Criminal InJustice† is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal InJustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
Criminal Injustice: Giving Thanks By Kay Whitlock
Tonight, Criminal Injustice offers profound thanks for all those who work to name, challenge, resist, and dismantle the racial, gender, sexual, and economic violence embedded in the U.S. criminal legal system – violence that often touches both those who suffer the harms of violent attack in homes and communities, and those who suffer it behind bars at the hands of prison authorities as well as other prisoners.
We also want to give thanks for those who refuse to demonize prisoners and who work in light of the recognition that incarcerated people – and their families – are also part of our communities. And we give thanks for all who would rather see more public investment in education, health care, social services, community-based drug treatment programs, jobs programs and the like - investments that reduce and help prevent crime and recidivism - than in more policing, more prisons.
The individuals and groups acknowledged here are among those who courageously insist that real safety can never be created outside an unshakable framework of racial, gender, and economic justice. They are among those and who not only document the racial, gender, sexual, and economic violence historically and currently embedded in current policing, prosecutorial and prison practices, but seek to expand our justice visions in new ways that lead toward healing, wholeness, and well being – not only for individuals, but also entire communities.
The Necessity for Courage in Hard Times
Today, domestic and international politics are characterized by the politics of polarization and fear and the subsequent search for safety in a dangerous world. But the “safety” being offered us by politicians, pundits, and corporations only emphasizes more policing, harsher sentences, more prisons and more people in them, more militarization of our borders, endless war, and corporate profit realized by providing the services and technology to support these approaches. There is no life, and precious little justice here.
Things seem so bleak. But it is precisely in hard times that we must redouble our efforts to envision and work for deep justice; to see the interrelationships between violence done by individuals and that done by the state; to reclaim our common humanity and say “NO!” to mass incarceration, the prison industrial complex, and the military industrial complex. These death systems depend on stoking anxieties to the point that we are convinced that we have more enemies than friends. Corporations and the Right win every time we fall into that abyss/trap.
Never Forget: Power Ultimately Resides with the People
But by banding together over time – communities of color, LGBTQ communities, immigrant communities, poor people, and everyone/anyone who thinks justice means more than the long shadow of prison – we can expose that corrupt political calculus for the fraud that it is. Yes, it is painful, harrowing, hard, and often risky to go up against entrenched state systems of violence and injustice. But there is also real joy in the struggle, a joy that comes from claiming our common and interrelated humanity. There is cause for joy each time corruption is exposed; each time an innocent person is exonerated; each time statewide and national organizing takes us closer to abolition of the death penalty. There is joy in stepping away from utter despair and choosing to fight for the well being of our communities over cynicism and hopelessness.
Every constructive step we take out of the abyss, out of the trap, builds on and honors the ancestors who fought against even more daunting odds – who fought against the genocide of indigenous peoples and slavery and segregation; who fought for the right to vote; who fought to create unions; who survived the nightmares of internment during World War II and the horrific waves of McCarthyism that followed. They did not give up.
Our lessons – and strength – must come from and build on their example.
Great movements for justice are always nurtured first at the grassroots, where people dare to come together across old differences – never easy, but always rewarding – to dream bold, new dreams, even in the hardest, most seemingly impossible times.
And beyond fighting for change, we must fight to sustain it as it is manifested institutionally, piece by painstaking piece.
An Abundance of Gratitude
For CI’S 2011 “Giving Thanks” post, we wish to begin by honoring two individuals for their ongoing and visionary contributions to the movement for justice.
Each has been a towering figure in one of the great criminal legal debates – and abolition movements – of our time. Each has endured personal attacks and concerted efforts to discredit her work and witness. And each has stood her ground in fierce storms of controversy with dignity, grace, and moral strength, reaching out to others with kindness, compassion, and relentless persistence.
We thank Sister Helen for her tireless efforts to educate about and abolish the death penalty. Her books include Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions She travels throughout the United States, speaking, organizing, and bringing a spiritual witness to her work against the death penalty. Sister Helen does not parse the value of this life or that; she organizes around the unequivocal certainty that the death penalty is wrong in all circumstances, and that it corrupts the society that utilizes it.
CI thanks Professor Davis for her extraordinary efforts to educate about and call for abolition of imprisonment as the dominant social strategy for creating safety and addressing complex social problems. Her work as an educator – in the university and in the public sphere - has consistently emphasized the importance of working at the intersections of economic, racial, and gender justice. She is especially concerned with the growing tendency to allocate more resources and attention to the prison system than to public education. Her books Abolition Democracy: Prisons, Empire and Democracy and Are Prisons Obsolete? are essential reading. She is currently completing a book on Prisons and American History.
Davis’ work exemplifies an intersectional approach to organizing; she sees clearly how this is related to that – and how an overall fabric of justice must necessarily be created in response not just to broad generalities of injustice, but to the countless specificities of which injustice and structural violence are comprised. Thus: racial justice is not a subset of economic justice; it co-creates it. Neither can exist in the absence of the other. So it is, too, with gender, gender identity, sexuality, disability, and immigration status.
And oh, yes: our thanks to you. Criminal Injustice expresses appreciation to all of you who visit CI – lurkers and folks who engage in discussions alike. Thank you for your interest, your thoughts, your experiences, your insights, your queries, your respectful challenges. Thank you for the links you post. A blog series is nothing without the people who give it life and meaning through discussion - and, where possible, through activism in your own lives. Thanks for helping to create a space here in which we can talk about hard, painful things in an atmosphere of collegiality. And thanks to those of you who also post other diaries on these, and related, issues.
CI also expresses thanks to three people whose work constantly inspires us, and who have moved heaven and earth to be supportive to the CI series. We don’t know where we’d be without you.
Deep gratitude to Victoria Law. We first met Victoria Law, writer, photographer, and mother, through an Angola 3 News interview with her that we republished in Criminal Injustice, in which she highlighted the importance of addressing the structural nature of gender violence in the prison industrial complex (PIC). Her powerful dispatches from the heart of the PIC also appear at truthout.org and in other online venues. Earlier this year, Vikki joined CI as a contributing editor; her work appears her regularly. Like Davis, she champions a politics of interrelationship and interdependence.
Vikki is the author of “Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women” (PM Press 2009), the editor of the zine Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison and a co-founder of Books Through Bars – NYC. She is currently working on transforming “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind,” a zine series on how radical movements can support the families in their midst, into a book.
We’re so glad you’re here, Vikki. You’re the best.
We can never fully express the depth of our profound and abiding gratitude to Seeta Persaud, the founder and editor of Critical Mass Progress, which is our dream blog, always centering the intersections of race, gender, class, disability, immigration status, and sexuality. An attorney with a background in human rights law, policy advocacy, organizing, and new media messaging, Seeta emigrated with her mother to the United States from Guyana in 1979 and is now a naturalized U.S. citizen.
When CI was looking for a home, Seeta reached out with a warmth and generosity that still takes our breath away. Thanks, Seeta. You’re a treasure.
And our warm thanks, as well, to The Peoples View, also a people-of-color-led blog. We repost CI there every Friday morning. We love the community and the passionate politics that inform all discussions there, whether about CI or jobs legislation or GOTV.
Hans Bennett & Angola 3 News
A special hat tip to Hans Bennett and his Angola 3 News - not only for relentless persistence in exposing and educating around the structural racism and gender/sexual violence of the prison industrial complex, but also for such kindness and generosity to the CI series. Hans often provides us with material – his interviews are exceptional – and shoves us in the direction of powerful writers/organizers like Victoria Law. In countless ways, Hans has supported CI, and serves as a Contributing Editor. We’re grateful to know you, Hans.
Additional CI Contributing Editors
We also want to send blessings and gratitude to these additional, amazing CI Contributing Editors. They help tend the tenor of discussions, identify material for CI posts, help us make connections with prospective contributors, and occasionally write CI posts or permit CI to republish some of their work that first appeared elsewhere. Thank you, beautiful people. You are part of the heartbeat of the CI series.
• princss6 (please be sure to see her extraordinary “A Letter to My Son,” published by CI. It’s essential reading) • Mariame Kaba of Project NIA and the blog, Prison Culture • Emma Westfield-Adams of Equal Justice USA
CI also gives thanks to these organizations, sites, and networks that expose systemic violence, injustice, and corruption while at the same time helping us envision justice in transformative ways. The list that follows is by no means comprehensive. Many other groups also do courageous work that is at once practical and visionary. You'll find some of them through links from these sites. A quick note: While we deeply appreciate the work of ACLU, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International USA, and other large organizations, we have emphasized here smaller groups not as well known. Most of them scramble financially just to keep the doors open, the sites up, the resources available, and the work going. We know so many folks are financially pressed. But when you are able to, please think about dropping a few dollars into the work of the groups that resonate most strongly with you.
We've listed the groups in categories.
The Innocence Project is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and seeking criminal legal system reforms to prevent future injustices. Since its founding, there have been 261 exonorations in 34 states and Washington, D.C.
Exposing Law Enforcement Violence/Dismantling the Prison Industrial Complex
Critical Resistance is a national grassroots organization committed to ending the use of prisons and policing as an answer to social problems.
INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence is a national activist organization of radical feminists of color advancing a movement to end violence against women of color and our communities through direct action, critical dialogue, and grassroots organizing.
Prison Culture Blog, is a gem, documenting how the current prison industrial complex operates and underscores the ways that it structures American society. Don’t miss the links to other groups here – they constitute a cascade of riches, particularly for those who are interested in alternative visions of transformative/healing justice.
Prison Activist Resource Center is a prison abolitionist group committed to exposing and challenging all forms of institutionalized racism, sexism, able-ism, heterosexism, and classism, specifically within the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC).
Solitary Watch: News from a Nation in Lockdown is a unique collaboration between journalists and law students, SW is an innovative public website aimed at bringing the widespread use of solitary confinement and other forms of torture in U.S. prisons out of the shadows and into the light of the public square. This site offers the first centralized, comprehensive source of information on solitary confinement in the United States.
Death Penalty Abolition
Equal Justice USA works tirelessly to abolish the death penalty in the United States as part of its ongoing effort to secure a criminal justice system that is fair, effective, and humane. For two years, CI and EJ USA have partnered on anti-death penalty organizing, including efforts to stop the execution of Troy Davis.
Death Penalty Information Center offers a wealth of factual and analytical resources – print and podcast - about the death penalty in the United States. Includes a state by state data bank.
National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty offers news and resources for those who are committed to or want to know more about the case for abolishing capital punishment in the United States.
Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, founded in 1976, MVFR is a national organization of family members of victims of both homicide and executions who oppose the death penalty in all cases.
We also thank the many state groups working to abolish the death penalty.
Data Collection & Distribution
Racial Profiling Data Collection Resource Center (at Northeastern University)is an initiative of Northeastern’s Institute on Race and Justice, utilizing strategic social science research methodologies to assist government agencies, educational institutions, and members of the community in the development of policy changes that advance the cause of social justice.
Fighting Prison Profiteering & Private Prisons
The Real Cost of Prisons Project seeks to broaden and deepen the organizing capacity of prison/justice activists working to end mass incarceration. The Project brings together justice activists, artists, justice policy researchers and people directly experiencing the impact of mass incarceration to create popular education materials and other resources which explore the immediate and long-term costs of incarceration on the individual, her/his family, community and the nation.
Grassroots Leadership works to put an end to abuses of justice and the public trust by organizing to abolish for-profit private prisons. It provides excellent resources and provides organizing support for some Southern initiatives.
Prisons & Census-Based Gerrymandering Prison Policy Initiative is a think tank that documents how mass incarceration hurts individuals, communities and the national well being. PPI’s Prisoners of the Census initiative is a treasure trove of information, analysis and model legislation designed to help activists end prison-based gerrymandering.
Finally, CI wants to offer a special thanks to SistahSpeak, by Robinswing, which appears regularly, but not on a set schedule, right here at Critical Mass Progress and also at Progressive POC, and also to princss6 and Progressive POC for her educational series on slavery. This series is published at Progressive POC and republished at Critical Mass Progress.
We urge friends in the blogosphere to routinely read these women of color. Their voices are clarion.
CI sends one and all our best wishes – and our promise that we will never give up the fight for real justice for every person and all communities. That includes work toward abolition of prisons and the Prison Industrial Complex.
About the author: Kay Whitlock, former co-editor of Criminal Injustice, remains a CI Contributing Editor and continues to work with CI Editor Nancy Heitzeg on the series as closely as time permits. A Montana-based writer and organizer, she is co-author (with Joey L. Mogul and Andrea J. Ritchie) of Queer Injustice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States.
† © Copyright 2010-2011, Nancy A. Heitzeg, Kay Whitlock, and Seeta Persaud of CMP. All rights reserved. All articles and posts published by Criminal Injustice may not be distributed, re-published or cross-posted in any format, including print or electronic format, without express and explicit written permission from the copyright holders, including CI editors (Nancy Heitzeg and Kay Whitlock) and criticalmassprogress.com.