a lot of us are struggling, but this is a social problem

Over the last few weeks governors in almost every state have called for a “reopening” after the spring COVID19 shelter-in-place orders. During this time, in response to debates about whether returning to circulation in public again en masse is safe or not, I have repeatedly heard the answer given as some variation of “everyone has to decide for themselves what they think is best.”

like everyone else Like many of us, I am not sure what to do and am just trying to figure it out. This is a terrifying time. I think often of another pandemic, another plague, where people died in hospital hallways. This plague also seemed concentrated in certain cities (the same ones that loom large today – New York and San Francisco) and to affect a specific segment of the population. Unlike the Spanish flu, the majority of the population alive today remembers that plague. And maybe in some ways this is the more relevant lesson, because the majority of the population alive today actually doesn’t recall that plague with much specificity, although in some communities whole networks of people were dying by the month and even the week.

During that plague, it seemed that it was easy for a majority of people in the United States to ignore or feel unaffected by what was going on because they believed it was only affecting specific groups of people to whom they already did not feel connected. And once they had done that, they could simply ignore the crisis, the tens of thousands of deaths, and even laugh at jokes about it.

M0001845 John Haygarth. Line engraving by W. Cooke, 1827, after J. H. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org John Haygarth. Line engraving by W. Cooke, 1827, after J. H. Bell. Line engraving Gent\’s magazine Published: 1827 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Then too it was easy to fall into debates about what behavior was the right behavior to prevent oneself or one’s beloved community members from getting sick. But the real culprits, the villains, the murderers, were the politicians and institutions that refused to recognize the crisis or do anything to solve it, and the social structures that sustain systems of inequality making specific groups of people so much more vulnerable to illness.

In fact, it is the same communities who are still being affected. African Americans, imprisoned people, drug users, queer and trans people – these groups are all still dealing with the HIV epidemic that did not go away, and they are the same groups at much higher risk from COVID19.

And it was easier for the pandemic to keep raging when a majority of people felt no urge to apply pressure, when they did not feel personally affected, when they did not feel that their communities would continue to feel the reverberations forever.

Like many others, I am struggling to figure out how to negotiate this situation. I do not understand all the biological science involved. But I do understand that an inherently social problem is going to call for a social solution, and better yet, many of the aspects of the problems that we face here in the US with COVID19 are political problems that require collective action. We have much we can learn from previous struggles.

That means the answer, in an inherently social situation with a contagious disease, is ANYTHING BUT “everyone should do what they feel most comfortable with.”


Some ideas for collective action:

  • The Poor People’s Campaign has launched a “moral non-cooperation campaign” called Stay in Place! Stay Alive! Organize! with actions you can take coordinated with others to push for a healthier plan for your community.
  • Now is a great time to find or start an existing mutual aid network. Create and share the resources people need together in your community to be safe based on community members’ own assessments, instead of saying “some people will have to go to make the tough choice to go to work,” which is another way of saying some of us need to decide between dying from hunger or dying at work.
  • Find ways to support the many workers who are striking right now (e.g., respect their picket lines, donate to their strike funds, amplify their demands).

How We Can Help Each Other in a Pandemic

Like many other activists, I am not exactly sure how to organize in this moment. I like the phrase physical distance and social solidarity, but I find that I’m not totally sure how to put it into practice. This post is my imperfect attempt to share some ideas of what folks can do to help each other. I more than welcome suggestions, critiques, and additions. We are all learning how to do this together, and that is one example itself of social solidarity.

I first want to lay out that although we are all scared right now, we need to try to remain focused on centering the needs of the most vulnerable. We cannot get so wrapped up in our own needs, in securing ourselves and our families, that we leave behind everyone else. If we make sure our most vulnerable are secured, it’s pretty likely we will have created a network that can sustain everyone. Lead from generosity and love, not fear and scarcity. (Trust me, I know this is easier said than done; that’s why I think it has to actually be said. I am telling myself the same thing like a mantra as a way to work out of my own fear-based reactions.)

If your income has not been affected, PLEASE consider donating as much money as you can spare to one or more of the funds below. Even relatively small amounts of money will go a long way toward assisting extremely vulnerable folks, and donations are tight for everyone right now as unemployment is raging. These are fairly Detroit-centric, because I live here, but also because it looks like Detroit is going to be one of the hardest hit places.

  • We the People of Detroit is giving out water to the 5,000 homes in Detroit without running water (there have been severe delays in getting the water turned back on). They are facing more need, higher prices, and difficulties distributing this water:
    https://www.wethepeopleofdetroit.com/get-involved
  • ABISA – an org assisting Black/African immigrants and refugees in the Detroit area. Your donation will assist undocuBlack immigrants keep the lights on, put food on the table, fill the gas tank, turn on water, preserve a home:
  • Movimiento Cosecha – Undocumented Worker Fund – this fund will go directly to assist undocumented families in need. I have recently been organizing with Cosecha Detroit:
    https://secure.actblue.com/donate/cosechamutualaid
  • Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective – The Solidarity Collective has been extremely hard hit by the fact that we have needed to cancel delegations, speakers’ tours, and other aspects of our work on short notice. In fact, if we are not able to raise several thousand dollars quickly, we will not be able to continue our international solidarity work and accompaniment beyond April. Communities in Honduras, Cuba, and Colombia, and our partners specifically, are facing great risks from COVID-19 and our international solidarity and vigilance on US foreign policy remains critical.
  • Brightmoor Connection Food Pantry –Food pantry in Detroit that works with We the People, Detroit People’s Platform, and advocates a “shopper’s choice model”:  https://brightmoorconnection.org/
  • Forgotten Harvest – metro Detroit food bank that redistributes surplus food:
    https://forgottenharvest.giv.sh/03a6

Beyond Donations

The vast majority of suggestions I have seen are calls for donations. If you, like me, are person whose income has been affected or who cannot afford to spare (much), it seems a little harder to figure out how you can work in solidarity with others right now, but I made a short list. Most of you are probably doing some of these, but it’s worth reminding us that they are important examples of solidarity:

  • Check on your neighbors, regularly.  Check on your loved ones, family and friends, emotionally, and see if anyone needs anything.
  • Consider buying gift certificates to any local businesses you can’t patronize now to help them stay afloat.
  • If you have space, grow or make something that you can share with your neighborhood either from afar or in a safe way.
  • I am also working on putting together a central way to distribute action items such as phone calls (phone zaps) to make on a given day.

I hope I will hear suggestions and ideas from people, in any possible mode. 

Here’s what else I’m trying to focus on right now:

We are connected. We can listen to the wisdom of people who have survived terrible events. We can continue reach beyond our own household and beyond ourselves. We can prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalized. And that will still be the key to something better.

Consider supporting artist Meredith Stern of JustSeeds Collective here.

cite Black theorists

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Cite Black Women t-shirt from the Cite Black Women Collective

On page 8 of Keeanga-Yamahta Taylor’s book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation she says something that stopped me in my tracks: “Black revolutionary Stokely Carmichael and social scientist Charles Hamilton coined the phrase ‘institutional racism’ in their book Black Power.”

Although I understand the phrase institutional racism so well that I have actually taught its definition and usage regularly, this is the first time that I have ever heard its origin, and specifically that its origin is attributed to Stokely Carmichael. I am dumbfounded.  Of course, there can be no question that I am to blame for this. But there is also a much larger question here about sociology. I use and teach “institutional racism” in the ways

Stokely_Carmichael_in_Alabama_1966

Stokely Carmichael in Alabama in 1966

that sociologists around me use it, and the ways that I learned it. I have never before heard it attributed it to anyone specific, much less to Carmichael and Hamilton or the Black Power movement. We seem to have simply claimed it as something we do, as part of our larger systemic way of looking at the world. In fact it’s often used interchangeably with “systemic racism.” And that may well be a good and important thing. But it should not come at the cost of erasing the contribution of Black scholars, Black people, and Black movements to our theorizing and scholarship. While we can and do debate the ownership of any one person to a word, no one hesitates to cite Judith Butler when they use the phrase “gender trouble” though these words surely had other connotations and meanings before and after this scholar. We cite Marx when we simply refer to “capital” or the “means of production” and sometimes Foucault gets all of “power.”

This is a question of our citational practices and how they reify existing power structures. This is about how we continue to actively create a white academy. Sara Ahmed discusses this (and provides one alternative possibility) in her nourishing book Living a Feminist Life, which does not cite any white men:

Citations can be feminist bricks: they are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings. My citation policy has affected the kind of house I have built. I realized this is not simply through writing the book, through what I found about what came up, but also through giving presentations. As I have already noted, in previous work I have built a philosophical edifice by my engagement with the history of ideas. We cannot conflate the history of ideas with white men, though if doing one leads to the other then we are being taught where ideas are assumed to originate.

It is for this reason, among others, that the Cite Black Women campaign was created. As the Cite Black Women’s Collective says, “It’s simple. Cite Black Women.” But also: put in the work. Find the citations and place Black women in the center of your syllabus and your sociological research and even your informal political thinking. The collective has a praxis:

  1. Read Black women’s work
  2. Integrate Black women into the CORE of your syllabus (in life & in the classroom).
  3. Acknowledge Black women’s intellectual production.
  4. Make space for Black women to speak.
  5. ​Give Black women the space and time to breathe.

And a rad t-shirt (pictured above), which supports the Winnie Mandela School in a working class, Black neighborhood of Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. I’ve already briefly discussed how amazing Winnie Mandela was on this blog. The collective has also organized conference events (including ASA)  and #CiteBlackWomenSunday.

Look, this is not just about “you.” I certainly need to do better at this too. The fact is, unless a person has been making a conscious effort to do this for several years now, it’s likely that many of us need to be putting some work in to do better at this. The point is that we all need to do the work because it isn’t going to happen without it – no one is going to start getting the credit they deserve for their contributions to our discipline and to our thinking without all of us practicing the racial justice that we preach. Here is a short list of Black scholars who influenced sociology to get you started.

Saturday Rec: Fiction I Read in 2018

To celebrate the end of the year I’m recommending a whole slew of things to read! This is a non-exhaustive list of the novels I read this past year that I loved and would love for you to read. Why read fiction, you ask? Please watch the fabulous (and dearly departed) Ursula K LeGuin at the National Book Awards in 2014 explain that it is in part because we “need writers who can remember freedom” (transcript here).

  • LaRose – Louise Erdrich
    • I’ve read several of Erdrich’s books and I plan on eventually reading all of her work – but slowly, so I don’t run out of it.
  • The Killing Moon and the Shadowed Sun (The Dreamblood Duology) – NK Jemisin
  • She Would Be King – Wayétu Moore
    • A magical realist tale of the founding of Liberia. I actually recommend not reading any more summary than that.
  • Troubling Love – Elena Ferrante
    • A painful but beautiful novel about the sudden disappearance and loss of the narrator’s mother in Ferrante’s signature style. I think I have now finished Ferrante’s catalog and I feel a bit lost.
  • Pachinko – Min Jin Lee
    • A book about four generations of a Korean family from before the two Koreas and their migration to Japan. A great transnational novel on race, identity, and migration.
  • Unsheltered – Barbara Kingsolver
    • I’ve read and loved all of Kingsolver’s work and this is her newest.
  • The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy
    • A very beautiful and surprising novel about nonbinary genders and the militant struggle in Kashmir.

If Ursula K Le Guin did not convince you, my favorite academic advice columnist has also recommended reading fiction among many other wonderful suggestions for those experiencing “outrage fatigue.” Here’s to imagining (and building) a different world in 2019.

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Ursula K Le Guin at the National Book Awards in 2014.

the fear of being out

I can remember that it all started when the ringleader boy looked at my legs and commented on their hairiness. The ringleader was a tall kid who was one of the first to pubescence, new to school and had a lesbian mother – none of this seems accidental in retrospect.

After that, he was able to engage almost every boy in the class with the exception of a few in giving me sexual nicknames, commenting on my body, checking my back for a bra strap, and, most damagingly, chasing me around and touching all over my body nonconsensually.  This lasted for most of the school year and was targeted at me individually.

When I was in sixth grade, I was the target of organized sexual harassment by a gang of boys in my public school.  At the first peak of awkward transition to adolescence almost every boy I knew touched my body in unwanted ways and made fun of me. I was not protected by anybody. I was effectively terrorized for being a girl, for not being enough of a girl, for not being the right kind of a girl.

silenceisnotprotection

Silence ≠ Protection by Crista Facciolla, Print. Organize. Protest.

I would now call this experience sexual violence. And yes, as an adult I can see that these boys probably participated more out of their own fear of being singled out and having their masculinity questioned than for any other reason. None of that makes it ok, however, or frankly matters very much to me, because if we didn’t live in a rape culture shot through with toxic masculinity in the first place, this wouldn’t have happened. And it was traumatic.

I felt like I had to hide what the boys were doing to me. I was made complicit in their terrorism. I’m still not sure I’ve disentangled why I didn’t feel like I could tell anyone. The simplest reason is shame. It was just so fucking embarrassing. If I was going to tell someone – an adult – I would have had to also tell them the insults and the things that the boys said. This would have meant discussing sex with that adult and relaying the insults that were said about me. I was way too embarrassed to do either thing.

If I told an adult what the boys were saying about me, I would have had to repeat the insults that were flung at me. In retrospect, it takes an awful lot of self-confidence to repeat the heinous thing someone else has said about you. Repeating it seems to just make it actually real.

After several months of this experience, something happened right in front of my teacher. I hoped that finally this would put a stop to the torment I was experiencing without me having to tattle, but the teacher did nothing. (There can also be no way he hadn’t observed anything before that because there were several incidents every single day.) It has taken me 25 years to tell this story to anyone, perhaps because when my teacher who I loved and trusted failed so completely to intervene, I decided that there was something wrong with me or that there would be no point in talking.

Instead I tried to find ways to resolve the problem myself.  Apparently I tried to fit into the kind of femininity that was suggested. If my back was going to be checked for bra straps, then I was going to wear a bra every day. No matter that I didn’t need one, that they were uncomfortable, that my mother was confused and that I was too embarrassed to even be seen looking at them in the store. I was going to be wearing one each time some boy checked my back and maybe they’d move along and not yell about it.

I went home and shaved my legs. I didn’t ask for any help with that either. I didn’t want to start a conversation or argue with my mom about whether I was too young, so I opted for stealing supplies in the shower and cutting the shit out of my legs instead. At least the cuts indicated that I had taken the hint and shaved. I was complying.

But something happened when I watched the Hannah Gadsby special Nanette. I wanted to tell this story for the first time. In the special, Gadsby tells the story of being beaten up by a man who thought she was hitting on his girlfriend, and the thought struck me like lightning: have I continued being just on the right side of feminine out of fear of exactly this kind of male violence?

Like Gadsby, I too was a raised in a household where there seemed to be anxiety about my sexuality and sometimes openly expressed fear about how difficult life would be if I turned out to be gay. It was clear that it would supposedly be ok but it would also make everyone somehow sad. Much of this fear was just that, fear, and it was well-meaning, but it transmitted to me as a message that only certain ways of being were OK. Simultaneously, no adults were protecting me from the risks at school of male violence and I was under constant pressure at home to be more feminine.

I don’t think I can draw a straight (hah) line to explain how or why anything happened, but as I grew up I adopted a style that would hide my feminine body to deflect attention and yet I think I made modifications to remain “female.” At least just female enough. I didn’t want to (re)create the possibility of violence by being too masculine, nor did I want to attract attention with my body.  I’ve never felt as if I “belonged” in most highly feminine clothes, but looking back now I see what has held me back from going full-on butch despite the attraction it has always held. I was receiving so many messages about the possibility of queer-bashing at home, in the media at large, and from my own experiences that it was much easier (but more damaging) to just pretend to be straight  in a heteronormative world.

It’s not just that women, or those of us assigned female at birth or gender non-conforming in various ways are subject to overwhelming rates of sexual harassment and violence. It’s also that we, along with our sisters, girlfriends, friends, cousins, and classmates, experience so much sexual harassment and sexual violence that the threat of male violence regulates us so completely, so thoroughly, that it actually creates who we are.

Unsurprisingly my silence did not, as Audre Lorde says, protect me. Not my silence about the sexual violence I experienced in sixth grade, nor my silence about my queer sexual and gender identities. Instead they left me with a legacy of confusion, pain, and fear.  I was, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, afraid that I would do “woman” wrong and that I would be found out. Living a non-normative life is not easy, just as my family and Hannah Gadsby’s family predicted. But neither is living a life full of silence and shame. Silence is fragile, and carries so much less power than I thought when I was only a small person. Coming out of our silence is terrifying, and it is very hard, and it subjects us to real risks. But it also allows us to write our own stories, to try to create our own lives, and most importantly, to find each other.

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.

Saturday Rec: Hari Kondabolu

Hari Kondabolu’s Netflix Comedy Special “Warn Your Relatives”

Pairs well with: a copy of Edward Said’s Orientalism, the long forbidden episode of the Simpsons where they go to the World Trade Center, and mangoes

Picture of Hari Kondabolu head and shoulders with his tongue sticking out, eyes wide open to the camera

There are a lot of good, politically savvy stand-up specials on Netflix right now. This one was my favorite so far. In part because Kondabolu opens with a 9/11 joke, “in order to show the audience that he means business!” (The joke is hilarious even though I’ve just given away part of the punchline.)

You should watch this special if you really need comic relief right now. (If you don’t need comic relief right now, what kind of monster are you and why are you reading my blog?) You should try watching this special if you don’t think you will like it. Maybe you will. Or maybe you will at least learn something. A perspective like Kondabolu’s is rare on TV and in comedy, and it’s refreshing and eye opening. I felt like an ocean breeze was suddenly bursting through my windows and filling my lungs with air listening to Kondabolu’s direct and political jokes. I can only imagine what South Asian American friends felt like seeing themselves represented in any way on screen. At any rate, warn your relatives. Whiteness makes for a pretty funny joke.

stop apologizing for other people

Recently I’ve noticed a disturbing trend so I’m going to suggest a simple rule: stop apologizing for other people.

Stop making excuses for power, for whiteness, for masculinity, for heterosexism, for ableism, for colonialism. When you apologize for someone else you become part of the problem. You are working to maintain those systems instead of actively working to dismantle them as you should always be trying to figure out ways to do.

If people were sorry for their behavior, they would apologize for themselves. If you want to change a system, support those who are challenging power. Always. When you jump in to make excuses for someone else, a few things happen:

  1. The person perpetrating the micro aggression or oppressive behavior does not have to account for their own behavior.
  2. The person who has actually been harmed is silenced and shamed by seeing that you and others stand against them, regardless of what you actually say as you are making excuses. You may think that you are seeking a compromise, harmony or some kind of middle ground, but the effect of what you are doing is actually further alienating a person who has actually been harmed by sending the message that you (and others in the group) will stand with power and make excuses for it.
  3. You cut off the ability for anyone to learn and grow from their mistakes. Learning is a painful struggle. We could all work on not letting our own fears get in the way of others’ learning process.

Race, gender, sexuality, social class, ability, and nationality are all attributes that exist within systems of power. They are not individual characteristics that we possess in a vacuum and it’s impossible for any of us to be unaffected by the larger unjust systematic power imbalances around us. Working to decolonize ourselves, dismantle patriarchy, unlearn racism, and just not enact bullshit on each other in activist and other daily spaces is an ongoing process, and we are all going to make mistakes. But it is essential in that process to not only allow people to make mistakes but to point them out and even more so to support the person who is brave enough to point out the mistake since likely they are the one who has been harmed by it. It is not piling on to simply agree with or support a marginalized person pointing out a problem. All you have to remember is this: do not make excuses for power.

a brick wall with a graffito that says just "sorry about your wall"

a spell to breathe through it collectively

I feel a familiar pit of anxiety rise up in my stomach. Nausea threatens to overwhelm me. I try to remember to breathe deeply. I remind myself that I can do this. I can do this, because I have already survived worse. I can do this, because so many have already survived so much worse than I can even imagine, and some of those people are my friends. If my friends can face threats of their own deaths and continue on every day, without losing their senses of humor, without giving up, then I can do this.

I let the feelings come, I let the fear in, but I try not to let it control me. I try instead to control it with my breath. And with my memories and thoughts of everyone I know who is braver than me. I’m afraid of the unknown, of the future, of what will hurt, but usually, it’s just about going through and then it will be over. I can do this. Breathe. I want to be able to do this, I can’t control it, but I can decide to do it. I can do this.

And with each repetition, it gets easier. And with each story we tell ourselves and each other, we get stronger. We get more resilient. We can do this. We don’t have to pretend not to be anxious, not to be scared. We just have to remember to breathe. And to do it anyway.

Dandelion growing out of concrete with words that say "Cultivate Resistance"

Graphic by Luke Thomas available at https://justseeds.org/graphic/cultivate-resistance/

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.

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