Thursday, January 24, 2013

Idle No More Comes to the Gulf Coast, By Cherri Foytlin

Reprinted from our friends at Bridge The Gulf:
Last Sunday, January 20, I had the pleasure of seeing a short-term dream materialize, when over 100 folks traveled from every Gulf state to attend a gathering organized by Idle No More – Gulf Coast, of which I am proudly a part.

Idle No More is the indigenous-led movement that has been sweeping the globe since it began a few short months ago. Inspired by four Canadian First Nations women – Nina Wilson, Sheelah Mclean, Sylvia McAdam and Jessica Gordon, the action-based appeal surrounds issues of environmental protection, women, and indigenous rights.

Spurred in particular by Canada's Bill C-45 - which unapologeticallty violates aboriginal treaty rights and removes protection of sacred waters by overhauling the Navigable Waters Protection Act - Idle No More got a shot of adrenaline after Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence began a six week hunger strike highlighting, in part, the crushing poverty her people and other indigenous nations continue to live under.
The Idle No More - Gulf Coast gathering, which involved a Round Dance, prayers and discussions by supporting Gulf-based indigenous and environmental organizations, was hosted in partnership with Chief Shirell Parfait Dardar and Chief Albert Naquin of the Isle de Jean Charles and the Grand Caillou Dulac Bands of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw. Like many of the Gulf Coast's aboriginal peoples, these tribes have struggled for generations against racial, social and economic disparities while being denied recognition by federal entitities.

Far too familiar with the plague of climate change, they have also been the witness of a continuous string of natural and man-made disasters that have laid claim to no less than the soil under their feet, and through subsequent migration, threatened to take their cultural identity with it.

Additionally, and like far too many indigenous nations across the world, the tribes struggle with the environmental justice issues that too often accompany low-income and/or minority communities. Literally, these kind people live and work on a sinking land mass, induced by oil industry pipelines. They epitomize the offering that is the energy sacrifice zone of the nation – the Gulf Coast.

So it is of little wonder that the Idle No More movement and the altruistic actions of Chief Spence would strike hard upon their heart – it is an elated feeling to find out that you are not alone; and further, that you do not have to stand alone.

As for the Idle No More movement, we have yet to see what the long term legacy will be for the world. Some say that, like many recent movements, this too will fizzle and quiet with time and ego-induced infighting. And maybe they will be right, but what of it?

To some degree Idle No More has already accomplished more within the last few months than could have been imagined. From the coasts of New Zealand to the Outback of Australia, from the Black Hills to the rainforest, to the glaciered North, indigenous peoples have begun to claim their place as the protectors of Mother Earth and all of her people. Through enlightened empowerment, the historic solidarity that has been the nucleus of this movement, will survive in the memory of all who are living to witness it. It is without doubt, that the effect of those memories will endure and materialize in a plethora of yet-to-be-told circumstances.

In short, Idle No More has been a lightening bolt in a very dark sky, and whether it stays or rescinds quickly, we are beginning to see the stars again – and that is a great gift.

Cherri Foytlin is a journalist, mother of six and wife of an oil worker, who lives in south Louisiana. She is the author of Spill It! The Truth About the Deep Water Oil Rig Explosion, and regularly contributes to Bridge The Gulf, The Huffington Post, and several local newspapers. In the Spring of 2011 she walked to Washington D.C. from New Orleans (1,243 miles) to call for action to stop the BP Drilling Disaster, and has been a constant voice speaking out for the health and ecosystem of Gulf Coast communities, in countless forms of media. As founder of 28 Stones - a Gulf based media project which focuses on national movement building through art, photography, video and written word - she is working to help build the foundation for a cooperative and unified amplification of voices and needs, particularly of Gulf Coast communities, across the nation and globe.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

How NOT to be a Gentrifier With Your Theater: A Starter List, By Catherine Michna

New Orleans has seen a recent theatre resurgence. Below is a critical perspective on this wave of new theatre from educator and writer Catherine Michna, reprinted from her local blog

I spent this past weekend at the Network of Ensemble Theater’s MicroFest in New Orleans. Organized by the lovely Ashley Sparks, this festival and conference think tank presented some amazing work by local ensemble theaters and local organizations that use art and performance to do social justice organizing. Participants included ArtSpot Productions, Junebug Productions,New Noise, Mondo Bizarro, Goat in the Road, Resurrection after Exoneration, Kids ReThink New Orleans Schools, Jose Torres-Tama and ArteFuturo Productions, and many others.

Net MicroFest was designed to raise challenging questions about ethics and aesthetics in community-engaged theatre production. The core questions for the weekend and for all four of NET’s MicroFests around the US this year are as follows:

What does the work look like?
What makes the work work?
How does place impact art?
How does art impact place?

(see Pam Korza’s outline of these questions for more thoughts on how NET MicroFests were designed to collaboratively generate answers to these important queries).

Throughout this weekend’s MicroFest, artists took notes about the ethics and aesthetics of place-based theatre in contemporary cities. I look forward to seeing those notes. But I also took my own. The biggest issue that came up for me during the weekend was the impasse around race and gentrification that underlies seemingly all critical dialogues about theatre in post-Katrina New Orleans. At NetFest there was a lot of honest dialogue about this impasse. There were also moments of unchecked white privilege that produced frustration and sadness in the anti-racists of all colors and backgrounds who were witness to them.

In response to these tense moments, my notes from the weekend are a compilation of how white artists might use their work to push against, rather than roll with and increase, structures of racism and gentrification in the city. I’ll share them with you here in list form.

How NOT to be a Gentrifier with your Theater Projects
A set of New Orleans specific guidelines–written for white theatre artists, especially those who are new to New Orleans.

This is a starter list that needs your critique and additions! If you read it, please add a comment.

Step One. If you, like so many others, are thinking of resettling in New Orleans in order to make theatre here (or if you recently moved here), don’t arrive unprepared. Learn the history and culture of this city before you settle here AND before you start to do your work. Also, as you study and talk to people about New Orleans as a place and as a community, think carefully about why you desire(d) to move here. Cultivate honest self-reflections about this question before you start “engaging” with local communities.

* Note 1: If you claim to LOVE second lines, but your first instinct in conversations with your fellow white artists is to label un-gentrified black neighborhoods as “dangerous” or “under-developed” places, you need to go back and start from scratch.

* Note 2: As you learn about the culture that thrives in working class African American communities in this city, resist the urge to romanticize that culture as historic (i.e. merely of the past), static, or “authentically” New Orleans (i.e. local not global in outlook). Instead, think seriously about how African American cultural traditions are incorporated, dynamically, into everyday life here even as they express a broad critique of the nation and global economic structures of oppression. Seek to understand the assets that these practices and the neighborhoods that produce them give to YOU, as a resident of New Orleans, every day.

* Note 3: You can learn about New Orleans culture and history from reading (Go to the Community Book Center, see the Katrina Reader's excellent starter list of books and articles, or read Students at the Center’s book about the long (and ongoing) civil rights movement in New Orleans, The Long Ride), but such learning is more powerful if it also comes from conversations with community elders. Building relationships with artists and culture makers who have roots in New Orleans takes time and will probably require many difficult false starts and do-overs. Take the time to do this work and to learn how to do it well before you start building new projects and institutions in the city.

Step Two. If you are white, take white privilege seriously. Take advantage of local resources, such as the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond trainings that occur in New Orleans on a regular basis. Spend the dime and the time to understand what racism is and to understand your own position within our nation’s racist social structures. If you do not do this, your work will serve to further entrench the racism that already thrives here.

* Note 1: Taking white privilege seriously also means recognizing that the process of becoming a white anti-racist is a lifelong one. One workshop or even several weekends of training is not sufficient.

Step Three. Do you imagine that your work is saving, helping, or healing New Orleans, especially African American residents in New Orleans? If even a tiny part of you answered “Yes” to this question, then take a moment to learn about and talk with your peers about cultural imperialism as well as racism.

To start: Read this essay by Kalamu ya Salaam for some local context on how cultural and economic imperialism works in New Orleans-past and present.

Next: Ask one of your Teach for America friends if you can sit in one one of their classes–find a KIPP or ReNew school for an especially powerful lesson in what imperialism looks like in New Orleans.

Ask yourself: What kinds of imperialism do you see at work in our city’s public schools? How is imperialism tied to racism and to economics and power? What is the difference between solidarity and charity?

Then ask yourself, what else can your work do that’s productive if it acknowledges that it cannotsave the city and that, if anything, it will probably have the tendency to further the gentrification and structural racism that already thrives here?

Step Four. Participatory or interactive theatre is as trendy as it is important and transformative.Embrace your desire to learn from New Orleans’s African American cultural traditions in order to generate new forms of participation in your productions. However, think with intention about who your audience will be and where their participation will occur. Here are some suggestions about how to do so:

First: Resist the impulse to be yet-another-arts-group that leads a bus full of white people into the Ninth Ward and plops them down for a participatory “social justice” performance that doesn’t engage in a sustained and reciprocal/respectful way with Ninth Ward residents. The same goes for other primarily working class and non-white neighborhoods. Don’t be a geographic pioneer–there are plenty of other, fruitful ways to do original performance work.

Second: if you want to see a start-to-scratch model of how NOT to approach participatory, community-engaged theatre in this city, Read Paul Chan’s Waiting for Godot production “Field Guide.” If you’re having a hard time understanding what’s not to like about this model, TALK to the members of and STUDY the aesthetics of locally rooted theatre organizations who have reputations for generating sustained accountability within local communities, such as the Free Southern Theater, Junebug Productions, Ashe Cultural Arts Center, and ArtSpot Productions.

Third: Remember the hardest and most important rule of participatory performance work–your audience members are the makers of the content of the work, too. Recognize the different and diverging knowledges that local audiences might bring to your productions. Cultivate the sharing of those knowledges as a part of the work. Junebug Productions’ Story Circle process is a fantastic locally-rooted tool that will enable you to do so. Fundraise in order to pay for first-hand training in this important process.

Step Five. When you fundraise, recognize the disparities that shape where foundation resources go. Find ways to work around the reality that most resources go to projects that are not asking the kinds of hard questions that you are asking. Privilege gives to privilege–if your project gets huge support from local developers or foundations, think about why that might be. Is there an element of your work that’s subtly furthering racism?

Also, if you do get funding, do the hard work to make sure that your project or your institution contributes to resisting, not deepening, gentrification in New Orleans. This is especially true if you are doing sustained work in one area of the city. Make sure that you share the resources you obtain by paying the local organizations and the locally grounded people who inform and deepen your work. Do not just seize resources, make work, collect your accolades, and leave.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Women With A Vision, Recovering From Arson, Purchases Building

Women With A Vision, a community-based non-profit founded by a grassroots collective of African-American women in response to the spread of HIV/AIDS in communities of color, has just made a downpayment on a building in Midcity New Orleans. The Vision House will enable the organization to continue and expand their work - but first the house needs massive repairs, including gutting the entire structure, shoring of the foundation, and rebuilding the house from the inside out. They have set up an online campaign to donate, here.

Below is more information, from the WWAV fundraising website:

On May 24, 2012, Women With A Vision suffered what could have been a debilitating blow. Our offices were ransacked and torched in an aggravated arson attack; we were left with nothing but the charred remains of twenty-one years of work.

In the wake of this attack, you helped us remember that fire can also be a powerful tool of rebirth. Through your support and generosity, we were not only able to continue to be a lifeline for New Orleans’ most vulnerable women in this time of crisis, but we were also able to reach new heights in the national and international fight for women’s health and wellbeing.

We write now to ask for your continued support as we work to open our new home after the fire.

We at Women With A Vision envision an environment in which there is no war against women and LGBTQ communities, in which people have spaces to come together and share their stories, in which people are empowered to make decisions concerning their own bodies and lives, and in which people have the necessary support to realize their hopes, dreams, and full potential. Since 1991, this vision has been our rallying cry, taking us from the streets of New Orleans to the halls of Congress as we work to give people the tools to make their lives better and to organize for justice.

But 2012 was a particularly big year for us.

* We brought in the New Year with several Hill visits to testify to the on-the-ground impact of HIV criminalization, drug prohibition and funding cuts to health services;
* On March 29th, we won a monumental victory when U.S. District Court Judge Martin Feldman deemed Louisiana’s Crime Against Nature by Solicitation statue unconstitutional. We have gotten 68 people off the sex offender registry list, and an additional 116 people have filed motions;
* In June, just days after the fire, we launched our Micro-Enterprise program to support our participants’ economic self-sufficiency as they transition from street-based economies;
* In July, we traveled to Washington, DC to bring a focus on the HIV/AIDS crisis among women of color in the South at this historic International AIDS Conference;
* We welcomed Fall with the launch of our new harm reduction policy initiative; and
* We concluded a yearlong partnership with Louisiana State University through which we were able to refer more than 300 low-income women for breast cancer screenings.

Most importantly, we end 2012 having just secured a new space on North Claiborne, which we will make our Vision House. The outpouring of support we received after the fire helped us make the down payment on the property, but we still have massive repairs ahead of us, including gutting the entire structure, shoring of the foundation, and rebuilding the house from the inside out.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Turning Problems Into Parades, By Nick Slie

This weekend is MicroFest USA: New Orleans: RENEW. The event is a celebration of the renaissance that has taken place in New Orleans' performance and social justice fields since Hurricane Katrina.  Part festival, part think-tank, part community tour, and part dance party, the all-local programming includes workshops, learning exchanges, neighborhood tours, meals featuring locally produced food, and presentations by performance ensembles ArtSpot Productions, Cripple Creek Theatre Company, Goat in the Road Productions, Mondo Bizarro, and NEW NOISE and social justice organizations such as the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Moving Forward Gulf Coast, New Orleans Workers’ Center for Social Justice.

Howl Round: A Journal of the Theatre Commons is commemorating the festival by hosting several essays by New Orleanians who work on art and social justice. Among the artists featured are Kiyoko McCraeJosé Torres-Tama, Lisa D'Amour, and Nick Slie, whose essay we are reprinting below. We encourage you to check out the festival this weekend.

The costume making skills of the average New Orleanian are astonishing. As I write, thousands of people in our fair city are busy sewing, beading, bedazzling and thrift store hunting. Today is Twelve Night, the official kick-off to carnival season. Since Mardi Gras Day is February 12th, the internal costume making radars of the entire city are now on alert. Thirty-seven days to the show. Thirty-seven days until food-laden neutral grounds, deep belly laughs, hundreds of marching bands, exhaustive dancing, family dinners and parades. Thirty-seven days until the largest collective ensemble performance in America: Mardi Gras. 

New Orleanians treat this season with reverence for so many reasons: (1) You are the show and everyone knows it. (2) It’s free and it takes place on the streets. (3) It is rooted in centuries old traditions. (4) It is the supreme example of how we use food, culture and music to bring people together to build and strengthen community.

In an ever-accelerating world, taking the time to gather people in person is becoming more radical by the minute. New Orleanians specialize in this and we do so with flare. Any chance to get together is a chance to celebrate. We’ll turn the average Saints watching experience at someone’s home into an event featuring enough fried food, pimiento cheese, booze, glitter and touchdown dances to inspire one to become a football fan. The same goes for an average Tuesday or Wednesday. From January to June, there are four days in Southeast Louisiana without a festival. Reflect on that. 

Everyday life is heightened to an art form here. In this city, the ordinary becomes extraordinary in an instant: a casual walk can result with you swept into a second line, surrounded by the chants of Mardi Gras Indians, swooned by wild jasmine or serenaded by the long wails of tug boats as they slug down river. And you can also hear gunshots, sirens, and the chorus of reminders that New Orleans boasts one of the highest per capita murder rates in the country; or the fact that over twenty-five percent of Louisiana residents live below the poverty line. 

The Crescent City is languid and tense, inspiring and downright brutal. Living here, especially since the storm, is a constant experience of life at its most rousing and most cruel. It is this juxtaposition that fascinates us and it is one of the reasons why our cultural traditions boast such a clear social function. After all, people did not become professional celebrators by accident. They learned to do so because life is hard and to dance, sing and eat through it, even if for a day, is one way to approach an explanation about the joys and calamities of daily life here. Our traditions are celebratory, yes, but they also serve the obvious social function of building community and, since the storm, rebuilding one of the most important cities in the world.

New Orleans is a city with no money but resourceful people who, above all, have one thing on their hands: time. People here have a lot of time and they are generous with it. There are few folks in town that would deny you an hour over coffee –fewer that would turn down the same over beer and dancing. People are accessible and down to earth. What we lack in money, we make up for in spare minutes. I imagine this is one of the reasons people have been migrating here for the last three hundred years. 

Think of time here not just as duration but as density of experience, one of the essential ingredients for making good art. Things (and change) move slowly here. Take this and factor in the aforementioned love of gathering people in live, celebratory public environments and you get an idea of why New Orleans is a perfect incubator for ensemble theater practice.

This week, we will play host to Network of Ensemble Theater’s (NET) Micro-Fest USA: Renew, the third installment in a series of festivals that looks at America and the role that art and artists play in creating healthy, vibrant communities. Ensemble has been the big buzz in the theater world over the last few years. In that time, NET has bravely matured into a national service organization that takes risks and innovates ahead of the curve, engendering a vibrant critical dialogue about ensemble theater making on all fronts. At a time when so many people are excited about ensembles, NET has taken the time to remind us that ensemble theater is not a formula, it is a practice. It cannot be applied instantly. It takes time and a willingness to fail in an honest, forthright manner. 

In this regard, NET is clearly steering the most interesting, nuanced conversation about ensemble theater practice in America. And here NET is again, using these Micro-Fests to get out in front of the conversation about ensemble theater practice by encouraging us to expand the very notion of what ensemble means and how it is applied in one of the most embattled places in the country. The Micro-Fest programming accomplishes this by magnifying how ensembles are using art and advocacy within cross-sector partnerships to create experiences that are as impactful as they are exciting.

The exciting evolution of NET over the last seven years parallels the rapid growth of the New Orleans theater community during the same time. Before the storm, there were many who laid the foundation for what is happening now. Companies and institutions like The Free Southern Theater, Le Petit Theatre Vieux Carre, Junebug Productions,Southern Rep, Le Chat Noir, Anthony Bean Community Theater, Chakula Cha Jua Theater, Dog and Pony, Arte Futuro Productions, ArtSpot Productions, Kumbuka African Drum & Dance Collective, Running With Scissors, Evangeline Oaks, Tsunami Dance, Mondo Bizarro, Inside Out Productions, Sidearm Gallery, CAC and Ashe Cultural Art Center steady the broad (and often unacknowledged) shoulders upon which we stand. 

Since Katrina, we have seen an in-flux of talent and energy into the city, the likes of which has transformed New Orleans into a theater ecology that is swiftly asserting itself as a scene to be watched. This has occurred through a combination of risk, fearlessness and an unprecedented spirit of cooperation and resource sharing between individuals and companies alike. Such new companies and institutions include: Allways Lounge and Marigny Theater, Goat in the Road, Cripple Creek Theater Company, The NOLA Project, NEW NOISE, Skin Horse Theater, The Shadowbox Theater, The Neutral Ground Ensemble, Theater 13, Elm Theater, St Francisville Transitory Theater and the New Orleans Fringe Festival, Dancing Grounds, Night Light Collective, Mudlark Public Theater, and the Black Forest Fancies, to name a few. All of this begs the question: how and why has this happened so fast?

With regards to NET and the New Orleans Community, there are too many factors to name but the truth is, people have been doing this type of work for years. NET was smart enough to capitalize on this movement, recognizing the need for ensembles to frame their own experiences and practices: to define ourselves. In New Orleans, the impulse was similar but heightened by the reality that one of the nation’s most unique cultures was visibly threatened, on the verge of extinction. Like the plants that immediately bloomed after the storm as a means of survival, our job was to flower into action immediately. 

This charge continues today. Many point to ensembles fulfilling a need that larger institutions like regional theaters no longer serve. I hear that, but it only scratches the surface; there is something deeper. The recognition of ensemble practice—flourishing via NET and New Orleans—exemplifies a longing in people for experiences that are meaningful in the face of an increasingly over-simplified, instantaneous reality. The notion that we can have everything we want right now has asserted itself as a cliché that in the modern age has become cunning and directionless, as it does nothing to address the chronic nature of so many of the problems our communities are experiencing. In the face of this, ensembles root into places, using their craft to create experiences and relationships that, by responding to the timescale of the place where they live, enhance their role as stakeholders and amplify the stakes in that community. When stakes are high, we are compelled to go even closer, to approach and approach and approach.

In an era when we mistake mimicry for mastery, information for explanation, there is something downright enlivening about a group of people who craft experiences that engage the community where they live, ask questions of which they do not know the answers, and labor with one another for decades. This is what ensembles do and in the process they bravely approach the eradication of the instant results cliché. Ensembles allow time for their social function to become more apparent, often resulting in a body of work that is interesting and important. There is nothing new about this approach, though it may feel novel due to its proximity to the current times.

As the sage Ricardo Levins Morales reminds us, every ecosystem needs its poisons in order to create functioning antibodies. The theater community in New Orleans (and across the country) has some big poisons that need addressing. We are not in a sustained dialogue about the reality of race and racism and because of this we are not as unified as we should be. We do not have a healthy critical dialogue about the quality of the work (bar chatter is only part of it) we are creating and its impact on our home. We rarely, if ever, discuss who in our community is making a living. And we have not done a good enough job of acknowledging our ancestors and the labor they have contributed (how many New Orleanians can speak with passion about The Free Southern Theater, one of the most significant theater movements of the 20th Century?). 

These poisons left unchecked will eat us from the inside out. We need to develop the necessary antibodies to function with more communal health. That is, if we want this scene to blossom into a movement where theater has a pronounced social function beyond vanity alone. Considering the current state of New Orleans, all we’ve come through together, all the jitterbug nights and the complexity we have seen over the last seven years, wouldn’t it be remarkable? If not us, who? I mean, who knows better how to turn problems into parades?

Friday, January 11, 2013

This is Not Theoretical: Reflecting on a Recent Visit to Louisiana State Penitentiary, By Nicky Gillies

Reposted from our friends at The Oyster Knife.

This piece was written after guest contributor Nicky Gillies participated in the NOLA to Angola bike ride, a fundraiser for the Cornerstone Builders’ Bus Project, which helps people in Louisiana travel to visit their incarcerated loved ones. 

This October I spent three days pushing through the 160 winding bike miles from my home in New Orleans to Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola.  It is still a functioning plantation, much as it has been since the time of slavery.  Angola spreads across 18,000 acres of lauded farmland tucked into a bend in the Mississippi River.  Roughly 5,000 people live and work and eat and sleep and write and shit and dream and shower there, not counting the employees.  Most of those 5,000 people are Black men, young and old, and the vast majority of them—almost 90%—will die inside barbed wire.

Intellectual discussions of the 13th amendment and years of participating in prison-related organizing did not prepare me for the heartbreak and outrage of seeing farmland that is still tilled by a captive and almost 80% Black population.  This is not an antiquated system.  Slavery is contemporary, although it has been refashioned several times, and prison labor is integral to the US economy.  Activist lawyer and former prisoner Paul Wright wrote that simultaneously removing over 2 million incarcerated people from the work force and employing another million as guards “is the most thoroughly implemented government work program in American history since the New Deal.”  Knowing this, seeing Angola—endless barbed wire and guard towers and prison uniforms and eerily beautiful fields stretching in all directions—is devastating.  It is an atrocity.  It is also mundane.

Here are things I saw and learned:  The warden uses dogs bred with wolves to guard prisoners and chase them down, and has even recruited dogs in the area that were supposed to be euthanized for aggression to work in the prison.  There is a golf course in Angola.  You can tee-off there for twenty dollars.  The prisoners manufacture the coffins used when someone passes away inside, which happens on average 32 times each year.  An inmate is paroled and walks out the gates to the free world an average of only 4 times a year.  There are 18,000 acres where cotton is grown.  The operating budget is one hundred million dollars.  The prison museum keeps an old electric chair on display, as if the state no longer murders people, as if this was a fleeting oddity.  And then there’s the rodeo, which was happening the day of our visit.

We blow past several miles of backed up cars waiting to enter through the first set of gates.  A mass of smelly kids on bikes, we press into the surge of 10,000 people there to see the rodeo.  The rodeo has been running since the 1960s, and at $5 per person to enter the inner gates and $15 per person to get rodeo tickets, it brings in an enormous profit for Warden Burl Cain each October.  (Angola proudly calls itself a self-sustaining prison, meaning that its profits—mostly extracted from an exploited labor force—cover its operating costs.)  The rodeo is quite dangerous.  Some events require significant skill and others are designed to humiliate the participants.  Prisoners compete to win extra visitation hours and cash prizes.  The rodeo also features a “crafts fair” where prisoners can sell things they’ve produced and keep about 80% of the profit.  This money can only be spent in the prison—phone calls, soap, cigarettes, underground purchases from guards, etc.

We approach the gates to the rodeo, but cannot bring ourselves to hand over $5 for a closer look.  Instead we wander the perimeter and stare: children jumping on the bounce house next to the guard tower, families excited and laughing and shouting across the crowd, the fake trolley bus that laps the parking lot to transport visitors, the prisoners in their uniforms staffing the event, the hotdog stand, the barbed wire, the guards, the guns.  I wonder how many generations have died inside these gates.  I also wonder why anyone would bring their children to a prison for fun on a gorgeous Louisiana October Sunday.  What does this teach them?  Some in the crowd are probably rushing to see their incarcerated loved ones.  But many, many more of them are shoving through the gates to get good seats.  I pass a white woman walking away from her parked car, yapping into her phone and scanning the crowd for whoever she plans to meet.  “This is a nightmare,” she says, exasperated.  She means the fucking parking.

This is a nightmare.  Named for the country where the original group of enslaved Africans were abducted from when this land first became a plantation, Angola used to be known as the bloodiest prison in America.  The particulars of its atrocious conditions are widely known, documented, and criticized, and must absolutely be reformed.  But narratives of imprisonment often fixate on the sensationalized details—the wrongly accused, the exonerated, the most extreme of inhumane conditions, the gruesome executions gone wrong.  These things matter, but that story is one of exceptions.  How many hours does it take to exonerate one innocent person?  How many lawyers?  And how much media attention?  And the right hand of how many governors?

What about those who are guilty of their charges?  It is morally convenient to assume that they are monsters who deserve to be locked away from society.  But mass incarceration in the US is a recent and economically-driven trend; it does not have to be this way.  If we refuse to accept that over 2 million people are beyond help, and if true safety is rooted in access to living-wage jobs, better schools, counseling, drug treatment, childcare, mediation, intergenerational mentorship, and safe places to live and play, what a great responsibility we then bear.  This is what most fundamentally disturbs me:  We incarcerate the largest percentage of our population of any nation in the world.  The vast majority of people inside prisons are non-violent offenders.  Penal work camps are widely accepted as a logical solution to crime.

We sit outside the rodeo and watch the crowd and I try to burn everything into my cells—what it is to be literally and physically free, what it is to see people living in cages, what it is to have no family inside this or any prison, to have never before schlepped out to visit someone I loved and couldn’t even touch, what it is to witness all this and strive to live a just life.  I pedal slowly back out of Angola past manicured marigolds (prison labor) and stashes of extra barbed wire.  We congregate in the shade of the tiny post-office nearby.  Someone has brought half-eaten funnel cake back from the rodeo.  My friend casually laughs that she almost waltzed into the prison with two joints in her bag.  I wonder how many of these inmates were once kids who forgot to take the joints out of their pockets.

What purpose does it serve for these 5,000 people to be in Angola?  We have long abandoned the notion of rehabilitation for those imprisoned in this country.  Locking up poor people and people of color in the south has never been a means to help offenders re-enter society, but was instead a solution to the economic crisis when the chattel slavery system was declared (mostly) illegal.  But slavery remains explicitly legal as punishment for a crime.  This is not theoretical.  It’s 160 winding bike miles from my house.  It’s the children and parents and cousins and lovers of my neighbors and co-workers and of my political community.  Notably, it’s not my close friends.  The statistical impossibility of having lived in this hyper-policed city with the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world for six years without anyone close to me getting locked up is only explained by whiteness and class privilege.

We arrive back in New Orleans, hug, and gather damp tents.  With aching legs I push through the five miles back to my house—five miles now seems like a short flight of stairs or a deep breath.  Flashing blue lights up the Treme and St. Claude Avenue, where I have never once been pulled over despite joints in cars and loud, tipsy bike rides and lots of sober speeding to work and yes that one time we all peed in the gutter when we were lost and drunk and nineteen.  Behind Armstrong Park, I see a young man pressed into a NOPD car.  I hear the cinch of metal cuffs as my wheels clatter past him across raggedy pavement.  I wonder if his white undershirt is hanes like mine and if he has a toddler who pulls on his ears and I wonder if his mom will call his cellphone over and over until she thinks to check the Orleans Parish Prison docket online.  I wonder if he will pick cotton until he fucking dies.  I do not want this world–I did not make it, but it sure as hell made me.  Now the question is can we unmake each other.

I hope that if by the grace of the universe I grow old, the small children I treasure now will become adults who are ashamed that I lived less than 200 miles from this sprawling prison farm camp and did very little.  That I averted my eyes and paid my bills and breathed shallowly and claimed not to smell it upwind of my home, upriver of my life.  I do not want them to know a world where young people are plucked out of difficult and violent circumstances to work until their untimely death behind bars.  I want to make them something better.

Nicky Gillies moved to New Orleans in 2007, works as an ASL interpreter, and strives to learn how to accountably organize against the Prison Industrial Complex and live in a just way.