Jan 30 2013

I Don’t Want to Write Another Word About Chris Brown…

But my teenage goddaughter has questions… and Brown is unfortunately in the news again.

In an e-mail a few weeks ago, she asked for my thoughts about a protest of Chris Brown in Sweden. The Huffington Post described it as follows:

Chris Brown is scheduled to perform in Stockholm, Sweden on Nov. 19, but he shouldn’t expect a warm welcome.

Posters that feature the singer’s ex-girlfriend Rihanna’s battered face have been plastered around Stockholm, protesting the singer’s concert, according to the Swedish website Ajour.se.

Below is an image of the poster:

In her e-mail, my goddaughter wrote: “Do you think that this is OK for someone to do or do you think that this is humiliating for both Rihanna and Chris Brown?” Her question has been dogging me for weeks.

Lord knows that I don’t want to get into another discussion about Chris Brown and Rihanna with anyone. Frankly what else is there to say about a relationship between two people who I don’t know? Besides I’ve already written about Brown in the context of discussing accountability and forgiveness. Additionally for a complex analysis of the way that Rihanna is considered on social media, I commend to you this excellent essay by the brilliant Alisa Bierria.

My goddaughter knows that I am a prison abolitionist. We have had a number of conversations over the years about my ideas regarding transformative justice. These are difficult concepts and she is grappling with their implications. She’s asked me if I think that Chris Brown deserves to be incarcerated. We’ve talked about my belief that prison would only make him worse. She’s heard me paraphrase Angela Davis’s contention that prisons do not disappear social problems, only people. I’ve told her that prisons are violence embodied (not simply violent institutions).

As someone who has spent her teenage & adult life in the anti-violence against women and girls’ movement, she knows that I had to leave when I could no longer pretend that I wasn’t directly contributing to feeding the carceral state (which is itself an enforcer & purveyor of violence). I’ve echoed a version of the following Ian Welsh argument to her:

In the US at the current time, going to jail, for many people, means being raped. Often repeatedly. So I, personally, am not willing to send anyone but the worst criminals to jail, because I do not believe in judicial rape. The punishment does not fit the crime.

I go further than Welsh because I believe that we need to abolish all prisons but for those who can’t accept this viewpoint, he offers several important ideas to consider about the proportionality of our punishment regime. Still I’ve been putting off my answer to her question about the Chris Brown protest. I haven’t really wanted to puzzle through my thoughts and feelings. I haven’t wanted to mainly because I am just plain sick and tired of Chris Brown. That’s silly however…

Our public understanding of his story intersects with questions about community accountability for violence and harm. We are asked to consider based on my goddaughter’s question, what the line is between community accountability and public shaming or humiliation. Or if there is a line at all? [An aside: When we speak of “community” and relate it to accountability, it is clear that “community” is not monolithic. Most of us belong to many different “communities” and all of them have their own problems & are steeped in oppression. I do not romanticize the idea of communit(ies) but I do propose that they are the best places to struggle against violence.]

As a general rule, I believe that violence should be exposed and called into public view. Violence is not a “private” matter but is instead a public social problem. We are all impacted by it and we are therefore all implicated to end it. I really like this British PSA because it captures that idea well.

We suffer in our culture from an unshakable belief that the law can address all injustice. It is a delusion that often leaves survivors of violence feeling abandoned, angry, and despondent. If the law can’t help us, what else is there to do? Since we can’t imagine anything else, almost every conversation about harm can quickly become hijacked by those who are primarily interested in expanding the carceral state. These folks lie to us. They promise something called “justice” and talk up accountability. Yet we all know that the law is (most often) not up to the task of delivering solace or ensuring accountability. Elena Savage draws the appropriate conclusion from this reality: “Where the law doesn’t have the scope to deliver justice for any of us when we need it most, we are compelled to reassess our blind faith in the institution.”

In my previous post about Chris Brown, I wrote:

I long for some non-hysterical dialogue about how we are going to develop structures in our communities to hold people accountable for the harm that they cause others. I would like some in-depth conversation about how we are going to hold the institutions responsible for state violence accountable in our society too. I am desperate for people to focus less on Chris Brown and more on their own role in fostering a culture that makes Brown believe that it is acceptable for him to beat another person. Chris Brown is not an island onto himself. He doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Chris Brown is unfortunately us.

So each of us has a stake in figuring out how we are going to build a system that truly addresses harm and is accountable. If we make sure to keep survivors and marginalized populations at the center of our analysis, I think that there is good chance that the new system that we build will be better than the one we have.

So how to answer my goddaughter’s question?

I think that a demand for accountability can accommodate public shaming. After all, shaming is a form of public censure that is sometimes successful at altering behavior. This doesn’t always work for everyone and can also backfire but it’s worth a try. What I object to in this instance though is that Rihanna was drawn into this community response without her consent. I think that community accountability efforts should be survivor-centered if not survivor-led. I can’t imagine that Rihanna felt good about seeing her battered face plastered across public transit in Sweden. As such the whole focus of the campaign seemed to be to “get back” at Brown, the perpetrator, rather than to show love, solidarity, and respect for Rihanna, the survivor.

What would be an ethical way to insist that Brown never physically assault another person without insisting that he be locked up for his actions? I appreciate the attempt by the folks in Sweden to offer their answer to this question even if their response falls short. I wish that more people were wrestling with how to create and implement community accountability models for addressing violence and harm. In the meantime, we are left with a punitive, racist, heterosexist, classist, generally oppressive and ineffective legal system that does not serve anyone well. We need something else.

A friend sent me a quote that has stayed with me for a couple of days and feels relevant to this discussion:

“This thing called reconciliation… If I am understanding it correctly… if it means this perpetrator, this man who has killed my son, if it means he becomes human again, this man, so that I, so that all of us, get our humanity back… then I agree, then I support it all.”
[Cynthia Ngwenyu, mother of one of the murdered Gugulethu 7, when facing her son’s state-sanctioned murderer at the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, South Africa]

Our current criminal legal system dehumanizes us all. I want a system instead where we can all “get our humanity back.”