COVID-19, COOK COUNTY JAIL & CATASTROPHE: Toward Abolitionist Ecological Insurgency
Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow Thesis Submitted for B.A. Candidacy in Critical Race Environmental Justice Studies Advised by Professor Michael Rodríguez-Muñiz & Professor Doug Kiel
Northwestern University December 2021
Uchôa 2 Acknowledgments Thank you deeply Michael Rodríguez-Muñiz, for your unwavering support, patience, friendship, and belief in both me and this scholarly political endeavor. It has been so foundational for me to nurture a relationship such as this one with such an amazing political, personal, and intellectual mentor. You have affirmed and seen me when I truly felt like no one else was there. Thank you Alyssa Garcia for accepting me fully for who I am and helping me accept and embrace forging my own path. I appreciate your investment in me and your intention more than you know. Thank you, Doug Kiel and John Márquez for your support and belief in my scholarly-political aspirations. Thank you Antonio López for sparking my interest in EJ and critical theory more broadly so early on in my college journey. You truly changed the course of my life and my appreciation for you is so deep. Thank you to my best friend, Adam Mahoney, for making me realize I deserved to be loved this deeply and intentionally my whole life. I love you. You mean everything to me. Thank you to my friends who stayed patient with me in my learning journey and invested in my growth. Thank you to the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship program for your genuine support, patience, and care. I am grateful to have been part of this community. Thank you to my cat Saba, who is so unconditionally loving and has given me a sense of purpose. Thank you to everyone everywhere practicing and enacting abolition. A luta continua
Uchôa 3 Table of Contents Acknowledgments…………………………….………………………………………………..…….…...2 Abstract………………………………………….………………………………………………..……......4 Introduction…………………………………………………………………………………….….….…....5 The Foundations of a Movement…………………………………………........................…..…...8 Critical Interventions & Methodology………………………………………………..………......10 Converging Catastrophes: Stage Setting………………………………………...…………………......….13 Cook County Jail: Origins of Racial Colonial Violence……………...…...…………….......……13 COVID-19 Crisis…………………………………………………………………..…..………....15 Carceral Geographies…………………………………………………………………………..……...…..18 Blurring the Boundaries: Electronic Monitoring & Collateral Consequences…………….…......21 Beyond Sacrifice Zones: Anti-Blackness & Racial Expendability……………………………………….22 Bioaccumulation: Health Impacts of Incarceration………………………………………………24 Ungendering & Unmothering…………………………………………………………………….27
Fatphobia as Anti-Black Technology ………………………………………………….……..28 Black Breath………………………………………………………………………….…………..29
Marronage in the Contemporary: Abolitionist Ecological Insurgency ……………….………...…31 Endnotes…………………………………………………………………………………………………..34 References………………………………………………………………………………………………...35
Uchôa 4 Abstract The Environmental Justice (EJ) movement emerged in the US to mobilize against environmental racism more than 50 years ago. Yet, an analysis of the socio-ecological toxicity of carceral institutions and logics is not common within EJ scholarship and organizing, resulting in a narrow conceptualization of environmental justice and an undertheorization of racial expendability (Thompson 2018; Pellow 2018; Márquez 2014). Building on currents within the emerging field of Critical Environmental Justice Studies (Pellow 2018) and Black studies (Murphy et al. 2021), I argue for the divergence from environmental racism as an analytic, as it is not only an inadequate framework to understand socio-ecological violence perpetrated against Black people, but also one that can obfuscate the nature of racial colonial ecological violence altogether. Centering the experiences of incarcerated people at Cook County Jail, I offer an analysis that more rigorously theorizes the particularities of anti-Black socio-ecological violence and racial expendability. I argue that by committing ourselves to abolitionist praxis and centering the needs of our incarcerated comrades, we can move beyond via negativa renderings toward proactive and generative visions of socio-ecological liberation Keywords: critical environmental justice studies, carcerality, abolition, Black studies, settler colonial studies, public health
Uchôa 5 Introduction Global climate and ecological crises continue to disproportionately harm Black, Indigenous, Brown,1 queer, trans, poor, and disabled people in a genocidal fashion (See Principles of Environmental Justice 1991). Scholars across diverse disciplines are demonstrating that from Brasil to the United States, climate-heightened scarcity is strengthening eco-apartheid regimes to shield the elite from environmental harms while reinscribing racial colonial ecological and carceral violence (Cohen 2018). While environmental violence and the carceral state may seem only tangentially related to some, I argue that they are inextricable, mutually reinforcing, and work in tandem to maintain anti-Blackness, racial capitalism, and (settler)colonialism (Pulido 2016; Pellow 2018; Estes 2019). Since its origins in 18th and 19th-century slave patrols in the South and 18th-century labor-movement-crushers in the North, policing in the United States has served the interests of white supremacy (Kaba 2020; Berger & Losier 2018). Policing has not only been the work of the municipal police—the military, border patrol, white vigilantes, and corporate private security entities often work together to terrorize, surveil, incarcerate, politically repress, and murder Black and Indigenous organizers, as we saw on a national scale with the No Dakota Access Pipeline [#NoDAPL] and now Stop Line 3 protests (Berger & Losier 2018; Estes 2019). Indeed, there is a symbiotic relationship between the police and the fossil fuel industry. A recent investigation by Public Accountability Initiative and LittleSis found that “the same companies that drive environmental racism in Black and Brown communities through toxic and climate-changing pollution also fund police power” (Armstrong & Seidman 2020). Law enforcement and carceral institutions are not only impediments to environmental justice (EJ) organizing, they are also forms of toxins themselves, as they both terrorize people marked by the state for premature death and are socio-ecologically toxic to surrounding ecosystems,
Uchôa 6 communities, and especially incarcerated folks through their construction and daily operations (Pellow 2018; Thompson 2018; Prison Ecology Project). Yet, these interlocking forms of racial colonial violence are not natural, immutable, or inevitable—how can we envision and enact socio-ecologically liberated landscapes devoid of all forms of violence that restrict Black, Indigenous, Brown, and breath, from particulate matter to prisons to pandemics to police? The traditional environmental justice movement and scholarship have yet to answer this question with adequate, inclusive responses. While EJ has mobilized against disproportionate exposure to environmental harm in poor, Black, Indigenous, and Brown communities for more than 50 years, an analysis of the socio-ecological toxicity of carceral institutions and the heightened forms of environmental injustice incarcerated individuals face has not been centered within domestic or global EJ scholarship and organizing (Thompson 2018; Pellow 2016). To the extent that carceral institutions have come into the picture, traditional EJ frameworks have largely analyzed the proximity of jails, prisons, and detention centers to low-income communities of color and contested their construction and operation based on this disproportionate, targeted exposure to undesirable facilities (Pellow 2018). This strategic emphasis on proximity ultimately reinforces the legal parameters of environmental justice as advanced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and enforced by the Department of Justice (DOP) and Bureau of Federal Prisons (BOP). While environmental concerns within prisons, jails, immigration detention centers, and juvenile detention centers are regulated by a complex web of local and state regulatory agencies depending upon if they are public or private institutions, the USEPA still fails to uniformly protect incarcerated people under its environmental justice mandate, only potentially regulating prisons if they are environmentally hazardous to surrounding communities (Pellow 2018). Likewise, the BOP does not consider the “prison population in its compliance
Uchôa 7 with environmental justice requirements” (Verniero 2021). This socio-legal framework is premised upon the notion that incarcerated individuals are literal pollutants themselves, rendering them disposable and undeserving of breathable and livable spaces. It is not that incarcerated individuals are inherently criminal or contaminant, but rather that the carceral logics of white supremacy that criminalize Black, Brown, Indigenous, poor, queer, trans, incarcerated, and disabled people are endemically toxic. This gap of knowledge and insight from our incarcerated comrades leads to a narrow conceptualization of environmental justice and an undertheorization of racial expendability, eclipsing the insurgent and radical possibilities of the movement. Diverging from the major theoretical and political weaknesses of mainstream EJ, I build upon currents within the emerging field of Critical Environmental Justice Studies (CEJS) to bring abolition, environmental justice, Black studies, and Indigenous studies into direct conversation. I center the experiences of incarcerated individuals at Chicago’s Cook County Jail during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis to more rigorously theorize the particularities of anti-Black socio-ecological violence, racial expendability, and the possibilities of ecological insurgency via a commitment to abolitionist praxis. In the first section, “Converging Catastrophes: Stage Setting,” I contextualize the COVID-19 outbreaks at Cook County Jail within a larger genealogy of racial colonial violence at local and global scales. In the second section, “Carceral Geographies,” I analyze how carceral institutions reflect and amplify the socio-ecological violence frontline EJ communities face to intentionally expose incarcerated individuals to heightened environmental harms. Building upon these spatial politics, I show how carcerality extends its tentacles beyond the walls of the prison, poisoning ecosystems, frontline communities, previously incarcerated people, and incarcerated-impacted people, with a distinct,
Uchôa 8 disproportionate effect on Black people. In the third section, “Beyond Sacrifice Zones: State of Racial Expendability,” I problematize the traditional EJ spatial analytic of sacrifice zones by centering an analysis of racial expendability and mediations from Black studies on the distinct character of anti-Black socio-ecological violence. In my concluding section, “Marronage in the Contemporary: Abolitionist Ecological Insurgency” I argue for a more capacious sense of socio-ecological liberation beyond the limiting paradigm of environmental justice that foregrounds abolitionist praxis. The Foundations of a Movement The Environmental Justice movement (EJ) is an international movement of frontline community members, organizers, scholars, artists, and youth who mobilize against environmental racism—defined by organizers as disproportionate, targeted exposure to environmental harms—in their typically low-income communities of color. Crucially, the EJ movement redefined environments as places where we work, live, play, learn, and pray, challenging traditional environmentalism that typically focuses on conservation and preservation; largely ignores questions of justice, equity, and racial colonial violence; and is historically and contemporarily led by anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, and (settler) colonial leaders (Pellow 2018). EJ organizers continue to fight for a wide range of issues, including but not limited to equal protection from environmental harms; preventing the operation and/or expansion of the fossil fuel industry; disproportionate exposure to toxic spaces such as landfills, incinerators, chemical plants, and toxic waste management facilities; revitalization and development of superfund and brownfield sites; food justice; climate justice; accessible green spaces; preventing and stopping gentrification and displacement, healthcare access, housing justice; economic justice; equitable natural disaster relief; transportation justice; and community safety.
Uchôa 9 Traditionally, the ideological and political roots of the EJ movement are traced to the US Civil Rights movement. While local fights against environmental injustice across the country laid the foundations, the protests in Warren County, North Carolina in the early 1980s catalyzed the contemporary EJ movement (Washington 2017; Thomspon 2018; Pellow 2018; Bullard 2020). After the state government dumped 30,000 cubic yards of polychlorinated biphenyls contaminated soil in the predominantly African-American community of Afton, protests ensued, prompting empirical studies on the relationship between the exposure to environmental harms and race/class and “effectively putting ‘environmental racism’ on the map” (Bullard 2020: 6; See U.S. General Accounting Office, 1983; Commission for Racial Justice, United Church of Christ, 1987). Out of and alongside the EJ movement emerged Environmental Justice Studies (EJS), which is generally divided into two phases by scholars and historians: the “first generation” focused on documenting environmental inequities along the axes of race and class, and the “second generation,” which centers critical theory and more expansive dimensions of identity that shape environmental injustice such as gender and sexuality (Pellow 2018: 21). Notwithstanding scholars that have offered us transgressive perspectives and methodologies within the field, EJS has not yet actualized its liberatory potential to “bridg[e] worlds”' or achieved a capacious sense of justice, as its theories of justice, whether distributive,2 procedural,3 or recognitional,4 are largely reactionary and strategically center, legitimize, and, can, perhaps inadvertently, strengthen the power of the state (Sze & London 2018: 1346; Pulido et al. 2016; Thompson 2018; Pellow 2018). EJS’ current narrow conception of justice and overemphasis on liberal ideology via right-based litigation tactics have not only been unsuccessful “at improving the environmental quality of vulnerable populations, but” they have also resulted in the undertheorization of anti-Blackness, settler (colonialism), racial
Uchôa 10 expendability, and proactive avenues to enact more livable and just realities outside of the state (Pulido et al. 2016; Pellow 2018; Wright 2018; Murphy 2020). Critical Interventions & Methodology If we rehistoricize this narrow and US-centric historiography, an alternative, radical genealogy emerges, bringing forward the cross-pollination of radical environmental justice and abolition scholarly and political movements (Uchôa 2021). Indeed, since the onset of (settler) colonialism, imperialism, and chattel slavery in the Americas, our communities have been engaging in abolitionist-oriented ecological work through their acts of refusal, resistance, and preservation of ancestral relationships to the land (Uchôa 2021; Pellow 2018). Taylor (2011), who explores Harriet Tubman’s use of ancestral wisdom and connections to nature as a liberatory abolitionist praxis, and Thompson (2018), who pushes us to see the Attica Prison Rebellers and Black Panthers as EJ organizers, are important examples from a cadre of thinkers unearthing the environmentally-oriented work of abolitionists. This emerging scholarly and political orientation, most comprehensively theorized by EJ scholar David Pellow, attempts to address the fundamental historical, theoretical, and political limitations of the EJ movement and its adjacent scholarly field, EJS. In his recent book, What is Critical Environmental Justice?, Pellow theorizes a Critical Environmental Justice (CEJ) theoretical framework and praxis grounded in four pillars: (1) analysis of multiple categories of social difference and the intersectionality of oppressive systems (2) multiscalar spatial and temporal analyses (3) a deeper analysis of state power and avenues to achieve environmental justice beyond the state (4) subversion of racial expendability to foreground racial and socio-ecological indispensability (Pellow 2018). In their recent essay, Murphy, Weddington, and Rio-Glick bring these four pillars of CEJ into conversation with Black Ecology and Black studies more broadly to reflect upon the limitations and potential of Pellow’s meta-theoretical framework to make sense of and contest
Uchôa 11 “socio-ecological violence that so tenaciously adheres to black life” (2021: 1). Importantly, they complicate the first pillar of interconnectivity of oppressions, arguing that Black studies has shown that a pluralist ethnoracial (i.e. “people of color”) analytic can “obscure the ‘specificity of antiblackness’ while ‘presum[ing] or insist[ing] upon the monolithic victimization under white supremacy’ (Sexton 2010; Murphy et al. 2021). Antiblackness emerges as a global regime of violence constituting the modern world, making the “positionality of blackness considered coterminous with slaveness,” and thus is not reducible to “racial inequality or discrimination” (Murphy et al. 2021; Broeck 2016; Wright 2018). By extension, then, environmental racism is a misnomer, not only an inadequate framework to understand socio-ecological violence perpetrated against Black people, but also one that can obfuscate the nature of racial colonial ecological violence altogether. Relatedly, settler-colonial studies argues for and animates the analytical differentiation of colonialism and settler-colonialism, contesting the subsumption of settler-colonialism and conflation of decolonization with “incommensurable” civil rights and social justice endeavors, such as environmental justice (Sexton 2014; Garba & Sorentino 2020; Tuck & Yang 2012: p 1). Settler-colonial scholars Tuck & Yang, in a similar vein to their critique of decolonization as metaphor, refute the concept of “justice” altogether, as it is “ensconced in a ‘colonial temporarily’ that only permits ‘limited actions within a colonial moment against colonial structures’” (Garba & Sorentino 2020; Tuck & Yang 2016: p 8). Akin to Black studies scholars who have differentiated between freedom and liberation, with the former as a limiting legal paradigm operating within racial colonial structures and the latter as a transgressive project, Tuck & Yang call the socio-legal etymology of justice into question, pointing towards paradigms that exceed and “‘refuse the abstraction of justice’” in the interests of material concerns, such as
Uchôa 12 “‘sovereignty, self-determination, decolonization, and resurgence’” (2016:9; Garba & Sorentino 2020). Yet, as Black studies scholars critique, Tuck & Yang and settler-colonial studies more broadly staunchly maintain “a metaphysical commitment to materiality whose first, if not final, form is land” (Garba & Sorentino 2020: 7; Sexton 2014). This “positivist affirmation of land is not methodologically innocent”—it results in the “engulfing” of slavery within the settler-colonist paradigm, reduced to a derivative of the constitutive settler-colonialist structure via an unsophisticated “labor theory of slavery” (Garba & Soretino 2020:2-14; Sexton 2014; Murphy 2020). While not engaged substantially in this thesis, these currents within and tensions between Black and Indigenous/settler colonial studies inform my methodological framework. Returning to Pellow’s first pillar, intersectionality of oppressions, I attempt to provide what Saxton calls a relational rather than a comparative analysis of racial colonial carceral and environmental violence primarily from the vantage point of Black studies, which offers us meditations on anti-Blackness and (settler) colonialism (Sexton 2010; 2014). Taking seriously the discursive and theoretical inadequacies of both environmental racism and environmental justice illuminated by Black and settler colonial studies, I instead employ the concepts of racial colonial violence and socio-ecological liberation, respectively. Akin to Murphy et al I embrace the second pillar, as multi-scalar analysis can aid us in this relational analysis of anti-Blackness and settler-colonialism (2021). Likewise, I embrace the third pillar of horizontality (anarchism) and the fourth of racial expendability/racial indispensability throughout my analysis. Without hyperbolizing its potential, I argue that a new framework of ecological insurgency committed to abolitionist praxis can provide fertile grounds to rigorously theorize racial colonial socio-ecological violence and enact a more capacious sense of socio-ecological liberation.
Uchôa 13 Converging Catastrophes: Stage Setting Cook County Jail: Origins of Racial Colonial Violence A relational analysis that embraces multi-scalarity helps us understand how carceral institutions have been antithetical to the socio-ecological health of Black and Indigenous folks from their inception to the present COVID-19 crisis. Carceral logics and technology “emerged with particular global force” to facilitate the transatlantic slave trade; chattel slavery of African-descended folks; and the colonization, dispossession, assimilation, conversion, and annihilation of Indigenous peoples (Rodríguez 2016; 2019:1582). In the U.S., nation-building has always depended upon the “terrors of domestic warfare and [targeted] gendered racial criminalization” to serve the given needs of racial capitalism and (settler)colonialism at the time, from “Middle Passage slave ships and California missions” to [modern day] federal supermax prisons” (Rodríguez 2016:9). Indeed, slavery was a “massive prison” that was never abolished—the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished the formal institution of chattel slavery in 1865 legally sanctioned the existing national practice of prison slavery, enabling slavery to live on through its carceral afterlives (Uchôa 2021; Berger & Losier 2018:20). In the South, infamous Black codes forced newly “freed” African-descendants into the convict-leasing system, where they endured environmentally hazardous conditions and physical and sexual regimes of violence (Pellow 2018; Berger & Losier 2018:23). Unbeknownst to many, these incarcerated folks extracted natural resources such as coal, timber, iron, and steel to forcibly build the extractive fossil fuel infrastructure of the South and contribute to what we now understand as climate change (Pellow 2018:150; Berger & Losier 2018:23). In the industrial North and burgeoning West, those rendered criminals and pollutant—waves of Black folks migrating from the South and poor immigrants—were subjected to penal servitude to forcibly produce commercial items
Uchôa 14 and even build prison infrastructure in environmentally toxic conditions with abysmal nourishment and health care (Berger & Losier 2018:18-21). Cook County Jail emerged a part of this national context, serving as a decidedly anti-Black, settler-colonialism institution to facilitate racialized, gendered, and class population control in its many iterations. In 1831, Cook County was established upon the unceded, occupied territory of the Council of Three Fires including the Ojibwe, Odawa and Bodéwadmiké (Potawatomi) nations; Peoria and Kaskaskia [now under the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma confederation]; Myaamia [now the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma]; Kiikaapoi [Kickapoo]; Miami, Ho-Chunk, Sac, Fox, Illinois Nations and other Indigenous peoples who’s historical records may have been decimated by settler-colonialism (Native Land Digital; Kenjockety). While more than a century of violent settler occupation, war, politically produced famine, and the rampant spread of European diseases by settlers harmed Indigenous folks and threatened their sovereignty, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced many Indigenous nations to often infertile lands thousands of miles from their ancestral homelands and facilitated the expansion of settlement and settler infrastructure in the Chicagoland region (Kenjockety; Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center). In 1835, the first county jail and courthouse was built and was outgrown only 15 years later, moving to Hubbard Street (Cook County Sheriff's Office). The “Bridewell” housed offenders awaiting trial for more “serious crimes,” later renamed the Chicago House of Corrections and housing a daily average of 419 individuals in the late 19th century (Cook County Sheriff’s Office). As the population burgeoned, these carceral facilities amassed a daily combined population of ~3,200 detained individuals, which was the largest concentration of individuals in custody in the so-called “free world” at the time (Cook County Sheriff’s Office). Finally, in 1969, the Cook County Jail and Chicago House of Corrections merged into the Cook
Uchôa 15 County Department of Corrections [used interchangeably with Cook County Jail] housed on 96 acres on the South Side of Chicago, constituting the largest single-site jail and third-largest inmate population in the U.S. (Cook County Sheriff’s Office). Only five years after emerging as a consolidated site, Cook County Jail was placed under the Department of Justice’s oversight for the next four decades due to unconstitutional confinement, excessive force, overcrowding, inadequate mental and physical health services, and poor fire safety and sanitation (Cook County Sheriff’s Office; Fitzgerald 2008). While a judge ruled in 2017 that Cook County Jail had met the requirements of its 2010 federal consent decree, abolitionists, human rights organizers, watchdog groups, lawyers, families of incarcerated people, and many of the ~5,800 inmates detained on-site on a given day lament that the jail continues to have deplorable and unlivable conditions, presenting numerous dangers during the global, on-going COVID-19 pandemic (Schmadeke 2017; Coalition to End Money Bond 2020). COVID-19 Crisis Well aware of the unsanitary, overcrowded, and environmentally hazardous conditions at Cook County Jail, more than 100 Chicago abolitionist and legal organizations called for decarceration via an open letter to mitigate the impending catastrophic effects of a COVID-19 outbreak to both detainees and the surrounding Black and Brown communities well before the virus officially entered the jail (Coalition to End Money Bond 2020:3). Their initial call was largely ignored—just two weeks after the first confirmed detainee COVID-19 case on March 23rd, 2020, the New York Times identified the jail as the top COVID-19 hot spot in the entire country (Williams and Ivory 2020). Throughout this ongoing pandemic, Cook County public officials have been extremely reluctant to utilize decarceration as a public health measure—the jail population returned to pre-pandemic levels several months after a historic low of 4,031 detainees in May 2020 spurred by the mounting pressure from abolitionist organizers and various
Uchôa 16 litigation pursuits (Coalition to End Money Bond 2020; McCullom 2020). And, the short-lived decarceration efforts disproportionately benefited white people, as the number of incarcerated white people dropped by 42%, while the number of incarcerated Black and Latinx people dropped by just 27% and 29%, respectively (Coalition to End Money Bond 2020). As the jail population climbed back to astronomically high pre-pandemic levels, jail personnel instead relied upon the increased use of isolation to facilitate social distancing, the unprecedented expansion of electronic monitoring, sanitation measures, and, later on, COVID-19 vaccines (Coalition to End Money Bond 2020). Staudt and Filip point out that “a major reason the pandemic’s impact in the jail slowed or plateaued, was because of the measures Dart was court-ordered to implement, not the actions he took on his own,'' given his lengthy period of inaction at the onset of the pandemic (2020). Even so, these surface-level interventions have proven to be false solutions, as they can deepen5 the psychological, social, and physical harm incarcerated people face and fail to address the violent, anti-Black, and socio-ecologically toxic conditions that are endemic to carceral institutions and logics. Indeed, Cook County Jail faced a second major wave of cases, peaking at 370 active cases on December 7, 2020, and remained high through January of 2021 (Injustice Watch 2020). While the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines kept COVID cases at bay for much of 2021, a major third-wave is currently rising—as of this writing—with 147 positive inmate cases as of December 9th, 2021, revealing the futility of relying on vaccine technology as a primary solution (Sabino 2021; Injustice Watch). While Cook County Jail does not aggregate their COIVD-19 data by race and class, folks already living in low-income Black and Brown neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by COVID are also disproportionately targeted by the carceral state and incarcerated. Black folks make up 26% and Latinx people make up 20% of Cook County, but makeup ~72-75% and
Uchôa 17 ~15-16% of the Cook County Jail confinement population, respectively (Coalition to End Money Bond 2020; Cook County Sheriff’s Office). A recent analysis of census data by the Circuit found that Black people are now incarcerated at Cook County Jail at more than 17 times the rate of white people (McGhee & Rutecki 2021). This is the largest gap between the two groups since 1990 and significantly starker than the national racial gap in incarceration, where the national incarceration rate for Black Americans is five times that of white Americans, while the rate for Latinx folks is nearly twice that of whites (McGhee & Rutecki 2021; Pellow 2018). Nationally, Black people are disproportionately targeted, arrested, tried and likely to be detained pretrial because they cannot afford to post their bail, given that income gaps are widest for Black people (Sawyer 2020). In Chicago, the COVID-19 Community Court watching Project found that earlier into the pandemic, 88% of people who appeared in Cook County’s Central Bond Court were Black and were given more unaffordable money bonds than any other race, as well as were among the most likely to be denied release entirely (Coalition to End Money Bond 2020). Crucially, only 19% of women (of any race) received affordable bonds (Coalition to End Money Bond 2020). In fact, unaffordable money bonds were the single largest reason anyone of any race was admitted to the Jail during the pandemic (Coalition to End Money Bond 2020). These glaring disparities mirror racial disparities in COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Nationally, the rates of COVID-19-associated hospitalization per 100,000 population for non-Hispanic Indigenous, non-Hispanic Black, and Hispanic/Latino people are 1,659.7, 1,293.4, and 1,254.5, respectively, while the rate for non-Hispanic whites is only 510.7 (CDC 2021a). While Hispanic folks make up 19.6% of the US population, non-Hispanic Black folks make up 12.8 %, and Non-Hispanic American Indians or Alaska Natives make up 0.7%, they make up 30.7%, 22%, and 2.2% of COVID deaths age-standardized, respectively (CDC 2021b). Meaning,
Uchôa 18 Latinx, Black, and Indigenous people have endured a disproportionate burden of COVID-19 deaths among all age groups—children, youth, adults, and elders (CDC 2021b). In Chicago, which is situated within Cook County and one of the most segregated cities in the world, Black people make up 40.8% of COVID deaths, while only comprising 29.6% of the Chicago population. Meanwhile, Latinx people 28.8% and white people make up 50% of the Chicago population but 32.2% and 21.8% of COVID deaths, respectively (City of Chicago 2021; US Census Bureau). Carceral Geographies A multi-scalar spatial analysis of race and place can help us better understand the mutually constitutive nature of ecological violence and carceral violence, setting up our forthcoming exploration of racial expendability (Wright 2018:791). Further, Black ecology and Black studies scholars have traced how Black geographies/plantation geographies—or what I reference here as carceral geographies—have emerged and evolved to codify “race into earth” and “put Black communities in (and out of) place” (Wright 2018:792; See McKittrick 2011; 2013). Indeed, anti-Black violence in Chicago is literally infused in the soil, atmosphere, and water via corporate and state-produced socio-ecologically destructive agents. If you overlay pollution exposure with incarceration rates intergenerational poverty, education attainment, food injustice and insecurity, lack of health insurance/health care inaccessibility, chronic health conditions, and COVID-19 case, hospitalization, mortality, and vaccine inequality rates, a clear pattern emerges—the city’s Black and Latinx neighborhoods concentrated on but not exclusive to the South and West Sides are systematically deprived of life-affirming resources and disproportionately exposed to numerous forms of premature death (Uchoa 2020). These environmentally racist spatial politics of the communities the majority of incarcerated folks come from—which were produced and are reinforced by a complex nexus of government and
Uchôa 19 corporate practices such as redlining, predatory lending, permitting, predatory zoning, and hot spot policing—are both shaped by and amplified within the structural landscape of Cook County Jail (See Coates 2014; Fernandez 2020). The Jail, at an astonishing 96 acres, constitutes roughly twice the amount of green space in the entirety of Little Village, the predominately Latinx and Black community in which it is situated (López 2017). The neighborhood—which has one of the highest cumulative exposure to environmental harms in the city—is also home to the previous operating Fisk and Crawford coal power plants, which a Harvard study attributed 2,800 asthma attacks and 40 premature deaths to annually (Levy et al. 2001; Quintero-Somaini & Quirindongo 2004). Although a successful 12-year fight led by the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization shut down the plants in 2012, the Crawford plant is being redeveloped as a logistic and distribution site, anticipated to intensify existing diesel pollution in the community (LVEJO). After giving last-minute notice, Hilco Global demolished the contaminated coal plant on April 11th, 2020, enveloping Little Village in a plume of toxic dust amidst a respiratory pandemic residents are disproportionately burdened by (LVEJO 2020; Mahoney 2021a). While Hilco paid a settlement to help address chronic illnesses in the community [not including incarcerated folks], the effects of the disastrous demolition and ongoing sources of environmental harm on Cook County’s detainees continue to be entirely overlooked by the city and responsible corporate entities (Peña 2020). Indeed, exposure to environmental hazards is heightened for individuals at Cook County Jail due to the nature of confinement and deliberate systemic neglect—the jail’s crumbling infrastructure, overcrowding, mold, inadequate sanitation, improper social distancing, poor quality of food, and inadequate health care make the jail a human petri dish for COVID-19 and other illnesses (Coalition to End Money Bond 2020). A groundbreaking 2021 Grist analysis of
Uchôa 20 EPA EJ screening tool data—which only started to include carceral facilities in 2017—found that individuals residing in or near Cook County Jail rank above the 95th percentile for diesel pollution, pollution-related cancer risk, and toxic wastewater while ranking in at least the 90th percentile for respiratory hazards and hazardous waste (Mahoney 2021b; Tsolkas 2017). Contrary to common belief, jails are not temporary facilities for many, especially for poor folks who cannot afford to post bail (Rabuy & Kopf 2016). While Cook County was already notorious for lengthy jail stays, COVID-19 has exacerbated the Cook County court backlog, resulting in the median length of incarceration at the jail rising 37.5% from April to December of 2020 (Staudt 2021). Folks already living in communities facing environmental racism are being disproportionately incarcerated at Cook County Jail, where they have been exposed to heightened forms of environmental harm and COVID-19 for increasingly longer periods, potentially experiencing life-long physiological and psychological health consequences as a result (Coalition to End Money Bond 2020). While surrounding ecologically harmful landscapes can compound the environmental violence incarcerated folks face, the converse is also true—carceral institutions and logics are socio-ecologically toxic to frontline communities, reverberating beyond the walls of the prison and structuring the daily lives of low-income Black and Brown people. For example, one study accessed the effect of jail cycling, or the constant cycling of detainees, thousands of staff members, visitors, vendors, lawyers, and law enforcement who come through Cook County Jail daily, demonstrating that 16% (or one in every six) in Chicago and across Illinois could be traced to people cycling in and out Cook County Jail (McCullom 2020; Reinhart & Chen 2020). The study also found that there was a strong correlation between incarceration and COVID-19 cases in Black communities (Reinhart & Chen 2020). Another study complemented their analysis,
Uchôa 21 finding “that high levels of arrests and mass incarceration could reduce or even negate the positive
altogether”(McCullom 2020; Solomon et al. 2020). Blurring the Boundaries: Electronic Monitoring & Collateral Consequences The mutually constitutive nature of Cook County Jail and Black and Brown frontline communities blur the boundaries between the two, allowing us to understand carcerality as “logics and methods of dominance” rather than a phenomenon reducible to specific facilities such as prisons, jails, and detention centers (Rodríguez 2019). Carceral logics permeate all of our institutions from psychiatric wards to educational institutions (Shange 2019), and, increasingly, our homes. The use of electronic monitoring has reached an all-time high in Cook County Jail’s history during the pandemic, lauded as a more humane and COVID-friendly form of incarceration. However, as abolitionist scholar Dylan Rodríguez warns us, carceral statecraft will attempt to sell us on “more tolerable and consensus-building technologies of criminalization, policing, and incarceration,” but the notion of safe, healthy, and humane incarceration is ahistorical and oxymoronic (2016:9). Indeed, electronic monitoring is a high-tech, false solution that capitalizes “on the misery of others while claiming humanistic concern,” as folks have to pay for their own electronic monitoring and are severely restricted in their mobility (Benjamin 2019). A staggering ~91% in the electronic monitoring program are Black or Latinx, meaning that electronic monitoring has” extend[ed] the tentacles of incarceration...into the most intimate settings of everyday life” in communities that are already physically structured by carceral institutions, targeted by policing and surveillance, and experiencing disproportionate rates of incarceration (Cook County Sheriff; Benjamin 2019). Folks under electronic monitoring need extensive paperwork to access emergency medical attention, as the Sheriff requires folks to request an ambulance, which is another added
Uchôa 22 cost, and are only allowed to go to the hospital if the EMTs deem the person in need of medical attention (Coalition to End Money Bond 2020). This leaves many people in an impossible situation—they could potentially lose their lives from COVID or another dire health condition due to procedural obstacles in gaining permission to seek medical treatment. Or, they could violate the conditions of their electronic monitoring to potentially save their lives, only to get sent back to Cook County Jail, where they have a high risk of contracting COVID-19 that can threaten their lives again or worsen their current condition (Coalition to End Money Bond 2020). For the 840,000 people no longer incarcerated but now on parole and 3.6 million people currently on probation, carcerality continues to structure their lives and most intimate spaces, eclipsing their autonomy and deteriorating their physical and psychological wellbeing [see Bioaccumulation: Health Impacts of Incarceration] (Sawyer & Wagner 2020). Many parolees and probationers are subjected to intrusive at-home visits, forced living arrangements, and arbitrary requirements from case managers, forcing them to live in fear of violating the terms of their parole/probation and potentially being re-incarcerated all while living with the collateral consequences of incarceration and adjusting to the outside world (Sawyer & Wagner 2020; See Cosby 2018). In other words, their carceral subjugation is not exclusive to their inhabitancy of carceral institutions, but rather constitutive of their existence, pointing us to the state of racial expendability. Beyond Sacrifice Zones: Anti-Blackness & Racial Expendability Buren called to tell me that Stephen, my second oldest brother, was ill and that she and Karen, my sister-in-law, had called an ambulance to take him to the hospital...the doctors finally gave Stephen a diagnosis of malignant mesothelioma. They told him that he likely had between six and nine months to live. We were devastated. None of us were sure how he got this rare cancer that is usually caused by exposure to asbestos. We learned from the doctors that the dormancy period for mesotheliomas is long, from ten to fifty years. If this mesothelioma was from what and
Uchôa 23 from where we thought, we were struck with the damage from one summer’s work forty-five years earlier at a local insulation company in Waye, Pennsylvania, when he was fourteen years old could suddenly appear, now, to fracture the present. In the wake, the past that is not past reappears, always, to rupture the present. —Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being Anti-Black violence, whether it manifests as disproportionate exposure to pollutants or carceral violence, disrupts the linear flow of time. From asbestos poisoning to particulate patter exposure to police violence, anti-Black violence not only becomes encoded in the earth, it too becomes encoded within the body and mind (Sharpe 2016; Wright 2018: 792; Roberts 2011). Asbestos, a marker of race, class, and ecological violence literally becomes embodied, rupturing the present—forty-five years of life later—by resurfacing violence of the past (Sharpe 2016; Roberts 2011). Anti-Black violence disrupts traditional EJ spatial and geographical understandings, too. Sacrifice zones have been a historically lauded analytic within the field to help us visualize how the burdens of ecological waste, pollution, and destruction become displaced upon and centralized within low-income, Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities (Pellow 2018). Yet, this framework presumes that there is an antithesis to these so-called sacrifice zones, places safe from pollution, destruction, and racial colonial violence. But even as one achieves social mobility and moves to a wealthier, seemingly safer neighborhood, an embodied manifestation of anti-Black/racial colonial violence may resurface, many years later, to rupture the present and alter the future. Likewise, although incarcerated folks within Cook County Jail are exposed to heightened forms of anti-Black/ racial colonial ecological and carceral violence, those regimes of violence are not exclusive to carceral institutions—they reverberate beyond the walls of the jail, structuring the daily lives of our community members and previously incarcerated folks adjusting back to the “outside” carceral world (James 2005).
Uchôa 24 Anti-Blackness’ ability to cut across time and space unravels liberal ideology and humanism, pointing us towards a framework of racial expendability (Márquez 2014; Pellow 2018; See Mbembe 2019). That is, it is not just that certain spatialities are disposable to the state, but that certain populations—Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, especially folks who are also incarcerated, undocumented, disabled, queer, trans, and/or poor—are distinctly, yet interrelatedly rendered by the state as criminal, pollutant, disposable and expendable (Márquez 2014; Pellow 2018). The implication of racial expendability is that it is pervasive and ubiquitous—it is not escapable via fallacies of social mobility, migration, release from carceral institutions, or democratic inclusion and participation under the same systems of racial capitalism and (settler) colonialism. Thus, the central tactic of EJ—appealing to the state to deem certain historically excluded populations as human and/or legally protected—is rarely efficacious and can even be counterproductive (Wright 2018). By interrogating the interconnectivity of environmental and carceral violence through a framework of racial expendability, we can better understand how different forms of violence amalgamate within the body over the lifetime—even after initial exposure—to facilitate premature death. Bioaccumulation: Health Impacts of Incarceration While the ecological and COVID-19 catastrophes at Cook County jail are deplorable, they are not an anomaly. As the national carceral regime expanded throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, so-called corrective institutions for undesirable populations were built on undesirable land. Take, for example, New York City’s Rikers Island Jail that was built on a toxic waste landfill, or Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institute-Fayette that was built on top of a former coal mine and adjacent to a coal ash dump (Prison Ecology Project). In fact, there are “nearly 600 federal and state prisons located within three miles of a Superfund site on the National Priorities List '' (EJI 2019). Incarcerated folks are also on the frontlines of the climate crisis, from
Uchôa 25 prisoners in Texas being “cooked to death” from sweltering heat to inmates fighting wildfires in California (Chammah 2017; Thompson 2018; Higgins 2019). Even if carceral institutions are located in seemingly benign ecological localities, they still can expose inmates to heightened environmental harms due to their lack of environmental oversight, unsanitary conditions, deteriorating infrastructure, lack of adequate health care, and poor quality food (Ware 2018; Bernd et al). In fact, the vile food options in US carceral institutions—which have been exacerbated by the pandemic—are chronically innutritious, unsatiating, and unappetizing (Kanav & Caldwell 2021). Sometimes, food is poisonous from being served rotten, unsanitary preparation, and even maggots, leading to U.S. prisoners being six times more likely to get a foodborne illness than the general population (Fassler & Brown 2017; Kanav & Caldwell 2021). This litany of environmental and climatic harms incarcerated people are exposed to converge with other regimes of carceral violence. For example, sexual violence within and beyond carceral institutions function to control racialized bodies and non-normative/conformant genders and sexualities, with a disproportionate impact on Black trans and queer folks (Lydon 2016; Pellow 2018). Further, It is not just that incarcerated people face heightened sexual violence often perpetrated by law enforcement due to power differentials, but that carceral logics are endemically reliant upon regimes of racialized, gendered sexual violence as a continuation of the predatory logics of Black chattel slavery (Lydon 2016). In other words, just as incarceration itself is a form of environmental violence, incarceration itself is also a form of sexual violence. Abolitionist Gabriel Arkles helps us visualize this: If a person walking down the street, for example, were forced to remove all of their clothes by another person, under threat of violence, we would agree that they were sexually assaulted. However, in incarceration settings, this is an absolutely normal practice. Prisoners are constantly forced to remove their clothing; their naked bodies are subjected to viewing, and often touching, by staff who have immense power over them (2015).
Uchôa 26 By naturalizing sexual violation as a function of public and institutional safety, the state renders racialized and gendered incarcerated bodies as disposable, criminal, and suitable for sexual harm. Not only does this result in long-lasting trauma for incarcerated folks even after incarceration, but it also serves as a form of eco-fascist, Malthusian population control by eclipsing the reproduction of racialized folks who are capable of reproducing (not just cis women) (Murphy 2017; Pellow 2018). For instance, the state of California has a long history of forcibly sterilizing cis women, cis men, and transgender folks because they were “viewed as unfit to reproduce” as racialized “criminals,” and, most recently in 2020, a whistleblower revealed forced or coerced, unnecessary Hysterectomies performed on migrant women at Irwin County Detention Center (Pellow 2018; Capelouto 2020). This horrific sexual violation of incarcerated people reverberates across time and spaces, impacting their entire communities and multiple generations. Environmental, sexual, and physical violence incarcerated people are exposed are acute and chronic stressors that bioaccumulate in the body, impacting their physiological, sexual, psychological, and spiritual health in the short, mid, and long-term, even many years after potential release, ultimately facilitating their premature deaths (Massoglia & Pridemore 2018). Schnittker & John, whose results have been corroborated by other researchers, demonstrated empirically that incarceration is associated with a negative change in health status by accounting for chronic health problems before prison, which, again, Black, Brown and Indigenous people suffer disproportionately from (2007; Massoglia & Pridemore 2018). Crucially, they found that the impact of the length of incarceration on health appears to be less important than the fact of incarceration itself. Thus, every length of incarceration is too long, as even short-term capture within incarcerated institutions can have lifetime impacts on quality of life and can terminate one’s life prematurely or altogether. COVID-19 has only amplified the expendability of
Uchôa 27 incarcerated people, who have “been 5.5 times more likely to get COVID-19 and have suffered a COVID-19 mortality rate 3 times higher than the general public” as of April 2021 (Widra 2021). For the thousands of incarcerated people Cook County Jail, 445,956 incarcerated in prisons and ICE detention facilities, and thousands more incarcerated in other private and public carceral intuitions without comprehensive testing and publicly available data who have contracted COVID-19, the long-term health effects are potentially catastrophic and only starting to be understood by researchers (Sharma & Herring 2021; UCLA Law 2021). For example, one publication from UCLA demonstrated that COVID-19 reduced the life expectancy of people in Florida prisons by 4 years (Marquez et al. 2021). For the 2,876 incarcerated who have died from COVID-19—which is an undercount and includes the 10 incarcerated people who have died at Cook County Jail—the consequences are abhorrent and irreversible, impacting the health of their families and entire communities (UCLA Law 2021; Cook County Sheriff). Ungendering & Unmothering As we learned through exploring carceral geographies, carcerality is an anti-Black logic and method of dominance that is not exclusive to carceral facilities. Indeed, the social toxicity of carcerality has long been contested by abolitionists and practitioners of transformative justice (Thompson 2018). The prison-industrial-complex literally “min[es]” our families and communities, “extracting” human resources “that fuel the carceral system,” not only causing dire mental and physical health consequences for those who are incarcerated, but also their family members, with a disproportionate impact upon their young and/or non-male family members (Community Coalition to End Money Bond 2020; Pellow 2018: 167; Kaba 2018). For example, Lee et al. found that women who have an incarcerated family member are more likely to experience heart attack, stroke, or obesity or to have fair to poor health (2014). The pandemic has exacerbated the physiological and psychological stressors on women with incarcerated loved
Uchôa 28 ones from eviction threats, financial hardships, increased childcare responsibilities, and social isolation (Claytonn-Johnson et al. 2020). Yet, only mediations from Black studies can fully capture the racialized, (un)gendered dimension of incarceration on incarcerated people, families, and communities. In her infamous essay Mama’s Baby Papa’s Maybe, Spillers elucidates how anti-Black subjugation under chattel slavery rendered Black people of all genders, who are excluded from the category of human, as undifferentiated flesh (1987). This process of ungendering is central to the anti-Black logic that rendered Black people into capital, into chattel capable of any and all work (1987). In other words, gender is a category reserved for those ascribed as human; to gender Black people and grant them access to the rights of a cisheteronormative socio-legal structure—marriage, child custody, property ownership—would be to grant them the status of the human, to grant them bodily autonomy (Spillers 1987). Kaba extends this analysis of ungendering through her conceptualizing of “un-mothering,” in which “the state and society actively and violently threaten, remove, disappear, and kill Black women’s children” (2018: 190). Through this process of
prison-industrial-complex, or even just the looming threat of it, Black mothers become un-mothered (Kaba 2018: 190). The physiological, physical, spiritual, and communal toll of this process is inconceivable and unquantifiable. Fatphobia as Anti-Black Technology Prolific race scientific, biomedical, and governmental paradigms have advanced an understanding of race as an immutable, genetic/biological, and visually verifiable characteristic, functioning as a technology to naturalize, legitimate, and justify racial hierarchies (Morning 2011; Goldberg 2009). In reality, race is a social construction with various textures depending upon the geopolitical context. Yet, racial genetic makeup and predisposition are weaponized by
Uchôa 29 the government, biomedical and pharmaceutical industries, and mainstream media to explain racial health disparities, rather than the aforementioned compounding regimes of anti-Black, carceral, and environmental violence that produce real, genocidal health consequences. Relatedly, fatness and supposedly interrelated chronic conditions are weaponized to justify, naturalize, normalize, and obscure anti-Black, carceral violence. In Fearing the Black Body, Strings (2019) tells us that anti-fatness has been inextricable from anti-Blackness and colonial praxis since its inception, utilized to demonize and justify the exclusion of racially othered bodies. Racialized fatphobia creates a reality where Black people’s alleged genetic predisposition and pathologized diet, lifestyle period choices, and body types are utilized to rationalize stark racial disparities in chronic health conditions such as hypertension, strokes, diabetes, and heart disease (Strings 2019). This narrative of individual responsibility distracts from the medical racism; environmental violence that creates food apartheid and obesogenic environments in Black communities (see Reese 2018); and physiological and psychological health impacts of carceral subjugation over the lifetime. For example, chronic stress from the actual or the threat of surveillance, police contact, police violence, and hypervisible Black death trigger hormonal survival responses, raising the heart rate and increasing respiratory rate in the process (Alang et al. 2017). These manifestations of carceral violence that trigger such frequent chronic stress responses become encoded and bioaccumulate in the body, causing conditions such as diabetes, autoimmune disorders, stroke, hypertension, respiratory conditions, and even death from damage to body organs and elevated allostatic load (Alang et al. 2017; Roberts 2011). Black Breath Dillon and Sze’s (2016) critical analysis of the phrase “I can’t breathe” further crystalizes this convergence of anti-Black violence to produce and exacerbate chronic health disparities to facilitate premature death. In 2014, Eric Garner, a Black man who suffered from asthma and
Uchôa 30 heart disease, repeated “I can’t breathe” eleven times while he was being murdered by a chokehold by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo. Here, racialized fatphobia worked in part to justify the expendability of Eric Garner’s life—as a larger Black man, in the state imaginary, he was perceived as larger-than-life, criminal, and threatening. Likewise, obesity was cited as one of the contributing factors to his death by the medical examiner and utilized by Pantaleo’s defense team to rationalize his death, medicalizing and pathologizing fatness to distract from the regimes of environmental and carceral violence that tragically shortened his life (Cheney-Rice 2019; Allen 2019). Six years later, George Floyd repeated Garner’s words “I can’t breathe” as Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered him by kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. “I can’t breathe” takes on multiple meanings, pointing us towards the interconnectivity and mutually constitutive nature between “slow violence” such as exposure to ambient air pollutants and hypervisible, “fast violence” like specticalized police violence, as they work in tandem to constrict Black breath, long after initial exposure (Dillon & Sze 2016; Thompson 2018). Again, routine exposure to racial colonial violence traumatizes the body and mind, triggering chronic stress responses that increase inflammation and worsen asthmatic conditions, such as Garner’s (Roberts 2011). Here in Chicago, Black folks are eight times as likely to die from asthma than their white counterparts (Respiratory Health Association). Similarly, according to a Harvard study published in June 2020, Black Chicagoans are 650% more likely to be killed by the police than white Chicagoans (Schwartz &Jahn). As massive uprisings ensued in 2020 protesting anti-Black and racist violence, Black people were forced into even closer proximity with police officers. Likewise, property damage from civil unrest and rising homicide rates are being strategically deployed by state entities, corporate mainstream media, and neoliberal
Uchôa 31 criminologists to refute calls to defund the police and promote the resurgence of hot-spot policing (Lopez 2021). Law enforcement agents are vectors of both carceral violence and COVID-19—which Black face disproportionate severe outcome rates from—who can trigger chronic stress responses that worsen chronic health conditions produced by previous exposure to environmental hazards, which, in turn, can make folks even more vulnerable to COVID-19 (Romero 2020). And, if more Black Chicagoans continue to be arrested and held in Cook County Jail, as the trends are demonstrating, they will continue to have a greater chance of contracting COVID-19 and being exposed to other environmental hazards for a longer period of time, due to worsening court backlogs (McGhee & Rutecki 2021). As we can see, anti-Black carceral and environmental violence amalgamate, creating positive feedback mechanisms of bodily, psychological, and communal harm. Marronage in the Contemporary: Abolitionist Ecological Insurgency In early 2021, my dear friend Tamara Kissoon and I started developing a student-led undergraduate seminar entitled Making Worlds; Worldmaking, which we co-taught in the spring of 2021. Disillusioned by the antinomies (Hesse 2020) and a lack of political generativity of Afro-pessimism, we felt compelled to explore the possibilities of constructing and enacting future liberatory worlds into the present, even if we are truly enveloped in a larger, pervasively anti-Black world. While we believed fully that interrogating social death or the category of the human are worthy endeavors, they often felt like detached and abstract endeavors. Instead, we focused on international insurgent praxis—from occupied Palestine to Brasil, how do people living on the frontlines of converging forms of structural violence understand themselves, their history, their resistance, and their futurity? Through these inquiries of worldmaking, I became captivated by the possibilities of a contemporary praxis of marronage. Historically, marronage “was perhaps one of the most creative and emergent methods of life-building found in the
Uchôa 32 modern world,” where, from the U.S. to Haiti to Brasil, Black folks who escaped chattel slavery cultivated communities and nurtured liberation “on their own terms” (Bledsoe 2017: 31). If anti-Blackness has the ability to transgress time and space, then marronage shows us that Blackness too has a transpatial and transtemporal quality. Black people have always transgressed structural constraints to enact alternative worlds and practice alternative modes of being that are nourishing and sustaining. This is not to naively understate the pervasiveness of anti-Black violence, but to suggest that marronage is an ongoing, unfinished project and to seriously consider the generativity of embodying it as a “political subjectivity and ethic” (Bledsoe 2017: 47). Through our exploration of COVID-19 at Cook County Jail and the interconnectivity of environmental violence and carcerality, we have come to understand environmental racism as a misnomer, unable to adequately theorize the specificity of anti-Black socio-ecological violence nor the state of racial expendability. Too, our analysis has called into question the ability for environmental justice as a framework to capture such a radical and transgressive project necessary to enact a capacious sense of socio-ecological liberation beyond the state systems that cannibalize us and our communities. Rather than leading us to despair, in the words of Mariame Kaba, these insights can radicalize us. By more deeply and sophisticatedly understanding the nature of racial colonial violence, we can better identify and reject false solutions that reinscribe carcerality. By committing ourselves to abolitionist praxis, we can move beyond via negativa renderings toward proactive and generative visions of socio-ecological liberation, as abolition is principally centered upon creation rather than the mere destruction of the prison industrial complex and anti-Black violence more broadly (Thompson 2018). We can and must look towards frontline abolitionist knowledge and praxis, which continues to embody the
Uchôa 33 aforementioned
non-hetermormative kin structures, an ethic of love and care within relationships and communities, and nourishing ancestral relationships to the land (Bassichis et al. 2011). Most importantly, as we engage in abolitionist ecological insurgency and worldbuilding, we cannot allow ideological purity to foreclose any and all negotiations and encounters with the state, because to do so would facilitate the ongoing cannibalization of incarcerated people. Previously incarcerated abolitionist and founder of Black and Pink Jason Lydon asks if “we [are] acting as paternalistic advocates detached from the immediate suffering of” incarcerated people through an insistence on not engaging with the state (2016: 65). Although Lydon is speaking specifically in regards to organizing against sexual violence within carceral institutions, his question resonates more broadly. As organizers committed to abolition and socio-ecological liberation, we must center the immediate and long-term needs of incarcerated people, who are rarely included in conversations regarding environmental work despite being at the frontlines of environmental and carceral violence and thus are indispensable to socio-ecological liberation (Pellow 2018; Thompson 2018; Uchôa 2021).
Uchôa 34 Endnotes 1. “Brown” is an imprecise and contentious term but I use it here to invoke the language used by organizers and community members alike to describe their political and racial subjectivities. 2. Distributive justice is concerned with an equitable distribution of environmental harms. Instead of seeking a world without environmental harms altogether, it seeks an equitable exposure to environmental harms and risks (Pellow 2018). 3. Procedural justice shifts the emphasis from distribution to the processes of decision-making itself and the importance of including marginalized groups within those processes (Pellow 2018) 4. Recognitional justice is closely related to procedural justice in that it is the first step required for procedural justice. It is a recognition of oppressed/marginalized people as well as the unique issues that they face (Pellow 2018) 5. See Hewson et al. 2020 DOI: 10.1016/S2215-0366(20)30241-8
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