Tag Archives: prisons

Prison abolition meets food justice

In her article, “Radical Farmers Use Fresh Food to Fight Racial Injustice and the New Jim Crow,” Leah Penniman draws connections between the incarceration of black people, police violence, and the systematic use of hunger and malnutrition as a weapon wielded against black communities, pointing to the importance of food and land:

If we are to create a society that values black life, we cannot ignore the role of food and land. I believe that black people’s collective experience with slavery and sharecropping has created an aversion to the land and a sense that the land itself is an oppressor. The truth is that without good land and good food we cannot be truly free. The Freedom Food Alliance represents one important voice among many insisting that the senseless deaths of our black brothers and sisters by all forms of violence—police shooting, diet-related illness, economic marginalization—must end.

Penniman shows how these connections are being made by grassroots organizations that link the fight for food justice with the fight against the prison-industrial-complex and the new Jim Crow.  Penniman profiles folks like Jalal Sabur of the Freedom Food Alliance, a prison abolitionist who helped connect farmers, prisoners, and their families together in networks of self-reliance and resistance.

I won’t bother summarizing or excerpting more: read the article!  It’s short, accessible, and shows how these groups are drawing lessons and inspiration from past movements, and bringing together struggles and alternatives that often remain separate.

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Alternatives to rape culture begin with feminism

Most of us are tired of hearing about Jian Ghomeshi. I am. This is not about him, though it’s partly inspired by responses to what I wrote about the whole thing.  The debates about him have opened up space to talk about rape culture, the pervasiveness of sexual assault, and how to deal with gender-based violence in our everyday lives (because it’s happening around us, whether we experience it or not).  It’s an opportunity for men, in particular, to take a more active role in all this, because if we’re not the perpetrators, we’re rarely active in preventing violence or supporting survivors.  As a man, I’m learning about a bunch of this for the first time, primarily from women who’ve been dealing with it because they have to. I think the public debate is an opportunity to notice some patterns and look around for alternatives. Here are three:

We are in rape culture; it’s in us

There are a lot of statements beginning with “I’m against rape culture, but…” People (usually men) then go on to say all kinds of things that reproduce rape culture. We don’t have all the facts, the women might be lying, this is someone’s private life, etc, etc. When these are pointed out and linked to rape culture, there are all kinds of contortions to explain how we really meant something else, and we’re all really against rape culture.

But if I admit that rape culture is pervasive, then (especially as a heterosexual man socialized into patriarchy), rape culture is something I’m struggling with and hopefully against, some of the time, not something I can oppose because I say so.  A lot of these conversations start and end with these debates and contortions, so they don’t feel very productive, and this is often taken as proof of the inadequacy of feminism. But this is the inadequacy of our engagement with feminism.  Feminism isn’t a stance, it’s a complex array of habits, behaviours, ways of thinking, and collective practices.  How can men welcome criticism?  How can we allow ourselves to be implicated?  How can we have more of these conversations with each other, more often, so that we don’t derail other conversations about supporting survivors or preventing sexual assault?  This is men’s work, a nascent movement to engage men in conversations—and action—around patriarchy and gendered violence.

Neutrality is not complexity or nuance

Another common pattern shares anxieties about the insistence that we should believe survivors.  Others have felt it important to remind everyone that false accusations of rape do exist.  There has been lots of analysis that shows how these sentiments are connected to rape culture.  But something else is going on here too.  When these statements are confronted, feminist analyses of rape culture are cast as simplistic and vicious.  Believing survivors is often contrasted with a more ‘complex’ stance that could productively deal with the conflict.  This ‘more complex’ stance is almost never elaborated, and when it is, it’s usually the simplistic fence-sitting stance, either filled with anxiety and indecision, or with cold neutrality.

The fetishism of law

This ‘neutral’ stance usually falls back on the law. It either assumes that perpetrators will be prosecuted (innocent until proven guilty!), or it takes on the mindset of a judge within the Western legal system as a way of seeing conflict. Judges seek a place of neutrality, with the assumption that they’ll eventually parcel out blame and punishment. Believing survivors gets conflated with rushing to a legal judgement. It’s true that believing survivors is a barrier to neutrality, and that’s why legalistic approaches tend to retraumatize survivors and enact new forms of violence. Feminists such as Andrea Smith have challenged this fetishism of law, pointing to the ways that law continues to uphold genocide, dispossession, exploitation and violence.  “Rather than uphold the law,” she argues, “indigenous feminism demands that progressives work against the law.”  In this sense, believing survivors isn’t a barrier to complexity; it’s the beginning of actually being able to address sexualized violence in our communities.  So what would collective, compassionate responses to sexual assault look like?  What would it mean to move beyond individualistic, principled stands?

Alternatives exist

There are already a bunch of collective responses to these questions, and unsurprisingly, they come out of feminism.  More specifically, they come out of queer, indigenous, and anti-racist feminism. Genderqueer and trans folks, communities of colour, and indigenous communities have spearheaded most of these experiments, often with the recognition that cops and courts consistently compound violence in their communities, rather than alleviating it, so there’s less willingness to rely on the law and legalistic thinking.

The Revolution Starts at Home is a compilation of insights from folks who have confronted intimate partner violence.   Numerous communities have developed collective responses to violence, which involves establishing alternatives to policing and incarceration while building supportive communities in the process, and reducing reliance on the legal system, often under the mantle of transformative justice.  INCITE!, a collective of women of colour, has organized around this for over a decade, and has developed an extensive set of accessible resources.  In some places, men are also taking more initiative to work with perpetrators and unpack rape culture amongst themselves, while trying to figure out how to be accountable to those most impacted by gender-based violence.  This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are already nascent alternatives to rape culture; we don’t have to start from scratch.  We can learn from them, nurture them and proliferate them.  In recent days, I’ve seen some men (and women) set themselves apart from feminism, claiming that it lacks complexity, nuance, or kindness.  I’ve done this a bunch.  But when I perceive feminism to be lacking complexity, I’m consistently reminded that this is my own failure to engage with feminist movements in more complex ways.  This isn’t to say that there aren’t simplistic analyses written by feminists.  Feminism isn’t a monolith, and there are plenty of contradictions.  But men (especially white, heterosexual, middle-class men) consistently position ourselves the ones who see complexity, nuance, and other possibilities, casting feminism (and feminists) as inadequate.  We rarely approach with curiosity and a willingness to learn.

The real complexities—and concrete possibilities—have been developed by those who are resisting the interconnected systems of rape culture, incarceration, heteropatriarchy, policing, ableism, colonization, white supremacy, capitalist exploitation, and environmental degradation, among others.  Feminism is plenty complex.

i-love-feminism

Vikki Law: Resisting Gender Violence without Cops or Prisons

In her article “Against Carceral Feminism,” Vikki Law criticizes currents of feminism that call for more policing and harsher sentences for domestic violence.  She shows how this ‘carceral feminism’ (advocated primarily by white, middle-class feminists) justifies the expansion of the prison industrial complex, obscures the violence of policing and incarceration, and fails to address the connections between gender-based violence and economic inequality, lack of affordable housing, racism, and the structural violence perpetuated against communities of colour.

Carceral feminism abets the growth of the state’s worst functions, while obscuring the shrinking of its best. At the same time, it conveniently ignores the anti-violence efforts and organizing by those who have always known that criminalized responses pose further threats rather than promises of safety.

Law points to a number of alternatives to carceral feminism, developed primarily by people of colour who have never been able to rely on policing and prisons for safety, including INCITE!, Critical Resistance, Creative Interventions, and The Revolution Starts at Home. In the video below, Law unpacks the roots of gender-based violence, and the ways that policing not only fails to stop gender-based violence, but often makes things worse for women (especially black and brown women of colour).  She talks about organizations and communities that are creating grassroots alternatives to cops and policing, which effectively curb gender-based violence without relying on prisons, policing, and the state.

Forgotten Place and the Seeds of Grassroots Planning – Ruth Wilson Gilmore

This is a great article, for several reasons.  It’s from a book called Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship, available free online.  Gilmore weaves together theory and practical examples in a unique way: her whole array of concepts seems to flow from on-the-ground problems and questions that come out of anti-prison activism.  It has implications for the role of researchers and their relationships to communities and activism.  She manages to avoid constituting geography or other academic domains as her primary audience, while still clearly making a contribution to theoretical debates.

This isn’t a very good summary and this article is worth re-reading.  It could be useful for all sorts of reasons.   For one thing, she is explicitly concerned with struggles of land use involving activists, municipalities, etc.  More broadly, she makes explicit the conceptual and practical problems of engaged research, bringing diverse communities together in struggle, formulating problems effectively, constituting venues and audiences for politics, engaging critically with the NGO-industrial-complex (while acknowledging it as an irreducible site of struggle), among other things.  Her concepts of stretch, resilience, and resonance are particularly interesting (and important for a more coherent summary, as the whole chapter is really organized around these concepts and the problems they get at).

Questions: Given ‘organized abandonment,’ “how can people who inhabit forgotten places scale up their activism from intensely localized struggles to something less atomized and therefore possessed o f a significant capacity for self-determination” (31)?  Here ‘scaling up’ isn’t a fetishism of ‘large-scale’ over ‘local’ change; instead she wants to describe the ways in which people create and develop the capacity to formulate problems collectively and act to shape their communities (Harvey might call this ‘the right to the city’).  She is interested in the conditions under which regional coalitions are formed, “partly because their growing understanding of their sameness trumps their previously developed beliefs in their irreconcilable differences” (38).

What capacities might such [marginalized people] animate, and what scales, to make the future better than the present?  What does better mean?  How do people make broadly contested sensibilities—indeed feelings—the basis for political struggle, especially when their social identities are not fixed by characteristics that point toward certain proven patterns (or theories) for action?” (32)

Forgotten places: Gilmore is concerned with “forgotten places:” “marginal people on marginal lands.”  These are obviously not the same everywhere, but Gilmore maps out some compelling continuities.  Not just lack: abandoned places are also “planned concentrations or sinks:” hazardous materials, destructive practices (35).  They’re characterized by layering rounds of dispossession/domination/development – crisis becomes a way of life (36).

She uses the term ‘syncretic’ to describe these places (she prefers this over ‘hybrid’ because hybrid implies originally-pure origins).  The term is also important for research/method: it enables scholarly research as political experimentation (37). Because syncretic compels us to think about problems in terms of their stretch, resonance, and resilience.  She is interested in how “the practice of engaged scholarship necessarily and ethically change[s] the ideological and material field of struggle (55).  Engaged scholarship (and activism) entails constituting audiences at every step, “both within and as an effect of observation, discovery, analysis, and presentation” (55).

–       Stretch: enables a question to reach further than the immediate object without bypassing particularity (e.g. ‘what is development?’ > ‘why do you want this development?’)

–       Resonance: enables a question to support/model non-hierarchical collective action “by producing a hum that, by inviting strong attention, elicits responses that do not necessarily adhere to already existing architectures of sense-making” (38)

–       Resilience: enables a question to be flexible rather than brittle – create questions where surprise can strengthen, rather than ruin them.

She’s interested in how research “combines with the actions of everyday people to shift the field of struggle and thus reorganize both their own consciousness and the concentration and uses of social wealth in ‘forgotten places’” (38).

Desakota – how do mainalized ppl become effective political actor: connect rural/urban in non-schematic way: comparison as a way of bringing together what seems irreconcilable – compare different political/economic/territorial/ideological valences that distinguish (and might unite) places shaped by external control or locaed outside particular dev pathways 33-5

–       rural/urban in relational/linked context: dwellers in more urban areas combine deep rurual roots w/ participation in formal/informal econ

–       she discusses an anti-prison conference and the consciousness of marginalized ppl involved: “their conciousness is a product of vulnerability in space coupled with unavoidable and constant movement through space (43)

–       the desakota region is all about the movement of resources—wether transfers of social wealth from public sectors (welfare to domestic warfare) or migration (voluntary or not) or across supraregional spaces to amass remittances that, once sent, counter the apparently unidirectional concentration of wealth (43)

–       This “respatialization of the social” (rather than automatic recognition based in racial or ethnic categories) “forms the basis for syncretizing previously separate political movements (44)

  • So this reformulation of structure/agency, racialization, space, etc is a way of creating stretch: shared problems w/out bypassing particularity
  • She discusses how this also happened at the anti-prison conference, where activists talked about “how they had come to encounter, identify, understand, and solve the problems where they lived” (41)
    • The final segment involved brainstorming outcomes to life-harming situations of prisons etc
    • This all led to the recognition that “they and their places shared a family resemblance that needed further investigation” 42

–       Prisons and development: she describes the way in which prisons have been created Desakota rural/urban in-between became important for understanding prison proliferation: prisons can reconfigure political jurisdictions, along with other economic/social/cultural effects (44-5).

  • People organized to counter boosterism in the elected leadership, but they had a hard time constituting audiences to make their argument (46).  They engaged with social science methods to rebut data in the environmental review, which represented a narrow technocratic vision substuted for civic engagement (48)
  • This ‘unfunded devolution’ of state powers (the function of the ‘anti-state state’) entails an unfunded devolution of social welfare

–       Desakota (and the precarity, divisions, and movements they entails) aren’t a simple weakness or lack: “people get past certain barriers because they have an already developed sense of the perils and promise of movement, that the practice of circulating within regions underlies potential interpretations of possibility and alliance,a nd finally that multiply rooted people have a sense of the ways that “elsewhere” is simultaneously ‘here’ (another way of saying that ‘I is an Other’) (50).

Complicating identity politics and structure/agency: she critiques the simplistic dismissals of identity politics, while developing a more complicated idea of identity, pointing to: “the contradictory ways in which idnetities fracture and reform in the curcibles of state and society, public and private, home and work, violence and consent (39).  She also refuses a simple division between structure/agency: she’s not saying that agency is an unimportant concept, but thinks it’s too often designated as an attribute of oppressed people against something called ‘structure’ (40).  Structures are both the residue of agency and animated by agents… and the modes through which people organize to resist are (or become) structural.  She points back to ‘stretch’ here: in terms of generalization (thinking about structure/agency) and “in terms of what we must think about to think at all well” 40).

Critique of NGOs – turns out she was a contributor to The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, and she covers some of the same ground here: organizations become competitive and professionalized, stifling potential alliances w/ other orgs.  She distinguishes between becoming legal (under IRS) and using the legal as a tool (43).  This, along with capitalism’s 20th C counter-rev, and waves of criminalization, help explain the brittleness of the present moment.

–       This professionalization has also created the need to generate ‘products’ and and instrumental approach to problems that look for easy (often technocratic) and limited solutions (50)

  • This is a double-edged problem: there’s the assumptions that marginalized communities need roaming specialists (on the one hand) and there’s a flip where marginalized people are assumed to have a latent revolutionary subjectivity waiting to be unleashed (51) (this is a concrete repetition of the structure/agency dichotomy)

–       These result in the loss of stretch and resonance

–       However, this doesn’t entail an abandonment of NGOs: Gilmore discusses the ways in which activists were able to find a ‘provisionally syncretic identity’ through shared problems/struggles, and then these had to be reformed in the context of mission statements, funding streams, and other boundaries: NGOs are both enabling and disabling (42)

–       Against technocratic solutions (or fetishism of marginalized ‘agency’) she suggests that self-determination is created under conditions of “a real engagement of people’s creative thinking mixed with locally or externally available understandings of political and economic possibilities and constrains” (51)

  • The resilience of this question “depends on people’s immediate and longer-range engagement—their own resilience—to realize any outcome (51)