Some thoughts on the Phoenix Liberian case

By now, most of you have heard the heartrending story of the little Liberian refugee girl who was raped by four boys, also Liberian refugees, in Phoenix, AZ.  The four boys ranged in age from 9 to 14 years old. When the girl’s parents learned what happened, they told the police to take their daughter away, that the shame she had brought on her family was too great to bear. The girl was subsequently placed in foster care.

Like I said, most of you know these details already. And if you’ve read the news stories, you also know what the knee-jerk media and public reaction to this story has been — oh, those savage Africans!

Right wing columnist Phyllis Chesler even titled her column –I’m not kidding– “Child Barbarians in Phoenix: Obama Extends their Stay,” and used what happened in Phoenix to advance her argument that people from the “Third World” are inherently criminal, violent, animalistic and unassimilable into American society.

She wrote:

Most Americans have no idea how different our culture is from cultures in the Middle East, central Asia, or Africa. If differences are acknowledged, America and the West are blamed for them. The barbarism, genocide, perpetual civil and religious wars, the cruelties of Sharia law (stoning, cross-amputations, be-heading), and the utterly tragic treatment of women, children, and the poor in the Third World– all are blamed on western imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism.

Not true–or so I have been arguing for years. Some barbarism is indigenous to a region. But even if it were true–what’s to be done now? Should we willingly welcome cannibals [Huh? -Ed], gang-rapists, child-rapists, polygamists, (dis)honor murderers to our shores?

Terrible things happen in the Third World: Children as young as five are routinely kidnapped into slavery, or forced to become suicide bombers or child-soldiers. Children see their mothers raped, their fathers tortured, their parents and other relatives brutally murdered. Male children are forced to rape their own mothers, female children are forced to sexually service men old enough to be their grandfathers. No one protects, consoles, re-educates, or “treats” them as trauma victims.

Immigrants bring both their barbarism and their traumatized histories right along with them when they come to America.

Anti-refugee blogger Ann Corcoran also weighed in. Displaying her inimitable talent for creatively combing prejudices, she wrote :

This is a heinous practice we are well aware of with followers of Islam—-blaming the rape victim.  But these Liberians are likely not Muslims, so I was interested to learn that this cultural problem was coming into the US with other refugee cultures as well.

Predictably, one of her commenters responded:

The family of the rape victim should be deported immediately. They don’t understand nor to they have the same values that we Americans have. They have no business being here. The families of the rapists should also be investigated. We shouldn’t have to allow people with these sort of views to live in this country. They don’t seem to understand what civilized people allow. We can’t have them breeding a generation of this kind of thinking in this land. I am sorry if this sounds harsh, but if they came here for a better life, that is fine, but if their values will alter our way of life, then they shouldn’t be allowed to come.

Americans also commit rape, just like Americans also murder and abuse their children and intimate partners. As has been proved time and again, foreign born residents –including refugees- are actually less likely to commit violent crimes than Americans born in this country. These are not opinions, they are facts. (See here and here.)

A climate of impunity for violence against women, much of it sexual, has existed in Liberian society for a long time, and reached unfathomable proportions during Liberia’s civil war. This is also true.

But so is the tremendous effort Liberian activists have put into ending that culture of impunity and changing social attitudes toward women and victims of sexual and gender-based violence. Like every other society, Liberian society is not culturally or attitudinally monolithic. Certain opinions are widely (though not universally) held, but extrapolating the actions or opinions of any individual or small group of individuals to the entire racial, ethnic, religious or national category that person or those individuals fall into is illogical, dangerous bigotry. It reduces people to categorical absolutes, dismisses all of life’s messiness as predestination, and encourages faulty assumptions about violence, culture, and causality.

The parents of the rape victim in Phoenix have done themselves and the rest of the Liberian refugee community in the United States no favours by abandoning their daughter and telling the press how ashamed of her they are, but they do not represent all Liberians refugees, or all Liberians. Prominent Liberians from U.S.-based activists to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf have condemned the reaction of this family and expressed their support for the victim. The Liberian diaspora has recoiled in as much horror at the entire situation as everyone else.

This is not about Africans.

This is not about Liberians.

This is not about refugees.

And this is not about your agenda or my agenda when it comes to immigration.

This is about a little girl in Phoenix who had something terrible done to her, parents who betrayed their child when she needed them most, and yes, four little boys who will now be swallowed by the criminal justice system and whose lives will forever be defined by a crime they committed as juveniles.

***

The county prosecutor for Maricopa County has stated that the 14 year old boy will be tried as an adult, while the 9, 10 and 13 year olds will be tried as juveniles. Instead of receiving counseling and rehabilitation to re-enter society, these boys will spend years, possibly decades in the case of the 14 year old, in some of the worst prisons in the democratic world.

Childhood is defined legally and understood socially by a person’s age, not by his or her behaviour or capacity. Ten year olds are fully capable of drinking and smoking, but we don’t let them do those things. Fifteen year olds are certainly capable of fighting in wars –but we don’t let anyone enlist in the armed forces until she or her reaches age 18, and we view combatants below that age elsewhere in the world as victims of adult manipulation and unfortunate circumstances beyond their control.

A few nights ago, I asked a lawyer friend to explain the rationale behind trying children as adults and sentencing them to hard time in adult prisons. He said that there isn’t a sound legal rationale behind it –it’s purely pandering to a lynch mob mentality for political gain, buying votes by satiating voters’ desire for retribution without the consideration of mitigating circumstances. It’s not that we view child offenders as adults when they commit terrible crimes, he explained, it’s that we stop caring that they are children.

All of that made perfect sense to me. There are many aspects of American political culture that are incredibly illiberal and backward, and our attitude toward juvenile offenders is one of these. Not until 2005, following the Supreme Court decision in Roper v. Simmons, did it become illegal everywhere in the United States to apply the death penalty to juvenile offenders.

Even then, the court ruled 5-4, and the decision is still controversial. Think about that: it’s controversial for the United States to no longer be executing people for crimes they committed as kids. Prior to Roper, fifteen states still allowed the execution of juvenile offenders as young as 16 years old.

What is in store for the Liberian refugee children at the center of the Phoenix tragedy? For the little girl, I hope, all the medical and psychological services she needs, with or without the future involvement of her parents in her life. It is also my sincere wish that she finds the kind of unconditional love she was denied by her parents.

For the boys, life from now on will be nasty, poor, solitary, and bereft of opportunities for rehabilitation. Given where they will stand trial, convictions are all but guaranteed, and the resulting sentences will likely be lengthy, custodial ones. The conditions in Maricopa County jails violate minimum humanitarian standards. Infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio runs Maricopa like his personal, authoritarian fiefdom. I wrote about Arpaio last year. If you think I’m being dramatic and exaggerating what the Liberian boys will face in the days ahead –or you believe the boys deserve whatever is coming to them– I suggest you keep reading.

[Sheriff Joe Arpaio's] brutality has made him a legendary figure to  the “lock ‘em up, rough ‘em up” and anti-immigrant constituencies, and a notorious one to human rights and humanitarian groups. Joe Arpaio is a someone who believes a law enforcement badge entitles –no, commands– its possessor to do whatever he or she chooses, and that people convicted or even simply accused of crimes forfeit their human rights and become mere subjects of a system.

In one jail, Arpaio forces male inmates to wear pink underwear and pink handcuffs, and use pink towels, as a form of humiliation, playing on inmate’s powerlessness and fears of emasculation. He’s also re-introduced chain gangs, a form of punishment that most American prisons have abandoned as cruel and archaic. Arpaio’s female and juvenile prisoner chain gangs have attracted great media fascination, and he boasts of them often.

“I use it for deterrence to fight crime. I put them right on the street where everyone can see them. If a kid asks his mother, she can tell them this is what happens to people who break the law,” he said.

[...]

Thousands of Apraio’s prisoners are forced to live in tents outside, even in the heat of the Arizona summer, when the temperatures inside the tents soar well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Others are crammed into overcrowded cells. They are made to work seven days a week and are fed only twice a day, on nutritionally-deficient and sometimes spoiled food. Inmates’ meals cost just thirty cents each, which, brags Arpaio, is less than it costs to feed prison dogs.

[...]

When a local newspaper dared to investigate what was going on in Maricopa’s jails, Arpaio tried to silence the newspaper. If he’d been born elsewhere (say, Central Asia, or Central Africa), Joe Arpaio would be a warlord-president (think: Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov), or military dictator of some unfortunate country, or the head of a secret police force, or a militia commander terrorizing civilians. Fuck, he’s close enough to that last characterization anyway. In 2006, he created a local law enforcement “posse” in Maricopa county to hunt down and capture undocumented immigrants, work normally done only by federal immigration authorities. The governor of Arizona put a stop to that, calling it dangerous.

[...]

Joe Arpaio has blood on his hands. Lots of it. In just one example among several explained in terrible detail here, Arpaio’s guards beat a mentally disabled man to death. In another case, Ambrett Spencer, an inmate in the ninth month of pregnancy, was denied desperately-needed medical care, resulting in the loss of her baby and very nearly her own life as well.

[...]

A partial list of inmates killed by abuse and neglect can be found here. Because of the cruel system he operates, Joe Arpaio is the most sued sheriff in the United States. Both the ACLU and Amnesty International have criticized the conditions in Arpaio’s jails. Courts in Ireland and Iceland have ruled that persons wanted for crimes in Maricopa county, Arizona  cannot be extradited to the United States because Maricopa correctional facilities do not meet minimum humanitarian standards.

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