Sunday, July 24, 2016
For the last few months, my posts on this blog have focused primarily on the criminal injustice system in the United States and how it functions related to the Black community. This is not new. In fact, many of the more than 600 posts I have published here over the past decade have specifically dealt with the topic of prison. And that's not surprising, considering that I committed myself to the prison abolition movement in this country in 1971.
In his now famous address to the prisoners at the Cook County Jail in 1902, Clarence Darrow, one of the best known and most successful lawyers in U.S. history, stated flatly: "There should be no jails," and went on to explain precisely why he thought this. But here we are, 115 years later, with more people locked up than any society in the world at any point in history. And to make it worse -- far worse -- the entire system is now privatized from the bottom to the top, turning it into a giant money-making machine, now touted as the best investment on Wall Street.
There is, however, more than one way to imprison and control individuals and this post concerns one of those ways. The documentary above tells the story of Pete O'Neal, who was one of the founders of the Kansas City Chapter of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s. In 1969, O'Neal was arrested for bringing a shotgun from Kansas City, Kansas, to Kansas City, Missouri. He wasn't actually found with the weapon, but a photograph of him with the gun was enough to get him convicted.
The 29-year-old organizer appealed the decision, but when Fred Hampton, another highly effective BPP organizer was drugged and then assassinated in his bed by the Chicago police, O'Neal left the country in fear for his life. He has now been in Tanzania, where he has become a beloved icon of service to the community, since 1972. But there are those who hope President Obama will pardon O'Neal, allowing him to return to the land of his birth. And I am unapologetically one of them.
Last October, Pete and his wife Charlotte were interviewed at their home in Tanzania about how the making of the documentary in 2004 has affected their lives in exile.
Friday, July 15, 2016
I was recently criticized for “rushing to judgment” against cops in general by calling Alton Sterling’s death “untimely and wrongful” and then accused of doing this to benefit myself. The person who brought the criticism missed the whole point of a letter to the editor I had written, which was not anti-cop at all, but only meant to invite White people to join me in trying to address a system based on an ideology that is clearly threatening our common good as a nation.
I’ve worked with, talked with, interviewed, and counted as friends too many police officers to lump them all into one basket. They’re humans just like the rest of us. They bleed when they’re shot. They get scared when they go on a call. Some bring more skills to the table than others. Some make mistakes. And some break the law.
My critic said I should have mentioned that they also die in the line of duty. And certainly what happened in Dallas last week demonstrated that in horrifying fashion. In truth, 26 officers have been killed so far this year. But research tells us that even though 8 out of 10 of those cops were killed by White men, police officers are far, far more likely to kill Black people – men, women, and children, often unarmed and unarrested – than they are White ones. In fact, police officers in America have killed upwards of 150 Black people in 2016 alone (roughly one every 31 hours), which is 24% of those killed, though African-Americans make up only 13% of our country’s population.
Police officers are professionals. It’s not difficult to find film clips or photographs showing them doing a remarkable job of not killing people who are threatening or even shooting at them – as long as they are White. And anyway, according to The Badge of Life, a highly respected police organization, more than twice as many police officers died by suicide in 2015 than were killed by felons.
Regardless, my letter wasn’t about any of that. It was about White Supremacy.
Wednesday, July 06, 2016
I'm launching my book on race Saturday. The press release appeared in the daily newspaper last Sunday and the flyer is making the rounds. I put up a Facebook event page for it. Then, when I found out about Alton Sterling this morning, I fired off a letter to the editor. Sterling was killed 45 miles from the little town where I live, so I decided to make Saturday's launch an opportunity to invite White townspeople who want to become part of the solution to show up. I don't know if the editor will print it. It might be seen as somewhat confrontational (a-hem!), which was not my intention. I just thought maybe a few folks might be ready to answer a call to action. Though I have no control over who all might show up...
Regardless, I'm not posting about Alton Sterling's murder because the news is unfolding every two minutes and there are many ways to get it faster. Besides, I'm pissed and depressed and feeling helpless and hopeless. And everybody's being whipped to a lather already on social media anyway, but I do need to write something about what we can do to stop this.
Tuesday, July 05, 2016
If you've been a regular reader of this blog for a while, you know that I've been going into prisons and talking with prisoners and ex-prisoners since 1970. The first in-depth conversation I had on the topic was in San Francisco where I was writing for an underground newspaper and wound up spending an afternoon listening to a guy named Popeye Doyle talk about life inside. I never saw him again and I read years later on the internet that he was ultimately stabbed to death in some kind of disagreement. But I bought a ticket on the Prison Express during that first conversation and, while it has stopped at many stations, I've never really gotten off the train.
The result of all this intensity: the letters, the phone calls, the transcripts, the cases, the courtrooms, the frantic mothers, the desperate girlfriends, the hollow-eyed children, all the stories I've heard about all the nightmares they've lived through never quite leave me. And I have been affected. The pain prisoners have shared with me runs deeper than the stories they've told me. They bring it to me with their eyes or a certain quality in their voices. The pain burrows deep in my soul where I can't root it out. They can look in my eyes and they know it.
If you spend a lot of time around prisoners and ex-prisoners, as I have done, the subject of solitary confinement is liable to pop up casually, but with great portent. The first time I heard it mentioned, I said something offhand about never having noticed before a freckle or a mole or something on my arm. Instantly, the man I was talking to snorted, "Well, I can tell you've never been in the hole." And the stories that ensued were meant to prepare me to handle "hole time" should I eventually need to.
A couple of years later, as one member of a team going into a maximum security men's penitentiary by court order, the administration had to let me visit a man who had spent five years in a tiny cell alone in the basement of a building in the dark side of a hill. They took me down there and we had our visit in the semi-darkness with me standing directly in front of the cell and nothing but steel bars between us.
So I can't close out this series on criminal injustice without including a post on solitary confinement. I visited Black Panther Albert Woodfox -- who spent 43 years in the hole -- for seven of those years until he was released in February. I got a text message from him yesterday saying he's going to be in New Orleans soon, can we have lunch? I had to laugh. He's taken well to being free, but I'm still doing what I do with my focus now on the others still inside, in court, in solitary.
I tried to watch the video above to make sure it's a good one. I know Frontline has the money to do it up right, but they also tend to try to be "objective" (which usually means making authorities look nicer than they really are and systems like they're simply unavoidable). But I couldn't get past the first ten minutes. If I put those images in my head, I won't be able to get rid of them. And I have work to do. I need my sanity, such as it is, as long as I can hold onto it.
Note: For more on solitary confinement as torture, go to Democracy Now! for Amy Goodman's report on "A School for Suicide": How Kalief Browder Learned to Kill Himself During 3 Years At Rikers Island.
Monday, July 04, 2016
This essay was originally published on mic.com
"What to the slave is the 4th of July?"
That's the question Frederick Douglass asked during a speech in Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852. That speech, titled "The Meaning of July 4th to the Negro," is among Douglass' most famous public addresses in part because it focuses on the irony of a country celebrating its freedom while holding millions of people in bondage.
But there's another reason why Douglass' words still resonate 150 years later. It's that his fundamental question still remains. How are black people in America, still mired in institutional racism created by slavery and white supremacy, supposed to celebrate their country?
By no stretch of the imagination are black people still slaves in America. But the institutions created by slavery, namely white supremacy, still dictate black lives daily. Nowhere is this reality as stark today than in our criminal justice system.
Black people are imprisoned in exceptionally high numbers.
African-Americans make up one million of America's 2.3 million prisoners, according to the NAACP. They're incarcerated at a rate that's six times higher than that of whites. And those numbers have exploded since the 1970s, when America's War on Drugs exploded the country's overall prison population.
Black people are more likely to be arrested for nonviolent offenses.
As more and more people were sent to prison for drug-related crimes, black people fared worse than other groups. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, black people are 3.2% more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than their white peers, even though blacks and whites use the drug at similar rates.
Black people are more likely to be sentenced to death for crimes against white people.
Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, 80% of people who have been executed have been put to death for crimes against white people — even though blacks and whites are likely to be murder victims at roughly equal rates, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Black people are less likely to be judged by a jury of their peers in criminal trials.
Studies have found that racism is common in jury selection. The practice is so common that the Supreme Court ruled in May that a black man named Timothy Foster on death row in Georgia could be granted a new trial because he was convicted by an all-white jury. "Even after the undeniable evidence of discrimination was presented in this case, the Georgia courts ignored it and upheld Foster's conviction and death sentence," said Foster's lawyer, Stephen Bright after the Supreme Court's ruling.
Black children are more likely to be disciplined in school than their white peers.
The pipeline to prison starts early. Black children are more likely to be disciplined and suspended from school than their white peers starting as early as pre-school. That's the beginning of what experts call the school-to-prison pipeline, which slowly puts kids on the path to incarceration.
Each day, 500,000 people fill America's jails awaiting trial because they are too poor to afford bail. Most of them are black.
Americans are technically innocent until proven guilty, but hundreds of thousands of people sit in prison every day because they're too poor to afford bail. In 2013, a study from the Vera Institute found that 50% of people awaiting trial couldn't afford bail of $2,500 or less.
Even black men who do not have criminal records are less likely to be hired for jobs than white men who've been convicted of felonies.
While a criminal record can prevent a person from any race from having a fair shot at getting a job, one study found that even when a black man doesn't have a criminal record, he's less likely to be considered for certain positions than white men with felony convictions.
For black America, freedom isn't a guarantee of American citizenship.
NOTE: Jamilah King is a senior staff writer at Mic, where she focuses on race, gender and sexuality. She was formerly senior editor at Colorlines, an award-winning daily news site dedicated to racial justice. Prior to Colorlines, Jamilah was associate editor of WireTap, an online political magazine for young adults. She's also a current board member of Women, Action and the Media (WAM!). Her work has appeared on Salon, MSNBC, the American Prospect, Al Jazeera, The Advocate, and in the California Sunday Magazine.
Saturday, July 02, 2016
In a country that was founded on the principles of capitalism, we are not confused that the bottom line is invariably going to be short term profit. At the end of the day, the question will always be: how much money can be made as quickly as possible? People who trust capitalism as an abstract concept are usually those who are far enough up the food chain that they benefit economically from the arrangement. But that's not what they say.
What they say is, "Well, anybody can get a piece of the pie if they just work hard enough, if they just give it their all, if they'll just quit whining and pull themselves up by their bootstraps." What they ignore is that it doesn't work as well for most of us as it does for the ones at the top -- and it never did.
Historians tell us that before the United States existed, when we were a rag-taggle collection of colonies, approximately 500 White property-holding businessmen in five cities controlled virtually all the economic enterprise (banking, transportation, land, manufacturing, you name it). And that's why they came here. They were tired of having to buck the royalty, the military, and the Church in Europe. They wanted to have the power and to be the power. And they were.
Two hundred years later, it's fascinating to learn -- as we've been forced to do -- that an even smaller percentage of the U.S. population has a lock on the economic well-being now than it did then. Whole books have been written about it. Entire movements have been energized into existence over it. And for those who have doubts, I would recommend reading Rigging the Game: How Inequality is Reproduced in Everyday Life by Michael Schwalbe or watching Park Avenue: Money, Power, and the American Dream, at least to start with.
The criminal injustice system, of course, with all its various aspects, has found its niche in the capitalist arena, as well. In 2010, for example, the American Civil Liberties Union brought out a scathing report on the return of "debtor's prisons." The for-profit bail system and the for-profit pre-trial release system are both shot through with racial disparity, particularly since poverty is so much more likely to hound communities of color.
But the piece de resistance is the private prison industry that is now the most profitable investment on Wall Street. Which is why I'm featuring a video about that particular topic at the head of this post. Enjoy. Or not. Depending on how you feel about it.
And for more on private prisons, up close and undercover, go over to Democracy Now! for Amy Goodman's report on journalist Shane Bauer's four months as a private prison guard.