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When Miners March:

West Va. Coalfield Tales Still Resonate
By Kari Lydersen
In These Times

As politicians and protesters hash out perhaps the very future of our planet at the Copenhagen climate summit, I can't help but focus on a major culprit of the climate crisis: coal.

Coal-fired power is responsible for a large chunk of the greenhouse gas emissions that threaten to throw us into climatic, social and economic turmoil. It is also the fodder of some of the most brutal labor wars in U.S. history. And coal miners in China, Eastern Europe and to a lesser degree the U.S. still work in horrendously dangerous and grueling conditions.

So let's look at When Miners March, a 2004 book penned by William C. Blizzard, son of a legendary miner. A new edition is in the works, for release in fall 2010 on PM Press. The tome tells of vicious mine wars and fearless union organizing in West Virginia from the late 1800s through a 1921 march into nonunion Logan County.

Current events—notably the struggle for unions to remain relevant and empowered, and coal's role in the climate change crisis—make these writings both relevant and remarkable. The book underscores, among other things, both how far we have come in terms of labor protections and rights, and how far we have fallen in terms of workers’ ability and willingness to take great risks and militant action.

Coal could in many ways be seen as symbolic of heavy industry past and present, fuel for steel mills and railroads that built the heartland and still the country’s primary energy source. The book starts with a striking quote from Mother Jones, as fitting today as ever:

The story of coal is always the same. It is a dark story. For a second’s more sunlight, men must fight like tigers. For the privilege of seeing the color of their children’s eyes by the light of the sun, fathers must fight as beasts in the jungle. That life may have something of decency, something of beauty – a picture, a new dress, a bit of cheap lace fluttering in the window – for this, men who work in the mines must struggle and lose, struggle and win.

“When Miners March,” published by West Virginia miner and teacher Wess Harris, is essentially the collected writings of Blizzard, son of Bill Blizzard, leader of the “Red Neck Army” of thousands of miners who marched through the mountains of West Virginia to Logan County. (“Red necks” refers to the red bandanas union miners wore around their necks to identify each other.) The march had them crossing the union divide, from union coalfield territory into anti-union ground ripe for organizing.

The articles were written anonymously for serial publication in the paper Labor’s Daily. In his foreword, Harris describes it as both a historical document and a call to action for miners and others in West Virginia and beyond.

“You are holding a rare example of history come alive, a work that will enable our youth to proudly claim their Red Neck heritage of the last century – and organize for the next.”

By today’s standards, the writing is quaint, colorful and proudly non-objective. Exclamation points are used liberally, and sections have endearing subtitles like “Writer is Irked…Editor is Jailed…Justice is Denied;” “Bishop is Frank;” “Miners Dislike Militia.”

The brutality and deviousness of company owners, railroad barons, elected officials, hired thugs and others in trying to crush the burgeoning United Mine Workers of America is shocking, even when one knows the outlines of this history. In concise yet detailed, crisp prose, Blizzard describes how old laws, new technology, political strategies and brute force were used to subdue miners, often only making them stronger in the process.

He describes the Bull Moose – the armored railroad locomotive and baggage car mounted with machine guns and rifles for driving into crowds of strikers. And the use of the longstanding anti-sedition Red Man Act during war time against unions. In another tactic, miners were arrested on pretenses and given “conditional parole” that would be revoked, sending them back to jail if they associated with the union.

Blizzard cites one conditional parolee, “Dan Chain, alias Few Clothes”: “Let it be respectfully noted in passing that Dan Chain, alias Few Clothes, was a tall rangy Negro, one of the fighten’st union men on Cabin and Pain creeks.”

Blizzard’s description of massacres by company militias are breath-taking. At Ludlow in 1914:

Women and children in the strikers’ camp were awakened by the murderous cough of machine guns and the ripping canvas and wood as slugs plowed through their temporary homes…the women and children crawled out of their holes under cover of darkness and inched along on their bellies to the safety of a freight train. And then the militia swarmed into Ludlow, set fire to the riddled tents and conducted a kind of war dance while they watched the flames eat into the April night.

Hired militias brought into Matewan also carried out violence with near-impunity. Police chief Sid Hatfield, sympathetic to the union, was murdered in broad daylight. His companion, Ed Chambers was allegedly shot at close range right in front of his young wife, who hit the murderer, infamous informant C.E. Lively, with her umbrella.

The acts of solidarity between unions are also inspiring and impressive. For example, union printers refused to print injunctions against the union. In recent decades of media homogenization and conglomeration followed by near collapse, the existence of a thriving labor press, subject to intense censorship and intimidation, is remarkable. The Kanawha Valley had two labor papers. Editors were regularly jailed and during a period of martial law the National Guard invaded Charleston’s Labor Argus.

The use of violence and firearms on both sides is quite striking by today’s standards, when the workers of Republic Windows and Doors made national news – rightfully – for occupying a factory peacefully and with the cooperation of police and support of politicians. In the wake of Ludlow, the Denver Typographical Union No. 49 raised $500 as a first installment toward the purchase of guns and ammunition. Blizzard notes that:

Both sides in the struggle, certainly, used guns. But for one side there were penalties. For the other, none.” In fact, he writes, pulling a trigger was more likely to get a railway detective, police officer or state militiaman “a good salary, a promotion and praise from the Governor.

Blizzard notes how coal mining in West Virginia, more so than any other state, created an almost colonial, highly exploitative structure which has kept the state impoverished and environmentally abused to this day. In just one example, he notes that coal baron Charles Pratt used his coalfield earnings to fund the Pratt Institute for school children in New York, while West Virginians had little access to decent education.

Interestingly, Mother Jones, by then 91, tried to discourage miners from making the legendary trek across Blair Mountain into nonunion territory in 1921, instead seeking support from the federal government, including President Harding. The miners didn’t listen to her this time, and the march continued. Blizzard describes the dramatic miners' marches as their "most potent weapon."

“Union men would congregate at one point in a ragged army, and go on a march through unorganized fields, speaking and organizing as they went. As men joined the union the army grew larger, morale grew higher, and non-union mines shut down,” he writes.

Buy book now | Download ebook now | Back to William C. Blizzard and Wess Harris's page

A Review of When Miners March

Struggle and Lose, Struggle and Win!
By Ron Jacobs

"Some readers, some scholars may protest this writer's method of departing from academic "objectivity," and rooting enthusiastically for the coal miners. That is too bad."

Imagine yourself in a tavern or diner somewhere near Blair Mountain in West Virginia. It's a Saturday afternoon and the television at the bar is quiet for a change. Football season is over. You're sitting at the table with a couple older fellows, one of whom is telling a story. The guy talking introduced himself when you sat down at his table as William C. Blizzard, Jr. The story he's telling is his daddy's and it's all about the miners and their battle for a union in these parts. It's a great story and he's not telling it with any pretense at objectivity. William C. Blizzard is a union man through and through, just like his father was. Furthermore, Mr. Blizzard isn't joking when he calls the story he's telling a battle, because that's what it was. With guns and everything. Just to add a little more atmosphere you take advantage of an interruption in William C. Blizzard's story to walk over and take a look at the jukebox. Maybe there's something good on there. By the time you get back to the table--after choosing fifty cents worth of songs--Blizzard is relating how the term redneck came about.

According to the story, miners who were in the union (the union of course being the United Mine Workers of America-UMWA) or sympathetic to it wore red bandannas tied around their necks so that other miners and their families could differentiate friend from foe. Hence the name redneck. Wearing that red kerchief opened one to all kinds of abuse by the forces of law and order, private and public. It's not like there was really much difference between the two, however, seeing as how the coal operators and owners ran the entire state of West Virginia. Some things don't change very much, do they?

The story being told in the scenario mentioned above is now available to the reading public. Some fifty years after it was published as a serial in the national union newspaper of the 1950s, Labor's Daily, Mr. Blizzard has finally released his history of the great 1921 battle for Blair Mountain and the struggles leading up to that showdown. Although at least two other books exist on the subject, Blizzard's When Miners March is the only one told by a participant. Indeed, it was the author's father, Bill Blizzard, that is known as the unofficial general of the union forces that had finally had enough of the capitalist forces arrayed against the West Virginian coal miners and picked up arms against the coal operators' army. For this role, he ended up facing several charges, with the charge of treason being one of them. Never ones to hide their sympathies, Mr. Blizzard and his father together relate a gripping story of individual hardship and group solidarity in the face of what can only be termed inhuman brutality and malignant neglect.

Underlying the individual misdeeds and local conspiracies of the private detective forces and their mine owning bosses is the greater conspiracy of monopoly capitalism. Ranging from mass evictions of striking miners and their families to racist attacks and murder, many of these deeds are vividly described. Although the conspiracy of capital alluded to above is harder to pinpoint, its evil acts are of greater substance and longevity. William C. Blizzard details some of how this conspiracy worked in the early twentieth century when he describes the machinations of US Steel in the coal mines of southern West Virginia and its boardrooms in Pittsburgh, PA. The dollars saved and profits recorded in Pittsburgh became lost jobs, mine accidents and anti-union activity in the Boone County, West Virginia. The only difference between that time and now is the names of the corporations, their size, and their public relations. In case one needs an example, let me remind you of the recent explosion and death of twelve miners at the Sago mine in Talmansville, West Virginia. That mine was owned by Anker Coal Group until it was bought out by an even larger conglomerate known as International Coal Group. Both corporations ignored several dozen safety warnings and citations, preferring to pay the relatively small fines instead of bringing the mine up to code. If nothing else, this proves that perhaps the major difference between the days of the Bill Blizzard and today is that government is even cozier nowadays with the coal mine owners than they were back then. (As I was proofing this review news came over the wire about another fire in another West Virginia mine, with two miners unaccounted for).

Essentially an oral history on paper, When Miners March is the story of the birth of the UMWA in West Virginia. It is also a study of the reality of capitalism and its toll on those who work in its sphere. It's about men who believe in the the possibilities of human solidarity and other men who succumb to greed and power. It is a testimony to the power of the idea that everyone deserves a safe workplace, a decent wage, and the life such a wage buys. Most importantly, this book is an inspiration to those who still believe that those things are worth fighting for.

Buy book now | Download ebook now | Back to William C. Blizzard and Wess Harris's page

An Interview With Owen Hill

By Kevin O'Neill
Mary Magazine
January 2010

Owen Hill’s novel The Incredible Double features Clay Blackburn, a book-scout by day, moonlighting as an unlicensed private eye. When a big chain store tries to set up shop in the community, Blackburn is pulled into a murder mystery and thrust into contact with a diverse cast of quirky contacts, all with their own stake in the political landscape of Blackburn’s hometown, Berkeley, California. The Incredible Double is full of humor, but also manages to highlight stark and uncomfortable realities. Hill is concerned with giving his reader a spectrum of experience—from distraction and sheer pleasure, to absurd but cutting satire—all in the service of a compelling mystery, because at its heart, that is what The Incredible Double is: a well told mystery. As for the novel’s humor, Hill says his taste for satire comes from a desire to “hold up the mirror” to the world he sees each day as a Berkeley-based poet and novelist. Appropriately, Owen and I met at a coffee house fifty feet from Berkeley’s border. Sitting outside, amidst foot traffic and exhaust from passing cars, we talked about his approach to fiction and poetry, his most recent novel, and his belief in the left’s need for a Clint Eastwood type.


KO: Clay Blackburn, the protagonist from The Chandler Apartments and your most recent novel The Incredible Double, is a bisexual poet/book scout/private eye, hired by a drugstore kingpin to scout the underbelly of Berkeley, California. When did you first start thinking of writing about Clay, and how were you inspired to take on this project?

OH: Well, I live in an apartment building called the Chandler apartments, so it became kind of a dare. People said, you know, you should write a mystery. So, it sort of came out of that, and the neighborhood, which is sometimes daunting, but interesting. And, I sort of backed into this ridiculously cheap, rent-controlled apartment and had to make the best of it. So, I started to romanticize it. There are a lot of crime novels that are possible in that neighborhood.

KO: Really?

OH: Yeah, too many maybe. So, it was definitely inspired by the neighborhood.

KO: As you mentioned, The Incredible Double takes the form of the mystery novel. But in some ways this book subverts the expectations of that genre. The tone is light at parts, the novel’s often very funny. There is even a small jab at Paul Auster in there…

OH: Yeah, I hope he knows I am doing it with respect, having read most of his books. I come out of the poetry community. I’ve been a poet, I’ve run a reading series for years, I did a magazine. So, using those characters, and making fun of that in these books sort of came naturally. I knew the territory.

KO: And, potentially one reason why the mystery genre is so suited for this project is that the novel is a very fun read, and compels you toward the answer, even if the journey is an unexpected deviation from a popular contemporary mystery. But, it’s such a good story, that you just want to know what will happen next. I think sometimes “spinning a good yarn,” or putting down an interesting story, is as important as any other aim you have for a work of fiction.

OH: Well, I think, especially for this type of novel. It’s the engine. It keeps you going, it keeps you reading. And, if I can construct a plot that isn’t too ridiculous, or is only somewhat ridiculous, having the reader hooked by the story allows me to spin off and do all this other stuff. So, it’s a little like form in poetry. You find a form, and you use it, but you’re really saying something way outside of that form, possibly.

KO: It gives you a skeleton to flesh out. It’s funny how structure can be freeing sometimes. People often think of structure as confining.

OH: Yeah.

KO: Well, something I kept thinking about with your work is the concept of “place.” People always talk about place in literature, how important it is or isn’t in a given work. Some novels, for example, could take place anywhere. You take the same characters and situation and put them in France or Japan, and it’s the same thing. It’s not that way with The Incredible Double. I feel like it’s just as much about the place of Berkeley, as it as about anything else.

OH: Sure. Genre writing, especially the mystery genre, the sense of place is such an important part. I was with somebody trying to come up with something where place didn’t matter. And I think Simenon, even though it’s mostly in France, doesn’t matter that much. But most mystery authors, you know Chandler with LA, and Hammett with San Francisco, place and setting are really important, and I tried to stay true to that.

KO: And it seemed to me, reading the novel, that there are specifics about Berkeley that you are writing about. You’re writing about this particular character, Clay Blackburn and this particular mystery, but I think you were also writing about things like class, and Berkeley as sort of a stronghold for free thought in the Bay Area. Marvin, Clay Blackburn’s assistant, refers to “America” as “everything east of Oakland and west of New York City.”

OH: Yeah, Berkeley, I don’t know. Berkeley is kind of the perfect curse. Because there is all of this free thought, and such a high level of intellect. And there’s the chance to put some lefty theories into motion. Half of the time they work, and half the time they fail. So, you hate the place and you love the place. It makes it a fascinating place to write about. I don’t think there are that many towns like that in the world. Little communist strongholds in Europe, maybe. I don’t know, Madison.

KO: There also seems to be a real, I won’t say sentimentality, but a real care toward this world, in The Incredible Double. The character of Marvin is so endearing, and you talk in the book about Santa Barbara as a town that used to have its own artistic community that was sort of driven out by high rent, and is missed.

OH: Actually, I am spending today finishing up a follow-up that is very much about rent, and the “rent that killed Bohemia” thing.

KO: And in this book we have a large drug store coming in, taking business and power away from those local businesses that are more heavily invested in the community.

OH: It’s a fascinating but heavy theme in communities. Individualities being ruined. I tried to do it in a light-hearted way, but hoped there was some satirical edge to that. The drugstore kingpin is a real cartoon. But watching interviews with CEOs on TV, they’re cartoons too. I’m kind of amazed. They’re hard to satirize because they can be so stupid and yet so powerful. We’re all sort of under the spell of this “Oprah Winfrey,” overly positive mentality. And I kind of tried to make fun of that.

KO: You play with elements of the absurd in the book. Nobody takes notice to a man being dangled out of the window, or a dead homeless man on a doorstep. There is a line, “Clay Blackburn responds to absurdity with absurdity.” Is that part of this project, just responding in a way to what you see on the street?

OH: Yeah. I guess that’s the job of everyone who writes satire. You try to put the mirror up and say, “You look like a monkey, you asshole.” And hopefully people get that, and laugh. I think possibly my favorite American author is Terry Southern, who is kind of this lost genius. Three or four novels, some killer short stories, really great stories, a little bit of journalism. Sort of pre Hunter Thompson sort of thing. He wrote Dr. Strangelove, he’s known more as a screenwriter, but his novels are over the top absurd, and they’re fantastic satire, like at the level of Mark Twain. So, I aspire to do something like that. To make people think of all the craziness.

KO: What about the cast of characters? We have Bailey, a transsexual ex-FBI agent. Another character is a paranoid Berkeley conspiracy theorist that thinks Gore Vidal plotted the Kennedy assassination. And then there is Marvin, who is this sort of refined older leftist activist.

OH: I could do another novel with just Marvin as the protagonist. He’s sort of the happy-go-lucky terrorist. I think in this next novel, he’s pretty bad. But, always amusing. The left needs a Clint Eastwood type, you know? Almost a Superman, who can blow people away. So, in my novel Marvin will get to shoot some people. His theme is revolution for the hell of it. What ever happened to that idea? I liked that. Dancing at the revolution, and all that. And I guess that’s sort of a backhanded slap at Berkeley, and theory heads, and leftist jargon. Marvin says, “Let’s just shoot somebody.”

KO: But it feels like the protagonist Clay Blackburn positions himself a bit outside of the easy political definitions, whether it’s “liberal” or “left” or “democrat.” At one point in the book he refers to his fellow patrons in a coffeehouse condescendingly as “blue-staters.”

OH: Yeah. He’s definitely not liberal, either.

KO: Well, even after this novel leaves Berkeley, place is still very important to the work. You texture the different settings with local landmarks, like Tomales Bay’s Johnson’s Oyster House. Or, you point out things like the gradation or polarization of wealth in places like Santa Barbara, Anaheim, and Los Angeles.

OH: It’s definitely something I like to work with, without being too presumptuous or pretentious. And, PM Press is an anarchist press. I know what side I’m on. And class struggle is the real thing. You’ll see it everywhere. It’s what it all comes from and boomerangs around to.

KO: I think that two characters can’t be put together without class being important.

OH: Yeah, you know? We’re supposed to be this classless country and we’re as rigid as India when you think about it.

KO: This novel is also very sensual, as far as the decadence in the descriptions of food, and other things. Clay Blackburn is a connoisseur, and there is a lot of attention paid to the small pleasures, even amidst all the insanity and turmoil that unfolds around him throughout the novel. Through the brand names of the whiskey or tequila he drinks, or the names of the dishes he likes, we see him as a man who works with very little a lot of the time but knows how to live well when he can.

OH: That sort of goes along with the Bay Area sense of place. I guess it’s disappearing, because you can’t do as much with a little as you used to be able to. But, what’s wrong with a lefty liking a nice brand of Scotch, you know? And it is possible to live well in the Bay Area, and he does.

KO: And there is an ideology in just that. As things sort of unravel, and the novel progresses, it feels like these things are small moments of refuge, as if the small pleasures take on more meaning once the struggle begins. Whether it’s sex with Grace, a nice meal, or a good drink.

OH: He is definitely a sensualist. And it’s fun to write about those things anyway. I mean, food? Who doesn’t like to write about food? And sex? Come on, you have to have sex in a novel. It’s fun writing, and it would be very easy to just sort of stop the music and write ten pages on, I don’t know, how to grill a steak.

KO: While we’re talking about description, I want to ask you a question about your poetry. As I read the novel, I found myself continuously thinking about the quality of the language in moments of description, how it managed to be at the same time lush and extremely spare. Take: “We hit the street giggling, our sides touching, finishing off the last of our wine. Top of the world, the pure laser of lust pushing at our extremities, even the street lamps pumped out a flattering light.”

OH: That sounds pretty good. [Laughs].

KO: Yeah, not bad. I’ll keep the example in there. I guess what I want to ask is, having a background in poetry, how is writing fiction different for you?

OH: I almost work in a similar way to writing poetry, because that’s just what I did for so long. It aligns a lot. It’s just one line building on another. [Fiction] is more of a long haul, of course. It’s more of a marathon. But for me, it isn’t that much different, once I come up with the form. Just like when you’re writing a poem: the lines are going to be short skinny lines or long lines, or a prose poem. Once I come up with a kind of form, for the mystery a kind of ebb and flow, it’s just one line on top of another.

KO: Do you feel more comfortable writing in one genre or the other?

OH: It goes back and forth. I’ve been working on fiction a lot now, so poetry feels a little funky. It doesn’t quite feel right. I feel like I’m not working at the top of my game, which is weird because I hang out with really good poets. People say, “Are you writing any poetry?” Well, one came out, but I don’t want to show it to anybody. Hopefully, I get back in the groove at some point. It’s cliché but it’s practice, practice, practice. I steal lines from poetry, so sometimes I am back and forth reading poetry. And every now and then I get emails from somebody noticing.

KO: And as far as inspiration goes, you explained for The Chandler Apartments and The Incredible Double that you were inspired by the neighborhood and the events around it, but what other kinds of things inspire you to write?

OH: It just comes from listening, I think. I work on the Avenue, working at Moe’s. It’s that Burroughs line: “I get my best lines from stupid people.” Well, sometimes I get my best lines from smart people, because I work in a bookstore. But, inspiration comes from eavesdropping a lot. And sometimes it comes as you work, you know? You’re gutting it out, and just spending all day trying to write something, and then the light goes on. It’s very mysterious. Once in a while I feel like I’m really onto something. But often not, and things just come slowly.

KO: So, do you have any projects in the works right now?

OH: Yeah, there’s always something. There’s an, I guess three-quarters finished novel. This short novel that I’m knocking down. PM Press does a series where you’re interviewed and then there’s a fifty-page story. So I’m doing something for that. And those are all Clay Blackburn things. I started out with this idea that I wanted to do six of them. Six Clay Blackburn stories, or novels. And I think about doing his poetry. The Selected Poems of Clay Blackburn. But, he hasn’t written any poetry yet. I think I quote one line, that’s it.

KO: You mentioned writing a book about Marvin, would that be one of the six?

OH: Maybe outside. Or maybe Clay would still narrate, but it would be completely Marvin’s story.

KO: Well, I look forward to the next installment, and seeing Marvin in action.

Buy this book now | Download ebook now | Back to Owen Hill's Page

Lonely Hearts Killer Book Review

American Leftist
February 3rd, 2010

Amazingly, Oakland, California has not one, but two anarchist book publishing firms. AK Press has been a fixture for quite some time, but the new one, PM Press, was founded in 2007. To its credit, PM Press has embarked upon an effort to publish works of fiction as well as ones related to theory, economics and social history.

Last year, PM Press published a translation of Tomoyuki Hoshino's Lonely Hearts Killer, and, apparently, more translated works of international fiction are forthcoming. In Lonely Hearts, Hoshino seizes upon the Japanese identification with the Emperor as a point of entry to confront troubling questions about the nature of hierachy and the purposes that it serves within society. The brilliance of the novel lies in Hoshino's decision to put two distinctively Japanese cults in conflict with one another, the cult of the emperor and the suicide cult of seppuku and jigai.

As the novel begins, the people of Japan are mourning the loss of their young, vibrant, charismatic young emperor. The ascension of such a young person (about 40) to the throne broke excited the populace, who hoped that he could ignite the reinvigoration of an increasingly routinized society. But, instead, the Young Majesty died after contracting an unknown illness, plunging much of the country into an isolative despair, with the exception of two young film students, Inoue and Iroha. But Iroha's lover, Mikoto, entered a comatose state for days on end.

Upon his reawakening, Iroha introduces him to Inoue, resulting in the death of Mikoto at the hand of Inoue and Inoue's suicide in a sleeping cafe, the Dormir. Inoue leaves behind an Internet statement to the effect that, inspired by His Young Majesty, he was going to kill himself to escape this illusory, demoralizing world, going so far as to encourage mass suicide:

I will lead the vanguard and sacrifice myself. If enough of you identify with my dream, and, we can really bring back this world to what it is truly meant to be. We can extinquish this phony world, and return to the real, natural, authentic world of the dead.

In his penetrating study of anarchism in China, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution, Arif Dirlik observes that . . . anarchist ideology, in its peculiar formulation of questions of conflict and interest in society, lent itself to counterrevolution almost as easily as to revolution. In Lonely Hearts, Hoshino confronts us with the troubling insight that such an observation warrants a global instead of a site specific application by describing a reactionary public response to the deaths of Inoue and Mikoto.

Instead of recognizing that Inoue sought to induce a rejection of hierarchy and the deference to authority that it necessarily entails, the public became more and more hostile to his memory as suicides proliferated. Predictably, the government seizes upon the crisis as an opportunity to seize greater police powers for itself, posthumously condemning Inoue as a terrorist, and thereby suppressing all of his cyberspace statements and videos. A small minority answered his call, but a majority either rejected him or remained indifferent as the state assumed more control over their lives. During the period, a woman ascends the throne for the first time as His Young Majesty's successor. Caught between the constraints of her personality, her role as empress and the requirements for reaching people through the media, she proves herself incapable of alleviating public feelings of unease and aimlessness.

To the extent that there was an individualistic response to the deaths of Inoue and Mikoto, it was in a social Darwinist direction, as people could only fall back upon past cultural experience. Suicides became love suicides and love suicides became assassination suicides, analogous to propaganda by the deed, and assassination suicides became indiscriminate love suicides, ones in which a person randomly selected someone to die with them. As you might have guessed, some responded by adopting the rationale of the war on terror, kill them before they kill us. In one celebrated incident, a young man kills his best friend because he thought his friend was running towards him to kill him. A court finds him not guilty, and he subsequently becomes a politically powerful figure.

Through this narrative, which he presents reflectively through his three primary characters, Inoue, Iroha and Mokuren, Hoshino mines a rich vein of social conformity and autocracy that the Japanese left has been unable to transcend, as explored in the films of Nagisa Oshima. But some reject the false choice between suicide and submission. After the deaths of Inoue and Mikoto, Iroha goes to live in a retreat center nestled in a cedar forest, a retreat operated by her high school friend, Mokuren. As she lives there for several years, she deals with her grief over the deaths of Inoue and Mikoto, and imperfectly strives to assert an independent identity. She does so in a way that Mokuren condemns as perpetuating the circle of cynicism, self-centered rebellion and sacrifice initiated by Inoue.

By contrast, Mokuren challenges the emerging social Darwinism in an editorial entitled, I Won't Kill, and rightists direct their rage towards her and the residents of her retreat center. Her challenge, and the violent rightist response to it, becomes the center of a media circus, reducing her attempt to emotionally reach people into yet another form of entertainment. If there is a moral to Hoshino's postmodern fable of alienation and impotence, it is that before there can be a political revolution, there must first be a social one within our hearts and minds. Or, even more, a social one renders the need for a political one superfluous.

Buy this book now | Download ebook now | Back to Tomoyuki Hoshino's page

My Baby Rides the Short Bus

By Ri J. Turner
Feminist Review
February 11, 2010

My Baby Rides the Short Bus is an anthology of articles written by parents about their firsthand experiences of raising children with disabilities. In addition to their common identity as parents of disabled children, the contributors also share another trait: all of them find themselves outside of the mainstream by virtue of identity or political perspective. Together the articles make up a lively collection of authentic voices that speak to the joys and challenges of being marginalized and/or subcultural parents raising special-needs children.

Many of the authors write about how their non-mainstream identities have affected their experience of raising special-needs children. Thida Cornes writes about how she learned to work within the constraints of her own disability, dystonia (a physical disability that causes muscular spasms), to take care of her son, who has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy. A lesbian minister, Maria June writes about becoming, at age twenty-three, the foster mom of a fifteen-year-old with special needs. Amber E. Taylor, a self-described “black biracial dyke with head-to-toe visible tattoos and a bald head” and an adoptive parent of a son with Down syndrome, writes about the backlash she receives from biological parents of disabled children who think she shouldn’t attend support group meetings because she “chose” to parent a special child.

The authors also write about the process of navigating the many institutions ostensibly set up to help special-needs children, but which often end up sidelining them. Several authors write about the experience of diagnosis: the behavioral testing milieu in which young children, separated from parents and subjected to unfamiliar conditions, unsurprisingly fail to show their full range of abilities, and then are slapped with labels that sometimes sound more like death sentences. Authors who spend 24/7 with their children write about the experience of not being believed by “specialists” about their children's abilities and needs, or being subtly blamed for their children’s disabilities. Expressing the frustration felt by many of the authors, Kerry Cohen writes, “Unless I hate the things that make [my son] different from other children, I will always be a wayward mother.”

But not all the stories are about frustration and tragedy—many of the authors write about the creative and energetic ways they have found to help their children thrive, often in direct opposition to the institutions that are set up to “help.” Karen Wang and Heather Newman write about “unschooling”—creating stimulating and safe learning spaces at home, tailored specifically to their children’s particular needs—while Shannon Des Roches Rosa tells how she co-founded a special education PTA that helps parents of children with disabilities advocate for their children in the local public school system.

As so many of us know from personal experience, it can be very difficult to be part of multiple marginalized communities. As one of the authors, Andrea Winninghoff, laments, “In a community of parents with deaf kids, I will always be the single, young, gay mom. Among gay parents, I will always be the one with the deaf kid that they can’t speak to.” While there are many books available on parenting special-needs children, very few of those books offer an explicitly political analysis of the rights of special-needs families and of the systems that do or don’t serve them, and very few of those books acknowledge the experiences of parents who are out of the mainstream, whether due to race, class, gender identity or sexual orientation, disability, political beliefs, or lifestyle. Frank, engaging, and broad-ranging, My Baby Rides the Short Bus is a rare and precious treasury of these too-often invisible stories.

Buy this book now | Download ebook now | Back to Jennifer Silverman's page | Back to Sarah Talbot page | Back to Yantra Bertelli's page

Metropolis Reviews Lonely Hearts Killer

By James Hadfield
February 11, 2010

One of the more frustrating aspects of reviewing translated Japanese literature is the waiting. While Haruki Murakami is hampered only by the length of time it takes Jay Rubin to bang out a decent translation, most modern writers will wait a decade or two before seeing their work appear in English, by which point it’s been robbed of much of its resonance.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. In the introduction to Lonely Hearts Killer, Adrienne Carey Hurley bemoans the unwillingness of most publishers to release “contemporary Japanese fiction that challenges stereotypes or demands serious self-reflection.” After much shopping around, she eventually found a home for her translation of Tomoyuki Hoshino’s 2004 novel at PM Press, an independent publisher that specializes in radical and anarchist literature. It’s baffling that nobody else would be willing to release a work that speaks so directly to Japan’s present fears—the declining birthrate, environmental problems, rising nationalism, and public and national security—and does so in a layered, complex narrative.

“I have no real sense of participating in society,” declares the story’s first narrator, a young—and largely unemployed—filmmaker and blogger called Shoji Inoue. When Japan’s emperor dies at the age of 46, only three years after acceding to the throne, it leaves the nation in a daze that’s compounded by the fact that the only heir is a woman. Many young people, hitherto unconcerned by the complexities of the imperial line, are “spirited away” into outright catatonia—something that Shoji surveys with bemused detachment, wondering why he isn’t affected.

He finds a certain amount of solace in Iroha, a fellow filmmaker who shares his impassivity: as she describes it, both of them are “nothing without something to reflect, just an empty screen.” Her boyfriend Mikoto was among those felled by narcolepsy, and when he and Shoji finally meet, the latter suddenly finds new meaning in the emperor’s demise, leading him to start a wave of so-called “love suicides.”

Iroha picks up the narrative from here, recalling her escape to a mountaintop retreat run by an old friend, Mokuren, where she obsesses over secondhand reports on the gradual unraveling of society down below. The wave of suicides becomes indiscriminate, leading in turn to acts of “justifiable self-defense” that are reported/distorted by a hysterical mass media. In a touch of mordant humor, a student who preemptively kills his friend goes on to publish a bestseller entitled The Value of Survival; when Mokuren publically affirms her refusal to kill anyone, she and the retreat’s residents are hounded for shirking responsibility.

Though society ultimately draws back from the brink, Iroha finds herself frustrated with what she sees as the illusionary calm that replaces the madness. “The holes in this screen we call society get filled with cheap pride whenever they become visible, and the projector starts back up,” she writes. Yet when she attempts to make a grand gesture of her own, it falls flat—to the cynical delight of the book’s third narrator.

“She was actually doing okay and hanging in there, but then she got carried away by those big ideas,” Mokuren writes of her friend. But even this cool pragmatist starts to waver in the final pages of the story.

This is a demanding, messy piece of work, ripe with narrative ambiguities. Subsequent events such as the 2008 Akihabara massacre and the demented media blather over Noriko Sakai have lent it added prescience, resulting in a novel that—let’s not beat around the bush—is more compelling than anything I’ve reviewed in the past year.

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Part Two: Victoria Law Explores "Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women"

RBBcoverBy Joan Brunwasser

February 13, 2010

Welcome back for the second installment of my interview with Victoria Law, author of Resistance Behind Bars. Another factor in the women's virtual invisibility in prison is the way the institution itself stifles any complaints or dissent. If I recall correctly, filing complaints is considered on a par with inciting a riot, bringing retribution on those who dare to stand up to the system.

This even extends to non-threatening educational programs where inmates strive to better themselves. These efforts are often unceremoniously shut down. Why doesn't the system want women to become literate and aware of their rights? And what is the basic purpose of incarceration anyway? Is it punishment or rehabilitation?

If prisons were meant to rehabilitate, then the system should have no problems whatsoever with women's efforts to become literate, educated and aware of their rights. However, despite the mission statements of various departments of corrections across the country, prisons are not meant to rehabilitate those held within.

Prisons are and have been a means of social control. In the post Civil War South, new laws were passed to strip newly freed slaves of their rights under the slightest pretext. Under the Black Codes, people could be arrested and jailed for being outside after a certain hour, absence from work or possession of a firearm, but only if they were Black. The passing of the Black Codes radically changed the color of prisons in the South--prior to the Civil War, when slavery was the form of social control for Black people, the majority of those in prison were White. After the Civil War, incarceration became the means to strip newly freed Blacks of their freedom and their rights.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the rise of female independence caused an increase in women's incarceration for actions such as being drunk, engaging in pre- or extramarital sex, contracting a venereal disease, or "keeping bad company." Like the Black Codes in the South, these actions were only criminalized when they were performed by women; men could do all of these and not be penalized.

These days, laws like Three Strikes and other mandatory sentencing legislation as well as racial profiling by police across the country disproportionately target people in poor communities and communities of color. Again, we're seeing incarceration being used as a form of social control against those who are poor and of color. For instance, in 2000, the census found that 75% of New York State prisoners came from 7 neighborhoods in New York City.

These neighborhoods were poor communities of color where there were few resources and opportunities for the residents. Incarceration hasn't made those neighborhoods "safer" nor has it rehabilitated those who have been imprisoned so that they can return to their communities and thrive; instead, it's disrupted and destroyed families in these neighborhoods and made it even more difficult for people who were already at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder to survive and thrive. Those who have been to prison face not only the same lack of resources and opportunities, but now have a criminal record which prevents them from getting certain jobs, qualifying for certain housing or social safety nets (for example, the 1996 welfare "reform" banned people with drug felonies for life. Similar legislation banned them from receiving governmental financial aid for college), etc.

It's also not a coincidence that mass incarceration began as the civil rights movement and various liberation struggles were gaining momentum in the United States. Government officials linked the growing civil unrest with crime and used arrest and incarceration to remove people from their communities *before* they could organize against social conditions and demand their rights.

So to get back to your question, if the system were set up to rehabilitate people, it would not be threatened by women (or people) becoming literate and educated and learning about their rights. It would actually encourage these actions.

Again though, the basic purpose of incarceration is not rehabilitation, but social control, so to have people learn about their rights and then begin challenging the injustices and oppressions around them is a threat.

And, following this thread, it would seem that the prison system would want the family to remain strong and united so that women, upon being freed, would more easily reintegrate into their lives and communities. If so, the way prisons seem to run in the opposite direction. As a mother, this aspect of our system bothers me the most. Can you talk a bit, Vikki, about how the system uses women prisoners' families and access to them to keep them in line? How many kids under 18 have a mother in prison? And what happens to these kids while their mothers are incarcerated?

In 2007, approximate 147,400 children under the age of 18 had a mother behind bars. Over 2/3 of all women in prison reported having a child under the age of 18. Keep in mind again that with self-reporting, the actual numbers tend to be higher. If there is someone else who can take care of her children when she is arrested, a mother may very well not report having minor children to the police or other authorities for fear of child welfare officials taking away her children.

But also keep in mind that about half of all incarcerated mothers were single mothers before being arrested and, given that those who go to prison tend to be those with the least amount of resources and opportunities, they have less of a support network to rely upon to help care for (and keep in contact with) their children.

A 2007 government study of incarcerated parents found that 37% of incarcerated mothers reported that their children were living with the father. In contrast, 89% of incarcerated fathers reported that their kids were living with the mother. An incarcerated mother's children are five times more likely to end up in foster care than an incarcerated father's children. And, as I pointed out earlier, this becomes particularly pernicious because of the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act's (ASFA's) stringent timeline. (Here's another fact that will trouble you: the 15 month timeline was decided upon as a political compromise; it was not based on any child development theory or practice. When ASFA was first negotiated by Congress, one party wanted the timeline to be 12 months and the other wanted it to be 18 months. So hundreds of children are legally losing their parents based on a timeline that was a political compromise in Congress.)

The children of incarcerated mothers who don't end up in foster care are often cared for by other family members, like their grandparents.

For those who think that this is not such a bad thing, remember that people who go to prison are often at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder and that the families and communities from which they come are as well. That means that grandparents may already be struggling financially (and perhaps health-wise as well). Given that women's prisons tend to be built far from the urban communities they called home before incarceration, it is a strain for caregivers to take children to visit their mothers. One study found that 60% of incarcerated mothers are imprisoned at least 100 miles away from their home communities. Approximately half of all incarcerated mothers in state and federal prisons report never having had a visit with their child(ren).

Keeping in contact by phone is also a huge challenge, one that can be almost impossible for those with limited resources. In Colorado, for example, a 20-minute phone call costs $3.80 in state or $4.60 for an out-of-state phone call. Again, given that family members and caregivers often come from the same socioeconomic circumstances as the women in prison, these costs can be prohibitive.

Even when a family has the means to visit their loved one in prison, they are subject to the whims and caprices of the prison staff on duty. A woman in Colorado recently sent me a few examples of how prison officials can arbitrarily withhold visits:

  • Last month, my roommate was expecting a visit from her family, including her four-year-old daughter. Visits begin at 1 pm, but she was not called until 3:30 pm. She learned that her family had arrived at 1:45, but the guard at the front desk told them that the visiting room was full and that they would have to leave and return later if they wanted to visit. He told them not to come back until 3 pm and that they could not wait in the parking lot or sit in their car.

Later, another woman, who had been in a visit that day, heard about this, told her that there had been an empty table next to hers during the entire afternoon. Of course, there was no way for my roommate's family to know this in order to question being turned away. My roommate knew even less; all she could do was wait and worry.

  • Last weekend, my friend was to have two days of visits from her mother and daughter, who had driven 1200 miles to see her. On the second day, her mom arrived wearing the exact same shirt as on the previous day. The officer on this day did not permit her mother to visit until she left and bought a new shirt, despite the fact that it had not been a problem 24 hours earlier.

All the while, my friend watched from the window as her family pulled into the parking lot, walked in, then she watched them leave without knowing what was going on. She sat on the stairs, devastated and crying for what she believed was a lost visit until her family returned and she was paged one hour later. One hour is precious time, especially when our families drive across the country to visit.
Now that I've given you some context as to how hard it is for mothers to stay in contact with their children and families, I'll answer your question about the system using women's access to families to keep them in line.

As you can see from the above examples, prison staff can arbitrarily impede a woman's ability to visit with her family, even when the woman has not been challenging prison conditions. Prison administrators also use visiting to punish those who challenge existing prison conditions. A woman incarcerated in New York noted that prison staff would actually turn away family members who were visiting women who had been seen as problematic.

Other times, prison officials have acted to strip a mother of all ability to see her child(ren). After one woman successfully sued the Michigan Department of Corrections for sexual abuse, guards targeted her cell and belongings for frequent searches. In the eight months after MDOC adopted a policy banning visits for prisoners with repeated substance abuse violations, the woman, who had never tested positive for any drug during her eight years of incarceration, received four tickets for substance abuse. "I received two substance abuse tickets in one day," she recalled. "One was for borrowing Motrin (Ibuprofen) from a prisoner for cramps. I also had Iron pills that had been prescribed to me that were a day over the expiration date." These tickets prevented her from having her daughter visit her.

A woman in the federal system had been speaking out against prison conditions in the facility where she was housed. She was finally eligible for a furlough, which was a chance to leave the prison for 36 hours and visit her family at home. The prison's unit manager delayed approving her furlough papers, stating, "It was concluded that you may be a threat because you might contact the media and manipulate the system."

She did eventually receive her furlough and wrote, "Here I am enjoying my sons in my arms and wondering if it is worth it to put my next 7 day furlough and half way house at risk, if I continue writing from prison." However, she concluded, "But my dear friends, I feel that if I do not write to you I am as good as dead. The truth is important to me, and such it should be told."

I give you these examples to illustrate the all-too-real threat that incarcerated mothers face when deciding whether to speak out or otherwise challenge prison conditions. However, despite these threats, mothers (and other women) have spoken out against, challenged and resisted unjust prison conditions.

This breaks my heart. Would I have the strength to persevere in the face of this? I wonder. Let's break here. When we return for the final portion of our interview, Vikki will tell interested readers how we can help women in American prisons.

Part 1 | Part 3 | Buy this book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Vikki Law's Page


Victoria Law Explores "Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women"

RBBcoverBy Joan Brunwasser

February 11, 2010

In late December, I interviewed Ramsey Kanaan of PM Press. In the process, I perused their catalog. One of the books that caught my eye was Victoria Law's, which I subsequently read. It was equally fascinating and harrowing. Welcome to OpEdNews, Vikki. Please tell our readers how you came to write Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women?

In college, I had spent a semester researching post-Attica prisoner organizing and resistance. At the end of that semester, I looked back at what I had found and realized that every instance, except for one, was about male prisoners. I talked this over with my professor and spent the next semester exploring incarcerated women's issues and their ways of resisting or challenging their conditions of confinement. I also explored why their actions weren't as well-documented (or remembered) as their male counterparts.

To do this, I set aside all preconceived notions of what I thought of when I thought of prisoner organizing and started reading books and articles specifically about women in prison. I found a LOT of literature that covered specifically female issues like motherhood and pregnancy behind bars. Issues of parenting (and, of course, pregnancy) are often not even mentioned in books and articles about male prisoner organizing leading people who are looking for instances of prisoner resistance to ignore how people in prison organize around parenting and family issues. Battering and abuse is another issue that comes up in literature about incarcerated women, but again, since that's not an issue that we see impacting men going to prison, it isn't perceived as as a "prison issue."

I also scoured the news (and alternative media, mostly prison-related zines) for mentions of actions by incarcerated women. Once I found that someone had done something (filed a lawsuit, complained to the press, launched a hunger strike, etc), I used the websites of either that state prison system or the federal Bureau of Prisons to find the woman's contact information and sent her a letter explaining who I was and what I was researching. I asked if she would be willing to share her stories and experiences with me.

Not wanting to take without giving back, I offered what I could: I offered to look up lawsuits for them and send them copies of court decisions; I offered to look up other resources for them; I offered to send them books via the Books Through Bars program that I helped start here in NYC; I sent stamps so that they could not only respond to me, but also write letters to other groups or people; in one cases, I offered to call the woman's children when she was unable to call.

I got a lot of reading, researching and writing done in those four months. That one semester really opened my eyes about the gendered perceptions that we, as a society, have about prisons as well as about what resistance looks like (both inside prison walls and outside).

I also want to add that a huge part of my ability to get so much research and writing done in four months was because I had had a baby daughter 6 weeks before the semester started; being stuck inside during the winter with a newborn gave me a LOT of time to read, respond to letters, contemplate ideas and issues (mostly while nursing), and revise draft after draft. I doubt I would have had the same ability to concentrate (and write) if I had still been as a childfree person rushing off from one political event to another at various hours of the day and night or if my daughter had been older, more mobile and needing more direct attention.

photo: Maggie Wrigley

That was the start of what became Resistance Behind Bars. After the semester ended, I kept in contact with most of the women and continued to add their stories and experiences to my paper. I sent the paper to a man named Anthony Rayson, who publishes many many zines of prison writings. He, in turn, photocopied the paper and brought it with him to a talk he gave about prisoner organizing; someone at his talk took the paper and turned it into a pamphlet and started distributing it.

I continued to add stories and facts to my original paper as I came across them. I also started taking sections of my paper, like the part about women's organizing for better health care and women creating their own media, and sent them to activist publications like Clamor Magazine, Punk Planet and off our backs.

Almost 8 years after I had first started exploring this subject, I met Ramsey Kanaan at PM Press. He was interested in publishing my work as a book. I wrote to the women who had shared their stories with me and told them about the opportunity to spread their experiences to wider audiences. All of them agreed to have their stories published, although a couple of them asked that their real names not be used.

Following the example of a few other articles by activist groups on the outside written about women in prison, I decided that I would share my drafts with the women whom I was writing about. Every woman got multiple drafts of the chapter(s) that her stories and experiences appeared in. Each woman had the opportunity to add, correct, update or remove anything that pertained to her.

That must have been incredibly time-consuming.

In a couple of instances, women also commented on some of the material and information in that chapter. For instance, when I sent the chapter on education to RJ, she commented extensively on a study about higher education in women's prisons, pointing out that the study made prison seem like an idealized environment for women to pursue a higher education and highlighting some of the harsher daily realities for incarcerated students.

I also had incredible help from several people on the outside who read my entire manuscript at various stages, gave feedback and asked questions that forced me to explore the issues further.

And, being the mother of a small child (although she might disagree with the characterization of herself as "small"), I want to stress that a book-length work would not have been possible without the huge amount of support I received from both my friends and the people with whom I organize. I realize that not all mothers get this type of support, although they should, and that I'm extremely fortunate to have such a wonderful support system.

That's the long answer. When I told her about the interview and this question, my daughter, now age 9, suggested a shorter response: "There are some things in the world that I disagree with. Also, many people don't think about women when they think about prisons and so I wanted to write a book that brought attention to them."

If we look at the imprisoned as being at the bottom of the totem pole, women prisoners are, in general, even lower. Women face many disadvantages that men do not. Could you talk about that a bit, Vikki?

When prisons were first built in the U.S., they were designed for men. Women were not thought about when prisons were designed. When women were incarcerated, they were stuck in the attics or basements of the penitentiaries. Sometimes they were even stuck in the cells next to male prisoners (and then were blamed for any disturbance that their presence caused among the male prison population). They were given less access to the few programs and activities that the men were allowed, such as access to the chapel, medical care or to go outdoors. They were also in danger of sexual abuse from the male prison staff.

Keeping that in mind, we can see how, even centuries later, incarceration is still gendered as male and thus prisons are designed with men in mind. For instance, prison health care is geared towards men. This is not to say that men in prison have excellent medical care, mind you. Health care in prison is atrocious for all genders, but it also does not take into account the specific health concerns of women, such as menstruation, pregnancy, breast cancer, cervical cancer, etc. (I also want to add that the prison health care system takes into account even less the concerns of transgendered and transsexual prisoners)

Another aspect that affects women much more often than it affects men is parenting. This reflects not only the way prisons were originally designed but the way our society, as a whole, is gendered so that the bulk of parenting falls upon mothers. The majority of people in prison are parents, but when a father goes to prison, often times a female relative (such as a wife, girlfriend, mother or sister) will take on raising his child(ren). When a mother goes to prison, she's much more likely to already be a single parent. Lacking the same support as her male counterpart, her children are five times more likely to end up in the foster care system.

This becomes particularly pernicious because, under the 1997 federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (or ASfA), if a child is in foster care for fifteen of the last twenty-two months, the child welfare agency is required to file a petition to terminate parental rights. Only 2 states have made exceptions for incarcerated parents.

However, most people don't think of parenting when they think about prison. Even incarcerated fathers don't necessarily recognize parenting as a prison issue. Last year, I did a talk at a reentry program for formerly incarcerated men. Half of the men were fathers; all of them had their kids cared for by their wives or other relatives while they had been locked up. None of them had had their children placed in the foster care system because there was no one willing to care for them while their father was incarcerated. The men were startled to learn about the 15-month time line of ASFA because their children were taken care of and so ASFA didn't impact them.

Yet another aspect that disproportionately affects women in prison yet is ignored is abuse. Over half of women in local jails, state and federal prisons report having experienced past physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse. Keep in mind that people tend to underreport experiences of abuse, so that number is, in reality, much higher.

A Bureau of Justice report found that women in prison are three times more likely to have been physically and/or sexually abused before incarceration than men. However, prisons not only lack the resources to help support women in working through past abuse, but often perpetuate the abuse. Under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, gender cannot be considered when employing guards. This means that women have the right to work in male prisons and men have the right to work in female prisons. In many, many cases, this has led to sexual abuse of women prisoners by male staff members, who often have the right to be in sensitive areas such as the toilet area, the shower area, the housing units where women dress, undress and sleep, etc.

I could go on and on about how women face additional problems and dangers than their male counterparts in prison, but I'll stop with these examples. I do want to emphasize though that I am not pointing out these disadvantages to call for more "women-friendly" prisons. The construction of the first women's prison units were the result of well-intentioned reformers' horror at the abuses and depravities that women suffered when they were housed in male prisons.

However, when the first female-only prison unit was built in Illinois in 1859, the number of women being sent to prison tripled because judges became less reluctant to send women to the hellholes that were prison.

More recently, in 2006, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) identified 4500 women who did not need to be imprisoned and instead would be better off in their home communities getting drug treatment, job training, etc. Instead of putting together a plan to release them, however, CDCR proposed building 4500 new beds in what they called Female Rehabilitative Community Corrections Centers, essentially mini-prisons, in the urban areas where many of these women had lived before arrest **without** closing any of the beds in the existing women's prisons. In essence, their recommendation means that 4500 more women could be sentenced to prisons. The existence of these mini-prisons also meant that, lacking many of these treatment programs on the outside, judges would be more likely to sentence women to these Corrections Centers to access these programs.

However, the bill that was finally passed in 2007, AB76, did not address the root causes of rising female incarceration: mandatory sentencing, racial profiling, poverty and the feminization of poverty, or the lack of support systems for women leaving prison. Instead of focusing on reforming the prison system to make it more habitable for women, I'm a firm believer that we should shift these resources back into the communities to address the reasons why women are sent to prison in the first place.

Okay, Vikki. Let's pause here. When we return, you can tell our readers how our prison system mitigates against families staying together and how prisoners' children can be used as pawns to control their mothers' behavior.

Part 2 | Buy this book now | Download e-Book now | Back to Vikki Law's Page


Homeland Security:

Why "No-Fly" Just Doesn't Fly
By Randall Amster J.D., Ph.D.
t r u t h o u t | News Analysis
Febraury 3, 2010

Here's a quick quiz: What do Ted Kennedy, Cat Stevens and Nelson Mandela have in common? Okay, so that's an easy one for you folks with attention spans longer than it takes to type out a tweet. Indeed, all of these luminaries have appeared on the "No-Fly List," also known as the "Terrorist Watch List," which is used to prevent suspect persons from being able to fly on commercial aircraft in or out of the United States. The list was established after 9/11, and is estimated to contain perhaps half a million names, although its precise workings are shrouded by the vicissitudes of "national security."

Following the Christmas Day bombing attempt, it has been reported by CNN that "the US government has lowered the threshold for information deemed important enough to put suspicious individuals on a watch list or no-fly list, or have their visa revoked." Officials have stated that "the new standard is much lower than before December 25. For example, decisions could be taken to put someone on a no-fly list or a watch list based on one credible source, instead of the previous standard of using multiple sources." As Wired subsequently reported, not everyone on a "watch list" automatically winds up on the "no fly list," although the implications of being on any incarnation of these lists can include immediate arrest, the collection of biometric data, information being gathered about contacts, and notification of local "fusion centers" that bring together law enforcement agencies at all levels.

Potential abuses of such all-encompassing and secretive powers are obvious, ranging from relatively minor inconveniences such as travel delays to more serious breaches of basic constitutional rights; as the ACLU has observed, the No-Fly List "is so broad that it is certain to include many people who pose no danger and have done nothing illegal." At an even more basic level, practices and policies of this sort brush up against the spirit of the 1976 Church Committee Report on intelligence abuses in the US, which warned in unequivocal terms that "unless new and tighter controls are established by legislation, domestic intelligence activities threaten to undermine our democratic society and fundamentally alter its nature." If anything, the ensuing decades have brought about a move away from the report's recommendations, and in the process have taken us closer to the predicted demise of democracy.

Obviously, these are crucial concerns that deserve to be explored at length. And yet, despite their pragmatic repercussions, there is a sense in which these issues can become something of a theoretical abstraction deployed in the service of expounding upon the Orwellian nature of our emerging surveillance society. As tempting as this is, I have more mundane notions in mind here. These policies impact actual people, their friends and families, and their ability to travel unfettered. They keep the populace in a state of fear and anxiety, grant clandestine officials control over our lives, and justify deeper incursions into not only our civil liberties but our capacities to live freely as well. In short, such policies are dehumanizing, rendering us mere data points in a complex matrix that exists beyond our purview.

One of these dehumanized points of data, however, now has a name and a face. A longtime friend has recently been informed that he is persona non grata in the US, having found himself on the No-Fly List without explanation or meaningful opportunity for rebuttal. Because of this, he has had to cancel a speaking tour here, in which he was to visit universities and community centers around the country, discussing his three new books as well as topics including social movements and political theory. It means that he won't be able to visit with friends and colleagues or to forge new connections here around his life's work. It also places a potentially permanent constraint on his travel to the US, and an official taint on his character as well.

His name is Gabriel Kuhn. I won't detail his entire biography here (you can read more about him on Wikipedia and on his PM Press author's page), but the basic gist is that he's an award-winning author who holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Innsbruck. Kuhn has been politically active in ways consonant with his scholarship, focusing in particular on post-structuralism, social movements and anarchism. He was also a semi-professional soccer player and has lived in and traveled through numerous locales around the world. He presently resides in Sweden, where he has lived since 2006.

Beyond the mere biographical data, Kuhn is one of the kindest and most decent people you could ever hope to meet. I've known him for fifteen years and am proud to count him as one of my closest friends and colleagues. His gentle nature and good humor are evident, and he's a particularly thoughtful person when it comes to things people often take for granted, such as staying in touch across the miles and years, asking about professional activities and family news, and sharing personal stories of his life and travels. Kuhn has never been charged with a crime or an immigration violation, and is a highly respected scholar in the fields of radical politics and anarchist praxis, among other spheres of inquiry.

Yes, Kuhn is an anarchist. But don't get too excited about that - like most, he's an anarchist who believes in community and solidarity, not violence. He has a sophisticated outlook on reconciling the longstanding individual/community tension that lies at the heart of most social and political theories, as indicated by his statement regarding a recent controversy over tactics for change: "Anarchy can only work if the notion of individual freedom is accompanied by the notion of individual responsibility. Where the latter is missing, 'individual freedom' only becomes a pretext for bourgeois egoism, capitalist greed or - as in this case - disrespectful and self-centered conduct...." In other words, he believes that freedom necessitates responsibility if it is to be anything more than an excuse for self-indulgence and disrespecting others.

In this sense, Kuhn's values are decidedly anti-terroristic. While he explores historical and contemporary phenomena such as piracy and radical environmentalism in his work, he sees these as complex responses to repressive and destructive official policies. His focus unflinchingly remains on those struggling from "below" in our global system, a point strongly suggested in his reply when I asked whether he wanted me to write about his present dilemma:

"Obviously, this is not about some terrible injustice being done to me (I have a comfortable life here in Stockholm, can travel to many other countries, etc.), but the whole thing points at some more general and far more serious problems:

1) "The complex of immigration and 'national security': Again, in my case, no personal harm is done. In other cases these things mean separation from loved ones, exclusion from educational and economic possibilities, and in the worst cases torture and death....

2) "The power that authorities get in the name of national security: The most troubling aspect of the no-fly list is that, all in the name of national security, you will receive zero information on why you're on the list, since when, how you can get off it. Nothing. Even if you file a complaint, they will only promise to 'look into the matter.' They do not promise to provide any information at the end of the process. The possible consequences of this are obvious. Radicals can be put on the list at random and then stay there; it can undermine communication, exchange, and networking of activists and social movements to a frightening degree.

3) "The fact that measures like the no-fly list do not only concern US Americans, but others too - many who are not even allowed to visit. I think this is an aspect that's often overlooked in the US debate on anti-terrorism legislation which (understandably) focuses very much on the issue of US citizens' rights."

Contrast Kuhn's nuanced analysis with the self-congratulatory and monotone rhetoric of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which administers the No-Fly and Terrorist Watch Lists:

"The 'No-Fly' list has been an essential element of the aviation security - it keeps known terrorists off planes. TSA and our Federal partners, including the intelligence and law enforcement communities, have worked together to combine our collective knowledge into one list that protects our country, transportation systems, and airline passengers. TSA has dedicated staff to review and scrub the existing No-Fly list and ensure all nominees meet the standing criteria. This review will establish the baseline for new records being added to the system and will significantly improve the quality of the data."

The TSA states that its mission is to protect "the Nation's transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce." It utilizes a system based on "layers of security" that includes the obvious airport checkpoints and also "intelligence gathering and analysis, checking passenger manifests against watch lists, random canine team searches at airports, federal air marshals, federal flight deck officers and more security measures both visible and invisible to the public." The agency operates largely under the cloak of "national security" - meaning, as the ACLU notes, that it is impossible to know "who is or is not on these lists" and that certain people will be denied freedom of movement without due process or effective means to contest their status.

Against this, we are supposed to be comforted by the TSA's assertion that their system deters "known terrorists" and that all of the people on the No-Fly List "meet the standing criteria." Even putting aside repeated and bizarre "false positives" such as Ted Kennedy and Nelson Mandela, there are further accounts that cannot be squared with any sort of logic or good sense:

"The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has denied repeatedly that there are children on the infamous 'no-fly list.' Ever since little Mikey Hicks was in the news the other day about his consistent 'pat downs' at the airport, it has been brought to the public's attention that the FBI and TSA need to review their security precaution. TSA has vehemently defended their program saying that there are NO children on the no-fly list. But no one could address why Michael Winston Hicks has been getting frisked since he was 2 years old.... Now if what TSA says is true, why is it that the airlines don't see him and immediately know he is not a terrorist? Also, why is it that the airlines consistently harass this little boy? And why is it that several incidents have occurred in the past?"

Undoubtedly, the task of balancing security with liberty is among the most daunting of our time. The problem with archaic and secretive mechanisms such as the No-Fly and Terrorist Watch Lists is that they are rife with potential for abuse and perversion. Profiling people based on ethnic criteria, harassing activists and exacting a toll on political adversaries are all-too-real manifestations of these policies. The case of Gabriel Kuhn, which quite likely is but one of many, has all the makings of someone being persecuted for the nature of their views rather than the reality of their conduct. In typical fashion, despite his obvious "sadness and disappointment" at being denied entry into the US, Kuhn still sees the potential for something good to come of this situation: "If this particular case can help draw some attention to these issues, at least it serves a purpose." With the state of security rapidly eroding the fabric of liberty, we should all hope that such episodes cast a critical light upon the shadows of fear and control.

In Gabriel's own words

A Black Panther's Fight for Freedom Behind Bars

By Charles Morse
Color Lines
January 20, 2010

Mumia Abu-Jamal, Geronimo Pratt and Dhoruba bin Wahad: these are some of the best-known Black Panthers who have spent major portions of their lives confined within the state’s so-called “correctional” institutions.

Robert Hillary King—a member of the Angola 3, a trio of Black men incarcerated for decades in Louisiana’s Angola penitentiary for crimes that they did not commit—belongs to this grim fraternity. From the Bottom of the Heap (PM Press) recounts his journey from a youth of poverty and racism, to prison, to the Panthers, to release after 31 years of detention, including 29 in solitary.

King uses his own history to show how the racial and economic hierarchies in mid-20th century Louisiana condemned most Black people to lives of insecurity and fear.

King’s major incarceration began in 1970. A growing political awareness and an encounter with imprisoned Panthers prompted him to join the Party and help organize its only recognized prison chapter.

Falsely convicted of killing a guard, King was placed in solitary. Although he writes little about these years, he tells us that his political convictions enabled him to survive.

Freed in 2001, he emerged with a deepened dedication to change. His memoir is among his many post-release efforts, along with his work on behalf of Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, the other two members of the Angola 3, who are still in prison.

Buy this book now | Download e-book now | Back to Robert Hillary King's Page


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