All this for some lousy oranges?

By David Boehnke

A few months ago I went to leave CafAc Mac with nine oranges, seven more than the rules allow. Unlike other days however, I was stopped from leaving by a well-dressed employee who told me I couldn’t take so many oranges, and seized three oranges from my hands. At that moment I was faced with a choice of giving back the oranges, or leaving. I decided to leave and did so by walking back and forth until I had room to brush by the fellow who was determined to get in the way.

I was written up, had a conduct hearing, and was sentenced to ten hours of community service, a small fine, and an incident of “aggressive” misconduct on my record. I appealed and lost despite making clear the ridiculousness of the situation. Apparently, this punishment is typical for “such an offense”.

Then I messed up. I learned that all I had to do was write questions to create discussion in the cafeteria and did so. These questions include: “I don’t think stealing oranges from the cafeteria is wrong, do you?” While my `punishment’ took two hours, not ten, my error was accepting anything, period. I will not make such a mistake again, forcing whoever to confront the ridiculous nature of the rules they enforce.

And this is a power we can exercise daily, undermining the blindness through which power acts against our own standards and interests. This can be done through refusal, the refusal to accept punishment, to partake in a role, to do a task, or by using the power of exception, the leeway of any role to ignore rules in order to give individuals the treatment they desire.

Lets add some context, not for this trivial incident, but for the society in which we live. We live in a society where codification of rules is viewed as the solution to achieve efficiency and impartiality (which pretend to be collective well-being and justice). Disregarding the fact that excessive creation of rules does not create well-being, efficiency, impartiality or justice, and that roles and rules are forced upon us, this over-codification has resulted in a situation where many typical behaviors are illegal, drug use for example, and where deviance therefore is based not on what is done, but what is seen.

Combined with technologies capable of tracking all behaviors of any individual, we find ourselves in a situation where most people commit “crimes,” but where “criminals” are primarily determined by who we target, by people’s position in society, rather than by crime itself. And we throw the watched into the world’s largest prison system, over two million strong, filled disproportionately with people of color. This was made poignantly clear to me last summer when interning with a corrections program. I saw black males sent to prison for less than what my white friends have been caught for, and instead of prison, my friends paid fines, did community service…or nothing at all.

Anti-racist and prison activism is a beautiful calling and something we should all partake in as we can, but whether or not we dedicate ourselves to this work does not eliminate our ability to attack the problem of surveillance-based criminality. How can we resist? By utilizing the power of refusal or exception when we have it, every day, and supporting those who do so to realize social equality, justice, or humanization.

This is not easy. Each of our roles is constituted in a way so as to be blind to our participation in societal problems. Third grade teachers blame second grade teachers, who blame first grade teachers, who blame parents.

Nevertheless, we have the ability to recognize these falsehoods and the chain-blame that makes us blind to our own responsibilities. We can dismantle this stifling tendency that creates emptiness and frustration in people like me, and horrors for the less fortunate. We do not have to disown our own values, or consent to the magnified consequences located in the less privileged end of the structures we inhabit. Demanding review of institutional practices through refusal or resistance allows us to crack the monolithic faAade of power and reveal the crucial roles we can and do play in our society and community. I stole some oranges, which was fine; I failed in failing to refuse.