This is the text of the talk given by Dan Berger to the Kadima community on erev Rosh Hashanah
Thank you for having me. I have to admit, it is strange to be up on stage on Rosh Hashana. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, I am shocked to be part of a congregation that would have me as its High Holidays speaker. Then again, I never thought I would be part of a synagogue whose High Holiday theme was intersectionality.
I have the difficult task of trying to talk with you about intersectionality in ten minutes or less. Intersectionality is an exciting but often misunderstood topic. At its root, intersectionality names the fact that, as the poet and socialist feminist Audre Lorde said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” The term is often used to name the inseparability of identities and issues: that we do not just live along the axis of race or class or gender (or anything else) but need to account for the ways that they shape, inform, nurture, and determine each other.
The term has become something of a Rorschach test, meaning different things to different people. I want to note, though, that the idea itself came from Black feminist scholars and movements. The term was coined by the legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, who used it to describe the particular discrimination Black women faced. She had in mind the employment segregation of General Motors in the 1970s. At the time, African Americans could only work on the shop floor, and women could only work in the office. This was already a problem. But Black women could not get a job in the clerical staff because they were Black, nor could they get a job on the shop floor, because they were women. Intersectionality is how Crenshaw named the convergence of discrimination Black women faced, which both corporations and the legal system participated in. I encourage you to check out Crenshaw’s work with the African American Policy Forum. And if you haven’t done so already, I would encourage you to learn more about the history of Black feminist activism that inspired Crenshaw—particularly the 1978 statement by the Combahee River Collective, a socialist group who articulated the concept even before the term had come into circulation.
I want to use my time today, though, to talk about how intersectionality works in practice by focusing on one of the most important issues of our time: prison. Prison is an example of something a friend of mine once called “bad intersectionality.” Like the General Motors example Kimberle Crenshaw writes about, prisons index inequality. I am sure many of you know that the US has the world’s highest incarceration rate. With 2.2 million people incarcerated on any given day, the country also has more people living in cages than anywhere else on the planet. That number is bounced around a lot, but it is even more shocking when you consider that 10 million people pass through US jails in a given year. 70 million Americans, about one-fifth of the country, has a criminal record. The US is the only Western country with the death penalty, and the only one to put people in solitary confinement for years or even decades (even though the United Nations considers more than 15 days of isolation to be torture).
Of course, the people locked up in prison come from the most marginalized and oppressed sectors of society: Black and Brown people, people with mental or physical disabilities, Indigenous people and undocumented people, queer and trans people, survivors of domestic abuse and people who grew up in foster care, and people who occupy the intersections of many of these identities. And, Paul Manafort notwithstanding, the near totality of people in jails, prisons, and detention centers are poor and working class who couldn’t afford the costs of adequate legal representation. Prison is a form of racism and settler colonialism, a form of sexism and transphobia, a form of ableism and economic injustice.
I have said that prisons are an example of “bad intersectionality,” of the way repressive institutions prey upon people who are already disenfranchised. But my goal here today is not simply to provide a public service announcement on the evils of mass incarceration. Rather, I want to highlight the movement for prison abolition and transformative justice as an example of “good intersectionality.” By that, I mean movements that are grounded in people’s whole selves and that offer both immediate and long-term possibilities for change. To think about prison from an intersectional standpoint means recognizing our stake in ending mass incarceration. 70 million Americans, about one-fifth of the country, has a criminal record, as compared to about 14 million who belong to unions. We are all made through criminalization, in different ways. Many of us in this room likely either have a criminal record or know someone(s) who does.
I am especially glad to be speaking today, the final day of a three-week strike that prisoners in at least 17 states (and Canada) have participated in—including people incarcerated at the NW Detention Center. As with much of the history of prisoner organizing, the strike was planned and led by Black people who created a set of demands and coalitions that encompassed a broad, multiracial, multiethnic struggle against state violence. The strike is an example of good intersectionality in practice. The strike has raised specific demands for reforms, including a restoration of educational opportunities, parole, and voting rights for currently and formerly incarcerated people. They also call for an overhaul in prison conditions around the country.
I want to leave you, then, with a call to action for 5779.
- First, read the demands of the strikers, which you can find online. Read about the history behind these demands: the policies that keep people in prison for longer periods of time in more punitive and isolating conditions, the laws that have restricted voting rights for people convicted of felony offenses.
- Second, read a book this year about mass incarceration—preferably one written by a currently or formerly incarcerated person. (I would be happy to recommend some!) What you will find is that the monstrous policies that the current presidential administration has put in place at the border develop out of decades of get-tough criminal justice policies.
- Third, support the efforts aimed at ending mass incarceration. I have been overjoyed to see Kadima participate in the protests against the construction of a new youth jail in the Central District and join solidarity demonstrations at the NW Detention Center in Tacoma or the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac. If you have gone to any of those this last year, I thank you. But we will have cause for many other such demonstrations in the year(s) to come, and I hope you will be able to show up again or for the first time.
- Finally, I ask that you correspond with an incarcerated person or find other ways of offering emotional (or financial) support to the people and organizations dealing most directly with the horrors of mass incarceration. Doing so will help us all unlearn the scripts that we have been taught about what prisons are, who is in there, and why.
What makes the prison strike and the prison abolition movement intersectional is their emphasis that people are not disposable, no matter what they are accused of doing. The humanness of people needs to be preserved and protected, and in fighting to preserve it we become more human ourselves. And we all have a role to play in that process. Much as we all lose when humanity is oppressed and abused, so too do all win when humanity is upheld and affirmed.
I find this idea of intersectionality evident not only in the prison strike but in my understanding of what it means to be Jewish. I’d like to close with one of my favorite poems: Linda Pastan’s “A Short History of Judaic Thought in the Twentieth Century”:
The rabbis wrote:
although it is forbidden
to touch a dying person,
nevertheless, if the house
he must be removed
from the house.
and who may I touch then,
aren’t we all dying?
your old negotiator’s smile
but aren’t all our houses
The horror of the Trump administration reminds us daily that all of our houses are indeed burning. A half-century of mass incarceration reminds us that they have been burning for a very long time. But the courage and bravery of people in jails, prisons, and detention centers reminds us that even if the fire cannot be quelled, the people inside can be provided sanctuary.