Against Equality: Prisons Will Not Protect You
Edited by Ryan Conrad, introduction by Dean Spade
AE Press, 2012, 114 pp.
Review by Toshio Meronek
Prisons Will Not Protect You describes a sentiment that many queer people can relate to. Every day, police stop transgender people for “walking while transgender,” as prison wardens send others to solitary confinement “for their own protection,” without recognizing the mental torture that results from 23 and a half hours of isolation per day. Cops still raid gay bars just because (Atlanta, Fort Worth, and New York City are a few places where raids have happened in recent years, where cops beat patrons while shouting uncreative slurs like “faggots”). And the state protects AIDS-profiteering corporations instead of protecting people who protest ever-broadening patent laws that keep life-saving drugs unaffordable for many. In particular, if you’re black, Latino/a, Native American, disabled, homeless, transgender, or any combination of the above, violence by the hands of police and prison administrators is no revelation in your communities.
But this continued targeting of certain types of people, along with the incredible rate at which the U.S. cages them (between 1920 and 2006, our imprisonment rate increased more than 20 times, while our overall population merely tripled), and the mainstream gay movement’s apparent reverence for all things law-and-orderly (the oohing-and-aahing over the San Francisco Police Department’s “It Gets Better” video—in which gay and lesbian cops tell their intended audience of gay kids to “hang tight, it’ll get better”—being one of the gag-worthiest moments in viral video history) are drawing lots of critiques. Captive Genders, Normal Life, and Queer (In)Justice are other recent books that cover some of the same ground. But one of the potential strengths of PWNPY is that it’s short—at just under 100 pages, you can read it in an afternoon. The anthology is the third in a series of radical queer primers from the Against Equality collective; past editions included critiques of gay marriage and military inclusion.
Dean Spade (founder of the transgender legal aid organization the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and author of Normal Life) starts out the collection of essays with a good overview that lays out 5 realities about prisons—including the idea that they’re effectively incubators for violence—such as administrators encouraging gang-on-gang conflict, as evidenced by the “gladiator days” held at some prisons, including one in Idaho just called out by the ACLU, where guards bet on which prisoners will harm others; rape by staff and other prisoners is an everyday occurrence (LGBT people are at particular risk); and most people come out of prison with post-traumatic stress disorder. Outside, jobs and housing are difficult to come by for the formerly incarcerated (many states disallow ex-prisoners from accessing public housing and food stamps, for example), and many end up back behind bars within months. It’s a set-you-up-to-fail system that emphasizes revenge over any real kind of justice.
John Lydon of the group Black and Pink (which campaigns for queer prisoners, and hooks up people outside with LGBTQ prisoner pen pals) calls out the Human Rights Campaign and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the biggest and most well-funded gay rights groups, for tokenizing murdered transwomen like Sanesha Stewart and Angie Zapata in order to gain support for gay hate crimes legislation. What the heads of these organizations don’t acknowledge is that by bolstering hate crimes legislation, they’re funneling more resources into a system that’s addicted to arresting transpeople (16-33 percent have spent time inside). Among other things, hate crimes extend prison stays, which cost around $50,000 per prisoner per year—much to the delight of private companies such as the prison-operating Corrections Corporation of America, or prison construction firms such as Sundt/Layton. (The last recently won a California county contract worth millions with which it will build a new jail in a largely black and Latino/a community in San Mateo, in spite of widespread community opposition—a jail that will likely be filled with black and Latino/a bodies when it opens.)
Later, the Nation’s Liliana Segura deconstructs the idea that hate crime legislation deters crime, by laying out stats showing how hate groups increased their activity since Bill Clinton signed his hate crimes legislation back in the early 1990s. Meanwhile, there’s little evidence to show, for example, that hate crimes legislation makes white supremacists think twice about harming black people. And inside prison walls, the racially inspired violence of groups like the Aryan Brotherhood is fiercer than ever.
Another point Segura emphasizes: hate crimes rhetoric emphasizes individual actors as the offender, while giving a violent system the freedom to reproduce its violence. As someone who made a living as a writer/editor for almost a decade, I know the appeal of writing stories that have obvious protagonists and antagonists, where the antagonist gets what’s coming to them. Stories where systems are antagonists are much harder to write, and so many writers don’t attempt to write them. I am, to use the language of the system, guilty of this laziness as well. And so I give that much more respect to Segura and the other contributors for doing this difficult work.
The least forward-thinking piece comes from James D’Entremont, who describes the very harrowing stories of the San Antonio 4 and Bernard Baran, gay people imprisoned after being falsely accused of child sex abuse. These are convincing examples of homophobia permeating the justice system, for sure, but a more intriguing story would look at what happens to people who aren’t what the system would classify as “innocents.” In other words, what do you do with the people who actually do harm other people? The following chapter takes on a slice of this harder story to write.
In their piece on sex offender registries, Erica Meiners, Liam Michaud, Josh Pavan, and Bridget Simpson consider what we currently do with what many people consider as the “worst of the worst”—people who engage in sexual violence. They write, “Prison expansion in the U.S. and Canada is increasingly marketed as a response to the ‘worst of the worst’—those who commit acts of violence (generally sexual) against the ‘most innocent,’ white children.” But even a gay sex act can land you on the sex offender registries, which haven’t been successful at much of anything besides broadening definitions of what constitutes crime—and these registries ignore that most sex abuse happens between friends and family members, most of whom will never see the inside of a prison cell. Locking someone away does nothing to address the reasons why sexual abuse is so common, such as misogyny. Meiners, et al. go on to talk about organizations like the Storytelling and Organizing Project (Oakland) and the Challenging Male Supremacy Project (New York City), which have promoted models of alternative justice, for when we need accountability for harm without turning to the prison industrial complex.
PWNPY illuminates a concept older than the Stonewall Inn or Compton’s Cafeteria: a system of which you’re a target isn’t built to save you. As Spade writes, “The most well-funded and widely broadcast lesbian and gay rights narratives tell us that the state is our protector, that its institutions are not centers of rascist, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist violence, but are sites for our liberation. We know that is not true.” When the antagonizing institutions in this story have a lot more resources and are circulating the myth that as long as our leaders are tougher on crime than their predecessors, justice will follow, it’s a good thing there are people like the contributors of this book to forcefully point out that the Corrections Department isn’t in the business of correcting oppression.
Toshio Meronek is a writer focusing on politics, disability, LGBT/Queer issues, and prisons. His work has appeared in over 30 publications.
Aaron Neville’s My True Story
Review by John Zavesky
The year has barely begun and Aaron Neville has released what certainly could prove to be one of the best albums of the year. My True Story on Blue Note Records is a home run. At 72 Neville has released what might also prove to be the finest album of his career. Considering his long and storied history with the Neville Brothers and as a solo artist, that is something. Aaron Neville accomplishes this with beautiful New Orleans old style and by keeping the music simple and real.
My True Story is Aaron Neville’s love song to his childhood. These are the songs he sang growing up in the projects of New Orleans. In a recent interview on NPR’s “Morning Edition” Neville referred to the album as his nod to Do Wop. While this is true to an extent, My True Story is much more.
The project initially got started when Neville and producer Don Was began tossing ideas back and forth. Was gathered a list of 100 or so songs for Neville to consider. They then called Keith Richards to see if he would be interested in putting together a band and co-producing the album. The result was magic.
Richards obviously took the project to heart and assembled a crack rhythm section composed of Greg Leisz on guitar (Dave Alvin), bassist, Tony Scherr (Chris Brown’s Citizen Band), drummer, George Receli (Bob Dylan), and organist, Benmont Tench (Tom Petty). The icing was the addition of the Jive Five handling back-up vocals. The playing is lean, mean and once again proves the old adage, less is more.
Once the band and Neville got in the studio the idea of doing strictly a Do Wop album quickly changed course. Neville and the band began to improvise and the project took a left turn. The songs cover the years from 1952-1964 and not only include Do Wop, but R&B, soul and rock.
The idea was not to do a karaoke album of covers, but to bring something new. The band doesn’t treat the songs with absolute reverence. They have fun with the material, and what a party it must have been. On a project that one would think a natural for Neville to cut loose he keeps his trademark vibrato to an absolute minimum.
The album opens with “Money Honey.” From the start Receli lays down a swinging beat over the Jive Five vocals, Neville, Keith, and company come in and then they are off and running.
Neville makes a bold and very smart leap covering “My True Story,” the album’s title cut. This is Do Wop at its best, clean crisp vocals punctuated by a solid lead being backed by a stripped down rhythm section.
“Ruby Baby” certainly establishes Neville firmly in rock territory with a fine Do Wop chorus. “Gypsy Woman” is one of those songs where Neville keeps his vocals simple rather than go wild with his vibrato tenor—it proves to be the smartest choice he could make. The song is one of two love songs to his late wife, Sarah. The other is the album’s closing song, “Good Night My Love.” What isn’t there is a false sentimentality. What is there is clean and precise, where Neville’s vocals are just another instrument in the band.
While Neville leans heaviest on the Drifter’s catalogue—covering not only the previously mentioned songs, but also “Under the Boardwalk” and this “Magic Moment,”—he rocks hardest with “Work With Me Annie.” The band swings as much as they rock with Tench’s keyboard playing on the song conjuring up images of Fess. Probably the most Do Wop of all the songs covered is Little Anthony’s “Tears on My Pillow.” This entry is just plain sweet and mellow.
My True Story is the first of a series of albums Aaron Neville plans to release in the same vein. The band recorded enough material for a second album and it is ready for release. Ne- ville has stayed true to his musical roots his entire career. His latest endeavor remains true to the music it celebrates and honors. My True Story is a crowning achievement in an era of samples, loops and drum machines. It doesn’t get much better than that.
John Zavesky’s articles have been published in Counterpunch, Palestine Chronicle, Dissident Voice, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications.
U.S. Documentary Competition at Sundance 2013
By John Esther
Starting the third week in January and held throughout Park City, Utah and other parts of the state, this year’s Sundance Film Festival (SFF) offered some of the best independent filmmaking we are likely to see this year, including 16 world premieres in the festival’s U.S. Documentary Competition. These 16 documentaries addressed such issues as resistance to tyranny, illegal incarceration, economic inequality, and the ugly side of U.S. foreign policy.
While I was unable to catch director Steve Hoover’s Blood Brother—which, seemingly out of nowhere, won both the U.S. Jury Prize and the Audience Award—I was still able to see over half of the films in competition. Here are eight of the better ones.
After Tiller – On May 31, 2009, while serving as an usher at his church in Wichita, Kansas, 67-year-old Dr. George Tiller was shot through the eye and killed. One of the few doctors who performed late-term abortions, Tiller was killed by an abortion activist. Since his death, there are only four doctors in the U.S. who provide third trimester abortions and they are the subjects of co-directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s informative documentary. Constantly terrorized, confronted with moral dilemmas, and constrained by legal requirements, Dr. Leroy Carhart, Dr. Warren Hern, Dr. Susan Robinson, and Dr. Shelly Sella perform what seems like a straightforward public service. Women and couples come to them under very dire circumstances. At this point in the pregnancy the usual scenario is not that the fetus is unwanted, it is the fact that the baby is destined to live under unbearable circumstances due to some horrific fetal anomaly. Why bring a child in this world if his or her future is predetermined to do nothing else but suffer—especially for the child, but for the mother or parents, too? It is a painful decision and not a pleasant procedure if the good doctors agree; the mother must deliver a stillborn. Addressing an issue many Americans are uncomfortable with, After Tiller sheds light and humanity on reproductive rights in this country.
Blackfish – It should not have required another death for people and the government to realize how horrible whale and dolphin shows at water parks like SeaWorld are, but it did. On February 24, 2010, 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau was performing with Tilikum, a six-ton Orcinus Orca (Killer Whale), when something went wrong and Tilikum killed Brancheau before a live audience. Brancheau was Tilikum’s third kill. Using the experienced trainer’s death as the underlining trope, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite traces the origins of how Tilikum, and other orcas, became a part of SeaWorld and its ilk. As Cowperthwaite interviews orca experts, ex-SeaWorld trainers, and government officials along the way, it becomes increasingly clear how harmful these shows are to the orcas and their fellow, much smaller, mammalian beings. In captivity, most orcas experience the collapse of their dorsal fins, they are attacked by fellow whales (there is no escape), and occasionally they attack human beings. In their natural habitat they form matrilineal family group cultures, dorsal fins remain erect, they live much longer lives, and surprisingly, there are no known attacks on human beings by orcas. Of course, SeaWorld quietly ignores these facts, apparently hiding some of them from its employees. Not surprisingly, SeaWorld declined to participate in Blackfish. An outstanding documentary that should shut down the whale (and dolphin) shows at SeaWorld and elsewhere (if the new restrictions placed by OSHA against SeaWorld do not), Blackfish was acquired by Magnolia Films and CNN during SFF.
Citizen Koch – Since the birth of this nation, the rich have held great sway over our government. If it were not for the people participating in the democratic process, namely voting, there would be no stopping the rich from infiltrating every aspect of government, starting with the campaign process. However, that changed in 2010 with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens vs. United. A backhanded ruling engineered by the rich neoconservatives, the ruling essentially diluted the influence of working classes in the political process by equating unlimited and often undisclosed campaign contributions with free speech. Embolded by the new ruling, billionaires such as Charles and David Koch started this new weapon in class warfare in Wisconsin with the 2010 election of Governor Scott Walker, a staunch Republican fixing to dismantle the unions in his state. As a result, a recall movement was born in 2011.
Then the Americans for Prosperity from Virginia stepped in, becoming Walker’s biggest donor while recruiting Teabaggers to back a policy clearly against their best interests. Meanwhile, Republican members of public unions begin to question their longstanding beliefs regarding the GOP, just like former Louisiana governor and U.S. Congressperson Buddy Roemer did as he ran a different kind of campaign during last year’s Republican primaries. Capturing this whirlwind of activity leading up to the failure in 2012 to recall Walker, co-directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin (Trouble the Water) illustrate what happens when the bad financial powers-that-be cannot be stopped.
Dirty Wars – Left of the typical liberal bent seen in the other documentaries in the U.S. Documentary Section at SFF, director Richard Rowley’s superb and solemn documentary does not paint a pretty picture for U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration. It all, sort of, starts one night after a U.S. raid results in the death of innocent Afghani men, women, and children. There to uncover what happened before and during the tragedy is journalist Jeremy Scahill (Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army). Not one to be embedded, Schahill’s investigation ultimately led to the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Essentially, a powerful, covert, and secret organization (although not so secret after killing Osama bin Laden), JSOC’s mission is to “find, fix, and finish” anything and anyone deemed its target, even if the target is a United States citizen—two of which were killed during Scahill’s investigation. Why or when something becomes a target is unknown, yet JSOC continues to grow. Winner of the Cinematography Award: U.S. Documentary, and nearly everything the hawkish Manhunt: The Search for Osama bin Laden (another documentary in the U.S. Competition) is not, Dirty Wars is the kind of documentary that demands serious attention and even a more serious response.
God Loves Uganda – Delivering its idiocy to the “Dark Continent,” the Kansas-based International House of Prayer (IHOP) has decided that Uganda is “the pearl of Africa” for spreading Occidental Evangelicalism. So they ship out a few provincial bible-bangers to the country to go around offering food, shelter, and a whole lot of salvation. Unfortunately, this is not what Ugandans need. With the exception of a few Ugandan opportunists who make huge sums of money while feeding malarkey to their parishioners, this new ideology does not bring Ugandans to the Garden of Eden. In fact, if you are gay in Uganda, it can bring you to hell on earth. Fueled by ignorance, self-delusion, and hatred, the new Christian right in Uganda are demanding the death penalty for homosexuals. A GLBT rights activist is actually killed during the making of this engaging documentary about the spread of hate, fear, and ignorance to new lands, although director Roger Ross Williams could have used a little a more historical context and a bit more honesty. The documentary leaves you believing Uganda’s “Kill Gays” bill is still on the books. It is not and it does not have a prayer’s chance of passing anytime in the foreseeable future.
Inequality for All – Thanks to Reaganite fiscal policies over the past 30 years, the economic disparity between rich Americans and the rest of America has increased monumentally. The middle class is disappearing into the poor while the rich get richer. This is not good news for Americans, even the rich. Our economy thrives on consumption and when the middle class are not doing their dutiful duties by consuming, we all suffer. At least that is what Robert Reich says. A United States Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton, Reich is now a teacher at UC Berkeley who occasionally goes on the airwaves to present the neo-liberal economic policy point of view. With a great amount of reverence for his subject, director Jacob Kornbluth traces Reich’s roots before and during his Clinton years and captures Reich’s life today where he can pack a large classroom of students, while increasingly being ignored by mainstream media. The SFF winner of the Special Jury Award for Achievement in Filmmaking, Inequality for All is hardly revolutionary, but the documentary is an amusing piece of non-fiction.
Narco Cultura – Sold at SFF during the last few days of the festival, Shaul Schwarz’s film about the glorification of Mexico’s narco-gangsters in musical numbers—known as “narcocorridos” (drug ballads) by American Latino performers—is pretty disturbing when the director juxtaposes heralding the gangster life with what actual gangster violence really means for its victims. In order to gain firsthand access to gang violence, Schwarz profiles Richi Soto, a crime investigator working in Juarez, Mexico, where murder runs almost as rampant as illegal drugs into the United States. The drug lords run that notorious city and will kill anyone who gets in their way, including some of Soto’s co-workers who were, indeed, killed during the making of the documentary. That no-holds-barred violence is the kind of behavior singer-songwriter Edgar Quintero glorifies and his fans love him for it. Meanwhile, innocent people get caught in the line of fire or behind the sharp edge of a knife. At times maddening, at other times touching, and at others times repetitive, this is a good documentary, but the one glaring omission in Narco Cultura is the drug policies themselves. Namely, it does not discuss the benefits of making all drugs legal. Simply making drugs legal would end a lot wasted money and massive carnage.
Valentine Road – On February 12, 2008, Larry King was busy studying behind a school computer when his eighth-grade classmate, Brandon McInerney, shot King twice in the head at point blank range because King was gay and had asked McInerney the day before if McInerney would be his valentine. The city of Oxnard, California was torn. Some hated the killer, while others blamed the victim. Teachers, educators, and administrators took sides, too. So did the jury in the first trial. Eventually, as much justice as could be done under such tragic circumstances would be done, but that provided little solace to the students who were there that day. Capturing the tragic trajectory and teachings of the time and place, Marla Cunningham’s elegant and sensitive documentary is remarkable. I don’t ever remember watching a documentary where I liked a district attorney while disliking the defense attorneys. Oh, and the three Simi Valley women who served on the jury at the first trial are some of the vilest people I have ever seen. They failed the judicial system, America, and Larry King.
John Esther writes movie reviews for various publications and websites.