And what if he was armed? Given the history of police violence towards young black men, should it not be considered an act of self-defense for him to pull a weapon when an *armed* cop walks up to him? I’m sick of people centering this on whether he pulled a weapon or not. The fact is, the *armed* cop approached him first. That is, the cop is the one that initiated the armed confrontation.
Tens of thousands of protestors outside the National Palace in Mexico City surround a burning effigy of President Enrique Peña Nieto, in response to the Mexican narco-state he oversees murdering 43 radical students in Ayotzinapa, in the Mexican state of Guerrero (Thursday, November 20, 2014)
“If you are deaf, dumb, and blind to what is happening in the world, you’re under no obligation to do anything. But if you know what’s happening and you don’t do anything but sit on your ass, then you’re nothing but a punk.” — Assata, page 207
Thirty-four years ago this November 2, in 1980, Black revolutionary Assata Shakur escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey, with the help of comrades wielding .45 caliber pistols. Successfully avoiding a national “manhunt,” Shakur ultimately fled to Cuba, resurfacing there in 1984. Condemned by US authorities and mainstream media as a “cop killer” for her alleged role in a 1973 shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike,1 Assata was granted political asylum by the socialist Castro government, in light of extensive evidence that the former Black Panther Party member (like many activists in the age of COINTELPRO) faced unjust and racist persecution in the United States, and was being targeted for her revolutionary politics. Assata remains in Cuba to this day, where she has long maintained her innocence of any crime but that of seeking to overthrow the racist, imperialist, patriarchal capitalist system. For that “crime,” Shakur proudly pleads guilty.2
In May 2013, the FBI, without charging any additional wrong-doing, added “Joanne Chesimard”3 to their top ten “Most Wanted” list of “Terrorists,” placing her alongside the likes of accused World Trade Center and Pan Am flight 103 bombers and Al Queda leaders.4 She is the first woman to make the list — and the only “domestic terrorist” currently listed in the “Top Ten.” Accordingly, the bounty on her head was raised from $1 to $2 million.
Shakur has not set foot in the United States for decades — and has issued only a handful of public statements from Cuba — yet her presence continues to be felt today, in part through the narrative she wrote in exile. Assata: An Autobiography (1987) offers us a vivid, accessible, personal, and yet theoretically astute narrative of one woman’s oppression, exploitation, alienation, and resistance, as well as a relatable account of explicitly revolutionary (anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist) consciousness in the making, and a damning exposure of police terror, courtroom corruption, and state repression. Nearly three decades later, Assata still poses a stark challenge to hegemonic institutions that sustain oppression in the US and across the world. Moreover, Assata does all this in ways that are accessible and emotionally compelling to readers, including those not previously familiar with or inclined toward such perspectives. I believe that contemporary radical educators and organizers have much to learn from this remarkable text, in terms of both its content and its method of presentation.
I had the chance to teach Assata: An Autobiography in 2013, in a course on “Memoir and Autobiography,” at a university serving a diverse and largely working-class student population from the Greater Boston area.5 I found the book to be one of the most thought-provoking works that I have ever taught. Most importantly, it engaged students as effectively as any avowedly left-wing work that I have used, winning students to sympathy and opening them to frank and nuanced discussions of advanced social and political issues. Assata is on some level a strikingly didactic, and ‘in your face’ work—as the opening epigraph to this essay suggests — engaging very abstract ideas as well as more immediate and ‘concrete’ situations, even directly exhorting the reader at various points. Yet despite (and perhaps in part because of) this motley mix — Assata: An Autobiography was, hands-down, the class’s favorite work of the semester.6 What was it about Assata that enabled its radical resonance?
For starters, students were just blown away by the history here — that there had ever been such a (bold, revolutionary, popular) organization as the Black Panther Party in the US, that “violent” participants in that movement could be as eloquent and reflective as Shakur, that the US government had rained down such vicious repression on them, right here ‘at home.’ Being confronted with such a spectacular, shared, historical blind-spot helped students begin a sustained discussion of the political and social role that official schooling and dominant history has played in US society, and in their own lives, a topic that Shakur herselfdirectly engages through her narrative.
Students generally were struck by how Assata (and the Black Panther Party as depicted in the text) wasn’t advocating violence or “hate” against white people, as they had been taught to expect, but rather targeted their antagonism much more narrowly — and politically — against the structures and agents of oppression and exploitation. One white working-class student from South Boston expressed pleasure and surprise that he could identify with much of the struggle that Assata relates, as well as with her broader criticism of US social institutions, history, and ideology. Indeed, many students reported that they could relate personally to Assata’s criticisms of workplace, neighborhood, and school struggles, despite their varied historical, cultural vantage points. Her critique of financial exclusions, petty corruptions, and bureaucratic alienation resonated powerfully. One student volunteered that he felt inspired by Assata to return to radical politics, something he had been exposed to and interested in, but not involved in lately.
Students unanimously reported having a much more favorable response to Assata, this work by a “Top Ten Terrorist,” than to the acclaimed memoir of current US President, Barack Obama, whose Dreams from My Father (Three Rivers Press 1995, 2004) most students found to flop by comparison, both politically and stylistically.7 (We read this text immediately after Assata.) It’s an interesting moment when a class comes to the collective realization that they find the life story and the expressed views of an unreconstructed revolutionary socialist — an “anti-Amerikan” activist and accused “terrorist” fugitive — to be more compelling, relatable, truthful, and admirable than those of the current Commander-in-Chief.
But of course, as fascinating and shocking as the content of the book was and is, the text’s form played a crucial role in shaping student responses to that ‘content.’ It was not just the radical ideas to which they responded so positively, but the particular presentation of those ideas in and through Shakur’s text. Several students emphasized how the very structure of Assata functioned as rhetorical strategy, drawing readers into a serious and sympathetic consideration of radical and revolutionary ideas that they might not otherwise have taken to heart.
The structure of the text
In a sense, Assata’s structure juxtaposes a narrative of Incarceration, focusing on the years 1973-1987, with a narrative of Education, focusing on the years 1947-1977 — what we might call a “struggle for freedom” set against a “struggle for consciousness,” though of course the two struggles are deeply interrelated. Opening with the immediate aftermath of her shooting, capture, and brutal hospital interrogation by New Jersey State Police in 1973, the Incarceration narrative follows Shakur’s legal struggles, as well as her confrontation with jail and prison conditions, police terror, and a series of biased “kourt” cases and judges.8 The intervening chapters follow her life, from birth9 through early childhood, elementary and high school, through various jobs and through (sometimes humorous, sometimes death-defying) explorations of the street life of New York City, with a consistent focus on her education, understood in the broadest terms.
The two narratives effectively merge near book’s end, as Shakur’s account of her education turns to an account of increasingly revolutionary activism in and around the Black Panther Party. This then turns to an account of her life underground, after police violence against the Party escalates, bringing us up to the present of her capture, imprisonment, trial(s), and eventual conviction.10 While necessarily leaving undisclosed the details of her escape, the book ends with a moving account of Assata’s daughter (whom Shakur conceived and gave birth to while incarcerated) and her own mother joining her in Cuba, after years of forced separation. In a Postscript, Shakur reflects on her experience in socialist Cuba, and on the current prospects for world revolution from the sober standpoint of the mid-1980s.
Students found that the stark violence and injustice to which Shakur is subjected in the Incarceration sections inclined them towards a more sympathetic and attentive engagement with her life story, including her turn to radical politics, in the Education sections. At the same time, the coming-of-age story, by relating the struggles and development of an inquisitive and strong-willed child coming up against a racist, sexist, and class-stratified America, inclined them to be (even) more sympathetic to the grown rebel woman, as she is subjected to egregious abuse in courtrooms and prison cells. At the same time, we explored how the different sections do not merely contrast but connect on deeper levels; Assata’s struggle against the state echoes her struggles in the streets—just as her education continues behind bars, through conversations with fellow prisoners.11
Conversely, the text reveals how Incarceration in “Amerika” extends well beyond the prison walls; indeed the schools she attends operate in a highly racist and punitive manner, foreshadowing penitentiaries. As Assata’s fellow prisoner, Eva (honored by Shakur in a poem as “the rhinoceros woman”), puts it, for black people in the US, to be on the street is still not to be “free.” Eva tells Shakur: “You’ll be in jail wherever you go” (59), prompting Assata to reflect that she “has a point”:
The only difference between here [the Middlesex county workhouse] and the streets is that one is maximum security and the other is minimum security. The police patrol our communities just like the guards control here. I don’t have the faintest idea what it feels like to be free.… We aren’t free politically, economically, or socially. We have very little power over what happens in our lives. (60)
The split form of the narrative then, while introducing a jarring dramatic effect between the present fixity of incarceration and persecution and the past freedom of education and development, ultimately works to complicate this opposition, towards an enriched, and collective, sense of the meaning of both Imprisonment and Freedom. That is to say, the more the younger Joanne/Assata learns about the world through her (comparatively) free explorations of it, and the more she grows connected to others through her investigations, the more she sees the constraints on both her own freedom and that of so many others, the more she learns about the historical and structural barriers to achieving freedom for these others…and for herself, insofar as she now feels connected to them. Insofar as her sense of self comes to include the situation of others, she realizes that she cannot get free alone, but only through participation in a collective (self) liberation. As she puts it on the cusp of her radical commitment, “I want to help free the ghetto, not run away from it, leaving my people behind” (154).
Poetry and revolution
Students were further moved by the way Assata uses poetry throughout the book, framing or interrupting the movement of her narrative. Significantly, these interruptive texts present Shakur to us as not only a “militant” activist, and not only a victim of state violence, but as a writer, and not just as a critic or polemicist, but as a lyricist: a creature of human emotion, imagination, and love, as well as intellect and organizational commitment. From within a situation where there is often painfully little that she can control, writing gives Shakur a means of imposing her ideas and will on the madness around her, while keeping that madness from wrecking her own mind.12
“Affirmation,” the poem which opens Assata, provides a powerful example of how imaginative writing usefully frames Shakur’s narrative for readers, establishing empathy while foregrounding key themes. I quote the poem here in full:
I believe in living. I believe in the spectrum Of Beta days and Gamma people. I believe in sunshine. In windmills and waterfalls, Tricycles and rocking chairs. And i believe that seeds grow into sprouts. And sprouts grow into trees. I believe in the magic of the hands. And in the wisdom of the eyes. I believe in rain and tears. And in the blood of infinity. I believe in life. And i have seen the death parade March through the torso of the earth, Sculpting mud bodies in its path. I have seen the destruction of the daylight, And seen bloodthirsty maggots Prayed to and saluted.
I have seen the kind become the blind And the blind become the bind In one easy lesson. I have walked on cut glass. I have eaten crow and blunder bread And breathed the stench of indifference.
I have been locked by the lawless. Handcuffed by the haters. Gagged by the greedy. And, if I know any thing at all, It’s that a wall is just a wall And nothing more at all. It can be broken down.
I believe in living. I believe in birth. I believe in the sweat of love And in the fire of truth.
And I believe that a lost ship, Steered by tired, seasick sailors, Can still be guided home To port.
This moving poem gives us a useful map of some of Assata’s major themes. Indeed, the very fact that Shakur opens with a poem – celebrating a belief in and a love of life – is significant; my students said they felt immediately pulled in by the emotional quality of the poem; it wasn’t what most expected from a “militant black revolutionary” let alone an accused murderer or “terrorist.” “Affirmation” immediately prompted them to read Assata’s radical political trajectory as a product of emotional experience, as well as intellectual argument, an expression of love, hope, and affirmative belief, not only of hate or criticism (though her book, justifiably, contains plenty of both).
“Affirmation” also charts what we could call a dialectics of Oppression and Liberation — a key nexus that lays the basis for Assata’s remarkable revolutionary optimism. As she writes, “I have seen the kind become the blind, and the blind become the bind,” lines which are soon followed by the supplementary statement: “if I know anything at all, // it’s that a wall is just a wall // and nothing more at all. // It can be broken down.” Here, Assata calls attention to the (dialectical) fact that the ultimate basis of what appears to be solid and perhaps immovable “objective reality” (“just the way it is”) is in fact nothing more (and nothing less) than the product of human consciousness and feeling, as embodied in the practices this consciousness and feeling sustains (or disrupts). She asks us to reflect on the way that people give up their own human vision and sympathy, making themselves into—or allowing themselves to be made into—objects, stripped of meaningful will or subjectivity. Not only does she speak of the “bind[s]” that hold people and systems of oppression in place as ultimately constituted by the “blind” — that is, those who are unable to (or who refuse to) “see” — but she marks how many of the “blind” were themselves previously “kind.” Oppressors are not oppressors by fate, by nature, nor by “race,” but by training, through the “lessons” they learn (and fail to unlearn). The flip side of this dialectical insight, of course, is that, given the correct transformation of consciousness and human feeling—a return to kindness from blindness, so to speak—the “binds” and with them the “walls” can be broken down, dissolved, and the people trapped by them, set free. (Shakur’s own life trajectory as a prison escapee speaks powerfully to the concrete possibilities of such freedom.)
Assata’s depiction of the state, including the “kourt” system and the police as well as other ideological state apparatuses, is radically critical and even shockingly blunt — she refers to cops as “pigs” routinely and unapologetically, likening state police to fascists, even outright Nazis in some cases. And yet she also calls attention throughout her narrative to various cracks and openings in the would-be totalitarian “pig” system, highlighting moments where an element of humanity manages to slip through, where the kindness, solidarity, or just plain decency of a person, even one who may technically be working for the “other side,” plays a crucial role in sustaining Assata’s spirit, even saving her life.13 Unredeemable systems of oppression exist, but so do small acts of human kindness, and these small acts matter.
For example, in the first narrative chapter, while Assata lies handcuffed to a hospital bed, shot through the chest and the shoulder by police, without access to a lawyer, yet subject to interrogation and outright torture, a man whom she initially identifies as a “black pig” turns out to be “not a cop but a hospital security guard…not at all hostile. His face breaks into a kind of reserved smile and, very discreetly, he clenches his fist and gives me the power sign.” Assata adds, “That man will never know how much better he made me feel at that moment” (6). Later in that same opening scene, at a moment of deep desperation, Shakur is able to persuade a nurse—again a state employee—to disobey her superiors and get word out to Shakur’s lawyer and family, an act that may have saved her life. Assata is peppered with such small and often surprising acts of human solidarity.14
To underline the point: Insofar as the “walls” and “binds” are constituted by human beings (who are often facing some sort of oppression and exploitation of their own), Assata reminds us, there remains the potential for “kindness” and thus for solidarity to burst the binds, to bring down the walls.15 Thus, though Assata ultimately affirms the necessity for serious revolutionaries to take a sharp and unsentimental view of the enemy, cultivating the social, political, and, yes, the military basis foran (anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist) Liberation Army, and thus points clearly to her belief that the repressive apparatus in the United States cannot ultimately be defeated by peaceful means alone, her sharp antagonism towards the systems of oppression, and towards those “pigs” who actively operate positions of power within those systems, does not rule out the continued possibility (and perhaps even necessity) for the “un-binding” of those who constitute that system, through the clearing of vision and the rekindling of kindness. Assata’s assertion of the need for violent revolution does not bar but rather necessitates her openness to the potential of human transformation.
In this spirit, the wall-breaking, bar-bursting “violent” actions of a guerrilla insurgency, such as the Black Liberation Army aspired to ignite, may be seen as not primarily military, aiming at impairing the enemy apparatus and liberating particular forces or territories (though that is one important aspect), but as deeply symbolic, signaling and reminding those looking on that, in fact, “a wall is just a wall, nothing more at all. It can be broken down.” The goal of “violent” action would ultimately be to anchor, amplify, and sustain symbolic resonance among the people, which then may provoke and inspire proliferating thought and action, of various kinds. The function of revolutionary violence here—as opposed to what we might call ‘terrorist violence’—is thus not to render the world more polarized and fixed, but more porous, partisan, and change-able, precisely by shaking the ideological “walls” that act as a barrier to human thought and solidarity. Such “violence” ought not to aim to simply divide the world into “us” (the People and the Revolutionaries) and “them” (the “Pigs” and Reactionaries), but to divide the “them,” opening up new fronts within the repressive apparatus, as the previously inert “binds” are summoned back to conscious life (to sight and to kindness). In this sense, at least in theory, revolutionary violence can, when sharply focused against enemy institutions as embodiments of oppressive ideologies, open rather than close down space for human subjectivity, for thought and freedom, on both sides of the walls.
Revolutionary hopefulness…and humility
Alongside this striking revolutionary optimism — some might call it voluntarism16 — Assata’s opening “Affirmation” frames for readers another key theme that impressed my students: Shakur’s humility, her willingness to engage in self-criticism and to dramatize her own moments of ignorance, insensitivity, embarrassment, and shame as she struggles toward a revolutionary road. “I have eaten crow and blunder bread, and breathed the stench of indifference,” she writes, lines which admit that she has not only been the victim or the virtuous antagonist of systems of oppression, but has been subject to their influence as well. “Breathing the stench of indifference” goes in both directions here. It is not that Shakur has been able—through luck, enlightened leadership, the proper reading, or a superior nature—to avoid social contradiction, human failing, or toxic ideology (from internalized racism, to worker false consciousness, from historical ignorance and naïve patriotism, to consumerism, knee-jerk anti-communism, and, later, what she will call “revolutionary romanticism”). Rather, what distinguishes Assata’s revolutionary trajectory, and part of what made her so approachable for students, I think, is her willingness to admit mistakes, to recognize her own human ignorance and “blundering,” admittedly often only after others force it into her consciousness, and then to work to overcome these socially imbibed, inherited weaknesses, in theory and in practice. The starting point for revolutionary practice here is not a matter of achieving a standpoint of purity or perfection, a blueprint of what is to be done, or some Archimedean point above the fray, but a willingness to admit and to work through contradictions, with others, in light of a growing, if uneven awareness of a common history, a common goal, and a common enemy. It is an expression of critical love that begins with a deep belief that one is not fundamentally better or different (or separate) from the people one sets out to organize and to liberate.
Several students were moved by this depiction of Shakur’s own learning process, how her account is as much about the process of learning and self-transformation as it is about the particular content of lessons that result from it. Assata depicts revolutionary consciousness not just as a set of properly radical verdicts, but as an endlessly critical and self-critical advance in awareness, a matter of experimentation and experience, and of reflection on that experience, a matter of listening to others and learning lessons, negative and positive, from failure as well as success.
In a final paper, one student discussed eloquently how Assata models for readers this often- difficult process of working through the shame and “cognitive dissonance” that radical critique can provoke in those who ‘ought’ to be open to it. When confronted with a radically new and paradigm-shifting idea about the world—even an idea that seems intellectually convincing and ethically compelling—many people will suppress rather than respond positively to that idea, paralyzed by a sense of shame that they remain at some level attached to the very practices, institutions, and notions that they would now have to denounce.17 Without an avenue to work through this shame and dissonance — feeling in a sense judged rather than liberated by the new notion — the subject may lapse into paralysis and cynical resignation, failing to pursue the opening into new theory and practice.
Students attested that they found Assata’s approach to resonate with what they themselves have experienced when they have been confronted with radical criticism of dominant ideologies and institutions — ideologies and institutions which they have spent much of their lives being taught to identify with. They found that Assata, rather than preaching at them, was working through these ideologies and attitudes with them. The difference was crucial.
Arguably, the paralyzing effect of such shame-inducing cognitive dissonance may reach its pinnacle in a country like today’s USA, where capitalist penetration of public and private life — politics, culture, consciousness, intimate relations — has reached unprecedented levels, only dreamed of in the 1960s. Mental prisons have proliferated alongside the literal ones. Who among us today can claim to be beyond the psychological reach of myriad fantasies constructed by capital, though we aspire to the mantle of ‘anti-capitalism’? To what extent have most young people (or for that matter, their would-be teachers) incorporated capitalist commodity culture into their very identities and life-goals? How could people not? Assata confronts and yet transcends the often-paralyzing discourse of ‘complicity’ with the dominant culture by at once acknowledging — and dramatizing — Shakur’s own embeddedness in various backward ideologies and destructive practices, but also foregrounding her self-transformative efforts to overcome them, as part of a larger working through of a contradictory historical inheritance. Shakur’s emphasis on her own self-activity—both her mistakes and her breakthroughs — played an important role in getting students to see this revolutionary neither as a “victim,” nor as some “hero-saint” to be put on a pedestal, but as a complex human being, not fundamentally different from themselves. This point further helped discussion of the text to move beyond an identity-politics frame, allowing students to connect personally with the types of “Amerikan” problems that Shakur parses across her own life, while acknowledging important differences in historical experience as well.
This article was first published at Red Wedge Magazine, this is the first part of a longer essay that will appear in full in the November issue of the journal Socialism and Democracy, an issue devoted to the topic of Mass Incarceration.
The gunfight left Assata’s comrade, Zayd Shakur, as well as State Trooper Werner Foerster dead. Assata herself was seriously wounded during the attack, having been shot in the back. [↩]
Assata has made several public statements from exile in Cuba, including a 1997 Letter to Pope John Paul II, issued following reports that the FBI had pressured the church leader to petition Fidel Castro to expedite Shakur to the US. This letter can be found online, including at Democracy Now, where it was first broadcast. [↩]
This is Shakur’s legal name—she refers to it as her “slave name.” [↩]
The class met once per week, for three hours in the evenings 6-9pm—many of the students having put in full days at work before attending. [↩]
I base this assessment on the quality and enthusiasm of class discussions (lecture-guided and spontaneous peer-to-peer responses), on the quality and content of the students’ writing on the text (both weekly response papers and final, formal essays), and on an end-of-semester poll. Of the ten students in the class, half picked Assata as their “favorite” of the semester, while the other half all placed Assata in the top two or three works (of ten) that we read together. Fully half of the students elected to do their final critical essay on Assata. [↩]
Unlike my students, mainstream critics have lavished praise on Obama’s Dreams from My Father. For a serious radical critique of Dreams, see Barbara Foley’s essay “Rhetoric and Silence in Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father” in Cultural Logic: an electronic journal of theory and practice. The 2014 convention of the Modern Language Association featured an entire panel focused on the literary legacies of Obama’s book. [↩]
Shakur spells the word always with a “k,” as in “kangaroo kourt.” [↩]
As Shakur writes at the start of her second chapter: “The FBI cannot find any evidence that I was born…. Anyway, I was born” (Assata, 18). [↩]
It’s worth underscoring here that all the charges that ostensibly justified Shakur being pursued by New Jersey police on the Turnpike either ended in acquittal or were dropped. The sole charge for which she was ever convicted—a conviction that remains dubious—concerned actions which allegedly transpired following, and were prompted by, this aggressive police pursuit. Shakur maintains her innocence and there was no physical evidence to establish that she fired a shot. [↩]
Similarly, Shakur’s only child is conceived inside a courthouse cell, where she and her lover/co-defendant Kamau are locked alone for verbally protesting abuses in the courtroom to the point that the judge orders them excluded from the scene of their own trial. She gives birth in prison as well, after a protracted struggle to get access to decent medical care. [↩]
Indeed, reading Assata drove home to me how important it could be today, in this age of mass incarceration, to use writing as a means to help imprisoned brothers and sisters keep their minds and hearts alive, through letter writing and inmate book programs… pending a more radical abolition of this “New Jim Crow” system. [↩]
Lest we lapse into romantic fantasy, it’s important to note that such acts, in Assata, are not carried out by any actual police officer, but by personnel such as hospital security guards, nurses, doctors, and others who, though they may be employed and instructed by the systems’ rulers, are not themselves sheer agents of repression. [↩]
These acts of course are in addition to the countless acts of conscious solidarity that constitute the sustained legal and political campaign to free Assata, the efforts of which are discussed at length in the “Incarceration” chapters. The present essay, with my focus on radical pedagogy, will tend to focus on the “Education” chapters. [↩]
Again, the word here is potential, not inevitability. The openness of revolutionary potentiality is not an occasion for confidence, passivity, or spectatorship, but for renewed activism, outreach, and an all-sided seizing of contingent opportunities. [↩]
For a compelling philosophical reconsideration — and defense — of the much derided term voluntarism, see the work Peter Hallward, e.g. his essay. “The Will of the People: Notes Towards a Dialectical Voluntarism,” Radical Philosophy 155, May/June 2009. [↩]
To refer back to Shakur’s opening poem: it can be not only radicalizing, but traumatizing and embarrassing to recognize that what you have been “saluting” for most of your life, are little but “maggots.” [↩]
Recall that they were kidnapped by police and nothing has been heard from them since. The Mexican government and mainstream media are relying heavily on the narrative that the responsible party in these crimes is a “drug gang” called Guerreros Unidos. That narrative distorts and distracts from despicable state crimes by pointing to organized crime and corrupt cops as being solely responsible.
This is a short update meant to demystify official claims, which are (as usual) finding great echo in the media, as well as to bring folks up to date on ongoing acts of resistance in Mexico.
On the day the students were detained by police before also being disappeared by them, six people were killed by gunshot wounds when cops opened fire on various vehicles. There are now ample survivors who have bravely told media what took place that day, and they’re not talking about attacks by Guerreros Unidos or some other crime group. They describe how police fired directly on groups clearly identified as students. Here’s a snippet from an excellent piece by Vice Mexico:
“When it started, one of us said, ‘Don’t be afraid, friends, they are firing to the sky’,” Mario went on. “The buses stopped, and that’s when I saw the bullets were coming toward us.”
The young men began panicking. Mario and three other friends got off, each also wearing the red jacket of their Ayotzinapa uniforms. They saw that the gunfire was coming from men inside two municipal police cruisers. Trying to defend himself, Mario threw rocks in their direction.
As bullets kept hitting the buses, they ran to the first bus. “But then we saw that they were ten police cars, surrounding us. We had no where to run and no rocks to defend ourselves,” Mario said.
“One of the bullets hit Aldo, who fell right next to me. I saw how a pool of blood formed. I yelled at them that they already hit one of us, and they began firing more,” he went on. “If you moved, they fired, if you yelled or talked, they fired. They fired so much, from in front, and from behind, that us, the ones who got off, we hid in between the first and second bus.”
Yesterday it was revealed that the 9-10 mass graves that were found outside of Iguala almost two weeks ago do not contain the bodies of the 43 missing students. We now know that at least 28 more people were killed around that time, they were tortured, cut into pieces, and burned before being buried outside of Iguala. We must now speak of various massacres in Iguala (not to mention mass graves containing nine bodies found in April and another nine in May of this year on the outskirts of the city).
But the government of Mexico’s involvement in these crimes goes beyond police actions and their collaboration with paramilitary groups in the region. It was reported that authorities also impeded the work of an Argentine Forensic team tasked with identifying the remains in the graves.
“There were two days of agnoy and complications, and on the third day things were normalized,” [according to a lawyer on the scene].
Because of the loss of those initial hours, they arrived at the first five graves–out of which they took 28 bodies–once the exhumations were already done. “They didn’t have the opportunity to participate in that.”
The mayor of Iguala, who belongs to the sham leftist PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution), is on the run with his wife. Note that governor of Guerrero is also a member of the PRD.
I guess that’s my lead in to update on the resistance and organization taking place in the face of this massive, ongoing tragedy.
There were marches throughout the country a week ago today, as well as in cities around the world, including Vancouver and Montreal. Coming back to my segue-way, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the so called “moral leader” of the sham-left PRD party, was attacked during the October 8th demo by protestors in Mexico City who threw garbage and yelled at him and his entourage. But the marches were big, and there were lots of them, and the attack on Cárdenas was just a bit of a sideshow that demonstrates how pissed people are at all of the political parties in this country. Of the main protest slogans in the marches is: ¡Vivos los llevaron, vivos los queremos! which translates as: They were taken alive, we want them back alive!
Militant highway blockades have been taking place in various locations. There was one this morning on a major highway in the south of Mexico City.
Also today the National University (UNAM) and various other large universities in Mexico City (UAM, IPN and UACM) entered their second day of a two day student strike, with another two day strike proposed for next week.
Lastly, for the moment, on October 13th the State Congress of Guerrero was burned by protesters. The building will not re-open for some time and government activities have been suspended until an alternative seat of government is found. Chilpancingo’s City Hall was also set on fire.
(An unpleasant endnote, but over the weekend a leader who has been active in resisting a dam in Sinaloa state was killed while he broadcasted live during his weekly radio show. More on that soon.)
[…] Casting policing and prisons as the solution to domestic violence both justifies increases to police and prison budgets and diverts attention from the cuts to programs that enable survivors to escape, such as shelters, public housing, and welfare. And finally, positioning police and prisons as the principal antidote discourages seeking other responses, including community interventions and long-term organizing. […]
In 2001, Critical Resistance, a prison-abolition organization, and INCITE! Women of Color against Violence, an anti-violence network, issued a statement assessing the effects of increased criminalization and the silence around the nexus of gender and police violence. Noting that relying on policing and prisons has discouraged organizing community responses and interventions, the statement challenged communities to make connections, create strategies to combat both forms of violence, and document their efforts as examples for others seeking alternatives.
[…] strategies to stop domestic violence frequently require more than a single action. They often require a long-term commitment from friends and community to keep a person safe, as in Piepnza-Samarasinha’s case. For those involved in devising alternatives […] it may require not only creating immediate safety tactics, but long-term organizing that addresses the underlying inequalities that exacerbate domestic violence.
By relying solely on a criminalized response, carceral feminism fails to address these social and economic inequities, let alone advocate for policies that ensure women are not economically dependent on abusive partners. Carceral feminism fails to address the myriad forms of violence faced by women, including police violence and mass incarceration. It fails to address factors that exacerbate abuse, such as male entitlement, economic inequality, the lack of safe and affordable housing, and the absence of other resources.
Carceral feminism abets the growth of the state’s worst functions, while obscuring the shrinking of its best. At the same time, it conveniently ignores the anti-violence efforts and organizing by those who have always known that criminalized responses pose further threats rather than promises of safety.
The students were rural youth studying to become teachers. Their student association is known to be one of the most organized and combative in the country. They were brothers, sons, and friends, and some of them were fathers. They were tortured, dismembered and burned before being buried.
This isn’t the first grave of its kind to be dug in Mexico, far from it.
There have been hundreds of clandestine mass graves dug and filled with corpses since Felipe Calderón declared the war on drugs in December, 2006. The discovery of some of these graves garnered international attention, while others went under the radar almost completely. There’s no solid, reliable count of bodies, or of graves. Then there are those which have yet to be discovered. Migrant activists go so far as to call Mexico a giant cemetary, claiming that as many as 120,000 migrants could be secretly buried across the country.
The killers in Iguala were not drug gangs. They were cops and paramilitaries. Paramilitaries are non-state armed groups who work with state forces. There can be no clearer example of the horrors of state and paramilitary violence than what has happened to these students.
Parts of Mexico are deeply paramilitarized, a process which was accelerated and fortified by the Merida Initiative as well as internationally sponsored police professionalization programs.
I’m a grad student in Mexico, and in talking with my peers over the past couple days, the fear and the rage is tangible. On Wednesday, students around the country will bravely march against this barbarity, this terror at the hands of the state. The worst thing we can do is to be silent about this.
“When tear-gas was first fired into the streets of Ferguson, Missouri at people angry at the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, Palestinian activists sent out messages on Twitter giving people tips for how to deal with tear gas’ effects. And there was another direct connection between events in Missouri and the West Bank, as Palestinian activist Mariam Barghouti noted: the company that supplies the Israeli army with tear gas is the same company supplying the police in Ferguson. […]”
“Combined Systems Inc. (CSI) calls Jamestown, Pennsylvania home. Often marketed and produced under the brand name Combined Tactical Systems (CTS) – they provide tear gas to the governments of Israel and Egypt as well as many others. In fact, until recently, Combined Systems used to fly the Israeli flag at its headquarters. According to its own advertising, its ‘OC Vapor System is ideal for forcing subjects from small rooms, attics, crawl spaces, prison cells,’ and is used against prisoners in the US. CSI is owned by Point Lookout Capital and the Carlye Group. Point lookout Capitol, which holds a controlling number of shares, says glowingly of CSI: ‘The company’s CTS branded product line is the premiere less-lethal line in the industry today.’ Point Lookout Capital is headquartered in New York City. Nearly every week Combined Systems Inc. holds trainings across the US for law enforcement and security personnel, in using their ‘chemical munitions’ and other weaponry. Combined Systems tear gas was exported into Egypt via Israel during the January 2011 Egyptian uprising and is one of the largest suppliers of tear gas used to repress uprisings globally.
Combined Systems has aggressively propagandized its products. On May 18, 2011, the Chilean government announced— in the wake of a study by the University of Chile which demonstrated that CS exposure may lead to miscarriages— that they would temporarily suspend the use of tear gas throughout the country. Latin America News Dispatch quotes then-Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter as saying: ‘[I]t seems reasonable to suspend the use of tear gas until new medical reports dispel any doubts about the appropriateness of employing these gases to confront situations of public disorder and vandalism.’ Fortunately for the Chilean government— and unfortunately for Chilean protesters, such as the 30,000 protesters who, a week earlier, had gathered to demonstrate against the HidroAysén hydroelectric project and been faced with tear gas— the Chilean government was able to put together a report, three days later, citing Combined Systems, arguing that tear gas was safe. The report, and the lifting of the ban on tear gas, came just in time for the state to use tear gas against the next round of HidroAysén protests.
In the West Bank, many protesters have died or been seriously injured as a result of being shot at close range by Combined Systems tear gas canisters, including 28 year old Mustafa Tamimi of Nabi Saleh who died in 2011 after half of his face was shot off by a Combined Systems tear gas canister. In 2009 Bassem Abu Rahmah, from Bil’in, was killed by a Combined Systems canister, and in 2010, his sister Jawaher was as well. The number of deaths as well as serious injuries as a result of teargas cannisters has drastically increased since 2008, when Israel began using Combined Systems’ ‘extended range’ 40mm cartridges, sold under the brand name ‘Indoor Barricade Penetrator,’ and which travel at a velocity of 122 meters per second and are designed to penetrate buildings. Although the manufacturers’ labels clearly indicate that the teargas grenades are not to be used at short range and are not to be fired people, this has not stopped the Israeli military from doing so— effectively turning these canisters into large bullets. (For more info, check out the B’Tselem report, page 8. To see the manufacturer’s website for the Indoor Barricade Penetrator, click here.) Combined Systems canisters have also been used to kill protesters in Guatemala.”
Defenders of the warrior cop in situations like the one in Ferguson, Missouri argue that all of these trappings of military occupation are necessary because of the oh-so-dangerous environment the police supposedly face.
Policing is not the country’s safest job, to be sure. But as the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries shows, it’s far from the most dangerous.
The 2012 data reports that for “police and sheriff’s patrol officers,” the Fatal Injury Rate — that is, the “number of fatal occupational injuries per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers” — was 15.0.
That includes all causes of death — of the 105 dead officers recorded in the 2012 data, only 51 died due to “violence and other injuries by persons or animals.” Nearly as many, 48, died in “transportation incidents,” i.e., crashing their cars.
Here are some occupations with higher fatality rates than being a cop:
* Logging workers: 129.9
* Fishers and related fishing workers: 120.8
* Aircraft pilots and flight engineers: 54.3
* Roofers: 42.2
* Structural iron and steel workers: 37.0
* Refuse and recyclable material collectors: 32.3
* Drivers/sales workers and truck drivers: 24.3
* Electrical power-line installers and repairers: 23.9
* Farmers, ranchers and other agricultural managers: 22.8
* Construction laborers: 17.8
* Taxi drivers and chauffeurs: 16.2
* Maintenance and repairs workers, general: 15.7
And for good measure, some more that approach the allegedly terrifying risks of being a police officer:
* First-line supervisors of landscaping, lawn service, and groundskeeping workers: 14.7
* Grounds maintenance workers: 14.2
* Athletes, coaches, umpires, and related workers: 13.0
While being a cop might not be all that dangerous, being in the presence of law enforcement certainly is. In 2012, there were a minimum of 410 people killed by police, and that includes only those voluntarily reported to the FBI under the creepy category of “justifiable homicide.” Nobody keeps full and accurate statistics, and the real number is probably closer to 1000.
To put this level of violence in perspective, the total number of murders committed in 2012 by anyone in Canada — a country of 35 million people, with a murder rate that isn’t even particularly low by rich country standards — was 543.
The United States is a dangerous place, and the workplace in particular is far too dangerous for far too many. But if you want to thank someone for bravely facing down danger in order to make your way of life possible, thank your garbage collector or your taxi driver. When it comes to the cops, they’re mostly a danger to others.
Instead of issuing them heavier armor than the occupiers of Iraq and Afghanistan, we should be talking about disarming them in the name of public safety.