Authority, Confinement, Solidarity, and Dissent Part II

Emergent Conversation 8

Part II: Dissent and Politics as Struggle

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. This is part II of the discussion. Part I is available here, and the main page for the conversation is here.

Both Ori and Karina demonstrate that radical forms of solidarity can emerge from experiences of confinement and incarceration. However, Catherine points out that neither empathy nor solidarity are experienced by people who believe themselves safe from authorianism’s brutal grip. Furthermore, the politics of empathy often center the subjectivities and experiences of those who identify with authority; for example, antebellum white abolitionists frequently appealed to narcissistic morality, foregrounding the degrading effects of enslavement on white, Christian “civilization” rather than the humanity of enslaved people (Hartman 1997).[i] 

This conversation directs us to new possibilities to build political movements from the basis of radical solidarity, paradoxically through appeals to narcissism and self-interest rather than empathy. Ori points out that the widening scope of authoritarian practices captures greater numbers of people, and Karina notes elites’ identification with Lula’s imprisonment. Can radical forms of solidarity become the basis for broader oppositional movements? Given the inefficacy of empathy, what liberatory strategies and movements can serve as examples for our political visions? For example, Catherine’s insights regarding self-interest and narcissistic shame evoke Ida Wells-Barnett’s anti-lynching research and writing (see Wells-Barnett 2012[1895]), Royster 2016, Wood 2009).[ii] Wells-Barnett made visible white terrorism across American South at the turn of the nineteenth century, shocking northern whites and catalyzing a new anti-lynching movement led by Black people. However, a federal anti-lynching law was never passed, and today, police violence against African Americans affirms Malcolm X’s observation: “They’ve taken off the white sheet and put on police uniforms.”[iii] Are such marginal victories the only ones available to us? Are there any possible strategies and tactics for expanding solidarity into liberatory politics that counter authoritarian rule? What are the limits to such strategies and tactics? Can a post-incarceration, liberated society be built from these subjugated knowledges of confinement? 

Orisanmi Burton:     I generally agree with your point about the vexing monotony “marginal victories.” However, I’d like to rearticulate the point in order to make room for a more dynamic conception of politics. It is true that Ida B. Well’s anti-lynching campaign did not yield the federal intervention that was its objective. But as you suggest it successfully delegitimized the regime of white supremacist terrorism that prevailed in her time and galvanized a movement. This was a victory in and of itself, a victory that opened up a whole range of new possibilities only one of which was the increasing use of the police to enforce racial apartheid. Had Wells’ campaign achieved federal intervention, that victory would have opened up a different set of possibilities some of which could have made Black peoples’ lives better and more dignified, others which could have made them worse than what we have now. So, it’s not that marginal victories are all that are available to progressive or revolutionary movements. It’s that “progress” is contingent upon ongoing analysis and struggle. It’s that the victories or potential victories of progressive movements are constantly marginalized via subsequent struggles to reverse, contain, co-opt their transformative and radicalizing effects.

Before going any further, I should be clear about what it is that I do and how I understand my role as an intellectual. Through my investigation of past and present political conflicts I have developed a critical analysis of social movements and state repression. What I try to do is recuperate the subjugated and effaced histories of revolutionary struggle – the victories, errors, tendencies, and traps – in order to theorize and communicate knowledge that is useful for those who struggle today and who will struggle tomorrow. This is a crucial role. But it’s a limited role. I participate in various movements, but I am not, at the present moment, on the leading edge of organizing people engaged in struggle. I am too preoccupied with being a good husband and a good dad, which is an underappreciated part of the overall struggle. I say all that to say that I am not the best person to answer questions about “what is to be done.” As academics, we sometimes forget that the knowledge we produce trails behind and builds upon movement knowledge.

With that said, there are so many movements that I am inspired by at present, but I want to call attention to the radical prison movement in the United States which has been intensifying over the last decade. To list a few of the developments we have seen simultaneous strikes in six Georgia prisons in 2010; hunger strikes involving nearly 30,000 captives in prisons across California in 2011 and 2013; a nationally coordinated Prison Strike in 2016; “laydown” prison strikes in Florida earlier this year; hunger strikes in immigrant prisons all over the country also this year; prison rebellions in Alabama, Missouri, Delaware, South Carolina, and elsewhere. And this movement is getting stronger and more sophisticated.

Call for solidarity with the 2018 prison strike.

In April of this year, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, an organization of imprisoned activists, issued the call for national prison strike, scheduled to take place from August 21 to September 9 of this year. These are important dates in the radical prison history. August 21, 2018 will mark the 47th anniversary of George Jackson’s assassination, while September 9 is the anniversary of the Attica rebellion. Jailhouse Lawyers Speak have issued an expansive set of demands including: the extension of the minimum wage to imprisoned laborers, the reinstitution of Pell Grants, the elimination of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, the reinstitution of voting rights to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people and more. Captives in at least 17 states have committed to participate through work strikes, sit-ins, boycotts, and hunger strikes. And this gets back to my earlier point about the nature of victory. The organizers are well aware that most of their demands can only be addressed through the passage of legislation and therefore won’t be met as a direct outcome of this strike. They also know that repression from prison authorities will be swift and brutal and that many will pay a high price as a result of their participation. What they are trying to do is exploit and exacerbate one of the major contradictions of contemporary prisons: the fact that prison governance depends on the labor of the captives. Imprisoned people prepare and distribute food, do the laundry, clean the prison, etc. – they do the work that keeps the prisons going. The strike actions are designed to bring the routines of imprisonment to a grinding halt, to create a crisis of social reproduction from within, to shut the prisons down for a specific period of time. For a captive population to do this in multiple prisons would be to achieve a major victory that will heighten the political consciousness on both sides of prison walls.

Outside support for prison movements is the critical ingredient for solidifying victories. Imprisoned activists expect brutality to be the immediate response. The more we in the “free world” can establish meaningful connections with people on the inside, the more difficult it will be for prison authorities to use unsanctioned forms of violence against them. That’s the short-term role for people on the outside. In the medium and long term, one of our roles is to pay attention to the criminal justice reform bills and initiatives that will inevitably be suggested to resolve the problems this movement brings to light. This is not our only role but it is important, because if captive populations develop the organizational capacity to shut prisons down at will, as it seems they are trying to do, then prisons themselves will have to change. Our role on the outside will be to organize and fight for changes that improve the material conditions of the people who are most affected and for changes that diminish the reach and the capacity of the carceral state.

Steve Biko speaking at the second General Students Council of the South African Students Organisation (SASO) at the University of Natal in July 1971, was taken on behalf of the International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF).

Catherine Besteman:            Ori reminds us that politics is struggle and that the political issues over which people struggle are constantly shifting and rarely settled for good. Law and policy are always under contestation. Things that felt like victories in the past – the extension of voting rights, the legalization of abortion, the path to citizenship for legal immigrants and resettled refugees – no longer seem assured or protected. The expectation that the outcome of triumphant struggle is the achievement of enduring victory does not hold.

I think of South Africa, where the anti-apartheid resistance brought the apartheid government to a stand-off, leading to a negotiated transition of power to democratic rule. There is no doubt that majority rule in South Africa is vastly better than a regime of white supremacy maintained by an apartheid legal order. And yet the presumption that victory for the resistance would mean equal opportunity for all and the end of racism has not come to fruition. While a small, wealthy black elite has achieved great economic and political success, the vast majority of South Africa’s poor black citizens have remained poor and excluded from the benefits of citizenship. Apartheid’s enduring legacies are formidable, and the context of neoliberal capitalism rapaciously bleeds the poor of their resources. The current struggle has shifted from the overthrow of white supremacy to a demand for workers’ rights, access to basic services, housing, and good education, and the eradication of corruption.

Writing about South Africa in the 1970s, the anti-apartheid and Black Consciousness Movement activist Steve Biko insisted that the struggles in which his movements were engaged were context-bound. He wrote that his vision of black consciousness was related specifically to apartheid and that when apartheid fell, the movement would change to become something different, shaped within a new non-racialist political context. By refusing to lay out a template for the Black Consciousness Movement in a future democracy, he was insisting that the terrain of struggle within that future democracy would shift as new expressions of inequality, injustice, and hierarchy took shape.

Biko was warning his readers that democracy would demand ongoing struggle. Writing about xenophobia and hostility to foreigners, Bonnie Honig (2003) similarly reminds us that democracy is agonistic – democracy demands that people fight for things they believe in and want rather than assuming that political elites have their best interests in mind.[iv] Ongoing contestation is the price of entry and of belonging.   The ferocious response to the administration’s family separation border policy is just one example: the policy was rescinded but detention and deportation remain normal practice. The struggle against the carceral state achieved only modest victory in this regard, but did effectively catalyze an awareness of the state’s carceral protocols against migrants that has now spawned new movements, such as ABOLISH ICE.

I cannot answer the question about which strategies and tactics would expand solidarity into a broader politics of anti-authoritarian liberation, but I do think we cannot overlook the very small victories and local solidarities forged within the agonistic practice of democracy. Much of my research in South Africa and in the U.S. has focused on these arenas of small-scale, grassroots, local activism and engagement, where change does seem within reach, where working relationships are forged across lines of difference, where those charged with carrying out the work of the carceral state engage in small acts of resistance and subversion, and where solidarities are individualized, personal, and contextual. Scaling up these intimate solidarities is probably a utopic hope, but utopic hope fuels the struggle at the heart of democracy.

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Riot police agents group and approach to negotiate with an inmate’s delegate (R) during a rebellion at the Alcacuz Penitentiary Center near Natal, Rio Grande do Norte state, northeastern Brazil on January 16, 2017. Similar violence at other jails in Brazil left around 100 inmates dead in early January. ANDRESSA ANHOLETE/AFP/Getty Images

Karina Biondi:          The movements mentioned by Ori have left me with a little envy for the very possibility of their existence. In Brazil there are no conditions of possibility for prisoners to participate in organized movements with any status of legitimacy. This is because any organization of prisoners ends up being classified as a criminal organization. And “apology to crime” or “incitement to crime” are crimes in the Brazilian Penal Code. When I wrote Sharing this Walk, my greatest fear was being accused of “apology to crime” for describing the ways in which prisoners claim better conditions for serving their sentences. These were the reasons for the appearance of the PCC and these claims remain the heart of their struggle in chains. These include negotiations on water supply, food quality, ill-treatment of prisoners and visitors and even the right to work—very poorly paid but providing opportunities for sentence reduction—and education. At various times, prisoners attempted to bring those claims forward through the formally constituted bureaucratic paths. But from the outset, the people who animate this mobilization—arrested criminals—not only delegitimize the movement but also criminalize it.

And this all happens with the massive support of public opinion.

The mainstream media in Brazil produce a strong carceral discourse around the need for stricter laws, exemplary punishments, and more imprisonment. They regard these claims as stewardships. Sectors of the political opposition (on the right and on the left) complain about the omission of government in the matter of public security. Most of the political class works for the reduction of minimum age for penal responsibilities or for the extension of the penalties for juvenile offenders. If Lula’s candidacy for the presidency is banned, the best-placed candidate in the polls is an shameless advocate for authoritarian regimes and torture, and has in his program for government a proposal to make the killings committed by the police forces irreproachable. Most experts in public security, in turn, denounce the “absence of State” as the main cause of the existence of prison gangs or violence inside prisons. Even the construction of more prisons comes to be seen as a measure for guaranteeing human rights. Underlying all these positions is the claim for greater State intervention, for more State. When the State is less a provider of social welfare, and more an instrument of control and punishment, asking for more State is asking for more prison, more punishment, more control.

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Relatives wait for information following a riot that ended with at least four prisoners killed inside Desembargador Raimundo Vidal Pessoa Public Jail, on January 8, 2017, in Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil. At least four inmates were killed in a facility in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state, sending the number of violent prison fatalities over 100 in just one week. Deadly prison riots have intensified in Brazil since a truce broke down in July between the First Capital Command (PCC) and the Red Command (CV). RAPHAEL ALVES/AFP/Getty Images

But I ask: is it possible to imagine an environment where there is more State, where State power is more present than prison? The State defines the prisoners’ circulation space, what they eat, what they drink, what they can read, who they can talk to, who they can see, where they sleep, and even where they defecate. If we consider the history of the emergence of the largest prison groups in Brazil (the First Command of the Capital and Red Command) we see that they are born as a reaction to this control, to the power of the State. It was precisely in severe situations of incarceration and not in situations of State absence. One could argue that control and confinement was not punitive enough, but I ask: what type of control could encompass all existence of the prisoners? Allow me an analogy. The main character of the film “Johnny Got His Gun,” based on the blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo’s novel and screenplay,  seems confined in his own body. But even without arms, without legs and without a face, he does not stop looking for the means of transposing this condition to, again and somehow, expand his existence out of his body. So I rephrase my question: Do they want a control that is even more oppressive and effective than the situation of the “Johnny Got His Gun” protagonist endured? And what is expected of a young man who has been subjected to this control?

For this is exactly the image I have in mind when witnessing attempts by prisoners to make claims that are legalistic, only to have their voices unheeded. And I run the risk of, by amplifying these repressed voices, being criminalized as “apology to crime.”

At the same time, I know that these fights are not disassociated with others, whether it is the fights of women, blacks, natives, and homosexuals. They all relate to authoritarian forms that affect the bodies of these people. And at the heart of these clashes is the fight against silencing practices. Authoritarianism, it seems to me, in responding to a problem of normalization, is a practice of homogenization. In this sense, the target is the same. But things are not usually seen that way. Very easily a movement despises, de-legitimizes or turns against other fights, and thereby assumes the authoritarian forms against which it fights. Sometimes the modes of articulation become, itself, State-like and therefore coercive and hierarchical. Authoritarianism is not always outside the opposing groups. The greatest difficulty is to prevent appearance of  practices of authoritarianism inside the marginalized opponents.

In fact, authoritarianism is always lurking, and, as Catherine said, things that felt like victories in the past are no longer assured. That is why the fights must be continuous, against an external oppressor, but also against the growth of authoritarian practices in the very heart of its opponents. But the fights must, above all, be local. For the contingencies from which the demands are created are in everyday life, and above all, it is in the domain of local and quotidian  experiences where the fight against authoritarianism must persist.

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 DialogCultural 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.


[i] Hartman, Saidiya V. 1997. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America. New York: Oxford University Press.

[ii] Wells-Barnett, Ida B. 2012[1895]. The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States. Dortmund, Germany: Tredition Classics.

Royster, Jacqueline Jones. 2016. Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Wood, Amy Louise Wood. 2009. Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

[iii] “Perspectives; The Negro and The American Promise; Malcolm X Interview,” 1963-06-24, WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC.;

[iv] Bonnie Honig. 2003. Democracy and the Foreigner. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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