Mentally Ill Prisoner Commits Suicide in Solitary at Eastham Prison (Texas) Administrative-Segregation Unit: A Letter and Plea from Prisoner and Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) Member, Keith “Malik” Washington

“Human beings have a tendency to look for the truth in the places where it is easiest to search rather than the places where it’s likely to be.”

– Belgian psychotherapist and author Esther Perel

 

On the morning of Nov. 19, 2017, a very intelligent and handsome young white man named Benjamin Larue was found hanging in his cell on G-Line at the Eastham Ad-Seg Unit located in Lovelady, Texas.

Ben had been my next door neighbor for a little over two months. I introduced him to my human rights work and he shared some of his personal history, which included details about what landed him in this horrible place.

I’m writing this essay with the intention of providing some much needed answers to Ben’s family. Specifically, his mother who had been visiting Ben quite regularly.

I actually cried hard on Nov. 22, 2017. I mourned Ben’s untimely death. I am sending out a call to action to my support network as well to activists everywhere to shed a strobe light on Eastham Ad-Seg Unit. I’d like to ask the media and the general public to help me find Ben’s family so they can know the TRUTH surrounding Ben’s death.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice does not want this essay published or posted broadly. Help me defy them!

The Facts

On Nov. 19, 2017, at approximately 12:10 a.m., TDCJ prison guard Asongkeng Ngu began his count of prisoners housed on the G-Line Ad-Seg Housing Unit at Eastham. Benjamin Larue was housed on 1 row – G-1-14 to be exact. I had been moved four days earlier to 2-row, G-2-13. Previously, I had been in G-1-13 right next to Ben.

I was awake the morning of Nov. 19 and I had noticed that TDCJ Correctional Officer Asongkeng Ngu had not been per­forming his security checks. These checks have been implemented in order to ensure the health and safety of ad-seg prisoners who live in these solitary confinement environments.

At approximately 12:20 a.m., TDCJ prison guard Eugene Loving, who has been with the prison agency for over 25 years, performed his cross-count on G-Line. Correctional Officer (CO) Loving immediately stopped at Ben Larue’s cell noticing and sensing that something wasn’t quite right with the way Ben was sitting on his floor.

CO Loving called to Ben but he was unresponsive. CO Lov­ing did not waste any time. He called on his radio for emergency first responders, and I can tell you that the officers and medical personnel responded quickly – but it was too late.

TDCJ prison guard Lonnie P. Kessinger III helped pull Ben’s lifeless body from cell C-l-14 at approximately 12:23 a.m. The rea­son that I am so meticulous about details is that this is very im­portant when we are engaged in a wrongful death investigation. I also have a military background and anyone who knows me will tell you that I am a stickler about details.

Ben was rushed to the Eastham infirmary. When Officer Kessin­ger returned he stood guard at Ben’s cell in order to “preserve the crime scene.” Because I am housed directly above Ben’s cell, I could see and hear a lot! Remember, it was early Sunday morning. Most everyone was sound asleep; it was very quiet.

CO Kessinger is a 15-year veteran of TDCJ. I have had conversations with him in the past and I know him to be extremely professional. He respects us as human beings, which is kind of rare in this environment.

CO Kessinger began to explain to CO Ngu how serious the sit­uation really was. Apparently, Ben had already been pronounced dead and was either at the county hospital or Estelle Regional Medical Facility in Huntsville, Texas. This is my opinion, but I actually witnessed what was going on inside this prison so I’ll stick with what I know.

CO Kessinger said he found Ben’s body hanging from a sheet. Ben had tied the sheet around his neck and secured it to a hole in the top bunk, so Ben sat on his bottom bunk and waited until CO Ngu did his count.

Ben had put on his jacket and pulled the hood up so you really could not see exactly what he was up to. Wearing a jacket would not raise any red flags because prior to Ben’s suicide, the Eastham Ad-Seg administration had refused to turn on the heat, so it had been very cold in the building on a number of occasions.

I raised this point in a letter that I wrote to Carole Seligman, the editor of Socialist Viewpoint Magazine. If Carole could produce the letter, it could corroborate my allegation.

Note: Two days after Ben’s death, Eastham Unit prison officials turned on the heat! Ben had complained to me many times about the cold and was happy that his mother had put some money on his inmate trust fund account so he could purchase a thermal top.

Ben had tightened the sheet and fixed it around his neck in such a manner that when he slid from his bottom bunk to the floor it would cut off his airway and strangle him to death.

More Facts

At 2:48 a.m. on Nov. 19 on G-Line at Eastham Unit, Assistant Warden Bruce Johnson, Major James Kent as well as an investigator from TDC-OIG State Police arrived in order to conduct the preliminary investigation into the cause of Ben’s death. The OIG investigator had a small black bag with him which con­tained a forensic evidence kit. Remember, I had a bird’s eye view and I was fully awake, watching and listening, because Ben was my friend and his life mattered!

The remarkable thing is that these high ranking officers knew I was up watching and listening to everything but no one ever asked me what I saw or heard. However, on Nov. 21, Capt. Christopher Farrel, the Ad-Seg supervisor, asked his officers at the morning shift meeting, “Is Washington still on G-Line?”

When they responded in the affirmative, he said, “We need to move him because we have some people coming to observe that cell where the offender hung himself and we don’t need Washington trying to talk to these visitors.” When people conspire to obscure facts or cover up the truth, that leads me to think that they have something to hide. What do you think?

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has sought to place the entire blame on TDCJ Correctional Officer Asongkeng Ngu. However, there has been much more going on here than meets the eye – extenuating and mitigating circumstances and blatant acts of neglect that led to Ben’s death.

Why Did this Happen?

I am not a trained mental health professional, but I was trained to be a Pharmacy Specialist (01-0) and a combat medic in the U.S. Army. I have a ton of experience working in the medical field and I can say with confidence that prior to his death Ben had exhibited numerous behaviors which suggested that he was suffering from acute depression. Ben was sleeping way too much and I noticed that he had been prescribed Benadryl, whose generic name is Diphenhydramine. Diphenhydramine is not a psychotropic medication per se – it is an anti-puritic used to stop itching – but it has a contraindication which causes drowsiness, A person suffering depression should not he forced into sleep. They need treatment and counseling and a medication that will help stabilize their mood.

When Ben was first in-processed at the Holliday Unit in Huntsville, Texas he was very depressed. Ben’s girlfriend had left him; he felt abandoned and betrayed and chose to attempt “suicide by cop” by trying to climb one of the security fences at Holliday Unit.

Ben was taken to the Sky View Mental Health facility. When Ben arrived here on Eastham Ad-Seg Unit a few months ago, he told Capt. Daron Lane that he would most likely try to kill himself again but the next time he would succeed.

Capt. Daron Lane was promoted to major a couple of months ago and was transferred to another prison unit. Did Major Daron Lane communicate the risk? Did he warn anyone? New Ad-Seg Capt. Francisco Villegas was just recently demoted and trans­ferred for brutally beating up an Ad-Seg prisoner. Capt. Farrel took his place. Eastham has a history of abuse!

In relation to Ben’s death, the operative words here are neglect and deliberate indifference. In the two months that I was right next to Ben, the mental health staff here on Eastham never engaged Ben in a meaningful way. They virtually ignored him and did the bare minimum!

That is not how we save lives. The state of Texas has a “duty to protect.” So, who are these so called mental health pro­fessionals?

Mental Health Case Manager Kathleen Caldwell and Mental Health Manager Kimberly Klock are responsible for providing quality psychi­atric services and support for prisoners who have been placed on THE PSYCH CASE LOAD. Ben was on their case load. They failed Ben and they failed Ben’s family. Officer Ngu is not the only culpable party here,

Looking Deeper

I spend hundreds of hours scouring law books and searching for case law information that can help me and other prisoners in our quest for freedom and humane treatment. Ruiz vs. Estelle is the gold standard for imprisoned activists and jailhouse lawyers in Texas. Allow me to quote the court’s remarks in that landmark case as it relates to the components of a minimally adequate mental health treatment program; the Ruiz case says:

“The components of a minimally adequate mental health treatment pro­gram are encompassed by the following: There must be a systematic program for screening and evaluating inmates in order to identify those who require mental health treatment. Treatment must entail MORE THAN SEGREGATION (my emphasis) and close supervision of the in­mate patients. Treatment requires the participation of trained mental health professionals, who must be employed in sufficient numbers to identify and treat in an individualized manner those treat­able inmates suffering from serious mental disorders.”

A minimally adequate mental health treatment pro­gram must entail MORE THAN SEGREGATION.

Let me describe to you what Eastham mental health staff did to “treat” Ben. Approximately three weeks prior to Ben’s suicide, Mental Health Manager Kimberly Klock came to Ben’s cell and asked, “Would you like to attend the mental health ad-seg program on Michaels Unit?” Ben said “No.” I think he signed a refusal and Ms. Klock walked away. That was it!

You see Ben was not raised in prison and there were a lot of things about the system which he really did not understand. Treatment programs were one of those things which he really didn’t understand.

I have heard rumors that Ben’s family has retained a lawyer. The month of November 2017 here at Eastham Ad-Seg Unit was one of the worst I’ve ever had in 10 years of incarceration in Texas. From Oct. 30 to Nov. 20 we were in a LOCKDOWN MODE. Eastham uses these “lockdowns” numerous times throughout the year for Ad-Seg prisoners.

They use these lockdowns as an opportunity to starve us by “bird feeding” us with these paltry brown bag meals which consist of raisins, a meat sandwich and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Lockdown was exceptionally oppressive in November because the water was shut completely off between Nov. 1 and Nov. 4. The smell of fecal matter and urine was pervasive throughout the building and we had no way to flush our toilets!

Ben said he had never experienced anything like this in his life. You see this was turning into a traumatic experience of epic pro­portions for Ben.

Every day during the lockdown I shared my food with Ben by giv­ing him two sandwiches a day (I hate to see anyone go hungry and I had commissary in my locker). During the lockdown, Ben had been receiving visits from his mom, but when I asked him had he told her about the living conditions, he said he didn’t want to worry her.

I think if Ben’s mom really knew about the conditions here and what her son and many other prisoners were being subjected to, she would have attempted to help him!

I am so very blessed to have people in my life who care about me and my personal welfare. My close friend and mentor Professor Victor Wallis Ph.D. wrote an article entitled, “‘13th’ and the culture of surplus punishment.”

Here is a quote from Professor Wallis which highlights and illuminates the “mindset” as well as the pat­tern of practice that allows these tragedies to repeat themselves in the TDCJ Ad-Seg Units. Victor writes:

“The point here is that the very mindset that gives police the license to kill gratuitously – i.e., even when they are clearly in no danger – also tells prison officials that they are entitled to inflict both physical and psychological torture on the people in their custody.”

There is a problem at Eastham and it needs to be addressed.

Feigning Concern

On the morning of Nov. 22 at approximately 9 a.m., TDCJ Region I Director Tony O’Hare along with various investi­gators arrived on G-Line at the Eastham Ad-Seg Unit. I knew O’Hare well from a horrible affidavit he created in order to thwart my attempts to practice my religious faith.

Ironically, the day before O’Hare’s arrival, I received word from my attorney, Shawn A. Latchford of the Albritton Law Firm, that we had prevailed in all substantive issues in my civil lawsuit, which cited discrimination.

There is more about Region I Director Tony O’Hare and Assistant Warden Gregory Vaughn that Ben’s family and the public at large need to know. I will briefly explain.

A Pattern of Practice

In January 2015 a prisoner rights advocacy organization based in Austin, Texas, released a report entitled, “Cruel and Usual Punish­ment: Excessive Use of Force at the Estelle Unit.” The Prison Just­ice League is the name of the organization.

I will quote a paragraph from the executive summary of the re­port, which was actually prepared by Erica Gammill, the director of PJL and supervised by their general counsel, attorney Brian Mcgiverin. PJL wrote:

“In 2014, the Prison Justice League conducted research which re­vealed countless instances of Estelle officers using excessive force on prisoners, with injuries including missing teeth, frac­tured skulls, broken bones, ruptured eyeballs, and prolonged hospi­talizations. It is a PATTERN apparently well known to prison offi­cials but ignored.”

Now it is time to connect the dots. Here is what I and some friends from my support network found.

The major over security at Estelle Unit during the most abusive time period was Mr. Gregory Vaughn. Vaughn feigned ignor­ance in respect to the physical abuse perpetrated by his officers at Estelle Unit where most of the victims were predominately elderly and disabled prisoners! I highly recommend our readers take a look at this report.

Gregory Vaughn is now the chief supervisor and assistant war­den in charge of the operations at the Eastham Ad-Seg Unit. But even more interesting is the fact that Region I Director Tony O’Hare was the senior warden at Estelle Unit during Vaughn’s time there.

There is a systemic problem of cronyism which has created an environment that lacks transparency or accountability. It’s almost as if TDCJ rewards ranking officers who abuse prisoners and keep their mouths shut.

It is time to dismantle these corrupt and unjust criminal practices. TDCJ has been allowed to spiral out of control, and the taxpayers continue to have to pay for these multi-million dollar wrongful death lawsuits!

The executive director of TDCJ is Bryan Collier. Collier, through his spokesperson Jason Clark, has claimed that the agency has abolished the use of solitary confinement. However, solitary confinement has just been given a new name and re-branded as ad-seg.

TDCJ’s intent is to place a more acceptable and public friendly label on the torture chambers the state of Texas uses to house their so-called threats to security. Ben wasn’t a threat to anyone except himself and for some reason none of these high paid prison administrators noticed the warning signs.

Sometimes it takes a senseless tragedy such as this in order to raise the public’s awareness and to force the hand of the legi­slators in Austin who continue to ignore all the “red flags” and who believe every word coming out of the mouth of these vio­lators of the public’s trust.

Eastham Ad-Seg Unit has been in the news all year. I have done my part and will continue to passionately fight for the rights of the human beings who have been thrown away and forgotten about.

I end this piece by sharing something personal from Benjamin Larue’s life.

Ben’s grandmother has a house which is located in Kennebunkport, Maine. Her house borders the property of the “Bush Compound” as in former Presidents George H.W. and his son George W. Bush.

Ben loved his grandmother very much and he spent hours telling me how he en­joyed visiting her when he was a young boy. Ben had a lemonade stand right on the road in front of his grandmother’s property. Well, Ben’s grandmother became friends with the first lady of the household right next door, who happened to be Mrs. Barbara Bush, and every once in a while President Bush and his entourage, which included a pretty hefty security team from the Secret Service, would stop by and sample some of young Ben’s country lemonade.

You see, Ben Larue was not some homeless miscreant or vagabond. He was a young man, 27 years old, with only a three-year sentence! Three years – just think about that for a minute. Ben could have picked up the pieces of his broken life and really gotten himself together.

Ben talked a lot about his younger brother, how much he loved him and how he wanted to make amends. Only Ben’s family can appreciate what I’m saying.

TDCJ prison officials have thrown Officer Asongkeng Ngu under the bus. They have found their scapegoat and sacrificial lamb. To them, it is all about skirting liability for the death of this young man named Benjamin Larue.

I saw the tears in Officer Ngu’s eyes after Ben’s death was confirmed. CO Ngu cared about Ben and that is more than I can say about the mental health professionals and high ranking prison ad­ministrators who don’t want their reputations soiled by Ben’s tragic death. Sometimes the TRUTH is closer than you think, and sometimes we can’t handle the TRUTH.

Please contact the Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott and help me find Ben’s family. Contrary to popular belief, PRISONER LIVES MATTER! Dare to struggle! Dare to win! All Power to the People!

Keith “Malik” Washington is a human rights activist currently incarcerated in Texas. He is a co-founder and chief spokesperson for the End Prison Slavery in Texas Movement. Malik is a proud member of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) and he is the deputy chairman of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party Prison Chapter. Malik has been instrumental in calling for the abolition of legalized slavery in Amerika and he is very active in the Fight Toxic Prisons campaign. You can view his work at comrademalik.com or write him directly at Keith ‘Comrade Malik’ Washington, 1487958, Eastham Unit, 2665 Prison Road 1, Lovelady, TX 75851, 936-636-7321, ext. **009.

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Oakland’s St. Columba: A Radical Parish Flourishing Through Liberation Theology

Michael Orion Powell

Oakland is a beautiful city. In my honest opinion, it is one of America’s most beautiful and unique cities for many reasons – it and its urban and suburban surrounding areas encapsulate America in a nutshell. Philip K. Dick (himself a Berkeleyan who predicted many of our current social dynamics with his seminal work Man in the High Castle) said himself that the Bay Area was a sort of laboratory for what happens in the broader country.

This is not to say that the East Bay is without its problems. Like all major American cities, poverty is rampant and racial tensions are on full display throughout. You can often see these racial tensions materialize on random BART rides, where white and black riders sometimes trade bitter words with one another. When you get off these tense rides and walk through the city, however, that’s when its beauty starts to show.

Oakland’s Catholic church St. Columba is one of those beauties. I’m not rightly sure that the church would exist in any other environment. The African-American religious experience has been plentiful through American history, including southern Baptist, various Protestant denominations, and the Nation of Islam. St. Columba is a Catholic church very much seeking to serve the black community, while also overtly adopting ideas from Latin America’s liberation theology.

The interior of the church is filled with portraits of the likes of Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, and Pope John XXIII. During his sermon, Father Kwame Assenyoh will often point to the portraits and proclaim, “these people fought for liberation and peace,” mentioning the word “liberation” over again in describing the gospel.

St. Columba is such a visual experience as a church that I felt like only pictures could really tell its story accurately. Following are some of my favorites of the pictures I took during a recent Sunday service:

Jeff Bezos and the Parasitical Nature of Capitalism

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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has a net worth of $90 billion. He was named Fortune magazine’s “businessperson of the year” in 2012. You don’t amass such wealth, and gain such accolades, by being a wonderful human being. You do it off the backs of tens of thousands of desperate workers. You do it by taking advantage of a working-class majority that is forced to sell its labor for whatever scraps they can get in return. You do it through mass exploitation, or as Fortune magazine calls it, “penny-pinching”:

“The penny-pinching [at Amazon] applies to salaries, which are low throughout the 80,000-person-plus organization. ‘We pay very low cash compensation relative to most companies,’ says Bezos. ‘We also have no incentive compensation of any kind. And the reason we don’t is because it is detrimental to teamwork.’

This “very low cash compensation” that Bezos boasts of amounts to around $12 to $15 an hour for most employees in the United States. At full-time hours, a typical Amazon worker brings home about $30,000 a year. According to MIT’s living-wage calculator, the absolute minimum salary required for a person to live in the US is $43,000 (Kentucky). In many parts of the western and northeastern US, the living-wage salary is well over $50,000.

This means that most Amazon workers fall drastically short of being able to live on their salaries. Which means that a good portion of Amazon’s workforce (like Walmart’s) is likely receiving some form of public assistance to merely get by. Which means that not only is Bezos capitalizing off the desperation of workers, he’s doubling down on this desperation by using taxpayer-funded social services to subsidize much of his workforce.

Jeff Bezos is not “extraordinary,” “savvy,” “innovative,” “keen,” or any of the other adjectives that business-people are so often adorned with. He’s a capitalist. Which is to say, he’s a parasite.

#ThisIsCapitalism

On Sensationalism and Centrist Propaganda

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The magazine rack at your local bookstore is a sad indicator of what type of “information” is being disseminated through our dominant consumer culture.

Liberal media refuse to drop the Russiagate story for the same reasons Conservative media refused to drop things like “birtherism” and Benghazi. Not because these narratives are substantial in any real sense, or that they’re “crucial for American democracy,” but because they SELL. They sell because they lure in irrational misconceptions (and, hence, emotions) about the spectacle of American politics.

The fact that there was never a democracy (or “republic”) to be undermined or “besieged” in the first place doesn’t matter when your “information” serves as nothing more than a commodity to be marketed and sold. Sensationalism sells. Supermarket tabloids figured this out long ago. The “news” industry was a late bloomer, but they also figured it out.

The spectacle, and its profit-generating emotional pendulum, will continue long after Trump. And most of us will remain lost in the wilderness, wondering why our constant struggles never subside. Unless we dig deeper… and reach higher.

In solidarity.

Capitalism, the Welfare State, and Social Unrest

There are two main pillars holding up the capitalist system: (1) The welfare state and (2) the police state. The welfare state supplements the inherent unemployment/underemployment experienced by the working class (due to systemic deficiencies), and the police state uses force (or the constant threat of force) to keep this systematically disenfranchised working class in line.

Without these pillars, society under capitalist modes of production would crumble, the capitalist system would be exposed for what it truly is (a racket), and social unrest would surely ignite revolution and/or civil war.

Capitalists and their government cronies have always known this, but are still losing their grip on it. The neoliberal era has created yet another internal contradiction within capitalism, as ever-powerful private interests are pushing back against the welfare state by simply refusing to fund it. And, despite being forced to rely on it, many of us are now hassled and shamed for doing so.

Something must give. The hyper-militarization and empowerment of police forces across the country suggest where this may be headed. Tear down one pillar and strengthen the other?

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/throughbrokenroses/2016/03/11/the-frustration-of-government-assistance/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=CathTest&utm_content=PatheosCatholicFB

Fred Perry, Proud Boys, and the Semiotics of Fashion

Anya Simonian

 

Over the past week the Proud Boys, a self-described “Western chauvinist” organization whose members are tired of apologizing for “creating the modern world”, have garnered media attention. Along with the disruption of an Aboriginal ceremony in Halifax by Proud Boy servicemen, the group is gaining notoriety for clashes with anti-fascist (Antifa) activists. Additionally, the Proud Boys have been involved with so-called anti-Sharia rallies . In New York, two Proud Boys and one “Proud Boys Girl” recently parted ways with their employers after their involvement with the alt-right group came to light and a social media campaign demanded the businesses take action. Proud Boys have degrees of membership. To become a “Fourth Degree” Proud Boy, aspiring members take part in “a major fight for the cause.” Founder Gavin McInnes explained: “You get beat up, kick the crap out of an antifa [anti-fascist activists],” to rise through the ranks.

Much Proud Boy media coverage has mentioned, in passing, the group’s “uniform”: a black Fred Perry polo shirt with bright yellow trim. The Washington Post’s recent article, “The alt-right’s Proud Boys love Fred Perry polo shirts. The feeling is not mutual” went further in its attempts to explain why Proud Boys have adopted a shirt that, at first glance, seems best suited for white middle-class dads out for a round of golf or game of tennis, quoting Zoë Beery’s piece in The Outline, ” How Fred Perry Came to Symbolize Hate “. While both articles offer an overview of the shirt’s popularity among Mod and traditional Skinhead subculturists and its eventual cooptation by racist skinheads and neo-Nazis, neither emphasizes the degree to which the brand has long served as a site of political contest between the radical left and the far-right. Since the early 1980s, attempts to associate the brand with right-wing politics have been met with resistance from two main camps: 1.) anti-racist skinheads and 2.) “traditional” (non-racist) skinheads — both of whom refuse to cede the meaning of the Fred Perry brand to the far-right in the same way that one might fight for the liberation of an occupied space.

The word skinhead most often conjures up images of white hooligans, or a particular aesthetic adopted by neo-Nazis. Yet, what it means to be a skinhead has changed over time. Periodizing skinhead culture is challenging but, broadly speaking, it can be broken down into three eras: the middle to late 1960s period of apolitical, multi-racial working class youth; the 1980s period of White Nationalist cooptation of the skinhead aesthetic and overtly anti-racist and left-wing skinhead political responses to that cooptation; and the period from the late 1980s to the present, in which the meaning of the skinhead culture and aesthetic is continually contested.
Skinhead Origins

In the late 1960s, the first skinhead subculturists were born of multiculturalism: the fusion of Jamaican “rude boy” styles and music brought to England by Jamaican immigrants in the post-war years, and the working class culture of the English Mods (short for Modernists) who decked themselves out in fine Italian suits and shoes, listened to American soul, jazz, and R&B, and rode Vespa scooters. Mod women sported miniskirts, flats, and sometimes men’s clothing. Skinhead style emerged in Britain in the late 1960s as a simplified version of the Mod aesthetic that placed greater emphasis on projecting working class masculinity and a love of Jamaican reggae and ska.
Interpretations

Social scientists took note of these subcultures and worked to explain their meaning in relation to a changing post-war Britain. The seminal work on subculture studies to which all later studies pay homage, or attempt to refute, is Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain,edited by Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson. Published in 1976, Resistance Through Rituals, as well as the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) from which the work emerged, understood youth subculture in Marxian terms as a manifestation of social, political, and economic change. The historical context for the CCCS interpretation was the post-war period of the 1950s that saw the rise of commercial television, age specific schools, and extended education that brought youth together for longer, more isolated periods of time. Adding to these challenges were the recent violence of war and more fatherless children as a result of war deaths. These factors contributed to the making of an isolated, and later unique subculture of resistance.

Drawing from Italian Marxist theorist Antionio Gramsci, a driving foundational assumption of Resistance Through Rituals is that one or more dominant groups in society hold “cultural capital” and subordinate groups or classes find ways to express or challenge their subordinate experience in their own culture. This dominant culture, according to the CCCS, exists solely within the framework of capitalism, whereas the struggle for “cultural capital” becomes a struggle between those with capital versus those who labor. The dominant culture acts as a hegemon and attempts to define and contain all other cultures, giving birth to opposition from less dominant cultures against this cultural hegemony. Although the less dominant culture (i.e. the subculture) enters into resistance against the dominant culture, the subculture is in fact derived from the “parent,” or hegemonic culture, and will inevitably share many of its attributes. For example, working-class culture is considered by the editors of Resistance Through Rituals to be a “parent culture,” yet the youth subcultures that arose from it have their own values, uses of material culture (which are often derived from the parent culture but are re-appropriated and given new meaning), as well as territorial spaces. The Fred Perry represents both an appropriation of the parent culture and a territorial “space” where politics play out.

The editors of Resistance Through Rituals write:

Sub-cultures, then, must first be related to the ‘parent cultures’ of which they are a sub-set. But, subcultures must also be analysed in terms of their relation to the dominant culture – the overall disposition of cultural power in the society as a whole. Thus, we may distinguish respectable, ‘rough’, delinquent and the criminal subcultures within working class culture: but we may also say that, though they differ amongst themselves, they all derive in the first instance from a ‘working class parent culture’: hence, they are all subordinate subcultures, in relation to the dominant middle-class or bourgeois culture. [1]

From this angle, Resistance Through Ritual examines the predecessors of the skinheads — the Mod subculture of the 1960s which, in its most basic terms, consisted of dressing sharp in the latest high fashion (but only wearing particular high fashion brands, often stemming from styles of those involved in organized crime in 1950s and 60s Britain), hairstyles, soul and rock n’ roll music, all-night clubs, riding Vespa scooters, and taking amphetamines. The Mod was all about style, and this sharp style, combined with the “uppers” they took, were cast by the CCCS in terms of opposition to the hippie culture of the day that to many Mods seemed to spell a slow, do-nothing death. This seemingly odd combination of interests was explained in terms of working-class resistance by Dick Hebdige in his contribution to Resistance Through Rituals, “The Meaning of Mod”:

The importance of style to the mods can never be overstressed – Mod was pure, unadulterated STYLE, the essence of style. In order to project style it became necessary first to appropriate the commodity, then to redefine its use and value and finally to relocate its meaning within a totally different context. This pattern, which amounted to the semantic rearrangement of those components of the objective world which the mod style required, was repeated at every level of the mod experience and served to preserve a part at least of the mod’s private dimension against the passive consumer role it seemed in its later phases ready to adopt…

Thus the scooter, a formerly ultra-respectable means of transport was appropriated and converted into a weapon and a symbol of solidarity. Thus pills, medically diagnosed for the treatment of neuroses, were appropriated and used as an end-in-themselves, and the negative evaluations of their capabilities imposed by school and work were substituted by a positive assessment of their personal credentials in the world of play (i.e. the same qualities which were assessed negatively by their daytime controllers – e.g. laziness, arrogance, vanity etc. – were positively defined by themselves and their peers in leisure time). [2]

As mentioned above, the skinheads were born from a combination of Jamaican immigrant “rude boy” culture and Mod subculture. Originating in the middle to late 1960s, the skinheads were of solidly working-class origin and resented authority and social pretensions. The skinhead community developed at a time of worsening conditions for working-class youth, and the CCCS interpreted this subculture as an attempt to recreate a traditional working-class community. Although the skinheads came from the working class, fewer opportunities meant that they almost acted out or performed working-class values rather than lived them. The early skinheads were intensely aware of their self-image and played up their exaggerated working-class style. They wore Doc Marten work boots, suspenders and blue jeans or Levis Sta-Prest jeans as a way to identify with this style and lifestyle in decline. Yet, they coupled this look with Ben Sherman button down dress shirts and Fred Perry tennis shirts — a scaled down Mod look — in an appropriation of neat middle-class style that turned middle-class values on their heads. This tennis shirt, worn by working-class skinheads, became a symbol of solidarity and a new kind of “class.”

At clubs in the evenings the skinheads would often wear suits like those of the Jamaica “rude boys” and dance alongside Jamaicans to Rock Steady and ska music. Anti-racist and traditional skinheads — sometimes dubbed Trojan Skinheads for their love of Trojan Records, producers of Jamaican music — look back on this period as a golden age for their subculture. The phrase “Spirit of 69′” which originated in the 1980s is used by traditional/Trojan skinheads as a reference point for what skinhead culture can and should be about: inclusion, racial harmony, and a multicultural celebration of working class culture. Naturally, the CCCS interpreted skinhead solidarity as an act of resistance to a hegemonic order and its particular characteristics felt by working-class kids coming of age in the post-war years. By the 1970s, however, this variety of the skinhead subculture had largely faded away, but elements of it would be revived, in bastardized form, in the following decade.

Within the early skinhead subculture there had always existed a focus on masculinity, or acting “hard” in order project an “authentic” working-class ethos. This masculinity was expressed in the skinhead interest in soccer and the joining of “firms,” or soccer clubs that rooted for their favorite teams and often used violence against opposing firms. The “firm” was also an expression of the desire to protect territory and, most importantly, an expression of collective solidarity. With the introduction and quick commodification of punk rock in the late 1970s, a second wave of skinheads was born. These skinheads, connected to the punk scene rather than the ska, Rock Steady, or reggae scenes of their predecessors, still aped working-class style while sporting the Fred Perry brand, yet their music was Oi — a more aggressive, simplified version of punk that could never go mainstream. Non-racist bands like Cock Sparrer, The 4-Skins, The Last Resort, Sham69, and The Cockney Rejects led the way.

While this second wave of skinheads was at first largely apolitical, their penchant for soccer hooliganism made them prime recruits for England’s far-right National Front. The Young National Front (YNF) began to recruit second wave skinheads at soccer matches, appealing to skinhead working-class sensibilities by scapegoating immigrants for the decline of the white working class. By 1979, the YNF had established Rock Against Communism, a music festival featuring white nationalist bands. In subsequent years neo-Nazi bands like Skrewdriver would bring hundreds of disaffected youth into the National Front. Along with this came the adoption of a new skinhead aesthetic that included the traditional Fred Perry or Ben Sherman shirt and Doc Marten boots, but added to it a paramilitary edge that included flight jackets, larger boots, more closely cropped hair, and symbols of white nationalism. This bastardization of the aesthetic and its coupling with far-right politics made its way to the United States in the 1980s.

Anti-racist and traditionalist responses to the aesthetic and political hijacking of the original “Spirit of 69′” skinhead subculture were swift. As historian Timothy S. Brown put it:

Reacting against this trend-which they considered a bastardization of the original skinhead style-numbers of skins began to stress the cultivation of the “original” look, making fashion, like music, a litmus test for authenticity. Violators of the proper codes were not skinheads, but “bald punks,” a category to which racists-who, in the eyes of purists, failed completely to understand what the subculture was about-were likely to belong. The connection between right-wing politics and “inauthentic” modes of dress was personified in the figure of the “bone head,” a glue-sniffing, bald-headed supporter of the extreme right, sporting facial tattoos, a union-jack T-shirt, and “the highest boots possible.” Although the emphasis on correct style was not explicitly political, it grew-like insistence on the subculture’s black musical roots-out of a concern with the authentic sources of skinhead identity. As such, it was heavily associated with the attempts of left-wing and so-called “unpolitical” skins to “take back” the subculture from the radical right in the early 1980s. [3]

In an effort to “take back” the subculture and its symbols from the radical right, Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP) was founded in New York City in 1987. Although anti-racist skinheads and left-wing anti-racist skinhead bands like England’s The Oppressed had challenged the far right through song and protest, SHARP represented the first attempt to organize skinheads as a multiracial movement against racist, right-wing “boneheads.” SHARP’s logo was, in part, the logo for Trojan Records, producers of the Rock Steady and ska music so beloved by those first wave British skinheads. In fashion, SHARP emphasized a return to the early styles of skinhead dress, and sought to reclaim the Fred Perry brand (among others) as a symbol of multiculturalism, working-class pride, and the early skinhead subculture in general. As SHARP spread throughout Europe its growth, at times, led to violent clashes with white nationalist skinheads. The Oppressed led the charge in Great Britain, performing confrontational Oi music that pitted the group and its followers firmly against their racist opposition. For example, in their simple four chord song “I Don’t Wanna,” singer Roddy Moreno belts:

I don’t need no bigotry

I know where I’m from

I don’t need no racial hate

To help me sing my song

I don’t wanna make a stand

But what else can I do?

I don’t wanna be like you

Don’t wanna fight your race war

Don’t wanna bang your drum

I don’t wanna be like you

Don’t wanna live like scum

The Oppressed associated themselves with groups like Anti-Fascist Action (AFA) and wrote anthems like “The AFA Song” meant to inspire the skinhead left in its fight against the right — a fight that often resulted in street battles between rival skinhead factions in Europe:

We don’t carry shotguns

We don’t carry chains

We only carry hatchets

To bury in your brains

So come on

Let’s go

So come on

Let’s go

A.F.A.

In addition to overtly anti-racist organizations like SHARP, “traditional” or “Trojan” skinheads in the 1980s and 1990s avoided the political question altogether and instead simply decided to live the inclusive values found in the first wave skinhead movement while celebrating working-class pride coupled, at times, with an occasional soft patriotism. Other smaller groups like Red and Anarchist Skinheads (RASH) formed alongside SHARP that added a heavier dose of left-wing politics to SHARP’s anti-racist stance.

Both groups have worn the Fred Perry and both have incorporated the laurel wreath symbol associated with the brand into album covers and traditional and anti-racist skinhead tattoos. The Fred Perry polo then, for them, is an object reclaimed, re-sanctified, and restored to its original meaning.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, echoes of these conflicts between left, traditional, and right-wing skinheads continued, though never quite reached the fever pitch the conflict had reached in the 1980s.

As we move further into this period of political and ideological polarization, brought on by capitalist crisis, we are seeing old partisan battles reignite. It is no surprise then that the Proud Boys have adopted such a politically-charged piece of clothing for their unofficial uniform. For those with an insiders’ view of this decades-old culture war, the Proud Boys’ adoption of the Fred Perry polo makes an unequivocal statement: we identify with the far-right uses of this brand. The adoption of the Fred Perry is not lost on Antifa, the Proud Boys’ primary political opponents. Fashion, as one variety of symbol system, projects a clear political orientation for those able to “read” the language of what is signified by the brand. As anthropologist Edward Sapir pointed out: “The chief difficulty of understanding fashion in its apparent vagaries is the lack of exact knowledge of the … symbolisms attaching to forms, colors, textures, postures, and other expressive elements of a given cultures. The difficulty is appreciably increased by the fact that some of the expressive elements tend to have quite different symbolic references in different areas.”

For those who have adopted or who understand the skinhead subculture in all its variegated forms, the Fred Perry, viewed in certain contexts, sends one of three messages: that one espouses white nationalist politics, far-left politics, or that one is a traditional skinhead who celebrates multiculturalism. For those in the latter two camps there has been a long-standing contest to wrest the symbols of the “Spirit of 69′” from the hands of those who would corrupt them. While “ownership” of a brand may seem trivial or ill conceived, this “ownership” embodies a struggle for agency, space, and the dominance of an ideology through appropriation of contested material culture.
Notes

[1] John Clarke, Stuart Hall, Tony Jefferson and Brian Roberts, “Subcultures, Class and Culture,” inResistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-War Britain, ed. Stuart Hall and Tony Jefferson (London: Routledge, 1993), 7.

[2] Ibid, 76.

[3] Timothy S. Brown, “Subcultures, Pop Music and Politics: Skinheads and “Nazi Rock” in England and Germany.” Journal of Social History 38, no. 1 (2004): 157-78.

Against Zombie Intellectualism: On the Chronic Impotency of Public Intellectuals

Derek R. Ford

 

I’ve just read yet another think piece decrying the sad state of affairs in the U.S. and ascribing it to a depoliticized, docile, stupid populous that is “easily seduced.” It came out on June 24, and I read it on June 25, as people took to the streets across the country for Pride (to celebrate it and to push back against pinkwashing). This is just a few days after people across the country took to the streets to protest the acquittal of the cop who murdered Philando Castile. What to explain this disconnect?

The piece I’m referring to is ” Manufactured illiteracy and miseducation: A long process of decline led to President Donald Trump ,” by cultural critic and public intellectual Henry Giroux. It’s one of many articles of its kind, and is exemplary in its general representation of a certain brand of politics. In it, the distinguished professor Giroux mourns for a long-lost “civic culture,” “public life,” for the “foundations of democracy,” and a time before “the corruption of both the truth and politics.” The Trump administration, he admonishes, has “turned its back on education as a public good.” Even more so than formal institutions of school however, we have a wider cultural pedagogy that manufactures ignorance and illiteracy-our inability to see or read the truth:

“Cultural apparatuses that extend from the mainstream media and the diverse platforms of screen culture now function as neoliberal modes of public pedagogy parading as entertainment or truthful news reporting.”

This isn’t just a bias against intellectuals and academics. It’s more: “It is a willful practice and goal used to actively depoliticize people and make them complicit with the political and economic forces that impose misery and suffering upon their lives.”

What we – progressives and the left – need to do is to understand that education can empower people, it can give the people tools to critically understand their lives so that they can overcome their ignorance and complicity, hold power accountable, and transform the world. With the election of Trump, we can’t wait. We need to foster the “ideological and subjective conditions that make individual and collective agency possible.” Once, apparently, this was just “an option,” but now it is “a necessity.”
The people, not intellectuals, make history

What this piece ultimately does is whitewash the long history that has led to this climate. It rests on a triumphalist account of American democracy that is only now under attack. It denies any historical and existing agency that the people have. And it offers no real solutions. I call it “zombie intellectualism” because it feeds off of existing political struggles but serves only to demotivate and demoralize them. We’re all guilty of it from time to time, but the fact that it has become a niche in its own right should be alarming to those of us on the left.

Giroux is right that Trump has been a long time coming. But the decline didn’t begin with Fox News or Facebook. It began in 1492. It began with the genocide of the Indigenous peoples. It accelerated with the Slave trade and the formal institutionalization of white supremacy and slavery. It intensified during each war of colonial and imperial conquest-from the war against the Philippines in the late 19th century to the ongoing war against Syria. The conditions that allowed for the rise of Trump didn’t originate with the neoliberal attack on the public sector in the early 1980s. They are inscribed in the foundations of American democracy .

And yet this history of oppression has equally been a history of resistance. The legacies and fruits of this resistance are what we should be remembering, celebrating, and fighting to strengthen. And resistance is what we have seen since the election of Trump.

I don’t exactly know why radical academics often fail to bring this into the narrative. It may be because of their general disconnection from political struggles and protest movements. But it may also be because academics have had little to do with this narrative. Distinguished professors have never made history strictly through their work as public intellectuals. History has been made by the masses: by organizers, by activists, by everyday people. Sometimes, these people have held professorships, but that has always been incidental.

This is not to brush off the ways that academics with radical politics have been attacked by the right wing, as some bloggers have done . They must be defended. (But it is interesting to note that the ones who are attacked are not propagating liberal myths of American democracy).

This is also not to say that spontaneous resistance is enough, or that there is no role for theory. On the contrary, theory is absolutely crucial. But theory doesn’t come from the universities; it comes from the social movements themselves. Anyone who has helped organize in any way even the smallest of protests or political actions knows that there is no lack of theoretical debate that take place in our movements.

There has never been a time when the truth or politics have been uncorrupted, or pure. And truth has never corresponded with politics in any straightforward manner. If anything, politics is the struggle to produce new truths, new realities, and this is ultimately a struggle over and for power. That’s what we need to focus on building right now: power.

Giroux comes close to admitting this, writing that truth and politics are now corrupted because “much of the American public has become habituated to overstimulation and lives in an ever-accelerating overflow of information and images.” Jodi Dean has dubbed our current era that of “communicative capitalism ,” a merging of capitalism, networked technologies, and democracy that traps us in a reflexive circuit of information and critique. The answer, then, is not more information and more critique. The answer is to organize, to build, to multiply, and to intensify.
Don’t mourn or just write, organize!

I share Giroux’s wish that there was more resistance. But I can’t erase the incredibly hard work of the grassroots organizers and resisters in the U.S. I know the discipline they have and the incredible sacrifices they make. Their labor should be honored, supported, and highlighted.

One current example of this is an initiative called ” The People’s Congress of Resistance .” It’s a campaign uniting radical activists and organizers from a range of struggles, and it will convene at Howard University in Washington, D.C. on September 16-17. The initial conveners are from organizations like the American Indian Movement, the Full Rights for Immigrants Coalition, the Muslim American Alliance, and the Party for Socialism and Liberation. There are people organizing for all 50 states.

Exposing the U.S. congress as the congress of millionaires and billionaires, it is building an alternative congress of the people, a true form of counter-power. If radical academics want to see the organic intellectuals they have read about in theory books, then they should be there. And if anyone wants to not just witness the beauty of the people in motion, but be a part of it, then you should be there.

It will be yet another manifestation of the collective agency of the people.