Part I: Solidarity and the Caprice of Empathy
A Discussion with Catherine Besteman, Karina Biondi, and Orisanmi Burton
Moderated by Jennifer Curtis and Nadja Eisenberg-Guyot
This summer, APLA President Emeritus Catherine Besteman, 2017 APLA Book Prize winner Karina Biondi, and Orisanmi Burton, American University Assistant Professor of Anthropology, took part in a virtual discussion that is PoLAR’s latest Emergent Conversation, number 8. This discussion was moderated by PoLAR Associate Editor Jennifer Curtis and PoLAR Digital Editorial Fellow Nadja Eisenberg-Guyot. The discussion will be published in three installments. It continues and complements the Speaking Justice to Power series’ focus on contemporary authoritarianism, and what it means for the political anthropology of authority, dissent, and freedom. The latest APLA/PoLAR Speaking Justice to Power series focuses on confinement and authoritarianism in the Americas. We are expanding the formats for discussion with Emergent Conversations, and welcome proposals for both series.
As scholars whose work has much to tell us about confinement and cauterization—practices that mark or “brand” groups excluded from equal citizenship (Simmons 2011)—in different places and times, and as people living through a period of rising authoritarianism in both North and South America, how does your research illuminate current practices of confinement, including incarceration, detention, and surveillance, as well as their broader cauterizing effects? What does your work tell us about these current conditions, and how they compare to authoritarian governance in the past or in other places?
Catherine Besteman: This summer, images of crying children in cages after being forcefully separated from their parents at the U.S. southern border effectively raised public outrage against something seen as a step too far, but nevertheless the U.S. is on a slippery slope toward fascist-aligned insurgent white nationalism. It is significant that the outrage was about children in cages, not about children facing violence in Central American countries, not about the terrible circumstances that led parents to choose a life-threatening overland trip to save their children, not about the indefinite incarceration of families at the border, not about forced deportations of people that put their lives at risk, and not about the spectacularly profitable detention industry. Public opinion in the US is certainly divided on these practices, and there are robust immigrant-rights activist groups contesting these practices, yet the call for immigration control (detention, incarceration, deportation) continues to promise electoral victories. The only way to contest the carceralization of immigrants is to understand why so many Americans accept it as necessary, desirable, and even pleasurable to behold.
Immigration control in the US is a racial issue, and the majority of Americans are comfortable with the carceralization of black and brown people. At a workshop where I first met Ori several years ago, he asked how to make white people care about black people. I’ve been thinking about that question ever since. While individual white people may care very much about the individual black people in their lives, U.S. history is replete with examples that show that, categorically, white people don’t actually care about black and brown people and are, on the whole, perfectly happy to allow racially-based mass incarceration, the suppression of voting rights, residential and school segregation, the destruction of civil rights for felony convictions, police brutality, and great inequalities across all social indicators. This lack of care extends to black and brown immigrants whose lives are, to most Americans, simply not worth caring about very much.
The prompt to which we are invited to respond posits empathy as the bulwark against the cauterization of social connection and mutuality. I am not so sure about empathy’s power and wonder instead if we are moving toward a post-empathy society. Fascism is, of course, a post-empathy political order, and the receding pull of empathy is much in evidence in a country where a presidential candidate can publicly mock the disabled, minorities, women, neighboring countries, and Muslims, and still win. We are facing a failure of empathy, and I am not sure it can be revived through political activism. Instead, I suspect the stronger resistance will come from a combination of moral accounting and massive amounts of local level common cause community organizing.
I think, for example, about how arguments against the death penalty found greater power in the claim that state-sanctioned killing is wrong and that life is sacrosanct rather than in a call for empathy for those on death row. Protests against family separation and the encagement of children emerged most forcefully from people appalled by what such practices might suggest about their society: what kind of people put children in cages? In other words, I wonder if narcissism (am I the sort of person who condones putting children in cages?) rather than empathy carried more power in turning people against the family separation policy.
If we are in fact a narcissistic, post-empathy society, then the political calculus of resistance must be grounded in appeals to moral and material self-interest rather than empathy. Locating and appealing to self-interest means sustained grassroots activism to target the most effective points of potential solidarity, which may be in places like faith communities, racially diverse class-aligned groups, professional associations, and so forth. Such targeting has two objectives: asking people to see themselves as moral actors in the eyes of others, and asking people to find common cause with others who share their material self-interests across race lines.
Orisanmi Burton: I study prisons as sites of low-intensity counterinsurgency warfare, waged by and through the state in order to reproduce racial and gender hierarchies, manage political dissent, and facilitate the accumulation of capital in times of crisis. I am now working on a monograph in the form of a “historical ethnography” that analyzes the evolution of carceral war in men’s prisons from the 1960s to the present. On the one hand, it traces what the late Cedric Robinson called the Black Radical Tradition (BRT) – the reservoir of knowledges, tactics, strategies, subjectivities, and modes of relationality that have accumulated over centuries through the praxis of African-descendant people fighting for liberation. Through this line of inquiry I am attempting to unearth and analyze a whole body of subjugated knowledge which reveals incarcerated people as theorists of war. I am also exploring how captive Black men ensure the social reproduction of the Black Radical Tradition through gendered practices of social fatherhood and care. On the other hand, I examine the racist and patriarchal logics and technologies of the carceral state and how for the past 50 years, the need to contain and channel Black insurgency has been one of the primary drivers of prison reform and innovation.
My work draws from that of Angela Davis, Joy James, Dylan Rodriguez, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and others who have shown that imprisoned Black dissidents have a long tradition of theorizing the United States through the analytic of fascism. And to be clear, when I say “imprisoned Black dissidents,” I am invoking a political Blackness that entails a formation of Black-led insurgency that is capacious in its recruitment and embrace of people with a diversity of raced and gendered bodies. But anyway, this framework of insurgent theorization and praxis conceptualizes the prison as the kernel, the elemental feature, of U.S. democracy. From this perspective I would not necessarily say authoritarianism is “rising.”
Rather I think it is widening. It is becoming more extensive and visible. The most obvious example of this is the highly publicized mass caging of undocumented children in private prisons. But examples abound. We can also cite the J-20 case in which 214 mostly-white protesters of Trump’s inauguration were arrested using the “kettle” technique and charged with “felony riot,” a federal statute that was conjured in the wake of the 1968 Black rebellion in Washington DC. Most of these cases collapsed but the fact that they brought at all is instructive. We could also cite the fact that, for the past 15 years, the overall rate of Black incarceration in the U.S. has been in decline, while the overall rate of white incarceration is on the rise. A recent poll suggests that half of Americans are worried about the U.S. becoming authoritarian, but it has always been authoritarian for certain categories of people. What people are worried about is the likelihood that the matrix of authoritarian rule will extend to people they care about.
This relates to Catherine’s point. I think she is exactly right to point out the limitations of empathy’s power and the ways in which racism demands the policing of empathy’s boundaries. There is a fascinating study suggesting that white Americans tend to support punitive policies more when they learn about how racist they are! But this post-empathy ethos is not simply a problem of white people, which is unfortunate because it would be much easier to confront if it were. The fact of the matter is that the labor of political education around the need for building solidarity and an abolitionist consciousness is desperately needed everywhere. In light of the widening scope of authoritarian rule, the mobilization of a politics of self-interest may indeed be the way to go. I always come back to the end of James Baldwin’s open letter to Angela Davis, which he penned after her spurious arrest for kidnapping and murder, “If they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”
Karina Biondi: Catherine and Orisanmi’s responses were very inspiring! We have in Brazil a very peculiar political and social situation. A former president has been incarcerated before the end of legal proceedings, due to a process that does not present consistent evidence, . Former President Lula is in a situation in which he must prove that he is innocent (when the burden of proving the crime should be on prosecutors), while placed in solitary and prevented from receiving visits and granting interviews. We are one month away from the presidential elections, and former President Lula’s support, despite his imprisonment, continues to grow in polls. The latest poll showed that Lula is the candidate chosen by most of voters.
People linked to the Workers Party, along with a group of jurists and intellectuals, denounce the abuses, arbitrariness and illegalities of the process that put Lula in prison. Some activists who have long dealt with incarceration issues, in turn, note that what has become so scandalously visible in the Lula case is extremely common for poor and peripheral peoples, mostly black. However, instead of holding a broad debate over the authority of the judiciary and the question of incarceration, people that criticize the Lula’s imprisonment continue to celebrate the arrest of their political enemies. The legal forces with their punitive arm are summoned to deal with a growth number of questions in Brazil and its result is more and more imprisonment. This was the subject of controversy in a recent speech by Angela Davis in Brazil, in which she criticized incarceration as a solution to gender violence and was harshly denounced by feminists. Therefore prison is used as a weapon and political rhetoric across the entire political spectrum (left, right and also the identity movements). Hardly anyone escapes this legalistic discourse, the punitive appetite, and the desire to imprison. And the authoritarianism of the judiciary, an unrepresentative, and extremely elitist force in Brazil, only grows as a threat to democracy.
This punitive force is reaching the education and research institutions: currently university professors are being investigated and denounced for the books they wrote, for public talks, for technical reports they wrote, even for the content of their classes. Last year, the rector of a prestigious federal university, in the face of accusations that had never been proven, was prohibited to step in the university and few days after he committed suicide. Meanwhile, more laws are proposed to prohibit schools from promoting discussions about policy and gender issues.
But even with all these threats, the judiciary and incarceration continues to be mobilized, even by its victims, as a weapon against the Others. Empathy has limits, therefore. I agree with Catherine that there is a certain narcissism determining empathy’s boundaries. As Orisanmi said, it’s not so much about seeing yourself in the other’s place, but knowing that the authoritarianism can reach people they care about. Lula’s arrest produces some empathy from a certain class, from an academic and political class that expresses empathy with political prisoners (as in the period of the dictatorship in Brazil). But the suffering caused by the isolation of prisons produces something other than just empathy. It produces something more immediate, more punctual and specific: solidarity. And for this it is not necessary to be a political prisoner (in the most common sense of politics, since I fully agree with the formulation of some activists here, that every prisoner is a political prisoner).
Solidarity is a word that appeared during my research on the First Command of the Capital (PCC, in Portuguese), a collective born in 1992 within the prisons of the State of São Paulo (the richest and most populous Brazilian state). Today the PCC is a hegemonic force in crime and operates in almost all prisons and urban areas of São Paulo. In an unprecedented way, the PCC has succeeded in producing hegemony in crime (characteristically a fragmented and fragmentary force, what can be seen through the disputes of gang, mafia and organization around the world). Solidarity is the source of both the birth and growth of the PCC. Solidarity is the force responsible for maintaining the hegemony of the PCC against attacks of public power. The more one arrests and isolates their supposed leaders, the more the PCC grows. This is because more imprisonments, more isolation and more prisons produce more solidarity.
But this is a weapon that goes beyond legalistic analyzes, based on conventional theoretical repertoires. At the base of these hegemonic analyzes is the belief in the effectiveness of incarceration, whether in its more traditional goal of combating violence, or in its more innovative functions, like controlling educational content, changing the course of an election, fighting for identity rights or for fair elections. Conventional analyses seem, therefore, insufficient to reflect on the unexpected effects of incarceration, such as the tactics of being together, of sharing this walk, of radical solidarity (albeit with some narcissistic content). These subjugated knowledges—it is important to say—can only be perceived through ethnographic research. At this point, I believe that anthropology can make a great contribution in seeking to learn from these daily resistances, with the theoretical elaborations made by people targeted by the practices and tactics of incarceration (directly or indirectly). I believe that the analytical repertoire of their minor knowledge can be great sources of inspiration for our struggles.
Catherine Besteman is the Francis F. Bartlett and Ruth K. Bartlett Professor of Anthropology at Colby College. A past President of APLA and 2012 Guggenheim Fellow, her books include Making Refuge: Somali Bantu Refugees and Lewiston, Maine(2016), Transforming Cape Town (2008), Unraveling Somalia (1999), and, with Hugh Gusterson, the edited volumes The Insecure American (2009) and Why America’s Top Pundits are Wrong (2005).
Karina Biondi holds a bachelor’s degree in social sciences from University of Sao Paulo (USP) and a master’s and doctoral degree in Social Anthropology from Federal University of Sao Carlos (UFSCar). She is currently professor at the State University of Maranhão (UEMA), where she coordinates the Laboratory of Studies in Political Anthropology – LEAP. Karina is currently researching the technologies of mapping crime through the perspective of science studies. She wrote Junto e Misturado: uma etnografia do PCC, which had its English version published by the University of North Carolina Press under the title Sharing This Walk: An Ethnography of Prison Life and the PCC in Brazil.
Orisanmi Burton is Assistant Professor of anthropology at American University. His work has been published in North American Dialog, Cultural Anthropology online, and The Black Scholar (forthcoming). He is an active member of the Critical Prison Studies Caucus of the American Studies Association and the Abolition Collective and is hard at work on a book manuscript, tentatively entitled The Tip of the Spear: Black Radicalism and Prison Struggle in the Empire State, which analyzes the historical development of the radical movement in men prisons throughout New York State from the 1960s to the present.
 Hetey, R. C., & Eberhardt, J. L. (2014). “Racial disparities in incarceration increase acceptance of punitive policies.” Psychological Science, 25(10), 1949-1954.
Simmons, William Paul. 2011. Human Rights Law and the Marginalized Other. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.