† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, and author of The School-to- Prison Pipeline: Education, Discipline and Racialized Double Standards, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice and Considering Hate, is co-founder of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CS
Misdirection and Manipulation: Imposing Silence, Criminalizing Reality
by Kay Whitlock
#Water is Life.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota knows that to poison the earth’s waters – to even put them at risk of being poisoned– is wrong. Perhaps it’s even a crime against humanity. Indigenous peoples everywhere know that. And they’ve moved powerfully, collectively, to protect the water and the earth. Related to that is the determination to protect that which is sacred to The People: ancestral burying grounds, the integrity of the land itself and of other cultural sites.
But the federal government, Big Oil, and the institutions funding the Dakota Access Pipeline don’t want you to know that. They don’t even want you to think about it. They don’t want you to think about the path the pipeline takes through several states and across the Ogallala Aquifer, which is already in crisis. They don’t want you to think about crude oil pipeline spills, large and small, which at their worst wreak extraordinary ecological damage in both the short and long term. Some murders happen instantly; others over longer periods of time.
They want to keep the world from knowing about the astonishing growing gathering of water protectors and solidarity actions throughout the world. They try to discourage people from traveling to North Dakota to join the Water Protectors. They don’t want people knowing or thinking too much about the history of white settler colonialism and the genocidal violence against Indigenous peoples that forms the backdrop and establishes the context for the conflict between ordinary people and the control of Big Money and Big Corporations that plays out today. That illuminates the enduring and entirely normative violence of white supremacy.
As I’ve followed events closely – and donated money and items to support the Water Protectors – I’ve thought what a grimly perfect example this is of something I wrote two years ago: the political/corporate/law enforcement utilization of the magician’s art of misdirection, which is the ability to manipulate and control what people do and do not see. We need to know this in order to organize in ways that name it publicly and disable its efficacy.
So the problem in Ferguson, Missouri isn’t the extrajudicial execution by a local police officer of 18-year old Michael Brown, who was unarmed and had his hands up. The problem isn’t the fact that Brown’s murder constitutes part of a grotesque, racist national tapestry of killings of unarmed people of color by police, security guards, and self-appointed white vigilantes. The problem isn’t that law enforcement misconduct and abuse are endemic. The problem isn’t racial profiling within a framework of white supremacy, or the criminalization of entire communities of color and U.S. race-based mass incarceration.
The problem, said Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, as he called out the national guard and state highway patrol to buttress local policing of demonstrators, is “a violent criminal element intent upon terrorizing the community.” Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson agreed that the “criminal element” is riling up – agitating – the protesters. He also believes that “that some — and he emphasized some — of the media outlets on the ground in Ferguson were enabling the looters and criminals embedded within the otherwise peaceful protestors.” In this way, protesting itself – purportedly a Constitutional right – becomes the problem, and the people doing the protesting are themselves framed as the source of violence.
And the problem when Amy Meyer stood on a strip of public land outside a Utah slaughterhouse to video a “downer cow” – one who is alive but too sick or injured to stand and walk – being moved around on a forklift was not the misery of that cow. It was neither the cruelty and horrific mistreatment of living beings, nor the lousy labor practices and unsanitary conditions endemic to the meat-producing arm of Big Ag – the huge feedlots, factory farms, and slaughterhouses. The problem isn’t the kind of supremacist belief that encourages human beings to permit countless animals to be subjected to unimaginable suffering at our hands.*
The problem, according to the “Ag-Gag” legal frame under which she was the first to be charged, is that she was an “animal rights terrorist.” (Charges against her were dropped, but more arrests have been made under Utah’s law.) The goal of such a terrorist? To destroy America’s agricultural industry. While charges against Meyer were dropped, more Ag Gag arrests are being made; in fact, state and federal Ag Gag laws constitute a chilling, much broader template for criminalizing undercover, independent exposure of cruelty and protest directed at that cruelty. It’s a cautionary lesson; one need not be an animal rights activist to learn from it.
This is how is you utilize the political and cultural art of misdirection in order to alter reality, or at least the perception of it. This is how you convince people that multiple forms of cruelty, abuse, dishonesty, and exploitation aren’t really happening. Or if they are, that they aren’t that widespread or worrisome because the problems are caused by only a few “bad apples” within institutions that are basically fair, responsible, and trustworthy.
This is how you render invisible massive, structural forms of violence that are so commonplace as to be normative.
How to Hide Structural Violence Using Misdirection
Think of “misdirection” as the practice of controlling attention so people don’t see what you don’t want them to see, but see only the things that promote your particular storyline/con artistry. It takes only 5 easy steps to render structural violence invisible and insignificant. You can mix up the order in which these steps occur; they are overlapping and mutually reinforcing.
And while some people believe these are relatively new strategies and tactics in the United States, developed in the post/9-11 era, be assured they are not. Even such themes as “the militarization of policing” hearken back to the structural racism of settler colonial destruction and early criminalization of Indigenous peoples and cultures, the institution of chattel slavery, and the continuing criminalization of black people following abolition of slavery.
Step One: Imposing Silence
You impose silence to render invisible to the public and to the collective conscience those structures and institutions in which brutality is routine – in jails, prisons, and factory farms, for example. (Don’t forget that there’s a reason that it was illegal to teach people who were enslaved to read, right, or provide them with any sort of meaningful education; it was also illegal for an enslaved person to read or write.)
You do this by placing them in out-of-the-way locations, especially in rural areas and by small communities struggling to survive during hard economic times, or sequestering them through use of design features: high security fences and other technologies, and public or private security forces inside and around the perimeter. Since accessibility is severely restricted, few people beyond those who work there, are able to witness or document unscripted daily mistreatment, abuse, and brutality.
You impose silence around this violence so that when an article, report, or photograph does appear, revealing the kind of brutality that shocks most people – at least momentarily – you can invoke the “bad apple” argument, explaining that this apparent cruelty is aberrant or rogue, not commonplace. It is an unexpected departure from the norm. It is rare, unusual, extreme, not the sort of thing any decent person would support. Since you have restricted visibility and access, you can usually get away with this because you are telling the story most people would rather hear.
You impose laws and procedures intended to control who can witness and document violence as it occurs, limiting it to those who have a stake in its continuation. Authorities have learned from coverage of the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War (or as they say in Vietnam, “the American War”) and protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago that the public should never be permitted to see violence as it occurs, in real time, without censorship. Law enforcement officials don’t want ordinary people making cellphone recordings or videos of questionable or abusive policing.
And they don’t want journalists having independent access to witness it. The U.S. practice of “embedding” approved journalists with military units in Afghanistan and Iraq, ensuring that those journalists see only the “official” point of view, has gained momentum in domestic policing, thanks to the “Miami Model,” introduced in 2003 to undermine mass protests against the proposed Free Trade Act of the Americas (FTAA). And it’s effective, not only in silencing oppositional viewpoints, but in establishing counter-narratives to resistance to structural violence (see Step Four).
Ag-Gag laws represent a quantum leap forward in suppressing the public power to witness reality. Some characterize them as “anti-whistle blower bills,” but I see them as more than that, as an attempt to stop us all from seeing the horrific violence at the bleak heart of factory farming. Aggressively supported by the right-wing, corporate-controlled American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), who brought us statewide flurries of Stand Your Ground gun laws, legislation that severely criminalizes immigrants, and opposition to addressing climate change, various versions of ALEC’s model, The Animal And Ecological Terrorism Act, make it a crime to film at slaughterhouses, packing plants, and factory farms. What we don’t see won’t disturb us, right? Eight states have passed such laws; a few have rejected them. More are in the pipelines of state legislatures. Some of these measures would make illegal simple possession of a video recorder that isn’t obviously visible or use of video recorders or even camera phones in pet stores or veterinary offices.
Ag-Gag traces its origins back to around 1990 – see the timeline here – and gained major momentum in 2006, with the passage of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. This legal template is not restricted to agricultural activism alone; it will be expanded and applied to other forms of undercover journalism and exposure of systemic violence.
And you control, contain, and marginalize protests. You don’t want the public to see protesters; you should also transform public perception of even peaceful protesters into objects of menace, but that is discussed in Step Four (“Rely Upon Anxiety-Producing Words and Images”). The Miami Model – which we have seen used initially in Ferguson and against Occupy activists – remains resonant. Its elements include passing special anti-protest ordinances, overwhelming and dominating displays of police force, demonizing protesters in the media, and infiltrating and disrupting protests and organizing meetings. COINTELPRO, anyone? The purpose is to project criminality on one hand and unstoppable police power on the other.
This is how jails and prisons come to be seen as essential sites for the administration of justice, indispensable institutions playing key roles in providing for society’s political and economic safety and security rather than the sites of race and class based mass violence that they are. Protecting the nation against – well, those who expose and resist structural violence. To the extent this happens, we find it impossible to imagine justice without reference to prisons. Factory farms and the horrific cruelties endemic in Big Ag slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants are seen as necessary to “feed the world.” No alternatives can be imagined – but most people have never really thought about alternatives, anyway.
That’s because the silence surrounding systemic brutality is so pervasive. The harm done, the mental and physical cruelties inflicted, are primarily inflicted out of sight, and so they are also neatly out of mind.
Step Two: Criminalize/Blame Those on the Receiving End of Abuse and Violence
You presumptively criminalize those who are on the receiving end of this abuse and violence so that if it does come to public attention, many people will believe– consciously or unconsciously – that “they” somehow “brought it on themselves” or deserved it. Presumptive criminalization refers to both cultural/structural processes and procedures wherein particular groups – black people, for example or women (especially women of color) who are beaten, sexually assaulted, or raped – are considered intrinsically criminal or especially likely to commit criminal acts or be of bad moral character. Presumptive criminalization is related to the process of projection, in which a person or group denies its own fears, disgust, and negative attributes, whether consciously recognized or not, and displaces them, sometimes violently, onto others.
Thus, police criminalized Michael Brown, in effect blaming him for his own death. Marissa Alexander, a woman of color domestic violence survivor who has been criminalized by Florida authorities for trying to defend herself from an abusive husband; the presumptive criminalization of black women and other women of color, and the structural violence directed against them has been well documented. Queer and trans people, especially of color and poor, are constantly criminalized. Poor people – and homelessness and poverty – have been criminalized.
And presumptive criminalization always reflects some sort of supremacist ideology: white supremacy, patriarchal beliefs, the supremacy of wealthy people over poor people, and the like. It’s a predictable tool for enforcing structural inequalities and violence [PDF]. The problem is never just “bias” against people of color, women, LGBT people, immigrants, people with disabilities, and other sectors of the population experiencing systemic forms of violence. That’s a toothless way of reducing the problem to the psychological prejudice of individuals and groups; it fails to wrestle with, say, the structural racism that informs most social, economic, political, and cultural institutions in the United States in overlapping and mutually reinforcing ways.
Criminalization doesn’t always rely on formal policing and prosecution to do its dirty work, however. A form of it, often very thinly disguised, surfaces in “respectability politics” which seek to replace discussions of structural racism with exhortations to focus on “respectable” dress, appearance, and behaviors that cannot be perceived by “respectable people” as threatening, low rent, or morally lacking in any way. This is a distancing strategy ensuring that gains for those with the most social or economic status in a group won’t also accrue to those who are less “respectable,” and that reforms, if they come, will not be deeply structural. Consider the dynamics informing the protesters and self-appointed (undoubtedly well-intentioned and genuinely concerned about community well being) “peacemakers” in Ferguson.
In this way, you can criminalize within your own group in order to enhance and secure your own (higher) status.
Step Three: Reduce Selected Sentient Beings to Status of Chattel
Regard everyone under your control as chattel, as personal, movable property. As things, not as conscious sentient beings with inherent dignity, worth, and rights. You do this so that whatever happens to these beings, however horrifying, is of little or no concern.
Black people who were enslaved in the colonies and the nation-state were chattel. Not sentient beings with inherent rights and dignity. Not people capable of fear, agony, and pain – or hope, desire, and joy. Today, an increasingly privatized prison industrial complex has ensured that everyone under the control of public and private corrections in the United States is a commodity whose purpose in being confined is to produce profit for others. Out of public sight, they can be mistreated, abused, even killed, with impunity.
And factory farmed animals – and too many others – are not regarded as sentient beings, conscious [PDF] and capable of thought and emotion. They are only regarded as utilitarian commodities. Who cares if they experience pain, loss, agony, and fear? Or joy and kindness?
Step Four: Rely Upon Anxiety-Producing Words and Images to Make the Case for Repression
You can pick and choose among many words, most with long, inglorious histories of use in the United States, that cast those who expose, resist, and protest structural violence as out-of-control, menacing threats to all things Good, Decent, and Moral. You want to make sure that these people are framed as utterly destructive and that you erase any possibility that their anger against structural violence might be interpreted as justifiable. You don’t want other people to sympathize with them – or worse, join them. Make people afraid to join them. Among the words with the greatest fearful and enemy-invoking cachet:
Step Five: Legitimate Repressive Actions
Always use the rubric of safety, security, and preventing “destruction” of something held dear. Family values and the sanctity of (heteronormative) family. Community safety. Free enterprise. The agricultural industry. “Freedom.” “Civilization.” Make sure that the central organizing principle of this search for safety is seeking out and eliminating “enemies.”[PDF].
When there are enough enemies – everywhere – efforts to create authentic forms of justice, which require the dismantling of all structural forms of violence, are lost in the fog of fear.
That is how you criminalize reality and create widespread indifference to the fate of others.
It is how you destroy real societal possibility for structural commitments to civic goodness, compassion, and empathy.
The artists of misdirection aren’t going away. They never have.
But they are neither omniscient, all-powerful, or even inevitable. Their Master’s House tools are those used by authoritarians, patriarchs, white supremacists, profiteers, and confidence men everywhere. They keep us fighting in our separate arenas, sometimes even fighting one another because we do not see the deep interrelationships among the struggles – not only for rights and recognition, but also for ways of understanding and affirming the interdependence of all beings.
Many of us work to break the silences; more can join these efforts. But protest and resistance, while absolutely necessary, are not, by themselves enough to redirect collective attention. We must continue to tell the stories, but documentation of suffering and abuse is not enough; if it were, we wouldn’t be where we are today. An avalanche of already-existing documentation of nightmarish, structural abuses and violence could fall on our heads and bury us. It does not possess the strength, on its own, to overcome the constellated energies of Fear and Desire for Domination/Absolute Control Over Others.
We must be willing to find innovative, surprising ways of breaking through the oppressive and imposed silence that permits lies and violence to flourish – ways that invite people into a different and much better future of our collective making. Ways that invite us to find practical methods for dismantling supremacist ideologies and practices that solidify into structural violence. We will use what we already know but must also be willing to risk new cultural and political imagination, new visions of justice, new visions of communities rooted in unshakeable commitments to love as well as social and economic justice.
That could be nothing more than a cloying and sentimental word. But that’s not how I envision it here. I am thinking of Love, gritty, raw, imperfect, struggling in messy, often uncertain, ways to commit to regarding everyone, all beings, and the earth itself, as intrinsically worthy, and never as expendable commodities to be exploited, abused, and discarded. Working toward that demands acting in spite of fear.
That is probably the hardest of all struggles, one that it is never perfectly concluded. It will go beyond my lifetime and yours. But it’s full of life, and can energize us along the way. In time, it will energize others who are growing weary of the deadly ethic of disposability and destruction, but who cannot yet believe there is something good and full of possibility beyond the thunder and preening power plays of the bully boys.
When we drop fear, we can draw nearer to people, we can draw nearer to the earth, we can draw nearer to all the heavenly creatures that surround us.” – bell hooks