Amnesty has never meant freedom

Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, members of Pussy Riot, walked out of prison today. This is good news, but it’s not freedom. Freedom does not exist where whole populations live in fear of State mandated, sponsored, or instigated terror. Gay and lesbian individuals and populations, from Moscow to Kampala, know this all too well. Ask Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera about life in Uganda, and she will not talk about “freedom.” She will talk about the struggle for freedom, the long hard walk to a freedom dreamt of but not in sight. Ask those, like Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova, who suddenly leave prison if they feel “free.” They may feel joyful and relieved to be on the outside, however precariously, but they do not feel free. They remember too much.

President Obama recently “pardoned” and “commuted” a few sentences. He talked a little about the unfairness of some aspects of the so-called War on Drugs. He didn’t mention that he has the lowest pardon rate of any President in recent history. He didn’t mention the bodies piling up in prisons and jails across the country.

He certainly didn’t mention Karen Sandoval, originally from Honduras, who lives in constant fear and terror. He didn’t mention the terror of a rigid “immigration enforcement policy” that rips families and communities apart, that rends hearts and souls and sometimes minds, and, not incidentally, that targets women – as undocumented individuals, as those left to clean up and care for those, and in particular the children, `left behind’, and, when incarcerated, as those most vulnerable to sexual abuse and violence from staff.

In Spain, the conditions in immigration detention centers, in the notorious centros de internamiento de extranjeros, or CIEs, are infamously toxic. What’s the anwer? Build more! Put one on every corner. In Italy, the vicious conditions of immigration detention centers are so bad they have inspired prisoners to sew their lips shut, in protest. They say these are worse than prisons “or any other place”. In these prisons, “people … are treated like animals.”

None of this is new. We have seen the sewn lips before, and we have turned away. We have each time taken an oath to forget. That’s what amnesty is, that’s what amnesty was at its origin. Once a year, those who committed violence in the name of preservation of the democratic State, would gather, each year at the same time in the same place, and would take an oath to forget. That is why the State, from its earliest, feared the mothers in mourning, the mothers who refused to forget, who howled their remembrances in words and deeds.

Amnesty has never meant freedom. Ask those who remember.

 

(Photo Credit: CalvertJournal.com)

Aaron Swartz and Pussy Riot: two cases of crime and punishment

Never in my life did I imagine that I would say the things that I am about to say here, that I would be making somber conclusions of disappointment, bitterness and criticism; conclusions based upon viewing the case of Aaron Swartz’s tragedy from a comparative, international point of view.

For 8 months last year I was actively monitoring, organizing protests, and giving presentations about and on behalf of the unfairly arrested and imprisoned Russian feminist political protest performance art group Pussy Riot (PR).

For those who are not familiar or don’t remember what happened with this art collective, let me briefly review the circumstances of Pussy Riot’s case:

Outraged by Vladimir Putin’s shameless usurping of constitutional powers and self-nominating for the third term Presidency of Russia, Pussy Riot staged a 46 second-long performance of a satirical protest song at the Moscow’s Temple of Christ the Savior, which was followed by a now iconic viral video.

A few days later in early March 2012, three members of the group were arrested. They faced charges of hooliganism and causing offense to believers, which carried a maximum punishment of up to 5 years of hard labor. They were also pressured to publicly repent and admit their guilt.

The trial of Pussy Riot women became a mockery of justice, with the Russian constitution and basic common sense trampled by judge and prosecutors. While members of the group refused to admit any wrongdoing, they offered their apologies to insulted believers, in case their feelings were indeed offended.

The trial was surrounded by an unprecedented loud and high profile international campaign in support of the arrested artists, in which numerous A-list celebrities such as Yoko Ono, Madonna, Sting, Paul McCartney, Bjork, and philosophers Henry Bertrand-Levy and Slavoj Zizek spoke out on behalf of the arrested. Pussy Riot received an International LennonOno Grant for Peace, were nominated for the Sakharov and Kandinsky prizes, and a documentary showcased at Sundance Festival and since purchased by HBO was made about them.

Despite the international uproar and clear lack of criminal intent, the artists were sentenced to 2 years of hard labor in punitive colonies. Perhaps the uproar helped to reduce the term of confinement to 2 years. One Pussy Riot member was later freed on a technicality, and two are still serving their term in Putin’s gulag.

As Pussy Riot’s farcical trial was going on, my American colleagues and I – artists, musicians, journalists, activists, and academics – sincerely believed that Putin’s regime was the most unfair, vindictive, unjust and oppressive of non-third world countries. We believed that we – Americans – could look at Russians from the vantage point of our democratic tradition, our trust in the rule of law and justice for all, and pity those poor Russians. We assumed that what happened to Pussy Riot in Russia could never happen in the U.S.A.

Even though I knew who Aaron Swartz was while fighting for justice for Pussy Riot, I never heard about his persecution by the bullying U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Carmen Ortiz, on behalf of the U.S. government. I was not familiar with his legal ordeal happening right here in our very own country.

When I learned about the prosecution of Aaron and his resulting suicide I was filled with shock and shame. It was hard to believe that Putin’s oppressive, authoritarian legal machine went easier against 21st century Russian political dissenters, than the U.S. legal system went against Aaron Swartz!

But the facts were astonishing: Pussy Riot never looked at 35 to 50 years in jail, and were only sentenced to two years, and so far all of the collective’s members have survived their ordeal.

Aaron Swartz, in our democracy and under our newly elected “good” democratic president, was subjected to prosecutorial bullying and harassment, lack of flexibility, compassion and understanding on the part of the overreaching and vengeful U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, an appointee of our “good” president.

Suddenly it was apparent that in the race to brutally persecute political activists, Russia came in second.

It used to be that when Russian dissidents were persecuted by their government, they turned to America for help. But to whom could American dissidents turn? Who was there to help beleaguered Americans? For American dissidents like Aaron Swartz the world was a hopeless and lonely place, and the cavalry led by Madonna and Sting was never coming to the rescue.

Of course the comparatively lenient treatment of Pussy Riot by the court could be explained by the traditional stupidity and slow-mindedness of the Russian judicial system, which in its retarded inefficiency was unable to unleash the full power upon the punks of Pussy Riot, but hey! That was their luck, luck that Aaron Swartz did not have.

Let me be specific about comparing the action of Pussy Riot to the action of Aaron Swartz, as on the surface they seem quite different. From a cultural point of view, Pussy Riot’s guerilla performance and Swartz’s urban guerilla action of stealing JSTOR’s data through MIT’s computer closet both contained classical elements of political action and performance art. While Pussy Riot can be viewed as bona fide conceptual performance artists, Aaron’s alleged “crime”, his alleged “felony” was also nothing more than a jest, a performance action, antics meant to attract attention to the lack of protection of scholarly data, and to the notion Aaron passionately believed in: that scholarly data, such as that found on JSTOR, has to be free for all. It was a calculated, deliberate performance action involving an elaborate scenario with real life props: penetrating the closet, installing the computer, hacking MIT and JSTOR’s systems, and complete with a carnivalesque disguise: a bike helmet as a mask, followed by his arrest and the subsequent return of the stolen data.

The benevolence of Aaron’s action was underscored by the fact that his attempt to hide his identity behind a bike helmet was rather laughable, buffoonish, and he eagerly returned the stolen data as his point had been made. He never planned to personally enrich himself as a result of his actions. He rather used his act as a pulpit, a soapbox to attract attention to the issues he considered vitally important for him and for society.

Like Pussy Riot he was ready to put his comfort on the line for his beliefs, and like Pussy Riot he took upon himself the role of “holy fool,” of obscene jester and naïve savant speaking truth to power from the pulpit of his idealistic innocence.

In conclusion I would like to share one rather somber observation regarding Aaron and the hacker community. Yes, there was a great deal of chest beating and outrage among the members of the geek community upon learning of Aaron’s tragic death. Yes, he was popular and beloved, but where were they, the almighty hackers en masse supporting him the way artists and musicians came to support Pussy Riot? Where were the international celebrities and anarchists and cyberpunks and philosophers, NGOs and pro bono lawyers? How come he was quietly tortured to death in the plain view by Carmen Ortiz and her henchmen?

One answer is that Aaron was a strange bird – neither entrepreneur millionaire nor a guerilla hacker. He was an effete, sensitive, rich, successful, famous child of the elite, almost corporate, almost like another Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg. Almost, but not quite, as he was a political activist, a “holy fool” speaking truth to power, a Don Quixote tilting at windmills. He was a dreamer and a radical.

But as a radical he was not a cyber-anarchist like Anonymous, he was not a barricade fighter. He was unique and therefore utterly alone.

And one can also say sadly that an effete, depressive, intellectual computer whiz kid is no match to seasoned political artists such as Pussy Riot, Ai Wei Wei, Banksy, or professional political activists like Julian Assange. He was not made or trained to withstand the incredible psychological pressure the American justice  system can unleash  upon  an individual. He was fragile and he broke. He “fought the law and the law won…” to paraphrase Sonny Curtis and the Clash.

 

APAP: On Grand Jury Resisters, the Latin Kings, CeCe McDonald, and Pussy Riot

When members of the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation in North Carolina were first arrested in a brutal raid, the big picture was clear to their friends, family, and colleagues in Greensboro. The ALKQN in NC have been very politically active, with King Jay (Jorge Cornell) running twice for city council and negotiating a gang truce. The gang truce in particular threatened the existence of a new, lavishly funded gang task force in Greensboro, part of the decades-long national trend of funding such carceral endeavors as opposed to schools and community programs.

Across the country, another community is under attack: that of activists in the Pacific Northwest, with homes being raided in search of incriminating books and more activists being subpoenaed every day. Within left circles, there has been a heartening amount of press and support for the resisters. Last week, Anonymous announced a new campaign in support of the Pacific Northwest Grand Jury Resisters. Contrasting that with the paltry amount of attention granted the case of the Kings parallels the difference between the airtime given Pussy Riot versus CeCe McDonald. The crime that CeCe McDonald committed was surviving a racist, transphobic attack on her life. But like Pussy Riot, the Grand Jury Resisters have the benefit of being young and attractive (and thus easily incorporated, despite their radical politics, into the spectacle of fashion). And, like Pussy Riot, their crime is perceived to be ideological. Thus their innocence is more explicit. One doesn’t have to take a stand against all prisons or prison society writ large to sympathize with their plight.

The NC Kings are being prosecuted under RICO, or the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. RICO is a federal litigation tool with a deeply convoluted history during which it has attempted to rid Teamsters of Mafia influence (which mostly resulted in obstructing democracy within the Teamsters), been disproportionately applied to people of color and weaponized against activists ranging from the Black Liberation Army to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. As a tactic of State repression it is a part of a larger effort to dismantle and delegitimize left and POC communities.

The Greensboro Legal Defense Fund has worked tirelessly to support the Kings throughout the usual moves from prison to prison, challenges in getting adequate legal representation, and disregard for medical needs. The GLDF are heavily constituted of women and queers, who are neighbors, friends, family friends, and colleagues with the Kings—a community. In addition to the partners and children of the Kings, the local anarchist community has played a huge part in doing this work, “performing the arduous labor of being on the outside for someone—trying adequately to switch among the many and sometimes conflicting roles of caregivers, wageworkers, and justice advocates”. Disdain or disinterest from the national left has come through informal channels, but usually involves questions about the perceived homophobia or misogyny of the Kings.

Why are the Kings subject to such deep scrutiny while other political prisoners are not? This demand for perfection in those we support is unreasonable, a distraction from the larger issues with mass incarceration and State repression, and often seems to be deployed only on POC prisoners. Some in the national anarchist community see the language of kings and queens as reinforcing hierarchy, but the GLDF knows these titles are about dignity, not domination. “We may not all desire to be kings and queens, we all desire to be the masters of our own destiny.”

If you are supporting grand jury resisters but not the ALKQN, I urge you to broaden your analysis. If you (like Madonna, Bjork, Julian Assange, Amnesty International, and Yoko Ono) are supporting Pussy Riot but not CeCe McDonald, I urge you to broaden your analysis—because all prisoners are political.

 

(Photo Credit: PrisonBooks.Info)