Saturday, October 15, 2016
Saturday, October 08, 2016
Saturday, October 01, 2016
One of the organizers of Cornell BSU's Black Lives Matter rally on 9/23/16
(Credit: Julia Cole Photography)
This post is an amended version of remarks read at a rally organized by Cornell University’s Black Students United (BSU) on September 23, 2016. Students gathered to protest the recent police shootings of Tyree King, Terence Crutcher, and Keith Lamont Scott. It appeared originally on the blog for the African American Intellectual History Society and it is being re-posted here by permission of the author.
Sisters and brothers:
I’m delighted that you are mobilizing. Your demonstration reflects your recognition that the escalating crisis of racial terrorism requires a firm and uncompromising response.
Your protest in the face of daily atrocities is a sign of your humanity and your determination to live in peace, freedom, and dignity.
But as we demonstrate, we must take pains to avoid certain tactical and programmatic errors that often plague progressive protest in a neoliberal age.
Saturday, September 24, 2016
A few days ago, I posted a video of a young Black woman expressing her frustration with how Black college students are often viewed, even by each other. Today, I'm posting another video about race and higher education. It explains how White Supremacy as an ideology has paired up with public policy in the United States to gut everything public and most especially public universities.
Be careful not to misunderstand what they say at the end of the video, though. When they explain that racism in the public sphere hurts everybody, they don't mean Black students and White students are equally affected. In fact, they say quite clearly at one point that Black students are more negatively impacted by racist public policies than White students are. But when the Powers-That-Be use racism to send tuition and student loans sky-rocketing, everybody gets sucker-punched.
What they're trying to get across is that White students shouldn't let the public policy decision-makers fool them into believing that attacks on the public sphere only hurt Black people. If teachers -- and students -- form a solid front, we can stop the neo-liberal bulldozer in its tracks.
Wednesday, September 21, 2016
I came to Louisiana for a nine-month temporary gig in August of 2007. So, by the time I finish this school year, I will have taught here for a decade. The day I arrived, I was told, "You will find our students lacking. They're under-prepared. They don't like to read. And they don't know that's a problem."
My thought at the time was, "Even if that's true, why would somebody say that to me on Day One? That's like calling students incapable before I even meet 'em." But it turned out that, by and large, I was being told the truth.
On the other hand, I eventually learned (on my own) that, while any low income student might demonstrate the traits I had been warned about and even students from families with money might have succumbed to the traits along the way, Black students, in particular, were the most likely to arrive as first year students looking and sounding like they fit the profile.
Then, I started dragging them to my office one at a time to explain the okey-doke. I assured them that, with a little input and a lot of effort -- despite the obstacles placed in front of them since birth -- they could build the boat while it was in the water and they were standing in it. Over the years, more than a few have proven me right.
The upshot is that, while many classes on the campus have two or three Black students at most in them, my classes tend to weigh in at 30% or better Black -- even the first year students who just arrived and are taking Intro courses with 90 students in them. It's not because I'm wonderful. It's because I tell them the truth. And I know who they are. And in the mirror of my face they see themselves succeeding. Because -- given a real shot -- they are ferociously ready to learn and ready to teach.
Sunday, September 18, 2016
On September 9th, 1971, the prisoners at the Attica "Correctional" Facility near Buffalo, New York, went down in history when they seized control of the institution and rode that bull to the end. Five days later, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a representative of one of the oldest richest families in America, picked up the twin lightening bolts of his privilege and his power and crushed the prisoners to claim his position as the ogre he obviously was.
That was forty-five years ago. I had only been a part of the Prisoners' Digest International collective in Iowa City for about six months when it all went down. And I was sitting at a typewriter in the basement of our commune on South Lucas, dropping white crosses and neck-deep in the process of answering two huge cardboard boxes overflowing with unopened letters out of prisons and jails from coast to coast. Prisoners who had been waiting for months -- something they know well how to do -- were finally going to hear from the PDI and its umbrella entity, the National Prison Center. And I had found my niche in life.
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.
Saturday, May 07, 2016
I realize this video isn't on the criminal "justice" system per se, but I just thought I needed to post it because, when push comes to shove, the analysis "Dixon D. White" uses to explain what we see going on in the U.S. right now is precisely why the prison-industrial complex and its minions, the boys in blue, are running our nation off a cliff even as we speak. I've been saying the exact same thing for ten years on this blog. So I'm glad to see these ideas pick up speed.
A friend of mine asked me a few weeks ago if I was aware of "Dixon D. White" and, when I said no, wrote down his name on a post-it note for me to take with me. But this is the end of the semester and I don't have time to go to the bathroom, let alone anything else I'm not being paid to do, so the note was just hanging out on my desk at home, waiting for my attention.
Then, earlier this afternoon, one of my Facebook friends put this on my feed and here we are.
There are a handful of others ranting on race at a fever pitch like this guy and me. Jane Elliott, for one. And Tim Wise, for another. And, as I've said many times over the years, there have always been White folks who threw down against White Supremacy, even if it killed them, as it did John Brown and three of his sons. But comparatively speaking, the voices in the wilderness have been damn few. I would suggest, as I present "Dixon D. White" today, that it has never been more important to listen to them than it is right now.
NOTE: I do want to reiterate that "Dixon D. White" is a character played by an actor. I am not necessarily a supporter of this man as a person or as a professional. But what the character says is spot on and needs to be faced and dealt with. Period.
Sunday, May 01, 2016
Focusing on how White Supremacy as a system uses "law enforcement" to brutalize -- or even kill -- those who resist its power can leave us shaking in our boots. Yet there has always been resistance by Africans, other colonized People of Color, and those who fight for justice alongside the members of those groups. Here Chris Hedges gives us an opportunity to learn from Eddie Conway, former member of the Black Panther Party in Baltimore, and Ojore Lutalo, member of the Black Liberation Army, both of whom have now been released after spending long stints in prison because of their commitment to the people's struggle. They have earned our undivided attention. And we need to know what they have to tell us. Listen up.
Wednesday, April 20, 2016
Oh, what a long and winding road it has been for Albert Woodfox. Journalists all over the world are busily crafting magnum opus style accounts of his life, his adventures, and his thoughts as he enters a world he left in the late 1960s and re-entered on his 69th birthday two months and one day ago.
Those of you who follow this blog are already aware that I've been knowing this man -- and loving him, as many do -- for seven years now. After corresponding by mail and talking on the phone for several months, we had our first all day visit face to face, perched on the shelves on either side of thick metal mesh in the tiny CCR visiting room at Angola State Penitentiary on July 10, 2009. The energy was so high we couldn't stay in our seats. We wanted to see and hear each other better. We wanted to touch, to miss nothing, to defy the authorities that controlled our lives.
Make no mistake: those that controlled Albert (also known inside the walls as "Shaka" and "Cinque"), held many others in abeyance through the years. We did not fight to free him for him alone, but for our desperate, frustrated, resolute selves. At some point, in all such scenarios, while the person behind bars is the focal point, the ties between him or her and all who wait on the outside looking in are so strong that no power can deny them access, can prevent their strengthening, can destroy their determination with anything short of death.
Sunday, April 17, 2016
We began this series on the criminal "justice" system by considering the way the Black community is affected by the business of incarceration in America. Then, we examined how this is all rooted in the historic capitalist venture called the slave trade. We heard from two different former police officers about what the boys in blue perpetrate on a daily basis against Black people. We heard from a group of police officers who are starting to push back against being a part of this system. And, finally, we watched a video and read a report discussing a classic example of how law enforcement administrators participate in and protect the processes and policies that keep White Supremacist practices in place in policing.
Today, we're looking at Shaun King's article with the thought in mind that, because of the way the system works, we really have no idea how many people in prison right now don't belong there. And since the article is short, I'm adding a video about John Thompson, who was himself very nearly executed more than once before it was proven that he was not only innocent, but that the prosecutors knew he was innocent, knew who did the crime, and chose to send Thompson to death row anyway.
Thursday, April 14, 2016
On September 2, 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, former New Orleans Police Officer David Warren shot Henry Glover, a 31-year-old Black resident of the Algiers neighborhood, in the chest with an assault rifle. Warren, a rookie at the time, later claimed that he believed Glover was armed and attempting to rush him when he fired the fatal rounds. But that wasn't the end of the story.
As you can see from the Frontline video above, in the out-of-control hubbub after Katrina, NOPD officers' behaviors were reported to federal authorities by members of other law enforcement bodies and this particular story was only one that was eventually brought into the light of day. Nevertheless, no LEOs are currently serving time for this homicide, despite the fact that it was proven that the crime and cover up involved the department at least as high as Deputy Chief Marlon Defillo.
Monday, April 11, 2016
The last couple of posts have featured former police officers who have come forward as individuals to describe policing practices and policies that are immoral, illegal, and destructive to community life for Black Americans. Today, I'm adding a short video presenting a story about a dozen current NYPD officers of color who are actually suing the NYPD for demanding that officers harass and arrest citizens in minority communities to meet arrest quotas.
Whether quotas are about politics or about money (or both), they are certainly part of the process to rationalize and justify White Supremacy as a cultural norm. I'm assuming that these brave men and women cannot legally be fired while they are suing, but they're unquestionably under incredible duress for doing so and literally putting their lives on the line to fight this battle. This step on their parts creates a visible alliance between the community and the police and is a necessary (and important) connection on the road to social change.
Friday, April 08, 2016
I'm a Black Ex-Cop, and This Is The Truth About Race and Policing
by Redditt Hudson on May 28, 2015
On any given day, in any police department in the nation, 15 percent of officers will do the right thing no matter what is happening. Fifteen percent of officers will abuse their authority at every opportunity. The remaining 70 percent could go either way depending on whom they are working with.
That's a theory from my friend K.L. Williams, who has trained thousands of officers around the country in use of force. Based on what I experienced as a black man serving in the St. Louis Police Department for five years, I agree with him. I worked with men and women who became cops for all the right reasons — they really wanted to help make their communities better. And I worked with people like the president of my police academy class, who sent out an email after President Obama won the 2008 election that included the statement, "I can't believe I live in a country full of ni**er lovers!!!!!!!!" He patrolled the streets in St. Louis in a number of black communities with the authority to act under the color of law.
That remaining 70 percent of officers are highly susceptible to the culture in a given department. In the absence of any real effort to challenge department cultures, they become part of the problem. If their command ranks are racist or allow institutional racism to persist, or if a number of officers in their department are racist, they may end up doing terrible things.
It is not only white officers who abuse their authority. The effect of institutional racism is such that no matter what color the officer abusing the citizen is, in the vast majority of those cases of abuse that citizen will be black or brown. That is what is allowed.
Tuesday, April 05, 2016
If you haven't seen this video of Joe Rogan interviewing ex-Baltimore cop Michael Wood, who got famous last year hitting Twitter with stories he'd already been telling for years about what the police actually do, you're not going to believe it. I'm still stunned and I've now watched it multiple times.
In another interview, Wood says simply, "The only person that was surprised by what I said was everybody who doesn't live in the 'hood. Everybody that lives in the 'hood just said, 'Oh look, a cop just admitted it.' But everybody else said, 'Oh my gosh! That stuff really happens?' Of course, it happens. Did you think the Black community was lying for the last one hundred years?"
In other news about Michael Wood, word has it that he's thrown his hat in the ring to be Police Chief of Chicago. This idea will be much more meaningful once you listen to the interview.
It is imperative to clearly acknowledge the fact that the prisons are full because of the way law "enforcement" is carried out and precisely who it is carried out upon. This post and the next few are to make that point. We often treat what the police do and the so-called "correctional" system as if they were separate issues. They are not. It is the police that march people to jail. And when they make what they do so obviously brutal and White Supremacist in nature, the result is that we have more people locked up than any other country in the world with a disproportionate number of the prisoners being Black, Latino, and Native American. Rogan and Wood can laugh. But nothing about this is funny.
Saturday, April 02, 2016
Douglas Blackmon, who was at the time the Atlanta, Georgia, Bureau Chief for the Wall Street Journal, became famous for writing Slavery By Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, a book that describes in great detail exactly how the peculiar institution of slavery morphed into the practice of locking up Black men in America with fairly reckless abandon. It shocked a lot of people, but it was indisputable, which was why a book about such a topic could win the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction.
Four years later, the book was turned into a 90-minute film by the same name. Though a film cannot possibly cover all the material that is in the book, I thought it would be a good next step in our symposium about the business of incarceration in the United States.
Four years later, the book was turned into a 90-minute film by the same name. Though a film cannot possibly cover all the material that is in the book, I thought it would be a good next step in our symposium about the business of incarceration in the United States.
Thursday, March 31, 2016
My last post was a video of Michelle Alexander talking about how difficult it is for Black men to avoid going -- and going back -- to prison. Today, I'm posting another video, this time of Alice Goffman talking about the fact that this process doesn't start when Black males grow up. It starts whenever the police in Black neighborhoods say it starts. And because of the nature of these White Supremacist cultural norms, young Black boys and men have little if any control over whether or not they're personally chosen for the journey.
Even a child who makes good grades and tries to stay out of trouble can be swept up at a moment's notice on almost any given day, finding himself neck deep in the nightmare, regardless of his innocence. We like to believe this only happens occasionally by accident, but Goffman describes patterns and processes that are much less predictable. And it is precisely this arbitrary quality that makes life for young Black men so challenging.
Tuesday, March 29, 2016
Not everybody -- Black or White -- is convinced that incarceration is a problem in the United States. Expensive? Yes. But to many, more of a solution than a problem.
I've known this since the early 1970s, when a reporter dismissed my frantic attempts to generate public concern for prisoners by telling me in no uncertain terms that most people do not and will not care about anybody that winds up in jail. I have since found that to be, by and large, disheartingly true.
Here, lawyer and activist Michelle Alexander explains why she decided to write her award-winning book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and what she thinks we need to understand about the effects of mass incarceration on the Black American community.
Sunday, March 27, 2016
As many of my Faithful Readers know, I've always posted a good bit about prison and prisoners. Ever since I joined the collective at the National Prison Center and the staff of the Prisoners Digest International back in 1971, I've considered myself a member in good standing of the prison abolition movement. I've written for publication about prisoners rights. I went into Ft. Madison Maximum Security Penitentiary in Iowa as a Sealed Revelation Minister with the Church of the New Song. I've testified in court. And I've visited -- or tried to visit -- a number of prisoners in multiple states for a range of reasons.
I've counseled prisoners and ex-prisoners and trained others to have a clue about the issues people deal with when re-entering the outside world. I've written letters to judges that helped people get out or stay out of jail. I've taken endless phone calls and written literally hundreds of letters to people inside. I've done political actions related to prisoners rights, some in groups and some alone. I've supported several long-term political prisoners through their ordeals until they were finally freed (the latest being Albert Woodfox, who was released the 19th of last month after 43 years in the hole). And I scared the be-jezzus out of at least one Federal Chief of Classification and Parole who I sent into an apoplectic fit by telling him -- very quietly, I swear -- that he was going to be held accountable for his cruelty.
So it shouldn't surprise anyone what I'm about to do. For the next few weeks, I'm going to post a whole string of items having to do with the criminal injustice system and most particularly, prison. I've been sitting on some of these things for a while and I have some real beauties in store, not the least of which is the entire report on the 2011 investigation into the alleged misconduct of New Orleans Police Department Deputy Chief Marlon Defillo (which is part of the public record, so it can be published, and believe me, it's quite something).
But before I get into all that, I want to pause a moment and introduce a YouTube video of former Black Panther leader Dhoruba Bin-Wahad speaking at Hamline University in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 2010. The broad topic is U.S. governmental repression and imperialism, but he drops it into a historical and global context and shows how the U.S. ship of state has used and is using its power to try to crush opposing forces and individuals, such as Bin-Wahad himself, who did nineteen years as a prisoner in New York before he was exonerated and freed in 1990. I'll warn you in advance that it's ninety minutes long, but if you'll watch the first ten minutes, I guarantee you'll watch the rest and very likely in one sitting -- the way I did.
Law enforcement and the criminal injustice system are the line between the public and the state. Bin-Wahad's presentation is the perfect introduction to a month of examining that line.
NOTE: If you want to know more about Dhoruba Bin-Wahad's personal journey in the system, get "Passin' It On," which is one of my favorite documentaries of all time.
Sunday, March 13, 2016
This is what I woke up to on Facebook this morning -- a video of a fire that had been set in the Holman Correctional Center in Atmore, Alabama. And I'm sure most viewers in the United States will look at this, shrink back from the screen, and shake their heads, saying, "That's why they're in there. They're right where they belong. We don't want them out here with the rest of us..."
But I'm reminded of something I wrote for the Prisoners Digest International back in 1973 when the prison in McAlester, Oklahoma, went up in flames. I am reprinting it here dedicated to the men in the HCC who are, I'm sure, this morning suffering greatly and as far as I'm concerned through no fault of their own.
by Becky Hensley, SRM, EcD
(PDI, Vol. 3, Issue 3 - 8/1/73)
"Burn, baby, burn!" and the smoke rolled out -- for forty miles you could see it touch the clouds. "Those animals," says Mrs. Johnson, six miles down the road. "They're burning tax dollars of hard-working citizens!"
They're burning your heart, not your cash, Mrs. J. They would set you on fire along with the "overworked" attorneys and underpaid prisoners' rights groups and pompous, phony legislators and silent ex-prisoners and uncaring mothers and hot-pantied girl friends and all the rest of those millions of hard-working, tax-paying citizens who sit on their hands 'cause it feels so good and suck Uncle Sam's tit when they can't reach his crotch.
Sit down, thirty-one-sixty-nine-twelve, you're trying to thaw out a freezer with a three-thousand-mile diameter. Why can't you learn to sit on your hands, too? Society wants you. It has big plans for its prisoners...Listen to the smoke, folks. Listen to the smoke go forty miles or forty years or forty more lives -- you do remember Attica? How strange. Then how many Christs will it take to satisfy the God of the People? How many nails can you drive into somebody's brain before you puke, Mrs. Johnson? Two? Ten? A thousand? Maybe more! You have a strong stomach, America, but a weak backbone.
What color is smoke made of tears, made of pain, made of law-ful petitions to unlawful courts, made of unanswered letters, made of waiting for, waiting for, waiting for waiting?
Is it the same color as the smoke belched unendingly out of the chimneys of the corporation factories and collecting in the lungs of our children? Is it the same color as the smoke that hung over Watts and Cleveland and Dante's Inferno? Is it the same color as the smoke that always exists where the plague has struck when the dead are burned with everything they touched in their dying?
Is our Spirit so dead that the flames can't ignite it? Does anyone think for a minute ole thirty-one-sixty-nine-twelve wants to die? Does anyone think for a minute that fire was started by animals? There is blood on your hands, Mrs. Johnson. There is blood on my hands. We started that fire and it won't be put out until we put it out.
S-he whose Spirit does not burn will lose their bodies to the flames and finally get just what they earn with sniveling, groveling, sweetheart games.
Play on, America --
Friday, February 12, 2016
Yesterday, I wrote on Facebook about what it feels like to be me when I'm isolated. Which is a lot. Being a White person who thinks like me and talks about it the way I do puts me consistently on the outside all the time. This is what I wrote:
"After 45 years of fighting White Supremacy in every way I can imagine, I am getting more discouraged by the day over where we are in this country (and the world). I know that a few White people are not enough. I rant though my courses. I can hardly face my blog on race because I want to scream at the top of my lungs. People think I'm a nut case because I never let up for a minute. But what good does it do? I get some love, but most folks think I'm crazy or too over the top or pushing too hard or trying to be something I'm not or a "traitor to my race" or...other things too wrong-headed to print. I don't know what to do and I see what the White power structure is doing and it's a SYSTEM not a bunch of individuals, so it's like trying to collect smoke in a sack.
"I've been depressed ever since Ferguson because I see that those with the power to define in this country have created a situation where Black people have to risk and lay down their lives for what already belongs to them and I am so angry, so hurt, and so helpless in the face of it all that I'm borderline suicidal off and on, but I can't quit because I'm needed.
My only son was murdered two weeks before his 23rd birthday so I know what it is to lose a child, but every time a Black child is killed or incarcerated or beaten up or disrespected, everything Africans have suffered since the first slave ship left port for the Western Hemisphere rolls over me like an ocean wave of grief. All I know to do is to work, to fight, to stand, to write, to speak truth, and not stop -- till I die."But this morning, I want to clarify something. This struggle is not about being a conscious White person who feels alone. It's about what the White Supremacist system does to People of Color in the world and most particularly for us, here in the U.S.
Friday, January 01, 2016
Ten years ago, I sat down at my computer and wrote the first post on the socially-constructed, political notion of "race" on this blog. I did it because I was teaching sociology at the University of South Florida in Tampa at the time and my students wanted to talk about race. As an adjunct, however, I had no office and no faculty privileges to speak of, so I would often wind up standing next to my car for hours after class ended at 10:00 pm. I couldn't resist the students' energy and I was learning a lot from my Black students in particular. But dragging home after midnight was not something I wanted to do on a regular basis.
So I started a small discussion group for students to attend in a conference room at the library only to decide in short order that I was now teaching a whole extra class at the university for which I wasn't being paid. Then, during Christmas break in 2005, I remembered that I had started a blog in September which I walked away from after a month of writing posts not even I wanted to read. And it occurred to me that I could change the blog topic to race and see how that went. After all, I could write it at home in my pajamas, my students could read it in the middle of the night if they chose, and rather than explaining the same things over and over and over to different students, I could answer their questions by referring them to particular posts that would remain archived online indefinitely.
It seemed like a no brainer.
Friday, June 19, 2015
One of my students told me they saw this photo of Albert Woodfox and me on MSNBC last week while all the court news was breaking. I responded that I can't imagine anyone I'd rather appear on national television with than Albert Woodfox. The photo was actually taken in August of 2012, when -- for no reason we could come up with -- the Powers-That-Be suddenly decided we could have some pictures taken.
It hadn't been allowed before, even though others in the same visiting room were having them taken. And when I came back for my next visit, the "rule" had been changed again to not allow it. But on this particular weekend, acting like it was no big deal, they gave us the go-ahead and we jumped out there to grab the opportunity, never knowing until last week, it would put us together on prime time news.
May all People of Color be comforted in the knowledge that the act of killing this man and eight others at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, day before yesterday will fuel in millions of Americans an ever deepening commitment to root out White Supremacy and plant respect, love, and justice in its place.
Tuesday, June 16, 2015
Every cell of my mind and body has been focused on Albert Woodfox this past ten days. And I'm feelin' it. My hands are trembling, my glucose level is all over the place. I'm worried for him, still sitting in a closed front cell facing what he has to fear might be the last years of his life in solitary confinement. I'm distracted and depressed, which makes me ignore the seven piles of work -- some of it fairly important and much of it with due dates -- neatly arranged on the futon in my office at home. And the further behind I get, the more despair I feel about the issues that put me in this head in the first place.
When I drove up to the jail Friday, I was thinking, hoping, we might be driving away from the place with him in tow this time. But by the time I got there, the Appellate Court ruling had been announced. He will sit there until he is re-tried unless the State drops the case or a settlement is reached (the latter two so unlikely as to be pointless to consider). And several of the family members of the guard Albert was convicted of killing (without credible evidence and utilizing every White Supremacist trick in the criminal just-us book) were on hand putting on such a show for the media, you would have thought the guy just died yesterday instead of 45 years ago. Skip that the guard's widow released a 3-page statement Thursday calling the State a liar and begging them to drop the appeal.
Anyway, I was feeling pretty sorry for Albert and for all those in prison for their politics and for all those in prison generally and for all those who work so hard to support them, until I saw this music video today and was reminded that you don't have to have broken the law or gone to prison or pushed for social change to get hung out to dry in this country. When are we going to stop blaming ourselves and each other and refuse to move on? When are we going to realize that we look different and our lives don't all play out in the same way and some of us are doing better than others on the surface, but we're all in this together? When are we going to fight back?
Sunday, June 14, 2015
Five years and eleven months ago yesterday, I first laid eyes on Albert Woodfox. He was still in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola then, where he had been locked up in solitary confinement almost continually since April of 1972. I had been a prison abolitionist myself for thirty-eight years at that point, so it was not surprising that we found each other. Despite the 6 X 9 foot cell in which he had been held so long, hundreds, maybe thousands, of people around the world had already found him before me. But unknown to him, when he turned 62 in February, 2009, I threw him a birthday party and invited students on the Louisiana university campus where I teach to come.
As a sociologist and long-time activist, I consider it one of my principle roles to introduce students not only to what is really going on in the world so they can become conscious of social injustice, but also conscious of the option to develop a dedicated willingness to work for positive social change. A few came out and ate some cake and learned a little about Woodfox, but I had only been at the school for three semesters and this was hardly business as usual there as yet. Still, I thought it would only be appropriate to send him a short letter and tell him what we had done.
I didn't fully realize who he was until he answered that first letter, which I didn't really expect, though I had written many prisoners over the years and they always write back. It was then that I did what journalists do and looked the man up on the internet. Reading his whole story, I was stunned. Here was a real live Black Panther Party organizer and hero ninety minutes away from me, living in a cage at the whim of a States' Attorney with what seemed to be a remarkably personal vendetta against him. I was fascinated. I almost immediately decided this was too romantic not to be kismet.
Albert Woodfox, with humility and grace, declined the offer of my heart, recommending that I read The Prisoners' Wife, instead, a painfully honest book about how prison relationships can grind the soul. I read it, but I was insulted and suspected that he was not taking me seriously or that I had simply not met his standards in some way. I did not yet understand the effects of four decades of solitary confinement, but I came to. More importantly, I eventually came to know the extraordinary person that Albert Woodfox is.
In any case, I soon gave up the fantasy of being a political icon's love interest -- but not without some chagrin and more than a little embarrassment, which he kindly never mentions. And we became close friends. We have shared forty visits -- or more -- since then, even when they moved him from Angola to a smaller prison five hours away and cut the visits to a couple of hours each. I drove it in the pouring rain (which I loathe doing). I drove it when they put him behind a glass shackled to the floor (for no reason). I even drove it while we were arguing about gender issues for a while. And yesterday morning, I drove the ninety minutes to the Parish jail where he's been held in more recent months to share with him what could very likely be his last visiting day in prison.