Paul Seltzer

Paul Seltzer has worked with community and labor groups in Washington, DC; northern Virginia; Atlanta, Georgia; and currently lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

The “crisis” of jails in Louisville, Kentucky, is the criminal justice system

Over the past few months, jails in Kentucky have been making headlines. Earlier in the year, the headlines were about how “a pattern of employee misconduct” in one juvenile jail killed a teenage girl named Gynnya McMillen.

The new headlines, though, are about the jails in Louisville, KY, the largest city in the State. You see, Louisville’s jails are overcrowded. How overcrowded are they? To quote former inmate Jennifer Kennedy, “It was terrible…I slept on the floor, on a mat. I had to borrow a cover from someone who had one in there.”

But wait, there’s more. Louisville’s jails are so overcrowded that the State has deemed it a crisis. The director of Louisville Metro Corrections even ordered the re-opening of an old, now illegal jail. This supposedly temporary jail is illegal because the building is not up to fire evacuation standards. One judge remarked that “If they have a fire there, people are going to die.”

Even when faced with the prospect of a holocaust of prisoners, the State continued putting people in jail, and so the old, illegal jail also filled up. Now prisoners are forced to sleep in gymnasiums and use portable bathroom facilities. With every new “temporary” solution, prisoners get moved around—and moving prisoners is a violent, destabilizing process.

It’s easy to think that this overcrowding crisis is sudden and surprising, but it’s neither. The State of Kentucky created this crisis. Faced with a surplus of revenue and falling wages throughout the commonwealth, state and local governments looked to prisons and jails in which to invest excess capital. More prisons and jails mean more prisoners, an induced demand that does not depend on crime rate. This resulted in the Kentucky having the fourteenth highest overall incarceration rate in the world and the third highest women’s incarceration rate in the world.

First, the State of Kentucky knowingly hyper-incarcerates people, especially women, who worldwide are the fastest-growing prison population. The State keeps demanding more, its thirst for caged bodies never satiated, and puts these prisoners in cramped, fire-prone conditions. State officials throw up their arms, wondering how anyone could have predicted this.

How will Louisville and the State of Kentucky “solve” the crisis? The State government offered to take 200 inmates into its custody from local jails, but the state jails are just as overcrowded; state facilities were already leasing out prisoners to local jails to begin with. Instead, the State is looking to reopen two private prisons run by the CCA as another “temporary” solution. Never mind that the Kentucky CCA facilities were major harbors of sexual abuse against women prisoners.

As Louisville and Kentucky scramble for solutions, two things are clear:

  • Women prisoners, and all prisoners, matter. As the State creates and covers up its own crises, women prisoners become targets of violence to solve said crises. The pain their bodies and minds must endure directly correlates to the amount of money the State invests in prison infrastructure. Women prisoners’ space and time are inversely related to these investments. The conditions that women prisoners endure—such as the risk of being burned to death in overcrowded facilities—are also the conditions on which entire modern cities, like Louisville, are currently being developed.
  • The solution for prison overcrowding is not to build more prisons or to find more “temporary” solutions. The existence of prisons at all, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore reminds us, is a crisis in itself, a major contradiction in a supposedly “free” society that allows “un-freedom” to exist. The only real, lasting solution is to abolish prisons and create alternative forms of justice that do not inflict more violence on other human beings.


(Photo Credit: WDRB)

Why did Gynnya McMillen die under Kentucky’s supervision?

Last week, a sixteen-year-old girl named Gynnya McMillen died in her cell at a juvenile detention center in Elizabethtown, KY. Her family wants answers, and the State of Kentucky remains silent.

An initial autopsy shows no “outward signs” or bruising, and no conclusive cause of death. The State says more information will be available in a few weeks. Gynnya was there for only one day.

The State declares as a matter-of-fact: the autopsy results will take weeks. Do not ask anything else until then. Meanwhile, time drags on for Gynnya McMillen’s family, who struggle with the trauma of losing Gynnya and the lack of even the most basic information surrounding her death.

It is unclear exactly why Gynnya McMillen was in custody at the Lincoln Village Youth Development and Regional Juvenile Detention Center. A police department spokesperson said she was the “perpetrator” in a domestic dispute with her parents. It is unclear what circumstances led up to her death in that facility.

What is clear is that Gynnya McMillen spent time years before in a center for kids in crisis. Gynnya needed help then, and she needed help when the Kentucky Department of Corrections put her in its custody last week. Now, Gynnya McMillen is dead.

A spokesperson for the Kentucky Department of Corrections wants you to know that Gynnya McMillen is the first juvenile death in a Kentucky juvenile center since 1999. Lincoln Village’s website boasts the opportunities it provides for its children inmates, including “continuous supervision.”

Under the “continuous supervision” of Kentucky and all its opportunities, Gynnya McMillen died in a day.

Her name was Gynnya McMillen. She joins the list of women and girls, many Black, who wind up dead under “care” of the State. Her family deserves answers. We all deserve answers.

For updates and to get involved, follow Justice for Gynnya McMillen.

(Photo Credit: Facebook / Justice for Gynnya McMillen)

In Louisville’s West End, Walmart wins and guess who loses?


After months of delays, protests, and legal wrangling, Walmart’s arrival on the border of West Louisville’s California and Russell neighborhoods looks increasingly likely. Some residents praise and are eager to hasten the construction of the big-box store in an empty lot in the West End. What lead to this pro-Walmart attitude?

The empty lot at 18th and West Broadway was leftover when Phillip Morris left Louisville, laying-off thousands of workers in its West End plant. The city government acquired the former factory and used the excuse of having this surplus land to embark on various neoliberal economic redevelopment schemes to turn a profit.

Phillip Morris’ exit from Louisville is part of a long history of deindustrialization that leaves Black workers in the lurch and many residents of West Louisville neighborhoods in precarious situations. For many, daily life is about survival through conditions of violent State-sanctioned economic disinvestment that mostly targets Black people. In fact, Louisville is the tenth worst city for Black poverty. This high rate of Black poverty directly correlates to the high rates of health problems that Black communities in West Louisville neighborhoods face, from staggering levels of infant mortality to stroke to cancer.

Politicians in the West End often characterize the need for economic revitalization as “desperate.” Desperation can drive these same politicians to reckless actions, “regardless of risks or consequences.”

Walmart wants to build a brand-new supercenter in an empty lot in the California neighborhood. The company promises 350 new jobs and economic progress. These promises alone were enough for some church leaders to hold a prayer vigil in support of the big-box store.

However, supporting Walmart as a way to decrease poverty in the West End ignores some key facts: the fact that Walmart has a tendency to exploit workers and the environment, as well as a tendency to actually increase poverty in many areas.

Another key fact ignored is that Walmart has a special relationship with harming its women workers. Whether it’s exposing pregnant employees to dangerous chemicals, buying clothes from factories that massacre women workers, or routinely discriminating against women workers in pay and advancement, Walmart is always in the business of hurting women—always. How can a company that participates in the degradation and murder of women be expected to improve a neighborhood?

The State does not care about the women workers of Walmart in Louisville or globally, nor does the State care about using tax revenue to improve working-class Black women’s lives in Louisville. It plans to reward Walmart for maintaining about 100 fewer jobs than the company promised to create in the West End, and spent millions to buy up land around the building site. One Louisville councilmember who mentioned Walmart’s low pay rates rationalized it by the need for economic development. Another councilmember who actually stood with Louisville labor groups against Walmart was demonized and later voted out of office.

Organizers and activists are fighting back in the streets and in the courts. Groups like Women In Transition and labor unions are mobilizing bodies and putting forward alternative plans. A lawsuit has been filed over the proposed design of the store and surrounding landscape, which has at least held up the process for now.

The capitalist developers who want to bring in big-box stores like Walmart like to appeal to a sense of place, community, and home (see picture below). But this sense of place, community, and home is built on the exclusion and death of poor women of color. These women are the surplus population that pays the price of “economic development.” These women are also the ones who fight back, specters of the living and the dead that haunt redevelopment projects around the world.





(Photo Credit 1: (Photo Credit 2: Paul Seltzer)

Who’s Afraid of Louisville’s West End?

Recently, I moved to the city of Louisville, Kentucky, largest city in the state. It is famous for the Kentucky Derby, bourbon, Louisville Slugger baseball bats, and being the “Gateway to the South,” among other things. Last year, AARP rated Louisville as the number one best city to visit in 2014. So when I packed my things and resettled in Louisville, I was unprepared for a warning I got from a resident there.

The resident was a worker for a pest-control company, doing routine preventative spraying in my apartment. Right after he finished spraying but right before leaving the apartment, he told me that he was glad to be done with his assignments that day in the West End of Louisville. I asked him why he felt this way.

“Well, you know, those people in the West End, the way they live. They make really great choices with their lives. Always doing what’s best for themselves,” he told me. The sarcasm in his voice was obvious. New to the city, I had not been in the West End yet. The pest control worker left quickly, and I did not get to press him on what he meant by his implications about “those people” who live in the West End and their supposed “choices.”

Then, at a recent meet-up of leftists in Louisville, someone made a comment that “white people are afraid to go into the West End.” I was intrigued.

I did a quick search on the internet of the words “West End Louisville.” From the results, it was obvious that the West End is Louisville’s Black ghetto. The first result that came up was a webpage listing “Louisville Warnings and Dangers.” Many commenters on the page remark that the West End is unsafe in general and especially for visitors. They warn of high crime, of drugs, of gang violence, while demarcating a border not to cross: “DO NOT venture past 8th st at night.”

One commenter writes: “there are kentucky fried chicken stands on every corner and crack dealers..the west end is where 99 percent of murders and rapes happen..its kinda like the harlem of the mid west,,so if your white and go past 8th street run the stop signs and dontstop.” These comments remind me of what a well-meaning friend of mine said to me when I told her I would be living in South Atlanta (where much of the city’s Black underclass resides) for a while: “Stay away from the areas around the airport They are incredibly unsafe.”

If you look at a map, the West End is a very large portion of Louisville and is made up of many different neighborhoods. Yet the political class, media, and outsiders talk about the West End as a monolithic block. Yet when analysts examine “crime in the ‘West End’,” the data does not uphold the myth of a criminal (Black) area where most crimes are committed.

We are familiar with the narratives around neighborhoods with high densities of Black people, constructed through histories of neoliberal gentrification schemes and the War on Drugs. They use tropes such as welfare queens, thugs, rampant violent crackheads, etc. They also invoke the theme of personal choice, as if the Black working class and underclass somehow willingly chose to live in substandard housing, to work low-wage jobs, and to be subjected to intense surveillance. These narratives are part of the white paranoia that makes excuses for State violence against Black people; they are always already guilty of a crime, always already guilty of making the society at large unsafe.

I drove west down Broadway, into the Shawnee neighborhood of the West End, to get my Kentucky drivers license and library card. As I drove and walked through various blocks, I did not see roving thugs, dead bodies, or drug deals. In fact, I did not see much of anything. No grocery stores, few restaurants beyond fast food, fewer houses with central air conditioning, fewer people out and about. The landscape was bare, save a paternalistic billboard here and there warning Black mothers not to have abortions. I wonder what everyone is so scared of.

(Photo Credit 1: Irena Tran / (Photo Credit 2: Sierra Club)

Cleaning worker Julia Hidalgo is showing us the university-to-come

Julia Hidalgo

Every summer, workers clean the dormitories of George Washington University in Washington, DC, to prepare for the following school year.  This past summer, Julia Hidalgo was one of those workers.

Julia, along with other workers who employed by the company BRAVO! Building Services, contracted by GW, cleaned three of the largest dorms on campus.  One of these dorms, Thurston Hall, has a well-documented cleanliness problem due to GW administrative neglect: exposed pipes, dead bugs, and cramped quarters that repeatedly cause fire injuries to students.

Cleaning these dorms was surely no easy task for Julia and the other workers, who had to work 12-hour shifts for two weeks.  After putting in those hours, BRAVO! fired Julia and every single one of the GW cleaning workers they had hired in May.

After these many hours of labor—many of which were overtime—Julia and the rest of the GW cleaning workers waited for their paychecks, which never came.  Days turned into weeks, and still BRAVO! did not pay the workers their money.  Julia had wanted to spend her paycheck on childcare for her fifteen-month-old daughter, but could not.

Eventually, the GW cleaning workers took action.  Julia writes:

For weeks, we repeatedly showed up asking for our paychecks, but BRAVO! refused. Left with no other options, we took our story public. Many of us were afraid to speak out, worried that it would impact our chances at future employment. But we stuck together.  It was only after we held a public demonstration on GW’s campus that the company finally agreed to pay us for hours worked. In total, they made us wait six full weeks before offering us our paychecks.

Six weeks is a long time to wait for payment, and many workers had to take out loans to survive until they could get their checks.  Julia and the other GW cleaning workers (whom, as student organizers at the university point out, are mostly women) are leading a fight to get the money they deserve.  The workers are demanding the legally mandated compensation for the time they have spent without their back pay.  They are demanding that BRAVO! and GW respect and value them, their work, and their time.  In response to BRAVO! and GW ignoring them, the workers have started a petition demanding their proper compensation.

The fact that the GW cleaning workers are organizing to reclaim their wages matters, because women worker organizing matters, especially in universities.  Women workers in universities, many of them women of color, experience some of the worst working conditions, whether in cleaning, in food service, or in teaching.  Organizing against wage theft means building power for women workers in precarious job conditions.  This organizing also matters because corporate universities routinely hyper-exploit women in all areas of the university, including students who have survived sexual assault.  Organizing encourages coalition building among often-unlikely partners, especially students, faculty and custodial staff.

Julia Hidalgo and the GW cleaning workers are showing us the university-to-come, where education does not depend on exploitation.  The rest of us must do our best to make sure we keep that struggle moving forward.

Please sign Julia Hidalgo’s petition to demand that BRAVO! Building Services pays the GW cleaning workers the wages they are owed.  You can find the petition here:


(Photo Credit: GW Hatchet)

This State of Killing and Abandonment

Although I wrote this piece about three months ago, I would like to dedicate it to the memory of Miriam Carey, an unarmed, possibly depressed, Black woman who was killed by police in Washington, DC on October 3, 2013.  Investigators called her life “typical.”  As we mourn Miriam, let us organize to overcome the violence of ‘typical’ State-sponsored death.

The forty-eight hours of June 25 to June 26, 2013, were filled with killing and abandonment.

On the evening of June 26, Texas performed its 500th inmate execution since reinstating capital punishment in 1976.  Texas executed Kimberly McCarthy, a Black woman convicted of murdering her white neighbor, Dorothy Booth.  Though a judge originally delayed the execution due to evidence of racism in the court proceedings, eventually the judicial process played out, and now McCarthy is dead.  After McCarthy’s execution, Booth’s son was quoted as saying, “We’re just thinking about the justice that was promised to us by the state of Texas.”

What does it mean when the State promises justice?  It means that an exchange must take place.  The State will bestow justice onto a wronged person, and in exchange, the State wants blood.  The State promises justice, and justice comes in the form of the lifeless body of a Black woman.  Justice comes in the form of State violence against women of color.

Perhaps this view of how justice plays out in the United States—as an exchange that ends in State violence—sounds melodramatic.  But in the United States, women, especially women of color, make up the fastest-growing segment of the population being incarcerated.  Incarceration comes with violence.  It can be the violence of capital punishment, or just the daily violence of enduring imprisonment: solitary confinement, assault, lack of adequate health care, and unpaid or low-paid work, among other abuses.  Regardless of the specific violence, the American justice system is carceral, the violence is ordinary, and someone always has to pay, to do the work of payment.

Just a day before the State killed Kimberly McCarthy, the Supreme Court invalidated Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.   This invalidation means that certain state governments (including Texas) that have histories of passing discriminatory voting rules would not be subject to federal government preclearance for any further changes to those rules.  What does this mean at the everyday level?  People will lose their right to vote—and have already lost their right to vote—simply for being themselves due to the enactment of voter ID laws.  People of color, especially women of color, youth, the elderly, and transgender people, will pay the highest price, literally.  To get a new ID to vote because you do not already have one or because you identify as a different gender than previously  means paying hundreds of dollars for both the identification card and transportation.  If you cannot afford to pay this poll tax, you cannot vote.

What is the logic behind this invalidation?  First, the State constructs a crisis: if too many people of color vote, there must be voter fraud.  Never mind that voter fraud rarely occurs in the United States.  Then, the State ‘solves’ the crisis: it repeals laws that protect voting rights and enacts new discriminatory laws.  Meanwhile, the people most affected, like Black women, must labor to protect their rights where the State has abandoned them.  They must do the work of buying new ID’s, of navigating new institutional barriers, and work to organize against a racist and sexist system.  And the State says justice has been served.

In forty-eight hours, people in the United States saw the State both kill and abandon.  Both processes target marginalized populations that the political-economic system produces as worthless.  We are left with an increasingly violent State, bent on extracting as much value from marginalized people as possible, and distributing that value to those who already possess so much.  We end up with more violence and work for the marginalized and less work for the already rich and powerful.  Then the State declares that we are a nation with justice for all.

So when some question why the United States’ political system does not ‘work’ for so many people, the answer seems painfully obvious: it is violent.  This violence lies in the fast and slow deaths of those the State deems valueless.  It lies with a conception of justice where someone always has to pay with their blood or time.  It lies in an economic system where people work harder and harder for a future of less and less.

Organizing against violence and for a political system that works for all requires more than minor tweaking of State policy.  We all must be brave enough to organize, do research, make alliances, and combat the systemic violence around us, as well as do the work to care about each other in the process.  Against killing and abandonment, organized care must triumph.


(Photo Credit: David J. Phillip / AP)

Women organize the choir to end mass incarceration … and beyond

Michelle Alexander presented her thoughts on race, rights, and mass incarceration in the United States at a recent talk in Washington, DC.  A law professor and civil rights lawyer, Alexander is the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  In this book, Alexander examines how State political-economic policy—specifically the War on Drugs—has created a regime of caging and profiling Black and Brown men and led to a new racial caste system, a New Jim Crow.

At her talk in DC, Alexander said that she wanted her book to be not just a tool for educating more people on mass incarceration.  She remarked that it should be a starting point for further organizing and activism.  Alexander stated, “Nothing short of a major social movement, a human rights movement, has any hope of ending mass incarceration.”

However, in conversations about mass incarceration, including in Alexander’s book, women are left out of the narrative.  Women, especially women of color, have faced the fastest-growing rate of incarceration in the world.  Though in the United States women’s imprisonment has slowed a bit, this fact remains true globally.

When asked a question about how the lack of women in her book and talk adds or subtracts from movement building, Alexander affirmed the importance of women’s experiences and voices in conversations about ending mass incarceration.  She highlighted that “women often pay a higher price than men do” in the prison system, such as the burden of being separated from their children.  Alexander added that because men are the vast majority of targets of mass incarceration, women and other people’s experiences (such as immigrants, gays, and lesbians) are often marginalized, though it is extremely important to include them in movement-building conversations.

Alexander is correct, but her answer is incomplete, for two reasons.  First, the State positions women’s incarceration in the neoliberal economy as both a pre-condition and most extreme condition of economic exploitation. This means that women get jailed the fastest, women experience extra violence in prison, and, as Alexander also noted, women must do the work of surviving and fighting back in criminalized communities.  It means that women’s migration provides enough bodies to fill the new warehouses of immigrant detention centers, and that we must connect the reasons for women’s migrations—namely economic interventions of the IMF/World Bank, militarism by the United States, and the worldwide crusade to criminalize sex work—to the rise of mass incarceration, as well.  Women, especially women of color, have always been primary, not secondary, targets of the global prison system, just as women have always been primary, and not secondary, targets of economic exploitation.

The second reason is that movement building cannot relegate women’s experiences to just ‘being included.’  Women of color, immigrants, LGBTIQ people, and all others marginalized under neoliberalism must be (and already are) leading the conversations from the beginning.  By ensuring our anti-incarceration conversations follow their lead, we can best do as Alexander suggested in her talk: not just preach to, but organize the choir.


(Image Credit:

Real Food, Real Jobs, Real Women of Color, Real Workers, Real Hope

In mid-March of this year, a dining hall worker at The George Washington University in Washington, DC named Rochelle Kelly was fired.  Rochelle has worked in the GW dining hall, J Street, for over twenty-seven years.

Why was Rochelle fired?  She had to take time off to care for her husband, who had a stroke.  Then, Rochelle had a heart attack, and took more time off.  This time off is perfectly legal.  The general manager at J Street fired Rochelle anyway, breaking both the law and any sense of common decency.

Rochelle is a recognizable face at J Street and in the university community at large.  She is a leader in the dining worker union, and is friends with many people that frequent the dining hall.  Students, faculty, and others at GW noticed her absence immediately.

GW contracts its dining services to a multinational corporation named Sodexo.  While the workers at J Street face firings, decreasing wages, and disrespect from management, Sodexo makes millions off its contract with the university, and hundreds of millions more worldwide.  Sodexo is a company known for workers’ rights abuses, especially against Black women.  J Street employees are mostly people of color (Rochelle is Black) and Sodexo management is mostly white (like the general manager who fired Rochelle).

Because Rochelle does not currently work for Sodexo, she cannot claim any benefits provided by the company.  She must now work to find ways to pay for health care, food, and other necessities.  Sodexo and GW exploit Rochelle’s extra work—whether it’s care work for her husband or for herself—in order to increase corporate profits, like so many others in debt at the university.  The complete devaluation of the time needed for Rochelle’s care work mirrors the historical devaluation of Black women’s care work in the United States.

But Rochelle’s situation is not only one of misery.  It is also one of hope.  Along with other workers, students, faculty, and community supporters, Rochelle is organizing to get her job back, and to increase the power of dining workers at GW and across Washington, DC.  Over four hundred supporters signed letters to Sodexo, students and workers did a delegation to the general manager’s office, and dining workers at another one of GW’s campuses voted to unionize.

That’s just the beginning.  Women are leading, organizing, teaching, and working to build a better world.  They are doing that through local, national, and global struggles, like the Real Food, Real Jobs campaign.  They are joined by students, workers, and all others who work for a just world.

If you would like to join in solidarity with Rochelle and other food workers, please visit UNITE HERE Local 23’s website and sign their Real Food, Real Jobs pledge here.  If you would like to get involved in the campaign at GW, contact the GW Progressive Student Union at  To leave a message to the Sodexo general manager at J Street, contact Bernadette Thomas at

(Photo Credit: Real Food Real Jobs / Facebook)

Public or private, prisons are violent, especially for women

If the State determines that you have committed a crime in Washington, D.C., you are sent to prison or jail.  A felony means federal prison, which can be as far away as California.  For everything else, there’s jail.

D.C. has two jails, located adjacent to each other in the Southeast part of the city.  The Central Detention Facility (or DC Jail) is publicly run, while the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF) is privately run by the Corrections Corporation of America.  DC Jail houses men, and the CTF houses women and men.

Many people distrust private prisons. They think privatization leads to more violent facilities.  Does the amount of violence in a prison depend on whether it is public or private?  Let’s compare DC Jail and the CTF.

Let’s look first at public DC Jail.  One prisoner reported that spending nine years in DC Jail is like doing twenty years in a federal prison.  What kind of conditions lead to this doubling of time?  It could it be the rampant stabbings allowed to take place.  Time drags for those whose painful wounds the State calls “not life-threatening.”   Maybe it is the DC Jail’s shoddy conditions.  The walls are covered in mold, the facilities are overcrowded, the medical care is deplorable, and often there are no windows.  Widespread broken locks leave prisoners vulnerable to further violence.  None of this is good for human beings.

Prisoners commit suicide in the jail.  Mentally ill prisoners also commit suicide, but with the added bonus of their families being told that the State was “extremely concerned” about their well being.  All of this is facilitated by the violence of the prison guards, who assault inmates, especially LGBT ones.  DC Jail, a public facility, is a center of State violence.

Now, let’s look at the private CTF.  Like the DC Jail, the CTF is an awful place for prisoners to live, for many of the same reasons: overcrowding, deplorable facilities, terrible medical care, broken locks, and rampant violence.  But there is one key difference about the CTF—it houses women prisoners.  What do the women report about their conditions at the CTF?   The guards cram women, even ones with medical conditions, into elevators.  Pregnant women are shackled as they give birth.  Guards yell at the women, threaten the women, steal the women’s packages, parcels, and money, refuse to deliver reading materials, and sexually assault the women.  Like the DC Jail, the CTF is a center of State violence.  The difference is that the State has contracted out the violence to the Corrections Corporation of America until the year 2017.

But the difference is also women.  Women are the fastest-growing prison population in the United States.  The gendered violence they face both outside and inside prison constitutes a crisis for the State, which “signals systemic change whose outcome is determined through struggle.”  In the District of Columbia’s case, the struggle resulted in privatization.

Women are the fastest-growing population of test subjects for the State’s violent regime of incarceration.  It is violent regardless of public or private.  Ending the violence of prisons means ending the use of prisons, period.


(Photo Credit: Armando Trull/WAMU)

How can feminists counter `salvation’ lies?

A student group held a presentation of the movie Half the Sky, based on the book of the same name.  The movie stars journalist Nicholas Kristof, as he and special celebrity guests travel around the world, “saving” women wherever they go.

As many other feminists and activists have written, Half the Sky, and Kristof’s writing in general, are extremely problematic.  It reeks of racism and imperialism.  To celebrate the white savior narratives that Kristof propagates, especially in a university setting where it is given authority, is most unfortunate.

The film was followed by a panel discussion of experts from NGO’s, international organizations, and the academy.  One of the panelists was from The Girl Initiative for Results and Learning (GIRL), sponsored by Nike and Xerox.  The panelist spoke forcefully about the good that comes out of projects like Half the Sky, about how women in “developed” countries should “help” women in “undeveloped” countries, and that the women of the latter category need to be “empowered.”  She mentioned these women must endure honor killings, widow burning, forced trafficking, and other crimes of supposedly backwards cultures.

At no point did this panelist, or any other panelist, talk about the structural forces that affect and shape women’s lives globally; forces like structural adjustment programs from the IMF, so-called development programs from the World Bank, and militarism meant to “save” women in the Third World.  At no point did the panelists talk about the agency of supposedly trafficked women as sex workers.

Meanwhile, companies like Nike and Xerox, that fund research for The Girl Initiative for Results and Learning, have a history of violating women workers’ rights and attacking workers’ rights in general. When asked if it was a conflict of interest to accept money from companies that exploit women for funding her research, the GIRL panelist replied, “I firmly believe that companies like Nike just want their women workers to be rich enough to buy their products.”

For fans of Half the Sky, the endpoint of women’s empowerment is this: women’s bodies become just another accumulation strategy under neoliberalism.  If white people can’t save Brown women, then global capital will.  This endpoint becomes just another story that people like Nicholas Kristof fit nicely into yet another book, movie, or column. How can feminists counter such lies?

Writing about Half the Sky, a sex worker recently remarked that “it is crucial for journalists to confirm every piece of information they receive before sending it to print. I wanted to point out how easily such fabricated narratives can proliferate into the mainstream consciousness if reporters do not exercise caution…Sex workers are not part of the problem. We are part of the solution.”

Feminist researchers and storytellers must oppose the myths that circulate in global patriarchy and global capitalism that construct Third World women as needing to be saved. They must expand their methodologies to include and foreground those women most affected by globalization and structural violence. They must recognize and foreground the organizing and labor those women are engaged in. Theories and solutions must emerge from collaborative and collective conversations. Then, feminist researchers and storytellers can tell the truth. Women are organizing everywhere. Everywhere, women are working to create a better world and a whole sky.

We don’t need Nicholas Kristof.  We don’t need Half the Sky.  We all have other stories to tell.


(Photo Credit: Salon)