Noura and Machi search for answers about their loved ones – Bassel Safadi and Paolo Dall’Oglio, who are among the over 100,000 forcibly disappeared in Syria. Faced with the limbo of an overwhelming absence of information, hope is the only thing they have to hold on to. ‘Ayouni’ is a deeply resonant Arabic term of endearment – meaning ‘my eyes’ and understood as ‘my love’. Filmed over 6 years and across multiple countries in search of answers, Ayouni is an attempt to give numbers faces, to give silence a voice, and to make the invisible undeniably visible.
28 June, 2020
On June 25, a campaign was launched by leftist opposition organizations and union activists, as well as popular and human rights organizations, to demand that the Venezuelan government release hundreds of workers who are currently held as political prisoners. The hashtag #LiberenALosTrabajadoresPresos (Free the Working Class Prisoners) was among the most mentioned on Twitter in Venezuela.
The civil-military government headed by Maduro launched an offensive against the working class in 2014. Since that year, elections have been frozen in important unions such as the Unitary Federation of Oil Workers or the union of the main steel company, SIDOR. Deepening the policy of criminalization of social struggles undertaken by Chavez in 2007, Maduro has deprived hundreds of people of their freedom for political reasons, many of them public sector workers, but also indigenous people, peasants, students and activists from the popular barrios, some placed under a house arrest regime, others facing a regime of court presentations and limitations of movement, and others confined in the dangerous and filth-ridden Venezuelan prisons.
Among the workers who are currently in the condition of political prisoners is Rodney Alvarez, a worker from Ferrominera del Orinoco who has been in prison for more than 9 years without being tried and, therefore, not convicted. In prison he survived an assassination attempt which left him with one hand crippled and has undertaken hunger strikes to pressure for his trial to be resumed.
The Chavista oil workers Alfredo Chirinos and Aryenis Torrealba, were jailed for denouncing corruption in the state oil company, PDVSA. Ferrominera del Orinoco union leader Ruben Gonzalez has been in prison since last year, despite suffering from poor health conditions, for defending workers’ rights. PDV Marina’s worker, Bartolo Guerra, was arbitrarily imprisoned earlier this year for having made claims in defense of workers’ rights before the military authorities. Elio Mendoza, a worker at SIDOR, was arrested by military intelligence officials for sending a WhatsApp message criticizing the government. Tania Rodriguez, illegally fired by the chavista government last year from Ferrominera del Orinoco, was also deprived of her liberty because of the content of WhatsApp messages.
Journalist Carol Romero, was attacked a few weeks ago by the chavista military personnel for recording the repression in a queue at a gas station , in the context of the fuel shortages that ravage the country. Venezuela was still a major petrol exporter a decade ago. Marcos Sabariego, an oil union leader from the state of Carabobo, was arrested in January by the military, while participating in a workers’ assembly, and has been under house arrest ever since. Dario Salcedo, a union leader in the fishing sector, was arrested in April for criticizing on Twitter the high cost of food and the privileges of the chavista bureaucracy, pointing out that a bag of food sold by the government, which would cover a week’s consumption, costs five minimum wages. The chavista regime has imposed hunger wages through repression. Professor Javier Vivas Santana was arrested months ago for writing opinion articles published on the chavista website Aporrea.org.
The campaign that is being launched by a wide coalition of social and political organizations aims to make these cases, and dozens more, visible both inside and outside Venezuela.
From the diaspora, Venezuelan Voices and Venezuelan Workers Solidarity have joined this effort. The promoters of the campaign are calling on trade unions and leftist organizations at the international level to demand that the Venezuelan regime unconditionally release all workers currently being held as political prisoners.
Originally posted by Venezuelan Voices
On May 30, 2020, Sebastián Romero, a worker at General Motors in Rosario and a member of the Unified Socialist Workers Party (PSTU), was arrested in the Oriental Republic of Uruguay. Sebastián has been persecuted politically since December 18, 2017 for having participated with thousands of workers in the mobilization against the pension reform that meant a brutal theft of pensioners’ income.
Then President Mauricio Macri and his Minister of Security Patricia Bullrich tried to demonize the legitimate popular mobilization against the pension reform targeting Sebastián. Just for mobilizing to defend the retirees, Sebastián has not seen his family for 29 months, nor his friends, nor his colleagues at General Motors not PSTU membership. For the same reason, his partner Daniel Ruiz was unfairly detained for 13 months at Marcos Paz maximum security prison.
Today Sebastián is a political prisoner, which is inadmissible in a society that pretends to be democratic.
We demand the Government of Uruguay, chaired by Luis Lacalle Pou, to send Sebastián to his country immediately and we demand the Argentinean Courts to set him free as a sign that essential democratic rights are back to Argentina and Macrism planned destruction of social rights is left behind.
While there are political prisoners, there is no democracy.
Forum for Democracy and Freedom for Political Prisoners
Argentinean League for Human Rights – LADH
CELS – Center for Legal and Social Studies
Ecumenical Movement for Human Rights – MEDH
Permanent Assembly for Human Rights – APDH
Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Foundational Line
Relatives and Friends of the 12 of the Holy Cross
Permanent Assembly for Human Rights – La Matanza
Memory, Truth and Justice Commission – North Zone
By Gabriel Silva and Heloisa Yoshioka
First published at the Genfangenen Info magazine #424
The origins of prisons in Brazil
The context of the beginning of prisons in Brasil was the colonial exploitation based on slavery by the Portuguese, mainly of enslaved workers from Africa, but also of the native population (indigenous). Therefore, until today it’s impossible to separate the structure and meanings of prisons in Brazil from the legacy of the slave economic system based on the institution of racism and colonial predatory exploitation.
According to the black historian Suzane Jardim, the first institution of state, which deeply affected the characteristics of the Brazilian prisons, was the so-called “Calabouço” (Dungeon). Created in the sixteenth century, slaveholders could take their slaves there to be punished for whatever reason. It was commonly used against fugitive or disobedient slaves, but the enslaver didn’t need to prove any crime was committed to submit them. It was a kind of outsourcing service where, at a certain value, the enslaver farmer could condemn the slave to a certain number of whips or a certain type of confinement. The extreme brutality of the punishment would frequently kill them.
The Calabouço was part of a tradition of torture and social control that had the Catholic inquisition as a founding model. Torture was defended by the Brazilian ruling classes as a necessary means to maintain the slave-owning social order. In 1824, in Brazil’s first constitution, torture was officially abolished for free men, and continued to be indiscriminately used against slaves. In 1837, the process of deactivating the old Calabouço was initiated, and the “Correction House of the Kingdom” was created, the first institution in Brazil exclusively for the fulfillment of penalties for crimes. Between 1857 and 1858, more than 65% of the slaves who were permanently detained in the Correctional House were in these conditions because they were capoeira practitioners, fugitives, or taken to punishment.
Our intention is not to detail the history of prisons in Brazil, but only to show how, in its own origin, there are elements that show that mass incarceration is the fruit of a slaveholding legacy. Confinement, torture, overexploitation and destruction of the black or indigenous body are phenomena with deep roots in the practices of the local ruling classes and in the ideology prevailing in Brazilian society, both of which came from colonization.
The beginning of the organization and struggle against prisons in Brazil: the Unified Black Movement in the Brazilian business-military dictatorship.
On July 7, 1978, in the midst of a business-military dictatorship, the Unified Black Movement (MNU, in portuguese) was founded in a demonstration in front of the São Paulo municipal theater. This protest confronted the dictatorship as they took to the streets calling for an end to violence and racial discrimination, the spark was the death of Robson Silveira da Luz, a tradesman living on the outskirts of São Paulo. Robson was accused of stealing fruit on duty and taken by police to the Guaianazes police station. Trapped, Robson was tortured to death. We know that this type of situation is not new in the Brazilian police stations at that time and until today but, precisely because of this, the mobilization of the MNU around the case is so emblematic.
At the time, there was a broad movement of the Brazilian left for liberation, against torture and the assassination of the so-called “political prisoners”. Political repression had already killed journalist Vladimir Herzog in 1975, as well as hundreds of other students, workers, political activists and so many others persecuted on the basis of the dictatorship’s National Security Law. It turns out that Robson was not considered a “political prisoner”, but a common prisoner.
Allied to the MNU, there was an incarcerated organization called the Zumbi’s Grandchildren Fight Center. It was made up of Carandiru detainees who, in a letter read at the founding act of the MNU, denounced the inhuman and unhealthy conditions in which the prisoners lived, the torture and the murder to which they were subjected as well as the structural racism of the judicial system and prison. With this analysis they denounced that ordinary prisoners were also political prisoners and that, in order for the mobilization of the left for political rights to be effective, it had to be a struggle against the whole system of justice.
It is important to note the MNU militant position, which at no time raised the false moralist question, wanting to judge whether or not Robson deserved to be tortured and killed for allegedly being a criminal. The discussion of Robson’s innocence was not even raised in the MNU debate. Having stolen fruit or not, Robson could not have been tortured and killed while being arrested. No property crime is worth more than a life, and yet, the immense majority of the Brazilian left maintained a differentiation between the common prisoners, who supposedly deserved such treatment, and the “political prisoners”, who were being persecuted for nobler reasons, which would characterize the injustice of their situation.
Intellectuals from the MNU, such as Lélia Gonzalez and Clóvis Moura, have shown how the criminal system and the practices of torture and murder it generates have a direct link with the slave practices of class domination. Thus, imprisonment only serves to perpetuate this class domination and racial discrimination, failing to fulfill any positive social function for blacks and workers, being falses the discourses that the prison would increase security, or would rehabilitate the prisoner for life in society, or that would bring reparation to those harmed by the crime. On the contrary, the penal system only continues to increase violence, destroy lives and strengthen crime. Today, MNU’s banner that “every prisoner is a political prisoner” remains extremely current, gaining even greater importance at this historic moment when the military regains control of the federal government in Brazil through the electoral victory of intended neo-fascist president, Jair Bolsonaro.
The redemocratization and mass incarceration
Mass incarceration is the policy that characterizes Brazilian democracy. The so called democratic freedoms were only accepted in our country through a reinforcement of the repressive policies on the poorest populations, markedly black, indigenous and marginalized. Since the beginning of the new republic in 1990, the number of prisoners in Brazil has jumped from 90,000 to 726,000 in 2016, numbers that continue to show a growth trend.
Numbers of prisoners in Brazil between 1990 and 2016 (thousands)
The prison became a storehouse for bodies that our ruling class considers excedent population: black, indigenous, poor, sick and mifts. The reality of prisons in Brazil nowadays is a direct continuation of the darkest practices of our history, from slavery, the business-military dictactorships, the genocides of the black and indigenous populations. The struggles against prisons have described themselves as for the efetivation of the abolition, the “prison abolition”, seeking to disassemble all the legacy from the slave system. That legacy is the State structures forged by racist, eugenic and hygienist ideologies and result in the criminalization and extermination of black and indigenous populations.
The penal system is the laboratory for violence and repression experiments of the brazilian government, it’s a space where torture is still common procedure, where the black and poor body is the main guinea pig. According to the national survey of penitentiary information (Infopen) made by the National Penitentiary Department (Depen) of the Ministry of Justice, in Brazil, 75% of prisoners have at most completed elementary school and only 1% have finished college. That indicates the low income and the poor living conditions. Black people represent at least 60% of the incarcerated population, while white people are 37,22%. This super representation of black population in relation to its real proportion (51%) in brazilian society reveals the racism of the system.
Regarding the accusations, 28% of inmates were arrested for drug dealing, 25% for robbery, 13% for theft and 10% for homicide. When looking at the female population only, the number of people arrested for drug dealing goes to 64%, robbery is 10%, theft is 9% and homicide is 6%. On top of that, among prisoners, 40% are in provisory prison. That means they haven’t even gone through the first trial and are arrested in irregular legal status. These data shows how most of the incarcerated population is responding for non-violent crimes and property crimes. It denies the myth of the violent criminality and shows the strong classist quality of prisons: places that serve to guarantee the property of a minority instead of the life of the majority that already doesn’t have their rights respected.
The brazilian prison system is also marked by the over crowd that makes the life conditions extremely unhealthy. Prisons present a high HIV, tuberculosis and viral hepatitis transmission rate. The over crowd is also the main reason for rebellions and massacres. The deficit of vacancies is officially in 358.680 in a total of 726.000 prisoners. The study itself acknowledges the over crowd as a structural characteristic, for having officially twice as many prisoners than it should.
Through this data, we can see that the prison system mainly affects people who didn’t even have access to their fundamental rights like education, health and adequate housing. When arrested then, they are exposed to even more rights violations: they don’t have a proper judicial process and are exposed to degrading situations of torture and ill health. This situation reaffirms the classist and political character of the brazilian prisons, it shows that the goal is to reproduce a system of exploitation and maintenance of social abysses, and not the fight against violence.
Criminal mass incarceration policy: a consensus among Brazil’s political parties today
In Brazil, not only the right parties advocates for repressive policies and mass incarceration. The Brazilian left is surprised by the victory of Jair Bolsonaro and his speech of apology to repression, judicialization of politics, extermination of political enemies, torture and militarism, but they forget that the Worker’s Party (PT in portuguese) itself was an accomplice and active sponsor of the growth of these practices in Brazil.
The partisan left’s action regarding prisons is limited to the mobilization of its bases with a shallow criticism to the prison of former President Lula, without advancing for a deeper debate on our legal and prison system, mass incarceration and the genocide of poor, black, indigenous and maginalized populations. At most, the more radical sectors of the left regard the subject as secondary, leaving it to be discussed in specific groups of blacks, relatives of prisoners or lawyers.
The PT government played a leading role in pushing for mass incarceration: the two administrations of President Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva (2003-2006 and 2007-2010) and his successor, President Dilma Rousseff (2011-2014 and 2014-2016), intensified and perfected the penitentiary expansion policies initiated by its predecessor.
With the “scientific” legitimation of the sociology of violence produced at the University of São Paulo (USP in portuguese), the Social Democratic Party’s (PSDB in portuguese) administrations of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-1998 and 1999-2003) more than doubled the Brazilian prison population. Following that, PT’s administrations, with the discourse of “citizen participation” in public security policies, founded the “public security pack of laws”, increasing the Brazilian prison population from approximately 232.00 people in 2002 to approximately 420.000 in 2008, reaching 607.731 in June 2014, close to the ending of Dilma Rousseff’s first term.
They deepened repressive and punitive politics, developing public policies to deepen the war on drugs, banking the Brazilian military intervention in Haiti, major internal repressive incursions with the national guard, Law and Order Assurances Operations (GLO in portuguese), the Pacifying Police Units (UPP in portuguese), the anti-terrorist law, co-optation and repression of social movements. The institutional strengthening PT itself promoted for the more retrograde sectors of the military and the judiciary was so big that now turns against itself with the arrest of former President Lula and other PT cadres.
The movie “Law and Order Assurance Operations” (Julia Murat, 2017, available at https://vimeo.com/226910664) shows the link between repressive speech to social movements, strengthening of police measures and the judicialization of politics made by Dilma Roussef against popular demonstrations from 2013 onwards, with that of the inaugural speech in defense of the order of his deputy who provoked his impeachment, Michel Temer.
Rebellions, massacres, slaughter and privatization
This recent period is marked by repeated rebellions and massacres in the Brazilian prison system. In 1990, the Carandiru rebellion and massacre took place, where the state assassinated 111 prisoners, generating great national and international repercussions.
In the 2000s, a series of massacres in the prison system burst again, some cases were:
- The Papuda Massacre, Brasília, in 2000, with 11 dead;
- The mega rebellion in 29 prisons of the State of São Paulo in 2011 that left a balance of at least 16 deaths and hundreds of injured;
- The slaughter of the prison of Porto Velho, Roraima, in 2002, that left 27 dead;
- The slaughter of the house of custody in Benfica, Rio de Janeiro, in 2004, that was burned killing 30 people;
- The slaughter of Pedrinhas prisons in São Luis do Maranhão in 2010 that left 18 dead;
- The rebellions in several prisons in Fortaleza, Ceará, in 2016, that left 14 dead;
- The rebellion of the Monte Cristo Agricultural Penitentiary in 2016 that left 10 dead;
- The rebellion of the Ênio dos Santos Pinheiro Penitentiary, Porto Velho, in 2016 that left 8 dead;
- The prison rebellions of Manaus in the Amazon in 2017 that left 60 dead;
- And the most recent rebellions also in Manaus in 2019 that left 55 dead.
These last massacres in Manaus occurred in privatized prisons under the control of the company Umanizzare, social movements issued notes denouncing the inhumane situation. According to the State Front for Desincarceration of São Paulo, both before and after the massacre:
“The meals are being distributed only 2 times a day, the water is being made available for only 10 to 20 minutes a day, the overcrowding – reaching 60 prisoners per cell – continues, the agents’ aggressions are daily – using pepper spray and batons. At the UPP, on June 17 and 18, the prisoners spent two whole days without food, at the Compaj some prisoners are forced to divide shavers with prisoners with HIV. The overcrowding is so that, in the units, prisoners sick with contagious diseases have no space of isolation and are in the common conviviality. “
According to the Prison Ministry, families “were in front of the units’ doors in search of news as rumors circulated of deaths and received, right there, a list of names and the information that all who were in it had died” and “visits are suspended indefinitely and the news of the wounded are obscure.”
This reality denounces the disposable treatment that the bodies, mostly of blacks and descendants of indigenous people, receive. With this extreme survival routine, prison becomes a powder keg for rebellions and massacres. The fact that massacres took place in 2017 and 2019 shows how Umanizzare hasn’t changed its policy in any way, nor has there been any pressure from the State in this regard.
The tendency to privatize prisons is growing through the whole country, inspired on the USA. In addition to worsen the prisoners living conditions and the violence, forced labour in privatized prisons creates what USA authors like Angela Davis call Prison-industrial complex, increasing the tendency to mass incarceration.
Class struggle and prisons today: as long as one is arrested, we will all be stuck!
The trivialization of prison, torture, and the summary execution of black, indigenous, poor and maginalized people is a sinister danger that has historically hovered over the entire class struggle in Brazil. A society that accepts every day that its marginalized sectors are treated like that tolerates much easier the brutal repression to any protest or insurgent movement. As Marx put it, “Labor in white skin cannot emancipate itself where the black skin is branded.” The struggle against racist state violence is an urgent need to be able to move forward in strengthening the class struggle as a whole.
In Brazil, the first great organized experience against the current prison system was in the 1970s with MNU. After the military-business dictatorship, during the 90’s, there was the rise of hip hop culture in Brazil, which brought rap groups telling in their songs the cruel reality of the prison, leading the critique of this reality to a wider audience for the first time.
Racionais MCs, Sabotage, SNJ, Trilha Sonora do Gueto, Facção Central and the group Comunidade Carcerária, formed by then detainees of the prison complex of Carandiru, stand out. The members of Comunidade Carcerária group participated in the production of the film “Iron Prisoner” (self-portraits) which is also an important milestone of this period in relation to the subject.
Despite this, the struggle receded during this period and only nowadays we are experiencing a new rise of organizations to face this question. Some of the organizations best known are: the Prison Ministry (Pastoral Carcerária, national), Amparar (São Paulo), Mothers of May (Mães de Maio, São Paulo), Network of Communities against Violence (Rede de Comunidades contra a Violência, Rio de Janeiro), Reaja (Bahia), Group of Friends and Relatives of People in Deprivation of Liberty (Grupo de Amigos e Familiares de Pessoas em Privação de Liberdade, Minas Gerais), the MNU itself and, more recently, the State Fronts for the Derailment (Frentes Estaduais pelo Desencarceramento) of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and several other states (it exists in the eight states in Brazil today).
In addition, there’s a strengthening of the anti-prohibitionist struggle that is directly related to the struggle against prisons, as the war on drugs is one of the great excuses for mass incarceration today, especially for women. The Marijuana Marches (Marchas da Maconha), the main symbol of the anti-prohibitionist struggle in Brazil, gather every year in São Paulo, thousands of young people from the poor areas demanding the decriminalization of drugs. In 2019, it reached almost 1 million people, according to organizers estimates. Unfortunately, even though the Marijuana March is the protest with greatest presence of black people in Brazil today, the mainstream media insists on trying to make it invisible. Marijuana Marches took place in 39 different Brazilian cities in 2019, including the main capitals of the country.
It’s also present in the struggle for disincarnation the activities of public defenders and NGOs with international funding, such as the Institute Land, Work and Citizenship (ITTC), the Brazilian Institute of Criminal Sciences (IBCCRIM) and Conectas Human Rights (Conectas Direitos Humanos).
In the United States and some other countries we are also experiencing a moment of strengthening of the struggles against mass incarceration. It is important to exchange experiences internationally to advance this struggle.
The activity of the organizations mentioned above is extremely important and needs to be strengthened, studied and expanded. However, it is still very insufficient to face the state and accomplish more significant achievements. It will only be possible to face the State’s repressive policy and imprisonment by building a broad debate and articulating the most varied social actors.
Only with a mass movement, with solidarity among broad sectors of the working class – including those who do not feel directly threatened by prisons yet – that we can achieve a real advance in desincarceration, demilitarization, end of the practice of torture and combating this aspect of structural racism. Moving forward in the struggle against imprisonment means advancing in the self-defense of all the oppressed and the working class, and therefore taking the struggles to a new level.
Originally published in OpenDemocracy
Authoritarian capitalism and the prison industrial complex is a two-tiered tyrannical system designed to enslave through mass incarceration.
Children with incarcerated parents are 6-9 times more likely to become incarcerated themselves. Black children are seven-and-a-half times more likely than White children to have a parent in prison, and Latino children are two-and-a-half times more likely to experience this family dynamic.
In 2000, in Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex, Angela Yvonne Davis examined the infamy of the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), a term first coined, maybe by Angela Davis herself, in the late 1990’s. What is the PIC? It is a term used to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems. Davis stated:
“Prison privatization is the most obvious instance of capital’s current movement toward the prison industry. While government-run prisons are often in gross violation of international human rights standards, private prisons are even less accountable. In March 1998, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest US private prison company, claimed 54,944 beds in 68 facilities under contract or development in the US, Puerto Rico, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Following the global trend of subjecting more women to public punishment, CCA opened a women’s prison outside Melbourne.
Private prison companies are only the most visible component of the increasing corporatization of punishment. Many corporations whose products we consume on a daily basis have learned that prison labor can be as profitable as third world labor power exploited by US-based global corporations. Both relegate formerly unionized workers to joblessness and many even wind up in prison. Some of the companies that use prison labor are IBM, Motorola, Compaq, Texas Instruments, Honeywell, Microsoft, and Boeing. But it is not only the hi-tech industries that reap the profits of prison labor.
The California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA) uses inmate labor to build, grow, and manufacture products for state agencies, institutions and schools. Products such as furniture, food products & agriculture, clothing, bedding, shoes & boots, and more. The 2016 revenue earned by PIA was approximately 225M, while inmates work pay ranges from .32-$1 per hour.
- PIA Mission Statement: CALPIA is a self-supporting, customer-focused business that reduces recidivism, increases prison safety, and enhances public safety by providing offenders productive work and training opportunities.
- Vision Statement: Changing offenders’ lives through innovative job training for a safer California.
While these messages may be the mission and vision of CalPIA, the training provided seldom if ever leads to work post-release. Unemployment and underemployment are the biggest barriers to successful reentry.”
“Nordstrom department stores sell jeans that are marketed as “Prison Blues”, as well as t-shirts and jackets made in Oregon prisons. The advertising slogan for these clothes is “made on the inside to be worn on the outside”. Maryland prisoners inspect glass bottles and jars used by Revlon and Pierre Cardin, and schools throughout the world buy graduation caps and gowns made by South Carolina prisoners. “For private business”, write Eve Goldberg and Linda Evans (a political prisoner inside the Federal Correctional Institution at Dublin, California) “prison labor is like a pot of gold. No strikes. No union organizing. No health benefits, unemployment insurance, or workers’ compensation to pay. No language barriers, as in foreign countries. Prisoners do data entry for Chevron, make telephone reservations for airlines, raise hogs, shovel manure, make circuit boards, limousines, waterbeds, and lingerie for Victoria’s Secret all at a fraction of the cost of `free labor'”.
As a youth, I was arrested and convicted of a crime and sentenced to life in prison. I served 23 years at the California Institution for women in Corona, CA. When I was first incarcerated in 1988, the women’s prison in Corona was the largest women’s prison in the world. Since the 1980s prison expansion in California CIW has become second to the California Central Women’s Facility in Chowchilla which opened in 1991. We often saw tours given to visitors from other countries who were looking to CIW as a model to emulate. Many countries now look away from the American carceral system as a model, seeing prison expansion and mass incarceration of its citizens as disgraceful and a human rights violation.
CIW was built in 1952 to hold approximately 500 women. When I arrived, there were 2800 female bodied prisoners packed into converted dayrooms, custodial boiler rooms, doubled bunked cells, and the auditorium. From the vast number of women locked up, it was clear that CDC was only interested in human capital as a means of profiteering. The majority of women behind bars were convicted of drug-related and property crimes. Black women made up 47% of the population in 1988 and continued to grow through the late 1990s.
By the time I was released in 2011 Black women made up approximately 37% of the population behind bars a decrease of 10% but still a disproportionate number in relationship to the general population. Thanks to prison abolitionists, criminal justice reformists and policy changes, black women are less impacted today. However, the damage has been done and the cycle of generational poverty and incarceration is still high for black Americans.
To further illustrate these remarks Davis points out:
“To deliver up bodies destined for profitable punishment, the political economy of prisons relies on racialized assumptions of criminality – such as images of black welfare mothers reproducing criminal children – and on racist practices in arrest, conviction, and sentencing patterns. Colored bodies constitute the main human raw material in this vast experiment to disappear the major social problems of our time. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages. Prisons thus perform a feat of magic.
“But prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings. And the practice of disappearing vast numbers of people from poor, immigrant, and racially marginalized communities has literally become a big business. Once the aura of magic is stripped away from the imprisonment solution, what is revealed is racism, class bias, and the parasitic seduction of capitalist profit. The prison industrial system materially and morally impoverishes its inhabitants and devours the social wealth needed to address the very problems that have led to spiraling numbers of prisoners.”
The prison industrial complex is a business!
The impact and intersection of race, mass incarceration, state violence and authoritarian capitalism can be seen and felt in places like Ferguson, Missouri. After the murder of Michael Brown, Jr, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri by Darren Wilson, a white police office, the world witnessed the use of military force and weaponry on US soil against peaceful protesters and on American citizens like never before.
I was living in North County St. Louis when all this happened. I protested, attended rallies, and volunteered with the Ferguson Commission, a body of 16 local leaders. The charge was to address the underlying root cause that led to the unrest in the wake of Michael Brown’s death and to publish a report with transformative policy recommendations for making the region stronger and a better place for everyone to live and to guide the community in charting a new path toward healing and positive change for all residents of the St. Louis region.
We know the 2015 report concluded what most reports have concluded after investigating the cause of unrest in Black communities over the past century (i.e., East St. Louis (1917), Watts (1965), Detroit (1967), and Los Angeles (1992)). Strategies for healing racial wounds, dismantling structural racism, and promoting racial and ethnic equity are needed but never produced.
The continuous mistreatment, torture, terrorism, and murder of Blacks in America as sanctioned by State violence and white supremacy have been normalized by authoritarian capitalism.
Not much has changed in St. Louis since August 9, 2014. On September 15, 2017 another White police officer (ex-police officer) Jason Stockley was acquitted for killing Anthony Lamar Smith (24 yrs. old) after being caught on tape stating: “I’m going to kill the nigger,” despite the investigation concluding that he had planted a firearm in Smith’s car.
Authoritarian capitalism and the prison industrial complex is a two-tiered tyrannical system designed to enslave through mass incarceration. The white imagination that sees black people as less than human, sees poor people as slaves, and profit as justice.
To: New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) Commissioner Anthony Annucci
Originally published on OrganizeFor
We strongly support Medical Parole and the Commutation to time served for Jalil Muntaquim. We are confident that his release poses no danger to our communities, and we urge you to allow him to rejoin his family and friends.
Why is this important?
Widely respected elder Jalil Muntaqim (Anthony Bottom) joined the Black Panther Party at age 16 and was arrested at age 19. Jalil is in his 49th year of incarceration, currently held at Sullivan Correctional Facility on a 25-years to life, minimum sentence. Jalil became ill and contracted COVID-19 in May 2020. Jalil falls into two of the highest risk categories due to his age and his medical conditions, which include chronic bronchitis, heart disease, and hypertension. He also has previously suffered a stroke with some resulting brain damage, and has scarring in his lungs as a result of a case of tuberculosis in his youth. As a result of his pre-existing health conditions, Jalil has been fighting for his life.
In an effort to avoid contracting the virus, Muntaqim initially appealed to the court for relief. On April 27th, the New York State Supreme Court granted him temporary release from prison. The order did not release him completely, as he would still be serving his sentence under DOCCS supervision. However, Attorney General Letitia James appealed the Judge’s decision, forcing Jalil to remain incarcerated. A few weeks later Jalil contracted COVID-19, as he had feared.
Jalil has an exemplary record and a reputation as a peacemaker and teacher. Our biggest fear is that if he is not released, his prison sentence will become a death sentence. At a time when people are taking to the streets to protest state violence against Black people, the Black lives of those who fought to protect Black communities from police brutality and murder should not be disregarded.
Visit the campaign site to sign the petition.
While nine years ago female protesters struggled with violence on the street, female dissidents today face worse consequences in political prisons. This includes the famous human rights lawyer Mahienour El Massry, who has been in and out of prison for the past 15 years.
Originally published by The Alliance of Middle Eastern and North African Socialists
The current status of women’s rights in Egypt reflects nothing of the country’s long history of feminism. Over the course of the past century, silencing Egyptian women proved to be a difficult task whether for the state or for its patriarchal institutions.
Women’s struggles across the world are equally fascinating – even if my bias makes me secretly feel that the Egyptian women’s fight for freedom has been the greatest of them all. The distinctive feature, however, of Egyptian feminism, I would argue, is the bold expression of anger. And I don’t mean here the negative, probably Eurocentric, view of anger as this destructive, futile force. No, I mean the empowering type of anger, the anger that results from an inherent confidence that I deserve better than this. It is a type of anger that many Egyptian children proudly recall seeing in their mothers and grandmothers, and the type of anger that drives women out of their homes and into the dangerous realm of public spaces and the workforce, putting food on the table and sending kids to school.
Growing up in the economically struggling neighbourhood of Omraneya in Giza, I will never forget how proud I was of my mother, working two jobs with nothing but a short break in between, during which she came home to cook a warm meal for us. Chicken and potatoes baked in the oven, fried prawns and French fries, juicy beef cooked in red stew with okra, none of which reflected her humble salary. This was in the 1990’s, at the time when the president’s wife embezzled millions of Egyptian pounds from public money to build jacuzzies for her grandchildren and decorate the houses of her daughters in law. Everyone was watching in resentment, especially the women that had to take things into their owns hands when the men lost the will to fight.
When my generation grew up to face unemployment and a collapsing economy, with no hope of ever giving our mothers the dignified retirement that they deserve, women were at the forefront of the battle. If they were going to get crushed by a stronger enemy, the state, they weren’t going down without a fight. And fight they did, mobilising alongside the men in political movements opposing the Mubarak regime, including Kefaya Movement, formed in 2004, and the 6 April Youth Movement, formed in 2008. Parallel to the increasing role that women played, hostility towards them in public spaces was on the rise. By the time these political movements came to life, Cairo’s streets had already become infested with sexual harassment, which evolved over the years from cat calling to aggressive grabbing, especially in public transportation.
Because of the critical role that women played in the opposition, they were the main targets of the state when it came to silencing protesters. The first time the State Security started using sexual harassment to disperse protesters on a mass scale was on the 25th of May 2005, commonly known among the activist communities as Black Wednesday. Such attacks were orchestrated and sponsored by Mubarak’s allies, the likes of business tycoon Ibrahim Kamel (deceased in 2018). Such hostility towards female protesters was further exacerbated during and after the 2011 revolution. The day Mubarak stepped down on the 11th of February, the first gang rape took place in Tahrir Square, demonstrating calculated tactics that repeatedly occurred during protests afterwards. These tactics include what became known as the “circle of hell”, during which a group of men would surround a woman forming a circle that isolates her from others and this circle would in turn be surrounded by a second layer that prevents outsiders from intervening.
Later that year, in December 2011, a picture that reflected the struggles of female protesters was captured, depicting a woman, dressed in hijab and conservative back attire, getting beaten and stripped half naked, exposing her blue bra, during a protest in Tahrir Square. It was this incident that led to the birth of the blue bra as an icon of the Egyptian revolution. The image, that won its photographer numerous awards, spread like wildfire, whether in the international press or on the city walls through street art and stencils. It was a picture that remains difficult to look at until this day, and it is hard to believe that this same woman is still ruled by that same army that violated her because she expressed her views.
Indeed, the political situation today in Egypt is back to point zero and the status of the women is worse than ever. Of course, women that belong to the ruling elite who are enjoying different upper class privileges are the first to say that female protesters deserve to get gang raped and to serve years of their lives in political prison. Television broadcasters, who are themselves independent women practicing their own freedom, were among the many that launched a campaign basically saying that women who want to stay safe should stay home.
Over the course of the following years, victims of these incidents spoke out, publishing accounts of how they had been stripped naked and gang raped on the streets for hours before someone could rescue them.
One of the victims recalls her rape just one day after it happened, writing, “I begged him to make way so that I can escape to the field hospital. I do not really know what drove this harasser to save me after I begged him… and I do not know how he suddenly raised his belt, beating everyone around him, frantically screaming, ‘I will protect her… I will protect her’. I do not know how his conscience was awakened, but I found myself crawling to the field hospital.” This is not to mention the virginity tests carried out by military doctors against female protesters, for which no one was convicted.
While nine years ago female protesters struggled with violence on the street, female dissidents today face worse consequences in political prisons. This includes the famous human rights lawyer Mahienour El Massry, who has been in and out of prison for the past 15 years. “We don’t like jail but we’re not scared of it,” she once said in what became a famous quote that not only captures her defiance but also reflects her life as a narrative that revolves around political prison. A native of Alexandria and a member of the Revolutionary Socialists, she engaged with the opposition from its early years and became increasingly involved after she earned her law degree and started defending activists and laborers. Today, she is among the country’s 70,000 political prisoners.
While the number of political prisoners is rapidly increasing – the government arrested 4000 prisoners in just two months following the September 20th, 2019 protests –, a campaign was launched by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), highlighted the most intimate of the female prisoner’s struggles, menstruation. Periods in Prison, the name of the campaign, aimed at pressuring prison authorities to provide cotton-based sanitary pads free of charge, narrates the struggles of five women who were previously in jail, including three political prisoners.
“The prison transport vehicle is in itself, completely inhumane for a woman on her period. It’s terrible. From the metal interior you have to sit on, to the extreme shaking of the vehicle … it’s not comfortable at all … and in a trip that lasts two hours each way (to and from court for example). And when you get to the prosecutor, you cannot always use the bathroom. Also, when you’re going to the Kasr al-Ainy hospital, for example, the trip is usually about three hours each way. So on days like these, it’s normal to spend the entire day wearing the same pad,” a former prisoner writes in the EIPR report.
When it comes to political activists, they are often abducted for days and sometimes even months before they merge in the custody of police. The main purpose of this is to torture the prisoner to pressure her into confessing without being held accountable. During this time of disappearance, the prisoners have nothing on them except what they were wearing when they got caught.
“When I went to prison, I had been abducted for 16 days. I was sitting blindfolded in Lazoghly (the national security headquarters in Cairo). Another woman arrived after me. She had been abducted for three days and she had her period when she was kidnapped and didn’t have anything on her, not even a bag. When she arrived to the prison, she was completely soaked with her blood. She was in a very bad condition and all of her clothes were stained with blood,” a testimony published on the NGO’s Twitter account says.
According to one of the interviewees, the female body, with the exception of pregnancy, is invisible to Egyptian law. Therefore, it is not offered any special treatment or requirements than that offered to men. This means that female prisoners have to wait for their visits, during which their families come and provide them with things like money, pads, underwear, food, and medicine. However, some political prisoners are not allowed family visits, nor are they allowed access to the canteen, which sells overpriced items.
When this lack of sanitary pads, not to mention the bad hygienic conditions of the prison, cause infections and other health problem, going to the hospital is another ordeal in itself. If the warden takes the prisoner’s request seriously and the prisoner is indeed sent for a health check-up, the hospital staff are often “vicious and aggressive” in their treatment with the prisoners.
The campaign was aimed to draw attention to the struggles of cis females as well as transsexuals, but the Egyptian law continues to refuse to see the female body and its requirements and to force the transsexual body into the category of their assigned sex at birth.
When Mahienour El Masry and others struggled in women’s prison, the transsexual activist Malak Al Kashif fought long and hard just to join them. Thrown in men’s prison, with the excuse that her sex exchange procedures were not complete, Al Kashif’s fight to move to women’s prison soon made her famous among the Egyptian opposition, drawing the attention of locals NGO’s. In addition to sharing the same struggles of other political prisoners like medical negligence, including depriving her of the hormonal medicine that she needed, she was also subjected to sexual harassment by other inmates in men’s prison. Like other minorities, transsexuals in Egypt are largely rejected by the state’s institutions and, in most cases, by the society itself. The person that Al Kashif was inspired with when she was still considered to be a little boy, the transsexual actress Hanan Al-Tawil, died under tragic circumstances with speculations that she might have committed suicide. Just like Al Kashif, Al-Tawil was rejected by her family who refused to receive her dead body to arrange for a proper burial.
Thus, Egypt still provides a fertile environment for gender-based oppression and violence. But it remains true that the 2011 popular uprisings brought some social change. It was unthinkable just a couple of decades earlier for a transsexual activist to openly request to be moved to women’s prison and have an entire legal team along with local NGO’s defend her case. Also, the fact that women spoke out about their gang rape and virginity tests is unprecedented in a place like Egypt. It is easy to assume that women were ultra-liberated in the 1950’s and 1960’s just because they wore short skirts in the streets, but it is important to also realise that they were given very little freedom and were closely supervised by their families and husbands. This is not to mention their limited participation in the workforce at the time. While it is easy to dwell on those pictures of Egyptian women with short dresses leaning against classic cars in the clean uncongested streets of Cairo, understanding the realities without romanticizing the past is vital in order to move forward in the emancipation process.
March 26, 2020
By Samuel Chan and Alex Chowon June 8, 2020
Originally published in Lausan
Original: 【如何理解 Black Lives Matters？暴動是不被傾聽者的語言】, published in Matters
Translators: ah boat, P, LWH
This article has been edited for precision and clarity. If you would like to be involved in our translation work, please get in touch here.
As white police officer Derrick Chauvin pinned down George Floyd by kneeling on his neck, Floyd yelled “I can’t breathe” sixteen times before dying. Captured on video, George Floyd’s murder enraged many Americans. Local pundit Trevor Noah pointed out that there are two viruses in the United States: one being COVID-19 and the other being racism. The interplay between the two reveals the scars of the United States’ foundational systems of slavery and racial segregation. At the end of May, around 43.2 million people, out of a total of 328.2 million people, were unemployed in the US. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the unemployment rate of Black people is higher than that of white people. Although Black people only comprise around 10% of the population, they are twice as likely to die from contracting COVID-19.
On the other side of the Pacific, Hong Kong protesters have been lobbying U.S. politicians to launch the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act (HKHRDA) and revoke Hong Kong’s special trade status as part of the laam chau strategy in opposing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In light of ongoing resistance, protest, and looting in the U.S., as well as rumors from many fronts that CCP-sent outside agitators are infiltrating and escalating the movement there, how should Hongkongers understand the current protests?
The complicated nature of Hong Kong’s political situation has required countless Hongkongers to educate, illustrate, and translate information for foreigners, so that they will be moved by the city’s struggles. It is difficult to explain to outsiders why many Hongkongers decided to support both peaceful protestors and militant frontliners through discussing the original extradition bill alone; only through explanations of post-Handover histories of dissent and resistance, as well as the failures of other attempts at political reform, do outsiders begin to grasp the origins of Hong Kong’s struggles. Similarly, only examining the current protests against George Floyd’s murder may not be enough for Hongkongers to have a full understanding as to why protesters in the U.S. have adopted radical tactics.
In order to understand the current Black Lives Matter protests, we need to have a basic understanding of the history of Black oppression and resistance in the U.S.
From establishment to the Civil War: When Black people were treated as ⅗ of a full citizen
Before the Civil War, the U.S. maintained a system of slavery—this is a well-known fact. What people may not know is that the entire political and economic system is inseparable from slavery since the drafting of the American Constitution.
In the original thirteen American colonies, there was a split between the Northern states, which were known as the “free” states because they had banned the slave trade, and the Southern states, which continued to allow slavery. The greatest concern of the Southern states in joining the Union was that federal power would be so great that once they lose in the national game of democracy, they would be forced to abolish slavery. In order to establish the United States, Northern states were not only willing to weaken the power of the Union (this was also one of the main reasons for the U.S.’s federal system of government), but also to concede certain principles.
One of the key issues that these so-called founding fathers had to deal with was that of the enslaved person’s standing in society. Under the newly established federal government framework, each state’s tax rate and number of government representatives allocated would be proportional to the size of their population. Southern states therefore wanted slaves to be counted within the population for legislative representation purposes, but were unwilling to pay taxes on behalf of slaves, to which the Northern states were opposed. Finally, they agreed on the notorious Three-Fifths Compromise: in short, Black slaves would be seen as three-fifths of a citizen for taxation and electoral purposes. In the American Constitution, the system of slavery was written in black and white to remain unchanged for another twenty years; Northern states even promised to return any escaped slaves to their owners in the South. When the U.S. began to expand, in order to protect the balance of power between the North and the South, the two sides signed the Missouri Compromise (1820), promising that for every additional free state, a state that permitted slavery would be added accordingly. From this perspective, America’s current divide across state lines is a direct product of the system of slavery.
The interplay between COVID-19 and racism reveals the scars of the United States’ foundational systems of slavery and racial segregation.
For white Americans, the Declaration of Independence encapsulates their national ideal: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights …” Yet the well-known orator and former slave Frederick Douglass made a speech on Independence Day in 1852, declaring that there was not a day that cast in such stark relief the contradictions and hypocrisy of the American people. The very reason that the various American states were able to come together to found a country was that the free states were willing to compromise the full humanity of Black people. From the position and historical perspective of many Black people, America has lacked legitimacy from its very foundation.
From the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement: The Constitution is but a piece of wastepaper
Following the end of the Civil War, the introduction of the 13th Amendment abolished the institution of slavery, and the 14th and 15th Amendments guaranteed Black Americans’ civil liberties and voting rights. For freed slaves in the Reconstruction era (1863-1877), they may have provided a welcome glimmer of hope. During the Reconstruction era, the federal government used all kinds of coercive tactics, such as mobilizing federal troops, to ensure that the previous slave states would emancipate their slaves and enable them to exercise their civil liberties and voting rights. During Reconstruction, Black people participated actively in government; quite a few Black politicians emerged in the South. White people in the South were deeply afraid of losing their dominant position. As a result, there emerged white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, who murdered and intimidated Black people who dared to participate in government or exercise their voting rights.
So long as the extremely unequal balance of power between Black and white people continued to be maintained, the Constitution is really only a piece of wastepaper for Black people.
From the end of the 19th century to the mid-20th century, whether in the South or the North, white Americans continued to engage in lynchings of Black people and other people of color (including Chinese people), to such an extent that this was basically taken for granted. And of course, those who conducted lynchings would never face punishment. After a number of years, white people in the North began to lose enthusiasm for the cause of protecting Black people’s rights. In 1877, not twenty years after the end of the American Civil War, federal troops withdrew from the South, and the period of Reconstruction was officially declared over. As soon as the federal troops withdrew, Southern state governments used different pretexts, such as taxation regulations or literacy requirements that on the surface had nothing to do with race, in order to restrict Black people’s voting rights. The most ridiculous of these is the “grandfather clause”: unless your grandfather had exercised his right to vote, you would not be able to exercise your right to vote, effectively excluding all recently emancipated Black slaves in one fell swoop. All of these different legal maneuvers ultimately caused the voting rate of Black people in the South to drop to less than 1%; their right to vote became illusory.
In reality, life did not change for the majority of Black people in the South after Emancipation. After the end of the Civil War, the majority of factories refused to hire freed people; having no alternatives, Black people were forced to return to the plantations to make a living and were “hired” on the same conditions that had existed under slavery. To make the situation even worse, many states introduced a series of racial segregation policies commonly known as the Jim Crow laws in the 1890s, which allowed businesses, schools, and transportation to refuse service to Black people and other non-white people. In the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was legal, paving the way for an additional 60 years of segregation in the U.S.
What Black people learnt from this history was that even as they were expressly granted rights under the U.S. Constitution, it did not necessarily follow that such rights could be exercised. So long as the extremely unequal balance of power between Black and white people continued to be maintained, the Constitution is really only a piece of wastepaper for Black people.
Black Civil Rights Movement: The dispute between the paths of civil disobedience and militant protest
Even if the system is corrupt, it is nonetheless necessary to try to resist from within—we know this as Hongkongers. In 1909, the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was established, and since then has been defending the rights of Black people in state and federal courts, forming the bedrock for the Black Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1954, the NAACP fought its biggest battle since its inception: Brown v. Board of Education. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, overturning the ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. Soon after, however, Black Americans realized that this victory was hollow. Because the Supreme Court had no executive power, Southern states decided to ignore the ruling of the Supreme Court, and continued to operate their policies of segregation. In 1955, Rosa Parks, the secretary of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP, was arrested for sitting in the whites-only seats on the bus. This was a critical turning point in the 1960s civil disobedience movement. Black Americans saw civil disobedience as legitimate and necessary, not only because legal protests could not bring about change, but also because in rejecting the segregation laws, they were simply exercising the rights granted to them in the Constitution.
Civil disobedience and Black nationalism became the Black resistance movement’s two strongest currents. These paths of struggle greatly opened up the imagination of Black American social movements.
In reality, for Black people of that time, protests simply could not come to a peaceful end. Because in every demonstration, they were violently repressed by white supremacists and police officers. The most notorious incidents include the Ku Klux Klan’s multiple bombings of African-American churches, including one which resulted in the murder of four young Black girls, after which Black people came on to the streets in protest. In response, the mayor mobilized a high-pressure water cannon and police hounds to suppress protesters, arresting nearly 2,000 people. The leader of the NAACP, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was also arrested in Birmingham, where he wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” stating that he hoped that civil disobedience would serve as a path in-between concessionary and militant actions.
Of course, there were people who disagreed with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “peaceful, rational, non-violent” activism, such as the militant Black Panthers, of which Hong Kong militants love to sing praises, and most famously, Malcolm X. The most radical part of Malcolm X’s vision was not simply that he supported Black people’s self-defense, but that he also believed Black people should establish their own nation in America. In one interview, he said, “If the white people really passed meaningful laws, it would not be necessary to pass any more laws. There are already enough laws in the law books to protect an American citizen. You only need additional laws when you are dealing with someone who is not regarded as an American citizen …. If [the black man] was a real citizen, you’d need no more laws, you’d need no civil rights legislation.” For him, in the existing system, the difference in power between Black people and white people was too great, and any legal reform would only fail to protect Black people’s rights. Black nationalism was the only way out.
Civil disobedience and Black nationalism became the Black resistance movement’s two strongest currents; ironically, no matter which side they were on, both Dr. King and Malcolm X were ultimately assassinated. Yet these paths of struggle greatly opened up the imagination of Black American social movements, which were no longer constrained within the purview of the law and demonstrations.
The silence of progressives over the issues facing Black people
There may be a misunderstanding that even though Black people have been suppressed by conservative politicians, at least American progressives have always defended the rights of Black people. But historically, Black people’s rights have always been ignored or compromised by progressives.
In the 19th and 20th century, Black workers tried on multiple occasions to join various unions, but were blocked by white workers who had a monopoly on their leadership, even putting pressure on companies and factories not to hire or promote Black workers. Even open-minded union leaders believed that class should be the focus of struggle, rather than racial equality. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt advocated economic reforms under the New Deal in the 1930s, expanding the welfare state, he excluded Black people from various schemes in order to attract the support of Democrats in the Southern states who opposed Black civil rights. Even after the momentum of the civil rights movement passed, Black people have continued to face challenges in various parts of the progressive camp. For example, the 1970s feminist movement was dominated by white middle-class women. In 1977, a group of Black feminists issued the Combahee River Collective Statement, pointing out that white women were not only uninterested in the history and culture of Black women and women of color, they were also incapable of understanding and dealing with the intersecting class, race, and gender oppressions faced by Black women, resulting in the emergence of a Black feminist movement.
Black Americans’ social movements are not monolithic; in the face of different forms of marginalization, there is the conservative camp, the reformist camp, and even the pessimist camp (Afro-Pessimism is the most accurate representation of this camp’s philosophy). But for many Black people, it is not individuals, political parties, or sides of the political spectrum who oppress them, but the entire system of white supremacy. Black people do not feel that they owe the supposedly enlightened progressives anything either. For Black Americans to escape repression, they can only fight to save themselves.
Oppression today: why say “Black Lives Matter”?
If we’re only talking about legislation and what’s written on paper, then the rights of Black people would seem to have been increasingly protected. However, the problems Black people face have not been fully resolved because the political system of the United States has long been dominated by the interests of the white elite, while progressive parties have put Black issues on the back burner.
After racial segregation was deemed unconstitutional, many state and municipal governments fine-tuned their mechanisms and strategies for exclusion and segregation. Such examples include redlining, whereby officials deploy administrative measures to prevent Black people from buying homes in affluent areas, resulting in Black people predominantly living in poorer areas. In the United States, the quality of schools, hospitals, and other public utilities are tied to the resources of the region one lives in. As a result of these redlining practices, Black people have been systematically excluded from better facilities and plunged even deeper into inter-generational poverty. Since the Reagan years, the U.S. has privatized many of its public facilities as part of neoliberal economic policies, exacerbating the economic situation of Black people. (As many people know, the costs of medical care in the United States are extremely high; an ambulance ride can cost more than $600 USD.) Consequently, Black people who live in the most economically dispossessed areas of the U.S. bear the brunt of various crises such as the Great Recession, mortgage crisis, and opioid epidemic; in the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic, Black people make up 70% of deaths in the United States.
Historically, Black people’s rights have always been ignored or compromised by progressives.
Apart from politics and the economy, one of the most blatant forms of oppression towards Black people is that enacted by white supremacists and the police. American police have always used racial profiling in order to maintain law and order, presuming that Black people are all criminal. This has not only led Black people to suffer disproportionately from stop and searches; in 2013, 92% of people targeted by stop and search powers in Ferguson were Black. The police have continuously designated Black people as “dangerous” criminals, and have shot and/or used excessive force against them on many occasions. And because courtrooms are often presided over by white judges, white police officers who have murdered Black people often get off scot free. In 2012, a 17-year-old boy, Trayvon Martin, was followed, shot, and killed by neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman. After the incident, not only did George Zimmerman escape conviction, he even sued Trayvon’s family for falsifying evidence. Subsequently, the Black Lives Matter movement emerged in order to respond to a system of legal enforcement that does not accord any value to Black people’s lives, spreading across the country. The reason for stating “Black Lives Matter” is that Black lives have been systematically devalued by the police, the courts, and by white-dominated society; it is an affirmation of the fact that Black people’s lives matter. The saying “All Lives Matter” is offensive because it completely ignores the reality that it is specifically Black people whose lives have historically been disregarded.
UCLA History professor Robin D.G. Kelley once analyzed that Black Americans have always been engaged in a low-intensity war with the American government. He said that in the eyes of others, sudden confrontations between Black people and the police may look like warfare, but Black people suffer many different kinds of attacks on a daily basis. According to statistics collected by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a Black person is killed by the American government every 28 hours. Black people have never escaped the state of war. If we say that Hongkongers have spent the last twenty years learning that peaceful protests do not work, Black Americans have been living under this oppressive reality for four hundred years.
The saying ‘All Lives Matter’ is offensive because it completely ignores the reality that it is specifically Black people whose lives have historically been disregarded.
It is well known that liberal media outlets and politicians fetishize non-violent protest; even those who support Hong Kong have previously fixated on the fact that Hongkongers are “peaceful” protesters, while ignoring more militant aspects of the movement. It is unsurprising, then, that when such media outlets see Black people’s escalation of tactics, including setting fire to property and engaging in looting, they have condemned these forms of protest as “riots.” Interestingly, while Hongkongers have continuously rejected the definition of themselves as rioters, Black Americans’ response has been to quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Not every Black person or supporter of Black Lives Matter supports escalation, fire-setting, or looting; but they do not sever ties with others in the movement, because they know that without disrupting societal order, no one will hear Black people’s voices. In reality, we all know that if protesters had not escalated their tactics, they would not receive such widespread attention. Protesters know that the true violence is the violence of the system—a system that is expropriating and killing Black people on a daily basis. One interviewee from the 2013 Ferguson uprisings said, “They say we destroying our own neighborhoods. We don’t own nothing out here!”
We can agree or disagree with their protest tactics, and empathize with or reject the looting that has occurred as a result of the uprisings. To truly engage in citizen diplomacy, we must first understand American history from the perspective of Black Americans; their struggle is not only rooted in four hundred years’ worth of experience in peaceful protest (often in vain), but is also a fundamental criticism of the entire oppressive system of American politics and society.
Can we connect?
The history of anti-racist mobilization is not limited to Black activists; it also includes Asian, Latinx, Indigenous, and other marginalized communities. Collectively, these movements and revolutions are pushing American society towards a more equal, diverse, and free track.
If we say that Hongkongers have spent the last twenty years learning that peaceful protests do not work, Black Americans have been living under this oppressive reality for four hundred years. While Hongkongers have continuously rejected the definition of themselves as rioters, Black Americans’ response has been to quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: ‘A riot is the language of the unheard.’
In this era, as the Sino-U.S. rivalry continues to escalate, Hongkongers need to step out of their financial haven, and connect with allies in the rest of the world; rather than centering ourselves, we need to face the world and its harsh realities head-on.
Within the American political system, representatives from both the Democratic and Republican parties have spoken out in support of the Hong Kong protests. Achieving a bipartisan coalition that supports the Hong Kong struggle, and manages to pass the HKHRDA, was not easy; it was traded through Hongkongers’ blood and sweat. The Democratic and Republican parties are not monoliths; apart from the two parties, American civil society also possesses independent power, and has continually sought to escape the vicious cycle of the two parties’ squabbles, even forcing the two parties to reform from within.
In regards to their relationships with the U.S., Hongkongers can not only engage in elite diplomacy, but can also be more active in various American civil society organizations and networks, and build trust and solidarity, just as Hongkongers and Taiwanese people have sought to establish friendships over many years. In pursuit of greater transnational solidarity, it will be up to Hongkongers to see whether we can situate ourselves in different parts of the community, understand their complex conflicts and their different experiences. We do not have to stick to one side, or one party; at the same time, we should not be simply be driven by transactional utility, seeking only self-preservation and the protection of elite diplomatic relations, thereby giving up on others who are similarly in pursuit of freedom and equality, seeking a defense of their fundamental rights.
In pursuit of greater transnational solidarity, it will be up to Hongkongers to see whether we can situate ourselves in different parts of the community, understand their complex conflicts, their different experiences.
We often ask: “How can we make people sustain their interest in Hong Kong? How can we compel people to stand with Hong Kong protesters?” To move beyond transactional relationships, we must also ask: “When others are in crisis, have we ever invested time and effort to understand their struggles, and extend our solidarity and support?”
Hongkongers understand that protesters’ choice of militant or peaceful tactics is not black and white; instead, unity is a strategy to progress our collective aims in a context of oppression. Hongkongers do not stand alone; and so when protesters across the world pay homage to us, we are all the more obliged to become reliable allies to their struggles. As the coronavirus outbreak subsides, and the national security laws come into effect, the task of liberating Hong Kong will require new forms of international solidarity.
As we step onto the international stage, hoping to establish ties with citizens of other countries, we must understand others’ needs, expand our base of support, and stand with others in the fight for justice.
Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July” (1852)
Ida B. Wells, “Lynch Law in America” (1900)
Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963)
Malcolm X’s interview at UC Berkeley (1963)
Combahee River Collective, “The Combahee River Collective Statement” (1977)
Kimberle Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and the Violence Against Women of Color” (1991)
Desmond S. King & Rogers M. Smith, “Racial Orders in American Political Development” (2005)
Robin D.G. Kelley, “The U.S. v. Trayvon Martin: How the system worked” (2013)
Vicky Osterweil, “In Defense of Looting” (2014)
Building global solidarity is necessary to fight the global conditions of our struggles.
By JN Chien and JSon June 18, 2020
Read the article in Chinese.
Originally published in Lausan
The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate organization, had plans to host an exchange with a Hong Kong activist called “Learning From Hong Kong.” The idea was to look comparatively at Hong Kong’s past year of resistance to share strategies with activists in the US joining Black Lives Matter protests.
When Sunrise Movement announced their event on Twitter, a faction of the Western Left flooded the comments with vitriol. One commenter, who had misidentified the guest panelist Johnson Yeung as Joshua Wong, shared pictures of the latter shaking hands with conservative politicians such as Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley. Others were quick to point out that Yeung had received funding from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Another commenter even tweeted that the Hong Kong movement is an “insurgency [that] is led by right-wing pro-colonialist advocates who collaborate with racist Republicans.” Their motivation was clear: to discredit the Hong Kong movement and bully Sunrise Movement into cancelling the event.
The criticism of the event comes from a particular faction of the Left who parochially believe that any foreign state expressing any anti-US sentiment is worth supporting because they undermine US imperialism. As Vincent Wong explains, these groups “leverage the lack of trust with Western governments but perverts it to such an extent that it cannot deal with the possibility that there could be terrible repression or injustice in the absence of the US boogeyman.” As a result, they align with authoritarian regimes such as the Chinese Communist Party and the DPRK. Despite claiming to be leftists, this political view has resulted in odd commentary on the Hong Kong movement, such as support for police violence and condemnation of millions of Hongkongers’ demand for democracy.
It is important, however, to recognize that the US flag-waving Trump supporters in Hong Kong are real. Some Hongkongers have also pinned their hopes on lobbying the US. But these groups only make up a small section of the overall movement. Likewise, it would be dishonest to discredit the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement in the US just because the fascist white supremacist Boogaloo Boys have turned up at actions to co-opt anti-police, abolitionist struggles.
To point out NED’s minimal involvement in the Hong Kong movement in order to discredit Sunrise Movement’s event seems to signal something other than an issue with “foreign intervention”—namely the belief that Hong Kong people have no actual political agency (or contradictions, or tensions) in their struggle because they’re one homogenous mass. The idea that millions of people partaking in ongoing protests is impossible unless backed by the CIA supports the same infantilizing racism that considers all Chinese international students to be mindless agents of the CCP.
Indeed, it should be emphasized that the Hong Kong movement has no “leaders,” meaning that there is no political party or ideological faction issuing commands. This means that the continual, inaccurate assessment of Joshua Wong and others such as Johnson Yeung as “leaders” of the Hong Kong protests is completely disconnected from the most basic realities of the movement. These and other such inaccuracies often fly directly in the face of fact, and exploit reflexive reactions to further build out these China apologists’ own sense of credibility.
While the Hong Kong movement is far from perfect, these accusations against Sunrise Movement’s “Learn from Hong Kong” event, which claim that the entire Hong Kong movement is aligned with Trump and other right-wing Republicans, stem from a fundamentally racist logic that strips Hongkongers of their political agency.
Just as the US movement is ideologically diverse, Hong Kong leftists also occupy a small section of the Hong Kong movement, and have put decades of work into fighting the hyper-capitalist conditions of the city wrought by not only the US and Britain but now the PRC as well. These leftists have long done the dangerous work of supporting mainland activists struggling for political freedoms and better labor conditions. They have also already exchanged ideas with the Black Lives Matter movement such as sharing tips to defuse tear gas and circulating tutorials to build street barricades.
Letting pro-CCP nationalists on the Western left discredit other social movements—especially movements that are also fighting against police violence—is not the path forward. Instead, the transnational exchange of new strategies of resistance to militarized police brutality is an avenue to tangibly support movements against state violence—most pressingly now, amid the movement for Black liberation. In the end, the Sunrise Movement’s response to this social media controversy was the correct one: we must center Black lives and focus our attention on opposing anti-black violence everywhere.