The false case against Christiane Taubira

Next weekend, Europe goes to the polls. Betting on the destabilization and nationalist sentiment fostered through neoliberal economies of fear and debt, the right and extreme right parties hope to win more seats in the European parliament. Their strategy is simple: announce a time of turmoil and crisis and then reduce political discourse to the mythology of the white male moralistic views as the only source of security. In fairness, the leftist parties have not done much to propose real alternative discourses and policies.

Last week, the right used this strategy in France against Christiane Taubira, the French Minister of Justice.

At the beginning of her appointment, Taubira brilliantly passed a same-sex marriage bill. When the most conservative constituents launched sordid assaults, Taubira responded with literary quotations that won the day. It was a virtuoso performance.

No virtuoso performance and no victory in the name of justice and equality can go unpunished.

And so the French right wing has launched an all-out campaign against Christiane Taubira.

They Americanized their techniques, using the power of repetition of simple and nationalistic slogans against her. Their goal was to blur her message and vitiate her work on undoing the politics of security that criminalized the vulnerable, at-risk populations attacked by anti-migrants sentiment or austerity measures.

After innumerable racist attacks, the neoliberal conservative coalition finally created a buzz around a song. The song was the National Anthem, La Marseillaise, sung by a chorus and soloists. Along with other members of Government and the President of France, Taubira attended a ceremony to commemorate the abolition of slavery. It was a solemn occasion, althought not for the Front National (FN), the nationalist party, that marked its denial of the offense of slavery by refusing to participate. They also refused to celebrate General Dumas, the first French General born in slavery and father of Alexander Dumas.

What happened was this. Taubira didn’t sing. This was presented as refusing to sing, which triggered a methodic orchestration in the media of repetitive messaging. The only problem is that singing the national anthem has never been popular in France. None of Taubira’s colleagues sang the anthem that day, but it was Taubira who was viciously attacked. Some questioned her “Frenchness” and demanded her resignation. The message was already prepared. A series of attacks and accusations overloaded the media. What is remarkable it the technique; the terms used repetitively by the members of this political “SWAT team” went from accusing her of sectarianism and of being unworthy of her position to being lax and having a contemptuous tone.

Thanks to her strong background in racial and social justice and activism in Guiana where she was born and grew up, Taubira was undaunted. Guiana is a French overseas department located in the Caribbean side of South America. Her political engagement is linked to this land, and she embodies a liberating ideal that has made her the bane of the elite of the right and extreme right in France. Before she became Minister of Justice, Taubira had been a French parliamentary deputy for Guiana between 1992 and 2002. In 2001, she put her name on a bill that recognized the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery as a crime against humanity. At that time, she published a book, L’esclavage raconté à ma fille (Slavery explained to my daughter).

At the beginning of her career, Taubira denounced the crude mistreatment by the post-colonial French state of the overseas population. As Minister of Justice, she has denounced the politics of mass incarceration. She has also asserted the responsibility of civil society to respect human dignity as France’s overcrowded prisons have resulted in France being reprimanded by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 2012.

Taubira’s problem is not singing the national anthem. Her problem is keep open the possibility of a fair debate on her penal bill in a National Assembly in which some members have gendered and racist slurs prepared for her. The manipulation of public opinion is not new, but these violent and ongoing attacks on Christiane Taubira signal that the project of hyper incarceration knows no limits.

This instrumentalization of language and communication is there to obscure the real responsibility of conservatives in the advancement and normalization of fascist and extreme right parties in Europe, not to forget the Tea Party and the dramatic turn to the right in the United States. The songs we should pay attention to are those of social destruction as multiple trade agreements are secretly negotiated, in particular TAFTA that threatens women and social cohesion in Europe, in France and elsewhere. The global prison is inscribed all over this agreement.

Christiane Taubira did not make any faux pas. If you must attack someone, attack her neoliberal detractors, who are not worthy of public position and who know neither the lyrics nor the melodies to the songs of justice and humanity.

 

(Photo Credit: Libération / Kenzo Tribouillard / AFP)

Does David Cameron support slavery? Ask the domestic workers.

Last year, England declared October 18th as Anti-Slavery Day. Today is the second Anti-Slavery Day. How will Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha Cameron celebrate this day? Let’s ask their nanny, Gita Lima.

Gita Lima is originally from Nepal. She worked, in England, for a family that proved to be abusive. She received assistance from Kalayaan, an advice and advocacy center for migrant domestic workers. Lima’s situation was all too familiar to Kalayaan. According to Kalayaan, nearly 70% of migrant domestic workers work seven days a week, almost half work 16 hours a day, and nearly 20% have been physically abused. More than half of the transnational domestic workers report that their bosses seize their passports and do not let them leave the house unaccompanied. Many report being denied food, many report sexual abuse.

Among its services, Kalayaan runs an ethical employment agency. David and Samantha Cameron came to that agency and hired Gita Lima, a number of years ago. Lima cared for their four children. In particular, she took care of the eldest child, Ivan, who had been born with a combination of cerebral palsy and severe epilepsy, and required round the clock care. Ivan died in 2009, at the age of six. Gita Lima continued to work for the Camerons, moving with them to 10 Downing Street.

The government, David Cameron’s government, recently proposed a change in visa regulations. This change would require migrant domestic workers to stay with the employers who sponsored them. Like the song says, “You’d better dance with the one that brung ya.” Or else.

Many domestic workers, and their allies like Kalayaan and the trade union Unite, understand the removal of the limited protections provided by the current system, the elimination of the right to change employers, as slavery.

They’re right, it is slavery, and it’s the Parliament of the United Kingdom that says so, in its Anti-Slavery Day Act: “In this Act “slavery” includes—
(a) trafficking for sexual exploitation,
(b) child trafficking,
(c) trafficking for forced labour, and
(d) domestic servitude.”

Domestic servitude. Gita Lima, Marissa Begonia, Noor, Mira, and all the transnational domestic workers did absolutely nothing wrong, did everything right, in fact. They have worked hard, they have taken care of children and households, and in the case of some, like Gita Lima, they have wept at and mourned the loss of a loved one. Who is the criminal here, the one placed in slavery, in “domestic servitude”, or the one who holds the woman worker in bondage?

 

(Photo Credit: BBC)

 

Alabama’s shame is the United States’ shame

Last week, five women from Bessemer and Birmingham met outside the Hugo L. Black U.S. District Courthouse in downtown Birmingham. They look like a pretty diverse handful of women. They stood there, alone, with their children and their placards, and explained that they are all U.S. citizens, that their children are U.S. citizens, and that their partners are undocumented residents. They appealed to the better conscience and the better consciousness, not to mention the common sense, of the State and of the Court to overturn HB56. They explained that without their partners’ income, they would face desperate times: “If you don’t want to pay for our kids, repeal HB56.”

Quite a few women in Alabama are expressing similar concerns. Lana and Jamie Boatwright run a tomato farm on Chandler Mountain, in Alabama. The tomatoes are ready for picking, but the workers have fled, mostly to Florida where the fieldwork is better and, thus far, the laws are less hostile.

And it’s not just farmers who are suffering, already, from the culture of the law. Contractors, already squeezed by a deep and long recession, now can’t find workers. Teachers, school nurses and school systems report that the children are beginning to disappear. Foley Elementary School, with a 20% Latina/o population, already reports absences, withdrawals, and, even more, a climate of fear, sorrow, pain and suffering, trauma. Those are children. Not that it should matter but it needs to be said, those are children who are mostly U.S. citizens. What is the name for that curriculum, the one these children experience and study?

And the mothers are gathering and organizing, as they do. Mothers who are undocumented residents, like Trini, Erica Suarez, and so many others, are organizing power of attorney for their kids, should “the worst” occur. Mothers with proper papers or with citizenship, women like Rosa Toussaint Ortiz, are agreeing to take care of the children, should “the worst” occur. And activists, women like Monica Hernandez and Helen Rivas, promise to continue to take care of the women, men, children, not to forget, to continue the struggle.

The situation is shameful.

Alabama’s shame is the United States’ shame, and it has a familiar ring to it. What is the name of the shameful system that is emerging in Alabama? First, terrorize a racially or ethnically identified minority population. The terror did not begin with the passage of the law. The terror began with the first mention of its possibility. Then criminalize that population. Then put the “newly minted” criminals in prisons, and if those prisons could be private, as they will be in Alabama, all the better. Then, and here’s the kicker, when businesses, and in particular when farmers and contractors “discover” that the labor well has gone dry, provide them with prisoners, at rock bottom prices, of course. That’s what John McMillan, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, suggested. The State is looking into short- and long-term solutions to the labor problem and is feeling “optimistic.”

Optimistic?

What is the name of that system of shame that Alabama is dutifully re-enacting? Some call it slavery, and perhaps they’re right. What would you call that shame, that shameful system, which haunts the United States?

 

(Photo Credit: al.com)

 

Prison labor haunts `history’

When is slavery not slavery? When the slaves are called prisoners, their condition is not slavery. It’s … history. The Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution says so, and so do the United Kingdom Border Authority, UKBA, and the private prison corporation, Serco.

Last month, on December 9, 2010, prisoners in several prisons across Georgia went on strike.  According to Elaine Brown, one of the prisoners’ spokespersons, the strike involved “Augusta, Baldwin, Calhoun, Hancock, Hays, Macon, Rogers, Smith, Telfair, Valdosta and Ware state prisons.” Others claim seven prisons were involved. The strike concerned prisoners’ working and living conditions across the state. The conditions of prisoners in Georgia are famously bad. Prisoners in Georgia receive no pay for the work they perform. The possibility of going to jail in Georgia, especially for people of color, is infamously high. Georgia has the highest rate of prison `involvement’ in United States: “In Georgia, 1 in 13 adults is either in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole.” The national average is 1 in 31.

The strike was non violent, peaceful even. The media focused on the capacity of prisoners to organize a structured, non spontaneous, non violent work stoppage across the state. This was facilitated by the use of contraband cell phones, bought largely from guards.

The strike was called `historic’, in two senses. On one hand, it was massive. Again according to Elaine Brown, the strike was “historic in scope and in the unity of thousands of black, brown, white, Muslim, Christian and Rastafarian prisoners.” Others claimed it was one of the largest prison strikes and the biggest prisoner strike in U.S. history. In terms of scale, of numbers of prisoners involved, of numbers of kinds of prisoners involved, the action was historic.

On the other hand, the strike was historic in that it protested the history of prison labor. Prison labor has historically been part of a racially, ethnically segregated labor market, “an emblem of racial subjugation.” Prison labor, especially in the United States, has its roots in slavery. Read the Constitution of the United States.

According to the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” For prisoners, slavery and involuntary servitude are constitutionally just fine. Where do slavery and justice sleep comfortably together? In prison.

And not only in the United States.

At Yarl’s Wood, in the United Kingdom, women refugees and asylum seekers are held in detention … for the crime of applying for asylum. This week, current and former prisoners, all women, revealed their working conditions and described them as modern day slavery.

Asylum seekers are not allowed to work while their application is in process. But not at Yarl’s Wood. There they work, for next to nothing. Gloria Sestus, a 32-year-old Nigerian, says she is paid £1 to clean the dining room twice a day. The job takes more than an hour each time. As former prisoner Nordia Hylton, 34-year-old Jamaican asylum seeker, noted, “People who work without papers to try and feed their families are arrested for illegally working and detained. But once they get to Yarl’s Wood they can work for next to nothing. The UKBA and Serco are hypocrites. They are taking advantage of people’s situation.”

Gloria Sestus sees it as more than hypocrisy, “It is like slavery in a modernised form.”

It is like slavery in a modernized form. African women, Afro Caribbean women, women of the African diaspora know a thing or two about the history of slavery. The prison strike across Georgia was historic. The prisoners’ testimonies and protests concerning Yarl’s Wood are historic as well. Both call on us to speak and address the historic name of prison labor: slavery.

 

(Photo Credit: hiphopandpolitics.com)

 

The peculiar women

“We have a peculiar paradox emerging in India, of women doing both more paid work and more unpaid work, and also looking for but not finding more paid work.”

Women are the peculiar of the contemporary world. Two recent articles, published on the same day, suggest as much. Here are five aspects of the women-peculiar.

The peculiar trend

Girls’ sports events bring more cash and more carriers than do boys’: “As the popularity of youth tournaments has intensified over the past decade, a peculiar trend has emerged: girls’ sporting events tend to attract more relatives and generate more revenue for tourism than similar events for boys. And that is drawing increased attention from economic development officials. `There are far more people who will travel with 12-year-old girls than even 12-year-old boys,” said Don Schumacher, executive director of the National Association of Sports Commissions, a trade group that advises communities on attracting sporting events. “And vastly more people will travel with 12-year-old girls than 18-year-old boys.’”

Whether this reported trend is bogus or not, what would make it peculiar?

The peculiar sensation

On the same day, Saaret E. Yoseph reported on watching a KGB commercial that featured an all Black female cast, and wondered, “Why can’t ads get Black women right?” Good question. Here are the first two paragraphs of her reflection:

“`It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.’

—W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

I wonder if the peculiar sensation W.E.B. Du Bois had in mind when writing The Souls of Black Folk is the same one I get when watching KGB’s latest ad. The directory assistance turned question-and-answer text service has me experiencing the 21st century version of double-consciousness—an American Negro woman, a consumer—two warring identities and one bad commercial break.”

When Du Bois wrote about peculiar sensation, he placed that between being-a-problem and becoming-a-coworker. “To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word. And yet being a problem is a strange experience,—peculiar even for one who has never been anything else, save perhaps in babyhood and in Europe.” For Du Bois, the peculiar sensation begins there, with the real question that elicits seldom a response, that is, the question of the Black Real.

The goal of the Black Real project is simple: “The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better, truer self….This, then, is the end of his striving: to be a co-worker in the kingdom of culture, to escape both death and isolation, to husband and use his best powers and his latent genius”.

For Du Bois, the question of the Black Real was the question of the Black Man: “For Du Bois, the African American male was the paradigmatic Black intellectual”. The Black Woman? The “American Negro woman”? She did not attain the status of problem. She was peculiar.

As she is today: “For black American women, our two-ness is never more evident than when people are trying to sell us something. As advertisers vie for our attention, the incongruity of our two identities—who we are and who we are perceived to be—could not be more clear than in those 32 seconds.”

The peculiar paradox

Jayathi Ghosh has a new book out, Never Done and Poorly Paid: Women’s Work in Globalising India. I hope to read it soon. A recent review quoted Ghosh as having written: “We have a peculiar paradox emerging in India, of women doing both more paid work and more unpaid work, and also looking for but not finding more paid work….[These] indicate the reduced economic and social bargaining power of women as workers”.

Women’s peculiar paradox, in the neoliberal political economy, is that the more they work, the fewer jobs they have, the less wealth they have, the greater debts they incur, all the while suffering a reduction in economic and social bargaining power, as workers, as women workers, as women, at home, in the streets, in the so-called work sites.

The peculiar institution

In United States history, peculiar is a key word. Plantation owners, and for generations after them historians, referred to slavery as the peculiar institution. Kenneth Stampp, who died earlier this month, wrote The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South, published in 1956. That book “juxtaposed the views of slaves themselves with the more conventionally researched perceptions of slave owners, yielding a far different picture of the institution than historians had previously created.”

The slaves never referred to slavery as `peculiar’. Slaves never referred to those who claim to be their owners as `peculiar’. Slaves never refer to their situation today as `peculiar’.  The `peculiar’ of the `peculiar institution’, slavery, was not the peculiar of odd or strange. It was the peculiar of the slave woman and of the women in patriarchy, although neither figured prominently in Stampp’s account.

The peculiar

The peculiar trend, the peculiar sensation, the peculiar paradox: these are terms of art for the categories of woman and of women. Peculiar means particular, of one’s own, odd or eccentric. Peculiar, from peculiare, a sixth century word meaning private property … sort of. Peculiare derives from peculium, which meant “money or property managed by a person incapable of legal ownership.” Under Roman law, it was the “property which a paterfamilias allowed a member of his family, or a master allowed his slave, to hold and administer, and, within limits, to alienate, as though it were his or her own.” Paterfamilias to family, which actually here means wife, master to slave, they’re  the same.

So, when I read that New York City has decided to help the homeless by buying them one-way tickets `back home’, or that England has decided to help asylum seekers, especially women and children, by eliminating services, I think, “How peculiar.” How peculiar indeed.

(Photo Credit: K. M. Dayashankar / Frontline)