Kenyon Farrow and the Endless Intersections of Prison Abolition

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:

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The right to have a gringorican monkey-baby in Loisaida

I found this picture on the Wikipedia page for Loisaida (the lower east side of Manhattan), the setting of The Lamentable Journey of Omaha Bigelow Into the Impenetrable Loisaida Jungle by Edgardo Vega Yunqué. The caption reads: “The author of this photo is me, David Shankbone. Taken 5 August 2006. Signs of gentrification, such as trendy bars juxtaposed against the more traditional denizens of Loisaida such as the homeless, dot the landscape of Avenue C.

I was really impressed the way that many different genres of writing are incorporated in this totally off-the-wall novel. For example, we learn more about the setting of the story by reading about Flaquita’s own reading of a sociological monograph that describes how the Lower East Side became so segregated through racist urban planning that forced Puerto Ricans into public housing projects – a process that is changing as wealthier folks move into the neighborhood and make it too expensive for anyone else to live there (as shown in the above photo).

In that interdisciplinary spirit, I was inspired to bring even more social scientific knowledge into conversation with this story. The other book I’ve been reading over break is called Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement by Jennifer Nelson. This book chronicles the ways that the mainstream (white) feminist movement was pushed to shift its focus from legalizing abortion to a much wider range of concerns that were brought up by feminists of color and their ties with Black and Puerto Rican Nationalist politics in the 70’s and 80’s. Specifically, women of color were not only struggling for the right to abortion, but also the right to have healthy children of their own – a concern that middle-class white feminists rarely had to deal with, for “while women of color and poor women lacked access to abortion and contraception, they also encountered reproductive abuses such as forced or coerced sterilization” (4).

Nelson also discusses how in the 1990’s poor women and women of color more generally were disproportionately targeted for prosecution for being pregnant while addicted to drugs. State authorities would (and continue to) take children away from poor drug-addicted women and incarcerate poor pregnant women for “delivery of illegal substances to minors” (183). The expressed purpose of this crackdown was to protect the fetus and children, but Nelson points out that this is clearly a lie: “when the state opts for incarceration of pregnant women over the provision of prenatal care and drug treatment, it is difficult to understand how authorities can claim to be protecting the fetus” (183).

Issues of power and control regarding pregnancy and child-rearing are prominent in Omaha Bigelow, as the story revolves around Maruquita Salsipuedes and her desire to have a “gringorican baby” with the title character. Particularly interesting and confusing is the scene directly after she gives birth to her baby. Because Maruquita had been using her brujería (witchcraft) to change herself into different animals during her pregnancy, the baby she gives birth takes the form of a little monkey. This startling fact is not so concerning to Maruquita (why should it be?) and when the doctor tries to take the baby away, Maruquita resists because they have already told her that that baby is perfectly healthy. She demands to know why they want to take her baby away and the doctor responds:

“We simply want to conduct further tests. Although you’ve tested negative for the HIV virus, it’s possible that the birth of this child involves some sort of cross-species contamination, and we want to make sure that both mother and offspring are not affected adversely” (309).

What is going on here? Why, out of nowhere, does the doctor imply that having a monkey-baby would even have anything to do with HIV transmission? Is it a reference to the fact that HIV is thought to have jumped from other primates to humans? I guess that would make sense because of the doctor’s concern with “cross-species contamination.” He seems to be accusing her of reproducing with a monkey, and this is unacceptable from a medical standpoint (not a sexual consent standpoint, which is a whole different issue) even though it appears to pose no threat to the baby’s health. The doctor tells her that “you’re really in no position to go against the medical profession and its responsibilities to the common good (309). The true nature of the clinic is revealed right here, then: the doctor isn’t there to help you or your baby, but rather to protect humanity from what appears to be the ultimate of all reproductive transgressions, the “cross-contamination” of the human race, and not unlike other poor women of color described by Nelson, she is punished by having her baby taken away for the defense of society.

Maybe this representation of Maruquita having a monkey baby can queer our notions of normal reproduction and can intervene in the speciesism that is rampant in the medical-industrial complex. Don’t monkeys share 98% of human genes anyway?

(why does wordpress/mozilla say that “Puerto Rican” isn’t a word??!?)

One last thing on the topic of reproductive rights! check out this Wesleyan student-produced video!