With 2.1 million incarcerated people, the United States has the largest prison population in the world. But America’s prison system is part of a larger social apparatus that predominantly targets, criminalizes, and polices poor people and people of color. As the monstrous reach of our carceral system extends further into our daily lives, so too have forms of resistance grown in communities around the country and beyond. At this moment in history, what creative possibilities exist for revolting against these institutionalized forms of capture, policing, and criminalization?
In 2021, TRNN Executive Producer and host of Rattling the Bars Eddie Conway joined a blockbuster panel of scholars and activists for the American Studies Association (ASA) to discuss these very questions. In this episode of Rattling the Bars, with permission from the ASA and the panel participants, we are publishing the video recording of this panel, which is entitled “Revolt Against the Carceral World” and is hosted by Professor Dylan Rodríguez.
Dylan Rodríguez (host) is Professor in the Department of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Riverside. He was named to the inaugural class of Freedom Scholars in 2020 and is President of the American Studies Association (2020-2021). Rodríguez is a founding member of the Critical Ethnic Studies Association and Critical Resistance, a national carceral abolitionist organization, and he is the author of three books: White Reconstruction: Domestic Warfare and the Logic of Racial Genocide; Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the U.S. Prison Regime; and Suspended Apocalypse: White Supremacy, Genocide, and the Filipino Condition.
Jennifer Marley is Tewa, from the Pueblo of San Ildefonso, and has been a member of The Red Nation since 2015. In 2019 she completed her BA with a double major in Native American Studies and American studies from the University of New Mexico, where she served as Kiva Club president from 2018-2019. Marley is currently a PhD student in the American Studies department at the University of New Mexico.
Rachel Herzing lives and works in Oakland, CA, where she fights the violence of policing and imprisonment. She is a co-founder of Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization dedicated to abolishing the prison-industrial complex, and the co-director of the StoryTelling & Organizing Project, a community resource sharing stories of interventions to interpersonal harm that do not rely on policing, imprisonment, or traditional social services.
Dean Spade is Associate Professor at Seattle University School of Law and has been working to build queer and trans liberation based in racial and economic justice for the past two decades. Spade is the author of Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law, published by South End Press in 2011, as well as Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (and the next), published by Verso Press in 2020.
Sandy Grande is Professor of Political Science and Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of Connecticut with affiliations in American Studies, Philosophy, and the Race, Ethnicity and Politics program. Her research and teaching interfaces Native American and Indigenous Studies with critical theory toward the development of more nuanced analyses of the colonial present. She is the author of Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought and a founding member of New York Stands for Standing Rock, a group of scholars and activists that forwards the aims of Native American and Indigenous sovereignty and resurgence.
David Hernández is Faculty Director of Community Engagement and Associate Professor of Latina/o Studies at Mount Holyoke College. His research focuses on immigration enforcement with a particular focus on the US detention regime. He is the co-editor of the anthology Critical Ethnic Studies: A Reader and is completing a book manuscript tentatively titled Alien Incarcerations: Immigrant Detention and Lesser Citizenship.
Dorothy Roberts, an acclaimed scholar of race, gender, and the law, joined the University of Pennsylvania as its 14th Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor with joint appointments in the Departments of Africana Studies and Sociology and the Law School, where she holds the inaugural Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander chair. She is also founding director of the Penn Program on Race, Science & Society in the Center for Africana Studies. She is the author of more than 100 scholarly articles and book chapters, as well as the author of numerous books, including: Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century; Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare; and Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty.
Eddie Conway is an Executive Producer at The Real News Network and host of the TRNN show Rattling the Bars. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Conway is an internationally known political prisoner who was incarcerated for over 43 years, and he’s the author of Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther and The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. He is a longtime prisoners’ rights organizer in Maryland, the co-founder of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program, and the president of Tubman House Inc. of Baltimore.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Dylan Rodrioguez: Morning, welcome to the program committee sponsored session titled Revolt Against the Carceral World part one, we are at the 2021 American Studies Association annual meeting. My name is Dylan Rodriguez. He/him pronouns. I’m proud and humbled to be the convener and chair of this discussion. I’m speaking to you all from occupied Cahuilla/Tongva land in a Southern California city called Corona where I live, and my place of work, University of California Riverside, is just down the street from where the Riverside police department stole life of Taisha Miller in 1998 shortly before I started working there. So just to let you all know something about how we’re going to proceed I’m going to open up with a round of two, I think, capacious questions. And then I’m going to ask our panelists to introduce themselves in whatever way they wish. And then from there, we’ll open it up to a broader discussion with folks who are in attendance here.
Looking forward to this a lot. I’m glad you all are here. So let’s take advantage of this moment with these folks who are together in this conversation with each other. So the first question I wanted to open up with is to ask our folks here, Jennifer Marley, Rachel Herzing, Dean Spade, Sandy Grande, David Hernandez, Eddie Conway, Dorothy Roberts, Glen Coulthard is not going to join us because he’s sick. He’s going to be okay. He does not have breakthrough COVID, he wanted to reassure everybody. He’s just not feeling well. I want to get a special shout out to my former student and now comrade, always be my comrade, Cameron Granadino who facilitated some of the tech stuff for participants. So this is the folks that we have gathered here you all. And I want you all to just be taking notes and thinking about how you want to take advantage of their presence here.
So the opening question that I have for our panelists is how would you identify and describe the creative possibilities of revolt against forms of capture, policing, and criminalization in this historical period? And take that any way you wish. And please do introduce yourselves. This is Dylan Rodriguez. My pronouns are he/him for folks who can only hear me right now. Let me go in order of the way I just read your names, which is somewhat random. Actually, you know what, I’ll do it backwards. I’m going to start with you, Dorothy.
Dorothy Roberts: Thank you Dylan. And thanks so much for bringing us together. I’m just thrilled to be among these wonderful abolitionists who I’ve learned so much from. And thank you also to all of you who gathered to listen and engage with us. I’m Dorothy Roberts, I am a professor at University of Pennsylvania and I am Zooming in from West Philadelphia, the land of the Lenape people and the site of the Philadelphia police department’s bombing of the MOVE families in 1985. And I use she/her pronouns. So for me, there’s lots of ways I could answer this, but I’ll just highlight one which is the increasing way we’re understanding connections among different systems and institutions that operate by carceral logics that are connected to criminal law enforcement and surveillance and incarceration but not solely confined to them. So I’m referring to, for example, Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law’s Prison by Any Other Name, where they show how reforms that are supposed to reduce incarceration and all the suffering from incarceration and justice from it can be equally oppressive as prisons are.
And I have been working on abolishing the so-called child welfare system, what I and others are calling family regulation or policing systems that show how even public service systems in the United States that are supposed to be there just to benevolently serve people, protect children, are actually forms of terror against whole communities. And so I think by understanding how carceral logics and entanglements with police and other parts of the criminal legal system, criminal punishment system, all work together, it creates these possibilities for learning from each other, acting collectively, and more effectively revolting against all of them. So that’s one thing I would point to as a creative possibility. I think this opens up more creative collective work. When we understand how carceral logics bring together these systems, especially the ones that a lot of people think help, and they actually are forms of state terror.
Dylan Rodrioguez: That’s great. Thank you Dorothy. I think Eddie you’re up next. If you don’t mind, introduce yourself real quick, uh oh there he is. Okay, you just went off camera, Eddie. introduce yourself real quick and then offer us your thoughts. My long time comrade, Eddie Conway. We lose you Eddie? All right, Eddie’s still there, but let me move… Oh, there he is. You back Eddie? You have to unmute.
Eddie Conway: I’m sorry.
Dylan Rodrioguez: That’s all right.
Eddie Conway: I was just looking at it from the –
Dylan Rodrioguez: Hey Eddie, introduce yourself real quick.
Eddie Conway: Oh, okay. I’m Eddie Conway, former member of the Black Panther Party. I was a political prisoner for about 43 years. I’m an executive producer at The Real News now, and I guess that’s the sum of it. I looked at your questions, and I’ll take them from the criminalization point first, to police point second, and then the chapter third. And so early on, we have to recognize that when we say mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex, it’s really not true. It’s targeted incarceration. It’s aimed at people of color in general, 75% of the people in prison, people of color, I mean across the nation, obviously everybody knows this, but America has the largest prison population in the world, two point some million.
And the criminalization starts with the laws or either the broken window syndrome that occurs in poor communities and impoverished communities, Black communities, communities of color. A tremendous amount of young people, men, young boys and young girls now are incarcerated as a result of sitting on the steps or walking across the street. They start off getting juvenile records. Those records transfer later on to adult records. So the whole thing of criminalization is a point that we need to look at first because that’s where it starts at. And obviously you can change the laws. Some states have changed the laws, some local communities have changed the laws. They have been doing that kind of work. But in addition to that it is a process of jury nullification and that’s in the Black community and communities of color per se.
You have the ability to sit on juries and make decisions about whether or not someone has done harm to your community or whether it was something that you don’t need to incarcerate that person for. So that’s one of the things and that jury nullification – And I’ll talk about that in a second – Has been used in other localities and it’s been effective. But the policing itself is an issue that has to be addressed. And I think the only way you can actually address it effectively is, and this is a program that the Black Panther Party was talking about 55 years ago, community control of the police. And at this point, people start looking at how to gain control. One, get rid of that police bill of rights. That’s a bad kind of coverage that needs to be nullified on the one hand. On the other hand, give people the power that they need in the community to hire and fire and to imprison police if they behave in negative ways to the community.
And that last point, the capture part, which ends up landing you in prison or in jails. And when you’ve actually unraveled all the things about prisons and jails you’ll find out that it’s an economic entity. It makes money for various businesses, various agencies, and people get rich from the prison labor. That can only be nullified by organizing massive prison labor unions. Prisoners can demand and should demand minimum wage. And if they can do that then it’s no longer lucrative to continue to lock up so many people.
Dylan Rodrioguez: Eddie, can we pause right there? And I can go through that beat and we can come back to your thoughts?
Eddie Conway: Yeah. I’m sorry.
Dylan Rodrioguez: Thank you for… No, no, no, I appreciate it.
Eddie Conway: You know I’m not an academic so [crosstalk] I’m gonna be humble.
Dylan Rodrioguez: Proudly, right?
Eddie Conway: Yeah.
Dylan Rodrioguez: – Appreciate it. Appreciate it, Eddie.
Just so remind you all. Oh, I got David, then Sandy, then Dean, then Rachel, then Jennifer. So David, why don’t you just introduce yourself, pronouns, all that kind of stuff.
David Hernandez: Hi, everybody. I’m David Hernandez. I use he/him pronouns. I’m a faculty member at Mount Holyoke College where I teach Latina, Latino, and Latinx studies. Thank you Dylan for inviting me to this panel, I already have two pages of notes just from Dorothy and Eddie so far. And, I really liked your question. When I saw it initially I just couldn’t help thinking of the creativity and inspiration I drew just from the fearlessness that we saw in the streets over the last few years and how that is an inspiration to people. And it made me think back to an article I always teach from Robin Kelly’s Race Rebels, a chapter on the pre-Rosa Parks fighting that happened on buses. Oftentimes at a total loss in terms of being arrested and stuff, but the inspiration it gave to people who were witnesses to that and then either joined in as participants or blocked in their memories and took it to another day.
And so that was one of the creative possibilities in my area. I focus on immigration enforcement. In the last few years, there was a bunch of immigrant youth who actually placed themselves in deportation proceedings in order to enter into the carceral space and infiltrate that space and then organize from within inside. And there’s actually a brand new movie about that called The Infiltrators that’s interesting. But there’s all kinds of creative possibilities there. I can’t pretend to think of these things on my own. I have to learn by the examples that are set before me. So that’s how I’d answer that question.
Dylan Rodrioguez: I watched that film and it was something beyond inspirational, actually it was like a blueprint. And a blueprint both in terms of tactics and in terms of people’s fucking courage. It blew me up. Thank you, David. Sandy, please.
Sandy Grande: Thank you, Dylan. Thanks to everybody, I appreciate all the words so far. I am [inaudible], Sandy Grande. I identify as Quechua National, use she/her pronouns. I’m a professor in the University of Connecticut in the Department of Political Science where I do political theory and Native American and Indigenous studies. I’m just going to mention a few things inspired by the sort of notion of courage of folks on the ground. I think, as an Indigenous person, Indigenous scholar, when I think of carcerality and carceral logics I think primarily how we’re all captive by the nation state. I think about how the nation state itself has a relatively short history and period of time. And I think a lot beyond the nation state, I don’t presume its continuity or persistence.
And that’s to me one of the fundamental prisons, I think, that incarcerates us. And then I think about the notion of creative revolt. I think revolt in any of its forms, creative, not creative, revolt is really the only relationship to the systems currently in place. But I do think about the creativity, and as Dylan and others have said, the courage of movements. In my own life I’ve done some work with New York Stands with Standing Rock in the wake of that movement, or really in the midst of that movement. The syllabus for that is you can still find online. Have done a lot of work with the folks at Decolonize This Place in New York. And their work really is just tremendous, both in terms of its creativity if you look at the work done around statues and edifices of various kinds, monuments to capitalism and colonialism that are all over the city, they’ve launched quite a few struggles.
And then most recently that work has morphed into what is the Strike MoMA movement. I can put the link to that in the chat. Dylan, you’ve hung out with us a bit on that effort and that’s around, in some ways, what incarcerates even creative movements, even what we understand to be the arts and how these edifices that we call museums really house our ancestors, they captivate so much in those spaces. And particularly in New York the folks that sit on boards are often folks who have ties and have earned their wealth through various aspects of the military-industrial complex in really vile and pernicious ways. So I’ll just leave that there and look forward to the conversation.
Dylan Rodrioguez: No, that’s excellent. I just put in chat how my intersections and collaborations with some of the people that organize Strike MoMA has indelibly altered how I understand everything, but especially how I understand revolt, movement, aesthetics, art. And I appreciate, Sandy, you’re putting it out there how, I think you use the words vile and pernicious for these blue blood philanthropist types that basically have commodified the art world based on their colonial and chattel wealth. It’s trans generational colonial chattel wealth, it’s deep and it’s evil. Dean, you’re up.
Dean Spade: Thanks. Thanks for inviting me to this, Dylan. It’s such an interesting conversation, really a delight to be with all these people. I’m Dean Spade. I usually live on Duwamish land, Seattle, Washington, but I’m not there right now. And I teach at Seattle U and am involved in various things there. Like David, when I thought about this question, I immediately just thought about the recent mobilization that we’ve seen both in terms of the uprising against anti-Black racism and policing and the mobilizations that have happened around COVID and helping people survive. And I’m just thinking a lot about what makes people get mobilized and also the forces of demobilization that quickly follow.
And so, I’ve been just thinking about that tension and the ways we saw quick efforts to right the ship from so many different institutional powers, city councils, county council saying they’re going to defund the cops but then they all backpedal and you don’t see that defunding, or all the different institutions that suddenly were making noise about reparations or about changing their curricular, whatever. And then it’s like, what really happens? And just thinking about how do we imagine sustained resistance and what is it that does put people back to feeling like things are okay or good enough, or what is it that keeps people from getting into the dirty details of what actually did or didn’t come from the fear that was struck into the hearts of the institutional players by pretty meaningfully disruptive mobilization.
So that’s really on my mind a lot. And I think where my attention turns at this time… I think we are in a very terrifying time in which there are no guarantees. I think I just don’t have a lot of naivete left about some idea that I will see like a successful global revolt against capitalism and white supremacy and colonialism before we run the clock on climate change. And I think it’s very sobering to be like, oh, if there’s no guarantees about that then what do we do in the day-to-day? And I think my attention turns to two necessities. One is to do all the most ordinary work. How can every single person be involved in multiple mutual aid projects that are just changing the diapers and getting the old people some food and thinking about how we’re going to have any food when the fossil fuel system is breaking down.
How can we massively intensify the ordinariness of our day to day work for each other’s survival. And then on the other hand, boldness. How do we intensify the boldness of every aspect of our work? I’m also thinking about people who are going head to head against cops right now with all these different sweeps of homeless encampments in all of our different cities. And mostly I would say that work right now is not really working out. I haven’t seen people stop police from raiding encampments, but instead it becomes this harm reduction work of how do we save a few people’s belongings as the cops come in and raid. But what would it be like if we outnumbered the cops in those situations more successfully?
Or what is it like when people successfully do prison breaks? Or what is it like when people successfully stop ICE arrests? We’ve seen that to some degree has happened here and there. So I’m just always thinking we need a lot more people mobilized in order to both do this ordinary work very deeply and thoroughly to create new social relations that are survivable even as things get less survivable and we need a lot more people so that we can up the boldness. And we saw those moments of boldness. Yes, let’s burn down the police station and burn the cop cars, but we need that to not be quite so episodic and dying down in order to sustain the changes we’re seeing. So I think right now I’m studying a lot of the counter moves that our vision is doing in the wake of that mobilization. And I’m trying to be sober about what’s actually happening and the ways in which those counter moves are pretty successful. And notice where people are trying to build that boldness and that ordinariness.
Dylan Rodrioguez: That’s right. No, this is the period of counterinsurgency. We’re fully in it. And I don’t know if I told you this, Dean, but Dean and I had this great conversation – I’ll put a link to it in the chat – As part of the ASA’s freedom courses series about a year and a half ago now, talking about mutual aid and abolition. And there’s something Dean said during that discussion that just echoed here that I want to bring up, which is the idea of proliferation. And I think that’s the word you might have used, Dean, but when we think about sustaining movements we too often fall back into a entrepreneurial capitalist mentality of trying to center everything, create one giant thing.
And I remember Dean intervening on that and saying, no, that may not be the best model. It probably isn’t the best model. Maybe the point is to proliferate so that there’s no center. It’s like guerilla war. This is what we’re talking about. That’s that. Anyway, thank you, Dean. I’ve got Rachel and then Jennifer, and then I’ll ask a second question that we can blast through them, open it up to everybody. Thank you, Rachel.
Rachel Herzing: Thanks for the invitation Dylan. I’m really grateful to be in conversation with these people I admire so, so much. And as often happens, Dean raised lots of the many things that are on my mind and Dean keeps it real. That’s one of the things I love about you, Dean. And the fact of you keeping things real, excuse me, also allows me to focus, I think, more on the creative possibilities part of the question. So I’m going to think about what’s possible rather than what is.
Dylan Rodrioguez: Can you introduce yourself real quick, Rachel too.
Rachel Herzing: Oh, I’m so sorry.
Dylan Rodrioguez: It’s okay.
Rachel Herzing: Thank you, Dylan. My name is Rachel Herzing. I have no pronoun preference. I’m calling in today from Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe land in the Adirondacks, which is not where I normally am, but it’s where I am today. And I think part of the fact of spending most of my time for the past 20-odd years with people hatching schemes about revolt of some scale or another. And I appreciate, Dorothy, you saying whether they’re creative or not, I think puts me in a position of thinking a lot about what’s possible. And so for me, I think a period of crisis is also a period ripe with possibility. And I think we saw that last year in really, really interesting ways.
So, for instance, we are in a crisis around housing and we have been told for decades that there is no possible way to offer eviction relief for people. Turns out, not so. Totally possible to do that. And I think that changes the baseline of what we can demand, what our expectations are about housing. And the fact that people have continued to organize and mobilize around extending the eviction moratorium I think speaks to the possibility of more and better in the future.
Same again with releases from prison. We’ve been told for decades and decades under no circumstances can anybody get out of prison ever, even if they’re about to die in prison. Too dangerous. Turns out, not so. We can release people under these very, very hard-won and all too minimal releases around COVID, but it’s possible to do that. Same with offering financial relief. Now it wouldn’t be possible to offer financial relief to people in the United States, completely possible to offer minimal and insufficient, but some amount of relief.
And so I think that these kinds of shifts expand what we can expect, what we can demand, and they broaden the horizon of possibility for us and they change the baseline, they change the terrain. And I think those kinds of openings have also compelled us or invited us into new social arrangements and expectations of each other as well.
And Dylan and Dean, I know that the two of you spent a lot of time in the past year and previous years working on mutual aid projects and that’s kind of one of the ways that we’ve seen this shift in expectations around social arrangements. And I think Dean and I have a difference of opinion about how central us helping each other should be versus the state playing some role in that. But that’s a debate for another time.
But I think what does happen under there is, again, this kind of expanded sense of what is possible to expect from each other or demand from each other, ask of each other. And then I think when we imagine that also within the context of what some are calling the largest protest movement in US history, we know that, increasingly, on the heels of Occupy, on the heels of Standing Rock, on the heels of series of mobilizations under the slogan Black Lives Matter, that people can be activated quickly and at a big scale if they understand the stakes. And I think that shifts, again, the possibility of what we can ask for and demand of each other.
And so I think when it comes to the many concerns that Eddie raised, for instance, what the possibility is, and to remind ourselves that the possibilities and the realities don’t always line up, but when we’re thinking about the possibilities of addressing all of those many challenges that Eddie laid out for us, and if we’re imagining that we can rearrange our social relations, we can rearrange our relationship to capitalism, to the state, et cetera, then we have different terrain on which to fight. We manage to shift our conditions in ways that shift our possibilities and I’m really enthusiastic about that and I hope we can continue to push the envelope on what our baseline demands are.
Dylan Rodrioguez: That’s a beautiful way to ease us into this next phase of our discussion. And then, Jennifer, you got the last word on this first one. And then I’ll mix up our order a little bit, you all. Thank you, Jennifer. It is my first time meeting Jennifer, everybody. So thank you, Jennifer, for joining us. I appreciate you accepting my invitation despite not knowing me.
Jennifer Marley: Thanks for having me, and I am familiar with most of you all here. I’m just so honored to be amongst such powerful, brilliant, heavy hitters. So thank you so much. I’m probably the youngest person on this panel, so it is a little intimidating, but again I’m honored. So thank you.
[foreign language] My name is Jennifer Marley and I am a citizen of the Pueblo Santo Ildefonso here in New Mexico. I am a PhD student at the American Studies Department at UNM and I’m also an organizer with the Red Nation.
So yeah, I’ve been just writing some notes to myself. I guess I want to start off by talking about the army presence of bordertown violence for Indigenous people. To be off the reservation is to be criminal, inherently. And this is actually something… I mean, it’s bordertown violence and striving for bordertown justice that is really the basis of the Red Nation and why we came to be.
And I wanted to talk about how I think one of the biggest obstacles for creative possibilities against carcerality is talking about the fight against neoliberalism and individualism I think that there is almost a carceral culture created, even around social media, we’re always looking to youth and young people and the way discourse kind of gets muddled in the realm of social media. And so the infamous cancel culture in many ways can contribute to the normalization of carcerality. Even in just our everyday interactions with each other we become the police. We police each other. We police each other’s behaviors and opinions that we put out there. And that is the ultimate enemy of collectivity, which I truly believe is what we need to give people the chance to be better.
And in addition to that, like we’re always thinking about people’s material conditions. And so I have to remind myself that revolutionaries, their products are their material conditions. And if revolutionaries are coming from the most marginalized people, they’re coming from the worst material conditions. So they’re going to be imperfect, to say the least, and so there’s this patience that we need to have with each other.
I always think about Leslie Marmon Silco, well known Pueblo author and scholar. And she always, in her books, depicted the protagonist as very imperfect, very faulted, as a criminal, according to how we understand criminals through settlers, the settler state’s set of laws. And she herself was excommunicated from her Pueblo for the crime of simply being honest about the reality of things. For being honest about history.
And of course there was also misogyny that contributed to that, but I’m always thinking about the fact that it’s going to be the rugged aunties and uncles who have the revolution in their hands. It’s going to be the so-called troubled youth who carry us forward. And that’s something we’re always reminding ourselves of in Red Nation, even when we have conflict with each other or conflict with other community members is remembering where we come from and why we are the way we are.
The other day I was on a panel with the honorable Verna Teller from Isleta Pueblo, and she’s the first female judge in her Pueblo and she’s very committed to restoring traditional means of peacekeeping. And she said, “The feds have been imposing their form of justice on us.” And she, as a judge, is committed to rejecting US legal means of punishment, which is very profound, and I don’t consider it to be like changing things from within, because she’s actually not trying to do that. She’s actually trying to rebuild and restore that which has been stripped from us. And so I look to her and people like her for guidance in that way.
And then somebody brought up the commodification of art itself, of the arts. And I think that’s a really big deal. That’s something that I’ve been writing about and thinking about more because my Pueblo is actually in close proximity to Santa Fe, New Mexico. And if you know anything about that place it’s every wealthy white person’s art Mecca. It’s a place that’s hyper-gentrified. It’s a very violent border town. I recently wrote a piece in which I framed the art industry as an extractive industry not unlike the resource extraction industries that are constantly siphoning the life and wealth from our lands here because the art industry has become something that siphons culture, labor, and money from us, historically.
I come from an art family and seeing firsthand the impacts of that makes it very clear that when the arts are commodified they become the exact opposite of a tool for revolution. And even contemporary artists, Native artists who are making more radical political art, in many cases refuse to be associated with movements on the ground because they’re still depending on it for their livelihood. Therefore they’re depending on the funds and the opinions of wealthy white buyers, typically.
Yeah, as far as solutions go, I just want to say I think we’re in a very critical moment where people are ready to move. People are ready to fight and they need guidance. They need hope and they need something to look to. I know some comrades of mine were saying that there was such success when Trump was elected because people, especially poor and working-class people, were looking to Trump as a revolutionary alternative. What he was saying was against what they understood to be the neoliberalism of the US state, which, in some ways it was.
And so if we don’t provide an alternative for people, alternatives like that will continue to appear. What was galvanized in the aftermath of Trump’s election? Well, we saw a semi-organized overtaking of the Capitol. And so this is what happens when we on the left are, those of us who are abolitionists, don’t come in and able to provide the masses with an alternative. And so I want to encourage us as we think about what that alternative looks like, to take the lead of our relatives in the global South. That’s something that in Red Nation we’re always looking at.
Internationalism is of the utmost importance to us, and it’s because their Indigenous people, important working-class people, have popular movements. They have power and they have the backing of their people to actually take state power. And that’s what they do. And this results in not only success for mass movements and allows these nations to protect themselves from imperialist invasion, but it also increases the autonomy of individuals because it betters their material conditions. It allows people to live a dignified life, to become human again in a world that constantly rewards being so inhuman. And so I want to end there, and I want to end with a quote from my comrade who says, “What is an organizer but an artist of the real world?” Thank you.
Dylan Rodrioguez: There’s always a tendency in these discussions when we have an early career, early grad student, early career colleague like Jennifer, to address them as a student, and I think we need not do that today. I think, Jennifer, you’ve very clearly articulated some ideas and some praxis and some wisdom here that make you very much a colleague and comrade. So I just, again, I want to extend my thanks to you for joining us here and being part of this discussion.
So I have a second opening question. This is a quicker one, because we don’t have to introduce ourselves now. We did that. And this is, I put it in chat… This is just asking each of our panelists to offer us an example. That’s it. Just an example, you all. And just to keep us moving, this kind of echoes again what I think multiple folks here have already started to do.
If you want to emphasize the examples you’ve already raised, that’s fine. Let’s do that. If there’s something else you want to bring forward, please do that. But I think the moment, the possibility – I think, Rachel, you’re the one that put it that way – Is the one that we want to prevail on here. That’s what revolt does. Revolt creates possibilities for other kinds of things. You know, other kinds of imagination. Other ways of being. So yeah, let’s go through this. And then, you all that are here in attendance, please start thinking about your questions, your comments, and I’m going to open it right up as soon as our panelists go through this second question. So we can spend some time in conversation with each other.
So Eddie, I cut you short earlier, so I’m going to pick on you first. I’m going to let you… And it also, I think this question also gets at some of the things you were starting to talk about in your opening thoughts. So, Eddie, I’ll start with you. I’ll put to the panelists, I’ll put the orders that I want to call on you all right now. Eddie, if you don’t mind.
Eddie Conway: Unmute. Okay. Let’s look at jury nullification for a minute there. Somewhere back in the past in Tyler, Texas, several white police ran into the wrong house. Ran upstairs, shot to death an 80-some year old woman in her bed. Later on it was discovered that they should have been next door. But she was unarmed, and she was startled when they broke into her room so she sat up and they shot her, and it was all white police. The police end up having an all-white jury and they found the police not guilty. The Black community, in response to that, did a thing called jury nullification. They decided that from then on out, any Black person that went up in front of a judge and a jury that did not harm the Black community, they would release them. They would vote not guilty for them, even if they hung the jury up. And they did this process for a couple years and it collapsed the jury and the criminal justice system.
They had to move it from Tyler, Texas, to somewhere else, but it was effective. And it’s a process that was used then. It can be used again, and it should be used in communities of color when the person that’s being tried did not do anything that harmed the Black community, whether they were jaywalking or whether they broke a window, or they stole an apple, or whatever it was. If it did not harm the Black community, they should be released. And I think that’s one example.
Another example, probably, is Newark, New Jersey. Baraka, the mayor up there, is just transforming the police department completely. And in other places there’s requirements to move police within the jurisdiction in which they police, and their behavior changes immediately. That doesn’t solve the problem, but that gives the community some control and some input. And so, it’s examples like that that I think we should look toward right now in terms of where we are at historically. But I am concerned we’re at a crossroads. We’re standing between saving the planet and having a fascist government insert itself in the next couple years.
And I agree with Dean. We have to look at proliferation. We have to look at… We can jump back to the French Revolution, in fact, and you’ll see that there were 10,000 little organized saloons in France before that revolution jumped off, but each one of them were doing their particular thing and each one of them were organizing. But when the stuff hit the fan they all came out and there was no way to target one group or [inaudible] group because it was 10,000s. And that’s what we need to be thinking about here.
Dylan Rodrioguez: Yeah, this is great. Yeah.
Eddie Conway: I’m [inaudible] time.
Dylan Rodrioguez: No, no, that’s excellent. Thank you. Thank you, Eddie. See, look, I didn’t even have to… I didn’t have to cut you off this time. That was beautiful. Thank you.
This second question. You all just remind my co-panelists. I put it in chat, and I didn’t read out loud. The second question we’re going through with our group is, are there current, recent, or long ago examples of anti-carceral, that is abolitionist and/or proto abolitionist forms of creativity, movement, or community making that we should be reflecting on during this moment? So, Eddie, thanks for getting us going with that. And let me shift it over to our next respondent. Let me go to David.
David Hernandez: Thanks, Dylan. And I also agree, I’m glad Eddie brought it back to this proliferation of small acts, small groups all over the place. But I also wanted to go back to Eddie’s vein of kind of like a practical form of reform. And I’m thinking of forms of decriminalization that can occur on multiple levels. The federal level, state level, city, on your college campus. But the example I like to think of is in immigration law. If you are convicted of or sentenced to anything that’s 365 days or longer in the criminal courts, that triggers deportation in the immigration system. So you serve your 365, and then you get deported. What the state of California did as an act of decriminalization, they lowered the maximum misdemeanor to 364 days, thereby removing the trigger towards deportation and thousands and thousands of people no longer are separated from their families for a misdemeanor.
And I think an eye towards these small, bureaucratic changes can have an effect. Of course, there’s always a limit to these, as well. We have to think about, you can create drug reform programs for certain people, but they still will trigger for other certain people, immigrants, in this case, deportation, nonetheless. Even if you go… You don’t get sentenced, but you do drug reform, you still get deported for that drug thing. Or just decriminalize marijuana. What about everyone who was, in the temporal sense, was criminalized by marijuana? And so you have to sort of have an eye to both those limitations, but I still think there’s a lot of ways to use decriminalization on multiple levels to help decarcerate. So I’ll stop there.
Dylan Rodrioguez: Thank you. Thank you, David. Sandy, I got you next. Go.
Sandy Grande: Okay. I’m just going to give a quick list here. I mean, mention the ones I already mentioned, which is decolonize space and Strike MoMA. In terms of examples, I think a lot of coalitional Indigenous movements and peoples and communities have been the example of revolt for so long. I think in my own communities, whether it’s going back to pre-Incan… Even pre-Incan modes of liberating water for our peoples that are more effective than anything engineers can do, and having a lot of those efforts now being recognized by the government.
And I think of language. There’s a way in which even… English language in particular, the ways in which carceral logics I think are just inherent to language is something to think about. So I always advocate for folks to learn Indigenous language. There’s 10,000 Quechua speakers, so go for Quechua. It’s not easy, but you could do it. And then even other ways in which we’re shifting the bounds of discourse, our own discourse. I’m thinking most recently of a book that should be out, I think publicly accessed sourced, by Kyla Tompkins and Mishuana Goeman, editor of a new Keywords.
Dylan Rodrioguez: There’s Kyla right there.
Sandy Grande: Woo, woo. Feminist from… When we rethink how we just use language and foreground ways of being and knowing that have always been in a revolt. In this instance, I think critical feminist discourses, I think we shift the bounds in lots of different ways of our struggle. I’ll stop there.
Dylan Rodrioguez: Thank you, thank you, Sandy. I got Rachel, Jennifer, Dorothy, then Dean. Go for it, Rachel.
Rachel Herzing: All right. I’m going to break the rule and give two, but I’ll do them quickly. So I just want to say out loud, always, big ups to Jerome Miller and his example of shutting the training school system in Massachusetts. For anybody who believes it is impossible to shut down a prison system, this man did it.
And then the other thing that I’ll mention briefly is something I’ve talked about before, but I think is good for this audience, which is the Greek sanctuary campus movement whereby cops were not allowed to pursue protestors and leftists in general onto college campuses. And that was a no-go zone for them. And I know there have been some experiments with that here in the United States as well. And I want to give a shout to everybody who is working on the Cops Off Campuses stuff because it’s really, really inspiring. But those are the two that I’ll offer. I think whenever we believe something can’t happen… I guess this is my theme today. When we believe something can’t happen, we get some kind of example of how it actually could happen, and I think those are two.
Dylan Rodrioguez: That’s outstanding. Rachel, I’m going to put an article up about Jerome Miller in the chat for folks that might not be familiar with his work, but if you have one and you can do it, maybe you might have a better article. I found one by [Benny Sharalbi] that I was going to put up.
Rachel Herzing: That’s a good one.
Dylan Rodrioguez: It is? Okay. Okay, cool. I’ll put that up for everybody.
Rachel Herzing: Thank you.
Dylan Rodrioguez: So y’all can learn from this example. Yeah. It’s a beautiful example. A historic example. No, thank you. I’ve got Jennifer, Dorothy, and then Dean.
Jennifer Marley: Yeah. I’m going to give a few very, very brief examples just to kind of tie them together. So a lot of times when we are asked by people, well, what do we do with the most violent perpetrators without police? The community won’t have… Won’t be able to successfully reprimand them or capture them. But I want to remind people, and this is kind of a silly example, but it adds up. Richard Ramirez, when he was running away, when he was about to be caught, it was his own community where he grew up, it was a Chicano community that reprimanded him, captured him, kicked his ass. To think that we wouldn’t look out for each other and ourselves without police is ridiculous to me because we know that that happens all the time.
Another example of something like that happening was at Standing Rock when there was a pedophile in the camps who was actively preying on people. He was publicly humiliated by a group of women, older women. He had his hair cut off and was exiled from the camp. And I know these seem like pretty rough examples, but it’s really ridiculous when people act like people won’t reprimand people who do heinous things.
But also let’s remember why do violent criminals exist, or why does violent crime exist? It’s, again, it’s the result of capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy and it’s constantly normalized. So in the case of Richard Ramirez, for example, he learned how to stock and torture people from his uncle who was in Vietnam, torturing people in Vietnam. He’s a direct product of US imperialism. And we know that when our Native men are committing violent crimes, that’s a result of years and years of sexual exploitation and abuse by colonizers who knew that that was such an effective tool for traumatizing people and repressing people. So we need to look at the sources of why violent crime exists and know that it’s not just a given or inherent in a society.
Then my last example is, I looked at my own people, Pueblo people, and how we gave and normalized critique of each other. I won’t go into detail about this, but among our sacred people were the clowns and people don’t know this, but their job was actually to critique and put leaders in their place and they did this through humor, through what we would call today roasting people, or just literally clowning on people. It was in the form of a joke to keep things lighthearted, but they were very real and very in-depth political critiques. These people were also knowledge keepers, storytellers. So they were the holders of our history, but also played a very significant role in our politics and governance system and how our leadership conducted themselves. So when people talk about creative possibilities, we definitely have evidence, and in many cases still very intact ways to carry out our own peacekeeping and justice as Native people. So I’ll end there.
Dylan Rodrioguez: There’s something really important, I think, about what Jennifer raises here about autonomous forms of conceptualizing, not to mention implementing, what is too commonly presumed to be this notion of justice. The fact that we actually can complicate how it is that we understand justice, how we understand the implementation of safety and consequences and things like that. I actually, I really appreciate the examples you gave, Jennifer, because they’re not easy ones for some folks to take in. So I’m down with that. Thank you. I got Dorothy, then Dean, then we will open up the floor, everybody. So get your questions and comments ready.
Dorothy Roberts: Okay. So I would like to lift up again the emerging movement to abolish the child welfare system or family policing which is being led mostly by Black mothers who’ve been caught up in it and who’ve had their children taken from them. And also increasingly children who’ve been stolen from their families and confined to a very dangerous, harmful, unsafe foster care system.
I also want to make the point that my work has been mostly with Black organizers, but it’s important to note the long history of US state stealing of Indigenous children as a literal weapon of war. And that Native tribes have been fighting against this form of war and terror that is taking children for centuries, and the Red Nation included child stealing in its abolitionist demands. As far as I could tell it was the only abolitionist group that included it. I want to give a shout out for that.
These mothers have so much courage. We were talking about courage earlier. They have so much to lose because the state could come in and take their children at any moment. Some of them still have children in foster care, which means they might not ever get them back because of their resistance, but they’re the most outspoken and bold of any organizers I’ve ever met. They’re organizing to dismantle the child welfare system by shrinking it and mitigating the terror that it inflicts on families, but also creating caring ways of actually providing material supports for families and actually keeping children safe.
I’ll just mention a few of these, but let me say that it’s such a good example and model of proliferation because these at least begin with really small groups of mothers who get together in communities to support each other. Some of them have become bigger and stronger and more influential in opposing child protective services. But all of them emerged from these really small collectives of people who are involved and just trying to support each other.
There was an encampment in Philadelphia of unhoused mothers and children that actually won a victory from the city and got housing for their families. There’s an organization called DHS Give Us Back Our Children, which is in Philly and also in Los Angeles and J Mac for families in New York City, which was founded by a just amazing organizer, Joyce McMillan, who had her daughters taken from her for several years. She has a legislative agenda to abolish mandated reporting; to stop drug testing of newborns, which is one of the major ways that Black mothers have their babies, their newborn babies, taken from them; to repeal some federal legislation called the Adoption Safe Families Act which emphasized adoption over returning children home; but also providing concrete supports like diapers to families who need them and this every day work that Dean was talking about.
I just want to mention one more thing, which Rachel reminded me of when talking about possibilities, things that people say could never happen and happen. So there are lots of people that say we can’t possibly keep children safe without the child welfare system monitoring families, investigating them, taking children away.
But there’s a professor named Anna Aarons at NYU who recently wrote an article on a temporary abolition of child protective services in New York City during the COVID lockdown. Because during that time, the courts were not adjudicating these cases, case workers weren’t going out and taking children, and everybody said there were these reports in the newspaper, all children are going to be abused, and it turned out that children were safer during that period when ACS, the administration for children’s services, wasn’t going around investigating and taking children.
The main reason they were safer was because there was this proliferation of mutual aid that went on during the COVID lockdown. And also because there were checks going out from the Biden administration directly to families without strings attached, without having to be investigated. And those two actions kept children safer than the kind of terroristic system we have now. So we do have these examples that abolition can work. I’m really excited about how this focus on abolishing child welfare and people organizing around it can even give inspiration to the longer standing, in some ways, movement to abolish prisons and police.
Dylan Rodrioguez: Thank you, Dorothy. I put your classic text up there in the chat as well so folks can go back to it. I know everyone here has probably already read it, but let’s go back to it constantly, because I think it sets up the whole framework for this.
Shameless plug, you all. Kaepernick Publishing just put out the hard copy version of Abolition for the People yesterday. It just came out. I’ll put a link up in the chat. A bunch of our folks from the movement have published these short articles in it including Dean, myself, Miriam Cabas, Robin Kelly, [Mumiabu] Jamal, Andrea Richie. A ton of us folk. Sorry if I missed you, if you’re in here and I missed you, but a bunch of our folks are in there and it’s a beautiful volume because everything is so short, it’s useful for all kinds of different pedagogical contexts. It also provoked exactly the kind of dynamic, ongoing, critical thinking and collective study around abolition that Dorothy is urging us to do. So thank you. Dean, close us out on the second question then we’ll open it up to everybody else.
Dean Spade: Yeah. You all said so many things that are… My brain is in a thousand places. But this piece about what Rachel said, which is so true, about how crisis is opportunity. And also Rachel gave me a flashback to how I felt towards the beginning of the pandemic where it’s like, people are talking about universal basic income and they’re extending all these benefits and they’re blocking evictions. What is possible? And also the rollbacks, but how that’s felt. But it was cool for me to take that journey about this point, which is so true, which is that disaster creates rifts in current reality, and what happens in those rifts?
On the one hand, we all know that one of the things that happens is the government rolls in with a bunch of tanks and FEMA doesn’t show up. We know that disaster is often a moment for further extraction, further reorganization towards white supremacy and capitalism in various ways. And we know that people show up in… I love what Jennifer was saying, because it’s about how deeply pragmatic people are. This is, I feel like what we all got out of Miriam Cabas work. She’s just always like, oh yeah, just do the thing. Just try the things. Experiment with them. Make them… Abolition is about these incredibly pragmatic, immediate, oh, you can’t live with your parents. You’re in an abusive situation. How can your community take care of you? What would be the right break for you? How could we support your parents to not keep doing that? Instead of this, let’s organize a giant system that takes children away from Black people and Native people.
This evolution draws us back into our pragmatism. So I guess the examples that I thought about with this question were a lot about that. I thought about when Hurricane Maria tore up Puerto Rico, and I have a very beloved dear friend who lives there, and she talked about how she lives in this big apartment building. And she talked about the kinds of things people did for each other throughout the apartment building. Take care of the elders and different vulnerable people in the group. She talked about what she wanted to do to be prepared for the next storm and how she wished that she was more prepared to facilitate a meeting with hundreds of people to talk about coordinating some of those things in the building.
Just this very pragmatic, now that I’ve been through this, what’s it like when the lights go out? She bought a certain kind of solar battery afterwards. Just this very pragmatic… So part of it is, I think, can we look to places where people, which are all over the place, have… The freezing weather that came to Texas last year. What worked and what do people wish they had more of already in place? Because everything we’re facing is just these cascading disasters of the long term disasters we’ve already been in for hundreds of years, plus the climate acceleration disasters that exacerbate everything. So I’m curious about that.
I also think a lot about the pragmatism of groups like Young Women’s Empowerment Project, which doesn’t exist anymore but was around for many years in Chicago and supported young people in the sex trades and just have these… You look at their reports and stuff, just these very pragmatic solutions for like safety and wellbeing for the situations the young people in sex trades find themselves in that were… It’s an anti-police organization that knows that’s not the solution.
I also think about the Safe OUTSide the System collective and Audre Lorde project. I think about the materials on the mutual aid disaster relief website. Where are people just knowing what’s likely to show up with whatever disasters they’re facing and then sorting out pragmatic steps, and how can we get more people doing more of that on the front end of whatever the next exacerbation of disaster is? Or for just the ongoing unfolding constant disasters of things like the family regulation system or the prison system, how can we help more people be mobilized for collective action on that instead of just trying to eke through alone or with their family members and have no one on their side?
I think that my desire in this, as we face these disasters, is just that more people experience deep accompaniment in these situations that I don’t think are about to stop having us have extreme suffering, but just that there be a level of collectivity in the face of these things. I think isolation is the most dangerous thing in our society. Going through these things alone is so much more deadly than going through them with any kind of community or support, even if you can’t get somebody immediately out of the situation. So I’m just thinking about that and about disaster as a place of learning what our next pragmatic steps are.
Dylan Rodrioguez: Thank you, Dean. As we open it up to the folks that are here, all of you are making me think of a couple levels of dealing with the whole casualty management imperative that I think all of us here are drawn into in all these different ways. How, Dean, you put up point on this, that the way that anti-Blackness and colonialism and these forms of genocide work is to individualize the casualties and by extension to individualized casualty management. So it’s isolated, demoralizing, humiliating, and all this kind of stuff.
Then there’s this other possibility that you’re pushing us to – Actually all y’all pushing us toward – What happens when you not only collectivize and therefore attach a different kind of politics to the experience of casualty. Make it like this is a collective casualty that we’re experiencing, but also collective bias casualty management itself.
That if we have to be involved in this emergency triage to help each other, that politicizing and… Politicize is probably the wrong word. But just collectivizing, thinking about it as part of this long archive of trying to stave off elimination, stave off liquidation, stave off capture, stave off the frontier, stave off shadow, stave off the plantation, and fuck it, burn the plantations down. All that stuff. That’s all part of how we can think about the way the emergency work of casualty management can actually form a base. It can actually form a base to bring people into this work and to understand the condition as one that requires constant insurgency and something beyond insurgency at some point as well.
Enough of me, let’s open the floor up to everybody here. Feel free to use the raise your hand function. If you’re not comfortable doing that, feel free to use the chat. Do whatever you like. But we have a precious about half hour left with our folks here. So let’s do this, and I’ll do my best to facilitate this. So don’t make me go through uncomfortable silence here, participants, attendees. Somebody either raise your hand or just unmute and start talking. I’m cool with whatever you want to do.
Kyla did you have something? I’m picking on you because you were the first one I started going… Okay. Got a finger wag.
Kyla Tompkins: My face is being supportive.
Dylan Rodrioguez: Okay. Okay. Matthew, did you want to say something? I saw you go on camera Matthew. No? Okay. Okay.
Matthew: I’ll just say hi to Sandy and Jen.
Dylan Rodrioguez: What’s up?
Matthew: I know it’s been a while, but miss hanging out with you two and talking with you two.
Dylan Rodrioguez: That’s okay. We can do this as a reuniting moment too. That’s cool too.
Matthew: Shout out to the Standing Rock Syllabus. Still going strong.
Dylan Rodrioguez: Right on. Right on. Attendees, we’ve heard from our panelists. You’ve heard from me. Attendees, who wants to offer an opening provocation or question, or even just thoughts. Doesn’t have to be a question. It can just be reflections on what we’ve talked about here so far in the last hour, hour and 15 minutes.
All right. They’re, y’all are terrible students, huh? All right. I have something for you. I got something for the panelists, but I’m asking the third question now. So I’m really being self-indulgent. Please interrupt me if… I don’t see any raised hands. Okay. I have a question for y’all.
Kyla Tompkins: Okay.
Dylan Rodrioguez: Okay, good. Thank you.
Kyla Tompkins: I’ll do it for you.
Dylan Rodrioguez: You rescued everybody from me. Thank you. Go. Kyla, go.
Kyla Tompkins: Don’t grade me on this question. All right. Something I’ve been thinking a lot about is a back channel at my own workplace. One of the ways that we’ve organized is just by creating new back channels. And we’ve been really effective in, for instance, last week we stopped the institution from firing an elder in my workplace. I’m entitled to share her information, but an older woman, an African American woman, former Black Panther who refuses to vaccinate and they started procedures to fire her and we just stopped it and made them back down.
So I guess my question is, I wonder if we can think about… The first steps to collectivizing just feel really hard. It feels hard even though it’s exactly the right thing to do. So I’m wondering if, for those of you doing organizing, you could think with me about those first steps from an individualized response to a collectivized action. And I mean really materially. I’m talking about pamphlets, phone calls, texts, emails, back channel emails, Signal. What are those first moments, what are those first material strategies? Can you talk to us about just the material actions that led to the energy and momentum of collectivized change taking place?
Dylan Rodrioguez: Who wants to go? Who wants to take that on? This is a great question. This is a very catalyzing conversation. I think a lot of us are sitting here just taking it in, but that’s what makes it, I think, challenging to do this. Who can help us think about Kyla’s provocation here? Go, Jennifer.
Jennifer Marley: I’ll just say something brief. Yeah, I think you’re right with listing all these communication platforms, because I think it requires just opening lines of communications, creating networks of organizers. These networks don’t necessarily need to be working on the same campaign necessarily even, but just creating these networks of support goes a very long way, and just being aware of what’s happening in different places.
I think a lot of times there’s emphasis on the community, the community. Are you from the community? But when we get caught up looking at only our local areas it limits possibilities, it limits ideas and creativity and just comradery. So I think being aware of what’s happening in other places, taking note of each other’s tactics and being prepared to support when needed, when called upon, being prepared to even travel in some cases, which is difficult and everyone has different capacities, but knowing who your comrades are is a great place to start, I think.
Dorothy Roberts: That really resonates with me, Jennifer, and relates to what I was saying at the beginning about creative possibilities and understanding that carceral logics flows and influence and shape and govern so many different institutions and systems and policies that at first may not seem as if they’re connected, but when you see they’re connected then there’s this opportunity for collective action.
I was thinking when you… Is it Kyla? Yeah. Asked the question, I was thinking about, okay, what’s a victory I could think of that I was engaged in recently? And one was in New York, the people in charge of deciding whether you can test babies for drugs without consent came out and said that New York City hospitals should stop doing it. So right now, New York City hospitals, the ones that are in Black and Brown communities, test babies and report positive drug tests to CPS, and the ones that are in white neighborhoods and have wealthy middle-class white patients don’t do it. So it is such an obvious case of blatant racism in the child welfare system.
So what got this victory was the organizing of Black mothers whose babies have been taken away from them based on a positive drug test with family defenders in New York City. They’re not public defenders so much as they’re law offices that have a component that’s focused on defending families against CPS. They usually include social workers who are connected to the system and community members as well.
So those people, and then also an organization, a new organization called Movement For Family Power in New York City. And really importantly, the Drug Policy Alliance, which is working on ending the war on drugs. So these were people who recognized that the war on drugs is happening in hospitals against Black mothers. When they saw those connections, they were able to come together, work together and advocate for this change in New York City hospital policy. Again, it’s just one blow against this system that mitigates its harm, that shrinks the system. It’s not total abolition, but it means that there will be fewer Black mothers whose babies are taken from them, from hospitals in New York city.
Dylan Rodrioguez: Yeah. It’s a fracture within a larger detonation. It’s the way I want to think about it, right? It contributes to an actual collapse rather than an incremental reformist approach that actually strengthens the foundation of it. So yeah. It’s just the only way of thinking.
Dorothy Roberts: Exactly. How can we shrink it? How can we keep children from being taken from their families?
Dylan Rodrioguez: That’s right. Yeah, it’s like, how do you destroy –
Dorothy Roberts: Yeah. To dismantle the whole thing. And, of course, as I was saying before, at the same time we are working on ways to support and care for mothers who may have drug problems. Now, they don’t all have drug problems. That’s the other thing, they don’t have drug problems. There’s this conflation of, if you use drugs, you must be a bad parent. And that’s something we’re also working to disabuse the public of and policies of implementing. But there are some people who do, but the solution isn’t to take their babies from them, that only harms the babies and them. And so… Anyway.
Dylan Rodrioguez: That’s right. Hey, thank you all. We’re starting to pop off in the chat, which is awesome. And by the way, we never get to everything that people want to raise here in any sufficient way. So, I want to encourage everyone who’s here to think about the stuff that’s coming up in the conversation and in the chat, which we’re not going to adequately address, as opportunities to catalyze other kinds of conversations from today. This was supposed to be a two part conversation, which is why this panel, this discussion was called part one, but I left the part one in there, because I want you all to think about a part two through a million on this. A continuity beyond this ASA thing, that you all can take in other places.
So, please do that. Look at the stuff that’s coming up in these conversations, look at the stuff that’s in the chat and read and take it in. I got Rachel and then Dean responding to this, and then I’ll try to go to the chat, to some of the stuff that comes up and chat, and to call on you all that are in the chat to raise your points before we run out of time. Rachel, go ahead.
Rachel Herzing: Great. So, I’m going to offer something that’s, I think, very obvious, but in my experience sometimes stating the obvious is also helpful, and this gets a little bit, I think, to your question as well, Matthew. I think the number one thing for me, Kyla, in thinking about what you’ve raised, is to think about what’s at stake. So, I 100% agree with both Jennifer and Dorothy, that you have to figure out who your people are and then figure out effective ways of getting in communication with them, staying in communication with them. But I think even before that, you need clarity about what’s at stake to figure out who your people are. And I say that it’s obvious, but maybe bears saying in part because I feel like that’s a step that frequently feels like it’s getting skipped these days, for me. When the emphasis seems to be so much more on protests than on long term organizing, the move to mobilization is instant, but sometimes it lacks that foundation of what binds us all together in this fight.
Especially if it’s not a fight that’s based on identity or geography, necessarily. And that also gets me to a little bit to your question about sustainability, Matthew, because I think if you don’t have clarity of purpose, if you don’t understand what’s at stake, if you don’t understand where the shared fate is, it is a lot more difficult to sustain yourself after the peak period of protest is over, when it’s the doldrums, the day-to-day, non-sexy, like who’s going to make the photo copies daily grind of what most organizing is. I think you need to be committed to what the stakes of the fight are and to not lose sight of the fact that even after peak protest is over, the stakes don’t necessarily change. And I think that’s true regardless of the nonprofit-industrial complex or not. I think that’s just plain and simple organizing 101.
Dylan Rodrioguez: Go ahead Dean.
Dean Spade: Now this is… There’s so much good stuff in the chat too. I just wanted to, I mean, just to speak to that initial question about… I was just thinking about… Recently in the region I live in there’s one of the little islands, its own city off of Seattle, wants to build a new police station in, another little city nearby wants to build a new jail.
And so, I feel like for people in my circles, when we hear about that, we’re just like, okay, contact everybody you know. Do you know anybody who lives on this weird island full of rich people? Do we know anybody who teaches any of the schools there? Do we know anybody who works social services there? Just a million emails and texts, and then putting things on social media like. And getting urgency around it and also asking people who live other places to still call into the city council meeting there, because it just freaks out these people in these tiny communities who are on these city councils where no one’s ever said stop paying for more things for cops and jails.
And I think that the reason I want to bring that up is just this sense of the only resource we really have for our movements is people. That’s what we have, the other side has everything else. And so the question is, how do we make – And this goes to Matthew saying in the chat – How do we make a culture of deep inclusion for lots and lots of new people in this kind of work? And we are very bad at that. And I think what happens is a lot of people show up, moments like Occupy or last summer, all these times. And it’s like, people don’t figure out how to do what I think Rachel’s also referring to of actually building sustained connection with each other and having that turn into a lot of projects and orgs where people get a lot of deep political [ed] and stay in the work for the rest of their lives, which is what we need.
We don’t need just people to show up in the street for a month or for a week or for a night. And so, how do we do that? A lot of what my work is about these days is about working with small groups. For everybody that volunteers about how are we going to create a good culture inside every small group that keeps people together, prevents, and deals with conflict, welcomes new people, instead of having the first three people who started it burn out and then the thing stops happening. And I wanted to say that I’m giving a series of workshops that are about these kinds of issues that are very pragmatic and for people doing this kind of work coming up at Barnard. And the first one’s happening in October, there’s one a month and they’re a sliding scale to free.
And the last thing I just wanted to say, how do we be less judgemental? How do we be rigorous but loving, is one way I’ve heard it talked about. How do we be like, oh yeah, I’m sorry. In this meeting, we all try to call each other by each other’s pronouns, but also we want you to stay. It’s not like you have to go because you did it wrong once. Just how do we keep people in, while still, of course, having standards about how we want to treat each other or having people be like, yeah, I want to seriously have a rigorous conversation with you about why I’m an abolitionist. And also, you don’t need to be… Know your one to walk into this room and organize with us against this jail, like all of that stuff.
And the last thing, I just want to briefly address Molina’s question about the state, because I think it is always underlying all of these conversations. And I’m really curious to hear Sandy talk about this too, and Rachel and everyone. Yes, I come to this as an anarchist. I didn’t learn this politics through anarchism. I feel like I learned it through my experiences and interpretations of women of color, feminisms of different kinds. But yeah, I don’t think that the United States or any nation state will ever be something other than an extractive project. And I sincerely believe in engaging with existing state forms. We must. So I really care about the defund work and I really care about the work that’s about dismantling and I really care about all this annoying work I do in these city and county councils, trying to stop these new jail and police station projects.
I’m not interested in saying we shouldn’t touch them, those spaces, but I am interested in knowing that the answers we need are never going to come from them. But, of course, those things are devouring our communities. So, it’s like, yeah, I’m going to put a lot of time into trying to close the municipal court. Absolutely. And I’m also going to fight against… Right now, one of my former students is running for a city attorney in Seattle and, ugh, do I believe in progressive prosecutors? But I know that the lady she’s running against is trying to bring Giuliani town to Seattle. So, no. So, I think it’s… I’m interested in, and I actually think most anarchists I know are in a really non-absolutist politics in terms of practice. I’ll work with anyone to stop a jail.
A lot of people won’t work with anarchists, but I will work with absolutely anyone who wants to stop the jail. And I will be honest about what I believe. I think abolitionists are saying, yeah, we’ll work with anyone to stop the jail. And also we’re going to be honest about what we think the goal post is here, instead of we want a new choking ban or whatever. But for me, it’s actually really clarifying to know that I don’t think there could be good cops or good prisons. That the state project itself is defined by those things as all the scholars and activists here have told us and taught us for so long, and that the state function itself, its job is to redistribute wealth upwards, to concentrate wealth in ways that are deeply racialized and fundamentally colonial and imperialist.
And so, I’m not trying to take it over, if that makes sense. And I just want to be explicit about that, because I think there’s still actually a lot of stigma around having a conversation about anarchism even in space like these often.
Dylan Rodrioguez: Thank you, Dean. So, I’ve got a few things in the chat that I wanted to pay attention to. And, Thelma, if you’re there, I was going to ask you to, maybe… You can read your question or you can maybe just talk about where the question is coming from. If you’re available, otherwise I could just read your question too.
Thelma: Hi everyone. Thank you so much for this amazing talk. I also have a bunch of notes, and I think that’s where this question came about, and just thinking about the work that you were all doing that is very necessary and urgent. And I think about how heavy some of this work is. In organizing, coming together, creating these collectivities and the tensions that may arise from that. And I also wonder too, if there is… I feel as though the emphasis of joy within these movements, within this type of work, tends to get offset or is a conversation that is outside of the movement, sometimes it gets lost. So, I wonder if there is a way to interface or envision, like you all saying, is it possible? And I know that it’s possible to think about joy as part of the process, but I’d like to hear how you all center these moments of joy within things like creativity, revolt, and healing.
Dylan Rodrioguez: Thank you, Thelma. I appreciate your putting it out there. So, this is what I’d do, y’all, we have about 10 minutes left. So, I’d love to get a few responses to Thema’s questions, especially from folks that did not respond to the first round of questions. And then, if it’s cool with folks, I thought it might be appropriate, given that Eddie’s made his way over here today, to close with Navid’s question, which is drawing from something [inaudible] said about US political prisoners. So, if you all can humor me I’d love to close with that and just hear from you, Eddie, to close us out as we leave in 10 minutes. So, on Thelma’s question about joy, how joy intersects, interfaces with revolt, with what we do. Can you all talk about this, and I’d love to privilege the folks that did not respond to the first question. So, just unmute and start talking or make a gesture toward me.
David Hernandez: Hey, Dylan – [crosstalk].
Dylan Rodrioguez: Please.
David Hernandez: Yeah, I was just teaching earlier this morning and we were talking about undocumented youth and their families and the way they end up having to, sort of, just avoid contact with authority, society, et cetera. And it’s really easy to get into describing them as an invisible population when they’re quiet, when they’re very much a visible one. They’re sitting right next to us, they’re sitting in this room right now. And so, in part of that is their joy. But part of that is just everything else about their humanity. And so, even when we’re doing the work of critiquing the state for raking people over the coals, those folks are having a good time too. They’re with us. And so, at least in… We were just talking about this in my classroom and we were trying to emphasize that. Just the wholeness of them, that they’re whole, and there’s a status issue that puts them in danger but they’re still going to work every day and going to school every day. And so, in that essence, in that sense, I think that’s a big part of the message. So…
Dylan Rodrioguez: And you all make me think, as I listen to and as I read what’s going on in chat. That there’s a… Thelma’s point raises, I think, a really important area of collective reflection about how we think about joy, and Dean’s point is this very thing. Is that the way we think about joy is sometimes really narrow, really consumerist, really commodified. So, how can you experience joy and rage? How do you experience joy within shared rage, within shared anger? I mean, there’s all these different ways that I know people experience joy, that doesn’t fit the description. Who else can respond to this, besides… Who wants to respond to this besides [inaudible].
Sandy Grande: I’ll jump in real quick. Dylan, this is [inaudible]
Dylan Rodrioguez: Thank you.
Sandy Grande: And yeah, I mean, I think to some degree that brings me back home to one of my earlier points about language. So, in Quechua, for example, there’s a concept of [kame], that is exactly what you’re saying, Dylan, that you can’t have love without rage. One enables the other. So, we were dialectical long before Marx. So, I would just… And then, I think of in terms of joyous moments now and how we experience that, I think one… And earlier conversations about how to build struggle right now and build coalition. And it is challenging in these times. I think especially when one of the cardinal rules, in a sense, of people who are in movements is like, show up. And it’s so hard just to show up given the context of the pandemic. And so there’s a lot of challenges right now, but I just want to suggest something that’s just given me joy recently.
And I think for a lot of Native peoples it is just the new series Reservation Dogs, but it’s also a good example of how they find joy in these moments of real connection that aren’t separate from the other things in their life. It’s a real wholeness of how they express and experience joy. And then, Dylan, I don’t think we should end this thing without giving a shout out to your book, White Reconstruction, as a way to continue to think about all this stuff. So, I’ll drop that link in the chat.
Dylan Rodrioguez: Well, everybody should definitely read my… Absolutely, everyone should read my book. Yes. Required. I’ll give you the one paragraph summary if you all don’t want to read it, just hit me up. Jennifer, is it okay if I pick on you? To think about joy with us? Because I know you got a ton of wisdom about this, and then we can close it out with the… Navid, I hope I’m pronouncing your name properly. I’ll ask you, if you’re still here. Yeah. I’ll ask you to unmute in a second and maybe you can raise this question for Eddie, and Eddie can shut things down for us. Go ahead, Jennifer. Thank you.
Jennifer Marley: Sure. All right. I mean… Okay. In my personal life I really struggle to let myself feel joy because I feel when we’re talking about the importance of being disciplined it’s easy to lose that, but we can’t lose it. And I think one thing that we try to do within Red Nation is celebrate every victory no matter how small. Because I feel like a lot of times on the left we get overrun with demoralization. And talking about how like, oh, what did that ultimately do? Or, what really changed? And we know that change is incremental sometimes. And, obviously, we’re critical of when people act like… Like Dean was talking about earlier, small reforms are an end all be all and we’re done and we don’t have anything else to do.
And, obviously, we know that reform is not the way to go, but it’s worth celebrating the small victories that mean a lot to our people. Even something like Indigenous people’s day, which we know a lot of time only exists in the realm of representation but it is empowering for Native people. Or even the election of Deb Holland, which I was personally very conflicted about. I’m not super happy with her leadership thus far, but what use does it do to publicly shit on her when so many Pueblo women are beyond joyed and empowered by her coming to power. And so, I think, we just try to look at, what is ultimately going to get people motivated? What is going to help the masses fight demoralization… Sandy’s Reservation Dogs example. Do I have critiques of the show and the producers? Of course I do. But it brings hope to Native people. It reminds them that there’s always a time to be joyful.
But I think even more into that, outside of the realm of representation, I think it’s worth celebrating everyday victories. If we can dearrest someone at an action, if we can get someone a hot meal, if we can help someone find shelter, these are what make it all matter. Or even when we were supporting the family of Loreal Tsingine after she was murdered by Austin Shipley, that family said they didn’t think anybody would care to reach out for them, that nobody would care for Loreal. And it means a lot just to simply be in solidarity with people. And it’s always worth celebrating kinship and connections that are made even if those connections are made through something traumatic and through struggle, or something terrible brings us together. And yeah, it’s not always worth it to have a heavy-handed critique if it comes at the cost of empowering people.
Dylan Rodrioguez: Thank you for that, Jennifer. That’s a really nuanced response, I appreciate it. And, Navid, do you mind unmuting and maybe asking your question live? And Eddie, you can respond to it.
Navid: Sure. Can you hear me?
Dylan Rodrioguez: Yeah. Am I pronouncing your name properly?
Navid: It’s Navid.
Dylan Rodrioguez: Navid. Okay, I did it right the first time. Thank you Navid. [crosstalk] leave the question, and Eddie close us out if you don’t mind, after Navid asks it.
Navid: Yeah. So, this is directed mainly toward Mr. Conway. Thank you for being with the panel. So, I attended a talk a few years ago by Sekou Odinga, and he said that one of the first demands in any liberation struggle by those who are struggling is the freeing of political prisoners, but that hasn’t been the case in the United States. And so, my question is, why do you think that’s the reality in the United States? Do you all see this as a shortcoming of the left in the US? Is it a failure in organizing? Or is it something else that can explain that?
Eddie Conway: Okay, I guess the first thing I would have to say is that in most cases, political prisoners arise out of well-organized grassroots kind of activity from political parties that at some point are forced into self defense or even on propaganda. In the United States, what happened was the Black liberation army, per se, and elements of the Black Panther Party and elements of other different groups were guarded into self-defense and guerrilla activity prematurely. The population was not organized on the ground on the grassroot level to sustain that kind of activity. An insidious program was created by the government for World War II, COINTELPRO, a counterintelligence program that was very divisive. It broke up the grassroots organizing across the country. It used the police, it used the government agencies, it used the mafia. It used gangsters, and it disrupted the ability to organize. It targeted, with a program called weed and seed, the primary leaders of those struggles.
It rewarded the people that work with the government and put them up as leaders. It created neoliberal leaders for the Black community. It used the church, it used other agencies, the newspaper, et cetera. And then they did something right at the end of all that to the community. They drugged the community and they used those drugs to continue to disrupt any kind of organizing. So, the communities of color went through a whole series through the ’70s to the ’80s, from drugs to AIDS. And I’m not saying AIDS is a government project or program, but the communities were devastated. A lot of activists were lost, people that weren’t assassinated and that weren’t run out of the country were locked up. On the other hand, the people that worked with the government end up getting lucrative jobs. Similar to what we see right now, unfortunately, with Black Lives Matter.
It’s a lot of Black Lives Matter activists, not grassroots activists, but so-called spokespeople or whatever, gaining lucrative positions, they’ll get money. They’re being bombarded with grants and fellowships and so on. And they’re the spokesperson. The ones that are down on the ground rebelling, they’re being charged with terrorism in LA or in other places, or being ignored or labored or targeted. So, you had several government programs. One, you had that whole activity that we engaged in were premature. That’s one thing.
Dylan Rodrioguez: Hey, thanks to Eddie for the closing thoughts, that brings us to an end. I hope that folks will pick up on this discussion. And as we’ve been saying in these last few minutes, that we proliferate this set of provocations, this collective study, this work, through whatever spaces, through whatever communities and collectives that we can participate in. Thank you. I’m deeply grateful to Jennifer, Rachel, Dean, Sandy, Debbie, Eddie, Dorothy. Thank you all. And I hope you all enjoy this. Hope the folks that are taking all this in will find that it serves their skill sets and expands their toolkits. Weaponize this, move forward. Thank you all.