The facts float around—over two million Americans in prisons, constituting one in every fifteen black men in the country, who, statistically speaking, will most likely end up back in jail shortly after their release. It’s told as a story about the spread of ‘neoliberalism,’ about social injustices and violence carried out by the state.
As it tends to be with academics, authors, and activists, the narrative was slightly more complicated on Saturday night. At the Experimental Station, WBEZ and the Illinois Humanities Council brought together some of Chicago’s most entrenched activists and advocates to talk about Beth Richie’s most recent book, “Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation.” In it, the UIC professor tackles the rise of the ‘prison nation,’ tied to the increasingly punitive role of the state in America, and assesses the anti-violence and prison abolition movements that she’s fought in for so long.
She and the eight discussants were most concerned with how different marginalized categories overlap. This is Richie’s critique of the anti-violence and prison abolition movement, that by focusing on one subject—black male incarceration or community violence—other critically oppressed populations and situations—e.g. incarcerated women or violence against gays—are further shoved to the periphery, also dividing social justice activists that should be natural allies. When she began working in Harlem 25 years ago, she expected to make big gains in a community suffering from violence against women. “Instead, we found ourselves in constant struggle against the more mainstream groups around us,” she said.
A recurring tension was the problem of relying on the police to intervene in violent situations, while acknowledging that the involvement of the police only further retrenched the ‘prison nation.’ Panelist Jane Hereth is an activist who works with women who have been violently abused. “In some ways we collude with the prison-industrial complex,” she said. “But we understand that the story can’t stop there.”
Many of the discussants proposed community-based solutions. Miriame Kaba has worked throughout Chicago for years, trying to prevent violence against young women and stop youth incarceration. To her, the ‘prison nation’ narrative corresponds with the decline of tight-knit communities, and the unwillingness to recreate the sort of community support and accountability necessary for better alternatives to the police. “It takes some effort,” she said, “Rather than calling 911, sitting back and saying you’ve solved the problem.”
Amongst the speakers and audience members there were feminists, queer theorists, anti-violence activists, prison abolition advocates, and community organizers writ large. The room had a physical energy, a sense of activist anger mixed with something close to optimism. “I feel like I’ve waited 30 years for this space and these people,” Richie told the eager audience. Yet for all the long and weary efforts stretching decades, all the organizing and protesting and sponsored forums, the radical change has yet to materialize.
“I’m impatient with us,” Kaba put it, blunt and to the point.