Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha on Rethinking Safety and Disability Justice

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. (Photo: The Laura Flanders Show)Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. (Photo: The Laura Flanders Show)

Safety. Every law enforcement officer and every politician will tell you that they’re for it, and yet for many, police aren’t the answer; they’re a problem in the community, and today’s policy makers are only making things worse. If what we’re doing isn’t making many of us safer, what might?

Who do you call when you’re in trouble? Who do you wish were there to call?

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha has been asking these questions and more. She describes herself as a “queer, disabled, writer, performer, poet, healer and teacher.” Inspired by the poets June Jordan and Suheir Hammad (among others), she is the author of several books of poetry including Consensual Genocide and the Lambda award-winning Love Cake. She has a new book of poetry called Bodymap, and a memoir, Dirty River, coming out this year.

Piepzna-Samarasinha also cofounded the performance group Mangos With Chili and is an editor of The Revolution Starts At Home: Confronting Intimate Violence in Activist Communities, a book that grapples with the difficult ideas of addressing violence without police.

I interviewed Piepzna Samarasinha in New York earlier this summer. You can watch our conversation and see her perform more of her poetry at GRITtv.

Laura Flanders: Let’s talk a little bit about this notion of safety. …What does it mean to you?

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha: I think that most people have survived some form of abuse or violence. …I think that as feminists, we’ve been talking about that at least since the ’70s and beyond. [But] I think that in the criminal legal system (which I don’t call the criminal justice system, because it doesn’t bring it), no one ever asks survivors of violence what they need to have safety, justice and healing in their lives. We’re told as survivors of violence that, “Yay – second-wave, white, liberal feminism works,” and so we get to call the cops and send our abusers to prison. I don’t know a single survivor who’s ever called the police to get justice. And of the ones that I’ve read about, I don’t know a single one who said, “Yeah my experience in the criminal legal system was great, and I got what I needed.” We’re basically being used to create more prisons and to build mass incarceration.

Explain what you mean by that.

I think that, like a lot of feminists of color, I understand why a lot of feminists in the ’70s and ’80s pushed for things like the criminalization of domestic violence and child and sexual abuse. But what black and brown feminists know is that bringing more police into our communities never keeps us safe. My good friend Ejeris Dixon, who worked for many years at Audre Lorde Project, talks about how what we’re calling transformative justice is nothing new. [She says]: “My father is a black man from Louisiana. Growing up, the police were the Klan. … That’s not who we called when there was intimate partner abuse in our communities.” That hasn’t changed.

Is that where the artist and poet and imagination comes in? What else might we do? What else have other communities done?

I’m about to be 40, which means I came up as an activist and an organizer in the ’90s, and back then, I would run into, “Oh, cultural work …” [As if it were] this very feminized, unimportant thing. I still remember trying to organize a Free Mumia rally in 1996, and there was some old white Bolshevik guy. We were young people of color, and we were like, “We want to have MC’s and hip-hop artists and poets,” and he was like, “That’s not how you do a proper rally. You sell the paper,” and we were like, you’re racist and irrelevant.

Laura Flanders: (laughs)

I think that cultural work is still minimized, but I think that it goes beyond just being the entertainment at the rally. Diane di Prima once said that, “The only war that matters is the war of the imagination.” And I think that it’s very easy when we are surviving and not surviving multiple forms of violence all of the time to focus on the power that we don’t have. One thing that the Allied Media Conference, which is a grassroots media conference I work with, stresses in how we organize is that we focus on where we’re powerful, not where we’re powerless. I think the imagination is where we’re powerful. … We don’t have the state, we don’t have the prisons; we don’t have the cops … What we do have, as wild, queer, feminists of color, is one de-colonized space: the imagination.

What difference does your disability and the disability rights movement make?

We actually use the term disability justice because the disability rights movement, while it’s incredibly important and I’m grateful for the work those organizers did, has been predominately a white-dominated, single-issue movement. Disability justice as a term was coined by people of color with disabilities who were revolutionaries, especially Patricia Berne and Leroy Moore of Sins Invalid, who got really sick of being marginalized within both white, disability rights, and [also] non-disabled people of color movements …

Cara Page, who is a beloved, beloved person, who is the executive director of Audre Lorde Project right now, she was part of a group called Kindred, which still exists, which is black and brown queer southern healers, and they came together because she was like, “Organizers are literally dying in the South because of chronic illness and ableism and the relentless pace of our movements that is ableist.” So I would say that the first thing that’s true for our movements is that sustainability is a huge issue for us.

There’s so much that non-disabled activists can learn from disabled people and that’s kind of one of the beginning places. I think a lot of non-disabled activists, or people who don’t identify as disabled yet, are used to thinking of disability only in terms of, “We need to get a ramp.” That’s really important, but it’s a really huge cognitive leap for non-disabled folks to become aware that disabled folks have our histories and cultures of resistance.

We have “crip science.” We have incredible organizing skills that non-disabled people need to learn from. I can organize from bed. I can organize on the internet. I can organize on “crip time.” I can do a lot of miraculous things that are not on a 16-meetings- a-week, relentless schedule. I can do that on no money, and I am not alone. I am one of millions of disabled folks who are resisting, and I would say a whole lot of other things about eugenics and the value of our bodies and how the struggle around those issue are immensely connected with anti-prison organizing.

I heard a disability justice activist talk the other day about aging, and she said to her not-disabled colleagues, “You want to learn how to work your body as it ages? (Because if you’re lucky, it will acquire disabilities.) Learn from us.”

My friend Naima Lowe said recently, “The thing that non-disabled folks have to learn from us is that we’ve already survived some of the worst things that can happen, and I don’t just mean what ableism sees as the individual tragedy of our bodies, I mean surviving ableism and capitalism, and we know how to do it.”

When that, you know, break-neck speed, burned-out, able-bodied activist gets cancer or diabetes or, you know, gets an amputation and is like, “Oh my God, my life is over,” we are there to be like, “It actually really isn’t. But you need to change the way your life is and the way movements are so we can actually be part of that radical imagination.”

… and we can have fun.

And we can have fun.

Talk about fun.

What do you want to know?

Well, you’re into it. I’m watching you, and I’m thinking you’re talking about some of the most intense, hardcore stuff, and yet, you’re clearly relishing it.

I’m not dead! Like many survivors who make it to 40, I was not supposed to … I’m going to quote somebody who’s going to make you cry.

Go for it.

I mean June Jordan, right? The revolutionary queer black poet, cancer survivor and cancer not-survivor [she] said right after 9/11, “Some of us did not die. I guess it was our fate to live, so what are we going to do about it?”

Right.

I was talking with one of my chosen family members who is also a hardcore survivor who’s 42 [and] who painted [my] cane, and they were like, “We made it. Now what do we do with it?”

We survived, and we have all that knowledge. I’m thankful every day, and not in some weird [bourgeois] Christian way. I get to be alive. I get to have made it through some of the roughest stuff, and that’s not to say that there’s not going to be disasters that keep coming. I have a poem in the book called The Worst Thing in the World, which is the truth: It will keep happening. You know, we’re about to run out of water in California in a year. Octavia Butler was right … One thing that we also have power over is our capacity for joy and pleasure, and that’s something that queer and trans folks have always held onto; we don’t have to be homo-normative. We actually don’t have to. We know much that’s about sex and joy and pleasure … on no money.

You have great examples of how people confront violence without recourse to the police in your book … The group Ubuntu! stands out in my mind. The word meaning born to belonging.

“I am because we are.”

Laura Flanders: Talk about how they work and why you thought it was important to put them in the book.

UBUNTU! is one of the most amazing groups that I’ve ever run into … Alexis Pauline Gumbs, who is a queer black feminist troublemaker genius …

…who’s been on this program.

… I ran into Ubuntu!’s work when I was stealing time from my day job at an eviction hotline. They came together after the Duke University rape, where several white male Duke University Lacrosse players sexually assaulted black female sex workers, whom they’d hired to dance for them at a party. I always talk about that story when I’m asked to talk about transformative justice because that is an example where the forces of anti-Black racism, “whore-phobia,” you know, it’s a perfect storm of everything awful. It would be really easy to feel like there’s nothing we can do, and Ubuntu! came together, and they said, “We can’t control the courts but we can do a national day of truth-telling march past the house where the assault happened, holding signs saying, “Someone I love is a sex worker,” and, “I believe survivors,” and do a dance routine to Audre Lorde’s “A Litany for Survival” in front of the house where the assault happened. They just grew to do incredible antiviolence work in Durham, North Carolina, and beyond …

[Gumbs told me that:] “We were walking down the street one day, and we ran into this young woman who’d just been assaulted by her partner. We [asked] ‘what do you need? Come with us.’ We took her into our home. We made her tea. We talked about her experiences. We called her family and her faith leader.” When I asked Alexis, “That’s something a lot of feminists wish they could do, but when something like that happens, we freeze, so what made that possible?” Cycling back to what you said about relationships, she [said], “Ninety percent of our work doesn’t look like traditional activist work. It’s doing child care. It’s hanging out. It’s building with each other so we’re not a clique, we’re an actual community, and we know that we can call on each other during the times of deepest crisis, and we can respond.”

That’s why I think we need to do relationship work, and that’s work that’s looked down on because it’s feminized and it’s not seen as like big, beating-the-chest, I’m-leading-the-rally work. It’s just what women and feminized people have always done.

I always say we have a big fight around the shredding of the social safety net, but what we don’t talk often enough about is not the net but the fabric. We need to restitch the social fabric, which I think is what you’re talking about when somebody opens their door.

I’d love to hear about more of your mentors. What you’ve learned from different people? Then, this word “transformative justice,” the idea that you’re in a transformative justice moment. What do you mean?

I mean we’ve been in a transformative justice moment all our lives. It was really intense being at the Incite Color of Violence Conference, and feeling, really feeling, how I’ve been in movement with the black and brown women who were there for 15 years. Many of us started [by saying], the police don’t work for us … as black and brown folks. When they’re called, they arrest us, they beat us, they deport us. It’s never safe to be a black sex worker who calls the cops when your partner is beating you up. It’s never safe … What do we do instead?

… I think that we’re in an incredible moment right now with Black Lives Matter as a black feminist-led and -created movement. It is incredible for me to look at Rolling Stone Magazine, to look at that article that says that, “Policing is a dirty job, and it turns out no one has to do it. Here are 10 alternatives.” To feel that all over North America, people are saying, “[when] calling the cops ends up with someone getting killed, so what are we actually to do instead? Because our lives are on the line all the time.” I felt complicated about transformative justice, and I’m someone who’s helped organize it.

Revolution Starts at Home came out in 2011 and I was very optimistic, and I thought, “We just had the US Social Forum, and in three years we’ll just abolish the police. It’ll be great.” And it turns out that this project of replacing the state with community-based alternatives is thrilling, maddening, exhausting. You don’t know what’s going to happen around the corner. It’s the most triggering work you can do – to speak, especially, to people in our communities whom we love who cause harm and to be able to be in the place where we say, “I love you. I do not want you to be locked up for the next 40 years. What you did is absolutely not all right, and we’re not going to let you keep doing it.”

We have not been trained to do this, and it takes developing a lot of emotional muscles to do it. I believe that we are doing it, and it’s also not a straight shot.

Your life is so not the straight shot. You are performing. You are organizing. You have two books coming out this year. You’ve written a memoir already.

Yes.

A. How do you find the time? And B, is it a little early for a memoir?

No. (laughs) I know. I mean, my niece Luna Merbruja is an incredible 22-year-old, transgender, Latina organizer who coorganized the first trans-women of color national gathering ever last year. Her memoir Trauma Queen came out two years ago, she’s 23.

She beat you to it.

I think she did. She did. Dirty River took 13 years to write, and it makes me think a lot about the stakes for feminists of color writing. Alexis, as you probably know, was one of the first people to get access to June [Jordan]’s archives. June wrote, what, 27 books over her lifetime? Alexis … read correspondence where June [wrote], “I couldn’t pay my phone bill that month.” Or where she was fighting so hard with the publishers of Poetry For the People [who] wanted her to delete the subtitle A Revolutionary Blueprint.

I feel immensely lucky to be a queer, disabled, feminist of color writing. No one dinged me on the head with a star. It’s not automatic. It’s taken a lot of collective labor. It doesn’t happen if our presses and media movements don’t keep going. Like a lot of queer working-class, feminists of color, disabled folks – fill in the blank – we’ve led real lives.

My memoir is about me running away from America when I was 21 to set a national boundary between me and my parents and their love and their abuse and their internalized racism, and walking straight into a movement moment in Toronto in the late 90’s that was filled with queer feminists of color, and Desh Pardesh, which was a revolutionary, cross-class, south Asian queer organizing center and the biggest global diasporic Sri Lankan community in the world.

There’s nothing like being in love with a queer-bound crazy boy who you’re reading Frantz Fanon with, and who also hits you when he’s triggered. … That’s where my feminism and my organizing come from. We need those road maps stories of actually… The incest survivor and survivor narratives that are out there are often very white, from second-wave feminism, very single-issue, and I wanted to document true-life adventure: how we survive in a very complicated way.

There’s never a moment on this program where I use the word queer and someone doesn’t email me, “How can you be insulting people? Are you going to use the ‘N’ word next?” What does queer mean to you?

Queer means everything that’s not straight that’s in the practice of moving always towards freedom.

You’ve agreed to read something to us, what are you going to read?

I’m going to read a poem called, “Wrong is Not Yours,” after June Jordan. It’s from my new book, BodyMap:

one day you are a 22-year-old with dreadlocked half-desi hair

you decided to lock when you did double dip mescaline on new

year’s eve after staring at pictures of sadhus in south india

years before Carol’s Daughter or Palmer coconut hair milk or

Kinky Curly in Target and you have no idea what to do with all

that curly curly hair

who decides you wants to change her name from albrecht no more albrecht you want your great-grandmothers you are a 22-year-old on a straight diet of franz fanon marlon riggs and chrystos you are a sri lankan christian daughter of the dutch east india company you want no more albrecht no more rape in your pelvis no more where’d you get that name no more are you adopted no more

even through yr grandmas whisper keep a white name for the passport keep as many passports as possible you never know what boat you’re going to have to get on who you’ll have to bullshit in an immigration office

you never know where we’ll have to run to make home in sip your tea cook your rice wait for death

looking at an ocean that almost looks like yours

but you want your great-grandmother’s name who means hot

pepper who walked out of the galicia with 13 children

your other great-grandmother whose name is a footnote in a

lankan history book’s cross-referenced index you find researching

yr senior thesis on mixed-race women in sri lanka teachers

union organizers and sluts everyone of us

and you get something infinitely googleable and infinitely

unpronounceable except for ukrainians and lankans and dravidians

and even when dennis kucinich runs for president

and puts an mp3 file on his website saying how to say his name

and you think it might be a good idea too

your name is not wrong

wrong is not your name

it is your own

your own

your own

your own

your own

Beautiful.

Thank you.

Listening to you read, Leah, I hear references to home. You have the word tattooed on your chest…

I do.

June Jordan also wrote a collection called Moving Towards Home. What does home mean to you?

Oh, you sucker-punched me. I think that, for those of us who are diasporic, home is always a question. I think that part of the reason why I got “home” tattooed there is that this body is the only thing that I’ll ever own, and it’s on loan. I think that for those of us who have been forced from our homeland through, you know, the top five of colonialism: rape, genocide, war, imperialism, et cetera, We carry home in our bodies’ memories; in our cells; in our bones. We make home wherever we are; whether it’s a prison cell; whether it’s Brooklyn; whether it’s wherever we go when we’re gentrified out of Brooklyn. We make it in the imagination. We also get to envision where home’s going to be that hasn’t happened yet. It doesn’t just have to be loss. It doesn’t have to be the thing that we’re imagining that we want to get back to. When Palestine is free, it’s going to be a different place than it was in ’48.

…And we make it with each other.

Right. Exactly.