Q&A with Ruth Wilson Gilmore

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Photo by Jasper Lyons
Ruth Wilson Gilmore. Photo by Jasper Lyons

The UC Presidential Chair in Feminist Critical Race and Ethnic Studies invited Ruth Wilson Gilmore to UC Santa Cruz to discuss police violence and mass incarceration in a lecture called  “Organized Abandonment & Organized Violence: Devolution and The Police.” Her discussion in the UCSC Music Recital Hall on Nov. 9 paralleled the theme of her prize-winning publication “Golden Gulag,” a prescient examination of California prisons and the consequences of a punitive justice system. Gilmore co-founded Critical Resistance, an anti-prison organization, and is part of the Executive Committee of the Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and The Caribbean (IRADAC). She is also a professor of earth and environmental sciences and American studies and the director of the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics, at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Gilmore sat down with City on a Hill Press before addressing an eager audience of over 300 people.

With the very publicized incident that happened in South Carolina with the young lady who was brutalized in the classroom by the police officer, how do you feel about school police? How do you feel school police contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline in the way of policing young students, especially those who identify as African American?

“I don’t think police have any role in schools whatsoever, period. The prevalence of police in schools has come hand-in-hand with the use of criminalization and mass incarceration to solve every kind of social problem, whatever the origin of that problem. In the case of that poor young woman, her problems are many. It doesn’t matter to me in terms of the injustice done to her whether or not she did [what she was accused of], even though she did lose her mother and grandmother, she could have her whole family intact and they could be middle class or poor. There is no reason for anyone to be thrown around a room period.”

When it comes to your research on prisons and criminalization, did you have a personal experience that connected you to social justice or was that a field you felt passionate about from life experience?

“Yes and no. I grew up in a family that had a household of organizers — both of my parents were active. My father was a great organizer. He organized labor unions, he organized community organizations, he attacked apartheid at Yale, he did all of these things. He was a machinist by training, he was a factory worker — incredible guy. His dad was a janitor [and] his dad helped organize the janitors into a union at Yale during World War II. My mother was very active. This was what my family did. Along the way, I was involved in various kinds of political projects, parties and programs. I didn’t start out focusing on mass criminalization because that actually wasn’t the issue. We were still fighting for black power, we were still fighting in the wake of the passage of the ‘64 and ‘65 civil rights laws. We were still fighting for real freedom as against formal freedom. However, as things changed in the ‘70s and ‘80s I started to notice. ‘In jail,’ ‘in prison’ and ‘long sentences’ — it became more and more part of the conversation. Again, no matter what we were talking about something about criminalization would come up and we didn’t even use that word ‘criminalization.’ We would say, ‘Hey so-and-so was charged on 7 counts’ [and] ‘So-and-so’s sentence got 25 to life without the probability of parole.’ So, I started to pay attention to that and eventually started to work with an organization and another organization. When I went to school to do my Ph.D., I was in my forties. I had no intention of writing about prisons, I was going to write about something else, but as I was trying out various topics this was the one that I found the most compelling so it’s the one I did.”

What would rehabilitation look like for you? What would it look like for young black men and women? 

“Whatever it would look like for young black women and men, it should look like for everybody. That is to say, prison isn’t the answer. Prison has never been rehabilitative. Prison has always been a reform and a reform and a reform, from the beginning. Prisons themselves are not that old. Dungeons and things like that? Old. Prison is a modern phenomena, modern meaning the 18th century. The inception of prisons goes along with the industrial revolution on one hand and the effective campaigning against bodily torture for punishment on the other. Some people say, ‘Don’t torture people, put them in a cage.’ As it turns out, putting them in a cage is also torture. Just because you’re not cutting someone’s flesh doesn’t mean you’re not torturing them. So, under what conditions can we imagine that somebody would become able to recognize if they have done something wrong? We should talk about what wrong things are — some we can all agree, many we can’t. And then how the community becomes whole and the person and the community members including those who have been harmed can continue. That’s what real rehabilitation would be and it’s what people call transformative justice. Cages play no role transformation other than the transformation of somebody who is kind of okay into someone who is very much not okay. And I know there are many cases of many people who I’ve worked with, who’ve done time in cages and came out better and stronger but that’s in spite of the system, not because of it.”

*Answers edited for brevity and clarity.