While recently on vacation, Leeman and I spent most of Amanda’s daily naptime binge-watching the latest season of Orange is the New Black. I was fixated on what this latest season had to say about the corporate for-profit prison system and what happens to our collective humanity when we view one another as profits rather than people. I was totally on board with this being the strongest season of the show to date.
Then the last two episodes happen. Here be SPOILERS:
The climax of the season occurred in the penultimate episode of the season, when tensions between the new authoritarian guards and the prison inmates culminate in a (peaceful) demonstration. The guards rush in to break up the protest and, in the ensuring chaos, a young, inexperienced guard inadvertently takes the life of fan-favorite character Poussey Washington. Given the racial dynamics explored over the course of the season, and the staging of Poussey’s death to evoke the real-life police killing of Eric Garner, the writers made an undeniable connection to the #BlackLiveMatter movement. That would all be well and good, except that the series attempts to portray a “balanced” outlook on the reality of law enforcement repeatedly taking the lives of black men and women.
As the series comes to its conclusion, we see two warring perspectives on what went down in that fatal moment. On the one hand the guards immediately jump to a defensive narrative — Poussey must have been armed, she made the first attack, their colleague was just defending himself. The inmates, on the other hand, demand justice for the death of their friend — she was innocent, someone must pay! Adding to the complexity of the situation we see the prison’s Public Relations team searching for the right angle. They ultimately determine the guard in question must be the sacrificial lamb for the good of the prison’s reputation. They find the most aggressive pictures they can to paint a picture of this confused young man as potentially dangerous and hardened. (Indeed, what makes this plot point particularly odious is the appropriation of what the media actually does when a young black man is killed by the police).
The season ends with a press conference in which Joe Caputo. prison warden, refuses to give in to the narrative that the guard is totally to blame for Poussey’s death. Caputo lays out the complexities of working in a prison system, even a minimum security facility. Ultimately, he argues, the young man made a mistake but did the best he could in the situation. Caputo’s failure fully to indict Poussey’s killer leads to a full-fledged prison riot and a cliff-hanger ending for the season.
It is difficult to know how to interpret Caputo’s final moments. The whole season laid out something of a battle for Caputo’s soul, as he sought for ways to affirm the humanity and dignity of the women in his prison against the corporate interests of his employers. One might read Caputo’s comments as his utter failure of moral courage–but I’m not sure that is what the writers were communicating. In the midst of all the various “agendas” — whether the guards defending one of their own, the inmates passionately demanding justice, or the corporation looking to defend its public image — Caputo lays out a seemingly nuanced, measured take on the situation. He speaks from his own personal convictions — not defending or exonerating the young man, but not indicting him either. Indeed, the actor who plays the guard in question, has encouraged a nuanced reading of the situation, noting that “good people make mistakes.”
A part of me can appreciate what the writers were trying to do. It is tempting always to look for nuance in complex situations. Indeed, the story of an immature young man thrown into an impossible circumstance where he makes a horrific, unintentional mistake makes for really compelling drama. It is also a grossly irresponsible statement to make in light of current events.
We live in a world where police repeatedly kill black men (and women) without just cause or due process and get away with it. This year alone, the police have killed well over 100 black men. Just this week two more names were added to the tragic black victims of police brutality: Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Both deaths caught on video. Nothing to suggest the police who killed them were in any immediate mortal danger.
It is all well and good to look for nuance and complexity. It is all well and good to explore what leads someone sworn “to serve and protect” to make the fatal mistake that results in the the loss of a life. But there then comes a time when we must stand up and say that some issues are NOT complicated. Some situations do not merit nuanced discussion. There come times when we must declare that “mistakes” that lead to the repeated executions of black men and women don’t deserve discussion or measured responses. We must declare that Black Live DO INDEED Matter and that those who take them should be held responsible. We must name injustice for what it is if we are to have any hope of working together to create a world that reflects the true love and equality of God’s kingdom.
The other option is to be Joe Caputo. No one wants to be Joe Caputo.