Thinking about jail, race & the OWS Movement

Riot Cop

I'm involved in OccupyChicago. I  stand on the corner with a sign for a couple of hours every few days, plus I go to the larger demonstrations. I was arrested over the weekend for a sit-in to defend the medical  aid station set up by National Nurses United.

Being in jail for 18 hours was unpleasant, but really, not that big deal. When I was finally released, there were about 50 OccupyChicago people in front of the cop station throwing a party for us. Most people don't get cheers and a welcoming committee when they get out of a South Side Chicago jail cell.

As I was being processed out, I saw a few young black guys staring out of their cells. They may have been hard guys on the street, but away from their pals, they just looked like scared kids to me. Whether they had actually even committed crimes was irrelevant. We punish the innocent and the guilty alike.

How much people get punished in our criminal injustice system depends mostly on where they are located in that complex intersection of race, class and gender. Yes, I was abused and misused  during the short time I spent in jail, but punishing the guilty and the innocent alike falls far more heavily on people of color.

I'm thinking about the decor of the jail cell I was in over the weekend. All white featureless walls and lights on 24-7.  No books, no magazines, no music, not even an obnoxious blaring TV. This routine disrupts the Circadian rhythms and begins a process of mental disorientation. Perfect for zombifying the mind prior to going to court or the other Kafka-like procedures they do in our criminal injustice system.

I was in this jail less than 18 hours and I was already starting to feel it. I would try to sleep and periodically a tiny panic attack would peek up from the depths of my consciousness and I'd have to quash it. I started doing pushups and Qigong exercises. Those helped.

In the case of the First District police station where I was held briefly, all they would have to do is shrink the windows of the cells, install a 24 hour white noise machine, make sure the prisoner was in solitary and they'd have a similar set-up to the one the British pioneered during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. It was designed to break the minds of Irish political prisoners.

Solitary confinement in featureless cells with severe restrictions on books, music and TV along with limited exercise outside of one's cell is what they do in our US SuperMax prisons today where sentences stretch on for years. It's devious, hideous and unworthy of a purportedly civilized nation.

According to inmates who have endured it, it creates a toxic mental state totally unsuited for  returning to civilian life.  It's torture. And surprise…surprise, this punishment falls most heavily upon inmates of color, especially the political prisoners, but it falls on white folks too, especially the political prisoners.??

The 130 of us who were arrested in Grant Park last weekend got a small taste of what we might expect if the OWS Movement becomes a serious threat to the economic elite. Think of those tiny throwaway cups you get food samples in at the supermarket. That was the serving we received.

To me the featureless white room I occupied for a short time also symbolizes how our whole nation imprisons us within a society based on white supremacy. Like a featureless white jail cell, it is stressful and crazymaking. But how stressful and how crazymaking and what type of stress and crazymaking it creates depends upon where one is located in that complex intersection of race, class and gender.??To think that the OWS Movement can escape dealing with the consequences of living in this white supremacy prison called the USA is unrealistic to say the least.

Back in the day, I was involved in the Black Panther initiated Rainbow Coalition. The idea of this Rainbow Coalition(this was before Jesse Jackson's of the same name) was to unite racially different revolutionary youth organizations into a common multi-racial front. That was a whole graduate course in racial politics.  Some of the people I worked with did some very hard prison time, were wounded in shootouts and even killed. But why?

One of the things that I think I learned from this original Rainbow Coalition, was that a progressive multi-racial coalition seems to really rattle the ruling class and can provoke a violent reaction. This was true for the non-violent  civil rights reform movement and its offshoot,  Dr. King's Poor People's Campaign. It was also true of Fred Hampton's Black Panther revolutionary armed coalition model. Often, the targets were our most capable leaders.

Look  deeper into history, to the days of the 1930's tenant farmer struggles, the Depression Era labor wars, the brief multi-racial populist movement of the 1890's and anti-racist militias of the Reconstruction Era South, and you see how many social justice movements foundered on our racial caste system and its disparities.

The main reason we are in such deep shit today is because white privilege can be bought off. If that was not effective enough, the iron heel of naked repression was always just around the corner.

These people on Wall Street are very serious people. Have we really given enough thought about just what the OWS movement represents to them? We are messing with their money. Large sums of money. Think about it.  

OWS caught Wall Street by surprise as much as it caught itself by surprise. But that advantage won't last long. The emphasis on non-violence is a plus in my opinion, but if the movement grows, it will draw in people who don't have that commitment. How will we face that challenge?

Now some people in OWS say that we are all in this together. To some degree this is true, but we don’t all occupy that same location in that complex intersection of race, class and gender. Imagine if OWS were mostly people of color and had minority white participation. Does anyone seriously think it would get the same kind of media coverage? That the police would behave in the same way? That the demands would even be the same? I wager that everything would be quite different.

I don't believe white privilege and our vast racial disparities are being addressed in a systematic way by the OWS movement. Not yet anyway. But now would be a good time, as this excerpt from an American Prospect article suggests. I urge you to read the entire article.

Comparing debt to slavery, believing police won't hurt you, or wanting to take back the America you see as rightfully yours are things that suggest OWS is actually appealing to an imagined white (re)public. Rather than trying to figure out how to diversify the Occupy Wall Street movement, white progressives need to think long and hard about their use of frameworks and rhetoric that situate blacks at the margins of the movement." …from an article over at the American Prospect

This may upset some people, but I feel it must be said. I think the OWS Movement is now emerging from its infancy. If we don't address race now, than the movement will be doomed to irrelevancy. My main experience with race and  social mass movements comes from the 1970's and 1980's, and today's situation is different.

??Young white people do not get the same kind of garbage dumped into their heads that my generation did in the 1950's and 1960's. I think they get less of it dumped into them and it's a different kind of garbage. The white youth who lined up to help elect a black president in 2008 should tell us that much.

So I'm not sure how OWS should address today's 21st century race disparities. I don't trust my own experience because I come from a different era with different baggage. I have more questions than answers. But I am sure of one thing. If we don't address race, our enemies will and they will use our weakness to destroy us.

If we do successfully address race and create a truly multiracial progressive movement, than we will face the real test. Cuz we ain't seen nothin' yet when it comes to how much punishment the State can dish out when its wealthy owners lash out in panicked fear and anger.


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