AAS Alumni Reflections: Dylan Rodriguez '95

On a crisp September morning, AAS students Jeremiah Kim ‘19 and Michelle Zhao ‘19 sat down with their mugs and laptops to video call Dylan Rodriguez ‘95, a current Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside and author of Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the U.S. Prison Regime and Suspended Apocalypse: White Supremacy, Genocide, and the Filipino Condition.  Together, the three talked about Professor Rodriguez’s undergraduate days at Cornell, recent research, and thoughts on the 2018 Nationwide Prison Strike. 


Michelle: What did Ethnic Studies mean to you when you were an undergrad at Cornell? How did you decide to pursue an Africana major and concentration in Asian American Studies? Especially since you were the first to pursue a Concentration in AAS. 

Dylan: Wow, that’s a great question. I started at Cornell in the Fall of 1991. I thought I was going to do a philosophy major and go to law school — until I took a philosophy class and had to fight falling asleep 20 minutes into each class. It wasn’t the kind of critical thought I wanted to engage in. It was a form of philosophy that was incredibly Eurocentric, and I didn’t feel like I was gaining critical, analytical skills. It was later that year that I took a Freshman Writing Seminar (FWS)  titled “Racism,” or something along those lines,  led by a great Ph.D. candidate who was (ironically enough) from the Philosophy Department.  She guided me towards the College Scholar Program. I was attracted to the College Scholar Program because at the time, there was no Ethnic Studies rubric of any kind at Cornell. The only self-standing department program that existed and was degree-granting was Africana Studies. At that point, there was no such thing as a full-fledged Latino/a Studies. I Thanks to the Day Hall Takeover and the classmates who took the risk of confronting the administration, the university eventually was pushed to build one.   Still, during my years there, there was no Ethnic Studies program, and the College Scholars Program (CSP) gave me the room to develop a curriculum independently. What was difficult at first about the CSP was that it didn’t attach me to a professor who would give me the kind of guidance I desired. So I was kinda on my own. But I was thrilled when my perusing of the [course] catalogue led me to courses taught by Dr. James TurnerProfessor Gary OkihiroProfessor Shelley Wong — by all the folks that really shaped my mind and person during my 4 years [at Cornell]. The CSP gave me the freedom to take courses across departments, disciplines, and curriculums -- and I was able to form these intellectual, political bonds. 

About three years in, in the middle of Junior Year, it became clear that I had taken so many courses in Africana Studies that i could declare it as a second major. I ended up doing a double major in College Scholars and Africana Studies. I took all of Dr. Turner’s courses. He was a notoriously demanding professor, but I never thought he was difficult at all because I was so engaged with the material. I just embraced everything that he was doing and formed a really strong relationship with him. I went to his office all the time, like I would with Gary and Shelley. These teachers were incredibly generous to me, so it made sense to just do the major in Africana Studies. It was during my senior year that some combination of Gary and Shelley told me that this [Asian American Studies] Concentration was being developed, and that I should just go ahead, submit the paperwork, and do it. I think at that point I had taken all of the Asian American Studies courses, including some graduate seminars that advanced juniors and seniors were permitted to take.

Michelle: What year did you take your first AAS course? What was it and who taught it? 

Dylan: It was the spring semester of my sophomore year, and I took Gary Okihiro’s “Introduction to Asian American History.” I remember that there was a short essay we had to write at the beginning of the class and after we gave it back to him, he scolded the class because more than one person had misspelled Philippines in their essays! So I’ll never forget that. And the TAs were Mary Lui, who is at Yale now, and Moon-Ho Jung who is at the University of Washington now. Then I jumped right into Shelley Wong’s “Introduction to Asian American Literature” and I feel like she and others in that field (English) taught me the discipline and analytical craft of close reading. It encouraged and pushed me to write a lot. Shelley I have been in contact ever since — actually I’ve been in touch with all of three of them ever since. It’s cool to see Shelley still there and know that her students are thriving like this. 

Jeremiah: Switching gears, could you talk about what was so compelling to you about the topic of the U.S. prison regime that you chose to spend several years of your life researching and writing a book about it? Is there a difference between calling our prison system a “prison industrial complex” versus a “prison regime”?

Dylan: To clarify, I would consider myself a student of U.S. carceral and state violence. It’s been over twenty years that I’ve been a student of this, and my book [is] about a particular facet of this. Expertise is a slippery thing, and I’m as much of an amateur as I am an expert on anything. I’m always learning stuff from people who are incarcerated, other scholars, graduate students, oftentimes undergrads. So that’s why I refer to myself as a student of it, rather than a researcher or a scholar. What brought me into this was the mentorship of a number of people, in particular in the mid-to late-90s: Angela Davis at UC Santa Cruz—she came to UC Berkeley for a semester and taught a seminar that I participated in as a PhD student in Ethnic Studies at Berkeley. I bonded with Angela during that semester, and she agreed to serve on my PhD committee. It was not long thereafter that I got a phone call from her one day and she invited me to her house the next week for a meeting of something called “Critical Resistance.” I understood it as a convening of people in the Bay area that had been doing work for a period of time: not just research, but praxis. Praxis in the broader sense of a critical praxis — cultural, intellectual, organizing praxis — that was addressing this...at that time, somewhat unnamed ethical crisis, or apocalypse really, around incarceration, around police and state violence, around gendered racism. So I came into it through that work, and this was a collaboration of attorneys, formerly incarcerated people, some currently incarcerated people, a lot of academics, a lot of graduate students, and then a ton of younger folks (people under the age of 25). So that was really organizing work, as much as it was anything else. It was much more that than remotely anything like academic or scholarly training, although, now, I think about it as a form of scholarly training, because I was listening to people, engaging in these debates around terminology, around the kind of analysis we wanted to push out.

So from that, I realized that I was developing all my work and thinking around the prison industrial complex, which at that point was a relatively a new term.  My thinking was being shaped by people who were not necessarily academics or attorneys, but by people who had been incarcerated—some of whom identified as former political prisoners. And part of this work, of this organizing, involved corresponding with people, and fielding letters from people who were currently incarcerated. So just taking all that in, and experiencing that as a student, I feel like the analysis that formerly and currently imprisoned politically radical people were pushing out there was really different from what I was getting from the best of criminology, from the best of attorneys and legal advocates. These people were abruptly and analytically challenging, but also pragmatically challenging, the most acute forms of state violence that were culminating in the prison industrial complex but were not limited to the prison industrial complex. That’s what led to the development of my first major research project, which was my dissertation and my book. And I’ve never left that — I’ve been thinking about this problem of carceral state violence for  a long time because it hasn’t gone anywhere. If anything, it’s grown more sophisticated and wider over time.

But I guess the second question — the difference between carceral regime (I’ve come to call it the carceral regime, in my book I call it the prison regime, but I’ll call it carceral regime nowadays as long as people understand what I mean by “carceral”) and prison industrial complex. Prison industrial complex (PIC) was a term that people came up with to name a certain institutional symbiosis. So it was a way to understand a set of institutional relationships between arms of the state: from the criminal justice system, courtrooms and judges, district attorneys, for that matter public defense attorneys, and also private corporations — the folks who make contracts with the state to build the prisons, to design the prisons, to do the laundry, to circulate the uniforms, the prison guards’ union. There are all these institutions that are sustained and reproduced a symbiosis, for the purpose of reproducing imprisonment. The language was obviously borrowing from the military industrial complex. Dwight Eisenhower invented that language: when he was leaving office, he was alarmed by how it was that the military was no longer serving as this arm of national defense but had [become imbricated], essentially, into capitalism, [by] the notion that one of the animating purposes of the military was an industrial, entrepreneurial, profiteering purpose. So the idea of PIC was to address the same kind of thing, primarily the idea that prisons are not somewhere else. Prisons not somewhere else. They’re not divorced from the everyday lives of ordinary people, who may or may not have people in their immediate families who are incarcerated or caught up in the criminal justice system, but the idea that the public institutions we inhabit every day, including universities and K-12 schools, are serviced by the same industries and political interests that are also servicing prisons. It also brought attention to prison expansion projects (particularly in certain states, such as California, New York, Texas, etc.) [that] were being fueled as much by industrial imperatives as they were by any kind of rational or justifiable criminal justice imperative. So that’s what PIC does, PIC names those sets of institutional relationships and dynamics. 

Now, the idea that I was trying to flesh out in my first book, which was on the prison regime, involved a close analysis of a different dimension of all this. I’m interested in carceral power — that is the form of dominance, human power relationships that relies on different forms of capture and captivity, which are fundamental to the larger sets of power relationships we have in the everyday. So when I think about carceral prison regime, my argument is that prison power is not somewhere else, it is constitutive of a non-incarcerated world also. And my point is, that’s not an original analysis. I’m just echoing what incarcerated people, especially radical political prisoners, have been saying for decades now. You know, Dostoevsky had it wrong. He talks about how you find the evil of society by looking at how it treats incarcerated people. What radical incarcerated people would tell me is that, in a way, it’s really the other way around. You all think that the worst forms of acute state violence are here at the site of incarceration, and in some ways they certainly are, but they said that incarceration also occurs to all of you out there in the free world — you just don’t think about it as such. 

For example, the criminalization of certain public school institutions that manifest in the installation of security guards, metal detectors at K-12 public schools in heavily policed and criminalized black and brown communities all across the American states. Oftentimes working-class poor white communities too! That’s carceral power. It’s the idea that — oh, it’s not just that our high school looks and feels like a prison, but it is actually a carceral site. We have to stop thinking about it as a convenient analogy, “School is like a prison, this place is like a prison,” and use phrases like that to actually understand carceral power in its manifest forms. Even institutions like Cornell; my experience of Cornell was entirely carceral in hindsight. I’m not saying it’s like prison, so don’t ever get me wrong on that, but it was entirely carceral. The fact that it’s this closed-off campus that’s institutionally and systematically alienated from the surrounding community. Working class white communities, black communities in the Southside, etc. That model of the university, seen in the Ivy League especially, is reproduced all the time across the country. Yale is probably the most notorious example, but UC Berkeley is a public institution and absolutely reproduces that carceral model. Folks here in Southern California refer to USC (University of Southern California) as Fortress USC. It’s right there in the community — and administrators, police, and others ensure that there is absolutely no leaking of boundaries between the surrounding community and the USC campus. The argument is that in creating a particular, acute state violence by imprisonment and incarceration, what the state actually does is create a model for power relations generally. And that those general models of power get reproduced all the time in different settings. 

Michelle: Our next question is about the 2018 Nationwide Prison Strike that ended last week. What do you think is the significance of this specific strike in the context of modern American society?

Dylan: I think one of the critical points this strike teaches us is the material significance of fatalism in the sense that the announced dates for the strike converge with the annual commemoration of the assassination of George L. Jackson , the accompanying uprising in San Quentin, California, and the Attica Rebellion in New York. The length of the strike is marked by those two dates. Actually the movie Black August is based on the death of George L. Jackson and the degradation of black lives. But the symbolism of the strike also goes beyond the date; it is complicated by the idea of labor. This strike is different from other prison strikes in that it really foregrounded the idea that prison labor is slave labor. And not merely because of wages, or lack thereof, but because of the conditions under which people are forced to labor. They are forced to labor under legal coercion. So the point of the strike was to bring attention to how there are workers at the site of incarceration. People who have been stripped of their civil status or are in a status of civil death are simultaneously coerced into a relationship of labor to the state, yet unrecognized as workers because they are civilly dead. That’s an irreconcilable contradiction! 

You can’t have an apparatus of incarceration that considers people to be civilly dead under the 13th Amendment, that says you are not part of the state and subject to involuntary servitude, and then have state institutions relying on the everyday labor of incarcerated people for tasks like firefighting, gardening, building maintenance, all kinds of stuff — and often under conditions of vulnerability to toxic chemicals, industrial accidents, etc. You can’t let the state get away with both at the same time. 

So what is significant about this strike is the way that it complicates labor more generally. Folks fixate on the idea of prison labor. I wanna argue that what this does is actually complicate labor in the broader sense. If you wanna talk about, for example, the underground economy -- where sex workers, people dealing illegal narcotics, and undocumented people engaged in all kinds of dangerous labor (across the world, really) work under conditions of severe underpayment far below any kind of liveable wage -- it brings attention to all these forms of labor that are all nonetheless labor. Furthermore, these forms of labor are criminalized labor. It forces us to open up our idea of what labor is and that the notion of work is already tied up in all these other forms of institutional violence. Work does not come out of this Protestant ethic; it is something that is actually imposed on you depending on your social condition. 

I also think this particular prison strike was made possible by the string of prison strikes that preceded it in recent years. So the Georgia Prison Strike at the time, as I understand it from the research and journalism, was the largest of its kind in the history of the United States. It was enormous and brought attention to not only labor, but to what incarcerated people in Georgia call “slave conditions.” They explicitly used the language of slavery to talk about the conditions of their incarceration. For them, for the Georgia Prison Strike, slave labor and prison labor are just one part of it. It’s about the conditions of incarceration and the power dynamics replicated from the slave plantation. That’s carceral power! The prison regime, the carceral regime’s precedent is the slave ship and the plantation. And of course there’s the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike that started in 2011 and has been periodically vilified over and over again. For folks in Pelican Bay, it was roughly parallel to the Georgia Prison Strike, but these were folks who were in security housing units. The security housing units or the S-H-U, the SHU, bring attention to everyday sustained low-intensity to high-intensity torture that the California state prison system quite literally invented to house what it called the worst of the worst. Being locked in a small cell with fluorescent lights shining on you, no human contact other than guards that do strip searches — you eat by yourself, you’re subjected to all kinds of noise — it’s all intended to drive people insane. A friend of mine, Jerry Cooper, came up with a diagnosis called SHU Syndrome. A new form of mental illness and disability was created by this incarceration. 

The strike at this site is so significant because those oppressed by carceral power figured out a way to organize under these conditions. So the 2018 Nationwide strike has a recent connection to the aforementioned strikes, as well as a long, symbolic connection to the assassination of George Jackson, Black August, and Attica. I think this sets a precedent for a lot more organizing across sites of incarceration in the so-called free world that address the problem of carceral power through the particular institutionalization of prison. I think that’s what’s profound about this particular labor prison strike; there’s a lot of organizing across organizations that are housed in civil society. 

Jeremiah: You mentioned organizations that are part of civil society or the “free world.” How can ordinary people or non-imprisoned people access information about prisons? For example: what goes on inside them, what actions are being taken place, what movements there are, what kind of thinking there is that’s coming out of movements.

Dylan: That’s great. I’ll point folks to two places. One of the main sites that folks can look at to familiarize themselves with our topic, which is the 2018 Prison Strike is a site called incarceratedworkers.org. It’s got the demands laid out in there and also broader context for the strike. It’s all right there. Folks can find it literally on the front page of that site. They can also find other resources including solidarity organizations, press updates, a zine, some interviews with a group called Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, with incarcerated people who have been doing work around the law, potentials to donate to the strike fund, etc. And then there’s the organization that I’ve been a part of and working with for 20 something years now, which is criticalresistance.org. Critical Resistance’s website is a kind of hub of similar kinds of resources, but more broadly organized around radical anti-prison abolitionists—that type of organizing and praxis. So I would point people to those two places, and point out a whole bunch of different types of resources.

Michelle: Related to the last question we asked -- When I was searching up the 2018 Nationwide Prison Strike to check for any updates, it was hard to find reports from traditional news outlets. That says something. So I wanted to state that, but am also wondering -- will those outlets report on the strike and future prison strikes? What role do you think traditional news plays in all of this?

Dylan: That’s such a critical point. I think about the Georgia Prison Strike. I think there was one small paragraph in one of the major news outlets—probably the New York Times—but it was one day, one paragraph about that thing. And the journalist actually said it was the largest prison strike in U.S. history. But it was buried, and as far as I could find there was almost no follow-up coverage for the Georgia Prison Strike. Here’s the thing: if we do a kind of media study or power analysis of how major corporate news media actually work, we should not expect them to cover this at all. Especially as they’ve turned into a kind of consumer model for journalism and news, there’s no reason for them to cover this. So what you end up finding is that the coverage of this is going to come from insurgent sources, and insurgent journalists, and insurgent researchers and media. For that matter podcasts—podcasts folks who’ve provided progressive left wing media with press releases, with requests to do interviews and so forth. The best you’re going to do in terms of national media is something like Democracy Now. They have some folks on to talk about the strike. You have some folks who send stuff to outlets like Huffington Post, which is kind of a mainstream progressive outlet. But beyond that, mainly where you’re going to find this stuff is on Twitter. There’s a whole network of folks on Twitter who are sending this stuff out. On Facebook as well, for all us old people. Frankly, that’s where you’re going to find a lot of this stuff. And so what this shows is, in one sense, the relative irrelevance of a lot of corporate media when it comes to finding any kind of reliable information about what’s actually happening in the world with people who are actually engaged in social challenge and social transformation. The corporate news media is oftentimes the last ones to cover it. It has to be so enormous, and so irrepressible, and so undeniable that they have to cover it. I think about the emergence of the Movement For Black Lives, what came to be known as Black Lives Matter: that stuff was going on for a long time, months prior to a generalized recognition from corporate news media. And it was happening in different forms. 

One person who I know, that’s one of the three co-founders of BLM, Patrisse Cullors, was active in Southern California for years dealing with the LA sheriff’s department’s abuse, assassination, and incarceration of people. This has been going on for years and years and years. But then the press made a spectacle of the mass demonstration and protest. And then again, the use of social media as one way to kind of access or go “viral” around a particular hashtag. So I think there’s a general collaboration between the forces of corporate news media, a kind of consumer apparatus for knowledge and information, and of course - the state! The state tries to deter even the best of journalists who are working for corporate news media, and by deterrence, I mean actively preventing people from getting to information and talking to news media in certain ways, so on. Once we see where the actual networks of information are, this prison strike reveals parallel worlds of media information happening and proliferating more so now than ever before. That means our responsibility as learners, as people engaged in finding information, is heavier. We can’t expect ABC or CNN to feed it to us anymore. And it also proves that there is a need for the kind of ethical and intellectual responsibility of investigative journalism, that’s the thing this era of news media is really trying to smash. Unless you’re doing sh*t like Ronan Farrow; he’s doing because he’s connected, it’s Hollywood, he comes from a famous family. So you’ve got an example of investigative journalism; Ronan Farrow exposing Harvey Weinstein. There’s got to be a pushback against this corporate deterrence against knowledge and truth. And I think it is possible, I’m not cynical about it. Precisely because we have the discourse of the Trump administration, this notion of “fake news,” you have a groundswell of people who are demanding more news, more information. The key is that folks can take advantage of that in radical ways and understand investigative journalism as one of the key ways to overturn the regime of knowledge suppression. 

Michelle: When you’re writing, do you have a particular audience in mind? 

Dylan: Pretty much always. I don’t believe in the old adage that it’s useless to preach to the choir. The reason why I don’t is because I don’t know that there is a choir, and sometimes the audience you presume to be the choir actually doesn’t agree internally. I write to multiple audiences, but typically folks who I would presume to be that choir. So part of what I think I do in a lot of my writing is to question whether or not the presumption of agreement around a particular idea or issue is actually in agreement. Say for example, the torture of inmates at Guantanamo Bay. There was a presumed consensus among a certain section of progressives, radicals, liberals, and so-called lefts around that particular issue. But I question that and wonder whether or not the grounds for agreement are actually stable. And what I found was that they actually weren’t. There were members of this “choir” that felt strongly about the torture and imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay, but were totally cool with the torture of Black and Latinx youth in California and Texas that were using the same torture apparatuses they were using in Guantanamo. Why? Because these are perpetrators of a crime. Right? And you have others of us who are absolutely not cool with any of it, and saw what was happening in Guantanamo Bay as a kind of outward expression of the US carceral regime’s most acute forms of violence. And so to address that would be to address everything. Because you can’t separate what’s going on with these prisons in California and Texas with what’s going on in Guantanamo. So the grounds of agreement were seriously set back. We had a lot of grounds for severe disagreement. And so a lot of what I write was trying to articulate how it is that, when we assume agreement, we actually fall into some dangerous traps. And we end up reproducing the relations of violence that we’ve alleged to challenge. So that’s one major argument.

Other times I’ll write explicitly for my radical thinking colleagues. And I’ll write for that audience in a particular kind of way. A lot of times, if I’m writing for a broad, popular kind of readership, I’ll write to a generalized liberal audience of Democrats — people who identify as Democrats, and that’s as far as they go. I’ll write to them in a certain kind of way. And it’s usually polemical. I’ll want to make them upset and uncomfortable, and let them know that to the extent that you think in this particular way, you and I are not friends, and stop presuming that we are. And a lot of times, that sh*t works, because now we know. Or pedagogically, some folks question where they were coming from, like “I didn’t think about it that way.” So I generally consider — the alt-right is not my audience. Trolls are not my audience. Neo-conservatives are not really my audience. I’ll debate them, yes. But I’ll debate them live in person, let me do that. I love doing that. But for me, writing is such a personal labor, and it takes so much of my spirit, that I have to write to those folks because I feel like the project is a project of community. So we need to understand what the grounds of community are and frankly, whether we want to be in the same community or not — however we think about that term.

Jeremiah: So related to that, how does your praxis outside the classroom — like your involvement with Critical Resistance, and other organizations — how does that influence your teaching inside the classroom?

Dylan: That’s a hard question to answer because what I’ve learned from people like James Turner and Angela Davis and Gary Okihiro and Shelley Wong and many others, was to never separate those things in the first place. So I think that’s a privilege I’ve had, was to be brought up by teachers and mentors who kind of exemplified that inseparability. And so they made it naturally occurring to me, for the most part. Now I recognize there’s a difference between doing this over here, going into campus at UC Riverside and teaching in the classroom, but what makes it easier to think about the organic relationships between these different spaces is the fact that the students whom I teach at UC Riverside are overwhelmingly students of color, they’re predominantly from the working class, a lot of them, a high percentage — and the school touts this percentage for different reasons — are the first in [their families] to get that kind of degree and advance beyond high school. At the same time, as a public research institution, it’s got enough resources that we can do things, in the same way we can do at Cornell and Yale, but it’s a different crowd. So the praxis is already present in the classroom. There’s a slight labor of translation, depending on how I’m engaging an issue and how I’m going to teach it to different audiences. That to me is the heart of the praxis, doing pedagogical labor. 

That translation idea comes from Angela Davis too. She would always challenge activists who would talk to academics who would say, “Oh academics, you need bring the level of your discourse down, so you can speak to the people.” And Angela always called bullshit on that. She would say, “No, we don’t need to bring it down, we need to translate it. We need to keep it right here, as complicated and analytical as it is, but maybe translate it so people can get it.” And the reason that I resonated with that demand of translation, rather than bringing it down so much, was that — to bring the discourse level down always came from usually elite college educated professional activists. And they were oftentimes white. And so it always struck me as deeply troubling, distressing, that elite college-educated activists would purport to know what people can read — incarcerated people, young people, people without a college degree — it always struck me as presumptuous, and kind of classist and racist that they would presume to know what folks in the community would not understand. So I like Angela’s terminology much better, and I live with that.

Michelle: And for our final question, if you could recommend one book for everyone to read, what would it be and why?

Dylan: Oh my god. That’s a great one. 

Michelle: And then we’ll tell you ours after!

Dylan: You’ve gotta give me a minute now.

Michelle: We can tell you ours now...

Dylan: Okay, I’m going to cheat. I’m going to give you one book depending how you want to think about the question. My favorite book — if I had a hall of fame, my number one hall of fame personally, the book I come back to over and over again that’s shaped my thinking in so many ways, is Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. As far as a personal list of texts that, if you’re somebody I care about and I’m in community with you, this is something I want you to read. I want to read it with you, I want to talk about it with you, I want to challenge you, that kind of thing. So that would be for sure the first book I throw out there. Another way to answer it, if we’re thinking about the particular topic of state violence and incarceration and the carceral regime, my tendency would be to push people to look at this collection called If They Come in the Morning that was written right around the time of Angela Davis’ trial. It’s a collection of essays written by a bunch of people that were engaged in radical struggle at the time. And I think it’s a great primer to the context that has created the current moment in carceral state violence and carceral police domestic war. 




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Dylan Rodriguez