Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Prison Industrial Complex vs. the Queer and Trans Community

Jane Marquardt is a major figure in Utah's LGBTQ community.  In 2010 she and her partner Tami jointly received Equality Utah's Allies for Equality Award.  Jane now sits on the advisory council for Equality Utah.  Yet in addition to their work within the LGBTQ community, the Marquardts profit off of mass incarceration.   You see, Jane Marquardt is the Board Vice Chair for Management and Training Corporation, and served as a director and legal counsel for the company between 1980 and 1999. Management and Training Corporation is the third largest private prison profiteering company in the United States.   In addition to incarcerating convicted criminals, MTC receives federal contracts to operate immigration detention centers.  In order to guarantee continued profit off of those contracts, MTC has pushed anti-immigrant legislation by backing Arizona's Russell Pearce, the sponsor of the infamous SB 1070.

In profiting off of incarceration and backing anti-immigrant politicians, Marquardt puts herself not only on the wrong side of immigration and criminal justice, but also on the wrong side of human rights abuses against the LGBTQ community.  Discrimination against the queer and trans community puts us at higher risk of being locked away in prisons and immigration detention centers.  And once queer and trans people are locked up, they face a litany of human rights abuses.

Criminalizing Our Communities

Some communities are more likely to have their members incarcerated than others.  The racial and class biases that plague our criminal justice system and our immigration enforcement system are well documented and will not be discussed much here.   Instead, I want to discuss the policies which criminalize the queer and trans communities, making us more likely to be housed in prisons and detention centers, including those operated by the Management and Training Corporation.

The first major factor that marginalizes and criminalizes members of our community is homelessness. According to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, "Of the estimated 1.6 million homeless American youth, between 20 and 40 percent identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT)." The task force also reports that "26 percent of gay teens who came out to their parents/guardians were told they must leave home; LGBT youth also leave home due to physical, sexual and emotional abuse."  In addition to being more likely to participate in criminalized activities like drug use and sex work, homeless LGBTQ youth face the many criminal sanctions which explicitly target the homeless.  According to a 2009 report by The National Coalition for the Homeless:
Even though most cities do not provide enough affordable housing, shelter space, and food to meet the need, many cities use the criminal justice system to punish people living on the street for doing things that they need to do to survive.  Such measures often prohibit activities such as sleeping/camping, eating, sitting, and/or begging in public spaces and include criminal penalties for violation of these laws.  Some cities have even enacted food sharing restrictions that punish groups and individuals for serving homeless people.  Many of these measures appear to have the purpose of moving homeless people out of sight, or even out of a given city.
This criminalization of homelessness is not limited to cities conventionally seen as conservative.  To the contrary, the same 2009 report ranked both liberal Berkeley and the famously queer friendly San Francisco among their "10 Meanest Cities" for criminalizing homelessness.  These criminal sanctions put queer and trans homeless youth at increased risk of eventual incarceration.

Beyond the specific issue of youth homelessness, a variety of factors contribute to structural poverty for certain segments of the LGBTQ community.  Queer and transgender people face discrimination in housing and employment.  Furthermore, many face educational barriers, due to harassment and bullying in school, or even an inability for transgender people to apply to schools due to discrepancies in their IDs.  This graphic from the Sylvia Rivera Law Project is useful for explaining the interlocking discrimination that can trap many people in poverty, particularly as it applies to the trans community.

Once one is trapped in poverty, one is exposed to profiling and disproportionate police presence in poor communities.  One is also more likely to be subject to the criminal laws which target the homeless.  Furthermore, members of the transgender community can face criminal charges simply for living in accordance with their gender identity.   For example, they can be arrested for using the "wrong" bathroom, due to suspicious discrepancies in their ID, and even on trumped up charges of solicitation.  This flow chart from the Sylvia Rivera Law Project explains the phenomenon well.

The combination of employment discrimination and criminalization particularly impacts queer and trans immigrants.  In America's labyrinthine legal immigration system, finding skilled employment is one of the few paths to legal immigration status.  When that is closed off by discrimination, one is far more likely to be an undocumented immigrant.  This difficulty is compounded by the structural poverty and criminalization already discussed here, as once an undocumented immigrant is picked up by police, they are likely to be sent to a detention center and eventually deported.

In addition to the risk factors detailed here, evidence from the juvenile justice system demonstrates that once arrested, LGBTQ youth are more likely to be placed in pre-trial detention.  According to an article in The Nation:
The road to incarceration begins in pretrial detention, before the youth even meets a judge. Laws and professional standards state that it's appropriate to detain a child before trial only if she might run away or harm someone. Yet for queer youth, these standards are frequently ignored. According to UC Santa Cruz researcher Dr. Angela Irvine, LGBT youth are two times more likely than straight youth to land in a prison cell before adjudication for nonviolent offenses like truancy, running away and prostitution. According to Ilona Picou, executive director of Juvenile Regional Services, Inc., in Louisiana, 50 percent of the gay youth picked up for nonviolent offenses in Louisiana in 2009 were sent to jail to await trial, while less than 10 percent of straight kids were. "Once a child is detained, the judge assumes there's a reason you can't go home," says Dr. Marty Beyer, a juvenile justice specialist. "A kid coming into court wearing handcuffs and shackles versus a kid coming in with his parents—it makes a very different impression."
This initial bias makes it clear that queer and trans youth are disproportionately locked up in this country, even before they are given a trial.

The Brutality Within (Trigger warning for rape, misgendering, and bigoted violence)

To explain the brutal human rights violations faced by queer and trans inmates and immigration detainees, I will begin with the story of Tanya Guzman-Martinez.   Guzman-Martinez, a transgender woman, faced a horrific litany of abuses, including sexual assault, while she was held in Arizona's Eloy Detention Center, an immigration detention center run by the prison profiteers at Corrections Corporation of America.  In a classic case of the misgendering systematic in our prison system, Guzman-Martinez was housed with male inmates despite the fact that she had "surgically altered her breasts, buttocks, hips, and legs to appear more feminine."  According to a lawsuit filed recently by the ACLU,  she was harassed and assaulted by inmates and guards many times at the detention center.   Both inmates and guards regularly called her "dog," "faggot," and "boy."  One guard told inmates that in exchange for "three soup packets" they could "have" Guzman-Martinez, an obvious encouragement of rape.  Allegedly she was also "often inappropriately patted down," in other words groped, by male guards.

As if this frequent sexual harassment from guards and inmates were not enough, Guzman-Martinez faced two instances of violent sexual assault while she was detained at Eloy.  In one case a fellow inmate pushed her up against a wall, groped her, and threatened to have her beaten and raped if she reported the incident.  The other was perpetrated by Justin Manford, a guard at the CCA detention center.  According to the ACLU complaint:
Manford maliciously forced Ms. Guzman-Martinez to watch him masturbate into a white styrofoam cup and then demanded that she ingest his ejaculated semen. Failures by Defendants CCA, DeRosa and Manford to adequately screen and monitor Manford, and to prevent situations where a male officer such as Manford is alone with a transgender woman detainee and out of sight of others, enabled this horrific assault on Ms. Guzman-Martinez.
The assault followed a history of frequent inappropriate behavior and inquiries by Manford about Ms. Guzman-Martinez, including questions about her sexuality, whether she had a boyfriend, and whether other inmates had seen her breasts.
During the commission of the assault, Manford made offensive gestures, faces, and comments towards Ms. Guzman-Martinez and threatened that he could have her locked up in “the hole,” lengthen her detention or have her deported to Mexico if she did not follow his demands.
While Guzman-Martinez reported Manford and he was convicted of "attempted unlawful sexual contact", justice certainly was not done.  Manford was only sentenced to two days, time served.

Sexual assaults like these are not isolated incidents for queer and trans inmates and detainees.  A 2007 study  found that “[s]exual assault is 13 times more prevalent among transgender inmates, with 59 percent reporting being sexually assaulted.”  This same study found that 67% of inmates who identified as LGBTQ reported being sexually assaulted while incarcerated, a rate 15 times more prevalent than that of the general inmate population.  According to a fact sheet from Just Detention International, "LGBTQ inmates are frequently labeled as ‘queens,’ ‘punks,’ or ‘bitches’ for the duration of their detention,  permanently marking them as targets."   After being assaulted, queer and trans inmates then face bigoted victim blaming.  As the JDI fact sheet explains, "Corrections staff tend to confuse homosexuality and transgender status with consent to rape, and trivialize the problem. LGBTQ inmates frequently describe officials ignoring or even laughing at reports of sexual violence. To make matters worse, LGBTQ inmates who report abuse are often subjected to further attacks, humiliating strip searches, and punitive segregation."

Beyond mere heterosexism and cissexism on the part of guards and inmates, policies such as misgendering systematically abuse queer and trans inmates.   As the Just Detention fact sheet explains:
The homophobic culture of corrections is compounded by policies that do not take into account the specific concerns of LGBTQ prisoners. For example, transgender women are typically housed with men, in accordance with their birth gender, and are required to shower and submit to strip searches in front of male officers and inmates. In addition, gay and transgender inmates often seek protective custody because of their heightened risk for abuse, only to be placed in solitary confinement, locked in a cell for 23 hours a day, and losing access to programming and other services.
Thus, official policies in the prison system subject queer and transgender inmates to serious psychological discomfort, while heightening their already severe risk of sexual abuse.

In addition to violence, harassment, and sexual assault, queer and trans inmates are often denied access to appropriate medical care.  According to Masen Davis, Executive Director of the Transgender Law Center, “Prisons have a legal duty to provide adequate health care, but LGBT people in prisons often face extra barriers to accessing basic and necessary medical treatment.”  One example of this is denying transgender inmates access to hormone treatment, even if they were using such hormones prior to incarceration.  In Wisconsin, the ACLU had to file a lawsuit to overturn a law that banned medical treatment for transgender prisoners.   Another example concerns HIV positive inmates.   A 2010 report from Human Rights Watch details the systematic discrimination faced by HIV positive prisoners in South Carolina.

Abuse of queer and trans inmates is not limited to adult prisons and detention centers.   A report for The Nation titled 'I Was Scared to Sleep': LGBT Youth Face Violence Behind Bars vividly describes incidents of violence and harassment that LGBTQ youth have faced in America's juvenile justice system.  From beatings to victim blaming to bigoted slurs from guards, queer and transgender youth are regularly abused in juvenile corrections facilities.  They are faced with human rights violations as brutal as those faced by their adult counterparts.

Deportation as a Death Sentence

For companies like Corrections Corporation of America, GeoGroup, and Management and Training Corporation, the money comes from keeping people locked up.  But when you're operating an immigration detention center, the end result for many detainees is inevitably deportation.  In order to secure more detainees, all three of these corporations have financially backed anti-immigrant legislation, and such legislation almost certainly means an increase not just in rates of detention, but in rates of deportation.

So what sorts of consequences can deportation have for queer and transgender immigrants?  In some cases, it can mean that they will be deported to countries where they are very likely to be persecuted, perhaps even killed, for who they are.  For example, Tanya Guzman-Martinez, whose ordeal in a CCA detention facility we already discussed, applied for and received asylum on grounds that she would be persecuted in Mexico for being transgender.   When HIV positive immigrants are deported, it can be a death sentence if they are sent to a country without access to necessary medication.  A 2009 Human Rights Watch report, Returned to Risk, discusses deportation of HIV positive migrants in detail.

What kind of ally profits from this?

This essay is mostly intended to educate people about the ways prisons, immigration detention centers, and the deportation process oppress the queer and transgender community, not to attack Jane Marquardt.  However, it's well worth asking:  What kind of ally to the LGBTQ community profits off of these sorts of human rights violations?  Jane Marquardt is a respected and influential member of Utah's LGBTQ community, but if she profits off of a system that oppresses us, how good of an ally is she?  While I have not yet found specific details regarding how her company, Management and Training Corporation, handles sexual assault against queer and trans inmates, there are multiple documented cases of sexual assault and illegal strip searches in their facilities.  Furthermore, regardless of how MTC handles their own facilities, they have pushed for laws that increase rates of immigration detention and deportation.  In doing so, they have backed the caging, rape, harassment, abuse, and possibly even wrongful death of queer and trans immigrants.

This also raises a question for the LGBTQ movement more generally.  Where will our focus as activists be?   Are we going to solely focus on easy issues like gay marriage and Don't Ask Don't Tell, or will we confront the caging of queer and trans people, as well as the subsequent harassment, rape, assault, and deportation they face?  This question decides whether we will be allies merely to privileged queers or to all queers.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Has (or can) the internet make pornography less misogynistic?

One of the best known viewpoints within feminism is opposition to pornography.  Many prominent feminists, including Andrea Dworkin, Catherine MacKinnon, Diana Russell, and Jill Riddington, oppose pornography on the grounds that its production involves exploitation and abuse of women, and that it sends misogynistic messages regarding sex.  However, their critiques do not apply to all visual or artistic portrayals of sex designed to titillate.  Indeed, some feminists explicitly differentiate between different explicit portrayals of sex for entertainment.  For instance, in her book Confronting Pornography, Jill Riddington writes “If the message is one that equates sex with domination, or with the infliction of pain, or one that denies sex as a means of human communication, the message is a pornographic one.... Erotica, in contrast, portrays mutual interaction.”  Thus, much material which would be defined colloquially as pornography is not defined as negative by those who accept anti-pornography feminist theories.  In this paper, I intend to show that much of the pornography proliferation seen on the internet is proliferation of material Riddington would define as erotica rather than pornography.  Further, by decentralizing the means of producing pornography, the internet has made pornography less exploitative.  By decentralizing the means of pornography production, the internet has enabled feminists and other marginalized communities to produce empowering yet titillating content, all the while decreasing incentives for abuse and exploitation.

One prominent critique of pornography stems from the assertion that performers are often abused and exploited during the production process.  In some cases, this involves violence against women, even in pornography which appears to be non-violent. For example, Linda Marchiano, who starred in the seemingly non-violent film Deep Throat, has written several books on the rape and abuse she suffered during that film’s production.  In 1983, a variety of porn actresses gave testimony on their own similar ordeals at hearings on a Minneapolis ordinance which would define pornography as a civil rights violation.  Such testimony indicates that at least some pornography involves violent abuse of women, which leads anti-pornography feminist legal scholar Catherine MacKinnon to write “before pornography became the pornographer’s speech it was somebody’s life” as a rejoinder to those who argue that pornography is protected as free speech (Russell, 43).  Further, even in cases where violence is not employed, professional pornography has elements of exploitation which become morally dubious.  Producers operate in a position of power over actors.  This workplace hierarchy, combined with financial pressures, blurs lines of consent, pressuring people to participate in sex they may not otherwise enjoy or be comfortable with.  Even from a sex positive feminist perspective, this is problematic, as it separates sex from consent, fulfillment, and pleasure, instead placing it in a context of hierarchy and economic pressure.

However, the internet has the potential to largely pornography away from hierarchical professional models of production.  “Amateur porn” has become more popular since the advent of the internet permitted anyone with a camera to produce and post pornography.  Many fans praise amateur porn for possessing superior realism compared to professionally produced pornography.  But more importantly for our purposes, amateur pornography is about the pleasure of the participants, rather than workplace hierarchies or economic incentives.  Indeed, the internet has permitted pornography to be made which focuses upon key parts of pleasure which are largely ignored by professional pornographers.  For instance, most professionally produced pornography focuses on pleasure for male target audiences, even adding unrealistic elements to lesbianism and female masturbation for the sake of men.  However, www.ifeelmyself.com features amateur videos and pictures of women engaging in masturbation.  By portraying female sexual pleasure as women actually experience it, www.ifeelmyself.com treats sexuality as providing pleasure in a mutual way rather than exploitative or hierarchical manner, and thus meets Jill Riddington’s definition of erotica rather than pornography.  However, regardless of the message sent by amateur pornography, when consensual it does not involve exploitation in anything resembling the way professional pornography does.
The internet may eventually permit pornography to be decentralized enough that hierarchical models of production are almost entirely abolished, replaced instead by various types of amateur porn.  As the internet has enabled people to produce and distribute pornography for free, the supply of pornography, including free pornography, will rise while demand remains constant, thus decreasing the average price people are willing to pay for pornography, potentially bringing it down to zero.  This dramatic increase in competition will decrease the amount of concentrated capital possessed by pornography production companies, and decrease the incentive to make porn for money.  Thus, exploitative models of pornography production could be entirely subsumed by amateur pornography, which we have demonstrated to present fewer problems from a feminist perspective.

It should be made clear that this has not happened yet.  Indeed, the internet currently is home to many large pornography companies.  For example, many pornography sites are run by Bang Bros, a production company founded in 2000 which currently operates 29 websites.  In the year 2007, the company generated 1.9 million dollars in sales revenue.  It is noteworthy that in spite of using a commercial production model rather than decentralized and voluntary amateur productions, Bang Bros advertises many of their sites as “amateur porn,” presumably to cash in on the superior realism often associated with amateur pornography.  This misrepresentation of commercial pornography as “amateur” has likely slowed down the diversification and decentralization of pornography that the internet enables.  In order to limit the commercial aspects of pornography, which introduce dubious power relations and exploitation, the internet’s full potential must be used to undermine commercial pornography’s profitability.  Such an approach would involve those who are comfortable doing so producing their own independent amateur pornography.  It could also involve violating intellectual property restrictions by distributing existing commercial pornography on image and file sharing sites.  This would undercut commercial pornography in the same way other proprietary content industries have had their profits undercut by internet piracy.  A combination of the two tactics would dissolve pornography production towards smaller scale production, with sexuality being recorded for the love and pleasure of sexuality, rather than to appeal to lucrative target audiences.

While many feminist arguments against pornography appeal primarily to exploitative working conditions, some are largely based on the notion that pornography sends misogynistic messages and promotes misogynistic behavior among viewers.  For instance, Riddington writes that pornography “equates sex with domination, or with the infliction of pain” and “denies sex as a means of human communication.”  Moreover, many feminists have argued that viewing pornography increases predilections towards sexual assault.  For example, in an article for the Yale Law Journal on the subject of sexual equality and law, Catherine MacKinnon expressed this position by stating:
In one study, one third of American men in the sample say they would rape a woman if assured they would not get caught.  The figure climbs following exposure to commonly available aggressive pornography.  Pornography, which sexualizes gender inequality, is a major institution of socialization into these roles.  The evidence suggests that women are targeted for intimate assault because the degradation and violation of women is eroticized, indeed defines the social meaning of female sexuality in societies of sex inequality.  Sexual assault thus becomes a definitive act of sexualized power and masculinity under male supremacy (MacKinnon, 1302-1303).

MacKinnon’s basic argument is that pornography eroticizes and glorifies acts of sexual assault, thus tying it intimately to how males see sexuality and implying that women are sexual objects open to assault.  This perspective is expounded upon empirically by Diana Russell in an article for the journal Political Psychology.  In this article, Russell cited a variety of studies which showed that men are surprisingly willing to commit sexual assault, and that this willingness increases when they are aroused (43-45).  Russell then described data on how often adult entertainment features aggressive or violent content, finding that one fifth of all sex episodes in erotic paperbacks involved rape or sexual assault, that less than 3% of the rapists in these books experienced negative consequences, and that in a sample of 150 pornographic home videos 19% of scenes featured violence or aggression, with the aggressors portrayed in a positive light 60% of the time (46-47).  Such empirical data bolstered Russell’s theory of pornography providing a social model for sexual assault, which is very similar to MacKinnon’s theory on this subject.  However, MacKinnon and Russell both wrote their articles before pornography became a primarily online phenomenon.

While the internet has dramatically increased the availability of pornography, sexual assault has declined.  According to the FBI, forcible rape has declined from 41.1 per 100,000 people in 1990 to 28.7 per 100,000 people, an all time low, in 2009.  If Russell and MacKinnon’s theories regarding how pornography can impact inclinations towards sexual assault are correct, this may indicate that porn has become less misogynistic in its message.  The diversification and proliferation of pornography online has made it difficult to gather statistics on how much internet porn portrays sexual assault in a positive light, or sends other misogynistic messages.  However, one trend which can be documented is a rise in porn which portrays female sexual pleasure in a positive light, and generally operates in line with feminist principles.  The example I typically refer back to is www.ifeelmyself.com, which portrays real women masturbating and experiencing pleasure and orgasms.  However, entire genres of feminist, alternative, and queer pornography have emerged to portray sexuality in both titillating and empowering ways.  Perhaps the best illustration of this is the emergence of the Feminist Porn Awards, issued each year by www.goodforher.com.  The award’s site states that “the world is inundated with cheesy, cliche, degrading, and patronizing porn” but also that “erotic fantasy is powerful” and “women and marginalized communities deserve to put their dreams and desires on film, too.”  Thus, the awards recognize porn which uses visual erotica not to degrade, marginalize, or exploit, but to portray sexuality in a manner which empowers women and the sexually marginalized.  Specifically, to be eligible for a Feminist Porn Award, a film must meet the following criteria:
1) A woman had a hand in the production, writing, direction, etc. of the work.
2) It depicts genuine female pleasure
3) It expands the boundaries of sexual representation on film and challenges stereotypes that are often found in mainstream porn. 
That the Feminist Porn Awards find so many eligible nominees each year indicates that pornography is being used for its positive potential.  It indicates that while some pornography may have the rape promoting messages described by MacKinnon and Russell, there is a growing genre of pornography which serves to expand sexual representation and benefit women and other marginalized groups.

This potential for pornography to be used for sexual liberation has been noted before, specifically by individualist feminist Wendy McElroy, the author of XXX: A Woman’s Right to Pornography.  In her book, McElroy argues that pornography benefits women both personally and politically.  One benefit she identifies is that “provides sexual information on at least three levels: it gives a panoramic view of the world's sexual possibilities; it allows women to ‘safely’ experience sexual alternatives; and, it provides a different form of information than can be found in textbooks or discussions.”  These purported benefits have all been enhanced by the internet fueled diversification of porn.  As pornography begins to be made for nearly every imaginable topic, and the means of pornography production are made available to women and other marginalized groups, the “panoramic view of the world’s sexual possibilities” expands to encompass many sexual topics which would normally be taboo in our puritanical society.  Similarly, because pornography has become more diverse online, the ability pornography grants women to “‘safely’ experience sexual alternatives” is expanded by the internet.

Ultimately, the internet has had several impacts on pornography, all of them positive from a feminist perspective.  It has provided a means to decrease exploitation, by decentralizing the means of pornography production, allowing people to produce amateur and cooperative pornography based upon pleasure rather than economic pressure.  This same decentralization has provided feminists and sexually marginalized communities with an outlet to develop their own pornography and erotica as an alternative to degrading and misogynistic pornography.  This decentralization also means pornography has diversified, thus permitting its beneficial and exploratory aspects to be applied to a broader and less confined range of sexuality. 

Works cited include, but are not limited to: 
Russell, Diana.   “Pornography and Rape: A Causal Model.”  Political Psychology  9.1 
(1988): 41-73

MacKinnon, Catherine.  “Reflections on Sex Equality Under Law.”  Yale Law Review 
            100.5 (1999): 1281-1328

McElroy, Wendy.  XXX: A Woman’s Right to Pornography. New York: St. Martin’s

I Feel Myself.  1 April 2011. Web.  1 April 2011.

Ridington, Jillian.  Confronting Pornography: A Feminist on the Front Lines
Vancouver, Canada: CRIAW/ICREF, 1989.  Print.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Don't Tax the Rich, Smash Their Privilege: A Response to Warren Buffett

Recently the progressive blogosphere was abuzz with approving links to billionaire investor Warren Buffett's latest New York Times op-ed, "Stop Coddling the Super Rich."  In this piece, Buffett concisely exposes the various loopholes that allow the wealthiest Americans to pay far fewer taxes than their middle class, working class, and poor counterparts. While the tax code in all its complexity certainly privileges the wealthy at the expense of most Americans, this barely scratches the surface of the ways the state oppresses poor and working people to line the pockets of the opulent.  Buffett's article never mentions direct corporate welfare or the numerous privileges that the wealthy hold thanks to intellectual property, the land monopoly, regulatory barriers to entry, suppression of labor movements, and imperialism, to name a few.  To illustrate the extent to which government intervention privileges the super rich at the expense of everyone else, I will examine Warren Buffett's stock portfolio and expose how his wealth stems from violence, coercion, imperialism, and statism.

Coca Cola, Human Rights, and Labor Suppression

According to http://warren-buffett-portfolio.com/, the #1 corporation in Warren Buffet's stock portfolio is Coca Cola.  Coca Cola has an abysmal human rights record, most noteworthy thanks to its colorful history of repressing labor organizing.  According to an article by Jeremy Rayner for the John F. Henning Center for International Labor Relations:
There is mounting evidence that American companies are complicit in the persecution of trade unionists at their Colombian operations. In the case of the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Carepa, where Isídro Segundo Gil was murdered, the union Sinaltrainal argues that Coca-Cola knowingly stood by and allowed the plant's manager to bring in paramilitaries to destroy the union. The workers at the Carepa plant had been asking both Coca-Cola and its bottler, Bebidas y Alimentos, to intervene on their behalf for two months before Isídro Segundo Gil's murder. The plant manager, Ariosto Milan Mosquera had announced publicly that he had asked the paramilitaries to destroy the union. His declaration had been followed by a series of death threats from the paramilitaries, which had prompted the union to send letters to both Coca-Cola and Bebidas y Alimentos asking that they intervene to secure their workers' safety.  And this was not the first time that threats against workers had been carried out. Just two years before, in 1994, the paramilitaries had killed two trade unionists at the same plant. It should have surprised no one when two and a half months after the union's plea for help, Isídro Segundo Gil was murdered and the union busted.

Unionists have also been assassinated at other Coca-Cola bottling plants in Colombia, both before and after the incident at Carepa. One unionist, José Avelino Chicano, was killed at a Coca-Cola plant in Pasto in 1989. In 2002, despite the limited publicity surrounding the events at Carepa, a union leader named Oscar Dario Soto Polo was killed during the course of contract negotiations at the plant in Bucaramanga. Despite the remarkable courage and perseverance of Colombia's labor activists, the campaign of intimidation has necessarily taken its toll on worker organizing. The president of Sinaltrainal, Javier Correa, reported last year that the number of unionized workers at Coca-Cola plants had dropped by more than two thirds since 1993-from 1,300 workers to only 450.
Such campaigns of violent intimidation have been aided and abetted by US tax dollars.  Many of those involved with these anti-union campaigns of violence were graduates of the Defense Department's infamous School of the Americas.  The right wing paramilitaries which regularly slaughter labor organizers are closely connected to the Colombian military, which receives huge amounts of aid from the US government so as to fight the drug war as well as a dirty war against the anti-capitalist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Thus, even if Warren Buffett were to pay more in taxes, at least some of that money would go to violence against labor organizers.

In addition to brutality in Colombia, Coca Cola has been implicated in violence and intimidation against unionists in Guatemala.   These and other Coca Cola human rights violations are profiled in detail at http://killercoke.org/.

Note that, contrary to Buffett's progressive image, he profits immensely off of Coca Cola's human rights violations.  If Buffett really wants to "get serious about shared sacrifice," he should sacrifice the profits he has gained through the corrupt tactics of Coca Cola and use some of his immense wealth to help the Coca Cola workers suffering throughout the globe thanks to those tactics.  He should also repudiate the US government's military aid and imperialist intervention in countries like Colombia.

Wells Fargo and the Prison Industrial Complex

The number two corporation in Warren Buffet's stock portfolio is Wells Fargo.   Wells Fargo is a major beneficiary of corporate welfare.  For instance, they received $43.7 billion in federal taxpayer bailout money. But far more destructive is Wells Fargo's investment in prison profiteers.  Wells Fargo owns 4 million shares in the Geo Group, the second largest private prison corporation in America, and 50,000 shares in the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison corporation in the country.  These shares combined are valued at more than $120 million (Source: http://www.cjjc.org/en/news/50-immigrant-rights/215-wells-fargo-divest-from-prisons ).

Companies such as the Geo Group and CCA do not earn their money by providing goods or services to customers.  Rather, they make their money solely from the government, and solely for locking human beings in cages, mostly for non-violent offenses.  Further, these companies actively lobby for unjust laws, largely using the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporatist conservative political group.  As Bob Sloan and Mike Elk wrote in a recent article for The Nation:
ALEC helped pioneer some of the toughest sentencing laws on the books today, like mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders, “three strikes” laws, and “truth in sentencing” laws. In 1995 alone, ALEC’s Truth in Sentencing Act was signed into law in twenty-five states. (Then State Rep. Scott Walker was an ALEC member when he sponsored Wisconsin's truth-in-sentencing laws and, according to PR Watch, used its statistics to make the case for the law.) More recently, ALEC has proposed innovative “solutions” to the overcrowding it helped create, such as privatizing the parole process through “the proven success of the private bail bond industry,” as it recommended in 2007. (The American Bail Coalition is an executive member of ALEC’s Public Safety and Elections Task Force.) ALEC has also worked to pass state laws to create private for-profit prisons, a boon to two of its major corporate sponsors: Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group (formerly Wackenhut Corrections), the largest private prison firms in the country. An In These Timesinvestigation last summer revealed that ALEC arranged secret meetings between Arizona’s state legislators and CCA to draft what became SB 1070, Arizona’s notorious immigration law, to keep CCA prisons flush with immigrant detainees. ALEC has proven expertly capable of devising endless ways to help private corporations benefit from the country’s massive prison population.
These laws increase the number of peaceful people locked in cages, as well as the lengths of their sentences.  Those they lock up are almost without exception members of the working class, and they are disproportionately people of color.  Meanwhile, Geo Group and CCA gather obscene profits from these racist and classist laws.   Wells Fargo then profits by investing in these firms, and Warren Buffett profits by investing heavily in Wells Fargo.  If Warren Buffett were to pay more in taxes, at least some of those taxes would go to the prison industrial complex and then head straight back to Warren Buffett's unfathomably large bank account.

Warren Buffett the War Profiteer

Never does the government "coddle the super rich" more than in times of war.  In war, poor and working people are sent to fight and die in a foreign land.   They are sent to kill the populations of poor countries, and those killed disproportionately represent the country's working class.  Meanwhile, corporate executives and investors profit heavily by selling the weapons, vehicles, and other devices used to murder poor people in a distant land.   It should not surprise you to learn that Warren Buffett is among the investors profiting off of the American military industrial complex.

According to http://warren-buffett-portfolio.com/, Buffett owns 7.8 million shares of General Electric stock.   GE produces a wide variety of products, and their war profiteering portfolio is no less diverse.  General Electric has sold the US military aircraft, missiles, bombs, and battlefield computer systems, to name a few.  Further, GE has been charged multiple times with defrauding the US government in relation to their defense contracts.

Warren Buffett also owns 34.2 million shares in ConocoPhilips and 0.4 million shares in Exxon Mobil, both of which are oil companies which have profited from the invasion of Iraq.  Earlier this year Buffett seriously considered investing in General Dynamics, a company which earns all of its revenue through military contracts.

An increase in Warren Buffett's tax burden would not change this dynamic in the slightest.  Indeed, the bulk of tax dollars go to so called "defense spending," which amounts to nothing more than blood stained subsidies to these and other military industrial complex corporations.

Monsanto and the Patent Monopoly

CNN Money reported in 2010 that Warren Buffett owned stock in Monsanto.  Monsanto is a controversial agribusiness and biotechnology firm, best known for developing genetically modified organism (GMO) crops. For this reason, they have been strongly opposed by many environmental groups.  The impact of GMO crops is a topic for scientific debate which I will not discuss here.  However, it is incredibly noteworthy that Monsanto has enlisted patent law to crush small producers, in a dramatic illustration of the "patent monopoly" long written about by individualist anarchists such as Benjamin Tucker.

Monsanto's genetically modified seeds are all patented, granting the company monopoly privileges and the ability to use state violence to harass any farmers who save seeds, or even those whose fields are cross pollinated by Monsanto's GMO crops.  Monsanto has filed over 100 patent lawsuits against farmers.  One, Kem Ralph, has had to pay $3 million dollars and serve prison time, simply for saving seeds, a common agricultural practice.   Such aggressive tactics from Monsanto have prompted a group of farmers represented by the Public Patent Foundation to fight back:

On behalf of 22 agricultural organisations, 12 seed businesses and 26 farms and farmers, the Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT) is suing the biotech company in the federal district court in Manhattan and assigned to Judge Naomi Buchwald.
The organic plaintiffs had to pre-emptively protect themselves from potential patent infringement in case of accidental contamination of their crops by genetically modified organisms (GMOs), said PUBPAT.
“This case asks whether Monsanto has the right to sue organic farmers for patent infringement if Monsanto’s transgenic seed should land on their property,” said Dan Ravicher, PUBPAT’s executive director and a law professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York. PUBPAT is a non-profit legal services organisation based at Cardozo law school. Its stated mission is “to protect freedom in the patent system.”
“It seems quite perverse that an organic farmer contaminated by transgenic seed could be accused of patent infringement, but Monsanto has made such accusations before and is notorious for having sued hundreds of farmers for patent infringement, so we had to act to protect the interests of our clients,” he said in a press release.

It is disturbing that such a lawsuit is necessary. It is disturbing that a corporation can use the state to exercise this sort of control and intimidation against small farmers. It is perhaps more disturbing that a billionaire who invests in and profits from these coercive business practices is being held up as a progressive icon.

Time to Fight Back in the Class War

Warren Buffett famously said "There's class warfare, all right, but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning."  Buffett was talking about the tax code, but that barely scratches the surface of the violent and rapacious class warfare the super-rich are waging against ordinary people.   It becomes a bit difficult to make tax law your top priority when you realize that labor leaders are being murdered, unnecessary wars are being fought, peaceful people are put in prison, and farmers are coerced into bankruptcy, all for the sake of corporate profits.  Changes to the tax code will never fix that.  So what will?

Every problem I have identified here stems from the same source: Unaccountable centralized power.   When a centralized state is granted the power to wage war, its killings are presumed to be "policy" rather than crimes, and corporations can influence state policy, wars for profit are the inevitable result.   When a centralized state is given the power to lock up peaceful people in cages, it will.  When businesses are owned and controlled by a few wealthy investors and CEO's rather than through workers' self management, the workers will see their material conditions suffer and their free association under vicious assault.  People should have control over their own lives, rather than seeing their most important decisions made from Washington, DC or some corporate board rooms.  It's time to build a real resistance to coercive power and authority.  It's time to resist wars and prisons, to stand up for workers, to build networks of mutual aid, to create grassroots alternatives to government programs and capitalist corporations.  It's time to build a new society in the shell of the old.

This is a message you won't receive from Warren Buffett.  Surface changes to the tax code would give him a slightly more stable society with a happier population.  But he would still be able to profit from rapacious violence and coercion against poor and working people.  A real revolution, a society in which people organize from the bottom up and reject institutional violence, would be disastrous for Warren Buffett.  Because in a free society, billionaires like Buffett might have to learn to work for a living.

Further reading:


Thursday, June 23, 2011

I thought I was a feminist, but it turns out I'm a "rape-supporter."

Disclaimer:  I now repudiate this blog post's overall style, although I still agree with some of the specific points I made in it.  The post is largely filled with mansplaining, ignores how my privilege influences my epistemic position, and at times smacks of tone policing.   I apologize for this post.

I'm pretty involved in feminist activism. I help a SlutWalk in Salt Lake City to protest slut shaming, rape apologism, and victim blaming. I am an administrator for the moderately popular feminist Facebook page Rational people against puritanical and misogynistic "slut" shaming. I regularly attend Salt Lake's feminist open mic night When She Speaks I Hear the Revolution. I volunteer with Salt Lake's local transgender rights group, TransAction. Next fall I hope to take a training from the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault and start volunteering with the Rape Recovery Center.  Whenever I encounter slut shaming, transphobia, homophobia, biphobia, victim blaming, or anti-feminism in a conversation, I will attempt to challenge it. So I was rather surprised to learn that according to radical feminist blogger "Eve's Daughter", I am a "rape-supporter."

The blog post is titled "A Man Is a Rape-Supporter If...", and the very phrase "rape-supporter" is somewhat ambiguous.  Many readers, particularly critics of the post, seemed to construe "rape-supporter" as meaning someone who believes rape is desirable, in the same way someone who "supports Ron Paul" or "supports the war on terror" believes Ron Paul or the war on terror are politically desirable.  This is, however, inaccurate.  The blog's author makes clear in comments that she simply means that the behaviors of "rape-supporters" support rape culture, exacerbate rape culture, victimize rape survivors, or contribute to a culture of misogyny and objectification, regardless of the intent of the "rape-supporter."  The use of the phrase "rape-supporter" without this explanation being made early on thus confuses the issue and makes many readers offended and defensive.  This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the author doesn't clearly explain how the behaviors she identifies contribute to rape culture or present clear evidence that they do within the original post.

But beyond these objections to the blog post's style, I seriously disagree with some of the points made.  Some of the actions listed, such as blaming the victim or mocking women who speak out against sexual assault, are clearly rape apologism.  Others, such as opposing abortion, promoting misogynistic philosophies, degrading lesbians, or arguing that certain male behaviors towards women should not be subject to feminist scrutiny, do promote cultural misogyny, and can be reasonably argued to be components of rape culture.  However, there are some  elements of the list which I believe reveal dangerously sex negative and prescriptivist views among some radical feminists.  I wish to critique these portions of the list, and I hope that Eve's Daughter or like minded radical feminists will respond to these critiques so that we may advance feminist dialogue.

Feminism and BDSM

Eve's Daughter writes that a man is a rape supporter if:

He has ever sexually engaged with any woman while she was underage, drunk, high, physically restrained, unconscious, or subjected to psychological, physical, economic, or emotional coercion.
For the most part this is simply an accurate definition of rape. However, I object to the inclusion of  "physically restrained" on the list, as this includes some consensual BDSM sex acts.   She also writes that a man is a "rape-supporter" if "He watches any pornography in which sexual acts are depicted as a struggle for power or domination, regardless of whether women are present," which appears to address BDSM specifically.  This hostility to BDSM appears to be repeated when Eve's Daughter alleges that a man is a rape supporter if "He defends the physical abuse of women on the grounds of “consent.”"  Now, if we are speaking of actual sexual assault, domestic violence, or abuse, then of course it should not be defended, even if the victim/survivor tacitly "consents."   However, based upon my prior experience with radical feminists, I know that many of them do consider BDSM to be categorically abusive.  I disagree with that based upon both my own experience and reasoning.

I am a sexual masochist.  I enjoy being spanked, I am interested in being whipped and flogged, and I enjoy having my testicles hurt and various parts of me bitten quite hard under consensual circumstances, to name a few of my masochistic fetishes which if shown in pornography allegedly support rape.   Even in cases where the violence can be extreme and would be abusive if it occurred without consent, I maintain that if consent, honesty, care, and respect are maintained, BDSM can be a joyful and fulfilling form of sexual exploration.  I have several radical feminist friends and acquaintances involved in BDSM, and I think they all would repudiate the notion that it promotes rape culture.  Indeed, conflating it with rape and treating it as abusive even when consensual in effect treats the choices of those involved as illegitimate, and disrespects the autonomy and intelligence of women in the BDSM community.  The BDSM community is largely a haven for queers, transgender individuals, and people whose body types are marginalized by mainstream beauty standards.  Because consent is integral to separating BDSM from abuse, there's a much more explicit discussion of consent within the community than within non-feminist vanilla circles.  To simply paint it with a broad brush as a component of rape culture alienates a community which already has major feminist elements and to which feminism should be important.

To be clear, this is not to say that there are not problems within BDSM from a feminist perspective.  For instance, that the BDSM social networking site Fetlife features a "fetishes" profile feature but not a "limits" profile feature indicates that the site may not place enough emphasis on consent.  When BDSM relationships extend beyond the bedroom, their hierarchical nature may undermine gender equity and the autonomy of those involved.  These are real concerns, and there are plenty of other issues I haven't brought up, but they can't be fully addressed unless feminists are willing to explore and learn about BDSM rather than conflating it with rape and categorically condemning it.

Sexual liberation is bad now?

Eve's Daughter writes that a man is a "rape-supporter" if:

He supports sexual “liberation” and claims women would have more sex with (more) men if society did not “inhibit” them.
Now, as an avowed activist for sexual liberation, I found this prong to be particularly offensive.  Sexual liberation is essential to women's liberation, LGBTQ liberation, and human liberation.   Let's look at the facts:

  • Until the Supreme Court's 2003 ruling in the case Lawrence v. Texas, members of the queer community could be arrested for "sodomy."
  • Dildos and other sex toys were illegal to sell or possess in large quantities in Texas until a court overturned the Texas obscenity statute in 2008.  I'm not kidding.  See here and here.  This issue should be taken quite seriously by feminists, as it restricts private female sexual pleasure and promotes the fundamentally misogynistic view that sex should be bound to marriage and procreation, women's choices be damned.
  • Slut shaming, official punishment, and harassment of girls after they sent explicit pictures to boys they were interested in have driven teenage girls to suicide.  See here and here.
  • In Louisiana, sex workers are placed on the sex offender registry, destroying all future autonomy and moving their situation from bad to nightmarish.
  • In many rape cases, female sexuality is treated as consent, with sexual assault survivors being persistently slut shamed.  Our sex negative culture treats women who engage in certain sexual behaviors as deserving of rape.   Here are two examples.
I could go on.  But the point is that we currently live in a society which uses both the force of the state and a perverse patriarchal cultural morality to restrict sexual choice, victimize members of marginalized groups, and shame even sexual assault survivors for choices that are completely within their rights. It seems to me that in such a society, supporting sexual liberation should not be construed as making one a "rape-supporter."  Rather, it should be understood as essential for fighting rape culture.  Indeed, it is noteworthy that Eve's Daughter does not list slut-shaming among the behaviors that can make a man a "rape-supporter" when slut shaming is one of the core attributes of rape apologism, victim blaming, rape culture, and cultural misogyny in general.

Now, I understand that Eve's Daughter may not be targeting all proponents of sexual liberation.  She may simply be targeting those who also argue that "women would have more sex with (more) men if society did not “inhibit” them."  Now, I do not argue this, at least not categorically.  I think that in a society without pervasive puritanism and slut shaming some women would likely be more promiscuous, as many of the unjust harms currently imposed on promiscuous women would be gone.  However, in a sexually liberated society all consensual sexual proclivities would be treated with respect.  As a result, some women would feel more comfortable coming out as lesbian or asexual than they currently do.  Women would not feel pressure to have sex with men at all if that was not their inclination.  As we have never lived in a society free of restrictive sexual morals, it's impossible to predict how exactly sex would change, but it would certainly vary from person to person, rather than universally resulting in women having more sex with more men.  I think that a sexually liberated society is a worthy goal, and I fail to see how striving for it promotes rape, even if it would result in some women having sex with more men.

First Amendment advocates are "rape-supporters"?

Eve's Daughter writes that a man is a "rape-supporter" if:
He frames discussions of pornography in terms of “freedom of speech.”
In some cases this accusation actually has merit.  For instance, if a feminist is critiquing pornography but not calling for the government to restrict it, freedom of speech is not particularly relevant to the conversation.  Speech that is First Amendment protected can still be harmful and worth countering with activism or more speech.  So, if a defender of porn responds to discussion of patriarchal beauty standards in porn by trying to frame the core issue as "freedom of speech," they are in effect derailing the discussion.  The same is true if they attempt to use "free speech" to re-frame a debate about sex trafficking in pornography, the potentially coercive and destructive effect of workplace hierarchy in porn, the prevalence of positive depictions of sexual assault or rape in porn, or evidence that viewing pornography increases a male's willingness to commit rape.  These discussions should turn on the evidence and their merits, rather than being derailed by a conflation of all porn opposition with opposition to free speech.

However, when government attempts to restrict pornography, freedom of speech becomes incredibly relevant.  This is particularly true because government attacks on pornography are not based on coercion, poor working conditions, or trafficking in the industry, but instead upon puritanical "obscenity" laws.  For instance, pornographers including John Stagliano, Max Hardcore, Rob Black, and Lizzie Borden have all been prosecuted in the 21st century for the ill defined crime of "obscenity."  Recently several senators urged the US Department of Justice to more aggressively prosecute obscenity.  Regarding these issues of pornography, freedom of speech is a core concern, and one is not a "rape-supporter" for framing the debate around the crucial civil liberty the federal government seeks to violate.

Are all men who view porn which depicts women "rape supporters"?

Eve's Daughter writes that a man is a "rape-supporter" if:
He watches pornography in which women are depicted.
Once again, this can make sense in specific cases.  In some pornography, women are abused or in some way coerced.  Further, even when coercion does not occur directly, the presence of a work place hierarchy does raise questions of consent and distances sexuality from consensual pursuit of mutual pleasure, thus arguably promoting rape culture. However, not all pornography which depicts women has this effect.  Animated pornography does not require that anyone perform sexual acts in the production process.  Furthermore, some pornography may portray women genuinely pursuing their own pleasure, such as the user produced videos of female masturbation featured on www.ifeelmyself.com, and thus actually present a counter-narrative to sex negativity, puritanism, and patriarchy.


While there are other portions of "A Man is a Rape-Supporter If..." which I find problematic,  these are my primary objections.  The post demonizes men as "rape-supporters" without providing adequate explanation or evidence for how the behaviors it describes exacerbate or perpetuate rape culture.  Further, it lists as "rape supporter" behaviors several behaviors which I believe are perfectly compatible with feminism, and one, advocating sexual liberation, which I consider core to feminism.  I hope this critique can help further feminist discourse on these topics, and I look forward to responses from Eve's Daughter and other radical feminists.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Reaction

“When politicians murder countless daily via the military and police it’s a ‘topic for debate.’ When someone murders a politician, it’s a national tragedy. This outbreak of ridiculously disproportionate sympathy for pampered middleclass politicos is the desperate gasps of various privileged classes frantically asserting their exceptional status: ‘This sort of thing should never happen to people like us!’”

The reaction to the shooting of Arizona Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords yesterday struck me in what it revealed about how we approach violence and murder. Most people don't oppose violence and murder per se. Don't believe me? Ask how many people reacted with horror when the United States government slaughtered innocent civilians in Yemen, including at least 21 children, with cluster bombs. Ask whether there was such furor when Aiyana Jones, a seven year old girl, was killed by a Detroit SWAT team. What about when detainees at Guantanamo were tortured to death? Or footage was released of Reuters journalists being shot from a lurking American helicopter in Iraq?

Many people not only shed no tears over these cases, they argued that those who carried out the homicides were justified.

Could you imagine any mainstream political figure, even Sarah Palin or others whose rhetoric is connected to yesterday's shooting, claiming that the killing was justified?

"All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others," wrote George Orwell in Animal Farm. And that's where we are today. We praise equality and make sweeping moral statements, but most do not consistently believe them. Some violence, specifically violence from the bottom up, violence in which the relatively powerless attack those who are comparatively well off and powerful, is universally viewed with horror. Yet the top down violence, the killing of foreigners, or even of mere mundanes in this country, by agents of government, is often not merely ignored, but commended.

In a truly Orwellian fashion we dehumanize those who are most affected by violence, indulging in vile victim blaming. Guantanamo detainee tortured to death? He was a terrorist. Queer youth subjected to hate crimes and rape in prison? Perverted criminals, the lot of them! The victims of the Contras in Nicaragua? Commies! A man is shot while driving his children to school because he stops to help a wounded man, as we saw in Collateral Murder? "It's his fault for bringing his kids to a battle."

When liberals say that the shooting of Gifford should make us confront the growing violence of our political culture, they're right. They're correct to react with revulsion and horror at assassination attempts against the likes of Congresswoman Giffords and Congressman Tom Perriello, and assassination threats against at least 10 other prominent Democrats. They're right to be disturbed by all the more innocuous violent rhetoric on the right. But our violent political culture is a whole lot bigger than some right wing extremism. Our political system is built on violence, whether it's locking more human beings in cages than any other nation, using torture, continuing to use cluster bombs, being involved in six wars in the middle east, or even the threats of force behind the taxation that funds it all.

Update: Probably my favorite response to this issue was posted by Radley Balko today at Reason Hit and Run. I also really enjoyed this post by Tumblr user Maxistentialist.