Tag Archives: Prison-Industrial Complex

From Plessy v. Ferguson to #Ferguson, Missouri

Dispelling the myth of equality in the legal system

This is a re-post from the Uprooting Criminology blog.

Two weeks ago I attended a rally in Dallas, Texas to protest police brutality during the death of Michael Brown. There were many impassioned speeches and heart felt rallying cries. One of those chants “No Justice, No Peace; No Racist Police,” caused me to pause and reflect on the statement. I simply could not bring myself to repeat the phrase. Perhaps it was because addressing the individual racist police officer does not address the real issue.

Incidents such as Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO and Eric Garner in New York are symptomatic of the larger issue of institutional racism that permeates the legal system in the United States. The myth of equal treatment in the legal system has endured for centuries. Whether it is through the Supreme Court case Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896 until the shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson Missouri in 2014, rhetoric continues to proclaim fairness and equality in the legal system, when all of the evidence speaks to the contrary.

In 1896 the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the doctrine of “separate but equal.” It effectively ensured legalized segregation. Under this doctrine, the government was allowed to require that services, facilities, public accommodations, housing, medical care, education, employment, and transportation be separate provided that the quality of each group’s public facilities was equal. This ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education (1956).

The court ruled in this case that segregation was inherently unfair and that policies that separate race denote inferiority among those races. Problems of inequality persist in the criminal justice system today to an even greater extent than what was outlined by the doctrine of “Separate but Equal.” Through various ways minorities are treated separately and unequally. The dilemma arises because many fail to acknowledge this separate treatment and even worse the disproportionate effects on minority communities. So the first step is to finally acknowledge some of the factors that have led to the unequal treatment of minorities in the United States.

Institutional inequality is in part due to the make-up of the law makers. Law makers are disproportionately white (over 85%), male (over 80%), and are usually more than 20 years older than the average American. More important than demographic information however, is the way crime is constructed in the legal system. This construction of crime has had a direct effect on urban cities like Ferguson, MO; which has a populous dominated by people of color.

Crime is not labeled based on the degree of harm it causes but rather the illusion that street crime is the most dangerous form of crime. This emphasis causes a disproportionate focus on crime based on urban areas, particularly ones with minorities as the overwhelming demographic. If police are heavily focused on street crime and disproportionately located in urban areas, it is inevitable that there will be disparities in stop and arrest rates between whites and people of color. It is also certain that force will be more likely to be used against people of color than against whites.

This is verified by statistics that show blacks and Hispanics are far more likely to report run-ins or harassment by officers. They are 3-4 more likely to be arrested and have force (including lethal force) used against them (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2007). The shooting death of Mike Brown fits well into these statistics.

So beyond dispelling the myth of inequality in the legal system what else can be done to address the unequal treatment of minorities? Much research has been conducted to find empirical data to quantify to some extent the effects of institutional racism in our legal system. The Baldus Study and research from the Kirwan Institute on implicit bias to name a few. However, further research combined with legislative change offers a more effective solution. In any case, John Powell in a recent interview said it best, “We still have not come to full recognition of blacks and other people as full citizens, as full people. And one way we can demonstrate that is that when we see another human being, our brain is actually wired so that part of the brain lights up, just from recognition of another human being.” When our policy making finally reflects this sentiment we will have a more equitable legal system.

good cop, bad cop routine?: on police brutality & systemic racism

[The other day last week, I wrote this as a facebook status, but I wanted to flesh out my ideas more here, and add relevant links.

It’s a common trope in procedurals and buddy cop movies to have this “good cop/bad cop” routine, where the suspected criminal under interrogation is given the false hope that the  system will show him mercy through a kind face from within the police department. The system depends on fear of retributive justice to bring about retributive justice upon the law-abiding and criminal alike. Recently in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, a police department was discovered to have “bad cops” who have been doing racist practices, and now the “good cop” union is calling for the chief’s termination.

To be honest, this (facebook) status update has been on my mind for a few days, but I wanted to wait and post it. So here goes. When I talk about racism, sexism, economic classism, or any other oppression, I REFUSE to talk about individuals as “racist” etc., for the most part because oppression happens REGARDLESS of what people intend. It’s like my friends say, Intentions are not magic. Our words and actions do have an impact (POWER), and so that’s why systemic racism is Power+Prejudice, but it can also be Power+ Ignorance too. When one talks about the shooting of #MikeBrown as a tragedy, as an event, it does not happen in a vacuum. News reports have shown how the “riots” in Ferguson, Missouri, are the result of government overreach both in terms of militarizing the police force and over-taxation of Ferguson residents. The tension between the populace and the powers that be are not merely coincidental, but it is racial, because Black people are being unfairly targeted by bureaucrats, members of the police force, and these two groups are empowered by the U.S. Congress. Now, a few details that remain irrelevant from my perspective: FIRST: Whether or not Darren Wilson is a vicious racist or not. Irrelevant, even though the community believed he targeted African Americans, and he was transferred from another police department for being racist and corrupt, as an individual, Wilson is only a participant. Racist opinions and thoughts do not kill people. Racist practices and institutions kill people. SECOND: Whether or not Mike Brown is a respectable “innocent” victim or not. Again, completely IRRELEVANT. [EDITOR’S THEOLOGICAL NOTE!: OF COURSE MIKE BROWN WASN’T AN ANGEL BECAUSE HE IS HUMAN. GOD BECAME HUMAN AND RAISED UP THE GOD-PERSON JESUS SO THAT HUMANITY MAY PARTAKE IN THE DIVINE LIFE, AND THEREFORE BE ABOVE ANGELS, BECAUSE WE GET TO JUDGE EVEN CELESTIAL BEINGS (the apostle Paul, 1st Corinthians 6:3). NOW SIT ON THAT, PLATONIST DOUCHECANOES!] Why? Because White Supremacy as a system also involves a mythology, and part of that mythos involves anti-Blackness, and black men as perpetual, lazy criminals.

When Ferguson, Missouri and the conversations about race becomes focused on strictly the two individuals involved, then the discussion devolves into the right wing politics. What I mean by right wing politics is this, that the US by default is conservative/center-right politically, and that the games of “picking up similar incidents” in the name of being contrarian without regard for context keeps the status quo unscathed. The truth is, as studies have shown, over and again: Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs  [edit: It was Ronald Reagan+ Democratic Congressional leaders, never forget that] was and has always meant to target large populations of People of Color, the Prison Industry (politicians & multinational corporations) benefits from breaking up Black families (and so before you go into how broken “fatherless” black homes are, ask yourself who is taking fathers/mothers away from their kids), that Mass Incarceration is an unjust racist system that targets Blacks and Latinos, that crime is down while police brutality is up, and that Stop & Frisk Policies target people of color at disproportionate rates. This is not about individuals with views like the Ku Klux Klan. Participants can include your run-of-the-mill carceral feminist or businessman just wanting to make a few extra bucks. Racism isn’t about issues of “mistrust” or dead-wrong personal opinions. White Supremacy is a system, organized institutional negative, lethal, discriminatory policies by the public, private, and religious sectors versus people of color+ false myths and stereotypes to keep racial hierarchy in power

On #DontShootDallas: some notes from the ground #Ferguson

On Monday, my friend Gabe alerted me to a protest that was being organized via Twitter. I didn’t know what to expect. There weren’t any details about the event except they were going to meet up on Main Street, at a dog park. Oh the subversion! After my experience the previous Thursday, I had a feeling very few people would show up. Was my realism getting the best of my imagination? At first, it looked like I was going to be right, at 8pm CST, there were about 30 people when the organizer was “hoping” for 2,000. The organizer himself couldn’t even be found. Then, protesters started pouring in. I was feeling this inner angst because I had read the fearmongering news articles, about the Huey P. Newton Gun Club. Honestly, guns freak me out no matter who is wielding them; however, after going to a shooting range a few years ago, I am less fretful of them. I get the same feeling around guns that I do the police. After having experienced being there, seeing two of them pull out two pistols on my unarmed brother over a year or so ago, I trust the police even less. This is so much so that if I see any police officer walk into a restaurant, no matter how hungry I am, I will walk away and find somewhere. My insides cannot bear the memory and pain.

I was hoping to hear more of the Liturgy of the Oppressed,and I was not disappointed. Two ministers of the gospel, a Black woman and a Black man, preached to us that Jesus himself was leading this resistance versus police brutality, and we didn’t have to wait for famous clergy. Affirming the priesthood of all believers, the descendents of Adam and Eve were being called by Christ to participate in the New Creation, a resurrection of fretful, tortured black bodies. One Ferguson native who had moved to Dallas talked about his experience, and why we shouldn’t trust the media. Should we ever, really? A non-traditional student next to me whispered that she was from St. Louis and that she had three sons. I encouraged her to share her story, and a few minutes later she did. After several other speakers, a representative from the Huey P. Newton Gun Club spoke, she smirked, informed us of our own naivety in believing in social protest rather than self-defense.

What was I to think? Is it true that black Americans lack of arms puts them in harm’s way? Was the National Rifle Association right? What does revolution look like? Does it involve dressing in military-like green and brown camouflage? At that moment, I thought back to James Cone, in his Black Theology and Black Power, and how he was calling for a revolution of values.

“But for black people, the call for a new value system must not be identified with Nietzsche, the death-of-God theology, or even the underground church. When Black Theology calls for a new value-system, it is oriented in a single direction: the bringing to bear of the spirit of black self-determination upon the consciousness of black people. It is the creation of a new cultural ethos among the oppressed blacks of America, so that they are no longer dependent on the white oppressor for their understanding of truth, reality, or—and this is key—what ought to be done about the place of black sufferers in America. […] To be free means to be free to create new possibilities for existence.” (page 130)

Revolution cannot just mean a changing of the guard; there must be a real assessment about where our values come from, and what sort of practices those values require of us. Jesus the Liberator calls the oppressed to show the privileged elite the way of a prophetic subaltern ethics of nonviolence, a nonviolence that goes against the grain of Pacifist DudeBro moral purity or the Law and Order conservativism espoused by the “libertarian” Tea Party. Even Persons of Color calling their communities to arms are questioned, not because self-defense is **wrong**, but the logic behind that type of self-defense. In this case, self-defense and right-wing gun culture are closely aligned with Enlightenment principles, and its notion of private property without the common good. For the most part, these values are held dear by the anti-Black anti-Christ system that is keeping Black people in bondage.

Far more dangerous than gun violence, and even actual police brutality itself is an even worse form of violence: that of exploitation. There were a few persons in the crowd, people who are addicted to protests and activism who desired to exploit the realities of black rage for their political benefit. I am referring here to leftovers from the Occupy Dallas movement, who were seen WhiteSplaining communism to various protestors. These ***Manarchists*** wanted to confront the police, get arrested, disappoint their politically powerful mothers and fathers. In short, Manarchy is a stance for the status quo, desiring more violence against black bodies in order to satisfy their own hegemonic desire for a “revolution”, a revolution which would pit anti-poverty movements over and against anti-racist ones. Any revolution that is denial about the persistence and existence of White Supremacy can only be considered counter-revolutionary, and empty words for the black U.S. population.

As we marched, I was surprised by a liberating hope. In seeing police officers functioning as ministers of the peace, even what seemed to being insulted, and people of color, politically downtrodden here in North Texas, I sensed a transformation taking place. But does liberation really need to take place after a tragic event? In some ways, the Way of the Cross may look like that. Violence and suffering, from the perspective of affirming God’s goodness, are never necessary. Yet liberation also looks like the Resurrection, of a King raised up by the divine community of Father (Galatians 1:1) and Spirit (Romans 8:11). The Resurrection of our Jewish rabbi gives birth to all Gentile insurrections.

**Note: a commitment to Christian nonviolence from below requires both a truly nuanced understanding of Scripture as well as its presuppositions for self-defense, as John Howard Yoder pointed out in his earlier works. For more, see Charles Hackney’s article, “A Christian Approach to Martial Arts Part One“.**

***Male-centered pseudo-politicos calling themselves “anarchists” have been critiqued by my friend Sarah Moon. Just as these “jesus radicals” ignored the plight of the poor while “fighting sexism,” these would be feudalists desired to appropriate the pain of black people as a prop for their OWS (failed) agenda.***