Poorest of the Poor

Recently, I watched a video about wealth distribution in a America that I have not been able to get out of my head.  While reading Captive Genders, I was constantly reminded of this video and the ways in which so many disenfranchised Americans are set up to fail.  In particular, the words of R in “The Only Freedom I Can See” further proved how poverty and the gap between the rich and poor force those at the lowest end into “crimes of poverty.”

Here is the video: VIDEO

Even though several statistics are thrown at you through this video, it is a visually compelling and staggering example of just how inequitable America’s wealth is.  What does this have to do with the industrial prison complex?  Well, if we stop and think about the “actual distribution” chart and the reality that is laid out for us in which the lower 80% Americans share only 7% of America’s wealth.  That is very little money to stretch among 80% of America.  In this likely scenario, the poorest of the poor do not even register on the graph.

I will admit, most of us watching the news during The Occupy Movement’s peak have heard a version of this story before.  However, imagine being born into that “poorest of the poor” economic climate, one that doesn’t even show up on a graph, but includes about 15% of Americans.  That is a massive number of Americans that, according to the “what Americans think” segment, 9 of 10 Americans don’t even know exists.  Now, that is a sad reality.

When taking all of this into consideration and looking at cases such as R, is becomes clear just how young people from similar circumstances are essentially born to fail.  In addition to resorting to crimes of poverty purely as a means of survival and the thought that 90% of Americans do not even know this type of poverty exists, a prison system like ours has every ability to deny the impoverished and incarcerated basic human rights.

Though it is absolutely true that something must be done about the incarceration levels in the United States and the treatment of prisoners, it also must be recognized that issues like  inequity of wealth feed into our ability to ignore, and thus destroy, the “poorest of the poor.”

-Elizabeth Nash

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Criminal justice

Dean Spade taught us how neoliberalism’s rights-based language masks structural violences and places the (often impossible) burden on individuals to accumulate life chances over and against these violences. The dominant gay movement’s problematic embrace of neoliberalism is disturbingly visibilized in the social injustice of the United States prison system.

In “The Only Freedom I Can See: Imprisoned Queer Writing and the Politics of the Unimaginable,” Stephen Dillon specifically exposes how neoliberalism works in tandem with the prison industrial complex to maintain a status quo that targets and disciplines non- and anti-normative queers (especially of color). Homonormativity is implicated in these violent institutions for its encouragement of gay respectability. This agenda, with its neoliberal emphasis on marriage rights, family values, and other forms of social control, tends to discourage active engagement with those queers who aren’t seeking or in the position to seek the Gay American Dream. In other words, it’s easy to overlook populations who would compromise an assimilationist politics bent on presenting visions of a new normal.

The homonormative gay rights movement’s (deliberate) exclusion of “imprisoned queer and trans people from ‘the community’ has, in part, acted as the condition of possibility for the privileges and power afforded to those not ensnared in the nexus of power produced by neoliberalism” (181). The language of inclusion means exclusion for others, even in terms of visibility. What does gay pride have to do with incarcerated trans* and gender non-conforming subjects.

After some quick zine-searching, I came across the Transformative Justice Law Project (TJLP) of Illinois. The TJLP works to provide free legal services for trans* and gender non-conforming  individuals. Crucially, the TJLP is committed to affirming its patrons’ gender self-determination. The organization’s zine, Hidden Expressions, is a collection of personal narratives, visual art, and poetry  “created by transgender and gender non-conforming golks who are currently locked up in facilities across the United States.” Hidden Expressions gives a voice to the realities overlooked and un(der)represented in dominant U.S. discourse.

“Gay Pride” by Shaylanna Luvme ironically dramatizes the conflict between proud neoliberalism and the visibility of incarcerated trans* folks.

The poem personifies Gay Pride as a Christlike figure of all-inclusive love. Lines like “The lips of Gay Pride will always pray for me” and “The houses of Gay Pride will always welcome me” suggest room within the gay pride movement for any individual, despite the homonormative marriage movement’s ethically violent tunnelvision.

The poem concludes: “We’re human beings, all the time, no matter where we may/Be in life!” Or, as this week’s readings have taught us: We’re all human beings all the time, except in prison.

The poem’s language of uplift might very well be sincere, and I’m not tryna disparage the author for embracing this kind of worldview. The point remains: queer normativity flourishes at the expense of non-normative queers. The lofty ideals of neoliberalism and “gay pride” can make sense as individual-affirming language, but takes on the exclusive force of minoritizing politics when put into practice.

So, we all seem to have a bone to pick with the mainstream gay rights movement. Probably because it has done very little to raise awareness or activism about the anti-queer prison industrial complex and does a lot to reproduce the structural violences that work from and through it.

⊗ Patrick beane

Police Violence to Queers

            Normative queers who believe the police force exists to protect them from “danger” ignore intersectional oppression and power that target entire populations of queer people who then face violence from police both within and outside of prisons.  The fact that non-conforming subjects fear “being harmed by the very ones who are there to protect us” (Goring and Sweet 187) indicates that the current system of “protection” is produced by, and preserves the power of, a limited group of white, cis, het, bourgeois men (and sometimes women).

            This kind of neoliberal preservation of a preferred group and elimination of “human surplus” (Dillon 179) is evident in non-conforming subjects’ dealings with the police force.  I personally feel extraordinarily uncomfortable whenever police are around because I have no idea how they will respond to my lack of gender conformity, especially since my license picture looks nothing like me anymore.  Andrea Gibson, queer slam poet, writes about their experience in one of their poems: “Every night, I drove through Kansas with, I swear to God, a pink barrette in my fucking pocket in case I had to split second decide if woman would be safer armor than this, when his flashing blue lights give me ten seconds to pick what target he’ll be less likely to miss.”

            The police force has an incredible amount of unchecked power to beat and rape queers.  Goring and Sweet describe it “like nothing ever took place, like the world stopped as they hurt someone…they don’t face charges—they don’t get fired, but they are simply let back to work, bragging about what they’ve done and/or how they did it” (186).  Les Feinberg also describes the brutal force of routine police violence on the streets, in prison, and when raiding gay bars in the 1950s and 60s in their novel Stone Butch Blues.  The fact that Feinberg was recently arrested protesting for Cece McDonald indicates that these issues with police have not gotten better, but rather that they are still ever so prevalent today.  No wonder so many queers can never feel safe whenever police are around to “protect.” 

            And now for a local example.  Last year, Douglas Wilson came to speak at IU about how the male and female sexes were destined for one another and that nothing else is allowed in the eyes of god.  His beliefs are not only homophobic, but he also believes that the pre-Civil War South represents an ideal structure of being in terms of religiously-structured roles for men, women, white people, and people of color, who so happened to be slaves.  To quote, Wilson believes “there has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world” as that of the pre-Civil War South (http://www.tomandrodna.com/notonthepalouse/Documents/060175768QRAsouthern_slavery_as_it_was.pdf).  No wonder protestors were so upset that he was even allowed on campus.

            Members of the police force were present at the “discussion” to “keep the peace.”  The fact that they were there made me extremely uncomfortable.  Rather than feeling “protected” by them, I felt like they were there to take down any dissenting voice, which is exactly what they did.  Watch this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nyAcmcaIITE) to see what happens to a trans-identifying person who “disrupted” Wilson’s speech.  Rather than tapping the person on the shoulder and “gracefully” asking them to leave like the Dean of students said they would in this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7lq5AX4lPHQ), the police force just jumped on the individual and justified their arrest because they were “struggling.”  Who wouldn’t squirm and writhe around in pain when four or more police officers shove you out the door and onto the ground?

            The fact that the Dean of students dared claim that those who raised their voices against Wilson were breaking their Indiana promise by disrespecting a public speaker (who happens to disrespect a large population of IU students, faculty, and staff) is ridiculous.  It just goes to reaffirm the neoliberal notion that anyone outside of the structured norms for citizens (disciplinary power) is targeted for elimination via caging on the basis that they are “human surplus” (Dillon 179).  In this case, anyone outside of the respectfully silent and ideal protestor is not only a target for arrest but also expulsion from Indiana University.

            This local justification of unchecked police power to shove queers on the ground for yelling at a disrespectful speaker is ridiculous.  It just goes to prove that not only is police power left unchecked to the point of justified corruption via the watering down of police acts with words like “gracefully tapping people on the shoulder,” but it also proves how the force that exists to so-called “protect” people only protects those who are deemed desirable to the state and leaves the rest of the “human surplus” to deal with violence by themselves.  Normative queers must stop catering to a system that exists to cage those who refuse to conform to racialized, gendered, and sexualized norms.

-Ash Kulak