Saturday, May 02, 2020

Otto Rene Castillo: "Apolitical Intellectuals"

As a writer, I've had an office at home for years. It started out as an electric typewriter on a desk in my thirties, became a computer in my fifties, and a separate room in my apartment in my sixties. Now, I'm in the process of organizing that room to take on the appearance, efficiency, and feel of the hub I want to see Louisiana Network for Criminal Justice Transformation become.

For those of you who don't already know, I'm stepping down from my full-time position at the university on August 1st to dedicate the rest of my life to prison abolition. So I'm transforming the office that has been until now a center of creative womanist energy – fighting oppression as I have always done – to reflect the more honed focus I have developed in the past year.

Initially, I removed things: books, personal items, and random clutter unrelated to criminal justice transformation, collected over time and in the way of progress and practicality. I added a printer/scanner/copier and a shredder. And I will soon remove some of the art on the walls, replacing it with LA-NCJT documents and such.

Yesterday, as I continued the process while wading my way through six weeks of largely unanswered LA-NCJT mail, I came across a copy of the following poem by Otto Rene Castillo. Castillo was the Chief of Propaganda and Education for the Rebel Armed Forces in the mountains of Guatemala when he was captured in 1967 by representatives of the right-wing government installed by the U.S./CIA in his country thirteen years before. He was thirty-three years old when he was captured, interrogated, tortured, and burned alive.

When I organized a conference in Havana, Cuba, in 2017 for 300 radical sociologists from fifteen countries, I carried this poem in my heart. It seems appropos to re-post and re-center it again in this dark time with one additional note.

It won't be just the apolitical intellectuals who will be interrogated after this. It will be the anti-stay-at-home folks that have been encouraged by those at the top to pick up their weapons and create drama in public, calling it "freedom." It will be the die-hard ministers gathering their "flocks" to die and go to Heaven. It will be the ones who had the money to order Waitr and the health insurance to buy three months of their prescriptions at once.  It will be the birthday party revellers, the beach goers, yes, even the Netflix binge-watchers, who have hooked themselves up to the simultaneous intravenous drips of mind-numbing drugs and mind-numbing programming, which in fact has already been programming them for years. It will be everyone who let themselves be distracted from the suffering by the circus, who rode Instagram and Reddit while riding the lemmings off the cliff, who thought nothing could be done and so did nothing.

The COVID-19 pandemic is going to change human existence from this point forward. But in the struggle to survive, many are ignoring to one extent or another the creeping onslaught and entrenchment of right wing fascism in this country, dragging White Supremacy, misogyny, and religious fanaticism with it, like the four horseman of a long-awaited apocalypse. The amused smirks of so many when that word is used suggest that much of the population of the United States is still just comfortable enough to ignore the fact that (Netflix be damned) life is not a movie. It will not play to the credits in two hours with snacks. And the revolution will – this time – be televised.

"Apolitical Intellectuals"
by Otto Rene Castillo

One day
the apolitical
of my country
will be interrogated
by the simplest
of our people.

They will be asked
what they did
when their nation died out
like a sweet fire
small and alone.

No one will ask them
about their dress,
their long siestas
after lunch,
no one will want to know
about their sterile combats
with "the idea
of the nothing,"
no one will care about
their higher financial learning.

They won't be questioned
on Greek mythology,
or regarding their self-disgust
when someone within them
begins to die
the coward's death.

They'll be asked nothing
about their absurd
born in the shadow
of the total lie.

On that day,
the simple men will come.
Those who had no place
in the books and poems
of the apolitical intellectuals,
but daily delivered
their bread and milk,
their tortillas and eggs,
who cared for their dogs and gardens
and worked for them,
and they'll ask:

"What did you do when the poor
suffered, when tenderness
and life
burned out of them?"

Apolitical intellectuals
of my sweet country,
you will not be able to answer.

A vulture of silence
will eat your gut.

Your own misery
will pick at your soul.

And you will be mute in your shame.

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