A picture is DEFINITELY worth a thousand words.
Go on. The winner gets to feel righteous.
September 27, 2011
A picture is DEFINITELY worth a thousand words.
Go on. The winner gets to feel righteous.
September 1, 2011
An incredible reminder that 2011 was in no way a strange and unfamiliar occurrance, those shots were taken during the 2009 protests against the G-20 summit being held in London. Everyday people screaming their disappointment, anger, frustration and bitterness at the system that gambled with their aspirations and trusts are being met with a Metropolitan Police armed to the teeth. Alexander Schulenburg shares with us those fantastic shots of the protests.
Alexander Schulenburg has a Ph.D. in social anthropology and works as a historical researcher in local government.
August 27, 2011
It has only been a few days since Libya has been liberated from Gaddafi, after forty years of authoritarian rule, a staunch police state created to indulge the ego of an erratic leader. Long gone are the days when developing countries needed the helping hand of the West; the Arab Spring has proved that direct action and a nationwide thirst for freedom can also pave the way to democracy and individual liberties. Most western countries have watched in silent shock and admiration the steadfast rise to freedom in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Many lessons have to be drawn from this seemingly unstoppable quest to free one country from the shackles of dictatorship: one, that the era of western-led colonialism is over, and that we must stand on a pedestal of equality. Two, that our foreign policies need to stop feeding blood thirsty tyrants in our quest for domination over national resources. A piece by Antonio Fernandez on heroes, monsters and men.
“Clearly, the narrative tells more about the corrupt nature of international politics than about Gaddafi himself”
Recent events in Libya point in the direction of the fall of 40 years of Gaddafi’s rule in that country. Witnessing the cascade of articles and editorials written on the subject not only these days but since the uprising began, it is difficult to say something original or add some new illuminating perspective on the conflict, how it began, how it might end and what to expect for the people of Libya who, after all, have been trapped in a mostly western-led geopolitical turmoil. What we have seen in most media as regards the escalating violence in Libya is yet another narrative of monsters and horror. In a peculiar turn of events, the one-time considered authoritarian despot by the West, Muammar el Gaddafi, became its ally in a so-called “war against terror”, to finally be turned overnight into a grotesque monster that bombs its own people. Clearly, the narrative tells more about the corrupt nature of international politics than about Gaddafi himself and the people of Libya; their democratic demands did not raise much interest in the West until Gaddafi the friend got out of control like a maddened Frankenstein. From this perspective, the Libyan uprising contains all the ingredients of a horror story, which is the very same story of colonialism, as Frantz Fanon described so well in his analysis of the psychological effects of colonial rule on Algerian people (1). It has monsters and grotesque creatures (Gaddafi), vampires (colonial bloodsuckers) and ghosts (the people of Libya represented through the decorporealising lens of the media). Creating monsters has always been a useful strategy for colonial powers in order to legitimise the control and appropriation of natural resources out of their territory.
“The myth of Frankenstein is also a rich source of metaphors in the horror story of Western domination over foreign countries”
In the 19th century, the Palestinian population of what is now Israel and the West Bank was described by explorers and travellers with terms that made them resemble grotesque human creatures rather actual human beings; Mrs Mary Rowlandson, a colonial American woman, described the Indians that captured her for eleven weeks as children of the devil so, alas, we have another element in the horror story of colonialism. (2) I do not want to suggest that Rowlandson herself is responsible for the denigration of the culturally different other, but her views were certainly part of the zeitgeist as many pamphlets and caricatures of the indigenous found on those years do show. The British Empire did not fall short of creativity in their representation of Asians as dark, passion ridden creatures as Edward Said so cleverly describes (3). If we want more recent examples of horror stories, we just have to turn our eyes to the Nazi propaganda of the Russians during the Second World War or the North American propaganda of its own Gulf War, where Iraqis were said to take children out of incubators and let them to die in hospitals during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. Years later the story was shown to be a bluff, like so many others, but as I said before, the end justifies the means and the US gathered massive support to their military adventure in Iraq. A horror story was instrumental.
The myth of Frankenstein is also a rich source of metaphors in the horror story of Western domination over foreign countries. There we find Augusto Pinochet, who was responsible for creating, literally, rivers of blood in Chile. His description certainly fits that of a monster in his lack of humanity and excess of cruelty towards a large part of the Chilean population he governed. He showed as much insensitivity and lack of empathy towards the suffering of Chileans just like a psychopath for its victims: none. Pinochet, like Frankenstein, can be seen as the monstrous creation of a lunatic who crosses all ethical thresholds in his pursue of power and glory. The CIA brought Pinochet (and many other tyrants in South America) to life in the laboratories of the School of the Americas. It was there that Pinochet and his army were trained to commit monstrous deeds against a part of the population whose dangerous demands for a better society caused them to be rendered by the military juntas as communist monsters that deserved to be killed. And let’s not forget Saddam Hussein, a monster “fed” and cared by the United States, who, in a quintessential Frankensteinian turn, rebels against his creators. Paradoxically, the only act of rebellion -invading Kuwait- makes his creators realise he actually is a monster; massacring an entire Kurd village with chemical weapons did not suit the creators’ definition of monstrosity while he was under control.
“Gaddafi came to power claiming the right to exorcise the colonial demons from Libya. The revolutionary rhetoric gave way progressively to 40 years of authoritarian rule”
The Arab world is replete with Frankenstein-like creatures who have been supported and trained by power-thirsty western (and other non-western) elites in order to help them extend and perpetuate their domination of oil and gas resources. Among them, Gaddafi excels in theatrical extravaganza. (4) He is a good example of the dangerous games played by Western elites in their constant fabrication or transformations of simple despots into monstrous creatures with the help, of course, of the media. Like Frankenstein, Gaddafi came to power rebelling against those whom he saw as colonial oppressors only to become a close friend and ally of those very same oppressors when he realised that large sums of money could be drawn by allowing them to vampirise the country’s resources. Perhaps, after all, monsters have a deeper and close affinity with each other that humans can’t understand. The Libya Gaddafi came to save from colonial domination back in the late 60’s had already experienced the vampirisation of its natural resources by Italy. It was in 1911, when Italy claimed that the Turks were arming Libya to justify the launching of a war and the occupation of the country. Needless to say, commercial interests and colonial envy (France took the neighbouring Tunisia, perceived by Italians as closer to their sphere of influence) underpinned Italy’s actions and, of course, the myth of liberating Libyans from the Turks rang high in the Italian war propaganda. A few years later Benito Mussolini considered Libya part of his new Roman Empire (again, like Viktor Frankenstein, infatuated by his own megalomaniac dreams of power) to extract resources and promote settlements for unemployed Italian workers and farmers. Libyan resistance was fierce, which prompted Mussolini’s reaction of creating a number of concentration camps where around 100.000 people were imprisoned; it is also known that Italy’s use of mustard gas against the Libyan population, deportation and displacement were strategies for subduing the population. (5) Monstrosity and horror is probably well embedded in the collective psyche of the Libyans. Gaddafi came to power claiming the right to exorcise the colonial demons from Libya. The revolutionary rhetoric gave way progressively to 40 years of authoritarian rule that showed its more amiable face to western powers as he took a series of steps seeking international acceptance. Little by little, Gaddafi’s well-earned reputation as a terrorist sponsoring ruler (the Lockerbie bombings are a good example) did not seem to matter that much as Gaddafi offered his collaboration in the war on terror in exchange of softening economic sanctions. Now, the friend of the West is portrayed by the same Western media as a grotesque, megalomaniac monster who massacres his own population, but the monster has been fed by the West when it served their geopolitical interests, in what could be called the opposite of vampirisation, namely, the flow of poison (namely european-made weapons) that keep the monster alive.
Another important ingredient in any horror story is the ghost and Libya is no exception in this case either. Seen through the Cartesian distance of the media, the few images of Libyan rebels or Gaddafi supporters that have reached the media appear like shadows, like decorporealised entities, with no trace of human density, like undifferentiated masses of bodies, just like high technology weapons of the NATO provide a surgical distance with the enemy, be it rebel or Gaddafi supporter. It is this surgical distance that dehumanises the inherent humanity of the fighters on both sides as they appear through fragmented pieces of news TV networks covering the conflict. At this point, it is difficult to know how many thousands of Libyans have lost their life in this conflict; human beings with families, personal narratives, hopes, dreams…they are the ghosts that haunt the emergence of a post-Gaddafi Libya; these ghosts were human beings to whom political elites in Great Britain, Italy, France or Saudi Arabia (who has provided weapons to rebels on demand of the United States) have shown no concern or human empathy in their geopolitical calculations for the region: it is far more crucial for them a “stable” government that gently grants access to Libya’s natural resources, in another vampiresque turn. According to Alessandra Migliaccio, “Eni [the Italian oil company] rose 0.5% to close at 13.46 today in Milan. The shares have gained 7.9% this week after rebel fighters reached the capital, signaling a possible end to the six-month conflict”. (6) Migliaccio’s words point to the irrationality behind the West’s apparently “rational” discourse of humanitarianism and exposes the corruption of European (and some Arab) political elites. Like Viktor Frankenstein, megalomaniac political elites play God with the megalomaniac monsters they sometimes create, finance and destroy when they cease to be useful for their interests, as is the case with Gaddafi.
“in the context of the horror of colonial and neo-colonial history, the not-so-new song of humanitarian intervention used as a pretext for military operations in Libya sounds perhaps more cynical than ever before”
It is time politicians (or politishams as South African poet Seitlhamo Motsapi describes them) (7) stop behaving like zombies (alienated and unaware of the world that surrounds them and of the damage, pain and suffering their decisions create) or, like Viktor Frankenstein, stop playing God with dictators that ultimately pretend to grant political elites absolute control over entire countries. The consequences, as we have seen in Iraq and in countless many other examples, can be catastrophic. Nobody know where Libya is heading now; whether the rebel factions that have been supported by the NATO will split in the absence of a clear and identifiable enemy or how Gaddafi supporters (in the event of a likely and imminent defeat) will fit in the new political scenario. Also, rumours and fears of Al Qaeda cells infiltrating the country begin to spread, casting a shadow of unpredictable violence. In the context of the horror of colonial and neo-colonial history, the not-so-new song of humanitarian intervention used as a pretext for military operations in Libya sounds perhaps more cynical than ever before, as if western leaders did not even have to make the effort anymore of masquerading the real geopolitical motivations behind the military intervention. To finish with one more horror note, oil in Libya is a curse more than a blessing and it needs to be added to the three traumas suffered by the Arab world, according to Marc Ferro (8), the creation of the state of Israel and the partition of Pakistan. As I write this, Al Jazeera is reporting evidence of mass execution by Gaddafi troops. Again, the price to pay to keep Libya’s veins open to foreign vampirisation is too high and unacceptable form an ethical perspective, but for how long will horror be manipulating the democratic aspirations of Arab peoples? For the Arab spring to grow, the former colonial elites and allied Arab regimes must stop interfering in the internal affairs of these countries and respect the right of these countries to manage their natural resources with the freedom they deserve. Continuing the narrative of horror (destabilising the countries with dictators or supporting the most convenient side for geostrategic interests) will not be conducive to democracy and stability as western powers claim, but will only perpetuate the cycle of horror and monstrosity we have witnessed for decades. .
(1) Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, Penguin, 2006.
(2) Mary Rowlandson, Narrative of the Captivity and restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, Nu Vision Publications, 2007.
(3) Edward Said, Orientalism, Penguin, 2003.
(4) Ronald Bruce St john, Libya: from Colony to Independence, Oneworld Publications, 2008.
(5) Ruth Ben-Ghiat and Mia Fuller (ed.) Italian Colonialism, ed., Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005
(6) Alessandra Migliaccio, “Eni Lobbies to keep oil dominance in Libya after Qaddafi”
(7) Seitlhamo Motsapi, “soffly soffly nesta skank”
(8) Marc Ferro, El Conflicto del Islam, Catedra, 2004.
Michael A G Bunter, The Geopolitics of Libya, Maris BV.
Simon Rogers, “EU arms exports to Libya: who armed Gaddafi?”
August 23, 2011
No one ever believed the tremendous social dismay of the Thatcher years would re-appear in modern Great Britain. The seed was however sewn in an incredibly divisive country: feigning inclusiveness, economic stability, and understanding domestic politics, the gap grew wider in the face of the economic crash. Whoever you believe is to blame, there is no denying that London had rarely seen scenes of such a widespread, contagious, and seemingly uncontainable violence. In the very recent aftermath of very traumatic events for a country that always thought the Irish were its biggest problem, here is a breakdown the social barriers of race divisions, class war, and utter lack of social cohesion. A fantastic piece by Josh Kitto.
“In the vacuum created, necessary questions about the politics of inequality and of state and individual violence will be inevitable even for the right”
The riots in Tottenham were at first confusing, but could be explained by the shooting of Mark Duggan. As looting spread across London, it became a mood of fear, partly for my safety, but also for the willingness of left-leaning people to call for martial law. I worried whether I was going politically insane: was it irrational to call for calm and understanding? Tariq Jahan, whose son was killed in a possibly racist incident in Birmingham (many on the far-right saw it as an opportunity for racist violence) has set the tone and calmed the rhetoric. It’s hard to know whether this is a huge opportunity for the right or the progressive left. Within a week, the political consensus had shifted rightwards, condemning the damn kids with their music. There is now a reaction against said shift as accused rioters’ families are evicted from homes, and as TV historians say black people need to ‘talk white’. But in the vacuum created, necessary questions about the politics of inequality and of state and individual violence will be inevitable even for the right.
One revealing aspect of the riots is how they seem both normal and a deviation from British riots before. Conservatives’ greatest trick is to pretend that everything that has come before is and was always acceptable. A right-wing talking point has been that at least the riots of the 1980’s were political and not about “pure criminality”. But during the 1981 riots, there were immediate calls for troops and rubber bullets, as now. Margaret Thatcher cited a lack of morality and her colleagues cited parental irresponsibility, as now. However, some things are new, namely the Thatcherite culture of 2011. The looting was the hedonism of Oxford Street Christmas sales with petrol bombs. Every adult generation is cynical about young people. St Paul essentially talks about “Kids today” to the Corinthians. But this time it is not youth who are optimistic, having no reason to be. It forms a perfect mix for the looting with the faux optimism of adults who thought it vital to own two homes in recent years. Ironically, David Willetts, the minister in charge of cuts to young people, picked up on this inter-generational conflict; if the young are selfish, then it is their parents who taught them. Thatcher’s children bequeathed Thatcher’s grandchildren. 45-65 year olds own over half of British wealth, but under-45s just over a tenth. Credit cards holding up middle-class wealth and spending was made to be something good, sexy. And we’re surprised young people have taken to these values.
“There was something natural to the events, operating partially as a response to, but also within the parameters of, a politics of violence”
What is also noteworthy is how the rioters were operating within the rules of a politics of violence. The violence was political even if working without a manifesto. Even if the mostly young rioters are oblivious to the world of politics, that world has operated in rules of violence and set the tone for society. During the Iraq war, even the anti-war left followed these rules by saying that a major reason why we should not intervene was that Iraq required a strongman leader. Arguments advocating peaceful solutions had an undercurrent of violence and control. This doesn’t account for why the riots happened, but possibly how it happened. There was something natural to the events, operating partially as a response to, but also within the parameters of, a politics of violence. But even if the causes of the riots in the last fortnight mirrored previous unrest, the way they were carried out is not totally parallel. Looting has always followed riots, as many will take advantage of a breakdown in order (similar to brokers when there is market unrest). Many get caught up in these acts, such as those now possessing stolen goods rather than actually looting. However, the smashing into shops showed a “You are what you buy” culture requiring universal enfranchisement, acquiring goods by any means. Attempts to restrict social networking, as if riots had not occurred Pre-Zuckerberg, ignore that advertisers for example are more effective messengers for the looting. Though it may be relativist to say so, what is the consensus morality that says the riots and looting are incomparably more immoral than the 1,000 richest people in Britain increasing their wealth by over a third in the current recession? Why is it not then relativism in much of the right-wing media to look at the root causes of Anders Breivik’s actions? These events, though reoccurring, don’t just happen for no reason. Criminality alone would imply these events could have happened at any time or in any place, not just poor areas in a devastating recession.
Ed Miliband’s call for a commission into the events sets out a subtle, but important difference with the Prime Minister. Mr Cameron knows that such commissions are unsettling, both in analysing the short-term spark of the riots and long-term issues that made unrest inevitable. Even Thatcher-appointed inquiries could not escape warnings on racism and deprivation. President Johnson ignoring the Kerner Commission allowed deprivation and racism to fester, which were long term causes of the 1992 LA riots for example. Similarly, ignoring the Ritchie Report of 2001 perhaps allowed similar problems to spark this unrest in Britain. Segregated schools are more than different buildings for rich and poor kids. They’re also about the segregation of aspirations, only allowed for the richer kids. Some issues of school segregation are about resources, where teachers find it difficult in poorer schools to give all 30 children in a class sufficient attention. However, there are broader questions; school segregation effectively unravels a community. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett found inThe Spirit Level that community trust breaks down in highly unequal settings because people are more likely to trust ‘people like them’. In the Nordic countries, it was found that over 60% of people thought most people could be trusted, while this was under 30% in the more unequal Britain. It was not surprising that middle-class liberals called for martial law, having been encouraged to view the “underclass” with terror. Another element in terms of school segregation was their findings attributed to Karla Hoff and Priyanka Pandey: when testing hundreds of Indian boys in their puzzle-solving ability, the low-caste boys did slightly better when their backgrounds were unannounced. However, when backgrounds were announced, the low-caste boys’ results dropped significantly, while the results of the high-caste boys slightly improved. Similar experiments had similar results in the US. When it is said that poorer young people have not been disciplined, there is an element of truth: they have been controlled, their backgrounds pronounced by segregating them from middle-class kids. Resultant decisions to ignore them become a means of control. Discipline does not mean blind loyalty to authority, which children should be encouraged to question. The kids segregated from society are not disciplined precisely because they and their interests are considered worthless. They’re not encouraged to pursue their interests with hard work or questions that can make figures like teachers uncomfortable. One cross-party idea is for ‘early intervention’. There are interesting recommendations to tackle social exclusion.  They’re presented though to a government that is slashing Sure Start, a form of early intervention which Lancet showed was helping poorer children to do better in 5 out of 14 outcomes than children who had not received the service.
“The self-segregation by the rich is a clear personal and political statement of cementing their position, making it impenetrable.”
Segregation of schools and neighbourhoods and poor standards in either, is the perfect petri dish for state or individual violence. Gated communities are a rare American category: an export. They’re also a perfect symbol for the right-wing shift in debate. The self-segregation by the rich is a clear personal and political statement of cementing their position, making it impenetrable. The fear for many rich people is not just for their possessions, but also their status. Council homes are an inverted equivalent, designed to be segregated but with none of gated communities’ physical or political security. Thatcher’s right-to-buy policy for council homes was a subtly perverse privatisation. Council homes were not replaced, and tenants became poorer when the housing safety net was made perpetually more ghettoised. Pouring money into estates has been a parody of a housing bubble, using minor redistributions from an unsustainable neo-liberal system. Breaking up the notion of the estate, and building homes for more mixed neighbourhoods, may be a more effective way of addressing inequality at its roots. The closest government comes to integrating neighbourhoods, is encouraging the rich to move into expensive flats alongside the crumbling estates of the poor, namely in Hackney. In this context, even corner shops can be seen with banks as something ‘other’ to express anger towards, the target normally whatever ‘other’ is nearest. It’s also in this context where evicting the families of rioters from council homes is a form of the gentrification government has promoted over a safety net, for years.
An average of 54 applicants for every job is not isolated to Tottenham. But if the political, media or policing establishment acknowledged Tottenham, it was with a mind-set of battle and occupation, not jobs programmes. In occupation, the occupied have little to lose, no future prospects to be ruined. Riots were no surprise to people in those communities. They were of no surprise to police leaders, the Bank of England head, the Archbishop of Canterbury or Nick Clegg in a previous political life, all warning of mass unrest. Austerity cuts cause a greater risk of rioting, and of a particular event like Duggan’s death to spark explosive anger, even if convenient to believe otherwise. The rioters were articulating the failures of a whole generation to integrate them into a societal fabric, even if unaware of doing so. What communal structures exist to integrate people from the affected areas? The unions have long collapsed, making working people’s condition irrelevant. The left is now more comfortable with academic settings than mobilising these areas. Youth clubs and schools are collapsing as the social safety net becomes increasingly tattered. It could explain cynically looting consumer goods, namely having an upper hand in the streets for possibly the first and last time. Gangs thrive on the lack of communal structure and identity, not simply a ‘lack of rules’. ‘Territoriality’ has become important in places where industry has collapsed.
“Working-class people could once withdraw their labour in order to express collective consciousness. Thatcher withdrew them from labour, from mainstream society.”
Poverty as an academic term cannot fully explain the events. However, around 40% of the suspects were from the 10% poorest areas in Britain. Deprivation, and the sense of injustice related to that, was a bigger component in the riots than others. We’re encouraged to isolate the poor, to remove them from mainstream consciousness. Working-class people could once withdraw their labour in order to express collective consciousness. Thatcher withdrew them from labour, from mainstream society. It made them unnecessary to power and ignorable. It became easier to mock and deride; shows will present benefit cheats as the worst in society and without a hint of irony will then follow this with a show where second home ownership is the best of society. Establishment voices talk about the poor as ‘irresponsible’, though they’re often forced to be more responsible than most. There was a truth to what one young man said in Tottenham, where nearly half of children are in poverty, to NBC: “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?” Poverty is perpetuated by violence and control, and vice versa. Poverty is often a condition of criminals, but also their victims. Poverty, by design, makes the victims more vulnerable to state and individual violence. It thus feels futile to condone or condemn riots that were made inevitable. We can only condemn the context which led to it. Those who cynically looted are as much a product of this context as those who actively resisted it or passively ignored it. Individual agency allows one not to riot and loot. But agency and responsibility is also tied to individual identity. Poverty in limiting one’s opportunities also limits individual identity. Personal and collective responsibility is strongest with a strong sense of identity and belonging. It is thus hard to find the morality in a system where the top 10% of London have 273 times the wealth of the bottom 10%, even if not having worked 273 times as hard. Such inequality indicts the top, but the immorality of the system spreads far beyond the top, indicting us all. It can explain why areas like Ealing erupted, when the high street presents prosperity, but the hidden edges contain deprivation and unemployment. Inequality is more revealing because it shows how the order tears itself part. Thus, owning a Blackberry is not a statement of impoverishment, but then phone ownership is a means of survival and also aspiration in many third world countries, so why not inner-city Britain?. It is those who have more paths to prosperity than phone ownership who can buy 300k one-bedroom flats next to crumbling estates. Inequality matters because it makes social ills worse for the rich and poor. It shatters consensus interpretations of moral codes and other means of identification, ironically when identities become polarised. That’s why the government policies were an important medium-term cause, not directly, but a statement of not caring about these areas or their interests. Little surprise then that a Wall Street Journal poll recently revealed millionaires feel massively insecure about the lack of prosperity for the non-millionaire folk, with 94% expecting unrest on the streets.
“The police increasingly have a political agenda, becoming less accountable when using relationships with media and politicians”
If we consider the police though, they are institutionally hampering efforts to tackle crime by politically, as well as professionally, separating themselves from those who seek rehabilitative methods. The police increasingly have a political agenda, becoming less accountable when using relationships with media and politicians to protect an independent agenda. The IPCC initially misleading the public over Duggan’s death is part of this. Police “spin” on a story is increasingly important. The recent hearings into the hacking scandal revealed the Met has 45 press officers, 10 of whom had worked at News International. It reveals their role in that scandal, but also their increasing political role. The media help to promote the narrow police agenda on crime. There are issues of access, with the police having long fed stories to particular reporters. Both often use the same talking points for ‘lock-‘em-up’ arguments. Former Met Commissioner Ian Blair talked about “feral children” in speeches for example. Duggan’s death echoes the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, where Menezes was smeared, the details of his killing lied about, namely the idea he was running away from the police. The lies around the death of Duggan were unnecessary if the interest was solely security and not political positioning. It was needless to inform the media before Duggan’s family. It is no surprise that this explosion of violence happened in an area where there have been numerous deaths under police custody. One reggae artist apparently killed himself with a knife when arrested by the police in his home, an account that few believe. Paul Lewis, an on the ground journalist in the riots said he was surprised how many people in the affected communities knew of, and loathed, the IPCC. These communities feel attacked, not just unprotected, by the police.
“The inability of the police to meet with those protesting Duggan’s death felt partly incompetent”
Police brutality was given de facto legitimacy when media was willing to ignore the root causes of crime beyond a screaming headline. But there has also been an element of the police proving their position, of making people subservient to them. The inability of the police to meet with those protesting Duggan’s death felt partly incompetent, partly about trying to prove that the meeting was unnecessary and could keep them waiting. The police have rather taken to winding up protestors to prove they are in control. When I was ‘kettled’ in the student protests, people were repeatedly given the wrong directions in which to leave by police for example. The McPherson and Scarman reports forced the police to act upon more egregious attitudes of racism. Other reports and recommendations were ignored, such as stopping disproportionate use of restraint against black men, leaving time bombs for an event like Duggan’s death. Hundreds of black men have died in custody since the 1970’s. The police have improved, but a lack of accountability with only one officer having ever been convicted for a death in custody, has further strained the police relationship with black people. Stop and search has been the most controversial practise in this strained relationship. The McPherson recommendation of logging the race of those stopped was a way of lessening the burden of black people feeling constantly surveyed. This became undermined under legislation where the police no longer needed reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to stop and search. On the guise of ‘counter-terrorism’, hundreds of thousands have been stopped. Only 2 have been charged with terror offences, but non-whites are 26 times more likely to be stopped. While the last fortnight showed a Britain more comfortable with non-white people than 3 decades ago, less visceral racism since the 1980’s has not extinguished systemic racism, especially in the criminal justice system. There is little sense that this can be extinguished soon either. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, i.e. in promoting accountability. The PM wants elected police commissioners, but what might work better is electing police on a more local level, given legitimacy by the ‘beat’ they’re working on. It could democratically open up the police to more non-white officers, but also the concerns of non-white civilians.
“the experiences of marginalised children are “not one occasional attack on dignity” but a “repeated humiliation, being continuously dispossessed in a society rich with possession.”
The root causes are necessary to look at because they often reveal far deeper societal pathologies. British care homes might as well be joined with prisons. Half of those in German care go on to higher education, but those in British care are more likely to go to prison than to university, committing nearly 20 times more crime than their German counterparts. Britain’s care system holds up a distorted mirror to the politics of violence in Britain, namely Haringey where the riots started, infamous for child abuse scandals. Camila Batmangelidjh, who runs Kid’s Company, is the most prominent exception to the system’s failures, caring for often malnourished children in London. She is not surprised that children dismissed as ‘feral’ are ‘attacking their own community’: she says the experiences of marginalised children are “not one occasional attack on dignity” but a “repeated humiliation, being continuously dispossessed in a society rich with possession. Young, intelligent citizens of the ghetto seek an explanation for why they are at the receiving end of bleak Britain, condemned to a darkness where their humanity is not even valued enough to be helped.” Tolstoy asserted that governments are those who do violence to the rest of us. Whether this is accurate, prisons are a breeding ground for an individual violence that echoes a politics of violence, and another national disgrace. Wandsworth prison was recently heavily criticised. Substandard conditions have contributed to 11 deaths in custody, 4 of them suicides, between 2010 and February 2011, in a prison population of over 1,600. 14 UK prisons have a 70% reconviction rate or above. Such structures of cyclical violence will not be solved by adding looters to it, like those jailed for stealing a bottle of water. But policies designed to stop these cycles of violence are often seen as unpalatable. Goldsmiths University have helped around 300 one time functionally illiterate prisoners to obtain degrees. Even with reoffending rates in the single digits, such programmes cannot stray from a mainstream politics of violence.
In a similar way to US foreign policy creating ‘blowback’, excessive police tactics heightens the risk of violence, made almost inevitable in the mainstream politics of violence. The tactic of ‘kettling’ for example, confining peaceful protestors in a small space with violent protestors, only increases the chance of violent responses. The HMIC inquiry into Ian Tomlinson’s death found it was problematic, recommending police facilitate protest rather than criminalise it. The ‘lock-‘em-up’ agenda though is more about the relative position of the police than a security approach. The picture though is nuanced, as though short term ‘tough’ measures are popular, the British public don’t show unquestioning loyalty to the police for long, particularly if they have covered up more information surrounding Duggan’s death. Looking at how protests are handled is vital in understanding the psychology of riots. ‘Tough’ short-term measures, like using water cannons and rubber bullets, have smashed up the lives of people in Northern Ireland with greater ease than the barriers fuelling violence. A conflict mediation model emerging in Chicago, led by groups like CeaseFire, attempts to understand riots like diseases in how they spread, using mediation and listening to potential rioters in order to prevent explosions of violence. Conflict mediation has been incredibly important in keeping fragile relationships between police and vulnerable communities stable. This was acknowledged after the riots in1981/5. Police worked with community leaders and groups to help legitimise the police. Refusing to do so after Duggan’s death seems both arrogant and stupid. The same can be said of governmental policies that in effect deny the existence of communities. The ‘Big Society’ in practise is little different to the ‘No Society’ of Thatcher. Interestingly, poor Scottish and Welsh communities have been unaffected by the riots. Identity and a collective voice are stronger in those communities though. They have local leaders who can articulate their frustrations. London was lacking such a voice in the initial days, though Ken Livingstone did the best job of doing so. Perhaps other forms of local democracy are necessary, not just accountable police, community mediation and community grassroots groups.
“In the context of this (drug) war though, these areas become occupied territories, rather than areas with real police work or reconstruction required by the damage of war”
The destructive dog-eat-dog world of gangs ironically provides stability absent in other parts of people’s environments. It is also about the wealth provided by local monopolies on the drug trade. The war on drugs creates both organised state and individual violence, particularly in dying areas like those affected by the riots. In the context of this war though, these areas become occupied territories, rather than areas with real police work or reconstruction required by the damage of war. The Ministry of Justice has found most reoffenders are homeless and/or jobless, or have been through the care system and abuse in other structures. Gang members are more likely to have suffered the latter indignities. But ‘reformed’ individuals with a criminal record can also find it near impossible to access employment or housing after background checks. Without the stability of a job and home, “criminality” is an easier, more stable option. The paradox is that what ultimately destroys those removed from society is what seems to be the only available, stable course. If we don’t acknowledge them as members of society, becoming a criminal is more likely for numerous reasons. One reform could be for one’s criminal record to be cleared if rehabilitated. This is nowhere near a total solution, but even tweaks in the law and government policy can help to start break these cycles of violence.
“One youth worker told the Guardian that gangs are an obvious option when youth clubs and community spaces are shut down”
Some of the problem was not networks of gangs as suspected by media though, but simply bored kids. Breaking up the year into shorter terms and holidays, with a 5-term year as schools in Nottingham are piloting, can be one way of capping, or limiting events like this. Youth clubs are not a magic way of stopping crime, but shutting out hormonal teenagers from one of a few available spaces for them, isn’t the best preventative measure against riots. It isn’t just a seasonal problem though as removing financial incentives for sixth-form colleges will mean less attendance and more hormonal teenagers, again not the best preventative measure. It isn’t a seasonal problem when hacking apart the career advice service, Connexions. But it is a perfect circle of young people not in employment, education, or training. One youth worker told the Guardian that gangs are an obvious option when youth clubs and community spaces are shut down because the protection of the older gang members is “the only childcare anyone can afford”. Teenage kicks have their part in the events too. Another youth worker told the Guardian when he confronted assembled kids in Liverpool, most went away feeling stupid with themselves. Far easier to blame single mothers though, to say the problem is that rioters lack guidance from their fathers, while then proposing all women seeking child support from men pay a flat fee to the Child Support Agency of £100.
Any real commission of inquiry cannot just consider reductionist issues around these communities or law and order specifically. These causes are vital in diagnosing the riots, whether short-term, like the death of Duggan, the medium-term of a downward-spiralling economy, or much longer-term deprivation of so many communities. But determining these symptoms is not enough. It’s not enough to remedy the problems when they arrive, but rather finding out how to stop them arising in the first place. It’s not enough for example to be concerned that overcrowded prisons after the riots will lead to prison revolts, but instead to ask broader questions about the role of prisons and punishment. Such a commission should perhaps be like a jury, calling up ordinary people from affected areas who don’t proclaim themselves experts. That there are so many possible and probable reasons for the riots means experts from specific fields may not be enough. It is also a damning indictment of a society that ignored these dying areas, requiring more than the establishment figures who helped contribute to these areas’ deaths. It has to be a conversation that includes even the rioters even if cathartic to only condemn. While the focus should be on evaluating issues around law enforcement and social injustice, a whole societal shift is required, asking questions like what ownership means to us as a society. Galbraith argued collective consciousness and conscience is a better protector from reactionary shifts than the law. The US reaction to the 1960’s/70’s riots provide a lesson to us: Reaganomics flowed as much in new mistrust in welfare offices and housing departments as it did in political discourse. This societal shift had damaging consequences, with whole communities becoming collateral damage in a political turn to the right. The same sense of fear cannot have a similar monopoly on society and discourse if we are to stop such riots from happening again.
Josh Kitto is studying history and political science at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, United Kingdom. He has been featured on independant media outlets such as Citizen Radio talking and discussing the student protests on the tuition hikes in 2012. An avid Howard Zinn reader and an admirer of Amy Goodman, his motto is, “Go where the silence is”. You can read his blog at Confessions of an autistic boy.
August 8, 2011
We have extensively covered the war on women’s health that has been waged by the Boehner House ever since the Republicans took office of the House of Representatives following the 2010 midterm election. Pandering to an extreme right wing Tea Party – despite their claims their organisation only focuses on job creation and deficit reduction – GOP representatives have done their hardest to cut the women’s health sections out of the Affordable Care Act. First chasing after a fictitious federal fund for abortion through Planned Parenthood, they decided they would financially dry them out entirely. Now, they are after birth control.
“Steve King (…) is failing to understand the very basic concepts of medicine, the reproductive system, (and) women’s health”
Beginning next year, the federal government will require, under current provisions of the Affordable Care Act, that insurance companies cover entirely the cost of birth control as a preventive treatment. As often in legislature, the wording is everything: no one raised an objection until Kathleen Sebelius publicly approved of the following recommendation by the Institute of Medicine. The moment Sebelius declared her enthusiasm as a scientifically endorsed lawmaking project that would curb the rise in unplanned pregnancies, Iowa’s Steve King took the floor to voice his discontent with an argument we can only qualify as paranoid, the way only a Philip K. Dick novel could fathom in such short notice.
“Well if you applied that preventative medicine universally what you end up with is you’ve prevented a generation. Preventing babies from being born is not medicine. That’s not — that’s not constructive to our culture and our civilization. If we let our birth rate get down below replacement rate we’re a dying civilization.”
Granted, 2011 has been the year of all sorts of apocalyptic predictions. From Harold Camping’s calculations leading to a Judgement Day on May 21 and the rising fear over the end of the Mayan Calendar planned for December 2012, we are not short of any sort of dying civilization stories. However, preventive health care for women was not in any of the theologists’ books. It was, however, a very recurrent nightmare for Steve King who is failing to understand the very basic concepts of medicine, the reproductive system, women’s health, and, on a bigger scale, his role as an elected representative to bring an all-encompassing piece of legislature that will help his own nation leap forward into modernism, equality, and the rising costs of living.
It seems to me that what triggered Steve King’s extreme paranoid reaction is the use of the word “preventive”, that birth control is exlusively made to stop something from happening. Which is true, in a way; it is also true that birth control methods, which is based on the release of certain hormones into the bloodstream at certain key moments of a woman’s reproductive cycle, also helps with a lot of symptoms associated with dysfunctioning ovaries or anormal hormone levels. This is a fundamental part of the “preventive” part of birth control use. Putting this point aside, Steve King is worried that easy and affordable access to birth control will annihilate America.
Let’s use numbers.
There are currently 312 million people living in the United States. A projected 439 million will be reached by 2050: this represents a steady 4.2% growth over 30 years, which is hardly what one would call extinction. (1) Out of those 312 million, 152 million are female, 74% of which have reportedly used birth control at some point in their lives – and that number has been steadily rising from 1995 to 2002. This is no shocker to anyone who has ever been in the vicinity of a woman. It is a complete and utter trauma for Steve King who believes that a constant rise in population and a constant rise in birth control means a constant rise in deaths not replaced by births. Granted, I have never been good at math. But King’s conclusion is completely mind-boggling.
“In short, he believes women on birth control (…) are selfish, individualistic, self-centered, small-minded, and more importantly, spoiled”
What Steve King wants is for us all potential baby-bearers to take the high road, to consider a bigger plan, to step outside of our own personal frame. He basically wants us to consider pregnancy as an outside willingness, to see ourselves as a temporary vessel, to place ourselves within a larger community. In short, he believes women on birth control – and by extension, obviously, the godless heathens who have or will book an abortion – are selfish, individualistic, self-centered, small-minded, and more importantly, spoiled; that birth control has given us the gift of choice, and that we are undeserving of it. This is no longer a question of opinion, or even of a question of sexism: this is mysogyny disguised under a thick coat of pseudo-concern and so-called political consciousness. It’s hypocrisy taken to the degree of rolling decades and decades backwards in preventive medicine, women’s health, and the very concept, more than necessary, paramount ideology of family planning.
Four out of ten pregnancies are unplanned, which is a massive amount in a western, modern country that should educate its children in the matters of sex, relationships, and reproduction. An unplanned pregnancy may not necessarily result in a complicated one, a traumatic birth, or a psychologically disturbed upbringing. A planned pregnancy, however, massively helps bringing all those factors into the successful bringing of a new life into the world. Birth control can also be used to space several pregnancies over time, reducing the risk of complications, ensuring a proper communication within the existing family, and adding a new factor to the mix: the financial cost of pregnancy and child rearing. Lest we forget we are going through a recession.
It would be easy to dump Steve King’s inconsistencies to sheer ignorance. It is however hard to go through life without encountering a woman who is pregnant or has already had children. The faces of birth control are as varied as women themselves; and reducing them to a sole purpose, free from all the purposes, dreams, aspirations, and complexities of everyday life in one specific context is an atrocity that has plagued women up until birth control was made readily available. The next step forward that has been taken by the Affordable Care Act is one which importance should never be underestimated. The words and beliefs of Steve King should effectively cost him office. Beware of writing women off the map, Representative.
(1) all numbers are 2010 data, provided by the Census Bureau (census.gov)
July 26, 2011
Whether he knows it or not, Breivik is a member of Al-Queda. It is with those words that The Danger Room’s Spencer Ackerman chose to write his first words related to the Oslo attacks. Two acts of terrorism of extreme violence carried out without a slightest warning in a country mostly known for soccer teams and a stern refusal to be a part of the Euro zone. Wherever Europe chose to hide its best, brightest and quietest – Scandinavia – the curtain has now been pulled to reveal that the darkest stains of the Old Continent have spread to the parts we believed were kept out of the miserable stench of racism emerging out of the upmost western shores. The 2008 crisis did nothing to help a rise in extreme right fringes represented within France’s Sarkozian government, Britain’s Tories flirting with the BNP and Austria’s early 00’s dance with Jörg Haider. Regardless of the position, terrorism is terrorism: it is the refusal to adhere to the rule of law, a complete disregard for human life, and a basic, if at all, knowledge of what constitutes civil society. What is shocking the world as of today is not the scope of the attack, its suddenness, or its unusual location. It is the fact that Anders Behring Breivik was a white-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed 32 years old who couldn’t find another way to “spark a revolution” he believed to be necessary to rid the world of “the threat of Islamism”. Primitive fear of the other and outstanding political violence: Europe is facing its own failure to integrate, mix, and roll in with multiculturalism. The ghosts of the wars of the 20th century are passing by, sending a very chilly breeze. Antonio Fernandez gives us his insight on Europe’s old trends of xenophobia and the hypocrisy in national narratives.
“the flow of minute-by-minute particular details of the massacre provided by mainstream media cannot and should not prevent us from asking larger questions about Nazism as a European phenomenon, deeply rooted in the mind-set of European national narratives”
On Friday, July 22nd, Anders Behring Breivik, a 32-year-old Norwegian man with extreme right ideas, allegedly a member of Swedish Nazi forum, killed at least 93 children in the island of Utoya. It is the worst attack suffered by Norway since the Second World War and has been described in the media as Norway’s Oklahoma moment. Behring’s outspoken hatred of Muslims, Marxists and multiculturalism, his call for a defence of what he perceives as a “decadent” Europe put him in line with the extremist ideas of the resurgent neo-Nazi movement in Europe. It is deeply worrying to observe how almost 70 years after the Nazis’ war on Europe and fascism, countries such as Sweden, Finland, Germany, Austria, Russia, Italy and Spain, to name only a few, have seen the ideas of xenophobic, populist and demagogical political parties taking seats in their national parliaments. What should raise our concern, however, is the disproportionate and indiscriminate nature of the brutal twin attacks, which clearly mark a transition from street knife crime to what could be seen as a more violent and sophisticated form of terrorism in Europe. The question that runs through my head is probably similar to that of many: why? Obviously, the flow of minute-by-minute particular details of the massacre provided by mainstream media cannot and should not prevent us from asking larger questions about Nazism as a European phenomenon, deeply rooted in the mind-set of European national narratives and its devastating consequences. My intention with this article is to briefly navigate to the core of racism in Europe and offer a broader historical and philosophical perspective about the ramifications of power in the right to kill the other, which lies at the heart of European totalitarianism. Nazism should never occur in Europe again but the resurgence of organised racism forces us to wonder whether Europe has really learned its historical lessons. It is only by confronting the discomforting and uncomfortable truth of Europe’s colonial past that we may be able to fight terror – intellectually and physically – in all its forms, whatever traits the terrorists uphold and whatever the nature of terror inflicted.
“In Agamben’s words, the state of exception is that space where one who has been accused of committing a crime, within the legal system, loses the ability to use his voice and represent themselves- the individual can not only be deprived of their citizenship, but also of any form of agency over their own life”.
Anders Behring Breivik travelled to the island of Utoya dressed as a policeman after having left explosives in a governmental building. With chilling coldness, Breivik arrogated himself the right to end the life of 93 young boys and girls, members of the Socialist youths. They were not given the chance to speak, to say a word in their defence as, in Breivik’s mind, they represented everything that he stood against: multiculturalism, empathising with Muslims, and the perversion of Europe’s cultural purity. The island became a form of a state of exception and the young boys and girls became homo sacer, to use the terminology employed by philosopher Giorgio Agamben. In Agamben’s words, the state of exception is that space where one who has been accused of committing a crime, within the legal system, loses the ability to use his voice and represent themselves- the individual can not only be deprived of their citizenship, but also of any form of agency over their own life. Agamben identifies the state of exception with the power of decision over life. On the island of Utoya, Breivik turned the congregated into homo sacer, that is, human beings outside the reach of law by virtue of the state of exception, where no law applies. But, in Breivik’s own words, the end justified the means – he recognised the brutality of the massacre yet claimed it was necessary. A sort of instrumental rationality seemed to underpin the goal of his actions.
Racism in Europe emerged in the age of colonial exploration, when the European merchant class went overseas in quest for raw material and new markets. Thanks to technological improvement and the rule of Enlightnement, Europe moved beyond the Middle Ages and entered Renaissance as the descriptor and scriptor of the world, the beacon of civilisation, the civilising centre of the world to which the other peoples in the world should naturally tend. Soon, Indigenous populations were rendered primitive and backward or as having a civilizational deficit, in front of Europe’s perceived technological superiority. Different life styles and worldviews that did not conform to the standards of agricultural productivity and technological efficiency that had allowed Europe to overcome the medieval age were deprived of their legitimacy to exist by using violence dressed as liberal legality. The discourse of modernity justified colonial genocide in Australia, Africa and South America: the “end” of economic growth justified plundering and dispossession and soon the machinery of death began to emerge in slave plantations. Entire populations of human beings were dehumanised and excluded from the rule of law and, as Michel Foucault argues in The Will to Knowledge, the first volume of The History of Sexuality, racism became a technology by which the right to death was exercised by judicial agents that arrogated themselves the right to define law and, at the same time, to arbitrarily exclude the “other” from the rule of law.
In the 19th century, racism was institutionalised within nation-states, that ascribed European peoples with essentialised ethnic, linguistic, geographical and historical features, as if cultures were isolated and bounded entities. The construction of the non-European “other” (e.g. the Arab, the Hindu) as irrational, passion-led was a necessary step in the civilising process of killing and colonial expropriation: the perception of the “other” as a threat or dangerous mysterious entity enabled their dehumanisation and justified the massive taking away of lives. Again, the appropriation of the natural resources of other peoples in foreign lands (the irrational) had to be rationalised. As I mentioned before, it is the European nation-state that creates and defines law and lawlessness in order to remove any obstacle on the road to economic growth. This is a far-right ideology, the same ideology endorsed by Breivik: as Ibrahim Hewitt argues, “the notion of Europe’s and Europeans’ racial superiority – giving cultural credibility to the far-right – gave rise to the slave trade and the scramble for Africa leading to untold atrocities against “the Other”; ditto in the Middle and Far East”. Seen from this perspective, the rhetorical stance of Breivik’ anti-Muslim view is nothing new under the sun. As we have seen, the idea that Europe is being “occupied” or “conquered” by hordes of “barbarous” Muslims is well rooted in the European consciousness; and far from disappearing, it can be found in more recent literature such as Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, where the cultural features of a community of almost 100 million people is reduced to a number of stereotypes.
“The pursuing of geopolitical interests across the world by European nations (and non-European as well) requires the implementation of spaces excluded from the rule of law, as in the West Bank and Gaza, where human beings converted into homines sacri can be routinely and massively killed”.
The “rationalised” irrational logics of the slave plantation, the Bantustans in South Africa, the Nazi concentration camps and the present day prison state of Gaza or Guantanamo, the wall in the West Bank and in the US Mexican border or the fence in the North African city of Melilla are physical metaphors of the mental barriers of many Western countries. The economic system that governs our lives requires the constant fabrication of states of exception, in cultural and physical space. The pursuing of geopolitical interests across the world by European nations (and non-European as well) requires the implementation of spaces excluded from the rule of law, as in the West Bank and Gaza, where human beings converted into homines sacri can be routinely and massively killed with the legitimation of Israeli law and probably, with the legitimization of theories like Huntington’s.
Are Breivik and fellow extremists aware of the absurdity of their claims? How can they not possibly see or at least have a hint that migratory movements in this globalised world are the consequence of military conflict, hunger, poverty mainly caused by neoliberalism, which is a perpetuation of the very same capitalist economic system that has generated the same dynamics of irrationality (the serial, industrial calculation of death and human exploitation) in the name of economic efficiency? Why is it that racism and the luring appeal of “the motherland” remained alive and well, taking hold of more more European ideological mindsets? We educate our children to be efficient and successful in the same kind of society and economic system in which the (extreme) right wing has felt most comfortable. I do not know of any school where the colonial period of European history is honestly taught from the standpoint of its victims. Rather, education in European schools is mostly Eurocentric and multiculturalist, which has been conceived as the mere unarticulated juxtaposition of cultural atomistic entities, without contributing to erase the walls of otherness between European and non-European citizens. Ignorance breeds hatred and only this can help us understand the barbarous irrationality of Anders’ actions. It is hard to believe that, 75 years after the Holocaust, ignorance and racial stereotyping is still fomented and legitimated by the media, shaping the opinion of a significant segment of the European population who uncritically accept barbarity and irrationality as a normal and acceptable discourse. As long as we are trapped in the vicious circle of instrumental rationality that places efficiency and economic benefits above moral and ethical principles, we are prone to repeat the same mistakes and we will never understand why an individual can decide on its own the killing of other human beings. Like George Bush’s government decided unilaterally the massive killings of Iraqis for geostrategic, instrumental reasons, just like the International Monetary Fund pack of privatisation measures sparked the seed of nationalist, ethnic hatred in Yugoslavia during the 1990’s for the instrumental purpose of extending neoliberalism in the region.
Finally, I must admit that recalling Angela Merkel and James Cameron’s words certifying the death of multiculturalism a couple of months ago, using a nationalist rhetoric that is not far at all from one of the points in Breivik’s extremist agenda, supports my claim that still in the 21th century, politicians have not learned anything about our most recent past. The discourse of the nation as an homogeneous entity (an idea that is not supported by facts) continues to generate and perpetuate the very same irrational mental barriers that have driven Europe to its darkest times. As I write this article and read the news, what I find is a disheartening display of evidence that something is very wrong in our European societies: the English Defence League blames the Norwegian government for the attacks, most media headlines and governments have claimed, without a single fact, that the attacks were caused by Islamist militias, the perpetrator is not a defined as a terrorist but just a lunatic killer, avoiding any reference to its Christian supremacist views, defying all logics….isn’t all this irrational and barbaric, yet it’s part of our everyday life? Perhaps in Europe the fine line between rationality and irrationality is not clear as rationalising the irrational is deeply engrained in our history. As long as long Europe looks itself in the mirror and confronts the origins and consequences of its own actions, barbarity and irrationality will continue to undermine the prospect of a better and more just society for everyone.
Antonio Cuadrado-Fernandez is an independent researcher who obtained his PhD in postcolonial literature in the School of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, where he has taught literary theory, Ecopoetry and Catalan language. His research focuses on the relationship between art and biodiversity, cultural politics, philosophy of mind and cultural/human geography. He also loves progressive rock, growing vegetables and all kinds of coffee. He is a freelance translator, Spanish and Catalan Tutor and enjoys volunteering for the U3A group teaching Spanish to elderly people in Norwich.
Antonio has already contributed to the OISC project writing about the Spanish uprisings.
July 18, 2011
As the United States is facing a major divide in civil society – a modern day reenactment of an age-old class war – a vast portion of its members are consistently absent from the debates: inmates, in spite of their growing numbers, fail to be included within society. Part of the prison sentence is to be isolated from the everyday life and ongoings of the nation. However, it is this absent-minded way to think of prisons only in terms of law enforcement and judicial hearings that have led to a number of prison protests over the last year. Not so far from the movement having sparked the Attica riots, the inmates of Pelican Bay Supermax are requesting that the state meets their demand: to be treated as human beings. In a time and age where prisons are now privatized and advertised like any consumerist products, will their clientele be treated as more than cattle? Sue Thomas takes a look on the modern methods of discipline and their failure to meet basic human rights standards.
“What does it say about their living conditions that they would rather kill themselves slowly than continue to live as they do now?”
Prison protests are nothing new. Only last December, prisoners in institutions across the state of Georgia banded together and went on strike, calling for better nutrition and healthcare, as well as access to education and to their families. However, the hunger strike started by prisoners in California on July 1st has now become the largest state inmate coordinated protest. Reports estimate that around although participation had peaked at 6600 inmates during the first week. Despite it becoming evident that some prisoners are falling seriously ill, the inmates are determined to continue until their voices are heard. What does it say about their living conditions that they would rather kill themselves slowly than continue to live as they do now?
The prisoners in California aren’t asking for what the ACLU so eloquently describes as “bubble baths and afternoon tea”. The protest was started by inmates being held in a Secure Housing Unit (SHU) in the Pelican Bay institution. In these SHUs, human beings (it is important to remember that despite their crimes, these people are still human like the rest of us) are kept in solitary conditions locked in their cells for 22 1/2 hours a day, and reportedly are denied adequate food as a method of discipline. People are held in these conditions for years, even decades, without any other physical human contact. A federal judge, Warren Urbom, noted that conditions in SHUs – whilst also acknowledging that the effects of this treatment – were only known in people who had been subjected to it for up to a few years. The implication: it is not yet known if being held in extreme solitary confinement for decades of someone’s life may, in fact, amount to deep psychological trauma. John McCain described his time in solitary confinement as a prisoner of war as “awful” and the treatment was nearly declared to be unconstitutional in the 1890s (1). What has changed in the past 100 years to get us to the stage we are now, where people are kept in pens alone for many years at a time?
Inmates are asking that those extreme treatments be used as a last resort, and for much shorter periods than they are currently. They also request that gang labels afforded to prisoners are periodically reviewed, as perceived gang affiliation is a key reason for many men being placed in solitary confinement. These suspected gang members are judged on their tattoos and acquaintances within the prison, and condemned to a secure unit for seemingly indefinite amounts of time. It is worth noting that these dangerous gang individuals, who are kept in solitary conditions to prevent gang-based violence in the prison, have broken down gang lines to band together during this protest. However,that many people held in SHUs on account of being gang members, have never been found guilt of committing a gang-related crime: they just fit the label of what a gang member looks like. Release back into general prison population only comes after a process known as “debriefing,” which generally means giving officers information about other gangs which may be operating in the institution.
“This strategy ignores the plurality of purposes of punishment, and even abuses the intended purpose of imprisonment itself”
This whole process seems to distinctly follow Foucault’s premise: in Discipline and Punish, he argues that the prison should be about creating ‘docile bodies’who learn to keep themselves under permanent surveillance, leading to their conformity to societal norms and values:
«What was then being formed was a policy of coercions that act upon the body, a calculated manipulation of its elements, its gestures, its behaviour. The human body was entering a machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down and rearranges it. A ‘political anatomy’, which was also a ‘mechanics of power’, was being born; it defined how one may have a hold over others’ bodies, not only so that they may do what one wishes, but so that they may operate as one wishes, with the techniques, the speed and the efficiency that one determines. Thus discipline produces subjected and practiced bodies, ‘docile’ bodies.»
Foucault thought prisons should be complete and austere institutions which should use isolation and solitude to create normal individuals. However, to many more modern criminologists, this strategy ignores the plurality of purposes of punishment, and even abuses the intended purpose of imprisonment itself. While prison is based on the theoretical concepts of retribution, denunciation and incapacitation (2), it is the act of imprisoning people itself which fulfills these. Solitary confinement for years at a time goes above and beyond the basic idea of incapacitating individuals for punishment. They are already being held away from their families and friends, kept to a strict routine which allows them no autonomy, and are at the complete mercy of those guarding them.
There is nothing to suggest that keeping people in isolation aids other principles of criminal sentencing, such as rehabilitation and restoration (3). If prisoners are denied human contact and education and food is used as a weapon against them, how can they be expected to be restored into law abiding citizens? This is before we even account for the effects of solitary confinement on their mental health. Ansuggests “the experience typically leaves them unfit for social interaction,” which is clearly not a positive characteristic one would hope for in a successfully rehabilitated individual. Admittedly, many prisoners held in Pelican Bay SHU are serving life sentences, however, rehabilitative measures would surely aid in allowing them to be better prepared for life with the general prison population.
“Prisons are becoming increasingly used as a form of social control, for cleaning away people that the system can no longer be bothered to deal with”
Prisons in California are notoriously overcrowded, with a judge ordering in May of this year that the state have two years to reduce their inmate population by 33,000, therefore it is perhaps not surprising that principles of rehabilitation and restoration may have fallen by the wayside. The state’s inmate population grew to 164,000; a rise of 556% in just 25 years. California has also embraced the leading to growing numbers of inmates who have been sentenced to longer periods of incarceration than they would have previously. Anyone who has been previously convicted of a serious or violent felony who then goes on to commit a second felony faces a sentence of double what is usually handed down. If an individual then goes on to commit a third felony, they face life imprisonment, with a minimum sentence of 25 years. The second and third “strikes” do not have to be for further violent or serious felonies can be sentenced to life imprisonment for a third offense which would usually only attract a two year jail term. The implication of this is that in 2004, 26 percent of California’s prison population were serving time under the three strikes law.
Three strike laws effectively say that once an individual has committed a violent or serious felony, there is little point in rehabilitating them should they choose to return to a life of crime. Once someone is on their third strike, even though they may one day be released, they have effectively been condemned to a life in prison. Prisons are becoming increasingly used as a form of social control, for cleaning away people that the system can no longer be bothered to deal with. Elected officials see no efforts to rehabilitate them, or even to treat them like basic human beings. The prisoners on strike at Pelican Bay are asking to be allowed more access to natural light, to have adequate healthcare, for more nutritious food. They would like to be allowed to complete educational courses, to be treated as individuals instead of punished as a group for one individual’s misdeeds. None of these demands would afford them a life of luxury, merely a more humane existence; one more in line with all alleged purposes of criminal sanctions. Mahatma Gandhi once said “a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” In the example of the United States, this cannot have particularly positive implications. Inmates in California’s prisons are committed to protesting their living conditions through a hunger strike, even as those with weaker health fall ill. Many have said they are prepared to starve themselves to death, and have refused medical treatment. Maybe these people have done ill deeds in their lives, but at the end of the day, they were sentenced to life, not death.
(1) Lobel, Jules. Prolonged Solitary Confinement and the Constitution, University of Pennsylvania, School of Law.
(2) Duff, R.A., and Garland, D. (1994) ‘Introduction: Thinking about Punishment’ in Duff, R.A., and Garland, D. (eds) A reader on Punishment, Oxford: Oxford University Press
(3) Villa-Vicenuio, C. (2006) ‘Transitional Justice, Restoration and Prosecution’ in Sullivan, D., and Tifft, L. (eds) Handbook of Restorative Justice: A Global Perspective, London: Routledge
Sue Thomas is a graduate of the University of Hull. She obtained her Masters in Criminology in 2008 and specialises in incarceration and rehabilitation. She currently lives in York, United Kingdom.