Reflections about our event, centering whiteness, and the prison industrial complex

(A statement about the MARS collective’s failure to speak about race and center people of color in a panel discussion we hosted.)

On January 27, the MARS Collective held a panel discussion about prison abolition.  We would like to apologize for that event – how it was organized, framed and moderated.  Because we did not think carefully about the panel and because of poor planning, we created an event that reinscribed white supremacy.

(This statement is being prepared long after the event.  We received feedback about the event in mid-February and at that time one of the panel organizers met with several people and emailed out a shorter, non-collective-approved statement about the panel similar to this larger statement.   Then that panel organizer had a family health crisis and did not work on the statement for several months.  We should have had the statement done sooner.  It should not have taken this long.  In our reflection on this event and the statement, we are considering how we should have handled our response better.)

White privilege and poor planning led us to hold an event about the prison industrial complex with only white speakers, speakers whose work touched on but was not focused on prison abolition.  We had trouble getting the panel scheduled and had a series of speaker cancellations and other planning problems, but this does not excuse the nature of the event.  We should have recognized that a meaningful discussion of prison abolition could not happen with only the speakers who were able to attend. We should have either canceled or refocused the event so that it was about sharing of information about specific prison resistance or prisoner support projects, based in our speakers’ experience. 

Because we did not build our event around our speakers’ strengths, we effectively tokenized the speaker about transgender and prison issues, creating the impression that she had been invited not for what she had to say about the prisoner support work she does but in order to appear “inclusive”.   This created a very painful and stressful situation, not only causing emotional harm but putting further burden on someone who does valuable work.  It also gave the impression that it is acceptable to use the presence of marginalized people to legitimate white supremacist practice and ideas.  By tokenizing this speaker, we also made trans people and their friends attending the panel feel like we don’t see trans people as real, important, full people.

This tokenization was typical of the glib nature of the event – we also skimmed and oversimplified many important aspects of the prison industrial complex:

We discussed the racist nature of the prison industrial complex only in passing, although racism is central to both the purpose and the functioning of the PIC.

We did not name our own privilege as a largely white and middle class collective or talk about how we as individuals and as a group have been affected by and have benefited from the existence of the prison industrial complex.

We did not address these things effectively during the event.  Many attendees, particularly people of color,  were made to feel marginalized and their experience devalued. Rather than creating an event where there was mutuality and solidarity, we centered white people as knowers and speakers over and above people of color.

We deeply regret the pain and frustration we caused, the more so because white supremacy is endemic to majority-white  activist groups, so we were sustaining and recreating a problem that already exists.  We also regret that we had the chance to provide a forum for an important conversation about prison abolition and instead re-centered the very kinds of white, cisgender and class privilege that support the prison industrial complex.

About the prison industrial complex:

The prison industrial complex (PIC) is the result of white supremacy and perpetuates white supremacy. Failing to center this in our discussion of the PIC is like leaving the sun out of a discussion of the solar system – it renders every other aspect of the discussion disorganized and baffling.

The PIC is a continuation of Jim Crow and of laws which pathologize working class lives.  The United States is organized around the prison-industrial complex.

1. People of color, especially men of color, are targeted by the PIC. Thirty percent of the US population are people of color, but people of color make up 60 percent of the prison population. One in three black men will go to prison.  African Americans are more than twice as likely to be arrested as whites in similar situations and are four times as likely to experience police violence during arrest.  Youth of color are far more likely than white youth to be arrested as punishment at school, to be tried as adults and to be sent to adult prisons.

2. The prison industrial complex organizes white people in support of white supremacist practices.   For working class and middle class people, the PIC creates jobs as prison guards, prison administrators, social service providers whose work supports prisons and the companies which make and sell prison supplies and equipment.  For middle class and wealthy people, the PIC creates investment opportunities, not only in private prison companies but in the companies that supply prisons and supply law enforcement.   When the wealthy view the prison industry as a good place to invest, it is natural that wealthy politicians support increasing prison sentences and giving the police and the courts more power.  Prison corporations routinely suggest to politicians that the government use prisons as a job-creation scheme. The economic power of the PIC provides institutional and organizational support to white supremacist beliefs.

3. The prison industrial complex criminalizes the daily lives of working class people, youth and queer and trans people particularly people of color. Homelessness; sex work; selling or using drugs somewhere other than a bourgeois private home; panhandling; car breakdowns; and lack of access to privacy, credit, relatively safe working conditions and relatively safe transit options render many working class people, youth and queer and trans people vulnerable to arrest and prosecution.

4. The prison industrial complex targets immigrants for profit and racist political gain.  Prison companies, especially the Corrections Corporation of America, worked behind the scenes to write and pass Arizona’s SB1070, which gives the state immense powers to harass, profile and detain people of color. Prison corporations are lobbying now to build detention centers all around the US along with providing advice to legislators on “keeping them full”.

5. In both prisons and detention centers, medical care is routinely withheld, people are unprotected from racist, transphobic, homophobic and sexist violence, guards instigate or participate in such violence and everything from books to family visits to exercise is withheld at the whim of guards and administrators.  Transgendered prisoners are frequently held in solitary or imprisoned as the wrong gender; hormones and other medical necessities are routinely withheld.

This list is not exhaustive; the PIC hurts people in many more ways that we enumerate here.

About centering white people:

Our event centered white people and white perspectives.  Some reasons that this is problematic:

1. People of color should speak as equal participants in any political discussion and should speak, should be centered, in any discussion about the experiences, needs and political work of people of color.  People of color are the authorities on the experiences, needs and political work of people of color.  This is a matter of courtesy and respect as well as a matter of practicality – white people, even the most informed and well-intentioned,  cannot have the knowledge or experience to speak in place of people of color.

2. Under white supremacy, white people position themselves as knowers and authorities. Not only are white opinions given more weight, but white people are encouraged to believe that we can know and understand everything better than anyone else.  White people often believe incorrectly that we can speak as authorities about the experiences, beliefs and inner lives of people of color.

3. By centering white people, we squeeze out, fail to support and exclude scholars, activists and community members of color.  On a basic level, this means that people of color don’t get authority and recognition.  Although we don’t employ anybody ourselves, the systematic exclusion of people of color and their replacement by white ‘experts’ means that things like speaking opportunities, writing assignments, academic credibility, paid speaking engagements and jobs often go to white people who have spoken over and about people of color.  Here, speaking and writing about PIC violence against people of color actually generates jobs and fame for white people.

4. When we center white people, we render impossible an environment of mutuality and solidarity. It is impossible to feel mutuality and solidarity when a hierarchy of authority is created, with some people as the knowers and some people as the subjects of knowledge, and when some people are spoken about instead of spoken with.  Even if the content of our talk is against white supremacy , the form of our talk recreates it.

5. The way we ran the panel hurt people in our community and made them feel angry, frustrated, marginalized and unvalued.  No matter what values we claim to hold, if we can’t pay attention to and care for our comrades – not even when they are right there in front of us – what good can we do?

Steps we are taking

1. We have sent out an initial email apologizing for the panel.

2. We have met with and will continue to meet with anyone affected by this who would like to talk about it in person.

3. We are posting this statement on our website and publicizing it.

4. We are restructuring the way we plan events so that all events need to be closely reviewed in terms of who is speaking, the goals of the event, who is in the audience, who is not represented and other related concerns.

5. We are working on ways that the collective can act in solidarity with and build relationships with people of color-led and people of color-centering projects.  We would like to be respectful and intentional in this process, not merely express it as a goal and omit the actual steps needed to achieve it.

6. As a collective, we are reflecting through reading, conversation, guided discussion and seeking advice from elders and friends on white supremacy as it plays out in the radical community and in our collective.  We would like to emerge from this process with a set of strategies for improving what we do.

We would also welcome advice and feedback. We recognize that this list is not exhaustive by any means.

To sum up, we would like to apologize for creating an event that reinscribed white supremacy and for the anger, pain, discomfort and frustration that we caused.  We would like to apologize for distracting from the important matter of the prison industrial complex by our privileged  and thoughtless actions.

If you would like to give us feedback about the incident or the statement, if we have omitted something or if you have thoughts about the steps we hope to take, please contact us at