SOLUTION: UCD Kawai Model Question

Ruth Wilson Gilmore
The unprecedented expansion of US prisons during the final quarter of the twentieth century has produced many
contradictions. Prisoners’ families, stifled by sclerotic legal channels, are organizing to demand political remedies
to the growing use of prisons as catch-all solutions for social problems. One such group, Mothers Reclaiming Our
Children, developed in the midst of crisis-riven 1990s Los Angeles. The group has negotiated maternal, race, and
class ideologies and practices — effectively tearing down the veil between reproductive and productive labor — in
order to elaborate and pursue its political work. The project has not been easy: crisis is internally as well as externally
central to the group’s formation. In charting the group’s development, the article examines, historically and
ethnographically, the ways in which organizing is constrained by recognition. It concludes that non-reified
recognition is produced when critical renovations of subjectivity, via collective assessments of structures, methods,
and purpose, emerge as action in the discursive-material interstices of structure and agency.
Now that you have touched the women, you have struck
a rock, you have dislodged a boulder, and you will be
— Women’s Political Chant, Anti Pass-Law Movement, South Africa 1956 (A. Davis 1989: ix-x)
Mothers Reclaiming our Children (Mothers ROC)
is a Los Angeles based multi-racial group that began to
organize in November of 1992 in response to a growing
crisis: the intensity with which the state was locking
their children, of all ages, into the criminal justice
system.1 At the outset, the ROC consisted of only a few
mothers and others, women and men, led by founder
and president Barbara Meredith and life-long activist
Francie Arbol. The initial project was to mobilize in
defense of Meredith’s son, an ex- gangster, who had
been instrumental in the historic Los Angeles gang
truce. The ROC lost his case but gained the makings of
a movement. By the spring of 1993, when the LA Four
went to trial, Mothers ROC had developed a network
throughout greater Los Angeles and achieved recognition as an organization devoted to action rather than to
The Mothers ROC mission is “to be seen, heard,
Ruth Wilson Gilmore is a scholar-activist who
divides her time between New York and California.
She is a 1997 recipient of the Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of California,
Berkeley and Assistant Professor of Geography at
the University of California, Berkeley.
and felt in the interest ofjustice.” To achieve this goal,
Mothers ROC convenes its activism on the dispersed
stages of the criminal justice system. The group
extends an unconditional invitation to all mothers
struggling on behalf of their children, and it reaches its
audience in various ways. The primary method is
leafleting public spaces around jails, prisons, police
stations, and courthouses to announce the group’s
existence and purpose. When distributing flyers and
business cards, members try to engage people in conversations to explain further what Mothers ROC (whose
members are known as ROCers) is and does. ROCers
give talks and workshops at elementary and secondary
schools, colleges and universities, churches, clubs, and
(with decreasingfrequency)carceral institutions. They
also appear on regional and local radio and television
programs. Using these means, Mothers ROC has
established a presence at many locations throughout the
political geography of the penal system.
ROCers have attracted hundreds of mothers who
want to fight on behalf of their own children in the
system. Many were already performing in solitude the
arduous labor of being on the outside for someone —
trying adequately to switch among the many and sometimes conflicting roles required of caregivers, waged
workers, and justice advocates. Some attend one
meeting and never return, and others persist whether
their person’s case loses or wins. Often newcomers
bring someone to the meeting for moral support —
marriage or other partner, relative, child, friend from
church or neighborhood, and that person also becomes
active. Usually twenty-five women and men participate
in each weekly gathering. Most of them learned about
Transforming Anthropology, Volume 8, Numbers 1&2
1999, Gilmore pp. 12-38
the ROC from one of the outreach practices noted above or from an acquaintance who had direct contact
with a member. The rest, however, were guided to the
organization by their persons in custody. Among the
tens of thousands awaiting trial or doing time in the
juvenile detention camps and centers and in the county
jails throughout the Southland, knowledge of Mothers
ROC circulates by word-of-mouth, and a standard part
of the message is that the women are willing to help
with even apparently hopeless cases.
The ROC’s principle is printed on every flyer: “We
say there’s no justice. What are we going to do about
ROC makes no judgment about the innocence of
charged persons whose families turn to the group. The
group does not provide services to mothers but rather
helps them learn how each part of the system works
and, as we shall see, to grasp the ways in which crisis
can be viewed as an opportunity rather than a constraint. In the process, which can be thought of as
cooperative self-help, the mothers transform their
reproductive labor as primary caregivers into activism;
the activism expands into the greater project to reclaim
all children, regardless of race, age, residence, or
alleged crime. Experienced ROCers team up with
newcomers to call on investigators and attorneys. They
research similar cases and become familiar with the
policies and personalities of prosecutors and judges. In
addition, ROCers attend each others’ hearings or trials.
They also observe courtroom practices in general, and
monitor individual officers of the court or state’s
witnesses believed to promote injustice.3 The group’s
periodic demonstrations outside courthouses and police
stations bring public attention to unfair practices.
Finally, ROCers sponsor monthly legal workshops with
activist attorneys and request research reports from
scholar-activist members to help mothers become
familiar with the bewildering details of the system in
Never an exclusively black organization, Mothers
ROC presumed, at first, that it would appeal most
strongly to African American women because the state
seemed to concentrate its energies on taking their
children. However, the sweeping character of the
State’s new laws, coupled with the organization’s
spatially extensive informational campaigns, brought
Chicanas, other Latinas, and white women to Mothers
ROC for help. Today, the group consists of black,
brown, Asian American, and white women along with
some men. Most participants currently have persons in
custody. People come to meetings from all over Los
Angeles County, western San Bernardino and Riverside
Transforming Anthropology, Volume 8, Numbers 1&2
1999, Gilmore pp. 12-38
Counties, and northern Orange County. Their loved
ones are in detention throughout California.
Mothers ROC self-consciously identifies with other
Third-World activist mothers, the name deliberately
invoking South African, Palestinian, and Central and
South American women’s struggles. As we shall see,
the organization is neither spontaneous and naive, nor
vanguard and dogmatic, but rather, to use Antonio
Gramsci’s formulation of a philosophy of praxis,
“renovates and makes critical already-existing activities” of both action and analysis to build a movement
(Gramsci 1971:330-331).
The stories I will tell about Mothers ROC are evidence
of how people organize against their abandonment and
disposal within oppositional spaces delimited by
gender, race, class, and violence. The crisis that
Mothers ROC encounters is not unique to the group or
the communities they represent. Rather, the crisis
emerges from the objective conditions produced by
changes in the forces, relations, and geography of
capital accumulation in California. These changes, in
turn, have produced surpluses of land, labor, finance
capital, and state capacity.4 Since the early 1980s,
power blocs have resolved great portions of these
surpluses into the state’s enormous, costly, and profitable prison system. In expanding and coordinating
across scales, its capacities to monitor, coerce, and
punish, the state itself is in process of restructuring its
own scale, form, and purpose. I call this restructuring
the transition from military Keynesianism to postKeynesian militarism.
During the “golden age” of US capitalism
(1944-1974), the rapidly growing economy both
generated and was partly dependent on the now legendary military/industrial complex that Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke of with alarm during his final presidential
address (Cook 1962, Glyn et al. 1990). In turn, the
motley array of welfare-state bureaus that had developed in the interstices of national sectoral, racial, and
class conflict during the Great Depression provided the
model for the Pentagon’s post-War evolution into a
major fiscally and politically insulated institution of the
central state (Hooks 1991). New Deal agencies also
achieved uneven measures of postwar success as the
modes through which the state deployed programs to
guarantee some measure of aggregate consumer demand (Gordon 1994). At the same time, more collective forms of social investment — the highways, roads,
and schools that constituted the major share of publicly-
owned infrastructure from 1947-1993 (Gramlich 1994)
— provided foundations for capital accumulation as
well as for the social and spatial mobility of certain
segments of the population. The intertwined sum of
these parts constitutes the basic armature for military
Keynesianism — or what O’Connor calls the “welfarewarfare state” (O’Connor 1973, see also M. Davis
1985, Mann 1988).
Although the welfare state is being dismantled, its
“organized abandonment” (Harvey 1982:362), while
signaling fundamental changes in power relations and
policies, hardly means that “the state” itself is about to
disappear. The state still systematizes relations between capital and labor (Ahmad 1996). However, new
and reorganizing power blocs that have led the assault
on income guarantees and other provisions against
individualized calamity have also invoked the defaultlegitimacy of government — defense — to promote
both continued federal military might (against “international terrorists”) and increased domestic policing
might (against “urban terrorists”).5
The project to incapacitate — or cage — the
domestic security threat has resulted in California’s
fifteen year, five hundred percent increase in prisoners.
Crime peaked in 1980, before the prison expansion
movement began. Since 1988, the State legislature has
passed more than twelve hundred new pieces of criminal legislation (Greenwood 1994, LAO 1996). Notable
among the types of laws are two tendencies: one,
introduced with the Street Terrorism Enforcement and
Prevention (STEP) Act of 1988, targets youths who
may or may not be members of gangs (see also California State Task Force 1986). The law requires local
jurisdictions throughout the State to identify, by name,
all suspected gangsters. The second, exemplified by the
Three Strikes Law of 1994 extends the already wellestablished power for prosecutors and judges to punish
defendants’ past behavior and present offenses. Both
kinds of laws “enhance” — or lengthen — sentences for
crimes already on the books, and like many relatively
new federal and state laws around the United States,
both kinds of laws carry mandatory minimum sentences
for certain kinds of offenses.6
In my view, a summary description of the state
criminal system is this: it has become increasingly
Fordist — indeed, in my view, the “punishment industry” (see also Austin 1990, Christie 1993, Davis 1995)
is better understood as industrialized punishment when
approached from a perspective that evaluates how the
state accumulates and organizes the raw materials of
offenses and transforms them into durable prisoners in
durable cages. For California, as for much of the
United States, the purpose of prison has become incapacitation — which means, quite simply, to hold
convicts for the term of their sentences in such a
manner that they cannot commit other crimes (Butler
1995, Morris and Rothman 1995, Rosser 1983, Silver
1983). This stark time-space punishment disavows the
penal system’s earlier responsibility for, or concern
with, rehabilitation (Cummins 1994) — or the latter’s
negative avatar, recidivism. Under statewide pressures
to achieve efficiencies and economies in the context of
expected growth, the California criminal justice system
has internalized and specialized functions and services
that, in scale and scope, follow organizational structures
of what Chandler terms “the modern industrial enterprise” (1990; see also, Ashley and Ramey 1996; California Department of Finance 1996; Legislative Analyst’s Office 1986, 1996).7
Huge and powerful structural adjustments are not
simply determinate of all social processes and outcomes. The rapid expansion of prisons also derives
from the political, social, and ideological operations of
the US racial state (Omi and Winant 1986). Racism
alone does not, however, adequately explain for whom,
and for what, the system works. The state’s attempt to
produce a geographical solution (incarceration) to
political economic crisis is informed by racialized
contradictions that are also gendered. These contradictions, in all of their everyday messiness, and the attempts by mother-activists to resolve them are the
subject of this paper.
The political and analytical importance of the paper
coheres in three major themes that all have to do with
breaking boundaries. The first theme centers on how
African American practices of social mothering produce
a group of diverse women working toward common
goals.8 The second theme explores how outreach
projects successfully permeate the organization of
highly (if not “hyper” — see Denton 1994) segregated
social space and, in some measure, start a process of
spatial reorganization. The final theme concerns
mobilizing the symbolic power of motherhood to
challenge the legitimacy of the changing state. As we
shall see, Mothers Reclaiming Our Children refuses to
be bound and isolated by the normative limitations of
California’s gender, class, and race hierarchies. While
the organization does not model Utopia, it does enact
both the possibilities and the difficulties of organizing
across the many boundaries that rationalize and reinforce Apartheid America (Massey and Denton 1993;
see also, Fernandes 1997).
Transforming Anthropology, Volume 8, Numbers 1&2
1999, Gilmorepp. 12-38
Mothers suffer a special pain when their children are
incarcerated (lost to them). It was from this pain and
suffering that Mothers ROC was born! We are an
organization of Mothers (and others) whose children
have been arrested and incarcerated. We fight against
the police abuse, the false arrests and convictions, and
the unfair treatment throughout the Justice System. We
educate ourselves and our young about the workings of
the Criminal Justice System.
— 1995 Flyer, Mothers Reclaiming Our Children.
Nobody disputes that on November 29, 1991 the
Los Angeles Police Department shot George Noyes to
death at the Imperial Courts public housing project,
outside the homes of his mother and grandmother. The
still-raging controversy concerns whether he was
armed, whether he was kneeling, and whether he was
begging for his life. According to members of the
George Noyes Justice Committee, he was executed by
a notoriously brutal policewoman. According to LAPD,
he was a gangster run amok. No charges have ever
been filed in the case.
The killing provoked the beginning of a grassroots
rearrangement of power throughout South Central Los
Angeles, producing along the way both the LA Gang
Truce and Mothers Reclaiming Our Children. Formerly
an active gang member, George had recently moved to
Sacramento to get out of the life. He died while home
for the Thanksgiving holidays. For his family members
and friends who began organizing, the nature of
George’s violent end epitomized their collective experience and dread of the LAPD.9
Two of the dead man’s cousins, Gilbert and Jocelyn, and their mother Barbara initiated the inquiry
into and institution of the means by which those most
vulnerable to state violence could begin systematically
to shield themselves from it. Family, neighbors, and
visitors at Imperial Courts, including George’s mother,
grandmother, siblings, aunt, and cousins began to testify
among themselves about what they had seen, what they
had heard, and how the death could only be explained
as murder. Such practice is typical wherever poor
people are harrassed, hurt, or killed by police (see for
examples, Hall et al 1978, Piven and Cloward 1971).
The political problem centers on what to do with the
energy that fears and traumas produce. Does the state’s
discipline work? Does it terrorize everyone into silence
by dividing the “good” from the “bad,” by intensifying
anxieties that lead to premature deaths due to alcoholism and drug addictions (including cigarettes), heart
Transforming Anthropology, Volume 8, Numbers 1&2
1999, Gilmore pp. 12-38
disease, suicide, crimes of passion, and other killers of
the urban working and workless poor (see Greenberg
and Schneider 1994).
In order to persuade as many residents as possible
that the death concerned them all, the family formed the
George Noyes Justice Committee. The committee
started meeting at Imperial Courts in the all-purpose
room to figure out ways to fight the wrongful death. To
mark the moment further, Barbara, Gilbert, and Jocelyn
decided to walk the neighborhood. They started with
the three South-Central public housing projects and
asked the gangs to declare a one-day truce, so that all of
George’s family and friends — who lived scattered
about the area — could attend the funeral. Los Angeles
has a steady history of making and remaking itself
along highly segregated lines and material pressures
and limits that did not originate with gangs, but which
keep certain kinds of people stuck in specific deindustrialized areas (Marchand 1986, Oliver et al 1993, Soja
The dangers of the pilgrimage were many: Gilbert
was a well-known gang-member who could not pass the
streets freely. His sister, Jocelyn, and mother, Barbara,
could not identify themselves as George’s or Gilbert’s
relatives without simultaneously revealing their familial
connections to, and therefore exposing themselves as,
potential enemies. And finally, since neither Jocelyn
nor Barbara lived in the public housing projects,
residents might easily view them as outsiders making
trouble in locations intensely surveilled through a
number of means including helicopters, on-site security,
caseworkers from income assistance programs, and
periodic LAPD raids (M. Davis 1990).
To reassure residents that she was not an “outside
agitator” but rather a grieving aunt, fearful mother, and
good sister, Barbara started holding meetings for
women, especially mothers, at Imperial Courts. She
I believed we had to start taking care of our children.
The police would not think they could get away with
shooting our children down in cold blood if we took
better care of them. So I started [what eventually
became] Mothers ROC at Imperial Courts. We would
meet once or twice a week. We talked about grooming,
about how to brush and braid your daughter’s hair. How
your chil …
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