Date of Degree
Ruth Wilson Gilmore
African American Studies | American Studies | Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies | Women's Studies
Newark, carcerality, Black, queer, New Jersey Four, abolition
On an evening in 2006 a group of black queer women and gender non-conforming people, traveled from Newark, New Jersey, to New York’s Greenwich Village for a night out. When Dwayne Buckle, an African-American man selling DVDs on the street, attempted to flirt with one of them, they told him that they were lesbians. Buckle physically assaulted them and, at some point in the four-minute melee, was stabbed. The seven were arrested. While three of them accepted plea bargains, the other four maintained their right to defend themselves from attack. A New York judge convicted the New Jersey Four (as they became known by activists and advocates) and gave them prison sentences ranging from three to eleven years. Charged with gang assault, a putatively race-neutral legal category referring to any assault by a group of people, the four were criminalized by local and mainstream media outlets as a menacing gang, with one commentator even raising the specter of a national (black) lesbian gang epidemic.
My dissertation examines the case of the New Jersey Seven in order to investigate U.S. logics of carcerality in relation to the sexualities of queer black women, as those logics extend beyond the geographical and institutional site of the prison itself. I seek to elucidate the 21-century production of racial-sexual panics and phobias as a strategy of both physical/geographical and discursive containment, and argue that the continued production of these panics and phobias, by sectors including but not limited to the state and the mass media, promote a strategy of discursive, legal and geographical containment that extends beyond the prison – the most visible and contested site of carcerality – to capture racialized bodies. My project emerges from my concern with modes of activism and advocacy that promote rights and liberation based on a fraught notion of “innocence” – a rhetorical strategy that helps obscure the ways racial capitalism and its attendant structures facilitate criminality and the carceral. the rules of who is and who isn’t innocence, and what constitutes innocence itself as a fundamental dimension of the genre of Man as delineated by Sylvia Wynter. And I think that innocence, and the criminality that is required as its opposite, shows up in the defense of the Seven, the media and court depiction of the case itself, and the rhetoricization of Newark as both ghetto and revitalized. And it’s these rhetoricizations, that occur on the bodies of spectacularized people and places, that buttress the cases, people and places, that never make it to the papers.
Chapter 1 analyses the narrativization of the lives of the New Jersey Seven in the documentary Out in the Night. I find that the film, created in a moment of shifting sensibilities in relation to neoliberal homonormativity, follows the rubrics set up by the genre of Man, making it no less important as a critical response to the case of the Four but also a useful heuristic for examining the limitations of pandering to that genre, particularly in relation to racialized gender dynamics. Chapter 2 considers the media and court spectacularization of the case itself, arguing for a late-twentieth-century shift in anxieties regarding black women’s sexuality that concerned their intragendered sociality on the streets, one that augmented the ongoing apprehension about black women’s influence in/on the domestic sphere. A turn to Newark in Chapter 3 examinew both the rhetorical production of Newark as violent ghetto and the elision of homophobic violence, even as the same neoliberal rhetorics of tolerance that conceptualize Greenwich Village are increasingly used in a Newark undergoing a “revitalization,” while examining the practices of capitalist accumulation the promote both ghetto and rehabilitation, uplifting the voices of black queer women who have created a solid and impactful community there.. Finally, I offered a potential alternative to the reinscription of the genre of man in the short story “Wolf Pack,” which takes the case of the Seven as a starting point but enacts different stories for the four and closes with what I consider to be an opening to the reader, an opening to dream and scheme outside of the structures of legality, carcerality and criminality, all of which are components in the securing of the genre of Man.
Dowell, LeiLani, "Wolf Packs: U.S. Carceral Logics and the Case of the New Jersey Four" (2019). CUNY Academic Works.