story from the protest

The cop came over to express concern.

About me getting run over by a car

While handing out flyers to stop the concentration camps

From the sidewalk.

Then he walked me through moving traffic back to safety.

Two people standing together in front of the sun. Poster says "Communities not Cages"
Art by: Rommy Sobrado-Torrico

Power, Dignity, Choice, and Bobby Seale

I have a favorite story that helps me understand and explain a fundamental aspect of how power works.

Of course power is complex, and of course there are countless major social theories about its operation in the world. But like other complex and rich social phenomena, it isn’t as if we understand nothing without knowing the words of these theories. We have a rooted sense in our bodies and minds of how power from our own experiences with it, either from having power enacted upon us, enacting it upon others, or watching it play out around us. When I taught Intro to Sociology every semester, I actually used to introduce this conversation by showing an episode of the Office, which lead to a conversation about Weberian authority. Important for us today: no one has authority unless the people below see them as legitimate i.e. bestow them some kind of authority. But I digress, because that is not exactly the example I want to talk about.

The real point I want to make here is the related idea that when you really think about it no one can actually make you do anything. Human beings always have some kind of agency. They may have a very limited (or constrained) agency, when faced with a very bad set of options, for example: do something or be killed. But they can always choose to refuse and be killed. You have not actually “made” the person do anything. You have given them a crappy choice. This difference is more than semantic.

Here is my favorite example to illuminate that further.

Color drawing of Bobby Seale, bound and gagged in a seat, pen and paper in hand.
Courtroom drawing of Bobby Seale by Howard Brodie. Held by the Library of Congress.

In the fall of 1969, Bobby Seale, at the time the National Chairman of the Black Panther Party, was on trial in Chicago. Seale was being tried in the aftermath of the 1968 convention in Chicago. The charge was using interstate transportation to incite a riot.

Originally Seale was the only African American on trial alongside seven others, a group that included Abbie Hoffman. The trial was a circus, which was to some extent intentional on the part of the defiant, countercultural defendants. Apparently one day two defendants wore judge’s robes to court and then wiped their feet on them. Eventually Seale’s case was severed from the other seven.

Bobby Seale and his lawyer asked for a delay for his portion of the case because his lawyer was sick and couldn’t represent him, but Judge Hoffman refused, saying that Seale could just be represented by the defense lawyer representing some of the others. Seale insisted on his right to represent himself in that case.

It would seem that this violation of his right to a lawyer outraged Bobby Seale and he continued to complain about it in an attempt to stop the trial from going forward without him being represented by his own choice of counsel. The judge, in turn, wanted to stop Seale’s outbursts and to keep the trial moving.

Of course in the United States due process requires that defendants must be present in order for them to be tried. What generally happens in this situation is that judges threaten to hold defendants in contempt of court, a crime which can include significant fines or jail time. Dear reader, you may have already gotten there: this does not actually solve the problem unless the defendant chooses to change their behavior to avoid further penalty because the defendant must still be in the courtroom for the case to go on.

Bobby Seale was a trained revolutionary, who did not expect justice to be issued in a US court because he sat quietly and waited for it. He was not moved by being held in contempt of court.

In this case, an extraordinary (and horrific) measure was taken. Judge Hoffman ordered that Seale be bound and gagged inside the courtroom. Even more extraordinarily however, this act could not quiet Bobby Seale. Even bound and gagged he found a way to use his voice to disrupt the unjust proceedings. The UPI headline read “Bound, gagged Bobby Seale still manages wild scuffle in court.”

They could not silence Bobby Seale, because no one can actually make another person do anything. Power must be consented to in some way, shape, or form for it to work. It can be difficult to risk, but we do have the choice to try it, especially when we can get together with others and train ourselves to do so. The judge could not make him be quiet, even using significant force.

Bobby Seale is still alive and free to tell the tale.  Do not consent if you do not believe it is the right thing to do. Power is not power without legitimacy and consent from those subject to its will. Whenever it feels like I have no choice, I think of Bobby Seale.

What Terror Looks Like

More than one year after the post electoral crisis, the terror created by the murders of protestors is still palpable here. Many readers of this blog will be familiar with these killings because you participated last year in an open letter to the families of the victims.

A few days ago Karen Spring wrote this excellent essay on the continued impunity for the killings.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the events of December 2017 & January 2018 are hardly in the past for many Hondurans. These killings were mentioned to me without prompting at some of our site visits, and my general impression both from these weeks on the ground and following social media is of a people where terror has genuinely taken root. I keep thinking of the many histories I’ve read or watched about societies existing under terroristic regimes, and realizing that in this moment I’m visiting one of those societies. And knowing that my friends and others live in it every day.

Nor are these impressions and facts far removed from the United States. Impunity for murdering protestors and the terror it spreads is creating an exodus of people arriving everyday at our border. To say nothing of the direct and indirect support for this terror provided by the US government itself. One example: the US provides funding, training, and “vetting” for various police and military forces implicated in human rights abuses including murder. We are funding terror.

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.

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.