In jails and schools across the United States, children suffer solitary confinement

The isolation cell in the juvenile pod at Onondaga County Justice Center

Across the United States, children in elementary schools are being placed in what are called seclusion rooms, a euphemism for solitary confinement. Across the United States, children in juvenile detention are also regularly placed in solitary confinement. Recently a parent in Phoenix, Arizona, expressed dismay at a “seclusion room” in her son’s elementary school. At the same time, in upstate New York, the Onondaga County Legislature voted unanimously to ban youth solitary confinement across the county criminal justice system. While the decision of the Onondaga County board is welcome news, it came as the result of years of organizing from civic and community organizations. Why are we so comfortable with dumping children into boxes, and who are we, who do we become, if we continue to let the practice continue and become every day more normal?

The Phoenix story is both straightforward and bent. Stephanie Vasquez picked a bilingual language immersion school with a good academic reputation for her son. One day, while taking her son to his classroom, she noticed a child, sitting in a windowless room, or closet, that was partially painted black, and had only a desk and chair. Stephanie Vasquez had worked for years as a middle school teacher and then worked as a volunteer teacher in a local women’s prison, and so she recognized the scene: “I was a little taken aback at first. Psychologically, I can only imagine what it does to a young child. It’s solitary confinement, just on a child level … The school-to-prison pipeline is a real thing to me. Having been a teacher for eight years, and then going to Perryville — the correlations between the two are eerie.”

Stephanie Vasquez asked the school about the space, and she was referred to their website, where she learned that those punished for “disruptive behavior” are sent to the room for a maximum of 15 minutes, to which Vasquez responds, “I don’t think it should happen at all … How long should they really even be in a confined black space? Probably never.”

It’s eerie … and altogether commonplace.

The Onondaga County Justice Center opened in 1995, and from its inception to today, the County has described the jail as a “state-of-the-art” facility. Community activists have differed with that description. They pointed to the agonizing death of Chuneice Patterson, in 2009.

Last year, the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York filed a suit against the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office practice of placing 16- and 17-year-olds in solitary confinement at the Justice Center.  They charged that between October 2015 and August 2016, the Onondaga County Justice Center dumped 80 teens, mostly youth of color, into solitary confinement. In January, the civil rights division of the United States Department of Justice gave formal support to that lawsuit. In February 2017, a Federal judge ordered a halt to the practice. In June, the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York arrived at a settlement with the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office, and in September, the Legislature voted unanimously to ban the practice.

Why does it take so much time and energy to stop torturing children? Stephanie Vasquez saw a child in a closet and knew it was solitary confinement. Others saw “the box” at Onondaga and knew it was a cage. Stephanie Vasquez knew children were being treated as prisoners; and others knew child prisoners were being treated as animals; and the sequence of alchemical transmutation continues straight to hell. In both Arizona and New York, the specific institutions claim to be state-of-the-art, and they are. They were designed by the best in the field. What does that say about our art? Where is the art in dumping children into closets, boxes, and cages? How long should a child be in a confined black space? Never.

Those in isolation are allowed one hour a day in this `recreation’ space.

 

(Photo Credits: Syracuse.com)

Scotland: 400 children tortured, buried in unmarked mass graves, and no crime was committed

Inside the orphanage

From 1864 to 1981, children were sent to the Smyllum Park Orphanage, in Lanarkshire, Scotland, where they were routinely tortured, sexually abused, and then dumped into unmarked graves. The orphanage was run by the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent DePaul. The sisters who died received proper funerals, complete gravesite and headstone. Close to 12,000 children stayed, and suffered, in the Smyllum Park Orphanage. In 2003, two survivors, Frank Docherty and Jim Kane, found what they thought might be a mass grave of Smyllum. They pushed the Daughters of Charity for some answers. In 2004, the order responded that they thought 120 children had died in the orphanage. Frank Docherty and Jim Kane suspected those figures were low. They continued to push. Earlier this year, both Frank Docherty and Jim Kane died. This past Sunday, the BBC and Scotland’s Sunday Post published the results of a joint investigation, and they claimed over 400 children are buried in that gravesite. As of Tuesday, the police have said that there was no evidence of criminal activity, but they will continue to investigate any allegations. If the activity was not criminal, what then was it? Ordinary?

In 2013, Andi Lavery founded White Flowers Alba, a group that advocating for Smyllum Park Orphanage survivors. After reading through the death certificates gathered by the reporters, Lavery said, “Why should they be dying from starvation? Why should they be dying from treatable infections? Why should they be dying from beatings?” These are not “rhetorical” questions. Andi Lavery, and others, want answers.

Marie Peachey is now 54 years old. She, her brother Samuel and sister Brenda suffered the orphanage from 1964 and 1969. Marie Peachey has suffered ever since. In 1997, she went to the police with allegations of abuse, but they said it had happened too long before. In 2003, she tried to sue the Daughters of Charity, but was told, again, that the events had happened to distantly in the past. In 1998, Marie Peachey was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Today she says, “It is awful to think of all of those poor children buried and forgotten. We have endured years and years of secrets and lies about this and everything else that went on at Smyllum. The truth must come out. It was a horrible being there. I was routinely beaten.”

Theresa Tolmie-McGrane entered the Smyllum Park Orphanages in 1968. She was six years old: “Every child was beaten, punished, locked in a dark room, made to eat their own vomit and I would say that most of us had our mouths rinsed out with carbolic soap.” Theresa Tolmie-McGrane describes sexual abuse, physical violence and systematic psychological torture. One nun in particular tried to break the girl-child down: “She almost made it such that I didn’t get to university. She did everything she could to sabotage. I’ve never met someone who tried to destroy another person in such a systematic way. Thank God she didn’t succeed.” Theresa Tolmie-McGrane left the orphanage at 17, went to university, and today is a practicing psychologist in Norway.

The Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry is investigating the case. From members of government to the Church and beyond, everyone is shocked at the tragedy. For decades, survivors have told their stories, to no avail. For decades, family relatives of those children demanded answers, to no avail. To their dying days, Frank Docherty and Jim Kane demanded what the White Flowers Alba demand: accountability, redress, and the restoration of dignity. Frank Docherty and Jim Kane died without seeing any of that.

This story hearkens to the story of Tuam, in Ireland, where infants and children born in the institution were ‘buried’ in septic tanks. From Tuam to Lanarkshire and beyond, people ask, “Who throws dead children into an unmarked grave?” Who? Everyone. In the process of modern `nation building’, some bodies have value and others have less than none and end up in trash heaps, septic tanks, unmarked graves. There was is no secret and there is no surprise here. The activity was not criminal, it was altogether ordinary.

 

(Photo Credit: Sunday Post)

What made Gauri Lankesh so dangerous?

Gauri Lankesh

Recently, India has experienced a spike in violence against journalists, women and critics of the increasingly dominant religious right.  On Tuesday, September 5, that violence claimed the life of feminist activist and journalist Gauri Lankesh as she entered her home, in Bengaluru, in the south of India. Protests exploded across India, partly because of the murder of Gauri Lankesh herself and partly because of its familiarity. Men on motorcycles drove past and fired seven shots, three of which hit and killed Gauri Lankesh. That was exactly the fate of three other prominent so-called secularists: Narendra Dabholkar in 2013, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi, both in 2015. What made Gauri Lankesh so dangerous?

Gauri Lankesh was 55 years old, the editor and publisher of Gauri Lankesh Patrike, a Kannada-language weekly paper which served, and roused, the local populations across the state of Karnataka. A “feisty leftist” and “staunch and vocal critic of the ruling BJP government and of Hindu right-wing extremism”, Gauri Lankesh “raged like a fire”. “Known for her vocal stand against India’s growing right-wing ideology, communal politics and majoritarian policies”, Gauri Lankesh was “one of India’s most outspoken journalists.” She was “fearless” and “fearfully courageous.” Gauri Lankesh was an “imperfectly perfect feminist icon – courageous, independent, contradictory, inspiring … to always do what is right; an inspiration in otherwise tiring, scary times.”

Gauri Lankesh railed against the rise of fascist, communalist, right wing religious zealots as she insisted on the centrality of building inter-caste and inter-faith unions rather than walls. In “Highest Good and Lowest Lives”, Gauri Lankesh described the lives of those who clean sewers: “According to estimates, there are about one million manual scavengers in India. Needless to say most of them – if not all – are ‘untouchables’. They live and work in shit for a measly monthly pay of about three or four thousand rupees. Because of their jobs, they suffer from skin and organ infections. In order to overcome the horror of their ‘profession’, they find succour in alcoholism. They cannot form a union to fight for their rights since these days most city corporations or municipalities have outsourced scavenging jobs to private contractors.”

The feudalism of caste embraces the neoliberalism of outsourcing, and the result is 20,000 “scavengers” die every year in the manholes of India. And the response? Silence. Where is the uproar? Where is the concern? Why does no one care? Gauri Lankesh made her readers ask those questions and then act in response.

In writing about the rising tide of violence against women, in her home town of Bengaluru, or the long history of attacks on freedom of the press, in her home state of Karnataka, Gauri Lankesh pointed to the intersection of modernity’s toxic masculinity of the Big Man at Home and the colonial legacy of the Big Man in the State House, and in each instance, her verdict was straightforward: “This … should not even exist in a democracy.”

The murder of Gauri Lankesh was not surprising. She had received death threats every day, and she persisted. She was attacked by the State, and she persisted. In a world built increasingly on rising violence against women, journalists, and critics, martyrdom has become our daily bread. Gauri Lankesh was a woman who chose to write, speak, dissent, analyze, research, and believe in democracy. Gauri Lankesh chose to work locally and regionally, chose to write primarily in Kannada rather than English, and chose to believe that democracy comes up from the sewers and is a song sung by the chorus of little voices: “Little voices, like that of a Gauri Lankesh, will not be allowed to defy. That is why she had to be killed.” This should not even exist in a democracy.

Protest in Karnataka

 

(Photo Credit 1: FeminismInIndia / Facebook) (Photo Credit 2: The Wire / PTI)

The Parable of DACA: Living in the shadows

“This clandestine war of denial would thus be waged in the shadows, in that twilight space of what is called mourning.”
Jacques Derrida, “By Force of Mourning

For the past week, leading up to yesterday’s announcement concerning what many predicted would be the closure of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and then after the fateful announcement, the language of the day has been “living in the shadows.” DACA recipient after DACA recipient has explained what living in the shadows meant and what it will mean. Today, an “immigration hardliner” Congressman explained that forcing people back into the shadows is justice: “They continue to live the objective that they sought to achieve when they illegally entered America. Live in the shadows. Live in the shadows and if you get crossways with the law, then the law requires they be placed in criminal proceedings and go home. I think there’s justice there, but we need to provide justice.” We need to provide justice.

DACA recipient and Rhode Island resident Rodrigo Pimentel explains, “Living in the shadows means declining legitimate job offers, as I would be unable to work lawfully. Undocumented people that work “off the books” risk employer exploitation such as wage theft. My father was a victim of this when he first came to the US: he found a job in Maryland soon after arrival, but after two weeks of work, he was laid off without pay and no legal recourse. Like many undocumented people, I fear that I may have to move from job to job, without a sense of knowing where I will be working next week or even whether I will be paid.”

Ivy Teng Lei adds, “`Living in the shadows’ is a very accurate way of describing our way of life. We never caused trouble, never asked for more than what we were given, and were perpetually afraid to attract anyone’s attention.”

We will not go back to living in the shadows. We are here to stay, in the light and as part of the sunlit world.

In The Republic, Plato provides the parable, or allegory or myth, of the cave, in which prisoners are chained and bound from birth and can only look forward. They see reflections of a fire behind them, they hear the voices of men carrying objects, whose shadows they see, and they believe, they know, the shadows are real people. Then one prisoner is yanked into freedom. When he looks at the fire, he is temporarily blinded but continues out of the cave into the sunlight and sunlit world. Being a person of compassion, the prisoner returns to the cave to free his fellow prisoners. As he returns, he is again blinded, this time by the darkness of the cave. When he reports the wonders of the sunlit world, the perpetual prisoners mock him, blind man that he is. If they could, they would murder him. This is the foundational parable of living in the shadows.

Here is today’s version of that parable: The President, who says he has “great love” for DACA recipients, hides in his own shadows while his Attorney General uses bald-faced racist, xenophobic, White Nationalist lies in order to demonstrate that his vicious act of cruelty is actually a commission of compassion. Their supporters applaud and explain that forcing the young to live in the shadows is justice. The real crime of those threatened with being forced to live in the shadows is that they are human, all too human, and that they have seen the light and the sunlit world. Their crime is their humanity. For the others, the ones who impose and enforce the State of Shadows, their crime is murder, murder of the soul, murder of the dream. They do not know that, while living in the shadows is impossibly hard, mistaking human beings for shadows is a crime against humanity. The work of mourning must wait until we finish the work of justice and freedom.

 

(Photo Credit 1: Al Jazeera) (Photo Credit 2: Facebook / Sammie Moshenberg)

Why does Australia hate pregnant and abused women asylum seekers?

Nauru

Why does Australia hate pregnant women asylum seekers? August began with a report that three pregnant women asylum seekers on Nauru had applied for termination of their pregnancies and were being denied medical transfer. This denial of medical transfer is typical on Nauru. An additional 50 asylum seekers who need medical care that they cannot receive on the island have also been denied medical transfer. This week, to close August off, 100 asylum seekers currently in Australia have been informed that they are about to lose … everything. Money, housing, the works. On Monday, August 28, about 40 men and women met with immigration officials and were informed of the new regime. Among the women are pregnant women and women who had come to Australia for treatment after having been sexually assaulted on Nauru. Meanwhile, the Immigration Minister thinks that the attorneys who represent asylum seekers, and in particular those in medical distress, are “unAustralian”. UnAustralian. What is the opposite of a commonwealth? Australia.

Yasaman Bagheri is 19 years old. She is from Iran. She has been detained on Nauru since she was 15 years old, and harsh living conditions and bleak prospects for the future are causing her to lose all hope: “They don’t care about people. They are willing to sacrifice innocent people, women and children to make their political point.” Why has this girl-child, now a young woman, been held in such dire and inhumane circumstances? No doubt because she is unAustralian.

The Australian medical profession’s position on those seeking medical care is clear. They must be transferred to Australia, immediately. Australian Medical Association President, and obstetrician, Dr Michael Gannon explained, “The ethical principles are very clear. People seeking the protection of the Australian government are entitled to healthcare standards the same as Australian citizens. So, that’s a matter of ethics and that’s a matter of law … I am not an immigration expert. But I like to think I am expert in medical ethics and I’ve stated our position very clearly as to the health standard that is we would expect.” Royal Australasian College of Physicians President Dr Catherine Yelland agreed, “We are very concerned by reports that asylum seekers are being refused medical transfers to hospitals in Australia where they would be able to get the care they need. The Australian government has a responsibility to ensure people in detention have access to the same level of care in Australian hospitals. It’s abundantly clear that they can’t receive the quality healthcare they need in these facilities. Doctors’ advice in these instances must be followed. We’ve too often seen the tragic outcomes that can occur when this advice is ignored.”

Australia recently changed the process for medical transfer from Nauru to Australia, and Nauru staff claim that this change, which requires going through Nauru hospital’s overseas medical referral committee, has meant no transfers. The committee seldom meets, keeps no records, and is altogether unreliable. The one Nauru hospital is a small operation. Nauruan women with complicated pregnancies are usually sent to Australia, Fiji or Singapore. Furthermore, Nauru prohibits abortions. The new medical non-transfer policy is a catastrophe generally, and it is an explicit assault on women, on women’s bodies.

Why does Australia hate pregnant women asylum seekers? Earlier this month, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen offered an answer, “Australia has reduced the men, women and children on the islands to namelessness, referring to them by registration numbers. Asked their names, kids often give a number. It’s all they know. At least the digits are not tattooed.” At least the digits are not tattooed … yet.

(Photo Credit 1: The Guardian) (Photo Credit 2: Al Jazeera)

Who today remembers Marikana? Who today remembers Heather Heyer?

“This silence calls out unconditionally; it keeps watch on that which is not, on that which is not yet, and on the chance of still remembering some faithful day.”
Jacques Derrida, “Racism’s Last Word”

August 16, 2017, marked the fifth anniversary of the massacre of Marikana, in which 34 protesting miners were killed by the police, in the single most lethal use of force by South African security forces since the March 21, 1960 Sharpeville massacre, when security forces killed 69 people. August 16 2017, people gathered in Charlottesville, and around the world, for the memorial service for Heather Heyer, murdered by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, Virginia, Saturday, August 12. Both commemorative and memorial events were marked, in social and news media, with injunctions to never forget and to always remember. We will not forget you. #RememberMarikana #RememberHeatherHeyer #NeverForget. Will we remember Marikana? Will we remember Heather Heyer?

We may have a trace of memory within, but that is not remembering. If we remembered, meaning if we held the moment or the event or the person(s) present in their absence, five years would not have passed as they have, and, five years from now, who will `remember’ Heather Heyer? I don’t mean that last question as a condemnation, but rather something to study and engage with, as those memories and remembrances will engage with us … or not.

34 miners were killed by bullets on a hill in South Africa. Their names are Tembelakhe Mati, Hendrick Tsietsi Monene, Sello Lepaaku, Hassan Fundi, Frans Mabelane, Thapelo Eric Mabebe, Semi Jokanisi, Phumzile Sokanyile, Isaiah Twala, Julius Langa, Molefi Ntsoele, Modisaotsile van Wyk Sagalala, Nkosiyabo Xalabile, Babalo Mtshazi, John Kutlwano Ledingoane, Bongani Cebisile, Yawa Mongezeleli Ntenetya, Henry Mvuyisi Pato, Ntandazo Nokamba, Bongani Mdze, Bonginkosi Yona, Makhosandile Mkhonjwa, Stelega Gadlela, Telang Mohai, Janeveke Raphael Liau, Fezile Saphendu, Anele Mdizeni, Mzukisi Sompeta, Thabiso Johannes Thelejane, Mphangeli Thukuza, Thobile Mpumza, Mgcineni Noki, Thobisile Zimbambele, Thabiso Mosebetsane, Andries Motlapula Ntsenyeho, Patrick Akhona Jijase, Michael Ngweyi, Julius Tokoti Mancotywa, Jackson Lehupa, Khanare Monesa, Mpumzeni Ngxande, Thembinkosi Gwelani, Dumisani Mthinti and Mafolisi Mabiya. Heather Heyer was killed by a car in the streets of the United States.

Today is Friday, August 26, 2017. Who today spoke the names of these 35 martyrs? Who stopped what they were doing, today, and “remembered”. Who re-membered them, who re-called them, who conjured them … today?

In November 1983, an exhibit entitled “Art contre/against Apartheid” opened in Paris. Jacques Derrida contributed an essay, “Racism’s Last Word” to the catalogue. Derrida hoped that Apartheid would be the name “for the ultimate racism in the world, the last of many.” He saw the purpose of the exhibition as creating a memory of the future: “A memory in advance: that, perhaps, is the time given for this exhibition. At once urgent and untimely, it exposes itself and takes a chance with time, it wagers and affirms beyond the wager. Without counting on any present moment, it offers only a foresight in painting, very close to silence, and the rearview vision of a future for which apartheid will be the name of something finally abolished. Confined and abandoned then to this silence of memory, the name will resonate all by itself, reduced to the state of a term in disuse. The thing it names today will no longer be. But hasn’t apartheid always been the archival record of the unnameable? The exhibition, therefore, is not a presentation. Nothing is delivered here in the present, nothing that would be presentable-only, in tomorrow’s rearview mirror, the late, ultimate racism, the last of many.”

The unnameable showed up on that hill in 2012 as it did in the streets of Charlottesville in 2017. The late, ultimate racism, the last of many, has not yet ended; it is alive and killing, taking lives, threatening entire populations. When we speak the names of the martyrs, we speak their names in a raging ocean of unconditional silence, the silence of the massacred, and we cannot yet claim to remember them. That faithful day has not yet come, and we are not yet at racism’s last word. Instead of promising to remember and to never forget, let us try as best we can to speak the names in the hope that someone might hear, might understand, and might, might, just carry it on.

(Photo Credit 1: The Journalist) (Photo Credit 2: Mike Nelson / Variety)

Women’s Month 2017: Victories for women in Chile, Lebanon, Jordan, India

Wafa Bani Mustafa

In South Africa, August 9 is Women’s Day, a national holiday that commemorates the 1956 women’s anti-pass march on the Union Buildings in Pretoria: “Now you have touched the women you have struck a rock: you have dislodged a boulder: you will be crushed.”Wathint’ abafazi, Strijdom! wathint’ abafazi,wathint’ imbokodo,uza kufa!” The women, 20,000 strong, sang that song on that historic day, and it has inspired, and continues to inspire. August is Women’s Month in South Africa and so, with that in mind, globally this month, and along with bad and terrible news, there’s still much to celebrate, especially in Jordan, Lebanon, Chile and India. Within 48 hours this week, Chile eased its ban on abortion and India eliminated the triple talaq instant divorce. Earlier in the month, building on the passage of a progressive law in Tunisia, both Jordan and Lebanon repealed laws that allowed rapists to avoid criminal prosecution by marrying their victims. From Asia to Africa to South America, women are on the move.

On August 4, 2017, Jordanian lawmakers voted to repeal Article 308 of the Jordanian Penal Code. This article was one of the many “marry-your-rapist” laws around the world. Tunisia abolished its version of that law in late July. While many women mobilized over years to end the law, the current leader of the movement to abolish Article 308 has been Wafa Bani Mustafa, a lawyer and Member of the Parliament, head of the Women’s Caucus and Chairperson of the Coalition of Women MPs to Combat Violence against Women. According to Wafa Bani Mustafa, “Article 308 has its roots in French and Latin laws. European countries only fairly recently abolished similar clauses. In France, that happened in 1994; in Italy, 1981. The introduction of such laws in the Arab world happened largely through a mix of colonialism and through the experiences of other countries in the region. Many of the countries used Egypt as an example, which got its laws through the Ottomans and the French colonial involvement in Egypt. But in essence, it is a European product. The important thing to focus on is that such articles have no religious or societal justification – they only discriminate against women.”

For Wafa Bani Mustafa, abolition of Article 308 is part of a multinational feminist decolonization project. Two weeks after the Jordanian lawmakers’ vote, on August 16, 2017, Lebanese lawmakers abolished Article 522 of Lebanon’s penal code, which also allowed a rapist to escape prosecution and punishment if he married his victim.

On Monday, August 21, 2017, a Chilean court ruled that a law easing restrictions on abortion is Constitutional. Michele Bachelet had promised and worked hard to pass the law. According to Bachelet, who had introduced the first version of the law in 2015, “Today, women have won, democracy has won, all of Chile has won.” The law allows women to seek abortions if the fetus is not violable, if the woman’s life is in danger, or if the pregnancy is the result of rape.

The next day, August 22, 2017, India’s Supreme Court ruled that the so-called triple talaq, which allowed men the power to instantly divorce their wives, unconstitutional. Five women brought this case forward. One of them, Shayara Bano, said, “Finally, I feel free today. I have the order that will liberate many Muslim women.”

From Jordan to Lebanon to Chile to India and beyond, women pushed the State to revoke prohibitions that endangered women’s lives. In every instance, the victory this month is both landmark and partial. As Wafa Bani Mustafa explained, “This issue isn’t specific to Jordan or to the Arab world. There are countries around the world that continue to stigmatise women. There are countries that have very developed legislation, yet in practice do not treat women equally. There are countries out there where women suffer way more than they do in the Arab world in similar crimes.” The struggle continues, and women are taking it forward. Now you have touched the women you have struck a rock: you have dislodged a boulder: you will be crushed … in all the languages of the world.

Celebrations in Chile

 

(Photo Credit 1: Al Jazeera / Wafa Bani Mustafa) (Photo Credit 2: Guardian / Esteban Felix / AP)

On Women’s Day, who sings for Brenda Sithole? And tomorrow?

Brenda Sithole

August 9, 2017. It’s Women’s Day in South Africa, a national holiday that commemorates the 1956 women’s anti-pass march on the Union Buildings in Pretoria: “Now you have touched the women you have struck a rock: you have dislodged a boulder: you will be crushed.”Wathint’ abafazi, Strijdom! wathint’ abafazi,wathint’ imbokodo,uza kufa!” The women, 20,000 strong, sang that song on that historic day, and it has inspired, and continues to inspire. Inspirational as it is, it is a song of survivors, of those who lived to attend. Two weeks ago, in Gauteng not too far from Pretoria, 17-year-old Brenda Sithole committed suicide, or was killed, because she didn’t have proper papers to attend school, and so … she’s dead. She was not a rock. No boulder was dislodged. Brenda Sithole is dead. There was little notice at her death, and, today, August 9, 2017, who sings for Brenda Sithole?

Brenda Sithole’s personal story is brief. When Brenda Sithole was three months old, her mother left. Her mother died before registering her daughter’s birth. Brenda Sithole was raised by her aunt, Terry Sithole, and her father. Only recently was it discovered that Brenda Sithole didn’t have a birth certificate. When they were about to sort things out, Brenda’s father died. Brenda Sithole returned to school, explained the circumstances, and the school replied. According to Terry Sithole, “When school opened last Monday, she was told that the school wanted a birth certificate by the next day or she shouldn’t come back.”

That night, Brenda Sithole, by all accounts a happy child, a good student, a young girl with dreams for the future, went home, cut a piece of paper into the shape of a heart, wrote a note on that heart, and ended her life. The note reads: “”Am sorry. I do not mean to hurt anyone. Am sorry. I had loved and respected you all. I give my best to everyone but I felt like I did not belong here with you. I am only an embarrassment to you my family. I did not have a future even [though] I had big dreams that I wanted to see them come true but that was not going to happen because I was going to go to be kicked out of school because I did not have the rights like having an ID to show where I belong. I was just a normal person living my life at the [mercy] of God but yet that didn’t pay up. Am just useless.”

This is what happens in the state of abandonment. The State says that students must have birth certificates, and if a student doesn’t, she’s out. That’s it. Brenda Sithole was seventeen years old, a child. She had big dreams. For her, there was no rock, there was no boulder. Today, on Women’s Day, who sings for Brenda Sithole? And tomorrow?

(Photo Credit: News24) (Image credit: SA History)

Three years on, still no justice for Ms. Dhu, her family, or Aboriginal women generally

Ms. Dhu, who died in police custody, August 2014

In Australia, for Aboriginal women and their families, the wheels of justice do not turn at all, but they do try to grind the people into dust. On August 4, 2014, a 22-year-old Aboriginal woman, called Ms. Dhu, died in custody in Western Australia. She was being held for unpaid parking fines. Ms. Dhu screamed of intense pains and begged for help. She was sent to hospital twice and returned, untreated, to the jail. On her third trip to the hospital, she died within 20 minutes. Reports suggest she never saw a doctor. Her grandmother says she “had broken ribs, bleeding on the lungs and was in excruciating pain.” That wasn’t enough. In her death, Ms. Dhu joined a long line, actually a mob, of Aboriginal women who have died in custody in Australia. Ms. Dhu’s family joined a longer line of Aboriginal family members seeking justice. Three years later, Ms. Dhu’s family still struggles for peace and something like justice concerning the circumstances of their loved one’s death. To make matters worse, the statute of limitations is running out soon, and so Ms. Dhu’s mother, Della Roe, and her brother, Shaun Harris are preparing to sue the State, not because they want to but because the State has pushed them to this moment. As Della Roe explains, “I want justice and someone pay for what they did to my baby. They need to be accountable for it.”

The State did its own accounting, and that’s why, and how, Ms. Dhu died. Like the United States, Canada, and others, Australia has invested heavily in the devaluation of Aboriginal women’s bodies and lives. The rising rates of incarceration married to the plummeting budgets for assistance say as much. So do the women’s corpses, decade after decade, year after year. For Aboriginal women, the histories and lived experiences of colonial occupation and violence not only continue to this day. They are intensifying.

A contemporary postcolonial, anti-colonial politics begins and ends with the State murder of Aboriginal women’s bodies, which runs from lack of services and assistance, from cradle to grave, to mass incarceration to dumping into the mass graves of historical amnesia. Another world is possible, and it requires more than an endless cycle of “discoveries” followed by commissions.

Della Roe, Shaun Harris, and the spirit of Ms. Dhu are represented by George Newhouse and Stewart Levitt, prominent human rights attorneys. According to George Newhouse, “It’s three years since her death and time’s up. Time’s up. These reforms need to take place and I’m hoping that the case will lead to real reform in WA.” Stewart Levitt adds, “It’s been like hell. How else can I explain it, you know? No-one’s been accountable for it, it’s terrible. The last three years has been like hell.”

Ms. Dhu was murdered by State systems of accounting. She was in jail for $3,622 in unpaid fines. The jail staff and the hospital staff decided she wasn’t worth believing or treating. She wasn’t worth the bother. And so Ms. Dhu died and remains dead. No amount of accounting will bring her justice. And her mother and uncle and kin and community are left to struggle with the State systems of accounting that value their lives as beneath assessment. What would justice for Ms. Dhu mean today? To begin, stop sending Aboriginal women to jail and prison. Stop the slaughter now.

Ms. Dhu’s mother, Della Roe

(Photo Credit 1: ABC) (Photo Credit 2: Huffington Post Australia)

In Virginia, Lipton Tea workers prove there is power in a union

Lipton Tea worker leaders celebrate their first union contract. From left are Corey Hicks, Paul Garrison, Anita Anderson, Philip Surace, Ricky L. Gregory Sr., Juanita Hart and Paul Perdue

On Monday, July 24, workers at the Lipton Tea factory in Suffolk, in the so-called right-to-work Commonwealth of Virginia, voted 109 – 6 to approve their first union contract. The contract covers 240 workers in the plant. It also covers all Lipton Tea factory workers in North America, since the Suffolk plant produces all the Lipton tea bags sold in North America.

The story of workers taking charge began last year. For the preceding ten years, workers had seen their benefits shredded, the pace of work accelerated, their positions rendered increasingly precarious. Sick leave, including unpaid sick leave. was reduced to the barest legal minimum. Insurance coverage became prohibitively expensive and, simultaneously, less expansive. Particular to Lipton was something called “drafting” in which workers were forced to work overtime, often 12-hour shifts for 13 days before getting a day off.

In 2013, Lipton Tea, owned by Unilever, announced it would invest $96 million to “upgrade” the factory. That meant new machinery. Production stopped temporarily. When production resumed, all the workers were forced to re-apply for their jobs. As mechanic Robert Davis explained, “I had been there 23 years, but I had to reapply for the same job, turn in a resume and everything.” Davis was turned down the first time he applied.

With speed ups, no sick leave, workplace injuries and illnesses, workers began leaving. When they left, they were not replaced. The factory workforce decreased, as the amount of work increased. This is known as “lean production.” Last spring, workers decided they had had enough, and called the United Food and Commercial Workers. According to UFCW Kayla Mock, “From the beginning, they took so much ownership and responsibility for building their union. They held full-on organizing conversations with their co-workers, identifying other leaders in the plant and bringing them on board, talking and assessing the other workers.” Mock added, “The workers were the ones who took ownership of it from the very beginning. They very clearly understood that their union was something that they needed to build, almost like a tangible thing, and they built it from the ground up—they just owned it.”

Lipton Tea workers called Hellman Mayonnaise workers in Chicago. Unilever owns Hellman Mayonnaise, and the Chicago plant is unionized. The workers in Suffolk learned that their brothers and sisters in Chicago had better working conditions, including better and more immediate pay for overtime and a far superior, and much cheaper, health care plan.

Anita Anderson, who has been with Lipton Tea for ten years, explains, “You had a choice to make. You call out sick and get one incident, or you come to work and pass germs around … If you got hurt on the job, it’s never unsafe conditions. It was never that you were fatigued from working so many hours. It was always, the employee did not do something right. So if you get hurt, then it’s an incident, it’s a strike in your personnel file … We decided we deserved more than what we were getting. Once we got a write-up comparing the benefits of the Hellman plant compared to our plant, a lot more folks came on board.” Anderson started talking with her colleagues, “I told them about how the Verizon workers had a union, and when they were threatened with their jobs going overseas, they went on strike, they fought, and they won and kept their jobs.”

August 26, 2016, the workers of Lipton Tea voted 108 – 79 in favor of joining the UCFW. Juanita Hart has worked 25 years at Lipton Tea: “I was crying like I had won the lottery. I was so glad and I was so happy because I’ve been told for all this time, all these years, that it would never happen. And when it happened, I had so much joy that all I could do (was) cry.” Anita Anderson added, “Everyone is excited. Even the ones that were naysayers about the union are asking about the next union meeting so they can speak up and talk about the issues in the plant.”

Yesterday, Lipton Tea workers voted for the first time in the 60 year history of the factory, and they approved a contract that would save them more than $4000 a year in health care costs. Yesterday, Lipton Tea workers – with Anita Anderson and Juanita Hart among the leaders –  voted for workers’ dignity, respect, and power. There is power in a union.

 

(Photo Credit: Suffolk News Herald)