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This week, the nation erupted once more in protest after officers of the Kenosha Wisconsin police department fired seven bullets into Jacob Blake early Monday morning as he tried to break up a fight. Residents have again taken to the streets, demanding justice as paramilitary police units unleash tear gas.
Our current system of policing is accountable for the deaths and exploitation of Black and brown people; it was not built for our flourishing or protection. Without the abolition of prisons and the carceral apparatus that demands and fuels state violence towards Black people, we may win accountability for the atrocities Blake and others have faced, but we will not have justice. We will still have more names to mourn.
In a discussion of the often hidden but far reaching societal impact of policing and prisons in our everyday lives, Scalawag contributing editor Zaina Alsous sat down with two abolitionists and scholars.
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Geographer and filmmaker Brett Story directed and produced the award winning prison documentary, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes. Felicia Arriaga is the North Carolina Statewide Police Accountability Network Coordinator and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Appalachian State College, whose work investigates the criminalization of immigration.
This conversation, taken from Scalawag's panel event "Casting Shadows: the prison in our everyday lives," has been edited for length and clarity.
Zaina Alsous: What are some of your personal connections to incarceration and abolition, and how do these connections show up in your creative and political practice?
Brett Story: I come into prison organizing and activism mainly through work around housing and anti-poverty and anti-racism. I grew up in a small working class town in northern Ontario. I grew up poor and precariously housed, and so my earliest activist work revolved around the right to housing.
As soon as I started living in cities, I really started studying and doing organizing work around gentrification. And for me that was my entry into thinking about the function of police and the function of prisons and the criminal justice apparatus, really seeing that the police, as I encountered them, are almost always there to enforce and protect private property, develop the interests of real estate developers and criminalize people who were engaged in in poverty activities that they saw as being in their way.
See also: Where do the police come from?
From a young age, I also started doing kind of alternative media work and I became really involved in a community radio station in Montreal, which is where I lived throughout my 20s. One of the first shows that I started working on was a prisoner radio show that fielded calls from people on the inside. We didn't always talk about prison issues. Actually, we rarely talked about prison issues. We talked about environmental justice. We talked about housing, we talked about mayoral elections. But the point was that we were trying to break this enforced segregation and isolation of the prison regime and invite those voices to be part of public conversation.
Felicia Arriaga: I come into this work from the experiences of my family having to deal with immigration enforcement and the fear of immigration enforcement's impact because of family members being immigrants and not being here legally.
That was something that I've known for most of my life, but really, I was able to start to think about how to organize around immigration— or at least around how immigration enforcement was happening at the local level—when I was in college and started working mostly with foreign workers, organizations. I saw the very explicit intersection there between the need for labor and then the disposal of those farmworkers. especially if they decided to unionize and organize.
Being in Durham allowed me to work with Zaina and other folks to really think about the connection, at least locally, with our jail and how immigration enforcement was taking place there…And that sort of has led to all of these other pieces. I'm looking into contracts in jails in the prison system. And so really immigration partnerships are just one component of these other things that we can be monitoring as abolitionists and as community organizers, which is also very tied into some of the work that I do now around budget advocacy at the local level, concerning both police budgets as well as Sheriff or jail budgets.
ZA: Something that we found to be really striking about your film Brett, was the way it makes this point of emphasizing landscape and place in connection to this question of prison expansion and the existence of prisons. So why do you see the connections between ecology and incarceration as integral to our understanding of the current prison system?
BS: I came to making this film in part out of a dissatisfaction with a lot of prison films. People can disagree with this, but I feel like there's a real limit to what even the most well intentioned prison documentaries end up doing, which is suggesting or trying to appeal to kind of moral indignation, and then part of the audience has to say okay, here's a case one case, here's a person who's innocent, and we should be outraged. Here's a person who's faced too much punishment, and we should be outraged. And I do think we should be outraged. But I don't always feel like those films help us understand why prisons exist in the first place.
I felt like I wanted to make a film that was almost not so distracted by the architecture, the building, and the cells, that it could actually start seeing how integrated the prison is into the very organization of our lives— and specifically, capitalist racial capitalists lives— how integrated prisons are, how necessary they are to the functioning of the economy, the functioning of the racial order, the functioning of cities and gentrification and rural abandonment.
I wanted to know could the film itself be inspired by the abolitionist maxim that we need to imagine not just the end of prisons, but the end of a society that could have prisons. And so trying to think about how to translate that visually and narratively meant that maybe we should explore these places that at first glance don't resemble what we normally expect to see when we see a prison film.
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ZA: Thinking about the impact and devastation of prisons and migrant detention on social and communal life, but then also thinking about the resilient making and demanding of community that people on the inside are able to forge in spite of it, what were some of the most memorable lessons that you've witnessed in your work from that violent contradiction that people are navigating?
FA: I think some of the folks at least in North Carolina, who I've been really fortunate to work with and alongside are formerly incarcerated folks who are the ones that are now demanding people's freedom. I think that's been a way for us to consider how do we allow those folks to tell their own stories. And obviously, during this week, their thoughts are the ones that really should be setting the agenda.
BS: I have the scene in the film that takes place on one of the bus routes from New York City to Attica prison. And that bus ride's really hard. It was really hard for me and I took it like eight times, and I'm a youngish, able bodied person. And there was no sleeping and [there were] breaks down, and you get treated like shit by the guards when you get there. So many people, mostly women, almost entirely women of color, are on that bus every weekend determined to say no, that person inside is loved. I love them. You do not get to brutalize them because you don't think there's anyone on the outside that loves them. I'm here keeping them alive through my love.
And then [these women] showing solidarity with each other. You know, it's not always perfect, like, 'we're starting a movement on the bus.' People thought it was really stressful. It was really cramped. But the solidarities, even when they're small, are so powerful.
Abolition Week was just one example of how Scalawag continues to amplify the work of those on both sides of the fence working together for the freedom of those on the inside. As an act of solidarity, check out last week's stories, which feature political and personal insights from members of our community currently incarcerated in Florida's prisons during the pandemic.