Thursday, May 19, 2016

Foucault at the Wake County Jail (Getting Arrested Part 2 of 2)

If there was anything that surprised me about getting arrested it was the sheer bureaucracy involved.

After we were placed under arrest in a legislator’s office (for protesting House Bill 2) the officers transported us to the cafeteria of the NC General Assembly building which had been reconfigured into a police station for processing us. While a few officers patted us down twice as many officers sat in front of a row of networked computers, busily typing, while yet another officer filled out paperwork.

This was just the beginning of the bureaucracy. Arriving at the county jail we appeared before a station where correctional officers entered our information into computers. Then we moved to another station where we sat in front of a row of correctional officers working on computers. (I had no idea what this part was about.) Then we moved to a second room where our information was re-entered into computers. Then we moved to a third room where we waited to see the magistrate.

The third room was in the shape of a long rectangle. Men sat at one end, women at the other. A line of holding cells stretched along one long wall. In the center of the room was a massive administrative area where as many as a dozen correctional officers busied themselves with paperwork. Some sat in front of screens typing. Others sorted paper forms into stacks.

It was at this point that I asked a couple of my fellow arrestees if they had ever read any Michel Foucault. (They hadn’t so the conversation didn’t really go anywhere.)

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a philosopher who critiqued arrangements of power in social institutions. My favorite book of his is Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. In this book he studies the rise of the modern prison. He argues that the modern prison shifts the locus of punishment from the body (on which punishment is written) to the soul (on which discipline is enforced.) In other words, punishment used to delivered in the form of blows, lashes, and scars but is now accomplished through controlling and disciplining the human spirit.

That third room seemed to me to be a fascinating twist on panopticism. Foucault notes that architecture of modern prisons was designed to allow perfect surveillance of all prisoners at all times. (At the Wake County jail there are no bars, only windows.) This third room takes this to another level. The center of the room is not simply the all-seeing eye of the state, but the perfectly disciplined bureaucrat. The dozen correctional officers were performing the discipline the state aspires to normalize.

Here’s a passage from Discipline & Punish:
We are now far away from the country of tortures, dotted with wheels, gibbets, gallows, pillories… The carceral city, with its imaginary ‘geo-politics’, is governed by quite different principles. The prison is not the daughter of laws, codes or the judicial apparatus; it is not subordinated to the court and the docile or clumsy instrument of the sentences it hands out and of the results that it would like to achieve; it is the court that is external and subordinate to the prison. In the central position that it occupies, it is not alone, but linked to a whole series of ‘carceral’ mechanisms which seem distinct enough – since they are intended to alleviate pain, to cure, to comfort – but which all tend, like the prison, to exercise a power of normalization. These mechanisms are applied not to transgressions against a ‘central’ law, but to the apparatus of production – ‘commerce’ and ‘industry’…

Near us in the third room sat a homeless man, hopelessly waiting. He was brought to jail and charged with begging without a license. His “crime” in other words was not conforming to bureaucratic order. And the eleven of us arrested at Moral Mondays? We were charged with violating legislative office rules.

Foucault would have a lot to say about the Wake County jail.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Why I Risked Arrest By Speaking Out (Getting Arrested Part 1 of 2)

Last night I went to jail with Reverend Barber.* Last night I went to jail with Vicki, a member of the Raging Grannies, and Keith, a longtime member of the NAACP who is “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Last night I went to jail with Rebecca, a rising senior at an HBCU, and Woody, whose recent turn towards activism is inspiring his adolescent daughter. Last night I also went to jail with Maria, Jim, Carol, Ashley, Dale, and Vic.

Last night, along with ten others, I was arrested in a legislative office of the North Carolina General Assembly for exercising my constitutional right and responsibility to “instruct” the legislators of my state in their duties. I instructed them to repeal House Bill 2.

I spoke out because HB2 is unconstitutional and immoral. I spoke out because I believe the North Carolina legislature is unconstitutional and illegitimate; the legislature we have is the result of gerrymandering, of districts illegally drawn along racial lines.

I spoke out because HB2 is about restrooms. It’s about singling out a vulnerable minority, transgender individuals, and bearing false witness against them by accusing them of being a threat to public safety. It falsely accuses transgender persons of being dangerous perverts. This is a dangerous lie.

I spoke out because HB2 is about much more than restrooms. It’s about the rights of women, racial and ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities, and veterans to seek recourse when they encounter discrimination in the workplace. It’s about economic justice for low-wage workers who disproportionately tend to be people of color. It’s about the ability of local governments to choose a higher standard for their own communities: higher standards of acceptance and inclusion, higher standards of economic justice, higher standards of environmental regulations.

I spoke out because there is an ugly history in our nation of using fearmongering along racial and sexual lines as a political tool during election seasons. African-Americans know how these racial and sexual anxieties are used. The Supreme Court may have undone all those anti- same-sex marriage constitutional amendments that appeared on ballots in 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012, but it cannot undo all the damage done by extremist politicians who used homophobia to get themselves elected. I spoke out because the transphobia in HB2 is the same thing as Donald Trump calling Mexicans rapists.

I spoke out because HB2 is sneaky. It was rushed through in a couple of hours during an “emergency” legislative session. It was passed and signed into law on the sly, without any opportunity for discussion or debate. I spoke out because not one person affected by this law was ever given the opportunity to testify about how this law would effect them.

I spoke out because HB2 is costing our state millions of dollars on top of a loss in reputation that is beyond price. I spoke out because I love the beaches and the mountains, the art and the music, the cities and vacation destinations. I spoke out because economic boycotts against our state are first hurting people in the service industry, the folks working at hotels, bars, restaurants, and entertainment venues. The folks in the service industry are young, are often people of color, and don’t give a shit about which bathroom you use.

I spoke out because big companies – PayPal, Redhat, Bank of America, and many more – have spoken out. I spoke out because every bar, restaurant, coffee shop, and concert venue that I visit is thumbing its nose at the legislature by posting signs on the bathroom doors that say that this law will not be enforced.

I spoke out because non-violent civil disobedience is a proven tactic for drawing attention and scrutiny to unjust and immoral situations.

I spoke out because it was my turn. My North Carolina colleagues – including Robin, Lisa, Deb, Patty, Dick, Maj-Britt, Sasha, and others – have all gone to jail with Reverend Barber. I spoke out because many of my congregants spoke out before me.

I spoke out because I could. As a white, straight, male, cis-gender, able-bodied, economically-secure, educated, English-speaking citizen I have every privilege you could imagine. I spoke out because I am lucky enough to serve a church that is not only cool with me speaking out, but applauds me for doing so. I spoke out because it will be no hassle for me to retain a lawyer, go to court, and abide by whatever comes out of it.

I spoke out because I would want others to fight for me. It’s not enough to say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” We have to make ourselves an instrument of God’s grace.

* "Going to jail with Reverend Barber" is a colloquial term we use for doing civil disobedience at a Moral Monday event.