Sunday, May 24, 2009

On the cycle of fear and brutality

As we all know, the fear-mongering from Republicans about the possibility of Gitmo prisoners being transferred to federal prisons in the U.S. worked to convince all but 6 Democrats (Durbin, Harkin, Leahy, Levin, Reed, Whitehouse) to vote against funding for shutting it down. Apparently, Harry Reid was so completely terrorized at the prospect that he had trouble explaining himself clearly without the help of reporters.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) declared in a press conference today, “We will never allow terrorists to be released into the United States.” In several tense back and forths with reporters, Reid said he opposes imprisoning detainees on U.S. soil, saying flatly, “We don’t want them around the United States”:

And now, just in time to play on that fear, we get the story of four Muslims who were arrested in New York for trying to blow up synagogues and shoot down airplanes.

The men, all of whom live in Newburgh, about 60 miles north of New York City, were arrested around 9 p.m. after planting what they believed to be bombs in cars outside the Riverdale Temple and the nearby Riverdale Jewish Center, officials said. But the men did not know the bombs, obtained with the help of an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, were fake.<...>

The charges against the four men represent some of the most significant allegations of domestic terrorism in some time, and come months into a new presidential administration, as President Obama grapples with the question of how to handle detainees at the Guantánamo Bay camp in Cuba.

And we can certainly count on our media to ramp up this story, including the part about how these men were "radicalized" during their time in prison.

The four men accused of plotting to blow up synagogues and shoot down a plane all did stretches in state prisons - a major breeding ground for Islamic radicalization.

At least two of the suspects, James Cromitie and Onta Williams, entered the system as Baptists and were paroled as Muslims.

The concern about prisons incubating jihadists has been heightened in the debate over releasing Guantanamo terror suspects to facilities across the U.S.

This week Deoliver47 wrote a powerful diary about all of this and I want to credit her with much of what I am posting here. I was struck by how much this story brings together many threads in what we are facing as a culture and country.

Deoliver47 tells us a little about the town of Newburgh - where these young men are from, and Camp LaGuardia, where one of them lived.

Newburgh, and other small towns above NY city have become a dumping ground for the poor, the homeless, the dysfunctional members of our society, many of whom are black or latino. There has been a shift in the demographics in recent years, with an increasing number of people who can no longer afford to live in NYc, even in the depressed sections. Gentrification in the South Bronx, Harlem, The Lower East Side and sections of Brooklyn that formerly housed the cities poor, has driven more families out of the city; settling in counties upstate, but still in a 2 hour distance from the metropolis. During the Guiliani administration, his efforts to "clean-up" New York, resulted in a wholesale sweep of homeless residents, many of whom were shipped "upstate" to camps like one located in Orange County, Camp LaGuardia, where residents have been vocal about there area become a dumping ground for NYC's social ills.

Then she goes on to explain how it is NOT Islam that is radicalizing our prisons...but the prisons themselves.

Am I surprised that they "converted to Islam" while in prison. Nope.
I've worked with incarcerated folks, and on prison reform since the 60's.
Our nations prisons are warehouses for the poor, and disproportionately full of cullard folks. If any of you have ever done prison time, you will understand that the prison experience in America is a nightmare. Survival in most men's prisons has little to do with the rules or the guards, but requires joining a group that will literally protect your ass.

And BTW, yes there is torture practiced in US prisons, not just GITMO. The entire experience is torture, but that is a subject for another diary.

Many of you are familiar with the Autobiography of Malcolm X, and know that he converted to the NOI in prison. In later years black Muslim groups were able to secure better food for their converts, and to provide protection from "booty bandits" who prey on "new fish" entering the systems. Since that time, protection groups in prison have proliferated, often along racial and ethnic lines. La Familia, The Netas, The Latin Kings, The Mexican Mafia, the Black Guerrilla Family, The Aryan Brotherhood, The Maras Salvatrucas (aka MS-13) all have large memberships in prison society.

You join a group, or you may die. Period. You may still die, since inter-group warfare is rampant, but you may avoid being raped, by other inmates or guards. (Yes "corrections officers" are part of the problem too)

All of this reminded me of what David Simon, creator of HBO's series "The Wire" has been saying for years now.

I am wholly pessimistic about American society. I believe The Wire is a show about the end of the American Empire. We...are going to live that event. How we end up...and survive [and] on what terms, is going to be the open question... There will be cities. We are an urban people...What kind of places they will be are...dependent on how we behave toward each other and how our political infrastructure behaves<...>

We are in the postindustrial age. We do not need as many of us as we once did. We don’t need us to generate secure wealth. We are in a transitive period where human beings have lost some of their value. Now, whether or not we...can figure out a way to validate the humanity of the individual...I have great doubts...We (America) haven’t figured out the answers to these questions.<...>

I didn’t start [out] as a cynic...,but at every given moment, where this country has had a choice...its governments...institutions...corporations, its social exalt the value of individuals over the value of the shared price, we have chosen raw unencumbered Capitalism. Capitalism has become our God... You are not looking at a Marxist up here...But you are looking at somebody who doesn’t believe that Capitalism [can work] absent a social framework that accepts that it is relatively easy to marginalize more and more people in this economy...[Capitalism] has to be attended to. And that [this attending] has to be a conscious calculation on the part of society, if that is going to succeed...

If you'd like to hear the whole speech by Simon, you can find it in three episodes on Youtube here, here, and here. I highly recommend it!!!

So here we have four young men of color who were cast aside as worthless. Certainly they hold responsibility for what they did with their lives. But the options weren't all that available. They were treated brutally and responded in kind. And now we seem to be wanting to use them again to scare us into more brutality.

At what point do we decide to stop that cycle? stand up and say that we will no longer allow our fear and our desire to maintain our own comforts perpetuate this cycle of brutality? I want to be more optimistic than Simon is. And for me, as good a place as any to start is by looking in the eyes of these four young men. Yes, we need to hold them accountable for their actions. But we should also have the courage to take the time to see what we've done to them (collectively) and demand something different. And we certainly shouldn't buy into any ideas about using them to perpetuate yet more fear and brutality.


  1. Well I liked it, even if none of those dipshits at docudharma didn't. You go girl.



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