Continuing my series of interviews with interesting people I know, this week I spoke with Ben Brucato, a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. You can read more by and about Ben at his website, www.benbrucato.com.
Tell us about yourself and what you do.
I’m a husband and father. I live in upstate New York because it’s where my doctoral program is located. I look forward to moving on. I’m currently a doctoral candidate and teaching assistant at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the Science and Technology Studies department. I have taught periodically as an online instructor in the Sociology department at Northern Arizona University, where I earned my MA. I’m about to start teaching as an adjunct at Union College in Political Science. I came to RPI to study with my advisor, Langdon Winner. I’ve been a musician since I was about 10 years old, and have played in all sorts of bands. I’ve been making noise as Clew Of Theseus (and other projects) since 1997 or so. I’m in a black metal band that’s trying to get off the ground. I started a label in around 2001 or so, called Cathartic Process, which releases noise and power electronics. Lately, it’s been a cassette-only label. It’s been very slow going the last couple years, though.
Every academic has a history. What brought you to this arena?
College was the expected thing to do after graduating high school. I intended to go to graduate school right away. Through my activist work, I met and became good friends with Joel Olson. He was just finishing his PhD and trying to find a job. Seeing that process put me off of my intentions to be a professor. I came back to graduate school after a nearly decade-long advertising and marking career. It was soul crushing and I hated everything about it except the paycheck. After the last place I worked was essentially liquidated and my unemployment ran out, I started considering other options. Spending a couple years being broke again changed my expectations. I knew I could go back to school and have a reliable but small income from stipends. It was a way to get by for a few years more than a stepping stone in a career trajectory. It would be nice if it ends up being the latter.
You have a black metal/noise history. What’s that about and does it inform your present work? Do you find extreme music to be helpful to your academic work?
I’ve been a noise artist for a while now. That was always more important to me than my professional life. Now that I’m finding more satisfying theoretical and topical issues to explore in my work, my studies and writing is more personally rewarding. But I don’t think these really inform my work that much. The themes in black metal and noise have me more attuned to the extreme, the pessimistic, and so on. I’m sure there’s something deep inside me that draws me to both fanatical politics and extreme metal, to cosmic pessimism and the bleakest industrial noise. I’d like to offer some more profound explanation, but any real connection is at an affective level that resists verbalization.
It might just be me, but I’m thinking that reports of police brutality are becoming more prominent in public discourse. First, is there evidence to suggest police brutality on the rise? Second, what do you make of the fact that, despite increased public awareness of police brutality and abuse of power, that no pubic representative (to my knowledge) has commented on the problem? Third, I feel that issues of police brutality were softened in the 90’s by TVs shows such as COPS, which forced viewers to watch through the perspective of officers, but that public opinion seems less empathetic to police in the YouTube era. Producers necessarily had to defer to the police to make the show. It’s my opinion that it very much matters who holds the camera. Do you find that the new trend of citizen produced (or edited video) is changing attitudes to police brutality? Or has nothing changed at all?
What counts as police brutality? What would it mean for police brutality to be “on the rise”? I don’t think there are clear answers, and that the terms discussing these have to be tentative, provisional operationalizations. They have to be tied to a context and to texts, to discourses and the places where they emerge. My research is mostly tied to the visibility of policing and its violence. Some researchers have addressed the idea that because police use-of-force is now more visible, the perception is that standard, ongoing police activity – including use-of-force – is becoming more prevalent, more invasive, more violent, and so on. The research on incidence and outcomes of use-of-force by police is incomplete, and there are few longitudinal studies. Without quality, national-level, longitudinal research, most assertions about these things are speculative. I am, however, comfortable claiming that use-of-force incidence remains stable, and I think there is some reasonably reliable empirical basis to support this claim. The bulk of my research is motivated by trying to understand, on the one hand, why the Rodney King beating prompted a national conversation and nearly led to a crisis for the policing institution as a whole. Yet, on the other hand, we are now presented with a new documentary video of a police beating or shooting about every week and without the same national conversation and crisis of legitimacy. What explains this? As I’m finding, there are many reasons for this that work together to explain it. I’d say the most common reaction I hear is that people are becoming “desensitized.” I think that has very little explanatory value. I’m sure it contributes, but that’s not an explanation I spend much time exploring. I think you’re on to something with the reference to COPS, which predates the Rodney King beating. I think we have a “toolbox” of codes and symbols we use to interpret these visualizations and representations of police violence. Reality shows like COPS, and all sorts of other cultural artifacts help people decode these images. Most of our toolboxes are full of lots of white supremacist and classist codes that are used in interpreting these videos. So, the purported objectivity of video – which the intentional and politicized monitoring of police in some ways relies upon – is suspended in doubt, here. The idea that video and cameras will change policing in some ways relies on the idea that these images will be received without any need for interpretation, that “what really happened” will be laid bare, and any reasonable viewer will be offended by the common violence the police rely upon.
I am interested to see the shift in public attitudes toward surveillance that has been occurring throughout the past decade. In the 00’s, there seemed to be a general acceptance that government would use any means necessary to weed out terrorists (for example). Now, it seems that the public is much more concerned about the issue. Do you think this shift can be sustained?
I think the issue is barely cut and dry. I think there is a lot of cognitive dissonance that occurs here. The less fascist people even have trouble squaring their demand for security – presumably which can only be supplied by the state, and violently so – with their desire for civility and democracy. Then, of course, you have the bold-faced authoritarians who love when cops beat Black bodies, and wish they would more frequently. More recently, vigilante activity seems to be on an upswing, as white supremacists – as they have been wont to do in the past centuries – have joined with state forces in doing this policing, i.e. George Zimmerman. But then there’s the inherent conflict in a class-divided society the police are first and foremost designed to maintain, protect, and administrate. I don’t think more people are aware and concerned as a result of consciousness-raising, more visibility, and so on, but rather as a result of more historically privileged people falling into the working class after the financial collapse. White folks are more frequently on the receiving end of invasive policing, surveillance, and so on. Some of them are quite happy to see the force of a racist regime demonstrated. Some white folks are offended that they occasionally are made subject to it, e.g. at TSA screenings in airports, roadside checks and searches, etc. Suddenly they speak up when the policing that people of color and sexual minorities have been subjected to is inflicted on them. But there are a handful of these folks who have either some class consciousness or moralistic defense of egalitarianism that inspires their feelings of offense as these situations are more widely spread and visible.
I see that you post frequently on issues of public surveillance, but not so much about issues of private surveillance. I personally think that the private sector often gets a free pass on issues of privacy intrusion, despite that the private sector might present as great a threat. Do you think that private sector surveillance has implications for the populace?
I’m generally not that interested in the theme of privacy. So we’re already past an area of discussion that I have much to say about. As for the distinctions between government surveillance and private surveillance, and how the latter contributes to invasions into our lives and affairs, and even the structuring of our navigation and negotiation of everyday life, I’m rather interested, intellectually, and concerned and committed politically. I think any blind spot here is simply a result of the fine-tuning of my own research that more obsessively focuses my attention to state violence and state surveillance. But both policing and surveillance are phenomenon that exist beyond the state, and particularly more so during the processes of neoliberalization. Private prisons, private police, and the like are just the tip of the iceberg.
What projects are you working on now, what should we look for, and where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I’m not so sure higher education will be very recognizable in 10 years. I’d like to say I see myself as a tenured professor, teaching a small load of courses of my own design while conducting smaller but long-term (and funded) research projects. But I think that’s not a very realistic projection even for those who are lucky, well-connected, and have a history of careful planning for such a trajectory. But if I entertain that fantasy a little, you could expect something like this: First would be a book on critical technology studies that takes the work of people like Mumford and Ellul as they were responded to and developed by Langdon Winner, David Noble, Richard Sclove, and others. It would characterize and develop their work, showing its relevance to understanding technology today. There would also be a book on surveillance and policing, focusing especially on the political fantasies and imaginations about transparency. The latter would obviously be based on my dissertation work. Ideally, I’ll be teaching in northern Europe, struggling to learn the local language, and be well along the way toward building a sustainable eco-village.
What’s up with the beard? I’m thinking that it’s a symbiotic living entity.
It’s a habit more than a symbol. Although, the statements it does make (except “I’m a hippy”) are generally ones in which I find more positive than negative.
Today’s interview is with my friend, advocate for the poor and downtrodden and purveyor of loudness, Greg Pratt. Greg’s a great guy in just about a billion ways. This interview should tell you why. You can learn more about the group he works with MISSION A2, here.
Who are you and what do you do?
Greg Pratt. I am a social worker by training, an organizer and movement worker by necessity. The two primary foci of my work are material and political support.
I help people with resources for living outside, so propane, water, socks, tents, sleeping bags, batteries etc. I also help them organize politically [internal and external]. Sometimes, that manifests in a camp community [internal] other times that manifests in local ordinances like the Good Neighbor Amendment to the Ann Arbor Parks Ordinance [external]. This amendment waives the fee for organizations handing out free material goods to folks in A2 public parks.
The Camp Take Notice Good Neighbor Subcommittee worked on this from April 2013 until the ordinance passed its 2nd reading on November 18, 2013. The Subcommittee was comprised of 7-8 individuals and I believe everyone but myself was homeless or recently emerging from homelessness.
You have done a lot of work with homeless people in the Ann Arbor area. How did you get started doing that work?
I am an alcoholic. On December 31, 2001, I had my last blackout and was charged with my third DUI.
On July 3, 2001, I was sentenced to six months in Oakland County Jail. The first five days were spent in the middle section of a three-section holding tank area of the Oakland County Jail. Each section was 10’ X 15’, separated by plexiglass, and had anywhere from 10-15 individuals in each section at any given time. There was one toilet per section. We were let out once per day to eat.
After I got out of there I was transferred to the County Barracks across the street for the work release program. This was basically an army style, bunk bed living quarters. We paid weekly rent [I think mine was something like 160-70 per week] and were allowed out of the barracks, at most, 5 days/week. I was only fortunate enough to get out 4 days/week.
After getting out of jail, I spent six months on tether [house arrest]. At the same time, I began my probation which included many hours of community service.
I chose to do my service hours at SOS Community Services at the River St. Location in Ypsilanti, MI. I did their “empathy training” to become a volunteer crisis counselor. At the time, the River Street SOS location served as a place for people to get referrals to other services in the area, food distribution, and a 24-hour crisis hotline which people used for information or just to talk when things were getting a bit to much to handle. I only had one suicide call [fortunately] while we still had the phone lines in place. I continued on in my volunteer capacity at SOS for a year after I got my hours for probation completed. I really enjoyed the work and the community I was a part of as a result of being there two to three times per week.
Anyhow, that is how I became involved. My first social work mentor, from SOS, was Christina Oliver. She still works in the area as a disabled-persons’ advocate.
I haven’t had a drink of alcohol since February 19, 2001. My higher power is the collective consciousness of all living beings. I am not anonymous, but I practice the principles in my daily life.
Do you find that the situation for homeless people in Ann Arbor is getting worse or better? Is Ann Arbor becoming increasingly closed?
I think you may be asking the wrong person on this one.
I am going to give an answer that is the best I can with the information I have from the friends [I don’t use the word client or consumer] with whom I work.
On the one hand Ann Arbor is great because of its manifold set of resources for low-income people struggling with mental/physical health, addiction, and unemployment. On the other, it has very little in the way of low-income housing that is near places of low-income employment. The bus system is ok, but has limited evening hours during the week [M-F] and pretty much zero hours on weekend nights. So, if you live in Ypsilanti and work in Ann Arbor and have no car, your options for hours to work are limited as a result of these limited transportation options. If you talked to the current VP of MISSION, Jimmy Hill, you may get a more comprehensive version of what it is like trying to navigate one’s way out of homelessness in Ann Arbor.
Is is getting better? I hope that in the wake of the forum hosted by the Ann Arbor District Library last week it will. Camp Misfit A2 [one of the groups interdependent with MISSION] has, through their activism and public actions, put the issue of lack of affordable, low-income housing on the radar of local politicos as well as the local human services industry. I am cautiously optimistic right now.
Ann Arbor, as a small and somewhat well to do area, likely does not have the social space or will to accommodate an underclass, but at the same time, would not like to be seen as exclusionary. Do you think that Ann Arbor will ever be able to rectify these competing problems?
Good question. For me, change will have arrived when “our” kids can play with “their” kids.
I don’t think that we will ever correct the problem given the current system of resource distribution in our society, Capitalism.
Capitalism is a system that is framed to encourage economic growth. In this system, there are winners and losers. It is not “survival of the fittest” that determines winners. It is more like a complex gambling system that is weighted toward those with more wealth.
So, I think for Ann Arbor to rectify these problems, we would have to end capitalism as it is practiced now.
Here is another point I want to make. This one is predicated on our capitalist system of resource distribution. Homelessness is not a pond we can drain, but rather a river that flows on beyond our time here on this earth. We can dam up the river and provide bridges at certain sections of the flow, but regardless of our actions to “stop the flow” it continues on just like the wind.
There are people who are “chronically” homeless. But, most folks struggle with this for a matter of months. At our camp out on Wagner Rd [RIP], the average stay was just under three months. The Delonis Center has a similar statistic, although I think stays have been increasing over the last couple of years there.
I’m finding it interesting that Ann Arbor is having discussions about whether to create and improve public spaces, based on a perception that homeless people will use them (like this is a bad thing). How much of these concerns is based on alarmism, and how much is justified?
I think that we need to plan those spaces in an inclusive way, all stakeholders at the table. If we were to take that tack as a community I think we might reduce some of the alarmism. But ultimately, I think the folks with capital to invest in this area would rather see sunshine and lollipops and yellow brick roads, than help people who are struggling to make it in our community.
What do you see ultimately happening?
For the time being, more sunshine and lollipops and yellow-brick roads to nowhere for the poor and to increased wealth for Rick Snyder and his Carpet Bagger Finance Capitalists.
You’ve also done work with the unions, specifically during the push to bring GSRA’s into GEO. What’s your history working with labor?
Ugh. What a nightmare campaign that was. Before that disaster, I helped nontenure track faculty at MSU and EMU build their unions.
Yes, I worked for AFT Michigan [American Federation of Teachers]. I was a member of GEO as a grad student at the UM School of Social Work and was interested in learning labor/political organizing. I became a member of the GEO Organizing Committee just as our 2008 contract campaign was ramping up in December 2007. This was the contract campaign wherein we shut down both the UM Stadium and Business school renovation projects. I was picket captain for the business school site.
That summer, I was hired by AFT to work on a campaign with non tenure track faculty at MSU. After we won that campaign, I was sent to EMU to help bring the part time lecturers into the existing full time lecturer union. EMU has about 120 full time lecturers and about 500-600 [depending upon the semester] part time lecturers. In order to accomplish this, we conducted a few well-attended sit-ins at President Martin’s office. Paul Horvath [Math Lecturer at EMU] was one of the key lecturers involved in that effort. Good times.
After that campaign, I went to work with GEO leaders on bring the GSRAs into the union. In the wake of that Rick Snyder signed a law that prohibited GSRAs from joining a union. I believe this law has since been found unconstitutional and is in some sort of legal limbo on appeal.
That battle was eventually lost. It seemed like a really not so controversial idea. What do you think was going on to make it blow up as big as it did?
I think that conservative anti-union folks in Michigan watched AFT organizing at many of the colleges and some community colleges across the state. Grad Students, Lectures and even some faculty were joining unions in large numbers through the dedicated work of organizers like Jon Curtiss and Lynn Marie Smith between the years 2003-2010. When Rick Snyder was elected, the republicans had every lever of our state’s government under their control. I think they saw an opportunity and put a lot of resources toward blocking this campaign.
That describes what happened on their side. I think it is more telling, what happened on our side [labor]. Our leaders, when planning this campaign, did not listen to the suggestion of leaders on the ground in GEO and in general on campus. We were internally divided. That made it easier for the Mackinac Center to pick us apart and stop the momentum we had while out talking to hundreds of researchers like yourself.
You eventually left. What happened?
Unions are great at the local level. But, as they get bigger, the organizational structure mirrors the organizations they are meant to regulate or keep in check. I didn’t want to compromise my organizing style in order to get a paycheck. I decided that the work needed to be done was the work for which there is no paycheck.
I had been teaching at UM School of Social Work in Winter 2012. I continued on as a lecturer there and at EMU until December 2013.
I am currently unemployed, but doing the work for which there is no paycheck.
What’s up with your radio career? How does radio figure in to your worldview as champion of the poor and marginalized?
You are very kind to call it a career 🙂
How does it figure in? Well, I grew tired of complaining about the media and decided to become a part of it instead. Viva Jello!
What’s up for the future?
1) Kicking ass for the working class!
2) Getting a job with a paycheck.
It has been announced that Bangui mayor Catherine Samba-Panza has been appointed the Interim President of the near anarchic Central African Republic.
Her ascension couldn’t come at a better time. The Central African Republic, fragile even in the best of times, has been slowly sinking into chaos. No one really knows how many people have been killed in the fighting between Christian and Muslim militias (though this shouldn’t be read as a religious conflict), but reports last year pegged more than 1000 civilian deaths within a two day span. Experts have started using the g-word.
From the NYT:
The interim president selected on Monday at a raucous, five-hour session of a “national transition council” of rebels, rivals and politicians was Catherine Samba-Panza, a French-educated lawyer with a reputation for integrity and no ties either to the Muslim rebels or the Christian militia. Her selection was greeted with cheers in the assembly hall and dancing outside. That she is a woman — the third female head of state in post-colonial Africa — was especially welcomed by many people who felt that men had done nothing but lead the country on its vicious downward spiral.
Though encouraging, it’s too early to tell if Ms. Samba-Panza will be able to contain the bloodshed in the CAR. Certainly, Liberia gained much under the leadership of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, but it’s hard to say whether there’s been a great transformation in Malawi under Joyce Banda. Rwanda’s female majority Parliament is vastly preferable to Kenya’s (or the United States’) overpaid and corrupt boy’s club, however.
The conflagration in the CAR has been troubling for a number of reasons. First, it represents a general pattern of instability just below the Sahara. Neighboring South Sudan, which just recently obtained independence, is now facing a conflict ridden humanitarian crisis.
Second, the conflicts in South Sudan, the CAR, Northern Nigeria, Mali and Somalia rage on compromise the positive narrative of a newly prosperous and economically viable Africa. The 80’s and 90’s were a stain on the continent. Though I don’t foresee a return to the extended civil wars of Angola and Mozambique (for example), general regional instability compromises the ability to sustain development over the entire continent.
Third, even if the CAR manages to suppress the violence, there are few viable options for the long term economic future of this landlocked and historically marginalized country. Without a long term economic plan chances are high that tensions will flare up once more, setting the country back again.