Susie Ferguson: Kia ora, I’m Susie Ferguson. This is Brazen, your podcast for women telling women’s stories. Last time we heard from comedian, writer, all-round superhuman Michele A’Court. If you haven’t heard her, she is so worth a listen. Now let’s hear from someone you maybe don’t know too much about: Asha Bandele. Asha’s a US journalist, an activist, a mother. She’s written a bunch of books, including one about the Black Lives Matter movement, When They Call You a Terrorist. She’s incredible, as you’re about to find out. She made me cry. She was in New Zealand for a conference, but when we spoke, she’d just come back from visiting Arohata Women’s Prison near Wellington, so we started talking about that.
asha bandele: There were marked differences that I could see between this prison and women’s prisons that I’ve taught in and visited in the United States. One thing that’s important to just name, is the light. There was sunlight, there’s beauty that’s around, and that’s important. I was very aware of how dark the places I’ve been in for women are. How little light. Even in units that were for mothers and children there was so little natural light. All these things that we actually need to thrive and live are taken away. They felt very much like dungeons in the United States, and here there wasn’t that sense. It was the idea that you wanted to create an environment that encouraged human growth and spirit. I was impressed, too, with the natural inclusion of culture, the tethering to the language. All of these things are unusual, if I consider it in a US setting. That said, I’ve never been in a facility and met with people where there were so many guards present. So here there had to be probably eight to ten officers and staff who were in the room, which of course defacilitates some level of intimate conversation. So I’ve never experienced that before. There’s always officers in the room, but they’re usually a little bit more removed. So that was interesting to me. But there was, in the absence of a ground-up movement led by people who’ve been incarcerated, the language of freedom is not as vibrant here at it is in the United States. So there’s a strong culture there of taking both responsibility for things that you’ve done that may have harmed somebody, and also not removing yourself from the larger context in which something happened. Here, there wasn’t a sense from any of the women we talked to about what a healthy community could look like, and that if you had all of these things in place, you might not have problematic drug use, you might not have property crimes, you might not have violent crimes. And so that sense of what needed to be in place, something was missing, that rightfully should have been there, that seems to be here a new conversation.
Susie: And why is that? Is that because women here, maybe women round the world, feel if they end up in prison they deserve the punishment? They should be there.
asha: I think that that is certainly the sense, and you get some of that in the United States too, the United States has benefited from centuries of resistance and push and fight, and in the modern age, since at least 1966, the Black Panthers put it right in their ten point program, right, free all prisoners from every jail, prison, military, detention centre, free everybody. So that demand has been there. Before that you had W.E.B. Du Bois, right at the turn of the 20th century, so that idea that prisons were a part of a line that came from the American commitment to control and confine Black people in particular, though certainly not solely now, that it was wrong, has been pushed back against for quite some time. So you have a more robust and mature discussion about that, and it would be good to see that in New Zealand as well.
Susie: And so the disproportionate effect of punishment, of incarceration, certainly here in New Zealand, is borne by Māori, by the indigenous culture. Why do we, why do so many cultures round the world, struggle with the concept around the war on drugs having failed, and that something else, another approach, is needed?
asha: I think that people like the idea of having power. And one way to maintain power is to assert that you are better than someone else, and you are more rightfully positioned in a particular station in life than someone else. And drugs gives us a way, in the United States we stopped saying race, it was written out of the law. So that happens in 1968. It’s not shocking that you then have a drug war initiated by 1971. Drugs gave us a way to say, These are the people you can dispose of, and I’m okay, you don’t need to do that. It allowed us a way to participate, to put our own people on the buses and trains. Because it was already hard being Black in America, that was already its own stigma, right, if you were Black you were lazy, you were less than, you were promiscuous, you were all these things, but at least I’m not a crack-head, right, even Whitney Houston will say it, Crack is whack, I don’t do crack, and we have this sort of saying, I’m okay because I do this, and you’re not okay, so I’m therefore more entitled to certain rights, to certain regulations, it’s very Orwellian, right? All of us are equal, but some of us are more equal than others. And so that fundamental idea of who gets to be on top, of who gets to be counted as valid, is something that has been a human struggle for quite some time. For all of humanity.
Susie: And is that one of the reasons why America struggles so much with the opioid crisis, because it’s happening to White people too?
asha: Well, there isn’t an opioid crisis in the United States. What there is, is an overdose crisis. Black people and Brown people are disproportionately dying. So even in a state like West Virginia, where most of us didn’t even realise there were very many Black people, Black people present as 55% of those who perish from opioid overdose. But I think that that is something that was built in to the drug ware. The assumption is that everybody doesn’t get to come home alive. Because drug policy is far more what kills us than any drug. If you give somebody clean heroin they can probably use it for the rest of their life and they’ll be fine, we all know those people. We all know somebody who’s been using dope their whole life and they’re fine. But we’ve determined that some people we don’t need. We don’t have enough room for them, we don’t have jobs for them, we’ve determined that some people ought to be used as the labour to stand up an economy, and some people get to benefit from it, and we see that in every sector.
Susie: So does that mean that there’s an element of not being able to take up the Portugal model around drugs, because actually that doesn’t serve the people in power?
asha: So there are going to be people who are going to advance theories against drug decriminalisation that are not rooted in science or fact. I actually don’t support all drug decriminalisation, I actually support all drug legalisation, because I believe in a regulated market. I support it because I’m a mother. Because more than anything else, I don’t want my daughter to get high. I don’t want her to shoot heroin. I don’t even particularly want her to smoke cannabis. But more than anything, I don’t want her to come home dead. What people who oppose this are doing is saying it’s probably more important that somebody dies than if we have a system of control. And so my argument with drug warriors as it was, is that they would rather see dead children than to ensure a life. And that is unforgiveable to me. The other thing that I want to say clearly is that we’ve spent an awful lot of time attempting to convince and talk with people who are least proximate to the harm. I think we would do better to talk with, convince, and struggle with people who are most proximate to the harm, and I want to talk to us about us and what we need for us.
Susie: And so talk to me about Black Lives Matter, and your involvement with that movement. How did this become part of your life?
asha: Well, Black Lives Matter is part of a continuum of the struggle for liberation for Black people in the United States. And Patrisse Cullors, who is one of the three women who co-founded Black Lives Matter, is like a little sister to me. And we’re very very close, I loved her before Black Lives Matter, and we’ve continued to work together and grow. And it became very clear to me at a certain point that Patrisse was being erased from the history.
Susie: Why was that happening?
asha: Well there’s a couple of things. She was pregnant, and so you know, people naturally go to men more, just like they’ll actually listen to tall people more, or people who look a certain way, and so somebody put this guy, DeRay Mckesson, on the news, and he became the face, when in fact he wasn’t the organiser. And so I felt a certain duty of care, as somebody who had a history of journalism, to make sure that that story was known, that this was women who did this. This was three women, two of whom are queer, who stood this movement up, who infused culture and healing as a part of it from the ground up. It wasn’t something that happened after, in a movement, you get traumatised, you go away, you come back, it was right from the very beginning. It was intersectional from the beginning. It sought to include all. No-one talks about that, no-one talks about all the trans women who drove to St Louis and Ferguson, in the wake of the killing of Mike Brown, at great risk to themselves, and were out there, and somebody needed to tell that story, and so when Patrisse asked me if I would help her and write the book, that wasn’t even a question.
Susie: So it was the first draft of history, if you like, that you were writing, because you could see the women already being written out of it.
asha: Absolutely. And Alicia Garza, who was one of the other women who co-founded it, has another book, and that’s why we call it A Black Lives Matter Memoir, knowing that there were, and there should be, many stories, that 1,000 flower bloom, and what was important about Patrisse’s story was that it gave us a way to say, here’s a young woman with a complex family history, who lived in abject poverty, and who is queer, and who left home early because she was queer, certainly felt pushed out of her home, and I wanted to help ensure that some other young person within reach of her voice, and reach of her story, would know that because there were all of these harms, or all of these things that seemed to hold them back, that they had a way to write themselves into their own history. They could be arbiters of their own futures.
Susie: The power of the movement, was that something that you anticipated because of the characters that founded it? And how far did it get because of those individuals?
asha: I don’t know that anyone could have fully anticipated how things were going to go. Certainly we had been protesting police violence and we had been reporting on it, and there had been many many rallies, people had been arrested, you know, so many of us had been doing that work, and so what is it that ignited a movement around this young beautiful man Trayvon Martin in particular. There’s a number of things, right. So he’s middle class, he’s got parents who have wherewithal, who knew how to present, it’s beautiful, all of those things made his story one that people could see their own children in, right, they didn’t other him in the way they might have more if it had started with Mike Brown. And then it was the wisdom of knowing how to use social media. And just in the same way that it was women who stood up for the Arab Spring, these women knew how to do that. Opal Tometi creates the initial architecture, right. Alicia Garza on July 13th, 2013, who writes a love letter, and says, No matter what happens, Black lives matter. And it’s Patrisse who hash-tags it and builds out that first coalition in south Los Angeles.
Susie: When you first saw that, how did that speak to you? The hashtag Black Lives Matter.
asha: I used it quite frequently, and it was so simple but it was true and it was something that we all knew. All these ways in which we were told, and continue to be told, our lives didn’t matter. We see it so visually when it’s somebody dead. But we’re told that our lives don’t matter all the time, in different ways. We’re told it in the ways that we get paid. We’re told it in the ways that we aren’t allowed to move in certain areas in our professions. We’re told it by being disacknowledged, walking into a store, being hyper-acknowledged by police. And we’re just told it, over and over, you don’t count and you never did and you never will. And so I think that the simplicity of that phrase for me was also about how complex that is. It’s not just Black Lives Matter because somebody’s dead, it’s because we’re alive we matter. And see our joy matters, our love matters, how we raise our children, all of it matters. So it was powerful, and it was probably most powerful to see the way it impacted my daughter, who was 13. I have to, it was a terrible day. It was my birthday. And I came home and I couldn’t believe that he was acquitted. And I should have known he would be acquitted. And in 2015, Sandra Bland is when we found out that she was dead, and I’ll just never forget, I was like, wow, I can’t even celebrate my birthday any more. It was scary to feel it come around. So Patrisse said to me, that’s also the day Black Lives Matter was born. And I think that, of everything, that’s what I want people to know, that there was this great harm, but there’s always been great resistance, and we’ve never been a people who were just beaten down and didn’t come back. We have scaled mountains, and we’re the survivors of people who were marched, literally barefoot, thousands of miles from an inland to a Ghanaian coastline, and survived that march. Then survived months in dungeons. And then survived months in the holds chained in their own piss and shit in a slave ship. And then got here, and survived plantations, and had children, and survived all of that slavery, some people walked as much as a hundred miles to find their families, pulled them back together. That’s why family reunions are big to Black people. And we’re their children. We’re people who imagined us and loved us before they could even see another day for themselves. And that is the power of Black Lives Matter to me. It’s that continuum, that no matter what you do, whether we have shoes, whether we can read, whether we’ve been beaten, we’re going to get up and we’re going to find our family and we’re going to pull it back together, and if they can think that our lives don’t matter, but we know better. And that’s why that movement is so important.
Susie: Tell me about yourself. Tell me about your family. When did you realise that being an activist, that being part of this, was going to be part of you?
asha: I think that I can’t answer that without saying that I’m probably deeply impacted by the fact that I lived in foster care, and I was adopted when I was almost three years old. And something about that, my parents loved me, very close relationship, that said, there’s a story that gets told about being disposable. There’s a story that gets implanted about how you have to be in order to be received and held. You couldn’t show up like an arsehole, who would take you? But there was also something about that experience that says, you came into the world a secret. And your life was not something to be celebrated. So all of that impacts, whether I’m conscious of it or not. And what my mother would disagree with, if I say that she was my inspiration, she was a dean of students of the City University of New York, and started the first child-care centre so women who were single parents could go to school and get an education. I remember my mother marching, and coming home at two in the morning, to try to keep her school tuition free, so it could be accessible to all people. And I don’t know that that’s what she wanted to do, but she knew more than anything she wouldn’t leave her students. All of that impacted me, and I think that, I don’t know that you make a choice to say, today I’m going to be an activist. I think that I made a choice to say I’m not going to lie. And that I’m going to try to do what’s right. I was raised to do what’s right, and I was raised to be honest, and if what was right was to take over a building, as we did when I was a student because they were trying to close more people out of school, then that’s what you did. And if what was right was to oppose the prison industry and the punishment industry, because they were disappearing so many of our people, people from our blocks, people just going missing, then that’s what you do. Raised with that ethos of integrity, and of not allowing somebody to be harmed next to you, and all of those other things I think inform a life, I’m exactly where I probably should be.
Susie: You wrote a book, The Prisoner’s Wife, about your husband and your daughter. Tell me how that came about, how you got to that situation.
asha: So when I was a student I took a class, it was probably one of the first classes on the Black experience of prisons in America. It was right at the same time that the first statistics were coming out that one in four, at the time, Black men would experience prison in their lifetime. And my professor, as part of the course requirement, brought us up to a prison. And I don’t know whatever I thought before, but I went in there and I saw the people I would know in my neighbourhood, I was just, oh, so these are people. It’s not like, this thing. And there was this really fine, good-looking man, who was there. I was married at the time to somebody else, so it’s not like anything was going to happen. So I began bringing up and just wanting to melt those walls that would have people who were in prison on one side, and us on another, as if we were not part of one larger community, which I believed we were. And over a period of time I fell in love with my husband, and in 1995 we married. And I wanted to write about it, because there was so much shame and so much stigma, and I was like, why should be shamed for loving someone. And that was all that I was doing. I just straight-out love someone. And to know love is to me why we exist. We exist to know love. Whether you’re Christian or in any other religion, or not in a religion at all, if you don’t know love then you really don’t know life. And I wanted to celebrate that, and I wanted to speak for women who couldn’t speak for themselves in this case. This was 1999 when the book came out, 20 years ago, so no-one was talking about that. And it wasn’t fair. It just wasn’t fair to ostracised in the way we were. And right after the book came out I got pregnant. We have conjugal visits in New York State. Not all across the United States, but in the state I live in, we do. So I did write about her, but not in that volume.
Susie: And then he was deported. Did that feel like a particularly cruel slap in the face from the system?
asha: Yeah, it was brutal, because we didn’t expect that. Because he came here as a minor, and his parents were citizens, so we didn’t expect that he’d be deported. But it took away every dream that I ever had for my life. I was in my 20s, newly a mother, and three months and one day after my baby was born, he got a deportation order. And so we fought that, we fought that for eight, nine years. And we won, initially, but in the United States, even though the judge decided in our favour, it’s sort of like the Supreme Court, which is what the Immigration is, came in and said, too bad. And so he was deported in 2009.
Susie: And how do you look back on that now, with ten years having passed?
asha: I’m grateful to have known great love. And I am grateful to be the parent of the most beautiful daughter who came from that great love. I wouldn’t change it, even knowing what I know now. If I knew everything, I would do it again. Because it would give me Lisa, my daughter. I would do it again.
Susie: The way you speak, the way you tell women’s stories, do you look at society and think it sets women up to succeed or to fail?
asha: Well, certainly I think we want to consider, what society? I think different societies are different. I hear Iceland is doing a pretty good job. And New Zealand has an incredible history too, as an innovator, and it would do well to lean in to that. It’s the first nation to give women the right to vote. It does some incredible first strides, along with Sweden and frankly an FDR-run US, on workers’ rights. There’s a lot of innovation that is here, and a lot that is possible. And there are plenty of nations, some of them conquered, throughout the African continent, and First Nations, where that is not true for women. But in the main, the world is primarily set up for a very few select number of men to succeed. But I want to be careful about how we say that. Because when we just break things down just by gender, you don’t have a way to make sense of a Margaret Thatcher. And we have certainly seen women’s capacity to be just as cruel and harmful to women, as we’ve seen men. I’ve seen that. We all have. And so in the main, I think that the world is set up for a very few people to succeed. Most of them will be men and some of them will be women. Nobody will be somebody probably right now who’s on the gender spectrum, who doesn’t fit well into that binary. But I think that you keep working. It’s Audre Lorde who tells us that if we lose, some day women’s blood will congeal on a dead planet, but if we win there is no telling. And so I believe we’re going to win, because that’s the only choice we have.
Susie: Do you think you frighten people?
asha: Me? I don’t think so. I’m a mother, and I think that we’re asking some of these bit theoretical questions, but at the end of the day, I want my daughter, like every other child, to know the full breadth of her dreams. And be present to give the world all that they want to, and have to offer. And so if people find that frightening, then so be it. There are those, I don’t know if I frighten people, sometimes I can maybe make people uncomfortable.
Susie: Is that a good thing, though, and especially looking at something like feminism, which in some ways often it can be White feminism, and that could be little more than White supremacy dressed up in something else?
asha: Yeah, I mean, I think discomfort is great. We know that it’s great, because we know that for those who exercise, that little ache, that next day, and you’re like, okay, I didn’t know I woke that up, but you’re glad you woke up that muscle. You’re glad you moved that. It’s okay. I still got it, I feel it every time I run, I’m a little embarrassed that I don’t run quite the way I did when I was 20. I’m just still glad this shit can move. It’s my thing. And I’m proud of it. And that discomfort is taking me to a higher level. It’s making my heart stronger. It’s making all of those things happen. Discomfort is what allowed me to have my child. Discomfort is what has allowed me to have the greatest relationships of my life, sitting in relationship with somebody and having to learn their truth and work through it, discomfort. So I’m not afraid of discomfort.
Susie: Just finally, we’ve talked a lot about the bad side of things, but what about the good side of things? What do you hope for? What do you see in the future that we’re just about touching, that would actually make an enormous difference to people?
asha: I have an enormous amount of hope. I’ll tell you this one story to close out, that gave me hope. I grew up in a family, nobody was gay, or LGBTQ. And then my first mentor was Audre Lorde. And there’s probably no-one who’s had a greater influence on my life and way of thinking than she. And she died in 1992, and I’m probably still in recovery from losing her. And I had my baby in 2000. And when she was about seven years old, and it’s not like we walked around and talked about these issues much, she was like six or seven, right. We’re standing on the street, and two men, a couple, walked by holding hands, and one looked over at the other one and I guess he said goodbye, and he kissed him on the mouth. And my daughter who was standing there looked at me horrified, and her eyes were open, and she said, Mommy, did you see that? And it was a very deep time in the United States with legislation around marriage equity and different things, and I just thought, fuck, I haven’t done my job. And so I said, See what, baby? She goes, That guy had on socks with his sandals, isn’t that gross? And I thought, we won. We fucking won. Because those kids get it.
Susie: That’s Asha Bandele. Isn’t she amazing. Now, if you’re not already subscribed to Brazen, do that now, because the next episode is a goodie.
Jacinda Ardern: In a deeply cynical world, in a world that often feels quite broken, there is still good you can do in this place.
Susie: Jacinda Ardern, in the next episode of Brazen. Brazen is hosted by me, Susie Ferguson. It was created by me, Lou O’Reilly, Vic McLennan, and Dave Cormack. Brazen is produced and edited by Melody Thomas. Our engineers are William Saunders and John Pilley. The theme is Be Who You Are by Edie. Artwork by Pepper Raccoon, and transcriptions done by Emma Hart. Ka kite anō.