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The Appeal Podcast: Against Innocence

With Appeal contributor Zoé Samudzi.

Nia Wilson

The Appeal Podcast: Against Innocence

With Appeal contributor Zoé Samudzi.


“He was a straight-A student,” “a loving husband,” “she worked 60 hours a week”—we often hear that victims of police and white supremacist violence didn’t deserve to be killed because they were good people, not simply because they were people. Our guest, Appeal contributor Zoé Samudzi, argues that the notion of “innocence” as a condition for empathy is an outdated, puritan mode of thinking that implies those with messy, so-called “criminal pasts” are somehow not deserving of our compassion.

The Appeal is available on iTunesSoundcloud and LibSyn RSS. You can also check us out on Twitter.

Transcript:

Adam Johnson: Hi, welcome to The Appeal Podcast. I’m your host Adam Johnson. This is a podcast on criminal justice, abolition and everything in between. Remember, you can follow us on social media, Twitter @TheAppealPod or go to Facebook and see The Appeal magazine’s general Facebook where our show posts there and of course you can always subscribe to us on iTunes. He was a straight A student, a loving husband. She worked 60 hours a week. We often hear about how the victims of police and white supremacist violence didn’t quote unquote “deserve to be killed,” that somehow their past conduct is evidence that their death was that much more of a tragedy, but what if this is the totally wrong approach to discussing violence that’s visited upon oppressed communities? Our guest, Appeal contributor Zoe Samudzi, argues that the notion of innocence, the notion of the deserving and the undeserving victim is an outdated puritan mode of thinking that implicitly suggests that those who have messy or sometimes criminal pasts somehow deserved what came to them. Today we’re going to discuss the pitfalls and traps of trying to argue innocence in lieu of a non negotiable, unconditional intrinsic humanity.

[Begin Clip]

Zoé Samudzi: When we start talking about whether or not someone deserves to die we’re implicitly stating that someone else does, regardless of whether or not we say that and I don’t think that that’s a fair way of understanding violence or of understanding the value of human life or human life for human life’s sake or empathy for empathy’s sake. I don’t think that our empathy and solidarity need to be things that are that are transactional and conditional like this.

[End Clip]

Adam: Thank you so much for coming on the show Zoé.

Zoé Samudzi: Thank you so much for having me.

Adam: So you wrote a piece for The Appeal that touched on a theme that we’ve mentioned tangentially on the show. We haven’t really dived into it, so I’m excited to do it. Called “Against Innocence” on August 8, 2018 in which you use the murder of Nia Wilson in Oakland on the BART system, she was killed by a white man on July 22 of this year. You use her murder and the stabbing of her older sister who ended up surviving as a springboard to talk about a broader issue which you refer to as white approved notions of innocence and respectability and how we cover victims. Something that we’ll sort of broadly call the kind of perfect victim problem, whereby which we litigate the deservingness of life after an African American, typically an African American is killed by white supremacists or the police. Can you talk about problems in this framing as you see it and why this kind of habit even among some proverbial well meaning liberal and what the kind of problems with that instinct is?

Zoé Samudzi:  Yeah. Um, so I first encountered that concept in this essay by Jackie Wang in a collection of essays called LIES, which is this journal of materialist feminism. And she laid out so perfectly something that I hadn’t quite been able to put words on, but was something that was a currency that had obviously been dealing in for such a long time and doing all of these different hashtags and trying to, you know, when someone is killed trying to fight with people who are like, well they did drugs or they were once a domestic abuser or they actually did get into a fight with the police and I was finding myself getting caught up in the semantics of whether or not, because of the conditions of their life, whether or not they were “deserving” quote unquote, of our empathy and of our solidarity and whether their families should be supported in all of that. And you know, reading her piece, you know, forced me to, to, to fundamentally reconstruct our entire frame. Right? Because by our adjudication of who is innocent and who is not innocent, we are still reproducing the kind of carceral violence that we claim to be in opposition to. And I find it really heartbreaking when, you know, when Jordan Edwards was killed earlier this year I think? I can’t, I can’t keep it, I can’t keep all of it straight anymore. Um, but when he was killed and people were like, ‘he was a straight A student. He wasn’t a thug, you know, he was a great teammate. He was a young man with all of this ambition. He didn’t deserve to die.’ And when we start talking about whether or not someone deserves to die, we’re implicitly stating that someone else does, regardless of whether or not we say that.

Adam: Yes.

Zoé Samudzi: And I don’t think that that’s a fair way of understanding violence or of understanding the value of human life or human life for human life’s sake or empathy for empathy’s sake. I don’t think that our empathy and solidarity need to be things that are, that are transactional and conditional like this.

Adam: Right. Jackie Wang writes “Against Innocence,” which I believe is the name of the essay writes quote, “bodies that arouse feelings of fear, disgust, rage, guilt, or even discomfort must be made disposable and targeted for removal in order to secure a sense of safety for whites.” Which I, um, I really liked that sentence. It really popped. And then you went onto say, “Violence that occurs in those spaces is unintelligible, and even necessary for the maintenance of white safety and order. Like Oscar Grant, who was also murdered in a BART station (but by a BART police officer Johannes Mehserle), Nia Wilson’s murder occurred in a space frequented by white people.” We talked about this issue of white spaces as it pertains to innocence and sort of cleanliness. Can you expound on that a little bit and what, what, what you think the sort of the kind of maintenance and purification of white spaces means vis-à-vis both our perception of innocence and also the carceral state in general?

Zoé Samudzi: Yeah, I mean, I think all of these processes of social cleansing are related to one another. The school to prison pipeline gentrification, um, it’s this idea and this continuation of state enclosure that kind of delineates that some space, well not some spaces, all spaces should be spaces that are accessible to white people and that any occupants, no matter how long they’ve been in those spaces, should no longer be in those spaces, and that any, um, attempts to remain in those spaces is making those spaces less and less and less and less safe for the white people who deserve to be there. So, uh, in gentrification we see families that have been in neighborhoods for generations being cleared out for capital to come into the neighborhood. We see, you know, these different like coffee shop economies and you know, historically coffee shops have signaled the collection of, of wealth to converge in the space, you know, that’s been the history of coffee shops in like 16th, 17th centuries in Europe. And so with the emergence of these new coffee shops in these spaces, we have spaces being primed for new kinds of policing. And then there of course are spaces for containment. And so, I mean, Foucault gets on my nerves kind of, but we have these clinical spaces, we have carceral spaces, um, the prison, um, we have these spaces that are supposed to not only be spaces for containment but for um, for disciplining. So within the prison you are subjected to violence because you have this, this body, this identity that needs to be molded into something better that needs to be punished to become something better. And so we see Nia Wilson’s, the site of Nia Wilson’s murder, of Oscar Grant’s murder because they happen in places that are frequented, that are not off limits to white imagination. The same with Trayvon Martin’s murder in this gated community, which is intelligible, but these, when we hear about murders in Chicago, right? We have no, generally, no concept of what actually goes on in the Southside of Chicago. And so our imagination starts to run wild. We start to use these memes of black on black violence because we have no sense of materiality of empathy of people have, of how people live their everyday lives. And so there is not space for the same kind of empathy for the same kind of imagining.

Adam: So on the issue of the perfect victim or the sort of, what we’ll call the kind of posthumous litigation of morality, right? The sort of, someone dies and then we say, okay, well did they deserve it? Then if they meet a kind of bourgeois notion of success, right? Good schools, working hard, the kind of bootstrap mentality that then our heart bleeds. But if they don’t, they’re sort of cast aside. One of the most egregious examples, and I’ve done media criticism for some time now, a few years, and I to this day, haven’t seen anything worse than the example in The New York Daily News St. Patrick’s Day of 2017, a gentleman by the name of Timothy Caughman was killed by a white supremacist named James Harris Jackson. He was stabbed with a 26 inch Katana sword in the chest. The white supremacist had driven up from Baltimore for the express purpose of killing an African American to ended up stabbing a 66 year old African American. And then The New York Daily News felt the need to point out the victim, his eleven prior arrests. They say, quote “[Caughman] has 11 prior arrests, including for marijuana, resisting arrest and menacing.” The guy walked into the police station and admitted to a hate crime. It wasn’t even sort of ambiguous. And then The Daily News feels the need to go around and not litigate the, the, the history of the person who committed the white supremacist attack, who, uh, who murdered the, the African American, The New York Post would join and also mentioned the quote, “11 prior arrests.” And then they said that, uh, the victim quote, “walked for about a block after the stabbing and staggered into a midtown precinct. Police sources said the career criminal was refusing to talk to police about the incident and acting combative before his death.” Unquote. So here you have someone who was stabbed and now it’s being criticized in the media for being combative. This to me highlights, I think, a pretty egregious example of what we would sort of call the fact that, that African Americans, when they’re subject to violence, either white supremacists or state violence, though those are often interchangeable, um, that they have to sort of be pristine and perfect. You mentioned in your piece, “Michael Brown was no angel,” you know, we have the murder on skid row of “Charlie Africa” in 2015 where they put his mug shots up and talked about previous crimes. Can we talk about this sort of instinct in the media to sort of immediately start to put on trial African Americans in a way that I don’t think it’s really the case for others?

Zoé Samudzi: Yeah. I think that the whole notion of deservingness is not only prevalent but like foundational to capitalism’s ethos, right?

Adam: Right.

Zoé Samudzi: Like we understand capitalist success as being for people who have worked hard and quote unquote “deserve” to have the nice things that happen to them. Nevermind the fact that like such a large fraction of wealth is actually like generational and nevermind that people who are entrepreneurs and pull themselves up by their bootstraps form like a minority or like not nearly as many of this hyper successful billionaire people that we celebrate on a regular basis. Nevermind that the whole concept of meritocracy is actually a myth. It’s this like Protestant ethic and individualism that really drives how much we interact with capital and with one another and so we can’t help but extend that when we’re talking about crime and criminality. You know, it’s like this conversation when people are, um, are nervous about surveillance and folks are like, ‘well, if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to be worried about.’ It’s like, well no, I’m, I’m worried about this thing for the sake of this thing. And not necessarily because I am someone who’s guilty but this quote unquote “guilty.” But it’s this idea of guilt in this idea of deservingness is, is so central to how we understand people and so central to how we understand black people because black people are always already guilty. And so if anything, it’s like the creation of these hashtags is something of an anomaly because we’ve collectively decided that this particular individual, as opposed to being guilty per their identity, we have decided that this particular individual is worth our solidarity, is worth our empathy. And it’s like in life, black people are struggling to be understood as human and in death people are struggling for the humanization on their behalf and, and this, you know, like you said this, you know, this posthumous, posthumous character assassination. It’s as much a defense of the person as, as it is a kind of self defense when it is something that’s happening from black folks. When black folks are saying, well they didn’t deserve this and it’s outside of this intellectualization of it. For me personally, it just really feels like this, this collective agreement that black people deserve to die unless proven and argued otherwise.

Adam: Yeah. It seems like there’s a, there’s a burden there. Right? The African American victim has the burden to prove innocence. Whereas its the default position for others as we’ve-

Zoé Samudzi: And it’s like, you know, a whole man is like, I am driving to the city with the expressed purpose of killing a person who is not white and everyone is just like, where was he radicalized? How? I don’t understand the motivations for like, I’ve seen photographs of people in whole Klan regalia and, and the media is just like, how can we understand this crime? And I was like, well, he told us basically, um, and, and there’s just this, this refusal, this refusal to let go of the idea that whiteness is ever anything other than innocent, despite the fact that we have literal centuries of demonstrations of this racialized pathology of this violent pathology of colonization and genocide and all of these things. So if anything, it should be flipped, right? Like when I see white men walk into small spaces, I’m just like, I’m glad this is not an open carry state. Well, actually, California is now an open carry state because of that Ninth Circuit decision that happened recently.

Adam: Well, that’s been sanitized through sort of civilized mission logic. But yeah, one thing I forgot to mention actually is that to your point, that The New York Daily News referred to the white supremacist killer as “dapper” when they described his, uh, when they described, in fact, I think it’s the only thing they used to describe him.

Zoé Samudzi: Good god.

Adam: Yeah. No, they just, for posterity sake, I will note that they got a lot of negative feedback and ended up changing it. And they, uh, I think they maybe even issued a semi apology vis-a-vis one of their columnists, Shaun King, this notion of delineating good and deserving victims and non-deserving victims is something that I know that abolitionists have struggled with, which is, you know, the Dream Act is framed along the lines as the deserving and undeserving, uh, the sort of, the people who came here through quote, “no fault of their own,” the kind of good and bad immigrants. Now I know that there’s some movement in the immigrant community to stop doing that, to stop using terms like so and so came through the country through no fault of their own, um, implying that their parents are somehow criminals.

Zoé Samudzi: Yeah, um, my parents are both immigrants and you know, in talking to people about how my parents came to the United States and there’s something like romantic, I guess, about the fact that they left when they were in their late teens, early twenties, and they left a colony and came here and did well for themselves. And, and, um, and I also tell them about my other cousin who actually won the visa lottery. Um, and so while it took my mom, I don’t know, she came in 1977 and she got her citizenship in 2004. While it took my mom a really long time to become a citizen I think my cousin got her citizenship like very, very quickly and someone was telling me about how that wasn’t fair. Um, and I was like, well, I guess it isn’t fair depending on what you understand American citizenship to be. If you understand American citizenship to be this thing that people are rewarded after they prove themselves worthy of having citizenship, then I guess it isn’t quote unquote “fair,” but if you believe that, you know, people have a right to move and people have a right to be able to attempt to access, um, greater economic mobility and economic opportunity then, you know, who cares how long it takes for someone to get their, to get status, to get papers in the United States? Um, and so there’s a lot of understanding of, again, deserving this and respectability around getting American citizenship because we understand that as being something that’s zero sum. If I get my papers and my citizenship through these means and I worked for 30 years to get it and someone gets it in in a week and a half then it necessarily cheapens my own.

Adam: Right.

Zoé Samudzi: As opposed to understanding that, well, first of all, this country’s no type of shit, um, and second of all, of what consequence is it to you how someone else, I mean, it sounds super cliche, but like how someone else is living their life as long as it is not harming you and as long as their attainment of status does not affect yours because there’s some kind of like total. Um, I think that we were really comfortable with this idea of like good and bad immigrants until we found out that they were also coming for naturalized citizens. And I think that’s going to make the conversation a little bit, it’s going to trouble it a little bit more.

Adam: Well right because they’re taking the mask off and they’re just openly white supremacists now. There’s not even the pretext of like, oh, we have to follow the law. This was the Lou Dobbs line, right? For 2007, 2008, you know,  like that undocumented immigrants are not following the law and I’m all about law and order. And now you have the Tucker Carlson white nationalist variety hour where he just comes out and says, ‘oh yeah, no, we need to go after Latino immigrants who are legal’ so that the whole pretense of legality is now thrown out the window.

Zoé Samudzi: Yeah. And now we’re now we’re really getting to the heart of what is the United States?

Adam: Indeed.

Zoé Samudzi: What is the function of the United States? And what is the function of citizenship? Beyond, you know, let’s, let’s not pretend that it’s about, it’s just about like traveling and borders also, what is the whole premise of borders? And so the fact that they’re going after naturalized citizens under the guise of fraud or whatever they’re pretending it’s about, um, I think that is going to, I hope that people’s responses to that isn’t to kind of double down in this respectable immigrant thing and be like, ‘well, they deserve to be here, they have their citizenship’ and instead of just like, no, this is naked ethno nationalism and let’s figure out what it means to kind of, to combat that and to and if they’re going to try to go after the Constitution, how they’re going to try to litigate this and all of that. That’s what we need to be talking about now and talking about like border imperialism and the enforcement of, of kind of carceral regimes like through this claiming of land and claiming of dominion over land that nation states do.

Adam: Right. One place that the perfect victim pops up quite a bit of course is in prison abolitionist work in prison strikes. You wrote quote, “we must be sure to offer the same energy and solidarity to incarcerated people as we do activist energies like the Women’s March.” Now, the Women’s March, while it had quite a few radicals amongst it that spoke and were kind of part of the party, it was sort of generally seen as being kind of bourgeois and sort of largely friendly, sort of, you know, aligned with George Soros and aligned with the Democratic Party and the kind of general left everyone at work can agree on. Now how do we, how could you possibly get the amount of energy and effort and solidarity with that crowd than you would, let’s say people in prison, who are striking? There was a strike recently, a few weeks ago on August 21. Can we talk about how hard it is for, for people in the activist space to get people to care about that, which is people incarcerated?

Zoé Samudzi: Well, I mean I have to say that I’m relatively new, not so much to kind of thinking through abolitionist stuff, but thinking specifically around prisons. In learning about how prison strikes function, you know, reading through like Shadowproof stuff and reading through, um, the Jailhouse Lawyers stuff and I think that there’s something for me that’s really remarkable about the way that they organize. Not to like exceptionalize them, but I think that there’s, there’s something that’s really incredible about withholding your labor and refusing to participate incarcerality while you are incarcerated. I think that there are a lot of lessons that we have to learn about the way that folks who are incarcerated are organizing and through these strikes the way that they’re self organizing, the way that they’re organizing across groups and tendencies, the ways that they’re making, um, particular kinds of material demands. And, and I think it’s hard in the conversations that I’ve tried to have with folks who are not just onboard with abolitionist everything, why we owe them our support, you know, in trying to connect, for example, family separation to the kind of abolition of structure, um, that it is not a success to have families together in detention.

Adam: Yeah. That one was interesting, the whole family detention thing because it’s obviously wrong to tear families apart, but then the sort of solution for a lot of people is just to put families together in prison, which if you talk to any kind of late Soviet apologists, they’ll tell you that that was the logic behind Gulags. That’s the reason why they sent entire families to prison was because it was more humane to have the whole family in prison than it was to separate them, which I found a weird irony. And obviously there are, there are differences, but uh, yeah, the idea of incarcerating entire families as a kind of liberal compromise struck me as a little odd.

Zoé Samudzi: Yeah. And so to go from there to, you know, people are like, well we need to abolish ICE. And I was like, oh, this is mainstream. Okay. And so then now I’m like, yes, we need to abolish ICE. In order to abolish ICE, we have to abolish the carceral structure because ICE does not exist in a vacuum and ICE cannot function the way that it functions and DHS can’t function the way that it functions without the participation of local law enforcement.

Adam: Yeah, and of course, you know, you get into the weeds about what some people meant about abolish ICE-

Zoé Samudzi: And we hear Kamala Harris who was a Fed being like we need to get rid of ICE and we need to replace it with something that’s more humane and it’s just like there’s no such thing as a humane carceral system. There’s no such thing as a humane structure of, of border regulation of land claims.

Adam: Yeah. I mean I’m somewhat sympathetic of temporary relief. Right? Getting rid of the ICE strikeforce as a sort of temporary stop gap. But yeah, it does strike me as odd when you get into the weeds about what people mean when they say abolish ICE it’s oftentimes either extremely vague or basically just saying let’s just get rid of it and then come up with a committee to replace it without any indication as to like what the nature of that replacement body would be, whether or not you’re just rebranding it.

Zoé Samudzi: And the thing that really made me nervous was, you know, when all of this antipathy against ICE started to kind of grow was how much people were focusing on children.

Adam: Yeah. This is the ultimate perfect victim.

Zoé Samudzi: Yeah. And it’s like, of course we need to focus on children. Of course we need to talk about how these kids are getting, they lost, how many kids? Like these kids are getting sent to these foster systems and being drugged and abused and like, I’m not saying don’t talk about children because like there are some pretty horrific violations that are happening to these children who ultimately have maybe less recourse because they’re minors and they have to have guardianship and people speaking on their behalf, you know. But yeah, like that is the ultimate innocent victim and that is the perfect foil to the person who was incarcerated. And it is a very hard kind of logical leap to go from these innocent children to the rights of incarcerated people who are in prison because they quote unquote “deserve” to be there.

Adam: Yeah. And I think this really gets to the core of the issue with the perfect victim is, and I want your thoughts on this, which is that people who try to move the needle on these spaces, they ultimately, you know, we’re a country that’s 68, 70 percent white, a third is white men who probably have, you know, 90 percent of the power, uh, maybe not 95. Um, that sort of win political gains for, for just pure, pure empirical reasons, you have to sort of appeal to a kind of middle class white like outrage. And so we sort of start to package ourselves and package our narratives and package our victims to sort of appeal to that. The kind of oftentimes white liberals and that comes with it I think certain sacrifices and certain certain myopia, right? You sort of, to win a little bit, right? To free up some dreamers, you reinforce the narrative that there’s criminal immigrants, right? Um, and I’m sympathetic to that. I guess what I want to ask you is how do you kind of balance that? I mean you have to understand that people are trying to like triage as they’re taking water out of the boat. Uh, and so they say things like, okay, well let’s just stop detaining children. Uh, how do you balance the kind of myopia of the perfect victim that can kind of win a few news cycles and raise some money and get people caring a little bit with the broader problem of not reinforcing these problematic notions of good and bad victims?

Zoé Samudzi: Yeah, I think, I mean, part of it is what you touched on, right? This, this idea of the news cycle. And I think part of the reason that we package our politics is because we’re hoping that yeah, we can get an hour and a half or a week’s worth of media attention. Um, I don’t know. I talk about this a lot in kind of movement spaces and about what it means to try to create our own media and to create our own narratives and to form relationships with journalists that we learn to trust to steadily put forth our politics as opposed to being reactive. Right? To waiting until someone is murdered. To be like, ‘actually this is not okay,’ or like ‘actually we need to talk about this,’ um, and kind of capitalizing on death in particular ways. Um, as much as they become opportunistic for us to put forth our narrative, then we become dependent on these cycles of these structures of violence for us to put forth our own better politics in response. Um, and this is something that I know that I’m not impervious to and I do understand that my radicalism is a lot more palatable than other people’s radicalisms because I’m a Ph.D. student and because I’m not a scary black person in the same way. And that’s something that I really capitalize on and it’s hard and and I’m trying to think about how we do this, but I, I do know that in my writing as much as possible, I try not to enable any space for that kind of compromise making. And I try to make connections. And I actually, it’s funny in the piece, the “Against Innocence” piece, someone actually sent me a DM being like, ‘well, we know that Mike Brown attacked Darren Wilson and Nia got murdered. So like, why are you even making a comparison between the two of them?’ And this was a black person.

Adam: Wow.

Zoé Samudzi: And I was just like, I mean, okay, uh, but even if he did attack a police officer, is that a capital crime? Maybe it is, but also why? But, um, it’s hard because I think we are so deeply invested in this idea of innocence and this idea of good and bad victims because if that goes away and we all become the same, um, what do we have? You know, we have these respectability politics that taught us to do this for such a long time. And, and our whole notion of success hinges on that. And as much as we want it to go away, like it can’t go away because then what do we have?

Adam: Well yeah. There’s a puritan moral order in this country that I think you’ve really touched on what the immigration thing, where it’s like, what difference does it make if someone skips the line, who cares? Um, there’s a kind of like OCD, like, ‘no, that’s the way it is.’ In a way that I think is, it exists in all cultures, but I do think it’s a little more intense in the United States.

Zoé Samudzi: I think so.

Adam: I think there’s a, you know, it’s like the whole ‘I’m in line at the store and someone uses food stamps to get like something I can’t afford.’ It’s like you’re not any more poor because they’re using food stamps or WIC. Like you’re, you know, you were going to be poor regardless like they’re not the ones taking your money from you. And this is something, I don’t know, people in the United States especially like people, they have a real sense that like we’re, we’re fighting the bottom rung of the ladder and that if I’m  down a notch it’s because of the other person on the bottom rung and it’s like, no, there’s this guy up top that’s controlling the ladder and (chuckles) –

Zoé Samudzi: And he’s cutting the rungs.  

Adam: Right. And it’s like, I don’t know, there’s this, there’s this very strong sense of self righteousness that I find interesting.

Zoé Samudzi: Yeah. The food stamps conversation is like particularly horrific.

Adam: Oh, that’s the ultimate perfect victim because you have to drug test, you got to be squeaky clean, you got, yeah, you got to be-

Zoé Samudzi: Like you can’t get steak or shrimp and da da da and that’s just like so poor people don’t deserve nice things basically because being poor is a material punishment for some kind of moral shortcoming.

Adam: I think the ultimate perfect victim American example, there’s a sign at Subway where it says you can get a cold sandwich because that’s covered by, you can use WIC to get that, but they can’t toast it because once they heat it, it’s no longer covered by SNAP and by WIC.

Zoé Samudzi: Okay.

Adam: So the very act of toasting a sandwich, they don’t want you to have hot food, right? You have to have the bare minimum.

Zoé Samudzi: It elevates you up a strata.

Adam: Yeah, to middle class indulgence. Putting something in a toaster is a middle class indulgence. And if, if he did that, then you would be, you would therefore be taking from those who worked hard.

Zoé Samudzi: Who worked hard for that extra dollar and a half that they’re spending on a sandwich. That is, wow, that’s a lot.

Adam: No. Yeah, that’s, that’s peak. It doesn’t get more puritan and more obsessed with deserving and undeserving than that I think. Uh, so before you go, can we talk about in your circles like what activists that you know of are doing, whether it’s immigration activists or Black Lives Matter or anything related to prison abolition people, things people are doing to try to change that good versus bad, deserving versus undeserving dynamic either in terms of language or how they approach it or there general internal propaganda. Can you give us a sense of anyone trying to flip the script on that one?

Zoé Samudzi: Yeah. Um, I mean, I always talk about her work, but the work of Miriame Kaba has been really, deeply influential to me and I know so, so, so, so, so many other people. And she makes abolition something that is actionable in that she doesn’t imagine it as like, we’re going to work real hard and all of a sudden everything is going to collapse and we’ll be done. She talks about it and engages it in ways that are about like everyday interactions and attitudes. And it forces this macro massive political project into something that also is about like individual self improvement and community improvement and um, that frame, this deeply, care work focused, emotional labor heavy, black feminist frame has been really, really, really just indescribably helpful. So her work is really great and I think the work of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee [IWOC] has been really, really good in connecting organizers on the outside with folks who are organizing and folks who just are on the inside and their work has been very valuable to me and as well as the Jailhouse Lawyers and Shadowproof and there’s, there’s this abolitionist network that is growing, um, and putting people in touch and putting actions together and supporting people in these material ways that I think is really important and really inspiring to me.

Adam: Yeah the work of the IWOC, I think its run through the IWW [Industrial Workers of the World], they do incredible work with prison strikes, which are super hard to do. Very, very hard to do and we’re probably, we’re going to do an episode on that at some point because I think that’s really fascinating. Well, thank you so much for coming on The Appeal Podcast. This was really great.

Zoé Samudzi: Thank you so much for having me.

Adam: That was Zoé Samudzi, contributor to The Appeal. This has been The Appeal Podcast. Remember, you can follow us on Twitter @TheAppealPod, you can subscribe to us on iTunes. The show is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production assistant Trendel Lightburn. The executive producer is Sarah Leonard. I’m your host Adam Johnson. Thank you so much. We’ll see you next week.

 

‘There’s An All-out Manhunt’: A Strike Organizer Speaks From Prison

An imprisoned organizer with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak said prison officials are trying to identify those leading the strike.

An aerial view of Lee Correctional Institution, where seven prisoners were killed in an April riot.
Credit: Google Maps

‘There’s An All-out Manhunt’: A Strike Organizer Speaks From Prison

An imprisoned organizer with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak said prison officials are trying to identify those leading the strike.


Since the nationwide prison strike began on Aug. 21, prison officials have retaliated against those involved, monitoring correspondence and putting some prisoners accused of organizing in solitary confinement. It has been hard for those on the outside to get information about what’s going on.

The Appeal recently spoke with an incarcerated man in South Carolina who helped organize the strike. He said officials in his prison have made it clear they want to root out and punish those behind the action.

“Right now, we know there’s an all-out manhunt for Jailhouse Lawyers Speak leaders,” Eddie (not his real name), a member of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), which organizes for prisoners’ rights, said in a call with The Appeal and other journalists. “They want to take our heads off. We’re not going to give them our heads. We’re not gonna let them destroy our movement. It’s not going to happen.”

The South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) said there was no strike in its prisons, and disputed the notion that it was looking for organizers. “We have not seen any evidence of the prison strike,” said Dexter Lee, interim communications director for the department.

In April, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak called for a national prison strike from Aug. 21 until Sept. 9, an action sparked by a riot at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina that left seven prisoners dead and injured at least 22 others. “The seven didn’t just die, they bled out,” Eddie said, a fact confirmed by the Lee County coroner. “We want everyone to remember the horrific conditions that brought these deaths about.”

Since the beginning of the strike, the Industrial Workers of the World’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee has reported strike activity in at least 10 states. In Ohio, two prisoners have reported that they are on hunger strike. In Indiana, prisoners in a solitary confinement unit initiated a hunger strike to protest inadequate food. In North Carolina, prisoners hung banners from their recreation yard.

Like many prison housing units in South Carolina, Eddie has been on lockdown since the riot in April. Eddie said prisoners in most units at his prison have been locked in their cells for 24 hours a day, only coming out to shower twice a week, with no outside recreation or sunlight. “We have steel plates over the windows so there’s definitely [been] no sunlight coming into the rooms [since April],” he said.

Jailhouse Lawyers Speak members communicate to prisoners nationwide through publications, newsletters, and unauthorized cell phones, and with the help of their supporters. This was how prisoners learned about the national strike, and also how JLS knows which prisons have participated. To halt the strike, Eddie said, prison officials are trying to interrupt these communications. In South Carolina after the riot, prison officials began testing cell-phone blocking technology.

“I think that some of these prisons have been very effective with some of these measures they’ve been taking out as it relates to our communications,” Eddie said. “I’ve seen a drastic increase in confiscation of cell phones and stopping publication[s]. The way we usually communicate.”

Dexter Lee of the South Carolina Department of Corrections did not respond to a question by press time regarding the confiscation of cell phones. He said that 8 out of 21 facilities under SCDC’s control have “various housing units” on lockdown “for the safety of staff and inmates.” Regarding how many hours per day prisoners were kept in their cells, he said, “The exact amount time during a 24 hour period will vary depending on services such as mail, visitation, telephone calls, showers, medical care or other services.” He acknowledged that there were plates over the windows in some units “to combat contraband.”

The prison strike call-to-action outlined four activities prisoners could participate in—work stoppages, hunger strikes, boycotts, and sit-ins—to open the opportunity to all prisoners, not just the ones who work. Eddie said JLS members at his prison have been focusing on boycotting the commissary.

He said he hopes the strike will “raise awareness among the prisoners as to what the issues really are. What are the conditions that are shaping and fomenting the violence amongst us back here? And what are some of the issues we really need to be coming together on to address as a collective?”

Eddie places the blame for the state of America’s prisons on lawmakers at the state and federal level. “What’s happening inside these prisons, lawmakers created it. … They created these conditions,” he said. “If we keep on this same track, we’re going to have issues far worse than they’ve ever seen, far worse than Attica.” The strike is timed to end on Sept. 9, the same date as the Attica rebellion in 1971.

Jailhouse Lawyers Speak members have decided to remain anonymous in their interactions with the public to try to prevent the type of retaliation launched against leaders of the 2010 work strike across six prisons in Georgia, as well as the leaders of the Free Alabama Movement, a group that helped call for a 2016 national prison strike and organized several work stoppages within the Alabama prison system. Several guards beat alleged strike leader Terrance Dean unconscious after the Georgia strike. “The system is not a game to be played with,” Eddie said. “The one thing [JLS] always said was don’t put your face out there, don’t put your name out there under any circumstances because if we’re doing five or 10 years [in a] supermax, there’s nothing [the public] can do” to prevent reprisals.

The strikers’ demands, which Eddie described as “the immediate problems we have right now,” include better-funded rehabilitation services, reinstating Pell grants, an end to racist gang-enhancement laws, an end to prison slavery, restoring the voting rights of all confined citizens, and an end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown people.

“For us, it’s just a matter of life and death actually, just to be blunt. That’s kind of where we’re at.”

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New York Woman Imprisoned For Defending Herself From Abuser Seeks Mercy

Jacqueline Smalls was sentenced to 15 years in prison for killing a boyfriend whose ‘hands were his weapons.’ She now joins the ranks of criminalized survivors seeking clemency from Governor Cuomo.

Jacqueline Smalls (center) in a family photo with daughters Nikki Smalls-Williams (left) and Dawn Smalls (right).
Smalls family

New York Woman Imprisoned For Defending Herself From Abuser Seeks Mercy

Jacqueline Smalls was sentenced to 15 years in prison for killing a boyfriend whose ‘hands were his weapons.’ She now joins the ranks of criminalized survivors seeking clemency from Governor Cuomo.


On the night of Aug. 26, 2012, Adrian King stormed into the home of his girlfriend Jacqueline Smalls at 1512 Van Vranken Ave. in Schenectady, New York. In the two years that King lived with Smalls, he repeatedly choked her, leading to his arrest on multiple occasions as well as two orders of protection.  Soon after entering the apartment that night, according to Smalls, King attacked her again; this time, however, she fought back, stabbing King once, fatally.

Even though Smalls defended herself from a man with a well-documented history of abusing her—King once smashed her phone to prevent her from calling the police and she recalled that “my abuser’s hands were his weapons”—prosecutors from the Schenectady County district attorney’s office insisted that she did not have a viable self-defense case and charged her with second-degree murder. Smalls later entered a guilty plea to a lesser charge of first-degree manslaughter. In December 2013, a judge sentenced Smalls to 15 years in prison; she is incarcerated at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York’s maximum-security prison for women.

Nearly five years later, Smalls, 55, is among an unknown number of survivors of abuse languishing in New York prisons. No government agency tracks the numbers of survivors incarcerated for defending themselves, but a 2007 study by the New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision found that 67 percent of women who were admitted to a New York prison for killing a loved one in 2005 had been abused. Nationally, nearly 60 percent of incarcerated women reported experiencing abuse before their arrest.

Smalls is hoping that Governor Andrew Cuomo will grant her clemency and allow her to rejoin her family before her sentence ends in 2027.  Her 29-year-old daughter, Nikki Smalls-Williams, too is desperately hoping that the governor will have compassion for her mom. On Aug. 9, Smalls-Williams read her mother’s story aloud as part of the kickoff event for the #FreeThemNY campaign, which demands that Cuomo grant clemency to abuse survivors in New York prisons. It was the first time she had spoken publicly about her mother’s experience.

Smalls-Williams was 23 when her mother was arrested and detained at the Schenectady County Jail without bail. She was living about 170 miles away in Queens, but still made the long drive to visit her mother regularly. Only then did she learn about the extent of the violence her mother had suffered at the hands of her abuser. “She thought she could handle it herself by getting law enforcement involved, which obviously didn’t work out for her,” Smalls-Williams recalled. “Schenectady County failed her.”

Governors have the power to issue an unlimited number of clemencies to any person at any time. They can issue a commutation, or the shortening of a prison sentence, which allows either an earlier parole hearing or an immediate release. They can also issue a pardon, expunging a person’s criminal conviction altogether.

In 2015, Cuomo announced the creation of a clemency review initiative to identify people in the state’s prison system who might be worthy of commutation. Cuomo set stringent criteria for consideration, requiring a applicants to have been sentenced to at least one year in prison, to have already served at least half of that sentence, and to not be scheduled to appear before the parole board within the next year. So far, Valerie Seeley is the only domestic violence survivor to have been granted clemency by Cuomo, whose record on commutations is generally extremely poor. He has issued a total of 12 commutations since taking office in 2011, two of them occurring in 2017 and 2018. In contrast, California’s Jerry Brown has issued 84 commutations during his seven years as governor; 45 of those were granted in 2018 alone.

Smalls, now six years into her 15-year sentence, does not fit Cuomo’s strict clemency criteria. “Ms. Smalls is not yet eligible,” Cuomo’s press office stated in an email to The Appeal. “Once she is, her case will be thoroughly evaluated and evaluated on its own merits, just as every other case is.”

But Hafizah Omar, an organizer with Survived & Punished NYC who is working with Smalls, noted that Cuomo himself set these criteria and that “the governor doesn’t have to adhere to these criteria. He can free anyone at any time.”

Gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, meanwhile, has promised to “commute the sentences of survivors of domestic violence who are incarcerated for acts of self-defense” while criticizing Cuomo’s record on commutations.

Cuomo’s counsel Alphonso David has previously said that the governor’s office was “actively looking at domestic-violence victims, as well as juveniles and elderly people in prison, to determine clemency.” It’s unclear, however,  if this is still the case. Cuomo spokesperson Colin Brennan recently told The Appeal only that “every clemency application is reviewed on a case by case basis and thoroughly evaluated. If there are similar cases, each one will be evaluated on its own merits.”

Smalls-Williams, however, is urging Cuomo to make good on his earlier promise: “Just send my mom home.”

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