“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.

REMAINS TO BE SEEN: “Our Body” as ideology

Katie (who gets credit for this title), Samantha, and I got sucked into the “OUR BODY” exhibit at UT’s Stark Center, which houses a “museum” dedicated to the instillation of norms of human “fitness.” Named after fitness gurus Joe and Betty Weider, its galleries include a huge, rotating plaster cast of a statue of Hercules, a reading room featuring sports history and periodicals; its walls are graced by posters of athletes and groups of men and women working out.

The call to fitness contextualizes the experience of the OUR BODY exhibit. Only during our making our way through the exhibit did its other investments become apparent. Of course, like all exhibits, it is rhetorical, guiding spectators teleologically through its scenes. Lighting, technology, and walls of quotations from philosophers, artists, and anatomists all give dignifying credence to the display.

But there are numerous problems with this series of representations. Numerous scholars and journalists have attended to how the plastinicization of corpses as a way of preserving them for display, the selection of “fit” bodies posed in athletic endeavors, and the pedagogical revelation of “diseased” bodies all may be aligned aesthetically and ideologically with Nazism. They are bodies made to work in the name of freedom from superstition and romance. (See https://sites.google.com/site/stopbodyworlds/media-coverage/body-worlds-body-aesthetics, and the excellent rhetorical/anthropological analysis at http://blog.lib.umn.edu/sphpod/sphpod/schulte-sasse.mp3).

In addition, the gender politics of the exhibit are alarming. Almost all of the “plastinates” as critics call them are male; penises and testes dangle matter-of-factly from most, with signs identifying the penis at every one. The female body is reserved for and sequestered in the “prenatal” area, marked off with warnings about the material within being sensitive and commanding reverence from viewers. Parents are exhorted to escort their children or protect them from this content. Inside this small display, one gets a look at the female reproductive system, with strange emphasis on the vulva, labia, and even pubic hair.

Then there are fetuses suspended in plastic at various stages of development. A wall sign describes the changes in fetal development week-by-week; except for the title of the display outside, the fetus is referred to as “the baby” after the blastocyst stage. The reservation of femininity for reproduction and the reverence dictated toward gestation have clear ideological import. (At the same time, the display of fetuses–shrimplike even at 8-12 weeks–would give pause to any abortion opponent looking for ammunition.)

In other cities around the world, the exhibit has gone under a number of names and has included varying numbers of plastinates. In some exhibits, the donors of corpses and their release forms are put into the foreground. In Austin, however, there is no mention of where the bodies came from. One is struck by the fact that they are overwhelmingly male and Asian in their features and coloration. (There is something seriously disturbing about seeing a corpse holding its own removed skin draped over one extended arm.)

A little digging reveals that it is likely that the bodies in the Austin exhibit (with the exception of the fetuses, of course) are those of Chinese convicts, numbers of whom could have been political prisoners, who were executed or died in prison. There is no way that these once-persons gave their “consent” to participate in this ostensibly educational, scientific project.

According to Boston Herald journalist Darren Garnick, German scientist “Gunther von Hagens’ factory in Dalian, China’s third largest port,
reportedly employs 260 medical school grads to work the “Body Worlds” assembly line. Factory workers get $200-$400 a month to peel skin,
scrape fat off muscle and replace bodily fluids with soft plastic. Based on a presumed 40-hour work week, that comes to $1.25 to $2.50 an hour for what has to be the grossest job in the Eastern Hemisphere” (https://sites.google.com/site/stopbodyworlds/media-coverage/the-working-stiff; see also http://www.postgazette.com/pg/07175/796418-109.stm).

This fact more than any other reveals the exhibit as a for-profit enterprise mounted by the self-aggrandizing inventor of the plastinicization process. (Not incidentally, visiting the exhibit is not cheap.)

Finally, the exhibit cultivates pornographic voyeurism, which, one could argue, all such representations do. I am not embracing a scopophobic stance, however. Numbers of groups have protested this exhibit where it has appeared (notable among them are religious groups for the unavoidable materialism of the display). Given the heinous provenance of these bodies, the employment of sweatshop labor in the tranformation of them into objects, and the posing of the dead as physically fit Barbie dolls, protest is a reasonable response.

At the very least, we should encourage spectators to recognize the rhetoricity of the display and to question the conditions of its production and the social relations of its consumption.

At UT, the exhibit is called: “OUR BODY: The Universe Within.” Marketed as a display of “actual human bodies,” the display will, according to promotional material, make it so that “You will never look at your body in the same way again!” It is, according to the brochure, a “blockbuster exhibit!”

The exhortations to regard these molded, arranged bodies as “our bodies” and to learn a new way of seeing ourselves through these viscerally exposed models may cultivate identification with these anonymous others. However, it seems to me that the import of the title “OUR BODIES” is the claim to ownership, wherein property and propriety intersect.

New Hate Mail!

Just received this by email (from kashyyyyko <kashyyyyko@yahoo.com>; feel free to send him email). Can this rant be serious? It is like a parody of right wing thought. Scary over-the-top.

i found out about you from a conservative website and i saw some of your dirty shit-screeds; your own words.
you are a dirty liberal I hate you you are ugly and you are anti-american and evil.  i wish it was illegal for liberals to do alot of things, including teach, abuse their citizenship, and protest those who Love America (see Minutemen Project and your american-hating beliefs).  we need to close the border because illegals cause crime and blight.  i love it when police go after liberals it gives me Hope, real Hope, not dirty liberal “change” hope- that empty suit platitudes and the mexican scum love- REAL REPUBLICAN PRO-AMERICAN HOPE!
only Conservatives, Republicans, Ultra-Nationalists, Lou Dobbs Independents, Anti-Immigration people, and Liberal-Haters are true Americans.  Blame-America-First democRATS and liberal socialists are not american and should all be tried for treason!!!!
Even racists make better Americans than liberals, but only if they are white.  Hispanics are virulently racist and they hate whites and thus they hate Americans.  Black people have their problems but they hate Mexicans #1 and so the possibility of Black on Brown Mania!!!!!!!!  YES it is just so titilating
im not racist i just hate mexicans and brown people and some scummy ghetto blacks and some asians and wiggers because they hate ME, MY PEOPLE, MY FAMILY, and MY COUNTRY!
as some black people say  “mmmhmmmm”
Why don’t you just take your liberal ass and go to cuba, china, north korea, or iran and STAY THERE
you love immigrants from the third world GO FUCKING LIVE THERE LIVE WITH THEM YOU DUMBASS CUNT DRINK THE WATER not bottled HAAHAHAHAHA
go ahead and snarl at a real american you coward I don’t know why people with PHD’s have their heads so far up their ass!  id rather Love America and be less educated than have a PHD and hate this country.

Texas Socialist Conference November 3-4 2007

TEXAS SOCIALIST CONFERENCE 2007
BUILDING THE REVOLUTIONARY ALTERNATIVE

Saturday – Sunday, November 3 – 4
University of Texas at Austin

http://socialismconferencetx.org

The 2007 Texas Socialist Conference is a two-day event that will bring together socialists and other activists who are involved in struggles across the region — from opposing the war to organizing against the death penalty and more — to discuss how we can rebuild the left and a revolutionary alternative to the messed-up priorities of this system: war, corporate greed and racism.

SCHEDULE

Saturday, Nov. 3

12:00 PM — Registration begins in the CMA building room A 3.112

1:00 PM — Opening Plenary: Building the Revolutionary Alternative

Guest speaker: David Whitehouse, Co-editor of the International Socialist Review

3:00 PM — Workshops

• How Can We End the War ?
• Credit Crunch and Mortgage Meltdown: The Crazy Economics of Capitalism

6:00 PM — Panel Discussion: The New Movements for Civil Rights

Cases like the Jena Six have shined a spotlight on the deep-seated racism in American society. A panel of activists from the Jena Six solidarity movement, the campaign that saved Kenneth Foster, Jr. from execution in Texas and others will discuss their struggles and why we need a new movement for civil rights.  Speakers include: Claire Dube (Save Kenneth Foster campaign), K.C. Carter (Hip Hop Against Police Brutality), Dana Cloud (UT professor and anti-death penalty activist), and Courtney Morris (student activist).

Sunday, Nov. 4

11:00 AM — Sunday session on “Trotsky’s Marxism”

Plus… a book fare, party Saturday night, and more!

Map to the CMA building: http://www.utexas.edu/maps/main/buildings/cma.html

$5-20 registration (sliding scale). More information: austinsocialist@hotmail.com

Stop the Persecution of the Jena 6

A movement to stop the railroading of 6 youths in Jena Louisiana in the wake of virulent racist attacks is getting national attention.

beating case stirs racial anger
By Marisol Bello, USA TODAY

A grass-roots movement is spreading across black
America in support of six black high school students
charged with attempted murder for beating a white
classmate in the small Louisiana town of Jena.
On black radio, black college campuses and websites
from YouTube to Facebook, the young men known as the
Jena 6 are being held up as symbols of unequal and
unfair treatment of blacks in a case that evokes the
Deep South’s Jim Crow era, complete with nooses
hanging from a tree.

“People are fed up,” says Esther Iverem, 47, a
Washington, D.C., writer who runs a website called
Seeingblack.com, which has featured articles about the
Jena 6. “It’s another case of young black men
railroaded unjustly. We do not want to see this happen
to young boys who got involved in a school fight.”

Tenisha Wilkerson, 20, of Chicago, posted a page on
Facebook supporting the Jena 6. It has attracted
35,000 members.

“Why is this kind of thing still going on?” she asks.

Symbolism evokes outrage

The events in Jena have caught the attention of
national civil rights activists. Al Sharpton, Jesse
Jackson and Martin Luther King III have marched on
Jena in protest.

“The case plays to the fears of many blacks,” Sharpton
says. “You hear the stories from your parents and
grandparents, but you never thought it would happen in
2007. I think what resonates in the black community is
that this is so mindful of pre-1960 America.”

For a year, Jena (pronounced JEEN-uh), a poor mining
community of 3,000 people, has been embroiled in
racial tensions pitting the black community against
white school officials and a white prosecutor. It
began last August when a black student asked at an
assembly if black students could sit under a tree
where white students usually sat. The next day, two
nooses hung from the tree.

Black parents were outraged by the symbolism,
recalling the mob lynchings of black men. They
complained to school officials. District
superintendent Roy Breithaupt and the school board
gave three-day suspensions to the white students who
hung the nooses, overruling the recommendation of
then-principal Scott Windham that the students be
expelled.

Breithaupt and current principal Glen Joiner did not
return calls for comment.

In November, an unknown arsonist burned down part of
the high school.

Over the next three days, fights erupted between black
and white students on and off school grounds. Police
arrested a white man for punching a black teen. He
pleaded guilty to simple battery.

The skirmishes culminated with a fight in which the
six black teens, star players on Jena’s champion
football team, were charged as adults with attempted
murder. The white student they’re accused of beating,
Justin Barker, 17, was knocked unconscious and
suffered cuts and bruises. He was treated at an
emergency room but not hospitalized.

Mychal Bell, 17, was convicted in May of a reduced
charge, aggravated second-degree battery, which
carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

Since then, charges against two youths have been
reduced.

Reed Walters, the LaSalle Parish prosecutor who
brought the charges, did not return calls for comment.

The anger fueled by the case shows no sign of letting
up. More than 1,500 people, including California
Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters, rallied at Howard
University in Washington on Wednesday. Rallies are
planned in Chicago and Boston.

Civil rights groups, including the NAACP and Friends
of Justice, plan to rally at the Jena courthouse on
Sept. 20, the scheduled date of Bell’s sentencing.
Their websites anticipate busloads of marchers from
across the country.

The black students’ supporters say the white teens in
Jena were not punished as severely as the blacks.

“The question here has always been about fairness and
equal justice,” says Tony Brown, a Louisiana radio
host. “The bottom line is that there is a two-tiered
judicial system. If you’re black, they want to lock
you up and throw away the keys. If you’re white, you
get a slap on the wrist and get to go home with your
parents.”

He points to a case in nearby Bunkie, La., in which
three white teens were charged this spring with the
minor crime of battery for beating a white teen, who
spent three days in the hospital for brain swelling
and bleeding.

The case of the Jena 6 has launched “a modern-day
civil rights movement,” Brown says.

Tired of the attention

Blacks are overrepresented in the criminal justice
system. A 2007 study by the National Council on Crime
and Delinquency found that blacks are 17% of the
nation’s juvenile population, but 28% of juveniles
arrested are black.

“I don’t think you grow up black and think this kind
of thing doesn’t happen,” says Maliza Kalenza, 19, a
Howard University sophomore from Minneapolis.

Donald Washington, the U.S. attorney for Louisiana’s
Western District, says his office investigated the
events in Jena but did not find evidence to support a
criminal case in the noose hangings. He says black
students had sat under the tree where the nooses were
hung, too, and he found no evidence that the noose
incident led to the fights three months later.

The tree was cut down this summer.

Washington’s office is reviewing the history of Jena
school district punishments of black and white
students but so far has found nothing inappropriate.

Some people in Jena don’t appreciate the attention.

School board member Billy Fowler says the year’s
events have been blown out of proportion. On the other
hand, he says, in the unlikely event that another
student hung a noose, the incident would be taken more
seriously. He also notes that some of the original
charges against the six teens, which he says were
excessive, were reduced.

“I feel like my town has been raked over
unmercifully,” Fowler says. “I’m tired of hearing how
racist my town is and it’s just not so. … And the
outsiders are not helping any with this.”

See also: http://www.socialistworker.org/2007-2/637/637_16_Jena.shtml