On the Murder of Jemel Roberson

JemelRoberson

Jemel Roberson with his son Tristan.

This man was murdered by the police.

His name is Jemel Roberson.

He was clearly identified as security and had successfully just stopped a shooter from killing others, without killing that person. This, it must be said, is something most of us wish the actual police would do.

It is obvious that in this country a Black man can never be considered a “good guy,” no matter what he does.

It is obvious that Black Lives do not Matter.

It is obvious, or it should be, that this is not about bad apples, or individual police officers, but that it is about an institution of policing which at its very core targets Black people and Black communities.

It is time for a change.

It will take many of us to participate in this change. Paolo Freire famously said “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” Find ways to act (and there are many possibilities), even if these acts seems small. Black lives depend on it.

Saturday Recommendation: When They Call You a Terrorist

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir – Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele

I do not think I have ever met anyone who could not somehow benefit by reading this book. White people, middle class people, and anyone who experiences the privilege of not being Black in the US will find a lot illuminating in Khan-Cullors powerfully told story of growing up in a culture which simply does not value your life or those of your loved ones. The honesty and vulnerability with which this contemporary story is told means that there is a lot to be learned even for those who feel that they have done a lot of listening, learning, and studying; there are new nuances here that are important. This same emotional heft means that the book has value (at least, I imagine so) for those who do share her experiences because it is validating. Its intersectional dimensionality – careful attention is paid here not only to gender but to sexuality, trans visibility, and more, including how communities and movements have succeeded and failed in organizing at certain moments because it is always a struggle—mean that there are opportunities for everyone to learn. Organizers and activists will also find Khan-Cullors’ words inspiring , validating, and simply nourishing. Those who are not activists will find the book helpful for understanding why others, such as the three women who founded Black Lives Matter, do what they do.

Two short passages that occur near the end of the book:

 “…now it was late, maybe 1:00 in the morning, and I was heading back to my cottage where Mark Anthony was supposed to be sleeping but instead was standing outside our home, barefoot, in pajamas and with his hands cuffed behind his back. … They were able to gain entry to our home because in St. Elmo’s, before this, we never locked the doors. But on this night, the police entered through the back door. They said he fit the description of a guy who’d done some robberies in the area. They offered no further explanation. … Later when I hear others dismissing our voices, our protest for equity, by saying All Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter, I will wonder how many white Americans are dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night because they might fit a vague description offered up by God knows who. How many skinny, short, blond men were rounded up when Dylann Roof massacred people in prayer? How many brown-haired white men were snatched out of bed when Bundy was killing women for sport? … Mark Anthony’s cuffs are finally removed, but the police do not leave my home for another two hours, taking down all kinds of information about him, running his license, hoping to find any reason to take him away, this man they yanked out of his own bed in the middle of the night in the house where he lives in a community where he is loved” (pp. 193-195).

And then, a discussion about the formation of the BLM:

“We agree that there is something that happens inside of a person, a people, a community when you think you will not live, that the people around you will not live. We talk about how you develop an attitude, one that dismisses hope, that discards dreams” (p 199).

This book is a record of life in Van Nuys. This book is a record of a movement. This book is a record of state terrorism. This book is a record of a dream.

communication through bars is revolutionary

Today I was reading about Mutulu Shakur, who has spent over 30 years in prison, when I came across the following piece of information: Dr. Shakur was denied parole in one hearing solely because he participated in a phone call on speakerphone with a professor and their students. In essence, the act of speaking to people in an educational context became the reason that he was seen as a danger to society.

photograph of Dr. Mutulu Shakur in the sun against a concrete wall

Dr. Mutulu Shakur, August 2016

Dr. Shakur is the stepfather of Tupac Shakur and has served 32 years in federal prison for his involvement in a bank robbery which resulted in the deaths of 3 people and involvement in the escape of Assata Shakur. Shakur was denied mandatory parole in 2016 (after serving 30 years as a peaceful prisoner) and has currently initiated a lawsuit against the federal government.

For the last 3 years I have met with other local people twice a month to write letters to people in prison. This work has many critical aspects, some of which are immediately obvious, and others which are less so. Perhaps another day I can write more about the importance of writing a letter in the spirit of solidarity to a person who is literally living in a cage, and about the important and meaningful friendships that have grown from those letters. What I’m thinking about this afternoon is the way this work keeps me connected to the many shocking injustices of the prison system, and how much I continue to learn from it.

It’s worth reading the whole list of horrifying reasons Dr. Shakur was denied parole put together by his support committee. Apparently a prisoner cannot refer to themselves as a victim of COINTELPRO, although it is indisputably factually correct, if they want to ever be considered for parole, because referring to their victimization by the FBI makes them likely to reoffend.

Regarding the public phone call, no one disagrees that Mutulu called a professor who placed the call on speaker phone so that other faculty and students could listen to his comments. The problem is that the prison and parole board have not ever cited a rule that was violated by such a phone call, nor was anyone ever informed of such a rule (and how heinous is the idea of such a rule?). From the support committee summary:

“The February 2013 brief phone call, fully monitored, was the sole basis for rejecting the Parole Commission’s Hearing Examiner’s recommendation that Dr. Shakur be paroled in early 2015. No one has ever explained why any rule was violated or shown that Dr. Shakur or any other inmate has been informed that allowing someone to place his or her phone on a speaker is a rule violation.”

In this case, the mere act of speaking to others outside the prison walls becomes reason enough for continued loss of civil rights. Even the apparent involvement of Danny Glover at the event was not enough public pressure to turn the tide (or perhaps that’s exactly what irritated the parole board enough to cause the retaliation). The message is that prisoners can and will be punished for communicating with people outside of prison in public ways. But even so, it’s shocking to see that the prison has so much control that it does not need to provide any justification for this, even in such a high profile case.

This case and details are not only a good lesson on how the prison works, but they touch close to the local work we do, too. I sent Mutulu a birthday card last year, and received a nice note back. I’ve participated in similar phone calls myself at public talks given on campus, as an audience member, and have considered organizing these kinds of events as well. And another reason for Dr. Shakur’s parole denial is one that we deal with regularly: how to close a letter.

“Mutulu often signs off his letters with the words ‘Stiff Resistance’ and this indicates he may once again engage in violent crimes if released.”

The Hearing Examiner stated:

“The Commission not only finds these statements incompatible with the goals and conditions of parole supervision, but also concludes they are evidence that you have not disavowed yourself from the same set of beliefs you had when you were convicted …”

What is noticeable here is that the Commission looked past literally volumes of public statements and writing made by someone that would clarify and provide clear context on what they are thinking, in this case an explicit disavowal of violence as a means toward social change, and instead focused on a two word salutation and decided to interpret it in a vacuum. They will, it seems from their own statement, accept nothing less than a disavowal of all the political beliefs Dr. Shakur had when he was convicted. In other words, they are not looking for him (or other prisoners) to disavow violence or certain actions, but rather to disavow political resistance entirely. They are looking for complete submission, even in letter salutations.

But prisoners also demonstrate their refusal to submit and their continued meaningful political resistance precisely through communicating with us. It’s a way of maintaining their selves, their dignity, and their humanity inside of an institution that is specifically designed to strip them of all of that. Mutulu uses “stiff resistance;” another friend of our group, Sean Swain uses “stay dangerous” and has mounted three campaigns for governor while on the inside. Communication beyond bars is a radical tool or it would not be punished so radically. And if this is the punishment that occurs in a high profile case like Mutulu Shakur’s, with a website, support committee, and some connection to Danny Glover, one should imagine much more arbitrary denials and worse repression that occurs among the rest of the prison population.

Prisoners take enormous risks in simply communicating with us. As people who walk freely on the outside, it’s essential not to forget, underestimate, or waste these risks, and to understand that they are precisely how we know our work is revolutionary and meaningful.

prison_birds_hearts

 

policing campus diversity: Somali Night

Yesterday I read the stomach turning account of how my alma mater, the University of Minnesota, treated the Somali Student Association at the end of its cultural week, last Friday. I’m presenting the Somali Student Association’s account here in its entirety, because the whole thing is worth the read. It is one of the most thorough, clear, and comprehensive accounts of a police riot I have ever read. It is an alarming picture of how subtle, purportedly nonviolent, and even micro-level forms of racism combine and become explicit, violent, and massive.

Somali Night Press Release Pg 1Somali Night Press Release Pg 2Somali Night Press Release Pg 3

 

Many things about this statement jump out immediately. One of them is the claim made by employees on a university campus that it would be impossible to use markers on Black skin. This indignity, which must have occurred in the context of so many others during the planning for this event, encapsulates clearly that the University of Minnesota is still unprepared in 2018 for the presence of Black people.

Something else I notice immediately is the calm, composed, and measured tone of this press release, written by a student organization.  So much can be learned just by reading what these students have to say about their experiences. I expect we will learn even more from them by watching how they challenge the university in its reaction.

Students on the University of Minnesota campus have already been reporting on their negative experiences with the cosmetic diversity initiatives embraced by their campus (which is similar to so many others). The Whose Diversity? campaign that began in Spring 2014 created a powerful set of testimonies of experiences of students of color on campus.

Perhaps most telling is that a quick Google search conducted 24 hours after the Somali Student Association’s press release and 3 days after the Somali Night incident itself reveals very little reporting on the event and its heavy policing. I suppose it comes as little surprise that the most cogent and knowledgeable source of information about these events comes from the affected students themselves.

Saturday Rec: I Am Not Your Negro

(On Saturdays, I’ll be posting recommendations for movies and books and other stuff. Here’s my first.)

I Am Not Your Negro

Best paired with: cigarettes and a typewriter

Not an incredibly unique documentary recommendation,  but if you haven’t yet seen it, see it now. Even if you already know a lot about race and racism, you will probably see something in a different way or appreciate something differently. The film is beautiful and well-made. The argument, which belongs almost entirely to James Baldwin, is interesting and deep. I re-watched it this week and was again amazed at how ahead of his time Baldwin was. Not because he’s saying things that have relevance in 2018 (although that’s true too), but because he seems to have anticipated the late 1960s and the 1970s well in advance: Notes of a Native Son was published in 1955.

Director Raoul Peck highlights the contemporary resonance in Baldwin’s words beautifully and devastatingly through images.

The flaws: the film is an intersectionality fail. There are almost no Black women in the movie, although Black women played an extremely large and critical role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. This is a problematic reflection of how history is told rather than how it was. And although Baldwin is well known to have been queer, it’s downplayed in the film.

But even so, see it. See it.

Here’s a teaser of Baldwin’s brilliance:

Photograph of James Baldwin

Click for video of Baldwin. (Photo by Allan Warren)

 

Anger

I am angry. In fact, I am really fucking angry. And one of the things that continually fuels my anger is the way that anger is a prohibited emotion. Socially unacceptable. I feel that each time I am openly angry, people around me wait quietly for me to finish my tirade. Or worse, try to calm me by telling me to see things another way, or to try to have sympathy for the other person or something like that. All of this sends me the message over and over, constantly, that being angry about the world is not OK.

But Black people are being murdered in the streets by police in the United States.

But I am a queer person who has lived my entire life in the closet because I wasn’t sure what else to do because heterosexuality is still that normative.

But femicide is still the norm not only through Latin America where the women are marching and yelling “Ni Una Menos” (not one woman less) but here in the US too where domestic violence continues to be a raging problem and I do not believe there is a person assigned female at birth, woman, or femme who has not experienced some form of sexual assault/harassment.

But almost no one gives a real shit about poor people or understands exactly why there are still poor people who lack access to stable food, water, and housing.

But having a disability makes a person dramatically more likely to be subject to the above problems and eugenics is still our normal way of thinking about bodies with differences.

I could go on.

Stencil of a woman posed to throw a brick.

Image by Nicolas Lampert, Josh MacPhee, and Colin Matthes (Justseeds Collective).

This world is an enraging place and it’s probably not a stretch to say that most of these problems are caused or at least perpetuated by indifference.

And without even going that far, why aren’t the whole range of human emotions permissible? Why do we want, and enforce on each other, an impoverished society where people are not allowed to express sadness and anger and joy? I don’t want to live in that sad little range of emotions either. I’m not advocating throwing a chair and breaking into sobs, necessarily but we not express verbally the way things do actually make us feel? I am at a loss for a rational argument against that.

But although I am a sociologist, and although I am a nonconformist with a lot of training in not giving many fucks what anyone thinks, it gets to you after a while when people just seem to think you are being too angry all the time. Maybe it is too exhausting. Maybe you are overreacting and getting angry at things that aren’t there. Maybe I have lost my ability to “look for the other side” as we did in the movement where I found the most meaning, and try to find community. Maybe I am alienating those I want around me.

And then I realized there is a name for this behavior, and this treatment. I am behaving like an angry feminist. I am being treated as such. How boring. How frustrating. I am scary enough that no person in my life would ever dare to literally tell me to calm down, but tacitly that’s what’s happening.

But I’ve snapped. Sara Ahmed describes this experience beautifully in Living a Feminist Life. Ahmed describes how when a feminist or a twig snaps, it can seem sudden because the pressure leading to the snap (what the twig or the feminist experiences) can’t always be observed from the outside. She writes:

“You might experience that pressure only when you are under it, rather like you encounter the wall when you come up against it. The weightiest of experiences are often those that are hardest to convey to those who do not share the experience. If a snap seems sharp or sudden, it might be because we do not experience the slower time of bearing or of holding up; the time in which we can bear the pressure, the time it has taken for things not to break. If the twig was a stronger twig, if the twig was more resilient, it would take more pressure before it snapped. … And then: violence is assumed to originate with her. A feminist politics might insist on renaming actions as reactions; we need to show how her snap is not the starting point.” (2017: 189)

This passage resonates very much with the anger I’ve experienced lately. When I express anger, it is regarded (and sometimes I am told directly) that it’s “distracting” from whatever I’m trying to explain or call attention. No one is interested any more in what lead to the anger—the pressure that lead to the snap. As if I were in perfect control, as if I were perfectly able to not be angry, as if I could avoid snapping. Can you bend a twig all the way back and then blame the twig for its lack of flexibility?

I love how her metaphor also makes me question the concept of resilience as a good thing. It doesn’t seem good to accept more pressure, to work harder to hold things together, especially when “things” are dysfunctional or especially sexist and racist institutional cultures that are harming human beings. The image that comes to mind is a woman with two feet on two different icebergs floating in different directions. She too will snap, sooner or later. Why not call attention to the problem sooner?