Aug 112013

 The Cleveland case, part 2

By Beth Connors-Manke

Editor’s note: in part one of her essay, Beth began examining the ways Ariel Castro, the Cleveland man who recently pleaded guilty to imprisoning and raping Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight, represents structures of thought that are shocking yet familiar in our culture. Here, she looks more closely at the ways privatization threatens individuals and the public sphere.

Unless something very unexpected happens, we’ll probably see relatively little of any of them again. The picture will fade; whatever pattern was momentarily illuminated for us will fall back into disparate pieces; we won’t be able to see how any of this works.

Ariel Castro, by agreeing to a plea deal of life in prison without parole, seems to be avoiding both the death penalty and the probing glare that would come with a trial. Whether it is his intention or not, he may also be granting Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight the privacy they have asked for—the privacy that they recently affirmed via video is necessary for their recovery. The women’s strong desire to be shielded from public interest was asserted again when family members of Berry and DeJesus presented victim’s statements in court.

Sylvia Colon, DeJesus’s cousin, said, “Today is the last day we want to think or talk about this. These events will not hold a place in our hearts.”

Beth Serrano, Berry’s sister, explained Berry’s wish to shield her daughter: “She [Berry] does not want to talk about these things, she has not talked about them even to me. She does not want others to talk about these things. The main reason she does not want anyone to talk about the things or be forced to talk about these things is because she has a young daughter. She would love to be the person who decides to tell her daughter, when to tell her daughter, how to tell her daughter, certain things.” Serrano’s statement goes on to say that Berry does not want other people to talk or write about what happened.

For the time being, what happened in that house at 2207 Seymour Avenue in Cleveland will remain veiled, cordoned off from public view. What Castro was once keeping from the world, the young women are now asking to be the gatekeepers of.

Privacy v. privatization

In that transfer of power, in that handing over of the keys to the women’s lives, there has been a subtle, but important, shift: the shift from privatization to privacy.

In a broad way, privacy is a protection of self and the intimate aspects of one’s life. It creates a necessary boundary that, ideally, preserves an individual’s mental, emotional, and physical safety and well-being. Maybe that protection is from a family member, lover, neighbor, or co-worker. Maybe it’s from an institution or, as we should be very concerned about right now, from the government. Privacy is an incredibly important concept that should be defended legally and socially, but as we know, it can often be used to hide abuses (“What he does to his wife in his own home is his own business…”).

On the other hand, privatization is an action, movement, or system in which private ownership and control is privileged over notions of collective good, collective participation, and collective care for a shared world. We’re most familiar with this structure when it happens to utilities, natural resources, and institutions like prisons. When it goes one step further and human beings become the commodity that is privatized—that is, owned and controlled for the sake of profit—we have human trafficking. We have a situation in which, in the words of political philosopher Kimberly Curtis, “human beings are made superfluous.”

This is a difficult condition for Americans to recognize in our own midst. We believe strongly in our holy grail of individual rights and individual value, and we’ve used that belief to shoulder our way through some very dark moments of humanity. Our own system of chattel slavery was certainly one of those moments, as was the confrontation with Nazi Germany during World War II. The “political evil” that arose in Germany at that time was organized, Curtis says, around stripping the human particularity from a set of scapegoats in order to elevate another group to political, economic, and social power. So, what is, in reality, a dynamic interchange between multifaceted individuals in a community becomes abstract and oversimplified categories used to deny others their specificity, freedom, and humanity. Those others are just “Jews” or “Tutsis” or “Croats.”

Or, closer to home, they are just “blacks” or “Mexicans” or “Bitches and Ho’s.”

But wait, you may say, how did we get from the genocides in Germany, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia to a crappy Geto Boys song?

Answer: a structure of thought. This structure of thought: the idea that individuals can be reduced to one simplified aspect of their humanity—religion, cultural heritage, skin color, or sex—and then that aspect can be used as a justification for controlling them, rather than giving them full political and social freedom in the public sphere.

And for some people, controlling slides over into the notion that one human being can own another. For those people—and there are more of these people than one would think, as statistics of domestic violence and human trafficking show—a strong personal desire or economic motive feels like enough justification to kidnap women (and children) off the street to use them or sell them as property. This is the process of privatizing people, a major component of which is denying an individual’s right to circulate freely and safely in public.

Lorain Avenue

Trying to stay above water, Cleveland has done better than some other Rust Belt cities in trying to reinvent itself. Tourism advocates promote Lorain Avenue as an eight mile “eclectic mix of specialty shops, ethnic markets and eateries… spectacular architecture, historic and sacred landmarks… Lorain Avenue is a destination for the urban explorer.”

The street was also the hunting ground for Castro, as it was the major street near which the three women where kidnapped. And while urban renewal can make for good tourism, not to mention save some cities from inner decay, women who live in those areas and regularly traverse the streets also know something else. Urban-dwelling women—whose lives can be much different from the “urban explorer’s”—know that city streets are sometimes about trying to defend one’s privacy and limit strangers’ (or sometimes familiars’) access to their bodies.

Too often, streets are paradoxically a public space where women have to set privacy boundaries to protect themselves psychically and physically. Sometimes a solicitation from a stranger driving by makes for an entertaining story (especially when you’re nine months pregnant and the John can only say “Oh, ok” when he sees the baby bump). In reality, though, it’s harassment—it’s having to defend oneself repeatedly in a tussle over perceptions about the sexual availability of women in public.

None of this is to say that suburban streets are without predators, or that men do not also have to protect themselves on the street. But my point here is this: it is a common structure of thought that women who travel city streets are there as sexual beings viewed as part of an economic exchange. I’m not just saying that they are seen as prostitutes or potential prostitutes (some women do, of course, sell sex of their own volition); I’m saying that plenty of people think that buying women—whether that be renting them for 20 minutes or owning them for years—is a viable economic transaction.

And when that attitude gains currency in a place that is supposed to be a public non-commercial space, i.e. neighborhood streets and parks, we’ve started to rob women of free movement and their right to privacy, both of which they are guaranteed as individuals and citizens.

We’ve also begun to step even further down the road of privatization. If public streets and parks and plazas aren’t safe for women (and if they aren’t safe for women, they surely aren’t safe for children, and probably aren’t safe for men, either), then they have become places where private interest overrules collective good. Sure, sex may seem to be the motivator in cases like Castro’s or in sex trafficking, but it’s mostly a cloak under which privatization as a structure of thought functions. In that structure, the basic assumption is that human beings are commodities to be owned, used, traded. Period.

This is a political and cultural problem—not a psychological problem isolated to Ariel Castro, not simply a law enforcement deficit, not only a problem of urban poverty. And the problem gets worse when we retreat from public spaces and despair of maintaining a collective good; when we retreat into our homes with the shades closed, or into gated communities; when we slowly but surely drain public institutions of their ability to insure a stable and safe body politic whose job is, among other things, to recognize each individual’s particularity and right to move freely in the world.

That’s what I saw in the aperture that was the Cleveland case.

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