Cyberspace: The "Color Line" of the 21st Century

By Molina, Alejandro | Social Justice, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Cyberspace: The "Color Line" of the 21st Century


Molina, Alejandro, Social Justice


"THE PROBLEM OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY IS THE PROBLEM OF THE COLOR LINE." Thus, as early as 1903, W.E.B. DuBois succinctly defined the paradigm for struggle at the beginning of the 20th century. The same could be said about the struggle for freedom in the 21st century and technology. It carries with it the same connotations of race and class privilege, and although dwindling at the access level, the colonial nature of the multifaceted relationships between the U.S. power structure and internally oppressed nations is startling. In this essay, I will make the following two assertions:

* The social direction of technology continues be alarming--militaristic, intrusive, and with enormous potential for abuse. Characteristic are the gathering and centralizing of information, enhancing existing relationships between repressive agencies, the dropping of bureaucratic borders between states, law-enforcement agencies, and right-wing movements, as well as increasing cooperation in the drafting of policy and strategy between European governments and the U.S. in the planning of repression against dissent and resistance movements.

* The struggle for human rights shapes, and is partially shaped in, cyberspace.

Cyberspace and Communication

Witness the growing trends for information technology: the prisons and the military. The first politically cutting-edge attempt was the Lexington Women's High Security Unit, built in Lexington Kentucky in the late 1980s. This specialized political prison had 16 beds and cost over a million dollars to build. The first inmates were political prisoners, North American anti-imperialists Susan Rosenberg and Italian national Silvia Baraldini, and Puerto Rican prisoner of war Alejandrina Torres. A social prisoner, Susan Brown, was transferred to the unit later. The objective of the prison was simple. Its existence served as a threat (as did the penitentiaries housing men in Marion, Illinois, and later Florence, Colorado) for the federally incarcerated female population to behave or else face transfer to Lexington. The goal was social and political dislocation of the prisoner, as individuals and as extensions of the movements they represent in prison. It involved technologically advanced social control and isolation methods, laid out in a secret conference in Puerto Rico in 1978, where representatives from Europe and the United States assembled to discuss the growth of domestic "terrorism." These representatives brought to the table experience from Germany's Stammheim prison, where the norm for prisoner control was state-induced "suicide," from Ireland's Long Kesh prison, just two years after the heroic hunger strike that claimed the lives of 10 Irish Republican Army political prisoners, and from Uruguay, where the state's battle against the Tupamaros was in full flower.

The methods for handling these prisoners derived from classic counterinsurgency, that is, isolation from friends and family, sensory deprivation, and a controlled environment in which the goal was to break a prisoner's identification with institutions or social movements other than the state. Today, the U.S. is distilling and broadly implementing the social control aspects of this technology. The prison is part of a multi-layered system of social control for people of color in which technology serves to filter and track the entire prison population, with an emphasis on political prisoners, prisoner activists, and others labeled troublemakers.

The Florence, Colorado, facility is the latest effort at cutting-edge torture. Florence is a federal complex consisting of four prisons in which the idea is for the prisoner to work his way out of the highest level of security (the Administrative Segregation Prison) to the lowest (Prison Camp). In the early 1990s, Florence replaced Marion as the only level-six rated prison. Maximum-security prisons typically evoke images of unscalable walls rather than scalable information technology (IT) systems. …

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