Friday, April 3, 2015
Given that the movie 50 Shades of Grey has come out recently, a large amount of media attention has been devoted to not only the movie, but the discussion of Bondage, Dominance, Submission, and Masochism or BDSM. While many condemn 50 Shades of Grey as a film that promotes abuse, rarely, if ever has the media discussed the movie and BDSM more generally with people who are in the BDSM community.
Below is a transcript of an interview I did with three people who identify with and are a part of the BDSM community. In it, we discuss sexuality, how real-life BDSM differs from reality, and the impact 50 Shades of Grey is having on people's of BDSM. They have chosen to remain anonymous and thus will be referred to solely by their initials.
1. How would you define your sexuality? How did you come to this realization?
CG: If we're talking about who I'm attracted to, I'd be best defined as a demisexual. While I can tell you whether or not someone is in my opinion sexy, I don't feel any actual urge to engage in any form of sexual activity with them unless I also feel a deep romantic attachment. The people I've felt this way with have all been women. I think that I'd be equally attracted to a male given the right set of circumstances, though I can't say I know what they are. If we're talking about what end of the S&M [Sadism & Masochism] spectrum I'd fall upon, that was something I grappled with. I'm definitely a sadistic dominant. I enjoy being the controlling one in most sexual situations, and I draw a great deal of erotic satisfaction from the pain or humiliation of a willing partner.
It was mostly a question when I was younger and I thought for sure that there couldn't be anyone else who was turned on by the same things I was. As a boy near the onset of puberty, I'd fantasize about the idea of being in pain at the hands of a dominant who controlled me, but I later realized I probably fell on the opposite end of the spectrum in practice once I started to have relationships with other BDSM enthusiasts as a teenager. Still, I think that sexuality and its many facets are quite fluid once you remove the cultural inhibitions and I wouldn't be surprised if I were to change my mind one day.
SW: I think, in all honesty, a person's sexuality is something they spend their whole life discovering. There are always people that vehemently declare that they are as straight as a ruler, but really, there will almost always be an exception. And if not, a straight person can still, usually, appreciate the attractiveness, or lack thereof, of someone of the same gender. For me, love is love. I do not fall in love with someone based on their gender or sexual preference. I fall in love with people based on who they are as a person, on the inside, and physical attraction doesn't hurt.
CR: I'd define my sexuality as pansexual, but my romantic orientation as biromantic. Sexual attraction for me isn't about gender. While the person's gender is important and should be respected, it has no baring on my ability to feel attracted. However, in a romantic sense I do have preferences in gender.
I came this this conclusion when I was very young(at least on my pansexuality), because despite crushes on boys my first kiss was with a girl. I loved girls(and later gender non-conforming people) just as much as boys.
2. How did you find yourself becoming interested in/attracted to BDSM?
CG: When I was about 12 years old, I figured out you could use Google to find pictures of naked
women. I'd print them out and pass them around to my friends who didn't have computers. It was mostly out of curiosity and a desire to discuss sexual things with friends who were at a similar stage of development. 'Sex education' always had too much of a dressed up politically correct agenda for my tastes. It was at this point that I first realized there were many other people out there who thought and felt the same way I did about the activities commonly known as BDSM. I found images of men and women bound in different positions, videos of people dominating each other, and everything that came with it. I had always been interested in those sorts of activities, but I could never put a label to it simply because I didn't know of one.
SW: I cannot pinpoint a certain pivotal moment; I think I was always just curious deep down. I have always had interests that deviate from what many people call normal. Speaking of which, the word normal has always translated to boring, in my mind. I pride myself in being simultaneously unique and invisible. I do not like being the center of attention but I like standing out, if that makes any sense at all. It is fascinating to discover the limits of one's body.
CR: To be honest? I'm a multiple abuse victim and rape victim. Certain aspects of my PTSD make it very hard to process, own and deal with that trauma. It is my experience that certain aspects of BDSM can be very helpful in dealing with psychosexual issues. That said, I think it is equally important to criticize, examine and understand why your kinks are your kinks. Sex doesn't exist in a vacuum.
3. What are some aspects of BDSM that not many people know about?
CG: I think the most common misconception people have about BDSM is that it's like rape, that it's
all about the gratification of the sadist who is an evil person randomly forcing the masochist to endure things for their pleasure. In reality, consent is absolutely everything. Perhaps most emblematic of this is the popular trend of a 'safe word.' Some people use an actual word, others use a system of color coding similar to a traffic light. Whatever your choice, if a safe word is used it means "I am uncomfortable, stop." To continue at that point is the ultimate breach of trust in BDSM, and it can signify the end of a relationship. Since the general conception is that the masochist is the one being used by the dominant, it's supremely ironic that such a powerful tool rests mainly in the hands of the submissive. In fact, I think it's fair to argue that the one with the most control in an BDSM scenario is the submissive. But this control is important, because it makes sure that mutual satisfaction is being achieved.
Some people enjoy inflicting pain in an erotic setting, and some enjoy receiving it. Another thing I'd imagine most people don't know is that healthy BDSM relationships start the same way any other sexual relationship does. Whereas one couple may discuss the fact that they want to save penetrative intercourse for marriage, you might put more emphasis on turn-offs, limits, and a safe word. While people who would fall under the label of BDSM enthusiast may like similar things, it's still a label and not everyone is the same. If one of you doesn't like to perform or receive a certain sex act, or if there's a certain point you don't wish to pass, that's something that should be communicated.
SW: BDSM is not just about ruthlessly flogging people. BDSM is about mutual respect and listening, listening to what your partner likes or when they have had enough. Safe words are key and must be heard and honored. Aftercare is also very important and includes discussion of the experience as well as tending to any more serious injuries sustained.
CR: That is kind of a loaded question. Most people have a very limited idea of what goes into a kink based partnership. Much of BDSM is not inherently sexual in nature. Much of it is, but sometimes you'll have submissives who honestly just want to clean your house. Being submissive fulfills a need for many that isn't always sexual, that they cannot find otherwise.
4. Do you think it is up to the BDSM community to make a better image for itself or should society stop being so rigid about the expression of one's sexuality?
CG: That's problematic. On the one hand, I think BDSM participants should be sensitive to non-participants in the same way a person with fiery sexuality should be to an asexual person. Many are simply not into it, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's a matter of respect out of deference. On the other hand, our society is painfully puritanical about even 'vanilla' sex acts and that has to stop. In contrast, the BDSM community is not dissimilar to the larger gay rights movement in that it's big on acceptance, respect, and individual choice. Sure, there are a few yahoos here and there who muddy it up for the rest, but for the most part the mindset is in a good place.
I like to keep my sex life private (which would be the case even if my preferences were mainstream), but I know there are many others who do not feel the same way and that should be their right. It has to be a give and take. People who don't want anything to do with it should have the right not to be audience to it, and people who do shouldn't be shamed or forced into stifling themselves. I do err more on the side of society needing to abandon a bit of its rigidity, though. The people actively opposing different expressions of human sexuality are the ones with the problem, not the other way around.
SW: I think, at the end of the day, people are going to think what they are going to think. If people want to be close-minded and form baseless, negative opinions, then let them miss out on the fun. You cannot please everyone, nor should you attempt to.
CR: This is a grey issue. Kinksters have a tendency to act like nothing in the scene should be questioned. Vanilla people tend to have a very heteronormative view on what the scene is and can be. The kink community does need to conduct itself better, but society as a whole needs to work through its issues with sex negativity.
5. How is/how can the potential for abuse in BDSM be combated?
CG: I think it is sadists practicing with consenting partners who get the brunt of the bad reputation associated with BDSM. Masochism isn't viewed in the same controversial light. As far as combating the assumption of abuse, it's a matter of drawing a distinction between what is abuse and what is consensual. In outdated versions of the DSM, essentially the bible of diagnostics in the field of psychology and psychiatric medicine, sadism and masochism were both classified in a manner not dissimilar to a psychological disorder. Nowadays, they're listed under paraphilia. There are very clear guidelines as to what is defined as disordered sadism, and I happen to agree with them. A person is considered 'disordered' if they experience significant emotional distress to the point of impaired every day function because of their urges. More important is whether or not they practice their urges with an unwilling person. Short of that it can't be abuse because it's consensual, which means that there's no victim.
Then there's the people who try to hide abuse behind the guise of love. Forgive me if I speak harshly here, but this is a very touchy subject for me. It makes my blood boil that there are people in this world who are so callous as to maliciously abuse another human being and not even own up to it. Worse still, they take the label of what is essentially an oppressed minority and they pervert it for their own temporary protection. And it is temporary. Abusers may not always be punished in the form of legal retribution, but they always get found out and it has an impact on their life. Unfortunately, by that point they've already become a statistic. The vast majority of sex offenders could be classified as disordered sadists. In that respect, I don't know if there's much that can be done. People like to lump things together. It makes it easier for them to process the big world outside their heads with too many things for them to conceptualize at a high level. The only real hope we have is to distinguish between the disordered and those who are just harmlessly kinky. As I keep saying, consent and being informed are everything.
SW: The potential for abuse in BDSM can be combated with aftercare, safe words, compassion, and tenderness. BDSM is not about aggression but about the line between pleasure and pain being crossed and blurred.
CR: Easy. If someone says they have been raped, abused or otherwise harmed by a person, they should not be welcome in the public scene. Vetting should be standard, there should be at least one reference in your profile, or someone willing to vouch for your newness to the scene etc. It really shouldn't be seen as difficult as it is.
6. If able to, explain how 50 Shades of Grey is problematic and does a disservice to the BDSM community.
CG: I've personally never read the book, as that would require me giving patronage to the person who wrote it. I have read about a half dozen synopses of it. From what I've seen, it's problematic mainly for the dominant party in BDSM. This is true in three ways. Firstly, it depicts the dominant in an excessively dysfunctional light. Christian Grey goes beyond the bedroom with his 'desires' and invades the personal life of Anastasia in numerous ways such as borderline stalking, and legal coercion. Looming over your lover isn't acceptable in any type of relationship, and a BDSM relationship is no different. As far as legal coercion goes, unless you're Sheldon Cooper you don't need a relationship agreement drafted in the form of a legal document to have a relationship you can feel safe in. This plays into the second problem, his blatant control issues. It's true that BDSM does have some elements involving taking control of or giving control to another party. However, in most cases this takes place behind closed doors.
Christian Grey tries to rig his relationship with Anastasia in such a way that he would have full control over everything that happens regarding their intimacy outside of the bedroom as well. Add this to the whole 'young, aggressive billionaire' thing that he has going on and you're left to wonder what we're not being told about his personality. From another synopsis I've read, I know that we later find out that he has been in therapy because of his urges for over a decade. As I've already mentioned, this is a symptom of disordered sexual sadism. Finally, he seems to be practicing with a non-consenting partner. While Anastasia is somewhat receptive to his advances, from what I've read she never explicitly states that she's okay with what is about to be done to her. Grey seems to be throwing things at a wall and hoping something will stick. This goes against the core of consent and respect within the BDSM community.
CR: Mmmm, see I don't really care as much about the kink community being misrepresented here. Even rudimentary research would show you the glaringly obvious there. I am far more put off by the treatment of Ana. I am concerned about how the popularity of this book will further normalize abusive relationships, possibly leading to even more abuse in the scene.
Thursday, March 26, 2015
The Internal Struggle: Battling Oppressive Tendencies in Radical Spaces
The following is the transcript of a recent email interview I had with several admins of the Anarchist Memes Facebook page discussing racism, sexism, transphobia, and a host of other oppressive behaviors in radical spaces and how to battle those behaviors.
1. How has anarchist thought evolved over time to be more inclusive of marginalized social groups?
[E]: Anarchism is a socialist ideology which had its birth and early infancy (as an actual political movement) within the First Internationale, with the Bakunin/Marx split. Like in socialism more broadly, the question of privilege apart from class privilege has always been a problem in the anarchist movement, with the (white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied) leadership of many anarchist groups refusing to acknowledge other vectors of oppression than the oppression experienced through class struggle, the one avenue of oppression that they themselves feel.
Already early on, though, anarchism experienced some queer theory. Der Eigene (The Unique) was the first gay Journal in the world, published from 1896 to 1932 by Adolf Brand in Berlin. Likewise, influential anarchists like Emma Goldman were far “ahead of their time” in that field, so to say. The politics of marginalized social groups, such as queer liberation and PoC [People of Color] liberation, has always been something that fit perfectly with anarchism because anarchism is opposition to all forms of structural oppression. But, as noted, many anarchist organizations (being dominated in large parts by a white heterosexual proletariat) has had a hard time recognizing this inherent property of anarchism.
Over time, as marginalized groups have gained a voice and prominence due to their own struggle for these things, they have also gained a voice and prominence within the broad anarchist tradition. Something which they should have had from the start, if only all of the early anarchists were as self-consistent as some of them were.
2. Why do you think that some on the radical left tend to downplay or outright ignore problems such as sexism and racism? Would you say that it is a major reason why more marginalized groups don't identify/don't become involved with anarchism?
[JA]: I think it is typically, generally, privilege (and white-male anarchists) clouding the analytical and emotional lens of those downplaying/ignoring sexism and racism. Many if not most white western anarchists seem to come to anarchism through a processes of de-conditioning themselves from the values and perceptions imbued in to them from the dominant culture often it's a process, an exponential shedding of negative, bigoted, privileged sensibilities and ideals, which is not to say downplaying racism, sexism or any other oppression is okay/excusable. I'm not suggesting it's incumbent for anyone to have patience with those express or retain bigoted and insensitive views.
To the contrary, I think an environment openly hostile to privilege and bigotry is an effective way of teaching people that there is something very wrong with those sorts of views. And more importantly, I think hostility towards bigotry and privilege rightly creates an environment which preferences the feelings of the oppressed before those who would downplay or deny their oppression. A culture of disdain towards oppressive attitudes and conditions is integral to adjusting attitudes and perceptions in my opinion.
[OM]: One of the main factors in excluding marginalized groups, in my experience especially with German activists, is the massive amount of unchecked privilege. This is especially true for activists who have entered Anarchism not to institute any meaningful social change, but to be part of a scene they consider a cool and edgy place to be in, i.e. they are not into it to build a better society, but to raise their own social status. These people (usually of the white, cishet, male, able-bodied/minded variety) then tend to establish dominance within their groups by all means available, including loads of oppressive behavior, especially shouting down and talking over more marginalized voices. Here in Germany, they have managed to successfully appropriate the concept of privilege, which is now considered a strictly individual property and not a result of structural inequality (e.g., people talk endlessly about the white privilege of individuals, but refuse to acknowledge white supremacy). Some even believe that, if they talk about their privilege a lot and in scene-approved terms, they can unilaterally rid themselves of said privilege, which leads to results to white men shouting down (white) women who raise topics like misogyny with shouts of “Check your white privilege” (white privilege can be interchanged with every other privilege here that is not male privilege).
Another major issue here is in my experience sub-culturalism. The confinement of Anarchism to a very narrow subculture is a major contributor to Anarchism’s current state as a white boys club. To participate in most German Anarchist groups, one has to strictly adhere to a host of unwritten rules and to display very specific cultural tastes in the areas of music, clothing, language, leisurely activities and so on. These cultural tastes are often considered more important than a person’s political affiliations.
Many of these rules actively exclude marginalized people. For example, everyone who owns a smartphone gets a lot of hate from local Anarchists for “supporting capitalism and consumerism” despite these devices being highly assistive for disabled people (I as an autistic person rely on my smartphone a lot to navigate everyday life, so I get a lot of ableism hurled at me here). Another example would be hostility towards poor/working class people. Since current Anarchist groups in my area are mainly made up of white men from wealthy backgrounds (the stereotypical trust fund kids), antagonism towards people who rely in wage labor (who, in general, tend to be more marginalized than the trust fund kids) for their survival definitely happens. Common critiques of “consumerism” actually go in a similar direction, basically preaching a very protestant-like asceticism and scolding women and working class people for acquiring things that make their lives easier and/or more pleasant (for example TV sets, washing machines, and so on).
A third issue I identify here is an attitude of “we exclude no one,” which leads to Anarchist groups actively accepting the presence of racists, sexists and ableists because excluding them would be “authoritarian,” while failing to acknowledge that accepting these people automatically excludes PoC, women, queer folx, disabled people and so on.
3. Do you think that this problem between anarchists who engage in oppressive behavior and those who do their best not to/acknowledge their own privilege; create a major rift in the anarchist movement? That is creates a sort of purity test?
[JA]: Well, I think this is an issue for socialism broadly - right-wing political philosophies don't have to grapple with people actively not acknowledging their privilege because (and to the degree that) they're ideologies built on privilege.
I think the percentage of abusive, privileged, bigoted people within the ranks of anarchists/marxists/et al are quite low - but that their awful behavior casts a wide shadow. I don't believe there is much disagreement on the importance of safeguarding against and identifying abusers/bigots in our midsts. I think most of the left today, is quite cognizant of the fact that we have to be diligent about allowing patriarchy, white supremacy, and other vectors of oppression to permeate and distort our organizations, praxis, etc.
[OM]: I largely agree with fellow admin [JA] here, but I would like to add that purity tests are already a thing in Anarchist contexts, usually not referring to privilege though (but more to aforementioned cultural tastes and socioeconomic status), and mostly conducted by people with a lot of unchecked privilege.
4. What have been some of the problems that you have encountered when bringing up race, sexism, or other oppressive social structures on the AM page?
[JA]: The biggest problems in raising topics concerning racism, sexism, etc (in my opinion) - are non-anarchists flooding the page with their bigoted nonsense. Concomitant with that, are the pacifist-police who ubiquitously argue that any ban or hostile attitude towards racists somehow violates the racist's freedom-of-speech or some tenant of anarchism (which is ludicrous, on multiple levels, as we perpetually explain).
5. Why do you think so many anarchists seem to misunderstand anarchism, seemingly in order to continue oppressive behavior?
[JA]: I don't believe the people who misunderstand anarchism, and think that it excuses their oppressive behavior, are actually anarchists. I think they're half-wits who self-apply the label per their misconceptions and intellectual laziness. What they think anarchism is - is not what anarchism is.
Many, many people mistake anarchism for a kind of sociopathic anti-philosophy - a philosophy which eschews order or concern for anyone/anything but the self. Which is, of course, the opposite of what anarchism is.
[E]: From a very cynical power-relations point of view, it makes perfect sense that they are misunderstanding anarchism in order to continue oppressive behavior within self-described “anarchist” spaces. Many of these people don’t face the same oppression as members of other marginalized groups do, and as such this experience lies far from their own understanding of the world, which makes empathy with people in those situations extremely hard, especially when your own privilege depends on that relation of power.
6. How have racial tensions in the anarchist movement contributed to the rise of so-called nationalist anarchists? What exactly is a nationalist-anarchist?
[JA]: "National-anarchism" didn't come out of anarchism - national anarchists misappropriated "anarchism" in the same way "anarcho-capitalists" have. In the same way American-capitalists misappropriated the term "libertarian" from the left etc. There's really no connection between "national-anarchists" and anarchism, save the title, which they surreptitiously took as their own.
[E]: A nationalist-“anarchist” is either a crypto-fascist seeking to recruit through the use of quasi-anarchist slogans and aesthetics turned towards a fascist mindset (see the “autonome Nationalisten” [Autonomous Nationalists] in Germany for a good example of this, with the Far-Right subverting and using the symbols of the Far-Left), a nationalist who has misunderstood anarchism or a self-proclaimed “anarchist” who has misunderstood anarchism. In all cases, it’s an ideology that’s built on the sophism of “freedom of association” applying between ethnicities and “peoples.” It’s a sort of strange mix between völkisch nationalism in the old pre-Nazi conception and all the most surface and hollow thoughts of an early Mikhail Bakunin (who was more interested in pan-Slavism and Slavic nationalism than he would later be, spurning those ideas later in life).
Fascists have also co-opted anarchist thinkers in the past, with the “Cercle Proudhon” being an early Far-Right quasi-fascist organization, and the early Italian fascists had great respect for the syndicalism of Georges Sorel and the conception of political violence that Mikhail Bakunin put forth.
7. How do you think that people can make their own groups more inclusive of marginalized groups?
[JA]: I found all these questions originally - and still do - difficult to answer as a cis white male. I can't speak for marginalized communities, and it feels inappropriate to pontificate on their behalf.
[E]: People have to speak up. They have to not accept or be silent in the face of the racist, sexist, transphobic or otherwise reactionary actions taken by their groups. Trying to go for a squeaky-clean image by further silencing the marginalized voices is not the way to go about it, when someone is being a racist asshole you have to confront it, not just ignore it. Otherwise, we’re not going to get all that far. In many ways, the reason that Anarchist Memes has evolved in the direction it has is because we refuse to be silent when self-proclaimed anarchists act just like the oppressors they claim they are fighting. Racism, sexism, transphobia, or any other kind of oppression should not be casually accepted in anarchist spaces, and it won’t be on Anarchist Memes.
Tuesday, March 10, 2015
This was originally published on Occupy.com
Civil forfeiture is a major issue that's recently gotten into the news, notably due to Attorney General Eric Holder's change to the controversial police action of seizing people's property. Unfortunately, Holder’s actions, while laudable, won't stop the massive damage that has already been done – and may very well continue the problem. Because although the media has finally begun to talk about the issue, we still haven’t been presented with a full scope of civil forfeiture: what it is and what it means.
To understand forfeiture, one must go back to colonial America. The idea of civil forfeiture comes directly from the British; early forfeiture law “refers to the power of a court over an item of real or personal property.” This could include land, in which the court would decide who owned a piece of land, or marriage, where the courts would have the authority to terminate a marriage.
Originally, in rem jurisdiction was “incorporated into American customs and admiralty laws governing the seizure of ships for crimes of piracy, treason and smuggling in the early days of the Republic, and during the American Civil War." It was later formalized in 1966 “in the Supplemental Rules for Certain Admiralty and Maritime Claims which apply to our civil forfeiture cases.” So the United States has always had some type of civil forfeiture law.
The situation changed, however, when President Nixon announced the War on Drugs and began to use civil forfeiture as an instrument of law enforcement. Author Montgomery Sibley notes that, as part of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, Congress strengthened civil forfeiture as a means of confiscating illegal substances and the means by which they are manufactured and distributed. In 1978, Congress amended the law to authorize the seizure and forfeiture of the proceeds of illegal drug transactions as well.
Under Nixon, the Continuing Criminal Enterprise statute was also enacted, targeting repeat offenders of lucrative drug trafficking. Meanwhile, an important side effect of the Control Act was that it not only allowed police to seize private property being used in a crime – it also made clear that the owner of said property had to prove the property in question was not being used as part of a crime. In other words, when it comes to proving that someone's property isn’t being used for criminal purposes, the burden of proof is on the owner, not the police. This creates a situation where the police can essentially confiscate someone’s belongings, allege that the items are being used to further a crime, and the owner must somehow prove that the allegation is false – something that can be extremely difficult to do.
In 1984, under President Ronald Reagan, further changes were made under the Comprehensive Crime Control Act with regards to funds attained from civil forfeiture. Two new forfeiture funds were federally created, “one at the U.S. Department of Justice, which gets revenue from forfeitures done by agencies like the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and another now run by the U.S. Treasury, which gets revenue from agencies like Customs and the Coast Guard." As PBS reported, "these funds could now be used for forfeiture-related expenses, payments to informants, prison building, equipment purchase, and other general law enforcement purposes.”
However, there was a major change in that local law enforcement this time would also get to have their share of the pie. “Within the 1984 Act was a provision for so-called ‘equitable sharing,’ which allows local law enforcement agencies to receive a portion of the net proceeds of forfeitures they help make under federal law.”
As soon as this occurred, America saw a massive increase in the amount of civil forfeitures carried out by federal agents between 1989 and 1999, when the value of civil forfeiture recoveries nearly doubled from $285,000,039 to $535,767,852 – a 187% increase in only 10 years. And the numbers only grew as time went on.
In 2012, $4.6 billion was acquired via civil forfeiture, compared to a decade earlier, in 2002, when the amount seized was just $322,246,408. The increase of over 1,400% reveals a major cash cow for law enforcement.
There was an attempt to reform civil forfeiture through the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000. This included several changes most notably in regards to poor or impoverished defendants, where the new law ordered courts to issue the defendant a lawyer “when the property in question is a primary residence,” as well as to pay the lawyer regardless of the outcome of the case, whereas before, defendants had to essentially defend themselves.
In addition, the issue of burden of proof changed as the government now had to "establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the property [was] subject to forfeiture,” where previously the government could seize property solely on probable cause. Put simply, in order to seize property, the government now had not just to present evidence, but to present evidence “based on the more convincing evidence and its probable truth or accuracy, and not on the amount of evidence.” With that reform, it was no longer enough to say there was a possibility that the evidence could have been used in a crime. However, the law didn't deal with the problem that the burden of proof was on the property owner, nor did it deal with the conflict of interest in which the government could seize property and sell it – using the money to fund its own operations. Because the pressing question still remains: how exactly do police use the funds they've gained from civil forfeitures?
In 2013, Vice reported that a district attorney in Georgia used the funds to “to buy football tickets and home furnishings,” whereas “officers in Bal Harbor, Florida, took trips to LA and Vegas and rented luxury cars, and other DAs and police chiefs have bought everything from tanning salons to booze for parties.”
The Washington Post also reported that police are using the funds to militarize themselves, buying an array of items such as “Humvees, automatic weapons, gas grenades, night-vision scopes and sniper gear. Many departments acquired electronic surveillance equipment, including automated license-plate readers and systems that track cellphones.” And this spending is on top of the military surplus gear police receive from the Pentagon.
While there is a federal force to ensure that funds are used appropriately, it's wildly understaffed; the Justice Department has about 15 employees assigned to oversee compliance, with some five employees responsible for reviewing thousands of annual reports. Essentially, then, police are free to spend the money they gain from civil forfeitures on anything they want, without fear of punishment.
Besides the previously noted conflict of interest and burden of proof issues, there are also other major problems with civil forfeiture – notably, the disproportionate racial impact and harm it causes to innocent people.
In 2012, Vanita Gupta, the ACLU deputy legal director, was involved in a settlement of several civil forfeiture cases in Texas in which mainly black and Latino drivers were pulled over, many times without justification, and had their assets seized by police. Gupta noted that civil forfeiture laws “invite racial profiling” and “incentivize police agencies to engage in unconstitutional behavior in order to fund themselves off the backs of low-income motorists, most of whom lack the means to fight back, without any hard evidence of criminal activity. It is no way to run our justice system.”
Furthermore, in 2014, the Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute reported reported that civil forfeiture laws “routinely amount to de facto racial discrimination, as law enforcement officials routinely target low-income people of color, seizing their assets.” It quoted the ACLU as saying that “asset forfeiture practices often go hand-in-hand with racial profiling and disproportionally impact low-income African-American or Hispanic people who the police decide look suspicious and for whom the arcane process of trying to get one’s property back is an expensive challenge.” Thus, like many aspects of the criminal justice system, civil forfeiture disproportionately impacts minorities.
Great harm is also committed against innocent people who are not actually engaging in any crime. Gothamist reported that in March of 2012, the NYPD confiscated $4,800 belonging to Gerald Bryan, and took Bryan “into custody on suspected felony drug distribution, as the police continued their warrantless search.” Bryan's case was later dropped, but when he went to reclaim his money “he was told it was too late: the money had been deposited into the NYPD's pension fund.”
The NYPD’s civil forfeiture was declared unconstitutional twice. However, the process still continues, reflecting a failure to protect the basic rights of citizens – and a breakdown in the rule of law. The very people who are supposed to enforce the law are the ones who profit from ignoring it – something that was proven in a recent study by the Institute for Justice, which found that “civil forfeiture encourages choices by law enforcement officers that leave the public worse off.”
“Under civil forfeiture," said the report, "when participants could gain financially by taking property from others, that is overwhelmingly what they did.”
While many might argue that the civil forfeiture game has changed due to recent actions taken by AG Holder, unfortunately very little actually has. As Vox reported in January: "Holder's order only curtails ‘adoptions’ that are requested through the federal program by a local or state police department working on its own. It still allows local and state police to seize and keep assets when working with federal authorities on an investigation, and when the property is linked to public safety concerns — such as illegal firearms, ammunition, and explosives."
Thus, civil forfeitures continue unabated for the most part. This data analysis revealed that “only about a quarter—25.6 percent—of properties seized under equitable sharing were federal ‘adoptions’ of properties seized by state or local law enforcement, the kind of seizures the new policy targets” and that “of the nearly $6.8 billion in cash and property seized under equitable sharing from 2008 to 2013, adoptions accounted for just 8.7 percent.” Put simply: local and state law enforcement can still engage in civil forfeiture and make large amounts of money off it.
To make things worse, incoming Attorney General Loretta Lynch appears undisturbed by the current state of civil forfeiture, since she “has used civil asset forfeiture in more than 120 cases, raking in some $113 million for federal and local coffers,” and even calling it a “wonderful tool.”
There have been attempts at reform. But both of them – the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2014, and the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act, which “would protect the rights of citizens and restore the Fifth Amendment’s role in seizing property without due process of law,” died in Congress. In the meantime, it seems that cops and the government will continue to cash in on the property of U.S. citizens.
Sunday, February 22, 2015
The following is the transcript of a recent email interview I had with Emm Roy, artist and creator of Positive Doodles about art and self-care. She can be found on Facebook as well as on Twitter.
1. What made you interested in art?
I’m excited about how we experience and relate to the universe. I want to know, feel and experience as much as possible, and it makes it difficult to focus. I’ll see something and I’ll think it’s the best thing ever, but then five seconds later I’ll see something else and I’ll fall in love with that too, so it’s hard to pay attention.
It made school difficult for me as a kid. Learning was important to me, but I couldn’t pay attention in class, so I didn’t do well. My dad wanted to help so he researched a few alternate learning methods. We tried several things until we realized that doodling and cartooning worked for me. I can’t learn anything just by sitting still and listening to a teacher, but I can learn by creating and interacting with the information I’m receiving.
I spent my childhood drawing because it was the only way I could focus and learn at my maximum potential, and the habit stuck with me into adulthood. To this day, I can’t sit still. It’s not enough for me to experience life. I also have to create something in response to what I’m experiencing. I get restless when I’m not making art.
2. How did you start Positive Doodles and what are some of its goals, if any?
It was a diary blog that took a positive turn and eventually became a positivity blog. My goal is to share simple positive messages in a cute way. I make all my posts with one specific person in mind (usually myself or one of my friends), but I’m grateful that there are others who enjoy them too. I also have a second goal which is to make art more freely accessible to the general public, but that one is proving to be harder to pull off.
3. How did you come to use art as a form of self-care?
Completely unintentionally. Art helps me cope and express myself, but that’s usually not my goal when I sit down to work. It was different when I started as a kid, but now I sit down with the intention to create, and all the other stuff (self-care, self-expression, stories, discussions, etc.) comes after. It’s a very fluid and natural process.
4. You also keep something of an art diary which is for public viewing. What made you want to keep a personal diary in art form and how do you feel about discussing personal issues on such a public forum?
My family has a history of mental illness. I have family members who don’t talk to each other because of it. Some of my loved ones lost jobs and relationships because of it. Despite all this, it’s not something we talk about. It’s like a secret shame we carry. This isn’t something unique to my family. It’s a consequence of living in a culture that fears and stigmatizes mental illness.
If someone had talked to me when I was younger about mental illness and how it runs in my family, I might have understood what was happening when I started suffering from it. I might have been less scared or felt less alone. Most importantly, I could have gotten treatment. Instead, I was in my twenties when I was finally diagnosed.
My childhood self needed someone to talk to her openly about mental illness. That’s what I do on my diary blog: I talk openly about all the things I wish someone had talked to me when I was younger. I know I can’t go back and help my childhood self, but there are others out there still struggling, and I want to let them know they aren’t alone.
I have no problems with discussing things publicly. I ask friends and family for permission before I mention them in anything, but that’s about the extent to which I censor my blog.
5. Why do you think that many people seem not to use art, in any if its forms, as a way to aid in their well-being? Would you say that self-care is something that is heavily rejected in US society?
5. Why do you think that many people seem not to use art, in any if its forms, as a way to aid in their well-being? Would you say that self-care is something that is heavily rejected in US society?
Art itself is a form of self-care. Whether you’re making art for fun, to make a statement or to pay the bills, you’re working towards fulfilling a need. I don’t know why some people prefer not to make art. Maybe they don’t enjoy it. Maybe what I get from art, they get from something else like science or sports. Maybe they don’t have the time. Maybe it’s something else entirely. I imagine every person has their own reason(s) that’s personal to them.
I don’t think self-care is heavily rejected. I think the problem is that for many, self-care hasn’t been offered as a possibility. After working, paying the bills, taking care of personal relationships, taking care of your kids if you have them, dealing with problems and doing everything else you have to do, there often isn’t time left. Most mainstream self-care conversations I’ve seen focus on things like “buy yourself something nice” and “take a long bath”, but those things are easier if you have money. A lot of self-care tips are like that; they ignore class differences. Some even ignore health differences. As a result, a lot of people are left out of the self-care movement through no fault of their own.
6. What advice do you have for people who aspire to use art in a radical fashion? How can we support your work?
Here’s my advice: make the art you want to make. If nobody likes it or if it doesn’t make money, at least you’ll have done what you wanted. Don’t worry if it’s weird or ugly. When it comes to art, those things are good. So are mistakes. Work hard. Don’t sell yourself short. It’s okay to share your insecurities about your art, but keep in mind that captioning your work with “This sucks. I don’t even know why I’m sharing it” doesn’t encourage anyone to look at it. If you ever need to take a break, it’s okay to take one.
Anyone who wants to support my work should check out my positivity blog: Positivedoodles.tumblr.com.
Information about how to find me elsewhere is on the blog.
Thursday, February 5, 2015
|Courtesy of Al Jazeera|
Colonialism, Coups, and Conflict: The Violence in the Central African Republic
Originally published as a two-part series on Occupy.com
The Central African Republic is currently awash in media coverage regarding the ongoing sectarian violence and general upheaval in the country. While many outlets have discussed the situation in the CAR, there have been few fully encompassing analyses of the violence that it in a proper historical context and discuss the interests of some of the countries that are in the CAR such as France or Chad while others are watching from afar, yet still interested, such as the United States. The violence in the CAR is unprecedented and worrisome; however, historically this is nothing but another unfortunate and bloody chapter regarding the instability of the country.
A History of Violence
The CAR is a former French colony, with the country having gained its independence soon after a 1958 French constitutional referendum which dissolved France’s African holdings. The first president, Barthélemy Boganda, died in a March 1959 plane crash and power was transferred to David Dacko who oversaw the CAR’s declaration of independence on August 13, 1960 and established a one-party state by 1962.
Unfortunately, Dacko’s days were numbered. In 1965, Jean Bedel Bokassa, who was a colonel in the CAR military, “was plucked by France to overthrow the Central African Republic's first President, his cousin David Dacko, when Mr. Dacko began establishing close ties with China.” Bokassa was chosen due to this fierce devotion to France and his anti-Communist stance. After overthrowing Dacko in a bloodless coup, Bokassa quickly broke off relations with China and took on a multitude of titles, which would eventually culminate in his declaring himself king in 1977. In addition to changing the CAR’s foreign policy, Bokassa also suspended the constitution and dissolved the National Assembly, allowing him free reign to do as he pleased.
Though he showed increasingly strange behavior as time passed, the French still maintained good relations with him, even going so far as to congratulate him when he declared the CAR an empire and took the title of emperor.
However, the French eventually turned their backs on him, due to his increased yearning to decide foreign policy on his own, and helped to put Dacko back into power via a coup against Bokassa in 1979.
In 1981, elections took place and Dacko emerged victorious over challenger Ange-Félix Patassé, but charges of fraud remained. Just months later in September, Army Chief of Staff General André Kolingba seized power in a military coup. While, there was a coup attempt against him involving Ange-Félix Patassé, the coup failed and Patassé fled to the Togo, eventually coming back in the early ‘90s.
Kolingba operated what was essentially a military dictatorship into the 1990s due to a new constitution in 1986, which “provided him a single-party state and six-year term as president.” This aided him in the 1988 elections as opposing political parties were not allowed to participate.
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, a pro-democracy movement sprouted and blossomed in the CAR, with Kolingba’s response being to detain many pro-democratic protesters. However, Kolingba eventually agreed to free elections, after having come under pressure from “countries like the United States and France, but also agencies and organizations like the UN.”
In 1993, Ange-Félix Patassé was elected president of the CAR. The instability of the country continued with three different army mutinies in April, May, and November of 1996. The first munity occurred when some 400 soldiers demanded paychecks, with soldiers “[entering] the homes of business executives, demanding money and vehicles and beating those who refused.” It would be proper to note here that the governments that have ruled over the CAR have generally been extremely corrupt, with the IMF/World Bank noting in 2013 that on a regional level, corruption was hindering the growth of many Central African states. According to Transparency International, the CAR is near the bottom on a list of the least-corrupt states, ranking 150 out of 175. It was, in part, due to corruption and larger economic problems, which led to army members not being paid.
In May of 1996, the army mutinied again as they accused Patassé “of transferring the army's armory to his presidential guard.” In order to put down the mutiny, Patassé requested aid from the French and they eventually sent 1,000 soldiers and 100 special forces commandos. The mutiny eventually died down with a ceasefire being negotiated.
After the April and May mutinies, Patassé “formed a new government that included Kolingba supporters, but the country's main opposition groups refused to join the coalition.” However, a third mutiny in November still occurred as soldiers took advantage of Patassé being out of the country. Once again, the French came to his aid as they “rapidly deployed patrols throughout the city to protect key points and provide support to the Presidential Guard. Additional French Foreign Legion troops were flown into CAR from Chad to supplement the 1,750 soldiers already stationed in the country.” The mutiny was eventually put down, but had threatened to devolve into ethnic conflict.
These mutinies were stirred up by Kolingba, who “is from the Yakoma group, which is part of the Ngbandi ethnic group found on the banks of the Obangui river in the south.” When Patassé first came to power, the military was mainly made up of soldiers from Kolingba’s ethnic group. In response, Patassé “created militias favoring his own Gbaya tribe and did not bother to pay the Yakoma-dominated regular army,” which actively contributed to the mutinies. A final rebellion occurred in 1997, but was put down by a pan-African force.
The troubles didn’t end for Patassé as in May 2001; Kolingba
sponsored an unsuccessful military coup which set off a series of events that ultimately led to Patassé’s removal. After the coup attempt, the president accused his Army Chief of Staff, François Bozizé, of involvement and fired him on October 26, 2001. Bozizé rallied troops to resist his sacking, but was ultimately forced to leave for exile in southern Chad. These events deeply split and weakened the CAR armed forces—the Central African Armed Forces—dividing it between Patassé and Bozizé loyalists.
Overall, Patassé’s time as president was problematic for the country, not only due to the mutinies and attempted coup, but also due to the fact that “the CAR underwent economic collapse, losing what was left of its institutional capacity to provide social services for its citizens, and increased its dependence on external aid for survival” and Patassé “built up the Presidential Guard at the expense of the army, further ethicizing the state security forces.”
In October 2002, Bozizé launched a coup; however Patassé was able to beat him back with the aid of Libyan forces. Gaddafi had backed the CAR government since 2001, “in return for a 99-year monopoly on extracting the republic's vast reserves of diamonds, gold and other minerals.”
However, in 2003 when Patassé was out of the country in Niger, Bozizé swept into the capital with 1,000 troops and took control.
In December 2004, voters in the CAR accepted a new constitution which “provides for a five-year presidential term, renewable only once, and the appointment of the prime minister from the political party with a parliamentary majority.” Quickly following this change was the 2005 presidential elections in which Bozizé ran as an independent and won. Out of this election came the rise of the Peoples’ Army for the Restoration of the Republic and of Democracy (APRD), led by Jean-Jacques Demafouth, and made up mainly of former Presidential Guard members. Another group that came out of the elections was the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR), which “is made up largely of the mainly-Muslim Gula ethnic group” and “includes men who helped Bozizé overthrow Patassé in 2003 but who subsequently felt disgruntled with the lack of recompense.” Both of these groups are from the northern region of the CAR and have actively fought against the Bozizé government.
This rebellion had occurred due to economic and political weakness within the CAR government. Bozizé had little power outside of Bangui, the capital, “while extreme poverty and a lack of both strong government institutions and economic development have contributed to declining support for the government among CAR citizens.” Citizens from the north are generally anti- Bozizé and accuse him of “favoring southerners since taking power, of failing to uphold democratic commitments, and of delaying implementation of promised political and economic reforms.” The rebel groups actively fought the CAR government, for example in 2006 it was reported that an escalation in fighting between the APRD and government troops caused 70,000 people to flee the country.
In order to bring an end to the fighting, a comprehensive peace agreement was brokered in 2008 and quickly followed up an Inclusive Political Dialogue that same year. The Dialogue “called for the creation of a government of national unity; the holding of municipal elections in 2009, and legislative and presidential elections in 2010, which actually took place in January and March 2011; the creation of a national human rights commission; the launch of a program for the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of former combatants.”
However, the goals of the Dialogue never came to fruition:
[N]early five years later, the overwhelming feeling is bitter disappointment: the inclusive government was never put in place; the 2011 elections took place but, according to observers, were marred by many accusations of fraud; the state disintegrated further; the “grey zones” outside state control expanded; most of the agreed essential reforms were never implemented; and the attitude adopted by both the government and rebel groups meant the demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) program never saw the light of day for combatants in the north east.
This, coupled with the fact that democratic rule had effectively ended due to Bozizé’s authoritarian ways and “conditions inside the CAR rapidly declined as economic under-development, nepotism and corruption fostered dissent and emboldened political opponents,” led to Bozizé’s ousting in 2013 by rebel group Séléka and the installment of its leader, Michel Djotodia, as interim president.
However, to talk about Séléka, there needs to be a discussion regarding the ongoing sectarian violence involving Muslims and Christians.
While the CAR is home to several different ethnic groups, historically speaking “the CAR has no significant history of sectarian conflict or deep-seated religious enmity.” So, then, why is this violence occurring? In order to discuss that, one must discuss Séléka and Michel Djotodia.
The Guardian reported in December 2012 that Séléka had formed and that among their demands was “the implementation of the recommendations of the inclusive political dialogue, which was held in 2008 among government, civil society, the opposition and the rebels; financial compensation for the rebels; the release of political prisoners; and the opening of an investigation into the disappearance of former CPJP (Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace) leader Charles Massi and other ‘crimes.’” Thus, it can be seen that group formed, at least partially, in response to the failed political dealings with the CAR government.
Religiously, Séléka members “were recruited from Muslim communities settled in CAR or in the ‘three border areas’ (Chad, Sudan, and CAR).” The formation of the group aided in the heightening of sectarian tensions as
While Séléka fighters have notional inclinations for political Islam, they share a strong sense of communal identity and a will to avenge previous CAR regimes and their beneficiaries identified as Christians (not much of a discriminating factor, as the CAR population is more than 75% Christian). Lay Muslims in CAR today are less likely to be harassed by the Séléka, and most often, there is cooperation. The whole Muslim community is therefore perceived as supporting the Séléka and hostile to the core Christian population. (emphasis added)
This anti-Christian bias was revealed soon after the group took control of the capital. The Congressional Research Service reported in May 2014 that “once in power, Séléka leaders presided over the collapse of an already fragile state, and they oversaw brutal attacks on rural Christian communities in the northwest, Bozizé’s home region.”
In response to this violence, the Christian communities formed anti-balaka (anti-machete) militias and began to fight Muslims. The Christian militias attacked the Muslims viscously, with “scenes of cannibalism and the dismemberment of Muslims by Christian mobs in Bangui” prompting France to send 2,000 soldiers into the country and the UN to send 12,000 peacekeepers.
In January 2014, Michel Djotodia stepped down as President, following pressure from Chadian president Idriss Déby. Djotodia was soon replaced with Catherine Samba-Panza, the former mayor of Bangui.
However, this raises the question: What interest does Chad have in the Central African Republic? And for that matter, are there any other interested parties?
Chad is a neighboring country and has been involved in the internal politics of the CAR for quite some time.
President Déby sponsored Bozizé’s rebel movement and “capitalized on this behind-the-scenes power grab by enabling his forces to operate in the north of the CAR to eliminate Chadian rebel groups using the territory as a staging ground for attacks.” A main reason for Déby’s interest in the CAR is security reasons. There has been a large amount of activity of Chadian rebels in the CAR and “many [Chadian rebels] who took part in the attacks from 2008 to 2010 on N’Djamena and Abéché sought shelter in the north-west of the CAR, which was virtually untouched by Bangui’s authority” and some even linked up with CAR rebel groups, eventually forming Séléka. There were accusations that Chad backed Séléka in order to draw the Chadian elements of the group deeper into the CAR and thus stop them from launching attacks into Chad.
Thus it is no wonder that Chad is keeping a close eye on the CAR, even if they did withdraw their troops earlier last year.
The CAR’s former colonial power also has interests at stake, which stem mainly from Bozizé’s rule.
Right before he was overthrown, in 2012 Bozizé called on the French to aid him in beating back the Séléka rebels. This call went unanswered of course and this was mainly due to problems with the CAR government and with CAR-China relations. A 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable noted that
The constant frustrations facing French commercial giants such as Total and AREVA are well known. While France used to count on the CAR as a valuable reserve of uranium, it is very clear that the double dealing of the Minister of Mines, among others, in renegotiating contracts is pushing the French beyond even their normally generous limits.
While France does have “extensive interests in Africa, in oil, minerals, infrastructure projects, telecoms, utilities, banking and insurance,” “its market share is being eroded by competition from China, Brazil, India and others.” Bozizé actively worked with the Chinese, to the ire of the French. It was reported in December 2012 that “in March and April 2012 that the South African company DIG Oil had been awarded two exploration contracts and that a Chinese company had also obtained such authorization” to explore for oil in the CAR. He was quite wary of the French, noting in a December 2012 speech that he was being attacked due to giving an oil exploration contract to the Chinese, saying “We gave them [the French] everything. Before giving oil to the Chinese, I met Total in Paris and told them to take the oil; nothing happened. I gave oil to the Chinese and it became a problem. I sent counselor Maidou in Paris for the Uranium dossier, they refused. I finally gave it to the South Africans.” Due to his dealings with the Chinese and other problems, the French were disinterested in propping up Bozizé and thus let him fall.
In 2013, the French did send in troops to aid in the peacekeeping, along with African forces, but drew their forces down in January 2014 from 2,000 troops to 800 noting that UN peacekeepers had arrived.
The US sent their UN ambassador Samantha Power to the CAR in late 2013 to appeal for peace. It should be noted that Power wants the US to intervene more and “has made a career out of scolding the U.S. for not intervening around the world enough,” such as in her magnum opus where she lamented that the US didn’t intervene to stop the Armenian genocide during the First World War. In fact, she is quite fond of the ‘Responsibility To Protect’ doctrine and “was one of the driving forces behind the United States intervention in Libya.” So an eye should be kept on her, knowing that she may push for further US intervention.So far the US has sent delivered aid to peacekeepers, airlifted African troops into the CAR, and sent troops to support the US embassy resuming its activities, but not much else.
On a regional level, the US is interested in the CAR not just for any of its vast resources, but specifically oil. A 2013 Brookings Institution report entitled Top Five Reasons Why Africa Should Be a Priority for the United States noted that “significant new discoveries have prompted the [International Energy Agency] to anoint sub-Saharan Africa the ‘new frontier’ in global oil and gas” and “the emergence of new oil and gas producers in the region presents potential benefits for U.S. national security interests, if this new found wealth is managed appropriately […] Several countries could also potentially become oil suppliers to the US, further diversifying the sources of US imported oil.”
The US concern with African oil is nothing new as it was noted in 2002 that
Already, 15 percent of the United States' imported oil supply comes from sub-Saharan Africa. Oil experts predict that the amount of oil the United States receives from the prolific fields of Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Angola will double in the next five years.
"African oil is of strategic national interest to us and it will increase and become more important as we go forward," Walter Kansteiner, assistant U.S. secretary of state for African Affairs, said during a July 2002 visit to Nigeria – the largest oil producer in West Africa with an estimated 24 billion barrels in reserve. (emphasis added)
Just as with the French, the Americans are also concerned about China. From that same Brookings report:
China’s engagement in Africa has profound geopolitical implications for the U.S. global strategy. […] China is looking beyond the traditional pursuit of economic benefits and aspires to increase and solidify its strategic presence through enhanced political, economic, diplomatic and academic resources. The failure to perceive and prepare for China’s moves would be dangerous, unwise and potentially detrimental for the United States in the near future.
So, the US is concerned with resources, but all the more so due to a major competitor that is actively making moves in the region.
More recently, in January 2015, the UN stated that it had found evidence of ethnic cleansing done by Christian militias against Muslims, giving confirmation to the alarms that had been raised in June 2014 and even before that in late 2013. Unfortunately, the violence is only continuing.
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