appear in court on January 6th. I still have comrades in jail, some of whom were snatched just two days ago during a march. 


One conversation that has emerged from this experience was sparked by the impatience many long-time activists feel in the face of the arrestee's complaints about tight cuffs, bad food, rough treatment, no showers, and so on. The conversation looks something like this: 
Occupy Arrestee: They treated us so badly in jail! This is an outrage!
Seasoned Activist: What did you expect? They've been doing this to people for fifty years. 
OA: But this time they did it to ME!
SA: And so now you care? What about when they were doing it to the Black Panthers in the 1960s? What about when they do it to people in marginalized urban communities every DAY? What about when they do it to the house-less, or to prostitutes? It's so selfish to suddenly care about the treatment of incarcerated people now that you've had a taste of the system. 
OA: I know, I know. What can I do about my past? I didn't get it. I get it now. 


As frustrating as it is to know that many of the people who were radicalized by their experiences in jail could have potentially been radicalized by an education prior, I hope to help welcome my brothers and sisters into the radical fold, whatever their entry was. 


For me, the real moment of radicalization happened last year, in an Ethnic Studies course taught by Dylan Rodriguez at UC Riverside. When I read the book "Pacifism as Pathology," by Ward Churchill, and sat in a room of activist-scholars who had much clearer and more nuanced understanding of the way privilege functions in our country, I had the first in a series of "aha" moments that have changed me. 


Some statements of my privilege: I am a white woman from the middle class, who had not yet been targeted by law enforcement. I can see women who look like me on TV. I have never been told not to speak my native language. I have never been told that my clothes could be a reason for my imprisonment. I have access to birth control. I have an education. I can read very well. I have traveled to other countries. I have access to the internet. I know a lot about nutrition, and I can afford to eat healthfully. I do not support a large family. I have a supportive family. I have never lived with a substance addiction. I own a cell phone. And so on.


I am from Berkeley, and so my understanding of what it meant to be leftist was mostly pacifist, communicative, and passive towards state power. I had never questioned the efficacy or the inherent privilege of that position. I generally want to deescalate violence. I had never questioned the efficacy or the inherent privilege of that stance, either. Over the course of ten weeks in Dylan's class, scales fell from my eyes and I was in pain: the pain of realizing that for all my education and radical politics, I had actually been blind to the complex functioning of systems of repression and oppression. It wasn't my fault, but it was my fault. 


In the holding cell at Van Nuys Metro, I watched women get angry at the way incarcerated people are dehumanized, bullied, and subjected to torturous conditions as a matter of course. One activist said, "Stop complaining at every little thing, it makes us look stupid. This is what jail is like for everyone." I interjected, "No. I think every grievance should get voiced. Our job here is to remind the LAPD, and ourselves, that we don't have to accept the 'fact' of jail, that we can look at it with fresh anger, and that we are fighting systemic acceptance of wrong, immoral, inhumane conditions for everyone, not just for ourselves." In that situation, the naive response was the most radical! It involved women seeing something for the first time, and recognizing its disease because they had not already accepted that it was status quo. 


This is why longtime organizers always need to listen to new voices and young people. We sometimes settle into a sense of "one must pick one's battles." Do I think my friend should have screamed so loud about wanting a toothbrush that she got carted off to solitary? Yes. Because she started a conversation on the whole cell block about why the hell they wouldn't let us brush our teeth. She started a conversation about repressive tactics of psychological torture that many thought weren't used on American civilians. One officer, when we requested a newspaper, said, "You don't get to have one today. You need a lot of time to think."


So we took that time to think. And as far as I know, not a one of us felt repentant at the end of it. 


The move into more radical thought doesn't have to happen violently, but it feels violent, because it is the destabilization of all that one used to "know" about how the world works. It is an epistemological shift that hurts. But it is the best kind of pain. It is birth. And the more who go through it, whether in a classroom, in a jail cell, or from their childhood as it is necessary for survival, the more comrades we have in the fight. 




41 comments:

  1. This conduct will continue to occur until people can change their hearts and raise the level of loving kindness and compassion in them. We can jump up and down, yell and scream, but only through true love and compassion will things change. If we had loving and compassionate society - there would not be jails like the ones you see in our society.

    Bowing,

    Frank

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  2. Perhaps one thing to consider though, is the reality that in jail, such actions as 'demanding a toothbrush' may elicit a violent, repressive reaction from guards. Your white privilege, and the association with the occupyla movement (not really criminals, better educated, connected to lawyers, etc) may have meant you received the guards 'best behavior.' I don't know. What i DO know, based on my eight year experience in prison, is that when people of color, or who have been in and out, or just in the system, talk about picking battles, it may be because they are much more familiar with the potential violence of this system, a violence which you may not have seen. To adopt the position you argue for here may stand in opposition to the experience of people of color in the prison-industrial complex, and once again, naturalize white privilege. I don't know . I wasn't there. But it is a dynamic i am familiar with.

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  3. I'm one of those people who used to smirk when kids got arrested at protests in Los Angeles. Growing up in Hollywood, we knew that there was a paramilitary controlling the city that would brook no dissent...the kind of freedom people had in San Francisco and Berkeley blew my mind as a freshman..."Wow...I'm walking in the MIDDLE OF THE STREET!" Forget throwing eggs (and later rocks) at the UC Police...that kind of thing would have invited a bullet in LA.

    This is a story I told Anthony upon meeting him: In 2000 I had two reporters from Portland crashed in my apartment for the Democratic Convention. One decided to join a sit-down at the old Rampart police station. They were all arrested and employed the tactic of having no ID to gum up the wheels of justice a bit. In response the Sheriff stripped them, locked them into a large windowless room and tear-gassed them, then tossed them all into solitary for a week. Will had been going to protests since the late '60s and he said it was worse than being busted in Alabama; I wasn't sure whether I was embarrassed or secretly proud of how low we'd sunk.

    In the violent times after Disco found cocaine and Punk found runaways, I had my first taste of fun with the LAPD. The cops hated punks and attacked them at every turn; in the Valley just a few cats with mohawks would attract a cruiser. Politics were an after-thought and if you got caught you could expect a beating. Although I count the Halloween riot of 1988 among this number (every missile was aimed directly at a uniform), my first three "protests" were at Larchmont Hall, the Ramones/Black Flag gig at the Palladium, and SIR Studios a bit further up Sunset. The Ramones bit made headlines in the "Times" (they blocked the street with their horses and pummeled a lot of slumming New Wavers) but the SIR Studios riot during a TSOL concert was the worst I've ever been in, including all the most violent at UC Berkeley. The police essentially attacked a recording studio with two doors and had at everyone emerging...my first "war wound" came from a club as I ran the gauntlet down Sunset. Rather than scatter some people were so enraged they fought back. I kicked out the rear window of a cruiser, an act of suicidal foolhardiness I could never of contemplated even an hour earlier.

    That moment formed me whole as a enemy of anyone with a Mandate to Rule, whether that be cops, petty bureaucrats with attitude, nightclub bouncers. As a public librarian I get to lay down the law a lot myself, which may have softened me up (I actually had to call police...and I've learned that there are good cop/bad cop/human cop/asshole cop like everyone else...) But whether it's chucking someone onto the sidewalk for taking an air bath or threating to kill a colleague, or shutting up someone off their cell phone, I am scrupulous about explaining WHY I am enforcing my miniscule authority. My results are fairly good.

    I am always sorry when shit like this goes down, because I see a lot of non-violent protestors have their mettle tested beyond the breaking point. I've never been there (I respect Dr. King and Gandhi, but I am too weak to follow in their footsteps.) I'm one of those assholes who throw shit and run away. I hope to get better, but the way things are going, it doesn't look good. When the terminal cancer finally takes root, I'll either strap on some horrible WMD and walk into the closed DEA office, or go down in some pointless stand-off that my neighbors will talk about for a decade or two. Either way I watch my friend's relatives get mowed down in Syria and marvel at how noble and how sick the dominant species is during this revolve, 2011 CE.

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  4. In the interest of being objective, this was a well written piece. And your new found perspective is to be commended. However, prisons are meant for those who break laws, and as such, are not hotels in which you get slippers and a glass of orange juice in the morning. Now that's not to say that everyone in jail is justly incarcerated or doesn't deserve humane treatment, nor is it support for many of the absurdly misguided laws we have enacted in this country over the years. But it IS something that will continue to remain a deterrent to the many people who might otherwise take advantage if it were to be welcoming. That being said, I applaud those who have stood by their moral, social and political convictions, as you clearly have, and fight for what you believe needs reformation.

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  5. I'm actually a prison abolitionist and a revolutionary. I don't believe we need to do mass incarceration, and certainly not for nonviolent offenses. Prisons and jails simply aren't deterrents-the stats on this fact are staggering. I'm not looking for reformation, although I know many people in the Occupy Movement are.
    And I take the other anonymous comment about how my "position" may reinforce privilege very seriously. What I was encouraging my cellmates to do was discover various forms of resistance, discover their own expectations of what "humane treatment" might mean, discover how entitled they felt to "justice." In the interest of getting them to see that those expectations ARE privileged. I was in a cell with mostly white women--and the women of color were from basically privileged backgrounds. The whole thing would have been different if that weren't true.

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  6. I'm also one of the #OLA292, and while I do happen to believe that we protesters were extended some extra bumshanking by the mayor's office and the LAPD for the purpose of deterring us from swiftly and eagerly returning to the streets, I also believe that it is for us at OLA to basically accept the bumshanks as CODB and simply to ask, again and again, why the frauds and thieves on Wall Street haven't been treated likewise. The Charles Princes, Robert Rubins and Lloyd Blankfeins of the financial sector have defrauded pension funds, retirement accounts, you-name-it out of hundreds of billions of dollars, and (via rampant speculation on mortgage-backed securities) willfully inflated a bubble which, upon popping, destroyed with it our nation's social fabric for a generation or more. Those are crimes. Vanessa and I (and 290 others) sat in a circle by a tent after the cops said not to. That is also a crime. Which is greater?

    Point being that, no, I'm not particularly mad that my zipcuffs were so tight (though they were, for the record, really effin' tight, and I now have nerve damage in my right thumb and palm). And I'm not mad that the LAPD officer who was arresting me threw me face-first into the pavement, while holding my hands behind my back, so that I landed straight onto my face. And I'm not mad about being forced to spend seven excruciating consecutive hours with my wrists trussed behind my back (despite being the sort of nonthreatening weenie white pacifist that Vanessa learned about at UCR).

    I'm just mad that Robert Rubin hasn't also been zipcuffed. I'm mad that Charles Prince hasn't also been made to kiss concrete. I'm mad that Lloyd Blankfein doesn't also get to feel his shoulders creak with strain for the seven unnatural hours while his wrists are trussed above his buttcrack.

    Honestly, support OLA or no, I really think that everyone should be mad about that. And I think we OLA folks should work to keep the focus on that. And as such, it's my opinion that too much discussion/debate about the extent to which the LAPD was or wasn't particularly brutal toward us OLA protesters leads us down the wrong road and fails to make the most of this particular moment in the movement.

    Best,

    Patrick Meighan
    Culver City, CA

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  7. Being that you're a self-labeled prison abolitionist, or at least sympathetic to the movement, I'm curious as to what your proposed solution is to all the violent criminals, particularly the sexual predators and child molesters (which have proven an incredibly low success rate at rehabilitation).

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  8. Great question, Anonymous number 3 or so. Proposed solutions for abolitionists actually tend to be based in community need. In other words, one "solution" for all violent crimes wont' work, and it's actually that kind of thinking that got us the Prison Industrial Complex in the first place. I suggest doing some reading at Critical Resistance, a group I adore, because they can articulate this debate better than I can: http://www.criticalresistance.org/article.php?id=49

    And Patrick, I TOTALLY hear you. I think you are right on, except for the part about eye-for-an-eye. One of the things I hope for is that we can bring banksters into a level of accountability that actually forces them to give money back to communities, not just get locked up. I don't actually care about any particular greedy people, what I care about are systemic problems that more imprisonment probably won't solve. But I hear you, and I agree that it would be easy for OLA to go on the defensive at the detriment of new action.

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  9. Oh, Vanessa I'm so happy we met. This was beautiful, well thought out, and I think can lead to some wonderful and important conversations and future collaborations around the city. Thank you so much for being such a brave, strong, and inspiring activist. I'm proud and humbled to count you as a colleague. Thank you, darling! xoxo JN

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  10. Fuck the police. Smash the state. Do it yourself. All together now.

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  11. Amazing and ticklingly ironic that the jail guards refused a distraction (newspaper) and instead condescendingly asked you to think. Thinking, from their perspective, should be exactly what they DO NOT want you to do, except perhaps talking. Thinking about the situation, the why, the ridiculousness of it, the injustice of it, the outright absurdity of it, brings us only here, exactly where it should, to talking about what happens rather than what happened, to acknowledging positions of power, privilege, assholes, and systems. I don't remember it being specifically mentioned in your post, but repeating is love anyway: White people aren't used to the idea of the prison industrial complex being used as a means of control against THEM. They enable it, vote for it, pay for it, because it is a system of control used against others, even if that means poor white people. As always in the U.S., it controls someone else, keeps them out of My house, My yard, My business and safely tamed or incarcerated. Being subjected to that, in a sense quite voluntarily, is being on the receiving end of what privileged people rarely are subjected to.

    To simplify something: The reasons to be against the whole system of punishment and imprisonment in this country are not really that complicated (WHAT to do instead, perhaps, is) to figure out, and easily understood by watching the very funny movie The Other Guys. Someone mentioned in a comment here...CEO criminals, bankers, the people who REALLY caused some damage, and REALLY abuse their power, are never thrown in jail. The most rampaging mass murdering psychopath causes less damage, despite being far more sensationalized.

    I'm so glad you fight. I'm so glad you write. So glad.

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  12. "As frustrating as it is to know that many of the people who were radicalized by their experiences in jail could have potentially been radicalized by an education prior, I hope to help welcome my brothers and sisters into the radical fold, whatever their entry was."

    While I sympathize with your embarrassment for your new-found brothers and sisters that their privilege of not having been to jail enabled them to remain naive about what goes on inside prisons, I feel this attitude is also ivory tower/elitist as it implies that those who came to the fold because they had been educated about prisons are somehow superior to those who came to it through experience. Not everyone has the benefit of such an education, so they are awakened to the issues through experience. Neither approach is better than the other.

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  13. I see how you read that. The point I was making was actually that I was in a room with women who mostly WERE in a position to be educated about prisons prior to their personal experience. In other words, those who aren't born into targeted communities (who learn by experience without their consent) should shoulder the burden of educating themselves. But yes, I agree, it doesn't matter really how you get there. I just wish that more people in higher ed saw social justice as something to be educated about.

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  14. Thank you Vanessa.
    Join the REVOLUTION!
    Radicalize Occupy.
    Abolish prison encampments used by the repressive state.
    Don't ever forget your privilege! - read this: http://vertigocrossing.blogspot.com/2011/11/occupy-your-own-privilege.html

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  15. Thanks for the clarification, and apologies for the negativity of that post. I've been meaning to follow up and tell you how proud I am of you!

    Here's an article I ran across today that addresses the evolution of police attitudes toward protesters since the 90's in the context of OWS.

    http://americanpaki.wordpress.com/2011/12/06/why-i-am-not-protesting-at-occupy/

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  16. Beautiful writings. Good thinking. Keep going. Thanks.

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  35. Hai. Beautiful work. Write frequently and be beloved of others.Thanks.

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  37. Reminded again how rare and vital a piece this is. Most people who know these things and go these places can't write like this. Most people who can write like this stay far away from trouble and clashing with the state.

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  38. I enjoyed your article because I feel all people should be treated humanely at all times, however I think people DO know how bad prison is and they don't have a problem with it because when they picture a prisoner they picture a gangbanger or a child rapist. And people do not think criminals deserve anything "good" because they have caused so much "bad." When you read an article about a person being put to death by the state, half of the reader comments are about the inmate's last meal. And that he/she got to choose it, got to enjoy something. The reader is outraged. They do not believe these people deserve anything but a quick death. Even lethal injection is too humane for them. The appeals process is considered a waste of taxpayer money.
    Very few people have compassion for people in jail. They think the justice system is fair and they are content to remain ignorant because they do not think it will ever be an issue in THEIR lives. Even decent, good, "normal" people believe there are bigger fish to fry.
    I am a bail bondsman (do keep this mind as you all continue to be arrested ;). Most people I bail out are not habitual criminals. It is usually their first time. A traffic violation never paid, a DUI, or domestic violence (which encompasses a wide range of acts, many are verbal fights, but if anyone calls 911 the police are obligated to arrest), drug possession, and theft (usually an 18 yo kid with good parents). They see how jail is and never want to go back. And if they can afford me, and afford a lawyer, afford rehab, etc. then that is quite possible for them. Sadly this is not the reality for everyone.

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