You Can’t Treat a Disease with a Symptom of that Disease

PHOTO CREDIT: Shannon Knox


I am not a medical doctor, but I am pretty sure you cannot treat a disease with a symptom of that disease.

I used to say this metaphorically to call attention to the limitations of policy change, reform, and other vacuous terms that hold little weight in relation to the gritty, grimy, rough and tough work necessary to creating a more just and sustainable world.

I knew, for example, calls for greater “police reform” is an attempt to treat a disease (police) with a symptom of that disease (policy). I knew campaigns for “community control” of the police were insufficient because of the pathological nature of what the community is attempting to control. Community control of an invasive pathogen, like police, increases risk of serious infection and the potential for community spread, while shifting responsibility and liability away from the state and towards those disproportionately harmed by the disease itself.

Abolition is about making all of these symptoms obsolete through mutual aid, transformative justice and other ways to heal without the harm of the state. Healing through harm is not sustainable. Healing through abolition is. Abolition is not simply a negation, but a site for the generation of a more just and sustainable world.

I knew personal liability insurance and body cameras would not stop police, corrections officers and border control from killing racialized people. I knew that because violence is standard operating procedure for cops, “police violence” was redundant. I knew attempts to distinguish between “good policing” and “bad policing” made policing itself not just theoretically possible, but legitimate. Even when my elementary school teachers would bring in actual police to class as an attempt to desensitize all the poor, black and brown children to cops, deep down, I knew that “Officer Friendly” was suspect. I knew all this because police routinely arrested and jailed my father for doing what he had to do to survive in spaces not meant for living.

These were the cops who fought in the “war on drugs,” vowed to keep the streets “clean,” “get tough on crime,” and weed out the “good” from the “bad” migrant. My father fit the description of the “bad” migrant – the one immigrant rights activists distinguish themselves from in slogans like, “We are not criminals.” The last time my father was arrested in this country [the United States] was around the start of 287(g) agreements that enabled Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) to cooperate with local police in order to round up “bad migrants.”

To clarify, INS was the predecessor to ICE. Sort of same shit, different toilet. Under the guise of “good border control,” INS deported my uncle in 1983, my father in 1996, and another one of my uncles in 2006. The border followed my family as soon as they crossed it. It followed them to Dorchester, Roxbury and other poor, urbanized space and reminded Boston Police to presume my family guilty until proven less guilty. So I learned fairly early that when it came to police there was no room for improvement. I learned that rights-based regimes would not protect my father for exercising his “right” to life and survival. Any attempt to tinker with, reform, or fix the system was tantamount to treating a disease with its symptoms. Despite what I learned and what I knew, I was not prescient enough, though, to see the potential for a literal application of this trusty metaphor in the not-yet-here- and nevertheless, here we are.

COVID-19 not only lays bare the consequences of preexisting social conditions, such as unwavering commitments to incarceration, a parasitic health care system that privileges the health of the wealthy at the expense of the poor and uninsured, the illegibility of unhoused people who cannot “shelter in place,” and the systemic neglect of indispensable workers. The current pandemic also exposes the state’s dependency on treating diseases with symptoms. What follows is an invitation to meditate on the consequences of treating diseases with symptoms of those diseases. Consider this a provocation to destroy that which is destructive. Some may call it “destruction of property.” But if the property is itself destructive, wouldn’t “destruction of destructive property” be the more sensible charge?

1) We can’t treat this disease if jails and prisons still exist.

Jails and prisons are among the most destructive of properties in the US and they must be demolished, not remodeled, or reformed. We cannot treat the spread of coronavirus in carceral space with the creation of “task forces.” State intervention under the guise of “prison reform” represents yet another futile attempt to treat a disease (prisons) with a symptom of that disease (policy reform). Critiques of “over-incarceration,” leaves open the possibility for incarceration to remain intact, without any demand to abolish prisons. When a system justifies its existence by creating a captive surplus population, the prospects of physical distancing are grim. Without the immediate release of detained and incarcerated people, police and corrections officers around the country remain complicit in sentencing imprisoned loved ones to death. The only way to minimize harm to those at maximum risk is to #FreeThemAll.

2) We can’t treat this disease with capitalism.

Just as carceral logics are no cure for the coronavirus, neither is capitalism. It is clear that the authors of the CARES Act don’t give a S-H-I-T about poor and racialized people. Transferring trillions of dollars to corporate power and the many industries largely responsible for the pre-existing social conditions that spawned the current pandemic is an insult to countless indispensable, not expendable workers. For example, the airline industry’s demand for instant gratification led it to spend billions of dollars on stock buybacks, while preaching fiscal responsibility.

Despite being a grown-ass corporation, the airline industry still acts like the spoiled child of the state. Whenever the industry finds itself in a jam, the fed comes to its rescue with a “too big to fail” free card. The industry now has yet another opportunity to gamble borrowed money without any obligation to repay. Banking on corporate bailouts is unacceptable. While Wall Street and the airline industry are going gangbusters on the strength of the state, workers in the gig economy are getting got. Under the guise of “flexible labor,” they are stretched to their limits performing essential work without Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), without testing, without health insurance, without hazard pay, without sick leave, and without protection from retaliation for organizing as a form of self-protection. In addition to the threat of infection, frontline workers remain highly susceptible to wage theft, exploitation, extraction and punishment for remaining in solidarity with subversive comrades.

The contributions of frontline workers exceeds the conceptual capacity of “essential.” They are not abstract, sacrificial heroes. Instead, they are our friends, neighbors, and loved ones. And this makes them indispensable. We must stand in solidarity with indispensable workers to let coronavirus capitalists know that the jig of the gig is up!

3) We can’t treat a disease by esteeming human beings over more-than-human beings.

We can’t incarcerate or spend our way out of the current pandemic. And still, the state continues to treat the coronavirus with another symptom and key stakeholder in carceral logics and capital accumulation – animal agriculture. We can’t treat a disease without remaining in communion with the ecosystems and nonhuman animals that global capitalism is responsible for disrupting and destroying. We can’t treat the coronavirus by invoking Defense Production Acts to sustain life-taking (i.e. human and nonhuman animal life) industries. We can’t treat COVID-19 by passing an executive order barring local governments from closing slaughter houses.

As we critique industrial ranching operations and slaughterhouses as breeding grounds for future diseases, we must also level a critique of a capitalist system that exploits the need for poor and racialized migrants to survive in some of the most socially-and economically-dispossessed regions of this country.

There exists the opportunity to create more life-giving and life-affirming jobs, but only if we begin to make preexisting social conditions nonexistent. So as we make the call to #FreeThemAll, we must also demand the liberation of more-than-human beings held captive within zoos and other animal-exploitative industries.

As Christopher Sebastian reminds us, neither prisons nor zoos rehabilitate humans and non-human-animals. Zoos, factory farms, and other sites of animal captivity are close cousins to the prison industrial complex. The fact that zoos once held both black people and non-human animals in the same cage means black liberation is intimately connected to animal liberation. How do we destabilize the human-nonhuman animal binary to produce what David Pellow describes as “racial sociological indispensability” – the recognition of the “excluded, marginalized, and othered populations, beings, and things – both human and more-than-human – are indispensable to our collective futures”? Destabilizing this binary requires that humans no longer esteem ourselves at the expense of more-than-human beings. We must critique the false opposition between the two groups and recognize that both poor and racialized persons and nonhuman animals remain subject to similar forces of ecological violence. In doing so, we see that speciesism and racism are mutually-constitutive of one another. Refusing to treat diseases with symptoms requires an understanding that we are fed more than just animal products.

4) We can’t treat the disease with solecism.

We are often warned, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” But when the hand that feeds you is feeding you shit, you have no other choice but to bite that shit (the hand that is). I don’t eat shit, including bullshit. In truth, I’m highly allergic to it. I agree with Dylan Rodriguez and believe that “mass incarceration” and “disparity” are “bullshit” terms. By definition “disparity” presupposes “parity.” But is parity in infection rates realistic within a health care system that treats racialized disablement as an autopoietic process or self-inflicted injury? Should we expect parity when the convergence of state, political and private interests converge to treat diabetes and asthma as “preexisting conditions,” rather than the products of environmental racism?

Talk of a colorblind coronavirus that doesn’t see race means little when racialized medicine diminishes or utterly neglects the needs of nonwhite, racialized patients. “Invisible virus” is similarly specious language. Last time I checked, the pathologization of racialized people makes this supposedly invisible virus, hypervisible. We can’t treat a disease through “universal” guidelines that render invisible the experiences of those disproportionately harmed by the comorbidity of COVID-19 and structural violence. You cannot “shelter in place” without shelter. What to some is a refuge, may also be the site of emotional and sexual violence.

Practicing good hand hygiene means little without access to soap, water and/or sanitizer. Physical distancing guidelines don’t protect you from being harassed, detained, arrested, and/or incarcerated. When you are, as Frantz Fanon writes, “overdetermined from the outside,” face coverings offer little protection or immunity from police terror. In an attempt to “flatten the curve” we cannot flatten difference and differential impact. We know that there is no single curve. Some will experience relief much sooner than others. Sadly, some will experience no relief at all. Without accuracy in language, we can’t claim to be measuring what we intend to measure or diagnosing the right problem. Using the wrong name is worse than using no name at all.

5) We can treat this disease with abolition

There are many who fear that the “world will never be the same” once the coronavirus pandemic is over. But what about those who worry that things won’t be all that different? What about those who recognize that the “normal” so many long to return is still fatal AF? What about those who see with great clarity that the causes and consequences of the current pandemic will grant the state license to unleash new forms of terror through surveillance, incarceration, increased brutality, and extermination? Consider the growing number of deputized white people already primed to the warning, “If you see something, say something.” What happens if the thing you see is not a “thing” at all, but a human being? We are embarking on a new stage of biopolitics where coronavirus vigilantes are already targeting and regulating dissenting bodies, most of whom are black and brown. With sufficient amounts of coercion and consent, these new forms of racialized violence will become hegemonic. We are already seeing an expansion and re-entrenchment of state power. In this new era, will we ask whether mandating the use of face coverings is anti-black? Will we question whether critiquing “contact tracing” for potentially inaugurating new technologies of racialized surveillance will result in retaliation? Will we challenge the expansion of state surveillance under the guise of public health and safety measures? Will we call out the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank for using “debt relief” as a form of COVID-washing and remind both agencies who actually owes who? Will we go head up with law enforcement for constructing the crime they claim to police? Will we understand that what the state deems “crime,” many poor and racialized persons call “survival”?

Talk of a “broken system” makes theoretically possible the chance to fix the system. But in the spirit of Audre Lorde, attempting to fix allegedly “broken” systems using the “master’s tools” only stabilizes the foundation of the master’s house, rather than dismantling it. Too often attempts to undo systems of structural violence are liable to a redoing, especially when treating a disease with symptoms of that disease. My commitments are to organizing from the ground up and transformation consonant with the etymology of “radical” (a derivation of radix,” meaning “root”). As George Jackson reminds us, there is a thin line between “reform” and “fascism.” We cannot allow some slight tinkering to be wielded as a hegemonic tool to till the soil of oppression without uprooting contaminated terrain. This means we cannot let “mutual aid” work be de-historicized, mutated and made palatable for consumption and co-optation by the state and/or the nonprofit industrial complex. We may think we are preaching to the choir, but far too often the choir is singing the same song as the oppressor. We need to start singing a new tune. We need to start hitting notes out of range from those who can only lip sync the songs of freedom and liberation. It’s at this point when abolition steps to the mic and says, “check out my melody.”

Within any absence, there is a presence and abolitionists are steady building as they destroy. Many know how to live in a more just and sustainable world. It is for this reason that abolitionists embrace the idea that the world will not and cannot be the same. Abolition is a vital and necessary tool to ensuring that we no longer treat diseases with symptoms of that disease. The abolition of police, prisons, ICE, the state, capitalism, toxic animal enterprises, and solecism eliminates the possibility of being beholden to life-destroying systems. Some suggest that identifying what we are against is far easier saying what we are for. So let me put it this way: I am for a world without police and prisons. I am for a world without legislation that rewards Wall Street, big banks, and airlines acting as if they have nothing to lose. I am for a world without agencies like the IMF and World Bank that create the debt poor countries allegedly owe. I am for a world without a parasitic health insurance system that sucks the life out patients through the exorbitant cost of “care.”

Abolition is about making all of these symptoms obsolete through mutual aid, transformative justice and other ways to heal without the harm of the state. Healing through harm is not sustainable. Healing through abolition is. Abolition is not simply a negation, but a site for the generation of a more just and sustainable world.

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