NO NEW JAILS: Asian American history and community opposition to the Manhattan Chinatown “Megajail”

 

The United States likes to present itself as “the best country in the world” but the only thing they are best at is incarcerating individuals. Over the last fifty years, the United States carceral system has expanded dramatically. It incarcerates a large proportion of its population, more than any other country in the modern world. This carceral crisis in the US targets the poor, people of color, and increasingly, women.

The US has pumped billions into the carceral system including funding the police state, sustaining carceral establishments such as jails, prisons and immigrant detention centers, and building new ones. Much like the proposed “megajail” that will be built in the Chinatown neighborhood of Manhattan, New York.

The community-based organization Welcome to Chinatown reports that the Chinatown megajail project is estimated to cost $8.3 billion and that its construction would last for five years, ending in 2027. On March 20, 2022, two thousand protestors showed up to the proposed site of construction to rally against the project and its devastating consequences for Chinatown and its people.

In his campaign, Mayor Eric Adams promised to close Rikers and build other, “humane” jails, to create borough-based prisons instead. It must be noted that the city and Adams have plans to build new jails in all of the New York City boroughs, except for Staten Island. In April 2021, when Adams was still a candidate for mayor, he declared that he opposed the construction of the jail from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. However, as mayor, he approved the project and its $8.3 billion budget.

With the construction of the megajail, the city and its leaders are once again proving that they have never cared about the dignity nor affirmed the humanity of Chinatown’s residents, majority of whom are Chinese American-Asian American, elderly, working class, and families. Aside from the initial demolition, the construction of the jail will negatively impact the neighborhood’s small businesses and restaurants that are already struggling through the pandemic and the rise of Anti-Asian hate and racism in recent months.

Abolition scholars and activists and scholars such as Assata Shakur and Julia Sudbury have pointed out that building jails is more profitable than investing in care institutions, such as schools, hospitals, and community centers. The lack of care institutions and social safety nets also pushes people into the carceral system, so the system fulfills its purpose by neglecting its citizens.

Protests against the building of the megajail have been ongoing and I turn towards two movements that have helped increase the movement’s visibility and urgency. After the summer of 2020, during which protests across the US sparked after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police brutality, the rise of the Defund the Police and No New Jails followed. Another breakpoint that followed as the rise of Anti-Asian hate and explicit violence due to the fake news connecting Asians (East Asians in particular) to the origin and spread of COVID-19, which was also spurred by the racist former president Donald Trump. These two moments contributed to the resistance and organizing of the Chinatown community (and Asian American individuals and communities around the country) against the megajail.

There has been a dramatic and alarming increase in anti-Asian violence ranging from verbal abuse casually stated towards Asian individuals, to attacking elderly Asians in Chinatown, to the shooting of 8 individuals, including 6 women of Asian descent, at a spa and wellness district in Atlanta, Georgia. However, these individual acts of violence do not stand by themselves. They are a part of a larger and more imbedded culture of systemic violence normalized against Asian Americans, which has hurt and marginalized our communities.

While the protests and mobilizations against the Chinatown megajail continue, it is important to keep our eyes on existing campaign efforts such as Welcome to Chinatown and the efforts of the community on social media. The construction of jails and the disruption and harming of communities is not an isolated case in Chinatown. I believe that continuing the discussion and fight against the carceral system is also the underlying mode of action we can currently do. There can be no liberation from Anti-Asian hate and the threat of the Chinatown megajail without the liberation of the incarcerated, those in poverty, and other communities of color.

 

(By Wella Lobaton)

(Photo Credit 1: AMNY The Villager / Dean Moses) (Photo Credit 2: AMNY The Villager / Dean Moses)

Friday’s factory fire in New Delhi was yet another planned massacre of women workers

Woman worker’s shoe outside the burned building

On Friday, May 13, a fire broke out in a “commercial building” in the Mundka suburb of New Delhi. As of two days later, at least 27 people were killed, or better murdered. That number is expected to rise. “Women made up the majority of … workers.” Again. The building had a factory. The factory owners have been arrested. The building had two owners. The owners have been arrested. Their arrest will not bring back the 27 people, the majority if not all of whom are women.

The building is stories tall. The building has never passed any fire department inspection. The building had no fire safety equipment, such as fire extinguishers. The building had no fire exit. Most of the people who died, the twenty-seven “charred bodies” that were recovered, died of asphyxiation. The only exit to the building was blocked “by rubbish”. The staircases were packed with cartons. Those inside never had a chance. Women made up the majority of workers.

According Atul Garg, the Delhi Fire Chief, “It seems the entire building was illegal.” Illegal and in plain sight. The area in which the building stands is village land, zoned only for residential and small shops. Commercial enterprises on village lands are prohibited. “However, commercial activity in these areas is rampant.” Four stories high, completely and visibly illegal.

The women manufactured and assembled CCTVs and WiFi routers. They are the latest addition to the roster of women workers sacrificed to the global, national, and local economies. December 11, 2019: “Sunday’s factory fire in New Delhi was a planned massacre of workers: We know”. July 16, 2019: “Saturday’s factory fire in New Delhi was a planned massacre of women workers”. January 22, 2018: “The factory fire in New Delhi was a planned massacre of women workers”. Women made up the majority of workers.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: BBC)

 

The Lessons of Angela Davis in a Carceral Culture

Recently, my mother’s Facetime call interrupted me during a day of intense work. I took her phone call expecting it to provide a much-needed break. My mother is a public-school teacher in Atlanta, Georgia, where she specializes in working with kindergarteners with special needs. She is overworked and underpaid, but rarely complains because she truly feels called to the work. Thus, I was surprised to hear how upset she sounded when I answered the phone. She told me about something concerning one of her students, an incident with her student’s mother that resulted in her arrest. The family is living in a local homeless shelter run by a church in the community. The mother who was arrested, a single mom of three boys, has struggled with keeping her job throughout the pandemic, leading her into an immense amount of stress. My mother and her student’s mother have worked together closely to support him— so much so that when he was supposed to move from kindergarten to first grade, the boy’s mother asked the school to allow my mom to become a first-grade special teacher so that my mom could keep supporting her son. My mother has gotten to know her over the past two years of working together and has listened as she confided in her about the difficulty of her circumstances. As a single mom herself, my mother expressed how much she has always respected her for doing “the best she can.” Two nights earlier, the homeless shelter where they were staying called the police on the mother for getting into a physical altercation with her oldest son after he stayed out past the shelter’s curfew. Now, the mother is in jail facing a felony conviction, and being held without bail because the court considers her to be a ‘threat’ to her children. This leaves her sons to stay with their grandmother who lives forty-five minutes away, outside of Atlanta.

I was drawn to abolition because of my acute awareness of how the carceral system fails my community. I saw my stepdad’s mental illness and addiction become criminalized, leading him to spend five years in prison during my childhood. I saw the way that metal detectors and drug dogs in my middle school’s hallways instilled fear in my peers. I saw the city of Atlanta profit off of Black food, music, and pride, then turn around and line the streets with riot-gear-wearing police officers when my community protested the murder of Rayshard Brooks, an unarmed Black man whom the police killed after responding to a complaint about him sleeping in his car. However, despite years of reading about abolition, talking to friends and family about how prisons cause harm, and unpacking the way the carceral system has  perpetuated trauma in my own life, I still find myself saddened and frustrated after conversations like the one I had with my mother about situations I find deeply unjust. What does it accomplish to imprison a Black, homeless single mother and kidnap her away from her children when they are already struggling? Why are they holding her without bail, forcing her to spend more time away from her children? Why did the homeless shelter— a place that should serve as a safe space for families— view calling the police as the ‘solution’ to an instance of violence that made them uncomfortable? In the context of the state of Georgia’s January 2022 decision to spend $600M on the construction of two new prison facilities, what other ways could our community pool together the resources that are spent funding police and prisons to support people like this mother?

I think it is essential to ask ourselves and our society these questions, and consider Angela Davis, who argues that prisons disappear human beings. In Are Prisons Obsolete, Davis describes how prison abolitionists are met with surprise and distrust by those unaware of the movement who find it unimaginable to live in a social order “that does not rely on the threat of sequestering people in dreadful places designed to separate them from their communities and families.” Elsewhere, she explores how imprisonment has become the automatic response to social problems, saying “homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages.” Angela Davis asks us to question our assumptions about prison. While I have never assumed that prisons are functional sites for ‘rehabilitation,’ I continue to feel sick to my stomach oat their cruelty and waste. For the family of my mother’s student, I cannot accept that putting a homeless, Black single mother of three in prison for up to ten years over one unfortunate moment will do anything more than perpetuate violence and harm.

 

(By Susan EB Grant)

(Image Credit: Tameca Cole / Art in America)

When they begin to torture the trees: State violence against people living with disabilities

Two stories, one in England the other in the United States, speak to the torture to which people living with disabilities are subjected, all in the name of justice. In England, a Black, 17-year-old, non-verbal British boy, a child who had never left England, was identified by the police as Nigerian and sent to immigrant detention, to prepare for deportation. In the United States, Kelly Masten, 38-years-old, has the mental capacity of a six-year-old. Kelly Masten is also non-verbal. Her grandmother called the police to ask for help. The police came, took Masten away, not to the hospital but to jail, where she stayed for ten days. When she finally was sent to hospital, she was in a coma and covered in bruises.

The English story is that a Black, 17-year-old, non-verbal British boy was in hospital in Kent. He ran away, apparently made it to Manchester, where the family used to live, then turned around to return to London. Without money, papers, shoes, phone. He was picked up on the train, for fare violation. The police took him and, according to their report, `interviewed’ the non-verbal Black child who `informed’ them he was Nigerian. And so of course they flipped him over to immigration. Of course. The non-verbal child, who had never spoken in his life, spoke to the police and told them he is Nigerian, the non-verbal child who had never left England.

The United States story is that Kelly Masten, 38-years-old, with the mental capacity of a six-year-old, and non-verbal, bit her grandmother, who is her legal guardian. Her grandmother called 911. The police arrived, assured the grandmother that, after a medical examination, her granddaughter would be taken to John Peter Smith Hospital, in Fort Worth, Texas. She wasn’t. Instead, Kelly Masten was dumped in the `notorious’ Tarrant County Jail. The grandmother told the police that Kelly Masten suffers from a condition that causes violent seizures and that she had to take her medications regularly. The police said they would make sure. They didn’t. When Kelly Masten refused her medication, the staff said, “Fine.” Ten days later, when she finally went to the hospital, covered in bruises, she was in a coma. Kelly Masten is, today, in a coma.

The boy’s mother and sister are furious. The woman’s grandmother and sister are furious. The State claims,  on one hand, nothing wrong really occurred, and, on the other hand, it was an unfortunate but solitary failure. There was no failure. There is a practice of torture. Black, nonverbal child shows up, clearly in distress … send him to Nigeria. Nonverbal adult woman shows up in distress … send her into a coma.

Alice Walker saw this, in her poem aptly entitled, “Torture”

Torture

When they torture your mother
plant a tree
When they torture your father
plant a tree
When they torture your brother
and your sister
plant a tree
When they assassinate
your leaders
and lovers
plant a tree
When they torture you
too bad
to talk
plant a tree.
When they begin to torture
the trees
and cut down the forest
they have made
start another.”

Who will finally start another forest?

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: Jenny Hozer / MoMA)

Manitoba could be moving towards ending solitary confinement … finally

On May 21, 2021, two people incarcerated in Manitoba sued the province over their practice of solitary confinement. On plaintiff, Virgil Charles Gamblin, had been in solitary confinement from December 2020, or six straight months. The other, a juvenile, 17 years old, had been in solitary nine times since July 2020. The two argued that solitary confinement is torture, and, as such, is cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment, “a dungeon inside a prison”. As their attorney, James Sayce, noted, “They’ve shown real courage in coming forward and putting their name down on this claim, and they’ve shown real courage.” This past week, their case was certified as a class action, meaning it now covers thousands of people who were tortured by the state.

Manitoba’s solitary confinement cells are often smaller than parking spaces, with no windows, sleeping mats on the floors. They are often covered in filth, blood and excrement. Junior Moar spent time in Manitoba’s dungeons: “It’s just not a place for a human being to be in there like that, not like a caged animal. An animal shouldn’t even be treated like that.”

Covid made, or better was used as an alibi, to make a terrible situation worse. For example, from 2019 to 2020, prolonged solitary confinement of incarcerated youth increased tenfold. Prolonged solitary confinement is 15 days or longer. Children were thrown into dungeons ostensibly for their own protection. As one child explained, “The way they do it, they’re not helping us.” These numbers came from a report that was an update of an earlier report two years prior. None of this is new, and yet it continues.

In province after province, case after case, the State’s use of solitary confinement has been successfully challenged. Ontario was successfully sued, as were the federal prisons. Class action suits in British Columbia, Alberta, and Nova Scotia are moving forward. Again and again, when presented with the evidence, the courts decide that solitary confinement is [a] unconstitutional and a violation of human and civil rights because [b] it’s torture. Solitary confinement is torture. Why is that so difficult to comprehend? What is our investment in this particular form of torture? Why do we need victim after victim, in the thousands and tens of thousands, having the courage to testify to the trauma imposed on them in the name of justice before we break the cycle of torture?

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: “Solitary Confinement”, mural by David Alfaro Siquieros, completed 1961)

In Tennessee, as everywhere, austerity is a policy of laissez-faire femicide

“Austerity is a profoundly feminist issue.”
Sarah Marie Hall

The headline reads, “‘Trapped:’ Lack of affordable housing for domestic violence survivors”. The story takes place in Nashville, but really it could be almost anywhere in the world. A woman leaves her abusive partner, secures a Section 8 housing voucher, finds a place to live. Then, apparently without warning, she’s given an eviction notice. She’s given ten days to vacate the apartment. With a hot real estate market and landlords loathe to accept housing voucher recipients, she returned to her abusive partner’s residence: “”I feel defeated, I feel hopeless, I feel trapped, I feel like I don’t have a way out … It just kind of sucks the life out of you; it makes you want to give up after you have tried so hard.” It just kind of sucks the life out of you.

Here’s how the story keeps being told: Rents are skyrocketing, eviction filings are rising rapidly, domestic violence survivors are caught in a double, or multiple, bind. It’s a shame, but, you know, market forces are market forces. That story provides an alibi for all predators, in private practice, in this case real estate, as well as at the state level. This is a tale of a public policy of abandonment through austerity. Austerity always targets women. It just kind of sucks the life out of you. Austerity is a policy of laissez faire femicide.

Last year, two reports documented that England’s four year experiment with austerity, 2010 to 2014, resulted in an additional 57,550 deaths. Life expectancy among low-income women, especially women of color, had actually declined. More recent studies show that inequality and poverty in England have had catastrophic effect: “Life expectancy for women in the poorest parts of England is less than the overall life expectancy for women in every OECD country in the world besides Mexico.” Women have been hardest hit by rising poverty, growing inequality, increasing labor market segmentation, all fueled and intensified by austerity. It just kind of sucks the life out of you.

In Brazil, “the burden of retrenchment in social spending in Brazil has been overwhelmingly borne by women”: cuts in social reproduction, such as day-care center; in policies to combat gender-based violence and guarantee economic autonomy; in areas where women represent the bulk of the workforce, such as health and education. Cuts in cash transfer programs, in programs designed to support single-parent families, and programs designed to combat and prevent domestic violence all have targeted and devastated women. It was bad before the pandemic; the last three years have been worse. From Nashville to Rio, the line is direct.

In the Netherlands, from 2011 on, the State cut more than 55 billion euros from its social services budget as it increased taxes in ways which hit the poorest the hardest, especially women of color. The Dutch government claimed it was replacing the welfare state with a “participation society”, in which “everyone who is able, is asked to take responsibility for their own life and environment”. That didn’t work economically for Reagan or Thatcher or Clinton, but it did work politically, stigmatizing anyone and every community needing any sort of assistance. At the epicenter of the assault, women of color.

If you are having a sense of déjà vu all over again, that’s because we have been here before, and then again and again and again. So, let’s agree that it’s time, way past time, to stop using the market-forces alibi to justify failed policies that result in the death, slow or fast, of women, and especially of women of color and low-income women. Austerity aims to just kind of suck the life out of you. As such, austerity is a policy of laissez-faire femicide. Really, another, better world is possible.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo credit: Pluto Press)

Alabama and Tennessee banned shackling incarcerated pregnant people. Will the staff ignore the law?

On April 8, 2022, the Alabama legislature passed a bill that bans the use of waist and leg shackles on incarcerated people during pregnancy, labor, delivery, and the immediate postpartum period, and specifies the conditions under wrist restraints may be used during the postpartum period. Alabama Governor Ivey signed the bill. On April 21, the Tennessee legislature passed its version of a bill banning the use of shackles on incarcerated pregnant people during pregnancy, labor and delivery. It also prohibits shackling incarcerated pregnant people behind the back or to another inmate. Both bills took years to pass, years of advocacy, organizing and just plain pushing on the part of legislators, formerly incarcerated people, such as Pamela Winn, and others. That leaves 13 states with no restrictions on the shackling in pregnant people. Further, even among the 37 states that have passed legislation banning the use of shackles on pregnant people, the laws are often riddled with exceptions and vagaries that leave judgement to the discretion of prison staff. This begs two questions, at the very least. First, why is it so difficult to ban shackling people who are pregnant, in labor, in delivery, or postpartum. Second, what is our collective investment in this form of torture that makes it so impermeable to common sense, medical knowledge, decency, humanity?

In 2009, New York outlawed the use of physical restraints on pregnant people during labor and delivery. In 2015, New York outlawed the use of physical restraints on pregnant people during in-custody transportation and the eight-week postpartum recovery period. In February 2018, Jane Doe was forced to undergo labor and delivery while her ankles were shackled, and her wrists were handcuffed to the bed. Who did this? The New York Police Department. Why? Because they could. Because she was already a Jane Doe, as far as they were concerned. The attending doctors asked the police to remove the restraints. The police said no. The doctors said New York state law bans the use of restraints. The police replied that the NYPD’s Patrol Guide required restraints and, importantly, the Patrol Guide supersedes state law. In April 2021, New York and Jane Doe settled the case. Jane Doe received $750,000. None of the attending officers was disciplined. They’re still on the job.

On January 7, 2020, police in Dayton, Minnesota, in Hennepin County, broke into a home thinking a resident was involved in the purchase of a stolen snowblower. He wasn’t. The police broke in. The house was occupied by a couple, both 26 years old, who were expecting the birth of their first child, in two weeks. The man was taken to jail and booked on charges that, after a year and a half, were dropped. The woman was taken, in handcuffs, and dumped in the Hennepin County Jail, where staff ignored her pleas for help. When she described her excruciating back pains, she was told it was stress. When her waters broke, she had to prove she wasn’t lying, and then she was finally taken to the hospital, a few blocks away. Throughout the transport and most of the delivery, the woman was shackled. She is suing the local police and jail and others for violation of her Constitutional rights as well as denial of medical care. The jail says they take this all very seriously. The thing is that, in 2015, Minnesota unanimously passed and then enacted An act relating to public safety; addressing the needs of incarcerated women related to pregnancy and childbirth. The act bans the use of shackles, sort of: “A representative of a correctional facility may not restrain a woman known to be pregnant unless the representative makes an individualized determination that restraints are reasonably necessary for the legitimate safety and security needs of the woman, correctional staff, or public.” Is the representative of the correctional facility trained to make that determination? No. But no matter. It’s up to them. At no time did anyone say that the woman in question was a threat or danger or a risk of flight. In fact, she was described by jail records as “cooperative with staff throughout the entire process.” After a long and arduous labor, the woman gave birth to a healthy child … in a toxic environment. The father remained in jail for days; the traumatized mother went into depression.

These are just two examples of the situation, even when laws have finally been passed banning the use of shackles on incarcerated people in pregnancy, labor, delivery, and postpartum. What do these laws mean when staff ignore them and with impunity? What do they mean to those giving birth, their families and communities? As well, what do they tell us about the rule of law? Why do we have a greater investment in shackles and handcuffs than we do in law, justice, decency, humanity? What will it take to break the chains, once and for all? It should not be this difficult to stop shackling people in childbirth. It should not be this difficult to stop shackling pregnant people. What exactly is our investment in the torture, trauma, humiliation of pregnant people?

 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: Radical Doula) (Image Credit 2: New York Times / Andrea Dezsö)

In Australia, don’t `fix’ Banksia Hill Detention Center. Shut it down!

Today’s headlines read: “The juvenile prison where child was ‘treated like an animal’ gets funding boost”; “Banksia Hill juvenile detention centre gets $25 million to address ‘dehumanising’ conditions, cut incarceration rates”. Banksia Hill Detention Center is in Western Australia. It’s the only juvenile detention center in Australia that houses both males and females. The situation is so bad that, in January, Perth Children’s Court president Hylton Quail sentenced a 17-year-old child to Hakea Prison, an adult prison, rather than send to Banksia Hill. Hakea Prison is where 22-year-old Noongar man Ricky Lee Cound was kept in solitary and denied clearly needed medical care. On Friday, March 25, Ricky Lee Cound died. After weeks of self-harm and institutional refusal, Ricky Lee Cound died in a place that is preferable to Banksia Hill Detention Center, and today, Banksia Hill Detention Center received $25 million to improve its conditions. Don’t improve it. Shut it down.

In February, the same Judge Quail was presented with the case of a 15-year-old child. The boy had been held in Banksia Hill for 98 days. For 79 of the 98 days, the boy was held in what the judge called a “fishbowl” cell, where he had no privacy whatsoever. The judge described the exercise yard as a “10 x 20 metre cage”. For 33 of the 79 days, the boy wasn’t allowed outside the cell at all. The judge rightly called this “solitary confinement”. The boy received no education while in custody. The boy threatened self-harm and attacked staff. In fact, he was standing before the judge because he had attacked staff and damaged state property. Judge Quail responded to the situation, “When you treat a damaged child like an animal, they will behave like an animal. When you want to make a monster, this is how you do it.”

Today, Banksia Hill Detention Center received $25 million to address these conditions. Don’t address, don’t improve. Shut it down and build real alternatives.

The problems at Banksia Hill Detention Center go way back, continue to the present, and are hard baked into its design and purpose. According to the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services’ 2020 Inspection of Banksia Hill Detention Center, “Aboriginal young people continue to be overrepresented at Banksia Hill, making up 74 percent of the population.” Even by Australian standards, where Indigenous young people typically make up 49% of those “under youth justice supervision”, 74% is high … and catastrophic.

And for girls, it’s especially bad. 80% of the girls are Aboriginal, a mix of sentenced and remand. While services for the girls had improved since the last inspection, the report notes that the improvement came from individual staff members, and not from any strategic or management plan. That means when the staff moves on, and they do move quite a bit, there’s no guarantee the improved services will remain. Further, a number of staff make it known, to the girls, that they don’t want to work in the female section. While girls form a minority of Banksia Hill residents, their numbers have been increasing, during a period where the general population has been decreasing. From 2017 to 2020, the numbers of girls generally doubled. Likewise, where they were 6% of the Banksia Hill population in 2017, by 2020, they comprised 13%. And yet, with all that increase, everything involving girls at Banksia Hill Detention Center was ad hoc.

Banksia Hill Detention Center has been open since 1997. It has gone through repeated cycles of “major redevelopment”, to no avail. That’s because the improvements, despite individual staff members’ best intentions or lack thereof of, were never meant to improve the lives of Aboriginal children. Don’t `improve’ the institution, yet again, with a fat purse. The children housed in Banksia Hill Detention have problems, but they themselves are not the problem. Shut it down. Build real justice by investing in real care.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: National Indigenous Times)

Devastation in Durban

12 April 2022: Flood-damaged homes in eNkanini shack settlement in Cato Crest, Durban.

The openly kleptocratic faction of the ANC has always had its strongest base in Durban. This is the city from which the late John Mchunu used his position as the regional chairperson of the party to organise the campaign that took Jacob Zuma to the presidency. In the Zuma years, the extent to which the country was run from Durban was significant.

It is here that the axe of day-to-day political repression falls hardest, and most frequently. Violence and the threat of violence have been normalised. In much of the city, automatic weapons are now an unremarked on and ordinary feature of political meetings.

Activists have their homes burnt, are beaten, tortured, arrested and jailed for long periods on farcically bogus charges and, all too often, murdered. The izinkabi, party thugs, the police and now elements in the prosecuting authority operate together to protect the political mafia that has captured the ANC and the City Hall.

That mafia has institutionalised itself in the city’s procurement policies and in the party’s structures in the wards where there is now formal accommodation for the “business forums” that seek to capture public money in the name of “radical economic transformation”.

The election of Zandile Gumede as the eThekwini regional chairperson of the ANC is a clear signal that, despite the party’s significant setback at the polls, its most brazen mafia – the radical economic transformation faction in Durban – are not beating any sort of strategic retreat.

The capture of governance by a mafia has many consequences, including the murder of activists. Another of those consequences is that money collected and allocated for social purposes – such as building and maintaining infrastructure, providing housing and so on – is appropriated for the private enrichment of a small, politically connected elite.

Every rand that goes into another McMansion in uMhlanga, or on another Italian sports car, is a rand taken away from building houses, or even the more modest work of making shack settlements a little safer and more liveable.

Lives made in mud

Durban’s hilly terrain means there is open land for impoverished people to occupy within the city, close to schools and opportunities for work. Here, shack settlements are not always on the urban periphery. But this terrain also means that large numbers of people often live together on steep slopes. Many settlements are alongside the streams that run through the valleys, streams that turn rapidly into torrents of angry water when heavy rain lands on hard surfaces without adequate drainage and rushes down slopes denuded of vegetation by the construction of shacks.

Even ordinary levels of rain turn these settlements into waterlogged places sitting on mud considerably higher than ankle-deep. It is standard for people’s homes to be full of water and mud, with water running under their beds. This is extremely uncomfortable. Residents often spend days with plastic bags tied over their shoes. Navigating steep slopes that have turned to thick mud is particularly dangerous for older people. Broken limbs are common.

The fact that the municipality has not bothered to pave paths and install basic drainage in the settlements is just one sign, among many, of the systemic contempt with which impoverished people are treated. Its failure to collect rubbish from these areas is another. And the drainage that does exist around shack settlements, built for the adjacent suburbs, gets blocked quickly when rain carries uncollected refuse into poorly maintained drainage systems.

The weather has not been an entirely natural phenomenon for a long time, since humans first began cutting down the vast forests that once covered much of Europe and North America. The scale of human impact on the weather and broader climate systems escalated rapidly with the onset of industrialisation driven by fossil fuels. But while the worsening climate crisis requires urgent attention, we cannot say that a particular municipality is responsible for the amount of rain that falls in its jurisdiction.

A politics of contempt

But the failure to make provision to keep people safe when the rain does come, to maintain existing infrastructure and to build new infrastructure, is the full and direct responsibility of those who allocate and oversee municipal expenditure.

In the same way that the tuberculosis epidemic and shack fires are a material expression of a politics of elite contempt, so too is much of the damage wreaked by floods. We can’t stop the rain, but we can prepare for it in a way that assumes the equal dignity and equal value of the lives of all residents.

But without a decisive political shift, the cycle of fire and flood will continue to shape the lives of impoverished people. Durban has by far the most extensive and impressive forms of popular organisation in the country. But while such organisation has defended much and won much, it has not acquired the strength to dislodge the political mafia that runs the city.

Nationally, it is on the Right that new forces are emerging and cohering on the terrain of electoral politics. As is common in much of the world, the deliberate incitement of and pandering to xenophobia has become a key technique for the Right to build political vehicles that exploit people’s suffering for electoral gains while aligning with the same forces that produce and sustain that suffering.

It is the Right that is currently best placed to profit from the decline in the standing and power of the ANC. Well-intentioned top-down initiatives, from non-governmental organisations to activists last rooted in popular organising in the 1980s, will not change this. Popular democratic power is always built from below. Right now the task of building mutually respectful alliances between the mass-based organisations of the Left, alliances rooted in practical forms of solidarity, could hardly be a more urgent starting point for the project to rebuild the Left as a national force.

This article was first published by New Frame.

(Photo Credit: Rogan Ward / New Frame)

Quebec did not fail to address systemic racism against Indigenous women, it refused to.

I support Joyce’s Principle

On September 28, 2020, 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. On September 26, suffering severe stomach pains, Joyce Echaquan checked herself into a hospital. On September 28, as her pain worsened, 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. There was a brief `outcry’ in Canada at the treatment Joyce Echaquan received, which was perfectly ordinary treatment for 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.

There was an inquest, which found that systemic racism played a key role in Joyce Echaquan’s death. The Quebec government promised it would do something. It did. It refused to adopt “Joyce’s Principle”, policies aimed at providing fair access to health services for Indigenous people, and it stopped discussion of Joyce’s Principle at the national level. Why? Because Joyce’s Principle includes discussion of systemic racism. The Atikamekw Nation is protesting and pushing for adoption of Joyce’s Principle, as a first step.

Meanwhile, the press continues to cover Quebec’s position as “failure”: “Quebec has failed to deliver on its promise that it would enshrine in the law the principle of cultural safety for Indigenous communities.” Quebec did not fail, it refused. It said, explicitly, there is no systemic racism in its health care system, and any mention thereof will be cut off, with the same brutal and racist efficiency that was applied to Joyce Echaquan. Where there is no attempt, there is no failure. Where an action is part of ongoing public policy, there is no failure. There is refusal. Period. Calling it by another name provides the torture, and the torturers, with alibi. Joyce Echaquan deserved, and deserves, better.

 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image credit 1: Eruoma Awashish / Joyce’s Principle) (Image credit 2: Ernest “Aness” Dominique / canadianart)