Summer riots are not a novel phenomenon, nor are the anguished cries from Black youth in those riots. What elicited such a strong public fervor in the summer of 2020 was the unprecedented coverage (though one could have expected no less from CNN); the transnational and (seemingly) unending marches which gave no choice to news outlets other than continuous coverage, were only augmented by the influx of video footage flooding social media. It seemed that for each police encounter, one could find evidence of brutality from every angle, every perspective, every cinematographic style. Remarkably, the popular cry to defund and abolish the police were chorused so frequently and in alteration that one witnessed a phenomenal amalgamation, an interchangeability, and a cloud of misconception that I’m still not sure has been cleared. Amidst the commercialization of ACAB slogans (short for “All Cops Are Bastards”) on merchandise, and applause for politicians’ denouncement of inequalities, invested in yesterday, peppered with key words like “systemic” and “BIPOC,” I witnessed the eerie formation of a narrative: it was the sensationalized focus on the police officer and a hostility toward the perpetuation of police terror and arrest that little matched the masses’ sentiments regarding prisons. There was lots of “ACAB!” and little “Prisons are obsolete.”
Today, no one would be caught advocating for the dissolution of slave-catching over the institution of slavery itself. So why can popular discourse entertain the abolition of law enforcement while upholding the carceral system? The evolution of police departments from slave patrols is well discussed, but the rebirth of chattel slavery as incarceration through the conduit of criminal punishment is less widely acknowledged in common discourse. Liberalism poses an active threat to the lives of prisoners due to its complicity, even in “progressive” defund discourse. The alliance of liberalism and reformism poses no foundational question to the status quo, especially considering the sweet disillusionment induced by a bipartisan agreement on prison reform. Completed days before his assassination in San Quentin prison in 1971, George Jackson theorized in Blood in my Eye about the nature of fascism, ultimately concluding that fascism is not static but in constant motion, but that “if one were forced for the sake of clarity to define it in a word simple enough for all to understand, that word would be ‘reform.’”1
Ruth Wilson Gilmore laments the regression of the contemporary anti-prison movement and critiques whom she refers to as the “new ‘new realists’” for narrowing the prison question to the villainization of private prisons, campaigning for the “relatively innocent,” and angering only in the case of an egregious prison sentence. Multiple offenders, felons, and all those deemed outside the liberal’s subjective frame of innocence then carry an essential guiltiness that renders them deserving of the continual warfare of the prison facility, and the enslavement of prison labor which provides us our mattresses and Victoria’s Secret bralettes.2 As a society, we stubbornly resist the shaking of foundations. Without negating the reality of interpersonal harm, why don’t we see the parallels between the penal system, the punitive apparatuses present in our cultural fabric, and our readiness to punish in every social scenario? As, George Jackson stated,
They must be made to realize that even crimes of passion are the psycho-social effects of an economic order that was decadent a hundred years ago. All crime can be traced to objective socio-economic conditions-socially productive or counterproductive activity.”3
Michel Foucault, best known for analysis of discourse surrounding power and knowledge, asserts in his analysis of social control that the carceral system does not set out to repress crime, but rather manage it best to the advantage of the state.4 An institution that criminalizes poverty, the prison industrial complex is a machinery of “othering” that simultaneously serves as the greatest mechanism of recruitment, for both law enforcement and state-sanctioned criminality. Societal reintegration is a myth: “The moment someone went to prison a mechanism came into operation that stripped him of his civil status, and when he came out, he could do nothing except become a criminal once again.”5 However, the greatest success of the prison industrial complex is how it has captivated the public and taken advantage of its fears, leaving us clinging to its foundations, so integrated in social fabric that we leverage confinement against one another. Punitive systems permeate our interpersonal relationships when we weaponize it in the smallest of disagreements and even in what we categorize as the ‘misplacement’ of unwanted (homeless) bodies in public spaces. We need the idea of the multiple offender for our own material interests.
The struggle toward restorative justice and the end of racial capitalism must be approached by a united front that centers the concerns of incarcerated activism. Sustained, well-supported prison resistance such as work-stoppages have the potential to cause economic reverberation against corporations, break down prison facilities, and most importantly, raise the question their legitimacy.6 George Jackson touted the revolutionary potentiality of the prison class due to their position as the underclass, and unique ability to recognize the workings of exploitation and disenfranchisement that uphold racial capitalism:
“Daily violence and the permanent threat of death constitute the most rigorous tools for learning class hatred and the vigilance and astuteness of war. It’s an experience of warfare. The people’s liberation army will find its Ho Long and its ‘revolutionary outlaws’ not in the mountains but in the prisons”7
In prisoner organizing and resistance, of there has been a growing resurgence under the Trump administration, 8 we see the blueprint for a united front. In contrast, Jackson’s worries are aimed at those outside, lamenting that anti-establishment groups of his time had yet to establish common initiatives for liberations: “Only the prison movement has shown any promise of cutting across the ideological, racial and cultural barricades that have blocked the natural coalition of left-wing forces at all times in the past.”9
Thus, it would do well for reformists and leftists as well to disentangle themselves from their bourgeois morality that leads them, even if facing incarceration, to distinguish themselves as political prisoners and other inmates as petty criminals10). The stigma of the “other” or alternatively, the notion of the lower human, or the “violent offender”—with which those outside uphold the four walls to keep prisoners as a fringe class is not only perpetuated by reformists but also those who consider themselves radicalized as well. The dissolution of the idea of the othered criminal necessitates a cultural revolution.
While the notion of a fringe group may meet Foucault’s intellectual analysis of the penal versus punitive apparatuses in the making of a capitalist economy, is the term appropriate in the context of contemporary America? In a nation that holds the greatest number of prisons and boasts the highest prison population, what does it mean to be Black and incarcerated: the fringe of the fringe? When bail funds began circulating as distribution of funds donated to BLM came under question and arrests continued to escalate, many were jailed for the first time and caught a glimpse of what it meant to be manhandled by the carceral regime. But none of that was new to poor Black youth, sex workers, and homeless trans populations. Proximity to struggle is an idea we flirt with even when we do not own it. We accessorize and appropriate the structural violence others experience while remaining fully invested in the foundations which pushes them to the fringe. For instance, how many of us know that the sterilization of Black, Indigenous, and Latina women which was exclusively tied to the medical racism of hospitals, was occurring to Black and Latina prisoners up until 2010 by the California Department of Corrections?11 This is because the prisoner is attributed with blackness, in the broader sense, and is caught in the traps of a capitalism constructed by racial violence and built to inherit the legacy of chattel slavery.
To conceptualize the position of the Black prisoner, who is at the epicenter of the epicenter, the framework of Afro-pessimism serves as a useful lens of analysis. Under this lens, the exploitation of the black individual was necessitated to create the modern world, which is sustained through the exclusion of blackness from the status of “human.”12 One can only be white because another is Black, one can only be human because another is denied such a label: like this Afro-Pessimism identifies Blackness as the status against which humanity is defined. In “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism,” Jared Sexton indirectly raises the question of the fringe of the fringe:
“What is the nature of a form of being that presents a problem for the thought of being itself? More precisely, what is the nature of a human being whose human being is put into question radically and by definition, a human being whose being human raises the question of being human at all?”13
Although Afro-Pessimism has come under critique for assuming a universal experience of blackness and accused of disregarding the variation between colonial structures, it serves as a useful framework under which to combine my remarks on the appropriation of proximity with Foucault’s analysis of power dynamics.14 Foucault’s broad use of state racism to apply to all deemed “undesirable” and large avoidance of racial reality has likewise been criticized. How does one reconcile his discussions of power as something that is “exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations” and assertion that “there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations” with Afro-Pessimism’s claim of the globalism of antiblackness and a general advocacy for the specific centering of the black prisoner’s struggle?15 I am not of the opinion that the two concepts are mutually exclusive. It may help us understand the safety from police brutality of the established middle-class black man, or the Ethiopian Jew’s positionality with regard to the nonblack Palestinian, a scenario which Cunningham offers as rebuttal to Afro-Pessimism.
However, even nuance is never absent of complexity. Power indeed is never static, and one can end up in a loophole of intellectual exercise and ask, “What about the position of a Black bodega shopper in a Palestinian-owned business?” and fail to recognize that such violence needs no conceptualization and already finds hold in reality, as seen in the tragic murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
So, what happens when the nonhuman intersects with the “otherness” of the deviant criminal? It seems that one cannot attempt to answer such a question without contributing to the trauma porn that is America’s biggest fetish: Consumption of the hypervisibility of violence wrought upon black prisoners and sensationalized footage of brutality against black people.
Despite the lack of coverage, prison organizing is always already underway. Whatever call for abolition is picked up by the popular discourses, it must center the humanity of prisoners and must push forward with the condition of the black prisoner in mind. We must realize that liberation is incongruent with reformism. Divesting from our ostracizing of the prisoner, our moral superiority complexes, that, whether one admits it or not, take root from deep-seated anti-Blackness, is integral to any movement for cultural decoloniality. Ultimately our advocacy outside the walls must resemble a feedback loop: prison uprisings accompanied by long-term, outside support and protests by solidarity organizations. So, whose abolition is this and where are we going?
- George Jackson, Blood in My Eye (Stronghold Consolidated Productions, Inc., 1972), 118.
- Elizabeth Paton and Andrea Zarate, “Made on the Inside, Worn on the Outside Made on the Inside, Worn on the Outside,” The New York Times, February 21, 2019.
- Jackson, Blood in My Eye, 108.
- Michel Foucault, Catherine Von Bulow, Daniel Defert, “The Masked Assassination,” in Warfare in the American Homeland Policing and Prison in a Penal Democracy, edited by Joy James, translated from the French Sirene Harb (Duke University Press, 2007) 140–158.
- Foucault al., “The Masked Assassination,” 42.
- Firehawk and Ben Turk, “Freedom First!” Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, August 4, 2017.
- Foucault et al.,“The Masked Assassination,” 156.
- Take for example the nationwide prison resistance in 2016, the actions at the 2017 at Vaughn Correctional Center, and at Lansing Correctional Facility in 2020.
- Jackson, Blood in My Eye, 109.
- Foucault, The Masked Assassination.”
- Firehawk and Turk, “Freedom First!”
- Vinson Cunningham, “The Argument of ‘Afropessimism.’” Review of Frank B. Wilderson III’s Afro-Pessimism, The New Yorker, July 20, 2020.
- Jared Sexton, “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism,” Jared InTensions Journal 5 (Fall/Winter 2011)
- Cunningham, “The Argument of ‘Afropessimism.’”
- Michel Foucault, “Method,” The History of Sexuality, vol.1, translated from the French by Robert Hurley, (Penguin, 1990), 94).