Books, Documentaries, Society

The Fight to Control Women

“Recent years have seen a panic over “online red-light districts,” which supposedly seduce vulnerable young women into a life of degradation, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s live tweeting of a Cambodian brothel raid. But rarely do these fearful, salacious dispatches come from sex workers themselves, and rarely do they deviate from the position that sex workers must be rescued from their condition, and the industry simply abolished — a position common among feminists and conservatives alike.

“In Playing the Whore, journalist Melissa Gira Grant turns these pieties on their head, arguing for an overhaul in the way we think about sex work. Based on ten years of writing and reporting on the sex trade, and grounded in her experience as an organizer, advocate, and former sex worker, Playing the Whore dismantles pervasive myths about sex work, criticizes both conditions within the sex industry and its criminalization, and argues that separating sex work from the ‘legitimate’ economy only harms those who perform sexual labor. In Playing the Whore, sex workers’ demands, too long relegated to the margins, take center stage: sex work is work, and sex workers’ rights are human rights.”

– Summary of Playing the Whore from goodreads.com

Debates about prostitution tend to cover many topics, ranging from informal economics to public health, but ultimately comes down to one central element: control. Control of women. Control over women. Continue reading

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Documentaries, Society

Black Power and the Black Panthers

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party (BPP). Writing for Jacobin Magazine, Robert Greene II discusses the lasting relevance of the Black Panthers and their anti-racist, anti-capitalist vision:

The work of the Black Panthers remains important for several reasons. First, they remind us that the problem of police brutality has long been with us (Martin Luther King, Jr even mentioned it in his oft-cited, but often misinterpreted, “I Have A Dream” speech). Indeed, protests following the death of Denzil Dowell in North Richmond, a community near Oakland, in April 1967 played a major role in the growth of the BPP from a small cadre to a major political and social force.

Second, the BPP offers a good model of grassroots activism and ideology in practice. While the group was torn apart by conflicts between Newton and Cleaver by the 1970s, the Panthers continued to do important work on the ground in Oakland. Their “survival programs” appealed to African Americans living in poverty who were unable to depend on local government for any help. And crucially, they tied their free breakfast and education programs to a larger political project. An ingenious mix of the practical and the visionary, the BPP’s community work was the most revolutionary work they carried out.

The Black Panther Party also proved an important training ground for African-American women activists, such as Kathleen Cleaver and Elaine Brown. As with the Civil Rights Movement, women members did a great deal of the nuts-and-bolts work in the BPP.

Finally, the legacy of the Black Panther Party can be seen in the current Black Lives Matter movement. The Movement for Black Lives’ demands for economic justice, community power, and reparations recall the Black Panther Party’s ten-point platform. And, like the Black Power and Civil Rights movements, the Black Lives Matter movement has had to deal time and again with negative media coverage and a “go-slow” critique from many American liberals.

Today, fifty years after its founding, the Panthers should be remembered for more than their black berets and shotguns. Despite their flaws, they melded the immediate and the transformative into a potent political vision, advocating a multiracial alliance against racism, capitalism, and imperialism that delivered tangible gains to the most exploited. That vision is equally as stirring today.

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Documentaries, Society

The American Injustice System: Manufacturing Criminals

Earlier this year, Netflix released Making a Murderer, a 10-episode series that examines the life of Steven Avery. Avery spent 18 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. Avery was exonerated with the aid of the Innocence Project and the actual perpetrator was found. To date, the work of the Innocence Project has led to the freeing of 343 wrongfully convicted people based on DNA, including 20 who spent time on death row and the finding of 147 Making_a_Murderer_titlecardreal perpetrators. The TV series then goes on to follow the prosecution of Avery for a second major crime – murder. I would like to focus on this first arrest and later exoneration.

Making a Murderer follows a long line of documentaries that question the results of the criminal justice system in the United States. From The Thin Blue Line to The Central Park Five, American police and prosecutors have been shown to get things wrong. These are not isolated mistakes but, rather, a trend. A trend of innocent people – mainly young, impoverished, African American males – arrested for crimes they didn’t commit and send to prison for long lengths of time. This trend has a long history. It dates back to the American civil war through the Jim Crow era and into modern day drug policy. The two books The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander and Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson document this history well. The result is staggering: Continue reading

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