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Last Night’s Protests in Rio: A Reflection from the Safe and Privileged

18 Jul

This morning when Andy and I went to breakfast in the café in our hotel, we saw news coverage of a large demonstration that occurred last night in here in Rio.  If I understood the news story correctly, a large crowd of demonstrators marched to the governor’s or the mayor’s home, and some of the protestors engaged in vandalism of local banks and stores, leaving large piles of


burning garbage in the streets.  The police arrived in riot gear and threw tear gas into the crowd.  The news on television this morning also showed a policeman shooting into the crowd with what looked to me like a rifle.  Fifteen protestors died.  Another thirty were wounded, as were seven police officers.

I can find nothing in the English language news online this morning about the protests, except these photo from Yahoo news: one of the police and one of looters in a store.


Our friends at UniRio are already writing about all of this on Facebook, but I’m wondering why major English-language news outlets are not.  The Pope is due to arrive in Rio de Janeiro in a few days (shortly after our departure), and it seems that the protests here are escalating to coincide with the media presence that will be in Rio covering the Pope.

Some of my students went to another protest earlier in our trip.  Some UniRio students took them, and they left when the police arrived.  Beyond that, we have not seen any of the social unrest firsthand or felt that we were in any danger of violence.  Last night Renee, Andy, and I attended an evening class at UniRio with Professor Marina Henriques and the students who go with here to the Maré favela.  They meet on campus every Wednesday evening to make plans for what they will do in their Saturday morning workshops in Maré.  Their class let out around 9 PM, and Andy, Renee, and I waited at the bus stop near UniRio for over an hour before we decided that our bus back to Ipanema was not coming.  We hopped in a cab and made it back to our hotel just fine.  This morning we’re wondering if last night’s protests are what disrupted our bus service, but at the time we had no inkling of what was going on elsewhere in Rio and neither saw nor heard any evidence of the protests as we made our way back to Ipanema.  We are living in the intersection of two types of privilege that most residents of Rio do not have: that of being foreigners  and that of staying in one of the wealthiest parts of the city.

Most of the students we’ve met at UniRio do not have such luxuries, and the vast majority of participants in the social justice theatre workshops we’ve visited live in highly precarious situations.  The prisoners we’ve met were certainly not at last night’s protest, and I’m doubtful that the elderly workshop participants from Teatro Renascer would have been there.  I have no idea whether or not any of the children or teenagers we met in Maré might have attended the protests, but it seems likely that members of any of these theatre workshops might have family members or friends who have attended the recent demonstrations in Rio.  I wonder how all of them are feeling this morning and if they know if their loved ones are safe.  People in prison often do not have access to fast-traveling forms of communication with their loved ones, and I hope that none of the incarcerated people we have met on this trip are sick with worry today about whether or not the people they love are safe.   I know that my own father worries quite a bit when I travel and has been concerned for my safety in Rio, despite my best assurances that I will keep myself and my students out of trouble.

Rosangela Lawrence, our Portuguese tutor back in Ann Arbor, gave us her thoughts on the protests before we came on this trip.  She said she supported the protestors but expressed great frustration about the acts of vandalism that have accompanied the protests because such behavior distracts from the overall purpose of the demonstrations, which is to advocate for the rights of the poor.

May the national and local governments of Brazil find ways to hear the concerns of the demonstrators and to provide some relief in their struggles.  May everyone involved work to avoid further violence and loss of life, and may the people of Brazil find safety and peace.

Trayvon Martin and the Justice We Cannot Seem to Reach

15 Jul

What I meant to write when I sat down at my computer this morning was a post about our second trip to the Maré favela here in Rio de Janeiro (You can read about our first visit to the favela here.), but all I can think about is Trayvon Martin and what his family must be feeling this morning.  Many people are writing quite eloquently about their sense of despair, powerlessness, and anger about the acquittal of George Zimmerman.  My favorite piece so far was posted by Frank Leonard on the Huffington Post.

As both the child of a currently incarcerated man and as someone who spends a lot of time seeing the damage that prisons do to people, I never feel like rejoicing when I hear news of another person being sentenced to a prison term.  That said, I also believe very deeply in the notion that governments should attempt to mete out fair and equitable justice, that every human life should be protected by the law, and that those who take a life should be called upon by the state to take responsibility for their actions, face the consequences, and make efforts towards atonement.  The Florida court and jury that acquitted George Zimmerman failed to ardently pursue justice, and they have failed not just Trayvon Martin’s family and loved ones but our entire nation.  If Trayvon Martin’s life is not worthy of even a conviction for manslaughter, then we cannot really claim to value any individual life in the United States.  Fundamentally, a person died, and there is no dispute about who shot him.  The fact that Zimmerman was not even convicted of manslaughter legalistically defines Trayvon Martin as less than human.

But, of course, we do value some lives and not others.  The specter of racism clouds every judicial process I have yet witnessed in my travels to prisons around the world.  All of the women we met in the theatre workshop at the prison here in Rio last week were phenotypically Black. (I realize that the terminology and understandings of race are significantly different in Brazil than they are in the U.S., and I make no claim to being able to parse this subtly.  I merely observe that whether these women self-identify as Black or not, every single incarcerated woman in the Teatro na Prisão workshop we witnessed would be phenotypically coded as Black or mixed race in the U.S.)  When I performed my one-woman play in a women’s prison in Canada in 2011, my friend who had taken me to the prison told me afterwards not to be fooled by the fact that I did not see any First Nations women in the prison; she reported that most of them were in solitary confinement.  In the small group of incarcerated women I met in an Irish prison in Dublin in 2005, I encountered two Black Panamanian women and a high number of other foreigners, mostly Eastern Europeans. Of course, in prisons across the U.S. we disproportionately lock up Blacks, Latina/os, Native Americans, the poor, and the undereducated.

None of this is news, and perhaps that’s why it hurts so much.  We continue to see the glaring inequalities in the ways in which we meet out justice, and so little changes across time and even various systems of government that it’s hard to stay hopeful.  I ceased believing in the righteousness or infallibility of any nation’s criminal justice system decades ago, yet justice remains a goal and a value that we must unceasingly pursue.  The lives of young people like Trayvon Martin are worth defending, and we cannot let this latest blow to human dignity, social justice, and individual freedom stop us in the interminable but necessary struggle to create the kind of world in which we would want all people to live–one in which the sight of a Black child in a hoodie would not inspire such fear that homicidal force would be anyone’s gut reaction.

My heart today is with Trayvon Martin’s family and friends, with one of my former students who said on Twitter that this verdict once again displayed the worth of his Black body, with the Black man I met in Louisiana who is serving ninety-nine years for stealing a toaster because of that state’s equivalent of the Three Strikes Law, with all who mourn for justice and those who are brave enough to continue to hope for something different in our future.

North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act Repealed: Major Setback in Civil Rights

6 Jun

Though many of us have seen this coming since Republicans took over the state legislature in North Carolina, we should take the time today to mourn the repeal of the groundbreaking Racial Justice Act–the legislation which allowed death row prisoners in North Carolina to appeal their death sentences (but not their convictions) on the grounds of racial bias in the jury. (For earlier writing on this blog about the Racial Justice Act, click here, here, and here.)   This law saved lives, and now we have taken a giant step backwards in protecting the civil rights of death row prisoners of color.  Until we manage to entirely end the barbarism of the death penalty in the U.S., we should avidly pursue the reinstatement of the Racial Justice Act in North Carolina and the creation of similar protective laws in other death penalty states.  In addition to offering a much needed avenue for appeal for individuals on death row, legislation like this helps those of us who oppose the death penalty to keep debates over the wildly erratic logic of capital punishment in the public eye.

Keep the 153 men and women on North Carolina’s death row in your thoughts today.  They have suffered an egregious loss, and the hopeless place in which they live has become all the more unbearable.

Corrections Corporation of America exploits tax loophole

22 Apr

The front page of this morning’s New York Times describes the latest move in the Corrections Corporation of America’s unceasing efforts to find new ways to make money on the backs of prisoners.  They have found a giant loophole in U.S. tax law that enables them to avoid all federal taxes by declaring themselves a real estate trust.  In practice this means that the folks who engage in the utterly unethical practice of financially investing in keeping a certain segment of our population in captivity now do not have to pay any federal taxes which would fund many of the social programs that help combat mass incarceration.

Jodie Lawston and I have both previously written on this blog about the inextricable links between economics and mass incarceration, and it always boils down to the simple fact that as long as major corporate interests and the government itself have strong financial incentives to lock up lots of people and keep them there for extended periods of time, we cannot reasonably believe that our criminal justice system actually functions to punish or prevent crime.  Instead it works to make sure that people who do not have the resources to defend themselves will continue to be disproportionately incarcerated and used as a cheap–or in the case of Texas prisoners, free–labor source.

The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is not a real estate trust, and our government should not enable  it to escape taxation.  In actual fact the CCA has been entrusted with the lives of human beings who live under conditions that no outside party can effectively regulate.  This means that the health and well being of thousands of people are subordinated to the corporation’s main objective, which is, of course, to make money.

Solitary Confinement for Children in Prison

27 Mar

Rock Center with Brian Williams recently aired a story about the terrible things that minors–some as young as nine years old–endure in solitary confinement in United States prisons.  Watch a clip of this story aired on the Today Show here.

If criminal justice administrators routinely agree that minors are so much at risk in adult prisons that they must be kept in solitary confinement to protect them, shouldn’t we rethink our decisions to send children to prison?

Pope Francis to Wash the Feet of Prisoners

26 Mar

The new pope has sworn to dedicate much of his papacy to serving the poor–an admirable goal and one which will be very difficult to uphold in the long run as the demands of administration at the Vatican settle in.  However, Pope Francis is off to an auspicious start.  When he emerged on the Vatican balcony in his first appearance as pope and asked the people to bless him, he displayed a level of humility seldom seen in a world leader.  What’s more, he appears genuine in his efforts to live in close contact with the poor and to serve them directly.  He never lived in the auspicious residence reserved for the bishop of Argentina, and on Thursday, March 28, 2013, he will wash the feet of twelve prisoners in Rome, as Jesus washed his disciple’s feet the night before his crucifixion.

For Christians, the act of washing another person’s feet engenders a mix of humility and honor.  The person washing the feet humbles herself in cleansing what in Jesus’ day would have been the dirtiest part of a person’s body–rough and covered in the day’s dust.  The person who allows her feet to be washed is simultaneously honored by the act of another person’s service but also humbled in having another person care for her in this intimate way.

Regardless of our systems of belief, we could all learn from what the pope will do this Thursday.  This act is a public reminder that we should remember those whom we have shut away from our sight.  We should honor them with human dignity, concern, and care, as we should all people.  We should not be afraid to lay compassionate hands on those whom we have been taught to fear.

Thank you, Pope Francis, for remembering the incarcerated.  May this act inspire people around the world to treat prisoners with kindness.

The Impending Execution of Robert Avila

28 Oct

Iris Morgenstern has to figure out how to say goodbye.

In her decades of teaching high school in El Paso, Texas, Iris has only had a few students who have stayed in her heart and her life for many years after they graduated.  She taught a boy named Robert Avila in the late 1980s, and today he is even dearer to Iris than he was when he captured her heart as a witty, energetic teenager with a knack for writing.

In an email to me about Robert, Iris wrote:

I met Robert was he was a sophomore in my English class at Bel Air High School. He was crazy enough to sign up for my class when he was a junior and again as a senior.  He has a  very quick mind and was able to analyze literature without any help often looking at different aspects of readings. His writing is usually humorous.

We have kept in touch on and off since then. He was in the Navy and has a 15 year old son.

Those are the basics by they don’t tell anyone about his kind gentle nature and his humorous spirit. He was always making comments about having to bend in half whenever he gave me a hug and asked where I could grow just a couple of inches — tall not wide with a twinkle & laugh in his eyes.

Iris and Robert on January 2, 2012, visiting through the glass.

I have seen Robert help kittens who were only days old. His huge hands held the tiny creatures while he fed them with a dropper or bottle. There was one I truly believed he willed to live.

These are the things Iris wanted me to know about Robert as she tried to figure out what to say to him in their last visit.  Robert now lives on death row, and on the day after his birthday–a few weeks ago–he was given an execution date: December 12, 2012.  Iris, Robert’s family, and some Catholic death penalty activists in El Paso lobbied to have Robert’s execution date changed because December 12 is also the feast day for Our Lady of Guadalupe.  The state of Texas acquiesced and changed the date of the execution, but for a few agonizing days we did not know if his date would be postponed or moved earlier.  This morning Iris wrote to let me know that Robert’s new execution date is April 10, 2013.  The faithful among us might say the Virgen gave him one more Christmas and four more months to live.

Iris is on her way to visit Robert this week, and before she found out about the new execution date, she believed this would be the last time she saw Robert alive.  Before he had the chance to invite her to witness his execution, Iris told Robert that she cannot watch the state kill someone she loves.  It would break her.  Instead, she planned this trip but does not know how to say goodbye.  Now perhaps she will have the chance to see him again before April, but her dilemma has not been solved.  The state of Texas still plans to take the life of a person Iris helped to nurture into adulthood, and these months of reprieve will prove all too short.

I didn’t know how to advise Iris when she called me asking for advice about how to say goodbye to Robert, but I was able to tell her about a young man named Matthew Puckett who was killed by the state of Mississippi on March 20, 2012.  I never knew Matt Puckett, but we had a mutual friend in common–a man named Matt Erickson who asked a whole lot of people to write letters to Matt Puckett in his last days.  I wrote to Matt Puckett shortly before his execution, and after his death, Matt Erickson told me that Matt Puckett had said that my letter and the others he received comforted him in the days leading up to his execution.  Matt Puckett’s mother received those letters after her son’s death and also relayed her gratitude for them to Matt Erickson.

I proposed to Iris that we do the same thing for Robert in these months that remain to him.  If you are reading this blog, chances are that you oppose the death penalty.  I have no idea what crime Robert Avila was accused of committing, and it’s not my job to try or judge him.  What I do know is that I don’t want him or anyone else to die in the name of justice.  The death penalty compounds one tragedy with another, and as a Texan, I do not want Robert to die in my name.  What I know is what a great person Iris Morgenstern is and that she truly loves Robert.  I stand with Iris, with Robert’s family, and with the many families, like my own, whose loved ones are kept from us by concrete, razor wire, and a legal system that values vengeance more than either compassion or public safety.

I’m asking you to write to Robert Avila while he is still with us.  It can be awkward or even intimidating to write to someone you don’t know, so don’t over think what you might say.  Just let him know that you care, that you oppose his execution, that he will not be forgotten.  You can send letters to Robert at this address:

Robert Avila
Polunsky Unit
3872 S. FM 350
Livingston, Texas  77351

Keep Robert and Iris in your thoughts.  When we see people for their full humanity, it ought to be harder for us to condone their deaths. Out of context, Robert might just look like a death row prisoner, but more than that, he will always be one of the students Iris Morgenstern loves best.

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