Imagine Otherwise: Liat Ben-Moshe on Community beyond the Carceral State

by | May 26, 2021

Liat Ben-Moshe on Community beyond the Carceral State

by Cathy Hannabach and Ideas on Fire | Imagine Otherwise | ep 134

About the episode

Movements organized around disability justice, prison and police abolition, queer and trans feminism, and economic justice have long shown how intersecting systems of oppression require intersectional frameworks for resistance.

On episode 134 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews Liat Ben-Moshe, who has spent her career tracing what she calls carceral ableism, or the ways the prison industrial complex and anti-disability logics shape one another in our daily lives and our political institutions.

Liat’s research and activism illustrate the vital need to foreground disability justice in our efforts to end violence. Liat points out that this kind of work produces a richer and more critical understanding of interdependency, one that neither romanticizes community nor enshrines individualism.

In the conversation, Cathy and Liat discuss how community building and mutual aid have shifted during the COVID-19 pandemic and what that means for a post-pandemic future. They also discuss why learning to see one’s identities as political rather than descriptive is so crucial for movement building and why creating a world beyond containment, confinement, and segregation is how Liat imagines otherwise.

Guest: Liat Ben-Moshe

Liat Ben-Moshe is an interdisciplinary scholar-activist working at the intersection of disability/madness, incarceration/decarceration, and abolition, as well as an associate professor of criminology, law and justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

She is a disability and mad studies missionary committed to intersectional analysis and pedagogy.

Liat is the author of Decarcerating Disability: Deinstitutionalization and Prison Abolition (University of Minnesota Press, 2020) and co-editor (with Allison Carey and Chris Chapman) of Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

Episode themes

  • Critically examining and redefining community
  • Disability as political identity
  • Intersections of prison abolition and disability justice
  • Building a non-carceral world
Liat Ben-Moshe wearing a blue short and teal earrings. Quote reads: My fight is for an non-carceral world, which means abolishing the whole logic that we need to contain, confine, and segregate people. To abolish carceral logic, you need to abolish the systems of oppression that construct that logic.
Liat Ben-Moshe wearing a blue shirt and teal earrings. Quote reads: In the shadows of capitalism and nationalism came a different understanding of what we need: mutual aid processes, reliance on each other, interdependence, new relations. I hope we keep and cultivate them beyond the pandemic.

Transcript

Click to read the transcript

Cathy Hannabach:  

Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise.

I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

[00:00:23]

Movements organized around disability justice, prison and police abolition, queer and trans feminism, and economic justice have long shown how intersecting systems of oppression require intersectional frameworks for resistance.

[00:00:37]

My guest today on the show is Liat Ben-Moshe, who has spent her career tracing what she calls carceral ableism, or the ways that the prison industrial complex and anti-disability logics shape one another in our daily lives as well as political institutions.

[00:00:54]

Her research and activism illustrate the vital need to foreground disability justice in our efforts to end violence Liat points out that this kind of work produces a richer and more critical understanding of interdependency, one that neither romanticizes community nor enshrines individualism.

[00:01:13]

In our conversation, Liat and I discuss how community building and mutual aid have shifted during the COVID-19 pandemic and what that means for a post pandemic future.

[00:01:24]

We also discuss why learning to see one’s identities as political rather than descriptive is so crucial for movement building and why creating a world beyond containment, confinement, and segregation is how Liat imagines otherwise.

Thanks so much for being with us today.

[00:01:42]

Liat Ben-Moshe: Thanks for having me.

[00:01:44]

Cathy Hannabach: One thing I’ve been talking with a lot of guests on the show about lately is how the pandemic has really pushed us to rethink the way that we form community, both professionally and personally. And obviously the way that we collaborate with others has changed pretty dramatically over the past year and a half.

What role do you find community playing in your projects these days? And how has the way that you connect with community shifted over the past year? 

[00:02:12]

Liat Ben-Moshe: I’m really glad we’re meeting around this theme of community because my work has really engaged with this theme for a really long time. So a lot of the work I do is around deinstitutionalization and prison abolition.

[00:02:31]

The idea is not just about what to dismantle but also what to build, which is what Ruth Gilmore always says. By the idea, I mean, the idea of, of abolition, the idea of deinstitutionalization and with regards to what to build, a lot of the answer has always been community, whether we talk about community re-entry, community corrections, community, you know.

[00:02:58]

Different people talk about different things. And not that I think that those things I just mentioned are abolitionary, but the idea of community is really kind of thrown around a lot as the thing that is not the carceral or is not the institution.

[00:03:13]

So community’s definitely something I’ve been thinking a lot about in terms of research and one of the issues is I think it’s important also not to romanticize community. I think that this is really clear for people who are queer, gender non-conforming, people who come from communities, people who are survivors of abuse, people who come from communities and even nuclear community, meaning families, families of origin, that are not embracing them, to say the least, not to mention abusing them.

[00:03:56]

So I think it’s really important as activists and as researchers, when we throw around the notion of we need to do it in community is also not to romanticize what community is but to really think critically about when we say community, what actually do we mean?

[00:04:14]

Do we mean community of like-minded people? Do we mean communities of origin? Do we mean imagined communities, which is, you know, of course Benedict Anderson’s definition of nationalism. What kind of communities do we that we mean when we say that? That’s kind of one thing I’ve been thinking of for many, many years, and I’ve been written, I’ve also written a lot about that.

[00:04:43]

The second thing that I think is really important is the second part of your question, which is the way that that might have shifted over the past year. I’ve been thinking more and more about what one needs in order to feel in community. I’m thinking about that in relation to my own community, which is mostly disability, anti-psychiatry, mad, neurodivergent communities, and the way that people have responded to COVID, how people have  responded to abolitionist demands, anti-racist work, and all of that.

[00:05:24]

What does it mean to be in community and who are the people that we’re not including in our communities? It brings the notion of political education to mind because it’s really important to know that disability, madness, and neurodivergence are also political identities.

[00:05:48]

Even though I identify as disabled, I didn’t necessarily understood myself as disabled in the political sense like I have a community, that I have an origin story, that I have a whole history of my community that I was not aware of until much, much later in life.

[00:06:09]

I’m thinking about who doesn’t have that, to understand that they are in community.

[00:06:15]

Cathy Hannabach: That’s complicated too, particularly when folks are new to social movements or new to, as you point out, the concept of an identity term as having a politics as opposed to just being descriptive of a life or of an experience.

[00:06:31]

That’s something that I think a lot of us who work in various movements wrestle with: how to, how to get new people in, how to explain that these things have histories, that they have politics to them. 

[00:06:44]

Liat Ben-Moshe: Exactly. And I think in the case of the disability, madness, and neurodivergence, it’s not just that people don’t see disability or that they might see disability as descriptive but that a lot of people, I mean, basically everybody around us, sees it as negative. They see it as something that’s pathological, something that needs fixing, a deficit.

[00:07:08]

They don’t necessarily see our existence as something that gives a particular ontology or epistemology.

[00:07:17]

I think that also understanding how identity, if you want to call it social location, how that connects to other social locations is incredibly important. So it’s not just important to understand disability but also how it connects to race, gender, nationality, and so on and so on. So yeah, exactly what you are referring to.

[00:07:39]

Cathy Hannabach: Much of your work focuses on what you call carceral ableism, or the ways that the prison industrial complex, ableism, racism, and sexism shape one another. Rather than just being additive, they help define one another. They have historically, and they certainly do in our contemporary world.

[00:07:57]

I’m thinking, for instance, of your book Decarcerating Disability, and the Ideas on Fire team really loved working with you on the index, by the way.

[00:08:06]

Liat Ben-Moshe: You were fabulous.

[00:08:09]

Cathy Hannabach: That book does a really amazing job of tracing, as you point out, the largest decarceration movement in US history, in the form of deinstitutionalization for people with disabilities.

[00:08:21] 

I’d love to turn to your work in these fields and pick your brain a little bit about where you see the movements for prison abolition and disability justice going in the next decade or so and what you think are some of the most urgent issues that these movements are tackling.

[00:08:40]

Liat Ben-Moshe: That’s such an important question. I hope I can do it justice. I’ve been working on this book for probably over ten years. When I first started this, there was hardly anybody at that intersection of disability justice and prison abolition. I mean, there always have been people that do the work on the ground, but in terms of scholarship, it was hardly anything. 

[00:09:14]

Even in terms of organizing, I’ve found that if you go to disability, particularly disability rights, spaces, they don’t have a good understanding of incarceration or decarceration. And if you go to prison abolitionists, they don’t have a good assessment of disability or madness.

[00:09:35]

This was a decade ago. That’s totally different now. I find that there’s a lot of collectives and movements and organizing that is happening under the rubric of disability justice, under the rubric of anti-racism or racial justice, or a lot of other formations that really embrace that intersection from a critical perspective.

[00:09:59]

In regards to the first part of the question, I think it’s already going. I think it’s really quite different than when I started writing this book.

[00:10:08]

This might be interesting to listeners: it’s a book I didn’t actually want to write. I’m not from the US. I was born in the 1970s and I didn’t experience this movement for deinstitutionalization and prison abolition in the 1970s. A lot of the book is about the 1960s, the 1970s, and the 1980s, and I wasn’t here. I’m not an informant from these movements.

[00:10:37] 

I was hoping that those people would write such a book and then it could read it and use it. But over the years I noticed that nobody had, and the more that I asked people to do it, they said, you should do it. And so I did.

[00:10:53]

It’s none that I’m not a part of these movements. I absolutely am. But my point is I’m writing the genealogy and I’m writing a genealogy that I wasn’t either alive for or in the US for. So that’s how the book came to be.

[00:11:10]

In relation to the question about urgent issues that the movements are tackling or should be tackling now, I think there are several. One is that now there are all these calls to defund the police, for example, that have come from people who… I don’t want to say got woke but younger people that got really politicized because of the George Floyd murder and other police violence, police murders that happened last summer, summer of 2020.

[00:11:45]

That [inaudible] was building on movements, Black Lives Matter and earlier movements starting in the 1970s that ended up in this crucial moment that we’re in where things like defund the police or abolition are becoming household names.

[00:12:03]

But my worry is that now people are calling for, “Okay, let’s defund the police and instead people should be calling social workers,” for example. Well, from disability worlds, mad worlds, and neurodivergent worlds, we know that social workers or psychiatrists, these are people that are embedded in the system we’re trying to fight. These are the people that take away our children. These are the people that buy into this idea of biopsychiatry or the biological basis of us being “defective.” These are the people that end up sending us to places that are not the prison but are sites of confinement that we can’t get out of.

[00:12:52]

So this is where I think we need to really embrace the intersection of disability justice and prison abolition and to really think critically about not just what we don’t want but also what we do want.

[00:13:06]

Is calling social workers something we bring under the umbrella of defund the police or abolition, or is there a more capacious kind of vision that we want to have?

[00:13:18]

Cathy Hannabach: Speaking of a more capacious version, I would love to get your take on the question that I close out every episode with, which really gets at that version of a better world that you’re working toward—not just what we’re fighting but what you’re hoping to bring into being.

[00:13:33] 

So I will ask you this giant question that I think is also a really important question. What kind of world do you want?

[00:13:41]

Liat Ben-Moshe: Wow. That is a giant question. Obviously, my very specific fight is for an non-carceral world, which means not just abolishing particular places but really abolishing the whole logic that we need to contain, confine, and segregate people based on things that we think people quote unquote “need,” like special education or segregated units.

[00:14:18]

That is the small part of the world that I want. I mean, that is the slice that I’m fighting for. And it’s not really a tiny slice. To abolish all carceral logics, you really need to abolish systems of oppression that construct these logics. So that is the slice that I’m at.

[00:14:41]

But more than that, right now we’re in 2021, this, uh, we’re recording this in May, just to give a time capsule for people who might be listening later on. In the US, this is when at least some people have already been vaccinated against COVID-19.

[00:15:10]

I’m thinking about your question about the world I want in a transnational kind of way. I mean, it’s so unequal. The distribution of vaccines is so unequal. Who has the ability to access these life-sustaining apparatuses? It’s very unequal.

[00:15:40] 

I started to think only recently because of the availability of vaccines in the US that people are starting to talk about going back to normal. And this brings me back to your question about the kind of world we want because I think COVID has been absolutely horrific in a very, very unequal way.

[00:16:05]

And I think the kind of people that are saying go back to normal are maybe people for whom normal made sense. For the population that I’m a part of and work with, it never made sense. Normal is awful. The idea that because some people now have access to vaccines we can go back to some kind of super romantic version of how things used to be even just a year ago absolutely makes no sense to me and to the communities that I’m a part of.

[00:16:38]

It’s really, really important to take stock of the moment that we’re in, in which you’re asking this question, because I think it may be this kind of prefigurative moment in which we need to understand how we’re going and what is the means to get there and what has this year of staying at home done to us.

[00:17:01]

Going back to your question about community, for some people, the staying at home, when the home is abusive, has been horrific, but the idea of going back to quote unquote “normal” or pre-pandemic, of course, doesn’t make sense either. So I’m really kind of dreading this.

[00:17:19]

In the literature, in criminology and otherwise, we call it re-entry. I’m really dreading this moment of re-entry, both for myself and for others if we’re not going to be critical about it, if we’re just going to quote unquote “go back to normal.”

[00:17:34]

So this is the kind of world I don’t want. I don’t want the world of 2019, the kind of global, unequal world in which we’re finding ourselves now, like I said, with the distribution of vaccines, for example. You see what capitalism and nationalism and other… was it Bush who it an axis of evil they have kind of given to us.

[00:18:00]

I think that in the shadows over that, came a different understanding of what it is that we need, the kind of mutual aid processes, the reliance on each other, interdependence, new relations with each other that came from this pandemic that I hope we keep and cultivate beyond the pandemic, if there is a beyond.

[00:18:30]

Cathy Hannabach: Well, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all these ways that you imagine and create otherwise.

[00:18:36]

Liat Ben-Moshe: Well, thanks for having me.

[00:18:42]

Cathy Hannabach: Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise.

Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud and myself, Cathy Hannabach. Audio editing was provided by the awesome folks at Pro Podcast Solutions.

You can check out the show notes and transcript for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net, where you can also read about our fabulous guest and find links to the people and projects we discussed on the show.

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