Lessons from Colonialism

While my two teenaged sons, Michael Kepler and John Dominic, were attending the much-anticipated Free Speech pro-Trump rally in front of City Hall this last weekend, getting onto the front page of the British newspaper the Guardian, I went to a prisoner-support group which was holding its first-ever meeting in Portland.

First, let me add the click-bait by reproducing the picture the Brits went with:

— and point out that the wearer of the black t-shirt saying “Free Speech is more important than your feelings” is Michael Kepler Meo; and the head an inch or two of which is visible above and behind the helmet belongs to John Dominic Meo.

I think it fair to say that this is an unlikely venue to promote the change we want to see in the world. Rather, although it draws all the attention, it certainly seems more than likely to produce net negative results.

The group with whom I met, on the other hand, is quite shy of publicity: we realized, after some consideration, that the proposed activity in support of prisoners which we had at first considered would only terminate any effort to contact and support those members of our group who were still within the walls. So I am not going to provide pictures or names in this post, although, given the tools available to the Surveillance State, it is certain that the effort will do nothing to conceal whom i’m talking about from a government effort to find out.

What’s the problem we want to address? Well, as is already recognized, this country has gone off the deep end in incarcerating its citizens. One way of looking at it is to compare countries by crime rate versus incarceration rate. Here is a chart, with the incarceration in the vertical scale and number of victims of crime on the horizontal.

from the Washington Post of 7 July 2015

We are an outlier, orders of magnitude more likely to imprison our citizens.

Not only that, but we lock up brown and black people much more easily, and for longer periods of time, than those we see as white.

African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males and 2.5 times more likely than Hispanic males,

says the current [22 June 2017] issue of the New York Review of Books, quoting a report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

How shall we address it? The prison authorities, here in the local state prison (one thing I wonder whether we might do is, consider expanding our charge to include people in local jails) have been okay with activities to help prisoners learn to read books. Organizing to protect their rights, support for their own efforts to improve their conditions of living and working, and anything that draws attention to their condition at all, is quashed — indeed, is prohibited in writing by the authorities of anyone requesting visiting privileges.

So we talked for a couple of hours about how to address the problem(s) confronting us. We listened to a video of national leaders of prison reform; the consensus was, that particular tactics could be adopted and changed, as the opportunity comes and goes, but that we would be undercutting our efforts to obtain real change if we were satisfied with attempts at co-operative efforts within the present obviously oppressive system. In the most general terms, we recognize that capitalism oppresses, and that locking people into cages oppresses, and that the two are connected, and that we’re engaged in a much broader effort than simply bringing books into prisons. Although, as we have so far seen, that’s a start.

A most suggestive parallel came this morning from an unlikely source, my old collection of the scholarly Journal of Modern History.  Its September 2012 issue has an article by an Oxford academic on the silence of the British press during the 1930s while British colonial response to Gandhi’s campaign of nonviolent resistance produced hundreds of victims of police brutality — including house burnings, arbitrary detentions, and killings.  The answer the author arrives at has a lot more to do with general world view than specific efforts by the colonial establishment.

“The metropolitan press certainly did not silence Indian voices in 1930s Britain,” writes Nicholas Owen of the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University.

On the contrary, publishers and editors were probably keener than ever before to bring them forward as newsworthy native informants, providing insight into, though more rarely analysis of, Indian affairs. . . .  The case study presented here . . . questions the assumption that knowledge of the violence practiced by colonialism led naturally or easily to an anti-imperialist politics.  My account of the Raj suggests that an ethical case could be made for imperialism that was actually strengthened by exposure of its violence.

What had to happen for the British to relinquish control of India was for the citizenry in general to turn away from an imperial world view.  That came with the Second World War.  What has to happen for real change in the prison system in the U.S. is for us to change the attitudes of the whole country about incarceration.

Confirmation that the problem will not be addressed by bureaucratic tinkering (as the unrest in India was not) comes from the aforementioned New York Review article.  Changes in drug laws are not to blame, the author states.  Citing statistics collated by a professor at Fordham Law School, the National Legal Director of the ACLU indicates that

the vast majority of those in prison for drug-related offenses — by one measure almost 95 percent of this group in state prisons and 98 percent of this group in federal prisons — have also been convicted on more serious charges, including violent crimes.

If we released every prisoner who has been sentenced solely for a drug crime, we would still be the world leader in incarceration.

Consequently there must be some other driving reason for the increase in incarceration, he argues, and finds it in the decisions of thousands of country prosecutors to bring serious charges against those arrested.

Lots of indicators show that this author is not to be entrusted with setting our agenda, the agenda of those who are horrified at the incarceration of so many of our fellow citizens; just note, for example, the phrase above quoted, “have also been convicted on more serious charges. . .”  Drug offense are felonies, or at least the ones we’re talking about are, and as the article author himself admits

In the District of Columbia, for example, a first-time conviction for selling a small amount of cocaine can lead to a 30-year sentence; a second conviction can result in up to 60 years behind bars.

In those circumstances, the qualifier “more serious charges” seems meaningless — there are capital crimes, I suppose, but no one is trying to reduce the convictions of murderers. In fact, drug charges are very serious indeed, and that is part of the problem; but here is an argument asking us to set aside that fact while arguing that the drug offenses are not the crucial issue.  Similarly, all through the article, this David Cole is restricting our view to trimming around the edges.

A potentially more promising suggestion is either to insulate prosecutors from political control. . . or to change the politics of district attorney elections by supporting reform candidates in those contests.

Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow, used to work as an attorney for the ACLU, and it is part of her experience that that kind of advocacy does very little, if anything, actually to address the core issues of mass incarceration.  We want to have clearly in mind that mass incarceration, which was adopted within our lifetimes, can be overturned, but not by arguing that the bureaucracy, which profits in manifold manner from it, ought to change.  Like colonialism, it needs to be opposed altogether.

Posted in Bradley Manning, Brian Willson, Dan Handelman, Economics, Education, Elections, Empire, Fascism, Free Speech, Inequality, John Schweibert, Lloyd Marbet, Police, Ronald Reagan, Spiritual life, U.S. Constitution, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Yet Another Unnecessary Death

So far we have only the police story, which goes as follows.

May 10, 2017 23:10
The Portland Police Bureau and East County Major Crimes Team are in the early stages of an officer-involved shooting investigation that occurred early Wednesday evening. No officers were injured in the encounter that left one person deceased.

On Wednesday May 10, 2017, at 7:03 p.m., a caller to 9-1-1 reported that a male in his 20s was threatening people on the TriMet Flavel Street Transit Station. Transit Police Division officers responded to the scene and shortly after arriving were involved in a foot pursuit with the suspect. During the foot pursuit, which led onto a bridge over Johnson Creek on the north side of Flavel Street, there was an encounter with the suspect and one officer discharged his firearm, striking the suspect who fell to the ground.

A cropped photograph of Terrell Johnson, whom the Portland police shot and killed, alleging he was armed with a knife. I do not know why my effort to cut-and-paste produced a cropped image. Sorry.

The Oregonian story repeats this (lack of) information, almost word for word.

Update 11 May 2017, 7:30 pm

From Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch, we have the following, citing an update of a Portland Mercury story:

the Portland Mercury’s article which reports both on another shooting that happened this morning– of a pit bull, who lived– and the names of the officer (Samson Ajir #50621) and civilian (Terrell Kyreem Johnson) who were involved in last night’s shooting. Johnson was 24 years old and houseless, and was perhaps living with mental illness. Johnson allegedly “displayed” a utility knife, which does not sound threatening, and even if so, perhaps this is the kind of situation a Taser was created for? The number of people with mental illness and/or in crisis who’ve been shot by the PPB is too great to count, but here’s a short list of persons who were houseless shot and killed by the police and their alleged weapons since 2010:
–Jack Dale Collins, 58 3/22/10, art knife (Xacto blade)
–Thomas Higginbotham, 67, 1/2/11, knife
–Merle Hatch, 50, 2/17/13, broken receiver from a telephone
–Nicholas Davis, 23, 6/12/14, crowbar
–Christopher Healy, 36, 3/22/15, knife
–Terrell Kyreem Johnson, 24, 5/10/17, utility knife

The statement, as Mr Handleman points out, speaks of the display of a utility knife, which, Mr Handelman then personally regards as not sounding threatening.

That’s part of my irritation with Portland Copwatch and Mr Handelman — I really find the death of a homeless man armed with a utility knife to be totally unjustifiable rather than something the police should have used a taser for. I expect the police to surround, restrain, and disarm a mentally challenged suspect who is armed with a utility knife, and not kill him. The death of a suspect in such circumstances ought to result in the termination of the employment of the officer involved.

Posted in Dan Handelman, Fascism, Inequality, John Schweibert, Local government, Police, U.S. Constitution | Leave a comment

The Bombing of Syria, on general principles

A purported picture of the air base near Damascus bombed by the United States on 6 April 2016

I don’t have a lot to say about the most recent American war crime. It does go to show, however, how little it mattered in the 2016 election (you recall, I hope, how in that election, as in every single election in my lifetime, the partisans for the Republicans and Democrats talked of the “most important election in a generation”) whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton won.

In a certain sense, they both did: Trump won the electoral college, and Hillary won the popular vote.

It did not matter. With Hillary as President, there would have been a bombing of Syria yesterday. With Trump as President, we got the same result. The War Party is still in control of the United States and its actions.

Posted in Afghanistan, Bradley Manning, Brian Willson, Dan Handelman, Elections, Empire, Fascism, Iran, Israel, John Schweibert, Ronald Reagan, Saudi Arabia, Spiritual life, U.S. Constitution, Vali Balint, War | Leave a comment

Deaths from Despair

Frequently in this space, a graph is more eloquent than anything I might have to say. Here is the graph from the most recent Deaton-Case study on the death rates, by age cohort, of white with only a high-school education in the United States:

As the birth dates get closer to the present, you can see how steeply the rate of deaths from drugs, alcohol, and suicide increase.

Posted in Economics, Education, Elections, Empire, Fascism, Healthcare, Inequality, Permaculture, Spiritual life | Leave a comment

War on the Poor

There has been, since the 1980s in the United States, an economic war conducted by the wealthy against the lower half of the economic hierarchy.

Thomas Picketty and Emmanuel Saez provide the statistics.

The real success of this war, however, has been the success, by the spokespeople for the wealthy, of the campaign to get everyone to believe that lower taxes will help everyone. In that increasing share going to the very rich we see the ultimate beneficiaries of the constant refrain that taxes are evil.

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Same Old, Same Old

Green Party activists, especially those motivated by anti-war sentiment, have no difficulty demonstrating the alignment between the Republican and Democratic parties, upholders both of the American Empire, through brutal military means.

David Swanson imagines Trump’s budget originating in the thought,

If I cut everything that everybody values out of the budget but move the money to the military, my spineless war-adoring opponents will tie one hand behind their backs before they even try to put up a fight.

The “spineless war-adoring opponents” include the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club, and church leaders:

Here’s Richard Trumka, top labor leader in the United States, opposing Trump’s budget at length, without ever mentioning the existence of the U.S. military. Here’s the Sierra Club, top environmental group, doing the same. Here are 100 Christian “faith leaders” doing the same thing.

The Congressional leaders of the Democratic Party are as silent on the question of military build-up as are the leaders of liberal opinion.

Most of the Democrats in Congress, and even more so the media coverage of them, are following the same line as the liberal organizations. Schumer gives no indication that the military exists at all. Pelosi gives a brief nod to her desire that it remain somewhere around its current gargantuan size, pushing the idea that it’s good for us but that we wouldn’t want to have too much of that good. Sanders has a reasonable statement on his website, but news reports depict him as droning on about tax cuts for billionaires and cuts in services, as if that were what was happening here. Someone should ask Sanders to compare the wealth of U.S. billionaires to the size of U.S. military spending in a single year, and then in 10 years.

There is of course a plain enough reason for this striking anomaly. The liberal Establishment, including most prominently the leaders of the Democratic Party but extending to non-governmental lobbying groups, are not upset with a state of constant warfare, such as we have had continuously since the end of the Second World War. We do not question the American Empire.

Empires have always had to be aggressively expanding, in order to maintain their viability; once they stop expanding, they are subjected to attack. The classic example is Hadrian’s Wall, protecting Roman Britain from the unconquered Picts.

Hadrian’s Wall marked a turning point in Roman Britain. It marked the point at which the Romans first marked a limit to their conquest of Britain. Although the Romans would advance again into Scotland and build the Antonine Wall, the advances were short lived and within a few decades the border was again back on Hadrian’s Wall; where it would stay until the very end of the Roman occupation of Britain.

Where once the historical quiver had to rely on the arrow of the Roman world, the rise of more cosmopolitan interests in the last half century provides a broader perspective. The current issue of Journal of World History includes a long review of Jeroen Duindam’s 2016 survey Dynasties: A Global History of Power:

Duindam . . . surveys the features of the dominant form of political regime that governed the world’s parts and shaped their interactions: heritable monarchies prevailing over large and expanding territories with a common commitment to the promotion of the bonum publicum. It is a majestic work of amalgamation and cross-regional research, weaving an astonishing amount of detail into a narrative of global commonality. Dynasties, for all their vernacular expressions, had some shared features . . . By the end of the story, two themes emerge. One is that dynasties sustained themselves by expanding: pushing outward from Peking, Madrid, Delhi, Tenochtitlan, or Kiev was an important means to externalize tensions; conquering, grabbing, and plundering on the fringes helped to dissolve internecine conflict back home. The aura of indomitable power covered epic intrigue and habits of war-making.

Until and unless we connect the brutal oppression the United States imposes on its subordinate states abroad with the similar oppression practiced upon the lower ranks of our population at home, we will never confront our problems at their roots. No major political figure today does that which Martin Luther King did, back in 1967, or that President Eisenhower did, in 1961.

Posted in Afghanistan, Bradley Manning, Brian Willson, Dan Handelman, Economics, Elections, Empire, Fascism, Gar Alperovitz, Global, Inequality, Iran, Israel, John Schweibert, Marxism, Pacific Green Party, Permaculture, Police, Ronald Reagan, Spiritual life, U.S. Constitution, US Senate, War | Leave a comment

Mass Incarceration Here and Now

February 21, 2014; 18-year old Senior High School student Tyreek Stotts is seen padded down by a Correction Officer at the entering the closed off areas of the Philadelphia Prison System (PPS) in the NorthEast section of Philadelphia. (photo by Bas Slabbers)


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.

Posted in Bradley Manning, Cameron Whitten, Dan Handelman, Elections, Fascism, Free Speech, Friendship, Inequality, John Schweibert, Local government, Oakland, Police, Ronald Reagan, Spiritual life, U.S. Constitution, Uncategorized | Leave a comment