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Eat Food, Cook Food, and Don’t Forget the Salt

By Sarah Henry
Lettuce eat Kale

Perhaps the best thing about Cook Food: a manualfesto for easy, healthy, local eating by Lisa Jervis is that it’s a slim little volume.

That’s not some snarky reviewer comment. Writer Jervis, founding editor and publisher of the feminist mag Bitch, aims to demystify how to eat well and cook real, simple food by keeping her book brief. She includes some 20 recipes of the beans, greens, grains, tofu, and tempeh variety. Well seasoned, as Jervis advocates, these ingredients can form the basis of a decent recipe repertoire for the eco-conscious (both environmental and financial).

lisa-jervisPhoto: Sarah Henry

This guide may hit a chord with people interested in food politics who don’t have a clue about what to cook in the kitchen and don’t need pretty pictures to motivate them to make a meal. (This is not your typical photo-driven cookbook.) Folks inspired by Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, and Stuffed & Starved author Raj Patel, whose book blurb adorns the back cover, come to mind. And Cook Food might also serve as a handy reference for college students, making the switch from dorm life to truly independent living, who need assistance figuring out essential equipment, pantry basics, and practical tips and techniques (note to self: ditch the lame-o rice cooker and get a jelly roll pan for roasting veggies to perfection.)

Regardless, if Jervis, who sports a cool beet tattoo, happens to be reading in your neighborhood do stop by. At The Green Arcade bookstore in San Francisco last Friday, it feels like I’ve entered the kitchen of a friend who could use a little help getting the dinner on.  More group discussion and less typical book reading, Jervis distractedly composes a farmers’ market salad for her audience to sample — and to support her thesis that preparing satisfying food is within everyone’s reach.

She fields questions while she chops. We learn she’s politically aware (conscious of her carbon footprint, locavore advocate, mostly vegan), and a bit of a renegade (a liberal user of oil and salt, she signs her book, salt early, salt often). She also confesses in the course of her cooking demo that she’s confused an Asian melon for a lemon cucumber. It doesn’t seem to faze her. There’s nothing slick going on here, which leaves you feeling comfortable that you, too, can cook food.

In this era of celebrity chefs and network cooking shows, it’s easy to feel intimidated by food. Jervis serves as a reminder that we don’t need to be.

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It's Gary Phillips' World

BSC Review
July 31, 2009

2009 is the year of Gary Phillips. A spate of releases confirms what some already know, that its Gary’s world and the rest of us just live in it. The different releases offer a range of voices in a range of styles in a range of mediums.

The Jook

Zelmont Raines has slid a long way since his ability to jook, to out maneuver his opponents on the field, made him a Super Bowl winning wide receiver, earning him lucrative endorsement deals and more than his share of female attention. But Zee hasn’t always been good at saying no, so a series of missteps involving drugs, a paternity suit or two, legal entanglements, shaky investments and recurring injuries have virtually sidelined his career.

That is until Los Angeles gets a new pro franchise, the Barons, and Zelmont has one last chance at the big time he dearly misses. Just as it seems he might be getting back in the flow, he’s enraptured by Wilma Wells, the leggy and brainy lawyer for the team–who has a ruthless game plan all her own. And it’s Zelmont who might get jooked.

The Jook was originally published in 1999 and is being reprinted by Switchblade, the new imprint of PM Press.

Yes, as Nerd pointed out already, one of the main hooks (and the thing you notice immediately) is the voice. Too often fiction told in a first person POV lacks a distinct voice but Zelmont Raines has a rhythm and style that is all his own. And quite frankly it is a rhythm that we don’t often hear in crime fiction; the rhythm of black men. I would partly attribute this to Gary Phillips’ unabashed acknowledgement of the so-called street lit books as an influence, maybe not the current 50-Cent crop of books but certainly the classics (Iceberg Slim, Robert Deane Pharr) and to the influence of Chester Himes.

If the black man is lacking from crime fiction then the black woman is absent. As black woman have come to dominate the world of street lit they have been largely absent from crime fiction and if crime fiction readers aren’t aware of the dynamics of the experiences felt by characters like Gena (True to the Game) and Winter (The Coldest Winter Ever) then they should be. This is a round about way of saying that Wilma Wells, the prime female lead in The Jook is a breath of fresh air. She’s smart, she’s sexual, she never veers into femme fatale territory and she dominates the men by being better then them at everything. The Jook of the title is just as much her move as anyone else’s in the story.

Part of Phillips’ strength, and what sets him apart from the others, is that he has taken an influence that others don’t have and married it with the traditional crime novel to come up with something else.

High Rollers

High Rollers is a graphic novel by Gary Phillips from Boom! Comics. The story is of the rising through the criminal organization ranks variety. The story is crisp and well told with some interesting characters. Some of the art didn’t work for me, achieving a rotoscopic (I guess) type effect that looks, at times, overly cartoonish. My only complaint is that the story just ends, leaving the reader with a feeling that the story is incomplete. This will be easily resolved if there are future issues/volumes with these characters I just don’t know if that is the case or not.

***

In addition to a dark crime fiction noir and a rise-to-power comic Gary Phillips also has a standout story in the anthology Black Noir called The House of Tears and a historical novel about black soldiers in World War II called Freedom’s Flight.

Bottom line: Gary Phillips is one of the best kept secrets in crime fiction.

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Jena 6 on Political Media Review

By Bill Templer
University of Malaya
Political Media Review 

“The DA’s pen has replaced the lynching noose” -Mumia Abu Jamal

Barely noticed In the midst of the hullabaloo and media hype over the death of Michael Jackson, a notorious case of racial injustice against six working-class African-American youths came to a quiet conclusion in the LaSalle Parish courthouse on June 25, 2009, in the parish (county) seat of Jena, state of Louisiana.

Five of the six teenagers, originally charged by LaSalle Parish DA Reed Walters with attempted murder and conspiracy against a white fellow student, agreed to plead ‘no contest’ to a greatly reduced minimal charge of misdemeanor simple battery. That plea does not admit guilt (1). The sixth, Mychal Bell, was convicted on a charge of second-degree battery and served 18 months in juvenile detention, nearly killing himself in despair last December. Mychal is now free and planning to go on to college this fall. One defendant, Bryant Purvis, is already in college, and the four others have similar plans.

Public pressure and the biggest civil rights demonstration the South has seen in 50 years served to save these high school kids from a massive miscarriage of justice and long-term incarceration in the American Prison-Industrial Complex.

The PIC now has 2.3 million behind bars, nearly half African-American. In the process, supporters managed to raise $275,000 to hire a strong defense team for the six. Hundreds of thousands of others are not so lucky (2). Their sentence when originally accused in late 2006 was a potential 100 years, and in the process of struggle was reduced to seven days on probation — quite a victory.

This DVD is powerfully narrated by long-incarcerated African-American radio journalist Mumia Abu Jamal (a trailer here: http://www.bignoisefilms.com/films/tactical-media/99-jena). It recaps the case from its inception, with two nooses found hanging from a high school tree in August 2006 after Black students attempt to integrate the schoolyard. In the aftermath, Reed Walters told a school assembly, his eye reportedly on the Black students: “I can destroy your life with the stroke of a pen.”

In retrospect, that racist statement was the spark. Racial tensions under Jena’s crust flared at the high school. The school was mysteriously set ablaze in November. A fight at the reopened school on December 4, 2006 left a white youth, Justin Barker, with an injured eye and a concussion — although that same evening, Justin attended a major school event. Soon after, six of his fellow African-American classmates were charged by DA Walters with attempted murder and conspiracy, and Walters promised to seek the maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Shocked, the families decided to fight this injustice. On September 20, 2007, the movement built by their initiative peaked in the largest civil rights protest North America had seen for five decades. The film chronicles this in 18 short chapters.

But the film does not deal with later developments, which ultimately led to the incarceration of Mychal Bell in December 2007, his attempted suicide a year later, and recent release. So coverage is in fact partial. One critic feels the docu-film is poorly structured, far too brief for the complexity of its topic, “while interviews with several closed-minded locals establish quick hero-villain roles early on” (3).

Yet I think it captures well the political core of the Jena events. As Mumia sums it up: “North and South, we all live in Jena. And despite our denials, some of Jena lives in us.”

The Jena 6 brings the case home in numerous interviews, strong visuals and Abu Jamal’s riveting commentary. The film is a compelling chronicle

  • of how working African-American parents can be politicized, self-empowered by circumstance to struggle against injustice, exemplified especially in the person of Caseptla Bailey, Robert Bailey’s mom. Marcus Jones, father of Mychal, ends the film stressing that “the day he sets foot out of jail, I’m gonna tell him, I’m gonna tell him again: you know what it is to be black now. Here, here it is.”
  • of how to forge bonds of solidarity, local and beyond, as people come out of the silos of their isolation and oppression.
  • of concrete class struggle, as poor Black families, literally ‘from the other side of the tracks,’ living in a ghetto outside Jena’s municipal perimeter, fight to oppose bogus charges against their kids and the bourgeois power establishment in LaSalle Parish. It’s about racial justice, but at the core of that is class justice, the poor versus the privileged. Much has been written about this case, but not about the wealthy elite that actually runs the parish and much of central Louisiana.

The DVD is also a window onto how working-class white folks in Jena, themselves victims and products of that same System, are blind to its gross inequities. Racist policies are spread and reproduced by exploiting racial divisions and the various economic, cultural and political anxieties and biases of whites, especially in the working-class. “This is part of the familiar divide and conquer strategy which pits poor whites against people of color for the sake of profit and power” (4).

And in a new turn of the old racist screw, Jena’s mayor Murphy McMillan has been busy this past year promoting the opening of the LaSalle Detention Center in town, a newly refurbished facility for incarcerating ‘illegal aliens’ dedicated a year ago. This is to be Jena’s new involvement in the booming ‘detention industry’ under Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) (5). That center is probably seen as a plum by the parish moneyed elite whom the mayor represents.

This is a film for consciousness-raising and critical pedagogy. It can be

  • used in examining the PIC and criminal justice system in the U.S. and elsewhere. It can be combined with the DVD film The Angola 3: Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation, recently reviewed in PMR.
  • viewed and discussed in labor organizing, showing how solidarity among working families can be catalyzed and built.
  • incorporated into classrooms by social justice educators, like Linda Christensen, who reminds us: “I try to find fiction and nonfiction about people who disrupt the script society set for them. I want students to see that history is not inevitable, that there are spaces where it can bend, change, become more just” (6)

It’s a war on the workers waged in part through the justice system, and the work of resistance must and will go on. Organizations like the Prison Activist Resource Center in Oakland, a prison abolitionist collective, can forge paths forward (7). Mumia, long on death row, has to be acquitted and freed (8). Leonard Peltier has to be finally set free, his case up for a parole hearing in late July 2009 (9). Countless others, of all hues of the rainbow, have to be released from the grip of the PIC.

As John Mellencamp’s song “Jena” reflects: “Some day some way sanity will prevail / But who knows when that day might come / A shot in the dark, well it just might find its way / To the hearts of those that hold the keys to kingdom come” (10) And throughout this tale of a nooses hung on a schoolyard tree, the lyrics echo of Abel Meeropol’s and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” (11).

Buy DVD now

 

Notes

1. See http://news.aol.com/article/jena-six-case/542897 ; see also http://tinyurl.com/23lkqm ; for a more bourgeois liberal view of the case and its complexities, see Amy Waldman’s article: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200801/jena6

2. See also in PMR: http://www.politicalmediareview.org/2009/06/1617/#more-1617

3. See http://www.dvdtalk.com/reviews/33737/jena-6-the/

4. See http://illvox.org/2008/06/jena’s-divide-and-conquer-politics/

5. See http://www.ice.gov/pi/news/newsreleases/articles/080610jena.htm

6. See http://rethinkingschools.org/archive/23_04/joy234.shtml

7. See http://www.prisonactivist.org/

8. See http://tinyurl.com/nqht6p

9. See http://www.prisonactivist.org/node/522

10. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sU-TqXNEucw&feature=related

11. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isU_OjY94NY

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ForeWord Magazine on Diario de Oaxaca

Diario De Oaxaca: a Sketchbook Journal of Two Years in Mexico
ForeWord Magazine

Kuper’s hardcover opus Diario de Oaxaca, excerpted briefly in Wordless Worlds, is not as distant as it might appear at first glance. Peter Kuper is probably stuck with his best known credit, “Spy vs Spy” in Mad magazine, at least until this publication (in its second half-century and now reduced to quarterly appearance) goes out of business. Kuper inherited the spy piece from another era of Mad, and it has been noticeably wordless all these decades (Kuper took over it over in 1997). The author of arguably the only pantomime strip in widely-distributed comic art, Kuper explored the wordless form throughout his career in graphic novels like The System and Sticks and Stones. With Diario, his sketchbook journal from two years of living in Mexico, he is the observer removed not by silence so much as a keen awareness of his personal status: as visitor.

He is not a tourist exactly. He came to Oaxaca (pronounced Wa-Ha-Ka) in 2006 with his wife and child to take a sabbatical from the Bush-administered United States, as well as to broaden a young daughter’s linguistic skills and sensibilities. It just so happens that earth-shaking developments sweep through the city while he is there: the struggles of Oaxacans against a staggeringly corrupt government, seeking decent wages for public service, turn into class and cultural warfare. Kuper might almost have been the Courbet of the modern Paris Commune, but this uprising is crushed with great violence and dozens of casualties, including American journalist Brad Will. Kuper captures the dramatic events through his writing, drawings, and photos as they unfold, as well as when the city returns to its status as tourist center for foreigners seeking a warm, relaxing good time, close to archeological sites of lost civilizations. During the interim, all kinds of rebellious art and artistic graffiti appears on city walls, some of it reproduced here in drawings and photographs, while he sketches his own family’s daily lives, with equally heavy emphasis on natural surroundings.

Throughout, Kuper demonstrates his fascination with insects, not only the Monarch butterflies (whose breeding grounds are nearby) but also bugs of every variety. From stinging scorpions to corrupt politicians, Kuper draws parallels between the natural beauty and the dangerous reality that Mexicans encounter every day. The insects represent the “jungle of freedom” of the surrealist world view, the proliferation of life forms absent in Western cities but so much a part of homo sapiens’ transhistorical experiences—that is, of the species launched in the hot climates only gradually advancing to colder places.

The wondrous character of the sketches is in no small part their color, as it overflows with the sampling of Mexican art of everyday life. Understandably, the “Day of the Dead” makes a huge impression on the artist, but so do Aztec memories, the masks of assorted celebrations, the colorful dress, the omnipresent dogs, the occupying soldiers armed against an unarmed population, endangered sea turtles, professional wrestlers, pyramids, and other highly assorted phenomena. One is tempted to say “All in Living Color”—but of course, the Dead are among the most vivid inhabitants, and the long-dead civilizations as well. In any case, this is an artist-traveler’s notebook to cherish and flip through almost endlessly. Each visit to its pages will bring the reader some new gift.

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Beyond Attica: The Untold Story of Women's Resistance Behind Bars

By Hans Bennett
Alternet
July 21, 2009

As the incarceration rate of U.S. women skyrockets, an important book shines new light on the struggles of women prisoners. 

"When I was 15, my friends started going to jail," says Victoria Law, a native New Yorker. "Chinatown's gangs were recruiting in the high schools in Queens and, faced with the choice of stultifying days learning nothing in overcrowded classrooms or easy money, many of my friends had dropped out to join a gang."

"One by one," Law recalls, "they landed in Rikers Island, an entire island in New York City devoted to pretrial detainment for those who can not afford bail."

Law shares this and other recollections in her new book, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women (PM Press). At 16, she herself decided to join a gang, but was arrested for the armed robbery that she committed for her initiation into the gang. "Because it was my first arrest -- and probably because 16-year-old Chinese girls who get straight As in school did not seem particularly menacing -- I was eventually let off with probation," she writes.

Before her release from jail, Law was held in the "Tombs" awaiting arraignment. While the adult women she met there had all been arrested for prostitution, she also met three teenagers arrested for unarmed assault. "Two of the girls were black lesbian lovers. In a scenario that would be repeated 13 years later in the case of the New Jersey Four, they had been out with friends when they encountered a cab driver who had tried to grab one of them. Her friends intervened, the cab driver called the police and the girls were arrested for assault." Law notes that "both of my cellmates were subsequently sent to Rikers Island."

These early experiences, coupled with her later discovery of radical politics, pushed Law "to think about who goes to prison and why." She got involved in several projects to support prisoners, which included helping to start Books Through Bars in New York City, sending free books to prisoners. In college, she "began researching current prisoner organizing and resistance," and upon discovering almost zero documentation of resistance from women prisoners, she began her own documentation and directly contacted women prisoners who were resisting. A college paper became a widely distributed pamphlet, and at the request of several women prisoners she'd corresponded with, Law helped to publish their writings in a zine called Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison. Law writes that the zine and pamphlet "heightened awareness not only about incarcerated women's issues, but also women's actions to challenge and change the injustices they faced on a daily basis."

"This book is the result of seven and a half years of reading, writing, listening, and supporting women in prison," Law says about Resistance Behind Bars, noting that each chapter in her book "focuses on an issue that women themselves have identified as important." The chapters include topics as diverse as health care, the relationship between mothers and daughters, sexual abuse, education, and resistance among women in immigration detention. Resistance Behind Bars paints a picture of women prisoners resisting a deeply flawed prison system, which Law hopes will help to empower both the women held in cages and those on the outside working to support them.

Who Goes To Prison?

Since 1970, the U.S. prison population has skyrocketed, from 300,000 to over 2.3 million. According to the U.S. Justice Department, this staggering increase has not resulted from a rise in crime. In fact, since 1993, the prison population has increased by over one million, but during this same period, both property offenses and serious violent crime have been steadily declining. The New York Times recently cited a 2008 report by the International Center for Prison Studies at King's College London documenting that the U.S. has more prisoners than any other country. Furthermore, with 751 out of 100,000 people, and one out of every 100 adults in prison or jail, the U.S. also has the highest incarceration rate in the world. With only five percent of the world's population, the U.S. has almost a quarter of the world's prisoners.

While women comprise only nine percent of the U.S. prison population, their numbers have been increasing at a faster rate than men. As Law documents, "between 1990 and 2000, the number of women in prison rose 108 percent, from 44,065 to 93,234. (The male prison population grew 77 percent during that same time period.) By the end of 2006, 112,498 women were behind bars."

Like with male incarceration rates, women behind bars are disproportionately low-income and people of color. Law writes that "only 40 percent of all incarcerated women had been employed full-time before incarceration. Of those, most had held low-paying jobs: a study of women under supervision (prison, jail, parole or probation) found that two-thirds had never held a job that paid more than $6.50 per hour. Approximately 37 percent earned less than $600 per month."

A 2007 Bureau of Justice study documented that 358 of every 100,000 Black women, 152 of every 100,000 Latinas, and 94 of every 100,000 white women are incarcerated. Explaining this racial discrepancy, Law argues that inner-city Black and Latino neighborhoods are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. She cites a 2005 U.S. Department of Justice study which concluded that Blacks and Latinos are "three times as likely as whites to be searched, arrested, threatened or subdued with force when stopped by the police."

The so-called "War on Drugs" has played a key role in the growth of the U.S. prison population. Law writes about the impact of New York State's Rockefeller Drug Laws passed in 1973, "which required a sentence of 15 years to life for anyone convicted of selling two ounces or possessing four ounces of a narcotic, regardless of circumstances or prior history. That year, only 400 women were imprisoned in New York State. As of January 1, 2001, there were 3,133. Over 50 percent had been convicted of a drug offense and 20 percent were convicted solely of possession. Other states passed similar laws, causing the number of women imprisoned nationwide for drug offenses to rise 888 percent from 1986 to 1996."

Distinguishing women prisoners from their male counterparts, Law cites a Bureau of Justice study which "found that women were three times more likely than men to have been physically or sexually abused prior to incarceration."

Women Prisoners Don't Resist?

The central thesis of Resistance Behind Bars is truly profound. In clear, non-academic language, Law argues that recent scholarship documenting and radically criticizing the increased incarceration rates and mistreatment of women prisoners "largely ignores what the women themselves do to change or protest these circumstances, thus reinforcing the belief that incarcerated women do not organize." Alongside academia, Law also harshly criticizes radical prison activists, arguing that "just as the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s downplayed the role of women in favor of highlighting male spokesmen and leaders, the prisoners' rights movement has focused and continues to focus on men to speak for the masses."

Law gives honorable mention to two books that documented women's resistance at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York State: Juanita Diaz-Cotto's Gender, Ethnicity, and the State (1996) and the collectively written Breaking the Walls of Silence: AIDS and Women in a New York State Maximum Security Prison (1998). Since these two books "no other book-length work has focused on incarcerated women's activism and resistance," writes Law. As a result, Law argues that women prisoners "lack a commonly known history of resistance. While male prisoners can draw on the examples of George Jackson, the Attica uprising and other well-publicized cases of prisoner activism, incarcerated women remain unaware of precedents relevant to them."

Epitomizing the scholarship that Law criticizes, author Virginia High Brislin wrote that "women inmates themselves have called very little attention to their situations," and "are hardly ever involved in violent encounters with officials (i.e. riots), nor do they initiate litigation as often as do males in prison."

To challenge Brislin's assertion, Law gives numerous examples of women rioting and initiating litigation, including the "August Rebellion" in 1974 at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York State. On July 2, 1974, prisoner Carol Crooks won a lawsuit against prison authorities, with the court "issuing a preliminary injunction, prohibiting the prison from placing women in segregation without 24-hour notice and a hearing of these charges," writes Law. In response, "five male guards beat Crooks and placed her in segregation. Her fellow prisoners protested by holding seven staff members hostage for two and a half hours. However, 'the August Rebellion' is virtually unknown today despite that fact that male state troopers and (male) guards from men's prisons were called to suppress the uprising, resulting in 25 women being injured and 24 women being transferred to Matteawan Complex for the Criminally Insane without the required commitment hearings."

Law also criticizes author Karlene Faith, who acknowledges that women resist, but who wrote that in the 1970s, women prisoners "were not as politicized as the men [prisoners], and they did not engage in the kinds of protest actions that aroused media attention." To challenge Faith's argument, Law cites several rebellions that received significant media attention, including one that the New York Times wrote two stories about. As Law recounts, "in 1975, women at the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women held a sit-down demonstration to demand better medical care, improved counseling services, and the closing of the prison laundry. When prison guards attempted to end the protest by herding the women into the gymnasium and beating them, the women fought back, using volleyball net poles, chunks of concrete and hoe handles to drive the guards out of the prison. Over 100 guards from other prisons were summoned to quell the rebellion."

In light of the many such stories documented in Resistance Behind Bars, Law argues that "instead of claiming that women in prison did not engage in riots and protest actions that captured media attention, scholars and researchers should examine why these acts of organizing fail to attract the same critical and scholarly attention as that given to similar male actions."

Resisting With Media-Activism

In the chapter "Grievances, Lawsuits, and the Power of the Media," Law observes that "gaining media attention often gains quicker results than filing lawsuits." Among the many organizing victories that were significantly aided by media attention, in 1999, Nightline focused on conditions at California's Valley State Prison for Women. Law explains that "after prisoner after prisoner told Nightline anchor Ted Koppel about being given a pelvic exam as 'part of the treatment' for any ailment, including stomach problems or diabetes, Koppel asked the prison's chief medical officer Dr. Anthony DiDomenico, for an explanation."

DiDomenico was apparently so confident that he would not be held accountable for his misconduct, that he answered Koppel by saying "I've heard inmates tell me they would deliberately like to be examined. It's the only male contact they get." After this interview was aired, DiDomenico was reassigned to a desk job, and as of 2001 he had been criminally indicted, along with a second doctor.

Demonstrating the power of this media coverage, Law notes that the "prisoner advocacy organization Legal Services for Prisoners with Children had been reporting the prisoners' complaints about medical staff's sexual misconduct to the CDC for four years with no result."

Along with agitating for coverage in the mainstream media, women prisoners have also created their own media projects. The chapter titled "Breaking The Silence: Incarcerated Women's Media" documents many important projects. Law explains that these projects are necessary because women prisoners' "voices and stories still remain unheard by both mainstream and activist-oriented media. Articles about both prison conditions and prisoners often portray the male prisoner experience, ignoring the different issues facing women in prison." Therefore, "women's acts of writing -- and publishing -- often serve a dual purpose: they challenge existing stereotypes and distortions of prisoners and prison life, framing and correcting prevailing (mis) perceptions. They also boost women's sense of self-worth and agency in a system designed to not only isolate and alienate its prisoners but also erase all traces of individuality."

Some activist-oriented publications have been receptive and have published prisoners' writings. From 1999 until its final issue in 2002, the radical feminist magazine Sojourner: A Women's Forum featured a section on women prisoner issues which included writings from the prisoners themselves. Law writes that this section, entitled "Inside/Outside" covered many topics, including "working conditions in women's facilities, the dehumanizing treatment of children visiting their mothers, and prisoner suicides.

Law spotlights many different projects. From 2002 to 2006, Perceptions was a monthly newspaper published by and for the women at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey. Because of censorship from prison warden Charlotte Blackwell, Perceptions was forced to limit its criticism of the prison, but the women published what they could. For example, in one issue, women wrote about how they would run the prison differently if they were in charge. Law notes that "their fantasies revealed the absence of programming for older women and those in the maximum custody unit, emergency counseling and therapeutic interventions and opportunities for mother-child interactions. It also drew attention to the facility's overcrowding and increased potentials for violence and conflict among prisoners."

Tenacious, the zine published by Law, was initiated by women prisoners who sought the help of friends outside the prison to actually publish and distribute it. "Free from the need to seek administrative approval, incarcerated women wrote about the difficulties of parenting from prison, dangerously inadequate health care, sexual assault by prison staff and the scarcity of educational and vocational opportunities, especially in comparison to their male counterparts. Although circulation remained small, the women's stories provoked public response," writes Law.

"Prison officials do whatever they can to strip prisoners of their dignity and self-worth," stated Barrilee Bannister, one of the founders of Tenacious. "Writing is my way to escape the confines of prison and the debilitating ailments of prison life. It's me putting on boxing gloves and stepping into the rink of freedom of speech and opinion."

Arguing For Prison Abolition

When Victoria Law was first introduced to radical politics, shortly after her own stint behind bars, she "discovered groups and literature espousing prison abolition."

"These analyses -- coupled with what I had seen firsthand -- made sense, steering me to work towards the dismantling, rather than the reform, of the prison system." Law's subsequent research has only served to affirm her belief in the need for abolition. She states clearly that "this book should not be mistaken for a call for more humane or 'gender responsive' prisons."

Some readers may view Law's prison abolitionist politics as being abstract or overly theoretical. However, to support her abolitionist viewpoint, she makes the practical argument that prisons simply don't work to reduce crime or increase public safety. She writes that "incarceration has not decreased crime; instead, 'tough on crime' policies have led to the criminalization … of more activities, leading to higher rates of arrest, prosecution and incarceration while shifting money and resources away from other public entities, such as education, housing, health care, drug treatment, and other societal supports. The growing popularity of abolitionist thought can be seen in the expansion of organizations such as Critical Resistance, an organization fighting to end the need for a prison-industrial complex, and the formation of groups working to address issues of crime and victimization without relying on the police or prisons."

Towards the end of Resistance Behind Bars, Law quotes Angela Y. Davis, who is a leading activist intellectual of the prison abolitionist movement. In her recent book Are Prisons Obsolete?, Davis writes that "a major challenge of this movement is to do the work that will create more human, habitable environments for people in prison without bolstering the permanence of the prison system. How, then, do we accomplish this balancing act of passionately attending to the needs of prisoners -- calling for less violent conditions, an end to sexual assault, improved physical and mental health care, greater access to drug programs, better educational work opportunities, unionization of prison labor, more connections with families and communities, shorter or alternative sentencing -- and at the same time call for alternatives to sentencing altogether, no more prison construction, and abolitionist strategies that question the place of the prison in our future?"

As if answering Davis' question, Law concludes that while striving for prison abolition "we need to also reach in, make contact with those who have been isolated by prison walls and societal indifference and listen to those who are speaking out, like many of the women who have shared their stories within this book. Because abolishing prisons will not happen tomorrow, next week or even next year, we need to break through these barriers, communicate, work with and support women who are in resistance today."

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The Real Cost of Prisons Comix in Feminist Review

By Jeanne Vacaro
Feminist Review

 
As activists know all too well, crafting a political message and effectively mobilizing an audience is an elusive task. In The Real Cost Of Prisons, Lois Ahrens and her contributors beautifully stage a difficult dialogue—about mass incarceration, mandatory sentencing, and the “war on drugs”—with comics. Comics are an accessible, popular form of education, and most importantly, addictive, and hence become a subversive way to raise awareness. The Real Cost of Prisons Project has distributed 115,000 comics to the incarcerated, affected families, and social justice organizations free of charge. Comics are just one part of the organization’s mission to end mass incarceration; since Lois Ahrens founded organization in 2000 a coalition of artists, activists, and researchers has produced and distributed educational materials about the costs—material and affective—of the prison industrial complex and it’s devastating impact on family preservation, women’s reproductive rights, rural economies, and much more.

“What does it cost to lock up 2.3 million people each day in the world’s biggest prison system?” ask Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Craig Gilmore in the introduction to The Real Cost Of Prisons. In addition to the staggering economic costs (the U.S. spends $60 billion per year on prisons) that could otherwise be directed at health care, public education, and other social services, the human costs are immeasurable. In the comic “Prisoners of a Hard Life: Women and Their Children,” illustrated by Susan Willmarth, we learn about the cost of incarceration for women and their children:

  • One out of every 109 women in American is incarcerated, on parole, or on probation.
  • Half of all women in prison are incarcerated more than 100 miles from their families.
  • Seven million children have a parent in prison, on probation, or on parole.
  • Seventy-nine percent of all women in New York State’s prisons are Black or Hispanic.

The Real Cost Of Prisons documents the vital efforts of the movement to end mass incarceration, and is an exceptional resource for all activists seeking creative ways to build and sustain a political movement.

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Anarchism, Marxism, and Zapatismo

By Hans Bennett
Upside Down World
15 July 2009

On January 1, 1994, the now-infamous North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect. That same day, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) rose up and launched a military offensive that occupied towns throughout the state of Chiapas, Mexico. The EZLN, or “Zapatistas,” had been covertly organizing for many years, but they specifically chose the day of NAFTA’s implementation for their public rebellion.


Many components of NAFTA favor US corporate interests at the expense of Mexico’s general population, but the Zapatistas were particularly opposed to NAFTA’s rewriting of the Mexican Constitution,which eliminated the population’s biggest victory won during the Mexican Revolution fought years before, at the time of World War One.

“The Mexican Revolution wrote into the national constitution the opportunity for a village to hold its land communally, in an ejido, so that no individual could alienate any portion of it,” writes Staughton Lynd, co-author of the new book Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism and Radical History.

Both Lynd (a Marxist from the US) and his co-author Andrej Grubacic (an anarchist from the Balkans) are public supporters of the Zapatistas, who they argue have set a powerful example of revolutionary organizing that should influence anti-capitalists around the world. Much like the historical traditions of the Haymarket Martyrs and the ‘Wobblies’ (the Industrial Workers of the World) in the United States, Lynd and Grubacic argue that the Zapatistas have synthesized the best aspects of both the Marxist and anarchist traditions.

Based upon his research and his personal travels to the Zapatista communities in Chiapas where he met with historian Teresa Ortiz, Staughton Lynd identifies three key “sources of Zapatismo.” First, is the issue of land. Before NAFTA, the communal lands called ejidos made up more than half of Mexico’s land. The day of the 1994 uprising, the Zapatistas occupied formerly communal lands that had been appropriated. Directly citing the legacy of the Mexican Revolution, the Zapatistas named themselves after Emiliano Zapata, an anarchist revolutionary who was a key figure in the Mexican Revolution, and whose popular slogan “Land and Liberty” is still heard today.

Second, Lynd identifies a form of Liberation Theology that is influenced by both Christian and Native American spirituality, with Bishop Samuel Ruiz being a key figure.

“The final and most intriguing component of Zapatismo, according to Teresa Ortiz was the Mayan tradition of mandar obediciendo, ‘to lead by obeying’…When representatives thus chosen are asked to take part in regional gatherings, they will be instructed delegates. If new questions arise, the delegates will be obliged to return to their constituents. Thus, in the midst of the negotiations mediated by Bishop Ruiz in early 1994, the Zapatista delegates said they would have to interrupt the talks to consult the villages to which they were accountable, a process that took several weeks. The heart of the political process remains the gathered residents of each village, the asemblea,” writes Lynd.

This anti-authoritarian tradition of mandar obediciendo was central to the Zapatista’s decision not to see themselves as a revolutionary vanguard. Lynd explains that “beginning in early 1994, Marcos said explicitly, over and over again: We don’t see ourselves as a vanguard and we don’t want to take power.” To support his argument, Lynd cites a variety of statements from Marcos, including his August 1994 statement at the National Democratic Convention in the Lacandon Jungle. Here, Marcos proclaimed that the Zapatistas had decided “not to impose our point of view,” and that they had rejected “the doubtful honor of being the historical vanguard of the multiple vanguards that plague us…Yes, the moment has come to say to everyone that we neither want, nor are we able, to occupy the place that some hope we will occupy, the place from which all opinions will come, all the answers, all the routes, all the truth. We are not going to do that.”

Lynd, coming from the Marxist perspective, harshly criticizes the influence of vanguard politics on Marxist revolutionary movements, whereby these movements have adopted authoritarian and anti-democratic practices, with these abuses of power being justified by the argument that their particular group is the vanguard of the revolution, and is therefore entitled to lead the revolution as it sees fit. Lynd sees the Zapatista’s rejection of vanguard politics as representing a “fresh synthesis of what is best in the Marxist and anarchist traditions.” The Zapatistas, Lynd writes, “have given us a new hypothesis. It combines Marxist analysis of the dynamics of capitalism with a traditional spirituality, whether Native American or Christian, or a combination of the two. It rejects the goal of taking state power and sets forth the objective of building a horizontal network of centers of self-activity. Above all the Zapatistas have encouraged young people all over the earth to affirm: We must have a qualitatively different society! Another world is possible! Let us begin to create it, here and now!”

Wobblies & Zapatistas is highly recommended to both the seasoned fan of books about radical history and theory, and the reader who is just now becoming interested in radical politics. While rooted in the inspirational examples of both the Wobblies and the Zapatistas, this book uses refreshing language and an informal conversational format of Grubacic interviewing Lynd. Their dialogue provides a big picture of global struggles against capitalism, and all forms of oppression. I myself learned for the first time that in the US, both the Haymarket anarchists of the late 1800s, and the anarchist Wobblies of the early 1900s were heavily influenced by Marxism. I also learned that many Marxists, such as Rosa Luxemburg from Germany, were themselves very critical of the anti-democratic and elitist consequences of the vanguard strategy of organizing that has been embraced by so many Marxists.

Lynd and Grubacic’s exploration of the relationship between Marxism and anarchism is played out through their examination of so many fascinating stories of popular rebellion throughout world history. Many of these stories are about workers’ rebellions, but Lynd emphasizes that while the role of workers in making revolution is very important, workers are only part of the big picture, and workers should not be prioritized over other parts of society, including prisoners, students, women, and racially oppressed groups. Lynd summarizes his theory for best making revolutionary change: “We are all leaders, not just as a collection of individuals, but as persons embedded in different kinds of institutions and communities of struggle. The framework with within which all these aspirations must be lodged is the collective action, not of taking state power, but of building down below a horizontal network of groups and persons that is strong enough to command the attention of whoever is in government office.”

To accompany this book review, I interviewed co-author Staughton Lynd, asking him these four questions below.

Hans Bennett: This decade in Latin America has seen so many successful poor people’s movements. Are you particularly inspired by any of these victories? How do these embody those traits that you spotlight as so positive regarding the Zapatista movement?

Staughton Lynd: As your question suggests, the most hopeful part of the earth during this past decade has been Latin America. The Zapatista movement seems the most significant effort, but I believe it is organically connected to movements in other countries that have elected Leftist governments. The Zapatistas speak of governing in obedience to those below, “mandar obediciendo.” The Zapatistas interpret these words to direct them not to try to take state power, but instead to create a horizontal network of self-governing communities sufficiently strong that the national government will have to pay attention to “the below” and be accountable to it. However, in Bolivia when Evo Morales became president, he said in his inaugural speech that he intended to “mandar obediciendo”: that is, he accepted the Zapatista formulation as to how it should be between elected officials and the electorate, and in his capacity as an elected official, he intended to try to live up to it.

HB: How can US organizers adopt the Zapatista’s approach?

SL: The fundamental problem is that unlike the Zapatistas we do not have communities that have existed for centuries, that make decisions by consensus, that designate many persons to undertake small tasks or “cargos” for the community, that understand the first obligation of an elected representative to be listening, not talking. Instead, “organizing” in the United States is invariably quasi-Alinskyan, that is, inspired by the methods of Saul Alinsky, who in turn modeled his work on trade union organizing in the 1930s. I was one of four original teachers at Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation Training Institute founded in 1968-1969, and am an historian of the labor movement in the 1930s, so I think I know whereof I speak. The Alinsky approach assumes that people are motivated by individual, short-term, primarily economic self-interest. “Solidarity unionism” instead encourages people to take small steps in the interest of the group as a whole: for example, in a layoff to share the pain equally rather than strictly applying seniority.

HB: Given that we’re living in the "belly of the beast," how do you think we in the US can best support Latin America poor people’s struggles that are resisting both their local ruling class, and US influence/dominance?

SL: Support for radical or revolutionary movements in other countries is a tricky undertaking. The Left in the United States has over and over again fallen into the error of romanticizing foreign movements and regimes. Examples are: the Soviet Union, revolutionary Cuba, the National Liberation Front in Vietnam, Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, and perhaps now, the Zapatistas. I believe what is helpful is to say, ‘The United States should cease to intervene in Country X,’ but not, ‘We unreservedly favor whatever insurgent movement exists there.’ We should have learned this from the period of the Vietnam war. As soon as the Vietnamese had driven out the United States they created “re-education camps” against which I, at least, felt obligated to protest. Similarly, when the Sandinista government was voted out of office in 1990, Margaret Randall exposed the fact that a handful of men had run everything, including AMNLAE, which presented itself as a women’s organization. So we in the US are better off when we support the withdrawal of US troops, closing of US military bases, the nationalization of US private investments, but do not try to control what happens next.

HB: Given today’s “global economy,” do you know of any examples of any US workers being involved with cross-border working class organizing?

SL: Cross-border organizing has been timid and bureaucratic. I would like to see, for example, General Motors workers in Mexico, Canada and the United States strike together. The demands of each national group of workers would be somewhat different, but so what? Instead, even reform movements in American trade unions acquiesce in chauvinism. Thus Teamsters for a Democratic Union tries to keep Mexican truck drivers from entering the United States, even though (a) NAFTA requires their admission, (b) simple solidarity would suggest that if Iowa corn farmers can take advantage of NAFTA to destroy the livelihoods of countless Mexican campesinos by exporting corn to Mexico without import duties, then truck drivers in the United States should meet with their Mexican counterparts and seek solutions that benefit all workers involved.

Hans Bennett is an independent multi-media journalist whose website it www.insubordination.blogspot.com

Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism and Radical History is available for purchase from PM Press.

Staughton Lynd taught American history at Spelman College and Yale University. He was director of Freedom Schools in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer. An early leader of the movement against the Vietnam War, he was blacklisted and unable to continue as an academic. He then became a lawyer, and in this capacity has assisted rank-and-file workers and prisoners for the past thirty years. He has written, edited, or co-edited with his wife Alice Lynd more than a dozen books.

Andrej Grubacic is a dissident from the Balkans. A radical historian and sociologist, he is the author of Globalization and Refusal and the forthcoming titles: Hidden History of American Democracy and The Staughton Lynd Reader. A fellow traveler of Zapatista-inspired direct action movements, in particular Peoples' Global Action, and a co-founder of Global Balkans Network and Balkan Z Magazine, he is a visiting professor of sociology at the University of San Francisco.



Teaching Rebellion in Z Magazine

Teaching Rebellion: Stories from the Grassroots
By Peter Gelderloos
Z magazine

The popular rebellion that broke out in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca in the summer of 2006 caught the attention of people around the world even before the federal police moved in to crush it violently. For half a year, Oaxaca City and many of the surrounding towns were effectively self-organized through popular assemblies. A broad coalition of teachers, indigenous, students, artists, environmentalists, unemployed, and others came together to press their demands for the resignation of the state's particularly brutal governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, and to create a new, compassionate, and anti-authoritarian society, without the interference of political parties.

Solidarity actions and material support for the rebellion were organized throughout Latin America, North America, and Europe. Many activists travelled to Oaxaca to participate in and learn about the social movements there. CASA, a solidarity collective that helps place visiting activists with groups in Oaxaca where they can do the most good, has recorded and translated an impressive compilation of interviews with participants in the popular rebellion. The result is Teaching Rebellion, a vital oral history for the English-speaking world. Included are the voices of neighbors who met at the barricades, artists painting revolution on the walls or reclaiming indigenous traditions, women taking over a TV station, striking teachers, torture survivors, political prisoners, grandmothers, and children.

The stories give an intensely personal picture of the roots and beginning of the rebellion, its multifaceted development over the summer, and its brutal repression in November 2006. The reader also gains a sense of what was happening in the rural areas outside of Oaxaca City, in towns where people kicked out the local politicians and set up popular assemblies. Some testimonies provide an exciting glimpse of insurrectionary moments when popular desires exploded in the streets and anything was possible, while others give a more sobering view of the long struggle from the perspective of teachers' union organizers or indigenous communities who have already been through previous ebbs and flows, victories and defeats, while continuing in their resistance patiently and persistently.

Teaching Rebellion realistically encompasses the diversity of the social movements active in Oaxaca, giving voice to priests spreading liberation theology, indigenous activists defending their culture, maids or students swept up in the moment, NGO workers seeking limited reforms, and political prisoners fighting for revolution. Though they have taken on an ambitious project, the editors, as sensitive outsiders, have not attempted to answer the contradictions that exist within the movement. This is problematic, given that within half a year the movement was splitting in different directions. According to many, Stalinists and politicians had taken over the leadership roles within APPO, the Oaxaca popular assembly. They subsequently violated a founding principle of the APPO and participated, albeit disastrously, in the elections in 2007.

The goal of the book is to teach about popular rebellions with the intent of spreading them, thus the perennial conflict between reform and revolution, between horizontal uprisings and the political opportunists that always attempt to control them, is necessary to explore and understand. Those conflicts are implicit in the interviews provided, but readers may have to do more reading and thinking to encounter those questions in a constructive way.

Fortunately, the editors have made it clear this is not a book to read and put back on the shelf—rather, it is a tool. The final pages include a thorough study guide with discussion questions and activities that encourage the reader to turn this book into a workshop, an opportunity to engage with their friends and communities and draw lessons from the rebellion in Oaxaca.

Essentially a simple book with beautiful photos and plenty of background information, Teaching Rebellion is accessible to beginners, but full of valuable stories and challenging perspectives that will also benefit those who have closely followed the events in Oaxaca.

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Comic book series provides a fresh look at prison myths

By Ruth Kovacs
Street Roots, Portland, Oregon
March 13, 2009
“From the Desk of Ruth Kovacs”

Last week I spoke to a group of prisoners about the power of truth. After a lengthy discourse about the importance of truth, and that it empowers us to become a part of the oneness of man, and I have had to discern the untruths from the truth, I concluded by offering a way to search for truth. Of course I listed free-press papers such as Street Roots, free-speech radio such as KBOO, and the many books written by conscientious research journalists – including a few books I’ve reviewed in this column.

Clearly I’m not the only one searching for truth. Another significant contributor is Hans Bennett, an independent multimedia journalist www.insubordination.blogspot.com and co-founder of Journalists for Mumia (www.abu-jamal-news.com). You will find reviews of “Abolition Now,” The Real Cost of Prison Comix (part of the Real Costs of Prisons Project), Let Freedom Ring, and more – plus numerous articles worth reading. So if you are searching for insight on the criminal justice system, check out Hans Bennett.

The new book The Real Cost of Prisons Comix reprints three comic books published as part of the Real Costs of Prisons Project, which began in 2000. So far, 125,000 comic books have been printed, with more than 100,000 distributed free to community groups and college classes. Featuring artwork by Kevin Pyle, Sabrina Jones and Susan Willmarth, all three comic books can be freely downloaded at www.realcostofprisons.org.  Prison abolitionists Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Craig Gilmore write in the book’s introduction that the value of the “Real Cost of Prisons Project” “has been to show us how the system of mass incarceration permeates our lives, who is paying the costs of that system and the many ways the system is vulnerable to people who put their thought and effort into organizing to shrink it.” Significantly, the comics “demonstrate that the ideas we need to change the world can be explained simply enough and packaged attractively enough to be used by all kinds of readers.” Prisoners and their families can “understand material usually circulated only among academics and those who focus on policy.”

Editor Lois Ahrens writes that “a central goal of the comic books is to politicize, not pathologize.” She argues that the “deregulation and globalization” of the last 30 years has “resulted in impoverishing urban economies, limiting opportunities for meaningful work and slashing funding for quality education, marginalizing the poor, and creating more inequality. The comic books place individual experience in this context and challenge a central message of neo-liberal ideology: the myth that people can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. In this paradigm, racism, sexism, classism and economic inequality are not part of the picture. Most people now believe that change happens through personal transformation rather than political struggle and change.”

The recent growth of the prison industrial complex and mass incarceration is staggering. Ahrens writes that “every year from 1947 through the beginning of the 1970s, approximately 200,000 people were incarcerated in the U.S. Today, there are more than 2.3 million men and women incarcerated, with more than 5 million more on parole and probation.”

The Prison Town comic book debunks the myth that building a new prison actually helps to revitalize a town with an ailing economy, and instead illustrates the many negative costs that a new prison can impose. Importantly, Prison Town also documents how many towns learned by example and cited the prisons’ negative impact in successful campaigns to stop prison construction in their community.
Prisoners of the War on Drugs is a heart-wrenching look at the victims of the so-called “war.” At least according to its official purpose, the war on drugs has been a total failure, resulting in the mass incarceration of non-violent drug offenders at a huge, inefficient expense to tax-payers. Prisoners emphasizes “harm reduction” and treatment as a better solution, stating that the “war on drugs locks up more users than dealers. Most want to quit but can’t. A year of treatment costs much less than a year of incarceration, plus: the person can work, pay taxes and take part in family life.” While drug laws may seem insane, they appear to have unofficial motives that are highly rational. For example, they have served to accelerate mass imprisonment, the criminalization of poverty and the erosion of civil liberties.

Prisoners of a Hard Life: Women & Their Children concludes the three-comic book series. The stories presented here are mostly fictional but are based on the writers’ research and personal experience working with women prisoners. Therefore, Ahrens explains that the stories “represent the lives of hundreds of thousands of people suffering as a result of the war on drugs.” Perhaps most outrageous is the true story of Regina McKnight, the first woman in the U.S. to be convicted of murder because of behavior while pregnant. When McKnight’s baby was delivered stillborn and an autopsy found traces of cocaine in the fetus, she was arrested and convicted of murder, with a 20-year sentence. In 2008, following several appeals and eight years in prison, the South Carolina Supreme Court unanimously reversed her conviction, after concluding that there is no medical evidence of cocaine causing stillbirths.
Bennett concludes his recent reviews with the following comment: “Above all, these highly-recommended books argue that prison-related issues are inseparable from racism, classism, sexism, and all oppression, so the more we know about prisons, the better informed multi-issue activist strategies will be. They conclude that in working to abolish all oppression, we must also work to abolish the prison industrial complex and free all political prisoners.”

The next book that Hans and I will be encouraging you to read, to be released April 24, is Jailhouse Lawyers by Mumia Abu-Jamal. And so the beat goes on.
Keep searching, by reading and listening.

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The Person is Polemic:

The Real Cost of Prisons Comix
By Rob Clough
High-Low

The philosopher & historian Michel Foucault wrote a number of books that tended to have the same core idea: that the nature of human relations, stripped bare of idealistic constructs, is one of power relationships. In HISTORY OF SEXUALITY, Foucault makes a case that sexual relationships are entirely based on power and hierarchy. In DISCIPLINE & PUNISH, he gives us a history of prisons and pushes the idea that the Enlightenment Project did nothing to make the concept of the prison more humane, and in fact made it less so in certain ways. In MADNESS & CIVILIZATION, he lays out the history of the treatment of mental illness. He exposes the curious phenomenon of madness "rising" in certain areas during certain eras, which he posits is again a rationalist position of defining certain behaviors or groups of people as insane. The writers and artists behind THE REAL COST OF PRISONS COMIX use aspects of all three of these arguments to aggressively push for a total reform of not just the prison system, but the entire justice system that surrounds it.


The marriage of art and polemics is often a tenuous one. The history of that marriage finds art usually getting short shrift, or downright exploited, for a particular political end. The more dogmatic a point of view, the more likely artists are to be exploited. The relationship between Communists and Surrealists is a telling example, as the former eventually declared the latter to be decadent despite having similar sympathies. The genesis of the comics in this collection came from the director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, Lois Ahrens, who was seeking a way of quickly and easily disseminating information about the injustices she saw. She was inspired by ubiquitous fotonovellas in Mexico, by trade unions putting out information in comics form and by a couple of economists trying to explain complex information in simple pictorial form. Comics were an especially compelling way of putting a human face on a systematic and institutional set of exploitative structures; tugging on emotions became much easier in comics form that with a dry set of statistics or charts.

Ahrens didn't mention a couple of other sources that seemed every bit as inspirational: the way Mao Zedong used comics for propaganda and the manner in which fundamentalist Christian cartoonist Jack Chick creates his cartoon tracts. There's no question that these comics, and the "reader's responses" that go with them, are nothing short of propaganda. But that, I mean that they are carefully crafted to forcefully articulate a particular point of view and set up opposing viewpoints as easily disposed straw men.

The good news for these comics is that they were illustrated by cartoonists well-versed in balancing polemics and art. The magazine WORLD WAR 3 ILLUSTRATED has been relentlessly bombing away with its progressive agenda for nearly thirty years. Artists like Peter Kuper and Eric Drooker have been balancing art and politics for a long time; for them, the political is also personal, and has led to some striking art. In THE REAL COST OF PRISONS COMIX, cartoonists Kevin Pyle, Sabrina Jones and Susan Willmarth collaborated with various personnel associated with the project to illustrate the ways that prisons exploit the small towns they're built in, the way that the so-called War on Drugs has destroyed lives, and the ways in which the justice system affects poor women and children in particular.

The collaborations are not always entirely successful as works of art or propaganda. I think that owes much to the fact that the artists had to adapt a lot of dry information in a way that was interesting. Kevin Pyle, the artist behind the excellent book BLINDSPOT, particularly struggled in adapting the most abstract of the three stories, "Prison Town". Part of this was in the visuals: Pyle's work takes on a different life in color, and the greyscale art here looked muddy. His collaborator, Craig Gilmore, is clearly an information man, not a storyteller.

The overarching argument of this book is that there is money to be made in building prisons; in order to justify them being built, there have to be prisoners to put in them. This became easy with the War on Drugs, criminalizing behavior that is essentially a victimless crime to an absurd degree. Increasing police presence in high-risk blocks served to also add to the pool of prisoners. The problem with "Prison Town" is that I would have liked to have heard a bit more information from other prison towns on what effect having a penitentiary institution had on their communities. This starts with a conclusion and works its way back with some supporting details, rather than building an argument in the opposite way.

More successful is "Prisoners of the War On Drugs", which talks about not only the ways in which a young and naive person can wind up in prison but also the ways in which race affect sentencing (most famously, possessing crack cocaine inexplicably leads to harsher sentences than possessing powder cocaine) and the ways in which the system stacks things against those who get out of prison in terms of being denied public assistance. This section is more successful because it's more episodic and Sabrina Jones' thick black lines expressively get points across. It is still pretty text-heavy, with some pages looking more like illustrated text than comics.

The best of the three stories is "Prisoners of a Hard Life", which is the most focused and expressive of the bunch. Willmarth integrates text and image on the page that makes the lettering look like part of the art, making this possible with a heavy black & white set of contrasts. This story is the best mix of emotional and statistical appeal, bombarding the reader with example after example of lives being shattered--both of women and their children. The way that the prison-industrial complex exploits the poor, the disadvantaged and the desperate is presented in such a way that one's reaction to these stories is visceral. The creators (Susan Willmarth, along with Ellen Miller-Mack and Lois Ahrens) are careful to buttress their anecdotal (and emotional) argument with carefully placed statistics and even provide alternatives to what's being done now.

The creators of this book are careful not to condemn prisons per se, nor do they call for the abolition of prisons. They instead focus on victimless crimes, non-violent crimes and institutional poverty, and especially how the latter is informed by the former. Incarceration (and the death penalty) is an extremely emotional issue for many when it comes to violent crimes. The creators tacitly acknowledge that there probably are some people who need to be locked up, but that the number of dangerous individuals didn't exponentially increase in a short period of time, any more than "hysteria" became an epidemic for women in the latter half of the 19th century. Just as certain behaviors were labeled as insane during that time, it was easy to criminalize certain other behaviors now. The Real Cost emphasis on how economics drives this process makes it seem all the more insidious and cold-blooded; in the end, all we have to do is follow the money to understand why it's being done. I only wish that the approach of the book was slightly less sledgehammer, since it really does bring to mind Jack Chick's methodology.

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