Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa.

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.

Once again, South African domestic workers win in court, expanding domestic workers’ rights everywhere!

Sylvia Mahlangu outside Constitutional Court

Great news! Last week, South Africa’s Constitutional Court ruled that domestic workers ruled that domestic workers injured on the job in the past can claim damages, under the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act, COIDA. This ruling includes the family of Maria Mahlangu, a domestic worker who had worked for the same family for twenty years. While washing windows, Maria Mahlangu slipped, fell into the pool, and drowned. Her family received no compensation. More to the point, the family offered no compensation and the State excluded domestic workers from COIDA. Last May, the North Gauteng Court ruled that that exclusion was unconstitutional but did not rule on whether that unconstitutionality covered past injuries. Last October, the Gauteng High Court ruled that the Constitutional invalidity of the exclusion of domestic workers meant that all domestic workers are due unlimited retrospective COIDA compensation. The case of Sylvia Bongi Mahlangu and the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union, SADSAWU, vs the Minister of Labour then went to the Constitutional Court. Last Thursday, November 19, the Constitutional Court decided that the exclusion of domestic workers from the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act, COIDA, is unconstitutional. Further, “the order is to have immediate and retrospective effect from 27 April 1994.” After 26 years of struggle, domestic worker organizers, Black women such as 77-year-old SADSAWU organizer Eunice Dhladhla “nearly broke into song inside [the Constitutional Court], breaking the law.” After the ruling, Sylvia Mahlangu said she was excited at the decision. We all should be.

Justice Margaret Victor, writing for the majority, opened her decision: “Domestic workers are the unsung heroines in this country and globally. They are a powerful group of women whose profession enables all economically active members of society to prosper and pursue their careers. Given the nature of their work, their relationships with their own children and family members are compromised, while we pursue our career goals with peace of mind, knowing that our children, our elderly family members and our households are well taken care of.

“Many domestic workers are breadwinners in their families who put children through school and food on the table through their hard work. In some cases, they are responsible for the upbringing of children in multiple families and may be the only loving figure in the lives of a number of children. Their salaries are often too low to maintain a decent living standard but by exceptional, if not inexplicable effort, they succeed. Sadly, despite these herculean efforts, domestic work as a profession is undervalued and unrecognised; even though they play a central role in our society.”

Later in her decision, Justice Victor noted, “In considering those who are most vulnerable or most in need, a court should take cognisance of those who fall at the intersection of compounded vulnerabilities due to intersecting oppression based on race, sex, gender, class and other grounds. To allow this form of state-sanctioned inequity goes against the values of our newly constituted society namely human dignity, the achievement of equality and ubuntu. To exclude this category of individuals from the social security scheme established by COIDA is manifestly unreasonable.

“For all these reasons, I find that the obligation under section 27(2) to take reasonable legislative and other measures, within available resources, includes the obligation to extend COIDA to domestic workers. The failure to do so in the face of the respondents’ admitted available resources constitutes a direct infringement of section 27(1)(c), read with section 27(2) of the Constitution.”

This case crosses beyond the borders of South Africa and beyond the African continent. Many countries across the globe, including the United States, continue to exclude domestic workers from labor laws and from labor law protections and rights. That time is coming to an end. Domestic work is decent work, and domestic workers demand formal recognition of the dignity of their labor. Tell your family, friends, colleagues and neighbors about Maria Mahlangu, Sylvia Mahlangu and last week’s decision. Tell them Sylvia Mahlangu is excited. The time to sing the song of the unsung heroines has arrived. Amandla!

Eunice Dhladhla outside Constitutional Court

(Photo Credit 1: Sowetan / Penwell Dlamini) (Photo Credit 2: New Frame / Cebelihle Mbuyisa)

What happened to Lisa Adams? Just another 16-day torture ordeal in Canada’s Nova Institution for Women

Lisa Adams

Canada routinely tortures women in prison by throwing them into so-called “dry cells”. Today, Lisa Adams, 33 years old and about to end a two-year sentence in the hellhole that is Nova Institution for Women, and advocates from the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia, are challenging that practice in court. Some will ask, “What happened to Lisa Adams?” The real question is, “What happened to Canada?”

Lisa Adams lives with an addiction to methamphetamines and has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression. In March, Lisa Adams was released on day parole. In May, she was picked up on for methamphetamine usage and was taken back to Nova Institution for Women, where she was strip searched and passed through a body scanner. Authorities found nothing in Lisa Adams’ body. A few days later, authorities reconsidered the scan and felt they could perhaps see something, small and round, somewhere in her vagina. Authorities then did a scan of Lisa Adams’ cell and found traces of methamphetamine. They then gave Lisa Adams a urine test, which came back positive. Lisa Adams protested her innocence, explaining that the meth was from her earlier pre-arrest usage and that she did not have any methamphetamine with her. Authorities did not believe her.

At that point, Lisa Adams was dumped into a dry cell, where she stayed for 16 days, from May 6 to May 22. A dry cell is a cell without running water or toilets. The thinking is that by placing someone in a dry cell, authorities can sift through their waste – feces, urine, vomit – and locate the concealed drugs. The prisoner is kept in segregation in that cell, without any water, under 24-hour-a-day surveillance. Lisa Adams stayed in a dry cell for 16 days. She started to tremble, became incoherent, threatened self- harm and suicide. Remember Nova Institution, the hellhole prison where, in 2015, Camille Strickland-Murphy and Veronica Park were effectively executed by the state? That’s where Lisa Adams spent 16 days of hell, and for what?

Lisa Adams only got out of the dry cell when she finally persuaded the authorities to let an actual doctor examine her. The doctor found nothing in her vagina or anywhere else. What the doctor did find was a severely injured woman, who had been battered and abused by the state.

Lisa Adams and her allies went to court today to argue that dry celling is a form of torture. Last year, Canada effectively outlawed solitary confinement, after the court declared keeping anyone in solitary for more than 15 days was cruel, unusual, and torture. Somehow, dry celling does not count as solitary confinement. The segregation is total and absolute, the conditions are nothing short of evil. In fact, the actual material facility of the dry cell is worse than that of solitary confinement. Lisa Adams spent 16 days in dry cell and, again, was only released when she begged for a doctor to perform a real examination.

Lisa Adams explains, “”For me, on a base level, I’d like to have the idea of dry celling removed from female institutions. Because I’m not naive to the fact that drugs are an issue, and there has to be a means to prevent that, I’m hoping that potentially there could be an overhaul throughout all of CSC to find a new way to prevent this from happening. A way that’s less invasive, that’s more trauma-informed and that takes into account the value of the individual as well as the security of the institution … I want the public to see that we are individuals. What happens to us in here is important. People wouldn’t want it to happen to their mother, daughter, sister, wife. They need to keep an eye on that.”  

I want the public to see that we are all humans, that what happens in prisons and jails and immigrant detention centers and juvenile detention centers, that what happens “in here”, not only in `correctional institutions’ but in here in our hearts, matters. What happened to Lisa Adams? She was tortured, traumatized.. What happened to Canada, and by extension to all of us? 

(Photo Credit: CBC/ Elizabeth Fry Society)

Eleanor Bumpurs and Breonna Taylor, together, haunt the United States. #SayHerName

Eleanor Bumpurs

This week, with evictions and even more the threat of evictions rising across the United States; with police violence spreading and intensifying, especially in communities of color; with police home invasions, as happened to Breonna Taylor, spreading with impunity; with a national election; we must discuss Eleanor Bumpurs. On November 4, 1984, Eleanor Bumpurs was laid to rest. Soon after Eleanor Bumper’s death, her daughter, Mary Bumpurs, would begin a lifetime of Black feminist social justice organizing in her mother’s name. In 1989, Spike Lee dedicated his film Do The Right Thing to six victims, six martyrs, of police brutality and racist violence: Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Griffith, Arthur Miller, Jr., Edmund Perry, Yvonne Smallwood, and Michael Stewart. Two weeks ago, on Saturday, October 17, the families of Eleanor Bumpurs and of Breonna Taylor joined together to lead a State of Emergency Get Out The Vote Rally in New York. At that rally, Eleanor Bumpurs’ granddaughter, also named Eleanor, asked, “When does it stop? When we do become somebody that somebody thinks about?” Eleanor Bumpurs.  Breonna Taylor. #SayHerName

Eleanor Bumpurs came to national attention on October 29, 1984. Here’s how Patricia Williams told the story, in 1987: “On October 29, 1984, Eleanor Bumpurs, a 270-pound, arthritic, sixty-seven-year old woman, was shot to death while resisting eviction from her apartment in the Bronx. She was $98.85, or one month, behind in her rent.’ New York City Mayor Ed Koch and Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward described the struggle preceding her demise as involving two officers with plastic shields, one officer with a restraining hook, another officer with a shotgun, and at least one supervising officer. All of the officers also carried service revolvers. According to Commissioner Ward, during the course of the attempted eviction Mrs. Bumpurs escaped from the restraining hook twice and wielded a knife that Commissioner Ward says was “bent” on one of the plastic shields. At some point, Officer Stephen Sullivan, the officer positioned farthest away from her, aimed and fired his shotgun. It is alleged that the blast removed half of her hand, so that, according to the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, `[I]t was anatomically impossible for her to hold the knife.’ The officer pumped his gun and shot again, making his mark completely the second time around.” Sullivan was later charged with manslaughter. The court dismissed the case, finding the evidence “legally insufficient”. After the ruling, Sullivan described himself as “ecstatic”. When asked if, given the same circumstances and hindsight, would he do the same thing, Sullivan answered, “Yes, I would.” Yes, he would. So would his descendants. Ask the family and friends of Breonna Taylor.

Eleanor Bumpurs led a full life, full of laughter, sorrow, insight and more. Eleanor Bumpurs’ daughter, Mary Bumpurs, knew that and refused to let her mother be reduced to a victim of police violence. She sued the City and won, but more importantly, she went on to organize, for decades, in the name of the Disappeared of the United States: Black mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends, strangers become kin. As LeShawn Harris recently noted, “When her mother died, a community activist was born.”

In 1986, Audre Lorde wrote “For the Record: In memory of Eleanor Bumpers

“For the Record 
In memory of Eleanor Bumpers

Call out the colored girls
and the ones who call themselves Black
and the ones who hate the word nigger
and the ones who are very pale

Who will count the big fleshy women
the grandmother weighing 22 stone
with the rusty braids
and gap-toothed scowl
who wasn’t afraid of Armageddon
the first shotgun blast tore her right arm off
the one with the butcher knife
the second blew out her heart
through the back of her chest
and I am going to keep writing it down
how they carried her body out of the house
dress torn up around her waist
uncovered
past tenants and the neighborhood children
a mountain of Black Woman
and I am going to keep telling this
if it kills me
and it might in ways I am
learning

The next day Indira Gandhi
was shot down in her garden
and I wonder what these two 67-year old
colored girls
are saying to each other now
planning their return
and they weren’t even
sisters.”

When, in 2020, the family of Breonna Taylor joins with the family of Eleanor Bumpurs and declares that justice shall prevail, shall persist, through the current state of emergency, Eleanor Bumpurs and Breonna Taylor are busy planning their return … and they were sisters. Eleanor Bumpurs. #SayHerName #BreonnaTaylor #SayHerName

(Photo credit: Souls)

Eat the rich!

“Quand le peuple n’aura plus rien à manger, il mangera le riche.”
“When the people have nothing left to eat, they’ll eat the rich”
                                                                        Jean-Jacques Rousseau

In the midst of pandemic and deepening and expanding economic crisis, “the total net worth of the nation’s 644 billionaires has risen from $2.95 trillion on March 18 to $3.88 trillion on October 13.” While state and local governments face cataclysmic budget crises; while communities, families, and individuals across the country have faced job loss, loss of health care, eviction, hunger, the top 644 have been raking in money at a rate never before seen. Clearly, we are all in this together, and why worry about economic revival when `we’ are doing so well and there’s a Supreme Court vacancy to fill?

Last week, Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies released their analysis of the current situation, and it’s not a pretty picture. 8.2 million were infected with Covid-19, and 220,000 people had died (that was last week; the numbers today are far worse, a week later). “Collective work income of rank-and-file private-sector employees—all hours worked times the hourly wages of the entire bottom 82% of the workforce—declined by 3.5% from mid-March to mid-September”. Between March and September, close to 62 million lost jobs. 98,000 businesses have closed for good. As of end of August 12 million people have lost employer-sponsored health insurance. In September 22 million adults reported not having enough food the week before. Of that group, 14 million lived with children in their respective households. In September, close to 17% of renters in the United States reported being behind on rent payments. America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.

The 644 billionaires’ increase in wealth represents a 31.6% growth. Imagine if that $931 billion that went to a very small number of people, who themselves represent an even smaller number of families, instead benefited the entire population. $931 billion is more than triple the amount of Mitch McConnell’s proposed `relief’. Imagine all the people who could be served, who could be saved, with $931 billion. 

Let’s take Virginia as an example. Seven billionaires call Virginia home: Jacqueline Mars, Pamela Mars, Winifred J. Marquart, Daniel D’Aniello, William Conway, Jr., Matthew Calkins, and Steve Case. In seven months, during this pandemic, this group’s wealth grew by $6.5 billion. That’s almost a 16% increase … a `modest’ showing. To put this modest increase into perspective, the Commonwealth of Virginia faces a $1.3 billion revenue shortfall in 2021 and a $2.7 billion shortfall over the next two years. Meanwhile, and again, seven individuals in that same Commonwealth increased their wealth, in seven months, by $6.5 billion. There is more than enough money for rent relief, health care, food assistance, education, and so much more. Imagine all the people who could be served, who could be saved.

Meanwhile, sales of million-dollar homes have doubled in the United States. According to the National Association of Realtors, `we’ are in a real estate boom, right now. Here’s another sign of that boom: “From early September to Oct. 17, despite the CDC eviction ban, almost 10,000 eviction actions have been filed in 23 counties in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas.” Here’s another sign of the boom: “In September, 865,000 women dropped out of the U.S. labor force compared with 216,000 men. Black and Latina women in the U.S. have been hit the hardest. While unemployment in September fell to 7.7 percent for all women, it remained at 11.1 percent for Black women and 11 percent for Latina women.”

Boom.

(Image Credit: Zeph Farmby / The Chicago Reader)

Where is the global outrage at the systemic racism that killed Joyce Echaquan?

On Monday, September 28, Joyce Echaquan — mother of seven, partner to Carol Dube, member of the Atikamekw nation of Manwan, 37 years old – died … or, better, was tortured to death, while lying in a hospital bed in Joliette, in Quebec, Canada. Suffering severe stomach pains, Joyce Echaquan checked herself into a hospital. That was September 26. On September 28, as the pain intensified, nurses administered morphine, even though Joyce Echaquan told them she was allergic to morphine and that she had a pacemaker. As Joyce Echaquan screamed in intensifying pain, the nurses told her, “You’re as stupid as hell”; “Are you done acting stupid? Are you done?”; “You made some bad choices, my dear. What are your children going to think, seeing you like this?”; “She’s good at having sex, more than anything else”. We know this because Joyce Echaquan, in excruciating pain, dying, pulled out her phone, started filming and posting on Facebook. The video is a bit over seven minutes long. Soon after Joyce Echaquan died … or, better, succumbed to torture. Now there’s an `outcry’ in Canada at the treatment Joyce Echaquan received, which was perfectly ordinary treatment for Indigenous women. Outcries have a short life span, especially when the subject is the torture and abuse of Indigenous women.

Joyce Echaquan pulled out her phone because she knew. She knew because it had happened before, to her. She knew because she was an Atikamekw woman. She knew because. Period. She knew that her family would organize and protest, decrying systemic racism. She knew they would hold her in their hearts and souls. She knew as well that the government of Quebec and Canada would deplore the horrible act, would demand an investigation, and ultimately would do absolutely nothing. 

Joyce Echaquan told the staff that she should not be given morphine, and they refused to listen. None of this is new. It has happened before, certainly across Canada, and will happen again. Violence against Indigenous, Native, First Nation, Aboriginal women is a core part and principle of the colonization processes and practices that continue, unabated, to this day. Why, for example, it the outcry and outrage only Canadian? Where is the coverage of Joyce Echaquan’s torture in the various new media around the world? The BBC had something, as have AlJazeera and the Guardian, and that is pretty much it. Where is the outrage at the torture of an Indigenous woman who only wanted, needed, and deserved care? Who cares about Joyce Echaquan? Tomorrow, Monday, October 11, is Indigenous People’s Day. It took 48 hours and a little over four centuries to torture Joyce Echaquan to death. Other than family, friends, community, who will remember Joyce Echaquan a year from now? Joyce Echaquan lived in a world in which, on her deathbed, she had to pull out her phone and start recording the torture she was suffering. We continue to live in that world. This is us. 

(Photo Credit 1: The Star) (Photo Credit 2: The Guardian / Canadian Press)

Cindy Erazo left El Salvador’s Ilopango Women’s Prison. She should have never been there.

Cindy Erazo

“The witch-hunt, then, was a war against women; it was a concerted attempt to degrade them, dehumanize them, and destroy their social power. At the same time, it was in the torture chambers and on the stakes on which the witches perished that the bourgeois ideals of womanhood and domesticity were forged.” Silvia Federici

On Wednesday, Cindy Erazo, 29 years old, mother of a 10-year-old child, walked out of Ilopango Women’s Prison, that special hell El Salvador built for women. Cindy Erazo spent the last six years in Ilopango Women’s Prison for a crime she never committed, and even now her freedom is conditional. Given her story, every woman’s freedom in El Salvador and beyond is `conditional.’

In August 2014, Cindy Erazo suffered an obstetric emergency. She has said she was not aware at the time that she was pregnant. She was at a mall and started bleeding. She went to the restroom where she passed out. When Cindy Erazo regained consciousness, she was in a hospital bed, chained to the bed. She was immediately charged with having an illegal abortion. Cindy Erazo was promptly sentenced to 30 years in prison, in that special hell Ilopango Women’s Prison. Later, her sentence was reduced to 10 years, for aggravated assault. After six years, this week, Cindy Erazo won `conditional’ freedom. In so doing, she joins women such as Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz, released in 2019, and Maira Verónica Figueroa Marroquín and Teodora Vasquez, both released in 2018. Since her release, Evelyn Beatríz Hernández Cruz has been informed that the State seeks to charge her yet again. Freedom for women, and not only is El Salvador, is `conditional’ to the extreme.

Starting in 1998, El Salvador banned all abortions. Previously, abortion had been illegal but generally not prosecuted.  El Salvador is one of six countries to ban all abortions. El Salvador opened hunting season on pregnant women; any woman who suffered a miscarriage was suspected of both having had an abortion and of having committed murder. Between 2000 and 2014, over 250 women were reported to the police. 147 women were prosecuted.  49 women were convicted – 26 for murder and 23 for abortion. Salvadoran women’s groups, such as the Citizen’s Group for the Decriminalization of Therapeutic and Ethical Abortion and Abortion for Reasons of Fetal Anomaly and the Feminist Collective, have waged a mighty campaign. Cindy Erazo’s release is in large part due to their persistent organizing.

Cindy Erazo leaves behind at least 18 women, caught in the overcrowded, toxic conditions of Ilopango Women’s Prison, none of whom have done anything wrong or illegal other than being women. Cindy Erazo was given `conditional’ freedom. When will she be free, and who will pay for the years of captivity? When and where does the witch hunt end? Where is the global outrage at the torture being visited upon women, especially young women, in El Salvador and beyond? 

(Photo Credit: BBC / Centro de derechos reproductivos)

What happened to Holly Barlow-Austin? What happened to Aunty Sherry? Prison. Prisons kill.

Holly Barlow-Austin

Holly Barlow-Austin’s husband and mother filed a lawsuit this week, claiming that Holly Barlow-Austin’s death, last year, was the fault of a Texas prison, the Bi-State Justice Center in Bowie County, where she was a `guest’ for two months. Protesters in Queensland, Australia, protested this week at the death in custody of a woman called Aunty Sherry, a Birri Guba woman who died in a cell at the Brisbane police station, September 10. Holly Barlow-Austin was 46 years old when she died; Aunty Sherry was 49 years old when she died. Before the contagion spread through the prisons, the prisons themselves were the contagion, as they continue to be. Prison, jail, police station, immigrant detention center together form a single global gallows. Do not claim to be surprised at current reports of forced hysterectomies in immigrant detention centers. Do not claim to be surprised that South Dakota’s women’s prison reported covid clusters this week, nor that Oklahoma’s did last week. We cannot be surprised. Before Covid killed, prisons killed, as they continue to do. 

Holly Barlow-Austin was arrested for an ostensible violation of probation. She was held, awaiting trial. When Holly Barlow-Austin entered the Bi-State Justice Center, she was HIV-positive, for which she was on medication. Otherwise she was in fairly decent health, regular vital signs, full mobility. When Holly Barlow-Austin left, after two months, she was emaciated, could barely move, and was blind. For two months, Holly Barlow-Austin was regularly denied her medication, regularly denied food and water, regularly denied any dignity. Holly Barlow-Austin called for help. Staff did nothing. Finally, Holly Barlow-Austin was taken to hospital, emaciated, almost immobilized, blind. Then she died. Do not be surprised.

Aunt Sherry’s story is even shorter. She was arrested on Sunday, for `property and drug matters’; arraigned Monday; sent to the Brisbane Watchhouse, the one Human Rights Watch called `terrifying’ last year, to await transfer to a prison; and was found dead early Wednesday morning. Police are `investigating’, while Indigenous peoples and their supporters, as well as all the women currently held in the Brisbane Watch House, grieve.

Grief. Anger. Rage. No surprise. 

Holly Barlow-Austin. Say her name. Aunty Sherry. Say her name. Say their names, shout their names, until your breath runs out. It’s time, it’s way past time, to tear down the entire edifice, to topple the global gallows, to end the witch trials passing for due process, and to start anew. #SayHerName 

(Photo Credit 1: Washington Post / AP) (Photo Credit 2: LSJ On Line)

Jacob Blake’s shackles form the landscape of the United States of America

Earlier this week, Jacob Blake’s father reported that his son – shot seven times in the back by policemen, paralyzed from the waist down, fighting for his life – was not only under constant police guard but was also shackled to his bed. Jacob Blake Sr remarked, “Why do they have that cold steel on my son’s ankle? He couldn’t get up if he wanted to. So that’s a little overkill to have him shackled to the bed.” Shackling is what police and prison staff do. Ask the myriad pregnant women who have suffered childbirth while shackled to a bed. It’s the American way.

Earlier this month, a newly published book, Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women, notes, “In 2017, around 225,060 women in the United States were imprisoned in state and federal prisons and jails, and over a million more were on probation or parole. In 2019, approximately 1,400 incarcerated women were pregnant. Giving birth in prison is a horrific experience, both physically and emotionally. Prisoners have recounted being shackled to the bed, and many say they weren’t allowed to have anyone in the room with them other than the hospital staff. One in eight incarcerated parents will lose their parental rights. And incarcerated mothers are the most likely to lose their children to foster care.”

In May 2020, South Carolina banned the shackling of pregnant women (prisoners) in childbirth. This was a major victory, won after years and decades of struggle and organizing. A number of states, almost half the states in the United States, continue to allow shackling pregnant women (prisoners) in childbirth, and the bans of other states are riddled with loopholes and confusion. 

According to the American Psychological Association, “Women subjected to restraint during childbirth report severe mental distress, depression, anguish, and trauma.”  This practice is what Jacob Blake Sr. witnessed, it is what Jacob Blake suffered. Shackles are baked into the fabric of the United States, and not only the so-called criminal justice system. Severe mental distress, depression, anguish, trauma: those are the constitutive, if not Constitutional, elements of justice in America. They are what we apply and what we seek for those who must be controlled. There was no overkill in Jacob Blake’s hospital room, sadly. There was only the United States of America at it again. Jacob Blake is no longer shackled to his bed, but the shackles have not been removed.

(Photo Credit: National Museum of African American History and Culture)

How many deaths does it take til we know that too many people have died? In prison, it’s not Covid that kills, it’s prison.

On April 28, Andrea Circle Bear died in federal custody, becoming the first woman to die of Covid-19 while in federal custody. Andrea Circle Bear was convicted of a minor offense and should never have been in prison in the first place. When Andrea Circle Bear was sentenced, she was five months pregnant; she should never have been in prison. You know what killed Andrea Circle Bear? Prison. On Saturday, August 15, Wendy Campbell died, of Covid-19, in federal custody. You know what really killed Wendy Campbell? Prison. Both Andrea Circle Bear and Wendy Campbell died in FMC Carswell, in Fort Worth. Wendy Campbell is the fifth woman to die at FMC Carswell. You know what killed all five women? Prison. FMC Carswell is a petri dish of inhumane conditions. So is Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, in eastern Washington state, according to a nurse who works there. From sea to shining sea and beyond, you know what’s killing inmates? It’s not Covid. It’s prison. And thus far we have done absolutely nothing to change that situation. Instead, we blame “the pandemic” for the constructed environments we have built.

Day after day, we `discover’ that clusters have formed in prisons, jails, immigration detention centers. We claim to express shock that overcrowded toxic spaces are overcrowded and toxic. In India, we `discover’ that overcrowded toxic prisons and jails are overcrowded and toxic. In Malawi, we `discover’ that overcrowded, toxic, far from home jails are overcrowded and toxic. In Mexico, we `discover’ that overcrowded, toxic, famously lethal prisons are overcrowded, toxic, and deadly. In Namibia, we `discover’ that overcrowded, toxic prisons and jails are overcrowded and toxic. We also `discover’ that inmates know the situation and are terrified.

In North Carolina, we `discover’ that a pregnant woman, in this instance eight-month-pregnant Brittany Cowick, has to organize, got to Federal court and more in order to be released to house arrest from a local jail that has reported high rates of Covid-19 infection. 

These `discoveries’ all occurred within the last 48 hours. They will recur in the next 48 hours. After a half century of mass incarceration, the time for discovery is over. How often must we `discover’ that the largest prison clusters are in jails and prison? Where is the outrage at this repeated farce of innocent discovery? Six months into the pandemic, why must pregnant women and their allies struggle so hard to be released from deathtrap jails, prison, detention centers of all sorts? What is the point of a word like “vulnerable” or a phrase like “compassionate release” in this landscape? You know what killed Wendy Campbell? Prison. And you know who put her there? You did, I did, we all did. Stop discovering, release them now. How many deaths does it take?

(Photo Credit: The Guardian/Tannen Maury/EPA)

The struggle to end the shaming of Black girl students in schools continues

In the past three days, a Black 15-year-old girl student was finally released from juvenile detention in Michigan. She had been incarcerated for 78 days for the crime of not having completed her homework. At the same time, a 7-year-old Black girl student in Jamaica was informed by the High Court that when, as a 5-year-old, she was told to cut her dreadlocks or be forced to leave school, her Constitutional rights had not been violated. At the same time, England’s Department of Education reported that, in many regions, Black students face three times as many fixed term exclusions as do White students. Girls are particularly targeted for their hair, or at least that’s the official reason. This is the world of Black Girl Education today, a world that believes that Black girls pose a particular danger to themselves and, even more, to `the world’. 

In Michigan, a Black 15-year-old girl student known as Grace was sent to juvenile detention for having violated probation. Her `violation’ was not having completed her online school assignments. According to her mother, when Grace’s school went online, Grace had trouble keeping up. The Judge decided that Grace’s difficulty, as well as her learning disabilities and other issues, constituted a threat to the community, and so sent her to juvenile detention, where she would “thrive” and the community would be saved. This all happened in the Oakland County court. Over the last four years, the Oakland County Court adjudicated around 4800 juvenile cases, of which 42% concerned Black youths. 15% of Oakland County youth are Black. After a major campaign, Grace has been `released’ to home detention.

For Black girls, the assault on their integrity is even more intense. Four years ago, girls were being forced into the juvenile `justice’ system at an alarmingly increasing rate, largely because girls were arrested more often than boys for status offenses and were more severely punished for those offenses. Those `offenses’ are not crimes. That’s what makes them `status’ offenses. If the girls were older, there would be no offense, no crime. But they are girls, and they must be protected from themselves. This is the vicious cycle that has been constructed in exactly the same period that has witnessed girl power on the rise: “In a 2010 national census of youth in custody, girls comprised 16% of all detained youth but 40% of those were detained for a status offense. At one time and in some states, girls comprised more than 70% of youth detained for status offenses.” This is the United States’ program of no girl left behind. This is girls’ education in the United States, and, in the past four years, the situation for Black and Brown girls has only grown worse. Despite activists’ great work, the school-to-prison pipeline has not only grown but is sucking in Black and Brown girls at a faster and faster rate. In that context, there’s no surprise that a judge would say that sending a young Black girl student to prison is the best thing for her, for her wellbeing and her education. Boys will be boys, and girls will be jailed, especially Black girls

Meanwhile, on Friday, Jamaica’s high court ruled that a school was within its rights to tell a 5-year-old girl student that she must cut her dreadlocks or leave school. The girl student, identified as Z, and her parents have challenged the school for two years. Z is now 7 years old. By all accounts, she is an excellent student. By all accounts, she has not in any way prevented others around her from pursuing their education. To the contrary, she is described as an ideal student and learner who helps her fellow students. Z’s desire to learn must give way to the politics of hair, of Black girls’ hair, and that’s Constitutionally fineZ’s parents have sworn to challenge the ruling and to continue the struggle.

Meanwhile, in many parts of England, Black students are disciplined three times as often as their White counterparts. Their offense, other than Being Black? “Black hairstyles, kissing teeth and fist-bumping.” “Black hairstyles” can send a child student, more often than not a Black girl student, into isolation or expulsion. An assistant head of school remembers a Black girl student who was told to cut her Afro because other students “couldn’t see the board … These may be small, micro things that you are doing to change yourself, but after a while it really wears you down. It’s the message that you are almost not good enough. You are having to tame your hair, tame your blackness, and it’s happening from when you are a child.”

This is happening in the same year that Ruby Williams won an out-of-court settlement of £8,500 for the abuse she suffered, for her hair, for Being Black, from the age of 11 years old on. It’s happening when you are a child, when you are a student. What is the child student learning, what is Black girl’s education in this world? 

Four years ago, almost to the day, Liepollo Lebohang Pheko wrote about a similar situation in South African schools: “Black Girl – you MATTER. Your HAIR matters, your LANGUAGE matters, your CHOICES matter and your VOICE matters. In case I haven’t told you today – you are valuable, loved, precious and powerful. Speak even if your voice shakes and fight even while you are scared. I LOVE you Black Child, Black Girl, and I stand with you. You give me such hope and courage. #Racism and imperialism ARE falling #Afros and Dreadlocks are Rising.”

Four years later, from the United States to Jamaica to England and beyond, say it loud, say it proud: “Black Girl – you MATTER. Your HAIR matters, your LANGUAGE matters, your CHOICES matter and your VOICE matters.” The struggle continues.

(Photo Credit: Detroit Free Press)