Category Archives: USA

Inside Private Prisons. An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration

Inside Private Prisons. An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration, by Lauren-Brooke Eisen.

It’s on amazon USA and UK.

Publisher Columbia University Press writes: When the tough-on-crime politics of the 1980s overcrowded state prisons, private companies saw potential profit in building and operating correctional facilities. Today more than a hundred thousand of the 1.5 million incarcerated Americans are held in private prisons in twenty-nine states and federal corrections. Private prisons are criticized for making money off mass incarceration—to the tune of $5 billion in annual revenue. Based on Lauren-Brooke Eisen’s work as a prosecutor, journalist, and attorney at policy think tanks, Inside Private Prisons blends investigative reportage and quantitative and historical research to analyze privatized corrections in America.

From divestment campaigns to boardrooms to private immigration-detention centers across the Southwest, Eisen examines private prisons through the eyes of inmates, their families, correctional staff, policymakers, activists, Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees, undocumented immigrants, and the executives of America’s largest private prison corporations. (…) Neither an endorsement or a demonization, Inside Private Prisons details the complicated and perverse incentives rooted in the industry, from mandatory bed occupancy to vested interests in mass incarceration. If private prisons are here to stay, how can we fix them? This book is a blueprint for policymakers to reform practices and for concerned citizens to understand our changing carceral landscape.

Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, Minn. Mark Vancleave/ZUMA. Via the marshall project

I’d never call myself an expert in incarceration but because i follow closely the Prison Photography blog, The Intercept and watch the odd documentary, i’ve known for long that the USA has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world (right after Seychelles apparently.) 693 people out of 100,000 find themselves behind bars. That is nearly five times Britain’s and 15 times Japan’s rate. Because of mass incarceration, the U.S. government is contracting private corporations to house and monitor inmates that cannot find a bed in overcrowded public prisons.

I’ve always been very curious about an industry which financial well-being depends on keeping as many people behind bars as possible and for as long as possible. Lauren-Brooke Eisen‘s book sheds a compassionate, lucid and, she hopes, unprejudiced light onto the private prison industry. I wasn’t planning to review it but i learnt so much throughout the pages that i had to write something about the publication. I’ll start with a few facts and figures gleaned throughout the book:

– Private prisons “house 126,000 people in America, or 7% of state inmates and almost 18% of federal prisoners.” At the end of 2016 more than 40,000 undocumented immigrants were held in immigration detention facilities on any given day;

– between 1984 and 2005, a new prison opened every 8 and a half days;

– According to Adam Gopnik, more people are incarcerated America today than were imprisoned in Stalin’s gulags

– today Afro Americans are incarcerated at nearly 6 times the rate of whites Americans,

– 1 out of 9 state workers is employed in prison and today the country employs more correction officers than pediatricians, judges, court reporters and firefighters combined. Many states spend more in incarceration than they do on education;

– today, the for-profit industry manages 8% of prison beds across country but 62% immigration detention beds;

– 1 in every 28 children has a parent behind bars so children programme Sesame Street recently introduced a new character whose dad is imprisoned:

Alex, Sesame Street’s first-ever muppet with a parent in prison

The first chapters of Inside Private Prisons set the stage by looking at the history of prison in the U.S.A., the rise of the privatization of government services since the early 1800s, the long history of using captive labor for economic purposes, etc. The author then turns her attention to the many forms that the privatisation of the correction sector can adopt: from cigarettes especially designed for use in prison to technology that protects against civilian drones, from correctional trade shows to super lucrative prison telecommunication to enable families to converse over long distances.

JP4, the first tablet designed specifically for prisoners. Photo: Motherboard

A large section of the book also details how private-prison firms are attempting to ‘diversify’ and respond to the recent drive in being “smart on crime” rather than being “though on crime.” Criminal justice reformers are indeed looking for ways to safely reduce prison populations by investing in alternatives, by reforming sentencing laws, by reducing revocations to prison for violating probation or parole, etc. Policy makers have realized that more incarceration didn’t automatically translate into large crime-reduction benefits for the country and that the high rates of recidivism didn’t came about because of an increase in crime or because American citizens are inherently more prone to offend than others but because of policy choices adopted in previous decades.

The private sector is thus looking into ways to get involved into these alternatives to imprisonment and to make a profit out of the endeavours: they build halfway houses, drug or mental health treatment facilities, intermediate sanctions facilities, develop electronic-monitoring services and get involved more closely (and lucratively) into job training and other community-based operations that include rehabilitation. Carl Takei calls this trend ’the Wal-Martification of reentry.” The financial incentive in each of these operations is to keep people trapped in system for as long as possible.

Worryingly, it seems that nowadays, the biggest cash cow for the private prison industry is illegal immigration. Providing beds for immigrant detainees makes a lot of (financial) sense: these people have limited legal rights and are not guaranteed education programs, job training nor mental health and drug abuse counseling. They cost less and complain less.

Unsurprisingly, the election of Trump is a blessing for the whole industry: the new president favours rampant privatization and though on crime policies. And although he is notoriously ‘not racist‘, Trump is very keen on expanding the US immigrant detention infrastructure.

Throughout the book, people interviewed by the author conclude that even though private prisons have existed in US for almost 4 decades, there is still little evidence that they are cost saving and that they provide any substantial benefits for society. They also lack transparency and accountability. In the last chapter of the book, Eisen suggests 10 concrete requirements that would set the ground for a more robust state and federal government contracts with the private industry. But ultimately, she notes, the discussions around private prisons are a diversion from the real discussion about incarceration and punishment. I’ll end with a quote from her book:

The distinction between private and public prisons is not as important as the distinction between warehousing criminals and rehabilitating them.

Inside Private Prisons with Lauren-Brooke Eisen. A talk held at Revolution Books NYC, on 30 November 2017

Previous stories: 13th. Repackaging slavery, Prison Gourmet, YOUprison, Some thoughts on the limitation of space and freedom, Artissima: America’s Family Prison, etc.

Image on the homepage: Women at the Taconic Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, N.Y., in 2012. Seth Wenig/Associated Press, via.

Creditworthy. A History of Consumer Surveillance and Financial Identity in America

Creditworthy. A History of Consumer Surveillance and Financial Identity in America, by Josh Lauer.

On amazon USA and UK.

Publisher Columbia University Press writes: The first consumer credit bureaus appeared in the 1870s and quickly amassed huge archives of deeply personal information about millions of Americans. Today, the three leading credit bureaus are among the most powerful institutions in modern life–yet we know almost nothing about them. Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion are multi-billion-dollar corporations that track our movements, spending behavior, and financial status. This data is used to predict our riskiness as borrowers and to judge our trustworthiness and value in a broad array of contexts, from insurance and marketing to employment and housing.

In Creditworthy, the first comprehensive history of this crucial American institution, Josh Lauer explores the evolution of credit reporting from its nineteenth-century origins to the rise of the modern consumer data industry. By revealing the sophistication of early credit reporting networks, Creditworthy highlights the leading role that commercial surveillance has played—ahead of state surveillance systems—in monitoring the economic lives of Americans. Lauer charts how credit reporting grew from an industry that relied on personal knowledge of consumers to one that employs sophisticated algorithms to determine a person’s trustworthiness. Ultimately, Lauer argues that by converting individual reputations into brief written reports—and, later, credit ratings and credit scores—credit bureaus did something more profound: they invented the modern concept of financial identity. Creditworthy reminds us that creditworthiness is never just about economic “facts.” It is fundamentally concerned with—and determines—our social standing as an honest, reliable, profit-generating person.

Creditworthy opens up in 1913 when oil magnate John D. Rockefeller is denied access to credit in a Cleveland department store. The clerk, who didn’t trust the appearance of his customer, insisted on calling the credit department before authorizing Rockefeller’s purchases. The story shows that at the time already, even one of the richest men in the world, could not escape the gaze of a surveillance apparatus that will remain under-studied for decades to come.

The book ends 100 years later when his great-grandson Senator John (Jay) D. Rockefeller IV initiates a senate investigation into the business practices of the U.S.’ leading data brokers. The results were divulged a few months after Snowden’s NSA revelations. Talking about privacy, the senator said:

What has been missing from this conversation so far is the role that private companies play in collecting and analyzing our personal information. A group of companies known collectively as ‘data brokers’ are gathering massive amounts of data about our personal lives and selling this information to marketers. We don’t hear a lot about the private-sector data broker industry, but it is playing a large and growing role in our lives.

Let me provide a little perspective. In the year 2012, which you will recall was last year, the data broker industry generated $156 billion in revenues–that is more than twice the size of the entire intelligence budget of the United States Government–all generated by the effort to learn about and sell the details about our private lives. Whether we know it or like it or not, makes no difference.

In this book, professor of media studies Josh Lauer describes how U.S. citizens became objects of intensive surveillance. He investigates how financial identity became a key marker of our personal trustworthiness and how increasingly centralised and invasive systems for monitoring an individual’s behaviour and credits enabled the ascent of consumer capitalism in the U.S.

Photograph of the Vegas Credit Bureau parade entry, Las Vegas, circa late 1920s to early 1930s

Many of us think that modern surveillance appeared after 9/11 but its history actually started in the late 19th century when a disembodied doppelganger of the American consumer started materializing inside the files of retail credit departments and local credit bureaus.

The credit reporting industry was an omnivorous collector of personal data. It cultivated trusted informants, connected with hospital and utility companies, placed phone calls to employers, landlords and neighbours in order to amass as much information as possible about American individuals. Many credit departments and bureaus even maintained separate ‘watchdog’ cabinets where they stored all sorts of information that may affect an individual’s ability to pay: divorces, lawsuits, bankruptcies or accounts of immoral behaviour gleaned from papers court and newspapers clippings, etc. The data gathered was so extensive that in the early 1960s, FBI agents, treasury men and the NYPD visited their offices when they needed to fill in gaps in their dossier.

The credit surveillance industry not only quantified the value of citizens, it also functioned as a disciplinary machine, attempting to control their behaviour, shaming them into paying back what they owed and enforcing the doctrine that a person who abused his or her credit must should be shunned from business and society. To the point that, over time, an individual’s financial identity became an integral dimension of their personal identity.

The telautograph. Image: redorbit

Trustworthy explores a very American phenomenon. We do have credit surveillance systems in Europe too but they are probably not as sophisticated as the ones described in the book (note to self: please investigate the European situation.) I’d definitely recommend this book to U.S. readers. It is impeccably researched and makes for a compelling read. I particularly enjoyed the parts describing the array of human and mechanical techniques employed to extract and manage credit information. From the personal interviews that subjected consumers to intrusive scrutiny to the new technologies that enabled the collection and archiving of data. That’s where i learned about the existence of the telautograph, a precursor to the modern fax machine that was developed to transmit drawings to a stationary sheet of paper. It was used in credit bureau, banks and doctors for sending signatures over long distances.

The Rockdale Reporter and Messenger (Rockdale, Tex.), Vol. 82, No. 34, Ed. 1 Thursday, September 9, 1954 Page: 6 of 20

Credit surveillance systems placed individuals at the center of an invasive information and communication network. Its complexity, its reach and the impact it had on society was (and is still) alarming. Yet, most American consumers have long remained unaware of the private surveillance system that facilitated their credit purchases. This lack of knowledge and control is something that most of us -U.S. citizen or not- have often deplored since Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the NSA mass surveillance infrastructure.

13th. Repackaging slavery

13TH | Official Trailer

A couple of days ago, film director Lucy Walker published a short list of documentaries to unleash the activist in you. I thought i’d make my way through the list. Starting with the one that looked the most interesting to me: 13th, a film by Ava DuVernay, that argues that the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery except as “punishment for crime,” has not outlawed the practice of slavery. It has merely repackaged it into a ruthlessly efficient system of mass incarceration.

The film uses archival footage and interviews with historians, activists and other experts to expose how the subjugation of black people has evolved into a system designed to get black men into jails, grind them and them spit them out with little chance to re-build their life.

As the film reminds us, the U.S. accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prisoners. In 2014, over 2 million people were incarcerated (a 500% increase over the last 40 years) and 40% of them are African-American men.

Academic and civil rights activist Angela Davis interviewed in 13TH. Still from the film

Still from the film 13th

I watched 13th yesterday. It’s on on netflix. It’s a shocking, harrowing movie. Yet you don’t doubt for a moment that it tells the truth. Not when you read that a (black) man spent 31 years in prison for crimes he did not commit, then was given a pitiful $75 as a compensation for decades unjustly spent behind bars. Not when so many police officers walk free after having murdered people. Most of them black men and women. Not when people are so afraid to be harassed and killed under spurious pretexts that they feel the need to remind society that they have the right to live too.

The moment that upset me the most? This one:

An extract from 13TH

Releasing the film on Netflix is a smart move. It gives the message more chances to reach people who might otherwise feel totally unconcerned by the issue.

Please, drop whatever you’re doing right now and watch this documentary!

Still from the film 13th

The 13th
Interview with Van Jones, an author, activist and co-founder of several organizations including the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights which focuses on police brutality and youth prisons

Related story: Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter and A People’s Art History of the United States. 250 Years of Activist Art and Artists Working in Social Justice Movements.

Unthanksgiving and the occupation of Alcatraz by American Natives

One post about two important stories: a series of excellent webinars dedicated to art&activism and a few words about the origins of Unthanksgiving Day!

John Trudell, a Sioux poet and activist, looks out across San Francisco Bay from a teepee on Alcatraz Island, 1969. Image: AP, via mashable

Following the disheartening results of the last U.S. election, Steve Lambert and Stephen Duncombe of the Center for Artistic Activism decided to run a series of free, online webinars to motivate people in the U.S. and elsewhere to keep on fighting for a better world. And in case you miss an episode, they also upload the videos on their website afterwards. The webinars are rather brilliant. And fun. I’d highly recommend you have a look.

The next webinar is this Wednesday 21st of December at 3:00 PM EST. and the theme will be Cognitive Science, an import topic to consider in these post-truth times. The previous episode of the series looked at creative movements of the past. That’s where i first heard about Native American activists occupying the island of Alcatraz. The prison had been closed in 1963, deemed surplus federal property, and the Red Power Native American liberation group took the island in November 1969. They stayed there for a year and a half, demanding that Alcatraz be developed as a Native cultural center.

The cause brought global attention to the Native American plight and in particular Native issues related to sovereignty, repatriation and civil rights.

25 November, 1969. Image: Bettmann/Getty Images, via mashable

As a direct result of the occupation, new laws were passed to support Native American self-determination, recognition, health and education. Tribal lands across the country were returned and since 1975, an Unthanksgiving Day is held on Alcatraz Island to commemorate the protest event of 1969 and promote the rights of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

The whole text of the Alcatraz Proclamation is a gem of dark irony. Here’s an extract:

We will purchase said Alcatraz Island for twenty-four dollars ($24) in glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man’s purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago. We know that $24 in trade goods for these 16 acres is more than was paid when Manhattan Island was sold, but we know that land values have risen over the years. Our offer of $1.24 per acre is greater than the 47¢ per acre that the white men are now paying the California Indians for their land.

We will give to the inhabitants of this island a portion of that land for their own, to be held in trust by the American Indian Affairs [sic] and by the bureau of Caucasian Affairs to hold in perpetuity—for as long as the sun shall rise and the rivers go down to the sea. We will further guide the inhabitants in the proper way of living. We will offer them our religion, our education, our life-ways, in order to help them achieve our level of civilization and thus raise them and all their white brothers up from their savage and unhappy state.

Activists occupy the main cell block, November 1969. Image: AP, via mashable

20 November, 1969. Image: Bettmann/Getty Images, via mashable

26 November, 1969. Image: AP, via mashable

26 November, 1969. Image: Robert W. Klein/AP, via mashable

A Coast Guard boat prevents supporters of the occupation from approaching the island, 23 November, 1969. Image: Bettmann/Getty Images, via mashable

Adam Norwall, a Chippewa man, stands aboard the clipper Monte Cristo as it sails around Alcatraz, 9 November 1969. Image: AP., via mashable

Native Americans arrive on Alcatraz to join the occupation, 2 Dec. 1969. Image: Robert Klein/AP, via mashable

Richard Oakes, left, greets U.S. Attorney Cecil Poole as he arrives for negotiations with the occupiers, 1 Dec. 1969. Image: Robert Klein/AP, via mashable

Occupation leaders Richard Oakes, Earl Livermore and Al Miller hold a press conference after a strategy meeting, 24 Dec. 1969. Image: Bettmann/Getty Iamges, via mashable

Native Americans, including a veteran of the Alcatraz occupation, demonstrate outside the federal courthouse in Seattle to demand that Fort Lawton be turned over and made into a cultural and educational center, 1970. Image: Barry Sweet/AP, via mashable

John Trudell watches a fire consume the lighthouse and other buildings, 2 June 1971. Image: Bettmann/Getty Images, via mashable

In 2011, “We Are Still Here,” a multi-media exhibit documenting the occupation, opened on Alcatraz Island.

Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition

Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition, by photographer Edmund Clark and counterterrorism investigator Crofton Black. With essay by Eyal Weizman.


Available on amazon UK and USA.

Publisher Aperture/Magnum Foundation writes: British photographer Edmund Clark and counterterrorism investigator Crofton Black have assembled photographs and documents that confront the nature of contemporary warfare and the invisible mechanisms of state control. From George W. Bush’s 2001 declaration of the “war on terror” until 2008, an unknown number of people disappeared into a network of secret prisons organized by the CIA-transfers without legal process known as extraordinary renditions. No public records were kept as detainees were shuttled all over the globe. Some were eventually sent to Guantánamo Bay or released without charge, while others remain unaccounted for. The paper trail assembled in this volume shows these activities via the weak points of business accountability: invoices, documents of incorporation and billing reconciliations produced by the small-town American businesses enlisted in detainee transportation.

Edmund Clark, A room formerly used for interrogations in the Libyan intelligence service facility at Tajoura, Tripoli

After Sept. 11, 2001, the CIA launched a program of extraordinary rendition to handle terrorism suspects. In the name of the ‘global war on terror,’ some 136 individuals were secretly abducted, transferred from one country to another, imprisoned, questioned using the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques”, and sometimes killed without any legal oversight, charge nor trial.
Some died during the incarceration. Some were innocent of whatever the CIA accused them of. Some were released without any explanation. Some remain unidentified.

No one was informed of what happened to these people. They were simply made to disappear. The U.S.A. sponsored the whole programme but 54 countries are known to have been complicit in this illegal program and many private companies are known to have provided some logistic support and benefited from the program.

The CIA’s extraordinary rendition program is officially over. But we still need a coherent, approachable and visually appealing narrative of the human right crimes associated with the program. Negative Publicity is probably the closest you might get to it.

Edmund Clark, Richmor Aviation’s office at Columbia County Airport, New York, from Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition (Aperture/Magnum Foundation, 2016)
Edmund Clark, Richmor Aviation’s office at Columbia County airport, New York

Cross-examination of Richmor’s president Mahlon Richards, July 2, 2009, Richmor Aviation, Inc. v. Sportsflight Air, Inc.

Photographer Edmund Clark spent 4 years spent hunting for sites of extraordinary rendition and photographing any location associated with the programme. None of the photo printed in the book shows any clear evidence of torture, kidnapping or any other human right abuse. There is nothing spectacular to witness here, just mundane places such as the entrance to a Libyan intelligence service detention facility, the corridors connecting cells to interrogation rooms, anonymous streets or the bedroom of the son of a man formerly imprisoned in a CIA black site. Clark calls the making of these photographs “an act of testimony.”

However, the images start to bear a chilling significance when coupled with the paper trail and extracts of interview patiently compiled by Crofton Black, an investigative journalist whose research focuses on extraordinary rendition and black site cases. Over the course of his inquiry, Black has amassed incriminating documents that range from satellite maps to landing records, from border guard patrol logs to testimonies of people tortured in CIA ‘black sites’, from invoices to CIA documents released after freedom of information act litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union. He managed to give them meaning by organizing them into engrossing episodes that give a glimpse of the building and unraveling of the extraordinary rendition network.

Here’s a few images from the book:

Edmund Clark,The site of the former Bagram theater internment facility at Bagram airfield, north of Kabul, Afghanistan

Also called Black Jail, the Bagram detention center was used by U.S. forces following the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. In December 2002, two detainees, Dilawar and Habibullah, died within a week of each other. Investigations revealed that the men had been severely and continuously beaten, shackled to the ceiling of their cells and denied medical care.

Edmund Clark, Redacted image of a complex of buildings where a pilot identified as having flown rendition flights lives

The image is redacted on legal advice as the inhabitant has the right to privacy and security in their own home.

Edmund Clark, Site in north-east Kabul, believed to have been the location of the Salt Pit, now obscured by new factories and compounds

The Salt Pit is the name commonly given to an isolated clandestine CIA black site prison and interrogation center in Afghanistan. A U.S. senate’s report on the programme described how detainees at this facility ‘were kept in complete darkness and constantly shackled in isolated cells with loud noise or music and only a bucket to use for human waste’. The site opened in 2002 and closed 2 years later, when it was replaced by a purpose-built facility intended to offer ‘heating/air conditioning, conventional plumbing, appropriate lighting, shower and laundry facilities’.

Edmund Clark, The building at Antaviliai, erected on the site of the paddock of the former riding school, from Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition (Aperture/Magnum Foundation, 2016)
Edmund Clark, The building at Antaviliai, erected on the site of the paddock of the former riding school

The CIA prison facility in Antaviliai, a small village 20km north of Vilnius, Lithuania, was surrounded by lakes and woods. Its construction was shrouded in secrecy. It was the last secret detention site the CIA used in Europe.

Edmund Clark, Room 11, Skopski Merak Hotel, Skopje, Macedonia. Khaled El-Masri was held in this room by Macedonian security officials for 23 days in January 2004 before being handed over to the CIA and flown to Afghanistan

Khalid El-Masri was a German and Lebanese citizen who was mistakenly abducted by the Macedonian police in 2003, and handed over to the CIA. He was held at a black site and routinely interrogated, violently beaten, sodomized, and subjected to other forms of degrading treatment and torture. A year and a half later, the CIA finally admitted his arrest was a mistake. He was then flown, blindfolded and earmuffed to Albania, where he was dumped on the side of the road without explanation.

Inside the book:





Previously: Brighton Photo Biennial – Agents of Change: Photography and the Politics of Space, Book review – Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out, Architecture of Fear – a conversation with Trevor Paglen, The Glomar Response. James Bridle solo show in Berlin explores torture, surveillance, imperialism and immigration, Discussing democracy, torture and secret services with Jill Magid, Book Review – Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World, Guantanamo museum and other tales of extraordinary rendition at Helga de Alvear gallery in Madrid.

A People’s Art History of the United States. 250 Years of Activist Art and Artists Working in Social Justice Movements

A People’s Art History of the United States. 250 Years of Activist Art and Artists Working in Social Justice Movements, by artist and author Nicolas Lampert.


It’s on amazon USA and UK.

Publisher The New Press writes: Called “important” by renowned art critic Lucy Lippard, A People’s Art History of the United States introduces us to key works of American radical art alongside dramatic retellings of the histories that inspired them. Richly illustrated with more than two hundred black-and-white images, this book by acclaimed artist and author Nicolas Lampert is the go-to resource for everyone who wants to know what activist art can and does do for our society.

Spanning the abolitionist movement, early labor movements, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, and up to the present antiglobalization movement and beyond, A People’s Art History of the United States is a wonderful read as well as a brilliant tool kit for today’s artists and activists to adapt past tactics to the present, utilizing art and media as a form of civil disobedience.

Asco, Decoy Gang War Victim, 1974. Photo: Harry Gamboa Jr.

Danny Lyon, Poster—Is He Protecting You? Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee poster, about 1963

The book tells the history of artistic and popular resistance and recounts events that have changed society from the bottom up. Some of these events were initiated by activists who used visual tactics. Others by trained artists who joined a cause and anchored their art within an existing movement.

Each chapter zooms in on a specific political combat and explains with great details the tactics employed at the time by the activists. The tactics that triumphed but also the ones that flopped. Because it singles out specific political struggles instead of providing us with an all-encompassing survey of activism art, the book is also as an inspiring call to action for more artists to respond to contemporary crises and for more activists to use art in their interventions.

Nicolas Lampert is a talented writer and his book will take you on a memorable ride. One that goes from clergymen supporting the abolition of slavery to The Yes Men challenging unethical corporations. From women fighting for the right to have a say in politics to artists campaigning for museums and galleries to exhibit more women and people of color.

A People’s Art History of the United States is an invigorating book. It reminds us of the real impact that visual art can have on society, especially when it forgoes established art institutions, and roots itself in the communities and movements that push for social change. A book like this one is opportune and necessary at any moment in history and particularly in ours.

Stories, struggles and images discovered in the book:

Description of the slave ship Brookes, 1788

In the late 1700s, abolitionists in England and USA used lithographs and illustrations in their fight against slavery. Their strategies differ though. In the USA, slavery was part of fabric of life and the campaigns there were more about moral persuasion. England had very few slaves on its soil so slavery was a more abstract concept for citizens.

In 1787, a young English clergyman called Thomas Clarkson started to investigate conditions of slave transport. He interviewed sailors, obtained equipment used on slave-ships, such as iron handcuffs, leg-shackles, thumbscrews, branding irons and even got seamen to testify before the Parliament. But it was an image that had the biggest political influence: the architectural rendering of the slave ship Brookes. Based on a detailed plan of a slave ship, he had an image drawn of chained black figures loaded on the ship, a view no English man could see when slave ships were docked in the harbours. The striking image was combined with texts that detailed the men’s ordeal, creating a sense of empathy for African slaves. London abolitionists had it printed on thousands of posters, and, in the years that followed, the diagram circulated in broadsheets, pamphlets and books in Scotland, France and the United States.

The graphic agitation produced results: the House of Commons passed first the law against slave trade in 1792.

Richard Throssel (American, 1882–1933) Interior of the best indian kitchen on the Crow Reservation, 1910 Glass; 12 in. x 8 in. mounted 6 1/2 in. x 8.5 in. original size The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NAA INV 00486700. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution (SL.7.2015.65.1)
Richard Throssel, Interior of the Best Indian Kitchen on the Crow Reservation, 1910 (via Met museum)

Edward S. Curtis, Sioux chiefs, 1905

Another chapter looks at widely circulated historical photos that shouldn’t be taken at face value. The text brings side by side the works of white photographer Edward S. Curtis and the one of his contemporary, the lesser-known Native photographer Richard Throssel (Cree.)

Curtis portrayed Native people as untouched by white society, even though, at a time he was working, the reservation system and forced acculturation were firmly in place. Many of the scenes in his photos are staged, they erase any intrusion of modernity and perpetuate the ‘noble savage’ myth that people who bought his photos were so fond of. His images correspond more to what you would see in a Hollywood western film than to the reality of reservations.

Throssel, on the other hand, had been formally adopted by the Crow and his images of the tribe are the ones of an insider to the culture. This, of course, gave him additional credibility. He did produce staged image as well though. But with another objective, the one to discourage traditional living habits that were thought to be one of the main causes of diseases. Although they belong to a federal campaign to address the spread of diseases, his images responded to immediate needs and acted as a form of community activism. By showing Natives into more modern settings, they also offer a more realistic portrait of the Crows than the ones made for white tourists.

These two examples of approaches show the importance of looking at social conditions, politics, funding and motives behind images.

Jesse Washington, an African-American mentally handicapped teenager lynched in Waco, Texas, on May 15, 1916. He was accused of raping and murdering the wife of his white employer. Photo via DarkVictory’s fascinating flickr account

Another chapter zooms in on the personality of civil rights activist, author and editor W.E.B. Du Bois. The first African American to earn a doctorate at the University of Harvard, Du Bois was also one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909.

Du Bois fought against a society characterized by segregation. At the time, the black working class was seen as a threat to the economic well-being of white working class and its members were demonized as being rapists.

This climate led to race terrorism, and in particular to lynch mobs that threatened African Americans, Jews, gay people, immigrants, catholics, radicals, labour organizers, etc. Some 4,742 people were lynched in US between 1882 and 1968. The vast majority of them were black.

Du Bois aimed to change the situation through the NAACP publication The Crisis. Progressive ideas were not only communicated through articles but also by photos showing successful African American businessmen, college graduates and other images aimed at uplifting the spirit of African Americans. The publication also printed horrific drawings and photos of African Americans being lynched. The images were accompanied by eyewitness accounts that aimed to provoke the federal government to eradicate the crime.

Du Bois also organized public actions such as large scale parades, silent demos, and the boycott of D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation which portrayed black men (some played by white actors in blackface) as half-wits and sexual predators.

Lynching flag flying at NAACP headquarters, ca. 1938. NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Along with the anti-lynching campaign, in 1920 the NAACP began flying a flag with the words “a man was lynched yesterday” from the windows of its headquarters in New York city when a lynching occurred. Threatened to lose its lease, the NAACP had to discontinue the practice in 1938.

Suzanne Lacy, Three Weeks in May exposed the extent of re- ported rapes in Los Angeles during a three-week performance in May, 1977

ASCO, First Supper (After a Major Riot), 1974. Photo: Harry Gamboa Jr.

John Fekner, Groundwork: The Anti-Nuke Port Stencil Project, 1988. Image via justseeds

Iraq Veterans Against the War, Operation First Casualty, San Francisco, 2008

Miné Okubo, Waiting in lines, Tanforan Assembly Center, San Bruno, California], 1942. Part of Citizen 13660, a collection of 189 drawings and accompanying text chronicling the artist experience in Japanese American internment camps during World War II

Emory Douglas, Minister of Culture and revolutionary artist for the Black Panther Party, March 9 1969: ‘All Power to the People’

Emory Douglas, poster from The Black Panther, December 19, 1970, (copyright 2013 Emory Douglas/Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York