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Imagine Otherwise: Marisol LeBrón on an Anti-Colonial Abolitionist Praxis

Imagine Otherwise: Marisol LeBrón on an Anti-Colonial Abolitionist Praxis

retro
March 13, 2019

Marisol LeBrón wearing a blue checked shirt and glasses in front of a bookcase

 

How do punitive governance like policing and natural disasters like Hurricane Maria reveal the ongoing colonial relationship between the US and Puerto Rico? What do you do when your research plans are thrown into disarray by unforeseen events? How might we work together to imagine an abolitionist future?

In episode 84 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach talks with Latinx studies scholar Marisol LeBrón about how police violence and Hurricane Maria reveal the fraught colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the US government, how scholars can roll with the punches when natural disasters and other major current events upend their research plans, why repair and rest are critical components of any professional career, and how an anti-colonial abolitionist praxis is how Marisol imagines otherwise.

Guest: Marisol LeBrón

Marisol LeBrón is an assistant professor of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

An interdisciplinary scholar, Marisol’s research and teaching focus on social inequality, policing, violence, and protest. Her book, Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico (University of California Press, 2019), examines the growth of punitive governance in contemporary Puerto Rico. Marisol has published her research in Radical History Review; the Journal of Urban HistorySouls: A Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and SocietyWomen & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory; NACLA Report on the Americas; and the edited volume Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter.

Marisol’s current project, Shared Geographies of Resistance: Puerto Ricans and the Uses of Solidarity, explores the role of Puerto Rican activists in international radical politics and freedom struggles over the course of the twentieth century.

Marisol is an active contributor to popular conversations about Puerto Rico and its diaspora. She has published op-eds in The Guardian and Truthout (with Hilda Lloréns) and has been interviewed by a number of news outlets about Puerto Rico’s debt crisis as well as the impact of Hurricane María. She is also one of the co-creators and project leaders for the Puerto Rico Syllabus (#PRsyllabus), a digital resource for understanding the Puerto Rican debt crisis.

We chatted about

  • Marisol’s new book Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico (02:13)
  • The impact of Hurricane Maria on Marisol’s research process (04:53)
  • The interplay between academic knowledge, cultural production, and social justice activism in Puerto Rico (07:59)
  • Building support networks and self-care practices for sustainable scholarship (09:59)
  • Marisol’s projects on Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and Puerto Rican solidarity with other global resistance movements (13:09)
  • Imagining otherwise (15:08)

Takeaways

Marisol’s new book Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico

In the book, I look at the rise of what I call punitive governance in contemporary Puerto Rico. Structures like policing, incarceration, and concern over crime act in a way that hardens preexisting prejudices and social inequalities based on race, class, gender, sexuality, and spatial location in contemporary Puerto Rico….I’m also really interested in the ways that Puerto Ricans push back against these policies and try to imagine new ways of understanding safety and security in Puerto Rico.

Hurricane Maria and colonialism in Puerto Rico

What the hurricane did for me in terms of this project was really increase the urgency of the project. It made clear the way that colonialism continues to structure everyday life in Puerto Rico. One of the things that these kinds of permutations of the colonial relationship in Puerto Rico has done is hidden a lot of that overt colonialism under the guise of a limited sovereignty. But the hurricane ripped a lot of that away. I tied it back to questions of policing because policing is one way that we can understand the colonial relationship in Puerto Rico, but things like natural disasters like Hurricane Maria give us another optic and another lens to analyze that relationship.

The importance of self-care practices for researchers

It’s only now that I’m starting to think a little bit more seriously and critically about what it means to have spent the past ten years of my life every day thinking about police violence and all of these really horrific stories of discrimination and violence. I think that takes a toll on you. When you’re in it, you’re so tunnel vision that you can’t see that. Now I’m trying to think about how to practice self-care to be able to continue that work and to avoid burnout.

Marisol’s next book project Shared Geographies of Resistance

I’m really interested in the ways in which Puerto Ricans have been involved in international solidarity campaigns and freedom movements. I’m thinking about the ways in which Puerto Ricans, both in Puerto Rico and in the diaspora, have connected their struggle against US colonialism and exploitation to other struggles around the globe against colonialism, racism, and military violence. Puerto Ricans have created this shared geography of resistance with other groups over the course of the twentieth century to understand themselves as part of a global struggle against inequality and against fascism.

Imagining otherwise

I consider myself an abolitionist. I consider myself someone who in their scholarship and scholar activism is trying to work towards a world that is free of prisons, free of policing, and where we don’t have colonialism. An anti-colonial abolitionist praxis is how I imagine my own work….What I try to do in my research and in my teaching is to think about the small steps to start to get us there. What’s the incremental change that we need to get us there? I think part of it is starting to shift people’s ideas around these structures as immutable, as having always been there since the beginning of time. [I think about] the fact that this is not the world that we’ve always inhabited as humans and that we can build something different.

More from Marisol

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a 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 and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] 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. [music fadeout]

[00:23] This is episode 84 and my guest today is Marisol LeBrón.

Marisol is an assistant professor of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

An interdisciplinary scholar, Marisol’s research and teaching focus on social inequality, policing, violence, and protest. Her first book, Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico (University of California Press, 2019), examines the growth of punitive governance in contemporary Puerto Rico.

Marisol’s research has appeared in in Radical History Review; the Journal of Urban HistorySouls: A Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and SocietyWomen & Performance; and Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter, among others.

Marisol’s current project, Shared Geographies of Resistance: Puerto Ricans and the Uses of Solidarity, explores the role of Puerto Rican activists in international radical politics and freedom struggles over the course of the twentieth century.

Marisol is an active contributor to public conversations about Puerto Rico and its diaspora, having published op-eds in The Guardian and Truthout and been interviewed by news outlets about Puerto Rico’s debt crisis and the impact of Hurricane María.

[01:31] In our interview, Marisol and I discuss how police violence and Hurricane Maria reveal the fraught colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the US government, how scholars can roll with the punches when natural disasters and other major current events upend your research plans, why repair and rest are critical components of any professional career, and how an anti-colonial abolitionist praxis is how Marisol imagines otherwise.

[to Marisol] Thank you so much for being with us today.

Marisol LeBrón: I’m happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

Cathy: So the author of a new book called Policing Life and Death: Race, Violence, and Resistance in Puerto Rico. Can you give our listeners a sense of what that book covers?

Marisol [02:13]: Yeah. So in the book, I look at the rise of what I call punitive governance in contemporary Puerto Rico. I’m really interested in the way that structures like policing, incarceration, and concern over crime act in a way that hardens preexisting prejudices and social inequalities based on race, class, gender, sexuality, and spatial location in contemporary Puerto Rico.

I’m really interested in looking at policing for what it can tell us about the contemporary relationship between Puerto Rico and the US. So what I do is look at policing as a kind of optic to analyze shifts and changes in the colonial reality that a lot of Puerto Ricans are experiencing. I look at the growth of these punitive measures over the course of the twentieth century and the late twentieth century to the present.

I’m also really interested in the ways the Puerto Ricans push back against some of these policies or try to imagine new ways of understanding safety and security in Puerto Rico. So I’m really interested in cultural production and in activist efforts that are trying to challenge some of these ideas.

Cathy [03:38]: In the conclusion of the book, you write about how some of your original plans for this book were pretty drastically transformed. And this is something that a lot of scholars run into when they’re studying a living topic, a living object or area or group of people. Stuff comes up, life comes up and it radically changes our research plans. I’d love to talk a little bit more about that.

Of course, the giant thing that happened that changed the trajectory of your project was Hurricane Maria, right? What was that process like of having to respond to this very urgent, contemporary issue while still also trying to write a book that you had been planning for quite some time?

Marisol [04:20]: Yeah, that’s a really important question and one that [I address when] talking to folks who are writing dissertations now, graduate students. One of the things that I always say to them is to be ready to shift their projects on the drop of a dime, which is never what people want to hear. But I think it’s really important to prepare for those kinds of things because, as you said, if you’re doing stuff that’s based in the contemporary moment, the situation and the context are going to shift the nature of your questions or the nature of what you can actually do in terms of your research.

So this project has actually gone through a couple of shifts. Hurricane Maria was the latest one. But I talk about this a little bit in the introduction to the book that even the way that I was able to do this project on the ground when I got to Puerto Rico when I was a graduate student doing this research for my dissertation changed dramatically.

[05:12] One of the big shifts that happened that changed the outcome of my research was that when I first got to Puerto Rico in 2011, the Department of Justice had just issued a really damning report calling the Puerto Rico Police Department one of the most corrupt and violent police departments under US jurisdiction. So for me as a researcher, that cut off a lot of avenues that I had envisioned for this project in terms of being able to talk to official police sources or folks in the government about police violence.

I had to really shift what I had conceptualized in terms of this project. One things I talk about in the book is that for me, I think it made the project better. It sucked at the time! It was horrible and I thought my project was falling apart. There were a lot of tears involved, but the outcome ended up being that I had to shift and think [about the project] without official police narratives. I had to decenter that.

[06:05] What ended up happening is I was able to focus more on people who are actually experiencing policing, who are being criminalized, and the kinds of cultural production that arise out of those processes in really interesting ways.

So I always say to graduate students to be ready for those shifts. But, as you noted in your question, the latest shift that happened was around the hurricane. That happened as I was finishing up the book. I talk about this a little bit in the conclusion [to the book]. I had imagined my conclusion as talking about environmental justice and the way that police were facilitating toxic dumping in Puerto Rico. They were acting as armed escorts for this private company that was transporting coal ash into a predominantly Black, low-income community in southern Puerto Rico.

[07:01] But then the hurricane happened and I didn’t know what to do. I think like a lot of folks with familial ties to Puerto Rico, I felt really helpless.

What the hurricane did for me in terms of this project was really increase the urgency of the project. It made clear the way that colonialism continues to structure everyday life in Puerto Rico. One of the things that these kinds of permutations of the colonial relationship in Puerto Rico has done is hidden a lot of that overt colonialism under the guise of a limited sovereignty. But the hurricane ripped a lot of that away.

So that was something I tried to deal with in the end of the book and talk a little bit about. I tied it back to questions of policing because policing is one way that we can understand the colonial relationship in Puerto Rico, but things like natural disasters like Hurricane Maria give us another optic and another lens to analyze that relationship.

Cathy [07:57]: One of the things that I really love about this book (and there are many—I could go on and on, but the episode can only be so long!), is how you demonstrate how the different realms of academic research, social justice activism on the ground, and artistic or cultural production are deeply interwoven in the phenomenon that you’re researching and that you’re a part of.

I’d love to turn to how those things play out in your own work, both obviously in this project but also the other kinds of projects and collaborations that you’re a part of. What draws you to that nexus?

Marisol [08:35]: I think a lot of that has to do with my own training as a scholar, as an American studies scholar, in terms of taking really seriously modes of cultural production that are often not seen as “authentic” fonts of knowledge. I was really drawn to thinking about the quirky (in some cases) ways of thinking about policing that were not just going on police ride-alongs.

What anyone who studies policing or law enforcement realizes very quickly and early on is that, to paraphrase Dean Spade, the story the law tells about itself is not how the law is actually felt and experienced. So for me, I look at activism and cultural production. I look at social media, I look at underground rap during the 1990s. I look at activism that’s happening to try and imagine what would happen if the police were taken out of the picture. I look at those and really think about those as avenues that are giving us just as valuable a critique of policing as a structure as those produced by lawyers or scholars or politicians. Even more so because those are actually, in many cases, produced by the communities that are experiencing them firsthand as structures in their everyday life.

Cathy [09:58]: You brought up American studies, traditionally an interdisciplinary field, and I know you also do a lot of work that crosses over into gender and sexuality studies, critical race studies, and ethnic studies. These are all fields that a lot of the folks on the show come out of and work in and are deeply committed to. All of these emphasize interdisciplinarity or a more holistic approach to knowledge production, as you pointed out.

One of the things that you and I have talked about a little bit is how this spills over into our daily practice as humans, rather than just as brains who write books and think about smart things. What are some of your favorite self care, community-based, or creative practices that help you feel grounded, and sustained, and supported so you can do this kind of work?

Marisol [10:46]: I think that it’s really hard, especially for folks who are doing research on these really pressing and urgent topics, it’s really hard to feel like you can take a break. I know I feel really guilty when I do that a lot of times.

It’s really hard for me, especially when I’m in the thick of a project, to step back and be able to do that. I think that comes out of the urgency of these projects that a lot of us are doing. Now that I’m finishing up this project, I’ve been trying to be much better about that and trying to really think about the ways that that kind of repair, mental repair and physical repair, is really crucial when you’re doing this kind of work.

[11:37] I mean, it’s only now that I’m starting to think a little bit more seriously and critically about what it means to have spent the past ten years of my life every day thinking about police violence and all of these really horrific stories of discrimination and violence. I think that takes a toll on you. When you’re in it, you’re so tunnel vision that you can’t see that.

Now I’m trying to really think about how to practice that self-care to be able to continue that work and to avoid burnout. So I’m trying to be much nicer to my body. I’m doing things like trying to get out more and not work 24/7. I’m taking vitamins now, which I never did before. It’s little things like that, but also being willing to take breaks that aren’t just where you are working on other stuff. I think that having to step back, having to check in with yourself mentally is really crucial.

[12:37] I also think [it’s important to] have a community, which is fortunately one of the things that I was really good about building as I was working on this project. A community of folks who you can talk to about these issues. I’ve been really lucky to have a cohort of scholars and activists who are also working on pretty heavy topics, working on issues of violence and policing and colonialism. I’ve been able to talk [with them] about how some of these things affect me. That’s been really valuable. So I think finding your network of people who are going to sustain you and support you is really critical and really crucial when you’re doing this kind of work.

Cathy [13:06]: So I know we just talked about self-care and taking a break and letting projects rest for a minute, which if that’s what you’re doing right now, that is totally cool. We advocate that very strongly on the show! But you did mention new projects. Do you want to talk a little bit about stuff you’re working on?

Marisol [13:24]: Yeah, of course, because I do like to distract myself with other projects from the projects I’m working on.

I’m working on two projects right now actually that I’m really thrilled about. The first project I’m working on is an edited volume that I’m working on with one of my colleagues, Yarimar Bonilla, called Aftershocks. That’s trying to think about Hurricane Maria as both an aftershock of colonialism, of the current debt crisis that Puerto Rico’s in, of these kinds of structural inequalities, but also the kind of aftershocks that have followed in its wake.

The other project I’m starting to slowly shift towards is my next book project, something I’m tentatively calling Shared Geographies of Resistance. In that project, I’m really interested in the ways in which Puerto Ricans have been involved in international solidarity campaigns and freedom movements. I’m thinking about the ways in which Puerto Ricans, both in Puerto Rico and in the diaspora, have connected their struggle against US colonialism and exploitation to other struggles around the globe against colonialism, racism, and military violence.

Puerto Ricans have created this shared geography of resistance with other groups over the course of the twentieth century to really understand themselves as part of a global struggle against inequality and against fascism. For instance, Puerto Rican involvement in the Irish independence struggle, in the [South African] anti-apartheid movement, in the anti-Vietnam War movement, and also Puerto Rican solidarity with Palestine. So those are some of the moments that I’m thinking about as I’m starting to shift towards that next project slowly but surely.

Cathy [15:05]: This brings me to my absolute favorite question that I get to ask folks, which really gets at the heart of that big why behind all of these different projects that you do. And that’s the version of a better world that you’re working towards. So I’ll ask you this giant question, but I also think it’s a fun question and one that we don’t get to ask each other enough and certainly we don’t get enough chances to answer. What kind of world do you want?

Marisol [15:35]: I mean, that’s a big question.

Cathy: I know!

Marisol: But that’s the crux of the matter, right? That’s what we’re all writing towards and teaching towards and working towards—this question of what kind of world we want to live in.

I consider myself an abolitionist. I consider myself someone who in their scholarship and scholar activism is trying to work towards a world that is free of prisons, free of policing, where we don’t have colonialism. An anti-colonial abolitionist praxis is how I imagine my own work.

So for me, the research that I do is trying to work through those themes. That definitely comes through in Policing Life and Death, my first book. It’s about this question of if the police don’t necessarily make things better for the people who are interacting with them everyday—even for people who are calling the police to deal with problems who are not necessarily criminalized but who are using the police, they’re not necessarily even satisfied with what the police do in society—how can we start to work towards identifying why the police don’t function in the way that we want.

[16:37] And if they don’t function the way that we want, what are the things that are actually going to make us feel safer, are going to make us feel more secure, are going to make us feel good in our communities? I think that’s an abolitionist project. So I think about, well, if the police don’t make us safe, how can we start to work towards and build the things that are going to make feel safe? Things like full employment, healthcare, housing, eradicating racism and sexism—these really big projects.

What I try to do in my research and in my teaching is to think about the small steps to start to get us there. What’s the incremental change that we need to get us there? I think part of it is starting to shift people’s ideas around these structures as immutable, as having always been there since the beginning of time. [I think about] the fact that this is not the world that we’ve always inhabited as humans and that we can build something different.

Cathy [17:36]: Well, thank you so much for being with us and sharing all of the creative ways that you imagined and create otherwise.

Marisol [17:43]: This was great. Thank you for having me.

Cathy [17:49]: [upbeat music in background] 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, Rebecca Reynolds, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]


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