Joy James, Williams College
April 17, 2017*
Joshua Dubler and Vincent Lloyd’s Break Every Yoke: Religion, Justice, and the Abolition of Prisons (forthcoming) offers an important contribution to ethics. Given the ways in which religion differs from spirituality (which the authors acknowledge), the book raises important questions about what types of religions or religious and spiritual practices would further our desires and actions to be free from captivity and violence. How to undo structural violence, interpersonal violence and internalized violence—the ills that rationalize the need for prisons—is a spiritual and religious query into philosophy, theory, and theology.
The “desire” for prisons—for other people not ourselves—is to a degree a manufactured one: the desire is sold to us by “law and order” rhetoric from both major parties, and rationalized by pundits, academics, and police whose professional careers—or we can just call them “jobs”—are predicated on the continuance and expansion of prisons.
But the desire for prisons is also hardwired into our fears, and our needs for safety. So, even as we reject what some feminist scholars have termed “carceral feminism,” most still want the batterer out of the home and the rapist out of the neighborhood. How abolitionism seeks this could be better explained to the masses.
Philosopher Janine Jones has succinctly stated the contradictions. Referencing her work with “at risk” African American girls in the south, she notes the political aspects of emotional intelligence concerning interpersonal and familial violence. “I can feel something else inside me that drives wanting [batterers and rapists] out—an anger against them, even knowing that probably for most their actions were conditioned by the pre-carceral conditions in which they were raised.” According to Jones, her work with black girls has led her to:
go towards refeeling (not necessarily rethinking) things differently. I’m thinking of a black girl who had me videotape her as she spoke about her father physically abusing her . . . . she says, ‘I love my father to pieces, but the abuse has to stop. When you abuse a child once you want to keep doing it.’ What moves my feeling—she loves him to pieces. She doesn’t want him locked up. She just wants, really needs so much, for the abuse to stop. But it hasn’t. (Janine Jones 4.15.2017 email correspondence)
Concerning interpersonal and internalized violence, abolitionists may have under- theorized and under-implemented praxis tied to the large questions “What is to be done?” and “Where do we go from here?,” queries explored in books of the same titles respectively by Vladimir Lenin and Martin Luther King, Jr. The knowledge or epistemology that demonstrates restorative justice and/or abolitionism as sufficient correctives for repeated violators needs to be more widely emphasized and shared. As Jones notes, there are brilliant black women, abused in childhood and adulthood, living in public housing or poverty, who find it necessary (or desirable) to collaborate with the police and SROs because their survival depends upon it. This suggests that their survival might also depend upon incarceration.
These realities point to our collective challenges and are linked to other dilemmas facing the efficacy of abolitionism.
We understand that most of the incarcerated are nonviolent drug offenders. We also understand that the war on drugs which was supposed to have been winding down with treaties signed between progressives and conservatives such as Gingrich and the Koch brothers is now being ramped up by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Trump administration with mandates that marijuana is as dangerous as heroin and advocacy for the decriminalization of opioids for white voters whose drug addictions are increasingly recognized as a mental health crisis.
We are also in agreement that penal culture and state institutions do not seek justice, especially restorative justice as Break Every Yoke points out. Clearly, religious and social justice institutions and activists constantly work to diminish violence of all forms. Abolitionism focuses most on the predatory state.
Yet, the double bind persists. The aggressor is both the punitive, carceral state and the neighbor or family member. Those caught in the middle are not protected by or from either sector. But, they are prohibited from or punished for making the choices made by Marissa Alexander towards her partner, or Maya Angelou’s uncles towards her mother’s boyfriend.
I am not arguing for Alexander’s choice or for the choice of Angelou’s kin. I just wonder about the overlaps in breaking every yoke. Do organized religions and movements that sanction conventional morality comprehend the violence Marissa and Maya survived and the violence Alexander and Angelou’s relatives deployed? When we abolish prisons and foster healing that can only take place with abolition, are we prepared for the disappointments of reoccurring violence and new-old forms of captivity?
Reading Break Every Yoke led me to remember my encounters in Harlem Pentecostal churches several years ago where communities sought release from varied forms of violence and transgressions. Routinely the church choirs sang Tasha Cobbs’s 2013 gospel hit “Break Every Chain.” With the crescendo, the choir is joined by congregation in the chant “Break every chain.” When the church reaches the refrain “There is an army rising up” to break those chains, it is evident that the call is for power. That power will triumph; the last verses include: “I hear the chains falling.” For Cobbs and congregation, the power is derivative of religion and deity: “There is power in the name of Jesus to break every chain.” For Cobbs, and for most of the congregations, this was a battle hymn, but not one sung against the state. Cobbs preaching and singing at Lakewood Church, a multi-racial mega church, is instructive in coalitions simultaneously progressive and conservative.
The mega churches—like the bipartisan consensus to dismantle mass incarceration (destabilized by the Trump administration)—rarely acknowledge the radical agency of their subject or object of fixation and transformation. Jesus was their savior. But Jesus was also a black Jew (a descriptor attributed to the 1990s rap group Blood of Abraham) and a political prisoner captured, tortured and executed by an empire aided by conventional, albeit oppressed, religiosity.
If “our” prisoners and religion or spirituality are bridges to citizenry, what does it mean to be yoked to the concept of US citizenship in this democracy which has pursued historical racial-imperial mandates? Perhaps, we need to bring every sector of the “left” (not just the popular left) into discussion about ideological yokes that bind. The imprisoned writers referenced in this book span a left broader than our current academic and political coalitions and offer insights into the challenges we face.
Break the Yoke highlights the contradictions of religion in its references to Austin Reed’s 1858 The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict. His memoir suggests levels of violence that increase today with the undoing of Obama reforms (which the authors note were not abolitionist) by Attorney General Sessions, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and Secretary of Homeland Security General John Kelly. The Reed memoir’s anguished confessional of institutional child abuse and racism, penal violence, and exploitation describes present horrors nearly two centuries before the traumatic violence that led to Kalief Browder’s suicide in New York after several years of false incarceration at Rikers Island.
Reed completed The Haunted Convict the same year that John Brown visited abolitionist Frederick Douglass in Rochester to propose the Harper’s Ferry slave insurrection (Douglass declined to participate). Reed lacks political awareness of abolitionism in his hometown and in general. He is not an abolitionist; he is a victim and a survivor. That poses an interesting conundrum for contemporary activists, particularly privileged academics: How to increase peerage in our advocacy, particularly if the incarcerated are more conservative or more pro-capitalist than we? And particularly if we see ourselves as the intellectual “leaders” of abolitionism without factoring the consumerist based platforms that elevate us.
What is the relationship between the “survivor” and the “liberator”? I don’t know. But for Austin Reed the boy, teen, and adult (he was incarcerated most of his life), the goal is to diminish the violence of penal captivity, not abolish chattel slavery. Yet, penal captivity is a derivative of slavery and slavery is a derivative of democracy (the 3/5th clause makes this plausible). So, does radical “abolitionism” seek to undo the prison, slavery, and conventional democracy which are all intertwined?
The collective sharing of agency and subjectivity in abolitionism is important. Alienation can destroy consciousness. Reed’s physical torture is matched by his disappearance into solitary confinement. Extreme isolation diminishes or destroys capacity for relationship and social development, prisoners become more depressed or psychotic as “the intersubjective basis for their concrete personhood” (Guenther, Solitary Confinement, 35) is undermined by the absence of everyday experience or intimacy with others. (In January 2016, President Obama banned solitary confinement for juveniles or youth in federal prisons due to psychological devastation resulting from isolation; the Trump administration may attempt to undo such protocols.)
Break Every Yoke highlights the invaluable work of going into prisons to share and teach and witness. Abolitionist work challenges captivity as the interruption between one’s relationships with oneself, nature, other human beings, and organized religion that sustains spirituality (although the contradictions of interactions in an oppressive environment remain).
Spirituality without structure is not easily sustained in hostile, authoritarian environments. Although religions have historically been practitioners of organized predatory violence (the Catholic church’s child abuse scandals come to mind), Break Every Yoke illustrates how we can counter violence with religion that supports resilience and a healthy spirituality to resist: school to prison pipelines, foster care, residential homes for special needs children, detention centers, mental asylums, solitary confinement, death row, political imprisonment and mass incarceration.
When Break Every Yoke invokes Austin Reed, George Jackson, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Assata Shakur, among other authors and imprisoned thinkers, it highlights how deep and deadly our struggles are. We have suffered enormous casualties for centuries.
Reed died a broken man. Malcolm, Martin, and George died as political/religious martyrs, assassinated because of their revolutionary consciousness, and largely abandoned by masses who once cheered them but became fearful of their call to reject idolatry—specifically, the monetized, carceral state. Other imprisoned writers mentioned in this book died on death row.
Assata Shakur is one of the few living rebels cited in the text who successfully resisted reductionism to an ancestral icon. With Comey and company having linked her to international terrorism and a $2m bounty (the Obama administration did not protest this), in exile, she becomes central to this discussion on imprisoned black men. Like few other cases, Shakur highlights how conventional political reality and fealty to the state weave iron yokes that cross ethnic-racial, economic, gender/sexual and ideological lines to reify consensus that the power of the imperial state shall not be questioned.
How prophetic that the most exacting tests for the powers of religion might be the redemption of a hunted black woman, the maternal political fugitive who seeks the abolition of prison, slavery, repressive democracy.
*(this paper was e-presented at the APA, Seattle, Washington, on April 14, 2017)