Tuesday, August 27, 2013

400 Years Under a Peculiar Institution

This is a lecture by Michelle Alexander, author of "The New Jim Crow", about the disenfranchisement of felons under the penal system since the 1980s.

This is a lecture by Angela Davis, about the Prison-Industrial Complex, a system of profit begun under the United States, but only massively expanded in recent years and now being exported around the globe.

This is a lecture by Tim Wise, in which he mentions that this system developed following 1965. Prior to 1965, the prison system was 2/3rds white, and afterward 2/3rds black. This was not an accident.

This is the documentary "Slavery by Another Name", also a book, by Douglas A Blackmon, detailing how the system of slavery mutated radically after the Civil War. It became far more horrifying and far more profitable.

These are not separate institutions. Slavery began as the bondage of non-Christians in the 17th century. It rapidly evolved into a racist system, the permanent bondage of blacks. The Civil War was followed by Reconstruction, a period in which the North occupied the South, and white Southerners responded with a hostile terrorist insurgency, the likes of which has only been seen every time the United States has tried to occupy foreign soil and impose justice and democracy on an unwilling, hateful, fundamentalist people.

Following the failure of Reconstruction, permanent chattel slavery became more horrible as once valuable private property (black slaves) became cheap public property. The Tragedy of the Commons was played out in the most inhumane fashion imaginable, as people were kidnapped off the streets, hired for pennies, and worked to death for dollars. Profits abounded to white people all around, and black Americans kept in terror and subjugation. Those who were not worked to death in the most horrible slavery were kept in a more gentle slavery, unable to leave or change jobs without employer permission, and subject to the threat of imprisonment and slavery if, at any time, they were unable to provide proof of employment.

Blackmon is incorrect to say that the system ended with the Civil War. "Arrest the closest nigger" persisted into the mid-sixties, when it was used to radically transform the prison population of the United States. As Wise pointed out, the demographics of the prison system reversed in the aftermath of Civil Rights. People of color were forced into a cycle of imprisonment and poverty from which there was no escape, which cycle exists today.

The so-called War on Drugs was begun under President Nixon as part of his Southern Strategy in the 70s. It was a many-pronged approach to winning the votes of fearful, racist, white voters in the South. Without much subtlety, the Republican Party promised to round up "them" and get them off the streets. When crack appeared in the 80s, the Reagan Presidency saw it as a blessing from God and began a massive propaganda campaign, flooding the airwaves with messages about crack addicts and crack babies.

It is no accident that, to this day, mandatory minimums are higher for crack cocaine than for powder cocaine. It is no accident that 90% of those targeted by New York City's infamous Stop and Frisk program are people of color, even though white people are at least as likely to carry, use, and sell drugs. It is no accident that 80% of routine traffic stops are people of color, even though white people are 80% of drivers.

The War on Drugs is a lie. It's the War on Blacks. The war on the Brown. This is a system that has been put in place to subjugate, imprison, to terrorize those who frighten the residents of Leave-it-to-Beaverville. Americans of African decent, of hispanic decent, of native decent. Native Americans have more people imprisoned per capita than any other population in the US.  And once you've been imprisoned, you cannot leave.

Once you have been convicted of a felony, you're unemployable. You can't even work at McDonalds. Any employer who does hire you holds a palpable threat over your head. You can be fired at any time, or accused at any time of a crime and no court will ever be on your side.

Once you have been convicted of a felony, you're homeless. It is legal to discriminate on the basis of conviction. A felon must beg for housing from anyone with a room to spare, and no one is obliged to give it to him.

Once you have been convicted of a felony, you're starving. Unemployed and homeless, felons are ineligible for food stamps.

Unemployed, unhoused, unfed, what can a felon do? What desperate choice? You're not rejected by the system, you're a victim of the system. Once convicted you are forever caught in a trap made all the worse by the fact that you are expected to pay of thousands of dollars in fines and fees. You're expected to pay rent for your time in prison. And you're expected to work while in prison.

Is it any wonder that privatized American prisons are traded on the New York Stock Exchange? Is it any wonder that this system of abuse and exploitation is being exported around the world?

Is there any hope?

Angela Davis argues movingly for the elimination of the prison system, and she tells you to reject the question, "What will you replace it with?" What would you have replaced slavery with?

There are those who need to be removed from society for being a danger to others. Rapists, murderers, unrepentant psychopaths. But our penal system is not the answer to that question. Our penal system is designed, and always has been, to create, sustain, and control a slave caste, a caste composed primarily of people of color. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued on New Year's Day, 1863; 150 years ago, but slavery never died.

We need a new call for abolition. We need a new birth of freedom. We need an end to this Peculiar Institution, 400 years in the making.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Trigger Warnings: What, Where, When, and Why

Warning: as a discussion of triggers and warnings, I'll be discussing things that can trigger.

Someone sits down to play a video game. As is usually the case, the game introduces various game mechanics one at time. This is how you jump, climb, fight, chat. Look! It's a quick-time event! Press X To Not Die! The player presses X. Then A. Then X. Then screws up and presses B instead of Y and has to start over. And screws up again. And again. Pretty soon she's weeping uncontrollably and can hardly see the screen. It's not because she a girl, and it's not because it's particularly frustrating, and it's not because she just hates that particular mechanic.

It's because she's a rape survivor and she's playing the new Tomb Raider. She's being told, over and over, Press X To Not Be Raped, and she's failing.


Now we can imagine different ways she arrived at this scenario. In one world, she's the girlfriend of a regular gamer who never really got into video games herself, and he decided to share his hobby with her by buying her a game with a woman hero! He's aware of her history but didn't really follow the game's development, so he never made the connection.

In another world she's a gamer herself and is aware of the controversy, and sat down to play it, fully aware of the pain she was about to experience.

The latter scenario is akin to pulling off a band-aid1. The former is emotional mugging.


A trigger is a small thing that leads to a big reaction. On a gun, the trigger is a small lever that, when pulled, causes a violent chemical reaction that propels a lethal projectile. In a human being, a trigger is instead a small event that leads to a large emotional response.

What can trigger a person depends on xir personal history. For a rape survivor, it can be a graphic story or video depicting rape, or it can be getting stuck in an elevator with a large stranger, or it can be standing too close at a party. For a person of color, it can be a relatively innocuous comment that nevertheless comes freighted with racist baggage. For a bisexual, it can be a room full of supposed allies actively denying that bisexuals even exist. The nature of the trigger varies.

The response varies, too. Sometimes it's anger, sometimes a panic attack. Sometimes it's a visceral response, or a headache. People with triggers learn to avoid situations that can trigger them.


But you can't live in a bubble; you have to venture out into the world. Or on the internet, as the case may be. And when someone decides to share something, people who live with triggers have to live with the possibility that following a link may lead to danger. The video might be a dog pooping on a baby, or it might be eight minutes of police brutality. That's why trigger warnings are helpful.

On the evening news, the anchor might say "The following footage may be shocking to some viewers; those with small children may wish to change the channel." That's a trigger warning.

On the internet, it often takes the form of "Trigger Warning: What follows is a graphic description of years of sexual abuse by my father". Where space is more limited, it may be "TW: {Blank}" where {Blank} can be racism, ableism, sexism, erasure, violence, rape, or anything.


Some regions of the internet are awash with trigger warnings. It depends on where you go, what you discuss, and who you're talking to. A forum for rape survivors is going to be very good about putting up warnings about rape, for example. 

So when should you use them? That depends. It's generally a good idea to provide a warning for the most obvious trigger, violence. Particularly sexual violence. This is true even if you're linking to a video named "Racist Cops Beat the Everlovin' Crap Out of a Black Guy for Looking at Them Funny". Sometimes people follow a link without thinking, without reading it, but at TW will be enough to make them pause. If you start relating an anecdote or talking about such things, a warning is generally a good idea.

My understanding is that warnings are especially useful on services like twitter. People can set up filters so that anything with a particular warning in it won't show up in their feed, and they don't even have to worry about seeing the descriptor.

In the end, you have to use your judgment and compare the item your sharing with your audience. When in doubt, err on the side of caution and include a warning. 


The anecdote I opened with wasn't my own. Unfortunately, my google-fu isn't strong enough to find the article where I originally read it, so I'll instead have to regale you with my recollection.

In fact the gamer knew what she was getting into and sat down prepared for it. The process was very difficult for her, and she did fail multiple times. Eventually, she managed to gut through it and succeed, achieving what she described as an incredibly powerful moment of catharsis. 

1 - A band-aid brand adhesive bandage, that is. Man, their commercials suck, now.