This past weekend I attended another demonstration against this country’s use of the privatized prison complex to detain undocumented immigrants. The protest was the third protest sponsored by Houston Sin Fronteras, which took place outside the Corrections Corporation of America’s (CCA) Houston Processing Center. During the protest, I could not help but think how George Orwell would be turning over in his grave because the Houston Processing Center illuminates some of the Orwellian aspects of immigration controls.
Sixty years ago, George Orwell, wrote about the dangers of modern societies’ quest for a utopian society in his prophetic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. His totalitarian world of Oceania drew a striking resemblance to his world of 1948 and ours and the irony of the Houston Processing Center. In one passage, Orwell writes:
“… in the general hardening of outlook that set in … practices which had been long abandoned, in some cases for hundreds of years — imprisonment without trial … the deportation of whole populations — not only became common again, but were tolerated and even defended by people who considered themselves enlightened and progressive.”
The Houston Processing Center is a minimum-security facility operated by the CCA, and it is where the private prison complex began. The site is located near Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport. The view behind prison privatization was to ease the strain on taxpayers by offering financial relief to overcrowded state-run prisons. In 1983, Thomas Beasley with assistance from venture capitalist Jack Massey, known for his role in building franchises like Kentucky Fried Chicken and Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), chartered Corrections Corporation of America. Prior to the facility being constructed, Immigration and Naturalization Service (now known as Immigration and Customs Enforcement) called on CCA to build and then manage a detention center in Houston. CCA co-founders Tom Beasley and T. Don Hutto went to Houston to find a motel that would temporarily house detainees. Beasley and Hutto made an offer to the owner of the local Olympic Motel, a motel widely used for prostitution, which he gladly accepted. After a team of contractors modified the motel, INS approved the newly modified facility that would later house 86 detainees. Within a few months, Houston Processing Center was open for business. All of this took place in 1984 and this was the beginning of the Orwellian Ministry of Freedom.
One characteristic of an authoritarian society is its willingness to distort the truth while simultaneously suppressing opposition. While all governments sometimes resort to misrepresentations and lies, the Bush administration’s newspeak makes such action central to its maintenance of political power through the manipulation of the media and the public. Language is used in this context to mean one thing, but it actually means it’s opposite. We have now reached a point where discourse now goes unquestioned. The binding force of today’s society, largely, is a web of symbols that enables people to control and make sense of their experience in patterned ways, such as labeling immigrants as both “illegals” and “aliens.” The primary use of these terms is to denote the criminalization of a human being, without ever being explicitly charged or convicted.
One can even make the argument that using these terms can be compared to what Orwell called an “unperson” â€“ people who were erased from existence by the government and put outside the law. By detaining them, in effect, this county has effectively made them “unpersons.” Once detained they are further dehumanized through systematic psychological torture â€“ reminded with messages how they are not a person, they don’t exist, and they can do anything they like to them. All this only serves as a symbolic reminder to the general public how they are no longer part of society, they have been “vaporized.” The fact that many people are unwilling to question such thinking is disturbing because it overlooks how our business elites are exploiting them as cheap labor while continuing to perpetuate a world system, which ensures a steady supply of migrants into the US.
My experience at this protest, I must admit, was very different from the one I had at T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, TX. Like Hutto, you can tell this place is a prison; however, wrought iron fencing surrounded the facility instead two layers of fencing. Another distinction is the heightened security taken for this demonstration. The presence of law enforcement at the site was overwhelming; the protest was mostly patrolled by officers from the Houston Police Department. Throughout the event, HPD would patrol the area with squad cars and horses. HPD would drive around the block, but as they would approach us, they would drive very slowly to take a good look at us and take mental notes. I also noticed there were a few unmarked black cars monitoring the front of the Houston Processing Center and the warehouses next to the site. Homeland Security was also present at the demonstration; they had used a van to block the entry gate, which ended being a problem when a couple of ICE vehicles blocked traffic as they were forced to wait before entering the facility. During the event, ICE officer was doing a little videotaping – “domestic spying” – of all the protesters, speakers and the cars parked on the side of the road. This was definitely different from the Hutto protest, where only two CCA vans were blocking access to the facility along with two executives from the Taylor Police Department showing up and then leaving. From what I was told, it was higher than the last two protest.
I had taken pictures of the event; however, CVS’ photo processing machine strangely seems to be out of order the last few times I have tried to pick them up. I dropped off my disposable digital camera last Saturday. (As soon as I get those pictures, I will post them up.) Even though not many people showed up, that didn’t deflate the energy that was there, after a couple of speakers spoke, we started chanting, this included; “No Justice No Peace, Detainees must be Released” / “CCA -Shut it Down! ICE – Shut it Down! HPD – Shut it down!” / “En Las Luchas Obreras, no hay Fronteras.” I heard Ray Hill host of The Prison Show on Houston Pacifica Radio station KPFT, 90.1FM, Gloria Rubac from the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement, Rob Block from Houston Sin Fronteras Defense Committee and Ben Browning, one of the two activist from Houston Sin Fronteras who locked themselves to the entrance gate of the Houston Processing Center with a u-lock.
During the rally, I had the opportunity to say with Ben Browning and Ashley Turner, the other activist who locked themselves to the gate. I wanted to know at what point they felt they needed to do something. I believed it was important to know because we are told what occurred, what was done and why it was done, but what is left out is the underlying reasons that motivated them â€“ the ganas to go for it. The way we are handling the social problems facing us today, is one of apathy, frustration, cynicism, and retreat into our private worlds? We do a lot of complaining about what is wrong with our lives and in our communities, but we don’t spend nearly enough time and energy empowering ourselves because we act as if we were powerless. So when a story like Ben Browning and Ashley Turner comes around, it good to highlight those who are fighting the conditions facing them and others. Just because we are not informed about who is trying to bring about social change, does not mean it is not happening. I feel as a blogger, I have a responsibility to inform people of the things taking place so that they too can see that what they are experiencing is similar to what other people are feeling, that they are not alone in their problems.
We have bought into the American dream, which is all about securing things, a market mentality that has invaded every sphere of our lives that have traditionally functioned as foci of collective purposes, history, and culture. We are caught up in our private pursuits; we allow the workings of our major institutions – the economy and government – to go on “over our heads.” The only way to break this monotony, it is important that we not only expose the current problems, but we must challenge the status quo. Moreover, as bloggers, we must take every opportunity to highlight the different type of activism that are taking place within our own neighborhood to provide people the information that is often censored, and with a perspective the mainstream media systematically ignores.
We must shatter the illusion that an individual, not groups of people, is the source of power in society. This line of thinking enables us to blame all social problems on the individual: If people are poor, it is their own fault. If they just applied themselves, they could pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. The truth of the matter, all social struggles are not won by one person, but by organizing many people together, by meeting, talking, strategizing and by people risking their lives.
However, to get there we must be willing to express our rage at the system. It is true that many people are trying to survive under increasingly difficult situations. We are so busy juggling our lives just to remain afloat; it often feels we are short on time to become socially and politically active. But in order to bring about change, we have to be more assertive and public about it. After talking to Ashley and Ben individually, they both expressed the same rage and frustration to the point, as Ashley expressed to me, “where they believed that someone had to do something.” Both Ashley and Ben knew the consequences of their actions, they understood they could be arrested, but they still went forward and did it.
We can no long keep the anger we have about all the deprivation and injustices inside, they are countless and it will eat us up inside like a cancer. However at the same time we must remain hopeful that there is a possibility to build a different kind of society where human needs can be met. Personally, what Ben and Ashley did took a lot of courage, and it is this type of courage people are craving to see, to know somewhere out there people still care for their fellow human being. As I mentioned before social struggles are never won by one person, however, as history shows, it only takes a few to create a spark that causes people to wake up, to dream again and have the courage to stand up, and to speak out and demand social justice.
We live in a critical time. It is time to put a halt to the increasing incarceration rate, the so-called anti-terrorist bills, and the attacks on affirmative action, welfare and immigrants created by the repressive apparatus of the state.