The arrest, trial and conviction of Missouri college student Michael Johnson is a call to rethink everything we thought we knew about the HIV epidemic, about the justice system and about the lives caught in the intersection of those two spheres. Johnson's is a black life that matters, but to whom?
Johnson's case illuminates the ways that black lives, gay lives, the lives of those living with HIV and the lives of those in poverty seemingly do not matter when it comes to the machinations of the state.
Johnson's case is in the crucible of this moment, in which the HIV epidemic among black gay men is worsening, HIV criminalization defies science and public health, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement has issued a call for justice over systemic violence, mass imprisonment and other struggles that marginalized populations continue to confront.
TheBody.com asked four activists of various backgrounds and experiences who work in different arenas -- the law, the prison abolition movement, academia and advocacy efforts -- to discuss what Johnson's case has taught us about social and political power, and about ourselves.
The Case Not Far From Ferguson: Criminalizing Blackness and HIV
By Jeffrey McCune
Missouri, the "Show Me State," is a repeated collaborator in America's continuous participation in black spiritual and physical death. Michael Brown meets Michael Johnson at the corner of black demonization; each case undeniably an admission of the state's persistence in controlling, condemning and confining its black citizens by any means necessary.
Michael Brown tried for walking on the streets of Ferguson. Michael Johnson tried for negotiating living with HIV in St. Charles.
Both black boys found guilty.
Michael Johnson -- the young, black, college wrestler, with whom several men (mostly white) hooked up -- was subjected to a scene in legal theater, where all the actors on stage were positioned as innocent victims of what the prosecutors called his "HIV semen." Sitting in the courtroom every day, a deep animus against racial and sexual difference choreographed the courtroom's happenings.
For me, all parties involved in this case were vulnerable subjects, engaging in consensual sex in the time of HIV/AIDS, hook-up culture and anti-LGBT and anti-black sentiments and acts. In the courtroom, however, there was one sexual criminal (Johnson) and the rest were innocent casualties of consensual sex (his accusers). This is only made possible in a courtroom, where Tiger Mandingo (the name that Johnson used on social media and that he was called throughout the trial) becomes more than a name, but a racialized identity.
Without a mention of Johnson's own physical or psychological battle with his HIV diagnosis, he was merely painted as an animal who terrorizes the cavities of his young, white, docile victims, who performed "the traditional female role," as one accuser stated. Johnson here is posed as the only agent in sex, who took advantage of these young, innocent men; an indictment hinged on manipulating the centuries-old narrative of innocent white women always in danger of black men.
This anything-but-neutral courtroom easily ignored the national anxiety over sexual and racial biases -- tempered mostly by the prosecuting attorney Philip Groenweghe's simple suggestion that when someone is HIV positive they carry a deadly weapon. In many ways, this rhetorical move erased all other considerations and presented Johnson's state of mind as intentionally reckless. It reframed cultural practices within hook-up sites (which are spaces in which disclosure is a common practice). It made irrelevant the science of HIV, which suggests that Johnson performed several risk-reduction methods.
On some levels, the poorly written law decided Johnson's fate before it began. But the extreme sentencing of possibly 60 years is the outcome of a cross-trial narrative in which Johnson and other men like him are a threat to all communities. In the final moment, in the prosecutor's closing statement, he stated: If Michael Johnson (threat, "Tiger Mandingo," animal) was set free or "let loose" into the public, he would pose great danger to not only gay communities, but even heterosexual, family-driven, suburban St. Charles. Such hyperbole sets in motion the understanding that blackness, gayness and HIV all stand as invasive, criminal identities.
Jeffrey Q. McCune Jr. is a scholar-artist-activist. He is an associate professor in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the author of Sexual Discretion: Black Masculinity and the Politics of Passing (University of Chicago Press, 2014).
Black Flesh, Red Blood, White Law: The Criminalization of Black Sexualities
By Tabias Wilson
HIV criminalization laws codify significant hostility toward HIV-positive individuals, particularly those of color. At first glance, this is problematic because it creates a viral underclass. However, when put in the context of the persistent nature of racism and anti-blackness within the law and extra-judicial practices such as lynching, we can see how HIV criminalization also serves to compound oppression.
HIV-positive black men are targeted on the basis of their race and non-whiteness, as well as their health status as HIV positive. Our status as men who have sex with men, in addition to being black, hollows out a special place for us as sexual deviants and enemies of a white, patriarchal system that provides for and necessitates male sexual domination over women. Our sexualities complicate the stereotypes ascribed to black men (assumed to be straight) as hypersexual beings whose existence is a threat to the sexual power of white men and the inherent innocence of (white) women.
Our lives challenge the traditional nature of the American sociopolitical landscape whereby men are formed, molded and reshaped as all-powerful beings who exist to provide and protect for women, particularly white women. As men who have same-sex attractions, our existence not only complicates and problematizes this narrative. We disrupt the historical reasoning that black men desire two things above all: 1) white, heterosexual masculinity and 2) to rape white women.
In the event that black men disavow these yearnings or disprove their existence -- in the case of Michael Johnson, for example -- it is read as an assault on whiteness as well as the benefits and privileges that this narrative provides for white and whitened individuals. This rejection of the ideology of white supremacy also removes the so-called "moral authority" that whites have clung to for the logical basis of the legal and extralegal apparatus in the U.S. This logic has been made clear in different eras, from the defense of lynching executed by white men and women to their silence in the sexual violence visited upon black women and men.
Lynchings were the result of allegations of rape by white women and/or sexual insubordination by black men. They functioned as disciplinary proceedings for black people who dared not offer their flesh in the manner, condition and speed accustomed to their white desirers. This is reminiscent of Johnson's criminal prosecution, where one accuser filed charges after noting how he wanted condomless sex because Michael was "huge" and only his "third black guy." These charges are seemingly not about harm, but about the right to enjoy a particular experience, a controlled experience, with a "huge" black penis. The alleged revelation of Johnson's HIV status robbed the accuser of power, a fond sexual memory and a particular, controlled eroticized, racial-sexual experience.
Lynchings were often marked by penectomy -- surgical removal of the penis -- with the images of the act widely displayed through official postcards, "art" and posters as travelling reminders or public service announcements. These public displays of terrorism, in circus form before thousands, worked to normalize and engrain images of the black body as inherently criminal and dangerous, and in need of control. This is not dissimilar to marking of many sexually active HIV survivors as "AIDS Monsters," legal pariahs and the most ardent enemies of the state (i.e., sex offenders, bioterrorists, attempted murders) while their faces are splayed across television screens and posters, and their bodies are subjected to a lifetime of state surveillance -- a social penectomy. The relationship between lynching and blackness, given that only black people were lynched, also served to reify the notion that white (and assumed heterosexual) sexualities and masculinities were the only socially and legally acceptable options.
Ida. B. Wells bravely, and courageously, led anti-lynching campaigns that articulated the linkages between fear and control of the black body with anxieties and white supremacy. She understood that lynching was not about solving the issue of gendered sexual violence -- otherwise white men would be routinely lynched for the raping of black and white women alike -- but instead about a system of racial-sexual domination, where some are killed for simply surviving and others are exalted for violent expressions of power and desire. We must urge organizers, advocates, courts and politicians to recognize an innate right to bodily autonomy and human dignity. In such a reality, no one would be unfairly penalized or ostracized for the contents of their blood. Instead, all would be implored to enhance the potential of our character by maximizing health, minimizing risks and congratulating each other on the daily act of survival.
Tabias Wilson is a writer, speaker and community organizer whose work focuses on the intersections of race, law and sexuality, HIV criminalization and critical love ethics. He is the founder of the blog BlaQueerFlow: The Griots' Pen, and is currently studying law at Howard University.
Transformative Justice as an Alternative to HIV Criminalization Prosecutions
By Jason Lydon
The conviction and sentencing of Michael L. Johnson highlights the racism, homophobia and ignorance of HIV inherent within the U.S. criminal punishment system. Many are fighting to rid the legal system of the tools used in HIV criminalization, an essential part of our collective struggle for justice. Johnson's case is an example of yet another black man added to the one million already serving time in prison; efforts to end HIV criminalization are one piece of a larger movement to stop the violence of the racialized carceral state.
As we imagine an end to HIV criminalization, there is a question of what should be done when someone does not disclose their HIV status to a sexual partner. Johnson was convicted of one count of exposing a partner to HIV and four counts of attempting to expose a partner to HIV. He is facing nearly 60 years in prison. Prison sentences are the dominant way the criminal punishment system responds to defendants of color, regardless of which law is broken. Many justice advocates have been pushing for new ways of dealing with harm without utilizing the criminal punishment system. Restorative justice tactics, using circle healing models, are the most popular alternative. There is growing attention, however, to models of transformative justice.
According to Generation Five, an organization founded by survivors of childhood sexual abuse, the goals of transformative justice are as follows: "Survivor safety, healing and agency; accountability and transformation of those who abuse; community response and accountability; and transformation of the community and social conditions that create and perpetuate violence, i.e. systems of oppression, exploitation, domination and State violence."
Transformative justice models have a multitude of tools available that have been created by organizers across the country. One excellent collection of tools has been made available from Creative Interventions.
In many transformative justice models, the person or people who are survivors of harm/violence are supported by a group of people who strive to collect, understand and hold forth the demands and needs that survivors articulate as necessary for healing and accountability. Another group of people ensure that the person or people who caused harm participate in a process that changes their behavior, accept responsibility for the harm done and respond to the demands of the survivor and community. Meanwhile, collective efforts in the communities affected by the harm can uncover what cultural norms create an environment where harm was able to happen in order to truly attempt to address the underlying systemic issues that facilitate interpersonal harm.
One may read this model of transformative justice and see the six accusers who worked with the office of the prosecuting attorney as the ones who experienced harm. They certainly feel as though they have been harmed by Johnson. However, as Mathew Rodriguez wrote in another piece for TheBody.com, "To listen to the voices of the accusers in an HIV criminalization case without context is to lay another brick in HIV's Berlin Wall."
At this point in the Johnson case the person experiencing the most harm and violence is Johnson himself, and those causing the greatest harm are the prosecuting attorney and the accusers. There was a time when it could have been possible for the accusers in this case to rely on non-punitive transformative justice models of healing where they could have expressed their experiences of harm. After expressing their experience of harm to a community of care, there could have been a larger community conversation about hook-up culture and HIV stigma. Following conversation, and with a shared commitment not to cooperate with prosecutors, Johnson may have chosen to accept some level of the shared responsibility.
Because of HIV criminalization laws, there is a greater focus on punishing HIV-positive people, particularly black men, than there is on creating a cultural shift to end HIV stigma and actually stop HIV transmission. As long as we have laws criminalizing HIV, HIV-positive people are at risk if they participate in transformative justice practices that require particular admissions of responsibility, as they remain liable for prosecution. It is important that these efforts are engaged in with care and attention to greater consequences, and that we continue the fight to end HIV criminalization.
Rev. Jason M. Lydon is a Unitarian Universalist community minister and the founding director of Black and Pink, an open family of LGBTQ prisoners and "free world" allies who support each other, reaching nearly 8,000 LGBTQ prisoners with a monthly newspaper of mainly prisoner-generated content. He has published numerous articles on prison abolition, the specific impacts of prisons on LGBTQ people, and the role of faith communities in the movement to abolish the prison industrial complex.
Stop Throwing Us Into Prisons: Race, Resistance and HIV Criminalization
By Charles Stephens
Our understanding of black people's vulnerabilities to disparities in both the health care and the criminal justice systems has come a long way. However, that understanding must be used to inform HIV decriminalization advocacy efforts. To make this leap, both in terms of political analysis and political practice, there has to be a commitment to ending mass incarceration in all of its forms.
Most critically, there has to be a consideration of how the forces that make one vulnerable to the prison industrial complex (for example, the sentencing disparities related to race) are the same forces that make one vulnerable to HIV, particularly for young, black gay men. These forces include: economic distress and injustice, racial oppression and other forms of structural violence that converge in the lives of those of us that live in the margins of the margins. These forces are exemplary of Michael Johnson's case, where his HIV status, along with his race, his sexual identity, his sexual practices and socioeconomic status, made him vulnerable to the prison industrial complex.
The response to these issues must move beyond merely changing laws. If all of the laws were changed tomorrow around HIV criminalization, many of us would continue to be vulnerable to incarceration. When those of us who have and continue to advocate on behalf of Johnson shout "We Are Michael Johnson," we do so because we recognize that we could be next. We must grapple with the larger issue of disproportionate sentencing and the ways the criminal justice system preys on black people. HIV decriminalization advocacy has to be rooted in racial justice and an anti-oppression framework.
Movement building is important because it creates a path for a stronger network of advocates to come together and for meaningful leadership to continue to emerge. It also opens the door for forging stronger political alliances across movements. Our best chance to shift the public narrative around the spectrum and specter of criminalization in our lives is through strengthening our movements.
To inspire stronger movements around HIV decriminalization advocacy, the following must occur:
- Political education: We have to work with stakeholders and provide spaces for issue awareness and community education around this issue. There is also a tradition of black gay men resisting state violence and speaking out against the prison industrial complex that we should connect to and share with our communities. The open letter to Johnson signed by over 100 black gay men was very much in this tradition. Awareness is an important step to action, and political education is the key ingredient to building power.
- We must also create messaging around HIV decriminalization that speaks to the hearts and minds of our communities. The messaging around HIV criminalization will not be effective if it doesn't grapple with race and an intersectional framework.
- We must mobilize. We have to march down to HIV prevention workshops and testing clinics, AIDS service organizations and community meetings to provide fact sheets and do teach-ins around HIV decriminalization.
- Finally, allies must challenge racism in their ranks, including race-neutral narratives around HIV criminalization.
These steps are necessary to respond more forcefully against the ever more powerful prison industrial complex and build a movement to resist it, so that we can bring an end to the clinic-to-prison pipeline.
Charles Stephens is a writer and activist. He is the executive director of Counter Narrative and co-editor of the anthology Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam's Call.
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