Rikers Inmate Resuces Guard During Sexual Assault

Fyodor Dostoevsky is known to have said “You can judge a society by how well it treats it’s prisoners”. This has recently become relevant given a situation at Rikers Island prison. A corrections officer was attacked by a prisoner within a locked vestibule, and other inmates within the prison came to her rescue. The irony here is incredible. Every day in prisons across the country countless inmates are subjected to coerced sexual encounters, or to put it more simply, raped, by other inmates. Generally speaking the guards at these prisons turn their backs on such violence. So it is amazing to see the roles reversed, and to witness prisoners come to the aid of a guard. Surely this should shatter the perception so many Americans have of prison inmates as violent animals. They are caged, and they deserve to be caged, many do say, and few care about what happens to them while they are inside those concrete walls, as long as they are in those concrete walls. America has one of the most punitive prison systems in the world. More people are in American prisons than there are people in Chinese prisons, and China has far more potential people to imprison. In the late 1960’s, as drugs flooded American streets, and as violent crime began its two decade climb to the top of a very high mountain, government all over the country began policies that today we associate with the War on Drugs, begun by the Nixon presidency in 1971, and the slogan “get tough on crime”. But this change in penology was far more about a supposed war on drugs. Take a step back, and look at the big picture. “Cry havoc said he who fought chaos with chaos, and let slip the dogs of war”. In the 1960’s the United States undergoes one of its most turbulent decades of civil activism, disobedience and protest. The most radical, progressive, faction within the Left during this decade was the African American Civil Rights Movement. Get tough on crime was a single plank in a broad attack on working class people. To undermine the most effective activism was to derail the ability of the working class to create a broad based support network made up of not only working class blacks, but working people of all races and creeds. The Souther Strategy was the political arm of this attack. Break up the hold the Democratic Party held on the southern states by appealing to the bigotry of southern white people and turn them into Republicans. Want evidence of this? Take a look at a map of the most recent presidential election and see which states are painted red. We have the police arm, the political arm, and now the corporate arm. In the 1970’s with the emergence of Japan and western Europe as economic rivals to American industry Corporate America united behind a strategy designed by Lewis Powell, a man President Nixon would appoint to the Supreme Court. Victory after victory was won by working people in the 1950’s and 1960’s against Corporate America. Movements for racial, environmental, consumer, women’s, and worker’s justice were remarkably successful in pressuring the Congress to pass legislation protecting their interests.  Lewis Powell, before being a Supreme Court Justice, was a corporate lawyer. In 1971 he wrote a memo detailed the assault by working people on the power of capitalists to control the political and economic future of America. This memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce created a strategy for defeating the enemy by arguing for long term educational, political, and economic campaigns to target universities, think tanks, media, any and all institutions that play a role in informing the public about key issues that affect the bottom line of American corporations. As a result the next several decades would see the creation and expansion of organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and several dozen other front groups for capitalist propaganda. Their goal was to flood the landscape with corporate spokespeople to overwhelm the media and the public. They advocated all the ideas we know so well today, ideas that had been abandoned by right thinking people since the Great Depression for the disaster they reap on the larger society: deregulation, privatization, tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, or Trickle Down Economics, as it came to be called. Their ideas have won the day for the last four decades. But we must think bigger, and more systemically than the notion that Corporate America is the enemy. Any and all institutions in a capitalist society are tools of the ruling class to maintain control over the working class. Returning to the issue that initiated this analysis. The police in a capitalist society acts as a repressive state apparatus created for the primary purpose of reinforcing the dominance of one class over the rest. Just because these institutions provide other services does nothing to negate their primary function as enforcers of class oppression. This argument holds not only for the police, but for the entire edifice of the legal system, in fact any legal system within a class society. In feudal society the political forces known as Kings and Nobles used Knights to maintain the stability of the existing social relations, which were in turn predicated on the material and economic relations of serfdom. In capitalist society the social relations are more dynamic and complicated, making it appear as if what is happening is not outright exploitation. In feudal society the Knights had occasion to protect their Nobles’ serfs from another Nobles’ Knights, or from the Kings, Nobles, and Knights of another nation state, but their ultimate internal role was to protect the Kings and Nobles from the serfs, just as the police and the military in capitalist society protect the ruling class from the working class. So, if working people are to seize power for themselves it will have to be beyond the electoral. We cannot take control over this society through the winning of elections alone. As long as the ruling class has control over the repressive institutions of the state such as the police and the military there is no long term victory. Reformers around the world have learned this lesson the hard way. Allende in Chile won elections. He promised that he was not going to wage a class war against the ruling class of Chile. He promised that he would work with them to govern the country. Eventually the men with the guns overthrew his government and killed him. A similar scenario happened in Egypt a few years ago. The working people of Egypt, through peaceful civil disobedience, overthrew their government, and eventually elected a new one. But they failed to shatter the institutions, particularly the military and police forces, that maintained the status quo under Mubarak for decades. Inevitably they moved against the elected government of the Muslim Brotherhood organizing a coup and replacing it with another military government. We can all learn from these lessons of history. If the working people of America are going to take control of their own lives we will need more than a People’s Congress, or People’s Presidency. We are going to need a People’s Army, a People’s Police Fore (And I don’t even like guns). If a handful of prisoners can come to the rescue of one of the people who keeps them imprisoned surely the rest of us can do something far more significant, and come to our own rescue.


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