Last week marked the end of one of the more important acts of collective action and protest we've seen since the systematic dismantling of Occupy in 2011-2012. A little over 2 months ago, 30,000 prisoners in the California penal system began refusing meals, the largest hunger strike of its kind in US history. You probably didn't hear about it on the news because prisoner rights and issues are not a sexy story, so I'll fill you in on the details.
The prisoners were protesting the use of prolonged solitary detention in California. What many don't know is that in California and many other US states, there is no statutory limit on how long an inmate can be placed in solitary, so prisoners regularly spend decades under these conditions. That's not a typo, there are prisoners who have been administratively (read: not mandated by a court or jury of their peers) been placed in solitary lockup for 10, 20 years, potentially even more.
Now, you may ask why this is an issue we should care about. Prisoners are in prison because they broke the law, and their treatment, as long as it is constitutional, isn't our concern. The reason this matters is that solitary confinement of longer than a few weeks is recognized as torture by most human rights organization, and most human beings, especially those who have experienced it. Prolonged solitary confinement is linked to psychoses, and is especially hard on those with other mental health issues (especially schizophrenia and ADD) and lower IQ, both of which occur at much higher rates among prison populations than the population at large. Prisoners are also challenging the circumstances under which they can be subjected to the punishment, as it is often arbitrary or based on theories of collective punishment etc, but that should be considered nearly irrelevant, because torture is illegal, unconstitutional, against international law, and you know, wrong. The circumstances under which torture is meted out don't mitigate or worsen its implementation, it is an affront to the human conscious and evil no matter what its form.
The protesters, who have been passing out from hunger in droves, and in many cases breaking fast, were also recently handed another insult, a court handed down a ruling that allowed the prisons to force feed inmates if it was deemed medically necessary to keep them alive. Now, if you've been paying attention to Guantanamo Bay and the hunger strike there, you're familiar with force feeding, but if not, it consists of inserting a tube down the nose of the subject, and pumping food into their stomach. This is incredibly painful, and frequently is done poorly, or to a non-compliant prisoner, which makes it worse. Once again, force feeding is defined as torture by most human rights organizations, and many medical associations instruct their physicians that doing so is against the Hippocratic Oath. In light of this, its easy to understand why the prisoners would suspend their protest, rather than endure this indignity and violation of their rights.
What is so remarkable about this? Why is it something that should be on the nightly news instead of Robin Thicke? The answer is simple, really. These prisoners are doing something, as they had done in earlier protests that earned small concessions but left intact the state's ability to torture them with abandon, something we rarely see. They are using a non-violent and collaborative method to fight injustice. They are engaging in the sort of activism that is all too uncommon in our society, and while they did not manage to change things this time, they are vowing to continue their fight.
This strikes me as an example that the rest of the country should take to heart. Its ironic that at the time that these individuals, many of whom are themselves in solitary confinement, have been so valiantly struggling to make non-violent change, the Obama administration is actively planning to use acts of extreme violence to try to resolve human rights violations in another country. And before you respond, but the situation in Syria is different because Assad committed war crimes, ask yourself this, did he? Under the convention defining war crimes, they are acts of a state actor, against a military. The Syrian rebels, being citizens of the state in question, are not considered a military force, and the most recent conventions on chemical weapons do not apply to their use in this case. Instead, we rely on the fact that use of chemical weapons is a crime against humanity, much like the crime against humanity being committed in California.
Dr. Jeffrey Beard is the Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and as the person who is in charge, he is ultimately the monster responsible for the continuation of these policies. Beard is a veteran of corrections, having run the Pennsylvania prison system, itself not a model for compassion or respect for human rights. Beard is, without a doubt to me, a criminal and human rights abuser, and deserves to be prosecuted for the systematic torture that he has defended and ensured continues. He did not begin it, but it exists still due to his intransigence. I would prefer to see him prosecuted, and imprisoned in the very system he oversees. At a bare minimum, he should be fired. The fact that he hasn't implicates the governor himself as well, which of course makes Jerry Brown an accessory to human rights abuses at a minimum, and a criminal at worst as well.
What's my point? People would think I was mad if I advocated bombing headquarters of the California prison system for their disgusting, inhuman practices. They would recoil in horror if the response to this system of mass torture was responded to with assassination or targeted violence. They would never support such acts, inhuman and detestable in their own right, prosecuted against Jeffrey Beard and Jerry Brown, and any of their lieutenants etc, all the way down to the guards, most of whom don't have a say in how detention policy is set.
I think at this stage my point is obvious: responding to egregious acts of violence with violence is not a morally legitimate action. There is no legitimacy to acts of terror, whether they are the actions of a state or an individual. It is possible there are situations where a military involvement is the least harmful option, but the question of Syria certainly doesn't seem like one. Instead, our use of military force is presented as a disciplinary measure, not one intended to cease conflict, or even to eliminate the weapons of mass destruction we take issue with. What if for once, we looked to those least among as, the most downtrodden, the starved and desperate prisoners who so valiantly fought for the last 2 months to regain that piece of humanity that our nation has taken from them. What if instead of acts of violence, we actually took proactive steps, used soft power, diplomacy, and other tools of foreign policy that are often ignored in these circumstances, and tried to stop acts of violence without committing them?
Indeed, there's even green chutes on this front, as suddenly the possibility of disarming Syria's chemical weapons has come onto the table. War is not inevitable. Violence begets violence. Take from this what you will.