Suicidal Tendencies: Institutionalized

For this week’s entry I present to you Institutionalized by Suicidal Tendencies. I chose this song as I would like to focus on one aspect often discussed in relation to prison abolition, the topic of the carceral approach to mental health treatment.

As per my first entry into the mix tape I would like to lead with an anecdote. (Content warning) One of my closest family members (a first cousin) was diagnosed with autism at a young age. Once he reached his 20’s he was evaluated to have developed a rather severe form of schizophrenia. For years he’s been completely depended on my aunt for all his needs being ostensibly unable to care for himself. As is the case for those suffering from a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia, he frequently has violent manic episodes often directed at those closest to him. In one of the most dangerous episodes, he physically assaulted his brother and mother, grabbed several knifes throwing them, and threatening to kill himself. My aunt, having been reluctant to involve the police for fear of his safety, had no other option but to call them in this instance. When they arrived, the police proceeded to tase and mace him, throwing him to the ground, and fracturing his left arm in the process. What followed was an overnight stay in jail, costly hospital bills, and a permanent record. Left with no other options and seeking immediate treatment for my cousin, she found only one institution three states away that would accept someone with his condition that had exhibited prior violent tendencies. After a month of treatment costing $107,500 it was determined that they could no longer help him.

I’m sharing this story because I believe it reflects the way police and prisons operate as the primary vector for engagement with mental illness as articulated by both Angela Davis and Allegra McLeod as well as by Suicidal Tendencies in Institutionalized. To quote the second verse:

They give you a white shirt with long sleeves

Tied around your back, you’re treated like thieves

Drug you up because they’re lazy

It’s too much work to help a crazy

With an absence of proactive community-oriented prevention, all that remains for those in distress are expensive private mental health facilities or the police and incarceration/institutionalization. McLeod echoes this stating:

“The Oakland Power Projects, organized by the Critical Resistance chapter in Oakland, California, offer another approach to addressing harm in which community street medics and healthcare workers train residents in de-escalation and other tactics. These other tactics are aimed at assisting neighbors confronted with a loved one facing a mental health crisis — a frequent reason for calls to police that result in violence and unnecessary jailing.”

The institutions of prisons and mental health care are inexorably tied, being ostensibly reflections of each other. Issues of mental health are direct precursors to or just blatantly causal factors of crime and criminality. America’s prisons inexorably become extensions of the mental health care system, housing millions of untreated peoples for whom mental illness has been manifested in criminality.

Daniel Lazcano

Violence and Nonviolence

Bad Religion: Hello Cruel World

For this week’s entry into the playlist, I present Hello Cruel World by Bad religion. The song involves the point of view character pleading that the world recognizes his suffering. The nature and content of the suffering is never expounded, allowing us to interject our own understandings. I believe we can thus read the lyrics though Judith Butler’s framing of redressing inequality in terms of grievability.

The first chorus begins:

Hello cruel world
Do you know that you’re killing me?
I don’t mind, but I could use a little sympathy
I’ve been blind as a fool can be
My dear cruel world
Do you ever think about me?

The lyrics are rather straightforward, the perspective character is pleading with the world to recognize and sympathize with his suffering. He’s so resigned to his suffering, that he doesn’t even plead for a change to his condition, rather that it merely be seen. I think we can interpret this outside of a simple call for empathy, which as Butler articulates, can center a more self-serving interpretation of recognition. Moving away from this, to see a population as grievable is to value them outside of their relation to oneself but as entities that have value in of themself.

“If and when a population is grievable, they can be acknowledged as a living population whose death would be grieved if that life were lost, meaning that such loss would be unacceptable, and even wrong—an occasion of shock and outrage.”

This concept can even be extended to include land and non-human animals, whose moral value is so often obscured by the limitations concepts of empathy naturally provide. The loss of say, an species of primate, can be framed in the grievable loss of a unique member of earths community.

Daniel Lazcano

Racial Violence and Representation

Common: Letter to the Free

For this week’s song I’d like to present you with Common’s: Letter to the Free. This song was written for the 2016 Netflix documentary 13th by director Ava DuVernay. The song and the documentary attempt to draw a throughline between slavery and the modern American prison industrial complex by discussing the history from the end of slavery via the 13th amendment and how the United States transitioned towards mass incarceration of black people through the black codes and mass disenfranchisement. I believe this song, especially the first two lines of the first verse, can be used to understand the difficulty of representation of the lost voices of the enslaved. It can provide us a lens for which we can contextualize Saidiya Hartman and Fred Moten’s writings on the representation of and spectacle of black suffering. Specifically, to quote Hartman: “At issue here is the precariousness of empathy and the uncertain line between witness and spectator”.

Let’s begin with the very first two lines of the song:

Southern leaves, southern trees we hung from
Barren souls, heroic songs unsung

Common is leading with explicit imagery of the quotidian acts of violence inflicted on enslaved black peoples, following it with what might be seen as a call for recognition of the lives of the enslaved whose stories go unheard. The second lyric is of interest as I believe it ties directly to Hartman’s writings on the impossibility of slave representation. This desire for the recognition of the enslaved cuts towards the dialectical struggle between recognition and normalization of violence. It is the case, that through the repressive instruments of white supremacy and slavery, the historical record may be unable to singularly convey the barbarism of slavery and its institutions. How then do we critically interrogate the historical narrative while not inversely reinforcing its authority? How can we represent the “consciousness of the subaltern” outside of the ‘dominant representation of the elites”? From what I understand Hartman thinks this issue can’t necessarily be resolved. The conditions of the slave left them destitute, illiterate, and powerless long after their legal “emancipation”. Our historical record is necessarily laundered through the lens of those who had the capacity to speak. The closest we can get are those former slaves able to get an education and later articulate their experience. But as I understand it, the point Hartman is making is that this necessarily alters the perspective, those within slave conditions were barred from speech, robbed of their ability to tell their story outside of laundering it through a capable entity. To quote Hartman:

“Accordingly, this examination of the cultural practices of the dominate is possible only because of the accounts provided by literate black autobiographers, white amanuenses, plantation journals and documents, newspaper accounts, missionary tracts, travel writing, amateur ethnographies, government reports, et cetera. Because these documents are “not free from barbarism,” I have tried to read them against the grain in order to write a different account: of the past, while realizing the limits imposed by employing these sources, the impossibility of fully recovering the experience of the enslaved and the emancipated, and the risk of reinforcing the authority of these documents even as I try to use them for contrary purposes.”

Common’s lyric “Barren souls, heroic songs unsung” now reads less as a call for recognition, and more a lamenting of those whose song can’t ever be sung. We are left then as spectator, unable to elucidate the suffering of the slave whose voice has been robbed through centuries of violence.

To briefly cover the rest of the song, Common continues in the rest of the verse explicating the transition from chattel slavery to sharecropping and eventually to the modern prison industrial complex and convict leasing.

Forgive them Father they know this knot is undone
Tied with the rope that my grandmother died
Pride of the pilgrims affect lives of millions
Since slave days separating, fathers from children
Institution ain’t just a building
But a method, of having black and brown bodies fill them
We ain’t seen as human beings with feelings
Will the U.S. ever be us? Lord willing!
For now we know, the new Jim Crow
They stop, search and arrest our souls
Police and policies patrol philosophies of control
A cruel hand taking hold
We let go to free them so we can free us
America’s moment to come to Jesus

A clear line from slavery to the modern institutions of policing and incarceration is drawn by Common. We can see here the referenced “elusive emancipation and travestied freedom” by Hartman.

Lastly, a comment on the chorus:

Freedom (Freedom)Freedom come (Freedom come)
Hold on (Hold on)
Won’t be long (Won’t be long)

The chorus is clearly meant to emulate the tone and cadence of slave songs such as Wade in the Water (, chanting the desire for eventual emancipation from the repressive systems of white supremacy.

Daniel Lazcano

Gendered Violence

No Doubt: Just a Girl

For this week’s entry, I’ve chosen I’m Just a Girl by No Doubt. This song centers an aspect of patriarchal violence frequently levied against woman, their infantilization. This portrayal of women as weak and in need of protection and guidance not only denies them their agency but makes them a target of the greater neoliberal project that generally detests weakness.

Both Verónica Gago and Françoise Vergès directly attribute a primary aspect of the war on women’s bodies on said greater neoliberal project, but Vergès directly implicates Ayn Rand’s “objectivist” philosophy as the bedrock of neoliberal ideology and its relationship with perceived weakness.[1] [2] He says:

“The psychic life of neoliberalism is based on the notion that success is strictly one’s own making, that egotism is the motor of excellence and wealth. Ayn Rand provided this ideology its philosophy: any vulnerability or sign of weakness is to be eradicated as an obstacle on the path of talented and motivated people—exclusively white men”[3]

In Just a Girl, front woman Gwen Stefani sings about this infantilization of women and the consequential repression that entails.

Take this pink ribbon off my eyes
I’m exposed, and it’s no big surprise
Don’t you think I know exactly where I stand?
This world is forcing me to hold your hand

Cause I’m just a girl, oh, little old me
Well, don’t let me out of your sight
Oh, I’m just a girl, all pretty and petite
So don’t let me have any rights

The lyrics are clearly describing the correlation between the infantilization of woman and their systematized violence through the repression of their agency. This can be correlated with the neoliberal eradication of weakness and the subsequent paternal management of women’s bodies. Vergès states:

“The weak hereby (unsurprisingly) become part of the new civilizing mission, the target of a paternalistic philanthropy determined to prevent any emergence of a new conception of inhabiting, of being human in the world.” [4]

Women are hence relegated to a form of sub-class paternal oversight, removing agency over their own bodies. It is a simultaneous presupposition of their weakness and an accusatory imposition of women’s necessity to take charge of their own weakness.[5]

Daniel Lazcano


[1] Verónica Gago, Feminist International: How to Change Everything, p. 23

[2] Françoise Vergès, A Feminist Theory of Violence: A Decolonial Perspective, p. 13

[3] Ibid, p. 13

[4] Ibid, p. 13

[5] Ibid, p. 13

Border Violence

Rise Against: Prayer of the Refugee

For the first song in our mixtape, I present to you Prayer of the Refugee by Rise Against. I chose this song as I believe it has interesting messaging about the interaction of refugees with the population of their destination country. I will primarily be utilizing Di Cesare’s section 21 “Migrants against the poor? Welfare chauvinism and global justice”.[1]

The chorus seems to have a double meaning that outlines the conflict between native citizens of the destination country and migrants:

Don’t hold me up now
I can stand my own ground
I don’t need your help now
You will let me down, down, down

Don’t hold me up now (Oh, oh, oh, oh)
I can stand my own ground
I don’t need your help now
You will let me down, down, down, down

I believe that the chorus can be read as being both from the perspective of the migrant and the native citizen.

From the perspective of the refugee the chorus can be interpreted as an assertion of one’s own autonomy over a system that barely acknowledges their humanity. It implies a degree of expectation of systemic discrimination and rejection by the refugee, requiring an assertion of autonomy from the refugee. I imagine it as a backlash to the welfare chauvinism as outlined by Di Cesare in section 21.[2] Anecdotally speaking, being the child of two Cuban refugees who migrated to the United States, amongst Cuban exiles self-reliance and autonomy are seen as virtuous and necessary attributes one requires to survive. Whether it be because of the predominantly wealthy and white makeup of early Cuban refugees or be it a sort of survivorship bias, self-reliance manifests as a core political value that informs many Cuban-American’s deeply economically austere politics. Again, this remains an anecdotal example, but I believe it may help illustrate a potentially interesting read on the dialogue between a state operating within the mindset of welfare chauvinism and the refugee forced to act autonomously.

Inversely, interpreted from the perspective of the native citizen the chorus acts as a rejection of the refugee, acting as the embodiment of welfare chauvinism.[3] To them the migrant poses an imminent threat to the social and economic fabric of society, undercutting native labor, and benefiting from unearned welfare. The chorus embodies the citizen declaring that they “don’t need their help” and ultimately that the migrant will “let them down”. The music video alludes to the economic significance of the migrant, showing all the products in the store being made by the cheap labor of the migrant as a massive American flag hangs inside. The message is a clear statement about how much American life is dependent on this cheap foreign labor. The line “don’t hold me up” can be read as the citizen shouting at the refugee, embodying the protectionism that seeks to minimize the reliance on cheap foreign labor that is often contextualized through the lens of “sovereigntism underpinned by racism”.[4]

I would also like to draw your attention to this verse in particular:
We are the angry and the desperate
The hungry and the cold
We are the ones who kept quiet
And always did what we were told (Oh, oh, oh)
But we’ve been sweating while you slept so calm in the safety of your home
We’ve been pulling out the nails that hold up everything you’ve known

To compare it to Di Cesare:

“The migrant, however, unmasks the state. From its external edge, she interrogates its very foundations, pointing an accusing finger against discrimination. She ties the state back to its historical emergence and discredits the myth of its purity. And she thus insists that the state itself be reconsidered. In this sense, migration bears as subversive charge.”[5]

The migrant acts as an ideological undermining force of the liberal nation state. The violence necessary to maintain the border regime of the liberal nation state acts to undermine its ideological underpinnings, and the refugee is the lens by which it is exposed. Rise Against expounds this with their combination imagery that shows migrants engaging in productive work while singing the quoted verse about how they are subverting the essence of the liberal nation state implying the mechanism to do so is their very existence, mirroring Di Cesare.

Daniel Lazcano


[1] Di Cesare, Migrants and the State p.61-68
[2] Ibid, p.62
[3] Ibid, p.62
[4] Ibid, p. 62
[5] Ibid, p. 11