Posts Tagged ‘colonialism’

Resisting Prisons, Rebuilding Communities

Friday, July 8th, 2011

The hunger strike staged by thousands of California prison inmates (check July 8’s Babylon Bite) has brought the hidden world of incarceration back to the front-pages of the news and hopefully back into public consciousness. In Canada, the Harper Conservatives will be pushing their ‘tough on crime’ agenda which will lead to a dramatic expansion of Canada’s prison population in the near future. It’s time we seriously rethink the roll prisons play in our society.

Prison statistics from the U.S. make for depressing reading. After 30 years of a failed ‘War on Drugs’ and consecutive ‘tough on crime’ bills passed at the state and federal levels (by morally challenged Republicans and spineless Democrats alike), the number of people incarcerated in the U.S. prison system has reached 2.2 million. This represents 20% of the world’s total prison population. In the past two decades, the US prison population has risen by 400%.  68% of the prison population are people of colour, primarily Blacks and Latinos. 4 million ex-inmates face barriers to jobs, housing, public assistance, and parental rights. In total, the US government spends $50 billion per year on the prison system (for more stats check Critical Resistance).

Before you get too comfortably righteous in your Canadian skin, consider this:  In Canada, less than 10% of the population live below the poverty line but close to 100% of our prison inmates come from that 10%. Aboriginals are 4% of Canada’s population but 20% of the population of federal prisons. More than 70% of prison inmates have not completed high school and 70% have unstable job histories.

Apart from the social and psychological damage of incarceration to communities, individuals, and families, Canadians spend more than $147,000 per prisoner in federal custody each year. It would take between $12,000 to $20,000 per year to bring a person in Canada above the poverty line (depending on where they live).  We could save $127,000 per year by providing social and economic security to poor people, rather than using prison as method of social control. According to Hugh Segal “If governments become tough on poverty, safer communities and declining prison populations will follow.” Segal is no left-wing pinko anti-prison activist, he’s a Conservative Senator. The quote and statistics above are from a report he issued last year on the relationship between prisons, poverty and crime. Segal concluded that the practice of mass incarceration, through tough on crime measures, has little to no effect on crime rates. Poverty reduction, on the other hand, does (Because the rich get richer, and the poor get prison, very few white-collar criminals find themselves behind bars. In fact much of the anti-social activities of the rich, from speculating on Third World food prices on the stock market to avoiding paying decent wages and accounting for the costs of environmental degradation, are postively encouraged by our economic system in the name of growth and prosperity).Prisons in modern societies have become nothing but warehouses for the socially excluded and marginalized who don’t fit the requirements of a globalized capitalist economy.

What we’ve seen in the US and Canada over the past 30 years is a shift from a welfare state to a penal state. The welfare state are those programs we all rely on to keep us healthy and economically secure, things like public health care, public pensions for security in old age, social housing for those who cannot afford housing on the market, and social assistance for those who experience long-term unemployment, and so on. Governments at all levels have cut back on these programs, making life more insecure for many, not just the poor. The rise of precarious employment (temporary jobs, low-wage part-time, and self-employment) has meant that more and more of us are not able to secure a decent standard of living through work, hence the rise of the working poor and the persistence of poverty.  The US government has rolled back the welfare state and rolled out the penal state, as prisons become the place to house those who are poor, jobless, stigmatized and marginalized. This agenda will intensify with Stephen Harper’s plan to emulate the American model of mass incarceration. We will need to resist this agenda in our communities (if the hunger-strike in California is anything to go by, resistance could start on the inside).

In her book “Are Prisons Obsolete?” long-time anti-prison activist Angela Davis asks “How can we imagine a society in which race and class are not primary determinants of punishment? Or one in which punishment is no longer the central concern in the making of justice?” If we are to resist prisons and rebuild communities, we must be prepared to pose alternatives to incarceration. And as Davis urges, this is not about replacing prisons with prisonlike substitutes like electronic monitoring but rather envisioning an “alternative to imprisonment –  the demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance.” In other words, building an alternative to prisons involves transforming institutions and attitudes at the very core of our society.

In Canada, aboriginal peoples are leading the way with new models of restorative justice, an alternative to the ‘justice’ administered by the Canadian state; a state which has locked up so many of their brothers and sisters after years of colonialism has torn the social fabric of their communities. If we are to build an anti-prison movement that can combat the Harper agenda, building solidarity with aboriginal communities, while listening and learning, would be a good place to start.

Published July 8th 2011 on POUND (

Viva la revolucion!

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Some of the best commentary on the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions:

Rober Fisk on the historical context of the uprisings and the future of Arab-Israeli relations:

Tariq Ali on the meaning of the Eyptian revolution and fall of Mubarak:

Noam Chomsky on the imperial motives of the US:

During such a eventful week I’m somewhat saddened by the thought that the late Edward Said is not around to bare witness.  Gary Younge pays tribute to Said here:

Of Bails, Boundaries, and Revolution: A Tribute to CLR James

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” So begins Beyond a Boundary, the classic account of cricket and the colonial West Indies by the great 20th century socialist CLR James. The boundary is the outer line which encircles a cricket field; it demarcates the space in which the game is played like the fence and foul lines of a baseball diamond. James insisted that what happened inside the boundary influenced the world beyond it; sport could not be reduced to mere play divorced from the social world.

My column for Canadian Dimension has been, above all else, a cry for the left to take sports seriously; to move beyond a bread and circuses dismissal and see sport as a terrain of social, economic, and political struggle on which class conflict plays out in both odd and familiar ways, gender identities are shaped, formed and subverted, and issues of race and racism are ever-present.

In doing so, I owe debts to modern sports journalists like Dave Zirin, a frequent contributor to some of CD’s American equivalents such as The Progressive and whom I’ve previously featured in this space. But after recently taking the time to revisit Beyond a Boundary, I came to the conclusion that it is on the shoulders of James that many a critical sportswriter stands.

Cricket, the sport of the British colonizer, James argued, cannot simply be understood as a tool of oppression, a sporting companion to the dominant colonial ideology which permeated the institutions and public discourse of the pre-independence Caribbean. The game was a social and historical phenomenon which shaped and was shaped by the social relations of colonialism, class, and race in which it was embedded, and most importantly for James, a site in which these relations could be challenged and transformed in emancipatory ways.

This may seem a heavy burden for a sport which most North Americans view with a combination of curiosity and confusion. But the beauty of Beyond a Boundary is that a reader with little or no knowledge of cricket can appreciate the social weight to which James ascribes the sport. This is both a tribute to the author’s fine analytical skills and brilliant political mind, but also to the simple elegance and rhythm of his prose.

Reading Beyond A Boundary, one sees how the campaign for a black man Frank Worrell (which incidentally James led) to become the first black to captain the West Indies cricket team turned the hierarchy of the colonizer’s game on its head and inspired the struggle for Trinidadian independence. Through James’s critical lens, riots which could greet a bad call by the umpire became expressions of social tension between oppressors and oppressed. And for James, the choice to play for one cricket club or the other reflected desires for social mobility and the state of race relations in Trinidad’s pigmentocracy. James was writing a sociology of sport before sociologists had invented the field.

Brilliantly, James shows a capacity for deep analysis of what can appear to an outsider as the trivial intricacies of cricket. Accounting for the batting prowess of a boyhood hero, James moves through references to Edmund Burke, Michelangelo and Hegel. This is no mere intellectual pose; James weaves the literary with the carnal, the physical with the philosophical throughout Beyond a Boundary. The analysis extends to his own morality, an ethics derived not from Marx but the code of ‘fair play’ to which all good cricketers adhere: “This code,” writes James, “became the moral framework of my existence. It has never left me.”(Reading James on cricket one is reminded of Albert Camus’ reflection, “All I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.”)

Beyond a Boundary was first published in 1963, some twenty years after James’ classic history of the Haitian revolution The Black Jacobins appeared. Born in 1901 into a lower-middle class Afro-Trinidadian household, by the early sixties, James had rubbed shoulders with Leon Trotsky, written and acted in a play with Paul Robeson, served as cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, made significant contributions to Marxist theory and Pan-African thought, organized and agitated for revolution in the United States and national independence in the Caribbean and west Africa. A teacher, novelist, philosopher, historian, and activist, upon his death the Trinidadian polymath was described by the Times of London as the “black Plato of our generation.” (A paragraph-length biography is surely to do violence to one of the great lives of the 20th century; I recommend Paul Buhle’s CLR James: The Artist as Revolutionary as an apology.)

Before James, with few exceptions, sports writing was blind to the ‘social’ in sport, and much of it remains so today. But when sports journalists ask critical questions of the Vancouver Olympics or graduate students develop theses on the cultural meaning of Tiger Woods, knowingly or not they are paying homage to Beyond A Boundary and its author CLR James.

A version of this article was published in Canadian Dimension Vol 44 #5 September/October 2010

The Not So Curious Case of Caster Semenya

Saturday, October 24th, 2009

Caster Semenya, the South African runner and 800m women’s world champion, has been subjected to a very public interrogation of her identity. Following her victory in Berlin last August, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ordered a group of doctors to conduct a “gender test” to determine her future in international athletics. Pre-empting the IAAF, an Australian newspaper reported in early September that an inside source “revealed the test found Semenya to be a hermaphrodite.”

The South African government expressed outrage at the treatment of their prize athlete. The Minister of Sports said, “Caster’s human rights have been violated and her privacy invaded.” President Jacob Zuma decried the IAAF and the media’s exploitation of the Semenya affair. Rallying behind their “golden girl,” thousands of supporters gathered at Johannesburg airport to welcome their beleaguered athlete home to South Africa.

The IAAF’s handling and the media’s coverage of the case have been abhorrent on many levels. Apart from the violation of Semenya’s privacy, the first point at issue has been the confusion of sex and gender. After the case became public, a number of notable South African feminists and queer activists issued a public statement which included the following corrective aimed at the IAAF and world media:

“Gender is the dominant society’s views on how women and men should look, behave, what roles they should play in society, how they should perform and frequently what rewards they receive – hence gender inequity… Gender is not a politically correct term for sex. Sex testing would be just that – establishing whether a person is biologically female or male. So gender testing is not the term that should be used this case, but sex testing.”

Secondly, the media has continued to describe this “case” as “curious” and to deny and question Semenya’s identity after she has stated clearly and repeatedly that she is a woman. If Semenya is found to be intersex then she has the right to define herself and make that definition known to others when, and if, she so chooses to. Dismayed at the public discourse surrounding the affair, Intersex South Africa, an intersex advocacy and activist organization, was quick to issue a statement clarifying intersexuality as a “general term that can relate to various conditions. Many intersexed people are born with ambiguous genitalia, or sex organs that are not clearly female or male.” Furthermore, the organization noted, the term ‘hermaphrodite’ was “commonly used in the past to describe and consequently oppress intersexed people” and should therefore not be in the lexicon of the modern media.

Nor has the media given much attention to the fact that Semenya is a black South African. South Africa’s Young Communist League, in old-left fashion, called Caster’s treatment “racist and imperialist,” without mentioning gender discrimination. But the fact that Semenya is a black woman from the so-called Third World is not insignificant. Writing in South Africa’s Mail and Guardian, Antje Schumann commented, “The point is not merely that athletes from the First World are not also subjected to sex tests. It is rather that, given the history of slavery and colonialism, the exposure of a black woman’s body has a very specific context.”

And that’s why the case of Caster Semenya is really not that curious at all: there exists a long history of subjecting colonized bodies to prodding, study, and sterilization in processes of dehumanization and subjugation, whether it is in the name of science, ‘civilization’, or even sport.

Published in Canadian Dimension Volume 43, Number 6, Nov/Dec 2009