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The Right of Return: From CORI reform to Reconstructing New Orleans and the Gulf Coast
Email: dannimarilynwest (nospam) gmail.com
07 May 2007
Recently, organizers and demonstrators here in the Northeast were in the streets and in the statehouse demanding CORI reform. This reform is an issue of the right of return. Advancing a unified agenda for the right of return, we connect our local struggles with those in the gulf coast and abroad. Coast to Coast Solidarity- Boston reflects on lessons learned and inspiration gained!
The Right of Return:
From CORI Reform to Reconstructing New Orleans and the Gulf Coast
“The alleged offender is no longer a part of ‘us,’ but has suddenly become one of ‘them (the other upon whom any evil can justly be visited). Not only is this demonized person politically disenfranchised and held behind bars under constitutionally sanctioned conditions of slavery, the hapless offender is also subjected to endless forms of torture" -Ed Mead (Social Justice 11)
“Prisons also continue to serve their main purpose: to warehouse and ‘disappear’ the ‘unacceptable.’ Prisons exist to deprive their captives of their liberties and human agency, as well as to punish them. [. . .] The law–a political institution in itself–provides the framework for the war of social control against oppressed nations, working classes and noncompliant women.” -Marilyn Buck (Social Justice 25)
Today, as the struggle for self-determination is waged in the gulf coast here in the Northeast we gather and march to demand CORI reform. CORI stands for Criminal Offender Record Information. It is a statewide database that records our contact with the court system. In Massachusetts, CORI is used to deny people jobs, public housing, credit and student loans. If our society is to be just, we must demand an end to systemic criminal background checks – because these do not allow people a chance to change their lives. Instead, having been punished once, they are further punished by being excluded opportunities to turn their lives around. If our society is to be just, mass imprisonment cannot be allowed to continue. Decarceration, the removal of people from their cages, and re-entry into community are concrete methods towards a just society. Demands for CORI reform are articulated by the Boston Workers Alliance, a group of unemployed and underemployed workers. Since these demands come from the communities whom are targeted by mass imprisonment they must be advanced. It is understood, though, that imprisonment is a process of selective targeting, capturing, and containing specific peoples. While CORI reform will immediately aid re-entry, will it ultimately strengthen the government’s ability to displace communities through imprisonment? What is the root that is causing a need for CORI reform? Economic exclusion and mass imprisonment as systematic tactics or methods to control communities are the root causes that make CORI reform necessary.
Let us refocus. The united states of amerika’s government operates through white supremacy. From the origin of colonization through today, the united states of amerika is built on the destruction of communities of color. In a recent anthology The Color of Violence, Andrea Smith urges readers to understand the governance and growth strategy of the united states of amerika, to understand white supremacist capitalism, graphically: “Envision three pillars, one labeled Slavery/Capitalism, another labeled Genocide/Capitalism, and the last one labeled Orientalism/War as well as arrows connecting each of the pillars together” (INCITE 67). Through white supremacist capitalism, the united states of amerika has targeted different communities of color with different methods of destruction. Land grab and ethnic cleansing are strategies to obtain land. Kidnapping and lifetime servitude are strategies for free labor. This targeting of communities of color benefited white settler-colonists and pacified exploited white workers. Together stolen land, genocide and enslaved labor provided the initial capital of capitalism (Martinas).
Prisons function to continue the system of enslavement. Enslavement through prisons is a continuation of the kidnapping and exploitation that helped build this country. “From the outset, the freeing of the slaves and the locking up of Black prisoners were two sides of the same coin” (Mann 117). The thirteenth amendment abolished slavery except as punishment for a crime one has been “duly convicted” of. CORI continues the economic exploitation people who are imprisoned experience. Changing re-entry options will not change the fact that prisons are a system of slavery, but since there are immediate positive outcomes, there must be support for CORI reform. While these reforms do not advance our end vision of abolishing prisons, useful base building, relationship development and analysis development can be done as we organize around “realistic, day-to-day needs” (Jackson 41). Since this CORI reform march was essentially a mass public lobby and demonstration for “CORI Reform Bill: The Public Safety Act of 2007 (H.B. 1416), I believe the event would have been more powerful if H.B. 1723, the proposed moratorium, or halt, on prison expansion in Massachusetts was also embraced and advocated for. Our movement must help people with the re-entry process and immediately stop all prison expansion and mass imprisonment processes.
We must also understand the systemic and more universal nature of this slavery. Displacing, capturing and controlling communities of color are methodologies of white supremacy. “The term ‘right of return’ has been initiated by the Palestinian people who were forcibly expelled from their land by the Israeli government and army. The self-conception of the Black movement as a ‘Third World’ movement, and concrete solidarity with the dispersed Palestinians, and now Lebanese people has never been more relevant or urgent” (Mann 84). Enslavement/imprisonment in Massachusetts is a similar flavor of white supremacy as gentrification by genocide in the gulf coast; the bottom line is the forced displacement of communities of color throughout the united states of amerika. In this context we can look at the fight for CORI reform as part of a larger struggle for the right of return and the right of self-determination.
Understanding the systemic connection between enslavement in the north and displacement in the gulf coast region, solidarity becomes our focus. Solidarity works to strengthen our work at home while supporting the struggles of people abroad. “To build a grassroots social justice movement that is centered in the visions, demands and leadership of those most affected by Katrina – African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and poor whites—will require creating a broad based united front movement that involves thousands of people, both in the U.S. and internationally” (Martinas 108). Today as folx are marching for CORI reform we must strengthen our work at home with the context of gulf solidarity. The struggles are similar and our demands are as well. Support folx in returning home from enslavement/imprisonment. Support folx in returning home and rebuilding the gulf coast. “The struggle of the right of return, self-determination and the right to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast with racial, national, class, gender, and environmental justice will not be over tomorrow. It may take decades. Solidarity activists will need to be in this work for the long haul, and we will need to pass on our passion to the next group of activists coming up” (Martinas 108).
In this shared struggle, this solidarity relationship to change “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” there needs to be shared vision (phrase by bell hooks). There must be a wide range of tactics employed. “I repeat: realistic, day-to-day needs should be the basis of organizing people and making them conscious of revolution- that the world, the universe, must revolve- that it will stop, stagnate and die for no man’s privilege” (Jackson 41). This march is one tactic to organize around day-to-day needs. Banner actions and movie nights to raise awareness and funds to free the San Francisco 8 is another tactic that helps push for change. Supporting the Survivors Assembly and the International Tribunal (People’s Court) is a method to create change. Hosting gulf solidarity house parties to watch and discuss “Unity and Struggle: Right of Return News and Views” is one way of developing analysis and relationships as we build a movement for change.
This is shared vision and solidarity. Everyone must be active and our collective actions must be creative. In the organizing and orchestrating of these actions, our roles differ based upon our locations and privileges. Leadership in the fight for CORI reform comes from unemployed and under-employed workers, specifically the Boston Worker’s Alliance. Leadership in the fight for prison abolition comes from captives inside and released, specifically political prisoners. Leadership in the fight for the right of return in the gulf coast comes from displaced peoples and specifically the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Coalition. Through unity and struggle we will win. By seeing, lifting up connections along lines of shared struggle, we will win. Fighting for the right of return, from CORI reform to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, we will win! While building a winning movement, we must remain constantly bent towards our goal, making progress and being careful with our processes. Andrea Smith reminds us that: “any liberation struggle that does not challenge heteronormativity cannot substantially challenge colonialism or white supremacy” (INCITE 72). Towards victory~!
For more information:
danni-toph west is a queer, white, anti-racist, anti-imperialist organizer with Boston chapters of Coast to Coast Solidarity and Queers Against Prison. Currently ze is working to help prepare several fundraising and analysis development events in Boston around solidarity with the struggles in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, specifically hoping to send several folx home for the survivors assembly this August. danni welcomes support, collaboration, criticism and camaraderie by email: dannimarilynwest [no spam] gmail.com – Free the Prisoners of Katrina! Honor the Right of Return!
Photo courtesy of Jonathan McIntosh. See more at capedmaskedandarmed.com
BWA: Boston Worker’s Alliance. http://bostonworkersalliance.org
Social Justice. “Critical Resistance to the Prison- Industrial Complex.” San Francisco, CA: Global Options, 2000.
INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. Color of Violence. Boston, MA: Southend Press 2006.
Jackson, George. Blood In My Eye. New York, NY: Random House. 1972.
Mann, Eric. Katrina’s Legacy: White Racism and Black Reconstruction in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Los Angeles, CA : Frontlines Press, 2006.
Martinas, Sharon and Rachel E. Luft, comp. “Toward the Just Reconstruction of New Orleans: Readings on Racism and Resistance Before, During, and After Katrina for Solidarity Activists.” New Orleans, LA : Common Ground Collective, 2006.
PHRF: People’s Hurricane Relief Fund. http://www.peopleshurricane.org
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