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.

Stella Nyanzi: “Teach the nation poetry” #FreeStellaNyanzi

Stella Nyanzi

On Thursday, February 20, Ugandan queer and women’s rights feminist activist and founder of the Pads4girlscampaign Stella Nyanzi walked out of Luzira Maximum Security Prison for Women, after having served fifteen months of an eighteen-month sentence. Stella Nyanzi had a question: “Why was I in court for all these months? Why is the current regime of Uganda oppressing Ugandans who are expressing their constitutional rights? I am the voice for the opposition of Uganda. Museveni must go. Yoweri Museveni you are on notice. I give you notice, Museveni. You can do whatever you want. We are ready for you, Museveni. We are tired. Stop oppressing Ugandans. It’s important for us the opposition to find bases of unity that are going to help us in our solidarity against the current regime. Why was I in prison because I wrote a poem? Because I expressed my deep disinterests and disgust of the NRM [National Resistance Movement] regime? Is it because I told the current illegal president of Uganda that I really want him to go? Museveni is sending so many opposition activists to prisons – for what?” 

In 2017, when Stella Nyanzi spent 33 days in prison for a Facebook post, we asked “Where is the global outrage at Uganda’s abuse of Stella Nyanzi?” We continue to ask. Stella Nyanzi was able to walk out of prison because a judge ruled that her earlier trial was improper and improperly conducted, because thousands of supporters inside Uganda and some outside rallied, and because Stella Nyanzi refused to submit. While inside, she organized, protested, wrote poems, shared insights, worked towards freedom. As she did upon leaving Luzira, every day Stella Nyanzi posed the questions, and the crisis, of freedom, equality, justice, for all and in particular for women. 

Now that Stella Nyanzi is out of prison, and who knows how long that will last, now, as before, is the time for organizing. People should write to their newspapers and call in to their radio stations and make sure the word gets out and around. Those who teach should teach … teach the story and lessons and name of Stella Nyanzi. Those who read should read … read the words Stella Nyanzi has written, listen to her speeches, and share them. And those who hear and listen and read and share must (learn to) write poetry. 

While in Luzira women’s prison, Stella Nyanzi wrote poems which have been collected in a volume, entitled No Roses from My Mouth: Poems from Prison, available here. Here’s one:

TEACH THE NATION POETRY

Teach the nation poetry. 
Deployments of anti-riot police 
Cannot shoot tear-gas at rhymes 
Nor disperse the rhythm of our poems. 

Teach the nation poetry. 
Forgotten masses will pack our pain in stanzas 
That will pierce the core of the tyranny.
Raw poems hit harder than your platitudes. 

Teach the nation poetry. 
Handcuffs cannot contain the potency of poems. 
Arrest warrants cannot disappear memorised verse 
Poetry can never be detained in gaol. 

Teach the nation poetry. 
Investigating detectives and crime solvers 
Cannot decipher metaphors, similes or symbols 
Their charge sheets will never make sense. 

Teach the nation poetry. 
To write, recite and interpret it.
Poems of the oppressed will oppress the oppressor. 
Poems will transport us to freedom.

Poems of the oppressed will oppress the oppressor; poems will transport us to freedom. Teach the nation poetry … to write, recite and interpret. #FreeStellaNyanzi

(Photo Credit 1: The Guardian / Reuters) (Image Credit: Brittle Paper)

Damaris Rodriguez died in jail, in agony, screaming and begging for care. Who cares?

Damaris Rodriguez and family

The story of Damaris Rodriguez’s slow torturous death is as horrifying as its familiarity.  Damaris Rodriguez lived with bipolar disorder. Damaris Rodriguez also lived a fully functional life. Damaris Rodriguez, 43 years old mother of five; resident of SeaTac, a suburb of Seattle; married to Reynaldo Gil. Damaris Rodriguez had never been arrested and had never “engaged” with the so-called criminal justice system, until the night of December 30, 2017. Five days later, Damaris Rodriguez was dead, after a period of torture by neglect.

On December 30, 2017, Damaris Rodriguez suffered a mental health episode. Her husband call 911. The police arrived before the ambulance. Reynaldo Gill is a first-language Spanish speaker. His English was rudimentary, plus he was under great stress. The police did not speak Spanish. With no evidence and despite Reynaldo Gil’s protestations, the police determined that Damaris Rodriguez was perpetrating domestic violence. They threw her into the police car and took her to the South Correctional Entity Jail, SCORE, in Des Moines, Washington. There Damaris Rodriguez was thrown into a cell, where she was videotaped constantly. 

Within five days, Damaris Rodriguez was dead. First, she suffered mental health episodes. She stripped naked, crawled, and refused food. In response, she was placed in a cell without any sink or water. There she “became lethargic”, and so the staff stopped providing her with food. Without food or water, Damaris Rodriguez’s body shut down, and she died. All in plain view, all on film: “Almost every second that she was in jail was captured on video, and I think the only way to describe that video is as a window into hell.”

Now the family is suing, and people want to know what happened to Damaris Rodriguez. Everything and nothing. The details are specific, and the story is general and altogether familiar. What happened to Damaris Rodriguez? A woman of color needed help, her family called for help, and she was tortured and assassinated. In other words, nothing out of the ordinary. Along with the questions of what happened to Madaline PitkinAbby RudolphMichelle BewleyKelly ColtrainRobin ArrajJoyce CurnellTanna Jo FillmoreMadison JensenSarah Lee Circle Bear, Damaris Rodriguez and so many others, maybe it’s time we asked ourselves, “What happened to us?” These women’s deaths are our collective doing and responsibility. In communities across the country, women are seeking help and we respond by dumping them in local jails where they are tortured, most often through neglect, and murdered. We do this, every day, everywhere. What happened to Damaris Rodriguez? What happened to us?

(Photo Credit: KIRO7)

South Africa: “She bursts with pain and continues walking”

What is pain? This question underwrites a particular narrative that is part of what is called South Africa. Two articles yesterday suggested it’s time to pay attention, greater attention, any attention, to pain, to the pain people suffer and to the pain that engulfs people, individuals and communities, swallows them whole and then … continues walking?

Thirty years ago, February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela walked out of incarceration, hand in hand with his then partner Winnie Madikizela Mandela. He walked forth into the strong summer sun of Cape Town and addressed the nation and the world: “Friends, comrades and fellow South Africans. I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all.” Mandela went on to greet, salute and pay tribute to all the various sectors and groups that had worked for and would continue to work for the liberation of South Africa and beyond. His tributes end with the invocation of pain: “I pay tribute to the mothers and wives and sisters of our nation. You are the rock-hard foundation of our struggle. Apartheid has inflicted more pain on you than on anyone else … My salutations would be incomplete without expressing my deep appreciation for the strength given to me during my long and lonely years in prison by my beloved wife and family. I am convinced that your pain and suffering was far greater than my own.”

Women: apartheid has inflicted more pain on you than on anyone else. Wife and family: Your pain and suffering was far greater than my own. What is that pain? 

On the same day this week that news outlets in South Africa were sharing Madiba’s speech, and reflecting on and remembering that fateful day, an article appeared with the headline, “South Africans describe the pain of unemployment”. The report distilled the findings of a study based in two South African townships, Orange Farm and Boipatong, both very near and very far from “the economic hub of Johannesburg.” In the original study, one “participant explained that unemployment brings `a black heart full of sorrow and pain; the heart is broken, angry, sore and sad.” This black heart full of sorrow and pain extends to the entire township: “They viewed their township environment as a filthy, painful, sad, and forgotten place with dilapidated infrastructure and resources.” In the shorter, more recent article, the authors tell the story of one of the participants, a woman, who, when “asked to depict what she associated with unemployment …, took a few minutes to think, and there, on the spot, she wrote this poem:

The dry lands filled
with sorrow and tears.
The cascade of showers
of death implemented by
unemployment.
The fatigue that has
impacted to the community
that is left flustered because
of unemployment.
The land filled with fake promises
by fake leaders.
The people who try to contrive
the pain of being unemployed.”

What is this pain?

South African poet Karen Press’s poem “Heart’s Hunger” speaks to that question:

“She dreams of an enormous mother beckoning her. 
She carries her father on her journey’s back.
Her stomach is filled with his bones.
She bursts with pain and continues walking.”

Across the country and across the decades, every day and day after day, she bursts with pain and continues walking, and we still have the State in which women are made to burst with pain and continue walking.

(Image Credit: Clementina Ceramics

Landmark cases: In Ecuador, Petita Albarracín demands justice for Paola Guzmán Albarracín

Petita Albarracín testifying

On January 28, 2020, Petita Albarracín, an Ecuadoran woman, pleaded before the Inter-American Court on Human Rights to restore dignity to the memory of her deceased daughter, Paola Guzmán Albarracín, as she demanded justice in the name of her daughter for young women and girls across Latin America. In so doing, in this case described as landmarkmilestone, and groundbreaking, Petita Albarracín opened a door and, hopefully, made history. 

Paola Guzmán Albarracín lived with her mother, younger sister and grandmother in a suburb of Guayaquil. She was a happy child, and life was good, if at times financially stressful. Then her mother started noticing a change in her daughter. For two years, starting at the age of 14, Paola Guzmán Albarracín was sexually abused by her school’s vice principal. When, at the age of 15, Paola Guzmán Albarracín discovered she was pregnant, she went to the school doctor, who offered an abortion and then sexually abused the teenage girl. On December 12, 2002, three days after her sixteenth birthday, Paola Guzmán Albarracín took an overdose, and the next day, she died. Since 2002, Petita Albarracín, Paola Guzmán Albarracín’s mother, has waged a campaign to demand justice and dignity, not only for the memory of her daughter but for all girls and young women in Ecuador, across Latin America and beyond.

After Paola Guzmán Albarracín’s death, Petita Albarracín demanded an investigation. Little was done. A warrant was finally issued for the vice principal, who immediately went into hiding. According to Petita Albarracín, “We exhausted all available resources. I did all that a mother could do, but unfortunately in Ecuador there was no justice. Today, he is free and alive, and my daughter is not. He works in private schools where they do not know him.”

Petita Albarracín sued the State, the case was thrownout . She secured allies, especially a local NGO, Centro Ecuatoriano para la Acción y Promoción de la Mujer – Guayaquil, and they brought in the Center for Reproductive Rights. Together, they approached the Inter-American Court on Human Rights. After eighteen years, the case has finally been heard. 

On the day of the trial, Petita Albarracín reflected, “When there’s impunity and no justice, a message of permissiveness is sent, which leads to these kinds of actions becoming naturalized, authorized and permitted. Then they become and remain part of the daily life for women across Latin America, in all the countries.”

For eighteen years, Petita Albarracín has persisted, has refused to accept the indignity for her deceased daughter, for her remaining daughter, and for all the girls and young women in Ecuador, across Latin America and around the world. She has demanded justice, justice for girls and young women, justice for all. The Court is expected to render its decision within the year. Paola Guzmán Albarracín would be thirty-three years old today, if she had lived. There is no justice for Paola Guzmán Albarracín. Her mother, Petita Albarracín, knows as much and has said as much, but there is justice and there is dignity, and, in the name of Paola Guzmán Albarracín, justice and dignity shall prevail.

(Photo credit: BBC)

Landmark cases: In South Africa, Agnes Sithole said NO! to the oppression of Black women elders … and won!

In South Africa, 72-year-old Agnes Sithole made history last month by insisting that [a] apartheid was really over and [b] as a Black woman elder, she has full and equal rights of every order: civil, legal, human and otherwise. In so doing, Agnes Sithole reminded everyone of the power of women’s insistence on their own dignity and the obligation of the State to recognize that dignity, formally and materially. Agnes Sithole’s individual story goes back almost 50 years, when she married Gideon Sithole. 

Almost 50 years ago, Agnes and Gideon Sithole entered into civil marriage. As two young Black South Africans, their marriage fell under the Black Administration Act of 1927, which specified that all Black marriages were considered out of community of property. That meant everything went exclusively to the man. Period. Gideon Sithole ran a business, which Agnes Sithole supported as a manager. She also has run her own successful clothing business. The money from Agnes Sithole’s business went to their four children’s education. The children are now adults, successful in their own rights, and “fiercely loving and protective of their mother”. She also raised four children and took care of … everything. She made the Sithole estate what it became. 

In 1984, the Matrimonial Property Act changed the marital property landscape for South Africans … except for Black South Africans, who were explicitly excluded from the new order. That meant that Agnes and Gideon remained under the rules of the 1927 Black Administration Act. In 1988, the government passed the Marriage and Matrimonial Property Amendment Act, which overturned conditions of the Black Administration Act for Black South Africans, but there was a catch. The State provided a two-year window in which change marital status from out of community property to community property. Gideon and Agnes Sithole had heard of earlier changes and assumed they were already in community property. They never filed for the change, and so Agnes Sithole remained under the jurisdiction of a 1927 law that specifically targeted Black South Africa women. About 400,000 Black South African women are in the same situation.

None of this mattered much, until, about two years ago, Gideon and Agnes Sithole’s marriage started falling apart. With the end in sight, Gideon Sithole threatened to sell their home and leave Agnes Sithole penniless. Much to Agnes Sithole’s surprise and dismay, according to the law, Gideon Sithole could actually do that, and she had no recourse. 

Agnes Sithole said NO! She said that apartheid was over, had to be over, and that she didn’t care what the State thought the law was, this was wrong, discriminatory, misogynist, racist, and evil. She decided that the specter that haunts South Africa cannot be apartheid, it must be the living mass of women, especially Black women, on the move, organizing, mobilizing, and setting things right. So, she sued.

On January 24, 2020, the Durban High Court agreed with Agnes Sithole, and her attorneys from the Legal Resources Centre, LRC, working with Geoff Budlender. Writing for the Court, KwaZulu Natal Deputy Judge President Isaac Madondo wrote, “The discrimination the impugned provisions perpetuate is so egregious that it should not be permitted to remain on our statute books by limiting the retrospective operation of the order or by suspending the order of invalidity to allow Parliament to rectify the error. The effect of the order is that all civil marriages are in community of property. The recognition of the equal worth and dignity of all black couples of a civil marriage is well overdue.” In response, LRC attorneys noted, “The default position for all other married couples in South Africa is in community of property – except for African couples married before 1988. The consequences of this discriminatory provision have remained to haunt older African women like Sithole.”

The consequences of this discriminatory provision haunt older African women, haunt Agnes Sithole, haunt South Africa … and beyond. The High Court decision must be approved by the Constitutional Court, and so, for now, Agnes Sithole “is relieved and overjoyed. She has celebrated with her children. She is now praying that the Constitutional Court application will go well” as do 400,000 African women elders in South Africa and their supporters. The struggle continues.

(Photo Credit: Legal Resources Centre)

Landmark cases: Sierra Leone’s ban on pregnant girls attending school is overturned!

In December and January, separate courts heard and rendered decisions that will expand rights for women and girls in Sierra Leone and South Africa, and beyond. At the same time, this week, a court heard a case, from Ecuador, that could expand rights for girls across Latin America, and beyond. In all three instances, the cases have been described as landmark cases, cases that serve as a guide and mark a turning point in women’s and girls’ history, and thus in the history of the world. In all three instances, the claim for justice for women and for girls emerged from the persistence of women and girls, pushing, organizing, demanding justice.

In 2015, the government of Sierra Leone issued a ban on “visibly” pregnant girls attending mainstream schools. Once their pregnancy was “visible”, the girls were to attend an “alternative” school in which only four subjects were taught, and which met only three days a week. Additionally, all the girls were placed in a single classroom, with no attention to age or academic level. Finally, the girls were prohibited from sitting for exams.

In 2018, a Sierra Leonean NGO, Women Against Violence and Exploitation, WAVES, filed a case, on behalf of pregnant adolescent schoolgirls, before the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice. WAVES was represented by Equality Now and the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa, IHRDA. In June 2019, Amnesty International was allowed to join the case, as an amicus curiae, to provide further international context.  

The ECOWAS Court ruled “that the ban is discriminatory and impacts negatively on the actualisation of the right to education of the pregnant girls, similarly the establishment of separate school for the pregnant adolescent girls with four (4) taught subjects operating three (3) days a week not being at par with the main stream schools thus providing lesser quality of education is equally discriminatory and a violation of the right to education.” The Court further enjoined Sierra Leone to “immediately revoke the prohibitive policy; abolish the separate school established for the pregnant girls and absorb the said girls in the main stream schools; develop strategies, programmes and nation-wide campaigns that will remove the negative societal attitudes that support the discrimination and bias against pregnant girls attending schools; and integrate sexual and reproductive health education into school curricula to minimise the high rates of teenage pregnancy.”

Judy Gitau, of Equality Now, exclaimed, “This is a great victory!!! Finally the girls have had their day in court and have emerged victorious. The ECOWAS court has given them their voices back and by that a chance at life again.” Marta Colomer, of Amnesty International, added, “Today’s ruling is a landmark moment for the thousands of girls who have been excluded from school, and whose right to access education without discrimination has been violated for the past four years because of this inherently discriminatory ban. It is also a glimmer of hope for all those girls who if pregnant in the future will not be punished by being forced to leave school and not being able to sit exams. This also delivers a clear message to other African governments who have similar bans, such as Tanzania and Equatorial Guinea, or may be contemplating them, that they should follow this ground-breaking ruling and take steps to allow pregnant girls access to education in line with their own human rights obligations.”

Hannah Yambasu, WAVES Executive Director, added, “This victory belongs to the girls in Sierra Leone who have been degraded and dehumanised because of their status since 2014. Now our government in Sierra Leone has no option but to comply with their obligations as declared by the court.” Sabrinah Mahtani, who had originally reported on the impact of the ban, agreed, “The vast majority of girls we interviewed had become pregnant during the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak when there was an increase in teenage pregnancy, accompanied by a spike in sexual violence. The negative economic impact of the crisis led to an increase in exploitative and abusive relationships. Many girls had little information about sex education or access to contraceptives. I was struck by the bravery of the girls and their determination to access education despite the obstacles. Some said they tied their stomachs so teachers could not tell they were pregnant, a risky strategy for their health. Others said they were prepared to face any stigma in order to continue in school and obtain a qualification, something that becomes more challenging for many girls after giving birth due to the lack of child care support.”

Patience, who was 17 years old when she was forced out of school, reflected on the decision, “I am very happy because I did not have the opportunity to stay in school myself. If I had been able to stay in education, I would be in my last year at uni now, or maybe I would have graduated already. I would have liked to have studied nursing. Instead, my name was taken off the school register and I was offered vocational training. Yet my daughter’s father was never banned from school, and he was able to continue to do everything he wanted to do.”

Landmarks change the landscape in all directions. This decision concerning school age girls in Sierra Leone has impacts for the entire continent and beyond, and it was brought about thanks to work of women, organizing, militating, pushing, and, equally, the bravery of the girls and their determination to access education and justice despite all obstacles. They know … the struggle continues.

(Photo Credit: AfricaNews)

Once again, prison is Canada’s “travesty”, England’s “scandal”. Who cares?

This week, within a 24-hour span, major reports revealed that Canada’s prison system “is nothing short of a national travesty” and the prisons of England and Wales are “a national scandal”. The reports are important, well researched, and grim, but they also repeat the findings of earlier reports, with one glaring exception. The situation is worsening, in fact the negative aspects are at an all-time high. If the various national populations have time and again received reports of a terrible situation worsening and if those populations and their national governments have done nothing, have done less than and worse than nothing, it is reasonable to ask, “Who cares?”

On Tuesday, January 21, 2020, Canada’s Correctional Investigator, Dr. Ivan Zinger, released a report on the current status of Canadian prisons: “Four years ago, my Office reported that persons of Indigenous ancestry had reached 25% of the total inmate population.  At that time, my Office indicated that efforts to curb over-representation were not working.  Today, sadly, I am reporting that the proportion of Indigenous people behind bars has now surpassed 30% … On this trajectory, the pace is now set for Indigenous people to comprise 33% of the total federal inmate population in the next three years.  Over the longer term, and for the better part of three decades now, despite findings of Royal Commissions and National Inquiries, intervention of the courts, promises and commitments of previous and current political leaders, no government of any stripe has managed to reverse the trend of Indigenous over-representation in Canadian jails and prisons. The Indigenization of Canada’s prison population is nothing short of a national travesty.” Indigenous women are the core of this Indigenization of Canada’s prison system, accounting for 42% of women inmates. In some prairie regions, Indigenous women comprise almost 90% of the prison population. Where once there were boarding schools, now there are prisons and jails.

On Wednesday, January 22, 2020, Inquest released its report, Deaths in prison: A national scandal. At the outset, the report notes that “levels of distress are at record high levels” and that “since 2016 the number of deaths have remained at historically high levels, with little sign of significant change.” 2016 was “deadliest year on record”. In their press release, Inquest suggests that that “‘national scandal’ of deaths in prison caused by neglect and serious failures.” But what if it’s neither neglect nor failure? What if death, largely through self-harm, is the system successfully at work?

This question arises out of the cyclical redundancy of these discoveries. 2013: Canada’s Correctional Investigator reports that federal and provincial prisons are booming, with Aboriginal people, especially women, “over-represented” in prisons, in maximum security and solitary confinement. 2014: Canada’s Correctional Investigator reports concern over the incarceration of Aboriginal women and the routine use of psychotropic drugs to control Aboriginal women behind bars, producing a mass population of “walking zombies”. 2016: another report, more expression of concern: Of 683 women prisoners, 248 are Aboriginal. Over 36% of women prisoners are Aboriginal. There’s more, but you get the picture.

In England and Wales, the picture is the same. Here’s 2014: “In 2014, 84 people killed themselves `in custody’ in England and Wales That’s the highest figure in seven years and an increase of 12% over the year before. The rise in suicide is surpassed by the rise in self-harm, up more than 25%. Overall, it was a banner year for the prison state, with 243 deaths in custody.” 2016, as noted, prison deaths, and particularly suicides, soared, as did self-harm: “When considering females, despite the falls seen between 2009 and 2012, rates of individuals self-harming among females remain disproportionately high in comparison to the overall rates of individuals self-harming … Females accounted for nearly a quarter of self-harm incidents in this reporting period, but only make up less than 5% of the prison population.” Again, there’s more, but the picture is already clear.

Both the Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada and Inquest note the need to learn from past experiences while both express disappointment at lessons unlearned, unheeded, but what if there are no lessons to learn? What if these deaths are but a station on a global assembly line at which employees dutifully stand and wait for the next body to ignore? The prisons of Canada and of England and Wales are a tiny part of the global labor of necropower: “New and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead … Under conditions of necropower, the lines between resistance and suicide, sacrifice and redemption, martyrdom and freedom are blurred.” Once again, prison is Canada’s “travesty”, England’s “scandal”. Who cares?

(Infographic Credit 1: Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada) (Infographic Credit 2: The London Economic)

England’s school seclusion rooms still form a landscape of atrocity and shame

A primary school seclusion room

England learned this week that, across England, schools are converting toilet stalls into “isolation booths”. Other English schools use portable isolation booths. That means a cardboard box is brought to the classroom and placed over the child. Educators like to point out that there are isolation rooms and there are confined booths, and they’re not the same. Isolation rooms are solitary confinement. Confined booths are stalls where children face the wall in perfect silence, often for hours on end, often for days and even weeks at a time. These are the distinctions that are meant to prove the humanity and educative function of time spent in school. At least your six- or eight- or ten-year-old child is not spending hours in a cardboard box. A salient problem in this narrative is that England learned this lesson last year, and the year before, and the year before thatMeanwhile, sales of isolation booths to schools are booming.  

Last week, another report alerted the nation to the widespread use of seclusion rooms. The Centre for Mental Health published Trauma, challenging behaviour and restrictive interventions in schools. Though disturbing the findings are not surprising, are in fact altogether familiar: “Exposure to trauma is relatively common among young people … Challenging behaviour and trauma are associated. Young people who show challenging behaviour are more likely than average to have been exposed to trauma … Thousands of young people are subject to some form of restrictive intervention in schools in England every year for challenging behaviour. There is reason to believe that these interventions have a negative impact on mental health, irrespective of previous trauma exposure. Young people who have experienced trauma in the past are especially at risk of experiencing psychological harm from restrictive interventions. For example, exclusion and seclusion can echo relational trauma and systemic trauma …As a result, these interventions may cause harm and potentially drive even more challenging behaviour.”

Solitary confinement harms children. Solitary confinement is infinitely and measurably worse for vulnerable children. Solitary confinement creates a cycle that begins in trauma and then cycles, repeatedly, through trauma, each time more deeply felt and each time more damaging. Isolation booth sales are booming.

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, says she has heard “horror stories” of children in isolation for days, weeks, months on end. What qualifies as “challenging” behavior. One school website boasts, “Students with inappropriate hairstyles will be placed in isolation.” In another instance, a child was placed in isolation because she forgot to bring her planner. Her father was told either bring the planner or bring £5: “The school said bring in £5 for a new planner and she can come out. It’s ridiculous, having to pay a ransom to get your daughter out of ‘prison’ just because she forgot her planner for the first time ever.”

These isolation rooms and booths and boxes are not some underground, hidden, clandestine practice. They’re widespread, on websites, in official policy. They are and they have been, and they form today as they have formed a landscape of atrocity and shame. While research reports are important, the last five years of reports demonstrates that that is not enough. How many more times must we “discover” that throwing children into seclusion rooms, no matter what they’re called, is wrong? Why do we need to discuss whether the rooms “work” or are too “costly”? What about the cost to children’s lives? What about the cost, as well, to the very concept of education? What does a child learn when exclusion is called inclusion, terror is called calm, and a war on children is called education? But there is a flickering light. Later this month, advocates are holding a Lose the Booth conference. Another school is possible.

(Photo Credit: BBC) (Image Credit: Centre for Mental Health)

What happened to Veronica Nelson? Nothing. An Aboriginal woman died in custody

Veronica Nelson

On January 13, Veronica Nelson, 37-year-old Yorta Yorta woman, was buried. On New Year’s Day, Veronica Nelson was charged with shoplifting and went to court that day. Veronica Nelson represented herself in court and was denied bail. She was sent to Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, a maximum-security facility, one of two women’s prisons in Victoria, Australia. At 8 am, January 2, Veronica Nelson was found dead in her cell. Her family, heartbroken, has questions. Her friends and community, grieving, have questions. Another Aboriginal woman dies in custody. Each time an Aboriginal woman has died in custody, we have asked, “What happened to her?”:  Ms. DhuCherdeena WynneRebecca MaherJoyce ClarkeMs. MMaureen MandijarraTanya Day. Remember Tanya Day, 55-year-old Yorta Yorta woman who, in December 2017, died, or was left to die … or was killed, in police custody? Her coronial inquest was barely finished when Veronica Nelson died. “What happened to  … ?”, we asked. It was the wrong question. We should have asked, “What happened to justice?”

Australia has built a special hell for Aboriginal women. “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in prison are the fastest growing prison population, and 21 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-indigenous peers.” That was reported in February 2018, and it wasn’t new then. These very issues arose in major reports published in  201020112012,  2013,  2014,  20152016,  2017. It’s 2020, new year, new decade, and Veronica Nelson is dead.

Her family reports that other women prisoners at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre report that Veronica Nelson was in great pain, screaming out for help. Veronica Nelson’s sister, Belinda Atkinson, said, “She’d gone up to medical asking for help, could she get something for her drug problem. She’d gone up there and asked for help and they’ve knocked her back, and then she was sitting in the cell crying. Crying, crying, crying, because she couldn’t get no help.” 

In 2017, the Victorian Ombudsman inspected Dame Phyllis Frost Centre and gave a mixed report. At the outset, the report noted, “Overall we found positive initiatives but an ageing and crowded facility, where prisoner numbers have grown 65 per cent in the last five years and remand prisoners have more than doubled over the same period … The inspection team identified a relatively high use of force and restraint at DPFC compared with other prisons in Victoria … There is little meaningful interaction between staff and women. Several women who had been held in Swan 2 described self-harming in the unit because they felt it was the only way to get staff to engage with them.”

Antoinette Braybrook, CEO of Djirrareflected, “Once again Aboriginal women’s lives are not valued. This is a death in custody of an Aboriginal woman that happened over a week ago — why are we only hearing about it now, through the media? Where is the outrage? When will Aboriginal women’s lives matter?”

The Victorian government has also responded to the death of Veronica Nelson: “As with all deaths in custody, the Coroner will investigate and formally determine the cause of death. As the matter is the subject of an ongoing coronial investigation, it would be inappropriate to comment.” The State is not heartbroken because the State has no heart.

Veronica Nelson was never meant to survive. Veronica Nelson is the most recent name of those who were never meant to survive. The family is meant to be heartbroken, drenched in and constituted by grief, and completely uninformed. As many have noted, it took eight days for the State to inform the family of Veronica Nelson’s death. What does that “time lag” suggest? There is little meaningful interaction.

What happened to Veronica Nelson? Nothing. An Aboriginal woman died in custody. What happened to Australia? Nothing. Another Aboriginal woman died in custody. What happened to justice? A contemporary postcolonial, anti-colonial politics that begins and ends with the State murder of Aboriginal women, which runs from lack of services and assistance, from cradle to grave, to mass incarceration to dumping into the mass graves of historical amnesia. What happened to Veronica Nelson? Nothing.

(Photo Credit: The Age)

Haiti: It is ten years since the earthquake. Who cares?

On January 12, 2010, an earthquake devastated parts of Haiti. For a very short while, the world claimed to care. Now it’s ten years later. Haiti has been rocked by mass demonstrations since July 6, 2018. The government has been stopped in its tracks, as well as the economy. Where were the reports from the global media? A country on months long lockdown, and the world by and large sighs, looks the other way, and says, “Haiti. We tried. C’est la vie.” Ce n’est pas la vie, c’est la mort, and we are the merchants of death. UN peacekeepers came, “fathered” and abandoned hundreds of children, left. The rubble remains. Food insecurity deepens. The population of restaveks, of child slaves, has grown incrementally in the past ten yearsThe earthquake death toll is officially 316,000. Who counts the dead we have left in the ten years since?

In today’s The New YorkerEdwidge Danticat writes: “Sorrowful anniversaries also inevitably make us wonder what might have been. What if three hundred and sixteen thousand people—the death count, according to government estimates—had not perished? What might they have contributed to their communities, their country? What if Haiti had actually been `built back better,’ as President Bill Clinton, who served in a triple role as United Nations Special Envoy for Haiti, international co-chair of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, and one of the two Presidential faces of the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, had often promised? What if the $13.5 billion in pledged and donated funds had actually been disbursed and invested in improving the lives of most Haitians, creating genuine paths for a better future? What if more seismic-resistant homes, hospitals, schools, and universities had been built, or rebuilt, to reduce future casualties? What if rural entrepreneurs, women’s organizations, and peasant farmers—who face the brunt of diminishing food production, environmental degradation, deadly hurricanes, and climate change—had been integral players in the reconstruction plans? What if. . . ?”

In today’s Le Nouvelliste, Haiti’s only newspaper, Editor in Chief Frantz Duval wrote: “January 12, 2010 not only recalls the greatest natural disaster to have ever struck Haiti, it is also the date that launched the second decade of the 21st century in our country.” Duval proceeds to characterize the decade as one of Good Samaritans, international aid institutions, and aid adventurers, largely stripping the country and nation of its resources. After describing the theft of past and present and threat to the future, both external and internal, Duval calls on Haitians to choose a future of mutual development based on dignity.

What if … ? What if … this theft is the future? Haitian-American poet Lemelle Moise asked similar questions, years ago, in her collection, Haiti Glass. Here are two poems:

mud mothers

the children of haiti
are not mythological
we are starving
or eating salty cakes
made of clay

the children of haiti
are not mythological
we are starving
or eating salty cakes
made of clay

because in 1804 we felled
our former slave captors
the graceless losers sunk
vindictive yellow
teeth into our forests

what was green is now
dust and everyone knows
trees unleash oxygen
(another humble word
for life)

they took off
with our torn branches
beheaded our future
stuck our breath up on pikes
for all the world to see

we are a living dead example
of what happens to warriors who
in lieu of fighting for white men’s countries
dare to fight
for their own lives

during carnival
we could care less
about our bloated empty bellies
where there are voices
we are dancing

where there is vodou
we are horses
where there are drums
we are possessed
with joy and stubborn jamboree

but when the makeshift
trumpet player
runs out of rhythmic breath
the only sound left is
guts grumbling

and we sigh
to remember
that food
and freedom
are not free

is haiti really free
if our babies die starving?
if we cannot write our names
read our rights keep
our leaders in their seats?

can we be free? really?
if our mothers are mud? if dead
columbus keeps cursing us
and nothing changes
when we curse back

we are a proud resilient people
though we return to dust daily
salt gray clay with hot black tears
savor snot cakes
over suicide

we are hungry
creative people
sip bits of laughter
when we are thirsty
dance despite

this asthma
called debt
congesting
legendarily liberated
lungs”

quaking conversation

i want to talk about haiti.
how the earth had to break
the island’s spine to wake
the world up to her screaming.

how this post-earthquake crisis
is not natural
or supernatural.
i want to talk about disasters.

how men make them
with embargoes, exploitation,
stigma, sabotage, scalding
debt and cold shoulders.

talk centuries
of political corruption
so commonplace
it’s lukewarm, tap.

talk january 1, 1804
and how it shed life.
talk 1937
and how it bled death.

talk 1964.  1986.  1991.  2004.  2008.
how history is the word
that makes today
uneven, possible.

talk new orleans,
palestine, sri lanka,
the bronx and other points
or connection.

talk resilience and miracles.
how haitian elders sing in time
to their grumbling bellies
and stubborn hearts.

how after weeks under the rubble,
a baby is pulled out,
awake, dehydrated, adorable, telling
stories with old-soul eyes.

how many more are still
buried, breathing, praying and waiting?
intact despite the veil of fear and dust
coating their bruised faces?

i want to talk about our irreversible dead.
the artists, the activists, the spiritual leaders,
the family members, the friends, the merchants
the outcasts, the cons.

all of them, my newest ancestors,
all of them, hovering now,
watching our collective response,
keeping score, making bets.

i want to talk about money.
how one man’s recession might be
another man’s unachievable reality.
how unfair that is.

how i see a haitian woman’s face
every time i look down at a hot meal,
slip into my bed, take a sip of water,
show mercy to a mirror.

how if my parents had made different
decisions three decades ago,
it could have been my arm
sticking out of a mass grave

i want to talk about gratitude.
i want to talk about compassion.
i want to talk about respect.
how even the desperate deserve it.

how haitians sometimes greet each other
with the two words “honor”
and “respect.”
how we all should follow suit.

try every time you hear the word “victim,”
you think “honor.”
try every time you hear the tag “john doe,”
you shout “respect!”

because my people have names.
because my people have nerve.
because my people are
your people in disguise

i want to talk about haiti.
i always talk about haiti.
my mouth quaking with her love,
complexity, honor and respect.

come sit, come stand, come
cry with me. talk.
there’s much to say.
walk. much more to do.”

I want to talk about Haiti. I want us to talk about Haiti … and not only on the anniversaries of the 2010 earthquake, but at least then. What if … ?

(Photo Credit: New Yorker / Jeanty Junior Augustin / Reuters)