“No angel”: A disturbing, dehumanizing pattern

Let these facts be entered into evidence:

1. George Zimmerman was acquitted July 14 after chasing down and murdering Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teen. Zimmerman’s assumption was that because Trayvon was Black and wearing a hoodie, he was an “f***ing punk.” He was, after all, “no angel.”

2. Marissa Alexander, a Black woman in Florida, was sentenced July 18 to 20 years in jail for firing warning shots (not even aiming at a person) in self-defense against her abusive partner. The contrast with the Zimmerman case suggests that Alexander’s race, and perhaps the race of her spouse, determined the differential treatment and sentencing.

3. Larry Jackson, a Black resident of Austin, TX, was chased and shot in the back of the neck on July 26 by a police officer named Charles Kleinert. Today it was reported that the Austin Police Department is claiming that the shooting was an “accident”–even though Kleinert had no reason to chase, much less draw a weapon on, Jackson. (It was the third such police shooting this year.) Again, reporting suggests that one rationale for Kleinert’s actions was that Jackson, loitering near the bank, acted suspiciously, and that he had a record of committing fraud in 2003. Neither approaching a bank nor fraud is a capital crime. If a white man had pulled on the bank door, would Kleinert have given chase? I believe not–even though the persons who had robbed the bank earlier in the day were white. News reports insist that Jackson was “no angel”–as if one must either be guilty of absolutely no wrongdoing ever, or face death–but only if one is Black.

4. In Louisiana, a Black, 14-year-old girl in juvenile detention reported a guard for sexual abuse. A headline reporting her claim stated that she was no “little Miss Muffin,” suggesting that despite her age and the severely constrained capacity to determine her own actions, she consented to the sexual relationship. Prison attorneys argue that she “wanted to be raped.”

5. In many death penalty cases, evidence of innocence is overlooked after the original conviction, on the grounds that the defendant–in most cases, Black or brown–should die because they were likely criminals in any case. Indeed, TX governor Anne Richards, a Democrat who oversaw 48 executions during her time in office,  commented in 1993 when refusing to grant clemency to Leonel Herrera, scheduled for execution in spite of a case for innocence: “He must be guilty of something.”

I could list dozens of other cases of police executions, death row executions, disproportionate sentencing, deafness to claims of innocence, and consistent racial profiling as warrant for the terrorizing and murder of people of color. As Michelle Alexander shows in her book The New Jim Crow, the criminalization of people of color, and especially Black men, since the civil rights movement has generated a regime of segregation and vigilantism that works through the criminal justice system. To deny someone due process–of which execution by cop (or cop-wanna-be) is the most extreme example–on the argument that because they are Black or brown renders racial minority members as less than human, as threats to an orderly society, as people guilty “of something” warranting imprisonment, violation, or death, regardless of actual innocence.

The racist backlash against those making these connections has been virulent and profound. But we must stand our ground.

I just got asked by a journalist whether Juliet, Daisy Buchanan, or Bella Swan should be regarded as “good” or “bad” role models for girls. Here is how I responded:

First, it is important to say that the matter is not as simple as “good” and “bad” role models. For mainstream feminists, entry into the world of work and politics is the hallmark of a “good” model; for some radical feminists, the capacity to nurture is what makes a character “good.” In my field, rhetorical studies, we are more likely to talk about how women in media and politics negotiate the double bind between femininity and power in complex ways and in historical context. 
 
We cannot take a character like Juliet or Daisy Buchanan out of their historical and political context and expect them to represent adequate models of women’s empowerment in the here and now. Every text offers a perspective on its characters. In Gatsby, for example, I believe that Fitzgerald is calling attention to the limits of Daisy’s power as sexual object; therefore the text encourages modern women to resist such a subordinate role even if the character does not model such a role. I hope that this makes sense. While the Daily Beast calls the character“infantile and impressionable, and at worst, possibly selfish to the point of pathology,” we are not meant to accept her as a role model but to do the opposite: Because she is represented as unsympathetic, women readers and viewers can misidentify. She is not intended to be a role model, and indeed the book’s critique of Gatsby might indicate that Fitzgerald was operating from something of a feminist sensibility and also one critical of the equation of money and love, and the representation of women as property. 
 
If Daisy is histrionic, capitalism is represented as pathologically disordered and she is a symptom of it. The book is cautions us against a too-easy acceptance of the promises of the American Dream. Daisy is a symbol of that empty mystery and a victim of the shallow role she must play in a shallow world.
 
When characters meet a tragic end, it is hard to say that they were supposed to be role models. (Juliet, I would argue, plays a very different role as a symbol for internecine conflict. I can’t really comment further. My point is that we can’t look to the character as a model without asking whether the author or text is encouraging us to do so.)
 
(I also think we cannot conflate the current film and the book, since each operates in its own historical context and has its own persuasive devices and nuance.)
 
I wouldn’t want to be quoted unless some mention of the complexity of this issue would be included among my remarks.
 
All of that being said, I find nothing redeemable in Bella Swan. TheTwilight texts have none of the thematic complexity of Shakespeare or Fitzgerald (or of the Brontes), and Bella herself is rewarded for being basically an empty vessel of melancholy attachment, even enthrallment, to forces more powerful than herself. 
 
A number of scholars have written about the complexity of the Victorian melodrama, and have argued that characters like Bella give girls license to explore emotion in excess of what is conventionally sanctioned. But Bella has no interiority (at least in the films; a friend told me that the novels are guided by a diary, in which she expresses actual thoughts), no self outside of the romantic role. She is literally vapid, willing to sacrifice herself to love and motherhood. I’m extremely glad that my daughter, now 22, did not linger over Twilight (favoring the Hunger Games and the intelligence and power of Katniss Everdeen).
 
Girls and women, however, are not dupes of popular culture. There are many resources in culture, literature, politics, and family life for cultivating a whole self.
 

Office Hours (for my students in feminist theory and rhetorical criticism)

Resistance to the regulation
of women’s bodies
grows in the red chair.
We prepare for world traveling
where, like Maria Lugones said,
we learn to love each other,
to listen for the contexts of oppression,
to avoid the arrogance of the therapist,
to study the words
–and other actions–
of women resisting the colonization of everything,
including ourselves,
to recognize, like Vandana Shiva said:
The seed is both metaphor and
real life.

Happy Birthday, You’re Not a Person

Today is my birthday. North Carolina voters just decided I’m not fully human. Here is a response.

Whereas miscegenation
queered the rite’s unstable battle,
today another state banned endogamy,
the joining of like to like, ironically
as ever calling difference into being.
Not so much for domestication
but facing inhumanity ratified
by popular declaim,
I become monstrous in public,
skin peeling back to reveal
the fat melting off muscle
as my joints fail I topple first in
supplication then prostration
limbs spread apart in the face of
you who vote on the humanity of others.
My heart lands beating on the dry desert floor
and my parts strive for each other and on the way
find random dessicated limbs
a horned bony mask,
auto parts, twisted gutters,
railroad ties
odd ends
of rusted steel dragged through the dust to
fabricate a new miscegenated body
an unnatural cyborg warrior
the aftermarket subject.

Didn’t we always wish that
in the movie
Linda Hamilton were the one with the forbidden microchip
the indestructible frame and hardened heart
to save her self and the world?
A postapocalyptic mutation,
my arms and hands rattle with ugly vengeance.
If you think that I am less than fully human
I will show you how
very right you are.

Justice for Loretta Capeheart! Defend Free Speech in the Academy!

Friends and colleagues:
Please respond by signing onto the petition; please forward and circulate. This case has broad ramifications for freedom of expression on the part of faculty across the country.

THIS IS an urgent appeal for your support to defend Professor Loretta Capeheart in her struggle with her employer, Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) in Chicago. After four years of legal action, we are now awaiting a key decision from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals–a decision that could set a precedent for free speech rights on campus and possibly move the case on the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote, “If upheld on review, the district court’s ruling would deal a major blow to professors’ academic freedom and free speech in the Seventh Circuit–and quite likely beyond, as it would send the unmistakable message that faculty members aiming to speak out and be active in campus dialogue risk having their careers damaged.”

Capeheart is a 10-year tenured professor at NEIU and a respected union and community activist. NEIU administrators have systematically targeted her for years. Administrators have engaged in slander against her, denied her a department chair position and earned merit pay increases. These attacks resulted from Capeheart’s union activities and anti-war work and her attempts to promote the rights of students and faculty, especially Latino/a faculty.

NEIU President Sharon K. Hahs is an arrogant opponent of student, worker and minority rights on campus and has presided over a spectacle of administrative scandal during her tenure.

In Capeheart v. Hahs et al, a federal judge concluded that Capeheart could be punished for speaking out against the war because she advised a student club. The court agreed with NEIU’s lawyers that academics have no right to free speech under the Supreme Court’s 2006 decision Garcetti v. Ceballos.

In Garcetti, the Supreme Court stripped most government workers of their rights to speak in the workplace but made a footnoted exception for professors. In deciding against Capeheart, the lower court effectively ignored this footnote and left workers with fewer rights.

Other federal courts have similarly misapplied Garcetti. Now the appeal before the 7th Circuit Court of appeals will either reject the new limits set by the lower courts or further establish them. Either way, this decision could lead to another hearing before the Supreme Court.

Visit the Justice for Loretta Capeheart website for updates on the case. Post a link to the website on Facebook and Twitter, and send it to your friends and coworkers. Sign the petition calling for justice for Loretta.

Send e-mails, phone calls and letters to NEIU President Sharon K. Hahs, S-Hahs@neiu.edu, 773-442-5400 and President Sharon K. Hahs, 5500 N. St. Louis Avenue, Chicago, IL 60625.

Support the campaign financially. You can make a donation to the legal fund via Paypal at the Justice for Loretta Capeheart website, or by sending a check to Thomas D. Rosenwein, Glickman, Flesch & Rosenwein, 230 W. Monroe St., Suite 800, Chicago, IL 60606, Memo: Loretta Capeheart Defense.

Show your solidarity by passing resolutions in your union, your faculty senate or other organization through which you can gain support. Send messages of support to justice4loretta@gmail.com.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -

Signatories
Noam Chomsky, Institute professor (emeritus), MIT
Michael Ratner, President, Center for Constitutional Rights*
Jesse Sharkey, Vice President, Chicago Teachers Union*
Dave Zirin, Sports Editor, The Nation
Ahmed Shawki, Editor, International Socialist Review
Anthony Arnove, Editor, Haymarket Books
Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Ed*
David McNally, Professor of Political Science, York University, Toronto
The Coalition Against Corporate Higher Education (CACHE)
Mike Davis, Professor, UC Riverside
William Keach, Professor, Brown University
Deepa Kumar, Associate Professor, Rutgers University
Hector R. Reyes, Associate Professor, Harold Washington College, Vice Chair, HWC Chapter, AFT Local 1600
Helen C. Scott, Associate Professor, University of Vermont
Marvin Surkin, Professor, Long Island University, Ramapo College
Pranav Jani, Associate Professor, English, Ohio State University
*Organizations listed for identification only

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