Posts Tagged ‘white supremacy’

“I have spent a decade studying an earlier incarnation of the white power movement, which gathered extremist groups and activists together in the late 1970s. It united Klansmen, neo-Nazis, racist skinheads, radical tax resisters, and others in common cause. This movement, organized around the paramilitarism and weapons of the Vietnam War, turned even more violent in 1983, when it declared war on the state. It used cultural currents and political events to recruit and radicalize its members, and grew into the militia movement beginning in the late 1980s. Its largest act of mass violence, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, killed 168 people including 19 young children.
White power activists from the 1970s onward understood anti-Semitism as one strand of a linked and coherent worldview. White power proponents believed that Jews and other malevolent international forces conspired to control the federal government, the United Nations, the banks, and more. They called this conspiracy the Zionist Occupational Government (ZOG), and, later, the New World Order. They understood the stakes of this conspiracy as tantamount to racial annihilation: that is to say, they believed that social issues like immigration, abortion, LGBT rights, and more were thinly veiled attempts of a Jewish conspiracy to threaten the future of the white race.

Significantly, Bowers [the Pittsburgh shooter] reposted references to ZOG [on social media]. He also wrote about the idea of Jews descending from Satan. This belief appeared in the earlier white power movement as Christian Identity and Dualism, political theologies that posited that white people were the true lost tribe of Israel while Jews and people of color descended from either Satan or animals. This is a significant statement not only for its dehumanizing claim, but because it is tied to an overtly violent faith. Christian Identity foretold an imminent end of the world in which believers would have to take up arms to clear the world of Jews, people of color, and other enemies before the return of Christ. In other words, it attempted to cast white power violence as a holy war.

The white power movement has pursued cell-style organizing since 1983, emphasizing the work of one or a few activists without ties to leadership. Its members, by design, do not always make clear their connections to one another. This strategy, often called “Leaderless Resistance,” was first implemented to foil government informants and criminal prosecutions. But its larger legacy has been its power to blur and erase the organized white power movement from public understanding.

Furthermore, social media played an important role in how the white power movement connected activists in common cause, and it has done so for decades. White power activists got on computer message boards in 1983-84, with the codeword-protected Liberty Net. These message boards included hit lists, but they also included personal ads and similar materials designed to join white power groups and activists in a social network. They used such message boards to circumvent laws prohibiting the distribution of hate literature over the U.S. border—in other words, to build a transnational movement. And this initiative was important enough that they used the money stolen from armored cars to purchase computers for groups that didn’t have them. One activist traveled around the country, teaching groups how to get on the message boards.

The historical archive shows us that events of mass violence motivated by white power movement organizing tend to be connected not only to one another, but also to more public-facing rhetoric and activism. In public, the earlier white power movement pursued political runs and suit-wearing talk show appearances by people like David Duke. It posted fliers, ran newspapers that reached not only movement faithful but casual members, and held public events designed to attract and recruit people.

It will be critical, in the coming weeks and months, to closely evaluate the relationship between public-facing white power activism in the present moment, such as rallies and altercations like the one at Charlottesville last year, and underground organizing that gives rise to mass violence like the 2015 shooting of Bible-study worshippers in Charleston by Dylann Roof. Roof, radicalized online by the social networks begun decades earlier, wore a Rhodesian flag patch in photographs, symbolizing a nation that had never existed in his lifetime, and connecting his activism to that of the earlier movement.

Tragically, the resources devoted to establishing such ties have been sparse at every level.”

– Kathleen Belew, “Pittsburgh Shooting Was Straight Out of White Power Movement.” The Daily Beast, November 2, 2018.  

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Expanding the Carceral State
While the federal government was no more willing to step into state prisons on behalf of Muslim prisoners than it was in Albany, Georgia, on behalf of nonviolent protestors, the activism of the Muslim Brotherhood continued to receive attention from the state capital in Albany, New York. The writ-writing campaigns of prisoners had helped prompt a national response and the attention of the courts, but it also caused an arm of the state to reach deep into incarcerated communities. Wardens and state corrections officers authorized prison surveillance and, in some cases, even dedicated a staff member to internal supervision of the Nation of Islam. This surveillance was meant not only to absorb and report but also to disrupt and subvert. It also provided the raw material for state knowledge production that could quell prison activism. Prison officials soon emerged as arbiters of religious orthodoxy, determining who and what constituted legitimate Muslim practice.

As they looked to Muslim religious practices such as eating, prayer, and use of Arabic for markers of identity and political agitation, prisoners turned to informal strategies of daily resistance to combat state intrusions. Through its intervention, the state also assigned political meaning to religious practice, further politicizing incarceration and the practice of Islam within prison walls. State surveillance began with prison officers, who had the most daily contact with prisoners. One institution devoted an officer to keeping a list of all active members, searching their cells, and confiscating any literature relating to the Nation of Islam. Seizing materials slowed the spread of conversions and were a source for state intelligence. An area of concern was prisoners’ use of Arabic. The language not only served a cultural and religious function but also flummoxed prison security. For example, Bratcher gave specific instructions in his letter to Malcolm X: his mother would write him of the minister’s reply in red

ink with “three lines of Al-Fatihab” (referring to Al-Fatiha, the first surah in the Qur’an). One state report noted that it “would seem doubtful if the majority of the prisoners can rea[d] and write Arabic but if notes are picked up that seem to contain no meaning maybe they would bear investigating.” Several months later, six pages of Arabic to English and English to Arabic translation were confiscated. 

Another surveillance strategy that relied heavily on prison officers was the scrutiny of Muslim eating habits. The refusal to eat pork in prisons recalls Malcolm X’s own imprisonment in the late 1940s when he and other prisoners protested its prevalence in prison diets. At Attica Prison, Bratcher wrote to Warden Walter Wilkins asking for permission to carry food from the mess hall to his cell so he and other Muslim prisoners could eat after sundown during Ramadan. One prisoner was even charged with wasting state food for throwing away his bacon and refusing to eat it. Daily political acts such as throwing away bacon even escalated to more formal strikes. In Milan, Michigan, where Elijah Muhammad had once been incarcerated for draft resistance, prisoners took part in a three day hunger strike against pork, which eventually resulted in Muslim-prepared food and a separate dining section. 

These actions were challenged by prison officials who quickly seized on dietary restrictions as a way to monitor and challenge the legitimacy of a prisoner’s religious beliefs. “In order to check the authenticity of the Muslims,” Woodward’s memo noted, “each officer has been required to submit to the principal keeper’s office a report on whether or not the particular prisoner in question is eating pork. The members who are eating pork will be … included in next month’s report.” Another institution itemized prisoners’ eating when pork was served in the mess hall: “Of the above total [of 70], 30 prisoners either refused their ration or gave it to another prisoner, and additional 16 prisoners took their ration to their cells and only two were actually observed fasting.” By monitoring prisoners’ eating, writings, and literature, prison officers acted as foot soldiers in the state’s surveillance of the Nation of Islam. 

From this narrow base of day-to-day surveillance, reports on Muslims in prison also radiated outward to the state and federal levels. The success of the NOI’s organized prison litigation continued to trouble prison officials. The first to present on the NOI at the ACA’s annual conference was the noted penologist Donald Clemmer, who authored his foundational study The Prison Community in 1940. By 1963, topics such as “The Black Muslims and Religious Freedom in Prison” and “The Black Muslim in Prison: A Personality Study” surfaced at the conference. The academic communities of penology and criminology emerged as part of the state’s developing knowledge production about the NOI. 

The 1960s also marked a shift from rehabilitative strategies to psychological warfare and new technologies of violence, and Muslim prisoners were often the first subjected to these new experimental practices. As Alan Gómez notes, bibliotherapy was replaced with isolation, sensory deprivation, and brainwashing; Muslim prison litigation helped “propel this shift.” Edgar Schein, a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, presented a paper in 1961 to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons entitled “Man against Man: Brainwashing.” Bertra S. Brown of the National Institute of Mental Health responded by contacting prison administrators and suggesting that they “do things perhaps on your own—undertake a little experiment of what you can do with Muslims.” As Gómez persuasively argues, the ascension of Control Units, Special Housing Units, and Adjustment Centers, were all outgrowths of the experimental use of excessive solitary confinement by prison officials during the late 1950s and early 1960s. These punishments and techniques, he concluded, were “initially experimented with on Muslim inmates [but] later used en masse on political activists [and] became the model for the entire prison regime.”

– Garrett Felber, ““Shades of Mississippi”: The Nation of Islam’s Prison Organizing, the Carceral State, and the Black Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, June 2018. pp. 90-93.

Photos are from Ann Arbor Times, September 6, 1966.

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“As the five men waited for the SaMarion case to reach trial in the summer of 1962, they planned a hunger strike protesting solitary confinement. The prisoners claimed that Bratcher’s segregation was “an excuse by the warden . . to make him seem that he was crazy concerning this trial that was coming up.” Writ writing had exacerbated fears among prison officials and became one of the most successful strategies for Muslim prisoners. The Nation of Islam successfully flooded the courts with writs across the country. Between 1961 and 1978, sixty-six reported federal court decisions were made on suits fled by prisoners affiliated with the Nation of Islam. In California the number of habeas corpus petitions rose from a mere 814 in 1957 to nearly five thousand by 1965. At San Quentin in 1965, prisoners were churning out almost three hundred petitions per month. As Judge Brennan noted at one trial, these were not “cases where uneducated, inexperienced and helpless plaintiffs are involved … these applications are part of a movement.” Prison litigation became the “peaceful equivalent of a riot” by catalyzing public support and bringing national attention to the otherwise-hidden struggles of prisoners.

One of the largest structural challenges to prison organizing was physical isolation from the outside world. Activists relied on what Berger has called “a strategy of visibility” to make their struggles known. Testifying has its political roots in slavery and has been carried forward through the black feminist tradition. As Danielle McGuire points out in her work on the role of the struggle against sexual violence in the civil rights movement, “testimony must be seen as a form of direct action and radical protest.” Black prisoners saw the courts as political pulpits, a breach in the walls allowing them to take their claims before the world outside. As James Jacobs wrote, “it is as if the courts had become a battlefield where prisoners and prison administrators, led by their respective legal champions, engage in mortal combat.” Sostre later wrote that the “court is an arena. It is a battlefield—one of the best. We will use these same torture chambers, these same kangaroo courts, to expose them.”

Nowhere was this more evident than during Malcolm X’s testimony during the SaMarion trial. Bratcher realized that the state would be mobilizing witnesses to testify against the Nation of Islam’s standing in the Muslim world and wrote to the minister that the “‘Key’ witness I am depending on to ‘seal’ our victory is ‘You’ Minister Malcolm ‘X.’” This set the stage for a four-day showdown between Malcolm X and the state’s witness, the Columbia University professor Joseph Franz Schacht. While Malcolm X admitted openly in court that he had an eighth-grade education, no formal theological training, and could not speak Arabic, Schacht had a “masterly knowledge” of the language, and his book Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence, which argued for the historical development and sociological implications of Islamic law, was considered a seminal text in the Western study of Islam. Yet Malcolm X weaved around the meritocratic probing of the state. When asked if he had a degree in theology, he noted that if “my understanding of the word ‘theological’ is correct, the study of God, the science that deals with religion and the study of God, I studied theology in that sense under the Honorable Elijah Muhammad about our God.” When pressed on the length of his education, he replied: “I am still studying.” When interrogated on whether or not he was ordained or had a written certificate that permitted him to proselytize, he reminded the court that “Jesus sent his disciples forth with no written certificate or anything but his approval.” Malcolm X’s

testimony was so convincing that when Schacht took the stand and listed his membership in the Royal Netherlands Academy, the Arabic Academy in Damascus, and an honorary degree in Law from University of Algiers, the judge responded: “I don’t think it is quite thoroughly clear at this time to qualify him as an expert.” 

While Henderson had, in effect, apologized for and excused his racism in the same remark, his open respect for Malcolm X’s opinion shifted the tenor of the case. As Griffin recalled, Henderson was “impressed by Malcolm and his testimony … [and] respected Malcolm for his clear statements and responses.” Bresnihan, likely attempting to curry favor with the judge, then began adopting the phrase the “American Black Man” in his questioning. Malcolm X’s use of the courtroom as a political stage reveals the importance of testimony as a form of nonviolent resistance. His testimony lasted three days, and was over 20 percent of the two-week trial transcript, successfully compelling the judge to rule that the Nation of Islam was a religious organization. But more importantly, Malcolm X’s  political views took center stage and fundamentally altered the rhetoric and discourse of the case.

The case at Attica Prison also underscores the important role that the jailhouse lawyer played in organizing legal challenges from prison. Knowing that most prisoners were not qualified to draw up their own legal challenges, prisons such as Attica maintained rules prohibiting legal assistance. For example, “rule 21” at Attica stated: “Prisoners are prohibited except upon approval of the warden to assist other prisoners in preparation of legal papers.” This strategy was reproduced nationally as a means of combatting prison litigation efforts. In Texas, administrators employed a similar strategy, forbidding writ writers from possessing the legal materials of a fellow prisoner. In California this was known as Rule D-2602. Even if a prisoner wanted to use another’s paperwork as a template, officials concluded that any legal material in a cell not pertaining to that prisoner was evidence of prison lawyering. Just as grandfather clauses and poll taxes worked as state mechanisms to disfranchise southern black voters, rules governing legal access and jailhouse lawyering sought to curb legal literacy and prisoners’ access to the judicial system. Thus, when Sostre wrote to Walker, he urged him to copy the writ into his notebook, then flush it down the toilet, but not to “let this lay around. This is dynamite.” He then listed the “most essential weapons in fighting Shaitan” (Arabic transliteration of “the devil”): legal paper, an ink eraser, one dollar of postage stamps, a loose-leaf binder, and a ball-point pen.

Trough cases such as Pierce v. LaVallee, SaMarion v. McGinnis, and later, Cooper v. Pate, the NOI brought about judicial oversight such that, by 1974, the Supreme Court declared that no longer was an “iron curtain drawn between the Constitution and the prisons of this country.” Yet, while the Supreme Court strictly forbade any “direct or indirect interference by prisons or state authorities” in prisoners’ access to the courts, prisons obstructed court access through measures such as rule 21. They also limited legal advice, intimidated writ writers, and disrupted the legal process through solitary confinement.

Despite these attempts, Muslim prisoners were more organized than the often uncoordinated strategies of local prison officials and state policy makers. In one example in California, San Quentin Prison officials set up a small office where three prisoners transcribed writs onto standardized forms and processed them on a duplicating machine. Meanwhile, the California Department of Corrections attempted to clamp down on writ writers by prohibiting access to law literature and court decisions. 

But Sostre’s letter to Walker in solitary confinement also revealed another strategy pointing toward the concurrent tactics of prison organizing and the broader black freedom struggle. Prisoners appropriated the principal mechanism of prison repression—solitary confinement—as a tool of organized protest. Recognizing that most of Attica Prison’s Muslims were already in solitary confinement, Sostre urged Walker to not be sent back to general population. According to Sostre, they “made a pact not to go down until the religious persecution of the Muslims cease[s].” If Walker was sent back, he was told to threaten to bring contraband literature out of his cell and be sent back to solitary. They reasoned that each time the warden “snatch[ed] an aggressive Muslim out of population, he would send one down from the box and send another one up from population. In other words, he kept manipulating the brothers like monkeys on a string.” Yet Sostre astutely noted that when “the box ceases to work, the entire disciplinary and security system breaks down.” The take-over of solitary confinement was an example of prisoners creatively adapting the methods of prison control as resistance. NOI members filled solitary confinement until the box no longer was an effective form of punishment. Wardens were then faced with the decision of creating hotbeds of activism in segregation or undermining the arbitrary rules they had worked so hard to justify and enforce. 

The prisoners’ strategy of filling solitary confinement mirrored, and in fact predated, the developing civil rights strategy of “Jail, no bail” in the South. …

The prisoners’ strategy of taking over solitary can be traced back to Clinton Prison when the men were reported by the prison officer as discussing the tactics (over a year before the Friendship Nine employed this strategy). While civil rights organizers in the South and prisoners at Attica appropriated forms of state control, Chief Pritchett in Albany was able to mobilize a larger network of police and jails just as wardens at Clinton and Attica Prisons were able to transfer prisoners to other state prisons when their much smaller segregation units became filled with politicized prisoners. Both movements also attempted to garner national attention and press for federal intervention. As Len Holt

of the Congress of Racial Equality explained, “if we go to jail by the hundreds and thousands, the hearts of those who would maintain the old order will be inundated with the guilt necessary to bring about change.” For prisoners at Attica, solitary confinement and the loss of good time were crucial to their claims in state and federal courts. As Sostre wrote: “We have taken over the box and he is anxious to get us out of the box, especially with the big trial coming soon. So don’t let him clean up, for we are living proof of the religious oppression complained of in our writs.” Filling solitary confinement not only

undermined prison security but also built a case for trial and dramatized prisoners’ struggles before the courts and the nation.

But in both cases, appropriation of state repression had unintended consequences. As Berger argues, “mass arrests of political activists provided a dry run for mass incarceration, especially when joined with the economic transformations wrought by mechanization and migration. The civil rights movement gave states an early taste of what it would mean to arrest, prosecute, and imprison large groups of people.” In the case of Muslims at Attica Prison, it coincided with intensified surveillance and monthly reports on the group. Despite their similarities, the “Jail, no bail” strategy has its place in the annals of civil rights history as a heroic confrontation with southern Jim Crow through nonviolent direct action; meanwhile, the take-over of solitary confinement by Muslims at Attica Prison has gone unremarked. At best, the Nation of Islam has been depicted as a reluctant political participant, pulled toward the struggle by Malcolm X. At worst, it is portrayed as an apolitical religious sect that was marginal, or even antithetical, to such movements. Such disparate historical treatments raise important questions about what are seen as legitimate politics, legible activists, and visible sites of resistance in histories of the black freedom movement.”

– Garrett Felber, ““Shades of Mississippi”: The Nation of Islam’s Prison Organizing, the Carceral State, and the Black Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, June 2018. pp. 84-90 

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“The transfer to Attica in 1960 was an explicit attempt at curbing Muslim activism in New York prisons and represented the first of a variety of methods of prison discipline by the state. The practice of transferring prisoners to “break up gangs, separate associates in crime, and prevent disorder” was decades old. Sostre later referred to it as “bus therapy.” It was not unique to New York, however. Chase notes that the Texas Department of Correction distributed Muslims throughout state prisons to limit their influence in any one location. These institutional transfers (referred to as “drafts”) and solitary confinement represented the two largest threats to the stability of Muslim communities in prison. The group was persistently under threat due to this constantly fluctuating base. Short sentences often meant the release of members, and several assistants were appointed for each officer position to assure continuity and sustainability. These multiple appointments were primarily meant to combat the “further reduction of our ranks by the implacable enemy through persecutions (solitary confinement).”

Solitary confinement—sometimes referred to as “the box” or “segregation”—was the prison’s primary tool of security and discipline. The practice of solitary confinement was honed over a century earlier at New York’s Auburn Prison, with a trademark system of strict discipline, labor for prison profit, and solitude. This drew on nineteenth-century penal thought based on the belief that collective work and isolated living would reform prisoners. By the 1960s, at Attica Prison, solitary confinement had shed all pretenses of rehabilitation and was used strictly as a disciplinary measure. The section consisted of fifty individual cells on the third floor of the reception building with each single cell containing only a bed, toilet, wash basin with running water, and a light. When assigned to segregation, prisoners often were required to stay for days or weeks in “keep-lock” or a strip cell before moving to the gallery. “Keep-lock” was a single solitary cell with doors that “do not open up any more.” The strip cell was bare, with only a bucket and blanket. As SaMarion testified, prisoners “do an initial twenty days on a concrete floor with only a pair of winter underwear, pair of socks, no sanitary facilities whatever. The only thing you

use for calls of nature is a bucket, a defecation bucket.” Rations in keep-lock were reduced to half of normal mess-hall food: water and two slices of bread. Magette described keeplock at Clinton Prison as even more medieval. The “Dark Cell” was completely empty, without even a blanket. He was put there naked with a half a cup of water and one slice of bread three times a day. 

But solitary confinement was used by prison officials as more than a physical deterrent. It was coupled with the loss of good time as a way to isolate prisoners while simultaneously extending their sentences. Good time, sometimes referred to as good behavior (and now called “earned time”), was purportedly meant to reward well-behaved prisoners with a shortened sentence through their good conduct. However, like solitary confinement, it was used as a punitive measure. For example, in the first year the men spent at Attica Prison, thirty-three prisoners were sent to solitary confinement and four hundred cases of discipline led to 8,525 total days of good time lost over a nine-month period.

The loss of good time and the use of solitary confinement also punished prisoners in two directions at once. First, prisoners lost an initial amount of time for the disciplinary matter. For instance, SaMarion lost sixty days for joining a hunger strike in protest of the solitary confinement of another Muslim prisoner. Te second loss of time occurred during solitary confinement, as each day in solitary earned three lost days. Finally, regardless of prisoners’ behavior in solitary confinement, good time could not begin to be reaccumulated until a prisoner had been readmitted to the prison’s general population. These good-time practices illustrate the vast discretionary powers wielded by prison officials. As SaMarion bleakly noted at trial, “it is taken at will, you have it one minute,
then you don’t have it.”

A year after the four men had been transferred from Clinton Prison, Attica Prison officials reported that a sit-down strike was being planned in protest of Sostre’s solitary confinement. They responded by putting the prisoners in keep-lock with a loss of ninety days of good time. The group was then divided and transferred to different blocks with the hope that “after a thirty-day cooling-off period and the dispersion of the members of this click[,] activity will abate.” This incident reveals the ongoing struggle between strategies employed by prison officials to suppress Muslim activism and prisoners’ resistance to such practices. The state used transfers and the combination of solitary confinement and goodtime practices to slow the spread of Islam in New York prisons. But prisoners continued to bring their plight before the courts, ending the unspoken “hands-off” policy that had previously sheltered prisons from oversight by the judicial branch.” 

– Garrett Felber, ““Shades of Mississippi”: The Nation of Islam’s Prison Organizing, the Carceral State, and the Black Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, June 2018. pp. 83-84

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“On Christmas Day 1959 at Clinton Prison in Dannemora, New York, a small group of Muslims had gathered in the recreation yard. As one prisoner remembered, it “was snowing and it was very cold, but as usual, on Friday we would meet to [have] a short prayer regardless of inclement weather or anything else.” The men, numbering from ten to seventy prisoners, had routinely met in this area for almost a year. The group had grown over the years, and their physical space expanded as well, encompassing a fifteen-yard long-by-seventy-yard-wide area paved with stones the men had collected from the yard. A stove was used for cooking and an oven for baking since the mess halls did not offer halal preparations. A blackboard contained illustrations and notes on current events and readings from the Qur’an. As was common, a prison officer monitored the congregation from ten feet away. Joseph X Magette reflected, we “were tolerated. I wouldn’t say we were admitted, but we weren’t denied the right to meet.”

The men gathered at Clinton Prison had arrived from a variety of different backgrounds during the mid-1950s. None were Muslim when sentenced, and unlike members of the Nation of Islam incarcerated in federal prisons during World War II for refusing to register with the selective service alongside six thousand other conscientious objectors, they did not have political backgrounds or political charges that brought them to prison. William X SaMarion was born in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and raised as Protestant Episcopalian before converting in prison under the teachings of Teddy Anderson, a Muslim associated with the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam (AMI). SaMarion was incarcerated for stealing two pounds of pork chops, a slab of bacon, and 172 packs of cigarettes before later denouncing such items after converting. James X Walker and Magette both made their profession of faith at Clinton Prison in early 1959. Magette had experienced run-ins with the law since his early teens, having fled the scene of a burglary in Harlem before being shot twice by a police officer when he was fifteen. Martin X Sostre had the most political upbringing of the four. He was born to Puerto Rican and Haitian parents in 1923; his father was a Communist merchant seaman, and his mother was a cap maker. They settled in Harlem, where he was influenced by Lewis Michaux’s African National Memorial Bookstore and the stepladder orators on 125th Street. He dropped out of school in the tenth grade and was drafted in 1942. After serving a brief stint in the Korean War, he was arrested in 1952 for heroin possession. When asked if he used the drug, he responded: “I’m too smart for that. Only suckers use that stuff.” 

The men at Clinton Prison were part of a rich Muslim community, consisting, according to Sostre, of thirty believers belonging to “at least four different sects of Islam, both of orthodox and non-orthodox, namely Afamdiya [Ahmadiyya], Moorish, Science [Moorish Science Temple], Muhahhad [most likely Nation of Islam] and non-denomination.” Many of the men associated with the NOI credited their conversion to Anderson, who maintained the only copy of the Qur’an at the prison. “We would have to consult with him and borrow it from him,” Sostre remembered. “He was reluctant to lend it out, naturally, but usually he would loan it out to ones that wanted to peruse it.” Tomas X Bratcher later described a similar community at Auburn Prison: “some were Ahmadiyya, some were Moorish Science Islams, some were Sunni Muslims, some were Wahapi [Wahhabi]… . We had a non-sectarian class. Tat means that we did not lean to the teachings of any so-called sect in Islam.” Although many of the men were introduced to Islam through the AMI and other groups, they formed a small but growing community that gravitated toward the teachings of the NOI.

What separated the Nation of Islam from other Muslim sects also prompted concern from prison officials: its black nationalist politics and critique of global white supremacy. One of the principal activities of the brotherhood in prison was teaching a robust array of classes in the yard. SaMarion, along with Magette and Walker, was in charge of organizing these lessons; the group covered a diverse set of teachings, including business, Islam, Arabic, black history, and law. The “Mufti is known as the one that keeps the peace within the group, discipline,” SaMarion explained.

The treasurer is one that holds the finances, sees that—if we are short of toothpaste or tooth powder, or the brother has no money and is trying to buy some books, that he has the toothpaste or the tooth powder. Te librarian is the one that has the control of all the literature that we were able to fll our lockers with; literature pertaining to our own kind, Black Man’s literature, Black Man’s history, mathematics, Arabic, anything we thought would help us in our educational field… . The secretary is the one that would record the day’s activities, would record the statements of some of the brothers.

The Muslim Brotherhood (as the organization was known inside prisons) even had its own constitution and subscribed to a shared economic system that used tithing and organizational dues for “supplementing the diet of the members and further[ing] the cause of the Brotherhood.”

While the fundamental crux of prisoners’ legal cases against the state appeared to be religious rather than political, it is important to recognize how the Nation of Islam’s religious views were racialized by prison and state officials. For example, New York State prison inspector Richard Woodward described Demir Asan as “a Moslem but it must be assumed that he is of the legitimate religion as he is white and has a name that might be assumed to be from the Far East.” In the SaMarion trial, the prosecuting attorney Richard Griffin attempted to illustrate the way that “Muslim” was used by prison officials to connote blackness, while whiteness was often decoupled from reference to religious beliefs. Prisons even allowed access to The Glorious Koran, translated by the white English convert Marmaduke Pickthall in 1930 but refused copies of the Arabic translation with
English commentary by the Indian-born Maulana Muhammad Ali. In these ways the prison system’s distinction between legitimate (seemingly color-blind) and illegitimate (race-conscious) expressions of Islam underscored how the NOI’s religious beliefs were, in the state’s eyes, inextricable from racial militancy.

Despite prison officials’ efforts to divert Muslim converts toward the Ahmadiyya
Movement in Islam’s ostensibly apolitical teachings, the NOI continued to thrive in New York throughout the late 1950s. Because the Muslim prisoners were not given a formal space to hold services within the prison, informal prayers such as those described at Clinton Prison often took place in the prison yard. Prisoners relied on memorized prayer, passing surahs to one another through oral tradition. These prayers, SaMarion recalled, were “learned by heart, to be able to speak about.” The basis for many of these lessons were editorials by Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, published in black newspapers in the late 1950s. “Most of us have never seen the inside of a Temple,” Tomas X Bratcher

wrote to Malcolm X, “we have had to make up our own lesson from articles appearing in the Los Angeles Herald-Dispatch.” While the censorship of black newspapers by prison officials was never as thorough as their ban of Muhammad Speaks beginning in the 1960s, prisons nevertheless monitored and confiscated newspapers carrying editorials by the Nation of Islam; these included the Pittsburgh Courier, the New York Amsterdam News, and the Los Angeles Herald-Dispatch

The stark contrast between the “tolerance” that Magette described at Clinton Prison prior to Christmas Day 1959 and the various punishments levied against Muslim prisoners after it reveals the strategies developed by the state to suppress political agitation and the spread of Islam in New York prisons over the following decade. “All of the sudden the situation changed completely,” he testified. “Thereafter we were in complete segregation” (solitary confinement). The officer monitoring the congregation that day had reported hearing one of the prisoners say that the group was going to take over solitary confinement. He then issued a disciplinary report charging them with hosting an “unauthorized meeting under the guise of an assembly for religious purposes.” The prisoner who made the remark was locked up immediately, and the other men were soon taken to disciplinary court and moved to a minimum-privilege area. Some even remained in solitary confinement until June of the following year. 

The timing of the response by prison officials was not accidental. An entire apparatus of state control emerged in the months following the airing of The Hate That Hate Produced in the summer of 1959. The serial documentary was almost singularly responsible for introducing the Nation of Islam to the broader public, and, as its name implied, it portrayed black nationalism as the by-product of white racism—a specter of “black hate” causing hysteria among white viewers while suturing their guilt by suggesting that racism was not racially distinct. The documentary positioned the NOI as a “hate group” not unlike George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi party and the Ku Klux Klan, often referring to them as “black racists” and “black supremacists.” As the historian Claude Clegg notes, the documentary marked a departure in media coverage of the NOI from the “othering” Orientalist tropes of “voodoo cults” and rumors of human sacrifice toward a discourse of “reverse racism.” In fact, the phrase “black racism” did not exist prior to the documentary, and within one month of its airing the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins had issued a public statement denouncing the group as teaching “black supremacy.”

The Hate That Hate Produced also played a crucial role in pushing the doctoral student C. Eric Lincoln decisively toward publication of The Black Muslims in America. The phrase “Black Muslims” was Lincoln’s creation and was later rejected by the Nation of Islam in part because it severed the NOI from a global Muslim community. Malcolm X recalled the years he spent trying to refute the label: “Every newspaper and magazine writer and microphone I got close to: ‘No! We are black people here in America. Our religion is

Islam. We are properly called ‘Muslims!’” The combination of Mike Wallace’s documentary and Lincoln’s book provided a framework for carceral actors, ranging from police to prison officials, criminologists, and even federal judges, to understand the Nation of Islam as a hate group masquerading under the auspices of religion. The phrase “Black Muslims” became linguistic shorthand for this argument by the state. 

This understanding set the stage for a struggle between Muslim prisoners needing to legitimize their religious beliefs before the courts and prison officials fathering evidence to demonstrate that the group was, in fact, using religion to cover its subversive political aims. Bratcher astutely anticipated the attorney general’s defense in his letter to Malcolm X prior to SaMarion: “I can see that his main argument is going to be in the presenting of certain publications out of books, magazines, and papers about the Muslims… . He is going to try and justify the warden’s violation of our constitutional rights by submitting these published reports to the court saying that we are preaching ‘hate’ and we are a
fanatical group not recognized by the rest of Muslim World.”

Carceral authorities had an insatiable appetite for Lincoln’s book, positioned as an “objective” and nuanced portrait of the organization due to Lincoln’s identity as a black Christian scholar. As the NOI became a greater topic of conversation in race relations and as its presence in prisons grew, the state attempted to develop a consistent logic to justify suppression of Islam among prisoners. Lincoln’s book was widely read and distributed among criminologists and prison officials as the organization gained a stronger footing in America’s prison system. Soon after the book’s release, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) mailed Lincoln a copy of its review in the lapd newsletter with a personal note: “We thought you might like to see our Trainee’s review of your book.” Upon request, Lincoln had a copy of his book delivered to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and ensured his full cooperation. Reuben Horlick of the American Association of Correctional Psychologists invited Lincoln to participate in a panel discussion on the “Black Muslims” at the 1963 convention of the American Correctional Association (ACA). Bernard F. Robinson, a sociologist in the Illinois prison system, wrote Lincoln that not “only did I benefit by your very instructive statements regarding the Black Muslim Movement, but my fellow staff members also considered themselves well edified as a result of your correspondence.” And in May 1961 Richard Woodward reviewed what he called a “fine book by Eric Lincoln” for a new monthly memo on the Nation of Islam that would be distributed throughout the state prison system in New York.

These new highly confidential memos were instituted just after a meeting between Commissioner McGinnis and representatives from the offices of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz in January 1960. McGinnis called the meeting after having been named in a number of writs from Muslims at Clinton Prison. He reported that the Nation of Islam was “spreading like a cancerous growth and was becoming a most serious problem.” Since “it was going to be a continuing thing; and because of the racial feature, [McGinnis] felt that some policy should be formulated.” The Division of State Police then contacted what were known as “subversive units” in major cities across the country to cull information and form a special file on the Nation of Islam. Woodward would serve as a liaison officer between the Department of Correction and the New York State Police. More accurately than he could have known, Malcolm X noted in his autobiography that the NOI’s presence in prisons was “as big a single worry as the American prison system has today.” “I’m sure,” he added, that “they monitored what I wrote to add to the files which every state and federal prison keeps on the conversion of Negro prisoners by the teachings of Mr. Elijah Muhammad.” Indeed, in addition to these monthly memos, Woodward reported acting “in accordance with plans set up by the Commissioner of Correction” to turn over “arrest records and photographs of the following convicts who are confined in State Prisons throughout the State of New York.”

As part of this new programmatic suppression of Islam in state prisons, McGinnis promised those at the January meeting that he would “identify ringleaders and, upon

identifcation, transfer them to other prisons, pointing out to the receiving warden what to expect. In this way, he hoped to curb their activities in the Cult.” In June 1960, with many of the men at Clinton Prison still held in solitary confinement, the warden followed through on the commissioner’s promise, transferring four of the key organizers— Magette, SaMarion, Sostre, and Walker—to Attica Prison. There, they continued to grow through religious conversions and prison transfers until the group included almost sixty members and became one of the most active Muslim communities in American prisons.”

– Garrett Felber, ““Shades of Mississippi”: The Nation of Islam’s Prison Organizing, the Carceral State, and the Black Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, June 2018. pp. 77-83

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“Historians have had difficulty reconciling the Nation of Islam’s seemingly incongruous black nationalist ideas of a separate state, flag (with a crescent and star), and ethnoracial identity (“Asiatic”), with its use of courts, litigation, and a rights-based framework to secure civil rights protections and constitutional guarantees. [Historian Dan] Berger argues that the prisoners’ rights movement “was less a claim to expand rights than it was a critique of rights-based frameworks.” But this is truer for a later period in the prisoners’ rights movement, following the important constitutional gains won through Muslim litigation in cases such as Cooper v. Pate. In the early 1960s, Muslim prisoners drew on section 1983 of the 1871 Civil Rights Act, which protected citizens against violations of constitutional rights by persons acting under state authority. They also frequently cited the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Cooper v. Pate, for example, Tomas X Cooper referenced the Illinois Bill of Rights as well as the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Muslim prisoners not only cited constitutional protections but also used direct-action strategies such as sit-ins, hunger strikes, and occupations of solitary confinement, that anticipated the “Jail, no bail” efforts of southern civil rights activists. Rather than see claims to constitutionalism and direct-action protest as irreconcilable with black nationalism, we might consider these as effective, if entangled, strategies to win protections for prisoners under the law while challenging white supremacy and incarceration more broadly. As C. Eric Lincoln noted: “the Muslims appear to believe in the efficacy of the white man’s law without believing in its justice.””

– Garrett Felber, ““Shades of Mississippi”: The Nation of Islam’s Prison Organizing, the Carceral State, and the Black Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, June 2018. pp. 75.  

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“First, the Nation of Islam’s prison organizing—and black nationalism more broadly (exemplified most prominently during these years by the NOI)—should be seen as a central current of the postwar struggle for black freedom. Its political strategies and conceptual legacies expand our understandings of the mid-century black freedom struggle, the prisoners’ rights movement, and the development of the punitive state. Secondly, prison organizing should not be narrated as a post–civil rights struggle but rather as one born out of, and alongside, the movement. Lastly, the carceral state was not simply a counterrevolutionary reaction to the gains of social movements through top-down policy changes and electoral shifts but was produced through daily, on-the-ground interplay with prisoners’ activism.

The dialectical relationship between prisoners’ radicalism and prison repression—what I term the “dialectics of discipline”—paradoxically helped develop the protest strategies and legal framework for the prisoners’ rights movement while fortifying and accelerating the expansion of the carceral state through new modes of punishment and surveillance. These dialectics took two major forms during this period in New York prisons. The first was the relationship between state methods of control such as prison transfers, confiscation of religious literature, solitary confinement, and loss of “good time” (sentence time reduction for good conduct) and the responses by Muslim prisoners through hunger strikes, writ writing, and take-overs of solitary confinement. The second was the interaction between Muslim religious practices and prison surveillance. An emerging web of state surveillance monitored Muslim rituals and attempted to construct a religio-racial formation to justify the suppression of Islam in prisons. Because grassroots organizing by prisoners and the production of state knowledge and discipline grew alongside one another, historians of the carceral state cannot supply one-sided histories relying on state-produced narratives while burying the physical and theoretical labor of those who opposed such systems. Rather than seeing the development of mass incarceration and carceral apparatuses in the tectonic shifts of electoral realignment and other federal policy measures, this essay points to the local and daily exchanges between prisoners and prison officials as ground zero for the rise of the prisoners’ rights movement and the extension of the carceral state.”


– Garrett Felber, ““Shades of Mississippi”: The Nation of Islam’s Prison Organizing, the Carceral State, and the Black Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, June 2018. pp. 72-73.

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B.P., Red River. Casement Exchange, 2018.

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“Juan G Morales belonged to the 1970s crush of incarcerated men and women who asked the courts to ease the harshness of prison life. Morales was incarcerated in the state of Wisconsin, and his jailers were not allowing him to exchange letters with his lover. He brought an action in federal court against the state in order for his right to correspondence to be restored. His case came to Judge James E Doyle, father to a future governor.

Doyle sided with Morales, and the language he employed says much about how the prison system was viewed by mainstream America at that time: “I am persuaded that the institution of prison probably must end. In many respects it is as intolerable within the United States as was the institution of slavery, equally brutalizing to all involved, equally toxic to the social system, equally subversive of the brotherhood of man, even more costly by some standards, and probably less rational.”

In the years after Doyle wrote, the prison population soared, imprisonment became a predominant feature of American life, and a world without prisons became even more difficult to imagine. Yet Doyle’s words reflected a very real sense common to the early 1970s that the end of the prison could be quite near. The Norwegian criminologist and prison abolitionist Thomas Mathiesen describes this historical moment – not only in the US, but across the Atlantic as well – as the only time in the history of the prison when prison abolition was a real possibility. We are reaching another such moment, and we ought to learn from what went wrong nearly a half-century ago. Among the reasons the protean movement to abolish prisons fizzled was its refusal to speak in plainly moral terms. In foregrounding pragmatic reforms, 1970s prison reformers turned away from the rich abolitionist heritage and failed to generate the force necessary for effecting radical social change.

Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow has done much of late to introduce the massive scale of the injustices involved in the prison system to a mainstream audience, but from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, there were any number of such publication events: Karl Menninger’s The Crime of Punishment (1968), Nigel Walker’s Sentencing in Rational Society (1969), Richard Harris’s The Fear of Crime (1969), former attorney general Ramsey Clark’s Crime in America (1971), and Jessica Mitford’s Kind and Usual Punishment (1973), to name a few.

To a wide and receptive public, these opponents of the prison system argued that prisons simply do not work. Prisons attempted to rehabilitate, but high recidivism rates proved they were failing. Prisons were also cruel and unjust, according to these early opponents – not merely as they were currently administered, but as such: caging people was presented as fundamentally harmful and wrong. Mitford, an English aristocrat and journalist, went further, claiming that prisons are “essentially a reflection of the values, and a codification for the self-interest, and a method of control, of the dominant class in any given society”. Increased public attention focused on the prison system, stoked by highly visible prison rebellions in New York City in 1970 and in Attica in 1971, led to a sense that dramatic change was inevitable. It was now just a question of sorting out the practicalities.

Writing in his 1971 book The Discovery of the Asylum, historian David Rothman optimistically asserted: “We have been gradually escaping from institutional responses and one can foresee the period when incarceration will be used still more rarely than it is today.” In his widely circulated 1973 exposé, The New Red Barn: A Critical Look at the Modern American Prison, William G Nash prescribed as the only appropriate policy response a moratorium on all prison construction. This proposal was broadly considered plausible and seemed to reflect an emergent common sense. In April 1972, a moratorium was endorsed by the board of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a centrist criminal justice thinktank, as well as by the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice a year later. The latter commission, operating under the Department of Justice, added a call for the closure of all juvenile prisons, and it explicated the emerging consensus about American prisons: “There is overwhelming evidence that these institutions create crime rather than prevent it.”

With such broad public concern, elites wanted to gain firsthand knowledge of the prison system. Lawyers, judges and politicians spent a day or two in prison to get an impression of the conditions. Thoroughly shaken by his experience, Emanuel Margolis, a prominent Connecticut attorney, concluded that prison reform was the wrong answer: prisons had to be abolished. The son of a rabbi, Margolis concluded from his brief prison experience that in incarceration “the total being is involved and affected – his dignity, even his soul”.

Likewise, in 1972, Congressman Stewart McKinney, a Republican from Connecticut, decided to spend 36 hours in a prison to understand what everyone was talking about. As reported by the Associated Press, the congressman “emerged from prison an emotionally strained man”. McKinney concluded that the current prison system is “a big waste of money and human life”. Upon his “release”, he told reporters: “I can’t see consigning any human being to this kind of existence.”

Yet the rate of incarceration today is nearly five times what it was when McKinney emerged from his cell. As political scientist Vesla Weaver has demonstrated, some of the very same politicians who once advocated for segregation switched to advocating for crime policy that would imprison massive numbers of poor people and people of color when it became clear that segregation was a losing cause. Georgia senator Herman Talmadge associated crime, urban uprisings and non-violent civil disobedience, asserting: “Mob violence such as we have witnessed is a direct outgrowth of the philosophy that people can violate any law they deem to be unjust or immoral or with which they don’t agree.” The necessary response: getting tough on crime and building prisons.

In accounting for the rise of what many now call “mass incarceration”, scholars point to race, politics and economics as driving factors. The composite picture has gradually come into focus. The New Jim Crow rightly pushed race and racism center stage, and laid the blame on shapeshifting white supremacy, but more recent work by Michael Javon Fortner and James Forman Jr shows how concern over crime also led black leaders to support the emergent regime of tougher punishments.

Richard Nixon’s war on crime and Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs have long been seen as pernicious forces, but Naomi Murakawa and Elizabeth Hinton have pinpointed the roots of mass incarceration in Johnson’s Great Society, and Marie Gottschalk has spelled out the thoroughly bipartisan consensus thereafter. Perhaps most fundamentally, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Loïc Wacquant have shown how economic shifts conjured prisons as a catchall solution. In ways that addressed only symptoms and never causes, prisons solved for unemployment on both sides of the bars: both for the urban underclass that was caged, and for rural white communities that built and managed the cages.

But law-and-order politics also signaled a different kind of cultural reorientation: a shift in American religion. Nowhere was this change more obvious and consequential than in elite political rhetoric. During the civil rights era, politicians on both sides of the aisle would trumpet the ideal of justice, often using religious language to do so. Justice was an ideal; it was up to us to make this divine notion a reality. During the era of mass incarceration, Americans’ ambitions for justice have been thoroughly downsized. Justice is now principally a modifier in the “criminal justice system”. Law is principally something to be followed, and its violation (at least by those with little power) is to be punished. Instead of a world where the poor, the weak, and the hungry might be raised up, justice has come to mean little more than the efficient administration of the punitive system we already have. In the moral imagination of mass incarceration, we can imagine greater fairness – for example, in the elimination of racial disparities – but we are generally unable to envision a qualitatively higher justice.”


Joshua Dubler and Vincent Lloyd,
Think prison abolition in America is impossible? It once felt inevitable.The Guardian. May 19, 2018.

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“The ongoing force of racism cannot be denied and the liberal carceral state is not an exception, as it provides ample evidence that its very structure is contingent on and advances a racist, particularly anti-black agenda. However, the carceral logic of capitalism has become increasingly focused on the most vulnerable, who, more often than not, are also the poorest. Along this line, you write that “the use of debt as a mechanism of dispossession requires that subjects first be incorporated into the capitalist system as borrowers,” and also introduce the concept of “racialized accumulation by dispossession.” How would you summarize the link between racialized mass incarceration and the debt economy legitimized by morality tropes such as deserving and undeservingborrowers?

One might ask, why include a chapter on the debt economy in a book about prisons and police? Perhaps I was trying to rethink how debt has been conceptualized, and show that expropriative credit instruments are also carceral instruments, insofar as the creditor owns the future of the debtor. In other words, I wanted to think of debt as a form of unfreedom that is unequally distributed (because race, class, and gender structure the forms of credit one has access to, as well as the perceived creditworthiness of the subject). But to label the use of credit as an instrument of capitalist accumulation a “carceral technique” is not merely metaphorical. In my chapter on municipal finance, I examine the chain of indebtedness produced by debt-financed governance. Municipalities have certain financial responsibilities to their creditors that they often offload onto their constituents. Thus, the creditworthiness of municipalities that are struggling fiscally (which determines their ability to access cheap credit) becomes dependent on their ability to loot residents. The financialization of governance and the emergence of new “exotic” credit instruments produce new modes of extraction that are carried out by the criminal justice system. You are also right to point out that both the debt economy and racialized mass incarceration are propped up by a moral economy that fractures the population into the deserving and undeserving.

You argue that the court system and police play an increasingly important role in the generation of revenue via municipal fines, as debt is imposed on residents (especially black Americans, already segregated and seen as potential offenders) through a variety of criminal proceedings that transform the residents’ space into a carceral one, marked by unrelenting austerity measures, hyper-policing, and fines farming. What are the traits of the carceral municipality as opposed to, let’s say, an ideally free city, where mobile, insurgent nonwhite sociality would not be regulated or punished?

In the carceral municipality you are followed in your car by a police officer as you drive to your shit job simply because you are not white. While you are being given a ticket for $300 the cop realizes there is a warrant out for your arrest for an unpaid fine for the length of your grass being three inches too long (though you cannot recall having ever received such a fine). In jail, you call your aunt to bail you out, but she doesn’t have the money and it takes her a day to secure your release through a commercial bondsman. Since your aunt lacked financial assets, she had to list her car as collateral. When she misses a payment due to low-waged and precarious employment, she will be charged additional fees by the bondsman. After you are released from jail, you are reprimanded by your boss for missing work without calling in, and you are written up. Because your license has been revoked for traffic violations and an unpaid ticket, you now have to use the unreliable and underfunded public transportation system to get to work. You arrive late on the day you have been summoned to appear in court because the bus did not arrive on time, and thus you are forced to reschedule your court appearance and pay an additional fee. This scenario could go on and on and on …

What would an alternative look like? I invoke Fred Moten toward the end of the chapter on municipal finance because he reminds me that in the cracks of the carceral society, insurgent socialities already exist. People have an urge toward life, a need to gather, to jam, to conduct experiments in care when the welfare state and health-care system have failed us. It could be comrades taking turns to take the poet Anne Boyer to the hospital while she undergoes cancer treatment, or the creation of mental health collectives, or things more quotidian, not necessarily bound up with our brokenness and deteriorating bodies. It could be the sociality created in the Baltimore Feminist Reading group I was part of, the different mode of engagement we invented there, based on friendship and not the performance of mastery found in the academic seminar. This is not to glorify informal structures of care that emerge in the crucible of a capitalist system that would grind us all to pulp if it weren’t for our friends. But this is the unexpected underside of social precarity: its production of need and dependence can sometimes be socially binding.

Still, some people fall through the cracks. These informal structures are not always sustainable or functional. We don’t always have the resources to catch each other when we fall, when someone is laid off from their job or evicted. I would like a world where housing and food are not commodities, where everyone has health care and guaranteed basic income rather than compulsory debt, and everyone is free to move (without being policed or surveilled) and travel using reliable green transportation infrastructure. As for the city, it should not consist solely of commercial space, but also include true commons: public space for people to gather, for teens to loiter to their heart’s content. Who knows what will be created when congregation is not met with regulation.

Following the 1990s construction of the juvenile “superpredator” by John Dilulio Jr., racialized juvenile defenders became less and less distinct from their adult counterparts, while also being regarded as incapable of self-government and self-determination. How exactly did they earn the right to be punished as adults in the first place?

In the media they “earned” the right to be punished as adults by committing crimes that were cast as socially unforgivable (i.e., violent crimes such as murder). Essentially, the concept of the superpredator produces a type of subject that is incapable of “redemption,” insofar as they are considered constitutionally antisocial and psychopathic. In this view, the only way to protect the social body from the ungovernable juvenile hordes is to permanently confine the so-called superpredators.

Assumingly unbiased and neutral algorithmic/predictive policing uses assumingly error-free data to provide knowledge about where and when the next crime will occur. Why is it important to question who gathers data and how data is gathered in the first place?

Great question. There are some techno-critics who are also techno-optimists, in that they believe algorithmic bias can be corrected through the collection of clean, accurate data. Dirty data would be, say, the data on sexual violence manipulated by the Baltimore Police Department in order to bolster their appearance of being efficacious and responsive. Good datasets would consist of data that gives us some kind of accurate snapshot of the world based on records that have not been tampered with. When it comes to policing, I don’t think it makes sense to uncritically make appeals for better data collection (unless it’s on police conduct!), as such appeals will necessarily expand the domain of policing, and create a more totalizing surveillance state.

As I mention in the book, populations that are not heavily policed fail to generate reams of data. Who collects data, what they will use the data for, what their motivations are, what categories are being used for data collection — all of these factors reveal that data is always-already political. Why is it that only the rich have maintained their right to opacity? Maybe if the context in which data collection took place was not defined by capitalism and white supremacy, we could start thinking about other uses for data — we could use data to determine social needs and resource redistribution rather than punishment and profits. The system in which new technologies appear tends to structure how these technologies are used.”

–  M. Buna interviews Jackie Wang, “Carceral Capitalism: A Conversation with Jackie Wang.” LA Review of Books, May 13, 2018.

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“Recognizing the vast economic and racial inequalities his students faced, he chose what some might consider a radical approach for his writing and social-studies classes, weaving in concepts such as racism, classism, oppression, and prejudice. Barrett said it was vital to reject the oft-perpetuated narrative that society is fair and equal to address students’ questions and concerns about their current conditions. And Brighton Elementary’s seventh- and eighth-graders quickly put the lessons to work—confronting the school board over inequitable funding, fighting to install a playground, and creating a classroom library focused on black and Latino authors.

“Students who are told that things are fair implode pretty quickly in middle school as self-doubt hits them,” he said, “and they begin to blame themselves for problems they can’t control.”

Barrett’s personal observation is validated by a newly published study in the peer-reviewed journal Child Development that finds traditionally marginalized youth who grew up believing in the American ideal that hard work and perseverance naturally lead to success show a decline in self-esteem and an increase in risky behaviors during their middle-school years. The research is considered the first evidence linking preteens’ emotional and behavioral outcomes to their belief in meritocracy, the widely held assertion that individual merit is always rewarded.

“If you’re in an advantaged position in society, believing the system is fair and that everyone could just get ahead if they just tried hard enough doesn’t create any conflict for you … [you] can feel good about how [you] made it,” said Erin Godfrey, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of applied psychology at New York University’s Steinhardt School. But for those marginalized by the system—economically, racially, and ethnically—believing the system is fair puts them in conflict with themselves and can have negative consequences.”

– Melinda D. Anderson, “Why the Myth of Meritocracy Hurts Kids of Color.” The Atlantic, July 27, 2017.

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“Though it is the subtext of savagery (ascribed to both Indigenous and African-descendent peoples in the Americas) that animates narratives around witches, white women who take up the mantle of witch magic rarely understand themselves to be engaging in Indian or savage play. The turn to witchcraft as a trend (rather than a practice) is conditioned by white women’s desire to obfuscate the power begotten by their whiteness. The occult is after all definitionally about power that obscures its origin. In the current fashion and fashioning of witches, the historical connections between witches and racialized savages, however sublimated, continues to magnetize the appeal. I am sympathetic to this appeal even as I am suspicious of it; it marks a desire to be contrary to the colonial project, even if it does not always enact it.

The current trend in witch infatuation marks an alliance foreclosed. In the early days of America, when accusations of witchcraft were leveled at Indians, Black people, and settlers who strayed from the strict disciplining needed to create a cohesive sovereignty of one dominant nation, it was because witches were a threat. The representations of witches that dominate contemporary American cultural consciousness—the “Surprise, Bitch” meme from American Horror Story, Stevie Nicks, people who talk about healing stones a lot—betray the role witches could have played in undoing the nation.

That is not to say the threat of witches to poison the patriarch has completely disappeared. In recent weeks some men have been quick to label the campaigns bringing forth sexual assault and harassment accusations as witch hunts, willfully ignorant that the term refers to a concerted campaign against women. The foolish use of the term has been noted and mocked by women, some of whom have also reappropriated the term to declare themselves the witches doing the hunting (which may very well be what the men were unconsciously getting at in the first place—the feeling of being hunted by witches).

Actual witch hunts of the past such as the Salem witch trials followed from a fear of Indian women and their role in forms of governance alternative to those of the foundling country. Along with genocidal tactics of sexual violence, early settlers also worked through their fear by projecting it elsewhere. The hypervisibility, and necessarily spectacular aspects, of witch trials against white women were an arena to handle physically and politically the threat of Indigenous societies where women were in power. Beyond the events at Salem—a historical spectacle as formative to America as the Thanksgiving myth—unruly women, be they Native, Black, or white, have continuously been posed as savage and placed outside the enclosed boundaries of civilization and nation. In a move toward symbolic enclosure, both witches and Indians have been reduced to accessorized signifiers hawked by Urban Outfitters and Forever 21, available for the carefree to adorn themselves with at Coachella and express their pagan predilections for living ever so briefly outside time.

The work of enclosure is key here: Cultural representations of witches reign in their savagery even as horror movies such as The Witch might give participants a chance to be fearful of it. Enclosure is also the means by which the nation turns Indigenous land into private property, which then must be defended against subjects construed to be savage. Along with witch, savage, and slut, the accusatory title of heathen is also hurled throughout colonial times at those who stand in the way of a cohesive nation. Derived from the word heath, which can mean uncultivated plain or wild forest, heathen in its first uses in Christian contexts meant someone who not only lacked proper religiosity but also inhabited land in a noncivilized manner. To cast aside the heathen through death, incarceration, or rehabilitation has gone hand in hand with clearing the land to be made into property. Heathen is no longer a category of persecution, but the ideology that there are savages—i.e. Indigenous and Black peoples—with no valid claim to land and life certainly persists.

These colonial logics that permit ongoing dispossession and death point to one of the failures of white witches: While they might hex Trump, they do not in any meaningful way extend their lifestyle to stand with those still marked by the history of the heathen. The etymology of heathen helps illuminate an argument put forth by Silvia Federici in her classic feminist text Caliban and the Witch, that the American witch hunts were not just terrorist strategies to silence dissent and demand obedience, but were also importantly a strategy of enclosure. Federici’s theorization of primitive accumulation locates the development of capitalism in three linked processes: The coerced reproductive work of European women, the persecution of Indigenous peoples, and the enslavement of Africans. While white witches once represented a threat to that reproductive order, they have since been sanitized and permitted, even if at the fringes, into civil society.”

– Lou Cornum, “White Magic.” The New Inquiry, Feb. 5, 2018.

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How did you get started working on poverty and surveillance?

I came up working in the Bay Area’s community technology center movements of the 1990s [which sought to expand access to computers and the early internet]. I was really excited about the possibilities of that work. But I also struggled to reconcile the utopianism of that moment with the reality of San Francisco in the 1990s. Public housing was being knocked down, the city was visibly whitening, and people were being displaced.

So I left San Francisco to escape a sort of personal, political crisis. I moved to a small town in upstate New York called Troy. And, coincidentally, I moved there just as the city decided to put all of their eggs in the basket of high-tech development.

You couldn’t escape it.

Right. And that was the question that I started asking myself. There’s something here I can’t escape. How am I going to make sense of it?

I started doing community technology work in Troy, working primarily with poor and working-class adults out of a YWCA. A lot of people were coming out of the prison system or out of recovery. And they challenged me deeply in the ways I was thinking about technology.

There was this idea at the time that the major inequality issue in tech was the “digital divide” — you know, low-income people aren’t interacting with technology so they’re being left behind. But the people I was working with told me, “No. Listen. Technology is totally ubiquitous in our lives. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” They were seeing tons of technological innovation, just not where I was looking for it. They were seeing it in the criminal justice system, in the welfare office, and in low-wage employment.

I had this conversation with a woman who I called “Dorothy Allen” in my first book. We were talking about her EBT [Electronic Benefit Transfer] card. She told me, “Yeah. It’s more convenient. It’s great to not have to carry around paper [food] stamps anymore. But also, my caseworker uses it to track all of my purchases.” And I had this look on my face, a look of total shock. And Dorothy said, “Oh. You didn’t know that, did you?” I did not. She said, “You all” — meaning middle-class people like me — “You all should be paying attention to what happens to us, because they’re coming for you next.”

That conversation, and others like it, is where my interest in technology in the welfare system came from.

Part of what I enjoyed about your book is how it lays out a continuous history from the poorhouses of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — where the indigent were incarcerated and forced to work — to the high-tech containment of today. Can you trace that a bit?

I think we tend to talk about these kinds of technological tools as if they arose outside of history. Like they just fell from the sky. One of the major arguments in the book is that these tools were more evolution than revolution. They’re very much in line with the kind of punitive policy, processes, and tools that came before them.

There’s two moments I’ll draw your attention to. First is the scientific charity movement of the 1870s, which was deeply informed by eugenics and the desire to “breed” out the moral inadequacies that produce indigence. It kicks off after the fall of Reconstruction and the violent reassertion of white supremacy that took hold then. You see the rise of Jim Crow, the exclusion of African Americans in public life, immigration restrictions that are based on scientific racism, and the involuntary sterilization of poor whites.

This all comes out of a moment where social service technologies are changing really fast; indiscriminate giving is being replaced by what was called “scientific giving.” The first “big data” set in the United States was the Eugenics Records Office in Cold Spring Harbor. It was the public arm of the eugenics movement. They sent scientists out into the world to collect these very detailed family trees that tried to track how poverty, “imbecility,” “depraved living” — all these words that they used at the time — were genetically carried.

The second moment is the rise of the “digital poorhouse,” which began in the late sixties, early seventies, really, in response to the successes of social movements in opening up public programs.

The welfare rights movement.

That’s right. In the mid to late sixties, into the early seventies, the national welfare rights movement was having extraordinary successes. Particularly legal successes. Supreme Court victories in 1968, ’69, and ’70 made it impossible to discriminate against folks receiving AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children]; they enshrined due process rights for welfare recipients; and they prohibited “man-in-house” rules that allowed caseworkers to raid the homes of poor women to look for evidence of male cohabitants. These victories came toward the end of the sixties, and by 1971 you see these new technological tools implemented. It’s a backlash.

And it’s entwined with the backlash against civil rights in general. Suddenly all these black women are receiving benefits, too. And welfare becomes firmly linked with being black.

There’s this deep, deep, deep connection in the American mind between poverty and being a person of color, specifically being African American. You don’t get a welfare system like the one we have without using race. In each of these systems, race has been deployed as a narrative, as an organizing method.

Meanwhile, technology became a way of smuggling politics into the system without having an actual political conversation. In the 1970s, with the promise of increasing efficiency, you start seeing computerization to detect fraud and tighten eligibility rules. We think the real anti-welfare backlash started with Reagan. But the drop-off really began in the early seventies. That’s when they started culling the rolls — using these technical means. Around 1973, almost 50 percent of people living under the poverty line were receiving some kind of cash assistance. A decade later, it dropped to 30 percent. Now it’s less than ten.

At the same time the government is scrutinizing caseworkers more closely, cutting down on their discretion. As surveillance of recipients increased, so did surveillance of frontline workers. They introduced much more punitive processes, with much less human connection. And that also has continued in the systems we see today.

That’s something that immediately struck me reading the book, how many intimate stories you tell about individuals on both sides of welfare provision. You’re rendering them as these really human characters, who are not just numbers.

That was a really important part of telling the story. My intention in the work that I do is always to start with the folks who are getting the pointiest end of the stick. It’s harder, in many ways, than talking to the administrators or the policymakers. It requires me spending a lot of time with people, developing trust and developing understanding of their situations. But if we’re missing their voices, we’re missing a huge part of what this new regime of data analytics is about.

Another reason for including those stories is that I really see recipients of public services and frontline caseworkers as possible allies. And in fact, there have been a lot of historical moments where that collaboration has been really threatening to the status quo.

For example, one of the things that happens in the 1960s is the New York City welfare caseworkers strike: eight thousand caseworkers strike on behalf of recipients and their own working conditions. They say, “We’re not going back to work until you treat them better.” That’s a terrifying moment for the system.

Do you see prospects for that kind of solidarity today?

I did welfare rights organizing for fifteen-plus years. One of the great challenges of the work is realizing that caseworkers are, indeed, the deliverers of the attitude of the system. And recipients often see them that way.

But many are also just one sickness, one period of bad luck away from being on public assistance themselves. And so there are a lot of horizontal lines there. It’s a difficult relationship, but they’re also natural allies in some important ways.

– Sam Adler-Bell interviews Virginia Eubanks about

Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor, “The High-Tech Poorhouse.” Jacobin. January 29, 2018.

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“Advertising colonizes public and private space with corporate messaging. Digital advertising is increasingly personalized; a worldview is curated and imposed upon you. But it’s also meant to flatter, to both reflect and shape your particular tastes. Lately, 23andMe’s ads have seemed to focus on travel campaigns based on rediscovering one’s genetic—and by extension, ancestral—roots. 23andMe is one of many companies now offering ancestry-based travel services, but there’s a particular sheen and slickness to its operation, especially because the company is the most prominent genetic testing service. What is 23andMe trying to say, and why are its ad campaigns, with their soft colors and eugenicist overtones, so relentlessly creepy?

Over the summer, 23andMe announced what it called The Golden 23 Sweepstakes, offering twenty-three free DNA tests followed by round-the-world trips based on winners’ DNA results. If your DNA reads as 2 percent Scandinavian, congratulations, you’ll soon be sitting in a Swedish hot spring. Twelve percent Middle Eastern? This way to your hamam.

These and other genetically determined adventures await Nicole, the fabulously multiethnic star of a recent 23andMe commercial. “Follow your DNA around the world,” the commercial instructs, over a shot of Nicole riding a scooter on a bridge somewhere in Southeast Asia. (Peculiarly, 23andMe’s campaigns never seem to name the actual countries their customers travel to, only broad regions.) The commercial goes on to chart Nicole’s worldly peregrinations while listing the percentage of her DNA that comes from each destination. At the end, the video resolves into a message of vague humanitarian empowerment: no matter where she comes from or where she goes, she’s 100 percent Nicole.

The Nicole commercial represents a kind of deracinated cosmopolitan wonder. We’re all just people roadtripping through life, tapping our genetic code for touristic pleasures. Connections aren’t made through culture, communication, or collaboration but by showing up at a hostel and announcing, “I’m 43 percent European.” At once superficial and deeply primal—this is DNA, after all, life’s building blocks—these commercials manage an effect that might be called eugenics lite. Your genetic history is essential to knowing who you are, but at the same time it yields only a series of traveler’s diversions, all brought to you by the benevolent hands at 23andMe.

One’s genetic inheritance might be a matter of gentle amusement for 23andMe and their brand of soft-focus corporate liberalism, but it’s taken far more seriously on the political right. Over the last year, various news outlets have chronicled the stories of right-wing figures, particularly from the overtly racist “alt-right” contingent, taking DNA tests. The nominal objective is to prove their white European ancestry, but occasionally the results shock, as when one white supremacist found out that his DNA registered as 14 percent sub-Sarahan African.

This sort of unexpected reckoning has caused some on the right to become averse to DNA or ancestry tests altogether. At altright.com, Vincent Law wrote a call-to-arms against 23andMe, telling his audience that the tests were unnecessary. “If the people present as White, are culturally White, and fight for White causes they are absolutely 100 percent White,” Law proclaimed. “We in the Alt-Right need to have a big tent approach to Whiteness.”

Law’s call for a “big tent approach to Whiteness” is steeped in a self-evidently absurd brand of irony. White supremacists, he seems to say, should show more tolerance—but only toward one another. He goes on to acknowledge that not all white people are good, but as an oppressed people, they should be forgiving of one another’s mistakes.”

– Jacob Silverman, “23andUs.”The Baffler, November 14, 2017.

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“The work of the noted Italian
criminologist Cesare Lombroso on prostitutes was translated from Italian into
English in 1895. Its English publication helped American authors, regardless of
their fidelity to his theories, refocus debates about prostitution from the
sense of moral crisis prevalent in the 1870s and 1880s to a biologically driven
concern about degeneration by the dawn of the new century. The surgeon G. Frank
Lydston, one of the most vocal American popularizers of Lombroso, sought to
render moral outrage secondary to ‘modern scientific thought’ and ‘evolutionary
law as applied to biology.’ The task of the criminologist, as of the
sociologist, was ‘to reduce the subject to a material, scientific, and
…evolutionary basis.’ The degenerate, for Lydston, must be understand less in
terms of moral failing than for its place at the bottom of the evolutionary
ladder where hierarchies of race and class converged. Vice commissions, formed
in large American cities, often by elite civic leaders, sought to fulfill
Lydston’s dictate – even as they less rigorously followed Lombroso’s theories.
New York’s Committee of Fifteen (and the Committee of Fourteen that succeeded
it), as part of a report that used European theories and experience to
understand New York’s prostitution problem, noted a changing attitude toward
the problem from one of moral outrage to one of scientific concern about
degeneration. As the noted sociologist and the Committee’s secretary Edwin
Seligman noted, ‘In America to-day, we find not only special associations
devoted to this matter, but also its more frequent appearance on the programmes
of many of our great scientific associations.’ The committee’s report located
modern prostitution within the ‘industrial conditions’ of the ‘social
organism.’ However ancient the root of prostitution, the committee focused on
the ‘Social Evil’ as ‘a creature of civilisation.’

Lombroso claimed that the
prostitute – and the degenerate generally – was produced by a combination of
physical heredity and environment. Therefore, he focused attention on the
prostitute’s body and surrondings. He advocated the close examination of the
prostitute’s anatomy: brain size, skull shape, and physical features. The same
method of measurement applied to immigrants was also employed for degenerates.
American investigators adopted the technique of examining the prostitute within
the broader context of their slum explorations. Yet such a gaze presented
problems. Explorations of the life of prostitutes might ‘gratify…prurient
curiosity,’ as the authors of Chicago’s Dark Places put it, but, unlike
investigations of tramps and the unemployed, even disguise could not morally
insulate elite observers. Instead, New York’s Committee of Fourteen paid
working-class men to assume the disguise of men of their own class seeking out
the city’s vice. Their findings replicated Lombroso’s evolutionary hierarchy of
the prostitute. Lombroso argued that some prostitutes were simply born into the
profession; poverty acted merely as a ‘catalyst’ that transformed moral
deficiency into degeneration. Others were ‘occasional prostitutes,’ whose
defeneracy could be blamed largely on their dangerous environment. The
Committee of Fifteen echoed Lombroso when it suggested that many prostitutes
were ‘a type which varies little with time and place.’ In addition to these
biologically ordained ‘real prostitutes,’ the committee described a hierarchy
of other women seduced into the Social Evil. Some women were attracted to
prostitution because the wages of prostitutes trumped those offered by wage
labor. Others became prostitutes because their environment pushed them toward
degeneracy. They were ‘contaminated by constant familiarity with vice in its
lowest forms.’ At the top of the hierarchy were ‘occasional prostitutes,’
driven temporarily toward the Social Evil because of destitution. Their
position as ‘occasional,’ however, was fraught with peril. Degeneration loomed
and ‘many of them drift gradually into professional prostitution.’

Unlike elite vice commissions, the
socialist muckracking author Reginald Wright Kauffman was willing to live with
the sordid world of prostitutes. He and his wife spent a year among New York’s
prostitutes to write his 1910 novel House of Bondage. Like many
socialist critics of prostitution, he linked an attack on the ‘vice trust’ to
hierarchies of prostitutes. Typically, Kauffman included victims of white
slavery in his pantheon of prostitute types. Although the novel focused on
Mary, a victim of white slavery, it introduced a variety of prostitute types.
Fritizie chose prostitution as an alternative to wage work. Wanda was an
immigrant victim of seduction. Evelyn had trod the ‘descending steps’ of
degeneration. Celeste, alone, was ‘temperamentally predetermined’ for
prostitution. Most socialist observers minimized the numbers of women naturally
inclined toward prostitution – even as they relied heavily on the statistics of
reform vice commissions. Theresa Malkiel, for example, declared that
‘congenital sexual perverts…form only a negligible fraction of the entire
number of prostitutes.’ Instead, Kauffman, Malkiel, and other socialist
observers described the degradation of women as a symptom of capitalism. The
‘prostitute is a production of civilization,’ concluded the Socialist Woman.
‘And the capitalist brand is the worst humanity has ever known.’

Socialists cast prostitutes as
capitalist victims by stressing their odiousness. Malkiel mourned our
‘unfortunate sisters,’ but her sympathy was restrained. Prostitutes were still
‘miserable creatures…left to rot in their own vice.’ The normally staid
Malkiel turned to the lurid language of primitivism to describe prostitutes.
They became ‘hordes, like beasts driven from their lairs.’ The aging prostitute
Old Frances, likewise, was a ‘victim of the system’ and also an example of
‘repulsive womanhood.’ In a socialist parable, she spent money for medicine on

Tramps emerged as the male
equivalent of the despised prostitute. The focus on male tramps was less
European in its origin. American fears of tramps coalesced in the aftermath of
the great strikes of 1877, one of the first shocks of the industrial age. For
elite observers the tramp came to represent, at once, the dangerous tendencies
of the disaffected unemployed, the zeal of revolutionaries, and the murderous
moral failings of the inebriate. Lee Harris’s 1878 novel, The Man Who
Tramps: A Story of To-Day
, notably casts tramps as leaders of a conspiracy
to foment tension between capital and labor. In dramatic, reactionary prose his
novel echoed a chorus of voices accusing tramps of stirring up the culturally
jarring strikes.

Even as memory of the strikes
receded, the tramp continued to evoke alcoholism, uncontrolled sexuality,
criminality, and indolence. Increasingly the tramp came to be represented as a
degenerate, a consummate threat to civilization. By the late 1870s and 1880s,
many states had begun drafting vagrancy laws. Such laws, while offering a
series of punishments for vagrancy, also proposed definitions of the tramp.
Tramps appeared in these laws less as conspiratorial revolutionaries than as
degenerates living of misguided charity and unwilling to work. L. L. Barbour’s
1881 definition of the tramp was typical: ‘He is an indigent, idle wanderer who
has nothing to do and wants nothing to do – no trade, no business, no aim in
life but to satisfy his daily hankerings at the expense of society.’ By 1886,
the National Conference on Social Welfare had launched a survey to identify the
causes of trampery.’ Using reports from thirty states describing trampery as an
‘inherited mental condition’ or – more colloquially – as ‘pure cussedness,’ the
Conference characterized tramping as laziness, drink and vice, unemployment,
and depravity.

The tramp may have been revolved,
but he was also a focus of fascinated study, as historian Frank Tobias Higbie
has noted. By assuming disguises, social investigations sought to penetrate the
urban habitat of the tramp in order to understand the symptoms of his
degeneracy. The moderate socialist and settlement worker Robert Hunter pointed
to physical evidence gathered from the Chicago Municipal Lodging House to prove
the degeneracy of the tramp. In a remarkable confession of voyeurism, he
described watching vagrants taking spray baths. He noted their potbellies and
pigeon breasts, curved spines, and degraded muscles. From these ‘physical signs
of degeneracy,’ he read their character. Such tramps possessed a ‘childlike
love of petty adventure,’ but little energy or efficiency. They were beyond
redemption. Similarly, Stuart Rice, an investigator for the New York
Commissioner of Charities, studied the city’s vagrants after donning the
‘outfit of hobo.’ As an investigation, he boasted that he often assumed
different disguises in order to work in the most dangerous of environments. He
had labored among immigrants mucking a railroad tunnel and slept in a rough
bunkhouse. As a tramp, he experienced not simply the desperation of empty
pockets, but also the very process of degeneration itself: ‘Have you felt the
insidious, downward pull of the undertow, the loosening of your moral grip, a
deterioration of your character which you seemed powerless to prevent?’

Such explorations helped observers
outline a hierarchy of tramps and vagrants. Like hierachies of prostitutes, the
classification of tramps divided those who had sunk to the lowest levels of
degeneracy from those afflicted by poverty. Stuart Rice and Alvan Sanborn both
used their experiences in the guise of a tramp to study vagrancy
‘introspectively.’ Not only could they experience tramp life for themselves but
they also could physically examine other tramps in the close quarters of the
lodging house. Rice described the different categories of tramps, including the
tramp temporarily ‘down on his luck’ and the professional beggar. He even
donned fake splints and bandages to join the ranks of vagrants unwilling to
work. They preyed on the sympathy of the civilized. The lecturer and
self-proclaimed tramp expert Edmund Kelly built on the notion of tramp types to
insist on the classification of tramps as the first step in their
‘elimination’. In a complex hierarchy, he divided vagrants into five
categories, including youths seized by ‘wanderlust,’ the born degenerate whose
tramping was a symptom of his condition, the able-bodied, and the

The gendered classification of
degenerates – the tramp and the prostitute – produced a new kind of ‘poverty
knowledge,’ as historian Alice O’Connor calls it. In particular, this
hierarchical view helped distinguish poverty from pauprism. The pauper, like
the tramp or prostitute, was distinct from the poverty-stricken unfortunate.
Pauperism was recast as racial atavism, the final stage of degneration. In the
urban context, savagery by the 1890s came to mean the lowest levels of both
class and race hierarchies. The bodily decrepitude of paupers was the sign not
only of their individual misery and fate but also of their biological unfitness
and racial primitiveness.  Even Edward
Devine, the long-time editor of Charities and Commons, argued that
‘biologically, pauperism represents a primitive type, surviving in the struggle
for existence only by parasitism.’ Male and female degenerates led a life that
was, as Devine argued, ‘suitable to an earlier and more primitive stage of
existence, but out of place in the modern world.’ The fall from poverty to
pauperism was recidivism and economic free fall: it was also racial
degeneration, as the semicivilized impoverished worker became an urban savage.
John Commons worried therefore that the impoverished might join the parasitic
ranks of ‘the criminal, the pauper, the vicious, the indolent, and the vagrant,
who, like the industrial classes, seek the cities.’

Socialist commentators equally cast
paupers and degenerates as primitives. Jack London compares those in the abyss
to the primitive Inuits he had encountered in his travels in the Klondike.
Residents of the slums, for London, were ‘the unfit and the unneeded! The miserable
and despised and forgotten, dying in the social shambles. The progeny of
prostitution – of the prostitution of men and women and children, of flesh and
blood, and sparkle and spirit; in brief, the prostitution of labour.’ The
evocation of savagery allowed socialists to undermine capitalist claims to
civilization. Yet socialists did not abandon the comparison of civilization and
savagery. ‘If this is the best that civilization can do for the human,’ noted
London, ‘then give us howling and naked savagery. Far better to be a people of
the wilderness and desert, of the cave and the squatting-place, than to be a
people of the machine and the Abyss.’ The life of the savage, dwelling in
caves, was preferable to the squalor of the slums. The poet Ernest Crosby evoked
‘bleached and stifled and enervated’ laborers and ‘the army of tramps’ in a
poem ironically entitled ‘Civilization.’

Socialist and reformer observers of
prostitutes and tramps cast degenerates as primitives. Some were born
degenerate whereas others tumbled down the slippery slope of degeneracy in the
slum environment. The degenerate dwellers of the abyss, for London, lived ‘like
swine, enfeebled by chronic innutrition, being sapped mentally, morally, and
physically, what chance have they to crawl up and out off the Abyss from which
they were born falling?’ When women tumbled into the abyss, they fell toward
prostitution; degenerating men became tramps. Charlottte Perkins Gilman
described women’s turn to prostitution not as a moral fall but as racial
degeneration toward primitivism. The prostitute ‘naturally deteriorates in
racial development.’ Likewise, a leading social worker, William H. Allen,
characterized the tramp as a ‘swaggering, ill conditioned, irreclaimable,
incorrigible, utterly depraved savage.’ For the noted reformer of tramps John
J. McCook, tramps had rejected the rigors and rules of industrial society, and
surrendered to primitivsm. Tramps, like ‘aborigines,’ lived outdoors and
relished the ‘savage life.’ Social worker A. O. Wright similarly declared that
tramping was simply ‘a reversion toward the savage type’ and Hunter argued that
the tramps he watched in the shower had all the characteristics of the
‘savage.’ Like tropical savages, they lacked foresight with only ‘maudlin’
dreams of the future.

Degeneration gripped the lowest
levels of the class hierarchy. However, it was not safely confined to the
bottom rungs of the American abyss. It might spread because of the effects of
the slum environment in which degenerates dwelt in close proximity to the poor
and desperate. Degeneration also passed from parents to children. Hunter noted
after years of exploring and living in the slums that ‘children, bred into the
ways of pauperism, nearly always took up the vices of their parents.’ Girls learned
promiscuity and boys learned to tramp. To explain degeneration in the
environment of slums, Hunter appropriately turned to the image of the
primordial jungle. He portrayed degeneracy in the form of predators preying on
the unfit and unlucky. For those in the slum ‘the abyss of vice, crime,
pauperism and vagrancy was beneath them, a tiny hop above them. Flitting before
them was the leopard persistently trying to win them from their almost hopeless
task by charms of sensuality, debauch, and idleness. The lion, predatory and
brutal, threatened to devour them…Some were won from their toil by sensual
pleasures, some were torn from their footholds by economic disorders, others
were too weak and hungry to keep up the fight.’ For Hunter, the urban and colonial
jungles were thousands of miles apart. Racially, they were frighteningly close.

–  Daniel E. Bender, American Abyss: Savagery and Civilization in the Age of Industry. New York: Cornell University Press, 2013. pp. 152-157.

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