On Wednesday, April 27th, Kenyon Farrow, former executive director of Queers for Economic Justice, gave a talk here at Wes entitled “Incarceration Nation: The Endless Intersections of Prison Abolition.” His talk focused mostly on the historical origins of the prison-industrial complex (PIC), the rise of the PIC as a failed solution to today’s social problems, and the need to abolish this system.
Specifically, Farrow discussed how the 13th Amendment, which bans slavery except as a punishment for a crime, was intentionally crafted with this loophole so as to preserve the slave economy of the Southern U.S.; the implementation of Black Codes, which de facto criminalized public assembly among black men, allowed for “convict leasing,” in which former slave owners were paid by the state to re-enslave black prisoners. It was at this point that prison construction increased dramatically in the U.S., demonstrating how today’s prison abolitionists share a direct lineage with slavery abolitionists.
The prison-industrial complex, as it has been theorized by Critical Resistance (an abolitionist organization based in Oakland, California, to which Farrow has donated his entire honorarium) is about an entire material and ideological structure that undergirds imprisonment. This structure includes the impulse to “call the police” and increased policing in low-income communities of color, the shift in immigration policy from “service” to “enforcement” (reflected in the change of the immigration agency’s name from Immigration and Naturalization Service to Immigration and Customs Enforcement), the denial of welfare and public housing to anyone convicted of drug crimes, the reliance of low income white communities on prison construction for employment, and the massive industry that builds and supplies prisons. Because the PIC is so expansive in these ways, it is not a “single issue” but one that makes sense to approach from many different entry points, including queerness.
One specific intersection between queerness and the PIC is the precarious position of queer folks in heavily policed communities and the tension between the need for safety from homophobic attacks versus the violence of policing that supposedly would protect against such homophobic violence. Organizations run by and for queers of color have found ways to escape this tension. Farrow spoke about the Audre Lorde Project in New York City, which has organized small businesses in parts of Brooklyn by training them on how to serve as safe spaces for queer folks in the community. In this way, homophobic violence has been effectively countered and diminished without relying on increased police presence that enacts its own kind of racist violence on these neighborhoods.
Another example of the intersections between queerness and the PIC is the case of the New Jersey 4, which was detailed on a flier distributed at the event entitled “Fighting Intersectional Justice.” In the summer of 2006, four black lesbians from New Jersey were harassed and attacked by a man in Greenwich Village in New York City, and upon fighting back in self-defense were arrested and charged with “gang assault,” a Class C Felony with a mandatory minimum sentence of 3.5 years in prison. The flier identifies four trends represented by this incident that highlight the intersections of queerness with the PIC: street harassment of women and queers, gentrification of the neighborhood, the pathologization of women of color, and legal lynching. The trends combined work to make queer women of color one of the populations most disproportionately impacted by the PIC.
So why is prison abolition an integral part of queer politics? As Cathy Cohen argues in her amazing essay “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens,” the radical potential of queer politics lies in its capacity to understand how “numerous systems of oppression interact to regulate and police the lives of most people.” In this sense, the PIC is yet another way that a state built on racist heteronormativity has worked to police bodies it deems as deviant. The structure of the PIC reminds us that the “policing” that Cohen writes about is not just metaphorical or discursive but involves actual police officers whose job it is to capture certain kinds of non-normative bodies to put into high-tech cages that have been compelled into existence by a far-reaching network of institutions and ideologies. The importance of Kenyon Farrow’s talk therefore is to remind us that radical queer politics means fighting against institutions like the PIC that may not on the surface appear to have much to do with queer liberation.
Here’s a video of Kenyon Farrow speaking about similar things AND MORE at the Civil Liberties and Public Policy conference at Hampshire College two years ago: