CLPP 2011: Colonized Spaces, Criminalized Bodies

The ongoing legacies of colonialism are tied into the aggressive over-policing of communities of color and criminalization of poor people, immigrants, and sexual minorities. Panelists will talk about activism and personal work to expose and resist the effects of current and historical colonial occupation.

Falguni Sheth, a philosopher teaching at Hampshire College, moderated the panel (as a side note, if I’ve ever written anything smart on this blog it is largely thanks to the education I received from Falguni), framing the issue of colonization as about not only spaces, but bodies and minds. “That’s what colonization is. It’s is about colonizing not just bodies but the minds of folks so you don’t even realize you’re being colonized.”

Theresa Martinez, Justice Now

We see prisons as the ultimate representation of colonization, racism, and oppression in modern society. We see prisons operating as a social control of people deemed unworthy. Imprisonment transforms poor people of color into a criminalized caste.

A person’s right is to be whole and to be safe. It’s our obligation to support that movement and that change. I have been warehoused in institutions since the age of 12. I was in prostitution since the age of 13 and have been dealing with addiction for 25 years. I have seen what the prison system can do, and I came to believe this colonized space was made for me and that was my home.

I was in California’s largest women’s prison – the population there is 5,000. 80% is women of color. They are suffering sterilization, tubal ligation, hysterectomies – to me it’s a form of genocide. I didn’t choose to be born into this lifestyle. The government made me believe it was made for me. Being on parole 26 years I was always considered stamped and a return. The parole department had no intention of letting me off parole. They didn’t care what sorts of changes I made. Because of the New Leadership Networking Initiative (NLNI), CLPP, and Amanda of Justice Now I’m here with my discharge card.

How do we stop this? Reduce imprisonment. Support communities – get to know your neighbors, get to know your youth – it’s our obligation to create a new world for them. Foster non-harmful response to harms. Create ways to respond to issues by not sending people to prison. Leadership from inside prison – get involved with the women inside prison.

Pooja Gehi, Sylvia Rivera Law Project

We believe the law is a tool people need to access to gain their basic rights, but we don’t believe in the law as a way for social change to happen. For this reason we centralize community organizing and movement building. At SRLP we believe the work we do is fighting state-based violence and hate that supports systems like racism and transphobia. These laws that are supposed to keep people safe from violence are actually the laws that perpetuate violence, especially against marginalized people.

Pooja spoke to the criminalization of “walking while trans” – that especially trans people of color are arrested simply for existing in public space. Additionally, trans folks are incarcerated in great numbers, and in the wrong-gendered prisons – especially trans women in men’s prisons, which is incredibly dangerous.

Hate crimes legislation is just one really narrow area in which pushing forward a rights-based movement is particularly dangerous for people who are marginalized already. Hate crime legislation is a way to name violence against a particular identity base as a hate crime. Any non-discrimination legislation can have hate crimes added in. The reason we’re opposed to hate crime legislation is it actually works to increase the prison industrial complex, which is rooted in racism, transphobia, colonization, imperialism. It’s up to the prosecution whether to name the violent act as a hate crime. If a crime is named as a hate crime the penalty enhancements are increased and charges are bumped up with mandatory prison sentencing, automatically enhancing the amount of time a person spends in jail.

African American people are 6 times as likely to be incarcerated as white people, Latin@ people are twice as likely to be incarcerated as white people, and poor LGBTQ people of color are of course more likely to be incarcerated because of profiling. We know from history and evidence that the way hate crime laws are used is not preventing or deterring violence in any way. If some kind of violence is going to be perpetuated it’s very unlikely for someone to stop and think, oh I’m going to be charged with a hate crime, I better not do this. We know the way hate crimes are charged is in a very very corrupt, racist system – Black men are disproportionately arrested for race-based hate crimes against white people – the second largest category of hate crimes tracked by the FBI is race-based hate crimes against white people. The FBI also reports a large number of anti-heterosexual hate crimes each year committed by queer and trans people.

Pooja spoke of an incident in New Jersey where lesbian women were charged with a hate crime for self defense against harassment.

Jessica Yee, Native Youth Sexual Health Network
Jessica opened with talking about who’s land we’re on for this conference – colonized land of Wompanog people.

How dare we have a discussion about any of this stuff if we don’t locate ourselves and don’t talk about where we are or why we don’t know. We don’t know a lot about the colonized spaces that we are in – question why we don’t know a lot.

There is seldom context for why things became criminalized in the first place. So often people treat criminalization as something that just fell out of the sky. My question is why we give repeated acknowledgment for the criminalization of things but don’t talk about why laws were created to make things like colonization, imperialism, settlement and genocide possible.

It’s seen as OK to not know about colonization, to not know about who’s land we’re on, to erase native people’s even within people of color communities.

Places like the United States and Canada were created through the criminalization of people’s bodies. Not just the taking of spaces but laws that created criminalization and sanctions. All oppression of indigenous peoples has operated with the sanction and the formal participation of the law.

We have to stop treating colonization like it already happened or like it isn’t happening anymore. When colonization continues it is everybody’s responsibility to do something about it. It’s everybody’s responsibility to decolonize. Decolonization is an every day pursuit.

When we think about things like restorative justice let’s remember where they came from in the first place and why they were stamped out. Remember there were pre-existing systems of dealing with injustice prior to colonization. So many people don’t know what goes on inside indigenous communities, that we are a sovereign nation, that we have our own ways of dealing with things.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted April 8, 2011 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    Wow, as a white, middle-class American, my eyes have been opened about our justice system…

    Also, I feel bad, but this is my first time to hear about the case in NJ. All the articles I can find are from 2007, and FIERCENYC doesn’t have anything on their site. Is there any updated information?

  2. Posted April 9, 2011 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    This reminds me a bit of Franz Fanton and his theories of how colonized and oppressed people’s situations can become literal mental and physical symptoms as well. Prison and the industrial prison complex does seem to be the ultimate form of oppression, racism, and colonization found within America (and I am learning possibly Canada and UK, which have a growing racial minority prison population). Its wonderful to see people talking about it and thinking about it. How deep does this affect us as people, as a community, and ultimately, how do we combat it?

    I never knew this about hate crimes. I actually never thought of that possibility, blacks or trans being charged for hate crimes. My brain never even considered it as a possibility. I know minorities and trans or gay people can hate people different from them, but its generally a hate thats been acquired through years of hate towards their identity. So I view it more as a hate of hate and the people they identify as the perpetrators of hate. Especially in self-defense, it seems absurd to be considered a hate crime and only in a white, patriarchal world can I see the law acknowledging such nonsense.

    I appreciate this article for the links to organizations working towards fighting this battle and the personal quotes contained within it. This is ultimately one of my greater passions, so thanks!

  3. Posted April 9, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    I know I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but any Canadians reading this should be reminded of our Prime Minister’s contemptuous-of-parliament crime bill pushing. Remember, not only is he pushing an extremely anti-minority, anti-poverty crime omnibus (while not allowing non-party members to see the actual figures on crime rates and prison populations) but he has also issued a gag order on cuts to the ministry of immigration. Are we or are we not a democracy? As we are currently engaged in an election, I propose operation Anyone-But-Steve.

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