An Open Letter to Occupy Nashville

Dear Occupy Nashville,

Let me get right to the point. The important thing about an analogy is that it should serve to clarify. Equating what CCA does and the whole fucked up prison system in this country with slavery, as you do when you hold a “human auction” at CCA headquarters clarifies neither the horrors of slavery nor the horrors of the prison system.

I’m a good lefty, so believe me, I think there are direct connections to be made. But are they analogous? No.

Take, for instance, the central horror of our justice system–that you think the law protects you from the kinds of human rights violations that take place in prisons and that the legal system will come to your aid if you are being mistreated, especially if you are wrongly jailed, but you are very, very wrong. It seems, on paper, like we have a system that should work well, but the ways the system can be and is corrupted makes the system a living nightmare.

This is terrible. But it’s very different from U. S. slavery, in which the law not only didn’t protect slaves from being mistreated or from being wrongly enslaved, short of killing your slave, there was not legal concept of slave mistreatment and, while I’ve heard of many free blacks being kidnapped into slavery, I’ve never heard of someone making a successful claim of being wrongly enslaved. If it did happen, it wasn’t very common. In the case of slavery, the system was designed, on paper and in practice, to keep black people enslaved and it did that very well.

But when you equate slavery with the penal system, it makes it seem like either the whole legal system is set up to view some members of our society as not being legal people, so whatever happens to them is covered not by laws pertaining to legal people, but by laws pertaining to property, or it seems like the problem with U.S. slavery was that the legal system wasn’t working how it should. Neither of these things are correct.

Just at that level, you’re making a poor analogy.

But, oh my god, at the level of human decency, you’re making a poor analogy. Slavery was not that long ago. People my age can hear stories from their grandparents about the stories their grandparents told them about being slaves. That’s all the more removed we are–someone’s grandma’s grandma. When you stand on the War Memorial Plaza and look at the city around you, you’re looking at a town built by slave labor. When you drive down Hillsboro Pike to protest CCA, the road you’re driving on is where it is because of slaves. When you admire the old low stone walls along the side of the road, you’re admiring stones placed by the hands of enslaved people. When you stand out on Charlotte and look towards the Catholic church, you’re looking past the place where actual Nashvillians sold other Nashvillians, and their grandchildren’s grandchildren know it. Still live with it. Still live steeped in it.

As do you, whether you know it or not.

To make your point with what is not just a national tragedy, not just a historical fact, but what is the deep family trauma of our friends and neighbors is not a good way to convince people that you’re on the side of good. The simple fact is that you can make your point differently and you should.

But because you don’t, even after people tried to explain it to you? I have to be done with you.

And I don’t think I’ll be alone.


5 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Occupy Nashville

  1. Are they protesting CCA prison conditions or the CCA facilities that handle detention of illegal immigrants? Because the second could be argued to hit most of the points you listed.

  2. Here’s the thing, though. These fake slave auctions are nothing new. I remember the high school youth group at my church having one as a fund-raiser (needless to say, this was an all white Midwestern community). So, when a group of predominately white activists comes up with the idea of “Oh my god! This is just like slavery. We should totally do some action that will illustrate that. Let’s have a slave auction. Oh, no, we can’t use the word ‘slave.’ Let’s call it a human auction.” their very next thought should be “Hmm, if this is such an obvious analogy, why haven’t prison activists already done this?”

    If they then asked prison activists, they might find out that it’s hugely fucking traumatic for people–not the people they are trying to shock into changing their behavior, but the people in the communities they’re trying to serve and agitate on behalf of.

    And, frankly, though I don’t know personally, since I am obviously not Mexican nor an immigration activist, I would guess that people long ago drew that connection–I mean, shoot, here in the South it’s very apparent that a legacy of who works the fields has racial implications. And if they aren’t using slave auctions to illustrate their point, it’s because they’ve learned that the drawbacks to using it are greater than its rhetorical power.

    I guess the point I’m trying to make, and maybe poorly, is that, for a lot of people, slavery isn’t just an abstract metaphor. We can say we’re all for prison reform, which is great. Obviously, I support that. But if we are, it can’t be in a way that says to prisoners, “Oh, hey, I know things suck. And I’m about to do something that you may find really upsetting. But I have decided that it’s for your own good so you should just let me do it on the off-chance it will lead to things being better for you.”

    Even worse is if we’re so blinded by our good intentions that we cannot even hear that that’s the message we’re sending to the people we think we’re helping.

  3. I dunno–using patently offensive speech in order to bring light to an actual problem is pretty much de rigeur for political discourse these days. There are more direct comparisons between slavery and the criminal justice system (shackles, unpaid labor, disproportionately affecting poor blacks to the benefit of weathy whites), than there between Hitler and almost everyone who gets compared to Hitler.

    Then again, since I’m a privileged white guy (who’s currently using patently offensive language in a play, in front of small children), my offense-o-meter is broken a lot of the time. Maybe this is a huge deal to descendants of slaves and I’m just not hearing the outcry from them.

  4. Yeah, but it’s stupid and undermining to your point to use speech that is NOT really offensive to the people you’re using it against and IS offensive to people you’d like on your side.

    If you’d like to hear from the descendants of slaves who think it’s a big deal, I invite you to read the comment section of the post I linked to.

  5. I’m wondering if any of this was derived by mis-reading “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” by Michelle Alexander. She’s argued that the War on Drugs (among other things) has created a criminal class that is overwhelmingly, disproportionately drawn from communities of color…and that ex-felons are “legal” and acceptable to discriminate against in the very same ways (stripping voting rights, access to student financial aid, public housing, food stamps, licensing for skilled trades, etc) that Jim Crow-era laws did to keep people of color both in fear for their lives and pretty well impoverished.

    I’m sure she wouldn’t endorse this mess at ON, though. You’re so right that a “human auction” is…insensitive at best and looks like an example of major white activism fail.

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