Demand the Impossible! (excerpt # 8)

October 23, 2016

I often provoke my students at the University of Illinois at Chicago by saying, “Do you know that one mile from our campus there are 15,000 Irishmen [or Jewish women, or Greeks] living in cages?” “Come on! No way!” There was always a general sense of disbelief, and a notion that maybe I was joking. “You’re kidding, right?”

Well, yes and no: I wasn’t being fully honest, so let me change it a bit—“Do you know that one mile from our campus there are 15,000 young Black and Latino men living in cages?” “No, I didn’t know that, but I’m not completely surprised either; what crimes did they commit?” The fact of Black men being imprisoned is part of the known world, Black “criminality” the common sense of known things, normalized to the point of invisibility—you didn’t know that; indeed, you didn’t even notice that. So in another sense, you did know that.

The logic of prison abolition was explained to me by the great freedom fighter Angela Davis: It’s a problem of limiting our imaginations, she said, of shutting down our capacity to think more broadly and more bravely. We need to think about what lies beyond prison, beyond making a better or more functional prison system—the focus of too many reform conversations—and initiate massive conversations about de-carceration, that is, bringing folks home and shutting prisons down. Mass incarceration is, after all, part of the afterlife of slavery, and prison abolition is the next step in that long historic project called abolition. And as we imagine dramatic change, we should also anticipate future attempts to contain and control, for just as Jim Crow followed abolition, and mass incarceration followed Jim Crow, some evil expression of white supremacy and Black containment as yet unseen lurks just around the corner.

Angela Davis talked about the abolitionist and humane values of liberation, community restoration, and shared fate as opposed to the hardening practices of cruelty and punishment, revenge and retribution. She reminded us of the ten glorious words uttered by Justice Harry Blackmun in 1994 when he announced publicly that he had become a death penalty abolitionist: “I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.” He wasn’t searching for ways to make state-sanctioned murder more efficient or more palatable—he wanted to get out of the death business altogether. Let’s get out of the caging business, she said. Let’s not tinker with the machinery of mass incarceration.

I first proposed prison abolition publicly in a talk I gave about Freedom Schools at the University of Pittsburgh. Most of my talk was well received—even when I pointed out, as I always do, that the existence of an American Gulag or the Prison Nation meant that you were never far from a prison—but there was a general sense of disbelief when I said I thought prisons should be abolished. The first question from the floor was a request to clarify the point, which I did, saying I thought we should work toward closing all the prisons since they were institutions of congealed violence. The next student up worried that I was kidding—I assured them I was not—and followed up by politely accusing me of utopian romanticism and unrealistic idealism. Guilty, I said, of the idealism, but not of being unrealistic. The next person tried to show me the error of my logic, and painted a terrifying picture of a world ruled by mass murderers (hmm, I thought), pointing specifically to John Wayne Gacy, the gruesome Chicago serial killer who was the first person executed when Illinois reinstated the death penalty, a person about whom my interrogator had seemingly encyclopedic knowledge. I’m convinced, I said after an exhaustive portrayal, I give up! Okay, that’s one cell, I said, so who else? I’ll give you Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney, too, so now we have three prison cells total—a far cry from the millions we support in reality.

This led to a discussion I’ve now had countless times with students and others, and it begins with an exercise in the form of a question: Can we—right now—generate a thousand alternatives to caging people? It turns out we can, and so let’s.

A Thousand Steps toward De-carceration and a Range of Alternatives to Caging Human Beings (a start):

1. Decriminalize illegal drugs and expand drug treatment centers to meet the real needs of people caught in the grip of addiction.

2. Use a public health frame to rethink issues of violence.

3. Get guns off the streets.

4. Generously create and support community mental
health programs.

5. Build “Community Restorative Justice” projects—spaces where perpetrators and victims can meet with peers and neighbors, community organizers and social workers, to discuss how to repair the harm inflicted by misbehavior.

6. Redirect all misdemeanor offenses away from criminal court with its attendant culture of cruelty, humiliation, and punishment toward counseling, rehab, or anger management for some, and technological support (a simple breathalyzer device, for example, attached to a vehicle before it can be driven) for others.

7. Outlaw all profiteering from prison: ban private prisons, cash bail and bail bond businesses, paid alternatives to jail, telephone company gouging, and the privatizing and outsourcing of prison services like clothing and meals.

8. Do away with mandatory minimum sentencing, “three strikes you’re out,” sentence enhancements, and other punitive measures that serve to swell the prison population.

9. Restore or create opportunities to reduce time inside with policies like day-for-day good time practices.

10. Create massive public works programs.

11. Offer homes to the homeless.

12. Increase the minimum wage to $25 an hour.

13. Grant income supports to the unemployed.

14. Bring the endowments of all private schools, colleges,
and universities under public and democratic control, and organize the redistribution of those resources toward a system of free quality education for all.

15. Provide a living-wage stipend, free housing, and good child care to anyone living at or below the poverty line and attending high school or community college.

16. Create a system of free universal health care.

17. Immediately release all prisoners over, say, age fifty for

18. Develop a prisoner’s cooperative to operate the institutions, making decisions collectively about all matters concerning food, health care, education, and social services, the organization of work and leisure, and relations with outside institutions including religious, educational, and business organizations.


Well, it’s a running start. We only have 982 to go! And, yes, none of this is possible in the absence of collective action and a social movement for radical transformation. But we need to work collectively on a vision as part of the fight for abolition. And, yes, some of it may sound a bit like fiddling with the machinery of caging, but let’s not be dogmatic hard-liners when actual people could breathe more freely with just a bit of tinkering.

Demand the Impossible! (excerpt # 7)

October 14, 2016

Demand the Impossible! is available now from Haymarket Books.

The history of US military actions is a history of conquest and genocide from the start and chaos and catastrophe ever since: invading and occupying Vietnam and then intentionally expanding that war into neighboring Laos and Cambodia as retribution for the US defeat, a disaster that cost the lives of six thousand people every week for ten years; unleashing a massive shock-and-awe attack on Iraq in 2003 that led to the breakup of that nation and the rise of several reactionary fundamentalist and terrorist formations including ISIS; orchestrating a fifty-year campaign to destabilize and topple the Cuban government; propping up nasty regimes from medieval Saudi Arabia to apartheid South Africa; overthrowing elected presidents in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, and Chile in 1973; instigating constant civil unrest in Venezuela for fourteen years including a successful if short-lived coup in 2002; supporting the communist purge and the genocide that followed in Indonesia in the mid-1960s; participating in the murders of the African freedom fighter Patrice Lumumba in Congo in 1961, the Moroccan anti-imperialist Mehdi Ben Barka in Paris in 1965, the internationalist Che Guevara in Bolivia 1967, and the anti-colonial leader Amílcar Cabral in Guinea-Bissau in 1973; exporting billions of dollars in arms to Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, and reactionary regimes and right-wing subversives the world around. As busy and ambitious as this looks, it’s only the tip of a menacing mega-iceberg, an emblematic list as opposed to an exhaustive survey.

In any case, the swirling vortex of ruin obscures for many North Americans a central source and seed of this overwhelming maelstrom of hostility and bloodshed: the indefensible relationship between the United States and its chief client, Israel. Israel, as everyone knows, was established in 1948 by a people who had experienced the lash of anti-Semitism for centuries, and the immediate colossal horrors of the Holocaust in Europe. What’s of- ten conveniently understated or downplayed in the US, however, is that while understandably wanting to create a refuge for them- selves, the founders of the state of Israel dislodged the indigenous inhabitants and destroyed their society, forcing them to become displaced persons and refugees or second-class citizens in their own land ever since.

With generous and unwavering support from the United States, its protector, enabler, and big brother, Israel has flouted UN resolutions and international law—including nuclear agreements, the Geneva conventions, and the “laws of war”—seized Palestinian land and zealously supported the settler movement in the occupied territories with infrastructure and violent force. Israel would stand completely alone in the world if not for the dysfunctional relationship it clings to with the United States— from which it gains billions of dollars in military aid alone.

The Palestinians have the ongoing misfortune of being the victims of the twentieth century’s most notable victims—whose exceptional suffering at the hands of the Nazis is consistently trotted out to justify Israel’s own crimes against humanity. Reactionaries who dream of a Greater Israel, a Promised Land stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates, plot and organize the elimination of all Palestinians one way or another. Under the banner of agony and pain, Israel unleashes murderous military attacks and conducts massive ethnic cleansing campaigns. And yet the reality on the ground is that the Palestinians and the Israeli Jews are so intertwined that there is no separation between them except for the separation of apartheid—two populations living in one land, unequal today, but not necessarily forever.

Demand the Impossible (excerpt # 6)

October 7, 2016

Demand the Impossible! is available now from Haymarket Books:


“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

—Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution (1865), Section 1

Say what? Slavery and involuntary servitude were abolished in 1865 “except as a punishment for crime?” So if a person has been legally convicted of crime, he or she could again be enslaved or forced into involuntary servitude, according to the US Constitution. That helps to explain the creepy feeling I’ve always had whenever I’m in or even near a prison: the stench of the slave market in the air, and the specter of the plantation hovering every- where. In many places the prison/plantations didn’t even bother changing their names: Angola Plantation in Louisiana became Angola Prison, Parchman Farm is still Parchman Farm. The language remained intact, and so did the deeper political structure.

We begin to see clearly the tough bond of white supremacy over changing times and reorganized systems, the thick white glob of Elmer’s glue binding slavery to Jim Crow and then to prisons, bondage, and mass incarceration. The slave system and the mass incarceration system each violently subordinate subjugated persons to the will of their masters; each insists that subjects follow strict routines dictated by the rulers; each reduces subjects to dependency for everything including food and shelter; each isolates their subjects from normal human contact or intercourse; and each forces subjects to work for minimal compensation.

For the oppressors and the exploiting class there’s a ready rationale in every age: from the start white supremacy was promoted to justify aggression, theft, occupation, kidnapping, and murder—it was never based on inferiority, real or imagined. Racism has been aggressively employed in the service of cheap labor and in the suppression of wages and the precariousness of workers’ status and racism justified colonial plunder from the start. As the US Empire began its long and dangerous decline and the indus- trial heartland collapsed in the middle of the twentieth century creating, excess labor became a fearsome predicament for the rulers. The Black freedom movement pushed forward at the same time, demanding access, recognition, and equality. But the counterrevolution pushed back—the gains of African Americans were nominally accepted as an accomplished fact, but in reality they were challenged, halted, and reversed wherever possible. When overt bigotry became socially unacceptable to many, coded markers—crime, drugs, violence—took its place. With African Americans on the march and revolution in the air, with unemployment soaring and jobs disappearing, prison became a central strategy to address multiple crises.

All of this is racism in operation, and it’s worth noting here that the word “racism” has multiple meanings: in popular usage it means bigotry, often manifest in ignorant comments, stereotyped views, and backward language. For example, Cliven Bundy, the cattle rancher from Nevada, is a racist—just listen to him and you know he’s an offensive bigot. And since you and I aren’t bigots, we can glibly claim the high moral ground. But there’s a problem: “racism” is also the structures of white supremacy and the institutional practices of oppression based on race. The examples above are instances of the execution of institutional racism. And so the question for antiracists isn’t, Are you a bigot?, but What are you doing to attack the institutional expressions of white supremacy? The mayor of Chicago shuttered more than fifty public schools in predominantly Black communities and never used the N-word; a slick, sophisticated, and “charming” president pushed harsh legislation that resulted in mass incarceration and the overrepresentation of Black people in prisons. This is white supremacy, and racist practice on the ground and in the world. Call its name.

YO! White people!

October 5, 2016
“[W]hen I say ‘white’ I’m not talking about the color of anybody’s skin. I’m not talking about race. It’s a curious country, a curious civilization, that thinks of it as race. I don’t believe any of that. White people are imagined. White people are white only because they want to be white.”
James Baldwin
“But were the whites to be bound to the black laborer by economic condition and destiny, or rather to the white planter by community of blood? …[T]he poor white clung frantically to the planter and his ideals; and although ignorant and impoverished, maimed and discouraged, victims of a war fought largely by the poor white for the benefit of the rich planter, they sought redress by demanding unity of white against black, and not unity of poor against rich, or worker against exploiter.”
W.E.B. Du Bois

Understanding the Coming Teacher Strike (a friend writes)

October 5, 2016

I have a lot of friends across the country, and something is about to happen in Chicago that will get national attention: a strike in our public school system. This likely will be brought up by Trump or Clinton at some point. The circumstances that got us to another teachers’ strike are complex. Before someone highjacks the issue on the national stage, I thought it’d be worth a relatively short explanation. So, if you like to be informed, read on:

One part of the break between the teachers and the city is about pension payments. About 25 years ago, the city made a deal with the teachers to pay a much larger chunk of their shared pension costs in lieu of a raise. The pension is a critical part of the pay package for a teacher in Chicago, since the city doesn’t pay into Social Security — so the teachers don’t get that — and there is no 401k savings through the city, like you’d have at most large companies. The pension is what the teachers will have to retire on, unless they’ve been able to save in an IRA out of their own pocket…So the teachers’ union isn’t soaking the city in some kind of unfair deal. There are many details I’m leaving out, but this post will be long enough…

The city, being Chicago, skipped so many payments into the pension for so many years, and it’s required by law to have a certain level of funding for the pension, that now the city can’t catch up without massive cuts or taxes. So they want to make the teachers pay much more into their pension, essentially taking away the one way teachers can retire safely. The city’s financial mismanagement is now the teachers’ problem, and the city wants to guilt them into giving more to their pension, without any additional benefit. It’s not the teachers’ fault the city blew this, and it’s not the teachers’ problem to fix. Especially because:

Chicago is broke on purpose. We have the money to fund pretty much whatever we want, but we hide it. The main scheme? The Tax Increment Financing fund, or TIF. This plan hatched way back in 1977 works like this: the city sets up a zone, a TIF district, in a “blighted” neighborhood, and within those boundaries any property tax increase for 23 YEARS IN THAT ZONE goes into a fund controlled by the mayor. Example: your property taxes are $5000 this year. In two years, they go up to $5700. The $700 increase goes into the TIF fund. And in 23 years, if you’re paying $15,000 in taxes, $10,000 goes into the TIF fund. The money in the TIF fund is supposed to be used to help poor neighborhoods in the city, and TIF zones are supposed to only be in poor neighborhoods.

But you know what happens? The city creates TIF zones all over the place, like freaking DOWNTOWN. There is no precise law saying that the money taken out of a poor neighborhood has to be used in that neighborhood. So, neighborhoods like Englewood, a very poor black neighborhood, get about $0.15 on the dollar back TIF investment in their neighborhoods. The rest is spent however the mayor wants. The money in the TIF fund is not in the city’s general budget, it’s reported in a very complicated way, so that it takes a local private citizen who is motivated (God bless him) some months to add up how much is really in this fund.

It’s a little over $1 billion.

Also realize that when you’re taking property tax increases and shifting the surplus into a fund, instead of where it usually goes, all those other governmental services suffer. So, the schools get almost exactly 50% of our property taxes, and that’s how we fund our schools. The parks get a share, and so on. When there are over 100 TIF districts (!!!) in the city, that means all the property tax increases for DECADES are not going to where they need to go, like schools and parks and anything else a city pays for. It goes into the TIF slush fund.

So we have in Chicago more than $1 billion, off the books, to use however the mayor wants. But this money — if the schools get 50%, at least $500 million — should have gone to paying for things we need. Chicago is broke on purpose. It’s like having a huge secret savings account, but not using it to pay your bills when you run out of money in checking. So you declare bankruptcy and stiff your creditors, but you still have all this secret money.

The last point is crime and schools, and where they intersect. The violent crime rate in Chicago started going up when Rahm closed 50 public schools four years ago. Though declining enrollment was the stated reason, the real reason was the city wanted to replace the union public schools with charter schools. Rahm’s campaign manager for his first run in 2010 was the president of of a huge local charter school chain.

Charter schools can keep up to 25% of their funding as profit, i.e. “overhead.” They can also pay teachers much less money for longer hours, hide their finances because they’re “privately run public entities,” and kick out all the bad kids to the public schools. Look up John Oliver for his takedown of charters, but for our purposes, the city closed all these schools, almost all in poor black neighborhoods, then almost immediately announced we need a whole bunch of charter schools. In fact, on the day they announced the school closings, our alderman (O’Connor!) scheduled a neighborhood meeting (which everyone found out about by accident, they “forgot” to tell us in time, even though it’s the law) about a charter school he wanted to open in our neighborhood where he just announced the local public school was closing! This didn’t go well with the neighborhood, he backed off.

But that’s what Chicago is like with schools.

All those jobs lost, and all those safe spaces in bad neighborhoods we lost, when the schools were closed, is why we have out of control crime here. Want more in-depth reporting of this? pm me.

Finally, the backdrop of the election: Both candidates would do the same thing Rahm tried, closing public schools in favor of “choice,” which is code for breaking the union. But Rahm is a Democrat, and a long time Clinton friend and political ally. A bad strike here will make Clinton look worse, and also ruin Rahm’s chances to be a senior advisor in the White House, his getaway plan. So the stakes are high.

I’m not even getting into how the Rauner, and thus Rahm, want to tie teachers’ pay to test results, which would be fine for the few schools that have happy healthy kids from good families with good income as the main student body, not so good for 90% of the rest of the public school teachers…

We can solve many of our money problems in Chicago by using our secret TIF money. We have to pay the teachers what was promised them, our word shouldn’t just be good to other countries.

Chicago friends, correct me where I’ve missed something or got it wrong. And if you want to share this, go for it.

-Abused Chicago Taxpayer

Demand the Impossible! (excerpt # 5)

October 2, 2016

The book is available from Haymarket Books:

Like every culture or subculture, the war culture hangs together with a complex set of shared meanings, webs of significance and common assumptions woven in such a way that members of the culture can communicate with and recognize one another. The war culture promotes a pervasive and growing common sense of American violence unleashed.

The United States spends more than a trillion dollars a year on war and preparation for war, more than the rest of the world combined. The war culture accepts that as a desire for peace. The United States has military bases stretching across the globe, including a base in the Italian Alps, and yet there are no Italian air bases in the Catskills, for example. The war culture sees that as sensible and necessary. The war culture is everywhere, simply taken for granted, always lurking in the shadows and occasionally bursting forth and on full display.

I remember a trailer for a film I saw in a theater several years ago—it looked dreadful, so I never saw the film, but it could well have been Mars Attack or The Day the Earth Stood Still—in which the repeating trope was an alien confronting a group of startled earthlings, saying in an eerily mechanical voice, “We come in peace”—just before blasting them into small pieces. It takes a minute for reality to catch up to these hapless earthlings, but eventually they get it. Like the challenge of the wandering spouse caught in the arms of a lover, the aliens hold to the classic defense, “Who are you going to believe, me or your own lying eyes?”

On any given week you can read or hear the words of a surprised soldier in a US-occupied land saying, “We came to help, but a lot of people don’t seem to like us,” or, “The hardest thing is figuring out who our friends are and who the enemy is among the locals— they smile at you one minute, and toss a bomb the next.” There’s a kind of willful innocence and self-inflicted or forced blindness at work here, for these are the exact words of the British colonial militiaman in India or the French soldier in occupied Algeria or Indochina, the theme song of the troops in every conquering army since time began. See the pictures of US troops searching a home looking for “bad guys” or “insurgents” or “terrorists” in any recent theater of war; take the perspective for a moment of the women watching from the corner, huddled with their terrorized children.

“We come in peace,” but wherever the United States puts down the boot, it brings more war, wider war, and a deeper commitment to war as the way. Marine Corps Major General Butler, two-time winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, said in 1935 that, “War is a racket.” That was the title of a popular pamphlet he wrote, and a theme he elaborated in speeches through- out the country over many years: “It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. . . . It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”3 Butler consistently urged citizens to demand the impossible and support three radical proposals: strictly limit all military forces to a defensive posture; hold a referendum of those who would be on the front lines before any military action is undertaken; and take the profit out of war by, among other measures, conscripting the captains of industry and finance as the foot soldiers in any impending fight.

To hope for a world at peace and in balance, powered by love, joy, and justice, to insist that the citizens and residents of the United States become a people among people (not a superior nor a chosen people) and that the country becomes a nation among nations (not some kind of crypto-fascist übernation) is to resist the logic and the reality of war, and to see, as well, the war culture itself as a site of resistance and transformation. It’s to break with the frame that acts as if war is natural and inevitable. It’s to do the hard work of making a vibrant and robust peace movement— connecting with the environmental activists, the immigrant rights forces, the Black Lives Matter upsurge, feminists, and the queer movement—organizing to close all US military bases abroad and to bring all troops home now, leaving no US military or paid mercenaries behind; compelling our government to sign all pending international treaties on nuclear disarmament; mobilizing to cut military spending by 10 percent a year for the next ten years, dedicating the savings to education and health; rallying to suspend and then abrogate all contracts between the US government and Halliburton, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman.

QUESTION continued…

October 2, 2016

~~Will you pardon Asata Shakur? Chelsea Manning?

~~Where do you stand on the responsibility of the US government to pay reparations to the descendants of enslaved people? What practical plan would you implement to meet that moral responsibility?

~~Will you honor all treaties and agreements with First-Nations peoples, and will you stand with the people of Standing Rock against the filthy extractors and polluters?