Archives for December 2008

The bombing of the prison set free . . .

Paul Klee: Angelus Novus, 1920

For over two years Gaza has been referred to as the largest open-air prison on earth. Vivian Salama wrote yesterday: “Gaza has already been shut to the outside world for some 19 months, making it more of an open-air prison for its 1.5 million residents.”

And then Israel struck, and reminded the world that there are prisons within the prison. According to Amira Hass, “At noon Sunday, the Israel Air Force bombed a compound belonging to Gaza’s National Security Service. It houses Gaza City’s main prison. Three prisoners were killed. Two were apparently Fatah members; the third was convicted of collaborating with Israel. Hamas had evacuated most of the Gaza Strip’s other prisons, but thought this jail would be safe.” What is safety in a prison within a prison? According to the AP, “The bombing of the prison set free dozens of prisoners, who rushed out from their cells, carrying bags of clothes and blankets with them as they scrambled over rubble, fleeing Hamas police.” The prisoners were set free. What is freedom in the largest open-air prison in the world? Not much. As Amal Hassan, 38, a mother of three children, said, at the end of the same AP report: “My children are wetting the bed, they cry when they hear planes…I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Maybe the next bomb will fall here, maybe the next person killed will be one of us”. One of us. One of us?

Safety, freedom, prison. You know what happens to prisoners who are freed by Israeli weapons in Gaza? Ethan Bronner and Taghreed El-Khodary do: “In the fourth-floor orthopedic section [of Shifa Hospital], a woman in her late 20s asked a militant to let her see Saleh Hajoj, her 32-year-old husband. She was turned away and left the hospital. Fifteen minutes later, Mr. Hajoj was carried out by young men pretending to transfer him to another ward. As he lay on the stretcher, he was shot in the left side of the head.

“Mr. Hajoj, like five others killed at the hospital this way in 24 hours, was accused of collaboration with Israel. He had been in the central prison awaiting trial by Hamas judges; when Israel destroyed the prison on Sunday he and the others were transferred to the hospital. But their trials were short-circuited.

“A crowd at the hospital showed no mercy after the shooting, which was widely observed. A man in his 30s mocked a woman expressing horror at the scene.

“`This horrified you?’ he shouted. `A collaborator that caused the death of many innocent and resistance fighters?’

“Sobhia Jomaa, a lawyer with the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens’ Rights, said 115 accused collaborators were in the central prison. None had been executed by Hamas since it took office and their cases were monitored closely.

“`The prison provided the sole protection to all of them,’ she said. `But once it was bombed, many wanted to take revenge.’”

A woman came to find her husband, another woman explains, when prisoners are freed by invading forces, they are freed into the hands of revenge. None of them had been executed by Hamas.

The UN reports that as of the fourth day of the invasion, 320 Palestinians were killed, of whom 62 were civilians. In a separate report, a UNICEF spokesperson notes, “Civilians are paying the price.” Not for the bombing, although there is that, but rather “for a long blockade.”

When nations war, civilians suffer. It is tragic and it is never a great surprise, though many claim shock. But this, this is not nations going to war. This is one country bombing a prison in the name of national security and peace. The bombing of the prison set free … the angel of history: “This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” [Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”] What is progress in a prison within a prison? What is progress in the largest open-air prison in the world? This is.

(Image Credit: The New York Review of Books)

Here’s what isn’t in dispute: Dymond and Clara

Dymond Milburn

Dymond Milburn is in dispute with more than the police force of Galveston, Texas. On Wednesday, The Houston Press reported an incident, two years earlier, involving Dymond, African American, 12 at the time, in front of her family home: “a blue van drove up and three men jumped out rushing toward her. One of them grabbed her saying, `You’re a prostitute. You’re coming with me.’ Dymond grabbed onto a tree and started screaming, `Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.’ One of the men covered her mouth. Two of the men beat her about the face and throat. As it turned out, the three men were plain-clothed Galveston police officers who had been called to the area regarding three white prostitutes soliciting a white man and a black drug dealer.” Three weeks later, the police came to Dymond’s school, where Dymond is an honors student, and arrested her for assaulting a public servant.

On Thursday, Radley Balko picked up on the story, and then it took off into the blogosphere. Later, Balko updated his account: “Here’s what isn’t in dispute:  Milburn was wrongly targeted during a prostitution raid.  The police were looking for white prostitutes.  Milburn is black.  She was apprehended by plain-clothes narcotics officers who emerged from a van as she stood outside her home.  She resisted.  The police have acknowledged they targeted the wrong house.  Three weeks later, Milburn was arrested at  her school, in front of her classmates, for `assaulting a public official.’  At some point, her father was arrested on a similar charge.  The judge declared a mistrial on the first day of Milburn’s trial.  According to Vogel [the Houston Press reporter], she’s scheduled to be tried again in February.”

J.D. Tucille, writing in response, concluded: “So the Galveston Police Department’s position is that it’s a criminal act for a little girl to resist being dragged into a van by strange men? If that’s the lesson the police want to send to the community, then it’s nothing more than an association of thugs intolerant of the slightest challenge to its authority. It’s certainly not an agency for preserving the peace and defending the rights of local residents. A police department like that shouldn’t just be sued; it should be disbanded.”

We already heard, the week that Dymond Milburn `became news’, that sex workers in the United States face police violence, and if you didn’t already know that African American women and girls face police violence and, even more, police sanctioned violence, A.C. Thompson’s “Katrina’s Hidden Race War” and Rebecca Solnit’s “The Grinning Skull: The Homicides You Didn’t Hear About in Hurricane Katrina” would remind you. Brent Staples has seen “Without Sanctuary”, an exhibition that exposes U.S. lynching cultural histories, and knows that “lynching … was a method of social control”. A Black girl in Texas, a state notorious for the quantity and quality of lynchings, hung to a tree for safety and freedom. Welcome to the 21st century.

White supremacist violence against Black people, Black communities, Black knowledge and culture, is not new. State violence against Black girls is not new. State use of sex and sexuality – what were you doing on that street or what were you doing out at that late hour – to justify violence against women, and in particular against Black women, is not new and is not news.

The occlusion of sexual violence that lies at the heart of all power relationships and hierarchies is also not new and never makes the news. Writing about the case of Brian Gene Nichols, accused and convicted to many life sentences without parole, for having beaten a courthouse sheriff’s deputy, and having killed a judge, a court reporter, a sheriff’s deputy, and an off-duty federal officer,  Marie Tesler finds that what is continually scanted, or not reported at all, is that Nichol’s initial charge was one of sexual assault, and it’s one that proved exceedingly difficult for a jury to take seriously. When it comes to sexual violence, the jury is always out. For Tesler, “Domestic violence and sexual violence are the DNA of violence throughout society. It’s where violence begins.”

What if the story involved the DRC, rather than Texas, and the Black girl was Clara, instead of Dymond: “That night I was coming back from my sister’s home when I was accosted by men in civilian clothes in a jeep with blacked-out windows at about 8pm. They showed me police badges,” she said. The men told Clara she was not allowed to be outside in the night and she climbed into their car expecting to be driven home to her parents. But the men drove her to the Ngaba district of Kinshasa where they ordered her to pay a 70 000 CDF ($120) fine. “I told them: ‘I am young. I do not have that kind of money.’ But they took the 1 500 CDF (about $3) that I had on me and my gold chain as money for transport,” she said. “Then they took me to a dark place. As two men raped me, the driver watched,” she said, adding that the men “gave me a lot of pain. I still have pain”.” What’s the distance between men who are police and men who claim to be police, between men who rape and men who `merely’ beat and injure, between fines and arrests, between Kinshasa and Galveston or Atlanta or New Orleans or wherever you are at this moment? The distance is important, and so is the shared space.

As more men commit more rape and sexual violence more intensely and furiously in one part of a country, others begin to do so in another. Call it liquidity. The cleansing niceties of geopolitical distance, rural – metropolitan or periphery – capital or dangerous – safe or bare life – my life, are worse than alibis. From the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the democratic United States of America, sexual violence, and even more the refusal by State and civil society to acknowledge and address sexual violence, `inspires’ rampage, and then the world expresses shock and horror, again, at the brutes and savages, once more. Pain is the currency, it is a quantity: “they gave me a lot of pain.” Pain is the trace, it is a quality: “I still have pain.” In patriarchy, pain has ever been the gift women are meant to receive. In global capital, women’s pain, in particular the pain of Black women, in particular the police sanctioned pain of Black women, is identity. Because the pain is identical and cannot be in dispute, no distance divides Dymond from Clara. Where is the State that acknowledges their pain and does more than acknowledge? Where are the reparations? Where is the place where justice, rather than violence, begins?


(Photo Credit: Breaking Brown)

Responsibility, in three acts: dead and dying, disappearing, diminishing

Zimbabwe. One looks anywhere for hope, for a change, for something new. FePEP, the Feminist Political Education Project, has been meeting in Pretoria. Here’s part of their press release prior to the meeting: “Today, Zimbabwean feminists caucus with women activists from the SADC region to break through the Zimbabwean political impasse and begin the implementation of the Global Political Agreement (GPA). In their meeting with SADC facilitator Thabo Mbeki, at 4pm, they will hand over their resolutions, with actions to move the current Zimbabwean question forward. During the day long meeting, prominent activists from across Africa including Liberia, Kenya, Swaziland and South Africa will give input on strategies of negotiated settlement and transitional arrangement.” Is there hope in a meeting with Thabo Mbeki?

Is there hope for real and positive change when so much stays the same, or gets worse. IRIN reports that a sense of dread pervades the country; the BBC reports that cholera is so intense that Zimbabweans will not shake hands any more; Open Democracy reports on a new theater of war in Zimbabwe, one consisting of `enforced disappearances’, which seems a curiously genteel phrase:; and the Mail & Guardian reports first that Tsvangirai has yet again said he will leave the talks on forming a government of national unity, and then that Mugabe says that he will “never, never, never surrender”, that Zimbabwe is his. In other words, absolutely nothing new. But wait, it gets better, which is to say, worse. The Mail & Guardian also reports that the bullets and guns that allow the regime to chant, never surrender never never surrender, those come from the Democratic Republic of Congo. They do not come through the DRC, they come from the DRC. And so we have moved from blood diamonds to blood guns.

Could things get worse? They could. In Indonesia, according to today’s New York Times, part of the country is vanishing in a mud bath, a spewing seeping horror movie montage of a mud volcano, that was created by Lapindo Brantas drilling for natural gas and piercing a pressurized aquifer. Oops! And now ordinary people are left destitute, and without much aid from government or from international agencies, and here’s the best part, because it’s a man-made disaster. They say the mud could seep and bubble, boil and trouble, for decades.

In China recycling is an art form. Chinese elders in particular bring this great resource, this art, with them to the United States. New America Media reports that, when they arrive with this art form, they are ridiculed, in good times, and attacked and robbed, in not so good times … like now. This practice of collecting cans strikes me as connected to domestic labor. These elders clean the earth of the detritus of others, and how are they repaid? They are described as being caught between a rock and a hard place. It would be better to see them as seized and placed beneath a heavy rock and a heavier boulder.

Reporting on the Indonesian `disappearances,’ the Times notes that “the debate over responsibility has severely limited the payments.” Who takes responsibility for the dead and dying in Zimbabwe, for the disappeared in Indonesia, for the diminished in the United States? Who takes responsibility for ending debates over responsibility and instead living responsibility? FePEP provides one answer: women talk with and take care of each other. The State built by men must just follow.

(Photo Credit: Mercedes Sayagues/IPS)

Democracy? We think it would be a good idea

Today’s Guardian reports on headscarf politics, American style: “Georgia judge jails Muslim woman for wearing headscarf to court”. Here’s the nub: “Judge Keith Rollins of Douglasville, Georgia, yesterday ordered Lisa Valentine, 41, to jail after she refused to remove her scarf before entering the courtroom, citing rules governing appropriate dress. Last week, Sabreen Abdulrahmaan was forced to leave Rollins’s court before her son’s probation hearing because she would not remove her scarf.” Time to reread Joan Wallach Scott’s Politics of the Veil, in which is dissected the French laws concerning Muslim women’s coverings. Same questions as in Georgia. Why headscarves and not beards, for example. But more to the point, why jail? Why women? Why Black women? Why now?

Meanwhile, according to “Afghan women fear a retreat to dark days” in today’s Christian Science Monitor, Afghan women are dealing with dealing with the Taliban, dealing with dealing with the government dealing with the Taliban, dealing with dealing with international ngo’s who simply can’t get the concept of sustainable work for women,  and these women ask the world not to forget them. Too late. The point is not that Georgia is Afghanistan. The point is that from Georgia to Afghanistan women fear a retreat to dark days because they experience the darkness, through violence, through persecution, through imprisonment, through threats of all of the above and more.

Across the United States, sex workers find a similar state of dark threat, often at the hands of clients, as often at the hands of the police and the courts. Sometimes the police harass and beat, other times they look the other way. In either case, sex workers find themselves fearing the darkness … at noon and otherwise. So, yesterday, dozens of sex workers marched through the streets of downtown Washington, demanding respect from police, demanding acknowledgement. “Sex Workers Criticize Law Enforcement” concluded with a reflection by Leila, a 24 year old women from San Francisco: “Alone, we’re just prostitutes on the corner and no one respects us,” she said. “Together we are a political movement, and we can change things.” Amen.

In “What is postcolonial thinking?”, a long and interesting interview in Esprit,  translated and reproduced in Eurozine, Achille Mbembe locates postcolonial thinking as opposing a post-ethical securitized world. Although he mentions women, as part of a list of disenfranchised and oppressed sectors, women don’t play a large role in his analytics. What if securitization of the world were to be understood as precisely about gender construction and constitution? What if, when discussing the U.S. attempt to act without morality or excuse, one were to see this move as a traditional tool in the rhetorics of patriarchy? Mbembe argues that “postcolonial thought is…a dream: the dream of a new form of humanism, a critical humanism founded above all on the divisions that, this side of the absolutes, differentiate us. . . . The thinking of the postcolony…is a thought of responsibility and life, seen through the prism of what belies both. It is in the direct lineage of certain facets of black thought (Fanon, Senghor, Césaire and others). It is a thought of responsibility, responsibility in terms of the obligation to answer for oneself, to be the guarantor of one’s actions. The ethics underlying this thought of responsibility is the future of the self in the memory of what one has been in another’s hands, the sufferings one has endured in captivity, when the law and the subject were divided.” Where are law and subject divided, almost universally? At the threshold to the so-called familial household as constructed by patriarchal rule of law, that states that the household is a kingdom unto itself. Fanon, Senghor, Césaire, yes, but also Ba, Head, Saadawi, Vera, and others, women who have written about the enduring captivity.

Mbembe concludes with a meditation on U.S. hyper-hegemony, what E.P. Thompson used to call exterminism: “Historically, successive US governments have claimed to build universalism and promote democracy on the basis of crimes that are presented as so many earthly fulfilments of God’s law and divine providence….Mercy has no part in his laws and precepts. He is a jealous and unforgiving god, swift to destroy and forever requiring human sacrifice.”

Democracy American style has no room for mercy, no room for forgiveness, no room for patience, no room for Muslim women, no room for Black women, no room for sex workers, no room for postcolonial thinking, no room for humans, no room for the human.

The dangerous politics of market radicalism“, in Open Democracy, reminds us that the market eschews politics, and ethics, for profit, and reminds us that the market as protector of democracy “was accompanied in much of the Anglosphere by a mounting reliance on coercive social-control mechanisms, one illustration of which is the existence of the highest levels of prison populations in the democratic world.” The highest levels of prison populations in the democratic world. Democracy. I’m told it’s a beautiful thing. I wouldn’t know, but I think it would be a good idea.

(Photo Credit: Global Fund for Women)

Thanks to all the predators

For those of us following prison/carceral issues, this is one way in which Madoff affects the work. This period will have been bracketed between “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” and “Bernie, you’ve done a helluva job.” Thanks to all the predators who make this world possible.
See ya, Dan

Statement of Robert Crane, President of the JEHT Foundation, on behalf of the Foundation’s Board of Directors

Posted under General News on Monday, December 15, 2008

The JEHT Foundation, a national philanthropic organization, has stopped all grant making effective immediately and will close its doors at the end of January 2009. The funds of the donors to the Foundation, Jeanne Levy-Church and Kenneth Levy-Church, were managed by Bernard L. Madoff, a prominent financial advisor who was arrested last week for defrauding investors out of billions of dollars.

The Foundation was established in 2000. Its name stands for the values it holds dear: Justice, Equality, Human dignity and Tolerance. It supported programs that promoted reform of the criminal and juvenile justice systems; ensured that the United States adhered to the international rule of law; and work to improve the voting process by enhancing fair representation, competitive elections and government transparency.

The JEHT Foundation Board deeply regrets that the important work that the Foundation has undertaken over the years is ending so abruptly. The issues the Foundation addressed received very limited philanthropic support and the loss of the foundation’s funding and leadership will cause significant pain and disruption of the work for many dedicated people and organizations. The Foundation’s programs have met with significant success in recent years – promoting change in these critical areas in partnership with government and the non-profit sector. Hopefully others will look closely at this work and consider supporting it going forward.

Robert Crane, President and CEO
JEHT Foundation