For the third installment of the Visionaries Project, we spoke to Sara Gozalo about capitalism, fighting ICE and the prison industrial complex, combating burnout as an activist, and her vision of a better world.
The Visionaries Project is a subsection of The Liberty Project dedicated to highlighting the lives, passions, and work of radical activists currently working towards social justice and liberation from oppression. We aim to uplift the perspectives of diverse voices working in media and activism today—and not just the faces who make headlines, but the real people on the ground every day, working towards their visions of a better world.
Sara Gozalo is an organizer currently based in New Orleans. Originally from Madrid, she describes herself as a "queer immigrant who believes in a world without borders and without jails, where everyone has the right to live in dignity." She currently works as a Unanimous Jury Specialist at the Promise of Justice Initiative, co-founded Students for Peace and Justice, and was formerly the Supervising Coordinator of the New Sanctuary Coalition and a member of the Worcester Global Action Network. We spoke with her about the insidiousness of capitalism, her work fighting ICE and the prison industrial complex, combating burnout as an activist, and her vision of a better world.
LIBERTY PROJECT: I was wondering if you could give an overview of your experience in activism and organizing.
SARA GOZALO: I have been organizing for a long time. I've only been organizing professionally for the past three and a half to four years, but I organized when I was at UMass against the war in Iraq. We did a lot of workshopping and teachings about free trade agreements, and how capitalism was destroying the planet.
It seems like that was such a long time ago, and we're still dealing with the same issues. I think that a lot of organizing is understanding that you're running a marathon, and it's never going to be a sprint. It's going to be a lot of small victories along the way, but you're going to fight the same issues constantly. That can be pretty demoralizing, but it also means you can never stop.
I come from a family that's very political. My dad is an attorney in Spain, and when he was a student he got arrested and kicked out of school for organizing against Franco during the dictatorship. My mom was always very political, and I remember hating that when I was a little kid.
While I was going through my own immigration case, I realized how hard it is for someone with a ton of privilege, and I started to look into what it was like for people who aren't as privileged. I got very involved in the immigration issue. Since I moved to New Orleans, I've seen the same patterns in the criminal justice system.
I think New Orleans brings these issues together. It has been very impacted in terms of climate change. Louisiana has the highest numbers per capita of incarcerated people [in the US], and one of the highest numbers of migrants in detention. The city brings everything together, and ties in all the different aspects that I have organized around in my life. In the end, it is important to remember that they're all related to each other.
Where are you at now?
I moved to New Orleans this summer. My wife was born and raised here. I'm working at the Promise of Justice Initiative, which is an organization that does a lot of criminal justice work.
It's clear that all these issues are very interconnected. Lately it seems that there's been a particular resurgence of anticapitalist sentiment, though that was always there…Is that affecting your organizing at all?
I have been organizing with these anti-capitalists since the late '90s. It feels like the "resurgence" has been a long time coming.
When we were organizing around the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003, we were very much organizing under the capitalist lens. Grassroots movements like Occupy and the movement for Medicare for All have ignited something even bigger now. It's become more mainstream.
The fight against capitalism is decades long, and its roots are in the people who are directly impacted, especially indigenous people all around the world. They have led that fight, because they know in their bodies what capitalism is doing to the world. I think it's important that now that conversation is part of western countries, especially the United States, which in many ways is the belly of the beast in terms of capitalism. Anti-capitalist organizing has been there forever; it just now feels like you can talk about it and people won't immediately discard you as someone crazy.
I want to make sure that [in spite of all the] now-mainstream groups that are taking this fight on—which is super important and necessary—we recognize how many people have been fighting this fight for so long and leading the efforts.
I first met you through New Sanctuary Coalition (an organization that provides legal support to immigrants in New York City). You were doing so much for them at once, and I was wondering what your reflections on that experience are.
NSC is one of the most powerful organizing groups that I have ever known, in terms of the numbers of people who are involved. Post-election, after Trump took power, it became very obvious that immigration was going to become one of the issues that he was going to attack the most. NSC grew because there are very concrete ways that people could get involved, and I think that is incredibly powerful. It's led by people who are directly impacted, but it really utilizes the number of people who want to fight alongside people who are directly impacted. That was a beautiful thing to see.
I've worked with other groups where there isn't a clear way for volunteers to get involved, and I think NSC recognizes that people can fight against the system with the support of others with more privilege. It's a great way to utilize the privilege that US citizens have. The [idea] that the people who are impacted lead, and you're showing up for solidarity—not to help or save anyone—is really important.
The accompaniment work, in particular, was hard for volunteers in that it was so boring, but it's such a good example of how much privilege US citizens have, and how important it is to show up and not feel like they're saving or leading. They're just standing in solidarity, which is an incredible exercise for everyone.
It did feel at times overwhelming, which obviously leads to a lot of burnout and the sense of, oh my God, I am never doing enough, because everything is an emergency.
It felt at times that I was just pouring oil on the machine as opposed to throwing a wrench in it. For instance, if a judge said, I need an asylum application in three months as opposed to the year, we became so good at meeting those demands that it felt like in some way we were contributing to them.
I think that's a constant in organizing. There's a big difference between asking, what can you today to help a person who's going to be deported unless they show up with an asylum application, and what can you do to dismantle the system? Of course you're gonna support the person who's dealing with something today and not think in bigger terms, and so those were some difficult moments.
I don't have the answer. Maybe we need organizations that do more direct impact service work, and other organizations that only do the disruptive work; maybe that's the balance that we could work towards.
When I was leaving this summer, a lot of people finally went out on the streets, and people got arrested by the hundreds. I think that's the energy we need in the streets, while organizations like NSC do the day-to-day work that's helping people stay in the country and not be deported.
Speaking of those larger systemic changes, are there any visions you have of changes that you would like to see happen on a large scale?
Yeah, so many.
First of all, we need to realign our belief system. Our bones, our insides, are so ingrained with this capitalist system of oppression. We make decisions on a daily basis that are informed by that upbringing. I admire Decolonize This Place and other groups that are really going to the roots of the problem, recognizing that unless we deal with those root problems, we're never going to affect systemic change.
For instance, we can't deal with climate change from a capitalist perspective. My friend was just fired for his job—which was to install solar panels—because they tried to unionize. We can't keep moving forward from the perspective of putting capital before humans and before the planet.
I really would like to see us having very honest conversations in which we start seeing, within ourselves and within our communities, how colonized we really are. We need to look at the root causes of the problem, if we really want to achieve any change that's going to make a difference, for our planet and for the survival of our communities everywhere in the world.
For instance, in Chile, I love to see the women who are protesting with everyone else and also bringing up the fact that the patriarchy is one of the biggest problems we have. Everything we see as an injustice has a root problem that's attached to racism and capitalism, and we need to address those, otherwise we're really not going to achieve the change that we want to achieve. Having these issues come into the light is an important step.
Women in South America sing against gender violence www.youtube.com
I think I would like to see more compassion in our organizing. I think we're all very angry. We're all very quick to attack each other while not understanding that organizing is hard. Organizing is the hardest thing you can ever do, because there are no models for the world that we want. We have to reinvent the world.
Because we don't have those models, even nonprofits and some of the most progressive groups continue to replicate the systems of oppression that we are fighting against. [We need to ask], what does the world that we want look like, as opposed to fighting against something with means we learned from something we're fighting against.
I've read a lot about how organizations can replicate the systems they're trying to take down—people will be like, let's change ICE, but it really needs to be abolished, and I feel like that's symbolic.
I also really admire abolitionists; their clarity about what they're fighting for could be used by all nonprofits and all other organizing groups.
Do you have any advice as to how to keep going in this long fight?
In your struggle, you have to allow yourself to be led by the people who are directly impacted, because in a way, people who are directly impacted don't have the privilege of giving up. When you surround yourself with people who have to keep fighting, it helps you keep fighting.
I would say surround yourself with a supportive community, with people that you trust and people you can confide in and talk with when things get hard. And I would say be compassionate with yourself. You're going to make a lot of mistakes. That doesn't mean you're a terrible person. Everybody makes mistakes, and learning from those mistakes is the only thing you can do; don't beat yourself up so much that it paralyzes you.
And take breaks. I have been planting trees, I started a compost bin in my backyard, and I am learning how to plant vegetables. Putting your hands on the earth is actually incredibly therapeutic, and it brings everything back to what matters the most, which is life and sustainability and love for each other and our planet. When you bring it back to those core values of what really truly matters, then it allows you to breathe a little bit easier.
How to Improve America's Broken Prison System: Create a World Without Free Will and Moral Responsibility
How responsible are you for your actions?
The debate over free will, and whether we as humans possess such a thing, has been ongoing since Aristotelian times. When discussing free will, philosophers commonly mean the kind that mean humans are ultimately responsible for their actions. The assumption of this kind of free will's existence, and the kind of ultimate responsibility that is inherent in it, is the basis of many religions, justice systems, and cultural structures. As philosopher's continue to debate whether free will exists, another question arises: what are the implications if we let go of the concept of free will and the kind of moral responsibility that accompanies it? How would our institutions, behaviors, and individual operations change if we allowed the idea of a causally determined universe without free will to become a part of public consciousness? Based on the work, of Samuel Harris, Daniel Dennet, Robert Kane and Bruce Waller, one can conclude that the world would be a more productive, compassionate place if society were to generally let go of this concept and embrace a hard determinist viewpoint.
First, it is vital that we elucidate what hard determinism looks like in the context of other philosophical viewpoints regarding free will. At present, the debate regarding the existence of free will revolves around the idea of determinism, it's validity as a concept, and, if valid, how that affects free will and responsibility. Determinism is the idea that everything that occurs and will ever occur is an inevitable product of all that has occurred before.
Or as Robert Kane puts it in his book Free Will, "…we say that a determined event is inevitable or necessary, (it cannot but occur), given the determining conditions." (Kane, 6) This idea calls into question the validity of the concept of free will. In this debate, when referring to "free will," one means the kind of freedom that goes beyond surface freedoms (choosing what to eat, where to travel etc.) and extends to the power to control why one desires what they desire and chooses what they choose. Kane refers to this deeper kind of free will as, "…the ultimate power over what it is that we willed." (Kane, 2) Another way to think about it is the power to be the author of one's own character.
Today, for the purpose of this article, the debate can be reasonably divided into two large categories: compatibilism and incompatibilism. The first group is made up of those who believe free will is compatible with the idea of determinism, that is, that free will can exist, on some level, in a causally determined world. The classical compatibilist believes that, "…our natural belief in the incompatibility of free will and determinism rests on confusions of two kinds—confusions about the nature of freedom and confusions about the nature of determinism." (Kane, 21) In brief, classical compatibilists believe that the kind of free will worth having is essentially merely an accumulation of exercising surface freedoms, something very possible in a causally determined world.
Contrastingly, incompatibilists are those people who believe that free will and determinism can't both be true. This leaves incompatibilists with the burden of proving that free will and determinism cannot exist simultaneously, which once accomplished, leaves them to decide which of the two (determinism and free will) is then true. Meaning this group is much more starkly divided than the compatibilists.
The first group in this division, libertarians, are as Kane puts it, those "…who affirm free will and deny determinism…" (Kane, 32) This leaves the libertarian to prove how free will can exist in an indeterminist world, which creates arguments that rely largely on luck or other vague, metaphysical concepts that critics argue, even if true, won't necessarily make a person more free. This view agrees the most with the intuitive sense of free will many common "folk" have, but is not accepted by the majority of philosophers of merit.
The other view an incompatibilist can reasonably take is that of hard determinism, the belief that because determinism is true, free will cannot exist. As Kane puts it, those who hold this view, "…believe that if you look more deeply into the psychological and other springs of action, you will see that all of us are determined to do what we do, whether it be good or evil; and so none of us is ultimately responsible." (Kane, 68) It is this view, as we will explore, that removes the burden of free will and moral responsibility from the world, and creates space for a more compassionate, productive world. Essentially, if we were always going to do what we do because of a combination of our experiences and biology, how can our actions truly be our fault?
According to Kane, "Hard Determinism is defined by three theses: (1) Free will is incompatible with determinism and (2) free will does not exist because (3) determinism is true." (Kane, 70) The basic argument, that philosopher Galen Strawson lays out, seems to make this thesis appear logically sound. The argument is made up of five parts that are as follows: (1) Nothing can be causa sui - nothing can be the cause of itself. (2) In order to be truly morally responsible for one's actions one would have to be causa sui, at least in certain crucial mental respects. (3) Therefore nothing can be truly morally responsible (Strawson,1) This seems to be a difficult argument to reason ones way out of, as at every step one is tempted to refer to an earlier moment of self-authorship, only to be foiled by Strawson's unavoidable logic that such a moment simply cannot have existed.
Those who oppose this view, argue that though we may be affected by our environment and biology, we still have the power to decide to change who we are. (Kane, 73) To this, Kane says that Strawson argues that, "…neither compatibilists nor libertarians give us an adequate account of how we could change our characters that accounts for true responsibility. If the way we change ourselves later in life is determined by how we already are, as compatibilists allow, then that kind of change would not amount to true responsibility. But if the way we change ourselves later in life is undetermined, as libertarians require, then it would amount to mere luck or chance and that would not be true responsibility either."(Kane, 73) Of course, it is important to note, as Sam Harris does in his book Free Will, "There is a distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions, of course, but it does nothing to support the common idea of free will (nor does it depend upon it). A voluntary action is accompanied by the felt intention to carry it out, whereas an involuntary action isn't." (Harris, 12) Meaning that just because we do not act with free will, does not mean we do not act voluntarily, it is merely the motivation behind our voluntary actions over which we have no control. Essentially, hard determinist's argue that the only two things that influence what a person does are biology and circumstance, and if an individual doesn't have control over either of these things from their first moments on earth, how can they be held responsible for their actions? Indeed, when considering these arguments, hard determinism begins to feel inescapable.
This brings up the question: How would internalizing a hard determinist viewpoint shape the way individuals view themselves? Hard determinism may at first appear to be a callous view, as one may assume that the absence of free will means that humans are veritable slaves to determinism, nothing but metaphorical puppets tied to the merciless hands of luck. But, just because ultimate moral responsibility is not an option, that does not mean individual responsibility is also invalid. In fact, Bruce Waller argues in his paramount work, Against Moral Responsibility, the absence of moral responsibility, "…would leave ample room for take charge responsibility and increase the likelihood of exercising it well, and when we look closely (and distinguish take charge from moral responsibility), take charge responsibility is the responsibility most of us really want. It enables us to exercise effective control, make our own decisions and choices, reflect carefully on what we deeply value, and manage our own lives." (Waller, 278) Waller maintains the optimistic viewpoint that, essentially, the idea that we are not causes unto ourselves, should be an idea that motivates and empowers individuals to consider what it is they desire and why, and begin to make choices that leads them in this direction. The elimination of free will and moral responsibility as valid concepts leaves room for people to inspect why they are the way they are, and use that as the motivating force to change their path. Indeed, the very knowledge that none of us are responsible for who we are could be a positive factor that shapes us unavoidably, "…it would promote stronger self control and nurture genuine self-respect." (Waller, 278)
We see now that it is in fact very possible that the loss of moral responsibility could actually positively affect an individual, but what of an individual's view of others? Here is where hard determinism most obviously improves the world. As Harris points out, "Once we recognize that even the most terrifying predators are, in a very real sense, unlucky to be who they are, the logic of hating (as opposed to fearing) them begins to unravel." (Harris, 53) An interesting way to think of this problem is with the following thought experiment: if you were to take the place of a murderer, moments before he commits the heinous act, and arrive in his body with his exact brain and past experiences, could you possibly say you would put down the knife and decide not to murder? Of course not. The things that led him to that place, his biology and experiences, are what have made him into who he is. He is not evil because he has decided to be evil, he does not have the impulse to kill because some deep part of him chose it, and there is no scrap of you that would be transferred to his body that is deeper or more in control of decision making than the murderers nervous system. So how can we hate him? Instead, it makes sense that instead of condemning the murderer as evil, we should seek to understand the factors that led him to murder, in order to create a society in which fewer people are led to act as such. As Waller puts it, "…the most salient feature of a world without moral responsibility is its openness to inquiry: its openness to recognizing and reporting and dealing with problems and flaws and mistakes." (Waller, 285)
This does lead to an obvious question: what is to be done with the murderer? As Harris states, "Certain criminals must be incarcerated to prevent them from harming other people. The moral justification for this is entirely straightforward: Everyone else will be better off this way. Dispensing with the illusion of free will allows us to focus on the things that matter—assessing risk, protecting innocent people, deterring crime, etc.." (Harris, 53) This idea, that incarceration would still be justified without free will, the same way quarantining sick people is justified, is known as the quarantine model. Kane cites philosopher Derek Pereboom, who argues that an upside of this idea, "…is that punishments would not be more severe than is needed to protect society and deter future crime, just as quarantine of the sick should not be more restrictive than is needed to protect society from diseases." (Kane, 75)
Additionally, without moral responsibility, the criminal justice system can be made to reform instead of punish. Waller cites Michael Cavadino and James Dignan, who point out that the American criminal justice system blames the individual instead of at least partially blaming the various factors that contributed to an individuals criminality, "…Crime is likewise seen as entirely the responsibility of the offending individual. The social soil is fertile ground for a harsh "law and order ideology." (Cavadino and Dignan in Waller, 285) But Waller points out that retributive law and order is not effective, in fact, in America's retributive system, a person going to jail once, raises their likelihood of doing so again. Waller goes on that, in some countries justice systems, "…when genuine efforts were made to develop effective rehabilitation programs, some achieved considerable success; it also became clear that those negative influences that shaped violent antisocial character." (Waller, 294) This positive effect does not just extend to criminal law, without moral responsibility fostering individual blaming; systems (such as medical teams, air traffic control, factories etc.) can be improved to work better and with less mistakes, as individuals will be more likely to admit their mistakes, and people will be more likely to analyze how systems can be redesigned to ensure less mistakes. Summarily, "The second positive feature of a world without moral responsibility is that it shifts the focus to systems and away from individuals." (Waller, 285)
This argument, that a world free of free will and moral responsibility would be a better world, can perhaps be deepened when one acknowledges that perhaps it is not an argument merely confined to hard determinist thinking. To illustrate this, lets investigate Daniel Dennet's response to Sam Harris' Free Will. It is important to note that Daniel Dennet is a compatibilist.
Waller's argument, that a world free of moral responsibility and the idea of free will is a better world, feel pretty sound and, at surface, Harris appears to agree with Waller. However, upon further inspection, one can find quite a few flaws within Harris' argument. Daniel Dennet helpfully illuminates these in his paper, "Reflections on Free Will." Dennet's major criticism of Harris focuses on the idea that Harris assumed an incompatibilist view (libertarian even). Harris argues that because free will requires that we somehow step outside the causally determined universe and such stepping is impossible, no one can have free will. Dennet asks us to look carefully at this kind of argument and realize that just because the world is causally determined, doesn't mean our choices, "come out of the darkness" (Harris, 34). Instead, Dennet argues, "Freedom involves the ability to have one's choices influenced by changes in the world that matter under the circumstances. Not a perfect ability, but a reliable ability." (Dennet, 14) Additionally, Dennet criticizes Harris' tendency in his work to define the kind of free will worth having as that which "common folk" feel they possess, "…he thinks 'free will' has to be given the incoherent sense that emerges from uncritical reflection by everyday folk. He sees quite well that compatibilism is "the only philosophically respectable way to endorse free will" (p16) but adds: However, the "'free will' that compatibilists defend is not the free will that most people feel they have. (p16)" (Dennet, 4) Dennet argues that just because the compatibilists version of free will is not the kind most people feel they have, does not mean it is invalid. Harris' biggest mistake is assuming that because we cannot be authors of ourselves, we cannot have any degree of free will at all. Interestingly, both Waller and Dennet disagree with him, despite supposedly maintaining radically different views.
Dennet argues that compatibilists, "…think we can articulate and defend a more sophisticated model of free will that is not only consistent with neuroscience and introspection but also grounds a (modified, toned-down, non-Absolute) variety of responsibility that justifies both praise and blame, reward and punishment. We don't think this variety of free will is an illusion at all, but rather a robust feature of our psychology and a reliable part of the foundations of morality, law and society." (Dennet, 1) The kind of free will Dennet allows for, is not Harris' kind (ultimate authorship) but rather what Waller might call, "take charge responsibility" (Waller, 278). Waller describes this kind of free will as, "It enables us to exercise effective control, make our own decisions and choices, reflect carefully on what we deeply value, and manage our own lives." (Waller, 278) It appears that the only thing that truly differs between the two men's view points is what they mean when they say "free will." They both assert that the power to respond differentially to stimuli in the environment exists. However, Waller does not see this as free will, and instead means ultimate authorship over ones character when referring to free will. Meanwhile, Dennet thinks ultimate authorship is an incoherent idea, and believes free will is this smaller thing mentioned above, and therefore compatible with determinism. What is important though, is that neither man believes that we have the kind of free will that requires ultimate responsibility for ones actions. This means that a hypothetical world improved by dispelling of free will and moral responsibility is a world possible as a compatibilist and hard determinist.
When inspected carefully, it becomes clear that ultimate free will is not seen as possible by either the compatibilists or the incompatibilists, and it is only the libertarians who believe such a free will exists. In conclusion, moral responsibility is an incoherent idea because individuals are merely the product of a causal world, and therefore their actions are a product of this world as well. Embracing this idea would create a more compassionate and effective world because it would be a world open to inquiry into people's behavior, additionally such a world helpfully shifts focus to systems and away from individuals. Indeed, Waller says, "In the absence of moral responsibility, it is possible to look more deeply at the influences of social systems and situation and to move away from both the fundamental attribution error and the individualistic blindness that hides the forces that shaped our qualities of character." (Waller, 286)
The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility Author(s): Galen Strawson Reviewed work(s): Source: Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, Vol. 75, No. 1/2, Free Will, Determinism, and Moral Responsibility (Aug., 1994), pp. 5-24
Kane, Robert. Free Will. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2009. Print.
Harris, Sam. Free Will. London: Simon & Schuster, 2012. Print.
Dennet, Daniel. "Reflections on Free Will." (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 1 May 2017.
Waller, Bruce N. Against Moral Responsibility. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2011. Print.