Friday, October 31, 2014

Debtors' Prisons: The Shackles Return

Debtors’ Prisons: The Shackles Return

Originally posted on

The debtors’ prison is an old, decrepit institution that many thought was abolished in the 19th century, something little more than a relic of the past. This is a problematic view for two reasons. One, debtors’ prisons are rarely explored in the classroom or the larger society. And two, these prisons are making a serious comeback in the United States, which is deeply problematic for the poor and working class.

The History of Debtors’ Prisons

The traditional view of debtors’ prisons in the U.S. is one of wretched incarceration where debtors were hung out to dry. While this is true, there is also more to the story.

In early colonial America, English law had an influence on colonial law – and laws regarding debt. In 16th century England, creditors had the legal power via the Law of Merchant to regain their money from insolvent debtors. They had this same power in Pennsylvania where, in 1682, the law stated that anyone who was in debt and had been arrested would be kept in prison, or “the debtor [could] satisfy the debt by servitude as the county court shall order, if the creditor desires."[1]  While debt servitude was problematic, it provided a way for a debtor to obtain eventual release.

The situation was worse in Massachusetts, which ruled in 1638 that “delinquent taxpayers be jailed, but provided that the Council or any court within Massachusetts could free the prisoner if it found him incapable of paying his taxes.” However, as early as the next year, private debtors were being imprisoned as well, and in 1641 the courts ruled that “anyone who failed to pay a private debt could be kept in jail at his own expense until the debt was paid.”[2]  Laws like these resulted in people dying in prisons when they were unable to pay off their debts.

Debtors were forced to suffer this kind of fate until the end of the 17th century when there was some slight reform. On Valentine’s Day, 1729, Pennsylvania officially created debt servitude where debtors had to serve their creditors and, even after being released from prison, “the debt still remained and could be enforced against after-acquired property.”[3]

In Massachusetts, much more serious reform came with the Act for the Relief and Release of Poor Prisoners for Debt, which allowed debtors after having been in prison for one month to take an oath swearing that “[they] was unable to pay [their] debts and that [they] had not hidden or transferred title to any property in order to defraud [their] creditors, could apply to be released from jail.”[4]

Unfortunately, due to courts rarely adjourning in some counties, debtors often spent months in prison; creditors could keep a debtor in prison for another three months even after they had been ordered to be released by paying the debtors jail fees, and the creditors could also “have a new execution sworn out, under which the debtor could be returned to prison and the whole process started all over again.”[5]

Eventually, federal debtors’ prisons were abolished in 1833, leaving the power to implement debtors’ prisons in the hands of the states, many of which followed Washington’s lead. Now, those state debtors' prisons are making a comeback and, just like in the past, are having a disproportionate impact on the poor and working-class.

The Shackles Return

More and more people around the country are getting sent to debtors’ prisons, but exactly how does it happen? According to National Public Radio, companies that people owe money usually sell off the debt to a collection agency, which in turn “files a lawsuit against the debtor requiring a court appearance. A notice to appear in court is supposed to be given to the debtor. If they fail to show up, a warrant is issued for their arrest.”[6]

In some cases, judges “don't even know debtors' rights, which could result in the debtor being intimidated into a pay agreement,”[7]  making an already bad situation worse. News coverage about the rise of debtors’ prisons has been picking up steam, especially in regards to judges imprisoning people for their debts.

In 2000, The New York Times reported that a small town judge in Arizona was accused in a lawsuit of having “turned the local jail into a debtors' prison, repeatedly jailing poor laborers who were unable to settle debts with local property owners.”[8]  In 2009, CBS reported that a judge in southern Indiana threatened one Herman Button, who owed $1,800 to a former landlord but had no income beyond Social Security, with contempt and imprisonment if he didn’t pay.[9]

The decision to imprison debtors can also come from judges needing money. In this case, judges were pressured to collect on fines and fees lest they find themselves receiving fewer operating funds for their courts. And in 2010, The Times reported that an Alabama circuit judge said openly that his state legislature “was pressuring courts to produce revenue, and that some legislators even believed courts should be financially self-sufficient.”[10]  In order to have a better chance of extracting the needed money, judges may have threatened people with imprisonment.

However, some of these fees can be problematic. The Brennan Center for Justice completed a study in 2010 which found that 13 states charged the poor "public defenders fees... a practice that encourages indigent defendants to waive their right to counsel.”[11]  Some of these fees being imposed on the poor can, in fact, force them to give up their rights in order to lessen their payment.
The reinstatement of debtors’ prisons has a serious impact on the poor and unemployed who can even be sent to prison for nonpayment of regular bills, due to the fact that “a creditor can petition a court to issue a summons for nonpayment of a bill. If you fail to appear, for one reason or another – and life gets pretty disorganized when you lose your job and possibly your home – then you're in contempt of court. Next stop, jail.”[12]

It’s rather ridiculous that this is legal if you consider the fact that half of Americans are poor or near poor[13] , and 48 million Americans live in poverty.[14] More than a third of U.S. states allow debtors to be jailed.[15]

In conjunction with debtors’ prisons, there's also been a rise in collection firms using the courts to force people to pay up on their debts. This has quickly become a problem in some cases where “the debt collection agencies have used threats and lies to get consumers to pay back their debts,” and the collectors have “allegedly pressured consumers who didn't owe anything at all.”[16]  In sum, people who are already having a difficult time paying bills are now being subject to harassment and intimidation from collectors.

And the situation gets even worse when a private probation service, or PPS, come on the scene. PPSs work like this: If you get hit with a $200 ticket you can't pay, a private probation company will let you pay it off in installments, for a monthly fee. But there may be additional fees for electronic monitoring, drug testing and classes – many of which are assigned not by a judge, but by the private company itself.[17]

Such PPS harassment can make life extremely difficult for struggling individuals, like in this infamous case of Thomas Barrett. Unemployed and living off food stamps, Barrett was out on probation and ordered to pay a $200 fine for stealing a $2 can of beer from a convenience store. On top of that, Sentinel Offender Services, LLC, the company administering Barrett's probation, charged him $360 per month in supervision and monitoring fees despite the fact that Barrett's only source of income was money he earned selling his own blood plasma.

Barrett skipped meals to try to make payments to Sentinel. But he still fell behind and eventually owed the company over $1,000 in fees – five times more than the $200 fine imposed by the court. Seeking to get his money, Sentinel successfully petitioned a court to revoke Barrett's probation, and finally the court jailed him.[18]

Here it must be noted that the 14th Amendment clearly provides that “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”[19]  By imprisoning people like Barrett, who are unable to pay their court fees, the state is violating their constitutional right to equal protection under the law. Yet due to the fiscal constraints that many states are in, many are looking the other way while the constitutional violations continue.

And the problems don't end for people once they've paid off their debts and gotten out of prison. The Brennan study found that in all 15 states that were examined – California, Texas, Florida, New York, Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Arizona, North Carolina, Louisiana, Virginia, Alabama, and Missouri – “criminal justice debt and related collection practices create a significant barrier for individuals seeking to rebuild their lives after a criminal conviction.” For example, in eight of the states, missing debt payments resulted in one's driver's license being suspended – which makes it all the more difficult to get to work, earn money and pay off debts. Seven states even required people to pay off their criminal justice debts In order to regain the right to vote.

This trend should worry us all, as it is not only eroding basic individual rights as established in the U.S. Constitution – but harming the very poorest among us in the process. With the reinstatement of debtors’ prisons, we are seeing the most vulnerable people bearing the biggest burden of an unjust legal and economic system. If we knowingly allow this process to proceed, we too are guilty of harming the poor. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: "We shall have to repent in this generation, not so much for the evil deeds of the wicked people, but for the appalling silence of the good people."[20]  Let’s not remain silent on debtors' prisons any longer.


1: S. Laurence Shaiman, “The History of Imprisonment for Debt and Insolvency Laws in Pennsylvania as They Evolved from the Common Law,” The American Journal of Legal History 4:3 (1960), pg 209

2: Robert A. Feer, “Imprisonment for Debt in Massachusetts before 1800,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 48:2 (1961), pg 253

3: Shaiman, pg 211

4: Feer, pg 254

5: Ibid

6: Susie An, “Unpaid Bills Land Some Debtors Behind Bars,” NPR, December 12, 2011 (

7: Ibid

8: Sam Dillon, “Small-Town Arizona Judge Amasses Fortune, and Indictment,” New York Times, January 30, 2000 (

9: Marlys Harris, “Could Debtors’ Prisons Make A Comeback?,” CBS News, August 10, 2009 (

10: Ethan Bronner, “Poor Land In Jail As Companies Add Huge Fees For Probation,” New York Times, July 2, 2012 (

11: Brennan Center For Justice, The Hidden Costs of Criminal Justice Debt,

12: Harris, August 10, 2009

13: Andre Damon, “Census Report: Half Of Americans Poor Or Near Poor,” World Socialist Web Site, October 22, 2014 (

14: Anthony Perrucci, “More Than 48,000,000 Americans Impoverished,” WGNO, October 17, 2014 (

15: Jessica Silver-Greenberg, “Debtors Arrests Criticized,” Wall Street Journal, November 22, 2011 (

16: Jillian Berman, “Debtors’ Prison Legal In More Than One-Third of US States,” Huffington Post, November 22, 2011 (

17: JF, “Private Probation: A Juicy Secret,” The Economist, April 22, 2014 (

18: Nusrat Choudhury, Court-Sanctioned Extortion by Private Probation Companies: Modern Debtors’ Prisons, American Civil Liberties Union, (February 6, 2014)

19: Legal Information Institute, 14th Amendment,  

20: Just Quotes, Evil Quotes,

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Chaos in the Middle East: An Interview with James Corbett

Below is the transcript of a recent email interview I did with independent journalist James Corbett of The Corbett Report. We discuss the origins of ISIS, the current situation in the Middle East regarding Syria, the possibility of Turkish intervention, and what the West’s endgame is.

1. What are the origins of ISIS? They seem to have popped up from nowhere?

ISIS can trace its roots back to a group that was founded as "Jamāʻat al-Tawḥīd wa-al-Jihād" (“The Organization of Monotheism and Jihad”) in Jordan in 1999 by a Sunni militant named Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. Originally founded with the intention of overthrowing the Kingdom of Jordan and replacing it with a religious government, the group was transplanted to Iraq in the wake of the US invasion in 2003. In 2004 Zarqawi pledged allegiance to Bin Laden and the group became "Al Qaeda in Iraq" (Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn or "AQI").

Since that time, the group has undergone so many name changes that one would be forgiven for losing track of its connection to the current "Islamic State," including: al-Qa’ida Group of Jihad in Iraq; al-Qa’ida Group of Jihad in the Land of the Two Rivers; al-Qa’ida in Mesopotamia; al-Qa’ida in the Land of the Two Rivers; al-Qa’ida of Jihad in Iraq; al-Qa’ida of Jihad Organization in the Land of The Two Rivers; al-Qa’ida of the Jihad in the Land of the Two Rivers; al-Tawhid; Jam’at al-Tawhid Wa’al-Jihad; Tanzeem Qa’idat al Jihad/Bilad al Raafidaini; Tanzim Qa’idat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn; The Monotheism and Jihad Group; The Organization Base of Jihad/Country of the Two Rivers; The Organization Base of Jihad/Mesopotamia; The Organization of al-Jihad’s Base in Iraq; The Organization of al-Jihad’s Base in the Land of the Two Rivers; The Organization of al-Jihad’s Base of Operations in Iraq; The Organization of al-Jihad’s Base of Operations in the Land of the Two Rivers; The Organization of Jihad’s Base in the Country of the Two Rivers; al-Zarqawi Network.

Reporting on the group has always been unreliable at best, with both Zarqawi and his successor (Abu Omar al-Baghdadi) having been reported as dead and/or captured on multiple occasions. Amazingly, a Washington Post report in 2006 published leaked documents revealing that the Pentagon was engaged in an admitted PSYOP campaign to make Zarqawi and AQI seem more important to the Iraqi insurgency than they really were. Even more amazingly, a 2007 Reuters report confirmed that the US military believed that Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was in fact a fictional character. The group is currently led by "Caliph Ibrahim," about whose history and background almost nothing whatsoever is known.

The issue of where the group has gotten its support in recent years is not even controversial. Aside from all of the weapons, aid, money and other assistance they have taken from other Syrian "opposition" groups (supplied, of course, by the Gulf states, the US and Turkey, primarily), but they have also received and are still receiving direct support and cooperation from various foreign governments. It has also been revealed that some of ISIS' fighters were trained at a secret military base in Jordan that was being used by the CIA and affiliated groups from various countries as a base for training the Syrian "opposition." The latest story about the foreign funding of ISIS comes from a recent report that NGOs and humanitarian groups, including USAID and its associated allied agencies, are paying bribes to ISIS in return for entrance into Islamic State territories, and that ISIS members are even on the payroll of some of these organizations.

2. What do you think the purpose of attacks on ISIS is? I have two theories on the issue. 1) The US wants ISIS contained to Syria as to make hell for Assad or 2) The US actively wanted ISIS to go into Iraq as to provide an excuse for renewed US involvement.

The purpose of the attacks on ISIS is manifold. The US has been eager to have an excuse for becoming more militarily involved in Syria since the foreign insurgency began destabilizing the country in 2011. Last year's false flag chemical weapons attack in Ghouta failed to unite the American (or British) public around air strikes, but ISIS seems to be the convenient excuse.

At least part of the motivation for these attacks seems to be the disruption of the so-called "Islamic Pipeline" seeking to feed Iran's South Pars gas reserves to Europe's energy-hungry markets via Iraq and Syria. The memorandum of understanding for the deal was signed in July 2011, precisely as the wave of foreign-funded "protests" in Syria began to boil over into all-out war. The pipeline would have cut out Turkey and other NATO members completely as middle-men for supplying Gulf gas to Europe.

The Gulf states have been heavily involved in supplying, funding and training the Syrian insurgency since its inception as well, motivated by traditional Sunni/Shia rivalries as well as more nuanced geopolitical motives. Syria has been a key ally of Iran without whom Tehran's ability to wield regional power is greatly diminished. The Saudis and even the Qataris see a potential to step into the power vacuum created by a destabilization of Iran/Iraq/Syria, and thus are happy to help with the current air strike campaign.

Israel, meanwhile, is dedicated to a strategy first formally proposed as the "Oded Yinon plan" in 1982 that called for, amongst other things, splitting Iraq and Syria up along sectarian lines: "Lebanon's total dissolution into five provinces serves as a precendent for the entire Arab world including Egypt, Syria, Iraq and the Arabian peninsula and is already following that track." This strategy is furthered by exacerbating the conflict and further inflaming tensions, an inevitable result of the current round of air strikes.

3. What are the larger regional effects that ISIS has had?

The fundamental effect that ISIS has had on the region is to further inflame Sunni/Shia tensions, further radicalize and polarize religious elements in the region, undermine attempts at secular/inclusive governance (both in Syria and Iraq), and to destabilize a key section of the so-called "Shia crescent." It is interesting to note that the area claimed by the Islamic State overlaps completely with a significant portion of that Shia crescent, which was the primary motivation for a lot of the private monetary support that ISIS (and other jihadis in Syria) have received from the Gulf states via Kuwait.

The Kurds of the region have also been deeply effected by both ISIS and the response to it, with the majority of the fighting taking place in Kurdish areas. This could play into Turkey's hands and explain its enthusiasm for supporting ISIS (i.e. hoping that ISIS will wipe out the Kurds and thus take a political problem off of Ankara's hands), but could backfire if the response to the threat brings these geographically and politically distinct Kurdish groups like the Turkish Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD) and the Iraqi Kurds together. Recent developments in Kobane reveal that this may in fact be starting to happen, which in the long run may give hope to the Kurdish nationalist movement.

4. There have been reports that Iran and Syria are somewhat working with the US to eliminate ISIS. What do you make of these?

It should be no surprise that Iran and Syria, recognizing the ISIS threat as a dagger pointed at their own hearts, are looking to cooperate in any way with the military response to that group. It is surprising that these groups would be willing to talk to or even support a US-backed military coalition in Syria and Iraq, but only if we consider this situation apart from the current crisis. The cooperation that is taking place at the moment is obviously only an alliance of convenience, and presumably as soon as the US starts living up to its threats to bomb both ISIS and Syrian government forces the cooperation with Assad will be over.

5. Increasingly, Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan has been making mentions of a Turkish intervention in Syria. Do you think one will occur and if so, will it grow to a much larger intervention by the West?

Thanks to leaked recordings that emerged earlier this year, we know that high-ranking Turkish government and military figures have been conspiring for years on plans to stage false flag events in order to justify a Turkish incursion into Syria. There are Turkish targets in Syria that could plausibly incite a military response from Ankara if attacked, and the recordings show that powerful people in the Turkish government are not above staging an attack on these targets themselves in order to provoke that response.

We also know that the Turkish border is becoming porous in those areas under bombardment. Turkey has just agreed to allow the Iraqi Kurds to cross into Kobane to help participate in the defense against ISIS that is currently being staged there. It is unclear what Turkey may receive in return for this action, but the idea that Turkey would watch as a town on its border fell to ISIS is unlikely at best.

The danger of Turkish involvement in the situation is that any attack on Turkish forces can be interpreted, via the articles of the Washington Treaty, as an attack on a NATO member requiring a NATO response under the terms of the "self-defense clause." This could greatly raise the stakes and be the type of event that could turn this from a bombing and supply campaign into a full, boots-on-the-ground military endeavour.

6. What are some of the economic effects that this whole ISIS attack has had?

The rise of ISIS and the other jihadi groups in Syria over the past few years have obviously decimated that countries' economy. The fighting in Syria has decimated the infrastructure in large parts of the country and set it back be decades. It has also, as discussed above, frustrated the countries' efforts to use its northern territories as a gateway for Gulf gas to Europe, an idea that would have greatly enlarged Syria's economy.

In Iraq, similarly, the fighting that is now taking place has largely undermined the already-fragile government in Baghdad and sent the northern areas of the country into turmoil. It has also specifically undermined recent efforts by the Iraqi Kurds to carve out their own economy independent of Baghdad. In recent months the Iraqi Kurds have begun selling oil via their own independent oil pipeline network that connects with Turkey, but that has been disrupted by the fact that several key oil fields and pumping stations have been taken over by ISIS fighters.

7. Do you think that this re-engagement in the Middle East will have a negative effect on the US' Asian pivot, as some have argued?

Although events in Iraq and Syria have certainly grabbed the attention of the US military, it might not be accurate to look at the Pentagon's reach as a zero sum game. Just because more resources are being pumped into the fight against (and covert support of) ISIS does not mean that resources are being taken out of the Asia-Pacific region. Happily for the American military-industrial complex, Washington has never backed away from increasing military and operational budgets as new threats arise, rather than reducing or pulling back operations in other theaters in order to "maintain a budget." Also happily for the US military, the Asia-Pacific pivot relies largely on naval power, which is less involved in the current campaign against ISIS.

Also, it should be noted that there has been a campaign in recent months to suggest ISIS is setting up branches or franchises in the Southeast Asia region. This threat of increased Islamic militant activity in that region could always be seized upon by the US to re-balance their attention on the Asia-Pacific region when and if it becomes convenient to do so.

8. Talk about the myth of 'moderate' rebels.

The idea that there is a magic dividing line between the so-called "moderate" rebels in Syria and the more extreme groups like Al-Nusra or ISIS has always been a myth. It is a convenient myth for the US and its partners in the invasion of Syria to sell that invasion to the public, but after years of failed coalitions, partnerships and alliances claiming to speak for the Syrian opposition, and after years of opposition aid ending up in the hands of the most extreme groups, even large sections of the public are now aware that the idea that "moderate" rebels are differentiable from their extremist counterparts is nothing but fantasy.

9. Do you think that the Assad government will fall and if so, what will happen?

It is rather remarkable that the Assad government has lasted this long, a testament to his enduring popularity with vast swathes of the Syrian public (despite what we are being told in the Western media) and the continuing strength of the Syrian military (despite the "waves of defections" that we were being told was going to topple Syria from within). All things being equal, there is no doubt that Assad could (and indeed almost did) defeat the "opposition" forces entirely. All things are obviously not equal, however, and given the very fluid nature of the current situation it is entirely plausible that the current air bombardment campaign will morph into attacks on Syrian government forces.

This is still a dangerous political situation, however. Even though the US and its allies certainly could take on the Syrian military (although not without significant losses due to the countries' significant anti-air defense capabilities), such a direct conflict still brings with it the specter of Russian military involvement in defense of its ally. It would also further incite and inflame tensions with Iran. In short, there is almost no question that a forceful toppling of Assad by outside military intervention would threaten to ignite a much wider regional or even global conflict.

The alternative--the idea that ISIS or other "opposition" groups could finally succeed in overthrowing the Syrian government--brings with it its own problems. The destabilization of another secular government in the region and replacement by some form of Islamic theocratic government would further divide the region and further inflame religious sectarian strife. It would have knock-on effects in Iraq, struggling with its own deeply divided Sunni and Shia population, and threaten Iran, with whom Syria is a key regional partner.

10. What do you think is the end game with all of this?

The end game, as described in point (2) above, is different for the different players at the table. But it is important to note that for some of the players (notably the US, Israel, and the NATO allies), the idea of a deeply divided region, with neighbours pitted against neighbours and no clear regional power able to rise above the sectarian fray, plays directly into long-held plans to exert greater power over the region through divide-and-conquer tactics. For those players, simply keeping the chaos in the region going may be the end game, and sadly that is a remarkably easy thing to do, especially when they are funding, arming, supplying and training both sides of the conflict.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Days Of Darkness, Sparks of Hope

Currently in the United States we live in an extremely polarized political sphere. People not only seek out news and op-eds that reinforce their own viewpoints but also associate mainly with others who also align with them politically and viciously demonize ‘the other side.’ The situation has gotten to the point where people view the policies of the opposing party as a threat to the nation.

Globally, it seems that the situation is even worse as problems arise in the Ukraine, the West is once again embroiled in a war in the Middle East, and the knowledge that we’ve already seen irreversible damage due to climate change and we are getting ever-closer to the 2017 deadline where climate change will truly be permanent. These are dark days; however there is room for optimism. Around the world we have seen unlikely political alliances that are working to fight for a better future.

The Cowboy-Indian Alliance

The Cowboy-Indian Alliance made waves back in April 2014 when they led a five day ‘Reject and Protect’ campaign in Washington D.C. against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The action was quite prominent, although the origins of the alliance haven’t fully been bought to light, nor the historical importance of such an alliance.

Art Tanderup, a Nebraska farmer who has actively protested against Keystone XL, stated in an April 2014 interview that the alliance formed years ago due to the “common interests between farmers, ranchers and Native Americans in northern Nebraska and southern South Dakota. We’ve come together as brothers and sisters to fight this Keystone XL pipeline, because of the risk to the Ogallala Aquifer, to the land, to the health of the people.”

The pipeline is a common threat to both communities, as the Ogallala Aquifer, a water tablet located beneath the Great Plains, not only provides water for 2.3 million people, but also “threatens the Missouri River, which provides drinking water for probably a couple 'nother million,” bringing the grand total to about five million people whose clean water supply is under threat due to the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. In addition, the aquifer also provides water for animals, livestock, and irrigation. All of this means that the pipeline threatens the health and economic stability of the Midwest.

For the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and the Great Sioux Nation, there is also a historical significance as well. Tanderup stated in the interview that part of the pipeline’s route as well as part of his farm “is on the Ponca Trail of Tears from back in the 1870s, when Chief Standing Bear and his people were driven from the Niobrara area to Oklahoma.”

The extraction processes, such as tar sands mining and the refining and dilution processes, used to obtain the oil are extremely dangerous. Gary Dorr noted in the same interview that before the oil extraction started, Fort Chip in Canada had “a negligible cancer rate” and now they “[have] a cancer rate 400 times the national Canadian per capita average” and that “every single family [in Fort Chip] has cancer in their families.”

Yet, while this is significant due to the serious environmental and economic consequences, there is also a historical importance to this as well. The alliance actually isn’t new, but is rather “a later incarnation of an alliance that was first formed in 1987 to prevent a Honeywell weapons testing range in the Black Hills, one of the most sacred sites in Lakota cosmology – where, in the 1970s, alliances successfully fended off coal and uranium mining.” This current movement is the continuation of a fight for the environment that protects people rather than profits.

This is also effecting Native American-White relations. Take the story of Mekasi Horine, a member of the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma who is a Native rights and environmental activist.

When first hearing of the Cowboy Indian Alliance, he was rather skeptical, saying “I’ve always been a little bit bitter toward white society” and “I’ve experienced a lot of racism—growing up on the res, living on the res. When I went to town I was always treated differently than others.” However, he eventually joined due to his mother convincing him that the alliance was of importance that the cowboys “have that love and respect for the land the same that we do.” Cooperation is due having a shared love for and reverence of the land.

This alliance is having far-reaching effects as it is not just an environmental alliance, but it “is beginning the dialogue not just about broken treaties, but about the long history of colonization, the effects of which are ongoing among some of the United States’ poorest populations.” This can be shown by the fact that both sides “hope that the pipeline, which has caused them both much distress, will be a catalyst for reconciliation” and that they “sense that the reconciliation their work is a part of has a historic importance, something healing for both settlers and natives—and both feel that it is, in some way, destined to happen.”

Does this mean that everything will be smooth sailing between Native Americans and settlers from here on out? Not in the slightest, however it does offer some hope a sort of reconciliation and reckoning will take place and change the views of many so that they will aid the Native Americans in their fight not just for equal rights, but to undo the damage done by over a century of mistreatment and cultural destruction.

Fighting For Peace In Palestine

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been going on since 1948, with both groups claiming the same land and there is currently no end in sight. While the media may have some thinking that both Palestinians and Israelis hate each other, there has been a large amount of support for the Palestinian cause as of late from Israelis and Jews.

The International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network took an ad out in the New York Times, which was “signed by 40 Holocaust survivors and 287 descendants and other relatives” and “[called] for the blockade of Gaza to be lifted and Israel to be boycotted.” More specifically, the ad stated that they were “alarmed by the extreme, racist dehumanization of Palestinians in Israeli society, which has reached a fever-pitch. In Israel, politicians and pundits in The Times of Israel and The Jerusalem Post have called openly for genocide of Palestinians and right-wing Israelis are adopting Neo-Nazi insignia.” The ad ended arguing for collective action, reading: “We must raise our collective voices and use our collective power to bring about an end to all forms of racism, including the ongoing genocide of Palestinian people.”

Actions such as these are greatly important as they prove that not all Jewish people support the Israeli war machine and the wanton slaughter of innocent Palestinians.

There were also solidarity actions in Israel itself. However, it seems that it is increasingly dangerous to be anti-war in Israel as there have not only been attacks by right-wing nationalists, but the Israeli government itself cracked down on anti-war demonstrations. It even went so far as to attempt to use the IDF to ban anti-war protests, as the police must obey IDF Home Front Command orders. These orders “[do] not permit large gatherings in public during times of conflict,” which results of in people being unable to protest.

There is also increasing support for an end to the conflict in Palestine as well. In June it was noted that most Palestinians wanted a unity government and a narrow majority favored “peace talks and peaceful coexistence with Israel.” An August 2014 poll in Gaza revealed that supported a long-term truce with Israel, even as they opposed the disarmament of the strip.

While the fight for an end to the conflict and the creation of a fully sovereign Palestinian state will continue to be a long and arduous one, it is still good to know that people support peace.

Solidarity of the Suppressed

Around the world, minority communities are subject to unjust persecution in many societies, persecution which can range from discrimination and a lack or nonexistence of a political voice to outright brutalization and murder by security forces and intense repression. While oppressed groups have fought for their rights individually, rarely have we seen such groups show solidarity with one another and support one another. Fortunately, many have been voicing and demonstrating their solidarity from Ferguson to Palestine.

Black-Palestinian Solidarity

Both Black people in the US and Palestinians have shown solidarity with one another in their struggles.

To make the situation much more relatable for African-Americans, in May 2014 Kristian Davis Bailey penned the article Why Black People Must Stand With Palestine in which he noted that the police brutality faced by blacks and other minorities is directly related to the violence in Palestine as “Since 2001, thousands of top police officials from cities across the US have gone to Israel for training alongside its military or have participated in joint exercises here.”

Both communities experienced systemic mass incarceration as well: “Forty percent of Palestinian men have been arrested and detained by Israel at some point in their lives. (To put this in perspective, the 2008 figure for Blacks was 1 in 11.) Israel maintains policies of detaining and interrogating Palestinian children that bear resemblance to the stop and frisk policy and disproportionate raids and arrests many of our youth face.”

The problems of black people in the US and Palestinian people are greatly related as the security forces of both countries work together to develop tactics to oppress and brutalize our communities.

In 2012, Jemima Pierre of Black Agenda Report took a historical look of the situation that is still relevant today, noting that many black leaders spoke out in support of the Palestinian cause. Specifically she made mention that

Palestine was an important issue during the Black Power years as radicals identified with and embraced the anticolonial struggle against Israel. Huey Newton, even under allegations of anti-Semitism, stated, “…we are not against the Jewish people. We are against that government that will persecute the Palestinian people…The Palestinian people are living in hovels, they don’t have any land, they’ve been stripped and murdered; and we cannot support that for any reason.”


[Alice Walker] made the direct connection [of the Palestinian plight] to the Black experience: “Going through Israeli checkpoints is like going back in time to American Civil Rights struggle.”

By supporting the Palestinian people, Black people today are only continuing the pro-human rights legacy that has been set by many black leaders before them.

Palestinians have returned the support and solidarity of Black people in the form of supporting the people of Ferguson in their protests against the police. Al Jazeera reported that “Local authorities in Ferguson have begun responding to nightly protests with tear gas and rubber bullets. Palestinians on Twitter could relate, and shared words and images of support with the US protesters.”

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine issued a statement of support with black people, saying that the organization “salutes and stands firmly with the ongoing struggle of Black people and all oppressed communities in the United States” and quoted Khaled Barakat, a Palestinian writer and activist, as saying the fight against US brutality around the world is linked and that “When we see the images today in Ferguson, we see another emerging Intifada in the long line of Intifada and struggle that has been carried out by Black people in the U.S. and internationally.”

Solidarity between Palestinians and Blacks is important and noteworthy as it shows international solidarity against oppressive social structures and governments as well as forms a space where the two groups can discuss and interact with one another, from promoting awareness about each other’s plights to exchanging resistance tactics.

Yet, there was also solidarity with Black people from the Asian community as well, with many offering critical insight on the connection between the Black and Asian struggles in the United States.

Black-Asian Solidarity

The National Council of Asian Pacific Americans issued a statement of solidarity with Ferguson, saying, in part that, “our own communities’ histories in the United States include violence and targeting, often by law enforcement.” While a statement may not seem like much, it is rather important as it notes the history of white supremacy and how that ideology is an enemy of all non-whites, no matter their actual skin color.

Soya Jung argued that what is going on in Ferguson mattered to Asian Americans as while Asians “do not move through the world in the crosshairs of a policing system that has its roots in slave patrols, or in a nation that has used me as an ‘object of fear’ to justify state repression and public disinvestment from the infrastructure on which my community relies,” the situation is still important to them due, firstly, to han.

Jung explains han as a word in Korean culture that “loosely means ‘the sorrow and anger that grow from the accumulated experiences of oppression” that has been “expressed in protests against Japanese colonial rule in 1919, in the struggle for self-determination as the Korean war broke out in 1950, during student protests against the oppressive U.S.-backed South Korean government in 1960, and again during the democratic uprising in Kwangju in 1980.” This anger against a racist system of oppression and its importance to Jung’s identity is partly what connects the events of Black and Asian America as both are victims of this system.

She then notes that Black rage “serves as a beacon when faced with the racial quandary that Asian Americans must navigate” with regards to “the invisibility of Asian death and the denial of any form of Asian American identity that doesn’t play by the model minority rulebook.”

Jaya Sundaresh took a broader view of the subject, in part discussing anti-blackness in the Asian community, writing that South Asian Americans must “work towards change in our own communities so that we do not inadvertently work to reinforce antiblack racism in this country, which is at the root of the police brutality which murdered Michael Brown.” At the end of the article, she urged others to talk with their “South Asian friends and families about Ferguson, why it is important that we stop perpetuating or staying silent on racist views in our communities, why we should vocally support those in the African-American community who are working towards change, and why we should stop keeping silent when our white friends and colleagues find ways to justify Darren Wilson’s murder of Michael Brown.”

The solidarity between Blacks and Asians is important not only to having a discussion about the problems and tensions that exist between the communities, but to eliminating those tensions and working together to strike back against a racist society.


Do all of these solidarity actions and statements mean that things are now okay? That Native Americans and settlers will get along, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will end anytime soon, or that institutionalized and internalized racism will be dismantled? Unfortunately not, however, what these alliances do represent are sparks of hope that we can radically change the situation that we currently find ourselves in.

These alliances, whether they are in the form of solidarity statements or marches, articles or tweets, should give people courage and nourishment to continue the fight for freedom and equality.
The world constantly seems like it is going to hell and many feel that that they may give up at any moment, but, to quote Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, “do not go gentle into that good night” instead one must “rage, rage against the dying light.”

The light is almost dead and the clock has nearly struck midnight, but this is the chance for everyone to give it their very best. If we are going to go down, let’s go down swinging. Let’s give ‘em hell!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Talking Social Justice with Son of Baldwin

This is the transcript of a recent interview I had with the admin of the Facebook page Son of Baldwin. In it, we discuss the origins of the Facebook page, online social justice activism, and problems in the LGBT community.

Why have you named the page Son of Baldwin? What kind of impact has James Baldwin had on you personally?

James Baldwin was the first black gay male intellectual I had ever encountered. His work was really the first time I had seen myself, my identity (as a black gay male), and my point of view represented in art and public discourse in a way that was not meant to be mocked, dismissed, minimized, or dehumanized. His was the first work that started me on the path to thinking critically about myself, the world around me, and my place in it. In tribute to that consciousness raising (which may have come much later, if at all, had it not been for him) and in an effort to answer his final call to dig through the wreckage and use what he left behind to continue the work of trying to make the world a more just, livable, peaceful place, I named the blog “Son of Baldwin.” I have been told by friends of Baldwin’s family that the family is quite pleased by the work being done and they believe that I am indeed honoring his legacy. That is overwhelming and I am overjoyed.

What made you want to make a Facebook page in the first place?

Son of Baldwin originally started out as a blog via blogspot. But that space wasn’t really conducive to conversation. Facebook allows for a kind of direct and extended interaction and dialogue that many other sites, including other social media, don’t. And for me, the conversation is the most important part. Despite how I may sometimes come across, this isn’t about me. This isn’t about being able to proselytize from on high and have everyone applaud the pronouncement. This is about starting conversations and engaging other people in various communities about these causes and concerns in the effort of finding solutions to some of our most pressing social justice issues.

You talk about a number of topics, from LGBTQ rights to racism, through a critical progressive lens. How did you come to this political awakening of sorts?

I think this awakening started in my childhood. I grew up during the 70s, 80s, and 90s—a child of both Black Southern Baptist and Nation of Islam traditions—in a section of Brooklyn called Bensonhurst (infamous for the racist attack against and murder of Yousef Hawkins in 1989).
Bensonhurst, at least at that time I grew up there, was a neighborhood of primarily Italian and Irish first- and second-generation immigrants. In this neighborhood, I lived in a housing project of mostly black and Latin@ peoples right in the middle of things. We were thus surrounded, if you will, in hostile enemy territory. This made everything tenuous.

As a child and a teen, I had to plot routes home from school that would help me avoid running into the mobs of white children, teens, and adults who--with bats in hand, violence in heart, and death in mind--made a regular ritual of chasing kids of color back to the projects.

What was different for me when I got back to the projects, having often but not always escaped the battering from racists, is that the battle didn’t end there. I had to then contend with the other black and Latin@ peoples who wanted to pound on my head because they perceived me as gay.

When you are not safe in any of the worlds you inhabit, you sort of don’t have a choice but to become politicized. You kind of don’t have a choice but to "wake up" because if you don’t, you’ll be murdered. Reading the works of authors like Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Octavia Butler, Audre Lorde, and others helped to direct these concerns and grievances, and made me feel less alone and more empowered to do something about my circumstances.

Something that I have noticed about you is that you actively allow yourself to be called out by others and acknowledge when you messed up and allow yourself to be corrected. Why do you think that this does not exist in larger political circles, especially liberal or progressive spheres?

My opinion is that this willingness to be wrong and be corrected doesn’t happen in larger political circles and spheres because many of the people working within those areas actually think this work is about them. They believe that in order to be trusted and effective, they have to feign perfection and position themselves as above reproach. Can you imagine?

Many people doing this work think that in order to be trusted they have to lie. The truly sad thing about this contradiction of a strategy is how often it works, and how often complicit audiences are willing to believe the lie if it confirms their system of reality. I guess what I’m saying is that many people doing this work are politicians in the most cynical sense of the word, and that occupation is not something I have any interest in whatsoever. I’m a writer by purpose, training, and profession, and I’ve never pretended to be anything other than that.

In short, I think ego is at the center of this unwillingness to be incorrect.

You recently made it a requirement that people who post photos on the page to provide a written description. What prompted this?  

This comes from a desire to ensure that as many people as possible are able to participate, as fully as they can, in the conversations and discourses happening in the space. Blind and Deaf/Hard of Hearing people are active members of the Son of Baldwin community and this policy makes it possible for them to be even more vibrant participants in discussions. This is one of the ways I’m trying to address my own collusion in institutionalized ableism/disableism.

What are your thoughts on online social justice work? Do you think that it can make a serious difference in people's lives and on a larger scale? (I often hear people saying that tweeting or writing doesn't really do anything.)

For starters, I think online social justice work has been a blessing in the sense that it has given a voice to many peoples and communities whose voices were often missing, excluded, or silenced in sociopolitical discussions. Additionally, the Internet has made it possible for many more people to have access to these debates and discussions, such as disabled people/people with disabilities who are often unable to access on-the-ground events because many organizers are unwilling to make accommodations, or poor peoples who simply cannot afford to travel to these events.

There are many absolutely amazing and brilliant online social justice activists doing work that honestly, truly matters, and are, despite narratives to the contrary, affecting the discourse and changing minds.

But like everything else, there is a deeply disturbing dark side to online social justice work.
One of the things I deeply dislike about much of the social justice activism and social justice spaces I've encountered is how intentionally vicious they are. And I'm not talking about viciousness between social justice activists and trolls. I'm talking about the viciousness between peoples with the same goals, but who might have different strategies for obtaining those goals.

I've seen some really hateful, ugly, deeply dishonest and self-serving stuff happening in conversations in these spaces—including my own. I'm not talking about disagreements or even heated disagreements. I'm talking about full-on attempts at destroying each other—from credibility to personhood. I'm talking about people who truly get off on making others feel as small as possible so they can feel big.

I'm talking about intentionally committing violence against and silencing other people. I'm talking about people lying and slandering others with the intent of spiritually murdering them as though they were opposing a concept rather than a person. The Internet often helps with the depersonalization of people.

When you think you’re arguing with, and trying to obliterate, digitized images and typed words instead of a living being, it’s easier to be joyfully inhumane, spiritually toxic, and intellectually genocidal, then reward yourself by calling it “social justice.” It’s easy to be gleeful about shitting on an opponent (an opponent that you, yourself, manufactured for your own dubious purposes, by the way) and high-five each other about the havoc you wreaked when you can treat the carnage as a concept rather than reality.

I'm talking about people who wear the cloak of victimhood like a Trojan horse in order to sneak into the village, get close to you and- surprise- become the victimizers you never expected. There are people who use their marginalized identities and communities not for the purposes of liberation, but as a hustle, as masturbation, as a way to elevate themselves to a place where they are above reproach. I'm talking about the people who have the audacity to use “trigger” not as a real expression and sign post of lived trauma, but as a strategic pretense to silence any opinions they don’t like.

It's like they play this game where the more marginalized identity boxes they can check off, the more they can't be criticized for any behavior they engage in, no matter how abusive and counterrevolutionary. Therefore, the goal is to check off as many marginalized identity boxes as they can—even if they have to invent them or pretend to belong to them. Whoever has the most, wins.

To me, that's the original pimp strategy and I guess what I'm saying is that I don't like pimps. But I have discovered that there are so many of them in this arena. Some folks are out here big pimpin’ and calling it “radical” of all things.

I don't know why, but that shocked me. I did some research to determine whether this was a new phenomenon brought on by the anonymity of the Internet. What I discovered is this behavior pre-dates the Internet. Shirley Chisholm, for example, was the target of disgusting attacks by people who should have been in solidarity with her. Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison said such despicable things about James Baldwin that it would make your skin crawl. Much to my dismay, I learned this in-fighting and hostility isn’t novel in any respect.

Sometimes, I've been accused of being egotistical, which, okay, fine if that’s your opinion. But the truth of the matter is that I’m not trying to be a pimp at this stuff. Part of why I don't do public speaking gigs, etc. is because I'm not trying to become some kind of object of celebrity or fame. I'm not trying to become some kind of some kind of commercial figure or commodity.

I’m not trying to be that person who maneuvers themselves closer to the president in group photo opportunities because they are trying to climb some political ladder. Those people want to be “The One.” Not me, though. I'm not trying to be the “go-to” expert. I'm not trying to be in the spotlight. I'm not trying to be anyone’s leader. I'm not trying to make money off of this work. I'm not trying to play like I'm perfect and have all the answers. I'm learning right alongside everyone else. I'm not here to be worshiped like some god-thing, but regarded as a human being who is growing and evolving, falling down and getting back up again with increased knowledge. I'm a participant in this conversation.

But increasingly, these aren’t conversations anymore. Increasingly, these are encounters with people with not-always-legit agendas trying to push those agendas as liberation strategies.  These people are about switching places with the oppressor and will use whichever of the“master’s tools” (as Audre Lorde called them) is necessary to do so. However, I’m not interested in being chained and I’m not interested in chaining anyone else. That, for me, is the politics of inertia and I’m interested in progress. I want everyone to be liberated.

Part of the genius of this violence-strategy that some people who call themselves marginalized employ is that it's difficult for the victim of the violence to discern whether the violence is legitimate or illegitimate. Because many of the people in this work are so committed to justice, they err on the side of it being legitimate even when it isn't. So they endure the emotional, psychic, psychological, spiritual, and sometimes even physical abuse because they're afraid if they don't, they will be labeled as a part of the problem. Speaking for myself,  I've allowed people to abuse me, even flat-out lie about me on an ongoing basis, just so I wouldn't be perceived as an oppressor and anti-justice (because of the ways in which my identities intersect, in and out, with privilege and oppression and marginalization). To save my "reputation" among the social justice crowd, I've been a masochist. It’s so incredibly complicated. And I do not have the answers for it. But I do have the bruises.

So, I'm no longer engaging the brutality. I'm moving away, not from the difficult and needed conversations, but from the egotistical violence. If your concept of social justice is about amassing power at the expense of other victims of hegemonic abuse, I cannot be down for your cause. And if that makes me “bad” at doing this social justice stuff, then so be it.  If you need me to be the villain so you can feel like the hero in your own story, play on playa. But you'll be playing sans me. I won’t give you the attention you’re seeking. I will absolutely refuse to see you no matter what tricks you employ. I've got other work to do.

You are quite critical of the race and class politics of the mainstream LGBT community. Due to this split on multiple levels, from racism to ignoring transgender people, would you say that there is even a real LGBT community? How can people work towards having more inclusive spaces for marginalized LGBT members?

I would say, currently, that there may be LGTBQIA communities, plural. But the singular community that is commonly addressed in media and conversations is one that is actually serving the needs of one particular subset of the communities—namely, white, middle-to-upper class, cisgender, non-disabled, gender conforming men.

James Baldwin said back in 1984 that the gay movement was really about white people who lost their white privilege struggling and petitioning to get it back. I see no lies in that statement if the national platforms and conversations, if the faces of the movement are any indication.

I witness tons of conversations about why “black people are so homophobic” (which we can actually trace, ironically, to white colonial intervention) but relatively few to none about “why white gay people are so racist.” The answer, as Baldwin surmised, was because white gay people are still, at heart, white and Whiteness, which is inextricably linked to the idea of racial superiority, is at the root of most of our problems.

To get to a more inclusive space, people (of all races and creeds) have to give up their addiction to Whiteness and white supremacy. People (or all genders and sexualities) have to give up their addiction to patriarchy and narrow-minded views of masculinity, femininity, gender identity, and sexuality. People of all physical realities have to give up capitalism and incessant materialism, which are commodifications of humanity, and stop treating human bodies as machines that are valuable only for what they can produce for the State—a deeply ableist point of view.

The problem is convincing people to give up the things that define their current comforts. We have to get people to be willing to be uncomfortable, at least for a while, until we can figure all of this out. This may be a continuous journey, rather than a destination.

At the end of the day, what do you want people to get out of your Facebook page?

 My dream for Son of Baldwin is that it serves as a place where we can have uncomfortable conversations about social justice issues without dehumanizing one another. We might occasionally yell at one another. We might occasionally have to be corrected for our errors and apologize for them. But I hope out of the consternation come viable solutions and a greater respect for each other’s humanity.