I do not know how bad a life has to break in order to kill.
I’ve never been so hungry that i willed hunger,
Never so angry as to want a gun over a pen.
-Suheir Hammad, First Writing Since
I realized something Sunday night when the news of Osama bin Laden’s assassination broke and as I watched the reaction unfold: when I say “justice” I mean something very different than when many other people say the word. I heard about “justice” in President Obama’s speech, on Facebook and Twitter, in the news, in the partying crowd outside the White House.
That’s not what I call justice. I don’t see justice in violence responding to violence. I see vengeance. I don’t see justice in one killing in the midst of many. Where’s the justice in 10 years of war, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, now Libya? In the killing of uncounted, unacknowledged civilians, including when bin Laden was killed? In sending young Americans, my friends, overseas to kill and be killed? In endless war?
Where’s the justice in pumping money into war overseas while there’s continued state violence against people on American soil? Against American Indians robbed of resources and exposed to sexual violence? Where’s the justice in our “criminal justice” system? A system that locks up far too many people, far too many young people of color including invisibilized queer and trans youth, for non-violent reasons in prisons that produce increased violence within their walls, that condition people to this state of violence and then send them to do violence outside?
Where’s the justice in funding wars while Americans experience the more subtle violence of lack of access to health care, including reproductive health care? When the US deports huge numbers of immigrants? When the divide between rich and poor in this country is getting bigger every day, the poor group growing and the rich group shrinking?
[T]he Nobel Peace Prize winner can fix his mouth to say that killing a man on the other side of the globe provides proof of America’s exceptionalism.
So what do I mean when I say justice? It’s much easier to tear down justice as vengeance or claims of justice to mask inequality than to articulate a vision. So what’s the vision?
Jacqueline Rose, feminist, psychoanalytic and literary theorist, talks about justice through the lens of fantasy. She makes the classically feminist move of pulling fantasy from the private realm to show how it shapes the public. Justice is an idea that exists in our psyche, in the realm of desire, and it’s just as messy, complicated, and contradictory as everything else in there. Talk of fantasy isn’t meant to make justice seem unreachable – I think it opens up space to vision for justice more freely, to imagine a justice very different from what we see in the world today, but something we can strive to bring into being. Fantasy certainly feels like a relevant idea to me right now, with the mythology surrounding current events. My friend Hope’s status captured the feeling of current news coverage:
The prince married the commoner and the bad guy is dead? Since when did Disney start writing the scripts for world news??
When this is the story being told, an alternative fantasy certainly seems necessary.
In my vision of justice, harm isn’t answered with greater harm. It’s answered with opportunities to learn and grow, to take something awful and make something better. When an unimaginable hurt happens we would build something better in the rubble instead of increasing violence. Communities come together to grieve and mourn and teach and learn something better. There are already models for this.
I envision a world where I can walk safely and my trans body is loved and celebrated. But not a world where I’m the norm, because there is no norm. Where there’s difference everywhere, and we embrace this difference. Differing visions of justice will continue to but heads. This messiness would be embraced – we’d take on our divergent visions head on and build something better in the places they meet.
In my vision of justice, being able to take care of our selves and our communities isn’t determined by jobs or wealth or geography. People get the health care they need, the food they need, the love and care they need. Working to make a more just world, in the many different ways we vision it, is valued. And this work happens from the bottom up, not the top down, starting in the communities most impacted. We support each other. And this “we” isn’t determined by lines of nation.
My fantasy of justice isn’t very related to current political rhetoric. It’s much closer to the realm of desires that are supposed to be buried. When I think about the places I see glimpses of this, I think about art making, about kink that undoes harmful power dynamics by turning them into play, about dancing, about the tiny hands of a baby who hasn’t learned she’s supposed to hate.
It’s not a clear, concrete vision. But it’s something I have to look towards when doing social justice work, because I think the way things are right now is deeply wrong and I need something better to move towards. I know I’ve written some challenging pieces lately, calling out ways of doing political organizing that I think are failing us. It’s not out of some desire to play more radical than you – so not interested. It’s because I believe we have to continually strive to do this work better, to create justice in our struggle for justice.
There’s so much injustice in our world. I certainly wouldn’t want to be in the position of a president whose only options seem to be different ways to continue violence. But I can’t call injustice justice, either. I can’t celebrate a moment that activates for me and so many others the many injustices that have occurred in the past 10 years, and that were occurring for centuries before that – the vilification of racial and national others, torture and war in the name of peace. When I say justice it has to mean something better.
We’ve got to carry each other now.
You are either with life, or against it.
-Suheir Hammad, First Writing Since
What do you mean when you say justice? What do you vision? What is your alternative fantasy?