A Movement to End Mass Incarceration and Rebuild America’s “Dark Ghettos”
by Ron Daniels, PhD
All across America a massive mobilization is in full force demanding justice in the horrific and unjustified death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman. It was a vigilante style killing aided and abetted by Florida’s wild, wild west “Stand Your Ground” law. The Trayvon Martin case has struck a nerve in Black America, not only because of the tragic and unnecessary death of a promising young African American man, but because this case is symbolic of a broader pattern of assault on young Black males throughout the country. At the recent National Symposium on the historic Gary National Black Political Convention, convened by the Institute of the Black World 21st Century in Washington, D.C., Cynthia Martin, Chief-of-Staff for Congressman John Conyers, welcomed the group and immediately left to join a rally for Trayvon Martin on Capitol Hill. She was going to the Rally to protest the death of Trayvon but also out of concern about her own son as a Black “man child” in America.
The death of Trayvon Martin has struck a nerve in Black America because millions of Black mothers and fathers fear for the safety and lives of their sons as a result of images in the media that portray Black men as dangerous and criminal justice and policing policies that are specifically targeted at Black communities. When George Zimmerman insisted on pursuing Trayvon he had a profile of a “suspicious” Black man imbedded in his consciousness, i.e., hoodie = criminal. It is the same profile that police in New York City and numerous locales across the country carry in their heads when they routinely patrol America’s “dark ghettos” conducting “stop and frisk” raids on Black youth under the guise of ridding the community of drugs and guns. These raids have become so commonplace that Black youth have come to expect them as part of their daily lives. At a recent Conference on Black Males, hosted at York College of the City University of New York, City Councilman Charles Barron asked the audience of some 200 students how many of them had been stopped and frisked by the police — 80% raised their hands. During the question and answer period a young student came to the microphone and in an emotionally strained voice asked, “When will they stop harassing us? “
This “harassment” is part of the broader crisis, the State of Emergency afflicting America’s dark ghettos. And, much of White America is clueless or unsympathetic to this reality. When President Obama stated that if he had a son he would look like Trayvon Martin, presidential candidate Newt Gingrich immediately pounced on the President, accusing him of suggesting that race played a role in this tragic event. Some analysts were also quick to dismiss race as a factor in this miscarriage of justice. They are clueless, blind or indifferent to the targeting of inner-city Black communities and profiling of young Black males as an ill conceived strategy for reducing crime.
The real crime, the crime America doesn’t want to talk about is the decades of blatant neglect that has devastated inner-city Black communities in this nation. It is the legacy of the “White backlash” against Black progress in the era of the 60’s and the unfulfilled civil rights/human rights agenda. Despite the passage of civil rights laws in the 60’s, Black poor and working people, particularly those who live in America’s dark ghettos, have never achieved economic equity or justice. While America conveniently hails Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream Speech,” few choose to recall that at the end of his life, Dr. King was organizing a “Poor People’s Campaign” to promote the enactment of an Economic Bill of Rights to ensure a basic quality of life/standard of living for all Americans in terms of jobs, education, housing and healthcare. With urban rebellions erupting across the land, King realized that Civil Rights without basic Human Rights would not complete the journey of Africans in America to the “promised land.”
Unfortunately, King was killed before he could fully champion this most significant evolution of his dream for an America that could genuinely be “free at last” of racial and economic injustice. And, the White backlash which he predicted and feared, a backlash born of resentment and fear of Black gains due to the Civil Rights movement, was exploited by rightwing politicians like George Wallace, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to advance their political fortunes. The War on Poverty, Model Cities Program, Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), Job Corps., Joint Partnership and Training Act (JPTA), public housing, Community Development Block Grants and Welfare – “safety net” programs which at least served to relieve/ameliorate the plight of poor and working people and offer a glimmer of hope of escaping poverty were either decimated or drastically reduced. Conservatives like Ronald Reagan, who railed against the burden of government on the backs of the people, portrayed safety net programs as the preserve of “welfare queens” and “Food Stamp cheats.” The examples he used were most often of Black “offenders.” The equation was not lost on Whites, resentful of what was interpreted as an encroachment on their rights by the Civil Rights laws and social programs.
Thus a growing White backlash helped to dramatically change the political landscape as it relates to civil rights and social programs. Disinvestment became the order of the day as both political parties moved to “shrink the size of government” – translation, get rid of social safety net programs perceived to largely benefit Black people. In addition to disinvestment, changes in America’s economy in the form of massive deindustrialization also dealt a devastating blow to urban inner-city areas. Plant closings and capital flight have reduced many urban inner-city centers to economic wastelands where “work has disappeared.” The consequence of this blatant neglect/disinvestment and deindustrialization has been nothing short of disastrous. In the absence of economic opportunity, it was inevitable that various forms of illicit activity, including trafficking in drugs, would be adapted as a way of making a living. America’s dark ghettos have deteriorated into crime and drug infested zones where violence and fratricide are pervasive. During his1988 presidential campaign, in his inimitable way, Rev. Jesse L. Jackson repeatedly conveyed the essence of this crisis in one simple phrase: “Jobs going out, drugs coming in.”
The urban rebellions had already fueled a demand for “law and order” among conservative politicians. Crime and violence in urban America was also the source of the creation of the image of “the dangerous Black man.” Willie Horton, a convicted felon who committed a series of crimes while on furlough under a special prison program in Massachusetts, became a focal point of the 1988 presidential campaign and the poster figure of the “dangerous Black man.” The sum total of America’s response to dangerous communities with legions of dangerous Black men was to declare a “War on Drugs,” devise aggressive paramilitary policing strategies and adopt draconian criminal justice policies like “three strikes and out” and mandatory minimum sentences. The net effect has been the demonization, criminalization and mass incarceration of young Black men and increasingly women, many of them for non-violence drug offenses. Indeed, in many respects the” War on Drugs” is the main culprit in the criminalization and incarceration of the flower of Black America’s youth/young people. Data provided by the Drug Policy Alliance, Open Society Foundations and numerous policy analysts clearly show that drug use is just as prevalent in White communities as Black communities, but it is Black communities that have clearly been targeted as the major battleground for the “war.” The cops are not “rolling up” on White males in White neighborhoods but accosting Black males in Black neighborhoods. It is Black youth/young people who are being fed into the prison-jail industrial complex.
As is the case in every era of our sojourn in this hostile land art/culture has come to reflect reality, the “realness” of the existence of millions of Blacks imprisoned in America’s dark ghettos. The crime, violence and fratricide in Black communities is reflected in the raps, rhymes and lyrics of the youth/young people most adversely affected by the blatant neglect and “war on us.” The illicit economy and mass incarceration are such dominant features of life that they have spawned a way of talking, dressing and walking. The hoodie and sagging pants are perverse reflections of the “realness” of life in America’s dark ghettos. To be “cool” is to look like a prisoner, gangsta or thug. It’s art imitating life.
When Trayvon Martin made his fateful walk towards home in the twilight hour with his hoodie over his head and skittles and a soda in hand, he carried the full weight of America’s perception of the “suspicious” looking “dangerous” Black man on his shoulders. George Zimmerman acted on this perception in the same irrational manner that multitudes of cops and “frightened” civilians act toward young Black men each and every day in this country. And, were it not for the protest of his parents, an outraged national Black community and concern of people of good will, Trayvon would be just another dead Black man. The mobilization is on, but the question is beyond demanding justice for Trayvon; where do we go next?
Forty-four years ago this week Dr. Martin Luther King was gunned down on a balcony in Memphis. As we reflect on the mission he was pursuing at the end of his life, I firmly believe we must build a multifaceted movement to end the State of Emergency in Black America, particularly as it is manifest in the crises afflicting America’s dark ghettos. Internally, we have an obligation to combat self-destructive behavior and the fratricide that is wasting so many of our young people. The internal struggle we must wage is absolutely essential; however, we must never lose sight of the root causes of the State of Emergency in much of Black America. We must commit to an all out campaign to end the War on Drugs as a racially bias strategy and principal source of the paramilitary policing tactics employed in our neighborhoods, the harassment and mass incarceration of our youth/young people and devastation of our communities. The War on Drugs is a racist strategy; it is indeed a “War on Us.” The casualties and collateral damage are horrendous and utterly unacceptable. We must be bold enough to demand that drug use and addiction be viewed as a health crisis and treated as such. We must be bold enough to demand a halt to the criminalization and imprisonment of youth/young people for possession of small quantities of marijuana and long sentences for non-violent drug offenses. And, we must be bold enough to at least have a national dialogue on regulation rather than prohibition of drugs as a way of stopping the turf wars, violence and internecine killing associated with drug trafficking in our communities.
But, ending the War on Drugs alone will not create the safe and wholesome communities we deserve. The longstanding blatant neglect of Black communities is also calculated and racist, a clear example of institutional/structural racism, and we must have the audacity to say so. The combustible and deadly cauldron of devastation and dysfunction in America’s dark ghettos is a direct consequence of America’s retreat from finishing the unfinished civil rights/human rights agenda. As I have stated time and time again in the wake of the conservative tide sweeping the country, politicians and policymakers from both political parties abandoned the inner-cities. Policing and prisons became the substitute for continued investment in social, economic and racial justice. America’s dark ghettos got the “bounced check” instead of the fulfillment of the dream Dr. King so eloquently spoke about at the March on Washington.
It’s time to once again call upon this nation to make good on the “promissory note, to “cash the check.” In this election season, as we prepare to March on Ballot Boxes to re-elect America’s first African American President, our voices must be heard loud and clear: we demand an end to policies and practices that wreak havoc on America’s dark ghettos; we demand to be treated as human beings who are entitled to live in safe, healthy, wholesome and sustainable communities; we demand an urban policy with massive resources targeted to eradicating joblessness and for the creation of sustainable infrastructure in terms of economic/business development, education, housing and healthcare. And, we must march on ballot boxes, march in the streets, utilize economic sanctions, civil disobedience, any and all legitimate means to compel this nation to finish the unfinished civil rights/human rights agenda of achieving social, economic and racial justice for the sons and daughters of Africa in America. Then and only then will the demonization that led to the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, and the criminalization that has led to the relentless harassment and mass incarceration of Black youth/young people across this country cease to exist!
[box_light]Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website www.ibw21.org and www.northstarnews.com . To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.[/box_light]