Saturday, January 26, 2019

Down the Rabbit Hole

I've been walking on the wild side intellectually of late. I don't know if some circuit has exploded in my brain or if I spend too much time in my head. Maybe I've camped out in a small town too long, crying in the wilderness. Or maybe I've just heard one too many people ranting at folks to "pray about it" and the great Oz will fix "his" time. I know there are no atheists in fox holes, but Black folks -- from what I can tell -- have been "prayin' about it" for a good long time and I've about decided that either there is no Heaven, their prayers are not getting there, or "God" is a White Supremacist, as my mentor, Bill Jones wrote in Is God a White Racist? back in 1973.

Whatever has placed me on this philosophical tightrope, I'm sitting here this morning like Alice teetering on the brink of Wonderland and as much as I'm trying to resist it, the Cheshire Cat's grin is drawing me like a moth to the flame, despite my fear of the Mad Hatter's cackle and the Queen of Heart's shriek.

So from time to time, for now at least, I'm going to publish thoughts that may or may not seem to fit this blog. I'll tuck them under the banner of "Down the Rabbit Hole." And while they may not seem on the surface to be about the socially-constructed, political notion of "race," they will all have to do with power relations and when I think about power, it doesn't take long for me to introduce race into the conversation.

Maybe it's dangerous for me to entertain these thoughts more than I have been already. Maybe it's a bad idea to make them public, spinning them out into the internet. But, for good or ill, we all unfold like butterflies or vampires (or both) to take our place in history -- or herstory, if you like -- and life is complicated. Or simple. Depending on how you look at it.

Wanna join me?

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Criminals in Amerikkka

For very nearly fifty years now (fifty years of writing letters/emails/articles/posts, accepting calls, visiting, sneaking in, going in by court order, demonstrating (alone and with others), sitting and testifying in courtrooms, writing judges letters, going to judge's offices, carrying messages/secrets/stuff and babies) incarcerated citizens -- Black, White, Latino, and indigenous -- have asked me with puzzled faces: "Why are you doing this?" I tell them anybody can be locked up. I'm only doing what I would want someone to do for me if it was me behind the walls. Maybe I was locked up in a past life. Maybe I often feel as if I'm locked up in this one.

In any case, all this has given me an education in all things "criminal" (more or less). Some things I learned just by paying attention. Some I've learned by accident. Some I learned by reading books and articles or watching films. And some of it has come through personal experience of one kind or another. But the bulk of it has entered my consciousness through endless conversations with prisoners and former prisoners.

I'll never forget one conversation I had standing four inches from hundred-year-old bars eyeball to eyeball with a man who had just spent five years in a building basement facing the dark side of a hill without another living soul on the tier. Another conversation involved a long night with a bottle of mezcal, a salt shaker and some limes, interrupted at one point by a quick trip to a park nearby for a romantic liaison and a marriage proposal never mentioned by either of us again. And then there was a series of discussions about bank robberies and how they're best accomplished followed by the unanticipated suggestion that we should pull one off -- across the street from where we lived. My response was a rapid-fire: "Are you out of your rabbit-ass mind?!? That could mean 25 federal!" Needless to say, that was the end of that exchange (though not immediately the end of the relationship), but I did learn a good bit about bank robbery in the process.

If I've learned anything about "criminals," however, it's that the vast majority of the real criminals in this country are not in prisons or jails. They don't eat bad food or wear numbers stenciled on their clothes. And none have tattoos on their faces. They're in board rooms and high-end offices and government suites or maybe the Pentagon. The majority of the worst of them are older White men with money. And they don't care if you know it because they're as cold as ice. Don't believe me? Watch Park Avenue: Power, Money, and the American Dream," a documentary you can view for free on PBS until November.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

On the Poison of Prison and Community as the Antidote

Another year has come and gone; another year of writing and teaching and blogging and talking and thinking and learning about the socially-constructed, political notion of "race." One new idea that was put on my radar this year is the idea that White Supremacy is "toxic" in nature and that everything emanating from White Supremacy is, ipso facto, "toxic" as well.

It's a no-brainer, I suppose. You can't rub poison on something and not poison it, along with everything else it touches. And certainly, the word "toxic" has been used in recent years to describe all manner of physical, psychological, and social aspects of our daily lives. Yet when I heard the term applied to the so-called "correctional system," a topic I have been deeply concerned with for nearly fifty years, I found it something of a surprise. I shouldn't have. I know full well by now that oppression breeds creative responses to it. And the prison system in this country -- federal, state, and local -- takes oppression to a level more nightmarish than most of us would ever be able to imagine.

As far as I know, the folks that first connected the term "toxic" to prisons in America can be found working as a part of the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons. So I jumped at the chance to help bring one of their spokespeople, Jordan Mazurek , to our campus the end of October and managed in the planning process to get to know him and their work a bit. We talked about how to organize a Louisiana Network for Criminal Justice Transformation. One of FTP's organizers Skyped into my Social Movements and Social Action course one class period. Jordan met with and inspired the members of the new Justice4All student group my department birthed last semester. And I have maintained the connection since then to the point that he dragged a group of young organizers into the small town where I live yesterday morning just so we could all have breakfast together and brainstorm social change issues face to face before they headed back to the highway on their way to their next stop eight hours away. These folks are the real deal.

In any case, as part of Jordan's presentation in October, he included tape recordings of incarcerated individuals talking about the subject they know better than anyone. One of those featured was Clinton "Nkechi" Walker* and I was so impressed with what he had to say on surviving toxic prisons that I asked about it later and Jordan told me that Nkechi's statement had been published on the Fight Toxic Prisons' website, where I could find it to re-post it here. I am delighted to do so, although I must warn you that it is a painful read. Be prepared to reach a new level of conscious awareness on the toxicity of prison life in the United States and the brilliance of some of those who make up the community of humans who must -- and do -- endure it.