Jamaican Christine Case, 40, died on Sunday at Yarl’s Wood

Jamaican Christine Case, 40, died on Sunday at Yarl’s Wood. Nothing to be seen here; move along; just another Jamaican woman in Yarl’s Wood. “One more dead body behind the walls of Britain’s detention centres.” One more dead woman. That’s all.

Officially Christine Case died of a massive pulmonary thromboembolism, but fellow prisoners tell a different story. They say Christine Case was denied medical assistance. It’s also been claimed that local National Health Service doctors who offered assistance to distressed prisoners after Case’s death were turned away.

Serco runs Yarl’s Wood. Serco claims they have “24-hour, seven-day urgent medical cover on site at Yarl’s Wood.” And yet … Christine Case is dead.

Some say Christine Case called for help, as she was feeling severe chest pains, and that the `care’ she received was paracetamol, a mild analgesic for minor aches and pains. Not for severe pains, and especially not for severe chest pains.

Emma Mlotshwa, of Medical Justice, noted: “We are shocked but not surprised to hear of this tragic death. Any death in immigration detention is avoidable as immigration detention is optional. Our volunteer independent doctors have seen an alarming number of incidents of medical mistreatment. The only thing we are surprised about is that there have not been more deaths.”

People have questions. The immigration minister promises, yet again, yet another investigation.

Meanwhile, Yarl’s Wood is in lockdown. Yarl’s Wood is a house of women’s fear and women’s mourning … and women’s solidarity.

Four years ago, almost to the day, women prisoners, asylum seekers all, at Yarl’s Wood organized a massive hunger strike. 35-year-old Jamaican asylum seeker Denise McNeil was identified as a `ringleader’, moved to another prison, and placed in solitary. The Yarl’s Wood women hunger strikers took the calculus of violence and turned it on its head. They said they are better than that, they are women, fighters used to fighting, peacemakers used to making peace, and no one decides that it is right for them to be slaughtered.

The world paid attention … for a minute.

Twenty-one years ago immigration officers killed Jamaican Joy Gardner, 40, as her five-year-old son and her mother watched. What has changed since then? The killing now takes place behind walls and bars.

For some, the handling of women asylum seekers at Yarl’s Wood `puts the UK to shame.’ It does, but it does more than that. It shames the world, where this is the allotted fate for far, far too many women. Black women. Immigrant women. Women.  A woman died that night.

 

(Photo Credit: Handout / BBC)

Violence against women haunts independence

 

Egyptian men and women in one hand

“After the revolution”. In Egypt and Tunisia, women who made the revolution, women who pushed Mubarak out, are now facing the struggle for more rights, autonomy, and physical safety. This should come as no surprise to the rest of the so-called independent world.

Yesterday, August 6, Jamaica celebrated 49 years of independence from the United Kingdom. There were celebrations. At the same time, sexual violence against girls is both increasing and intensifying.

Across the African continent, August is celebrated as Women’s Month. August was chosen to commemorate the August 9, 1956, women’s march in Pretoria, in protest of the infamous pass laws. The women chanted, shouted, screamed: “Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo!”. “Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock!”

That was 55 years ago. Today, the women are still being `touched’, and in the most violent ways. Across the nation, campaigns, such as the One in Nine Campaign, and organizations, such as the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust, struggle to address and end violence agains women. Organizations such as Free Gender struggle to address and end violence against lesbian, and in particular Black lesbian, women. All of these women’s organizations, all of these women, all of these feminists, struggle to address and end the hatred that is rape.

In many places, such as in the United States, that hatred often takes the form of legislation. For example, in 2005 Wisconsin passed a law that barred access to hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgery for prison inmates and others in state custody. Three transgender women prisoners, Andrea Fields, Jessica Davison, Vankemah Moaton, challenged the law, and this week, after six years, won their case in a federal appeals court.

Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, the nation’s capital, transgender women are hunted, attacked, often killed. For the crime of being transgender women. For the crime of being women.

What is independence? What is a revolution? Across the globe, women continue to struggle for the basics of independence, of autonomy. That begins with real recognition, that begins with the State as well as the citizenry and the population ensuring women’s safety. Women are not specters and are not promises to be met. Until women’s simple physical integrity is ensured, rather than promised, violence against women will continue to haunt independence.

 

(Photo Credit: NPR / STR / AP)

Who remembers the seven girls who died in Armadale?

 

The children of Jamaica are in crisis, especially the girls: “The Jamaican child is, more often than not, poor, barely educated, vulnerable to paedophiles, exposed to acts of crime and violence, at risk of being raped, trafficked, and of becoming pregnant. This, according to social workers and child rights activists who insist the State has failed its children.” Girls and boys share some of the crisis. The entire crisis and each part and element of the crisis targets girls.

Today is May 22, 2011, a mere two years since seven young girls were killed in a fire, on May 22, 2009, at Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre, in Alexandria, St. Ann Parish, Jamaica. Seven girls were burned to death. Five died the night of the fire: Ann-Marie Samuels, Nerrissa King, and Rachael King, all 16 years old; and Kaychell Nelson and Shauna-Lee Kerr, both 15. Later, two more died from the fire: Georgina Saunders, 16, Stephanie Smith, 17. There were 23 girls in a small space. Sixteen managed to crawl through the fire, to the narrow windows, and out.

Armadale was shut down. An inquiry was launched. The Armadale Enquiry Commission met for over nine months. Its report roundly condemns the government. The fire was set by a spark from a tear gas canister, tossed in the room by a guard. The straw bedding ignited.

On March 2, 2010, Prime Minister Bruce Golding reported to Parliament. The Jamaican press reported then that the government “accepts `ultimate responsibility’ for Armadale.”

What qualifies as `acceptance’? What is `ultimate responsibility’?

In February of this year, the government accepted “financial liability.” This meant the State paid survivors. How much is a life worth? What is the value of pain and suffering? Who decides? Individual payment “is largely dependent on the extent of the injuries sustained by each girl.” The State says it is difficult `negotiating’ the settlement because many of the girls are in rural areas and because all of the girls are trying to put their lives together, are trying to live with dignity.

The payment is for the fire damage. Not for the inhumane conditions at Armadale at the time of the fire. The payment is for the event, the specific event, not for the situation. Nor for the `erosion of moral and ethical standards.” That remains intact.

The pain that continues is not only the pain of memory, of loss, of recognition. It also the pain that is administered by the State to children in prison every single day.

Children today are still in lock up, and often lockdowns, often in adult prisons. As of last month, more than 100 children were being held in adult cells.

Today is May 22, 2011, two years since the Armadale fire. There were no proclamations from the State, there were no memorials in the leading Jamaican papers. If there were ceremonies, they were private. The State has `accepted ultimate responsibility.’ It has washed its hands and declares them, and itself, clean. Who remembers the seven girls who burned to death in Armadale, and for how long will we remember?

 

(Photo Credit: The Jamaica Observer)

State sexual violence haunts the world

Eman Al Obeidy burst into a hotel dining room in Tripoli, Libya, on Saturday, and struggled to tell the story of how she’d been raped and beaten, for two days, by Qaddafi’s forces. She was then attacked, in the hotel dining room, and carried out. Journalists present were disturbed, as much by the treatment they witnessed as by Al Obeidy’s account. The latest report suggests that she is being held hostage at Qaddafi’s compound in Tripoli.

Salwa al-Housiny Gouda was one of the proud citizens of Tahrir Square, in Cairo. She was also one of seventeen women, arrested by the Egyptian army, imprisoned, tortured, stripped and subjected to a `virginity test.’

These women’s stories are critical to any understanding of the ongoing struggles in particular places, such as Libya, such as Egypt. They are also part of the treatment of women in prisons around the globe. There are more prisons and jails now then ever before, and women are the fastest growing prison population, globally and in many regions of the world. Across the world, nation states rigorously refuse to address sexual violence. At the same time, across the world, nation states build more prisons in which sexual violence against women intensifies and spreads.

From the United States to Jamaica to South Africa and beyond, rape kits sit unprocessed for months, some times years. In the United States, many cities, such as Los Angeles and Chicago, have failed to process rape kits in a timely manner … if at all. When called to task for the failure, the administrations stonewall or, if forced to reform, drag their feet. Illinois just this past week passed a law “that will force law agencies to submit DNA evidence for testing.” They had to pass a law to make agencies process DNA. In New Jersey, also last week, the State legislature passed a law banning the practice of charging rape victims for the cost of processing the rape kits.

In Jamaica, rape survivors wait an average of two years for their attackers’ cases to be heard. In South Africa, the State has failed to adequately educate police about the appropriate procedures to follow in cases of sexual violence. Sometimes the training is a pro forma run through, with little follow up or evaluation. More often, there’s no training at all.

This is the state of the world. This state is made most manifest in the asylum and immigrant detentions centers. When the United Kingdom set up its fast track asylum processes, it did so with complete disregard for the women asylum seekers who are fleeing sexual violence. For example, one woman applied for asylum. She was part of a dissident movement in Angola, had been tortured, raped, and suffers from post traumatic stress syndrome, among other mental issues.  The first official to hear her case, in 2008, decided she was `lying’. She was detained at Yarl’s Wood, despite compelling evidence of both torture and mental illness. All part of the system.

This is just one of many such tales. The asylum system has been described as “simply not equipped to handle rape, slavery, the threat of ‘honor killings,’ or other complex claims”. The simplicity of being unequipped is this: the state chooses not to equip, because women, and especially women of color, don’t matter.

At the same time, women prisoners suffer sexual violence at the hands of prison staff. Jan Lastocy is a woman prisoner in the United States, and hers is a typical story. She was raped, repeatedly, by a corrections officer. The warden made it clear that any reports of problems tagged the prisoner as a troublemaker. Lastocy was a few months from release. For seven months, three or four times a week, the prison guard raped Jan Lastocy. Terrified and desperate, she kept her silence. Upon release, she reported the assaults, and now suffers a sense of great and intense guilt for her silence. According to recent US government studies, the vast majority of sexual violence committed in prisons is committed by the staff.

Prison rape is a human rights crisis in the United States today. It is a crisis in juvenile prisons. It is a crisis in women’s prisons across the globe. This crisis is not accidental nor is it exceptional. It is the crisis of predictable consequence. Rape today is being used in Libya as a weapon. That is terrible. Rape has been used, across the globe, as a tool in the construction of so-called criminal justice systems, in the construction of more prisons with more women prisoners. That too is terrible, and to continue to claim shock and surprise at the use of rape is unacceptable. State sexual violence haunts the world.

 

(Photo Credit: suzeeinthecity/ Mira Shihadeh and El Zeft)

 

We can’t talk to the imprisoned women, but we can chant with them

 


Saturday, 5th of March 2011

It is wet and foggy in the fields of Bedfordshire and our shoes fill with mud as we walk away from the group of policemen that have followed us in a circle along the fences of Yarl’s Wood migrants’ detention centre. This Saturday, the 5th March, as women demonstrate in London at the start of International Women’s Week, a group of migrant rights, no border and feminist activists travel to Bedford to bring our solidarity to the migrant women (and men) detained in Yarl’s Wood. We manage to reach the women locked in one of the units. At a distance, we can’t talk to the imprisoned women, but we can chant with them. We cannot hear exactly what they say but one message arising across the barbed wires is simple, loud and clear: ‘freedom, we want freedom’.

Yarl’s Wood is one of the seven privately run ‘Immigration Removal Centres’ in the UK, detaining ‘irregular migrants’ on behalf of the UK Border Agency. Initially the building accommodated 900 people in two blocks, making it the largest immigration prison in Europe. In February 2002 the capacity of the centre was reduced after one of the buildings was burnt down during a protest organized by detainees against staff harassment. At present the centre is composed of 4 units ‘hosting’ about 400 people.

In February of last year, the situation in the removal centre again exploded. The horrible conditions of detention were denounced by migrant detainees as some women decided to start a hunger strike demanding an end to indefinite and abusive imprisonment. In an attempt to end their protest, the management subjected many of the women to violent attacks and various forms of punishment. At that time six women detainees, accused of being ‘ring-leaders’, were moved into isolation and prisons.

On the 25th January, after almost a year in Holloway prison, Denise McNeil, one of the `leaders’, was granted bail at an immigration court. Two women still remain in jail without charge: Aminata Camara and Sheree Wilson. Activists from the campaign to Free the Yarl’s Wood 3, including members of No One is Illegal, No Borders, Crossroads Women’s Centre, Communities of Resistance, Stop Deportation Network and members of the RMT, filled the court for Denise’s bail hearing. They provided an important support and will keep campaigning ‘for Sheree and Aminata and all the people in Yarl’s Wood until the centre will be closed’. (For updates, see Free the Yarl’s Wood 3 campaign Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/pages/Free-Denise-Now/174533002581566 and Twitter feed: @freedenisenow. Also see the NCADC site: http://www.ncadc.org.uk/campaigns/DeniseMcNeil.html).

The reasons for the detention of people in centers like Yarl’s Wood are multiple, and sometimes quite different. One of the activists involved in the campaign to support the hunger strikers explained to me that many of the women who end up in detention have already served a prison sentence, often for a minor offence, such as using fake documents to travel or work. Rather than being released, these women are transferred back to detention as a ‘second punishment’ where they wait for their immigration case to be cleared and eventually granted status or deported. They are trapped in an indefinite space of juridical and existential limbo, from one prison to the other, on the grounds that their migration case is still ‘pending’: they cannot be returned to their country of origin (on complex juridical or humanitarian grounds), and yet their status as asylum seekers is not recognized either.

Denise has just been released on bail, and her status, as well as her future stay in the UK, remains uncertain. However, her case shows how important the external support of migrants’ rights activists to sustain legal individual cases can be by helping access legal advice and to build publicity around their otherwise invisible stories.  While it may appear only a small achievement, these forms of solidarity provide the migrant women with encouragement and help instill confidence as they engage in the hard battles for freedom of movement and the right to stay in a country where they have worked and toiled for many years. In many cases the women are ‘caught’ by the UK Border Agency after many years of residence in the country, where they have probably built a family, found work and made a home. This is a typical story for the women detained in Yarl’s Wood.

 

(Photo Credit: Open Democracy / IndyMedia.UK)

Domestic workers Mwanahamisi Mruke and R Pranathi haunt labor

R. Pranathi’s relatives argue with police

Mwanahamisi Mruke and R Pranathi are two faces, two names, for global domestic labor. Perhaps they are the same face, the same name.

R Pranathi is a domestic worker in Ennore, a suburb of Chennai, India. For the last four months, she has worked as a household worker in a constable’s family. She comes from a poor family. She has worked in the house and taken care of the couple’s child. Pranathi is known as “a brave girl who would fight eve teasers in the locality.”

Pranathi is 14 years old, and she is dead.

The couple’s story is that the girl suffered stomach pains and hanged herself. People from her hometown and members of the Tamil Nadu Domestic Workers’ Union have a different story: the girl was raped, murdered, and then `translated’ into a suicide.

Whether or not Pranathi’s death was murder, and one suspects it was, the story of domestic workers being killed and then translated into suicides occurs every day, all over the world. Some gain some notice, such as the 31-year-old Nepalese domestic worker Samoay Wanching Tamang, who died by hanging in Lebanon in late February. Others simply vanish into the void. Some deaths are said to be mysterious, others are allegedly clear-cut. What is not mysterious is that domestic workers are dying, at work, across the globe, at an alarming rate.

Domestic labor is a growth industry, but it is also a labor killing field. And the ways of dying are many, some swift, others slow.

Mwanahamisi Mruke suffered the slow death. In October 2006, Mruke left Tanzania for England, where she had been promised employment as a domestic worker. She left her home and homeland for higher wages that would allow her daughter Zakia to attend college. She went to work for Saeeda Khan, a widow with two adult disabled living children, a hospital director with a good job. Khan kept Mruke a slave for the past four and a half years. Mruke’s passport was taken away, she was not allowed to leave the house, she worked from six am to midnight, sometimes more. Mruke was forced to sleep on the kitchen floor. After the first year, Khan stopped paying the worker. She was “treated like a slave.” Slavery, as sociologist Orlando Patterson explained in his magisterial work, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study, “the slave’s powerlessness was that it always originated (or was conceived of having originated) as a substitute for death, usually violent death.”

On Wednesday, March 16, 2011, in a groundbreaking case, Saeeda Khank was found guilty of trafficking a person into the United Kingdom for exploitation. Mwanahamisi Mruke is now pursuing a civil suit.

These stories are an intrinsic part of the fabric of global waged domestic labor, one of the major growth industries of the past three decades worldwide. On one hand, they tell the story of terrible employers. Venal, corrupt, violent and vicious. It’s an important story to tell.

But there’s another story as well, that of the isolation, the silence, the exclusion of domestic workers from the world of workers and of labor.

This year, on May 1, 2011, Hong Kong will implement a Minimum Wage Ordinance. The new legislation will apply to full-time and part-time employees, regardless of whether they are employed under continuous employment contracts. Anyone who has been employed continuously by the same employer for four weeks or more, with at least 18 hours worked in each week, will be covered.

Almost anyone, that is: “the MWO does not apply to certain classes of employees, including live-in domestic workers, certain student interns and work experience students.”

In British Columbia, in Canada, this week, the minimum wage has been increased for the first time in ten years. This is good news, but does it cover domestic workers? Jamaica awaits a government study on livable wages. Will the study consider domestic workers?

In June 2011, the International Labour Organization may adopt a Convention on the rights of domestic workers. If so, it would aim to strengthen legal protection for the billions of paid domestic workers around the globe. The ILO Convention could be an important step. But it depends on the language of respective member countries’ labor laws.

Until the trade union movements formally include domestic workers in every worker protection campaign, in every campaign and action, billions of paid domestic laborers will remain super-exploited and under a death sentence. Employers have indeed been known to isolate, imprison, torture, and even kill domestic workers. But the rest of us, in our day-to-day failures and refusals to see domestic workers as real workers, and domestic labor as real labor, exclude, silence, and isolate precisely those workers.  Mwanahamisi Mruke and R Pranathi haunt us.

(Photo Credit: The New Indian Express)

 

Mental health haunts the prison state

For prisoners living with mental illness, the situation today, in the face of severe budget cuts following decades of imposed austerity in the name of efficiency and the pursuit of profit, is a hellhole.

In Jamaica, prisoners living with mental illness are trapped in a human rights nightmare. Prisoners living with mental illness require more supervision and more assistance, and that means an investment of resources. Instead, those prisoners living with mental illness are left to fend for themselves and for one another. That means those prisoners living with mental illnesses stay for long periods in soiled clothes and environments, suffer rapid deterioration and decline, and spend longer periods in prison than healthy prisoners. Not surprisingly, the situation is particularly lethal for elder prisoners.

In Canada, 35 per cent of the 13,300 prisoners in federal penitentiaries have a mental impairment requiring treatment. That’s triple the 2004 estimations and way higher than the general population. It’s a flood. And what happens when someone with mental illness goes into prison: “The mind-bending isolation of a segregation cell brings no peace to a depressed or unhinged mind. Nor does an environment of slamming cell doors, fear and intimidation.”

And what is isolation … really? If it’s long-term, it’s torture. According to Dr. Atul Gawande, “The people who become psychotic in solitary confinement are people who often have attention deficit disorder or low IQ or issues of prior mental illness. … There’s a very high rate of psychosis and people flat-out going crazy under the confinement conditions. And so, then what I puzzle over is, does it actually reduce our violence in our prisons? The evidence from multiple studies now is that not only that it has not reduced violence, it’s increased the costs of being in prison.”

Long-term solitary confinement is torture because it targets those living with mental illnesses. The same could be said for prisons and jails.

In the United States, somewhere between 16 and 20 percent of prisoners are living with mental illnesses. In California, there are nearly four times as many people with serious mental illnesses in jails and prisons than there are in hospital. Ohio reports that the mental health system “has shifted the problems to prisons and homeless shelters.” Arizona and Nevada have the highest ratio of prisoners living with mental illness. Some call this a tragedy. Some say prisons and jails have become the new asylums. Prisons and jails have become the New Bedlam, and we are all the wardens.

A thirteen-year-old girl in Ottawa kicked in the back window of a police cruiser. The State determined that she was mentally ill and had her institutionalized. Where? Ottawa “shifts the problem” to Utah: “the … province’s Ministry of Health and Long Term Care … has funding arrangements with U.S. facilities to provide residential treatment to Ontario residents”. After nine days, the girl was deemed too violent, and `shifted’ to a children’s hospital. Now the parents face the possibility of having to pay astronomical hospital fees while their daughter faces the near certainty of incurring further criminal charges. Only prison awaits her. This is the practice of `shifting the problems.’

The withering of the welfare state has produced national programs, public policies, and popular ethics of `shifting the problem.’ In the United States, in the past fifty years, the number of psychiatric beds has been reduced by 90 percent. In the 1950s, there was one psychiatric bed for every 300 persons. Now, it’s one bed for every 3000. Where have those beds gone, where have those resources gone, and most importantly where have those people living with mental illness gone? Prisons. Jails. The New Bedlam. They went into the hellhole, they are in the hellhole, and we are the wardens.

 

(Image Credit: http://www.mentalhealthy.co.uk)

Children are disappearing, into the night, into the fog

Children are disappearing. Sometimes spectacularly. Sometimes silently. Sometimes `without notice’. That children are disappearing is not new. Children asylum seekers and children of asylum seekers have been disappearing into detention centers in Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Greece, and elsewhere. In Australia, imprisoned children of asylum seekers are disappearing into the tortured self mutilation that must serve as a kind of escape from their current everyday circumstances.  Children of incarcerated mothers are disappearing in South Africa, Scotland, the United States and elsewhere. Children in schools are disappearing into seclusion rooms, aka solitary confinement.  In the United States, children of undocumented residents are disappearing, shipped like so much baggage, back to Mexico and parts unknown, often on their own.  In Jamaica, girl prisoners disappear into prison fires that were altogether predictable and preventable.  None of this is new. We have discussed this and more before. The events are not new nor is the failure to take responsibility.

Children are disappearing. Sometimes spectacularly, sometimes silently, other times `without notice’.

In England, an inquest opens today. It’s the second time around for this inquest. It concerns the death in custody, in August 2004, of Adam Rickwood. Adam was 14 when he was found hanging in his cell at Hassockfield Secure Training Centre, a private prison run by Serco, the same people who run Yarl’s Wood in the UK and all the immigrant detention centers in Australia, most notoriously Villawood.

When Adam Rickwood, who had never been in custody before, refused to go to his cell, he was `forcibly restrained’ with `a nose distraction’, a violent and invasive chop to the nose. Hours later, he was found dead, hanging, in his cell. At the first inquest, in 2007, the coroner refused to let the jury decide if the restraint constituted an assault.  It took thirteen years of struggle on the part of Adam’s mother, Carol Pounder, before the first hearing took place. Dissatisfied with the complete opacity of the system, she continued to push, and finally, finally a second inquest has been ordered. That starts today. Adam Rickwood would be thirty years old now.

Meanwhile, across England, there are 6000 children whose mothers are incarcerated, and, basically, no one officially knows their whereabouts. According to the Prison Advice and Care Trust, or PACT, they are “the forgotten children.”  According to PACT, the mothers of 17,000 children are in prison, and of those, 6000 are not in care nor are they staying with their fathers. They are `forgotten.’ Children are disappearing, some into the night, others into the fog.

At the same time, in Ireland, eleven unaccompanied children asylum seekers went missing last year.  Six have yet to be found.  Between 2000 and 2010, 512 unaccompanied children seeking asylum were `forgotten’. Of those, only 72 were ever found by the State. Forgetting children is not an exception, it’s the rule, when the children are children of color, children of asylum seekers, children of the poor, children in prison.  Children of strangers, children of neighbors are disappearing, into the night, into the fog.

In the United States, Phylicia Simone Barnes is a 16 year old honor student from Monroe, North Carolina. In December, she was visiting Baltimore, thinking of attending Towson University, a local university. Phylicia went missing on December 28. There has been little, very little, media attention, despite the efforts of family, the Baltimore Police Department, and the FBI to draw attention to this case.  Why? Baltimore Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi thinks he knows the reason: “”I can’t see how this case is any different from Natalee Holloway. Is it because she’s African-American? Why?” When teenager Natalee Holloway disappeared, on holiday in Aruba, there was a `media frenzy.’ For Phylicia Simone Barnes, who is Black, there is fog. She is a forgotten child.

Christina Green was born on September 11, 2001, to Roxanna and John Green, in West Grove, Pennsylvania. She was one of the 50 Faces of Hope, faces of children born on that fateful day.  Like Phylicia Simone Barnes, Christina was a star student, an engaging child, bright, mature, `amazing’. She was killed on Saturday, in a volley of gunfire apparently directed primarily against Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

What becomes of hope when a Face of Hope is lost? Children are disappearing, sometimes spectacularly, amidst blazing gunfire, sometimes through a policy of practiced omission and amnesia.  In the moment, the route of spectacle or silent lack of notice seems to matter. But in the end, they are all forgotten children, and they haunt the days and ways of our world.

 

(Photo Credit: BBC.co.uk)

The Nannies’ fervor of freedom

Many thousands of domestic workers are employed in New York state as housekeepers, nannies, and companions to the elderly. The labor of domestic workers is central to the ongoing prosperity that the state enjoys, and yet, despite the value of their work, domestic workers do not receive the same protection of many state laws as do workers in other industries. Domestic workers often labor under harsh conditions, work long hours for low wages without benefits or job security, are isolated in their workplaces, and are endangered by sexual harassment and assault, as well as verbal, emotional and psychological abuse. Moreover, many domestic workers the state of New York are women of color who, because of race and sex discrimination, are particularly vulnerable to unfair labor practices. Additionally, domestic workers are not afforded by law the right to organize labor unions for the purpose of collective bargaining. The legislature finds that because domestic workers care for the most important elements of their employers’ lives, their families and homes, it is in the interest of employees, employers, and the people of the state of New York to ensure that the rights of domestic workers are respected, protected, and enforced.”

Thus opens the New York Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, signed into law by Governor Paterson, August 31, 2010, after a six and some year mighty campaign waged by Domestic Workers United, or DWU, and their allies. This is the first such law to be passed in the United States, where domestic workers and farm workers have been excluded from labor laws. It is a historic moment. An unforgettable day.

Priscilla Gonzalez, DWU Executive Director and the U.S.-born daughter of an Ecuadoran woman who works as a housekeeper, said, “We’ve made history today, not just for us, but for generations to come to prove that change can happen when we stand for dignity, justice, & respect for all!”.

Patricia Francois, a DWU member and nanny originally from Trinidad, explained, “We work long hours, no overtime pay. My experience, after working six-and-a-half years, never had an increase in salary, as well as no overtime pay. At times, if you work on your vacation, if you don’t stand up for that vacation pay, you will not get it. You know, and it’s hard at times—when you stand up for yourself, that is the time the abuse comes in. You get a verbal abuse. You get threatened with immigration. And it’s wrong. It’s wrong.”

Nannies struggle for respect and recognition, and the New York Domestic Workers Bill of Right is an important first step in that struggle. It’s about emancipation, freedom. As DWU member and nanny Dolores Wright noted, it’s a struggle for emancipation from abuse and exploitation. As Bill sponsor Delegate Keith Wright proclaimed, “”President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865. Here we are in 2010.Governor Paterson will sign his version of the Emancipation Proclamation.”

Emancipation. For housekeepers, nannies, and companions to the elderly. What would nanny emancipation look like? What is a nanny?

For some, such as those who write dictionaries like the Oxford English Dictionary, a nanny is a “person, esp. a woman, employed by a family to look after a child or children; a children’s nursemaid. A grandmother.” For those people, nanny comes from Anne or Agnes.

But another river runs through the word, nanny, a river that betokens insurgency, militancy, national liberation. That’s the nanny of Jamaica’s Queen Nanny, the early eighteenth-century leader of the Windward Jamaican Maroons, a National Hero. According to historian Karla Gottlieb, Queen Nanny is the mother of us all, because “Nanny had at least two significant contributions that changed the direction of the modern world: first, she developed Guerrilla warfare and the tactics she used were later studied by military strategist in the Vietnam War and others. Second, because she and her people established the first independent black polity in the New World, she led the way for freedom struggles in Haiti, Brazil, the U.S., Guadelope, Surinam… – anywhere where there were enslaved Africans. Without the work of the Maroons under her leadership, I believe the world would be a different place.”

This is the Nanny that is kept out of the stories of domestic worker organizing and emancipation. The Nanny of shrewd and insightful guerilla warfare, the Nanny of coast-to-coast freedom struggle.

In the words of Barbadian dub dub poet Jean Binta Breeze, Nanny is the fervor of freedom, and it’s time to honor her name and life, in actions and deeds. Blow the trumpets, sound the abeng. Nanny emancipation includes and values a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, it insists on employers treating workers with respect and dignity, and it also dreams of national liberation, of a nation-State and a world in which every Nanny shall govern.

so mek wi soun de abeng fi Nanny

 

(Photo Credit 1: Colorlines) (Photo Credit 2: Hall of the Black Dragon)

More than Jamaica is haunted

The burnt-out room at the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre in St Ann

Jamaica is haunted by the memories of charred prisoners’ bodies. More than Jamaica is haunted by their ghosts.

About a year ago, May 22, 2009, seven girls died in a fire in Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre in Jamaica. On May 22, 2010, people around the world gathered to commemorate their deaths and to commit themselves to improving the conditions and situations of State child-care in Jamaica. Those seven girls haunt Jamaica and haunt more than Jamaica. They are part of a global story of the wasting of children and of children’s lives through incarceration, in prisons, detention centers, and `reception centers’, in impossibly overcrowded cells and solitary confinement, in adult prisons and in juvenile detention, in interminable remand or permanent lockdown or else caught in a never ending choreography of revolving doors.

But now another charred body appears to publically haunt Jamaica, that of Lester Coke:

“Wherever Christopher (Dudus) Coke is hiding in the heavily fortified neighbourhood and fief known as Tivoli Gardens, whether he’s surrounded by armed henchmen, ducking in a crawlspace, or peering from a rooftop at the police officers in flak jackets below, Jamaicans are sure of one thing: He’s thinking of his father’s charred corpse. The late Lester Coke, who went by the alias Jim Brown, and his Shower Posse gang ruled Tivoli Gardens with an iron fist – along with the steadfast support of then-prime-minister Edward Seaga – throughout the 1980s. But when he was finally arrested in 1992, and set to be extradited to the United States, a bizarre thing happened in his cement jail cell. He burned to death, despite the absence of flammable materials.”

The stories unfolding in the streets of Tivoli Gardens and across Kingston and beyond, that of the violence by State and by others, that of the bullets and bodies that haunt the nation, and all the rest of the stories, interpretations, diagnoses and critiques, meet in the story and in the ghost of the charred remains of Lester Coke, a violent man, a bad man, a prisoner of State in a global War on Drugs directed from Washington, DC, who met an impossible death.

Memories of those impossibly charred remains of his father haunt not only Christopher Dudus Coke, not only Tivoli Gardens, not only Jamaica. They haunt a world order whose War on Drugs relies on extrajudicial violence in the streets and phantom executions in the prisons. Eighteen years ago, Lester Coke burned to death in a room where no fire could occur. Impossible fires produce eternal smoke. A fire that never happened cannot be extinguished. This is the magical realism of the prison state, and it haunts the world.

Whatever happens next in Jamaica, whatever happens to Christopher Coke, whatever happens to the US government that forced all of this on the Jamaican people, nothing substantive will have happened until the magical realism of the prison state is shut down and replaced with a better story. The story of the lives of the seven girls who died in the Armadale fire is not the same as the story of the life of Lester Coke, but the story of the flames that consumed them is. We must do better than continually raking ashes.

 

(Photo Credit: The Jamaica Gleaner)