Sunday, July 24, 2005

Books Through Bars at the Frying Pan

Earlier today, I went to a real live event, where an important issue that just doesn't make into the latest tv/blog headline spin cycle was being discussed. It was a lovely day at the Frying Pan, perfect weath for Books through Bars' reading, panel discussion, and book sale. I made it there late and saw only one & 1/2 panels: first were former prisoners who had recently written and published books, and second, a panel discussion about the role of the media in the current explosion of prisons which featured Eddie Ellis of the WBAI radio show "On the Count," Deborah Mathis, now a professor of journalism at Northwestern University, Amy Goodman, of Democracy Now, novelist Walter Mosely, and Herb Boyd of the Amsterdam News and other places. It really was a lovely event - even some of the "non-question questions" by audience members were occasionally on the mark. We all sat swaying to-and-fro on our chairs and thought about the incarceration crisis in this country.
This event combined the concerns of literature and "information" with the experiences of prisoners from start to finish. Perhaps the most interesting story I heard came from Eric Waters, who talked about what it was like to go to prison at 16 and discover that so many people there of his age were illiterate. As a result of this discovery, he became active in literacy education, and learned that 70% of the current prison population is classified as functionally illiterate. Given that prison is a place where people have so much time and where so much good, and reflective writing has been produced, and where such important reading has been done, this was a shocking statistic. I was sorry that I missed hearing Kemba Smith, who has a book out called "Upstate" that looks good, but for some reason is not appearing on the various web searches that I've done. However, I'm sure that it will be available in bookstores and if not there, on one of those street tables that feature "Black interest" literature. This panel of former-prisoners also talked about how serious it is that educational programs in prison are being eliminated all over the country.
I recall when this happened at the place where a prisoner I corresponded with was; it was a real tragedy, as voters voted in a Governor who had campaigned on taking away everything from prisoners based on the notion that "taxpayer money" shouldn't be going to these folks when people on the outside don't get a "free education." This particular prison also had dogs, stun guns, and other devices familiar to us all as the weapons of choice at Abu Ghraib.
I guess that's where the discussion of the media came in. Unfortunately, while some excellent points were made here and there, that discussion didn't stay focused at all. The best person on it was Walter Mosely, who related a story about a panel he was on with Mark Green in 2004. During the discussion, Green said to Mosely that Blacks needed to come out and vote for the Democrats. Mosely said, "what are you going to do about all the Black people in prison?" and there, in front of 600 people, Mosely said, Green told him that they "couldn't do anything." This has been one of the major reasons that I didn't vote at all, for anyone in 1996, and voted for Nader in 2000. There is no one in the political scene who addresses the crisis of incarceration with any depth. One good (and unfortunately unusual thing) about John Kerry was that he was reputed to be against the Death Penalty. I was glad to hear Mosely bring this up, and to talk about the importance of activism that will force whoever - the media, the govt. etc. to address the demands of people.
Herb Boyd talked about the sort of things that weren't covered, and one of these was the "prisoner success stories," such as those of the panelists that had just come before. Amy Goodman talked about the roots of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo's prison abuses being in the US prison system, and also said that on Monday's DN she and Juan Gonzales will be talking about the John Roberts' decision in a case that "gave the Bush administration a critical victory about military tribunals," just two weeks ago.
Deborah Mathis, whom I'd never heard of, was interesting and made several different points. She talked about the way that the media treated Black crimes of violence and white ones differently, and perhaps most provocatively for this setting talked about how important "diveresity initiatives" were in staffing newsrooms, etc, even if they sound "trite," in order to get people in newsrooms who will not view "the devil" inside Black people. The only problem with this analysis is the role that people like Armstrong Williams have played, and the growing prominence of Black conservatives in the media. I think generally that Mathis is right, but you can't assume that a Black person is going to have a left-leaning position on the causes of crime.
It was all provocative and reminded me of important work that's always going on. There are tons of groups in NY active on these issues & some of them are easy to volunteer for, like Books through Bars. Even some little engagement with the rules of prisons (which are amazingly arcane and obstructive when it comes to trying to send people books) is an educational experience for those of us on the outside.
Towards the end, it degenerated into a tired discussion about why the youth of today were not more involved in activism. Mosely said the civil rights generation had failed to pass the baton; some denied it was true, but that the panel just didn't know the youth. Things always run aground here at the "why are we not more active and how do we become more so? "
I don't know if it's connected, but I have to say that BtB failed to do something to bring this particular group together or provide some concrete activist opportunities at the end of the panel. Everyone went off on their separate ways, and the conversations on the way back to the streets of the city involved dinner plans and meetings with friends, not the event that had just gone on or plans for the future, and that was an opportunity to organize sadly missed.
I think I've found what might be the single best article on the Plame/Rove business. It was on Counterpunch. In it, Ray McGovern of VIPS, makes the case for paying attention to the exact spin about "correcting" the intelligence - being all about protecting Dick Cheney. And I don't feel even the least bit sorry for Judith Miller, even if, as I think it was William Safire who said on "Meet The Press" tonight, "she's in prison. and it's not a happy prison."

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