Haunts: Haiti, like this woman’s song

Last Sunday, Canada’s Governor General Michaëlle Jean stood before a gathering in Calgary, broke into a song her mother used to sing to her, as a child in Haiti. She sang a song in Creole, and then, in English, said, “It’s a song of hope. Like this woman’s song, rose from the wreckage, that song that traveled over the airwaves to reach us. So I thought, even when we have nothing left, there’s always a song. There’s always music, words and then steps, to bring us back to life, to bring us together and to provide hope.”

You have to hear and see her sing to understand the power of the moment, to feel that moment in which she fuses her mother’s song, her mother’s daughter’s song, and the song of the woman rising from wreckage, songs that bind and songs that bring.

The past two weeks have been filled with many reports, many images, many words, many silences. Images of women emerging from the rubble, ghostlike with the chalk and dust covering their faces and bodies. Pictures of girls, panicked, traumatized, barely emerging from the rubble, from les décombres, from the ruins. The images, the stories, the words are haunting.

For me the hardest part is the living. There have been so many dead here, corpses are so common both on the street and oozing out of the wreckage, that it’s the living who haunt me.”

But what is the quality of the haunting?

Edwidge Danticat’s cousin Maxo died in the earthquake, died as well because the United States refused his asylum appeal.

“When Maxo was a teen-ager, his favorite author was Jean Genet. He read and reread `Les Nègres.’ These lines from the play now haunt me: `Your song was very beautiful, and your sadness does me honor. I’m going to start life in a new world. If I ever return, I’ll tell you what it’s like there. Great black country, I bid thee farewell.’”

Those with experience of Haiti know the intricate and intimate filaments of the tragedy, they know the names, which they must speak and share and weave into something new:

When Robinson and I last toured Cite Soleil in March of 2009, a small girl approached me from out of nowhere, shoving a tiny piece of paper into my hand. Then she ran away. On that paper she had scribbled her name: Adline Verne. It took me some time to understand how powerful it was that she had no concrete expectations and had asked nothing of me. She merely wanted me to know, for future reference, that she existed. Because she opened her hand to extend to me this information, I feel obligated by journalistic responsibility to report it. In Haiti, there are millions of voiceless, nameless people like Adline. Maybe now their voices will be heard.”

The Haiti that haunts cannot be the Haiti of the living dead nor can it be the Haiti of rubble. It must be the Haiti of the living, including the living who have died. It could begin with a song sung by a woman conjuring the woman who was her mother singing that song to the girl she once was, a mother’s song that then forms a chorus with another song, a song sung by a woman emerging from the wreckage, refusing to become one with the wreckage, refusing to become rubble, rising and traveling and reaching, among others, us.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Protection: when the powerful offer protection, women know

The day after Obama won the Presidential election, The New York Times wrote that Obama won a decisive victory because “he saw what is wrong with this country: the utter failure of government to protect its citizens”. At the time, I wrote that protection was the wrong goal, that from India to Haiti to Zimbabwe to the Democratic Republic of Congo to Ciudad Juárez, and the Mexico-US borderlands more generally, the powerful offer protection to those they call citizens, and ignore women’s demands for democratic, full and mutual engagement, for the right and capacity to dream and love in public as well as in private. The powerful offer protection as a means to ignore women.

That was November 2009. It’s January 2010, time to consider, again, protection. Not the protection that follows mass devastation, such as in Haiti. Nor the protection that follows extreme violence, as with the massacre near Jos, Nigeria. Nor the protection of legislative and other forms of hate campaigns, as in the current anti-gay Bill in Uganda, where we are all being protected from the threat and scourge of same-sex love and sexuality.

Instead, consider two linked national – global moments in which the powerful few claim to offer the gift of protection to the citizens of the nation.

The World Cup is coming to South Africa. Across the country, “the question of how to deal with sex workers grows louder”. What exactly is the problem, the to-deal-with, with sex workers? Because sex work is illegal, the issues of health and safety for both clientele and workers remain insoluble, and the rights and well being of the sex workers remain distant: “Sex work is illegal in South Africa. Cape Town-based Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), has been campaigning to decriminalize sex work for the past 12 years, said spokeswoman Vivienne Lalu. 

Rights activists say legalizing sex work would protect the workers and their clients from HIV and abuse; there are moves afoot to review the Sexual Offences Act. But, Lalu says, `We are still some years away.’”

Legalizing sex work would protect the workers, not because the law, given by the powerful, would afford protection, but because the entire issue would move from the realm of sexuality to that of workers. Once sex work in South Africa, as anywhere, is legalized, sex workers can unionize, can create their own formal, autonomous, sanctioned spaces, alliances, affiliations. Workers, and especially women workers, don’t seek protection. They demand the right to association. They demand respect for the dignity of their individual and collective labor. That is the reason that the lead up to the World Cup in South Africa has been marked by so many protests. Across South Africa, the poors, largely women, have rejected the promise and offer of protection, in the form of forced removals for their own good, and instead have called for housing, public services, education, and health care.

The Olympics are coming to Canada, and so Canada, British Columbia in particular,  anticipates an increase in sexual assaults during the 2010 Olympics, and, of course, all the money has been spent on `security’. The buildings and international `visitors’ must be protected.

But British Columbia had enough money recently to outsource welfare-to-work to a company called WCG International HR Solution. WCG is a subsidiary of Providence Service Corporation, based in Tucson, Arizona. WCG billed the government for `no-shows’. This is business as usual. When you outsource `helping’, women and children are the first casualties. This is not new information. It’s been available to British Columbians since at least 2005, when Policies of Exclusion, Poverty & Health appeared, sharing stories of 21 women who did not seek protection but rather struggled and organized for change. Instead of change, they got the Olympics and the gift of protection: evictions, clinic closures, increased police presence.

When the promise of protection comes from the powerful, it is always fatal, first to women and children, then to everyone and every thing else. Women know the pitfalls of powerful protection. Women know, in their bodies, the economies of extraction, theft, exploitation and abuse. Change from below seeks material equality, space, time, and it begins and ends with women. Protection from the powerful is what it always has been, an insurance policy forced upon people by extortionists.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

What is left: after solitary confinement in schools

Prison is a bad place for children. Solitary confinement is worse yet. Extended solitary confinement is lethal. These are not surprising statements, and the news that underwrites them, though dismaying, is not particularly shocking.

Immigration detention centers in the US, such as the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, run by Corrections Corporation of America, or the Reeves County Detention Center, run by GEO, are lethal, fatal black holes for all residents. Joe Arpaio’s jail in Maricopa County is only the best known example of humiliation and terror against all Latinas and Latinos, irrespective of status, and which results in increased anxiety and mental health problems for Latina and Latino children.

And it is estimated that more than 60 of those held in Guantanamo were under 18 when they were arrested and sent to Cuba.

In England, Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre is so terrible for children that the entire nation is now considered unsafe for children of immigrant parents, including those seeking asylum and refuge. The place literally drives children mad.

Juvenile centers in the United States report that sexual abuse of prisoners, by other prisoners and, more, by staff, is off the charts. In 2008 – 2009, in more than a few juvenile detention centers, a recent study suggested that nearly one out of every three prisoners suffered some sort of sexual abuse.

When children go to prison, how are they educated? According to some, they’re not at all. California is being sued in a federal class action case for failing to educate youth in their `probation camps.’

These are terrible and tragic and all too familiar. Prison is a bad place, after all. Bad things happen.

Those bad things that happen to children are not restricted to prisons. Take “seclusion rooms”, for example: “Seclusion is the involuntary confinement of a student alone in a room or area from which the student is physically prevented from leaving. This includes situations where a door is locked as well as where the door is blocked by other objects or held by staff.”

This happens in schools all over the United States.

In the state of Georgia, public schools have “seclusion rooms,” solitary confinement cells. The doors are double bolted on the outside: “Seclusion rooms are allowed in Georgia public schools provided they are big enough for children to lie down, have good visibility and have locks that spring open in case of an emergency such as a fire. In 2004, Jonathan King, 13, hanged himself in one such room, a stark, 8-foot-by-8-foot “timeout” room in a Gainesville public school.” Time out. When schools put children into solitary confinement, what time is left?

What is left for Jonathan King’s parents, so many years later? Pain, anguish. Only now is Georgia finally responding by considering a law that protects all students from seclusion and restraint. It only took the State legislature six years … equal to almost half of Jonathan King’s entire life.

In May 2009, the Missouri state legislature passed a law giving the school districts two years in which to devise written policies governing the use of seclusion rooms. Before that, there were no policies, only the practice of solitary confinement of school children without a single written guideline or rule. This is now an issue in the upcoming GOP primary for State Senate. One candidate sees restrictions on solitary confinement of children as a violation of local sovereignty.

Florida state legislators are also considering a bill to restrict the use of restraint and seclusion. There are seclusion rooms all over the state school system, from elementary on up. Up til now, there has been no written policy.

Not surprisingly, solitary confinement is of particular concern to parents of children living with disabilities. Here are two stories from Florida:

When a twelve year old girl with autism repeated names of movies, shoved papers off her desk or waved her arms and kicked her legs toward approaching teachers, they responded by grabbing the eighty pound girl, forcing her to the ground and holding her there. This happened forty-four times during the 2006-07 school year.  She was held once for an hour, and, on average, twenty-two minutes at a time.  At least one incident left her back badly bruised.

When a seven year old girl, diagnosed with autism and bipolar disorder had her head pushed to the floor, the parents discovered several other frequent inappropriate uses of restraint and seclusion. The county where they live leaves it to individual schools to write their own policies on restraint or seclusion use.

These come from a 2009 report issued by the National Disability Rights Network: School is not supposed to hurt: Investigative Report on Abusive Restraint and Seclusion in Schools.  The stories come from all over the United States.

On the cover is the picture of a lovely, smiling seven year-old girl, from Wisconsin:

A seven year old girl was suffocated and killed at a mental health day treatment facility when several adult staff pinned her to the floor in a prone restraint.  This child, who was diagnosed with an emotional disturbance and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, died because she was blowing bubbles in her milk and did not follow the time-out rules regarding movement.

Greenfield School District, outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin, applied to use Federal stimulus funds to build seclusion rooms in elementary and middle schools. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction recently rejected the application, instructing all school districts in the state that stimulus funds and special education funds not be used for that purpose. Greenfield is disappointed.

School is not supposed to hurt. It’s not only the children sent to isolation who suffer. What are the other children in the classrooms, in the hallways, in the school offices, who witness these acts and know of these rooms as part of the norm, what are they being taught? What becomes of a generation of child witnesses to torture?

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Black Looks: Haiti Cherie

Haiti Cherie

What word can encompass stretch its arms and wrap them around
A day when the world returns to the dust it was
Before we fashioned orderly chaos and became free
The First Negro Republic raises weakened arms to wipe
The Ash
From its eyes water and ash to mould human tragedy
What word can encompass… we have asked before
Encompass passion itself when it screams whimpers
Haiti mwen
Haiti nou
Nou la épi zot

The word that encompasses has not yet been created
Bondyé ki pa bon
The word cannot be found
Under the rubble of ash and water edifices
Buildings made from tears and dust that crumble into a void of screaming and loss
A hellish void of independence and burnt out communication lines sparking revolting revolutionary pain
And yet is Haiti so epic that
Hurricane-proofed we sink into the earth from which
Yo di
We came
The dead in the streets and the word cannot be found the dust will not settle for the word to be found
She hides in the folds of warm pervasive stench heavy and loud as shattered eardrums
She cavorts with criminals buried under police stations and wives caressing newborns to deep deep sleep

Reveal yourself, word!
One hundred French citizens buried beneath a thousand Haitian bodies
Ki té ké soucouri corps mwen
And they keep coming
The hits
The hits
Les coups n’arrêtent pas
What more do we ask but to find the word that can
That will
Reach long arms around the day when God gripped us in His loving hands
And shook and shook
Finality
He set us down gently like lambs beautiful black sheep and
Poured ashes onto our heads?

Annie Quarcoopome

Annie Quarcoopome writes at Black Looks. This poem appeared on Black Looks, January 13, http://www.blacklooks.org/2010/01/haiti_cherie_.html

Abstract Space: While the air is still warm

Abstract Space:  While the air is still warm

While the air is still warm
while beads of sweat still trickle down between
the blades of my shoulders
and my fingers still smell of you
while my husband is out driving, grim faced
kicking up dust somewhere
fists around the steering wheel
loveless and cold
while the approaching clouds have not managed to seal me in yet
this listless and sad day that wants to lie back in your arms
would do anything
and I mean anything
to bring you back
while the birds seem to be free, lining up on telephone poles
and the day ends and the lights switch on
and my best dress hangs in the cupboard
I will touch myself.

Megan Voysey-Braig

Megan Voysey-Braig is a South African writer, author of Till We Can Keep an Animal (Jacana, 2008), winner of 2007/2008 European Union Literary Award, shortlisted for the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize – Africa, longlisted for the 2009 Sunday Times Fiction Prize. She currently lives in Berlin.

What is left: solitary confinement

“After the bars and the gates
and the degradation,
What is left?”

Maria Benita Santamaria is a 35 year old transgender woman. In June 2009, she was arrested in northern Virginia and charged with possession of methamphetamine.  In August she pleaded guilty. She was sent to Central Virginia Regional Jail, a men’s prison. The prison placed her in solitary confinement, for “her own protection”. At the end of December, a U.S. District Judge ordered her removed to a federal prison with treatment facilities and counseling for transgender prisoners.  When the holiday seasons intruded, the judge had Santamaria placed in a medical wing until after the end of the festive season. After six months in solitary, what is left?

“After the lock ins and the lock outs
and the lock ups,
What is left?”

For the last two years, Santamaria has undergone hormone treatments in preparation for sex change surgery. That stopped in August. According to the prison staff, while in solitary, Santamaria was treated as a prisoner on punitive lockdown. She left her cell one hour a day, she showered three times a week.

“I mean, after the chains that get entangled
in the grey of one’s matter,
After the bars that get stuck
in the hears of men and women,

When the jail guards talked to or about Santamaria, they called her `it’. She considered suicide. She pleaded to be returned to the general population.

“After the tears and disappointments,
After the lonely isolation,
After the cut wrist and the heavy noose,
What is left?”

Maria Benita Santamaria said take me out of solitary confinement and put me in the general population, where I will most likely be raped. Maybe I’ll survive. It would be better than this.

“Like, after you know that god
can’t be trusted,
After you know that the shrink
is a pusher,
that the word is a whip
and the badge is a bullet,
What is left?”

Across the United States, prison guards call transgender prisoners `it’, and worse. Across the country and around the world, prisoners are placed in solitary confinement for long periods … “for their own protection”. After long terms in isolation, what is left?

“After you know that the dead
are still walking,
After you realize that silence
is talking,
that outside and inside
are just an illusion,
What is left?”

Virginia also operates four `facilities’ for women: Deerfield Work Center for Women; the Central Virginia Correctional Unit #13; the Virginia Correctional Center for Women; and Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. In June 2008, the four prisons held about 2220 women, of which Fluvanna held 1200.

“I mean, like, were is the sun?
Where are her arms and
where are her kisses?
There are lip-prints on my pillow—
i am searching.
What is left?”

Fluvanna boasts a Pen Pals program, and prisoners can work for the Virginia Correctional Enterprises as optical Braille transcribers or as tailors. But there’s more to Fluvanna, much more.

“I mean, like, nothing is standstill
and nothing is abstract.
The wings of a butterfly
can’t take flight.
The foot on my neck is part
af a body.
The song that i sing is part
of an echo.
What is left?”

Reports have been coming out of Fluvanna that women who `appear to be lesbian’ (short hair, baggy clothes) have been segregated and put in a `butch wing’. A no-touching policy has been instituted. Women walk single file everywhere. Access to religious services has been curtailed. And this: “a woman writes that a mentally ill inmate was kept in solitary confinement for months. `When it’s time for her to take her shower, she is lead, shackled and naked, down the hall, with a dog leash attached to her shackles, by a male guard.’”

“I mean, like, love is specific.
Is my mind a machine gun?
Is my heart a hacksaw?
Can i make freedom real? Yeah!
What is left?”

In March 2009, Dr. Atul Gawande argued, “Public sentiment in America is the reason that solitary confinement has exploded in this country, even as other Western nations have taken steps to reduce it. This is the dark side of American exceptionalism. With little concern or demurral, we have consigned tens of thousands of our own citizens to conditions that horrified our highest court a century ago. Our willingness to discard these standards for American prisoners made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war, to the detriment of America’s moral stature in the world. In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture.”

“I am at the top and bottom
of a lower-archy.
I am an earth lover
from way back.
I am in love with
losers and laughter.
I am in love with
freedom and children.”

In 1974, Assata Shakur, a New Jersey prisoner, was one month pregnant. She was taken to Roosevelt Hospital, and shackled to a bed for 10 days. Then she was moved to Middlesex County Jail for Men, and kept in solitary confinement for four months. She was extradited to New York, to Rikers Island, where `the treatment’ continued.

On September 10, Assata Shakur went into labor, and, on September 11, gave birth to Kakuya Amala Olugbala Shakur. When Shakur returned to Rikers Island, she was shackled, beaten, put into solitary confinement for a month. Finally, she was released from `punitive segregation: “So I was no longer locked. Just in jail. And separated from my child.”

And she wrote the poem, “Leftovers – What Is Left”, for her daughter. Parts of that poem run through this reflection.

“Love is my sword
and truth is my compass.
What is left?”

What is left? Solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement is the vital organ of the body politic of prison. When you read that the death penalty might be dropped from the anti-gay bill in Uganda or that capital punishment may finally come to an end in the United States, remember this: solitary confinement is torture, and it defines prison.

Daniel Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com