these are my conditions: capitalism and unfreedom
this essay is based on a talk that i gave at a forum organized by the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project that called Beyond The Walls: Community Based-Punishments.
first, I want to acknowledge that the city where i live, ottawa, is on the stolen land of the algonquin people, and to acknowledge the territory of the algonquin Nation, which is the ottawa river and the entire ottawa river water basin. their territory has never been ceded, or surrendered.
i also want to send some love to all the political prisoners in canada, the US and around the world: prisoners such as Sundiata Acoli, Leonerd Peltier and David Gilbert.
Sundiata Acoli, a New Afrikan political prisoner of war, mathematician, and computer analyst, was born January 14, 1937, in Decatur, Texas, and raised in Vernon, Texas. He graduated from Prairie View A & M College of Texas in 1956 with a B.S. in mathematics and for the next 13 years worked for various computer-oriented firms, mostly in the New York area.
During the summer of 1964 he did voter registration work in Mississippi. In 1968 he joined the Harlem Black Panther Party and did community work around issues of schools, housing, jobs, child care, drugs, and police brutality.
In 1969 he and 13 others were arrested in the Panther 21 conspiracy case. He was held in jail without bail and on trial for two years before being acquitted, along with all other defendants, by a jury deliberating less than two hours.
for more information: http://www.sundiataacoli.org/
Leonerd Peltier was a member of the American Indian Movement, and he was framed by the FBI for crimes he did not commit, and is currently serving life in X prison. his trial is one of the best examples of the extent to which the US government was and is willing to break its own laws in order to crush effective resistance movements and to punish the people who participate(d) in them. he has written an autobiography: Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sundance.
For more information: http://www.leonardpeltier.info/background
David Gilbert is a white anti-racist and anti-imperialist who was arrested during a failed armed robbery and then convicted of muders that he did not commit. he was sentenced to 80 years in prison. he has written two books: No Surrender, a collections of essays, book reviews and other writings and Love and Struggle, which is an autobiography that focuses on his activism in the anti-racist and anti-imperialist movement of the 1960s and 70s.
For more information: http://www.kersplebedeb.com/mystuff/profiles/gilbert.html
these are my conditions: capitalism and unfreedom
when i started thinking about my varied experiences with legal conditions such as probation and bail, what i wanted to say about them, and what i had been asked to talk about at the public forum, i realized that there was no way for me to be coherent in my speech and analysis if i was to separating my unique self and life, from the social conditions that I, and all of us, live in – this imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, heteropatriarchal[i] culture – and from how these conditions and relationships have overdetermined all the times that police, courts and prisons have intruded into my life.
at the forum i did my best to address the subject, which was the legal conditions imposed on me by the criminal injustice system without narrowing my experiences in a way that divided and fragmented my thoughts, words and analysis, rather than presenting them in a holistic manner.
and so the first questions, before the question of what are my experiences of legal conditions, are: who am i? what factors shape my relationship with the criminal injustice system?
my name’s matt cicero. i was born and live in ottawa, ontario, algonquin territory. i’m white, male and poor, although i was born into a middle-class family. my biological father was the vice-president of carleton university, and my biological mother was a successful mid-level civil servant. they were both also extremely abusive to me in all the ways you might expect, and many that you would not. they were, in fact, part of an organized group of people who abused children.
since I ran away from home at 18, fleeing my abusers, i have spent most of my life living in poverty, and i have been homeless many times. being poor, and especially being homeless, makes people vulnerable in many different ways, one of which is police violence, from everyday harassment to acts of extreme violence, including in the worst cases, rape, torture (remembering that rape is also a form of torture), and, ultimately, murder.
i’ve been brutalized by police officers from 3 different police forces (the ottawa police, the securité du quebec, and the catalonian police, and other police/security officers in barcelona) in three very different situations. their brutality ranged from mild to severe.
as someone who was and is poor, and who has been homeless many times, i have also endured the day-to-day harassment by the police. i am certain that, If I had not been homeless and crazy in barcelona, with no real support network, i would not have been illegally “arrested” (i was never charged with anything) and raped/tortured.
aside, perhaps, from the abduction in barcelona, none of this is extraordinary. this type of violence is, in fact, one of the primary reasons that modern police forces were created: to monitor, control, oppress and when necessary, repress, working-class, poor and oppressed people and their resistance movements.
barcelona was by far the worst violence i’ve experienced from the police in their role as police. but none of the times i’ve been brutalized was really mild – brutality is not mild.
before barcelona, i had already been brutalized by an officer of the ottawa police force. i was in my early twenties. one night, as I was walking drunkenly home, I saw a police car in front of me and i started yelling “fucking pig” at the car and the officer inside. i didn’t have any rational reason for doing this, and i couldn’t tell you what motivated me, aside, I guess, from drunken rage. i have never liked the police. i still don’t.
for this “reason” the officer chose to get out of his car and then attack and torture me. over the next hour (partly, at least, because i was passively resisting) the officer used “pain compliance techniques” on me – meaning that he jabbed his fingers into my nerve centres causing extreme levels of pain without leaving any marks or bruising. later, at the police station on elgin st., he dragged me into the holding area, and then to my cell. i had scars on my right leg for years. just before putting me in the cell he pepper sprayed me right in the eyes, which, fortunately i kept closed at the time, and for most of the time i was in the holding cell.
i expect that the police do this on a regular basis. in fact, there have been many stories in the past 2 years of the types of abuse that police officers commonly do to prisoners in their holding cells:
man suing ottawa police for $1.2M: Ottawa man accuses Ottawa police of beating him in cell block after arrest
Strip searched Ottawa woman sues police
Fighting Back Against Police Violence, and Uniting for Alternatives
the last time i was again brutalized was during a blockade of highway 117 with the algonquins of barrier lake and their other allies. a group of us had built lock boxes out of oil drums, cement, iron rebar and pvc piping. we had our arms in the pvc piping, which we had put about mid-way down the oil drums and covered in cement. we had cut holes in the oil drums so that we could insert our arms and inside the pvc piping. we had set an iron bar in the cement and we had clipped ourselves onto it with carabineers. we were effectively locked there, and the police could not simply pull our arms out of the lock boxes, or move the oil drums without hurting us, probably severely and in ways (broken limbs, etc.) that they could not hide from the media and courts.
sadly we were naïve about what the police would do when confronted with this tactic on a highway that is vital to the economy, and with virtually no mainstream media present. what we had thought was that they would cut us all out of the barrels, thus increasing the amount of time that the highway would be closed. highway 117 is the only highway in the region, and is used by large numbers of transport trucks carrying goods all over the province, and the blockade, which lasted about 12 hours, likely cost millions of dollars in economic damages.
but, in retrospect, they, not surprisingly, did not choose to calmly cut us out of the lockboxes. what they did do was a sort of shock and awe rush with the intent of scaring everyone locked into the lockboxes into removing their arms “voluntarily”. this succeeded with 4 of the 6 people involved. for the 2 of us who held out, they then used “pain compliance” aka torture: driving their fingers into nerve centres and choking us. at one point, one of the officers stuck a crowbar under my right arm and tried yanking my arm out of the lockbox. He did hurt my shoulder fairly badly, but he failed to pull my arm out of the lock box.
my compagnera on the other side was, after being choked and hurt, told she was pretty, and one of the officers held her hand. that is to say that she was mildy sexually harassed after being mildly tortured.
even as they used their tools to cut through the cement in the oil drum, officers tried to manipulate us into removing our arms by telling us that we were responsible for each other’s suffering. but then this whole scenario is normal from an oppressor mentality: the use of fear and violence to cow the targets, followed by efforts to divide and manipulate them, all the while blaming the targets for the violence they are experiencing. thinking about what they were saying to me and the way that they were acting while they tried to convince us to voluntarily remove our arms still makes me feel nauseous.
the murder in 2013 of Sammy yatim by a toronto police officer was not only a case of the murder of a syrian-canadian teenager by a white police officer, but also the murder of someone with experiencing mental health issues by a “sane” person. clearly, shooting an essentially defenseless human who is no real threat to anyone, and then shooting them repeatedly while they are lying on the ground bleeding is not really sane in any meaningful sense of the term, but this is different from what people usually mean when they talk about sanity and insanity.
for more information about sammy yatim: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Sammy_Yatim
as I said above I am a “crazy” person, and thus I am also part of another group that is especially vulnerable to violence from the police, courts and prisons. the almost two decades of vicious and systematic abuse by my biological parents, their “friends” and other members of the organization, left me with deep psychological scars, scars that left me at least half-crazy for many years, with 3 literal descents into madness. thankfully, I have found a way to both escape my abusers and to heal.
still, as someone who has been deeply hurt and traumatized, mostly as a child, but also as an adult, and someone who has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, i am part of an oppressed group of people, people with mental health “issues,” people who are both criminalized, and medicalized.
being criminalized means: that groups and individuals are labelled as criminal, despite, and in spite of, their actions. criminals are, of course, in need of policing and imprisonment.
being medicalized means: that groups and individuals are labelled as sick, despite, and in spite of, their actions. sick people are, of course, in need of “care” and hospitalization and/or imprisonment.
people who are not able to appear normal, or sane, and who are not functional and productive in this capitalist system, are treated as disposable persons, as well as people who are inherently violent, dangerous and even malicious. the number of people with “mental illnesses” in the prison-industrial complex is high, at least ¼ and 1/3 of everyone who is in the system, if not more.
being medicalized results in being controlled in a different way – maybe taken to a psychiatric ward rather than a police holding cell, or a detention centre, depending on what happened, and the opinions of authorities and experts. the power and control, however, that doctors and the medical establishment have over ALL disabled people, as well as other groups, such as trans people, is extreme, and, at the institutional and cultural level, it is not benign, despite the fact that many of the front-line workers in medical facilities are good people doing their best.
the defunding of psychiatric care and the resultant loss of beds in psych wards and other facilities designed to care for people with mental health issues has had the predictable effect of moving people from hospitals and mental health facilities to jails and prisons, often via poverty and homelessness. and don’t forget that this “care” is usually done in a paternalistic and condescending manner. this is understandable as the health care system is designed by government planners, health care professionals and administrators and other “experts” and their design is based on their assumptions and needs as much or more than on the wants and needs of sick and disabled people. a better system would be centred around the wants and needs of patients, not the wants and needs of health care professionals and state administrators.
although I don’t think I can really elaborate this idea in the way that i would like, it is also important to note that for people with mental health issues, criminalization and medicalization are not necessarily separate processes, and that they can be, and are, organized through one another.
people with mental health issues in prisons are oppressed in specific ways, such as being denied medication, or being stigmatized. being stigmatized makes them more vulnerable to abuse and violence from prison guards and other prisoners.
conversely, people who have not been diagnosed, but who are experiencing mental health issues (prison is, not surprisingly, one long assault on every prisoners’ mental health) can be refused access to every type of care that might help them, and can be punished as troublesome when they are actually experiencing serious psychological problems.
finally, and this is also related to the fact that I was so severely abused as a child, i was an alcoholic and recreational drug user from the age of 16 until 34. similarly, many people with “mental illnesses” also have addictions issues. and it is a known fact that many people with “mental illnesses” were abused in one way or another as children, although this fact is often ignored. there is a correlation between childhood abuse, “mental illness”, drug and alcohol addiction and people in the criminal injustice system.
i can easily think of 4 things (and there are probably more) i did when drunk that resulted in getting detained or arrested by the police. and i’m sure that i never would have done those things if i had been sober. fortunately for me, due mostly to luck, but also to the fact that I remembered not to say anything (at least nothing important) to the police officers arresting me, none of these actions resulted in criminal charges against me.
none of the above addresses the specific issue of legal conditions, but it is all relevant to my experiences with the criminal injustice system and the reasons that i have even ever been arrested, harassed, brutalized and, ultimately found guilty of crimes, and been put on probation and bail.
[i] To reference both bell hooks and Andrea Smith