Inheriting the Grid #4

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #4 in February 2007]


The things we want, and mean, when we say “justice”?

On Monday January 29th a live debate between aldermanic candidates in the 25th ward (Pilsen) took place at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum and was broadcast live on WBEZ’s morning radio show 848. The alderman said he had a community planning group to approve new economic development, the other candidate said the community needed to have more input in responsible development. Another candidate said the community needed more education so they could join the middle class. If there weren’t so many people getting kicked out of their houses you would think that the main issue on the ballot was whose definition of “community” was the right one. And in a way, it could be that the issue is the definition of community and all the economic and cultural transformation that dictates which one wins out.

When Ryan Hollon, one of our regular contributors and advisory group members, proposed to do an issue of AREA on the theme of “community justice,” I was excited and also anxious. Excited because it seemed like the stuff he wanted to touch on from prisons to juvenile detention and the court system were huge, difficult and extremely important. Anxious because if there is one word that is more used and abused than “community” (or simply “we,” as was articulated in issue#3), it is “justice.” To think that we could throw them into the mix together was daunting and intimidating.

When I thought of the term community justice, it first inspired visions of vigilante and informal crime-fighting in the slightly dated fashion of the Guardian Angels roving the streets of Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. In a more leftist direction it inspired images of members of the Black Panther Party and other New Left revolutionaries training in physical and legal self-defense and seeking “community control.” Another interpretation is the Escrache protest popularized by the Argentine children of those who were disappeared during the military dictatorship (1976-83), called HIJOS, who would target the homes of former officers of the dictatorship leading public lives without consequences for their role in torture, murder and disappearance of 30,000 people. The purpose of the Escrache would be to publicly identify those who lived unpunished for their offenses, to create visibility about state terrorism of citizens—an issue that many in the country are still afraid to talk about—and to radicalize memory for lost loved ones, an experience which can often be emotionally and politically isolating. They took the form of protests where neighbors were told about the kinds of murderous criminals they lived near, but also as high profile public poster campaigns identified the home addresses of war crime perpetrators living in a specific area or neighborhood using maps. Local examples could be the project that takes on street harassers,, and the Ghost Bike project that memorializes victims of hit-and-run accidents.

While working to identify inspiring practices that we want to serve as the definition of justice and address the sense of community that we seek, it should also be a goal to always interrogate the rhetoric and ideology that we inherit and appropriate. Informality is not in and of itself an admirable goal, just as community is not in and of itself a desirable designation for deciding where to place the responsibility of resolution, repair or “justice.” There are also the right wing vigilantes (think racist Minutemen), the slightly goofy and innocent (think water balloons, graffiti, and paintballs), the violent and aggressive (think organized crime from mafia to contemporary gangs). These are all examples of informal reactionary justice taken into the hands of a small few, who if asked to explain their relationship to one another would inevitably describe community and affinity. The only thing that ties these together with the earlier examples is their informal approach to resolving conflict outside of the corporate-State framework.

This issue is an opportunity to deal with the larger spectrum of work happening around the criminal justice system that addresses the local implications of the prison-industrial complex and its impact on those on the inside (whether in Cook County Jail—the largest single site jail in the US—in a downstate prison, or in a juvenile detention facility), those on the outside, and everywhere in between (where we all exist all the time). With every issue of AREA it has been a priority to make some mention or acknowledgement of interesting work happening around the re-entry of those who have been incarcerated back into society, specifically in Chicago. In issue #1, Ryan Hollon made a proposal for worker-run factories on the West side that would assist in the lack of employment opportunities for ex-offenders; in issue #2 an interview with Harry Rhodes from Growing Power showed us some of the interesting urban agriculture work happening in town that helps with job experience and training; and in issue #3 Cassie Fennell wrote about Roll Call, the mutual aid support network for formerly incarcerated men. These examples of practices and proposals relating to prisoner re-entry have been one stop in the spectrum of important and related issues. The current issue deals much more in depth with interrelated questions and opens up what will hopefully be an ongoing commitment of Area to explore the relationship that Chicagoans have to the prison-industrial complex.

This is the first issue where a guest editor has taken on a theme and integrated their research into the AREA infrastructure (i.e. call for proposals, editorial process, publishing, distribution, promotion). See Hollon’s lucid section introductions and glossary for more insight into how he sees the proposals we received and texts we solicited as being related to one another in the criminal justice landscape.

The law is the land?

In looking at the current geo-political climate and the US occupation of Iraq, “restoring the rule of law” is one of the primary stated objectives of the US military strategy. In the case of recently executed former Iraqi Ba’athist and president Saddam Hussein, his Iraq-based trial and execution were tainted heavily with tales of assassination attempts and US military intervention and disruption. Interestingly the very publicized execution led to a great many public debates about the use of execution as punishment, which revealed additional inconsistencies in global conceptions of justice. The Vatican, who we can hardly look to as the model global citizen, has called it tragic and one spokesperson echoed many Muslim leaders saying, “The killing of the guilty party is not the way to reconstruct justice and reconcile society.” Many onlookers suggested that the “Texas” rule and way of working (state-sponsored executions as justice) had presided over this case of great geo-political significance that will be sure to have reverberations for generations.

Legal jargon (“legal-ese”) is one of the specialized vocabularies that we come in contact with the most in contemporary political and cultural life. It is everywhere, and people have an obsession with public and popular images of justice being served. I’m in no position to play sociologist and imagine all the reasons for this, but it is safe to say that some vague notion of justice and how people think it is accomplished is part of a sort of justice imagination that we all encounter, support and refine from time to time in all of our various positions in life. Consider the popularity of tv programs like Geraldo and America’s Most Wanted, two men empowered to seek out their own sense of justice; OZ and The Wire, showing the inside/outside of the prison industry in relationship to urban crime; and all the court-side television programs that share people’s big and small beefs with broad daytime tv audiences (Judge Judy, People’s Court, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Alex, Judge Hatchet, and Judge Mathis). In what ways do these popular representations of the inner workings of the criminal justice system inform our perspectives and our work? And why are people so obsessed with them anyway?

On a Political front we have regular threats of Mayor Daley’s administration getting put on trial at the local level, Chicago’s own US Attorney for northern Illinois, Patrick Fitzgerald, taking down everyone from the local to the state to the federal level for corruption, and groups like the Center for Constitutional Rights working to ensure that Donald Rumsfeld and a slew of Bush administration top officials can’t visit Germany and many other countries without the threat of being tried for war crimes (if it doesn’t work, then perhaps an international Escrache protest needs to be organized against those figures who operate with impunity on the global political stage). Despite the US avoidance of it, the international criminal court and other international bodies guided by human rights frameworks are increasingly looked to for guidance from a globalized civil society.

But aside from just reflecting on the predominance of juridical process in US culture and Politics, let’s also turn our attention to the self-identified left-leaning social movements. Nearly every prominent social struggle in the last century has a significant landmark in its history that occurred in a Supreme Court room (Debs v. USA, Brown v. Board of Education, and Roe v. Wade, to name only a few) or increasingly in a meeting of the United Nations. The tendency seems to be that at some point we should turn to a court or law making body to justify our actions, right someone’s wrongs, or make permanent our proposals. This is admirable and is an acknowledgement of the limitations of organizing and activism in a Political landscape dominated by the law and as an attempt to make certain gains won distributed evenly and ensured by fixed law. At the same time, it is stifling. It’s stifling because we know that law isn’t fixed, that its constantly abused or ignored and selectively enforced, that whenever we fight anything in a court those lacking access to financial resources to cover costs are at a severe disadvantage, and that most of the foundational laws that organize official political and social life in this country are designed to serve the economic elite who organize the priorities and procedures of contemporary capitalism. This faulty criminal justice system is hinged on the enforcement practices of the police, which are organized according to the punishment-not-rehabilitation principles of the prison industrial complex. What does this mean for those of us that envoke or demand notions of “justice” in our work?

When you have deep seeded oppressive tendencies that organize power and specifically policy at all those levels, then how can we expect anything but the systematic police brutality, prisoner abuse, and rapid rates of incarceration of people of color that make then US prison population the largest in the world? And how can we in good conscience place so much of our political and organizational energy into winning court rulings in a juridical context, which is designed to prevent us from having any power whatsoever? The law’s promise versus its expression is a crucial distinction. How should our priorities and our practices respond to that distinction?

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