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A Wall is Just a Wall: Anti-Blackness and the Politics of Black and Prison Abolitionist Solidarity with Palestinian Struggle

June 16, 2014

by Che Gossett

“It is possible for prison walls
to disappear,
For the cell to become a distant land
Without frontiers”Mahmoud Darwish
“A wall is just a wall and nothing more at all. It can be broken down”
Assata Shakur
“One might have hoped that, by this hour, the very sight of chains on Black flesh, or the very sight of chains, would be so intolerable a sight for the American people, and so unbearable a memory, that they would themselves spontaneously rise up and strike off the manacles. But, no, they appear to glory in their chains; now, more than ever, they appear to measure their safety in chains and corpses.”
James Baldwin, “Open Letter to Angela Davis


As a Black trans/gender queer femme who works with/in trans studies I am hyper aware of the ways in which Blackness complicates trans studies. There is a need for new language and concepts, considering how, within the U.S. white supremacist settler and enslavement estate, Blackness has always figured as gender trangressive. Terms like “cisgender,” ultimately lack the explanatory power to account for the colonial and anti-Black foundational violence of slavery and indigenous genocide through which the gender binary itself was historically instituted. For me, trans studies begins in/as Black and Native studies.

(Anti)blackness also complicates decolonial studies. I am currently working on a project, focusing on the legacies of Black queer solidarity with Palestinian struggle in a time a carceral regimes and settler colonial continuity, for which I peruse the archives of June Jordan, James Baldwin and also Bayard Rustin. Yet there are critical limits to the historical as the sole means through which to explain and understand the politics of Black solidarity with Palestinian struggle. While there are rich archival sources that document Black solidarity with and in opposition to Palestinian liberation movement(s) – ranging from SNCC, to the Black Panther Party to Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin – scholarship on anti-blackness, ranging from work by Hortense Spillers, Denise Ferreira da Silva, Fred Moten, Frank Wilderson, Saidiya Hartman, Christina Sharpe, Jared Sexton, Ronald Judy, Sherman Jackson, Joy James and many others, is crucial to understanding anti-blackness and finally, how anti-blackness, when left in the “position of the unthought” undermines political solidarity.

Rather than leaving anti-blackness and the scholarship that attends to it, as well as black/African Palestinian lived experience, in the “position of the unthought,” it seems to me that political solidarity can only be strengthened by grappling with these topics. As Saidiya Hartman argues “If slavery persists as an issue in the political life of black America, it is not because of an antiquarian obsession with bygone days or the burden of a too-long memory, but because black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery – skewed life chances, limited access to healthcare and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment” (p. 6).

The afterlife of slavery and blackness as fungibility destabilize “citizenship” and “civil society” as categories of political analysis. Comparisons between what is seen as the present of Israeli occupation and apartheid and the past of U.S. racial apartheid during segregation, often downplay the social truth and morphology of anti-blackness in contemporary American society. At worst such analogies reinforce American exceptionalism and (post)racial liberalism, figuring the U.S. settler and enslavement estate as a site of teleological progress — with a particular elevation of a chronopolitical designation labeled the “Civil Rights Movement” (as opposed to the Black liberation struggle). James Baldwin however called the Civil Rights Movement “an American phrase” which under scrutiny “meant nothing at all” and instead he argued that it constituted “the latest slave rebellion.”   As a counter memory/witness to (post)racial liberalism, Baldwin recognized that despite dejure segregation being struck down in the courts, defacto segregation and anti-black violence continued. Baldwin’s characterization of the Civil Rights Movement as “the latest slave rebellion” and his prison abolitionist inflected writings/speeches also points towards the ways in which he identified the (con)temporality of anti-blackness, how the past of chattel slavery is chained to the carceral necropolitical present of “chains and corpses.”

In “Necropolitics” Mbembe identifies “contemporary colonial occupation of Palestine” as “the most accomplished form of necropower.” Carceral necropolitics play a central role in settler colonial occupation. While Foucault brilliantly identified the carceral continuum — stretching throughout time and across space (from the carceral confine of the prison cell to that of involuntary institutionalization) — he missed the colonial continuum through which carceral violence is instrumentalized not only as a technology of power but also as a technology of colonial, racialized war. Last year I had the pleasure of moderating a panel with Sahar Francis, director of Addameer (the prisoner support organization for Palestinians incarcerated in Israeli military penal institutions) and a former Black Panther Party political prisoner at the American Friends Service Committee. Israel and the U.S. also share carceral technologies and methodologies, tracing back to the 1967 war and now the collusion is more apparent than ever, with William Bratton, architect of stop and frisk policies and neoliberal policing consultant, traveling to Israel and the NYPD forging a relationship of mutual securitization and solidarity.

Groups such as Adameer organize in solidarity with Palestinians imprisoned in Israeli military administered carceral sites while under occupation and continuing despite having their offices raided by the IDF and their staff arrested. Palestinian children, frequently arrested by IDF soldiers in “night raids” are often prevented from seeing family within the Israeli military court system. Lisa Hajjar’s brilliant ethnographic work Courting Conflict: The Israeli Military Court System in the West Bank and Gaza is essential for understanding criminalization of Palestinian resistance, hyper incarceration and systematized torture of Palestinians in Israeli military penal system. In January 2013, the Israeli Parliament (Knesset) amended the Prevention of Infiltration law originally used to criminalized Palestinians to target Africans fleeing to Israel.

Recent forums such as ‘Carceral Politics in Palestine and Beyond: Gender, Vulnerability, Prison,’ sponsored by Institute for Research on Women and Gender and Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia and the Barnard Center for Research on Women[xii], panels such as ‘Political Imprisonment, Mass Incarceration and State Repression: Prison Industrial Complex from Palestine to Pelican Bay,’ at the 2010 United States Social Forum, as well as the conversation between Angela Davis and Noura Erakat “Yet Again As Captives: Mass Incarceration in the U.S. & Palestine” point towards the radical potentiality for prison abolitionist solidarity against carceral regimes, anti-blackness, and settler colonialism.

Che Gossett is an archivist and activist who works to excavate queer of color AIDS activist and trans archives. They have contributed to Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex and BCRW’s Scholar & Feminist Online and Queer Necropolitics. They are currently working on a biography of queer Japanese American AIDS activist Kiyoshi Kuromiya.


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