Child-ghosts in the society of the spectacle

In November 2008, La Promesse, a school in Port-au-Prince, collapsed. Three stories came crashing down, at least 84 children and staff were killed, over 150 injured. It was not an earthquake that brought death to those children. It was shoddy construction, it was greed. Immediately afterwards, the mayor of Port-au-Prince stated that over half of Haiti’s building were poorly built and unsafe.

Michele Voltaire Marcelin tried to understand, to live with, the calculations that leave children suffering and dead under the weight of preventable destruction. She tried to understand the promise we make to our children:

The Promise
— For the Haitian schoolchildren who 
died under the rubble of “La Promesse”

children die
do not talk to me about prayer
or paradise
talk is cheap
children die
and my anger supercedes my grief
remember
it was a november morning like any other
when the plaster the brick the mortar
came crashing down
children die
under the rubble of the promise
women cry
the air is heavy as lead
the air is filled with dust
we live in heartless times
and children die
looking for paradise

Children die. We live in heartless times and children die. Those children become child-ghosts. We live in an age of spectacle in which children die and living children are treated as dead. Both are child-ghosts.

Sunday morning, May 16, seven year old Aiyana Stanley-Jones lay asleep in her bed, when Detroit police rushed in with guns drawn and, quickly, blazing, and killed her. An accident, they said, in apology, as explanation. `A Tragedy in Detroit, With a Reality TV Crew in Tow’, according to The New York Times. The police were participating in an A&E reality show, The First 48. For some, this is an issue about reality shows, for others police violence, for others the value of the lives of people of color, of girls of color. These are all worthy lines of lines of inquiry.

At the same time, Aiyana Stanley-Jones is precisely not a tragedy because her story is too familiar and too often repeated. She is one with the girls of La Promesse, young, Black, dreaming, and killed. A ghost-child.

The next day, Monday, the US Supreme Court decided that “juveniles who commit crimes in which no one is killed may not be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.” “An incredibly important win for kids who’ve been condemned to die in prison”? Perhaps. A step in the right direction, but not a long enough nor a strong enough step? Probably. A ruling that addresses neither the inequities of life without parole nor the cynical inequalities of the parole system? Most likely.

Sentencing a child to life without the possibility of parole turns that child into a child-ghost. Once he or she, and the majority are he (and he of color, at that) is sentenced, the game is over, the play is done, the curtain is drawn. All that matters is the spectacle of society being defended, the courtroom drama that assures that humans will be protected from monsters. How? By sending them to the beyond. That those monsters actually are still alive is irrelevant. Who really cares about ghosts produced in a society of spectacle? No one.

And what of those children whose only crime is that of seeking safety?

On Wednesday, the British Home Office announced that children would no longer be held at Dungavel House Immigration Removal Centre in Scotland. The decision came soon after a Pakistani woman asylum, Sehar Shebaz, and her 12 month old daughter Wania were arrested on Monday, and sent to Dungavel. People protested. The Home Office said fine … and then prepared to ship Sehar and Wania Shebaz to Yarl’s Wood.

Yarl’s Wood … again: “Anne McLaughlin, SNP MSP for Glasgow, called for an immediate end to the policy across the rest of the UK. Ms McLaughlin has been a key activist in the high profile campaign to prevent Florence Mhango, from Malawi, and her 10-year-old daughter Precious, who were held at Dungavel and Yarl’s Wood, from being deported after seven years in the UK. She said: `From Precious we know the horrific impact detention at Dungavel has on young children, but we also know that her experience at Yarl’s Wood was no better. By removing children immediately to Yarl’s Wood they are being taken away from the support networks and services they have built up in Scotland. The House of Commons has been highly critical of child detention in Yarl’s Wood and we must see this practice brought to an end across the UK as soon as possible.’”

A child seeks asylum and is sent to prison. A woman seeks asylum, with her child, and is sent to prison. Does it matter which prison? Out of sight, out of mind, out of luck, out of options, out of light, out of life. They are ghosts, and they are treated as such.

Today is May 22, 2010. May 22, 2009, seven girls perished in an altogether preventable fire in Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre in Jamaica: Ann-Marie Samuels, Nerrissa King, and Rachael King, Georgina Saunders, all 16 years old; Kaychell Nelson and Shauna-Lee Kerr, both 15, and Stephanie Smith, 17. The Prime Minister called it a tragedy. Of course. A video and petition campaign has begun to make sure that the Prime Minister and the Director of Public Prosecutions work harder, work better so that the tragedy is not repeated.

These child-ghosts, these girl-ghosts, under the rubble, under the gun, behind the bars, in the flames, they are children, living, breathing, human children. In fact, they are our children. We must teach them as we ourselves must learn and live the lesson of the Griot, “You got to be a spirit! You can’t be no ghost.”

 

(Photo Credit: Herb Boyd / Voice of Detroit)

Ultimate responsibility for the ordinary

On May 22, 2009, a fire broke out in the 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 reports that the government “accepts `ultimate responsibility’ for Armadale.” Advocates on all sides debate the government response.

In his remarks, the Prime Minister, not surprisingly, frames the story as tragedy. He opens with tragedy: “The report of the Commission of Enquiry into the tragedy that occurred at the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre on May 22, 2009 is being tabled in the House today.”

He closes with tragedy: “The awful tragedy that occurred at Armadale should not have been allowed to happen. We must ensure that no such tragedy ever again occurs. Some wards of our juvenile correctional institutions have turned out to be exceptionally good and successful adults. We must strive to ensure that they are not the exception but become the norm.”

He articulates `ultimate responsibility’ as a function of tragedy: “While public officers must be held accountable for the discharge of their duties, the government must accept ultimate responsibility for the circumstances that led to the Armadale tragedy and for the inadequate facilities provided to care for children who are placed in juvenile correctional or remand facilities. Resource constraints do impose a heavy burden on public officers who work in these facilities but it cannot explain or excuse negligence or inertia.”

What exactly is the tragedy here, and how is ultimate responsibility to be understood?

Almost one hundred years ago, there was another fire, women killed, tragedy invoked.

March 25, 1911: “Near closing time on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Asch Building in the Triangle Waist Company. Within minutes, the quiet spring afternoon erupted into madness, a terrifying moment in time, disrupting forever the lives of young workers. By the time the fire was over, 146 of the 500 employees had died. The survivors were left to live and relive those agonizing moments. The victims and their families, the people passing by who witnessed the desperate leaps from ninth floor windows, and the City of New York would never be the same.”

What happened that Saturday, in New York City? When the fire struck, the workers, almost all women, almost all recent immigrants, ran to the fire exits and found them locked, rushed to the windows only to find that the ladders and the water hoses didn’t reach that high. The young women then decided … to die by the flame or to leap and die in the fall. Who had decided to build such tall buildings? Who had decided to lock the doors?

The Triangle fire had been replayed as tragedy, as destiny, as horror story, as political catalyst. Now it would be examined once more, as a question of justice: Was it right to hold anyone personally responsible? And if it was right, was it possible?”

There is no distance in time or miles between the 1911 Triangle Waist Factory, New York, fire, and the 2009 Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre, St Ann Parish, one. What, then, is the tragedy; is it possible to hold anyone responsible?

If women are locked in, sooner or later the fires will kill them. If women are forced into overcrowded spaces, sooner or later the fires will kill them. How can planned death be accidental? How can a horrible event that is not destined but rather designed by human beings and perfectly obvious in its detail, how exactly can that event be called a tragedy?

The nobility of the tragic that was so quickly, so easily painted across the face of these two events is a means of obscuring their ordinariness. And it is the ordinariness of the deaths at Armadale and at Triangle that haunts. These are stories of the ways in which death sentences are imposed on women workers, on women prisoners, on women.

Someone was meant to die at Armadale, and that someone was meant to be a young woman, a girl. Which girl, how many girls, remained open. But someone was meant to die there, in a fire. And someone did. And she was a young woman, a girl. And absolutely no one can claim ultimate responsibility for that until they have transformed the everyday world of ordinary women and girls in which women are the fastest growing prison population, and women are the majority of sweatshop workers.

 

(Photo Credit: Armadale: Children on Fire // UNICEF Jamaica / YouTube)