La Palabra: In DC, women of color resist school closures

 

Public school closures are sweeping the nation, devastating cities like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and our home of Washington, D.C. Since 2008 DCPS has closed 29 schools, and Mayor Vince Gray and Chancellor Kaya Henderson recently announced plans to close up to 20 more schools by the end of the 2013 school year.

It’s a trend located in a larger shift toward privatization in education and elsewhere—a move that threatens democratic access to vital social resources.

It’s also a racist trend: overwhelmingly, families of color are affected. With just the most recent wave of closures in DC, of the 3,800 students who will be displaced by closures, only 36 are white. Of those students, 80% are low income.

In DC, activists are fighting the closures—in the courts, and on the streets. La Palabra, an internet radio project broadcast on WPFW’s Latino Media Collective, is interviewing people at the schools slated to be closed. They have interviewed grandparents, parents, and other caregivers affected by the closures and the response is unanimous: Mayor Gray, Chancellor Kaya Henderson, you CAN NOT have my school!

Since women are overwhelmingly the primary caregivers in families, women are the most burdened by these closures, after, of course, the students themselves. Some parents at Ferbee-Hope elementary school have already survived multiple school closings. Mothers and grandmothers are worried about the impact on their kids lives, the safety of the new neighborhoods they’ll be in. They see a city government that cares more about paving the way for development than about their kids.

Children with disabilities will be especially hard hit by the displacement and disruption the closures entail. Their entire learning community will be relocated without their input, and the staff on which they depend will be forced to reapply for their job. Tamara, a mother at Sharpe Health (a school for special needs kids), observes that the mayor and chancellor “don’t care about the emotional stability, the physical stability of our children.”

But mothers in DC care, and La Palabra is listening—parents are ready to act and block the closures! Support their voices with yours by signing Empower DC’s petition calling on an immediate moratorium on public school closures.

La Palabra, http://lapalabradc.tumblr.com/. Beck Levy,  beck@astropressdc.com

 

(Photo Credit: http://lapalabradc.tumblr.com)

The political economy of vulnerable

 


Around the world, women, children, men, are humiliated and abused as a matter of public policy and widespread practices. When the practices are finally reported, the women, children, men are described as `vulnerable,’ as if vulnerability were a state of being. It’s not. Vulnerability is an active verb, as is violence.

In the past week, in the United States, reports have shown that pregnant school girls are kicked out of school or refused schooling. Why? Across the country, children living with disabilities, and especially Black children living with disabilities, suffer extraordinarily high school suspension rates. Why? In New York City, it has been `discovered’ that the stop-and-frisk practices that target Black communities are particularly humiliating for Black women. Why do these policies exist? To produce vulnerable populations and individuals.

I thought of these as I read about Happiness Mbedzi. Happiness Mbedzi lived in Diepsloot, a “sprawling informal settlement north of Johannesburg”. Sprawling … and notorious for its desperate conditions as well as innumerable popular mobilizations and organizing efforts. Diepsloot: water-less, info-less, service-less … but not without hope?

In Diepsloot, Happiness Mbedzi tried to maintain her household, herself, her husband, her son. To do so, she took on debts. The debts had crushing interest rates. Happiness took out more loans to pay for the interest on her earlier loans. Finally, she borrowed money from her young son, went to the shops, bought poison, and killed herself.

This is described as a tale of the `vulnerable.’ Happiness Mbedzi was not vulnerable. She was under attack. Local banks, community stokvels, neighbors are all reportedly charging predatory rates. How is it that stokvels, which traditionally supported women like Happiness Mbedzi, are now as predatory as the banks, at least in Diepsloot? How is it that no neighbors are around who would lend money to a neighbor woman in desperate straits?

For Happiness Mbedzi, as for young women students, the Black students living with disabilities, the Black women of New York, institutions ostensibly designed to assist and even improve one’s situation have been transformed into lethal weapons. Schools target particular young women. Schools target particular Black women and men. Police target Black women. The result? Targeted impoverishment that goes under the name of development and the common good. And those who are assaulted, who are wounded simply because of whom they are, they are then reported as being `vulnerable.’ It was destiny that struck them.

Vulnerability is not a status nor a class nor a caste nor a rank. It is not a state of being nor is it synonymous with weakness. And vulnerability is not inevitable. Vulnerability is a political and economic power relationship. Individuals and populations are designated and then produced, and reproduced, as vulnerable. Happiness Mbedzi was not vulnerable and she was not part of a `most vulnerable population’. She was turned into a `vulnerable woman’ by public policy and by State practices that have constructed Diepsloot as inevitably `vulnerable.’ It’s not.

 

(Photo Credit: Daily Maverick / Reuters)

The F-word: The vicious cycle for women in prison

A report following an unannounced inspection of Styal women’s prison by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick has made serious criticisms of the prison’s provision for women with mental health problems.

…the jail’s Keller Unit, which looks after vulnerable inmates, is still ‘wholly unsuitable. He said prison officers often had to use force to remove ligatures from the necks of women intent on harming themselves. And he said the plight of the women in the unit was ‘more shocking and distressing than anything I have yet seen on an inspection’. … there were too many women serving very short prison sentences, and mental health services were stretched.

Many of the difficulties experienced by prisoners are exacerbated by the excessive use of jail terms as sentences for people whose needs would be better served – and who would be less likely to re-offend – if, instead, better services were offered to them in the community.

It’s a vicious cycle: inadequate welfare provision pushes the prison population up, which makes it harder for prisons to cope, which worsens the problems that prisoners continue to face after they are released – a dynamic heartbreakingly exemplified in the awful story of Neil Carpenter, sent to prison by magistrates to “get [him] over the hardest part of winter”.

It’s a strange kind of fiscal austerity in which the enormous expense of jail terms has come to be positioned as any kind of alternative to proper social services.

Custodial sentences are especially unsuitable in the particular circumstances faced by many foreign national women, who form a seventh of the prison population in England and Wales and whose experiences are discussed in a recent briefing by Hibiscus and the Prison Reform Trust. These women are disproportionately sentenced to short prison sentences for non-violent, non-sexual and non-robbery offences:

Foreign national women are far less likely than UK nationals to have committed serious violent or sexual offences or robbery. Only 15% of foreign nationals are serving sentences for serious crimes compared to 41% of UK nationals. A disproportionate number of foreign national women are in prison for drug or immigration related offences. The briefing’s findings reveal that the average length of sentence given in 2009 for drug offences was six years, with findings of guilt after entering not guilty pleas resulting in sentences of up to 15 years. The average sentence for false documentation was eight months and for deception 12 months.

The briefing points out that too little is done to effectively ascertain whether offending by foreign national women is connected to trafficking or coercion, and to rethink sentencing accordingly:

Worrying cases are also uncovered where the woman has been smuggled into the country to escape persecution or has entered the country on debt bondage or other forms of people trafficking and for whom survival has necessitated accepting work in illegal activities or use of fake documents to survive. …

Despite the fact that the UK government has ratified the European Convention on Trafficking, with its emphasis on victim protection, there is little attention given by their legal representatives to identifying evidence of exploitation or persecution, or women acting under duress, and the standard advice given is that there is no option but to plead guilty on the immigration related charges.

These women are therefore sentenced, with the assumption of deportation, before they can disclose the necessary information to be assessed as victims or genuine asylum seekers. Failure to get appropriate legal advice on immigration issues in the early stages of court appearances thus prejudices any chance of a positive asylum or residency outcome, as they are slotted into the category of “foreign criminals”.

 

The inside of Styal Prison

This was first published at The F-Word, here:  http://www.thefword.org.uk/blog/2012/01/women_in_prison_2. Thanks to Jolene Tan and all the people at The F-Word for this collaboration.

(Photo Credit 1: Manchester Users Network) (Photo Credit 2: BBC)

The Hardest Hit, can they suffer?

 


Over the weekend, thousands across the United Kingdom joined, under the banner of the Hardest Hit Campaign, to protest cuts that target people living with disabilities. These include changes in the disability living allowance system, cuts in local services, time limits for out-of-work support, and reductions in the support for parents with a disabled children.

The changes in disability living allowance involve a shift from the Disability Living Allowance to the Personal Independence Payment program. Under the new assessment regime, almost everyone on Disability Living Allowance loses something, and often they lose everything. How? They submit to a “fit-to-work test”, a test that has proven horribly flawed in its elements and outcomes, but no matter. People living with disabilities must learn, or be taught, to pay for themselves. They must learn, or be taught, the lesson, “something for something.” They must learn, or be taught, “independence”. Personal independence.

And who will teach them? The testers. And who exactly are the examiners? The United Kingdom contracted that job out to Atos Healthcare: “Atos Healthcare provides independent medical advice to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). We conduct disability assessments for people claiming a range of disability … Each year Atos Healthcare process over 1.2 million referrals for medical advice completing over 800,000 face-to-face medical assessments within our nationwide network of over 140 medical examination centres.”

That’s an annual contract of around £100million-a-year. According to many, the assessments are, first, often way off. The stories are legion of people living with severe and immobilizing disabilities being deemed perfectly fit for “independence”, meaning denial of services and funding. Second, the face-to-face meetings are intimately degrading. The tone of the entire process is felt to be prosecutorial. “Clients” are made to feel they must prove themselves both “deserving” and “beyond reproach.” Who among us could pass the “beyond reproach” test?

The meetings themselves are also often demeaning. Women living with terminal illnesses, women who had worked all their lives are told they must come in and justify the end-of-life assistance they’re receiving. They must learn the lesson of independence. Some Atos Assessment Centres, such as the one in Croydon, are inaccessible, and so those in wheelchairs must either scale 46 steps or take a 14-mile round trip to the next Atos center. If it weren’t so bad, it would be laughable.

Women are particularly targeted. “Cuts for the disabled” targets women, “cuts for care providers for the disabled” attacks women even more specifically and more ferociously. And for the women living with disabilities who are themselves care providers … it’s a nightmare.

For some, like Jennyfer Spencer, the nightmare is quite simply a death sentence. Spencer was wheelchair bound and placed in a fifth-floor apartment. For years, she protested and tried to get moved to a ground floor apartment. Finally, she died and was “discovered”, later. Also discovered was a letter she had left for a local newspaper: “No human or animal should ever go through life as I did.”

Of animals, Jeremy Bentham noted, “The question is not, `Can they reason?’ nor, `Can they talk?’ but, `Can they suffer?’” Can they suffer? For Jacques Derrida, Bentham’s question of suffering is actually a question of inability: “”Can they suffer?” amounts to asking “can they not be able?”” If suffering, anguish, vulnerability are all part of a political economy of not-being-able, what is the State policy of rendering suffering, anguish, and vulnerability? When the State actually gets into the business of producing suffering, when the State actually gets into the business of outsourcing the production of suffering to a major corporation, one that, by the way, has already failed the competency test but “promises to do better in the future”, what is that? What is it called when the State chooses to turn disability into inability, all in the name of independence?

 

(Photo Credit: BBC)