Archives for January 2013

Aaron Swartz and Pussy Riot: two cases of crime and punishment

Never in my life did I imagine that I would say the things that I am about to say here, that I would be making somber conclusions of disappointment, bitterness and criticism; conclusions based upon viewing the case of Aaron Swartz’s tragedy from a comparative, international point of view.

For 8 months last year I was actively monitoring, organizing protests, and giving presentations about and on behalf of the unfairly arrested and imprisoned Russian feminist political protest performance art group Pussy Riot (PR).

For those who are not familiar or don’t remember what happened with this art collective, let me briefly review the circumstances of Pussy Riot’s case:

Outraged by Vladimir Putin’s shameless usurping of constitutional powers and self-nominating for the third term Presidency of Russia, Pussy Riot staged a 46 second-long performance of a satirical protest song at the Moscow’s Temple of Christ the Savior, which was followed by a now iconic viral video.

A few days later in early March 2012, three members of the group were arrested. They faced charges of hooliganism and causing offense to believers, which carried a maximum punishment of up to 5 years of hard labor. They were also pressured to publicly repent and admit their guilt.

The trial of Pussy Riot women became a mockery of justice, with the Russian constitution and basic common sense trampled by judge and prosecutors. While members of the group refused to admit any wrongdoing, they offered their apologies to insulted believers, in case their feelings were indeed offended.

The trial was surrounded by an unprecedented loud and high profile international campaign in support of the arrested artists, in which numerous A-list celebrities such as Yoko Ono, Madonna, Sting, Paul McCartney, Bjork, and philosophers Henry Bertrand-Levy and Slavoj Zizek spoke out on behalf of the arrested. Pussy Riot received an International LennonOno Grant for Peace, were nominated for the Sakharov and Kandinsky prizes, and a documentary showcased at Sundance Festival and since purchased by HBO was made about them.

Despite the international uproar and clear lack of criminal intent, the artists were sentenced to 2 years of hard labor in punitive colonies. Perhaps the uproar helped to reduce the term of confinement to 2 years. One Pussy Riot member was later freed on a technicality, and two are still serving their term in Putin’s gulag.

As Pussy Riot’s farcical trial was going on, my American colleagues and I – artists, musicians, journalists, activists, and academics – sincerely believed that Putin’s regime was the most unfair, vindictive, unjust and oppressive of non-third world countries. We believed that we – Americans – could look at Russians from the vantage point of our democratic tradition, our trust in the rule of law and justice for all, and pity those poor Russians. We assumed that what happened to Pussy Riot in Russia could never happen in the U.S.A.

Even though I knew who Aaron Swartz was while fighting for justice for Pussy Riot, I never heard about his persecution by the bullying U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Carmen Ortiz, on behalf of the U.S. government. I was not familiar with his legal ordeal happening right here in our very own country.

When I learned about the prosecution of Aaron and his resulting suicide I was filled with shock and shame. It was hard to believe that Putin’s oppressive, authoritarian legal machine went easier against 21st century Russian political dissenters, than the U.S. legal system went against Aaron Swartz!

But the facts were astonishing: Pussy Riot never looked at 35 to 50 years in jail, and were only sentenced to two years, and so far all of the collective’s members have survived their ordeal.

Aaron Swartz, in our democracy and under our newly elected “good” democratic president, was subjected to prosecutorial bullying and harassment, lack of flexibility, compassion and understanding on the part of the overreaching and vengeful U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, an appointee of our “good” president.

Suddenly it was apparent that in the race to brutally persecute political activists, Russia came in second.

It used to be that when Russian dissidents were persecuted by their government, they turned to America for help. But to whom could American dissidents turn? Who was there to help beleaguered Americans? For American dissidents like Aaron Swartz the world was a hopeless and lonely place, and the cavalry led by Madonna and Sting was never coming to the rescue.

Of course the comparatively lenient treatment of Pussy Riot by the court could be explained by the traditional stupidity and slow-mindedness of the Russian judicial system, which in its retarded inefficiency was unable to unleash the full power upon the punks of Pussy Riot, but hey! That was their luck, luck that Aaron Swartz did not have.

Let me be specific about comparing the action of Pussy Riot to the action of Aaron Swartz, as on the surface they seem quite different. From a cultural point of view, Pussy Riot’s guerilla performance and Swartz’s urban guerilla action of stealing JSTOR’s data through MIT’s computer closet both contained classical elements of political action and performance art. While Pussy Riot can be viewed as bona fide conceptual performance artists, Aaron’s alleged “crime”, his alleged “felony” was also nothing more than a jest, a performance action, antics meant to attract attention to the lack of protection of scholarly data, and to the notion Aaron passionately believed in: that scholarly data, such as that found on JSTOR, has to be free for all. It was a calculated, deliberate performance action involving an elaborate scenario with real life props: penetrating the closet, installing the computer, hacking MIT and JSTOR’s systems, and complete with a carnivalesque disguise: a bike helmet as a mask, followed by his arrest and the subsequent return of the stolen data.

The benevolence of Aaron’s action was underscored by the fact that his attempt to hide his identity behind a bike helmet was rather laughable, buffoonish, and he eagerly returned the stolen data as his point had been made. He never planned to personally enrich himself as a result of his actions. He rather used his act as a pulpit, a soapbox to attract attention to the issues he considered vitally important for him and for society.

Like Pussy Riot he was ready to put his comfort on the line for his beliefs, and like Pussy Riot he took upon himself the role of “holy fool,” of obscene jester and naïve savant speaking truth to power from the pulpit of his idealistic innocence.

In conclusion I would like to share one rather somber observation regarding Aaron and the hacker community. Yes, there was a great deal of chest beating and outrage among the members of the geek community upon learning of Aaron’s tragic death. Yes, he was popular and beloved, but where were they, the almighty hackers en masse supporting him the way artists and musicians came to support Pussy Riot? Where were the international celebrities and anarchists and cyberpunks and philosophers, NGOs and pro bono lawyers? How come he was quietly tortured to death in the plain view by Carmen Ortiz and her henchmen?

One answer is that Aaron was a strange bird – neither entrepreneur millionaire nor a guerilla hacker. He was an effete, sensitive, rich, successful, famous child of the elite, almost corporate, almost like another Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg. Almost, but not quite, as he was a political activist, a “holy fool” speaking truth to power, a Don Quixote tilting at windmills. He was a dreamer and a radical.

But as a radical he was not a cyber-anarchist like Anonymous, he was not a barricade fighter. He was unique and therefore utterly alone.

And one can also say sadly that an effete, depressive, intellectual computer whiz kid is no match to seasoned political artists such as Pussy Riot, Ai Wei Wei, Banksy, or professional political activists like Julian Assange. He was not made or trained to withstand the incredible psychological pressure the American justice  system can unleash  upon  an individual. He was fragile and he broke. He “fought the law and the law won…” to paraphrase Sonny Curtis and the Clash.


APAP: On Grand Jury Resisters, the Latin Kings, CeCe McDonald, and Pussy Riot

When members of the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation in North Carolina were first arrested in a brutal raid, the big picture was clear to their friends, family, and colleagues in Greensboro. The ALKQN in NC have been very politically active, with King Jay (Jorge Cornell) running twice for city council and negotiating a gang truce. The gang truce in particular threatened the existence of a new, lavishly funded gang task force in Greensboro, part of the decades-long national trend of funding such carceral endeavors as opposed to schools and community programs.

Across the country, another community is under attack: that of activists in the Pacific Northwest, with homes being raided in search of incriminating books and more activists being subpoenaed every day. Within left circles, there has been a heartening amount of press and support for the resisters. Last week, Anonymous announced a new campaign in support of the Pacific Northwest Grand Jury Resisters. Contrasting that with the paltry amount of attention granted the case of the Kings parallels the difference between the airtime given Pussy Riot versus CeCe McDonald. The crime that CeCe McDonald committed was surviving a racist, transphobic attack on her life. But like Pussy Riot, the Grand Jury Resisters have the benefit of being young and attractive (and thus easily incorporated, despite their radical politics, into the spectacle of fashion). And, like Pussy Riot, their crime is perceived to be ideological. Thus their innocence is more explicit. One doesn’t have to take a stand against all prisons or prison society writ large to sympathize with their plight.

The NC Kings are being prosecuted under RICO, or the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. RICO is a federal litigation tool with a deeply convoluted history during which it has attempted to rid Teamsters of Mafia influence (which mostly resulted in obstructing democracy within the Teamsters), been disproportionately applied to people of color and weaponized against activists ranging from the Black Liberation Army to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. As a tactic of State repression it is a part of a larger effort to dismantle and delegitimize left and POC communities.

The Greensboro Legal Defense Fund has worked tirelessly to support the Kings throughout the usual moves from prison to prison, challenges in getting adequate legal representation, and disregard for medical needs. The GLDF are heavily constituted of women and queers, who are neighbors, friends, family friends, and colleagues with the Kings—a community. In addition to the partners and children of the Kings, the local anarchist community has played a huge part in doing this work, “performing the arduous labor of being on the outside for someone—trying adequately to switch among the many and sometimes conflicting roles of caregivers, wageworkers, and justice advocates”. Disdain or disinterest from the national left has come through informal channels, but usually involves questions about the perceived homophobia or misogyny of the Kings.

Why are the Kings subject to such deep scrutiny while other political prisoners are not? This demand for perfection in those we support is unreasonable, a distraction from the larger issues with mass incarceration and State repression, and often seems to be deployed only on POC prisoners. Some in the national anarchist community see the language of kings and queens as reinforcing hierarchy, but the GLDF knows these titles are about dignity, not domination. “We may not all desire to be kings and queens, we all desire to be the masters of our own destiny.”

If you are supporting grand jury resisters but not the ALKQN, I urge you to broaden your analysis. If you (like Madonna, Bjork, Julian Assange, Amnesty International, and Yoko Ono) are supporting Pussy Riot but not CeCe McDonald, I urge you to broaden your analysis—because all prisoners are political.


(Photo Credit: PrisonBooks.Info)

Journey: Mafikeng is a small town in Northwest province

I disappeared in 2012, but I’ve decided to write again in 2013. This dispatch is the first in a series of reflections about education in South Africa. Over the next several months I will be visiting 14 schools in seven provinces across the country. The mission of the Schools That Work project is to create a series of videos that serve disadvantaged communities and are having academic success – or but are having academic success, depending on how you see it. When compared to other schools in South Africa that also serve poor children, these schools are excelling despite. Despite the hunger and poverty of the learners which negatively impacts their experiences in the classroom, despite struggles with parental involvement, despite lack of classrooms and toilets, despite sometimes unresponsive provincial and national governments, and sometimes, despite necessary resources.

Last year, in Limpopo, pupils were without textbooks for the first half of the year because the government had not delivered the books. And just before the beginning of Matric (school leaving) exams this year, the Minister issued an open letter apologizing to grade 12 students. In it she said, “I know 2012 has not been an easy year for you. I also understand that you may feel I, Minister of Basic Education, have let you down. I apologise unreservedly for all you have been through as a learner.”

It is likely that for many students it would have been a difficult year even if their schools had proper infrastructure and enough resources. They didn’t need school to make life harder. You know things are really bad when the government feels it has to apologize to learners for failing them, for not giving them the education they deserve. And this apology just devastates me. Kids deserve so much more. Governments, education departments, politicians should all be advocating on behalf of students. They should be the good guys. Unfortunately, they often aren’t.

So this week, I traveled to Mafikeng. Mafikeng is a small town in Northwest province. It is about a 20-minute drive from the Botswana border. The first language of most people is Setswana and there is also a significant Indian population. At one school a boy stopped me and asked, “Why don’t you film the Indian kids, we’re here,” and pointed to a group of his friends. I told him we were filming everyone. It was interesting to think about how he sees his place at the school – a school where most students are Black, the principal and one of the deputies are Indian and the staff is very racially diverse. I still haven’t found out why there is such a large Indian population in Mafikeng.

Every time I visit a school, see a classroom, watch teachers and principals, I think about my own experiences. I think we frame how we see all schools through the lens of our own experience as students, as educators, as parents. My cameraman Felix and his soon to be wife are expecting a baby in a few weeks and all this time in the classroom led to conversations about where and how we would want to educate our children. This week after watching a trigonometry class, Felix, and I talked about our failed attempts at solving sine and cosine. I remember the teacher; I remember the class and some of you reading this might have been in it with me. Felix grew up in a small town outside Stuttgart, Germany and no doubt our school experiences were very different. But regardless of the country, trigonometry seems to prevail.

Each school has it’s own feel to it. Some feel warm, some chaotic, some very structured or disciplined, others a combination. The first school we went to has incredible academic success but felt very chaotic – more outside of the classroom than in. I was only aware when we arrived that the school did not fit into the mold of the project, as most of the students there are middle class. I don’t think I have ever been to a school here that is mostly middle class students. Where the challenges include things like Facebook and cell phones. I have been to very poor township schools and formerly all White more resourced schools, but never something like this.  South Africa is full of extremes and one doesn’t often see the middle.

The second school was a warm place. The buildings are physically spread out because it used to be a teacher training college before it became a high school in the 1980’s. The physical plant reminded us of a missionary school with long white buildings of classrooms and nice trees and flowers. But the school no longer has laboratories or a library because they were turned into classrooms for it’s 1441 students. There are 18 toilets for 800 girls and 16 toilets for 600 boys. When I asked the principal what his priority was, he chose classrooms over toilets.

When filming, I try to represent reasons why a school is so successful and often that comes through excellent teaching. In one English class, 9th graders were reciting Shakespeare’s sonnet Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds,
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove…

Many made it their own with tone of voice, body, energy, and humor. The teacher affirmed them, allowed the class the space to laugh and clap noisily, and before each student began grounded them by saying, “The stage is yours.” Some of excellent teaching is personality and after filming we talked about how his classroom felt different. Positive and full of joy, and that wasn’t just due to a love of Shakespeare.

At an economics class – if you’ll believe me – we found students almost equally excited. Who knew learning about land, labor, capital, and natural resources, labor could be fun? The teacher brought two students up to the front, had one take off his tie, roll up his sleeves and hold a bottle of water  — the laborer. The other one remained staid in his uniform, tie and all. He was the boss. Above the chalkboard were photos of Martin Luther King, Obama, Mandela, Malcolm X, Walter Sisulu and W.E.B. DuBois and quotes from Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes. What was notable for me were the diverse notable people who he brought into the space. (It would have, of course, been nice to see a woman too!)

But just because a school has high Matric pass rates, it doesn’t mean that every teacher is going to show such passion and energy. I also saw teachers on the other end of the spectrum – one struggling to control students (as I once did), one who seemed barely interested and others who stood at the front of the class and talked at students rather than with them. I saw young teachers and older teachers, and I know that no matter who they were, they all try and they all care. But I keep thinking about how we define good teaching and what makes good teachers.

One moment in particular sticks in my mind. It was an 8th grade English class.  As the teacher called student’s names for presentations, she didn’t make an effort to pronounce them or seem to care which face belonged to which name. As she sifted through her cards, she even named the same kids twice. Many students were not ready which I know is frustrating as a teacher. But in the environment in the room was uninspired and felt negative. I wouldn’t have felt supported or wanted to try very hard in that classroom. Why is this worth telling? Well the teacher was white, her students Black and in a place like South Africa where questions of race are still so prominent, these moments are all the more significant for me.

I’ll close on a picture that will make you smile. Picture a group of girls on the edge of a field in funny hats twirling batons and flags. Behind them, on the big field, is someone mowing a lawn. In front them, a team of boys, in bright colored shirts, run in circles around the field. Amidst it all, if you look carefully, you’d find Felix kneeling and lying on the grass in an effort to capture it all.

I love those moments.


Molly Blank is a filmmaker based in South Africa. Her most recent films are Testing Hope: Grade 12 in the new South Africa and Where Do I Stand? This is the first of a collaboration. Thanks to Molly for sharing! “Journey: Mafikeng is a small town in Northwest province” originally appeared here.

(Photo Credit, Video Credit: Sol Plaatje Secondary School, Mafikeng, North West)

Tahrir meant liberation. It still does. Ask the women

In 2011, the women of Egypt pushed Hosni Mubarak out of power. One of those women was Sanaa El-Seif, who at the time was 17 years old. She moved to Tahrir Square, with friends. With a fellow classmate, Ziad Tareq, she created a space in which to produce a regular newspaper, for distribution in and beyond Tahrir Square. In so doing, Sanaa El-Seif pulled together and then retied all sorts of insurgent and revolutionary trains: feminist organizing cultures, women’s organizing cultures, youth organizing cultures. Centuries of revolutionary broadsheets, reading clubs, manifestoes, samizdat, night schools, you name it, came together in the work of Sanaa El-Seif.

Mubarak left office. The world media, by and large, left Tahrir Square, except for those regular moments of implosion, and Sanaa El-Seif stayed. She stayed as so many women have, to push the revolution forward, to materialize real transformation in Egypt now.

Sanaa El-Seif, now 19, says it simply and directly: Staying matters. This is not about disputes between exiles and those who stayed in whatever site. It is about staying with the energies of change, staying with the promises of building autonomous transformative spaces, communities, nation, and worlds.

Today is January 25, 2012, two years later. Two years is a short time and an impossibly long one as well. Many debate today the progress and the reversals of `Egypt’ since Tahrir Square became, for a short while, the center of a universe.

Two years ago, Tahrir meant liberation. It still does. Ask the women.

In the last year, women have assessed the situation on the ground and have organized, and continue to organize. A national women’s movement is slowly but decidedly taking place, at times quite publically, at other times in the shadows. But the point is that it’s a national women’s movement, one that was in many ways impossible prior to 2011 because of the State ideological and surveillance apparatuses.

Women whose names gained prominence in the 2011 Tahrir manifestations are still there, today, in the marches and protests. Women like Mona Seif, co-founder of the No To Military Trials For Civilians campaign. Seif has been challenging the military at every step, and, even more, has been challenging and attacking the militarization of civil society, of State, of intimate spaces, of everything. That challenge to militarization emerges from and returns to decades of Egyptian women and feminist thinkers and activists, such as Doria Shafik and, of course, Nawal el Saadawi.

Every day women including Nehad Abul Komsan, director of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights; union activist organizer and leader Abir Ibrahim; Mozn Hassan, Director of Nazra Center for Feminist Studies; women’s rights activists Yara Sallam and Asmaa Gomaa; `revolutionary-turned-activist’ Nada Wahid; women graffiti artists Aya Tarek and Hend Kheera; and anti-violence organizer Eba’a El-Tamami work to create new spaces, new publics, for women, for autonomy, for freedom and power, for dreaming and doing.

Someone recently described the `Woman in the Blue Brassiere’ as “all too actual, real, and bodily, not just a symbol, but a flesh-and-blood human being who becomes virtual and goes viral, returning within a few days to haunt the real space of Tahrir Square as the banner of the Egyptian women’s movement.”

She does not haunt. She stays. The work of the revolution stays as it moves forward and expands, under the banner of the Egyptian women’s movement. Tahrir means liberation. Ask the women.


(Video Credit:

Swaziland closes a pregnancy to prison pipeline

Vuyesihle Magagula is 21 years old and seven months pregnant. In December of last year, her mother, Shell Dlamini, went to Court and had her daughter committed … to prison. Vuyesihle’s boyfriend, Colani Dlamini, then informed Vuyesihle’s father, Zephaniah Magagula, about Vuyesihle’s incarceration. Vuyesihle’s parents are separated.

Vuyesihle Magagula sat for a month in Mawelawela Correctional Facilities for a month. There never was a charge against her. There never was a claim that she had committed any crime or broken any law.

Today, January 22, 2013, the High Court ordered Vuyesihle Magagula to be released from prison. The Court agreed with Vuyesihle’s father that his daughter was of sound mind and had not been charged with any offense. Therefore her imprisonment was a violation of Chapter III of the Constitution of Swaziland, “Protection and Promotion of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms.”

The Court also agreed that prison is not a good place for pregnant women.

Prison is not a good place for pregnant women nor for women who have not been charged with a crime.

Swaziland has 12 prisons. Mawelawela is the one for women. The Swazi prison system is full to bursting, with government reports that there’s no more room at that inn. Much of the overcrowding is made up of prisoners awaiting trial. Something like 25% of prisoners are remand prisoners. But they’re treated exactly the same as convicted prisoners, sharing the same cells, occupying the same time. Torture is common, beatings are common, and rape is common as well. Juvenile offenders and juveniles awaiting trial, children, are often thrown into the adult prisons. There aren’t enough beds, and so what is a State to do?

Of the twelve prisons, Mawelawela isn’t the worse. It’s not overcrowded. Around 15% of its prisoners are awaiting trial. Some children are living with their mothers at Mawelawela. They’re not in special wards. As elsewhere, juveniles and `detainees’ are part of the general population. On the other hand, Mawelawela is said to be “clean”. That’s something, right?

Mawelawela may not be the worst place, but it’s not the right place. Prison is not a place for `wayward girls.’ Vuyesihle Magagula is not the first to be sent to prison for `protection.’ Last December, as she sat in prison, His Majesty’s Correctional Services Commissioner, Mzuthini Ntshangase, announced that prison was open to unruly and naughtly children. Send them over to us, and we’ll teach them. Ostensibly, girls like Nomthetho and Tebenguni are given `a second chance.’

A second chance. Swaziland has the world’s highest incidence of HIV, with 43% incidence of HIV among pregnant women. Vuyesihle Magagula is the face of HIV in Swaziland, and, whether or not she’s HIV+, prison is not a solution to anything.

In the last ten years, infant mortality in Swaziland has increased by 26%. Maternal mortality has increased by 160%. And somehow, in this landscape of mathematics and morbidity, prison is a second chance?

Around the world, `troublesome’ and `troubled’ girls, girls like Ashley Smith in Canada, are sent to prison … for their own good. Ashley Smith died while seven guards watched. They were only following orders. Let’s apply the common and juridical sense of the High Court of Swaziland to the world. Prison is not a good place for pregnant women. Prison is not a good place for children. Prison is not a school, mental health facility, or resource for stressed parents and strained communities. Invest in children. Close the prisons, and open schools, clinics, community centers, and libraries. Do it now.


(Photo Credit: pikerslanefarm/Flickr)


A Celebration: Barack Obama and Sojourner Truth share a moment

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.”

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!”

The struggle continues.

Woman is the first environment


Canada’s Globe and Mail asks, “What’s behind the explosion of native activism?” Their answer? “Young people.” As usual, the answer hides as much as it reveals.

The explosion of Native activism, organizing, and sheer presence across Canada, has been ignited and inspired by Chief Theresa Spence and by the four women founders of Idle No More — Jessica Gordon, Nina Wilson, Sylvia McAdam, Sheelah McLean. These five women are not behind the explosion. They are the explosion.

At the same time, the fire that continues is indeed made up of young Native people, specifically, young Native women. The Globe and Mail focus on Erica Lee, a former student of Sheelah McLean, and Tala Tootoosis, a Facebook friend of Nina Wilson’s, suggests as much.

Young Native women have always been organizing. One example would be Jessica Yee Danforth, who describes herself as a “multiracial Indigenous hip-hop feminist reproductive justice freedom fighter!” Founder and Executive Director of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, Yee Danforth is also the editor of Feminism for Real: Deconstructing the academic industrial complex of feminism, and a maker, shaker, and movement builder.

In 2011, on her way to the UN Climate Change Conference COP 17, Yee commented, “Climate change, for us, is a central issue because it has to do with what’s going on in our lands and our territories. And the way that we think about climate change is very broad. …When things impact our land and our air, they simultaneously impact our people and what’s going on in our communities. And for us, we understand that if we’re going to be talking about environmental issues of any sort, that woman in fact is the first environment. …What climate change is doing is not allowing our women to have healthy pregnancies. It is creating situations where there’s more violence in our communities, because of industry, for example. …We’re talking about issues of genocide. We’re talking about issues of survival of our peoples. And I know that we’re going to have some uncomfortable conversations even with organizers in our own communities this week, who just want to see this as a land-only issue or as an air-only issue and not understand that women being the first environment or the simultaneous, intersecting effects are really critical.”

What does this have to do with the current explosion of `raw energy’? Everything. Women are the first environment. Native women, young Native women and Native women elders, have always known this. When Jess Housty, a young Heiltsuk woman Idle No More organizer, explains, “I believe it’s in the best interests of people who care about the environment to support this,” she is invoking woman as the first environment. When Innu elder Marie Louise Andre Mackenzie explains, “I will always protect my land and my language,” she too understands, and teaches, women as the first environment. The Native women who researched and gathered stories of the hundreds upon hundreds of Aboriginal women and girls “missing” across Canada, and buried and lost in Canadian national policy. When those Native women refused to let their sisters go, refused to treat them as less than nothing, they understood, and insisted, that woman is the first environment.

These Native feminisms and feminists continually engaged and continually write deeper maps as they deepen and broaden the world. Behind the explosion of Native activism lies centuries of Native women’s resistance and emancipatory organizing and mobilizing. Right now, daily, across Canada and beyond, Native women, and in particular young Native women, are lighting the flame and taking it forward. Woman is the first environment. Remember that.


(Photo Credit: Rabble)

Prison and the war on (pregnant) women

A new study appeared today that describes yet another front on the prison side of the war on women in the United States: pregnancy. The study, Arrests of and Forced Interventions on Pregnant Women in the United States, 1973–2005: Implications for Women’s Legal Status and Public Health, reports on 413 cases over four decades in which “a woman’s pregnancy was a necessary factor leading to attempted and actual deprivations of a woman’s physical liberty.” “Deprivation of physical liberty” means forced incarceration. Some women were kept in psychiatric wards against their will; others were kept in jails and prisons against their will. In each case, part of the point of the confinement was that the woman’s will doesn’t matter because, effectively, it doesn’t exist. For the authors of the report, this is part of the war-on-women fetal personhood movement. It’s built on centuries old traditions of `protecting’ women from themselves, and of course protecting children from their mothers.

Now, not all children need protection. 231 cases originated in the South. That’s a whopping 56% in one region. South Carolina is Number 1 with 93 cases. That means almost a quarter of all the cases come from one state, and, to make the map even more glaring, 34 of those 93 cases from two contiguous counties. Florida comes in second with 56. In Florida, 25 of the cases came from one county, 23 of which came from two hospitals: Sacred Heart Hospital and Baptist Hospital. Women `need’ protection.

And who are these women who need protection? 71% of all `protected’ pregnant women were represented by indigent defense. Class was the great unifier in this group. Across the board, an overwhelming majority of the women in each racial/ethnic and age category was low- or no-income.

59% were women of color, of whom 52% were African American. In South Carolina, African Americans made up 30 percent of the state’s population, and made up 74 percent of the caseload. Of course, this mirrors the national numbers, where African American women make up almost 13% of the general population, and 33% of women prisoners. African American women’s rate of incarceration, nationally, is four times that of white women.

60% of the `protected’ pregnant women were 21 – 30 years old.

Women make up the fastest growing prison population in the United States. It’s a key part of the war on women, and as we know, war is not healthy for children “and other living things”.


(Video Credit:

Ashley Smith haunts Canada’s total peace of mind

For the second time, Canada is trying to investigate the death of Ashley Smith. The inquest starts today. The coroner leading the inquest says Smith’s death was a tragedy. The lawyer representing Smith’s family says it was a case of “absolute torturous circumstances.”

On October 19, 2007, 19-year-old Ashley Smith, an inmate at the Grand Valley Institution for Women, in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, tied a rope around her neck and choked herself to death. Seven guards watched and actively did nothing as all this transpired.

Some called her death inhumane, while others hoped her death would haunt Canada. Now, more than five years later, it’s unclear that even the Canadian prison system feels particularly haunted by Ashley Smith’s death.

What has been clear from the start is the State’s attempt to shut down the investigation. From the beginning to today, the State has fought tooth and nail to bury any evidence of the event.

What emerged early today was evidence that “the State cares.” In the early days after the release of `shocking’ and `damning’ videos that showed how Ashley Smith died, Don Head, Commissioner of Correctional Service Canada, wrote to the guards to express his concern for their well-being. Did he communicate with Ashley Smith’s family? No. Did he speak with the Press or, in any other way, with the public? No. But he did write to the guards, to make sure they weren’t traumatized … by the public attention to their practices, that is.

This is reminiscent of the European police inspector who, during the Algerian national liberation struggle, went to the psychiatrist, Frantz Fanon, for help. The inspector complained that his work, torturing Algerians, was negatively impacting his home life. Part of the problem, according to the inspector, was that torturing was exhausting. He wanted the doctor to help him: “As he had no intention of giving up his job as a torturer (this would make no sense since he would then have to resign) he asked me in plain language to help him torture Algerian patriots without having a guilty conscience, without any behavioral problems, and with a total peace of mind.”

Are these men tortured by remorse? … The sick police agents were not tormented by their conscience. If they continue their professional practices outside their offices or their workshops—which happen to be torture rooms—it is because they are victims of overwork. “ They “manifest an exemplary loyalty to the system.”

Grand Valley Institution for Women is a prison for adult women. Weeks before being shunted into the adult prison system, Ashley Smith wrote in her journal, “If I die then I will never have to worry about upsetting my mom again.”

Ashley Smith rests in peace, and the system that killed her wants to get back to work, without having a guilty conscience, with a total peace of mind.


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Haïti, trois ans déjà

January 12, 2010. Three years ago, the ground opened in Port-au-Prince, and across Haiti. And now … every year, a new memorial service. Every year, the same questions: What happened? What has happened since? What has happened in the last year? Who cares?

It is certainly the case that so-called international community, which is neither international nor community, has shamed itself in Haiti. As one writer recently noted, speaking of the United States, “Americans have loved Haiti to death. We are listless, lazy, cheating lovers who don’t have the stamina to go the distance in a relationship. Haiti is just too much work.”

Haiti is just too much work … and, as far as the international community, Haiti is filled with too many Haitians. The so-called peacekeeping forces brought cholera; the so-called donors brought thorough lack of transparency, corruption, and devastating ineffectiveness. Meanwhile, Haitians up and down the streets and hills, and across the political spectrum, knew and complained that something and everything was wrong in the process. They knew, and said volubly, that the powers that be were refusing to listen. That this Foundation and that Fund were talking only among themselves.

So, where are `we’ now? For those who do write about Haiti (and notice how the attention has narrowed, waned, and weakened), there’s much handwringing about learning the `art of listening’. There’s much talk about how hard the road is, as if `we’ hadn’t designed and built this particularly dreadful road.

Meanwhile, Haitians keep on keeping on. Organizing, struggling, dealing with their positioning in the global political economy, dealing with the international community’s predation that masks itself as benevolence. Not much has changed, and yet, of course, everything has.

Women workers and organizers, such as Yannick Etiennc, continue to organiz, especially in the textile and garment factories. 21 of 22 garment factories are thought to violate minimum salary laws. How many garment factories in Haiti have lost their preferential treatment, by the US government, because they violate workers’ rights … and the labor laws? Zero. The struggle continues, exactly as it did before.

In the Morne Lazarre section of Pétion-Ville, Réa Dol continues to organize the SOPUDEP school. The school had always addressed the violence of inequality, the legacies of State violence. It was a center of transformation, from its inception, pushing for free and accessible education and community economic empowerment. Since the earthquake, the work has intensified, and at the same time has remained the same: building community, building strength.

Women like Malya Villard-Appolon, founder of KOFAVIV, have continued to build on the work of Haitian feminists and organizers Anne Marie Coriolan, Magalie Marcelin and Miriam Merlet, to stop violence against women. Since the earthquake, that struggle has moved from shacks and factories to tent cities and then back to police stations and court houses. The struggle continues.

And then of course there are all the unrecognized women, women like Tante Rezia, who spend their lives in necessary silent support of family, community, neighbors, and themselves.

Haitians have always been on the move, always organizing, and their work has always been loud and proud. It takes a lot of work to not-hear and not-see. It always has taken a lot of work to not-hear and not-see. That has always been the work of the international community in Haiti, to smell the lilacs in bloom and declare the bouquet is fetid and the flower is blight.


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