Challenging Systems Designed To Disable

Riverwise Editorial Board

It’s no accident that there are ‘two Detroits’. It requires violence to maintain this inequity. Neighborhoods are neglected by city government. Police are rarely seen as protectors. The daily experience of many of our young people, from schools to the streets, is to be controlled and contained. The laws of the state fall most heavily on the young and the people deemed disposable by a society that no longer needs their labor and lacks the humanity to understand their creativity.


Yet it is precisely in many of these same neighborhoods where we find the most sustainable and community-focused efforts emerging from the deepest desires of people to contribute to building a better life for themselves, their families and their communities. For example, neighborhood collectives on Detroit’s east-side have expanded the traditional urban farm with conscious efforts to create new economic relationships,  that celebrate people before profit. Cooperative economics enables people to experiment with new ways to make good housing affordable, education initiatives strengthen intergenerational ties and stretch the imaginations of young and old, and new methods of living more consciously with our natural world. Water catchment systems are springing up alongside rows of organic vegetables. It is here, in neighborhoods, as people come together to talk the texture of daily life, to share their plans and assume responsibilities for them that a more democratic and equitable society is emerging.


It is this potential to embrace and enact radically different values of care, concern and compassion that is most threatening to the power structure.  In this edition of Riverwise it is with great pride and humility that we decided to feature local organizing efforts challenging the most oppressive structures in our city. Police power, criminalization of young people, abuse of law and courts, and mass prisons have no place in our future. Throughout the country and the city, people are coming together to challenge this violence.


In Detroit, we have quickly seen the interconnectedness of the struggles for a just future. In the struggle to resist water shut-offs we witnessed the complete disregard for people with disabilities. Increasingly we are learning what it means to create a society where all people are valued, where lives are respected and where people’s creativity and contributions are encouraged, not controlled and disregarded.

Challenging the prison system and the ableism in our society opens profound questions for us to consider about our relationships to one another and about who we value. When we seriously ask how do we move beyond a system of state violence to solve problems, how do we restore those who have been taken from our communities, how do we create a society where jails are obsolete, we are opening ourselves to new understandings of our mutual obligations to one another. As we come to understand that, just as many of us are locked away in prison cells, others of us are locked out of full community life by a culture that regards people with disabilities as disposable, that makes little effort to include them in public, productive life. We thank this issue’s authors and contributors who help us ask more of ourselves as we think about the kind of just future we are creating together.


As this Summer/Fall 2018 issue is being released, a national prisoner strike will have just ended. One of the ten demands of the national prisoner’s strike is, “An immediate end to all prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.” This demand addresses the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which allows prisons to profit from the labor of incarcerated individuals. It remains the legal foundation buttressing a system that has become a massive profit center for private companies who pay pennies per hour for the labor of people forced to work behind bars.


This nationwide action was, in part, a direct response to an April ‘prison riot’ at Lee Correctional Institute in South Carolina. But the protest is more generally about ongoing inhumane living conditions that plague American prisons, The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world at approximately 2.3 million inhabitants.  We welcome the coalition of prison abolition groups fighting to overturn the current prison system to the benefit of society as a whole.


Locally, a grassroots coalition is emerging to address these same issues through community rallies and in the courts. While the state is attempting to spend taxpayer money on a new jail complex— money that should be earmarked for reopening the dozens of public schools closed during the last 15 years— the newly formed Detroit Justice Center (DJC) is making the case that the public has, once again, been left out of the process. The land swap between Wayne County and Dan Gilbert that made the deal possible may be complete, but the public must be notified before construction bonds are  released paving the way for the new jail complex near I-75 and Warren. That is the basis of a federal lawsuit the DJC has filed in US Eastern District Court.


The suit says that Wayne County officials failed to provide proper notice to Detroit citizens when the construction bonds were issued, taking away our right to challenge the new jail’s construction through a voter referendum. The DJC wants Wayne County officials to adhere to the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Michigan and reissue the notice.


The work of the DJC sheds more light on the broader movement to end criminalization of poverty and, furthermore, to abolish our system of incarceration. The DJC is part of a growing number of activists who understand that if we are serious about transforming the world, we need to embrace the idea of ‘abolition’ and the work it will take to achieve it.


Speaking in abolitionist terms forces us to address the idea that a truly corrupt and unjust system that is damaging to society as a whole cannot be reformed. It must be dismantled entirely. We must then imagine and adopt new ways of living together.

It’s only when we reach towards abolition that we begin to address what our prison system is: a form of modern-day slavery, whittling away the humanity of our incarcerated citizens and the society that maintains it. Abolition forces us to imagine a world in which prisons don’t exist; a place where the justice system is based on practices considered restorative and transformative instead of punitive. We can then address the causes of so-called crimes, and begin to restructure our economic institutions accordingly.


In his recent article on the movement’s foundation, “What Is Prison Abolition?,” John Washington writes that, “Abolitionists…share an idea—a vision—more than a structure: a future in which vital needs like housing, education, and health care are met, allowing people to live safe and fulfilled lives—without the need for prisons.”


In Michigan we vividly see how our humanity is distorted; we are reminded how automatically callous and malevolent the criminal system is, especially when it comes to black folks.  Take the case of Siwatu-Salama Ra, the young Detroit activist. She was five months pregnant when she was convicted for offenses stemming from the defense of her family from imminent assault.  Despite doctor’s warnings of serious health risks, she was forced to give birth in prison. She, like many other female inmates had her baby taken from her after 48 hours. This is the type of violence inflicted upon incarcerated people every hour of every day. It is a violence that perpetuates and increases the cycle of alienation and separation from society. With our relative freedom comes the responsibility to repair those injuries. With our creativity comes the obligation to imagine a world where these injurious relationships are less likely to develop.


As a start, the agreement between Dan Gilbert and Wayne County is toxic. It continues to entangle public and private ventures, with the public playing the role of financier for private profits. On top of it all, the debilitating effects of a nationwide carceral system remain absent from mainstream media commentary.

But to observers like Matthew Irwin (page 6) the subtext and contradictions of the Wayne County/Dan Gilbert land swap couldn’t be more clear: Gilbert seeks to expand his real estate empire and security apparatus with public tax monies.


The way that the criminal justice system injures families and community indicates the historical role that American society plays in disabling persons. The police disable people when they use violent measures in apprehending suspected transgressors. But we also disable people when we ignore the resources that some people require just to get from place to place or to obtain the things they need to live. Disability, or capability, becomes a collective responsibility; it’s a spectrum that we all exist on and can all work to improve.


Disability justice advocates (pages 18 and 20) use language to help us alter our perspective on how disabilities are a function of external perceptions more than physical or mental limitations. Baxter Jones’ story and his activism help us realize the part we play, and the part oppressive institutions play, in perpetuating the ‘disableing.’ As with mass incarceration, embracing our interconnectedness is a necessity to understand that “nobody, by nature, is disabled.”


We must begin to value everyone for their potential to be a contributing member of a new society. We must find ways to consciously become more human, human beings. As we begin to value new ideas and relationships, we are moving closer to just, equitable and sustainable lives.


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