#readharder2019: A book of non-violent true crime

#readharder2019: A book of non-violent true crime

Image description: A screenshot of the Book Riot #ReadHarder Journal, with one category checked. The category is ‘A book of non-violent true crime’ and the title listed is ‘When They Call You A Terrorist.’

This is an expanded and updated version of a post that was available on my Patreon last week.

I’m participating in the Book Riot Read Harder 2019 challenge this year, which means I’m going to attempt to read books in 24 specific categories.

  • The categories are:
  • An epistolary novel or collection of letters
  • An alternate history novel
  • A book by a woman and/or AOC (Author of Color) that won a literary award in 2018
  • A humor book
  • A book by a journalist or about journalism
  • A book by an AOC set in or about space
  • An #ownvoices book set in Mexico or Central America
  • An #ownvoices book set in Oceania
  • A book published prior to January 1, 2019, with fewer than 100 reviews on Goodreads
  • A translated book written by and/or translated by a woman
  • A book of manga
  • A book in which an animal or inanimate object is a point-of-view character
  • A book by or about someone that identifies as neurodiverse
  • A cozy mystery
  • A book of mythology or folklore
  • An historical romance by an AOC
  • A business book
  • A novel by a trans or nonbinary author
  • A book of nonviolent true crime
  • A book written in prison
  • A comic by an LGBTQIA creator
  • A children’s or middle grade book (not YA) that has won a diversity award since 2009
  • A self-published book
  • A collection of poetry published since 2014

My motivation for joining the challenge is that I love books, especially science fiction and fantasy books, but for many years now I have been primarily engaging with academic texts and non-fiction. I’ve become quite disconnected from a habit of reading regularly, and reading for pleasure (as opposed to reading for a specific productivity and work-related purpose – to put together a workshop, complete a paper, or plan a project).

I miss the relationship that I used to have with books, and I’m hoping that this will invite me back into a practice that I used to cherish and that has been lost to brain fog, academics, over-scheduling, fibro pain (have you ever considered the weight of a paperback? Me neither, until fibro!), and the scattered attention that so many of us seem to experience when we’re operating under pressure.

One of the categories for the challenge is “non-violent true crime.”

For some reason, I decided to start with this category, and looked up recommended titles in the category. I’m not really a “true crime” sorta person. I much prefer… honestly, almost any other genre, with the possible exception of heterosexual romance novels. Most of the recommendations for non-violent true crime suggested “white collar” crimes. Financial crime.

I downloaded the audiobook for Billion Dollar Whale, which is the story of Jho Low.

According to The New Yorker:

If you like global intrigue, financial crime, wealth porn, and absurdity, “Billion Dollar Whale,” by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope, is for you. It’s the story of Jho Low, an enterprising businessman from Malaysia who used his social connections to the country’s former Prime Minister Najib Razak to transform himself into an international financier. According to Wright and Hope’s account, Low persuaded Razak to create an investment fund, 1MDB, financed with government money, which Low managed behind the scenes. Goldman Sachs and other banks helped raise ten billion dollars for the fund. Then approximately five billion dollars of the money disappeared, prompting an international scandal.

I don’t particularly like any of those things, but anyway, that’s the book I picked. I thought this would be a throw-away category for me, since it’s not a category I was very interested or invested in. I planned to pick something with lots of recommendations, hope it’s decent, get it out of the way.

I made it five chapters in and couldn’t finish. I was frustrated by the way the authors described Low as “the Asian” and “the Malaysian” constantly, a casual linguistic othering that served as a constant reminder that the anticipated audience was neither Asian nor Malaysian. I was frustrated by the way they described women, particularly groups of women hired as entertainment, as “the girls,” casual misogyny to match the casual racism. And I was really frustrated at the use of racist phrases like describing a banker as “going off the reservation” when he operated outside of standard practice. These phrases are not neutral – they are part of, and contribute to, ongoing anti-Indigenous violence and they reference the genocidal practices of colonial governments creating reserves in ways that normalize rather than stand against this violence. This is not even remotely okay.

I gave up on the book, and started looking for an alternative.

I already knew that the blog posts were going to suggest more financial/white collar crime, and I knew I wasn’t interested. As I worked through my response to Billion Dollar Whale, I started thinking about the category itself, and after this reflection (which really should have happened before I picked a book), I think it’s worth challenging the idea of financial crime as “non-violent.” This is particularly true when it is theft by the wealthy, theft that doesn’t require breaking a door or making a threat. The only reason that this kind of “white collar” crime is labelled non-violent is because we, as a capitalist culture, have become adept at ignoring structural and systemic violence. (This echoes the insight that Emma McMurphy offered in her post for the Feminism from the Margins series, about how the structural and systemic violence of patriarchy is rarely recognized as violence.)

But despite our unwillingness to see it, capitalism is violent, the wealth gap is violent, and the ferrying back and forth of money between members of the ultra wealthy does have violent impacts on the poor and the marginalized. Nothing about capitalism is non-violent. Were the actions of the banks that led to the sub-prime mortgage crisis non-violent? The effects were certainly violent, but not a violence that we readily recognize.

I realized that within this “throw-away” category, there was a critical question that I needed to engage – what counts as violence? What counts as non-violence? And, most pressing, most political, most obvious – what counts as crime, and how does this intersect with justice?

So, what kinds of crimes are non-violent?

After thinking about it for a long time, I came to the conclusion that crimes of identity are truly non-violent. Existing while inhabiting a criminalized identity (at various times and in various places this might be as a trans person, a Black person, a biracial person, an Indigenous person, a queer person) or participating in a criminalized culture (Black cultures and Indigenous cultures, particularly, have been criminalized at various times and in various ways and still are, to varying degrees), are non-violent crimes.

They are only crimes because of violent laws.

So, I narrowed my potential reading list down to books about refusing to cooperate with violent laws. And, since the category was specifically “non-violent” true crime, I was looking for books about refusing to cooperate but not books about violent resistance. (Even though I do think that violent resistance is often not only valid but necessary – how do we define self-defense when the violence being faced is structural or systemic? More hard questions.)

I started looking for books about existing in criminalized identities, and resisting and surviving under violent conditions. I was (and am – please send recommendations!) interested in things like:

– Stories of being queer in places and at times when queerness was criminalized.

– Stories of being trans in places and at times when transness was criminalized.

– Stories of Indigenous and Black cultural preservation when this was criminalized.

– Stories of interracial, non-heterosexual, or otherwise consenting-but-criminalized relationships in places and at times when these were criminalized.

– Stories of women learning to read and write in places and at times when this was criminalized.

– Stories of civil disobedience in response to unjust laws.

And I was/am particularly interested in these stories within colonial contexts – one thing that really irked me in Billion Dollar Whale was that reading it felt like being complicit with xenophobic violence. Why was I reading about a Malaysian man who stole billions from governments, banks, and Hollywood? Why was this the story that I ended up with, when there are so many other stories that do not participate in the “nefarious foreigner” narrative? There’s no virtue in pretending that only white folks behave in horrible ways, but if I’m only going to read one true crime book, why is it this one? I didn’t want to end up there again, so in this category, I was looking for books that didn’t offload the horror of state-sanctioned homophobic, or transphobic, or misogynistic violence onto Black and Brown cultures and bodies.

Basically, I decided that the only true crime I want to read is the “Be Gay, Do Crimes” kind.

What I ended up with is a book that’s been on my shelf for almost a year now – When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele (link is to the title at Shelf Life Books). Khan-Cullors is one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, and her description of the criminalization of Black bodies and the constant intrusion of violent policing into Black lives is both riveting and heartbreaking.

None of what she’s sharing in this book is new information – communities of colour, including Black, Brown and Indigenous communities, as well as trans communities, disabled communities, and so many other marginalized communities who face state violence, have been speaking about this violence for generations. She evokes the long history of criminalization, from the “war on drugs and gangs” (which was always, and was intentionally, a war on communities of colour), to the labeling of young Black men as “superpredators” and the fracturing of Black families that results from mass incarceration and welfare laws that penalize mothers for having a man present in the household even if together their income is still far below the poverty line. One of the incredible strengths of the book is how Khan-Cullors tells the deeply personal story of her own life, and the lives of her family members (both biological and chosen), and also ties this story into the broader story of the system within which they live and love and organize.

And the discussion of organizing is nuanced and multi-storied. She demonstrates how her communities are tied to long legacies of anti-oppressive action, and about the impact of under-funding and lack of structural support that is countered by an incredible wealth of community support and care. This book provides a glimpse into what collective action and a commitment to community care might mean, not only on a social level but also within intimate relationships. One of the most moving recurring themes in the book is the role of the extended community in supporting and caring for individuals within relationship, including restorative justice practices that allow relationships to transform and heal after a breakup, or following injustice within the relationship.

She also talks about the lasting impact of the Black Panthers and their community-focused actions, such as starting school breakfast programs. The Black Panthers were speaking out about racist police violence decades ago, and the work of Black Lives Matter builds on this legacy. It has been generations of work, collective action directed at addressing state violence, and the ongoing effects of slavery and racism in the lives of Black Americans (and, as she points out, Black Canadians also). Despite the fact that this isn’t new, it is necessary to pay attention to it. It’s easy for white folks (like me) to let it slip from sight, because our white supremacist and racist culture makes it so easy to look away. Khan-Cullors tells the story in a way that highlights the persistence of this state violence and the many ways in which Black bodies are policed and dehumanized, but that doesn’t contribute to thin stories of Black lives – the book tells the story of a long history of violence, but it also tells the story of a long history of resistance. The book is full of descriptions of her communities existing peacefully within their own contexts, building collaborative and restorative collectives and families, and having violence thrust into their lives. The violence is present throughout the book, but so are the stories of love, joy, companionship, and resourcefulness within her communities.

It is a book that is both joyful and angry.

I’m really glad I switched books, and I’m glad I made the original mistake because it forced me to seriously consider the boundaries and contours of what constitutes “non-violent true crime.”