Violence is something not often thought of that can be found throughout many aspects of life in this current world. The most prominent source of violence seems to come in systematic ways all stemming from the state. From Hugh Gusterson’s writings about the “cultural turn” in the War on Terror, to the incredible debt problem in Jamaica as seen in the documentary Life and Debt, to the infrastructure of highways and public transportation in Los Angeles leading to the isolation of disenfranchised communities, all leading to the current mass incarceration problem in the United States. Systematic violence is everywhere and takes many different forms, but all its forms are important to understand when thinking about violence.
The “cultural turn” in the War on Terror, as described by Hugh Gusterson, brings up many important anthropological questions about the role of cultural knowledge in order to advance in war. The Human Terrains System is a program that employs anthropologists to work alongside the military in order to combine cultural knowledge with war tactics. There is controversy over whether or not it is necessary or good to be combining these fields together for the purpose of war as anthropological knowledge can give one side an unfair advantage over the other.
In the theory of the architects of the Human Terrain System, the use of cultural knowledge within a war zone should prevent civilian casualties and help the U.S. militants keep in good relations with the locals. Some of the tools used to enhance the military’s knowledge of Iraqi culture are discussed in Hugh Gusterson’s text, “The Cultural Turn in the War on Terror.” Most of the tools he talks about turn out to be more problematic than helpful, such as a handheld translator called a “phraselator” or the “Iraq Culture Smart Card,” which is a pocket-sized pamphlet that has descriptions of different cultures and their practices. I believe the reason these tools are ineffective and that this cultural knowledge doesn’t do as much good as is should is because a pocket sized pamphlet that breaks down a whole culture and groups of people into 16 panels doesn’t do justice to the actually very complex practices or details of a culture. In addition, these things do not and will not solve the bigger problem with why the relationships between militants and civilians are bad, which is the fact that these people are being invaded and a small pamphlet and a translator isn’t going to change the fact that the U.S. military is still controlling and dominating the civilian people.
This isn’t to say that the military shouldn’t attempt to add culture into their military tactics at all. I just think it needs to be used in different ways and with different expectations. It’s impossible to think that surface level Intel is going to be enough to make an impact in war tactics, so maybe we either lower our expectations or work to get past the surface level knowledge. American policy makers are still wondering why “they hate us” and failing to realize that the military’s use of positive modalities rather than negative modalities isn’t changing the fact that it’s a war and that’s probably why the civilians aren’t happy or always cooperative.
As much as this integration of anthropology means to the military, it means a lot to anthropologists and the field of anthropology as well. Through this project, anthropologists have the opportunity to share their knowledge and put it to what some may view as being good use, however, when the information they supply becomes diluted and generalized the field as a whole loses some credibility and it looks kind of bad on the part of anthropology and threatens the credibility of cultural knowledge. The real problem then becomes a question of how anthropologists could better supply better information to the military for use, and I’m just not sure it’s possible since, like I mentioned earlier, the information us being used as a tool for domination. If there was a way to truly teach the military every bit of the cultural practices and beliefs of those being invaded maybe that would be better, but the military’s objective isn’t to learn about these people—it’s to go to war with them, so even if the anthropology professionals could supply better and more detailed information there remains the question of whether the military will even use it. At the same time, though, as mentioned in the Gusterson text, this brings up another problem because “if anthropologists have specialized knowledge that would reduce casualties in a situation that cannot be undone, then they have the moral obligation to use that knowledge to save lives.” He continues, “Failure to do so implicates anthropologists in the deaths of Iraqis…” So, these questions and controversy over the role of anthropology in the military bring answers that are a double-edged sword. It’s extremely difficult to figure out whether this use of culture is right or wrong, and if it’s right how it should be deployed, and more importantly—is this getting to the bigger question of whether we should even be involved in wars at all.
The documentary movie Life and Debt depicts a lesser-seen, more realistic Jamaica. The film opens with a scene about tourists landing in the country, suitcases filled with bathing suits in tow. Little do these tourists know that Jamaica is actually going through a sort of economic crisis the whole time they’re enjoying the beauty the country has to offer on their vacations. Jamaica is a prime example of a country that has made bad deals with the IMF (International Monetary Fund) in an attempt to get out of debt, but in the process of paying back the loans to the IMF the debt situation only gets worse. It’s a cycle that seemingly never ends—get a short-term loan, pay it back, and start over again. Organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization have used their power and stance in the world to inhibit Jamaica, a small country with poor infrastructure, from making progress and sustaining a stable economy. The ways in which these organizations use their power may not seem outwardly violent, but it contributes to a sort of systematic violence that starts in the top tiers of the government and world organizations.
In the film we see that in a free market system, those who can afford it will take over and take advantage of the less wealthy, and this is what happened in Jamaica. In fact, Jamaica was advised to stop importing and start exporting goods as a way to limit their economy, and the IMF imposed limitations on exports. A free zone is supposed to create jobs with multinational companies, but in this situation it just led to the deterioration of the local industries. Jamaica was also advised to invest in niche markets as well as told what they can export. Thus comes the issue with bananas. Jamaica was growing tariff free bananas, and it became a main source of money for the country. However, because of the free market system, the US was able to take advantage of Jamaica by making a complaint to the IMF, World Bank, and World Trade Organization about how unfair it is for the bananas to go tariff free. The WTO ruled in favor of the US on this matter, which essentially allowed the US to take over the industry, leaving Jamaica in the dust. To me, this is clearly a violent act against Jamaica since they are obviously a country of lesser means, and to take advantage of them is inherently violent.
Another system that is violent toward the people of Jamaica as depicted in Life and Debt is capitalism. The way capitalism works is not conducive to success for the Jamaican people, yet the people often find themselves being impacted by capitalism anyways. In capitalism, companies are just looking for ways to get money from cheap labor and will often leave as soon as labor gets too expensive, which makes it hard for people in a country like Jamaica to advance in the world because they need the work for the money, but as soon as they begin to ask for more rights the companies just move on to find somewhere to get cheaper labor. The only advantage the people have is their power to disrupt the system. Any time capital stops there is a loss of money, which catches the attention of big business.
These examples may not show clear, physical violence, but they allow violence to take place in a society that needs help but is just ignored and places into a routine of debt. The tourists in the movie don’t see the power structures in place when they’re there because that would make the IMF and WTO look bad, and that would not be advantageous to a system that wants to keep its power so badly. As seen in Life and Debt, Jamaica is under constant threat of violence and they will continue to be unless the IMF and WTO become willing to make a strategy that will actually help Jamaica become financially independent.
Los Angeles is a huge city spanning over 503 square miles. In a city so large it’s important to have freeways to connect different areas together to make the city more accessible, and Los Angeles certainly has an extensive and complicated freeway system that links different neighborhoods together. In this essay I plan to explore how these freeways marginalize more historically violent neighborhoods such as Compton and Watts from wealthier neighborhoods such as Brentwood, Beverly Hills, and Santa Monica just to name a few. By separating these areas the internalized violence is able to carry on.
Since Los Angeles has so many freeways, locals prefer to call them by their numbers instead of their names. So, for example, instead of saying the Ventura Freeway, one would say, “the 101.” Compton and Watts are located in South Los Angeles and the only freeways surrounding them are the 105, 110, and 710. To most, this means nothing, but if you know your way around LA you will know that these freeways provide no direct access to the wealthier, and by default safer areas of the city. I see this as the city intentionally ostracizing these neighborhoods from the rest just because they are deemed unsafe and have been more prone to gang violence in the past.
People in Compton and Watts by default don’t have the same access to opportunities available in areas such as Beverly Hills. To get from Beverly Hills to Compton or Watts one could begin on the 405, which is the most widely used freeway and then cross onto the 105. Whereas, if one wanted to go from Beverly Hills to Santa Monica or Brentwood they would only need to take one freeway. This doesn’t even take into consideration that if you don’t have a car you are forced to take public transportation. The issue with public transport in LA is that it is generally used by the less wealthy Black and Brown bodies such as people in Watts and Compton, but the way the freeways are set up and the way the infrastructure works makes it difficult for the public transportation system to even be effective. For example, again from Beverly Hills to Compton or Watts one must take 3 different busses in order to get from one place to the other, and the journey would take an extra half hour, which in LA speak means an extra hour and a half. So, while this is a problem of infrastructure, it is an issue of transportation itself as well.
Some may say that the way the city is set up geographically is the reason that Compton is automatically just away from wealthier areas. Yes, the rates of crime and gang violence are higher in Compton and Watts, but by keeping these communities so outside of everything the problem will never be resolved. Perhaps if a freeway was built that goes more directly from the wealthy communities to the poorer ones we may see a decline in crime because the access to opportunities would be greater. The problem is that the power lies in the government, and the government inherently serves the white and wealthy.
The United States prison system is one of the most striking and telling examples of systematic violence in this country. The US has the highest amount of incarcerated people out of everywhere in the world with over 2 million incarcerated. Also important to note is the incredibly disproportionate amount of Black and Brown bodies that are incarcerated to incarcerated White bodies. This all begs the question: What is the systematic problem that has led to such astronomical rates of incarceration? In my research I aim to seek out the reasons the issue of mass incarceration has grown so out of hand.
To begin my research I think it is important to get to the root of the purpose of incarceration in general. I believe that the purpose of incarceration has led to the conditions that make incarceration what it is today. To arrive at an answer to this question it would be helpful to go to one of the sources of the problem, and perhaps spend some time at some of the highest security prisons in the country such as Rikers Island in New York or Pelican Bay State Prison in California. I would hope that by speaking to local government members and prison regulators about the problem in which I seek to research I would be able to gain access to these places. If this is not possible I would seek out people who were formerly incarcerated in these places and interview them about their time in prison. By speaking with inmates and officers I could get a sense of how those impacted by the prison system view the system behind the larger problem. Getting stories from prisoners especially should be meaningful and greatly assist me in my search for the purpose of incarceration and then ultimately lead me to the ultimate reasons for the systematic issues that have led to the mass incarceration problem in the US.
There are so many texts out there that can assist me in this research process and that can supplement the more ethnographic portion of this research. The many texts will help sort out and sort through the wide range of debates surrounding the purpose of incarceration. Eventually I would like to explore the role that the death penalty and execution play in the larger scheme of mass incarceration, and a book I’ve read that I think gives an interesting insight into the death penalty is Dead Man Walking by Helen Prejean. The book explores themes of regret and purpose that can shed a lot of light on life in a system of mass incarceration.
Another way in which I’d like to support my study of the systematic violence that has made mass incarceration possible goes directly to the law in a political sense. Mandatory minimums/mandatory sentencings are the laws that predefine the length of a prison term for a given crime. Many of the crimes that lead to mandatory sentencing are smaller scale crimes such as drug possession or petty theft. The problem with these sentences are that they act as a sort of one size fits all situation, which is not always the case, and so many people end up in prison that probably don’t need to be there. By the logic of mandatory minimums, two people could commit the same crime and they would receive the same sentence. However, this logic doesn’t take into account that one of these people has no prior offenses or red flags in their record and the other person has already been incarcerated and violated parole in the past. It’s extremely problematic that laws like this exist and aim to send more people into to an already overcrowded system.
The last thing I would like to explore is the role of public defenders in the incarceration systems. Public defenders are some of the most overworked people in the law profession, and they are often to over worked that they cannot effectively defend every person they are assigned. Since this is the case, there are people who get sent to prison who could have probably gotten off if they’d had a better defense. Since it is the poor population that usually ends up with public defenders, the poor are the ones that will end up in this broken incarcerated system. It is in this way that the system really ends up broken and clearly against the poor and the cycle starts and doesn’t stop. A personal account from a public defender would be an enlightening view into how the prisons have become so over populated.
There are many problems with the way the current incarceration system is run, and in the end I believe it all comes down to the systematic violence against the poor on the part of the state. Through my many examples, I will show the different building blocks that have been places and have led us to the point we are at now in the United States.