Monday, July 30, 2012

Limits of the Criminological Imagination

For presentation at the annual meeting of the Association for Humanist Sociology, November 7-11, 2012, Nashville, TN, where the conference theme is “When Race and Class Still Matters,” and where Michelle Alexander, 2010 co-winner of the AHS book award, for The New Jim Crow, will keynote.
Hal Pepinsky, Worthington, OH,,
July 30, 2012
                Basically, criminologists have learned nothing new since criminology began.
                When Anglos colonized what became the United States, their prototypic most dangerous person was a young native brave and a rebellious imposing young black slave.  On the heels of the British defeat in the War of 1812, President Monroe declared all of Latin America to be in the US sphere of influence, and a generation later--after early criminologists had declared the most dangerous persons to be “foreign” young men clustered in urban ghettos—Mexicans and their Spanish colonizers became the leading threat to US national security and expansion of empire.  When the slaves among us were freed, as this year’s keynoter Michelle Alexander well documents--from vagrancy statutes and convict leasing on to this day—poor young men have remained the most criminalized class among us, which the most prized, most quantitatively sophisticated criminological analyses of data, let alone ethnographies, conclude that the “best evidence” continues to show that who we most put in prison reflects the kind of people who are the most dangerous among us.
                Happily, critics have continually challenged this criminological “fact.” I myself propose a new way to study violence and how to transform it.  I see two main problems.  To begin with, it’s a tautology: No matter how it’s drawn, the political line between criminality, and lawmakers and enforcers is a power play, and in power (aka “political”) games, odds favor those who get to make and enforce the power of the penal law.  Second, I join outspoken criminologists (among them humanist sociologists in the tradition of C. Wright Mills) who have recognized that the only apolitical definition of social harm we can come up with is the institutionalization of power itself across generations.  There is no practical or moral justification for claims that some classes are entitled to vilify others.  I accept the radical feminist premise that persistent power over others is violence itself.  In the power game as in the leading criminological imagination, competing to prove who deserves to be on top of whom is up for grabs, and in those terms, I’d argue that the most dangerous class among us are those who hang out in gangs of powerful ageing white men.  The question for me becomes: How do we redress power imbalances?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

On Bombing Civilians

Hal Pepinsky,,
July 29, 2012
                Al Jazeera has just run an interview with US Secretary of Defense Panetta, where Mr. Panetta proclaims that the Syrian government-ordered aerial bombardment in Aleppo that has indiscriminately killed civilians is a crime against humanity.  Meanwhile, Mr. Panetta unabashedly carries out orders for drones to fire on enemy targets that indiscriminately kill civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Mr. Panetta emphasizes that the Syrian government is killing “its own people.”  I doubt that Syrian resistance fighters and their families would agree on sectarian grounds for starters.  I assume that Mr. Panetta that we are targeting enemy forces with drones as friends of the Afghan and Pakistani people, but the civilians they kill are Afghan and Pakistani themselves.  Besides the US refuses to accept jurisdiction by the International Criminal Court over its own citizens , or, for our military, of any “sovereign” nation which US forces formally occupy (comparable to the extra-territoriality which Britain claimed over Chinese harbors that led to the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century).  And to come full circle, the Syrian government spokespersons say they are bombing forces supplied inter alia by the US Government.
                The Koran tells us that indiscriminately killing civilians as a war expedient constitutes premeditated murder, period.  Syria, the US, what’s the difference between us government supporters and theirs?  Love and peace, hal

Thursday, July 26, 2012

peacebuilding or peacemaking: take your pick

Hal Pepinsky,,
July 26, 2012 (a sequel to yesterday’s blog on “standing to mediate”)

                I thank and congratulate Dr. Simeon Sungi for his dissertation defense today  (on “the role of indigenous systems as alternatives to international criminal trials” across the Africa) for nailing down for myself the difference between building honest, open discourse among parties to collective violence, and its antithesis, criminal prosecution.  In prosecution (as in all wars), a state or an interstate focuses on taking out enemies of the state(s).  Transforming violence as between opposing groups entails recognizing the authority of minority and majority leaders in current, daily (i.e. “indigenous”)  practice, and guaranteeing safe passage  to a table with opposing leaders.  I owe the origin of this insight to Arnold Sherman’s 1982 chapter on “the social construction of ‘terrorism’”  (in H Pepinsky, Rethinking Criminology, 85-101).  He concludes that bloodshed between the British and the Mau Mau movement in Kenya might “have gone differently had both sides recognized that it was in the interest of the British to define Mau Mau activity in the 1950s as other than ‘terrorist,’” (p. 86).  He supposes that the British might instead the recognition they gave to leaders of recognized nation states.  And I think, how much safer might folks from the US and those the government labeled “terrorists” have become, for instance, if when the USG identified Bin Laden as public enemy as early as 1997, they had invited him and cohorts  he chose to a place where all parties felt safe to trial to deal away attack and counterattack?  Suppose instead of prosecuting people as street offenders, prosecutors sought to offer victims control of their own “evidence” and over their own destiny, in hopes of coming to terms on which offenders could also assume greater responsibility for making redress on their own terms, rather than being punished or incapacitated for blameworthiness.  In his award-winning 2001 book on Making Good: how ex-convicts reform and rebuild their lives, Shadd Maruna finds that those who stay out of further trouble with the law create new selves that are socially legally accepted and socially respected.  In internationally used terms, I put trying to impose terms of control on others peacebuilding, while in its place I juxtapose granting opposing forces room to build control on their own terms, as genuinely making peace.
                It is a contradiction in terms to oppose power over others by taking control over them.  Counterforce or violent resistance may temporarily quell violence at best, deepening distrust and counter-resistance in its wake.  But that doesn’t preclude efforts to promote respectful, dignified honest dialogue in the face of pressure to lop off the heads of those who offend us.  Peacemaking  is the only socially stabilizing alternative I see to compounding violence with counter-violence.  The flames of violence are securely damped  only insofar as  opposing parties grant each other legitimacy to speak on their own native or grassroots—on terms indigenous to themselves.  Love and peace--hal

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

standing to mediate

Hal Pepinsky,,
July 25, 2012
                Reading over a dissertation draft yesterday comparing “effectiveness” of International Criminal Courts’ to indigenous responses to international “crimes” sparked my awareness of what made the prisoner-guard mediation role play I facilitated in Trinidad morph into a serious, respectful exchange of issues in which all 25 or so prisoners, all but one of the fifteen or so guards, and the superintendent—plus two local mediators—spoke up before the workshop broke for refreshments and informal conversation (as described in “Letter to a Prisoner,”, June 18, 2012).  As I look back on that event, I think it was two elements of preparation for the workshop that virtually guaranteed that workshop dialogue would become so lively and apparently refreshing to so many participants.
                First was how the story of prisoner-guard conflict used in the role play was created.  Led by one of their number who was a trained mediator himself, the guards constructed the incident and its background, which one of the local mediators slightly elaborated.  On its face, the story seemed to me to remarkably slanted to make the guard who wanted the prisoner put in a punishment cell look bad and the prisoner look good.  Perhaps the tone of the story reflected the fact that the prison was for prisoners about to be released with guards made to feel they were specially selected for their professionalism, but I also imagine that when I offered the guards the privilege of writing the story, I laid an implicit responsibility on them to show how fair to the prisoner’s side of the story they could be.  Regardless, the fact that the story came from the group that normally makes the rules for the prisoners made the story real to all participants, each of whom came into the workshop with a copy of the story in hand.  (In mediation training normally, trainers choose or make up role play stories.)
                Second, and I think most crucial in any intergroup dialogue or mediation, the “opposing” groups got to pick their own leaders.  I see in hindsight that everyone prisoners and guards paid close attention—then burst into follow-up, because they respected their own role players, and had a personal stake from the outset in how much their side got heard and respected.  The experience drives home to me the importance of respecting indigenous leaders, rather than choosing who represents a group in conflict for the group.  If in the workshop I had done the routine thing of asking for volunteers and my picking the role players, I’m confident from teaching experience that during the role play, many minds would have wandered, and discussion would have been strained.
                In attempts to dampen intergroup conflict, there is a crucial distinction dictating who qualifies to represent a group (known in legalese as standing to be heard) and dealing with those whom group members themselves recognize as leaders.  If groups have contending leaders, then mediation among intra-group leaders needs to precede negotiation or mediation as an entire group.  For this criminologist, efforts to reduce gang violence come to mind.  Gang summits are reported to ease violence, and I have heard the same to happen in a maximum security prison where the safe let indigenous black and white “gang” leaders come to their own terms of co-existence.  Instead, gang leaders are locked away in isolation for life.  If agents of the US state want groups it labels terrorist to hold their violence, it would do better to give safe passage to “enemy” leaders they are instead assassinating.  The main obstacle to sensible transformation of violence is the belief the only way to get enemies to surrender is by chopping off their heads.  That just inflames the violence.
                At an individual level, ideally, anyone who has a complaint against anyone else ought to have standing to complain in his own terms.  Granting standing to be heard abates violence in all its forms.  Love and peace--hal

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Aurora shootings

   Reaction to James Holmes's shooting spree reminds me of something the first ritual abuse child victims' advocate I met, Rick Doninger of Evansville, IN, told my classes how Children of the Underground founder Faye Yager (also a repeat guest in my classes, at whose home I stayed, whose child victimization dossiers she shared with me), had taught him to ask a question he had never in his training and experience even thought to ask a forthright victim: HAS ANYONE ELSE HURT YOU?
   I am time and again amazed at how we reduce violent outbursts like Holmes's as a problem of psychopathology.  I gave that assumption up when I forsook my (grand)parents' field of psychology for sociology: WHY PRESUME THAT DID WHAT HE DID ALL BY HIMSELF?
   Time and again in my socio-criminology career, I have time and again been amazed at how glibly we accept that the triggerman lived an "isolated" life in which he planned and executed, and surrendered, and had crazy hair, and refused to talk to authorities, and who in video coverage in court appears totally oblivious--either drugged or dissociating or both in combination, who knows?  Who even asks, except time and again to interview the owner of the shooting farm who wouldn't admit weird Arthur to membership on the family farm?
  Of course I don't know who else might be involved, but if I were investigating for the law or the press I would go out of my way to find out who Mr. Holmes DID have contact with, and do snowball interviewing if possible...and as a police interviewer I would figure it was perfectly okay with me if what he told me was legally inadmissible.  You simply present evidence that Holmes was the shooter and that people died and that the shooting was planned in advance, and settle for life without parole.  Otherwise, I might explore ways of talking with him and testing whether other personalities could be drawn out, asking him about associations with others, and so forth, Miranda be damned.
   I say it is more parsimonious to presume organized covert assistance, guidance and encouragement more than Holmes alone put the elaborate plan together over an extended period of time during which Holmes suddenly disappeared from public view.  It's like asking whether anyone else hurt you to ask who else DID meet with Holmes over that period.  It can begin simply by interviewing sellers of Holmes's paraphernalia.
  I don't mean that some particular conspiracy ought to be presumed, but as Rick Doninger discovered, the only that covert conspiracies come to light are by at least exploring the possibility that the Aurora shooting was planned and executed by more than one person.  We are reduced to psychologizing when we don't bother to look socially.  l and p hal

Hal Pepinsky,,, 519 Evergreen Circle, Worthington, OH 43085-3667, 1-614-885-6341