Carceral Ableism and Disability Justice

In this episode we explore the ways in which the framework of “carceral ableism” redraws our map of racial capitalism’s archipelago of confinement, and how the liberatory praxis of disability justice works to extend and deepen the abolitionist horizon.

Dr. Liat Ben-Moshe, Assistant Professor of Disability Studies at the University of Toledo and co-editor of Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada, explains how ableism – the violent ordering of bodily and psychic difference through which normative and deviant bodyminds are produced – has been foundational to the development of the carceral state.

Leroy Moore, artist and activist and co-founder of Krip-Hop and Sins Invalid, explains how resisting ableism requires far more than civil rights oriented legislative reforms or police sensitivity trainings, that disability justice means revolutionizing of our conceptions of embodiment and of our practices of interdependence.

Image credit: Carina Lomeli ‘Krip Hop Nation Painting’ 2012.

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Episode Transcript:

Andres: Welcome to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, my name is Andres. In this episode: Carceral Ableism and Disability Justice, we explore the ways in which the framework of “carceral ableism” redraws our map of racial capitalism’s archipelago of confinement, and how the liberatory praxis of disability justice works to extend and deepen the abolitionist horizon.

We speak first with Dr. Liat Ben-Moshe, Assistant Professor of Disability Studies at the University of Toledo and co-editor of Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada. Ben-Moshe explains how ableism – the violent material and discursive ordering of bodily and psychic difference through which normative and deviant bodyminds are produced – has been foundational to the development of the carceral state.

We then turn to Leroy Moore, disability justice artist, activist, and co-founder of Krip Hop and Sins Invalid. Moore explains how the disability justice movement emerged as both extension and critique of the disability rights movement, emphasizing the leadership of queer, gender non-conforming, people of color with disabilities, and asserting that resisting ableism requires far more than civil rights oriented legislative reforms or police sensitivity trainings, that disability justice means a complete revolutionizing of our conceptions of embodiment and of our practices of interdependence.

But first, here’s Kaif Syed with some news you may have missed.

NEWS HEADLINES

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LIAT BEN-MOSHE INTERVIEW

a Maria: I’m a Maria here with Alejo Stark, and you’re listening to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, an abolitionist media and movement-building project based in Detroit, Michigan.

Alejo Stark: Last year, a Maria made a trip to Ohio to speak with Dr. Liat Ben-Moshe, Assistant Professor of Disability Studies at the University of Toledo and an activist who writes extensively about prison abolition and carceral ableism. She is the co-editor of Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada.

a Maria: Dr. Ben-Moshe’s work was central to the first episode of Rustbelt Abolition Radio, and she opens the second year of the show by reintroducing disability justice in relation to abolition.

Liat Ben-Moshe: What I think is really important is that when we think about abolition as only tearing down, what it leads us to is what James Kilgore calls carceral humanism. And what I would call carceral ableism, really. It’s this idea that we can make a more humane carceral state, we can rehabilitate prisoners, we can create psychiatric wards within prisons, because we know that the rate of prisoners with disabilities is incredibly high. We can do things that alleviate the suffering of people right now, in terms of the current prison conditions. And one of the things that’s problematic with that approach alone is exactly this difference, between tearing down and building anew.

So rehabilitation is also imbued in these kinds of carceral logics. Because we know from people who are med survivors for example, or psychiatric survivors, people who identify as mad, crazy, consumers, ex-patients, anti-psychiatry, these are all different definitions that people might umbrella under. They tell us that for a lot of them, forced medication for example, hospitalization, these are also imbued within the same kind of carceral logics that try to rehabilitate the productive citizen. Which is of course based on white, settler, male, able bodied, straight, all these kind of norm inducing ideas of what productive means. And so to create this kind of model citizens through rehabilitation, and this is something that we also know from scholars who have done work on the connection between prison and settler colonialism especially in the US, is that the work of rehabilitation is the work of the settler state. The point is to rehabilitate the savage, to create this modern, educated citizen which is never the indigenous. Never the person of color, never the disabled person, and so on. And of course not the intersections of all these.

And so, if we understand rehabilitation as that, it’s a form of violence. And so this is not an alternative to incarceration, this is a form of a carceral logic. And if we connect that to DuBois, again we should really be cautious about the difference between creating the new or reproducing the old. The point is not to assimilate people into the society as it is now, the point is to completely change what we have now, including abolishing systems like racism and capitalism. Which is something that rights movements not necessarily are prepared to do, especially with capitalism and settler colonialism, maybe racism too.

And so if a rights movement is more about fighting for the rights to employment for people with disabilities, I would say disability justice would be more concerned about people’s value, regardless of whether or not they’re employed. So this idea of going beyond the productive citizen, that’s more out of the purview of the disability rights movement. And I would say that a critical disability perspective from disability studies is the scholarship around all of these issues. So that doesn’t mean that it can’t be activist. But what disability studies, I think, does really, really well is to talk about how disability is constructed by the social. And the social could also be economical, the social could also be geographical, the social could also be environmental – and all of those connections – but it’s to convey that disability is not in people. It’s not in people, it’s not in minds, it’s not in bodies. It’s in the interface of those things with environments, and societies, and cultures, and histories. The idea that disability is not inferior, so difference by itself does not need to be in a hierarchy. So if we just had disability by itself, in which people are just different, I don’t think we would be having this kind of conversation even. The fact is that disability is in a hierarchy, by which able-bodiedness or able-mindness, is definitely superior to disability. And that is the problem, and that is the problem that we seek to abolish.

So what disability studies does really well, is to connect movements who see disability as a form of identity and pride. Take pride in their identity, and it doesn’t mean that they everyday wake up and say, “Oh, I’m disabled and beautiful, and proud! And everything is sunny and roses, and I get all the services I need, and I live a happy life!”. No. But it’s really I think radical, to think about disability as beautiful, and to think about disability as part of biodiversity. And to think about disability as something that we can be proud of, even if we are not always are. Just like we’re not always proud of being queer, we’re not always proud of being women, and sometimes it’s shitty.                      

a Maria: What are a couple of examples of the intersections between race and disability, as well as imprisonment?

Liat Ben-Moshe: Absolutely, that’s a great question. We’re close to Flint, as just one example of what’s going on right now. In terms of population of people of color, poor people, that are going to have very high rates of disability unfortunately. Because of lead based poisoning. This is just one example of so, so many that are connecting the intersection of race and disability. And there’s a lot of historical connections of that kind. In an article that I did with Jean Stewart, we talk a lot about that intersection, especially in regards to environmental induced disabilities in prisons. So we talk about a few examples of particular prisons that were built on sites that were known to be environmentally toxic, and a kind of production of disability that happens because of the legacy of the toxicity of those sites. And this is going to affect people’s lives for a very long time, sometimes even generationally.           

a Maria: How does the devaluation of disabled people because of their supposedly “non-productive” embodiment connect to racial capitalism’s rendering of particular populations as “surplus,” or “redundant” from the vantage point of capital?

Liat Ben-Moshe: The reason why I think it’s really important to understand it from those angles is because, as a disabilities studies scholar and as an activist, I think we understand disability a little bit differently maybe than the way a lot of people understand disability. I think the way a lot of people understand disability, is that impairment, as something that makes you not being able to do something. And the way that we understand disability within disability justice, disability studies, is that disability is really the interaction between people and their environment. So for a lot of us, we wouldn’t be disabled if it weren’t for environmental barriers that are put in place. And these barriers could be capitalism, but it could also be people’s attitudes, and it could also be not having ramps or having interpreters, or not having everybody speak sign language, or communicating only orally. Or all these kind of things that we decided as a society, that we are going to do. So this is not something in people’s bodies, but it’s the connection between people’s bodies and the societies in which they live, and the environments in which we live.

So for example, people talk to themselves. In certain cultures, this is considered a sign of being closer to some kind of deity or god. Not to romanticize any of this, but of course somebody would do that in this society, we incarcerate them. So our response is to do the exact same behavior that people have, are very different culturally, and are also very different across time and geographical areas and so on. And so, if we understand both race and disability in this kind of way as really socially constructed, I think it’s really important to talk about that intersection as well. So I’m really interested in talking about the intersection of impairment and race, but also the intersection of disability and race, as a cultural marker. And in both of those ways, they’re both devalued.

This really leads us to think about the surplus populations that you mentioned. So if we take that to understand disability and race as being socially constructed, well often within capitalist societies, which of course is what we live in. And not just capitalism, but racial capitalism, and settler racial capitalism in the US case, then we can think about how do we reproduce disability and race. Especially their intersection, as a kind of burden on society. And when we think about who are the burdens on society, the “disposable” bodies, and I’m saying burden of course with quotations. I don’t really mean that, but I mean from the point of view of settler, racial capitalism.

Well, these are the unproductive that we talked about earlier, the need of the state to make people productive. So the unproductive would be people of color, particularly men of particular age, and we know that they are worth much more to the gross domestic product when they are in prison. Occupying prison beds, and it doesn’t matter if the prison is for profit or not. The same logic happens in both, so it’s not just about private prisons. But they’re worth more to the gross domestic product if they’re in prison, than they are when they’re not. And the same is true for people with disabilities, and of course people who are disabled of color, are worth more in nursing homes, and in institutions, and in prisons, than they are in their own beds.

This is what Martha Russell called “handicapitalism”, it’s a “great” alchemy that capitalism does where it makes the unproductive into super productive. And we created this whole industry of both the prison industrial complex, but also the institutional industrial complex, and also the health industry. What are social workers, for example? Case managers, occupational therapists, all these professions, they’re built on the backs of people with disabilities. A lot of whom are of course, people of color. And I’m not saying these are not professions to be had, I’m not saying people don’t deserve if they need to, to go to an occupational therapist or something like that. But what I’m saying is, that it’s really interesting that those are the people we see as burdens. And yet they bring so much profit into the economy at large, and if they didn’t exist, we didn’t have all these other professions. So that’s a really interesting dynamic that we often don’t talk about.                                                                  

a Maria: Thank you so much for your work, for joining us, and for being a great friend of the show!

KRIP HOP NATION MUSICAL INTERLUDE

Sugar Free Queen (Beat by Bangaisa)

Vokillz: Dr. Wahnsinn/Binki Woi, Annjewelz, The Black Kripple


Lyrix:

Binki Woi: It was a pitch-black night – Bombs were dropping on the buildings of the city – They spent the most of the time of the battles in the cellar – The boy was born too early – He was small and outside of the norm – Soups, oatmeal and in case of emergency only bread – Only his sister grew him up – Only the best, the strongest and the luckiest – Reaped the fruits of their labor – Not for nothing a workaholic, after work alcoholic – With a necktie tipsy like he was used to it – Wife pregnant with a son – Who can kiss red lips should also have enough time to play – But for playing there was no time later – His son free himself throughout letters – proved himself the most time intoxicated – but not in daddy’s eyes – Atheist but strong in believe & pacifist – Dystrophic, progressive handicapped – Poems and phylosophy – Krip Hop Nation Heavy Weight –

Annjewelz: I’m the Sugar Free Queen – I’m the Sugar Free Queen – I’m the Sugar Free Queen – And I sing this lick – I refuse to quit – Some days are better than others – And we gotta stay – Strong keep moving on – Never give up – Never give up – Never give up – Never give up – Even when we’re feeling sick – This is why I sing – I sing this lick for you – I’m the Sugar Free Queen – I’m the Sugar Free Queen – I sing this lick – I refuse to quit – Some days are better than others – And we gotta stay strong – Keep moving on – Never give up – Never give up – Even when we’re feeling sick – This is why I sing this lick for you – And the Krip Hop Nation – I’m the Sugar Free Queen – I´m the Sugar Free Queen – I’m the Sugar Free Queen –

The Black Kripple: Father is mother – Mother is father – Breaking the gender binary- My niece’s story – Two in one body – She grew up comfortable with disability – Uncle with CP – being profiled by police – She saw this all at tender 5 – My niece – Just to be forced to learn the Fathers of this country – Who legalized slavery – No mothers in her schoolbooks of history – Ace, creating her own story – World are you ready – Mermaid colors – And has many flavors – Her identity is not either/or – Or heads or tails – All of it – Many, many, many –

Annjewelz: I’m the Sugar Free Queen – I’m the Sugar Free Queen – I’m the Sugar Free Queen –

Binki Woi: Sugardaddy King – in insanity – For you always intoxicated – With sweets – Do it – Allow me to stay seated – Writing it with laces and not with injections – That’s Annjewelz and the Krip-Hop Nation – Moving the movement -No discrimination – Because green is real – And that only pure – Leroy F. Moore looking at his watch – What time is it? –

Annjewelz: I’m the Sugar Free Queen – I’m the Sugar Free Queen – And I refuse to quit – Some days are better than others – And we’ve gotta stay strong – Keep movin’ on – Never give up – Never give up – Never give up – Never give up – Never give up – Never give up – Even if you’re feeling sick – This is why I sing this lick for you –

LEROY MOORE INTERVIEW

Alejo Stark: That was Sugar Free Queen by Krip-Hop Nation. At the 2017 International Conference on Penal abolition, ICOPA, a Maria and I caught up with musician, journalist, and Sins Invalid co-founder, Leroy Moore. Sins Invalid is a performance project that incubates and celebrates artists with disabilities, centralizing artists of color and queer and gender-variant artists. Also a co-founder of the Krip-Hop Nation, a collective of hip-hop artists and other musicians with disabilities, Leroy tackles police violence against disabled people of color in his music as well as his organizing.

Leroy Moore: I’m the Black Kripple, aka Leroy Moore. I’m from the Bay Area, I’m a poet, journalist, activist with Poor Magazine. We also do what’s called Krip-Hop Nation, with a K. Also write for the San Francisco Bay View Newspaper. I’ve been on the lecture circuit at colleges since 98’.         

a Maria: Can you speak about how you think about the relationships between your cultural work, disability justice, and abolition?

Leroy Moore: Disability justice really came from a group of people of color in the Bay Area, backed by gay people, queer, and people were being left out of the Disability Rights Movement. Matter of fact, in the 90s with Poor Magazine and the San Francisco Bay View Newspaper, we were on a campaign that lasted three or four years of proving that Michael Manning was railroaded, the judge mocked his disability in court. The judge called him the n-word and all that stuff. He was in jail for four or five years. And Poor Magazine, and myself, and San Francisco Bay View wrote articles, got in touch with the family. I went down there twice to see them. We finally got in contact with Hurricane Carter. He splits his old case around, the DA was racist, the DA was mocking his disability. So that’s only one case.        

a Maria: Can you tell us about the cultural work of Sins Invalid, the performance project which has been at the forefront of articulating, embodying, and disseminating the politic of disability justice?

Leroy Moore: Patty [Berne] and I started [Sins Invalid] like 12  years ago. We just had questions about not seeing people of color with disabilities in the artistic world in the Bay Area. You know, you want it to be a group for colored, queer, transgender and in really having an artistic frame of mind with an applicable lens.

Alejo Stark: So Leroy, can you tell us more explicitly, what abolition means to you?

Leroy Moore: So I think it goes way beyond reform, way beyond policies. It’s take down the whole system. People have answered the answer, not politicians. There’s other ways to try to adjust, there’s other ways our Native Americans taught us, before we had institutional policies. We need to go back to those types of ways.     

a Maria: Can you talk about the San Francisco Bay View and the close lines of contact that it keeps with people who are incarcerated?

Leroy Moore: The Bay View in San Francisco is, I think, one of the oldest black owned newspapers in the Bay Area. And it is straightforward, no mainstream, Fox News kind of bullshit. We tell it like it is. And because of that of course, it was people in an authority roles don’t want the Bay View to be in their institution. And we have articles from media to just say, open bulletins on the streets. So it’s not surprising that it’s banned.  

a Maria: Can you talk about some of the intersections between gentrification and police violence, specifically in terms of violence against people of color with disabilities?

Leroy Moore: You know, people with disabilities in the Bay Area and in New York come on you can’t work five thousand a month and living on SSI, that’s unheard of. But with a lot of people with disabilities are becoming homeless once again or getting into the prison system, especially if mental health is your disability. In the Bay Area, in Oakland, they wanted to build a mental health jail, and most of the people that’s locked up are people that are black and brown and have a disability. I’ve been involved in police brutality since 88. It’s mind blowing, because so many percent of cases are around police brutality, are people with disabilities. The cycle of what happens in police brutality against people with disabilities, it’s a cycle that’s been going on since the 80s.

The cycle is: a person with disabilities is abused by police, but the first thing that comes out is the police side of the story, that dictates everything. And a lot of times your disability is erased, you don’t even know. But after it’s erased, and after the court case, the only one solution that’s been around since ‘89 is more police training. Can you imagine if our community got that training, so you wouldn’t have to call the police, you know? We really need to change the focus, what the police need, to what the community needs.

a Maria: Well thank you so much, for taking all this time and speaking with us today.      

Leroy Moore: Yeah, thank you.

EPILOGUE

Andres: The foundational imbrications of ableism and the carceral state are evident not only in the marked overrepresentation of disabled people within formal sites of incarceration, and among the survivors of police violence, but moreover in the forms of surveillance, discipline, and confinement that structure a host of institutions typically understood as outside the purview of the carceral state, such as: nursing homes, psychiatric institutions, and rehabilitation centers, among them. Moore turns our attention to the generative relationship between disability justice and abolition. If abolition means creating a world in which, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore puts it, “there is no boundary or border [used to] keep somebody in or keep somebody out[,]” then abolition must be the practice of dismantling the violent walls erected by ableism and imagining a world in which a great diversity of bodyminds can flourish.

CREDITS

Kaif Syed: Thanks for tuning in. You can listen to past episodes on our website at www.rustbeltradio.org. This show was co-produced by the Rustbelt Abolition Radio crew: Andres, a Maria, David Langstaff, Catalina Rios, Kaif Syed, and Alejo Stark. Original music by Bad Infinity.