Posts Tagged ‘Selma James’

Race and Mass Incarceration

May 15, 2012

New Clear Vision reprinted my article today. You can open it here: (2)

Mass Incarceration: Points of Agreement from Right to Left

March 29, 2012

My article just up in LA Progressive
Part 2 of a two-part series. See also “Seeking Unity Across Sex, Race & Class”

Civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander reported in her book, The New Jim Crow, that largely as an intentional consequence of
the war on drugs, there are more African American men under correctional control now than were enslaved in 1850. People of color have been rounded up en masse for relatively minor, non-violent drug offenses. Alexander concluded all this came about in part as a strategy to deprive African Americans of rights, including the right to vote.

William J. Stuntz, Harvard Law professor, evangelical Christian and self-identified conservative, (who sadly died much too young, before his book, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice was published in 2011) argued that black people are disproportionately imprisoned because they commit more crimes, that incarceration rates have risen in part because the system used to be too
lenient, that incarceration keeps at least the incarcerated from committing more crimes, and that police carry out drug sweeps in certain neighborhoods as a strategy to get gang members off the streets when threats against witnesses and the no-snitch culture create daunting obstacles to the arrest and prosecution of violent criminals. Though Stuntz begins his book providing rational (non-racist) reasons for racial disparity, he does conclude the effects are racialized and lead to the collapse of the rule of law.

Given their different perspectives, it’s striking that both Alexander and Stuntz reach some of the same conclusions and identify some of the same systemic problems in the American way of criminal justice. Even more striking to me is that when I listened to the anti-prison activists and former prisoners who spoke on Saturday, March 24 as part of the Teach-In “Sex, Race, and Class: What Are the Terms of Unity?” I heard some unity between their ideas and Stuntz’s.

He would surely have characterized them as radicals. (Selma James, the keynote speaker for the Teach-In and editor of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s latest book, said the people inside prison “have a political education we all need. A lot of the leadership of our movement is inside. We need them and we need them out.”)

The panelists would surely have strenuously disagreed with much of Stuntz’s book, but they are living examples of the injustice he identified in the system.

This essay will consider how the activists’ experiences align with Stuntz’s critique.

Susan Burton went to prison six times for drug offenses during the years she was in despair and became addicted to crack cocaine after her 5-year-old son was killed, run over by a police car. It was only after serving the sixth sentence that she was able to access drug treatment. Today, as the founder of A New Way of Life, she runs five homes that provide housing for formerly incarcerated women in Los Angeles and she also works with All of Us or None, a group advocating for the rights of former prisoners who leave State custody with a record that often deprives them of the vote and stands in the way of employment even while they are barred from receiving food stamps or living in subsidized housing, all of which too often leads to their children being permanently taken from them.

“We have to disrupt the flow of what’s happening,” she said at the Teach-In. And her most disruptive idea is this one, aimed at throwing a monkey wrench into the process of mass incarceration: What if every person arrested refused plea bargain offers and instead demanded her or his Constitutional right to a trial? Right now, she said, when a prosecutor threatens you with a 15-year sentence but says you’ll only be locked up for two years if you waive a trial and plead guilty, of course people say, “Let me take the two because I’m scared of the 15. That’s what the system relies on.”

Michelle Alexander wrote about Burton’s idea in an op-ed in the New York Times–”Go to Trial: Crash the Justice System,” because in a system in which more than 90% of criminal cases are resolved by guilty pleas, and resources are entirely lacking for the
trials that defendants are entitled to, a complete breakdown is exactly what would happen.

What does Stuntz say? He puts the percentage of cases resolved by guilty pleas even higher — at 95%, most by plea bargains, and cites plea bargains as part of the greatest injustice. Unlike what we see each week on CSI, “noninvestigation is the norm.” Prosecutors clear cases through pleas but no one investigates to be sure the defendant is actually guilty–not the D.A. and not
the indigent defendant’s appointed counsel who has only a brief time to represent the client. He writes, “punishment deters crimes only if crime, not innocence, receives punishment.” That is not happening.

Like many conservatives, Stuntz is withering in his criticism of the Warren Court’s decisions that protected the rights of criminal defendants, because this made the jobs of police and prosecutors much harder. But he also saw that by focusing on procedural safeguards–Did the defendant get a Miranda warning? Was there probable cause? Was evidence obtained through a proper search warrant?–the Court overlooked what was more important: The substance of justice. Search for the truth of either innocence or guilt. This is a critique people on the left will agree with as today we end up with Antonin Scalia asserting that as long as procedures have been followed correctly, “actual innocence” is no bar to execution.

The Court has mandated “due process” but not “equal protection.” And African Americans do not enjoy “equal protection of the law” in court or in low-income predominately black neighborhoods which he says are “under-policed” (while Susan Burton says they are “over-policed.”) But Stuntz’s point is that the police are present as a punitive force, not a protective one in African American
neighborhoods: black-on-black crime is not prevented and is rarely punished. He urges more community policing and less SWAT.

In this respect, he is in line with civil rights attorney Connie Rice who has urged that the rewards structure within the Los
Angeles police department be changed. An officer should move up in the ranks not for having the highest number of arrests but rather for bringing the incidence of crime down by being a stabilizing presence in the neighborhood.

While Stuntz has an idealized view of the police compared to the perspective of young people who are stopped and harassed daily on the way to school and to families mourning the death of an unarmed loved one shot by an officer, he stresses that the real decision making power and severity doesn’t lie with the police but with prosecutors.

Prosecutors decide whether or not to bring a case and what charges to file and what plea bargain to offer. It’s in this realm of prosecutorial discretion that African American defendants suffer most and have little recourse. As Stuntz writes: “As long as their decisions are not racially motivated” and it’s rarely possible to provide proof of someone’s intentional and knowing discriminatory
motive, “police officers and prosecutors have unreviewable discretion to decline to arrest or prosecute offenders.”

Another trick prosecutors use to obtain plea bargains is to file (or threaten to file) a range of charges for a single offense with separate sentencing for each charge. A crime that would ordinarily carry a sentence of a year or two suddenly adds up to something approaching a life sentence. Who wouldn’t take a plea? And in death penalty states, writes Stuntz, the way capital punishment is
used most is to induce people–whether guilty or not–to confess. If they accept a plea, the State will take the death penalty off the table. Stuntz likens this to extortion.

At the Teach-In, we heard from 76-year-old Hank Jones, one of the San Francisco 8. In 1971, a San Francisco police officer was killed during an assault on a police station. Members of a Black Panther Party splinter group were later arrested in New Orleans, stripped naked, beaten, blindfolded and subjected to more torture including electric probes to the genitals until they confessed to the crime and, after more torture, named names to implicate others in the Panther Party, including Jones. The case was thrown out because confessions obtained by torture were inadmissible.

Fast-forward to 2003. Following passage of the Patriot Act, Jones and others who had been named were suddenly arrested and charged again, this time under the new law with “domestic terrorism.” Not only were they being charged under a law that didn’t exist when the crime was committed in 1971, but the Bush administration, as we know only too well, had no qualms about torture and
apparently believed public and judicial opinion would now support its use.

The San Francisco 8 benefited from the committed representation of activist attorneys. Most people targeted by prosecutors don’t fare as well.

What happened to Hank Jones is an example of another problem cited by Stuntz: criminal law being made not by judges and juries, but by legislatures that pass bills leaving little room for discretion–or mercy–and with little regard for the possible consequences.

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 mandated the deportation of legal immigrants who had committed felonies. In complete disregard of legal history and fairness, the law was made retroactive. Immigrants who had committed offenses even decades earlier, had since lived entirely law-abiding lives, held jobs, had married and were raising children, were suddenly detained and deported leaving their families in abandonment and poverty. And of course many of them had never seen trial for their offenses but had taken plea bargains–sometimes receiving probation and no jail time, but now found those guilty pleas meant ruined lives.

Alex Sanchez, a founding member of All of Us or None, explained at the Teach-In that most immigrants rights organizations in LA don’t assist those who’ve been labeled criminals. Homies Unidos, the organization he co-founded offers services to exactly that population: gang members, former gang members, men with tattoos who face likely torture and assassination at the hands of death
squads if they are sent back to Central America. His own work as a peace-builder and gang intervention worker brought him so many allies in the community that Sanchez, born in El Salvador and a former gang member, had enough support to help him win asylum. At the same time his work brought him enemies in law enforcement. He continues to be targeted by prosecutors and is now out on bail after his arrest on what the community–which raised bail money–sees as trumped-up charges of continued gang activity.

“Mass incarceration has failed to suppress gangs,” Sanchez said. He cited gang truces that over and over again have led to a dramatic drop in gang violence. But after “the peace truce you have to bring resources. They have never brought resources into the community.”

James, Burton, Jones, and Sanchez would certainly agree with Stuntz that the US justice system is now “the harshest in the history of democratic government.”

How did we get here? Again, resources. Stuntz thought these were misallocated. Cities and counties pay for police and prosecution. States and the federal government pay for prisons. While more police on the street have a much more significant deterrent effect on crime than more incarceration, cash-strapped localities find it cost-effective to process cases quickly through
plea bargains and pass the prisoners along to the State. (It remains to be seen if the release of some State prisoners back to the counties as mandated now in California will have an effect on how many new cases are prosecuted, especially for minor drug offenses.)

By the end of his book, after immersing himself in study of our criminal justice system, Stuntz begins to sound like a radical himself:

“African American imprisonment rates came to exceed the rate at which Stalin’s Soviet Union incarcerated its citizens. Residents of black neighborhoods increasingly believed, with reason, that their life choices were limited to those Pushkin identified two centuries ago: they could ally themselves with their prison-bound young men or with the system that bound them. Tyrants, traitors, prisoners–none were good options. No wonder black neighborhoods in the early twenty-first century, when imprisonment rates were
reaching their peak, spawned a “don’t snitch” movement.”

He recognized that when a community sees daily injustice and doesn’t see the rule of law equally applied, it becomes morally
and ethically easier to choose to live in a lawless way.

If we want to bring peace to our communities, yes, we need resources. And we need to see that true justice is also a necessary resource which our neighborhoods demand and for which we still wait.

Seeking Unity Across Sex, Race & Class

March 27, 2012

my article, published today in LA Progressive

In an era when we see the faces of women, people of color, gay and lesbian people and people with disabilities among the 1%,”All the movements we have founded for our liberation are now represented in the establishment,” said women’s rights and anti-racist activist Selma James, “but we are not.”
And we remain unlikely to prevail without unity.

James, born in New York, one-time resident of South LA, veteran of anti-colonial struggles in the Caribbean, and now UK-based, was back in the US to launch her new book, Sex, Race and Class–The Perspective of Winning, As the keynote speaker at the Teach-In, “Sex, Race & Class: What Are the Terms of Unity?” on Saturday, March 24 at the Southern California Library in South LA, she drew on decades of organizing experience to talk about how to bridge the divide among the different sectors that make up the 99%.
The answer may well be “Money.” Not as the root of all evil, but the source of both autonomy and commonality.
Forty years ago, interpreting Marxist economic theory through a feminist and humanist lens, James coined the phrase “unwaged work” to highlight the reality that most of the work–and the most important work of society–is done by people who aren’t paid and are therefore not considered “workers.” And most of those people are women.

She decried the idea that women gain equality by going out to work. This limited view of women’s rights–opening the door to some–“has caused a class split in women as we have never had it before. Women have become part of the elite–some women, a few women–and the rest of us have less than we did before.” Every job she ever had “has always been an exploitation. It has not only taken my time but also my possibilities.” Low wage and exhausting work leaves little time for your relationships, especially the relationship with your children. “Why is the birth and rearing of children a crisis for our society? What kind of society do we live in that children are not a priority?”
Women bear and raise children, care for elderly parents, volunteer in the schools and raise money to make up for inadequate school funding–even in exclusive private schools. Women run soup kitchens and food pantries and are tireless advocates for incarcerated loved ones. Every time governments “cut any social service they do it on the basis that we women will pick up the pieces,” she said. In this era of austerity, “demanding wages for the work we do is crucial to the liberation of women.”
But what does a demand for paid housework have to do with unity? Well, consider: What would happen to the controversy over welfare which has too often divided poor and middle class and black and white? What if we said women–all women–have the right to be compensated for being mothers and homemakers? “Homemakers receiving payment should have the dignity of having that payment called a wage instead of welfare,” James said.
All women, she said, should be able to give their children what no one else can give, to have the right to stay home, if they want to, with their children up to the age of two or three without suffering loss of needed income.
Everything comes back to “Invest in Caring Not Killing,” the strategy for change espoused by Global Women’s Strike, the group which Selma James coordinates.
Long before “framing” became a catchword, she was doing it–an anti-racist activist who in organizing avoids words like race.
As an example, she cited work she’d done in Guyana where people of Indian descent and people of African descent were at sometimes violent loggerheads while politicians used race to manipulate their Indo or Afro constituencies. Her Red Thread organization wanted to bring together Afro and Indo women and the poorest women, the indigenous in the hinterlands. So grassroots women did a time-use study. What did they do all day? They showed the communities that what they mostly did was work. 12, 14, 16-hour days for both the Afro and Indo women while the indigenous women worked even more. With the recognition of this shared burden, the organization was able to build a “national network of women across race.”
“Organize on the basis of what you have in common,” James advised. In her work on the pay-for-housework campaign she “organized women not in regard to whether they were racist or anti-racist but whether they wanted the money.”
Another example: at the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, a gathering authorized by public law and supported with federal funds, pro-life and pro-abortion delegates fought it out. At the same time, people of color, welfare recipients, and members of the Ku Klux Klan (openly present in the Mississippi delegation) came together around the statement: Every mother is a working mother. Who can argue with that?
“Every issue in front of us is of concern to every other sector,” she said. “The waged and the unwaged are together in that slogan: We are the 99%.”
And yes, today, there are men dedicating themselves to raising their children and to eldercare, a cultural development that James applauds. “Being a carer is a very civilizing influence,” she said. “And I would like to see men civilized.”
Her son, trade unionist Sam Weinstein, spoke during the day’s first panel discussion to note that workers at all pay levels need to recognize that the fight over the minimum wage is also their own fight. “When the minimum wage goes up, it shifts all wages up.”

Anti-poverty activist Nancy Berlin addressed current welfare policy. Even after families lost assistance due to the Clinton era “reform” to “end welfare as we know it,” today’s budgets threaten worse. She cited California Governor Jerry Brown’s attempt to cut the cost of the CalWORKS program by giving people less time to find work (at a time of high unemployment) before cutting benefits. He has also proposed creating two classes of recipients, with more money going to those who are gainfully employed. She pointed out that CalWORKS represents only 3% of the state budget. Even if you eliminated welfare entirely in the State of California, this extreme measure would not solve the budget problem. “Three out of four people on welfare are children,” she said, and “$638 is the maximum grant. How do you live on that?” It gets worse: When you can’t make ends meet, your children can be removed from your home.
Berlin urged all sectors to support HR 3573, the RISE out of Poverty Act introduced by Rep. Gwen Moore, D-WI. Among other provisions, RISE would allow a single parent with an infant under six months of age to stay home and care for that baby without being penalized; when child care is not available, single parents with children younger than 13 would not be sanctioned for not working outside the home; talented and qualified recipients would be able to seek higher education instead of being limited to associates degrees and vocational training. The bill has been sitting in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee since early December.
“The bill isn’t getting the attention it deserves,” said Berlin. Progressive groups say “it’s not a winnable bill so why work for it?” She dismissed that excuse: “Imagine not working for civil rights in the Sixties!”
Molly Trad of the Household Workers Committee of CHIRLA (the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles) organizes “the few household workers who are paid–because we work in someone else’s home.”

But, she says, they too often have trouble collecting that pay. And just like homemakers, they are on-call all the time without overtime pay: “Like women at home we are called in the middle of the night by people who have real needs.” She urged support of AB 889, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, now being considered in the California legislature.
The teach-in that began with old-school organizers ended with an afternoon panel drawn from the newest movement: individuals from Occupy LA, among those we can thank for the fact that, in the words of Margaret Prescod, host of the teach-in and of Sojourner Truth on radio station KPFK, “The whole discussion in this country changed from austerity to inequality.”

Sheila Nichols helped set up Kid Village–a safe space for women and children at the encampment–and helped organize self-policing.

“We’ve been very divided and conquered,” she said. “I’m here to tell you Occupy shifted that completely.” People with many different causes and agendas had to learn to cooperate in very basic ways: “Just getting up in the morning and figuring out where you’re going to go to the bathroom,” she said.
Though police evicted Occupy LA from the park around City Hall at the end of November, the movement continues with General Assembly meetings at Pershing Square (see for times and dates).
“Our struggle is about the issues on Main Street,” said Kwazi Nkrumah of Occupy the Hood and so, after the movement was evicted activists have gone literally to Main Street–Main Street and 5th, to be exact–to build an alliance with the homeless and homeless activists on Skid Row.

“Some Occupy members didn’t want this alliance,” at least not at first, he said, but he sees a common interest in the human right to decent housing. It brings together the homeless, tenants whose campaign for a rent freeze was squashed by the apartment owners, and homeowners threatened with foreclosure by the banks (to which you might add another group mentioned later by Homies Unidos co-founder Alex Sanchez: people displaced by gentrification).
Occupy folks now camp out Friday nights on Skid Row, in front of LACAN–(the Los Angeles Community Action Network) “to build relationships with people,” said Vanessa Carlisle, “and find out what they need and see how we can help.”
John Waiblinger of Occupy’s gay affinity group said the encampment brought “individual oppressions into a common arena.” He was used to working in his own gay community as an activist, a place where he felt safe. After some bad experiences, he said, he was afraid to venture out but through Occupy LA he found people willing to stand in solidarity with him. And when the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy organization, chose to name Goldman Sachs as their corporate equality honoree, he took part in a protest action. The mainstream gay rights organizations have, he said, “forgotten our brothers and sisters in poverty and incarcerated and lacking health care.” Trying to “sanitize the movement in order to make us acceptable,” Waiblinger said, “we’ve suppressed transgender voices and people of color because we want to assimilate and look middle class.” His conclusion after participating in the Occupy movement: “All of our rights are community rights. I have to stand up with all the oppressed communities.”
That community transcends national boundaries. Actor and activist Danny Glover, a prominent supporter of the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, joined the Teach-In via Skype after having to leave LA suddenly due to a death in the family. We must “always resist the attempt to compartmentalize our struggle,” he said.
“What does Haiti have to do with us?” asked Margaret Prescod. The history of Haiti is the story of “people who had nothing but rose up and defeated the most powerful military of the day.” Although, as she said “the colonial powers have never forgiven Haiti,” and as Danny Glover pointed out, US policy is aimed at keeping Haiti “a bastion of cheap labor, not a place where people flourish,” it’s still a place where “movement building happens every single moment,” he said.
Jeb Sprague, author of Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti talked of how the rightwing has taken advantage of the devastating January 2010 earthquake, grabbing aid contracts, privatizing services. Of the $3.6 billion raised for relief, only 1% went to the Haitian people. (Please note that in “Haiti after the Quake,” an article in CounterPunch on January 3 of this year, Bill Quigley and Amber Ramanauskas reported that thirty-three cents of every US dollar for Haiti was actually given directly back to the US to reimburse ourselves for sending in our military.)
With that disparity, it’s no wonder that Haitians remain in squalid tent cities without clean water or latrines while employees of international NGOs get high salaries and new high-end hotels. And faced with the corporatization, professionalization and privatization of caring here and abroad, it’s no wonder activists at the teach-in repeated the slogan We are building a movement, not a nonprofit.
Early in the day, 81-year-old Selma James (who promptly corrected Margaret Prescod when she introduced James as being 82), praised and assured the people of the Occupy Movement “you can do no better thing with your life than to organize against capitalism.”
She concluded the teach-in with a call for a shorter work week without any cut in pay.
Women are tired. Women of all classes are working too hard.
“We have to work less,” she said. “We need more time for each other.”
And more time to organize.
* * * *
Note: The entire teach-in will soon be posted in its entirety at, including the panel on prison activism which, without intending to break the interrelationship and unity of the sectors, I’ll treat in a separate essay to come.