Issue #71, December 2004
I couldn't believe the story. She was 15. Her aunt, a mother of six, was in jail for manslaughter. She'd been in a car that struck and killed someone. She was in for at least 25 years. A mother of six away for 25 years — her only other crime was a warrant on failure to appear for disorderly conduct. But she had a prior; no one else in the car did. And they all told the police that she was driving. She wasn't. But it made her an easy collar.
This fifteen year-old's two cousins left the earth in a murder suicide. She had to pick her cousin's face off the ground and an ear off of the blade of a ceiling fan. The shooting had been so violent there was no chance of an open casket funeral for either of them. The second cousin, after killing the first, ran down the block and took his own life. The police let him lay in the street for nearly twelve hours before he was taken to the morgue. His mother asked to cover her child with a blanket after six hours — the police refused and forced her to cry from a distance; it was, after all, a crime scene. At the funeral the police showed up and arrested an aunt for a traffic warrant. The police walked into a funeral to arrest a family member for a traffic citation. Did I mention the family is Chicano? I am always amazed at how the police behave — at least anywhere other than, for instance, in Scottsdale or Paradise Valley, Arizona (and then only towards those who are "obviously residents). I'm sure you know your mostly upper-class, mostly white "good" neighborhoods. Those with the best public schools, if they even have public schools. Anyway, you know the places.
Policing in communities of color has long been a primary focal point for enforcing racist and classist community agendas. Or at least legitimate police procedure can sure look pretty fucked up as an outsider looking in. Consider, the Rodney "It only looked like I was getting the shit kicked out of me, but really I was only being restrained by necessary force" King case, West Oakland's recently acquitted "Riders", John "The Plunger" Valpone, "Bull" Connor and every other Officer Friendly on the block. The police have the right to shoot, arrest (and ultimately imprison), stop and question anyone they want. Granted, there are limits, limits shaped by the geography of race and class. And for some queer reason, the cops seem to stop, drop, and roll people of color at rates well above their percentage of the population.
Am I to assume, simply, that people of color are just more criminal? I've read arguments saying that Islam and its followers (certainly a religion whose lion's share of members are folks of color) are pretty much evil — and this was in a mainstream book by a PhD. As someone in a graduate program I can attest to the relative worth of a PhD (but then I can also attest to the relative worth of business men). In this world, though, we generally endow the degree, and those who hold them, with at the very least begrudging respect. Right? I mean this guy had to have taken a bunch of courses, written countless papers and a dissertation, presented at conferences, and now written a book; yet, this sort of racist dribble survives? Yes, some Muslims destroyed the World Trade Center — some white man walked up to me and choked me that same day. The scale is relative, the cost in lives distinctly different, but at least one can arguably be shrouded with the cape of anti-colonial reactionary violence. If in this world all violence is abhorrent then why don't we all hate white men in the same way? Why don't they have to go through incredible scrutiny when renting a U-Haul? Remember Timothy McVeigh? Anyway, I didn't do nearly as much to this white fellow as the U.S. state did to Afghanistan. I didn't go destabilize his neighborhood, pump it full of bands of well-armed religious zealots trained in counter-insurgency, make all sorts of promises about money and stability and then jet — I just tried to park my car as a Chicano on a day when some other folks of color attacked his idea of America, and for that, I got justice.
Which leads me to the very unscientific, but hot off the press, study of white men that I've recently conducted. It was the most amazing bit of quantitative work. It came to me — it was totally unsolicited. It was a sort of spontaneous confession that this fellow could not stop himself from making — like vomit, it just spewed out. I was out of town, I think, and my mom stopped by to get my mail — thanks mom. And she ran into my then-landlord. He walked over and started chitchatting and rambled right into how much he dislikes Mexicans. What really stands out was his concern over how "they break things," "jam too many people in," and of course "they are dirty." I was reminded of the teeming masses storming the Alamo, lest we forget. My mom, who is white (funny what white folks will say when only other whites are around), told the fellow that I, his tenant, was a Mexican. Of course, the next day the racist told me he wasn't racist and it was all just a misunderstanding. I didn't really believe him but was willing to trust he'd learned at least the discretion inherent in contemporary white racism. Much to my surprise (not really, actually), a few weeks later he was at my door, and I quote (more or less), "I know you're Hispanic and does any of your family want to work day labor for me?" And he said it without irony. I first wanted to ask him what's a Hispanic? Then I wanted to suggest that not all Hispanics are interested in day labor. Not that there's anything wrong with those who work day labor (the economy and its minions that demand day labor may be a different story), but give me a break — this racist cracker stood in my home, invited my family to partake in sweatshop labor, and figured he was doing me a favor. I asked him if he could afford the $500+ an hour my father billed — he did not know what to say and simply walked away. We, fortunately, did not speak again until I informed him I was moving when the lease expired, and he still asked me why? I don't think him to be all that unique: reference nostalgia for the Confederacy, apartheid, segregation, separatism, and so on.
Anyway, this essay started with the experience of a young woman I met last year. Her story brings to light where the rubber hits the road. It is in the individuals' lives that this racist world works so hard to snuff out before they begin. This issue of Bad Subjects is about the culture of prisons, the "criminalization of people of color," and "expressive culture related to prisons." My young friend knows first hand what is to be criminal simply because of the color of her skin — at the funeral of her family, because of skin color and class, she did not merit the respect afforded to "people." When the police stormed the funeral they may as well have cried, "Remember the Alamo!"
She also knows what is to live in a prison without walls — for her world is closely regulated. Prisons are not simply concrete buildings on isolated stretches of interstate — cultural practices imprison. The over-policing of this young woman's family reminds them of their confinement. So too, does the brutality meted out at this funeral, on Abner Louima, or the seven people shot (four of them killed) by the Mesa, Arizona Police over the last year (according to Arizona CopWatch, "if the comments of Sgt. Randy Force regarding no criminal investigation into this incident are any indication, the police are not going to start policing themselves") remind us of our culture of confinement. My young friend and countless other people of color know, through force, the "walls" of their prison.
My young friend will hopefully not die young, like too many of the kids her age in her neighborhood and similar neighborhoods. I don't necessarily mean a physical death, either. But it is still touch and go as to whether or not she will be the first in her family to graduate from high school. It is the twenty-first century and she lives in a family intimately familiar with police brutality, murder, and prisons but not high school diplomas. When she recounts the impunity with which the white police force moved into the funeral, how they walked around her cousin's corpse, threw her grandmother to the ground, and then arrested her aunt, Foucault's Power/Knowledge rubric comes to mind — but this rubric, of course, accounts for race. The state knows enough to deny these people the trappings of legitimate education and freedom — trappings as basic as a high school diploma and the right of movement. Without this fundamental document and the safety to travel outside of one's immediate world without the threat of state harassment, these individuals are denied access to higher education, higher employment, and the social and political legitimacy these stations bring. Of course, the violence of racism, living life in a prison without walls, being criminal because of color does not happen to Marlon Brando's son, at Princess Di's funeral, or in Will and Grace's building.
There is a material logic to keeping the poor and the raced out of power. And that is what happens. This young lady has a world invested against her finishing high school. Very little is set up to help her. When we talked, we envisioned law school and the power of a lawyer who knows the face of a white police officer standing coldly over the dark body of someone's baby and not seeing humanity. This is the "other" side of Power/Knowledge — this is the face that can, and will, tear down the wall-less prison of U.S. racism. And I can only hope she keeps rising.
I struggled to end this with the honesty and dignity of my 15 year-old friend. It may be more appropriate to call her my teacher — her insight into the criminalization of entire communities of color, the force with which the state keeps these communities in line, and the willful blindness of the dominant society to its historical, structural racist practice helped me further understand the contours of privilege, especially my own. I regret my anthropological gaze; my abstract understandings, my writing about it in a rarefied on-line journal do not do her justice.
White supremacy is not just for good-ole boys in hoods; it is an organic extension of the "American Way". It is the force that secures the "American Dream" for those of the correct racial, and cultural, hue. My many students who take pride in being radically non-white, who refuse the yoke of assimilation — students braver than I am — feel the power of the ideology of whiteness. It is measured in their social ostracism, and the systemic violence witnessed in the most intimate settings of their lives. I ended the body of the essay with a hope, a prayer even, that my teacher keeps on rising. I hope that her voice joins the chorus of anti-imperial, anti-genocidal, and profoundly just individuals who see the prison that is the United States.
Robert Soza was a member of the Bad Subjects production team 1999 - 2003.