Friday, October 25, 2013

Can Torture Be Reformed Into Acceptable Punishment?

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow
Last weekend I spent a sizable chunk of my waking hours listening to some powerful reformists discuss the state-sponsored torture that exists in California prisons. It was a coincidence, as far as I know, that both Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and Juan Mendez, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, were in Los Angeles over the same weekend, speaking on the human rights abuses that are happening currently in the parallel universe that is our carceral state. 

Nota bene: The following writing will not educate you on a few foundational premises. One of them is that indefinite solitary confinement is torture. Another is that the prison system as practiced in the U.S., and particularly in California, is not only egregiously punitive, it is run by profiteers who benefit from overpopulation, and it is organized in a way that capitalizes on racist narratives of criminality that are as ugly and diseased as any racist beliefs that circulated this country prior to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. If you have any remaining doubt about these premises, I implore you to educate yourself. 

Alexander, who was bold enough to claim that “we have allowed a human rights nightmare to occur on our watch,” locates herself squarely in the business of educating people about the prison system, but she did not publicly recommend any particular course of action other than the building of a “large-scale social movement” to address the concerns of prisoners and their families. (At least, she didn’t in Los Angeles. I heard from comrades up North that in the Bay Area, she was using the word “revolution.” Hopeful? Maybe. Pandering to audience? Maybe. Who knows.)

Juan Mendez, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture
 Likewise Juan Mendez, who submitted a request to investigate California prisons in May 2013 and has yet to receive any acknowledgement from the State Department, offered that solitary confinement has “crept up” on us as a problem of international proportion, however, he made it clear that his power to intervene would be circumscribed by a United States and California governmental structure “well equipped to dismiss me,” and that any big changes would have to originate in civil society. 

Some very well-respected people with heavy media connections are speaking out in public about solitary confinement and mass incarceration! That’s good! Isn’t it?

One of the most boring public debates is the one about how much is enough activism. How much work it will take to get any social justice actually visible on the ground. I’m not going to participate in it here. I’m glad that people like Alexander and Mendez are out there doing educational and solidarity projects with people who are making the painful move toward awareness of such injustice as California’s prisons. They both probably work as many hours as they are capable, and are pained by the information they are privy to, and so on. And even if they aren’t, they certainly are doing more to raise consciousness with their access to media than, oh, say, Gov. Jerry Brown. 

The question I’m posing here is not one of degree. My question is actually about the foundational beliefs that undergird projects of prison reform, and particularly the movement to end solitary confinement. One of those beliefs, which I do not share, is that prison itself could ever be a just and appropriate answer to “crime” as we have conceived of it in this country. I do not believe that putting human beings in cages is a conscionable act. At all. Ever. This makes supporting anti-solitary confinement movement work feel, to me, like offering a self-loathing alcoholic a beer in the morning, out of deference to her hangover. (Which is not to pass moral judgement on self-loving functional addicts of any kind. I’m talking about giving drinks to a trapped, wants-to-stop-but-can’t alcoholic.) In other words, if we can begin to conceive of our country as dependent upon the carceral system, adjusting its severity here and there simply doesn’t satisfy the call for real change.

The nationally accepted concept of crime itself, the very category of action against law, is racialized and therefore unjust. Alexander acknowledges this, and reports on American’s racial biases and how they are institutionally supported in The New Jim Crow. Ninety-five percent of survey respondents describe a black person when asked who they imagine as a “drug user,” when consistently the statistics indicate that equal numbers if not more white people both use and sell illegal drugs? Let’s not even begin to head down the racist rabbit hole of why some drugs are legal and some aren’t.

 Not only do I think cages are wrong, I think that asking a privileged class of people (Congress, lobbyists, policy makers, NGOs, and the like) what to do about crime is like asking the alcoholic what she’d like to do about her headache in the moment it hurts her the most. Oh, she’d prefer to drink more if her choices are drinking or not drinking? Well, yes. That makes sense. Prison reformists would prefer to put people in slightly less disgusting cages, if the choices are more or less disgusting cages? Hm. That seems right...if the choices really are that circumscribed.

The fact that our country was built on genocide and slave labor should tip us off that we might require an underclass to perpetuate our function as a superpower, and that our notions of what is possible for reform are defined by that need. California certainly creates, perpetuates, and profits from an underclass. Nationally, that class is made of 2.3 million people who are under the surveillance and bodily control of the state. Inmates are getting paid cents per hour to perform factory work for companies who profit simultaneously from lower wage expenditures AND from their stocks in private prison corporations, which are expanding faster in California than any other private sector is expanding. In Southern California, upon release, men are bused directly to Skid Row and then denied jobs and state aid based on their status as felons, for the rest of their lives. 

We, as a country, need a huge prison population to support our power structure, and so anyone who wants to incite social justice movements around prison reform is in a terrible position: they must either ignore these facts in favor of continued American exceptionalism, or they must ask Americans to self-critically evaluate their own possessive investment in the continued functioning of the carceral state. Do you know how mass incarceration makes your daily life possible? Have you ever tried to figure it out?

Anyone can be against solitary confinement, and everybody should. It takes a much deeper level of self-imposed discomfort to realize that every day, you and I are living on the spoils of slave labor, contributing to the isolation and abuse of prisoners by allowing carceral facilities to operate totally para-legally and without oversight, and, that it is not just the prisoners’ or their families’ who bear the responsibility for upending the system as we know it. 

Perhaps entering the prison abolition mindset via reformists like Michelle Alexander and Juan Mendez is possible. However, even the powerful reformists of the world are most likely not going to discuss the total dismantling of the neoliberal carceral state on camera, lest they be called socialists, hippies, idiots, or worse. But we will. And we must, or whatever gains the movement makes in ending solitary confinement will silence protest against the foundational and constituitive elements of the carceral state that allow it to function at all. 

In addition to the terrifying statistics and horrifying anecdotes that illuminate the errors of the California Department of Corrections, there are moments of hopeful action in California that are deeply affecting and radically defiant. Communities are capable of creating real alternatives to incarceration. Self-determination in codes of conduct and self-defense against state-sanctioned fascist policing policies are foundational ethics in multiple communities within this nightmare. More than being anti-solitary reformists, we do have the option to be abolitionists, without all the answers, without all the plans, and with each other, not just the experts I heard over the weekend, as guides.

Members of Break the Lock and allies at USC's 2013 Conference on Cruelty
Get to know Break the Lock:
Read up at: www.tideturning/org (And come to the December gala!)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Embarrassment is not an Emergency. I don't think.

I am not very confident about this.

I went to the ER a few weeks ago, in the middle of the night, with a friend who is my Dad's age. Having friends outside of my age group isn't a new practice for me, but...well, here's the story.

When I pulled up to his apartment complex around 1:30AM, the first thing I thought was that M looked old. He didn’t perform any bravery, or any fear. He seemed tired. He was in pain. He told me his fever had spiked and it burned when he peed. He reported these symptoms with equal emphasis. I immediately thought of my dad. How he suffered those horrible weeks before a diabetes diagnosis finally changed his lifecourse. That horrible panic he felt getting up to pee all night, and how hard it was for him to talk about.

I said to M, "Well, I’m glad you called, because that sounds a lot like my dad’s symptoms before getting diagnosed with diabetes."

Then I told him my dad hid his illness from me and my sister for weeks, until he’d finally gone from his exasperated eye doctor to his regular doctor, who told my dad he’d been "this-close" to a full-blown attack. I remember asking Dad what might have happened? "Oh," he'd said casually, "it’s when your system shuts itself down." As in, kidney failure. Anyway, I told M, I would have loved to get a call from my dad at 1:00AM for a ride to the ER when he was feeling bad. M grunted in that sweet affirmative way he has.

We had a confused exchange outside the ER, when he tried to send me home. He told me he would take the bus back, and I said, “I’m sorry, but no thank you.” He said okay to my staying there, immediately. I told him if and when he got information that made my leaving make sense, then I would go. I couldn't imagine what that information would be. Maybe something like: Sir, we are giving you this wonder pill and sending you home with a free car service!

M went into the ER building to pee again while I parked in a deactivated parking structure. I pushed the button twice before I realized the gate was already open, and that seemed both silly and poignant. I was very careful to notice where the car was. Not the time to lose the car.

The glass hospital doors swished me in and a woman in a pink scrub top sitting behind bullet-proof glass asked if I was with Mr. M. I was startled by her saying his name to me. He is in the restroom, she said, to my fumbling. Thank you, I said, moving away from her.

I sat in a mid-room corner seat. Strategy: (1) M could see me from the bathroom door and (2) it was a seat I’d be okay to stay in for a few hours. I could see the whole room. Not too bright. A table on one side, a row of empty minty-green vinyl chairs on the other. The lobby was empty except for a guy sleeping in another corner, his head and entire body, save his black sneakers, concealed under a thin white hospital blanket.

Almost immediately, a discouraging scene: initially quiet, gentle security guards progressed from asking the sleeping guy to leave, as he had been discharged, to telling him he had to turn over the blanket because it was “property of the hospital,” to threatening to call the police, if he didn’t get off the premises immediately. That interaction range, from helpful to threatening was achieved in under one minute. M emerged from the men's room fiddling a plastic pee cup into a plastic bag as that unhappy cluster of people, blanket not yet relinquished, moved out the front door.

M sat a chair away from me and put his pee on the chair in between us. He didn’t seem to notice my noticing it there, or if he did, he was done caring. Pain. Age. Institutions. Why the hell should I care about this perfectly bagged, sterile, unthreatening substance. Well, I didn’t. I just didn’t want HIM to become embarrassed. But he wasn't. Where was the embarrassment coming from then? Oh, me again.

When the nurse came for him, M and I had another confused exchange, which resulted in my accompanying him through the patient doors.

I followed M and the nurse to the exam room. Why would he ask me to join him? I considered: loneliness? Feeling scared? Wanting a familiar person to anchor him down, even if he didn’t talk about his feelings or even seem to have them? Maybe pragmatism: he was very sick and might not remember what they told him in there, it would be good to have another witness for any instructions. Maybe he just knew hospitals are businesses and hoped I'd act as an advocate. I could offer allyship. Muscle, even.

So I thought about how to show this place who was boss. How to find an employee who would take us on. How to help M get good care. When the nurse told him to undress, in my presence, I slipped out behind her. A minute later, his head appeared out of the green curtain and he told me I could come back in. He adjusted his body onto the bed in his blue gown, ankle length. Nice look, I said. Yeah, he said, and chuckled.

After a few minutes, a nurse took his vitals and he mentioned the chill of the room. She ignored that and left. I hunted for the linens, found them, and put a sheet over him and his bare feet. He seemed genuinely surprised. I couldn’t understand why. Because I touched hospital property without asking? Because I believed a man could and should have his purpling feet covered in a motherfucking hospital bed? Maybe it was smaller, simpler: he was so exhausted and sick he’d stopped solving problems, stopped pushing. When I did it for him, he had to adjust a little, because he's used to being self-sufficient. Who knows. Maybe I made up the whole thing and he wasn't surprised at all. Talking seemed to hurt him, so I didn't ask right then, although normally I would have.

I listened to the anxious beep of M’s heart rate monitor cutting the silence of the floor. I tried to describe that particular misery: the neo- indeterminate waiting period of post-waiting room waiting; I made an out-loud offer to read to M from the book I had in my bag. We discovered our shared love of Walter Mosely. I read M pages from Bad Boy Brawly Brown with some explicit sexuality in them, inadvertently. We both seemed successfully unembarrassed that time. At least, my twinge was more amusing than painful.

It is very difficult to communicate my desire to offer care in situations where I really don’t know what would feel good to another person, and particularly in moments when it’s pretty clear that pestering someone for instructions on how to help them would ironically undermine the caring project by increasing their suffering. But I've felt it so many times: I really need you to help me help you! Use your precious energy to figure out how to tell me what to do! 

The doctor’s name was “Mechanick.” It tickled M. The doc asked me to leave for the exam and so I exited the curtain, again, sat three feet from my last chair, and heard them both talk about M’s prostate, bladder, and other medical history, very clearly. I went into email-land on my phone, tuning them out, to try and give M some actual privacy.

Linz, who was away in Europe, was online for a brief moment! “Why are you in the ER?” she wrote. I lost the connection while trying to explain.

Minutes later, M appeared in the doorway, dressed again. “A doctor named Mechanick,” he said, smiling, with his green hoodie pulled low over his forehead. Now he looked strangely and adorably young. He mimicked the Mechanick-doctor, in a show of false confidence, gesturing at an imagined patient and declaring, “It’s your plumbing!” Clever. But did he mean doctors treat people like cars to be fixed with interchangeable parts? Or was it a joke about all of it: bodies, houses, cars, interlocking parts, jesus, Vanessa, mechanics don’t know plumbing, plumbers know plumbing. Ok. We were both delirious. I had no idea why it was funny, and still. I wanted to say it too, so I did, “It’s your plumbing!”

Then I realized: it was his plumbing. The doc was sure M had a urinary tract infection, at the least. I might have just participated in a joke about his prostate without meaning to? I checked his face for discomfort, but having the one manageable, diagnosed condition seemed to have cheered him.

I drove him around the corner to the pharmacy. He ambled up to a 24-hour pill window with his hoodie up. A small child wandered rather far from whomever might have been attached to her. It was still so dark out. It was after 3:00AM. I thought about how empty that ER had been, and wondered where the people were. Maybe Tuesday nights were slow. Maybe ER workers had superstitions like we strippers do, plausible but specious explanations for ebbs and flows of business. Tuesday is when people feel their illnesses, Friday is when they get injured...

I had to admit to my utter lack of internal compass while pulling out of the parking lot. “Go left,” M said, “back the way you came in.” He closed his eyes. We didn’t talk in the car. We listened to Leonard Cohen sing, “I’m going home without my sorrow/going home sometime tomorrow/going home without that costume that I wore.” It is a beautiful song about dying. Inappropriate? Oh, probably. Inward sigh. Usually I'd mention it; I'd ask him what he thought about listening to songs about death when driving out of the ER.

The gate guard waved us in and I dropped M at the curb near his building. He thanked me in the loudest voice he’d used all night. "Of course," I said. "I’m glad you called," I said. I meant it. I hoped he believed me.

W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about "double consciousness" in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk. It's a complex theory of racial prejudice and stereotyping which I am not trying to invoke in total here, but there is a structural definition from it that is deeply helpful to me in conversations about "decolonizing the mind," or "deprogramming," or any of the things I say about challenging dominant cultural norms within my own self. Du Bois wrote"It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity."

I am not claiming that being insecure and self-conscious are the same as having a double-consciousness. I do notice that my small moments of confusion during our ER visit were usually predicated on cultural values I don't actually hold but thought M might, such as: men who are not related to you shouldn't undress in front of you, or, it is a big imposition to take someone to the hospital in the middle of the night. These little rules are, in my experience, the senseless "politeness" ideas that don't actually communicate anything but conformity to dominant hetero-normative, capitalistic, individualistic, ageist, white supremacist, sexist, classist, etc. etc. etc. culture. M and I talk freely about these things (we are friends, after all), so I really noticed that night's tensions because I had decided not to talk about any of it in the moment of his being in such pain.

Still, I got self-conscious because I couldn't tell if I was helping M in the way he wanted, and I trusted him to know what he wanted, and, I trusted that what he wanted was what was best for him, whatever that was. It sounds like deferring to patriarchy, maybe, but I experienced it so differently: I was trying to support his self-determination in a totally dehumanizing institution, and not add to his suffering. I'm sure my little struggle was visible in some way as a tight smile, a jerky body motion, or something, despite my efforts.

I think I got the take-home message right here: It's hard not to stress people out when I'm trying so hard not to unnecessarily stress people out so that when the big stressors come, we can all deal with them without stressing each other out. Trying not to stress out is pretty much the same as stressing out. And "stressing out" is the euphemistic way to talk about anxiety over false problems (ego concerns, capitalistic concerns, etc.). M's health is better today, and our friendship matters as much as ever. I'm pretty embarrassed by this blog post. I'm going to try not to stress about that now. Shit.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

This too, is resistance.

This is what happened when I tried to "relax" so I could take a less stressed-out picture for Linz the other day.

“I feel the violence of the state in the same places I have felt the violence of individual bodies that attacked me in the past, but I am no longer in despair, and I am no longer silent in the face of systems that create despair in service to efficiency or profit. Trauma doesn’t turn me inward anymore.”

I wrote those lines here in the end of January, confident that I was standing up to the bully of the state apparatus as best I could and wildly hopeful that I might be able to inspire others to action. I don’t disparage that spirit, but I arrive at this writing with more of a limp. It is true that I have committed myself to be “no longer silent in the face of systems that create despair in service to efficiency or profit.” It is not true that “trauma doesn’t turn me inward anymore.”

April 26th, 2013: 
Div 52. Judge Henry Barela not yet presiding. Linz and Bilal on their way. Right now I am alone. The longer I stay here, the more ridiculous it all feels. All structures of state power are bizarre houses of cards with the means to kill at the center.
The decisions are not made locally. 
They are made by political pressure, internalized or resisted. 
I smell like coconut. I’d prefer not to remember what it felt like to sit on that bus, and yet, I’m certain I should have done it, and for that feeling, I am grateful.

I count: 11 people in this room before the judge enters. 
2 of them are armed.
6 are wearing black blazers, 2 khaki
there are 6 visible iPhones, including mine.

The bailiff approaches me with a clipboard. “Do you have a case here?” he asks quizzically. (An adjective that is as surreal as I need here. Not as confident or cumbersome as “incredulously.”)
I show him my yellow Notice to Reappear. (As if I had disappeared without permission?)
He nodded and made a check mark on his clipboard. “Does your attorney know you’re here?” he asks.
“I don’t have one,” I say. “This is an infraction case.”
What is the shade closer to incredulous, if one starts with “quizzical?” He nods and walks away.

Judge is on recess. One of the employees here, who just shook hands with a very rosy-cheeked female pig thinks my scarf is “pretty.” It is a Keffiyeh from a family-run factory in Palestine. Help. 
I’m drinking nice coffee from Groundworks. 

I meet Jennifer Waxler, the Deputy City Attorney prosecuting my case. She has been handling OccupyLA trials with the same team of officers for many months now: see Jason Rosencrantz’ moving and informative piece on Tyson Herder’s trial.

Waxler was late, dressed just slightly trendier than the suited blonde who trailed her, and she spoke to me as if I were about twelve years old and she had to make sure I got to the principal’s office safely. 

I got the discovery--two police videos and some officer’s statements that don’t mention my arrest. I also got a copy of the City’s Infraction Complaint, which I spent the weekend trying to comprehend/apprehend. It has a bright green sticker on the corner, applied by Waxler or someone in her office, that says “OLA” and “TEAM 1.” An infraction complaint classified by its association with a political event? Isn’t there something wrong with that? 

Count 1: defendant did willfully and unlawfully enter, remain, stay and loiter in a park between the hours of 10:30PM and 5:00AM of the following day. (False. I willfully and lawfully entered, remained, stayed, and peacefully exercised my first amendment right in a public space that had not yet been approved by the City as a “park,” where I had gathered for political conversation, made group consensus decisions, learned about downtown gentrification, eaten, smoked, made love, done homework, and slept for many nights, for two months prior.) 

Count 2: defendant did willfully and unlawfully fail and refuse to comply with a lawful order, direction, and signal of a Police Officer and a Traffic Officer. (False. I willfully and lawfully refused to comply with an unlawful order, direction, or signal, but I was forced to comply with brute force, insults, intimidation, threatening, and a weapon-brandishing army of pigs.)

“All of which is contrary to the law and against the peace and dignity of the People of the State of California.” 
What a feat of narrative colonization! The City Attorney’s office gets to call itself “the People,” and it gets to decide that Occupy went against the peace and dignity of The People. We thought we were the People. 

“Declarant and complainant therefore prays that a warrant may be issued for the arrest of said defendant(s) and that he may be dealt with according to law.”
Wait a second. You already violently arrested me, detained me and my comrades in handcuffs on a bus all night until we peed ourselves, jailed us for 48 hours and lied to my and others’ families about where we were, refused us access to newspapers, dragged this infraction trial out over fifteen months, plan to bring witnesses and requested an hour and a half bench trial instead of the normal maximum of 30 minutes, and, now, you “pray” I should be arrested, for my prior experience of getting arrested? 

And, according to this document, I could be multiple people, or a man, and it would all be the same to the state, since this is a template form for a group of such situations?

I call bullshit. I know it doesn’t mean much. 

Over the weekend, I talked to two lawyers. “How much jail time are you facing?” One asked. 
“None,” I said. “These are infractions. I’m facing fines.” 
“But you said the City filed a continuance?”
“Yes, back in January.”
“A continuance filed on an infraction case, by the City?”
“I’ve never heard of that.”

Two said, “Whatever you do, don’t incriminate yourself before the trial is over. You want to give the judge every possible avenue to acquit you or to throw out charges. You can tell your side of the story after the fact.”  So here we are. 

I watched the videos. Back in January I wrote this: “I will be watching the LAPD’s video of my arrest sometime in the next few weeks. (That will be a great test of my ego, I’m sure, since I’ve probably unconsciously self-aggrandized since the event.)”

I was more worried about the possible shame of discovering I wasn’t as brave and composed as I remembered than I was concerned about the potential consequences of revisiting a scene that had been painful to experience the first time. That first time, it was painful even though I was all hopped up on adrenaline and held tight on either side by comrades for a long time before releasing my body to the pain techniques. In other words, I thought I was being self critical by admitting I might have self-aggrandized. But instead of a “real story” on video that I could check against my memories of myself, I got hours of jumbled footage of pigs destroying the camp, tackling and arresting a number of other people, shakily jerking from Mayor Villaraigosa’s face to the attentive faces of the Occupiers. I saw a lot of black uniforms swarming over inert bodies of my friends. “Get your knee off of my head, please,” said one of my comrades, ever so politely, to a pig who was kneeling on his temple. Of me, there was little footage, but it didn’t matter.

This is what matters: the experience of watching the videos and representing myself in the trial caused me a kind of dissociative anxiety and panic I didn’t experience in direct chronological “causality” with getting arrested at Occupy. The intrusively present emotional feature of trauma was greater during this past week than it was after I got out of jail, and that resulted in my being caught up in a series of feelings and behaviors that shot almost immediately out of my control. 

Pain must be associated with an event, and the farther one gets from that event, the less pain one is supposed to feel. Pain is supposed to follow state logics of time and space, in order to be legible. But anyone who has had a traumatic event happen to them knows that trauma memories are recursive, cyclic, often on an uncontrollable rewind-replay, subject to a “repetition compulsion” or whatever other psychological frameworks you’d like to apply here. Sometimes, a similar experience will compound the pain of the first. Sometimes a dissimilar experience. Sometimes talking about it helps. Sometimes talking about it makes it hurt more. Sometimes hurting more makes sense. Sometimes hurting more seems insane. There is not one individual trauma that can’t be linked to a class of traumas experienced by others in similar circumstances, but this fact is hidden from us by individualized psychological diagnoses and simplistic cultural rhetoric around innocence and guilt. Ethics are not even part of the equation there.

The night before my trial, I broke on a video chat with loved ones in NYC. I started crying while reporting on my conversations with lawyers, told my loved ones I was scared, and then, how ashamed I felt of it, since this was really nothing in the scheme of things, a couple of infractions, and how could I have this kind of self-pity when all the people I respect, historical or living, have suffered so much more? You got hurt, they said. So what? I said. Well, they said, we care about you. That felt good, but it didn’t “help.” We all agreed that regardless, it was my duty to see this thing as far as I could, and that helped a little.

On Monday, April 29, after an hour of frenetic crying, yelling at my family, rushing around the house, panicking in the car, and then laughing maniacally when Linz played Tupac for me on her phone as we walked up Main street, I went to trial. 

I remember standing next to Officer Morrison, who ID’d me from a brief fuzzy video clip of a blonde woman, a paused blip of partial profile, my head bowed and three pigs standing over me, before I got pulled out of the circle, which was not captured on video. How did he “know” it was me? He remembered my fancy glasses, which he claimed to have carefully removed. It was a lie. I looked at the judge. I looked at Morrison. I wanted to bellow and scream. WHAT?! WHAT?! HOW CAN ANY OF YOU STAND THIS?!

I remember asking some questions that I hoped would communicate my disdain for the process to someone sympathetic in the future, which I was advised to do by Lawyer Two. 

I remember the judge asking me if I wanted to tell my side of the story, and saying no, because of advice from both Lawyer One and Two. 

I remember Jennifer Waxler, fumbling through her notes, and with an effortless lack of respect, ending her argument with the statement “fortunately no force was used in this case.”

No force. Was used. This statement, uttered in the passive voice, permanently elides my bodily experience from the state narrative of my arrest, and absolves any and all force-wielding bodies or institutions of any culpability in my feeling hurt. Even the lie that “Officer Morrison did not use force in this case” would have given some credence to the possibility that he might have used force in another. 

As it stands, not only am I rendered illegible in my feelings, since what am I so upset about when no force was used? But in addition, everyone else who has been poisoned by the obfuscation and lies told in the courtroom gets their narrative of the “peaceful eviction” safely reinforced. And what’s more, the state legitimates its own narrative-creation capacities by continually telling the same story, and then saying that consistency is the measure of credibility. 

If I keep talking, I start sounding hysterical, and yes, I use the most anachronistic sexist word I can think of, because I am going batshit crazy in a female identified body and therefore I’m being read and treated like a hysteric, not like a revolutionary, by many people who don’t know me well, and even sometimes by those who do, and most sadly, by myself. “I’m irrational,” I keep saying. But am I really?

When the judge asked if I had any closing words, I said, in a rather rambling, uncertain voice, “I have been present at every court date I was expected to be present for. These charges were not filed until statue of limitations was almost over. At this point, for an officer who has made likely hundreds of arrest since that time to identify me from an ear on a video, strikes me as very strange.”

It was a half-assed jab issued from simultaneous internal forces: my principle about speaking truth to power, and, my body-brain shutting down in terror. (“I wish you’d just said ‘This is all bullshit,’” Linz said later. I wish I had too.)

The judge wanted it finished. Guilty on both counts. Time served. I lost, but I wasn't being fined.

 Jennifer Waxler and Officer Morrison high-fived in the hallway. 

I ate some food with the friends that had supported me in court, I went to my mother’s house, I talked about the trial briefly, I held my little sister's hand, I went home to bed, I got up at 7:00AM, I felt a little nauseous and joked with Craig that I was going to try and get through the day without throwing up. 

I did not get through that day without throwing up. I walked out of my class and threw up, walked back in and finished teaching. Walked to my office hour and threw up, then called Linz and checked in to the student health center. I slept for nearly fourteen hours after that. 

Every day for the past week I have had at least one crying jag, usually a few in a day. I’ve also been yelling at my loved ones in unprecedented explosive fits of temper. When they’ve withdrawn from me, I end up feeling uncared for and abandoned. I can’t get my point across, no matter how hard I try. I’m hypersensitive to everything I read or hear and its potential nefarious connection to police state politics. I’ve got crushed feeling in my chest most of the time. 

Plus, I know all these things to be “symptoms” of trauma, and that my wanting to discuss them will be misread as anything from a bid for “attention” (the go-to insult from people outside radical community organizing) to a kind of self-obsessed persecution narrative that elides the bigger picture of state repression against large groups of people who don’t have my race or gender or class privilege (the go-to dismissal from people inside radical community organizing). 

So I’ll try to do it as clearly as I can, since anyone who has read this far deserves at least that. (Thank you.)

First: I had no idea what it would be like to fight this case and I didn’t try hard enough to get information early on. This is because (1) I found it difficult to believe the City of LA would do all the surprisingly punitive things it has done, and (2) once they were doing them, I got overwhelmed, procrastinated, and didn’t ask for help. My behavior and beliefs were directly related to the privilege I have had of being relatively safe from police violence and court intimidation until recently. I take responsibility for myself on this.

Second: As a result of my lack of understanding and lack of self care or research or asking for help, I panicked just before the trial. 

Third: Once I panicked that hard, I didn’t know what to do, and neither did anyone close to me. I therefore spent a week, which hasn’t really ended, feeling and acting in ways that aren’t familiar, aren’t coherent, and are wearing us all out.

Fourth: I find this whole process to fit terrifyingly well into an enumerated state agenda of “teaching a lesson,” which is a way of making the cost of dissent too high for the people, which is what happens under fascism. 

Formula for state repression: Make those who resist the system exhausted and scared, then tell them their experience never happened, but that they were all the time actually hurting everyone else, put that story on the public record, and then drag them through an extensive process of punitive “appearances” during which they are required to sit through continual denial of their experience under threat of further repression. Then high-five where they can see you, just in case they didn’t get the message about who is in charge. When a resistor tries to repair themselves with people who care about them, they will feel desperate, defensive, and alienated, which will reinforce the pain-avoidant logic of those with the privilege of choosing to "stay away from trouble," and potentially reinforce the depressive cynicism of those without that privilege. Either way, the state wins.

 This is also the formula for abuse between people: 
When your behavior has started to make the other person exhausted and scared, tell them their version of events either didn’t happen or isn’t important, remind them of how much they have hurt YOU either in the past or right now, and then drag them through more exhausting confrontation until you are satisfied. 

Tactics of coercion are a state science, but they are also a set of daily habits replicated at the individual level. I have participated. Everyone I know has. I'm tired of crying and yelling about it, but I think that really just means I should rest up a bit and try again.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

This is the year of Ferocity.

The following is excerpted from a long letter I wrote to my friends and family on Jan. 16th, 2013. I am sharing it here. Welcome back, gorgeous curiosity. There's some new ferocity in the mix. If you'd like some background on my experience getting arrested at the eviction of OccupyLA, please do read my short piece at Slake Magazine. (And then buy it! They need support!)

Hello family and dearest friends.

I'd like to explain why I'm sending this mass email instead of offer you an empty apology for it. My priority is not convenience. My experience of a pretrial today, over a year since the Occupy arrest, was so confusing and difficult for me I'd prefer to very deeply and carefully record it once, share it with everyone, and avoid having to tell the story many more times. I hope you understand, and I'm so grateful that when I go to write something like this, I have such a long and trustworthy list of people I love to share it with. 

On Dec 27, 2012 (over a year from my Nov. 30 2011 arrest), I got arraigned and pled not guilty to two infractions (violations of municipal code, like speeding tickets). One of them was "loitering in a public park," another one some anachronistic code that ends up being something lighter than "disturbing the peace." At that arraignment appearance, the attorney representing the City of LA went against her own office's recommendation, and spoke off-record to advise me to plead not guilty so that at a following pretrial proceeding my fine could be lowered to something more reasonable (than the total of $800 she was calculating). I had already decided to plead not guilty but this was a surprise--that the office responsible for the ridiculous fine was now telling me to embed myself further in the system to try and get it lowered! I did enter the not guilty plea, and was given a pretrial date of Jan. 16. 

The expectation for this morning was very clear: I would say not guilty, the court would probably set another date for me to appear, and at that future date I could expect a fine would be levied and the case would be closed. 

I arrived for my pretrial hearing at Dept 40 in the Superior Court downtown with Jim, Craig, Gray, and Lindsey, who all sat with me and will have their own perspectives on what happened. (They were amazing, I am so grateful to them!) I checked in with the public defender, Jimmy, who told me I was "pro-per," meaning I had no attorney assigned to me. You don’t get a public defender unless you are facing jail time, and infractions don’t carry that possibility. They also don’t carry the possibility of having your sentence (fine imposed) lessened because of time you’ve already served, which means that the days I spent in jail are going to be effectively erased from the memory of the state. Like the arrests and time served that have been stolen from so, so many others before me, while more punishments, red tape, confusion, and implicit threats of incarceration are levied at them. Keep your head down or you will invite trouble. That is the ethic of a repressive regime, not a free society. 

Jimmy saw my infractions on the list, asked me about them, and when he heard that I was an Occupy arrest his eyes light up with a sort of hope and kindness I was not prepared to see. He took me outside and explained what the procedure was going to be, chatted with me about my choice to plead not guilty, and talked lovingly about his years in law school at Berkeley because he saw I was from “Burkley” on the court documents. (“Is it some other Berkeley?” he asked after showing me the spelling. “No,” I said, “that’s a lack of respect from the court.”)

Jimmy told me he supported the choice I was making to stick to my principles. He also told me I wasn't going to have my named called for a few hours because my case would be lowest on the priority list. He spoke very respectfully of his own cases: folks who were often already worn down by years of exposure to the unfairness of the police, court, jail system. I expressed my gratitude for his time and effort and he wished me luck. 

I was surprised, then, when my name got called almost immediately upon our returning to the courtroom. My case wasn't coming up yet, but the city attorney's rep called me to her desk to give me some paperwork and discuss my options. 

She informed me that the city was filing for a continuance, because the one officer who was capable of providing the necessary witness evidence against me was unavailable until after his SWAT training, which lasts until April. Normally for an infraction, if a defendant pleads not guilty and the officer who issued the ticket is unavailable, the charges are dropped. Let’s remember I was not ticketed; I was taken into custody, detained for hours in ziptie handcuffs, booked into Van Nuys Metro Jail, and held for days. 

In other words, instead of having this matter moving toward resolution, I'm being held on three more months of informal probation, during which I can't get approved to visit a friend in prison at San Quentin, can't get any more infractions without higher punitive consequence, and certainly can't get arrested at a protest action unless I want the court to make an even bigger case against me for a supposed "pattern" of behavior (which they are doing to other activists, right now.) I spent all of last year in this situation, because the City Attorney waited until the absolute last minute to file charges against me, and then filed injunctions, which are much more difficult to contest. You have no right to a lawyer or a jury trial. You just get squeezed for money. The California budgetary crisis, passed on to the working class, who usually plead guilty to infractions. Still, most people would be happy to face an injunction instead of a misdemeanor because of the removal of the possibility of jail time. 

The city attorney rep handed me the unexpected continuance paperwork, and she pointed at another indecipherable form, telling me if I wanted to take a guilty plea that day I would be charged with two “lesser” infractions. Jimmy entered our conversation. He wasn’t representing me, because I do not get an attorney assigned to me without the possibility of facing jail time (infractions are always fines). But, he advised me in front of her as a friend of the court not to take the “deal,” to move forward with my “not guilty” plea, and he walked me back outside the courtroom again to show me which parts of the continuance document I should address when my case was called. 

As I read the document, I moved from a kind of annoyance at what seemed like some bloated little bureaucratic skin tag to real rage at an intrusive cancer. I won’t detail all of it here, but I’ll give one important example. The continuance claims as its foundational premise that only one officer has the necessary info for the case to proceed. Without his testimony, the City is unable to prosecute, so, the continuance is a request to wait until he’s good and ready to get up and bear witness. Which will be after he’s done with SWAT training. 

However. Three male officers were involved in my arrest, and two used “pain compliance” on me that night. All three officers carried me out of my circle of comrades to a line of other occupiers in custody. I did speak to the cops. I said, “The last man to touch me like that was a rapist,” and, “No thanks,” when the officer carrying my upper torso said “The cameras are off, you can walk now.” When my glasses fell, I said, “You knocked those off, I think you should pick them up and put them back on me,” and the officer on my left picked them up off the ground and folded them over my shirt collar. One of the three who took me into custody cuffed me, and another officer told him to loosen the cuffs when I cried out. Another officer entirely walked me to a different line, where my information was taken and my ID checked by another. Yet another officer walked me to the line to wait for the bus. 

I refuse the premise that there is only once officer capable of providing evidence that I was processed in that mass arrest. I refuse to elide from this narrative the dramatic political theater concocted by the LAPD, in which 1400 armed, uniformed cops, many with riot gear and rifles, stood in concentric circles around unarmed protestors for hours, before systematically brutalizing every person who didn’t stand up when they were commanded. They used pressure points. They twisted our legs. They expressed their disdain for us over and over again. One officer stood directly across from me for hours on end, refusing to meet my eyes but no doubt hearing every chant I led. One officer processing my paperwork said, “You work at USC? How could you do something so stupid?”

I refuse to participate in a political fiction designed by the City Attorney’s office: that an arrest is best remembered by the cop who puts his name on the booking form. I refuse to shamefacedly accept that I must wait another three months to have this matter concluded because that one precious officer, whose personal memory is the only one capable of narrating my arrest, has to complete his SWAT training and can’t miss a day or he might fail his test! I refuse to believe that his killer-training is more important than my peace of mind and ability to do the work I love so much, but more importantly, I refuse to allow the entire edifice of this response to protest, which is built to make the costs of dissent too high, to steal my sense of purpose or dignity. How could I do something so stupid? Well, which is stupider, participating in a system that hurts everyone, or saying NO and taking your lumps on your own terms?

I don’t think I can write anything important, love anyone hard enough, work deeply enough at world-making projects, or overcome my fear of pain, repression, abandonment, death, what-have-you, if I haven’t let go the notion that what I believe in and what I represent has any more chance in hell of fitting in to the state structures Americans operate in today. In other words, I fully embrace the adversarial relationship I am in with the institution of criminal “justice” because I am disgusted by it on behalf of the millions of people who are bullied into submission by its punitive capitalist formula. My story is only interesting insofar as it is a window into the larger injustice faced by thousands, many of whom have been convinced that this is just how life is in Los Angeles, in California, in America. 

Thanks to Jimmy’s quick tutelage, I objected to the continuance. I mentioned that there were multiple officers involved in my arrest and so the premise of the continuance was faulty. I reminded the court that this matter had been dragged on for over a year. I requested discovery of all materials pertaining to the case. My heart was beating so hard I actually thought it might be visible through my skin.

The judge granted the city its continuance despite my objections. I am ordered to appear again on April fifteenth. The judge did make a note that there were to be no more continuances after that date. I will be watching the LAPD’s video of my arrest sometime in the next few weeks. (That will be a great test of my ego, I’m sure, since I’ve probably unconsciously self-aggrandized since the event.)

I’ll be contacting the NLG for some advice and will enter the courtroom four months from now with a statement that, even if it never goes on court record, will at least establish two crucial truths: I refuse to play victim to the City’s strongarm, and, I am not alone in my anger. My circumstances allow me the freedom to say NO--I can risk a higher fine because I have financial support, I can risk additional, emotionally taxing court dates because I have such a strong circle of love supporting me, I am healthy, my grad student schedule is somewhat flexible, and so on. 

And so I am resisting, because it is necessary. I will keep pleading not guilty. For those who are unable to stand and fight this kind of state-sanctioned abuse, and even for those who simply believe themselves unable for spurious reasons, I have compassionate solidarity. I know what it feels like to be absolutely sure there is no other option but to let an outside force continue attacking you. I have practiced despair, and it is a self-perpetuating, destructive force that often wears a mask of “realism,” “being honest about things,” or “being practical.” 

I now attempt to practice something else: Nietzsche’s Amor fati. As I understand it, and I don't pretend a perfect understanding of Nietzsche, this is not love of “fate” as predetermined, but a love for the constant work of consciously creating beauty from the inescapable material reality of the world and the body. This is not a settling for making the best of what's around, this is a constant desire and effort to absolutely love what I believe in and what I'm doing RIGHT NOW, as if I were going to repeat this moment forever. Despair and hopelessness are important guests, and when they arrive I attend to them very carefully, but I'm going to die whether I feel hopeless or not, so my goal is always to create something meaningful from what is. In my experience there is no joy greater than the co-creation of beauty with loved ones, whether that beauty is a piece of art made in the safety of a home or a piece of political resistance born in full view of the danger posed by the state's violence, or the exquisite combination of both that I am attempting now. 

I feel the violence of the state in the same places I have felt the violence of individual bodies that attacked me in the past, but I am no longer in despair, and I am no longer silent in the face of systems that create despair in service to efficiency or profit. Trauma doesn’t turn me inward anymore. I hope I can model, even in miniature, the love and care I am taking in my refusal to just shut up and go home. 

I have been so inspired and comforted by others’ stories and by the history of those who did the near-impossible, those who kept pressing on when the momentum of the powerful class seemed too strong to meet. Here’s to all the people defying the oppressive silencing of a punitive and profit-driven dominant culture and state apparatus. Here’s to those lifting the veil on coercion and abuse, in all its forms. I’m proud to join them in whatever small way I can, and I’m grateful for your presence, comradeship, love, and support. I want to figure out how I have participated in these systems in my own actions, and keep learning how to live differently. 

In Solidarity and with Love,