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PLACES PLEASE? An Open Letter to the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles in Which I Attempt to Identify and Reject My Role as Victim

Seven years ago a man broke into my house. I found him. He was arrested and spent 5 years in prison. I wrote a letter to the parole board, although I never sent it. In the end, I actually didn't, and still don't, believe any representative of the state cared what I had to say. This is the first time the essay has been distributed publicly.

State Board of Pardons and Paroles
2 Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, SE
Suite 458, Balcony Level, East Tower
Atlanta, Georgia 30334-4909

To Whom It May Concern:

To my way of thinking, an actor’s course is set even before he’s out of the cradle.
- James Dean

In case you do not understand either the form or content of this letter I want to make two things clear: first, I believe -----[1] should be paroled since I don’t believe he should have been sent to prison in the first place; and second, I no longer want to be a part of your play. I sincerely believe you are committed public servants who take your jobs seriously, and I mean no disrespect to you or anyone else involved in the department. This letter is about systems, not you. Well, this letter is mostly about me. Personally, I do not want to be a part of the theater called the criminal justice system anymore.

            For the record, I have been a critic of the U.S. criminal justice system for more than two decades. I started with anti-death penalty work but have also written about and worked to change criminal justice policy in general, including and especially how parole functions. I even founded a statewide coalition in Georgia, but it did not end particularly well. By all measure I am what is known as a prison abolitionist, but that isn’t the reason for this letter.[2] This letter is where I use what happened to help me understand the extent and limits of my own agency. Why did I behave the way I did when I wanted to act differently? What forces were working on me, and why couldn’t I counteract them?

In the summer of 2010 I entered my house and found a man exiting the back door with my computer bag over his shoulder. I chased him out the back door, across the lawn, and over the back fence before realizing what I was doing was less than smart. I got in my car and attempted to drive after him but lost him in the woods behind my house. Coming home I saw that my computer and my wife’s were gone. My wife runs her own business and all of her information was on her laptop. My senior honors thesis, at that point six weeks late, and all of the research was on my laptop. I thought I would call the police and get the necessary paperwork. Instead, the Marietta Police Department launched a manhunt that cornered and eventually caught the burglar. Our computers were recovered along with most, but not all, of our other property. For the next year my life involved being used, misled, and condescended to by various officials within the criminal justice system. The only contact I had with ----- was trying to identify him (I couldn’t) and seeing him at his “trial.” Every person in this story acted as they were supposed to according to their role as police officer, criminal, district attorney, and public defender. Although I tried to break from my role as “victim,” more often than not I played my part. I believe when people come together to play roles according to a script the experience is called “theater.” I have felt an unwilling actor in a deeply disappointing play. This letter is an attempt to break out from my role and leave the script behind. I believe that is called improvisation.

Act I: Anger
Scene – Inside of a small house

(A man is rummaging through a trunk. He hears someone at the door and moves towards stage right. The door opens and Daniel enters, sees the man, screams a line of obscenities and gives chase. They both exit stage right, Daniel yelling the entire time.)

End scene

I am amazed at myself when I think of that moment. I don’t recognize that person as me. The physical aspect alone is quite astonishing. Although I am more than twice the age of -----, and I was barefoot, I kept up with him on the short sprint across my backyard. I even leapt onto the six-foot, wooden fence, and could easily have scaled it. At the top, looking down and seeing the creek bed, that is when I realized I was doing something foolish. A barefoot, middle-aged man has no business jumping into a creek to wrestle with someone half his age. In that moment before my realization I looked into -----‘s eyes, and I saw he was afraid. This is not a macho statement; I don’t know that he was afraid of me. I make this statement because I think it was seeing his fear led me to my realization. One could say my emotional states affected my capacity to act. Upon seeing someone in my house, with my stuff, I was angry, and this anger increased my ability to act. I could run and jump. My capacity reduced when I saw fear. The question is, of course, if I left and came back where did I go?

If you were to drop an ice cube into a full glass of water, the weight of the displaced water would equal the weight of the ice cube. If you were to measure the difference between where a moving object starts and where it lands, you would know that object’s displacement. Displacement also exists, with different definitions, in psychology, geology, and even in fencing. Displacement explains where I went in that time after I saw someone in my house and when I saw fear. It was emotional displacement, when a person ceases to be a person and becomes a set of emotional assumptions. The phrase, as I have seen it used, usually refers to the opposing object; in this case ----- in my house. Yet, it quite adequately describes me in that moment. I was not the reasoning, feeling me most people know and love. I was a set of emotional assumptions. This is where my journey to the theater of criminal justice began. It did not start when ----- broke into my house, when he was caught, at the trial, or even now. I entered the theater when I stopped being Daniel and became anger in motion. Sara Ahmed wrote that “emotions provide a script.” They can align us to social structures.[3] To be aligned toward a structure, like the criminal justice system, is to fulfill a role. Perhaps I should say it is to be cast into a role. Emotions as both playwright and casting director.

The idea of scripts is not mine. Others have used the metaphor to talk about rape and economic development. Although rape, capitalism, and a burglary may seem like three separate topics, the script metaphor works because it describes how one acts because of displacement. The woman is raped because she is an empty space waiting to be invaded by a man. The underdeveloped country is an empty space waiting to be invaded by developers. The guy in the small house is waiting to be robbed by the criminal. The woman, the country, and the guy are without capacity to act before the crime if they stay with the script.[4] Of course, women are not waiting to be raped, countries are not waiting to be invaded, and I was not waiting to be robbed. Yet, what does an actor do but wait for their scene? The problem with following scripts is that one is waiting to perform and then does the scene as written. Within this frame it is difficult to improvise, but not impossible. What if the woman laughs at her would-be rapist’s small penis? What if the country tells the developers they are fine with what they have? What if the guy in the house offers the “criminal” a beer? Does the script fall apart? That is an interesting question, but not, to me, the most interesting. I want to know why the script is followed so closely so often. I never thought about offering a beer or even asking why ----- was in my house. He ran. I chased. If this were a nature documentary, it would make sense. When confronted in the wild to run is to be chased. This assumes that I am a wild animal acting on instinct in high-stress situations, an idea more uncomfortable to me than having someone break into my house. But it was not instinct that drove me to the chase, it was emotion. I was angry, and because I was angry I acted. Because I was angry I acted in one specific way and closed off other possibilities. My anger increased my capacity to act by giving me energy to run and jump. My anger also decreased my capacity to act by displacing other choices. Such are the limits of scripts.

Act II: Hopelessness
Scene – Conference room in a courthouse

(Ten people are gathered around a conference table. They include a uniformed detective, two plain-clothes detectives, some crime scene investigators, the district attorney, and an assistant prosecutor. Enter Daniel and Rita, his wife.)

DISTRICT ATTORNEY
These are the victims. Thank you for joining us. We were discussing the offer by the defense attorney. I want five years.

            (All those around the table nod and mumble in agreement.)

DISTRICT ATTORNEY
What do you think?

            (Rita says nothing. Daniel is silent for a moment and then speaks.

DANIEL
I think that’s a waste of money. We already know prison doesn’t work. He was out four days before he broke into my house. If prison was such a great solution, why did he break in?

DISTRICT ATTORNEY
I’ve seen guys like this before. Look, you and I talked on the phone….

            (Daniel shakes his head because he has never talked to the D.A. before this moment.)

The reason guys like this do these things is because they’re evil. If he’s not in prison, he’ll break into someone else’s house. That’s evil.

DANIEL
This guy isn’t evil. He’s stupid. He broke into my house because he couldn’t think of anything else. He got caught because he didn’t think of how to not get caught.

CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATOR #1
We can definitely say he won’t be committing any crimes while he’s in prison.

End scene.

Amazing how labels stick to people. Within one conversation ----- is evil and stupid. My label makes as much sense as the prosecutor’s. I no longer believe he is stupid or that he made a stupid decision on that day in August. I think he was desperate, and desperate people can do stupid things, but that does not automatically mean his actions were stupid. Is it stupid to rely on a method you know will provide resources with relatively little effort? If anything was less than smart, it was the decision to go into the house so quickly. If he had waited 10 more minutes, he would have seen me come back. Desperate people also make simple mistakes. The way to stop stupid things is to treat the desperation. That will not happen if we play our parts in the script. As long as I am stuck in the role of victim, I do not see other possibilities. This entire experience is designed to keep me in the role of victim. Your agency does its part to reinforce the role and cut off the possibilities. From the website: “As the State’s executive clemency agency, the Parole Board believes it can carry out its functions effectively only by gathering comprehensive information on offenders, including the impact of their actions on victims and the community.”[5] Here I am not just a victim, I am a victim outside of “the community.” My neighbors can submit letters as the “community,” but I, apparently, cannot. An entire identity built around an event and separated from others. Now that is a sticky label.

The identity of victim is built through the fetishisation of the injury. It is then reinforced through continued testimonials.[6] Part of my role as victim is to be in pain and to talk about it in particular ways at particular times. At the “trial” I was supposed to talk about my pain. In this letter I am also supposed to talk about pain. However, the pain I can talk about is only that pain caused by having someone broken into my house. Can you see how that is limiting? There is not even space to talk about the manipulations of the prosecutor’s office. It turns out that neither my wife nor I were required to be at the trial. We did not know that. We were led to believe, by one of the staffers in the office, that we were legally required to be there. Of course, she didn’t say that outright but the implication was there. One would think that someone with two decades’ experience organizing around criminal justice would know whether or not he needed to be in court. That’s what I get for reading history instead of law books.

What would have happened if we had not shown up in court? As best as I can tell the play would have continued on as scripted. The prosecutor would have made his speeches, the judge would have passed his sentence, and the curtain would have closed on another successful production of the criminal justice system. One would think that if ------ is evil, then the victim of his evil act would have a larger part in the production. Perhaps this is evidence we all know the act was more stupid than evil. There would not be a lot of need for testimony about stupidity; the criminal justice system already provides for that. Unfortunately, that is probably not the case. Remember the pre-trial scene where all the affected parties came together to voice their opinion about the ending of the play. All of the people except two were representatives of the nation-state. My opinion does not matter because the crime was not committed against me, it was committed against the state. That is why I am separated from the community. The state is the community, the state is the real victim. I just happened to be the guy who walked into the house. While my wife and I play the role of victim, we are just understudies for the state.

There is some freedom in hopelessness. Since nothing I can say or do will have influence on this process, I can say or do just about anything. I could write a formal letter spelling out exactly what I want. That is the correct role of victim understudy. I could ignore this process entirely. That would also be a correct role. It is interesting that my influence is the same if I say something or if I do not. See what I mean, it is a kind of freedom but not a good kind.

Act III: Sadness
Scene – Back room of a grocery store. Coworker is standing at the locker when Daniel walks in and begins to get ready for work.

COWORKER
Missed you at work yesterday. You goofing off or something.

DANIEL
No. I walked in on a guy robbing my house. It took a good chunk of the day.

COWORKER
Really? Crap! You OK?

DANIEL
Yeah, I’m fine. They caught the guy, and we got most of our stuff back. I’m still kind of freaked out though.

COWORKER
I bet. Should have shot that bastard. Glad they caught him.

(COWORKER stops for a second then asks in a lower voice.)

Was he black?

 End scene

Impressions are built through contact, specifically through repetitive contact. As one object (like a person) has contact with another object (another person), an impression is left on both. That impression is a force that could be in the form of a physical, emotional, or psychological imprint. History comes from the repetition of that force and the moving of that imprint into social and cultural memory. The stickiness comes from history, it is an effect of history. In fact, Ahmed makes this point when she says that “sticking is dependent on past histories of association.”[7] We see something frightening we have never seen before, but we know we are supposed to be afraid of it. How? The image of the thing is separated from its content.[8] That is, the idea of it is not connected to the uniqueness of it. Its uniqueness is displaced. The person stops being a person and becomes a set of emotional assumptions, with historical baggage.

The history is not the experiences of one person. We are not talking about -----‘s record in prison or in college. We are talking about the history of the state, the history of the only victim that matters. This is the history of police departments created in the eighteenth-century South for the express purpose of social control of enslaved people. It is the history of penitentiaries created in the early nineteenth housing mostly white inmates who are supposed to contemplate their offense and moving, just a handful of decades later, to incarcerating black people who are then leased out to plantations at wholesale costs. It is the history of the last few decades where the only solution to any problem is to build more prisons.[9] Crime goes up, build a prison. Crime goes down, build a prison. (Of course, now some are being rented from private corporations.) That history is transmitted within the contact. It is what turns a force into an impression. When I entered my house that day I didn’t see a person, I saw an invader. I saw a criminal. The uniqueness of the person disappeared and instead was a historicized set of emotional assumptions. An invader, a criminal, in my house equals rage. Not only rage but righteous rage. Not just for me, but for the prosecutor and the police and the crime scene investigators as well. That is why the prosecutor could so easily say that -----was evil. It is also why I could so easily say he was stupid. There was no person, only emotional assumptions. That is also why my coworker asked, but in a knowing way, whether ------ is black. There were only historicized emotional assumptions.

This is how emotions orient us to institutions, how one can cease to be part of a community and become a victim. The orientation, the entire process of repetition and sticking, is concealed. How we decide how we are going to remember is a covert process.[10] This is not a conspiracy but rather something that is not readily apparent unless one sets out to look for it. The concealment is possible because the emotions do not become emotions until they hit people. What is travelling through society from object to object is affect. Affect is a wave, a “moving pattern of intensity” that is non-verbally felt.[11] As a wave it is transmitted through pressure, so even if you do not want to ride along with it you have to respond. Imagine standing in the water on the beach with the waves crashing on you. You may not have a surf board, but you do feel the surf. To feel it is to acknowledge its existence. When I walked into my house, when I walked into the conference room, when I was talking with my coworker, the history crashed on me. Even as I am writing this letter the waves are crashing.

Act III: Resignation
Scene – Courtroom. All actors in their places. Daniel, Rita, and another man are standing apart from the defendant, the prosecutor, and the judge.

JUDGE
The defendant has pled guilty. We will now hear from the victims.

(Turning to man.)

Do you have anything to tell the court concerning the impact of this crime?

MAN
No, your honor.

JUDGE

(Turning to Rita.)

Do you have anything to tell the court concerning the impact of this crime?

RITA
No, your honor.

JUDGE

(Turning to Daniel.)

Do you have anything to tell the court concerning the impact of this crime?

(Daniel hesitates. His face is confused and reddening.)

RITA

(Whispering to Daniel.)

Just say no. Let’s get out of here.

DANIEL
All we have is a hammer, and everything looks like a nail.

(Judge stops. No one in the courtroom makes a sound. All seem puzzled.)

End scene.

This letter is a bit of a buzz kill. The critique of a system does not automatically lead to a solution. Of course, realizing one is not where one wants to be is the first step in no longer being lost. You can see how these cancel each other out, and if one critique crushes the next then nothing is built and the status quo reigns. This is stagnation. Of course, this implies that motion is a key ingredient in fixing problems. If we want to go somewhere, we have to get moving. By applying this logic to the grossly overextended metaphor of this letter (to be fair, couldn’t one description of the criminal justice system be that of a grossly extended metaphor?), I entered the theater through stillness. When the wave of affect reached me, it created a capacity in one area (physical) but at the expense of capacity in another area (choice). Movement, but movement leading to stillness. The capacity to act was directed into one role, that of victim. Each succeeding wave—dealing with the police, dealing with the prosecutor, dealing with the judge, and now dealing with your agency—seeks to remove more capacity to choose another role. I do not think this provides a solution, but, pardon the pun, I do think it provides a direction. The fact that waves are at the heart of this story means that motion is also at the center. It implies there has always been movement. The problem is the illusion of stillness. The next step, if one wishes to break the illusion and exit the theater, is to understand how one is moving.

Brian Massumi writes about an arrow. He describes it being shot and hitting a target and discussing an ancient paradox: the arrow cannot occupy all the points along its path. Since there are an infinite number of points in the arrow’s path, it would take infinity for the arrow to occupy them all and it would never reach its endpoint. Of course, the arrow does hit the target, and we have our paradox. Massumi points out that the arrow in flight never stops: “We stop it in though when we construe its movement to be divisible into positions.”[12] Because space is infinite we contemplate it by stripping it down to finite, measureable areas. This is probably good when I am asking for a quote on remodeling my kitchen. I do not have the funds to pay for the tiling of infinite space. However, I do not think it works so well when we are dealing with hurt. Isn’t the idea behind a crime that there was a hurt? If the hurt is fixated as a point, how does healing occur? If a person is fixed to a finite point, how does one think about moving? If I can only be victim, and not be seen as something (anything) else, then how do I rejoin the community? If ----- is stuck in the role of evil (or stupid) criminal, then how does he rejoin the community? Perhaps the point of the criminal justice system is that we do not. The state does not want motion, it wants stability. I stay within my role as victim so the state may have access to my testimony. ----- stays in role of criminal so that he may be warehoused. But this is illusion. I still live in a society. The waves crash upon me, they impress upon me. Physics, however, is a law that cannot be yet broken, so I also impress upon the waves. They circulate and change accordingly, there is movement. Although the criminal justice system necessitates stillness, the actors must step to their mark and stay there, it fails because that stillness is only an illusion. It is an internal contradiction that inevitably leads to disappointment.

For years I have made the joke that I have never met anyone who has walked away from an encounter with the criminal justice system and said, “That was a rewarding experience. I feel better for it.” Now I understand why. The system is based on an illusion, and illusions are not rewarding. Good theater is not make believe, it is based on truths. Humans love, laugh, cry, hurt, anger, and an infinite number of other things. Humans are in motion, and good theater reflects that motion. What I have been involved in since 2010 is bad theater. It is a stagnant play with rigid actors and an awful script. Consider this letter my resignation. I am moving on.

Sincerely,

Daniel Horowitz Garcia
Recently retired actor

 

[1] After some consideration, I am not using the name of the man who broke into my house in the open letter. While it does render him less visible in this story, I thought it best to not add to whatever burden he may now face.

[2] For a quick summation of what prison abolitionism means see: History is a Weapon, "The Challenge of Prison Abolition: A Conversation" http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/davisinterview.html (accessed April 24, 2012).

[3] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004), 12.

[4] J. K. Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism (as We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy, 1st University of Minnesota Press ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), chapter 4.

[5] "Ga Parole Board - Victim Services",  http://www.pap.state.ga.us/opencms/opencms (accessed April 24, 2012). [new site: https://pap.georgia.gov/georgia-office-victim-services]

[6] Ahmed, 32.

[7] Ahmed, 90, 13.

[8] Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Post-Contemporary Interventions (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 24.

[9] Kristian Williams, Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America (Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press, 2007). Matthew J. Mancini, One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South, 1866-1928 (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1996). Elihu Rosenblatt, Criminal Injustice: Confronting the Prison Crisis (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1996).

[10] Ahmed, 7.

[11] Julian Henriques, "The Vibrations of Affect and Their Propagation on a Night out on Kingston's Dancehall Scene," Body & Society 16, no. 1 (2010): 58.

[12] Massumi, 7.