these are my conditions: capitalism and unfreedom
from 16 – 26 and from 26 – 36
the ways that police and prisons have intruded in my life can be categorized into two distinct periods: first, from ages 16 – 26, and second, from 26 – 36.
these oppressive state institutions first began to impose themselves in my life due to my rebellious and drunken behaviour, and during periods when i was homeless and/or crazy. i’m not going to go into details right now, as i’ll be getting into more specifics in part 3.
as i politicized, and radicalized, the ways that these institutions interfered in my life changed – i was no longer getting into legal trouble for drunken actions and/or misguided and ineffective defiance of authority and oppressive laws (less so, anyways) – i was being arrested and, to a small extent, targeted, for my actions during protests and my real and/or perceived role as an organizer.
there is a difference between the routine surveillance and control the police do as part of their day-to-day activities which constitute most of what they do and the more discrete work that they do when engaging in political repression. indeed, their more extraordinary and often indefensible actions against social movements depends to a certain extent the public being kept ignorant about this aspect of policing (and courts and prisons). on the rare occasions when these actions are well publicized, there is usually a public outcry, such as led to the Royal commission of Inquiry into Certain Activities of the RCMP, aka the Macdonald Commission, or in the USA, the Church Committee.
this change in my life from intrusions due to criminalized actions based in non-political rebellion and being criminalized as a poor and homeless person to being criminalized for political actions, social justice activism and conscious resistance to an oppressive social order resulted in a new relationship to policing and prisons. this shift in my own relations with the criminal (in)justice system reflects two different although inextricably interrelated functions of this system. this change is inherent in the way that policing and prisons operate and has little to nothing to do with any shift in intentions on the part of individual police officers.
oppression, repression and the criminal (in)justice system
the police, courts and prisons are, fundamentally, institutions that exist to violently maintain the state, capitalism, and colonialism, as well as all of the forms of privilege and oppression that co- create and are co-created by them: class, racial, national, gender, sexual, ability, age based oppressions, and so on.
when they are operating “normally” the work the police to is mostly accepted as simply part of how things are, a necessary part of maintaining a safe and secure society. in fact, the creation of the modern police force is only slightly less than 200 years ago, in 1829 with the London Metropolitan Police. In Canada, modern police forces are even more recent.
the intention, in all cases, was to control and repress working class and poor people, people of colour and indigenous people, and, more generally miscreants and good-for-naughts. it had little or nothing to do with what most people would consider justice.
the public relations industry has entirely changed the way that political and economic elites speak publicly about their intentions and actions, and so public institutions such as the police use the rhetoric of law, order and justice in order to appear legitimate to the general public – with much success, indeed. certainly the (oppressed) people who interact most often with the police and who are on the receiving end of police violence, legal violence and incarceration are more aware that the claims of these institutions to be the just and impartial arbiters of law and order are not accurate, or true.
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when people, especially oppressed people, begin to organize and resist the political status quo these institutions are actively used to repress and suppress them. when people mobilize to demand justice for themselves and others, to demand an end to the exploitation and oppression of imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist heteropatriarchy then they are confronted with the criminal (in)justice system and the ways that it uses both legal and illegal methods to disrupt and undermine social movements.
there are important distinctions to be made on exactly how this repression will be implemented depending on what the goals of these people and movements are (the left is policed differently from the right, and movements of led by oppressed people are policed differently from movements led by more privileged groups), however, i’m not going to get into these nuances in this blog post. the analysis i’m presenting here is of the ways that movements for social justice are targeted(anarchists, communists, environmentalists, anti-racists, feminists, union activists, indigenists, etc.), as opposed to movements that aim to maintain and increase injustice (fascists, christian fundamentalists, etc.)
this shift on the part of people from passive acceptance of the status quo to active resistance in the interests of justice results in police, courts and prisons, changing roles from the normalized role of systemic oppression to the extraordinary, but no less fundamental role of political repression; the constitutionally protected right to protest exists only as long as people choose not to exercise it. indeed the more effective that movements are in creating positive social change, the more they will be subjected to repression.
maybe some parliamentarian will one day, in a fit of honesty, propose a bill “To Protect The Freedom of the Political and Economic Elites” which will rewrite the constitution in a way that makes clear that the right to ineffective protest is fully protected, while actions that may, in fact, result in a more just society will be punished to the extent that they succeed.
while, for social movements, being effective results in political repression, for the criminal (in)justice system, engaging in overt political repression threatens to delegitimize it. when the “normal” functions of oppression and control are insufficient, this system resorts to increasingly drastic (and often illegal) actions in an attempt to regain control and to disrupt these movements. this move from protectors of law, order and justice to agents of legal and illegal repression risks exposing the real functions that they play in the maintenance of an inequitable social order. examples of this type of repression are numerous, although not always well known: PROFUNC, PROMinient FUNCtionaries of the communist party, a program of surveillance of the communist party in Canada, or, in the USA, the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO)
although the hypocrisy of governments and institutions that exist in contravention of their own laws, as well as of international law and morality should be self-evident (much of “Canada” has been illegally appropriated by this settler state, and most, if not all, of the treaties that the Canadian government has signed with first nations have been violated) this does not change the reality that the canadian government through state institutions such as the police, courts and prisons have the power to enforce their political will.
privilege and oppression
as i said above, i have experienced this dynamic (political repression rather than police oppression), in small ways, in my own life. i have been brutalized by a police officer for calling him a pig, and i have been part of an activist group (the IPSM Ottawa: http://wwwipsmo.wordpress.com) that was infiltrated by a police officer.
undergirding all of this, of course, is my own specific relationship to privilege and oppression, and the ways these impact on my relationship with both the police and prisons. for example, being a white, cisgendered man, heterosexual, poor, “crazy” with a significant and long-term alcohol addiction.
this relationship was and is contextual and dynamic, meaning that it changed depending on where i was geographically and in terms of my class position, my perceived mental health and the extent of my use of drugs and alcohol, to speak only of the factors that made it more as opposed to less likely that i would be policed and subjected to some criminal (in)justice.
the ways that i am privileged, such as being a white settler, and a canadian citizen who lives in canada play the opposite role and are, i sometimes think, the primary reasons that i have not yet spent a long period of time incarcerated.
certainly, the roles that both forms of privilege and oppression have played regarding all my interactions with the police and prisons is complex. for example, while living in “spain” i was still white, but I was also an immigrant and consequently i was racialized in a slightly different way than i am in canada as a white canadian citizen. further, when i ended up homeless and alone in barcelona, my almost complete lack of any community or persons who cared for me (as well as not being a citizen?) was surely one of the reasons that the barcelona police felt confident enough to illegally imprison me for several days, to rape/torture me, never file any charges against me, and then, finally, to simply let me go.
these privileges mean that, while I have been accused by one former police chief (so far) of being a “domestic terrorist” and i am quite certain that there are various police files on me, and people i lived with and care about have been harassed because we were roommates, i do not receive the same level or type of police interference in my life that i would if i was a militant indigenous sovereigntist – the extent of police surveillance, harassment and violence towards indigenous communities and activists engaged in struggles for decolonization is well documented. as i already mentioned above, activists and leadership from oppressed communities are subjected to greater levels of violence and repression. the surveillance and harassment of arabs, muslims and of migrants is especially extensive, noticeable and well-documented: