When the State Commits Abortion: A Poem

Below is a poem from the inaugural issue of our quarterly publication, Propter Nos.

You can download the complete first issue as a PDF booklet here:  Propter Nos- Vol 1., Issue 1 (Fall 2016)


When the State Commits Abortion
By  
F. Delali Kumavie

When the State performs abortions it does not do so while the fetus is in uterus, it lurks waiting until the baby is born, until the baby is cared for and loved, until It loves, until It needs hospitals and schools, till It needs futures.

The State waits until the baby is schooled, until the luminous detail of Its life is tattooed onto the motherfather, the first step, the first joyous wail, the tender feelings of love, the texture of Its hands, the lines around Its lips.

When the State performs abortions it does not hide the bloody dumbfounded placenta in dark unused alleys, it is exhibited on television, on phones, on the mechanical dictators of our everydays.

The State waits till the fetus becomes a baby, till the baby becomes a child, till the baby becomes… girlboymanwomanmotherfatherworkerdaughtersisterbrothertaxpayerlessorcaregiverspender

 

When the State performs abortions it does not require the latent penitent tears of mothers, fathers, sons or daughters. Its clinics are the streets; its surgical curette, the police.

When the State acts as an abortifacient it is a celebration, a festival of its silenced truths plastered in the language of equality. It is a maroon spectacle, garbed in uniforms of justice, leaving montages of subdued black bodies stitched together by the public tears of mothers.


 

Memories of Blood. To Brother(hood) Dance and all Black Movers

Below is an excerpt from the inaugural issue of our quarterly publication, Propter Nos.

You can download the complete first issue as a PDF booklet here:  Propter Nos- Vol 1., Issue 1 (Fall 2016)


Memories of Blood.

To Brother(hood) Dance and all Black Movers.

By

Mlondi Zondi

s200_mlondi-zondi


How do we who are doing work in black studies tend to, care for, comfort, and defend the dead, the dying, and those living lives consigned, in aftermath of legal chattel slavery, to death that is always imminent and immanent

—Christina Sharpe

Just imagine what might be possible if, instead of rushing to the new, we tended toward blackness—in all of its sensuous and imperceptible unfolding—that phantom site whose traces everywhere mark the construction of the material world and provide a different horizon from which to take our bearings.

—Huey Copeland

Dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free.

—Rumi


During my two years in Chicago, I have attended important and thought-provoking choreographic offerings by black companies and artists such as Dance Theater of Harlem, Darrell Jones, J’Sun Howard, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Nora Chipaumire, Baraka de Soleil, Kyle Abraham, Okwui Okpokwasili, Rennie Harris, and Urban Bush Women. The July 2016 performance and workshop by New York based duo Brother(hood) Dance at Dochester Art + Housing Collaborative certainly added to the richness already implanted by the innovators mentioned above. My attendance at this event provoked the following questions for me: What does it mean to care about black dance in the contemporary moment? Which modes of sensing the world do black choreographers make available to us through witnessing their work? How does black dance as a critical posture intend to move us, touch us, (dis)orient us, throw our assumptions into crisis, attend to the dead, reveal to us our complicities, and help us to seriously consider whether this is the kind of world worth saving? The performance of an excerpt from Black Jones by Brother(hood) Dance provided a number of ways to think about blackness. The thoughts I offer here zero in on those aspects of the piece that provoke questions about blackness and nothingness through the visual, the sonic, and the kinesthetic.1


The Workshop

   When I arrive at the Dochester Art + Housing Collaborative studio I am pleasantly surprised that the two Brother(hood) Dance visionaries Ricarrdo Valentine and Orlando Zane Hunter, Jr. are holding a workshop before showing a segment of Black Jones. I sit unobtrusively on the floor and observe, since I am not dressed appropriately to participate. The workshop comprises mostly of across-the-floor exercises. Participants wave and wade fluidly across the wooden floor, embodying various characteristics associated with Yorùbá Orishas Oshun and Ogun. Valentine and Hunter integrate these Orishas seamlessly into the workshop and they rigorously provide context to the participants comprising of a range of age groups. The workshop is conceptualized for anyone who is curious about the type of knowledge that this kin-aesthetic experience generates. Participants are expected to take direction without necessarily towing the line. The formal elements and the pedagogical tools they deploy produce a mode of practice that is not rooted in creating a venomous and destructive environment typical of a number of dance classes. Hunter and Valentine both labor tirelessly to refrain from foregrounding hierarchies of beauty as well as perverse sensibilities of taste, which a priori banish all variations of “the black body” from occupying any dance space. The pedagogical technique they employ is not venomous because it does not exclusively attend to the svelte, able-bodied, long-limbed, “proper” dancing body whose gender comportment fits their biological sex. Their attitude toward the line of the body is ambivalent, with no emphasis on a fixed straight line that is desirable in Eurocentric classical forms. Improvisations, drifts, curvations, inversions, undulations, and cessations inform the mode of operation in the workshop. It is phenomenal to witness such a movement that takes care of its participants, especially black participants. This is keeping with a longstanding practice that art historian Huey Copeland calls “tending-toward-blackness”—a “leaning into” and “caring for,” that “animates a range of artistic, social, political, and theoretical practices aimed at establishing an ethical posture toward black subjects and those related forms of being that have been positioned at the margins of thought and perception yet are necessarily co-constitutive of them.”2 This movement does not make unfair and impossible demands on the dancer to fit into desired standards of taste in contemporary and classical dance. The instructors assume an ethical posture that does not impose colonialism’s racialized and gendered markers that privilege uprightness. Taking care of participants is important, since the dance studio for most of my own training has been a site of unspeakable violence: a space that expedites the destruction of black self-esteem and self-worth. This violence is unspeakable because most of the time it does not manifest itself in legible ways that lend themselves to linguistic description. This type of violence is often felt— as a nauseating lump in one’s throat, as a sudden rush of blood to the head, and an abrupt contraction of the muscles. The dance studio is a space where hundreds of years of phobias and fantasies about black anatomy entangle and flourish. It is a scene of jealousy where black flesh is molded, straightened out, pronged, tucked, devoured, and belched out (with “good intentions”). For these reasons, I usually do not approach dance spaces as “safe spaces.”


Memories of Blood

   Alvin Ailey, inspired by Martha Graham, drew on his blood memories to create dances such as his magnum opus Revelations. Creating from blood memories, from a black standpoint, means piecing together fragments of personal experiences that make up the fact of blackness. It is similar to what thirteenth century Persian poet Rumi means when he says “dance in your blood.” The “hood” in parentheses in Brother(hood) Dance has to do with centralizing narratives and personal experiences from the “hood” through active experimentation with form and narrative strategies, rather than clinging to biography and presenting oneself as an ethnographic curiosity. A poignant strategy employed by Brother(hood) Dance is avoiding narrative closure.  I believe the main reason the piece is able to “stay in the hold despite fantasies of flight”3 is precisely because they only present an excerpt of a larger piece, with no beginning and no ending. Its unwholeness provided a dizzy narrative arc that isn’t projected at a final resolution of conflict. Even if equilibrium and conflict resolution are part of their choreographic vision, I argue that the excerpt as a (sub)genre destabilizes that end-goal. It is in the excerpt (and not the whole) that I find revolutionary potential, at least as it relates to form.

   Blood memory work is a challenge for black artists, since making dance about what it means to be black is often received as either passé or an obsession with race. Black artists who attend to these questions in their work are often shunned in order to clear the ground for story ballets, So You Think You Can Dance, Abby Lee Miller of Dance Moms and other such great American buffoons. Those black dancers creating work about blackness also suffer reviews and “critical” analyses that either mute their technical innovations completely to focus on issues of identity or (in an “anti-essentialist” effort) relegate their innovations to experimental dance traditions in a way that distances the artists from their blackness. Brother(hood) Dance creates dances about police brutality, black spirituality, and black masculinity in this harsh cultural climate. In Black Jones, they present vignettes of the ballroom culture in New York as well as draw from a devastatingly large archive of police brutality towards black people. These moments also challenge us to expand our definition of violence and consider violence that seems small and trivial. Police brutality is not the beginning and end of anti-black violence. Violence is sometimes disguised with politeness and good intentions, and it does not always feel bad. We aim to gain clarity by taking into account violence as also metaphysical, and really sit with that idea.4 A nuanced assessment of violence also means attending to the intramural, interrogating those who are black but “appropriate” and valorize anti-black methods of policing other black people, especially those with dissenting voices that do not strive to make white people feel safe. The intramural strangulation of those black throats that dare to emit an insurgent sound—one that is not a plea for assimilation and rainbow coalitions— is pernicious, violent, and sadly commonplace. This agenda operates to make black artists tow the line, and it is done under the guise of a range of selling points such as “hope,” “reconciliation,” “joy,” and other pious narratives of “overcoming.”


“I AM A MAN”

   What does it mean to see dark skinned black men on stage and how does this register in our field of vision? What are our expectations and yearnings when we see dark skinned performers, since our practices of viewing are a site where desire and genocide become intimate bedfellows? David Marriott in On Black Men directs our attention to the interrelation between looking and devouring, what he calls “eating through the eyes.” He describes these cravings to consume blackness through the eyes as “appetites that disfigure us . . . look[ing] in the name of appreciating and destroying, loving and hating.”5 Operating in an industry that is hostile to dark skin, it is commendable that Brother(hood) Dance then departs from what South African poet Lesego Rampokoleng calls “sweaty flesh,” which Andries Oliphant summarizes as “obsequies, self-demeaning kitsch, drum beating, ethnic prancing and the vulgar display of half-naked bodies to titillate. . . reducing the black world to sweaty flesh.”6 Brother(hood) Dance drifts away from presenting us with convivial flesh gyrating happily to appeal to the highest bidder, with mouths wide open while shuffering and shmiling. Of course, this does not mean that they are not or will not be read through the disfiguring gaze which only notices skin and imposes thin-layered meanings upon it.

   The innovative partnering sequences in Black Jones allow us to confront what it means for black men to touch one another and be seen touching, [It was Joseph Beam who first pronounced that “Black men loving black men is the revolutionary act.”] Some of the moments of touch signal a love that’s not permitted in modernity’s gender policing logic. This kind of touch persists, however, in Black Jones. It is a delicate touch, sometimes with firm grasps and lifts that take care not to drop the other Brother. Is the touch an indication of love as revolutionary in and of itself? How do we avoid being seduced and lulled to slumber by the gentleness and warmth of the caress? How do we hold back from over-valorizing the space of touch as a safe space? The world writ large, and the dance world in particular, is not a safe space for black people. Hunter and Valentine improvise and fashion something akin to a “safe space” precisely because the dance world is not safe for us. Protecting the “safe spaces” we continue to build is also difficult as these spaces are sometimes infiltrated by those we are saving ourselves from. We build and ensure that our touch is not a destructive one that facilitates more damage to the dead.

   There is a moment in the piece where Hunter holds a cardboard sign with the writing “I AM A MAN”. There is a diagonal strikethrough with red ink on that writing which suggests that one who holds the sign is either not a man, refuses to be a man, or has never been allowed to be a man. The sign reminds us of the 1968 sanitation strike in Memphis, Tennessee, where workers—surveilled by armed police—carried and wore signs that read “I AM A MAN”.7 The statement “I AM A MAN” opens up an array of interpretations. First, it can be read as a speech act that affirms, rather than merely describe, one as truly a man. Second, it can be interpreted as an (un)intentional call for recognition and incorporation into the destructive yet seemingly attractive and rewarding category of “Man.”8 Whatever conclusion one arrives at, the citational element of the sign clearly indicates a continuous pattern here. The fact that the speech act is still relevant for Hunter and Valentine in 2016 to affirm black existence confirms an historical stillness, not only stillness in the form of the police halting black movement with bullets, but a more sustained stillness and foreclosure which has ensured the squashing of black progress in any direction for hundreds of years. It reveals the vices of “American democracy” that stand still and balance en pointe on black people’s throats.


On Feeling Good

   The post-performance discussion at Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative involves going around a circle and sharing what we all felt and thought. It is also a way to pose questions about Black Jones. The audience-participants each pose sophisticated questions about touch, visuality, personhood, citizenship, and freedom. One of the points that linger is about being touched and or moved emotionally by the dance. It is indisputable that participating in and watching dance can be an extremely entertaining and healing process. Feeling good is great—and necessary in these ever-cataclysmic times—but we must also recognize that just “feeling good” is not and cannot be the totality of our set of revolutionary principles. It is incumbent upon us to reconsider how we have been cathedralizing good feelings and conflating them with freedom. It is too hasty and irresponsible to shout “we feel good, therefore we have arrived at our destiny, freedom is hither!” I find it irresponsible to conceptualize and accept our freedom as a future utopia we cannot yet touch or a kind of “waiting for the glory of the coming of the Lord.” I find this to be a cruel, uncritical, and premature celebration of the figment that is paradise. What are we left to do with a world that cannot and will not usher in our freedom, because its existence is contingent on the premise that we remain the antithesis of the Human? Martinician poet Aimé Césaire in Notebook of A Return to My Native Land advises us: “The only thing in the world worth starting: the end of the world, for heaven’s sake.”9 In this sense, we end the world of our “death-bound subjectivity”10 by any means necessary.

   Individual performances and embodied experiences allow us come up with our own individual definitions of freedom. What feels nice and what releases endorphins might drive an individual to make claims about being free. However, these valid and fleeting feelings do not unniggerize the individual performer who is positioned and operates as part of a collection of nothingness. This nothingness entails being (mis)seen, perceived, and treated like a void whose flesh can be severed at a whim by those who are not black because—through racist perception—black flesh is devoid of personhood.11 Black individuals with class privilege cannot escape how this mode of perception affects them, because it is an attack on blackness as a collective category of non-Being. The stage where black performers enact and intensely feel their freedom and pleasure is also a danger zone. This is why Saidiya Hartman calls upon us to seriously confront the question of black performance as always happening within the context of coercion.12 I am not prepared to refer to the state we’re in as freedom. We cannot truly claim to be free when we are still fixed as a collection of nothingness, despite some of our individual convictions that we (are) matter. It is crucial that as black art-makers we attend to our suffering not as “inferior social subjects,” as Hortense Spillers advises in her essay “Interstices,” but from what she calls the “paradox of non-being” where under “the sign of [a] particular historical order black female and male are absolutely equal.”13 Selamawit Terrefe, a careful and unflinching reader of Spillers puts this succinctly: “While the foci of violence against Blacks of all presumed genders may appear to have differential modes or loci (according to where they are positioned along a lateral hegemonic axis of white, heteronormative patriarchy), unrestrained violence positions all Blacks, regardless of their various gendered subjectivities, along a vertical axis driven and perpetuated by antiblackness.”14 Anti-blackness stitches all black life to death, those who are presumed to be female and those who are presumed to be male (and I urgently propose a radical departure from reducing black gender to this bifurcation). This is why black artists, even those who understand themselves as “queer” need to pause and think twice before appropriating a common grammar of “queerness” to explain both their suffering and freedom. We can’t purport to be free when we still signify nothingness in the flesh. Freedom is not enduring a “fatal way of being alive”15 while waiting for your flesh to be whimsically executed. Our mourning cannot be reduced to catharsis. Our mourning cannot halt at “getting over it.” Our movement cannot be restricted to a choreographic score of “moving on.” What we leave behind when we “move on” matters because it never leaves us. Our mo(u)rning is not possible here!


Aporetic endings, To Brother(hood) Dance

   Thank you for a choreopoetics of aporia—a series of vignettes that avoided narrative closure even if we might have felt it was best for us.16 Black Jones offers catharsis not as an end goal, but as a map and not the destination. The workshop established a practice of “tending-toward-blackness” while the Black Jones performance excerpt presented the transient nature of our feelings of freedom. This approach reveals to us love as a pleasurable danger zone. Thank you for not being seduced and thus seducing us in with a messianic moralization and sanitation of the black struggle. The black struggle cannot be reduced to nice feelings and moral outcomes. Dissenting black voices and actions cannot be reduced to fatalism and self-pity. Moments in Black Jones truly came close to Terrefe’s description of black performance as a catachrestic term for runaway slaves.17


ENDNOTES:

  1. This mode of inquiry is made possible by my engagement with the work of black thinkers such as (but not limited to) Christina Sharpe, Athi Mongezeleli Joja, Selamawit Terrefe, Jared Sexton, Hortense Spillers, David Marriott, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Patrice Douglass, Frank Wilderson III, Saidiya Hartman, Cecilio Cooper, Nicholas Brady, Andile Mngxitama, Mayfield Brooks, John Murillo III, Abdul R. JanMohamed, Huey Copeland II, Andile Mngxitama, Jaye Austin Williams, Tyrone Palmer, Joy James, Frantz Fanon, and Orlando Patterson.
  2. Huey Copeland. “Tending-toward-Blackness.” October156 (2016): 141-44.
  3. Frank B. Wilderson. Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of US Antagonisms. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2010.
  4. For a full discussion on metaphysical violence see: Patrice Douglass and Frank B. Wilderson. “The Violence of Presence: Metaphysics in a Blackened World.” The Black Scholar 43:4 (2013): 117.
  5. David Marriott. On Black Men. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000: 27
  6. Andries Oliphant. “A big Step, Abject bile and revolt in the work of Lesego Rampokoleng.” In Positions: Contemporary Artists in South Africa, edited by Peter Anders and Matthew Krouse. Auckland Park: Jacana Media, 2010.
  7. Of course, this statement must be read alongside Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” (1851). For more information on the 1968 sanitation strike in Memphis see the following URL: http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_memphis_sanitation_workers_strike_1968/
  8. For a thorough critique of the category of Man, see: Sylvia Wynter. “On How We Mistook the Map for the Territory and Re-Imprisoned Ourselves in Our Unbearable Wrongness of Being, of Désêtre: Black Studies Toward the Human Project.” In Not Only The Master’s Tools: African-American Studies in Theory and Practice, edited by Lewis R. Gordon and Jane A. Gordon. Boulder: Paradigm, 2006: 107-69. Also see Wynter’s “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Toward the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review 3:3 (2003): 257-337.
  9. Aimé Césaire. Notebook of a Return to My Native Land. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1995.
  10. Abdul R. JanMohamed. The Death-bound-subject : Richard Wright’s Archaeology of Death. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2005.
  11. Hortense J. Spillers. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” In Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Also see Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto, 1986.
  12. Saidiya V. Hartman and Frank B. Wilderson. “The Position of the Unthought” Qui Parle13:2 (2003): 183-201.
  13. Hortense J. Spillers. “Interstices: A Small Drama of Words.” In Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
  14. Selamawit Terrefe. “Phantasmagoria; or, The World is a Haunted Plantation.” In The Feminist Wire. Posted October 10, 2012. The article is accessible at the following URL: http://www.thefeministwire.com/2012/10/phantasmagoria/
  15. Marriott (2000).
  16. To conceptualize a “choreopoetics of aporia,” I borrow from Wilderson’s work in “Social Death and Narrative Aporia in 12 Years a Slave.” Black Camera 7:1(2015): 134-149.
  17. Terrefe (2012).

Black Liberation and the Abolition of the Prison Industrial Complex: An Interview with Rachel Herzing

Over the next few weeks we will be posting select chapters from our new quarterly publication, Propter Nos. Below is an excerpt from the inaugural issue.

Download the full issue of Propter Nos at the following url: Propter Nos. Vol. 1 Issue 1


Black Liberation and the Abolition of the Prison Industrial Complex

An Interview with Rachel Herzing

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True Leap Press (TLP): Hi Rachel, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. We are excited to have you as a contributor in this inaugural edition of Propter Nos. Our publishing collective thinks the specific timing of this issue is important to highlight, as it is set to be released in the closing days of Black August. Could you possibly explain what Black August is for our readers, and why it is so important for people to recognize today?


Rachel: Black August is a call for reflection, study, and action to promote Black liberation. Its roots go back to California prisons in the 1970s, during a period of sustained struggle and resistance against racialized violence against Black imprisoned people, especially those calling for Black liberation and challenging state power. Ignited by the deaths of Jonathan and George Jackson in August 1970 and August 1971, and honoring others who gave their lives including Khatari Gualden, William Christmas and James McClain, a group of imprisoned people came together to develop a means of honoring that sacrifice and promoting Black liberation. While August is significant because of the deaths of the Jackson brothers, it is also a month with many other significant moments in Black history in the United States including the formation of the Underground Railroad, Nat Turner’s rebellion, the March on Washington, and the Watts uprising, to name just a few. So there was an idea that this could be a time that imprisoned people in the California prison system could use for reflection, study, and to think about how to strengthen their struggles. During the month, people wouldn’t use radios or television, would fast between sun up and sun down, and practice other measures of self-discipline. Eventually the commemorations during that month were taken up outside of prisons, too. Malcolm X Grassroots Movement became the stewards of the commemoration outside prisons, although many people honor and celebrate this legacy and the roots of the practice. Black August is important to commemorate (and I hope that the variety of ways that people commemorate that legacy can be nurtured and encouraged), in part, because it connects imprisoned organizers and revolutionaries with communities outside of prisons that are struggling for similar things. It’s often the case that imprisoned communities are meant to be invisible, and essentially cut off from non-imprisoned communities, especially communities of struggle. I think that is an important reason to reflect, as well as to study and honor the sacrifices Black revolutionaries have made over centuries and recommit ourselves to the struggle. Black August provides one important vehicle for doing that.


TLP: On this note, how did the contemporary prison and policing abolition movement emerge? What are some of the major theoretical and historical connections existing between abolitionism in its current iterations and these earlier articulations of the Black/Prisoner liberation struggle just mentioned?


Rachel: Well I think the periodization probably depends on who you talk to. So since you’re talking to me, you’re going to get something pretty specific [laughter]. I think it also depends on what you mean by “contemporary.” In my mind, there is a long through line of people fighting particularly for the abolition of imprisonment that goes back to Eastern State Penitentiary, which was the first modern day US prison. That was in Philadelphia, 1829. Almost immediately, the Quakers, who played a role in building this institution to encourage reflection, understood that this was a mistake. And Quakers ever since that time have been on the frontline of advocating for the abolition of imprisonment. So there is that old-timey version of it, which links back to the development and the build up of penitentiaries as institutions of containment and human control.

   If you jump ahead to the 1970s and 1980s, you begin to see organizations that are fighting for a moratorium on prison construction, but also groups advocating actively for the abolition of imprisonment. For instance, there is a book that came out during this period called Instead of Prisons, originally published in 1976, by a group called Prison Research Education Action Project (PREAP). At that time, they were looking at a national prison population that was 250,000. They thought surely this is a tipping point, we need to take action now. And so, as we know, the imprisoned population in the US is now nearly 2.3 million. So this struggle dates back, then, to the seventies and eighties, and became somewhat quieter in certain periods, but never completely went away.

   1998 is another important year: the founding Critical Resistance (CR) conference was held in Berkeley that year. That conference did some work to reinvigorate the concept of abolition, and not just as a thing to organize around intellectually, but to organize campaigns and projects around, as well. It also introduced the concept of the prison industrial complex (PIC) into a more popular consciousness. While that conference didn’t form some kind of modern abolitionist movement, it did reignite an energy that may have been less prominent or less active just prior to it. That conference was still very focused on imprisonment and it wasn’t until 2001, when Critical Resistance East happened that there was a really strong attention toward thinking about the abolition of the prison industrial complex as a whole. That was kind of at the forefront of what that conference was all about.

   I think today, and since becoming an organization in 2001, CR plays a particular role in advocating for the abolition of the entire system—of the entire prison industrial complex—rather than just being a prison abolition organization. CR was really at the forefront in the early 2000s as an organization advocating for the abolition of policing, too. Nowadays you hear a lot more people talking about policing itself as something to fight, as opposed to resisting its function within the PIC or even just its relation to imprisonment. It is more common these days for people to think about ways to live without some idea that law enforcement is a kind of natural feature of our world.

   So I think there is a through line there from early Quaker opposition to imprisonment to the contemporary movement for PIC abolition. And like all movements, there are some ebbs and flows to it, but those are some of the key markers that I would use to talk about its development.


TLP: What exactly brought you into the abolitionist movement? Do you identify as an abolitionist, or is this one aspect of a larger, overarching framework which informs your praxis? 


Rachel: I think it is both. I definitely identify as a prison industrial complex abolitionist. I do that work because I believe in the liberation of Black people and I think that it is one of the foremost ways to see that broader goal fulfilled. Without the abolitionist movement and without a commitment to ending mass criminalization, containment, and death of Black people, I don’t think Black liberation is possible in the United States—or elsewhere, frankly. So I come to this work as a survivor of sexual harm and law enforcement harm who doesn’t believe the PIC makes me any safer, and as somebody who is committed to the liberation of Black people.


TLP: You alluded earlier to the differences between a politics of gradualist police and prison reform and a prison-industrial-complex abolitionist praxis. What are your thoughts on framing political struggle in terms of either “abolition” or “reform”? Are there not limitations to framing the conversation in this way?


Rachel: I don’t think it’s very useful to position those as binaries. I think it’s more about different end games. Back in the early 2000s, Critical Resistance started using a framework that a lot of people are using now, and almost never credit CR by the way (which I hope just means it has permeated the common sense and not that people simply don’t credit CR [laughter]). We started saying that the distinction between abolitionists and reformers (or people who either have abolition as their end goal or reform as their end goal) is that reformers tend to see the system as broken— something that can be fixed with some tweaks or some changes. Whereas abolitionists think that the system works really well. They think that the PIC is completely efficient in containing, controlling, killing, and disappearing the people that it is meant to. Even if it might sweep up additional people in its wake, it is very, very effective at doing the work it’s meant to do. So rather than improving a killing machine, an abolitionist goal would be to try and figure out how to take incremental steps—a screw here, a cog there—and make it so the system cannot continue—so it ceases to exist—rather than improving its efficiency. Whereas reformers, with criminal justice reform being their end goal, believe there is something worth improving there. So the groups have different end games.

   I have never understood or participated in moves toward abolition that didn’t take steps of some sort. A reform is just a change, right? So there can be negative reforms and there can be positive reforms. You can make a change that entrenches the system, improves its ability to function, increases its legitimacy, so: a non- abolitionist goal. Or, you can take an incremental step that steals some of the PIC’s power, makes it more difficult to function in the future, or decreases its legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

   I think the false distinction between reform and abolition assumes that there is some kind of pure vision that doesn’t require strategy or incremental moves. If it is possible to get everybody to open all prison doors wide today, fantastic! If it is not, then what can we do to chip away, chip away, chip away so that the PIC doesn’t have the ability to continually increase its power or deepen its reach and hold on our lives?


TLP: What do you see being the most significant overlaps between: the past two decades of abolitionist organizing, “Black Lives Matter,” and the movement for Black lives in its current phase? I know it’s a messy question, because there are folks at the forefront who are situated both ideologically and physically at the intersections between each. Maybe a better way to phrase it is: do you see any tensions or contradictions between the abolitionist work that has unfolded over the past two decades and the emergent Black-led political forms taking shape today?


Rachel: First off, I want to be very clear: I cannot speak for Black Lives Matter. I’m not a member of Black Lives Matter, I’m not involved in that organization, and do not have the ability to speak on their strategy or form. But I know there is a distinction between them and the Movement for Black Lives, which is a network of nearly sixty Black-led organizations across the US that came together to meet first in Cleveland, and then out of that, have continued to work together. And Black Lives Matter is one of those organizations. The Movement for Black Lives recently released this policy platform, titled A Vision for Black Lives, with more than thirty policy pieces in it.

   I guess I would say a few things to this question: First, I think that what we are seeing emerge today—what I would loosely call a Black protest movement, which includes a lot of these organizations and formations just mentioned—would have actually been impossible to come out in the way that is has (to have the foundation to stand on and to have people move in the way that they have) if there hadn’t been growing movements against imprisonment and policing in the United States over the previous two decades. I don’t know if there is a single set of politics within Black Lives Matter (and I know it’s not true within the Movement for Black Lives) that compels an abolitionist orientation towards their work. I think there are some people who lean that way and I think there are some people who lean other ways and I think there are a variety of political perspectives and orientations that I’ve seen emerge from this broader network. I guess, at various points, I’ve been surprised that so little attention has been paid to the decades of work (well actually centuries of work, but recent decades in particular) done by Black people and Black organizations to fight the violence of policing in the United States; especially when the protest movement jumped off. I understand that people participating in that protest were fueled in no small part by outrage and in just complete disbelief at the scale and scope of the violence, and that people are being activated and drawn out for the first time. There are some who felt compelled to action right away and weren’t necessarily connected to those other organizations or movements.

   I think as the past two years have unfolded I’ve seen, particularly in the Movement for Black Lives, some of that leadership and some of those organizations doing good study, thinking about other Black liberationist platforms, thinking about the histories of Black struggle around a variety of other issues and really broadening their understanding of the violence facing Black people. That is, not only issues surrounding the prison industrial complex, but also the economic, social, and political features of it. I don’t know that there is a direct relationship between the previous decades of work—and again, I mean prior work along the spectrum from abolitionist to moderate reform—and these new Black protest formations. I think there is probably overlap of people, probably some overlap of thinking, and probably some overlap of strategy. But I don’t know if they are in direct relationship to each other. I would say that while there can be no doubt that Black Lives Matter has had unprecedented cultural significance and impact on US popular culture (on US media and the cultural life of people in the states and globally), it is less clear to me what the organizing impact will be. And in a place like Oakland where I live, there are strong organizations with decades of strong organizing going back to the Panthers and before that set the stage differently than what might be true for other places that have a different history. So I think the longer term impacts of this most recent activism on the power of the prison industrial complex over Black lives (and the lives of people of color and Indigenous people more generally) has yet to be seen. That said, I think there has been a change in the conversation. I think there is no doubt that there is a really significant cultural impact, even though some of it is still in the making.


TLP: How do you understand the prisoner hunger strikes and other prisoner-led activisms that have occurred over the past decade in relationship to such mobilizations against policing and criminalization in the so-called “free world”?


Rachel: I think it depends on how you define mobilizations in the free world. I think there is a strong movement outside of prisons and jails. Sometimes it gets more attention and sometimes it gets less attention, but I think it has sustained. I don’t necessarily think that is the same thing as this Black protest strain. Again, there are overlapping people and overlapping players and that sort of thing, but I have yet to see (which again, isn’t to say that it couldn’t happen) an engagement or activism beyond direct action that has meaningfully connected to more sustained organizing around imprisonment.

   So I’m not sure that it’s fair necessarily to say “they’re not doing a good job,” because I’m not sure that’s their goal, right? I think the goal is a much more media focused one. With that being said, I think there is what I would call (and this is me showing my age and crabbiness about social media) an overreliance on social media which has meant that a lot of people are just left out. I personally have the luxury to make choices about being on social media or not and the choice to opt out of certain types of feeds of information and conversations. But there are many people who are living in cages who don’t have access to social media. And even for those who do, they might not have access to it in the same real-time that people living outside of cages do. A lot of that organizing, a lot of that conversation happens over Twitter, happens via Facebook, happens via Instagram. So there are potentially millions of people who don’t have a voice in the conversation. Which is not to say that all imprisoned people are not finding ways to participate. There are many who are finding ways to engage. It’s complicated to organize with imprisoned people and there are all kinds of structural and institutional barriers to doing that. Like I was saying, the system is set up to make people who live in cages invisible and disappeared. So it’s not without all kinds of challenges. And again, I don’t know necessarily if that’s their intention or that’s what the mobilizations against policing are set up to do.

   But to return to the movement that is meant to do that and is engaged in all of that: the 2011 and 2013 prisoner-led hunger strikes in California really re-energized the movement outside of prisons and jails and activated a lot of people. The strikes gave an injection of energy. Part of that was the inspiration of the leadership of people who are imprisoned in solitary confinement, living under the most excruciating conditions that human beings can imagine. They managed to study together, build bridges across the racial divides that are perpetually stoked by the prison regimes, and were able to engage people outside of cages to take up this call to end indefinite solitary confinement—to get people in conditions that they could actually live and fight from. The work of people imprisoned inside of Pelican Bay, Corcoran, High Desert, Folsom . . . wherever they are living and working, really, was a shot in the arm for the outside movement. And I think that’s sustained and spread. California isn’t the only place, and California wasn’t the first place. You also see Alabama, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Washington, and others. In these places you see imprisoned people using this last resort, their own bodies, to highlight just how excruciating and torturous these conditions actually are.

   Pieces like the agreement to End Hostilities that came out of the California prison system and was then taken up by other communities across the state and nationally is an important organizing tool. It refocuses attention to the fact that people are always struggling inside. There are also imprisoned people who are behind the elimination of the use of sterilization on people in women’s prisons, working to increase visitation or organizing against prison and jail expansion or construction. Imprisoned organizers are important players in all of these campaigns and many more.


TLP: So, to shift gears a bit, how do you suggest we think about the relationship between struggles against the aforementioned aspects of state-condoned racist domestic warfare within US borders and the numerous declared and undeclared imperialist wars abroad?


Rachel: There can be no doubt that there is a direct relationship between war- making at home and war-making abroad. While I do not use the word “war” lightly in the domestic context (and I know its articulations are different here than in theaters of combat in places like Afghanistan or Iraq), I do think that it is an appropriate term to use regarding the genocidal practices at home—going back to the first attempts to exterminate Indigenous people from this land, to the ongoing structural and actual physical violence used to eliminate peoples’ access and opportunity to have meaningful, healthy lives. There are some concrete overlaps. There are overlapping technologies, for instance. The weaponized drone that was recently used to kill Micah Johnson in Dallas has been used in Iraq; surveillance technologies once tested out in such theaters of war are used regularly by domestic law enforcement; data collection methods used there are also used here; etc.

   I think it is oversimplified to just say: “Oh, well did you know the military is giving extra equipment to law enforcement?” That’s true and that’s a scandal. But that is merely a sliver of where the overlap of interests and warfare practices is happening. The people who are designing war to take place in spaces outside of the United States are influencing the tactics of law enforcement here in the United States. I think you can look at the borders as one of those places where that stuff coalesces strongly. However this is also happening in cities, in counties, and rural areas across the country. There’s also a way that the logic of law enforcement in the United States is taking on an increasingly explicit war-making tenor. There are very clear examples of this such as the declared War on Drugs or War on Gangs. The enforcement of these wars uses a lot of the same tactics and technologies, but also is premised on a sense that there is an enemy that needs to be targeted and eliminated here at home.

   One way this has played out dramatically is with the creation and growth of the Department of Homeland Security since September 11th and the fear-mongering around terrorism that’s used to clamp down on the domestic setting. One small example of this that we have been fighting in Oakland is a program called Urban Shield. It is 48 hours of war games simulations and trainings for SWAT and other special law enforcement forces. The scenarios are incredibly racist, really sensationalized, and millions upon millions of dollars of my county’s money go into these war game competitions. Simultaneously, they hold a trade expo, so you can go and get the latest night-vision goggles, the newest guns, the latest tracking softwares or stingray technology, or robots and drones. In terms of its cultural impact, in this period of increased public attention on the policing of protest you’ll also see things like t-shirts with things like images of protesters in cross-hairs for sale at these tradeshows.


TLP: While we are on this topic of repression, counterinsurgency warfare, and police spying, could you speak a little bit on the politics of movement security? I don’t mean this as a reiteration of criminological notions of security and securitization. I simply mean, are there certain principles, organizing strategies, or ways of collectivizing political labor that you suggest be embraced, at both organizational and larger popular levels, which can stave off intrusion from the state or the counterrevolutionary aspirations of liberal civil society?


Rachel: This is definitely not my area of expertise [laughter], but I’ll tell you what I think [more laughter]. I think organizers should always operate on the assumption that they’re being watched, that their communication is being monitored, and that they likely will encounter people intent on provoking people and sharing information to discredit and disrupt organizing, particularly organizing that challenges state power. That said, I think being smart and cognizant of that is different than being paralyzed and paranoid.

   My sense is that strong organizations are a good line of self-defense. Strong organizations, strong coalitions, and strong networks. Trying to go it alone, as individuals or as a handful of people is always more risky than being connected to an organizing infrastructure and a base. But people make different choices about what their tactics require and what they think is strategic. I feel quite certain that when things get more powerful they get more closely monitored. That balance between moving forward toward political goals and using common sense caution is really important. I think calling out and not cooperating with law enforcement always makes really good sense to me [laughter]. Calling out visits by law enforcement, not cooperating, and then letting people know that it’s happening—those kinds of things are extremely important. Having consistency in how people get to enter spaces, when people get to participate in decision-making, those basic organizing guidelines used by many organizations for a long time, is also important.


TLP: So in the spirit of Black August, we have pulled three quotes from Assata Shakur’s autobiography that we hope to get your opinion on. The first is as follows:

I have never really understood exactly what a “liberal” is, though, since i have heard “liberals” express every conceivable opinion on every conceivable subject. As far as i can tell, you have extreme right, who are fascist, racist capitalist dogs like Ronald Reagan, who come right out and let you know where they’re coming from. And on the opposite end, you have the left, who are supposed to be committed to justice, equality, and human rights. And somewhere in between these two points is the liberal. As far as i’m concerned, “liberal” is the most meaningless word in the dictionary. History has shown me that as long as some white middle-class people can live high on the hog, take vacations to Europe, send their children to private schools, and reap the benefits of their white skin privileges, then they are “liberals.” But when times get hard and money gets tight they pull off that liberal mask and you think you’re talking to Adolph Hitler. They feel sorry for the so-called underprivileged just as along as they can maintain their own privileges.

 

What comes to mind after hearing this quote?


Rachel: I think it’s an interesting point. In the movement against the prison industrial complex we have struggled a lot with . . . umm . . . liberals [laughter]— some of the most stalwart reformers where reform is their end game. I also think there is some interesting wiggle room there. What is necessary to fulfill their commitment to justice, and equality, and human rights? I mean, if there is a kernel of that there, then part of our work as organizers is to amplify our shared interests, to compel them in that direction, and also to make that compelling. That doesn’t mean we always succeed or that their class interests, racial benefits, gender benefits or other sources of power they want to protect might not ultimately play them one way or the other. But thinking about where can we exploit that kernel of shared interest is interesting to me here, rather than just giving up and writing them off entirely. Of course we need to be cautious of what they are recommending and what they think is “practical” or “pragmatic.” But it’s our job now to push on that and to make other suggestions.


TLP: Here is the second quote:

Constructive criticism and self-criticism are extremely important for any revolutionary organization. Without them, people tend to drown in their mistakes, and not learn from them.


Rachel: Yes. I couldn’t agree more [laughter]. So yes, what Assata said [more laughter]. I worry a little bit, in this period, about a lack of intellectual rigor and lack of discipline, as well as accusations of working “too slowly” or “not understanding” the sense of urgency. You know, we saw this similarly around the rise of the anti- globalization movement which I also think is a direct antecedent of what we are seeing in terms of Black protest today. Similarly, I would say that about Occupy. I would call that a direct antecedent. I don’t think we would be seeing what we are seeing now without those previous movements.


TLP: Like a tactical antecedent? Or something more ideological?


Rachel: I think both. But I don’t mean a one-to-one overlap, or like: this led directly to this. But more in terms of some of the orientations towards organizing and the ideological parallels. So definitely not a one-to-one, but I think influenced by quite certainly.

   I think in these moments where there is a heightened investment in direct action as the primary way to move, the pacing and the urgency and all that is required to keep up the pace sometimes makes it challenging to engage people in longer term planning, or study, or assessment. Because people are really feeling like there is no time to do that. That said, if you don’t engage with decades of previous organizing, if you don’t engage with where you are falling down, then you will make the same mistakes over and over. You will make mistakes made a month ago. You will make mistakes that were made ten years ago. You might make those anyways, but they might be more productive mistakes if you’ve made a commitment to studying movement history. The last thing I’ll say about this is that it’s also fucking hard. Nobody wants to confront the stuff they’ve messed up on, or the things they think they’ve done wrong, not to mention talk about their vulnerabilities. I think that also what Assata is describing is very different than a callout culture that’s like “you’re fucked” or “let me just describe all the ways that you’ve messed up.” I think what she’s talking about is a disciplined assessment and reflection within organizational settings on where we need to improve, where we need to tighten up, and where we need to be stronger and smarter.


TLP: This point on the pace and tempo of struggle is so crucial. I am glad you mention it. There truly is, as you say, this kind of militant presentism (and ahistoricity) unique to the so-called “Left” that is as troubling for movement-builders as the gradualist impulse of liberal antiracist reform. This point also makes for a good transition into our final quote from Shakur, which goes as follows:

Just because you believe in self-defense doesn’t mean you let yourself be sucked into defending yourself on the enemy’s terms. One of the [Black Panther] party’s major weaknesses, i thought, was the failure to clearly differentiate between aboveground political struggle and underground, clandestine military struggle.


Rachel: I believe in self-defense. I think that self-defense and self-determination are really key concepts if Black people want to get free. But also for all people who want to be free. In my mind, there is a certain romanticism of a very fixed and narrow conception of self-defense that I think actually comes from, well . . . actually . . . reading Assata, for instance [laughter]. And that is not to criticize her or people who read her. It’s more to say, what does self-defense look like in 2016, versus in 1969 or 1973? In my mind, self-defense requires an understanding of shared fate. It requires an understanding of how what happens in El Salvador or what happens in Palestine or what happens in the Philippines impacts my ability to fight for my own liberation. Some of that has to do with the nature of US imperialism. Some of that also has to do with what we have learned, over many decades, about the power of internationalism generally, and Third World solidarity in particular.

   What is required from our organizations or movements in relationship with these sectors internationally needs to be a determining force in how we shift power. Building a sense of how we defend our own abilities to live healthy, meaningful, powerful lives in relationship to people in similar conditions around the globe is a way of thinking about self-defense that I am interested in exploring further. That includes how we fight US imperialism, or how we fight for food security, or how we fight against large-scale gentrification and the march of capitalism. Toward that end, I think this idea of not being sucked into defending ourselves on the enemy’s terms is important. Building these networks I’ve been describing is one way of determining our own course. It allows us to be proactive instead of only defensive. It allows us to say: “this is what we want to build.” In a lot of ways an abolitionist vision is an example of this kind of proactive vision. It’s not just: “I want to eliminate imprisonment” or “I want to eliminate the cops.” It really is an affirmative ideology and practice. Affirmatively, this is the world I want to live in, therefore I need to take these steps to create the conditions that make that world possible.

 
Rachel Herzing lives and works in Oakland, CA, where she fights the violence of policing and imprisonment. She is a co-founder of Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization dedicated to abolishing the prison industrial complex and the Co-Director of the StoryTelling & Organizing Project, a community resource sharing stories of interventions to interpersonal harm that do not rely on policing, imprisonment, or traditional social services. The following interview was conducted by the True Leap Publishing Collective.

Policing and the Violence of White Being: An Interview with Dylan Rodríguez

Over the next few weeks we will be posting select chapters from our new quarterly publication, Propter Nos. Below is an excerpt from the inaugural issue. 


 

Policing and the Violence of White Being

An Interview with Dylan Rodríguez

Download the full issue of Propter Nos at the following url: Propter Nos. Vol. 1 Issue 1


Casey: The US white-supremacist state operates today through a different set of discourses and cultural structures than in previous epochs. Your work interrogates such shifts at a level of depth and nuance that is of particular importance for emergent struggles against racist state violence. “Multiculturalist white supremacy,” “post-racial liberal optimism,” “white academic raciality”—such terms are utilized throughout your work to interrogate a myriad of theoretical and historical conundrums that define the post-Civil Rights era, particularly in regards to racial violence and subjectivity. Can you, in very broad strokes, lay out what you are trying to accomplish with these interventions in the discourses, practices, and forms of embodiment that so violently delimit the possibilities for radical social change in the United States?


Dylan: The aftermath of American apartheid’s formal abolition has been overwhelmed by a grand national-cultural vindication of “Civil Rights” as the vessel of fully actualized gendered-racial citizenship. This fraud has, in various ways, facilitated rather than interrupted the full, horrific exercise of a domestic war-waging regime. For the sake of momentary simplicity, we can think about it along these lines: the half-century narrative of Civil Rights victory rests on an always-fragile but persistent common sense—the idea that national political culture (“America”) and the spirit of law and statecraft (let’s call this “The Dream”) endorse formal racial equality. Bound by this narrative-political context, the racist state’s mechanics shift and multiply to rearticulate a condition of normalized racist violence that is condoned or even applauded by the institutionalized regimes of Civil Rights. (It is not difficult to see how the NAACP, JACL, LULAC, Lambda, NOW, Urban League and other like-minded organizations condone or applaud domestic racial war, so long as it is directed at the correct targets: gang members, drug dealers, “violent criminals,” terrorists, etc.). In other words, the contemporary crisis of racist state violence is not reducible to “police brutality” and homicidal policing, or even the structuring asymmetries of incarceration: it is also a primary derivative of the Civil Rights regime.

   This regime is in some ways inseparable from the emergence of post-1960s technologies of criminalization that resonate with—rather than offend—the (defrauded) dream of vindicated Civil Rights citizenship. After all, the racial/racist state is still being called upon to legislate, protect, and serve the Civil Rights Citizen, even as it is the subject of militant demands for reform that will align it with the Civil Rights versions of America and The Dream. This is the contradiction that yields more and more layers of gendered racist statecraft in the post-optimist’s Age of Obama.

   The widespread, Black-populated and Black-led resistance and revolt that is responding to legally-sanctioned racist police killings should therefore be interpreted as a complex form of insurgency. It is, in significant part, a strike against the respectable, non-scandalous, legitimated forms of policing that have constituted the everyday racist truth of post-Civil Rights nation-building. This insurgency is also, then, a critique of the Civil Rights regime’s complicity in that fifty-year process of national-racial reconstruction.

   So the racist state has metastasized in the last half century, and created new infrastructures and protocols of civil and social death (the industrialized, militarized policing and criminalization complexes) as well as proto-genocidal methods of targeted, utterly normalized suffering, misery, and physiological vulnerability for peoples on the other side of White Being (the paradigm and methodology of human being that we have inherited as universal, unquestioned, and godlike—here i’m referencing Sylvia Wynter’s lifework, of course). I’m thinking, among so many other things, of the levees in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, strategic ecological disruption of indigenous lifeways throughout the hemisphere and in Native Hawaii, redirection and isolation of toxic water to the poorest, Blackest, and Brownest of places, and the seemingly endless continuity of legalized police assassinations of ordinary (and asymmetrically poor, Black, and Brown) people that stretches back as far as modern policing has existed.

   So, if shit is this bad—and it’s so, so stunningly clear that it is almost always worse than we want to believe it is—what is the historical responsibility borne by people who differently inherit and inhabit this condition?

   I am against “unity”—militantly so—and full of desire for radical community (militantly so). At the risk of making the case too bluntly: we experience and condone banal liberal calls to unity (which are often depressingly nationalist or patriotic) so incessantly that they are inescapable (e.g. those stupid fucking French flag colors that folks superimposed on their Facebook profile pictures after the street attacks in Paris, which was like global advertising for White Lives Matter; or the absurd compulsion to insist that one is not “anti-police” when mourning yet another life destroyed by the full force of the police apparatus—because it’s never just one or two or five racist cops, it’s what protects and enables them). These are concessions to a form of political life (which is to say a particular genre of human life—White Being) that cannot be tolerated as such, if some of us expect to live or see others live. I think such concessions must be critically exposed for what they are: disciplinary exercises in assimilating different peoples’ political dreams to the conformities of White Being. At the very same time—and this is the hard part—these critical gestures have to somehow participate in creating possibilities for collective exercises of radical, creative, political-cultural genius that demystify White Being and embolden (or even productively weaponize) other insurgent practices and methodologies of human life. This is difficult, scary, and beautiful work. And if more people don’t attempt to engage in it, we know who will be the first to disappear.


Casey: Could you speak a bit more on what you mean by emphasizing the need to “embolden” and “productively weaponize” other practices and methodologies of human life?


Dylan: I’m talking about how necessary it is to take seriously how peoples (in the most differentiated sense of the notion of “peoples”) have created forms of relationality, cultural reproduction, survival, revolt, and collective being under the eviscerating conditions of this Civilization. This happens everywhere, all the time. In 1496, 1896, and 2016. Down the street and on the other side of the planet. It’s the underside of human being that the official scripts and dominant narratives of the modern world can never adequately rationalize or eliminate. This is to say that decisively displacing the universality of the White Being—and of any such universality altogether—is only a fraction of what is at stake. The fact is—and this is a long-running fact, at least half a millennium old—there are other ways of inhabiting “human being” that are constituted by the violent vulnerabilities normalized by global white-supremacist power, in all of its misogynist, colonial, chattel, and sexual normative (including “homonormative”) iterations. This is just what the fuck it means to try to live under the Civilizational regime. And this work of living, of being, of figuring out ways to thrive, when and where possible, absolutely does not require trying to deform and self-mutilate into the “human” methodologies of the White Being. Peoples everywhere have proved this.

   Look, i also don’t want to be too easily mis-read here. There isn’t just one way of White Being, and we cannot overemphasize enough that White Being cannot be conflated with “white people.” Undoubtedly, Fanon is still correct in stressing the epidermalized, physiologically activated structure of power that inheres in white bodies (however white bodies are socio-politically formed and institutionalized in a given moment). My point here is that White Being constitutes another layer of dominance precisely because it is capable of hailing other beings, inviting them, seducing them—and this is yet another method to humiliate and degrade (perhaps even “de-humanize”) the “underside peoples” i am referencing.

   Finally, we have to admit to ourselves that one of the most important struggles is against the desire to coalesce with White Being, both in the sense of political affinity and the conception of good living. It doesn’t make sense to funnel all manner of insurgent activities (art, organized protest, underground political work, etc.) into demands, of this particular global racial order, that peoples targeted by White Being (now and forever) be enfolded into White Being, whether by virtue of Rights, Citizenship, Marriage, or something else. Those demands may be momentarily necessary and vital for the sake of resisting state violence, but have been demonstrated over and again to work, in the longer historical span, in the service of White Being and no other beings. What, then, would it mean to not only decisively displace the ascendancy of White Being (Civilization), but to also seek to thrive as the descendants of our particular, differentiated conditions of historical vulnerability?


Casey: Thank you for clarifying that point. Given your work as a scholar and student of radical movements that are engaged in political activity from within what you consider to be civil society’s carceral underside (i.e. the US jail/prison), what would you say are the most significant contradictions or points of antagonism arising between the terms of engagement which define the current phase of popular movement addressing criminalization and police violence and the current (and ongoing) work of imprisoned activists and intellectuals? One place we might start is recalling the aftermath of the assassination of Yogi Pinell last year at New Folsom. In this moment, it became rather apparent that a number of theoretical and practical fractures still exist between popular mobilizations on the “outside” and the political labors (and lives) of imprisoned activists “inside.” Just going off the basic fact that news of the murder of this beloved elder in the Black/Prisoner liberation struggle (clearly orchestrated by the CA prison regime) scarcely circulated in the public discourse, barely galvanizing the sentiment of free world activists (outside of certain political circles), I believe, is revealing of the types of slippages and antagonisms I am alluding to.


Dylan: This is difficult to cleanly answer, because in my view (and experience), there are sites and moments of overlap between these forms of political and cultural movement that both illuminate and blur the assumptive alienation between prison/jail and the “free world.” Further, my perspective is deformed by the fact that i am at best a reader, theorist, and interpreter of incarcerated radical praxis. Still, i think it’s possible to identify a couple points of contradiction and antagonism between: 1.) movements by and of incarcerated people and 2.) movements of revolt against anti-Black racism and homicidal police violence that are based in spheres of civil society.

   First, while it is not always the case that carceral insurgencies are led or predominated by Black people held captive, it is very often a fact that such movements explicitly recognize the carceral regime as a paradigm of anti-Black violence. This is why recent political and cultural movements by incarcerated people so consistently make use of the rhetorics, symbols, and legal archives of racial chattel slavery in their internal and public discourses (including platforms and demands issued by captive people engaging in hunger strikes in places like Georgia, California, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere). On the other hand, i think there is work to be done to adequately understand whether and how current, free world-based struggles against anti-Black racist state violence may be hanging onto a fraudulent dream of (Black) citizenship even as they catalyze forms of art, critical thought, liberationist praxis, and (Black) human being that push the imagination against and past the delimited institution of citizenship (a stand-in for White Being) and toward other kinds of political-cultural vistas. That’s one thing.

   The other thing is this: the weight of institutionalized dehumanization (and that’s what the carceral regime is, in its gendered-racial violence) is mind-numbing, vast, and almost entirely incalculable. We can recite statistics all day, but there is no way to adequately communicate how the last half-century of criminalization and human captivity has permanently altered peoples’ worlds. Here’s the thing, though: people who are or have been incarcerated for any length of time spend a lot of energy—during and after their actual incarceration—trying to narrate and communicate this mind-numbing, vast, incalculable violence anyway. Consider it the voice of a human species that is illegible to White Being, and is largely illegible to those of us invited by or seduced into the ceremonies of White Being.


Casey: It would be helpful here if you could briefly walk us through how the “inside”/“outside” relation operates in the discourses and political imagination of the Establishment Left. I am also really curious to hear you speak more on the possibilities that “Black Lives Matter” offers as a mobilizing paradigm capable of disrupting this “inside” versus “outside” mode of thinking and seeing?


Dylan: Central to the formation of the contemporary Establishment Left in the US and elsewhere has been the emergence of a nonprofit/NGO complex, planned and funded by a collaboration between state, philanthropic, and corporate bodies (that is, both individual people and officials representing organizations). It barely takes three clicks into a Google search to see how the “inside/outside” relation is established by the Establishment Left. Incarcerated people (and formerly incarcerated people) are overwhelmingly addressed as clients or impersonal constituencies, and are invoked in rhetorics of state criminological reform. This is what leads to the Establishment Left’s persistent return to notions of “nonviolent crime,” “disparity,” and “mass incarceration.”

   In their totality, these rhetorics reproduce problems inherent to liberal- progressive political desires, including the fabrication of a vacillating definition of those worthy of decarceration, and those whose criminality requires their civil carceral death. In none of this is there anything approaching a serious attempt to clarify, much less directly engage with, the unfolding half century infrastructure of gendered racial domestic warfare. “Disparity” is a bullshit concept, when we already know that the inception of criminal justice is the de-criminalization of white people, particularly propertied white citizens and those willing to bear arms to defend the white world. “Mass Incarceration” is worse than meaningless, when it’s not the “masses” who are being criminalized and locked up. So there is some furtive and fatal white entitlement involved in this discursive political structure. As far as Black Lives Matter goes, i think it’s imperative to appreciate the spectrum of people and political positions that inhabit this movement, and to constantly pay attention to how its place in the public discourse creates both opportunities for radical departures and burdens of political respectability that constantly attempt to domesticate its own insurgent tendencies.


Casey: And it’s these liberal-progressive political desires that we must now more than ever be vigilantly criticizing in our writings, analyses, discussions, and pedagogy, correct? Even amidst the possibility of having a classically “Right-wing” reactionary iteration of white nationalist subjectivity, once again, residing in the Oval Office? I know you have written about a particular notion of fascism, as it relates to the idea of liberal capitalist democracy—one that builds on the incarcerated writings of Angela Davis and George Jackson from the early 1970s. Would you say a broader public conversation about fascism and its relationship to the liberal-progressive political desires you are speaking about is necessary?


Dylan: I think people are already having the conversations about white nationalism and fascism in various ways, although once again, the problem is that these problems are reduced to a narrowed, particular, spectacular set of articulations (i.e. Muslim expulsion, Great Wall of ‘Merica, Blue Lives Matter, etc.) rather than analyzed as the generalized political framework through which most acceptable, or “hegemonic” notions of politics and political culture unfold. I think Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump are pretty much first cousins (though maybe estranged first cousins), in this sense. If we take a serious approach to the analytics of fascism, updated for the contemporary condition, the differences across this hegemonic political-cultural spectrum tend to be a matter of degree, not of kind. It’s pretty easy to see, for example, the ways that Trumpism installs assumptively extremist positions and proposals into the public discourse in ways that catalyze and legitimate reactionary white (and overwhelmingly male) violence through symbolic, state, and physical forms. What a lot of us are in denial about, however, is how much this moment of reactionary white nationalism overlaps with the prior decade of multiculturalist white supremacy and the refabrication of US patriotism via “postracialism.” So while not everyone agrees with subjecting Muslims to an American Inquisition, for example, there are some guiding agreements about whether and how people of Arab and Middle Eastern descent ought to be subjected to rationalized, responsible forms of profiling and policing. And the bottom line of this still-unfolding, historically specific policing and criminalization technology is, of course, the Civilizational formation of racial chattel and land-ecological conquest as the permanent (that is, not historically episodic) condition of political discourse generally. So what we are seeing now is a pretty fucked up situation in which some of us are actually surprised that people who look like us, and share genealogical blood with us, are fully in favor of Trump’s Bozo the Clown burlesque act. We are indignant and shocked silent when we encounter other Black, Brown, Indigenous, and queer people outside of academic left and activist circles who tell us they might—or will— cast a worthless ballot for that dude. We should not be that surprised.


Casey: I agree, we cannot be surprised. And, accompanying these reactionary articulations, there is an entire other side of the fascist problematic, right? The gradualist reformers who “mediate” the crisis . . . who co-opt, defuse, and redirect oppositional energies into the projects of the Establishment Left. Here you have a range of “compassionate” and “caring” folks—from petite bourgeois liberals to progressive nationalists to an array of “color-blind” white left-folk—all of whom, it seems, desire more so to distance themselves from the backwards or “regressive” whiteness embodied in the Trump campaign, rather than challenge it in any serious or politically meaningful way. And when the desire to confront it does exist—when it is out there, loud and visible—that very desire appears to be a force that legitimates their own privileged positions. They become the “reasonable” whites . . . the “civil” whites . . . the transcendent historical subjects capable of continuing the white-supremacist nation-building project. “I am not Donald Trump,” therefore my presence and manner of being/Being is universally justified. Or “I am not that murderous pig,” therefore my imagined physiological integrity, my chauvinistic comportment, my freedom of bodily mobility couldn’t possibly be linked in a parasitic way to the policing and criminalization of Black people, or that which necessitates the crisis of racialized capture and incarceration. It’s a kind of postracial desire characteristic of left-liberal whiteness in the post-Civil Rights era: a move (whether conscious or not) to disaffiliate from the cultural and political spheres of “old-school” white racist identity, which in turn only serves to shore up and affirm their own comfortable inhabitations of civil society, of “rationality,” of white life, of “White Being” (as you have so eloquently described it). But I guess that’s what you’ve been saying throughout this entire interview, right? It’s a constant evasion of political and “ethical” responsibilities that is systemically condoned. The problem lays with White Being as a larger, enveloping aspect of the fascist social condition we all (albeit differentially) inhabit.


Dylan: And to add to your entirely appropriate and necessary polemic against (white) liberalism—a task that i am happy you embrace so urgently given your own social and gendered racial position in the world—i have to stress that there are other layers to the violence of White Being that have nothing to do with the “problem of white people.” There are specific ways, in this moment of compulsory diversity and institutionalized multiculturalism, where the post-apartheid United States is actually doubling down on gendered-racist state violence by fostering delimited avenues of social mobility (i.e. affirmative action and its aftermath) and ideologies of “empowerment.” These are usually affixed to spectacles of dark-skinned peoples’ exceptional achievements, talents, and rarified “opportunities” that work, always and incessantly, to ideologically crowd out the everyday social truths of systemic degradation and evisceration. This is just a glimpse of the mess that the ascendancy of White Being creates in its extra-supremacist moments, when it thrives on gestures of seduction, invitation, and inclusion that accompany the sturdy apparatuses of warfare, policing, and incarceration. A lot of us would kill (and sometimes do kill) for the chance to have “White People Problems” on a constant, uninterrupted basis, you know? That’s the fatal, violent, sometimes auto-homicidal and suicidal dilemma i’m talking about.


Casey: So then, what would you suggest . . . or maybe . . . how do you envision a revolutionary politics being further proliferated in the current historical conjuncture; in terms of organization and strategy, principles and program? For instance, given the current political climate, how might a more deeply radical consciousness be fostered in the institutional and organizational spaces one inhabits? Are there useful historical approaches to oppositional intellectual work that could be revisited and revised to broaden the public discussion of political possibilities?


Dylan: I’m only capable of offering a minor, situated, fragment of a response to this question, given my own limitations of experience, position, and insight. Here’s how i’ll respond: the question is not whether there is some kind of activist praxis, organizing method, or cultural strategy that can incite radical-to-revolutionary possibilities in-and-of-themselves. Rather, in this particular moment, i think the question is how to create, exemplify, and experiment in rigorously scholarly, thoughtful, historically situated forms of praxis (which may or may not take a typically “activist” form). Whether people are nourished by Sylvia Rivera or Malcolm X, the Zapatistas or the Panthers, AIM or Idle No More, there are so many exemplary forms of radical work that are also radical in their intellectual-theoretical contributions to the historical record of revolt against Civilization. This fact should enable us to engage in our creative, experimental practices in a manner that is both humbled and deeply emboldened.


Casey: I have some questions prepared about revolutionary organization and the politics of “spontaneity” that I would like to briefly pose before we wrap this interview up. First off, what are some central themes that must be accounted for in the formation of principled “aboveground” and “underground” counter-state organizational structures? Do you see something still useful in distinguishing a relationship between the two? What must occur differently today than in past iterations of the above/below-ground split?


Dylan: This is not something i’d want to substantively write or talk about on the record, right now. What i will say is that yes, there is absolutely a need and usefulness to drawing clear practical, strategic and theoretical distinctions between legal and illicit, “responsible” and explosively contentious, aboveground and underground forms of praxis and organizing. I will say that i am in a privileged position to work in the generalized realm of aboveground, legal activities but this does not mean that i abstain from supporting, theorizing, and critiquing other kinds of political work.


Casey: What of political action that appears at first to be “spontaneous,” for example, street skirmishes and larger, more organic insurrectionary mobilizations such as riots? Could you say these have a dimension of organization to them as well?


Dylan: Yes, always. Spontaneity is usually in the eye of the beholder. Shit doesn’t just go down because of a random act of God, or some kind of incomprehensible magic. There is always a reason: as we know, these spontaneous irruptions are often counter- insurgency tactics employed by the state and reactionary elements who wish to provoke popular backlash against a particular community or insurgent movement; other times, people have simply had enough, and are unwilling to tolerate dying and suffering “peacefully,” or “nonviolently.” And if that’s not a praxis of human being against White Being, i don’t know what is.


Casey: Do you have any suggestions about the role of writing and public intellectual work during (and in the immediate aftermath of) rioting and other forms of open insurrectionary struggle? You know . . . these periods of heightening antagonisms that disrupt the quotidian, everyday reproduction (the so-called “peace”) of white civic life. And this question doesn’t only have to be directed towards instances such as Baltimore or Milwaukee recently. It could even be expanded to encompass the phase of struggle inaugurated this summer more generally (with its array of direct actions, traffic blockades, and protest mobilizations). These are periods when clarity and sober reflection on reactionary shifts in the hegemony of “law and order” are needed in the public discourse—especially if we wish counter the effects of a state and corporate media apparatus that dehumanizes insurgency and strives to appropriate grassroots revolt into dominant cultural and political blocs.


Dylan: We’re talking about the radical, indispensable work of speaking and writing a historical record, and compiling a present tense archive. There are so many cultural forces and institutional forms that mitigate against this work, and which try to discipline and bully people out of their obligation to undertake this labor and art form (all narrative is art, don’t get it twisted). My word of encouragement and incitement is this: while there are people who are employed or otherwise materially rewarded to do the work of writing, talking, and critical reflection, the fullest sense of the radical archive draws on the creativity endemic to the practice of human being against the ascendancy of White Being. This means the historical obligation to do the work—to produce the art—is far-reaching.


Casey: Who are some central thinkers that you would recommend aspiring young activists and students in the movement read and listen to today, in regards to the strategic dimensions of radical anti-racist and Black liberationist struggles?


Dylan: I suggest a deeper, collective, critical reading and discussion of those folks in the Hall of Fame: Audre Lorde, W.E.B. DuBois, Frantz Fanon, Sylvia Wynter, Angela Davis, Paolo Freire, Haunani Kay Trask, Stuart Hall, the Combahee River Collective, Toni Morrison (recall the “Seven Days” organization from Song of Solomon), Ida B. Wells, the Civil Rights Congress (We Charge Genocide, 1951), Sonia Sanchez, Vine Deloria, and so many others. The point is not merely to read and listen, it’s to read and listen actively, collectively, and in conversation with other people.


Casey: Okay, so one last question for you Dylan. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. Do you see any major differences that need to be accounted for in the ways that student activists mobilize on campuses and attempt to struggle today, as opposed to previous eras? Over the course of your work in the university, have you seen any transformations in the way students mobilize around racist policing, surveillance, and imprisonment (for better or worse)?


Dylan: The campus—whether university, junior college, high school, or some other schooling site—has played a significant role in almost every major or minor transformation of oppressive and systemically violent conditions in the history of this wretched Civilization. Students face a compounded problem in the current iteration of the neoliberal white-supremacist university/college regime, however, because they tend to be subjected to untenable financial and hence labor burdens as soon as they set foot on school grounds. So students engaged in activist work today must bear even heavier demands on their energy, and are forced to survive different and often heavier physiological stresses than their counterparts from, say, 15 years ago. (Come to think of it, maybe there is a way that students today can politicize their burdens and collective immiseration in a manner that doesn’t rely on the grandstanding of Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton.) Finally, the most profound difference i have seen in recent years of student activism around criminalization, policing, and incarceration has been the circulation of the political identity “abolitionist.” Far, far greater numbers of students are embracing this position, and many are doing so even when their professed political beliefs are closer to anti-racist reform (of police, laws, etc.) or progressive decarceration (of those deemed most deserving of release from prison/jail). In other words, many student activists call themselves “abolitionists” when their political agendas are fundamentally opposed to abolition! So that leaves us with the task of teaching and demonstrating what it means to inhabit the long historical responsibilities that accompany the declaration that one is an abolitionist. You have to be willing and able to say that shit to Sojourner Truth’s ghost.


 
Dylan is a Professor and former Chair of the Department of Ethnic Studies at UC Riverside. He was elected Chair of the UC Riverside Academic Senate by his faculty peers in 2016. He is the author of two books: Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the US Prison Regime (2006) and Suspended Apocalypse: White Supremacy, Genocide, and the Filipino Condition (2009). His current thinking, writing, and teaching focus on how regimes of social liquidation, cultural extermination, physiological evisceration, and racist terror become normalized features of everyday life in the “post-Civil Rights” and “post-racial” moments. How do the historical logics of racial and racial-colonial genocide permeate our most familiar systems of state violence, cultural production, institutionalized knowledge, liberation struggle, and social identity? How do people inhabit these structures and logics—make sense of it, narrate it, suffer it, and revolt against it? What forms of collective genius and creativity emerge from such conditions, and how do these insurgencies envision—and practice—transformations of power and community? The following interview was conducted by Casey, an editor with True Leap Press.
 

 

Propter Nos. Vol. 1 Issue 1

The inaugural issue of our journal, Propter Nos.

Vol. 1 Issue 1 (Fall 2016): Reflections on the “Movement Moment”


Download link: Propter Nos Vol 1 Issue 1

propnosiss1copy


The goal of this first publication is to produce a space for commentary and reflection on the last half-decade of an emergent Black protest movement. Forgoing a paternalistic posture or the assumption that a “pure” form of political consciousness is attainable, our publishing collective sees the role of this publication as merely a tool among many other tools. With this publication we only wish to 1.) problematize the discourse that frames and informs the popular movement’s terms of engagement, 2.) generate modes of analysis that demystify the circulation and consumption of images of racial and sexual violence in the media, 3.) revise and revisit the three-pronged cultural project of the Black arts, aesthetics, and studies movements, 4.) provide an outlet in which information from counterintelligence operations for the Black movement against the racist capitalist state can be recorded, accumulated, and disseminated.