Monday, December 21, 2009
Wow. Arizona has got to be one of the most punitive, misogynistic, homophobic, right-wing states in the country, and I just spent the past couple of days hanging out with the handful of women here brave enough to publicly take on the state legislature and the director of the Department of Corrections. Friends of Marcia Powell and the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project demonstrated Friday at the ADC, calling Ryan out on his own turf to take a stand against violence against sex workers. He had a week to respond to their letter before the rally. In the end it appears as if he’s too much of a coward to face - or to defend - the women in red.
Okay, so maybe I’m baiting him now. His decision to ignore them wasn’t cowardice so much as it was really cold strategy, an evasive maneuver by someone who could take us out in a heartbeat. He’s not afraid, and knows full well he can hurt us more than we can hurt him - it’s cowardice of another kind. Which is still not good news for the good guys. I don’t know why I kept thinking that if Ryan was one of those 16 guards who passed through Lumley yard the day Marcia died, he would have been the one to stop and offer her the assistance that could have saved her life. I want to believe that somewhere in there is a spark of humanity and compassion that we could connect on.
I’ve given him more benefit of the doubt that perhaps I should have. If he is not the man I hope he is – and is instead the man I think he is, the alternatives to my fantasy mean that more prisoners will suffer and die until he’s gone - and who knows if the person who replaces him will be any better?
I thought of all the lawmen in this state, Ryan might be one who would take the women from SWOP seriously, and treat them with respect. He did stop not long ago when I sent word that I needed help with something, and he responded professionally (albeit a bit gruffly – I think that’s just him), but I think that was a fleeting connection. I guess he’s as much a politician as the rest of them, though. That’s the kind of prostitution that should really be criminalized, because it damages people and destroys lives. He’s been there so long, and dug in so deep, that nothing new or different may ever come out of him than what we got from Stewart – in which case we just need to seize the legislature, the governorship, local jurisdictions, and the economic system we have in order to take over and dismantle the whole prison industrial complex…which is why I wanted to believe there was something decent in him to work with.
Now we’re back to looking at this whole beast again, not sure which part to start hacking away at first. I think since no one but the families seem to be on Ryan for prisoner rights – and Arpaio and Thomas already have strong constituencies of people opposing them - we’ll stick with Ryan and the ADC for awhile.
I know I’ve been too soft on him thus far, but cut me a break – he reminds me of my old man. Besides, I’m an abolitionist – I think we should give cops the same consideration we give criminals who want to redeem themselves; most people have the capacity to change for the better, given the right conditions and support network. If a convicted felon can do it, so can Ryan. If he wants to – that’s the key. But we’re running out of time before the next state prisoner is neglected, abused, suicides, or is murdered.
It looks like for now Ryan’s prisoners will have to try to outlast and outlive his tenure before there’s another opening for real change. Ryan personally quashed the idea of an early prisoner release this year for non-violent offenders, and legislators are now afraid to put their name on a bill that would give people more good time they can earn, with his adamant assertion to the media that the public would be at risk with an early release program. His lack of response to the letter from SWOP also strongly suggests that he doesn’t – and never really did – care much about the women ending up there – either why they’re there to begin with, or what happens to them once they become his prisoner. I’d retract it all happily if he proves me wrong, but I’m not expecting much anymore.
Ryan even provided a legislative committee this week with the “evidence” for the argument (via some guy speaking for prosecutors) that “mandatory minimum sentences” and mass incarceration are what’s brought down violent crime in this state.
Never mind that our rates of violent crime are still among the highest in the nation – kind of makes you want to see what others did to bring their rates down, since most states are deciding now that mass incarceration doesn’t really pay off. And the information from ADC that was presented in the Committee on Sentencing this week included an estimate that only 2% of Arizona’s state prisoners are first-time non-violent offenders. That’s hard to believe, given the number of people I personally know who went to prison as first time, non-violent offenders.
What’s minimum security for, anyway – aren’t all those folks low-risk/non-violent? Why do we even have minimum security if we can do a better job helping addicts and alcoholics clean up in community-based settings – where they can work and pay off fines and restitution a whole lot faster than in prison? And what about the mentally ill folks who we all know don’t belong in prison? It seems as if the Director of the Department of Corrections would want to mount a public campaign bringing attention to the inappropriate incarceration of the mentally ill (since they take up a lot of space and staff time in his prisons, and are so often victimized or put into isolation), and try to have their cases reviewed for transfer from criminal courts to probate (or mental health court, whatever folks call it here) – or for clemency, even. I consider many of them among the wrongly-convicted, too.
As for the community: you don’t know what you missed Friday because your media didn’t think it was “news”. They must still be pondering the significance of Tiger’s affair; what a revelation. It’s not as if we weren’t juicy enough, either - signs proclaiming “My ass is mine”, Coca-cola-style t-shirts reading WHORE, women in tight red dresses, bisexuals, ex-felons, anarchist men and women decked out in black, and men and women of all ages armed with chalk parading about on the ADC’s patio for an afternoon, waving to passersby and shouting “sex worker rights are human rights!” - that isn’t news in this state?
Anyway, the past few days with the SWOP folks have been amazing but exhausting – I’m just beginning to recover. I’m still sorting out and writing up what transpired, and where I think we'll go from here, so bear with me as I think out loud (I’m about to piss a lot of people off, but it’s not my intent to hurt anyone, so hold on…)
First, don't stress about the media blackout, really - the Phoenix New Times was a disappointment, but it made visible an elusive element in the structure of Arizona's liberal elite that seems to be deeply threatened by women's resistance: the patriarchy. Not many people ever talks about it here, do they? I bet when they do no one really pays attention. I think it’s the lack of support from the supposedly "feminist" men out here - not oppression by the sexist pigs - that most impedes progress on issues of great pertinence to women. The anarchist men are an exception as are a number in the anti-war movement. SWOP was prepared for a media blackout (so, New Times, I guess you are just like everyone else), and took their own footage, including interviews and the walk through the capitol buildings. It should be edited and posted after the first of the year – I’ll set up a link when it’s ready. In the meantime, I’ll also be posting this on AZ Indymedia, and wherever else I can. I expect we’ll be on our own for media now.
Trivializing things that are important to women is perhaps one of the few ways “liberal” white men can retain power. Since we would otherwise not put up with it, who but criminalized women will they be able to have power over if everyone else is free? They aren’t going back to the top of the hierarchy for a good long time once they fall, that’s for sure, whether they’re liberal or not. If I had it my way, it wouldn’t be a hierarchy – which is probably why I hang with anarchists. Perhaps I should be more understanding and patient with liberal white men, because they have so much to lose in some respects, and still commit themselves to our liberation movements – but we pay the greater price for lost time.
So, they can catch up with the revolution again when they stop whining about being unappreciated. We appreciate you for what you do if you do anything, not just because you’re white men who are willing to be counted on our side. Some men will sign up for anyone’s side if they think they’ll get the goodies in the end – and women happen to be the goodies for most of you. Ultimately, though, those who would deny us liberation and basic human rights can’t possibly really win, so whatever your motives, you’re better of with us anyway.
In any event, since this past week was all about remembering the dead and bringing the living out of the closet of shame, SWOP didn't stage either the memorial or rally as a mainstream “media event”, and were pretty low-key in their own promotions (though high enough profile in the demonstration, to be sure). I think most of their outreach was to their own constituency – they really weren’t expecting anyone else to care about Marcia or any of them, and were thrilled that Marcia has friends now where she seemed to have none before – except for a few other prisoners. I was the only one who seemed surprised not to see more familiar faces from Phoenix; the women from SWOP were pretty happy with the turnout, though, and their friends came up from Tucson to join us. Both events were intimate gatherings as a result -one just more public than the other. Between the two, this has been the most moving, powerful, and educational demonstration that I've ever been a part of - and I’ve done plenty in my years of activism. This even tops the Cronkite thing, and we had just a handful of people.
"No Human Involved" is the classification of homicide victims once used for murdered prostitutes, by the way - the other two options were "male" or "female". That's where the real story is that the media completely missed: Marcia just wasn't considered human by some guards when she was left out to die: she was, by one corrections officer's account after she died, a "biological serial killer." The pink underwear in Tent City, the cages in the state prisons, the police brutality in the streets, sexual and physical abuse by guards, assaults by other prisoners (the real criminals you put us with), the mandatory minimums for prostitution, the requirement that women convicted of prostitution register as sex offenders (do the johns have to so as well?) – it’s all about disempowering and discrediting women – one way of which is demeaning what is feminine when found in men (one of many kinds of misogyny practiced by Joe Arpaio).
I also think maintaining prostitution laws are about enabling the extra thrill that men get from “illicit” sex with brazen and defiant women. Really - what would all these cowboys do if we were no longer outlaws? Tie up their Rotary Club wives? Go after kids? C’mon, guys. Grow up. Some of you are just criminalizing and killing us for kicks – you’re the kind of people who need to be stopped before you contaminate the rest of the community...
The women of SWOP know exactly what the label the prison guards gave Marcia meant, by the way, and what the implications of such a characterization are. I knew when I heard it, too. That was her death sentence, and it was given to her long before she was even dragged into court and sent to prison – it just took awhile to pass it on and carry it out. It was handed down by the good people of this state in the name of “protecting families,” not just a few bad guards having fun. I doubt any of them even meant to kill her.
It's unfortunate that the community members who cared so much about how Marcia lived and died that they made a place for her ashes didn't pick up on any of this, support the SWOP demonstration, and learn what they could from these amazingly perceptive, independent, and fierce women. They may help us keep the same kind of thing from happening again. My life has been blessed by their presence, and I’ve made friends and allies that I know I’ll be working with down the road. I'm certainly more clear about who I can count on to stand with us the next time we position ourselves in public opposition to the state's top cop - who isn't Sheriff Joe. Ryan's the real cop, with far more authority, durability, and credibility among law enforcement officers on policy issues than Arpaio - and he has the keys to all the prisons.
Phoenix New Times loves to hate Ryan, and will thus probably help keep him around - they sure didn't want to let the rest of the Left know that SWOP was even going to be here, and it wasn't for lack of information. Sheriff Joe’s the money-maker these days - he’s just a clown with a badge and dying career now, but he’s still a big seller. Thomas too – I suspect a good many folks will turn out for the protest against him today – certainly the Phx New Times will be there – they saw the dollar signs and promoted the event. I don’t know why I expected that the New Times would have a different bottom line than the Republic – maybe just because they present themselves that way. White men sitting behind desks should not be trusted – much less anointed - to amplify the voices of the voiceless: they just make a production of the BS they think will sell to their audience (indicating that their function is to entertain us), and ignore the rest.
But I'm still new here, and feel like I'm on the outside looking in much of the time, so I may be missing something. The Anti-Sheriff Joe coalition is indeed an authentic amalgamation of different movements drawn together for a common cause; that's where I drew a lot of my initial impressions about cross-movement organizing happening here, which I think in that particular case are still valid. People have done a lot of good work together to end his racist reign on power (though I don't hear much about his misogyny and homophobia, as glaring as they are). Beyond the entertainment value, protesting Sheriff Joe has united members of the community, bringing forth a collective vision for a better Arizona. Still, it's a mistake to think that he's the source of the problem here that has us locking away so many unruly women and people of color in this state.
The rapidly rising rate of incarceration of women hasn't really even been on the anti-Joe agenda, though, so far as I can tell, nor has there been much feminist analysis of what's at the source of Arpaio's popular appeal - it's not just his racism. It's the other -isms that we are blind to, not what we and the world can see so well, that will prevent us from moving forward with a truly progressive agenda, leaving us circling the wagons in hopes that we just outlive the Right wing - we sure don't out-gun them here. Because of our blindness to our own biases and prejudice, and our investment in our own self-interest, too many people settle for compromises which allow them at the expense of our comrades. That’s been a problem for a long time. Covering white middle class liberal ass certainly won’t produce the magic formula that will liberate us all. Our collective chances are much better if we throw our lot in with the sex workers than if we hang with the people who “love” them who are secure enough in their own position with the status quo.
I think Arpaio is becoming more the distraction that keeps us from getting to the real thing than he is the problem himself; we are more at the source of the problem than he is now, because we know better. Our problem is in the silence that we greeted the sex workers with when they asserted that their rights are human rights, too. It's in the permission that male liberals - regardless of ethnicity - give each other to denigrate women's resistance and leadership while slapping each other on the back about how anti-racist they are. It's in the feminists who fail to see how critical they are to ending violence against sex workers - male, female, and transgendered - and how central to all other feminist struggles that particular task is.
The activist community here didn't respond with much more than a memorial service and calls for a softer, gentler prison when Marcia died, which troubles me. Perhaps no one knew what to do. The women at Perryville have been calling us for help ever since then, and we're the ones who have been ignoring them. The population of women in Arizona’s prisons is exploding – where are Arizona's women's rights' groups now? Over 50% of women prisoners in America are mothers - where are the family-centered organizations out here? Most women in prison have been physically or sexually abused - where are the victims' rights organizations out here? Ironically, their collective narrow-minded advocacy has helped brutalize many survivors of trauma and abuse, which doesn't tend to result in anyone’s "rehabilitation." If anything, it further traumatizes and marginalizes victims, transforming their pain into rage that will in turn victimize others. And why are none of them speaking out about state violence - who speaks for the victims of the state?
We need to reframe this whole "victim-perpetrator" analysis of crime to embrace the complexities of oppression, exploitation, racism, misogyny, classism, and other manifestations of fear and of hate as we try to identify the real crimes and criminals in our social landscapes. At present, we're putting victims in prison with their perpetrators, knowing full well that a certain number of them – particularly the most effeminate and vulnerable among the men - will be raped, beaten, and even killed...yes, misogyny kills men, too. If every judge was required to calculate the brutality with which some of the people they sentence to prison will be greeted, or the likelihood that they’ll develop a terminal illness and die there for having shoplifted, perhaps they would think twice about what they consider “just” punishment for violating norms that the privileged few have written into their laws. Maybe they would then elevate their duty to protect the innocent over their satisfaction with punishing who they think is “guilty.” They all need to spend a few days in prison without their robes on before they hand down another sentence like Marcia’s.
When liberation movements try to appeal to the mainstream, these are the first folks to get cut out of the deals - bottom line, even the Left doesn't like deviants who might make them "look bad". Emboldened by mainstream "allies" who are appalled by injustice, revel in the glory of rescuing the downtrodden, and enjoy hearing the sounds of their own protests, these sex workers are some of the most courageous fighters we have, and deserve respect. Once we distance ourselves from their red dresses and umbrellas, however – because we think they’re too in-your-face about it, or that their resistance doesn’t matter to anyone else - we isolate them and make it clear that no one will rise to their defense - or even notice if they're attacked. We are the ones who permit violence – we could stop a lot of it too. Instead we turn away, and let the full force of state and social repression come down on them.
We did that to our revolutionaries a generation ago – they are now our elders, and we have left them to die in prison. Our comrades with SWOP around the world face being targeted, beaten, arrested, imprisoned and killed for demanding that they be treated with respect and dignity, and only their fellow sex workers and a few good souls will honor them and remember their names - much less record their own names and faces publicly beside them in opposition to their treatment. That’s a sad commentary for a liberation movement to leave behind. I think we can expect to see folks from Puente the next time around, though – it seems they didn’t get the word in time to support us (that would be my responsibility – I guess I didn’t confirm with anyone there), but when we ran into a couple of their activists downtown after the demo, they were with us all the way. We’ll be counting on that – and they know we’re there with them, too.
I think the anarchists understand the phenomenon of the Left’s rejection and abandonment better than anyone because they've been hung out to dry a few times - which is why they are such reliable comrades to those of us whom even the progressives reject when the going gets tough. Women as “victims” are useful tools to garner sympathy for a movement or cause of any kind, left or right: our cries galvanize our men to come to our rescue, while the outrage that our suffering elicits prompts other women to assert their own critique. But when women who have been victimized (as well as gay and transgendered people among us) take up arms and lead the charge - especially prostitutes, who represent the secrets and sinful pleasures of so many - we defy progressive norms, too. We fail to be appropriately ashamed and vulnerable, which must emasculate some of the men who would otherwise come to our aid, and appears to threaten some of the women.
Along those lines, I think that the biggest challenge the Sex Workers Outreach Project posed to the community in Phoenix was to the progressives, not to Ryan. He conducted himself in perfect harmony with his title, position, and career trajectory. He consulted on Iraqi prisons, so even a gesture from him would carry more water with me than a gesture from the Left – I can guess what that gesture will be when you’re all done reading this, and I don’t think it will be an embrace. There certainly should be no confusion as to why so many of Ryan’s employees ignored Marcia as she called for help last May, anyway. He doesn't need to listen to what a bunch of whores have to say to him about the law, his leadership, or his prisons - especially not the ones who have behaved so badly as to become his prisoner. He doesn't even have to acknowledge our voice or presence except to do head counts - he can just pretend that we’re invisible and our objections to mistreatment are irrelevant; from there it's remarkable who follows his lead – everyone from the front-line guards to the Phoenix New Times.
A common enemy and collective strategy to defeat it doesn't necessarily make allies or friends, of course, and doesn’t substitute for cross-movement organizing. Not that I’m a great organizer, personally. The folks I’ve seen bridge the gaps most between groups are actually the anarchists (who comprise a large part of the anti-war movement, and wear a multitude of colors) – and they aren’t organizing, per se - they’re being. That’s kind of how I want to be. I don’t know enough yet about anarchy to declare it as my own political creed, but the anarchists here support liberation movements without much prejudice. Whether they're explicitly invited to or not, if they hear about an action against state oppression, they’re on it with their own artistic flair. That’s their tradition. As expected, Friday they were there.
In doing as they have, anarchists have built extensive networks across communities of resistance and can be counted on to vehemently and persistently, individually and collectively, register their opposition to racism, sexism, state violence, fascism, imperialism, war, exploitation of labor, environmental degradation, and just about every other evil thing perpetrated by the state, corporations and individuals in power on this planet. They’ve never forgotten about those we allowed to be taken prisoner, either – whole the rest of the left still clung to Clinton, they were all but abandoned. We should all be grateful to our anarchists for saying and doing all the things that the rest of us are afraid to, but that cannot be left untouched if we are to get anywhere. We may express our shock at anarchists’ brashness and lack of proper respect for authority (thank god for their example, frankly), but we’d all be toast without them; they put themselves between us and violence all the time, yet we are so quick to discount or disparage them as not being “realistic” in their actions or their vision. I happen to think they’re among the few people here with a real clue, and I’m glad someone has their eye on a better future than the rest of us seem willing to settle for.
With that I should stop offending everyone that isn’t an anarchist or criminal and put up my pictures – this is probably a sufficient drubbing for my friends on both the Left and the Right, assuming I have any remaining who will speak to me now.
Those of you who missed the SWOP letter to ADC Director Ryan, by the way, it’s not too late to catch up - read it and take notes - this begins here, it doesn’t end here. They told the truth, which has a lot of power no matter how much people try to render it invisible. They really gave us a lot to build on, and I’m not all that hostile once I settle down again - folks are welcome to drop in any time and tell me what they think. Just keep in mind that I’m much more the agitator than the organizer these days, so don’t expect diplomacy from me. I’ve lost my patience and temper with age, so if you have some ideas about how to do this better, get to work, because we could use a little more help out here. We aren’t exactly the most popular cause in town to begin with (unless we’re dead or not resisting), and I’ve probably just set myself up to be hit from all sides now, so if you don’t step up or get out of the way you’ll probably get hit by cross-fire.
You know how to find me.
Thanks again to all who showed up to support us – I knew I could at least count on the anarchists, my union organizing roomies, and Food-Not-Bombers to be there; they really haven’t missed a beat this whole time.
And of course, thanks to my partner in crime, Linda, who has gone out on a limb to make sure real justice is finally established here.
I think we’re all in for a long, hard ride if we’re going to make that happen.