Changed the game with that digital drop
Know where you was when that digital popped
I stopped the world
– Beyonce, “Feeling Myself” with Nicki Minaj
Earlier this week my blog received an email from an anonymous person (or persons) submitting a work of conceptual poetry under the name of the “Anarcho-Conceptual Syndicate.” Their message went as follows:
We have read your blog and are looking for an avenue for a new, anarcho-conceptualism.
We have attached our first project and we hope that your own anarchist sympathies will see a shared interest in a politically responsible poetry.
We hope that you will blast this over your blog and we hope that it will spread like a virus through conceptualism.
Preface: The Carceral Voice
In the wake of the shooting of black youth Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in August 2014 that precipitated the Ferguson demonstrations–demonstrations that reflect hundreds of years of repression within racist American society–we write. In the wake of the countless other black Americans killed by police officers before and after the shooting of Michael Brown–we write.
After conceptual poetry founder Kenneth Goldsmith read Michael Brown’s autopsy report at the Interrupt 3 conference on March 13, 2015, the once relevant poetry trend of “conceptual writing” has been made to consider its own historical complicity with symbolic and material relations of white supremacy. In the wake of these events, we write a new conceptualism. Conceptualism must adopt a language of reparations: Scaffold turns towards this reparative future. The project of conceptualism has always been the repurposing of outside material. Conceptualism today must repurpose texts in the service of exposing our collective settler histories and the implicit racism, misogyny, and hate that infects contemporary society.
Scaffold is comprised of the final statements of 500 prisoners executed in the state of Texas between 1982 and 2013, as supplied by the state’s Department of Criminal Justice. Presenting the statements sequentially as one uninterrupted text, the resulting compilation is, paradoxically, both multiple and singular. The final statements of these inmates combine to form one marginalized voice. Despite this unity, Scaffold also points to the extreme racial disparity that operates in the U.S. prison system: presently, African Americans constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population, African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, and together, African American and Hispanics comprise 58% of all U.S. prisoners (in 2008), even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the U.S. population.
According to the report by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, released in 2013:
On December 31, 2013, about 37% of imprisoned males were black, 32% were white, and 22% were Hispanic. Among females in state or federal prison at yearend 2013, 49% were white, compared to 22% who were black and 17% who were Hispanic. Almost 3% of black male U.S. residents of all ages were imprisoned on December 31, 2013 (2,805 inmates per 100,000 black male U.S. residents), compared to 1% of Hispanic males (1,134 per 100,000) and 0.5% of white males (466 per 100,000). While there were fewer black females in state or federal prison at yearend 2013 than in 2012, black females were imprisoned at more than twice the rate of white females.
Moreover, in a 1990 report, the non-partisan U.S. General Accounting Office found “a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty.” The study concluded that a
defendant was several times more likely to be sentenced to death if the murder victim was white. This has been confirmed by the findings of many other studies that, holding all other factors constant, the single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim. From initial charging decisions to plea bargaining to jury sentencing, African-Americans are treated more harshly when they are defendants, and their lives are accorded less value when they are victims. All-white or virtually all-white juries are still commonplace in many localities. A report sponsored by the American Bar Association in 2007 concluded that one-third of African-American death row inmates in Philadelphia would have received sentences of life imprisonment if they had not been African-American. A January 2003 study released by the University of Maryland concluded that race and geography are major factors in death penalty decisions. Specifically, prosecutors are more likely to seek a death sentence when the race of the victim is white and are less likely to seek a death sentence when the victim is African-American. A 2007 study of death sentences in Connecticut conducted by Yale University School of Law revealed that African-American defendants receive the death penalty at three times the rate of white defendants in cases where the victims are white. In addition, killers of white victims are treated more severely than people who kill minorities, when it comes to deciding what charges to bring.
As these data show, the disparity of treatment experienced by whites and non-whites extends from the prison to the scaffold.
Although all the statements recorded in Scaffold are independent in themselves, when presented together, without interruption, they form a unified account of marginalization. Many of the statements in Scaffold feature similarities: prayer, compensatory declamations, claims of innocence, accusations, humor, anger, and comments on the death penalty. Uncannily, a repetitive story emerges over the course of the document, featuring its own unique conventions and characters (such as the omnipresent, yet ever-silent, Warden). Here though we hope that strength in numbers can overcome the Warden.
The “concept” of this text cannot effect reparation. In resurrecting the last words of the victims of racially motivated state violence, Scaffold merely begins the search for a reparative future. The act of re-appropriation in Scaffold moves towards the overturning of old, outdated conceptualisms and the reframing of race relations. Rather than reading the autopsy report of yet another black civilian, anarcho-concepts restore words to the mouths of the dead, of the jailed, of the silenced. Anarcho-concepts seek out a better future: a future in which everyone commands a voice and a platform and a poetry.