Category Archives: prison industrial complex

Decolonize Safety (part 2): Alternatives to Arpaio

The internet world is abuzz with the Department of Homeland Security cutting off Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office access to 287g and S-Comm, agreements which enable them to work as an arm of the federal immigration system.  Arpaio and his deputies are notorious for misconduct, racial profiling, excessive force, corruption, horrific treatment of incarcerated people, retaliation against those who speak out against them, and aggressive raids that sweep thousands of undocumented folks into the immigration system dragnet.   Janet Napolitano (Obama’s hand-picked head of DHS who has supervised over 400,000 deportations in the last year) says that the reason DHS is finally doing anything to hold Arpaio to the barest of standards is that the Department of Justice just released a report denouncing civil rights violations perpetrated by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office under Arpaio, including “the most egregious racial profiling in the United States.”  As the headline of this Colorlines article aptly puts it: “DOJ confirms Joe Arpaio is a Racist Sheriff.”  In this same week, his deputies have beaten and tased a man held in their jail to death.  Some say it’s bad timing, others that it is just another signifier of the culture of abuse and brutality that pervades the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office under Arpaio.

I feel honored and humbled and amazed and inspired by all those who have worked and fought so hard for what the National Day Laborer’s Network is aptly calling “A People’s Victory.”  All the hidden and not-so-hidden acts of resistance that have contributed to this small but notable victory against the repressive monster of a system that Arpaio represents.  This resistance has taken many forms: by living and caring for each other, by defending communities and supporting each other, by educating those of us not immediately directly impacted by deportation and incarceration, by organizing and speaking out and bearing witness and shouting truth to power.  There are so many ways that so many different people have created this moment, by the daily practice of living and surviving and by the more public acts of organizing and denouncing and marching against all that threatens our communities.

The struggle to get Arpaio out, which will have huge real impacts on people’s lives and an important symbolic rippling, is far from over.  The Puente Movement, a grassroots migrant justice organization in Phoenix that has been a huge part of leading the fight against Arpaio,  is now calling for an end to all cooperation and all ICE Access agreements with Arpaio, criminal charges against Arpaio, and the shut-down of Tent City.  Yes, sometimes we win a little bit and there is so much more to win.  The way is led by those most impacted by Arpaio’s reign of terror and the rest of us would do well to join the struggle that is turning the tide towards justice and collective liberation, a world that works for all of us.

In addition to his horrific treatment of people he’s locked up and his racist terrorizing of undocumented people, Arpaio has been getting tons of media attention recently for a related, but different violation of human rights:  between 2005 and 2007, his deputies either didn’t investigate or barely investigated over 400 sexual assault reports, many of which involved children and/or undocumented people.  It’s a travesty and tragedy and unfortunately completely in line with Arpaio’s upholding and extending of systems of domination, power, and control that feed him and he feeds.  It’s also extremely common for police departments to ignore reports of sexual violence: we live in patriarchal rape culture that in so many subtle and overt ways deems sexual violence acceptable.

When sexual violence is reported to the police, it should be investigated: it seems so basic, but it’s unfortunately not to the MCSO or to other police departments, invested as they are in maintaining the power dynamics of the world as they are.  It is such an act of bravery for a survivor to report a sexual assault and it is often the only the option for folks to begin to achieve some kind of safety, to tell their story and make the intimate horror they’ve experienced public and seen.  Most sexual violence is perpetrated by someone known to the survivor, and therefore any reporting or going public with the story can lead to severe consequences, including loss of family emotional or financial support, loss of immigration status, more abuse, isolation, alienation, etc.

But all the attention to this brings up lots of questions about safety and responses to sexual violence:  because we know that most acts of sexual violence go unreported, because we know that the police (not here, not anywhere) never have oppressed people’s best interests in mind, because really, even an adequate and appropriate investigation into a sexual assault is unlikely to keep a survivor safe, or to center their needs and desires, or to hold the perpetrator accountable in a way that means they will never assault someone again and transform into someone who is also struggling against the interlocking systems of oppression that allow sexual violence to happen.

When we see the ways that OF COURSE Arpaio and his deputies didn’t investigate sexual assaults because that would be undermining the power and control that they thrive on, as well as the fact that any Sheriff’s Office is a poor solution to the epidemic of sexual violence and culture of rape (1 in 3 women are sexually assaulted during their life), we can honor the further silencing around sexual violence that occurred due to Arpaio’s misconduct and also recognize what our work is moving forward.

The brilliant Opal Tometi recently pointed out how much Arpaio has stolen the definition of “toughness,” with his identity as “America’s Toughest Sheriff.”   He claims it with pride to mean brutality and injustice, racism and violence.  When I think of toughness, I think of survivors.  I think of communities in resistance, together fighting all of what Arpaio does and represents.  I think of the courage it takes to keep living after facing violence that has torn you down, physically and emotionally and spiritually.  I think of survivors speaking out and knowing we deserve the justice and safety we are fighting for.  I think of speaking truth to power, even when that same power has pushed us into the most hidden and trembling corners of ourselves.  I think of the small part inside myself that, on some days, is tough, as I learn to be in survivor community, standing strong and powerful against the interlocking systems of oppression which depend on and enable violence, including sexual violence, as a way of keeping us silent and chained.  I think of toughness as the world we are breaking open, the one we are building, the one in which we can all be well and together and our best selves, the one we move a little closer towards with each small victory, the hidden ones and and the not-so-hidden.

So at this moment, when some silence is being broken around the prevalence of sexual assault, around the systemic reasons why the system of police and policing will never end sexual violence, we also have an opportunity to break the silence about responses.  We can break the silence about what would truly end sexual violence for all people, about how we can turn to each other and build responses and communities that do not rely on the police as the only way to keep us safe, knowing that for most of us, that is something they can never do.

We are at the moment when we get to dream and vision and plan and enact alternatives to Arpaio.  This doesn’t mean 50 federal immigration officials being sent to Maricopa County to continue the violent, racist work of deportation that Arpaio is being cut off from.  This means abolition, in all the senses of the word: ending detention, deportation, incarceration, the Prison Industrial Complex, rape culture, and all its tentacles that rip communities apart.  It means communities coming together to fight sexual violence and denouncing any violence as unacceptable.  It means self-defense and community-defense, learning how to feel at home in our own bodies and that we are worth protecting.   Abolition also means accountability: it means growing resilient communities that can respond to intimate violence and sexual violence in ways that do not rely on oppressive systems that also perpetrate violence.  It means learning from all the hard work that has been done to imagine what a world without sexual violence, without any violence, would look like, and beginning to enact that, every day, growing the world we need alongside the struggle to tear down the one we need to end.

If you are in Phoenix, come join the Puente Movement on Thursday December 22 at 4 pm in Cesar Chavez Plaza to hold vigil for the 432 survivors who were ignored by Arpaio and the system he upholds.  Together we bring Arpaio down, and together we build alternatives to Arpaio.  Jen Cross, from Writing Ourselves Whole, writes: “ for those who can, we also have to put our bodies in the place, on the ground, together, linking arms, raising voices, physically manifesting our resistance. For those who can and wish to, this is deep self care. We give ourselves the bodily experience of resistance together, of revolution, we allow our bodies the memory of solidarity, we give our hearts that message: we are not alone in this struggle. Look, look: we are not alone.” 

We are tough.  We are resilient.  We build a new world with each breath we take.


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Filed under #alternativestoarpaio, accountability, decolonize safety, ending sexual violence, healing justice, prison industrial complex, rape culture, resilience, self care, story telling, violence

Decolonize Safety (part 1): Understanding the Root Causes of Police Violence

So I’ve been trying to write this for some time now and it’s just too big to put into words.  A friend recently told me that when I write, I try to bring everything in all together—sometimes it works wonderfully and sometimes it doesn’t make any sense.  In the name of clarity, I’m trying to keep this short.  Partly it’s hard because that is just how this world works: everything is connected, sometimes as neatly as a patchwork quilt, sometimes as chaotically as a tangle of yarn the cat has gotten its paws into.  And I’m trying to write about things related to trauma these days and that makes my words jumble and strain even more, but here’s trying:

I’m thinking about Thanksgiving and police violence against Occupy protestors, the ways that they are similar.  I’m thinking about how they are both real things that hold lots of emotional significance for lots of people, that they are worthy of honor, holding, respect, and significance for many people.  I’m also thinking about how they are both layered on top of other, harder things: genocide and colonization and daily police violence against marginalized communities, which really is the same thing as genocide and colonization.  I can respect that Thanksgiving as a holiday, as a time to be grateful and connected in a culture of individualism, is a big deal for lots of people, including people who are aware that it is a celebration of the theft of land and the killing of millions of indigenous people in this place we now call the United States.  I can also respect that police violence against Occupy protestors is really hitting home for a lot of people: Sharon Martinas, a white anti-racist elder activist, pointed out a few weeks ago that this is probably the first time that many young, white middle and upper class people are experiencing or witnessing police violence firsthand.  That’s a really big deal.

The coordinated police crackdown against Occupy protestors is terrible, violent, and deserving of much attention and outrage.  It’s important to bear witness to police violence against protestors.  It’s an important step towards understanding what the state will do in order to maintain the status quo.  It’s part of beginning to see the police not just as individuals who may be part of the 99%, to use common Occupy lingo, but as part of a system of institutionalized repression and violence.  Sharing of stories and asking the world to bear witness are resistance strategies that have been used by people and communities that experience oppression probably since oppression began, whenever that was.   It’s an effective way to call the world to bear for its complicity in ongoing, hidden violences and also potentially some kind of harm reduction, some kind of safety plan: the more that people who the state wants to trust the police and see them as “community peace officers” are witnessing what the police actually do, the less it will happen, in theory.

But while we hold space for burgeoning attention to brutal police crackdowns against Occupy protestors, let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture: police violence is a daily concern for marginalized communities.  These stories don’t usually garner media attention.  They don’t usually go viral on social media.  They are horrifically mundane and hidden from view.  The systems of oppression in this world depend on people with privilege remaining ignorant to the massive amounts of violence used daily in order to uphold inequality.

For many people, daily survival under capitalism is an act of resistance.   That means people of color, poor people, homeless people, migrant people, and queer and transgender people experience police violence, every day, as part of daily living.  All the time.  Every second of every day.  All the time.

Here’s some facts to help break it all down:

The last stat makes a really important point, so I’m going to say it again:  most African American women in prison are serving sentences for nonviolent drug or property-related offenses.  In other words, crimes of poverty, of trying to figure out how to eat and feed your kids and pay rent and bus fare to get to work on time.  Most people in prison are not there because of violence that they inflicted on another person.  Most people are subjected to incarceration and brutal interactions with the police because of the color of their skin or because of what they had to do to get by in this unjust world.

I’m thinking a lot about the messaging after Scott Olsen got hit with a tear gas canister and nearly died.  About how somehow the violence against him was extra unacceptable because he is a veteran, had fought in U.S. wars.  The cops aiming a tear gas canister against ANYONE’S skull is unacceptable, whatever that persons’ experience, whatever they were doing at the time, whoever they are.

Police violence against protestors is horrible, disgusting, unacceptable.  So is police violence against anyone, no matter what.  Just because we don’t hear about it or see it on the news every day doesn’t mean it’s not happening.  We have an opportunity right now, in the expansive moment that the Occupy movements have generated:  we can understand police violence against Occupy protesters as a microcosm of police violence against marginalized communities every day.  We can demand that NO ONE get assaulted by the police, whether they were protesting, selling drugs or sex as a way to get by, crossing a border, or walking down the street.

Let’s never again say “The police did that because so-and-so did something stupid.”  Let’s never again ask what someone did to incite police violence.  Naomi Klein writes about the civil war that is being fought in the United States, the system versus the people.  Sure, it’s a civil war, and it’s been going on for some time now.  They just can’t hide it anymore.  The police are not here to keep us safe, any of us.  The police are here to keep the system in place at any cost: that’s what they get paid to do, day in day, day out, by targeting people who the system is designed to silence because their very existence threatens the way things are.  It’s supposed to be so mundane we can’t even see it.  Now that we and the media are paying attention to police violence, let’s tell the whole story.


Filed under #anti-racism, #occupyracism, #whiteprivilege, decolonize safety, prison industrial complex, racial justice, story telling, unlearning privilege, violence, witness as resistance