demonizing, criminalizing, terrorizing

I spent the Eid Al Fitr holiday pretty much locked up in my house so I could write. I left a couple of times to get food at the market in the old city, but I barely left my house. This, of course, was my choice. When I went back to school today and I asked a colleague about his Eid break he said he felt like he was in a prison. He has family in Tulkarem, a city under an hour away from Nablus, but he couldn’t see his family. We were under closure in the West Bank for part of the break courtesy of the Israeli Terrorist Forces. So he also spent the week at home (albeit not literally just in his house like me), but for him it was not a choice. Those who are from the villages around Tulkarem who began harvesting their olives this week found themselves under assault by illegal Israeli settlers, as with most of the people trying to pick olives. The Zionists who live here as colonists and control Palestine do their best–as settlers or soldiers– to control the movement and livelihood of Palestinians. Apparently, even if you are clinically dead, you are not granted safe passage: this is true of a woman from Gaza who is dead, by the way, because the Zionist state wouldn’t allow her to go to Jordan for a bone marrow transplant. Americans cannot imagine something like that. They take their freedom of movement for granted. Imagine the outrage if when my mom went to Boston from Los Angeles for her bone marrow transplant in 1990 if foreign occupying soldiers prevented her from doing so. Imagine if she died as a result of this. Perhaps then there would be outrage.

But Americans take simple freedoms like moving from home to work unhindered for granted. They expect it. This is all about privilege. Though in the U.S. right now some of this privilege is connected to one’s class–can you afford the gasoline for your car? Or can you access public transportation? And always it is about white privilege. Driving while Black (and I would add Brown) means that you cannot travel freely even between home and work because when you get in your car you are likely to be pulled over, searched, and perhaps arrested. Muslims have been experiencing this phenomenon at airports increasingly since 9/11. African Americans have known this to be a part of their lives for decades. Being Black or Brown in American means being branded criminal. This is similar to the ways that Americans and Israelis alike brand Palestinians terrorists. This idea is embedded into the culture and psyche of Americans and Israelis alike. (Just check out this latest piece showing that leading Israeli terrorists made a campaign video for Obama.)

But what happens when you’re a white guy from Chicago and you get branded by Sarah Palin as a terrorist? This was a story a few months ago. And actually I know Bill Ayers as a colleague. Last year we spoke together on a panel at DePaul University. He was one of the only other people speaking there who could be considered a comrade in terms of his political positions about Palestine. I respect him and I respect his work. At first when I saw the reports on Al Jazeera of Palin talking about this so-called “terrorist” I couldn’t figure out who it was. Then I sat down to read the newspapers and I first saw this New York Times blog that related the narrative:

“There is a lot of interest, I guess, in what I read and what I’ve read lately. Well, I was reading my copy of today’s New York Times and I was interested to read about Barack’s friends from Chicago.

“I get to bring this up not to pick a fight, but it was there in the New York Times, so we are gonna talk about it. Turns out one of Barack’s earliest supporters is a man who, according to the New York Times, and they are hardly ever wrong, was a domestic terrorist and part of a group that quote launched a campaign of bombings that would target the Pentagon and US Capitol. Wow. These are the same guys who think patriotism is paying higher taxes.

“This is not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America. We see America as the greatest force for good in this world. If we can be that beacon of light and hope for others who seek freedom and democracy and can live in a country that would allow intolerance in the equal rights that again our military men and women fight for and die for for all of us. Our opponent though, is someone who sees America it seems as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country?”

First, let’s get one thing straight: Palin does not read The New York Times. I would be shocked if the woman knew how to read at all. But she makes a point to emphasize this at the beginning because of the Katie Couric interview in which Palin could not name one newspaper or news source that she reads. Her outrage in the above quote about this is laughable–as is her notion that the New York Times “hardly ever gets it wrong.” Really? Interesting. Come to think of it maybe she does read once in a while–maybe that is why she’s so clueless about the Middle East. Or, I take that back–I think maybe someone reads to her. (Then yesterday on Fox News she stated that she was just too “annoyed” at those questions to be able to answer. She was outraged that she was not allowed to just read from her talking points. That a journalist actually was doing her job. Oh, yeah, that’s why she had that deer in the headlights look on her face.) And, actually, if you read the original New York Times article that Palin was referring to, you’ll see that it is really pointless. It makes it clear that although their political work may have overlapped over the years, Bill Ayers and Obama are hardly friends. And I haven’t asked Bill, but I suspect it’s mutual given Obama’s selling Palestinians down the river and a whole lot of other progressive issues.

it’s this insidious demonization of people–always already Brown, Black, poor, politically radical–that is so disturbing. As is the silence surrounding the presidential campaign of Cynthia McKinney and her running mate Rosa Clemente. With all this talk about the way in which somehow race and gender are no longer factors I find it compelling that this Green Party team featuring two of the most progressive candidates in a long time are shut out of the process. That’s the good ol’ American democracy Palin is fighting for. No, it’s not, actually. But McKinney and Clemente are. Here is what they say about racial profiling:

5. We Want to Stop the War at Home Now!

The decision by Democratic Attorney General Jerry Brown to prosecute the San Francisco 8 is chilling in the message it sends about impunity in the face of clear police wrongdoing. The San Francisco 8 (several of whom were members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense), are being prosecuted and investigated by the very same police officers that committed torture against them decades ago. Obviously not satisfied with the 32 Black Panthers killed by law enforcement by 1973, a decision has been made to continue targeting Black Panther members in another way.

We want the hundreds of political activists falsely imprisoned by COINTELPRO and similar programs from the 1960’s to the present to be released from prison immediately. We want full disclosure on all the government’s spying and destabilization programs and for restitution to be provided to victims of these governmental abuses and their families for the suffering they have long endured.

In addition, members of the general public have become targets for police repression, including Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, and other easily identifiable minorities. By 2004, Cincinnati had seen 18 young people murdered at the hands of brutal cops. Louisville, Kentucky saw seven young Black males killed in four years. In New York City, three unarmed Black men were killed within a period of 13 months. In fact, the book Stolen Lives lists the names of over 2000 people killed by police during the 1990s. Unfortunately, it is clear that the poor and people of color are disproportionately affected by the disproportionate application of force by law enforcement. Adding insult to injury, offending police officers are rarely if ever punished.

We believe that disparities in sentencing and in the criminal justice system as a whole can be overcome with political will to change the policies and punish those guilty of the racial profiling that often result in disparate treatment at each step of an encounter with the criminal justice system.

In study after study, the dismal performance of the criminal justice system against people of color has been documented. Policies designed to close the disparities in sentencing and treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system must be implemented with more than deliberate speed.

And here is their position on the prison industrial complex:

7. We Want to End Prisons for Profit Now!

We want an end to privatization of prisons and prison health services. We want an end to the racism that serves as an engine of growth for a profit-driven prison system. We want an end to prison labor schemes that are little more than corporate subsidies that provide little training or rehabilitation for inmates. We want reconciliation, transformation, preparation, rather than incarceration based on retribution and vengeance. We do not want race and class to serve as the primary determinants of punishment. And we want an end to the death penalty.

We believe that the prison-industrial, criminal injustice complex of today still operates in many respects as a vestige of slavery. And just as punishment was meted out disparately for Blacks and whites during slavery, these conditions persist today. For example, in the state of Virginia, a white person could only be sentenced to death for murder, but slaves could be sentenced to death for 71 offenses. Today, according to “Minding the Gap,” despite higher drug use by White Illinois teens, African American youth who make up 15.3% of Illinois’s youth population, are 59% of youth arrested for drug crimes, 85.5% of youth automatically transferred to adult court, 88% of youth imprisoned for drug crimes, and 91% of youth admitted to state prison. Disparities permeate the system from the laws enacted, to those who enact the laws, to those who enforce and interpret them.

Paul Street reports in Black Agenda Report,one in three Black males will be sent to state or federal prison at some point in their lives compared to one in six Latino males and one in seventeen white males.” Writer Tim Wise writes, “According to FBI data, the percentage of crimes committed by African Americans has remained steady over the past 18 years, while the number of Blacks in prison has tripled and their rates of incarceration have skyrocketed.”

Clearly, it is time to rethink prison policy and the criminal justice system upon which it rests. Just as prisons for profit underscored profit-maximizing strategies, we need to explore new terrains for justice-maximizing policies, including prison abolition. We need public policy solutions that focus on reconciliation and restorative justice. Racism should not be rewarded with profits.

Notice that their statement makes it clear that the prison system in the U.S. is basically an extension of slavery. And it is. Instead of reparations for slavery, African Americans and people of color more generally have found themselves basically performing slave labor in prisons. There was never any 40 acres and a mule. There was a movement from the plantation to the prison. Which is why one of my favorite parts of their platform is reparations for slavery–something you definitely won’t hear McCain or Obama talk about. Here is their position on reparations:

3. We Want Reparations Now!

African Americans are now sustaining the worst loss of wealth in U.S. history due to the sub-prime mortgage crisis, an estimated $71 billion to $92 billion, according to United for a Fair Economy.

We believe that the U.S. government never kept its promise to former slaves of the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules were promised as restitution for slave labor and the mass murder of Black people. Enduring racial disparities reflect the U.S. government’s failure to address the reality and the vestiges of Black poverty in this country. Hurricane Katrina is but a manifestation of the generations of previous neglect combined with current neglect.

A 2003 Harvard University study found that Black infant and maternal mortality rates are 2 and 3.5 times higher than for whites. The New York Times wrote that by 2003 nearly one half of all Black men between the ages of 16 and 64, living in New York City, were unemployed. Dr. David Satcher found in 2005 that 83,750 Black people died from premature deaths for no other reason than that they were Black. And in its 2005 report, United for a Fair Economy told us that it would take 1,664 years to close the home-ownership gap and that on some indices the racial disparities are worse now than at the time of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In its 2006 report, United for a Fair Economy told us that Blacks and Latinos lost ground, and that in order to close the racial wealth divide in our country, it would take the equivalent of a “G.I. Bill for Everyone” that would include comprehensive federal investment in low-income families and communities, with an emphasis on people of color. In its 2007 report, United for a Fair Economy concluded that, while Blacks overwhelmingly vote Democratic, they had little to show for such party loyalty according to the statistics reflecting the State of Black America and the policy initiatives of the Democratic Party in its first 100 hours as a Congressional majority. In 2008, United for a Fair economy concluded that it would take 440 years to close the racial disparity on per capita income.

That one million Black votes were not counted in the 2000 Presidential election is symptomatic of a host of broken promises, the denial of self-determination, and a refusal of both major parties to deal with the vestiges of slavery, racism, and discrimination with which too many families are forced to live today.

We urgently need policies enacted on the federal and local levels that will address the enduring disparities in education, health care, imprisonment, family income, wealth, home ownership, that reflect purposeful malign neglect of communities of color in this country. Further, these public policies must also specifically recover economic losses sustained during the current sub-prime mortgage crisis.

Can you imagine Gwen Ifill asking Palin and Biden a question about reparations in a debate? Will never happen. All of their positions are amazing, by the way, and you can read the rest of them on their campaign website.

There is one person who has been making these connections between slavery and the prison industrial complex for years. Angela Davis, who actually ran for Vice President herself on the Communist Party ticket, pioneered this political and historical work as an academic and an activist. She not only makes these connections, but also focuses on issues of privatization of the prison system which has made it profitable to house people of color because Americans view them as a surplus population. The companies who profit from this are numerous, but here is a sample of some Davis identified in 1998:

Many corporations whose products we consume on a daily basis have learned that prison labor power can be as profitable as third world labor power exploited by U.S.-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. 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.

Notice that companies like Motorola, which are tremendously invested in the Israeli Terrorist infrastructure are on this list. These issues are connected economically and politically: who Americans and Israelis lock up and how they profit off of this wholesale imprisonment of people of color in the U.S. and Palestinians here.

These are not issues you’ll see on American television. But if you watch Al Jazeera you can hear discussion of these issues. One of my new favorite programs is Avi Lewis’ “Inside Story.” This is the same program that I posted something about last week when he did a show on American imperialism in Hawai’i. This week he devotes the half hour (why isn’t it an hour?!) to an interview with Angela Davis. She talks about the relationship between slavery and the prison industrial complex and the solution to this, which in many ways resembles McKinney and Clemente’s platform for reparations for slavery. I encourage people to watch this program below. It is definitely not something you’d ever see on mainstream American television.

And just to seal these ties between American prisons and its criminalization of people of color I will close with a couple of stanzas from my favorite Suheir Hammad poem, “letter to anthony (critical resistance),” which shows how Palestinians are criminalized in very similar ways:


i have always loved criminals
i tell people who try to shame
me into silence

with words like television conjugal
college libraries
they say
can you imagine a library in a nigerian a chinese a
colombian prison do you know what happens in the world americans are spoiled no idea
how lucky
we are here

even you often write how
your time has offered reflection
meditation deepened your faith
but you 27 and have 10
years to go nowhere how much deeper
you going to get until a system based
on money deems you rehabilitated

i have always loved criminals
and the way you bomb my tag
butterphoenix all across your letters
reminds me our affirmation is
considered vandalism

i have always loved
criminals and not only the thugged
out bravado of rap videos and champagne
popping hustlers but my father
born an arab baby boy
on the forced way out
of his homeland his mother exiled
and pregnant gave birth in a camp

the world pointed and said
palestinians do not exist palestinians
are roaches palestinians are two legged dogs
and israel built jails and weapons and
a history based on the absence of a people
israel made itself holy and chosen
and my existence a crime

so i have always loved criminals
it is a love of self
and i will not cut off any part of
me and place it behind fences and bars
and the fake ass belief
that there is a difference between
the inside and the outside

there is no outside anywhere
anymore just where we are and
what we do while we are here

and there
are people anthony who make a connection
between you puerto rican rhyme slayer beautiful man and
young girls twisted into sex work and these
people nazim they are working to stop prisons
from being economically beneficial to depressed
communities and these people
bronx bomber they imagine a world
where money can’t be made off the hurt
of the young the poor the colored the
sexualized the different and these people
nymflow they never heard you
spit lyrics and they won’t
see the brillians from these mere words
but these people
42851-054 5812
they believe human
beings can never be reduced
to numbers not in concentration
camps or reservations not in
refugee camps not in schools
and not in jails


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