In Canada, Joelle Beaulieu refuses the death sentence of incarceration

Around the World of Covid, the news these days is pretty grim, and the news from prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers, juvenile detention centers is worse. In those places of confinement, generally, rates of infection are rising precipitously and, despite much hand wringing and loud sighing, the State and nation-states have done little to nothing to less than nothing. Given the past decades increased investment in mass and hyper incarceration, this comes as no surprise. But there is good, or at least hopeful, news, and that is in prisoners’ individual and collective actions and resistance. April saw prison uprisings, demonstrations, hunger strikes, and other actions in Sierra LeoneArgentinaColombia, the United States and beyond. Everywhere, prisoners echo the banner resisting prisoners hung from the rooftop of the Devoto prison in Buenos Aires: “Nos negamos a morir en la cárcel.” We refuse to die in prison. In Virginia, Cynthia Scott, 50 years old, African American, currently incarcerated at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, agreed: “I was not sentenced to death, and I don’t want to die here.  But I am afraid I will when the coronavirus comes.” In Canada, on April 21, Joelle Beaulieu, a member of the Ojibwe Nation, incarcerated in a Canadian federal prison in Joliette, Quebec, said NO! to the death sentence of conditions in the federal prisons and sued the Correctional Service Canada for its response, or lack of response, to the Covid pandemic. I was not sentenced to death. We refuse to die in prison.

At the end of April, Joelle Beaulieu sued on behalf of all federal inmates who had been imprisoned in federal prisons in Quebec since March 13. What happens to one happens to all. What happened to Joelle Beaulieu is she was incarcerated at Joliette Women’s Institution. She worked as a cleaner. Joelle Beaulieu worked in highly trafficked, congested areas. When she heard about the pandemic, she asked for gloves, mask and protective gear. The authorities only gave her gloves. When Joelle Beaulieu began developing symptoms, she was given Tylenol. For a week, her symptoms intensified. Finally, after a week, Joelle Beaulieu was tested. Then Joelle Beaulieu was sent to her cell, into what amounted to solitary confinement, for 15 days. She requested either a Native elder or a mental health professional. No one was provided. She says guards did not wear masks or gloves until after she tested positive. Prisoners were told to wash their hands, but were not given disinfectant.

Joelle Beaulieu believes she is “patient zero” of the Joliette Women’s Institution. Within two weeks, the number of Covid positive cases rose from 10 to 50, and by the time Joelle Beaulieu filed her case, more than half the residents had tested positive. On April 21, Quebec reported 114 positive cases. Of that 114, 51 were Joliette Women’s Institution prisoners. Of the women in Quebec who tested positive for Coronavirus, almost all were `residents’ of Joliette Women’s Institution. Joliette Women’s Institution is no outlier, and Joelle Beaulieu’s situation is in no way exceptional. According to Emilie Coyle, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, “Every time we speak with women who are inside the prisons, whether it’s in Joliette or other federal institutions  – they let us know they feel as though they’re not getting the right information. They’re kept in the dark. And that’s particularly concerning for them because they’re trying very hard to participate in keeping themselves safe and healthy.”

In Buenos Aires, when prisoners resisted, they released a statement which said, in part, “We are a mirror of the very society that forgets us and drowns in its own misery, silencing its own true reality:

Those who give up will never win.
We refuse to die in prison.
For a world without slavery and without exclusion.”

From the rooftops of a jail in Buenos Aires to the women’s prison of Virginia to the women’s prisons of Quebec, people are resisting the dehumanization of slavery and exclusion, engaging in the Great Refusal which is the Great Affirmation. They will not be kept in the dark nor will they be silenced. In Canada, Joelle Beaulieu, member of the Ojibwe Nation, said NO to the inhumanity, insisted she was not sentenced to die in prison, and lit a match to light the way to a world without slavery and without exclusion. Others will follow. The struggle continues.

(Photo credit: Sol915)

South Carolina will stop shackling women (prisoners) in childbirth!

In March, we asked if South Carolina would pass legislation outlawing the shackling of women (prisoners) in childbirth. Two months and a few days later, we now have the answer. Yes! More than yes, a resounding and expansive yes. While the Governor has yet to sign the legislation, he has said, on more than one occasion, that he would sign it. Last year, the South Carolina House of Representatives passed the bill, presented by Rep. Nancy Mace, a Republican representing Daniel Island, by a vote of 104 – 3, but the bill wasn’t sent over to the Senate in time. This year, the House voted 117 – 0, and Senate voted 42 – 0 to pass the bill. This happened in the midst of the South Carolina focusing on coronavirus related issues. Apparently, no one was more surprised that Nancy Mace, who noted, “This is a really big one. It took a lot of people coming together on both sides of the aisle to make it happen, and I’m just really humbled to see that even during a crisis, in South Carolina, we’re getting things done in a nonpartisan way to make our state better.” 

This is a really big one. Not only did the legislature unanimously endorse the bill, they expanded it. The original bill essentially brought South Carolina into compliance with the federal First Step Act, passed in 2018, which bans the shackling of pregnant women (prisoners). Looking at the situation and seizing the moment, legislators, from both parties, decided to add the following: “requiring availability of menstrual hygiene products, access to adequate nutrition, an end to solitary confinement for pregnant prisoners and weekly contact visits between incarcerated people with low- or minimum-security classifications and their children.”

South Carolina’s chapter of Americans for Prosperity noted, “The legislature took the right step in banning shackling of incarcerated women during pregnancy, labor and postpartum recuperation, ending an inhumane practice that 42 other states have already opposed. Restoring dignity and treating people with compassion is a common-sense reform to our criminal justice system. We thank the legislature for passing this bill and we urge Governor McMaster to stop this cruel policy.”

In South Carolina, as elsewhere, women, prisoners, supporters invoked dignity. In South Carolina, this week, legislators demonstrated that dignity must include the recognition and abolition of cruelty and then proceed to the respect for all human beings, generally, and, here, for women in their specificity and particularity. Not shackling is a good start, but it remains a negation of a negation. Taking care of pregnant women, no matter where they are, is simply the right thing to do. Meanwhile, this week, members of the Michigan Senate began debating a bill, in committee, that would ban the shackling of pregnant women (prisoners). The struggle continues.

(Image Credit 1: Radical Doula)  (Image Credit 2: New York Times / Andrea Dezsö)

In Brazil, domestic workers’ children demand dignity for domestic workers!

“Domestic workers replaced black house slaves as markers of class differences and power in Brazilian society.”   Maurício Sellmann Oliveira

As of May 5, Brazil leads Latin America in both reported cases of Covid-19 – 110, 156 cases – and reported deaths, 7,458Brazil has almost as many cases of Covid-19 as Peru, Ecuador and Mexico combined. Domestic workers form the center and fiber of this necro-narrative. Brazil has more domestic workers than any other country in the world, seven million and counting. Almost all are women, and the overwhelming majority are women of African descent. In January 2018, Brazil officially ratified the ILO’s Convention concerning decent work for domestic workers, according some protections to those with more or less permanent appointments. That accord left out the millions of women of color who work by the day. That was before Jair Bolsonaro became President, before the coronavirus pandemic, before the attempt to shred all protections for workers, women, women workers. On March 17, 63-year old Cleonice Gonçalves, a domestic worker in the wealthy Rio neighborhood of Leblon, died of Covid-19. Cleonice Gonçalves was the first Covid-19 fatality in Rio da Janeiro and the fifth in Brazil. Around the same time, Cleonice Gonçalves died, Juliana França – daughter of a domestic worker and goddaughter of a domestic worker, teacher and actress, resident of Rio da Janeiro – began an online petition, “Manifesto by the daughters and sons of domestic workers”, demanding health and labor protections for all domestic workers, demanding concrete and material dignity and respect for all domestic workers. Juliana França started the campaign in the name of her mother, Catarina dos Santos. The Brazilian chapter of the Coronavirus epic is a giant triangle, and at the respective apexes are Cleonice Gonçalves, Juliana França, and Catarina dos Santos.

Cleonice Gonçalves’s story is all too familiar. She worked as a live-in maid four days a week, in the Leblon neighborhood of Rio da Janeiro, a neighborhood reputed to be the most expensive real estate in the country. She’d travel two hours to the working-class suburb of Miguel Pereira. She worked for the same family for decades. Her employers went on a trip to Italy and came back suspecting they had contracted Covid-19. They were tested immediately. They never informed Cleonice Gonçalves. Why would they? On March 13, Cleonice Gonçalves complained of pain while urinating, and went to the doctor, who prescribed antibiotics and sent her back to work. Cleonice Gonçalves was diabetic and lived with high blood pressure. On March 15, Cleonice Gonçalves began having trouble breathing. She went to the hospital and, again, was sent back to work. Her employers continued to remain silent about their own suspicions concerning their health. Her condition continued to deteriorate, her employers continued to tell her nothing. On March 16, hearing of Cleonice Gonçalves’s situation, her family sent a taxi and brought her home. On March 17, Cleonice Gonçalves died. On March 17, Cleonice Gonçalves’s employers’ test result came back: positive. The employers are now thriving. End of story.

Juliana França decided another story is possible. Juliana França’s 57-year-old mother and 75-year-old godmother have work histories similar to that of Cleonice Gonçalves. Working class live-in maids who travel long distances from working class suburbs to upscale neighborhoods, both have worked decades for their current employers. When the pandemic struck, both women’s respective employers insisted that they should continue working. The pandemic? Nothing serious, overblown, listen to the President. Juliana França understood the pressures on her mother and godmother and all the women like them, and so she created the manifesto, “For the lives of our mothers”, demanding paid quarantine leave, health benefit protections, worker protections. Juliana França has also created a network that is linking domestic workers to donors. When Juliana França’s mother, Catarina dos Santos, showed the petition to her employers, they gave her paid leave.

As elsewhere, the story of Covid-19 in Brazil is a story of violent inequality, inequality that structured national and community lives prior to the pandemic and has intensified within the pathological onslaught. At the same time, it is the story of women, overwhelmingly women of color, refusing to accept abuse, for themselves and for their loved ones, refusing to be consigned to the dustbin of history. Remember the martyrdom of Cleonice Gonçalves and remember the Great Refusal of Juliana França and Catarina dos Santos. After too many martyrs, it’s time, it’s way past time, for enforced decent work for domestic workers now! Please consider signing the petition, here.

(Image Credit: Change)

What happened to Andrea Circle Bear and Sarah Lee Circle Bear? American `justice’

FMC Carswell

Andrea Circle Bear died in federal custody Tuesday, April 28. Andrea Circle Bear is the first woman to die of Covid-19 while in federal custodyAndrea Circle Bear was convicted of a minor offense and should never have been in prison in the first place. When Andrea Circle Bear was sentenced, she was five months pregnant; she should never have been in prison. 

Andrea Circle Bear’s story is a familiar one for Native women in the United States. Andrea Circle Bear lived in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian reservation. In April 2018, Andrea Circle Bear was arrested and admitted to selling a small amount of methamphetamine. In March 2019, Andrea Circle Bear was charged. While awaiting trial, Andrea Circle Bear stayed in the Hughes County Jail, in Pierre, South Dakota. In November, Andrea Circle Bear was released for one day to attend divorce proceedings. On January 15, 2020, Andrea Circle Bear was sentenced to 20 months in federal prison. At the time, she was five months pregnant. Because of her pregnancy, Andrea Circle Bear was transferred to Federal Medical Facility Carswell, the only designated medical facility for women in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. FMC Carswell is in Fort Worth, Texas. 

When Andrea Circle Bear was removed from South Dakota, she was described as appearing to be healthy. Up to this moment, both the Hughes County Jail and Hughes County itself have no reported incidents of Coronavirus. The same cannot be said for Federal prisons in Texas.

As a newly arrived prisoner, Andrea Circle Bear was placed in quarantine on March 20. On March 28, due to concerns about her pregnancy, Andrea Circle Bear was taken to the hospital. She was returned to FMC Carswell the same day. On March 31, exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms, Andrea Circle Bear was taken back to the local hospital, where she was put on a ventilator. On April 1, Andrea Circle Bear underwent a caesarean, and gave birth. On April 4, Andrea Circle Bear was confirmed Covid-19 positive. On Tuesday, April 28, Andrea Circle Bear died. 

According to Andrea Circle Bear’s grandmother, Clara LeBeau, Andrea Circle Bear never belonged in prison in the first place and certainly should never have been shipped off to Texas. Andrea Circle Bear was the mother of five children. Because of earlier caesarean section births and other underlying medical conditions, she was considered a high-risk OB/GYN patient. Clara LeBeau told the court as much, and so did Andrea Circle Bear. According to Clara LeBeau, “She was concerned. She’s going somewhere to have her baby where she’s just not knowing the doctors and staff like she does here at the hospital in Pierre. I was concerned too, it bothered me. I said, ‘You shoulda told ‘em you were high risk,’ and she said she did. I guess they didn’t pay attention.” Andrea Circle Bear called her grandmother from Carswell: “She said ‘I told ‘em I was sick, I was in there four or five days and I was telling them but they didn’t pay attention.’ She said please call my grandma and tell her she’ll know and she’ll pray for me,’ but they didn’t even do that … I really believe it was their fault. If they’d known she was high-risk, they shouldn’t have even flown her. That was the start of everything.”

On July 6, Sarah Lee Circle Bear was “found” unconscious in a holding cell in Brown County Jail in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Sarah Lee Circle Bear was 24 years old, the mother of two children, aged one and two. She was picked up for a bond violation, a minor offense. According to other prisoners, before being transferred to a holding cell, Sarah Lee Circle Bear told her jailers that she was suffering excruciating pain. The staff told her to “knock it off” and “quit faking”. Inmates called to the staff to help her. The staff came, picked Sarah Lee Circle Bear up off the floor, dragged her out of the cell, and transferred to a holding cell. Later, they “found” Sarah Lee Circle Bear “unresponsive.” Seeking justice, the family sued. Just this January, it was announced that the federal law suit would go forward, sometime this year.

Sarah Lee Circle Bear was Andrea Circle Bear’s sister-in-law. 

If they’d paid attention, if they’d known. They paid attention, they knew. They didn’t care. As Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley noted, “Andrea should never have been in jail in the first place. Period. That she was there at all is cruel and negligent.” Cruel and negligent … but not unusual. Senator Dick Durbin concurs: “Andrea Circle Bear committed a low-level nonviolent drug offense, but she did not deserve to die, and an innocent child did not deserve to lose his mother. The Justice Department and Bureau of Prisons must act to prevent more death and suffering, and they must act now.” If history is any indication, Andrea Circle Bear’s death will not compel any federal agency into any action, other than a cover-up.

What happened to Andrea Circle Bear and Sarah Lee Circle Bear? Nothing much. Just another two Native American woman dead in custody somewhere in the United States, missing and murdered.

(Photo Credit: Federal Bureau of Prisons)

Covid Operations: On the genealogy of `overcrowding’, or how we learned to stop worrying and love the bomb

In the past 24 hours, overcrowding has made the news: “As France releases thousands, can Covid-19 end chronic prison overcrowding?” “Nine killed in Peru prison protest against overcrowded conditions during pandemic”. Earlier in the week, “COVID-19 Reaches Lebanon’s Overcrowded Palestinian Refugee Camps”. Overcrowding is the Janus face of the pandemic. On one hand, with the regime of social and physical distancing comes concern over overcrowding. Beaches and bars are dangerously overcrowded. When schools re-open, how will they maintain social distancing, how will they avoid overcrowding? In this context, overcrowding has a clear metric: six feet or two meters between each person. It’s measurable, there’s a formula. On the other hand, overcrowding is the `petri dish’ for infection: in prisons, jails, immigration detention centers, juvenile detention centers, in `overly dense’ neighborhoods and individual residences. Here, the math gets fuzzy, as do history and memory. Prisons have been overcrowded for as long as mass incarceration has been the ruling ideology; cities have been divided into “neighborhoods” and “slums”, the latter “relentlessly …  overcrowded”, for as long as real estate and commodification of urban space have been a main economic driver. Why does it take a pandemic for `the world’ to take notice?

Consider these statements from the last couple days. In calling for Iran to release its female prisoners of conscience and political prisoners, UN human rights representatives noted, “Iran’s prisons have long-standing hygiene, overcrowding and healthcare problems.” In some places, prison overcrowding is not only long-standing but `notorious’: “Throughout Latin America, prisons are notoriously overcrowded, violent and dominated in large part by gangs or corrupt officials.” “The spreading specter of the new coronavirus is shaking Latin America’s notoriously overcrowded, unruly prisons, threatening to turn them into infernos.” “Throughout Latin America, prisons are notoriously overcrowded and violent, and Peru is no exception.” How did Latin American prisons become notoriously overcrowded while the equally overcrowded prisons of the United States are merely “overcrowded and underfunded” or “significantly overcrowded”. Prisons in the United States are described as having “a troubling history of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions”; prisons in France and Europe are described as a “combination of cramped quarters, poor sanitation and desperate overcrowding”.

Last year, the United Nations reported that by 2018, over 1 billion people were living in slums or informal settlements. In 2018, the world population was around 7.6 billion. 13% of the world was living in slums or informal settlements. 23.5% of urban populations were living in slums or informal settlements. Where was the `notoriety’ over the past thirty years of urban so-called development: escalating rents matched with reducing numbers of rental units, proportionately less and less “affordable and adequate housing”. For the urban poor, at first, and then for everyone but the urban rich, expulsion and exclusion became the daily in what was fast becoming  a planet of slums.

Yesterday, when Cicero Public Health Director Susan Grazzini was asked about Cicero’s high rate of Covid-19 infection, her answer was short and direct: “It’s overcrowding. There are certain areas where we have more COVID-19 (cases). Its more places that are overcrowded.” A week or so earlier, when Gabriel Scally, the Royal Society of Medicine’s head of epidemiology, was asked about England’s urban high rate of Covid-19 infection, his answer was equally direct: “Houses in multiple occupation must be in the same category as care homes because of the sheer press of people. I have no doubt that these kinds of overcrowded conditions are tremendously potent in spreading the virus.”

This is our built environment. More segregated cities where increasing numbers of people live in lethally toxic overcrowded residences, overcrowded both in their respective residences and in their neighborhoods; where cities pay more to sequester the overcrowded than to attend to them. More prisons, more prisoners, where, again, overcrowded goes hand-in-glove with drastic, even criminal underfunding; where administrations, from national to municipal and county, pay more to sequester the overcrowded than to attend to them. This is a small part of the story of how we learned to stop worrying about overcrowding and love the apartheid bomb.

(Photo Credit: Meridith Kohut / New York Times)

Covid Operations: We’re all in this together? 7 of the 10 largest Covid-19 clusters in the U.S. are jails and prisons. Do not look away.

According to yesterday’s New York Times, 7 of the 10 largest Covid-19 clusters in the United States are prisons and jails: Marion Correctional Institution, Marion, Ohio, 2,168 cases; Pickaway Correctional Institution, Scioto Township, Ohio, 1,632 cases; Cook County Jail, Chicago, Illinois, 812 cases; Cummins Unit prison, Grady, Arkansas, 695 cases; Neuse Correctional Institution, Goldsboro, N.C., 457 cases; Parnall Correctional Facility, Jackson, Michigan, 232 cases; Stateville Correctional Center, Cresthill, Illinois, 191 cases; for a grand total of 6187 reported cases, and that was yesterday. The numbers continue to rise. (For example, on Sunday, Marion Correctional reported 1828 cases among the prison population, 73% of the prisoners. As of yesterday, the number was 2168, a 6 percent increase in three days.) As of this afternoon, 26 states have fewer than 6100 reported cases. Really, what else is there to say? We made this particular mess, this is who we are, we built our own archipelago of death and now we are told we are all in “this” together. Do not look away.

In the past two days, two reports have come out, one concerning the certain catastrophe built into U.S. jails; the other concerning the certain catastrophe built into prisons and jails across the globe. While horrifying, none of this new or unknown.

According to a report by the ACLU and researchers from Washington State University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Tennessee, a failure, or better refusal, to reduce jail populations will result in an additional 100,000 to close to 200,000 deaths. Why? Overcrowding. “The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world — with only 4 percent of the world’s population but 21 percent of the world’s incarcerated population …. Given the overcrowding and substandard conditions in most U.S. jails and prisons, standard public health interventions to `flatten the curve’ and prevent the spread of COVID-19 are simply not feasible. Most are unable to allow for six feet of social distancing among incarcerated people and staff and lack the facilities that allow for the recommended hand washing and cleaning of surfaces. Moreover, the health care available in our nation’s jails is chronically substandard, further fueling the growth of the pandemic and increasing mortality rates among those infected while in jail …. Jails, in particular, also act as vectors for infection in their surrounding communities. Jails are revolving doors for incarceration and face 10.7 million admissions a year3. That’s an admission every three seconds in America.” None of this, absolutely none of this, is new or surprising. It’s bad, but it’s not startling.

According to a report issued today by Penal Reform International, with the Thailand Institute of Justice, what’s true of U.S. jails, prisons and detention centers is true as well for much of the world’s population. The report opens: “Over 11 million people are imprisoned globally, the highest number yet. Around 102 countries reported prison occupancy levels of over 110 per cent. The magnitude of issues and associated human rights violations stemming from over-imprisonment became clear in efforts to prevent and contain outbreaks of COVID-19 in prisons.” Where in the incarcerated world are the women? In toxic, overcrowded, overly punitive, misogynistic, even femicidal prisons:  “Almost ten years since their adoption, the UN Bangkok Rules on women prisoners and non-custodial alternatives for women remain largely unimplemented. The global female prison population doubled in twenty years, yet justice systems and institutions remain largely designed for a homogeneous male population …. People who have not been found guilty of a crime outnumber convicted people in prison in at least 46 countries. Minorities, foreign nationals, women and the poorest people of our societies are all more likely to be detained on remand …. Prohibition-based drug policies have driven prison populations up. Over 2 million people are in prison for drug-related offences, 83 per cent of them serving a sentence for drug possession for personal use. A larger proportion of women than men are imprisoned for drug offences.” The report goes on to detail the particularities of abuse for the fastest growing prison population, globally as well as in the world’s leading incarcerator and leading proponent of incarceration as the only way forward. 

PRI’s Executive Director, Florian Irminger, summed up the four horsemen of today’s apocalypse, which is the apocalypse of the past four decades: “Overcrowding, lack of basic healthcare, limited access to clean water, inhumane living conditions.” None of this is new. It’s bad, but it’s not surprising. Overcrowding kills, overcrowding always has killed. As prison suicide and self-harm rates of the last four decades has shown, overcrowding morbidity has a woman’s face and body.  

We are told, and many of us would want to believe, that we are in this together. Together would mean that one doesn’t get to choose the outer boundaries of we. If we are in this together, let’s together end the overcrowding of prisons, jails, immigration centers, juvenile detention. Let’s not forget refugee camps: “As of May 2019, 90 per cent of the 73,000 people living in the al-Hol camp in Syria were women and children.” Wherever you are, local organizations and coalitions are organizing to empty the cells, immediately, and then to make sure that they are never again stocked with humans treated as so much trash. Reducing, and ending once and for all, overcrowding in carceral spaces is not rocket science. It simply involves all of us being in this together. Please, do not look away.

(Photo Credit: The Guardian/Tannen Maury/EPA) (Infographic Credit: ACLU)

Covid Operations: The laws be damned, evictions continue. Stop them now!

On Tuesday, April 14, Alexandria City Councilmember Canek Aguirre introduced a resolution to the City Council to freeze rents, mortgages and negative credit reporting: “No resident who has lost income should be required to pay rent during this public health emergency, nor should they accumulate debt for unpaid rent.” The City Council unanimously approved the resolution. Across the United States and around the world, the good news is that governments at all levels are enacting bills that freeze rents and mortgage payments as well as banning evictions. The bad news is that eviction notices are still going out and, even worse, evictions are still ongoing, in the very places where they have been banned. We have to talk about evictions and try to understand what’s going on.

First, the good news, from the past week or so. On Tuesday, in California, the San Jose City Council voted to extend a local moratorium on residential evictions until May 31, along with other renter protections. (Earlier in the month, California’s state legislature passed an eviction freeze that will last until 90 days after California’s state of emergency is lifted. While that in itself would be good news, better is that the legislature’s action took an earlier moratorium, by the Governor, and gave it sharper teeth and more muscle.) On Thursday, Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington, expanded and extended Washington’s eviction moratorium, and added additional protections. In Massachusetts, on Friday, the state legislature passed legislation that would ban evictions and foreclosures, and sent that on to the Governor to signOn Friday, David Ige, Governor of Hawaii, declared a moratorium on evictions; and Gretchen Whitmer, Governor of Michigan, extended Michigan’s eviction moratorium until May 15

 In India, on Friday, the Indian state of Maharashtra “asked landlords to postpone rent recovery from tenants for at least three months … [and] not to drive tenants out of their homes if they fail to pay rents during the current period.” On Monday, the South African government reiterated the national suspension of evictions during the national lockdown. Finally, in the United States, that national government enacted the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, aka the CARES Act, which precludes being served with an eviction until July 25, 2020, along with a few other protections. With all these bans and moratoria, everything should be fine, right? Wrong.

On Thursday, Pro Publica reported that in at least four states – Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas and Florida – landlords continued to file eviction notices, despite the national ban, and suffered no negative consequences. What’s that you say about ignorance of the law being no excuse? Not when it comes to evictions, apparently. In California, in violation of both federal and even stronger state laws, landlords are threatening to evict and are evicting tenants. While both are illegal, actually evicting tenants means local law enforcement actually arrive at the residences and forcibly remove tenants. In Michigan, a landlord sent seven-day eviction notices to 80 tenants and explained that he had to, so as to “fulfill fiduciary responsibilities” to lenders. The law of lenders supersedes the law of both Michigan and the United States. The same story in LouisianaArizonaMissouri. Despite local and national legislation, across the United States, people are being evicted.

Likewise, in South Africa, despite a national moratorium on evictions, local jurisdictions have sent in police and special forces, colloquially know as Red Ants. to evict residents, most egregiously perhaps in Durban and Cape Town where they entered informal settlements, destroyed shacks, and `removed’ entire populations. Why does that sound familiar?

What is the investment in evictions? There’s the financial investment, but there’s more. In this period where staying at home, whatever that home looks like, can mean staying alive, what `inspires’ police and their avatars, who are just people like you and me, to render individuals, families, communities homeless, to turn fellow human beings into raw material for the global manufacturing of death and destruction? While the excuses and explanations are manifold and easily available, they all fall short when you put them face-to-face with the people who actually do the deed. What is our investment in evictions that, despite everything we know and think we know and feel and think we feel, we let them go on, a little dissipated in volume and velocity, perhaps, but as lethal as ever? 

(Credit for Everett Shinn, Eviction (Lower East Side): Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Covid Operations: The ticking time bomb has a dangerous history

In the era of Covid-19, in the current pandemic moment, the world has “discovered” that prisons, jails, immigration detention or removal centers, juvenile detention centers, and any place of confinement is predictably overcrowded, under-resourced, and, suddenly, dangerous to our public health. This “discovery” is described as the time bomb or, more dramatically, the ticking time bomb. While the ticking time bomb scenario suggests concern for the incarcerated and those who work within incarcerated spaces, the phrase “ticking time bomb” has its own history, especially in the last twenty years, a history we would do well to recall.

Here are some ticking time bomb scenarios from the past 24 hours or so. Across the United States, “rural America is left with not only a health care crisis but a potential ticking time bomb if these jails become hot spots of contagion.” Meanwhile, there’s a “health time bomb that could all too easily detonate in locked juvenile facilities.” In Wisconsin, the local ACLU explains, “Right now Wisconsin’s overcrowded prisons are a ticking time bomb that threatens the health of all Wisconsinites, especially people of color who are disproportionately impacted by mass incarceration”. In Mexico, the shelters along migrants’ routes understand that lack of information and misinformation can create its own time bomb: “We try to avoid this sort of mass panic among the people in the shelter, because that could be a time bomb.” In Panama, “overcrowding in prisons is seen as a time bomb”. In Haiti, “the prison network is an epidemiological ticking time bomb.” Peru’s prisons are “a time bomb” as are those in Colombia, the Dominican Republic. In the Philippines, “jails are a COVID-19 time bomb”.  Overcrowded Cambodian prisons and drug detention centres “are a ticking time bomb for the country and potentially its neighbours.”

That’s 24 hours, and that’s 24 hours. Remember the television series, 24, in which counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer, every week, found himself in a situation in which he had 24 hours in which to stop a massive terrorist attack? The fact that there was a finite, definite and even definitive time frame meant that Bauer could ethicallytorture suspects in order to gain the vital information. That, in a nutshell, is the ticking time bomb scenario. From September 11 on, for well over a decade, a subject of passionate debate among some was whether or not torture was ever justified, much less ethical. Despite so-called liberal traditions, some claimed that within weeks, the U.S. populace overwhelmingly embraced the logic of the ticking time bomb. 

While the ticking time scenario lit up the recent and long dark night of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and beyond, its origins are said to Jeremy Bentham’s 1804 essay “Means of extraction for extraordinary occasions”: “Suppose an occasion to arise, in which a suspicion is entertained, as strong as that which would be received as a sufficient ground for arrest and commitment as for felony — a suspicion that at this very time a considerable number of individuals are actually suffering, by illegal violence inflictions equal in intensity to those which if inflicted by the hand of justice, would universally be spoken of under the name of torture. For the purpose of rescuing from torture these hundred innocents, should any scruple be made of applying equal or superior torture, to extract the requisite information from the mouth of one criminal, who having it in his power to make known the place where at this time the enormity was practicing or about to be practiced, should refuse to do so?”

For over 200 years, so-called liberal democracies officially took on that supposition and rejected it. In 2001, that all seemed to change. What changed was not the practice of torture but the official practice of torture; what changed was also the ostensible vox populi. The point is that, historically, the invocation of a ticking time bomb has been more than a warning of impending and catastrophic violence and harm. The invocation of the ticking time bomb has been used to justify the abrogation of due process, of Constitutionally protected rights, and of both humanity and a sense of humanity. Remember that. Those currently living in prisons, jails, immigration detention centers, juvenile detention centers face the real and immediate danger of deaths in epic number. They need neither discoveries nor metaphors; they deserve dignity and respect, and they need to be released now.  

(Image Credit: San Francisco Gate)

Covid Operations: Where is the State that practices grace?

For many religious and faith-based communities, these are days of thanks and reflection. Easter. Passover. Ramadan. Days of grace, days of saying grace. Where is the State of grace, where is the nation-State that practices, that is made of practices of, pardon, forgiveness, clemency, mercy? Where is the nation-State whose actions form a daily and constitutive prayer of grace? Where is the State that is grateful for humanity?

Here’s some news from the past day or so. Predictably, the national iterations of the global lockdown has “resulted” in a spike in domestic violence, especially in home-based violence against women and girls: ZimbabweSouth Africa,  Trinidad and TobagoMexicoIndiaChinaFranceSpainItaly,  across the United States, and around the world. This spike was predictable, and national governments did nothing, often did less than and worse than nothing, to address the “shadow pandemic”. In many ways, the reporting naturalizes the situation. Boys will be boys, men will be men, women will be beaten and sacrificed. It’s a shame, but really … what can we do? We can shut off access to reproductive health, GBV survivors’ support, and HIV testing. We can do that. While some have noted the ways in which individual national responses “are failing women”, the situation is more direct, aggressive and violent. Nation-States have sacrificed women, en masse and particularly, reprising the femicidal practices of witch hunts, replete with sanctimonious speeches of rule of law, morality and faith. These are days of thanks and reflections, days of grace.

Where is the State that practices grace? While Governors and individual state Departments of Correction debate releasing prisoners to avert a prison-based massacre, at the national level, the United States government has “quietly” ended asylum processes and sped up deportation proceedings. In the past couple weeks, the United States has expelled 6,300 “undocumented migrants”, including unaccompanied children. Children at the border are being turned away rather than turned over to shelters. Children already in shelters are being forced to go to court, often without any legal representation, and then are shipped off like so much cargo. First, we reiterate the witch hunt, then we repeat the human cargo ships of the slave trade. And then we say grace. 

A while ago, Korean-American poet Emily Yungmin Yoon also reflected on how `we’ say grace, how the nation-State says grace:

Say Grace

In my country our shamans were women
and our gods multiple until white people brought
an ecstasy of rosaries and our cities today
glow with crosses like graveyards. As a child
in Sunday school I was told I’d go to hell
if I didn’t believe in God. Our teacher was a woman
whose daughters wanted to be nuns and I asked
What about babies and what about Buddha, and she said
They’re in hell too and so I memorized prayers
and recited them in front of women
I did not believe in. Deliver us from evil.
O sweet Virgin Mary, amen. O sweet. O sweet.
In this country, which calls itself Christian,
what is sweeter than hearing Have mercy
on us. From those who serve different gods. O
clement, O loving, O God, O God, amidst ruins,
amidst waters, fleeing, fleeing. Deliver us from evil.
O sweet, O sweet. In this country,
point at the moon, at the stars, point at the way the lake lies,
with a hand full of feathers,
and they will look at the feathers. And kill you for it.
If a word for religion they don’t believe in is magic
so be it, let us have magic. Let us have
our own mothers and scarves, our spirits,
our shamans and our sacred books. Let us keep
our stars to ourselves and we shall pray
to no one. Let us eat
what makes us holy.”

Amen.

(Image of Lantern Tree by Georgia O’Keeffe: Wadsworth Atheneum)

Covid Operations: I want to talk about compassion … and the compassionate state

i want to talk about gratitude.
i want to talk about compassion.
i want to talk about respect.
how even the desperate deserve it.
                                    Lenelle Moise

Haitian American poet Lenelle Moise begins her poem, “quaking conversation”, as follows:

“i want to talk about haiti.
how the earth had to break
the island’s spine to wake
the world up to her screaming.

how this post-earthquake crisis
is not natural
or supernatural.
i want to talk about disasters.

how men make them
with embargoes, exploitation,
stigma, sabotage, scalding
debt and cold shoulders.”

I want to talk about compassion. Like “kind”, “compassion” was once an active, transitive verb, meaning to have compassion on and with. You could compassion someone, we could compassion one another. Today, compassion is supposed to suggest that we suffer together, that seeing the suffering of another, one suffers if not identically equally. I want talk about compassion and ask, “Where is the State that is compassionate? That suffers with the suffering?”

Here’s some news from the past 24 hours. Law enforcers kill and brutalize during SA lockdown. Still in South Africa, municipalities defy Covid-19 eviction moratorium. Those evicted want to know how can children wash their hands if they’re homeless? National governments watch and do nothing concerning overcrowded, toxic conditions in refugee `camps’ in Greeceimmigrant detention centers, prisons, and jails across the United States and elsewhere. Corporations force workers to show up for work and then provide little to no protection and no consideration or benefits: AmazonTargetFedEx. Meanwhile gig workers, casual workers, `informal’ workers across the country experience erasureUndocumented workers become the new generation to live Silence = Death, which begins as Invisibility = Death. Exclusion is a death sentence. We continue to debate who is an essential worker, essential workers continue to die. Meanwhile, across the United States, Coronavirus is “ravaging Black communities”; African Americans are “dying at an alarming rate during the pandemic”. This is a partial list of less than 24 hours in the day in the life. Exclusion = death. It always has.

In the current state of exception, we must dream, demand, and create exceptional states, states that refuse the necropolitical, exclusionary diktat of acceptable collateral damage. At the end of March, as the death tolls rose and rose, Spain extended unemployment benefits to domestic workers. While it’s not perfect, it is an expansion of rights and recognition by the State. In South Korea, the city of Ansan decided to extend “livelihood security support benefits” to all residents, including foreign residents. Again, it’s not perfect, but, again, it is an expansion of rights and recognition by the State. Anything less is a death sentence. A status quo built on exclusion is a death sentence and always has been. We must talk about compassion and we must work to build a compassionate State. I want to talk about compassion. 

(Image by Mimi Zhu: National Museum of Women in the Arts)