Friday, May 24, 2013

A Cautionary Tale for Black Females Who Experiment with Science under Capitalism

Sixteen-year-old high school student Kiera Wilmot was recently expelled and charged as an adult with a felony: possessing or discharging weapons or firearms at a school sponsored event or on school property and making or attempting to make a destructive device. No one was injured, and the young lady had no prior disciplinary infractions.

After international outcry about the unjust harshness of the punishment, Assistant State Attorney Tammy Glotfelty dropped the charges. However, Wilmot was still forced out of her high school and ordered to complete her degree through an expulsion program, separating her from peers and her twin sister. This type of displacement has been shown to negatively effect socialization, as well as student achievement. Not only could Wilmot's school change negatively impact her own mental health, socialization, and academic performance, it could also negatively affect her former and future classmates. Professor of economics and policy studies at the University of Notre Dame, Jennifer Warlick, discovered that students who change schools "can suffer psychologically, socially and academically" while "academic achievement of...students who stay in one school is also negatively affected by the school’s mobility rate." 

While some blame the institutional overreaction on "what a large, unbending bureaucracy can do to its people, including a curious, precocious child"(1) and the "mindlessness" of "zero-tolerance laws," Jesse Lava at Daily Kos considers this primarily a racial issue. The racial discipline gap has been widely documented, with Andrea Ayres-Deets at PolicyMic noting, "...African-American students were 3-1/2 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers" and Tamar Lewin at the New York Times pointing out that "over 70 percent of the students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement were Hispanic or black." 

Christopher Emdin at the Huffington Post also thinks the Wilmot incident highlights race-based discrimination, as well as discrimination against women and disabled persons, that is already rampant in science and engineering fields, pointing out:
"The National Science foundation recently released data indicating that women, persons with disabilities, and three racial/ethnic groups--African Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians--constitute smaller percentages of science and engineering degree recipients (as well as employed scientists and engineers) than they do of the population...[T]he science and engineering workforce is largely white and male, and minority women, especially African American women, comprise about 1 in 10 employed scientists and engineers."
While the initial disgraceful overreaction of Assistant State Attorney Tammy Glotfelty and the school board was certainly racially motivated and a result of a deeply flawed, assembly-line educational system, there are other factors at play, including the consequences of a disruptive gender performance and capital's insatiable need for unpaid and exploited labor.

Kiera Wilmot failed to perform her (female) gender properly, resulting in punishment by the patriarchy. According to Judith Butler, those who fail to properly perform the rituals and acts traditionally associated with one's gender are punished by a patriarchal society that relies on rigid and heteronormative gender performances to maintain its structure. By displaying curiosity about science, being adventurous, and conducting a hands-on experiment, Wilmot deviated from the female gender role (i.e. female as passive, compliant, verbal/non-physical) that patriarchy requires of women to reproduce itself. Therefore, she will suffer the consequences. Because Wilmot is a person of color, these consequences are further complicated.

The privatized (i.e. for-profit) prison system is no longer satisfied to obtain cheap labor by ensnaring young persons of color with systematic racial police oppression and violence in communities of color and has begun to rely on school expulsions and other civil matters on newly militarized campuses. As the demand for virtually unpaid prison labor increases, capital must increase incarceration rates. Since persons of color are incarcerated at a much higher rate than whites, these systemic efforts to sustain the pool of inexpensive labor disproportionately effect persons and neighborhoods of color. The racist foundation of the school-to-prison pipeline is obvious when a precocious 16-year-old student with no disciplinary history is carted away in handcuffs and tears then (almost) charged with a felony and expelled for mixing a couple of household chemicals together to learn what would happen. 

The school-to-prison pipeline supplies a steady flow of cheap labor to companies, as well as disenfranchises (primarily) citizens of color in many states. The most efficient way to ensure that working class persons of color trapped by the school-to-prison pipeline are unable to defend themselves from relentless attacks by a capitalist state hellbent on obtaining increasing amounts of inexpensive labor for the longest possible period of time is to drain them of energy and financial resources. This is exactly what is happening to the Wilmots. The Wilmot family resources are being steadily drained, as Kiera's mother misses days of work and pays attorneys with her single-parent income. The Wilmot family morale is also being steadily eroded: The forced school switch has separated Kiera from her twin sister, and she has been forbidden from playing cello in the local orchestra and attending its annual banquet and spring concert.

The reversal of the decision to prosecute Wilmot as an adult on felony charges for a harmless high school science experiment reveals that the school-to-prison pipeline occasionally fails to deliver to capital nearly unpaid labor and subsequently a disenfranchised citizen. The failure of the pipeline to extract cheap labor from Kiera Wilmot then strip away her voting rights is wonderful news for her. However, even when the school-to-prison pipeline ostensibly fails, it nonetheless serves as a warning, an ominous scarecrow of sorts. This scarecrow warns: even if you're a well-behaved young person of color with a healthy interest in science, you remain at risk of being incarcerated, exploited for labor, and disenfranchised; furthermore, properly perform your gender role or you will be separated from friends and loved ones, forbidden to perform extracurricular activities, and psychologically endangered. The scarecrow is a reminder that we are all constantly being monitored by the patriarchal capitalist police state and that very real consequences await those who dare to challenge it.
(1) Bill Bucolo qtd. on WMNF, 5/7/13

Monday, May 13, 2013

How Capitalism Failed Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight

Three young women go missing from a working class Cleveland neighborhood and are held captive in ropes and chains, beaten, and raped for nine to eleven years, one bearing a child and one having five forced miscarriages. Neighbors called police on kidnapper/rapist Ariel Castro multiple times to report odd behavior, including bags and plywood over the windows, three naked young women on all fours being walked on leashes in the backyard, loud banging, and a mysterious woman holding a baby in the attic making distressed gestures (1)(2). Police ignore the calls or arrive, knock a few times, and leave. Only when one of the three women breaks free from her bondage and a courageous neighbor (3) kicks in the door are the women and a captivity-born 6-year-old rescued. This leaves so many unanswered questions, the most pervasive being: how could this have happened without anyone noticing?

The kidnapper/rapist Ariel Castro has a sordid history of gruesome violence against women and children. He tormented his wife with cruel psychological games and brutally beat her frequently, resulting in knocked out teeth, dislocated shoulders, broken noses, cracked ribs, and a blood clot on her brain. He confined her and children inside their house against their will. He controlled every aspect of his wife's life and threatened to kill her if she left him. He viciously beat her with chains, which her family thinks eventually resulted in brain trauma and death. His daughter Arlene was best friends with Gina DeJesus and was the last person to see her before her disappearance. Furthermore, a police sketch released clearly portrayed Castro. Despite his misogynist and abusive history, his previous kidnapping and abuse of his children, the confinement of his wife, his familiarity with and proximity to DeJesus, and a suspect sketch uncannily resembling himself, Castro was never investigated for the rash of kidnappings.

Neighbors claim that in numerous instances police were called for suspicious behavior but were unresponsive. One neighbor, Israel Lugo, called the police in 2011 when his sister noticed a woman with a baby banging on the attic window looking as though she wanted to escape. Lugo said, "The cops came. They pounded on that man’s door around 15, 20 times, real hard. They looked in the driveway, they got back in the squad car and left." Lugo ends one interview by saying, "Anytime you call the police, it doesn't get done around here."

Another neighbor reported seeing a naked woman in the backyard and staring from an open window for a little while each day. When she called the police to report these disturbing observations, they assumed that it was a prank and did not respond. Soon afterward, the kidnapper/rapist obscured the yard and house with tarps. A neighbor who lives three doors down from Castro, 55-year-old Elsie Cintron, said that about a year ago her granddaughter saw a naked woman crawling out of the house on all fours then went back inside. The granddaughter called the cops, who never responded. Juan Perez, who lives two doors down, and his mother heard a disturbing scream from the basement about three years ago. "It was the kind of scream that made you uncomfortable so my mom called the police," he said. They never responded.

Police claim to have no records of the numerous neighbors' calls. After denying that they had ever received any calls whatsoever about the kidnapper/rapist, police finally admitted to visiting Castro's home twice. They claimed to be responding to his call about a fight in the neighborhood and to investigate his negligence on his school bus driving job when he abandoned a student on the bus, ordering the child to "lay down, bitch." Were police negligent and lackadaisical because the reports were coming from an economically disadvantaged neighborhood, because the callers were persons of color who spoke with accents, or because the allegations indicated crimes against women and children? Whatever the reasons for the police's unforgivable failures, they weren't the only ones turning a blind eye to a disturbing character and situation. Plenty of men in Castro's life were, too.

Several men acquainted with the kidnapper/rapist were ignoring red flags galore. For years, the kidnapper/rapist's son was forbidden to enter three locked areas of the house--the attic, the garage, and the basement. Two weeks ago when he visited his father, Castro wouldn't let him enter the house at all. The owner of the house next door and longtime Castro enemy, Doug Parker, claimed that the kidnapper/rapist had always had a suspiciously secured home with multiple locks and "in the heat of the summer...As sweat poured from his brow, he would notice that next door was buttoned down—windows tightly sealed, no air conditioning, all the blinds shut. And he knew Castro was in there because his car was parked out front." While recently inside the house, Ricky Sanchez heard "banging on a wall" and noticed multiple locks on the outside door. A little girl came out from the kitchen and stared at him silently. Then he couldn't leave "because there were so many locks." Yet Castro's creepy behavior didn't prompt the younger Castro, the enemy Parker, or friend Sanchez to act.

Band leader Ivan Ruiz also knew Castro was dangerous and predatory, yet did nothing. Castro invited Ruiz's17-year-old son over to play drums, but Ruiz quickly forbade him to go. "I didn't trust having him with my child. He was a senile kind of person. A crazy kind of person. He was weird," Ruiz said. Ruiz found it strange that Castro would never allow bandmates inside to unload heavy band equipment nor allow visitors to pull into the driveway, claiming there were nails in it. Another aberrant behavior was Castro's reluctance to stay overnight with his band, which booked hotel rooms for gigs in Toledo, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. "He was the only one who never stayed," Ruiz said. "He would say, 'I have to get home.' It was weird." Miguel Quinones, manager of a band Castro played with in 2008, observed that band practice was never held at Castro's place and his bandmates never entered his home. Despite his bandmate's suspicions, none of them ever felt the need to investigate the situation.

Numerous neighbors, friends, relatives, and bandmates observed disturbing occurrences at the Castro house. The women who reported the incidents to police to police were ignored; the men who observed suspicious behavior failed to alert the authorities or to investigate the situation independently. Women have historically been ignored by authority (often with the consequence of being diagnosed with hysteria, locked in institutions, and subjected to electroshock therapy). But what of the men who did nothing? Perhaps the men were hesitant to involve police since police have a documented history of harassing and assaulting men of color, but this does not explain why the numerous men who were suspicious of the kidnapper/rapist did not confront him or otherwise investigate the situation themselves.

One possible explanation for the men in the community's (including the police's) lack of intervention in the inexplicable happenings at the home of the kidnapper/rapist is the culture of silence and secrecy surrounding domestic violence. Domestic violence is still widely considered a private matter in which outsiders should not intervene. We are socialized to consider domestic violence Someone Else's Problem. We frequently falsely perceive it as an equal dispute between consenting parties when, to the contrary, it primarily arises from an inherently unequal relationship between two genders, one of which has been oppressed in nearly every culture for centuries due to the biological nature of femaleness and the consequent sole burden of performing all of the reproductive labor for any given society. Domestic violence harms everyone in the community, and comrades must struggle to overcome our individualistic socialization to stop the epidemic of violence behind closed doors.   

What of the failures of the police? Aside from complacency about calls from economically disadvantaged neighborhoods and a misogynist reluctance to respond to potential domestic violence calls, there is yet another reason police might not have sufficiently responded to complaints about Castro and failed to maintain reliable records about 911 calls over the years. Public sector workers cannot effectively function without proper funding and resources. And Cleveland, like many other cities across the US, has faced severe cuts and layoffs in recent years.

The gutting of the public sector partially explains why police were unable or unwilling to respond to calls about the kidnapper/rapist, as well as why they failed to thoroughly investigate even the very neighborhood from which the three young women disappeared. When public service sectors are undermined by austerity measures, public servants lack the resources to competently perform their jobs. Don't misunderstand me: I have no reverence for the armed gangs of thugs called police that protect capital and terrorize working class neighborhoods, persons of color, women, and young persons, but they occasionally perform certain vital functions within society (e.g. apprehend rapists, recover missing children, locate stolen cars). While police forces continue to exist, we should ensure that they are properly funded.

Of course, while public services in poor neighborhoods are being gutted, there is always a way to fund the rejuvenation of certain parts of the city. Wealthier and whiter sections of the city build new police stations as working poor neighborhoods like the one in which Berry, Knight, and DeJesus were held captive are virtually ignored by police, allowing rapists, kidnappers, and murderers to flourish. And flourish they have. Castro is not the first woman-hating rapist, kidnapper, and murderer to operate in this forgotten Cleveland neighborhood. Anthony Sowell, also known as the Cleveland Strangler, kidnapped, raped, murdered, and dismembered numerous women just blocks away for years as police ignored calls from multiple rape and kidnap survivors.

Police neglect of numerous neighbors' complaints, as well as the cultural norm of ignoring the warning signs of domestic violence can be attributed to the fact that capital benefits from disturbances in the poor, dark side of town and in sexual abuse and violence against women. A steady stream of conflict in working class neighborhoods prevents the community from unifying and organizing against exploitation at the workplace or the rental home. Battered women are often too preoccupied with an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness to become educated about the companies polluting their air and food while exploiting their labor. Beaten children are less likely to grow into confident adults who challenge exploitation of their labor and often become domestic abusers in adulthood. Domestic abusers perpetuate this cycle and often end up in the privatized prison system where their labor is exploited as they provide cheap labor for companies.

Capital has a vested interest in perpetuating the cultural norm that kidnapping, rape, and domestic violence are private matters that should be handled by the persons involved, not intervened upon by the community or the underfunded police. The bourgeois nuclear family enforces a competitive, individualistic hierarchy that mirrors the manner in which capital exploits labor. The competitive drive between individuals under the guise of providing for one's family at all costs is perpetuated by capital and damages communities. The bourgeois notion of a nuclear family with its own individual agenda lends cultural legitimacy to the false but dominant perception that one's family must flourish at the expense of others and is one cultural justification for exploitation of workers.

Our autonomist friends are onto something when they tout the virtues of community-building. Although gardens and bartering cannot effectively threaten capital on their own, community-building activities are effective ways to combat the secrecy of domestic violence as well as the dangerous notions of the nuclear family and its competitive individualism, all the while developing comradely bonds. These bonds can become revolutionary when workers finally refuse to be further exploited by capital and seize control of the means of production. Only then can we begin to expect radical equality and a dismantlement of a patriarchy that discourages community intervention in situations--such as the Berry, DeJesus, and Knight nightmare--that capital perceives as private.
(3) Charles Ramsey was as perpetrator of domestic violence in the past, which does not negate his heroic intervention in this scenario and which, if I put aside my aversion to lauding wife beaters, might have prepared him to intervene in what he perceived as a domestic violence situation that most persons, including police, ignored (