My friend Shane Greene, whom I’ve known since we were locked up in Multnomah County Jail last year for months together, came to visit me the other day; he’s been out of state prison for three months now, and he had previously brought me Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow to read.
This is part of the project of which Shane is a leading participant: Liberation Literacy, which honored him in December of last year as being its first graduate. As its website states,
The program began as a Black History Study Group with inside students at Columbia River Correctional Institution (CRCI) in Portland, Oregon. . . . Our group is comprised of nearly twenty inside/outside students who read a common set of books and meet weekly.
Shane has continued his (and our) study of black history while pursuing employment, education, and career outside of the justice system, as have I. So we talked, at his visit this 12th of March, about Ms Alexander’s thesis. This post is, basically, an account of Shane and I sitting at the dinner table talking.
Ms Alexander’s book, which does such a great job of pulling together the arguments that the War on Drugs intentionally initiated a movement to lock up millions of black and brown people for non-violent crimes, rests not upon her own research but a whole library of sources which document each of the steps in her argument.
First we have the clearly irrational growth in the number of incarcerated convicts, beginning, as is evident, in the arrival of Ronald Reagan in the White House. That’s the War on Drugs, which began, Ms Alexander reminds us, a few years before the so-called Crack Epidemic, itself a hyped-up danger in no real way comparable to the image with which it was presented in our mass media. Then we have the myriad means which have been put in place to deny the usual protections to those arrested in the last 30 years: stopping people at random, stopping people who happen to be black, searching their property without cause, searching a car stopped for a missing taillight for drugs, all have become legal in those years, where they were illegal before.
As a lawyer, Ms Alexander has no trouble showing how unprecedented the rulings of the Supreme Court have been in denying legal redress to unreasonable search and seizure, or racial bias; for one example among many, when the prosecutor makes the decision to select black and brown people for the heaviest of penalties, the Supreme Court has ruled that the defense cannot request records to show prosecutorial bias unless it already has substantial evidence of bias. The defense has to have evidence, let us say, of the prosecutor saying “I sure hate them blacks” before the prosecutor’s office is required to provide a record of how many blacks have been given heavier penalties than whites in the same circumstances.
Sentences, Ms Alexander shows — this is not difficult — are totally beyond any previous degree of punitive vindictiveness. A first-time drug offender sentenced to life in prison, was one of her examples; from the post today on The Intercept, we see “Shannon Hurd Got a Life Sentence for Stealing $14, Then He Died in Prison from Untreated Cancer.” You don’t have to hunt for further examples of insanely brutal treatment of convicts (s0 I won’t).
And, even when the victims of this War on Black Folk get out of prison, we hound and repress them at every turn. They lose their eligibility for student loans, and for the rest of their lives; they lose the chance to live in government-subsidised housing; they lose in some cases access to food stamps. Many of these extremely hostile measures were put in place in Bill Clinton’s administration, to the hosannas of liberal commentators, praising the wisdom of the Democrats seizing the “law and order” issue from the Reagan Republicans. One of the most persuasive points in Ms Alexander’s presentation is, that all these punishing, cruel, vicious actions have been done without any objections from the public intellectuals, indeed, rather the opposite. She compares this to the way in which, after the Civil War and Reconstruction, a whole host of restrictions, amounting to involuntary servitude, was imposed on black folk in the American South — the first Jim Crow system.
Mass incarceration, a brutal mechanism for repressing minority members within the United States, is a whole system of unfair discrimination put in place within the decade or so following the Civil Rights Era in the United States: it is the New Jim Crow. Just like the first Jim Crow system, it took some experimentation and tentative steps before settling into place, but it reflects a consensus within the electorate on how to deal with the “problem” of people who are nonwhite. Find a way to charge them with breaking the law, lock them up, and throw away the key.
Crime is a problem. But look at the chart shown above From 1925 to 1975 there was crime, perhaps increasingly serious; yet, there is no exponential growth in the number of prisoners. Since 1990 the rate of crime has dropped, substantially; yet, the number of prisoners in still the highest per capita in the world.
And even where there have been massive numbers of disparate treatment of minor offenders, instead of our country releasing them, we are subjecting them to lifelong discrimination and repression.
Shane Greene had the experience this last February of being told, by his parole officer, that all of his file has disappeared. Not the police records, mind you; his parole file: the answers he made to the charges, the hoops he’s jumped through to show his good faith, the record he’s built of co-operation. Suddenly disappeared.
When I taught school in Oakland, California, I once sent, around 1975, a response to the administration of the school system, regarding their charges of non-cooperation against me (I don’t remember the detail; it was 40 years ago), and when I asked what their answer was, I was informed that there was no record of my statement. I responded that I had proof of having sent it, and the answer was, that it was not the case that they were saying that it was not received, only that there was no record of it existing.
That’s what Shane Greene is having to cope with, and he doesn’t have the option, as I had, of moving to Oregon and getting a good-paying job in a different environment.
How can this country cope with this new, disguised mechanism of brutal repression of a large part of its population? It is much the weakest part of Michelle Alexander’s treatment of the question that she makes no real effort to answer this. But I can suggest a method we could follow.
Think about the various means of protest against Trump that we have seen, here in Portland. There have been marches, attacks on property, demonstrations with thousands of attendees. Of all of these protests I have reservations about each except for one: the protests against the Trump attacks on immigrants. Those protests, and this is true of their nature before Trump was elected as well, do not rely on large numbers; they do not involve smashing things to get attention, nor on having protesters arrested; on the contrary, they abide by the law scrupulously.
Demonstrations in defense of immigrants speak to the humanity, to the individual cases of people who are trying to make their way in the world, and who are our valuable friends and neighbors. They personalize the cases, they rely upon your sympathy for those against whom an injustice is being conducted; they avoid the issue of technical legality.
Just such a protest, I submit, is appropriate for the millions of people locked up and locked out of the present society of the United States. We can publicize the many cases of totally insane sentences, and demand that they be pardoned; we can announce that we will not tolerate the enforcement of vindictive sentences, and have them condemned by city councils and university senates and other social bodies. We can ask that those few people who are released due to their long-overdue finding of innocence get much more publicity that up to now, that they become fawned-over heroes and heroines of our day. The point is, we can redirect the attitude toward the convicts who are victims of the War Against Drugs into a welcome to our neighbors who belong in our community, who deserve a new start, and who can count on our support to get one.
This is exactly the viewpoint, said Shane, of Elizabeth Hinton, the Harvard University professor and author of From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: the Making of Mass Incarceration in America.