Resistances: In the capital of the greatest incarcerating country in the world

On March 28, Ruth Wilson Gilmore gave the annual Yulee Endowed Lecture, hosted by the Women’s Studies Program at the George Washington University. Her talk opened with a slide showing an NAACP billboard that said, against the Statue of Liberty as background,

Welcome to America home to
5% of the world’s people &
25% of the world’s prisoners.

This is the same America that is home to 5% of the world’s population and produces 27.8% of the world’s greenhouse gases from fossil fuel, according to the National Environment Trust.

Pollution and incarceration reveal a dreadful, man-made reality. For both prison and pollution, the United States tries to change its image rather than face up to the reality. The United States is the primary source of world pollution and of prison practices. A prison binge has been built on the disregard of women, of people of color, of the poor. High levels of pollution have been built on absurd consumerism passed off as a social good. Meanwhile, for many, these add up to a cruel reality.

United States administration after administration has produced more laws to incarcerate more people and more “Acts” to cover up the high level of emission of Green House gases and other pollutants. Images of poor people, especially of women of color, abusing the welfare became as visible as the images of the destruction of the “Commons” became invisible. What one hand giveth, the other taketh away.

In her lecture, Ruth Wilson Gilmore talked about the reality of incarceration.  Her book, The Golden Gulag Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, started as a community project: a research for Mothers ROC (Mothers Reclaiming Our Children) in California, women who know too well the reality of and reasons for incarceration. They needed “a non-lawyer activist with research skills, access to university libraries, and a big vocabulary, to help them.” Gilmore fit the bill perfectly.

In her book, Gilmore relocates the two laws that sent the Mothers’ children to prison—the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act and the “three strikes and you’re out” law—into their historical political economic context. Ruthie, as everyone calls her, presented on the particular history of capitalism in the United States, the story of opportunity fertilized with inequality and racism. Her lecture was called “What Would Harriet Do? Unfinished Liberation or the Dangers of Innocence”.

Harriet is Harriet Tubman.

Harriet Tubman’s story exemplifies the root of the social and racial American construction. For Gilmore, Tubman was a designer and a political artist. Tubman’s story of unwavering determination to bring slaves of the south to freedom speaks directly to today’s “zero tolerance.” As the false stories told of African and African-derived people helped to justify the slavery of thousands of women, men and children of African descent, so today’s false story of “zero tolerance” attacks African Americans. 65 million people are currently banned from employment because of previous convictions, and those people live in the communities that most need steady employment.

The following day Ruth Wilson Gilmore continued the conversation in Dan Moshenberg’s Seminar, “Women In and Beyond the Global Prison.”

Again, the discussion focused on the construction of images, from the witch-hunt that put women back in the “domus,” to the “Reaganomic” image of the welfare-queen that re-segregated poor and working African American women, thereby legitimating the re-appropriation of power and global capital. Welfare-queen became pathology. To unpack that pathology, we must learn to study “the genealogy of the phrase,” and thereby reinforce the importance of historical consciousness.

Gilmore brings to light the reality of the political economic project that requires mass incarceration. That project is genocidal, and that project of mass incarceration speaks directly to the situation of health care and reproductive rights in the United States.

Slavoj Žižek recently argued, “one of the strategies of totalitarian regimes is to have legal regulations (criminal laws) so severe that, if taken literally, everyone is guilty of something. But then their full enforcement is withdrawn… At the same time the regime wields the permanent threat of disciplining its subjects.”

I am not saying that we live in a true totalitarian regime. That is not the question. The question is whether we understand that these ‘all-guilty’ laws work to control and subjugate certain sections of the population, such as the African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, and also women. Of course, women intersect with the other “guilty” populations. In many states, laws limiting women’s reproductive rights are blossoming, and punishment and incarceration await the women who try to secure or wield their rights. At the same time, the story of Trayvon Martin’s assassination fits this framework of being eternally guilty. His corpse was tested for drugs and alcohol. His shooter never had to be tested and is still alive and free.

There are many other stories that show that the current rule of law is an active political-economic tool. Ben Saperstein and May Young, two activists from North Carolina, attended the seminar with Gilmore and Moshenberg. They were there to learn and exchange ideas for their own struggle. They are involved with the Greensboro Legal Fund, which works to bring to light the fate of members of a Latino organization that has been wrongfully accused of racketeering, and has been incarcerated for political reasons.

The exchanges among activists and scholars from North Carolina, Washington, New York and beyond showed the importance of research working with activism. In this time of neoliberal surge, as Žižek remarked, “what unites us is the same struggle”. In this struggle, Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s inspirational work reminds us of the importance of excellent scholarship as a means of resistance.

Brigitte Marti, bridgemarti@gmail.com

What are “moral crimes”? For Afghan women …

According to Human Rights Watch, for incarcerated Afghan “immoral criminal” women, moral crimes can take many shapes, including “falling in love and eloping with the lover”, “running away from an abusing husband”, “being kidnapped”, “getting lost”, “being raped”. What do all these variations share? You might think it’s the woman “victim”. You’d be wrong. For Afghans, the real victim is the woman’s family, and family means “the men of the family”.

Who then is the “typical” Afghan woman? She is the namoos, the honor and dignity of a man.  This is her identity: the woman is the “other” to the man’s “self”. This dependence and otherness makes the Afghan woman oppressed and the object of man’s control over her body – her behavior, the way she walks, talks, what she wears, where she goes – because she must protect the man’s dignity and honor. His dignity and honor are embodied in her vulnerable body. A woman’s body is entrusted with the “dignity and honor” of a man. That is all there is to her being.

If the “dignity” is comprised, the woman’s body can be summarily disposed of. The woman does not even have to be at fault for this to happen. Any violations of dignity can make a woman’s body disposable. There are numerous routes to honor killing.  An Afghan woman is likely to be killed by her male family members after she is thought to have compromise the “dignity and honor” of the male family members by any misconduct. Misconduct includes having been raped.

Through socialization processes at the family and community level, women internalize their “other” identity. The family produces children or youth as disciplinary subjects: “Not only the parental gaze and it’s internalization by children within the family, but also the effects of the multiple gazes originating outside the “parent-child cell” help in producing women as disciplinary subjects. Family members constantly monitor each other. For instance, like the prisoner who takes on the roles of both watcher and watched, a daughter must assume parental scrutiny even in her unobserved or private actions. Women are actively involved in the process. Their identity is tied up in observing the rules and regulations imposed on them, rules and regulations they have internalized as their own.

An Afghan woman will act upon these internalized norms and values.  She will watch her body and her acts.  If any rule is violated, she might punish herself.  There are many instances of Afghan women who committed suicide, which can accurately be termed “honor suicide”, after being raped, to restore the honor and dignity of the family.

But what happens in those rare cases where a woman runs away rather than commit suicide? What happens when a woman who has been raped chooses to live and tell the police? The police put her in jail. If the case makes it to court, the judge sentences her to years in prison for adultery and running away. Finally, President Karzai, under pressure, might “pardon the immoral criminal so that she can marry her rapist. She will not be welcomed at her “father’s” home and she will have nowhere else to go. Either she restores the honor of the family and marries the rapist, or just she kills herself … if she hasn’t already been killed.

“Running away” is mostly associated with love, and “love” in Afghan culture is mostly an immoral word, for boy and girls. In many cases, when families have found out about a relationship, they marry their son or daughter to someone else as soon as they can, to end it.

Girls grow up being taught that men can not be trusted. Therefore, it is expected for a girl to keep herself hidden and safe until marriage. If a girl or young woman decides to run away, she knows that something is going to happen to her. If she is already on the run, she has accepted the consequences. The woman is blamed for whatever happens to her. This belief is widely shared, even among academics and students of the law. Once, in the midst of a hot debate on women’s rights, a classmate stood up and said, “I can do anything to a girl who `breaks the chains’ and steps over the line.” Many in the class, including the professor, seemed to agree, including most of the girls.

This mentality is everywhere, among ordinary people, and among academics, law students, lawyers and judges. What is taught in law school? One professor would teach us, “What goes on in a household is none of anyone else’s business. If a woman is battered or violated, nothing can be done until she goes to the police herself. If she doesn’t have any problem with it, no one can do anything”. Another would teach, “When you bring a woman to your house to `get married’, you are not just going to put her in a glass box and sit and watch.” Then he would laugh, and the class would join in. Another lecturer would teach: “ An adultery case is impossible to prove, unless four male witnesses, who were present at the scene, testify to it’s having occurred.” In other words, the women, who is the “immoral raped criminal,” has to ask the rapists and their witness accomplices to testify to having raped her.

There is no “moral crime”. “Moral crime” is the culture. For Afghan women “moral crime” is another red line drawn around them, a line that makes sure that no woman ever steps out of bounds.

Leeda Mehran