Thursday, 2 September 2010

In the prison industrial complex
Most of those even vaguely familiar with the size, scope and character of the US mass imprisonment scheme know that the US leads the world in incarceration, both in sheer numbers and per capita.
They know too that the US, with 6 per cent of the world's population, holds nearly a quarter - 24 per cent - of all the prisoners on earth.
As stunning and perhaps shocking as these figures are, they fail to adequately paint the full picture of what this project means in the lifescapes and hopes of millions of people in US ghettos where black and brown people dwell.
Indeed, truth be told, most black folks aren't even aware of this thing, because it is rarely discussed in public and rarely addressed in the corporate press.
With the recent publication of the work of a young black scholar, law professor Michelle Alexander, that may be changing.
Alexander's new book is ground-breaking in several respects - first in that she addresses the plague of mass incarceration and second in how she analyses the social and political ramifications of such a project.
In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age of Colour-blindness (The New Press), Alexander places the present mass incarceration binge in its historical context, comparing it to the infamous post-civil war period, after the brief span known as reconstruction.
This era saw the rise of racist terrorism against blacks by such groups as the Ku Klux Klan, who were often composed of former Confederate troops, the denial of black voting rights and the institutionalisation of the black codes - laws which targeted blacks for behaviour such as insolence which were not criminal if committed by whites.
The creation of the convict lease system allowed the economic and political elites to exploit "free" black labour again - in essence to establish slavery in everything but name, with the blessing of the national government.
Alexander recounts that historical period to provide insight into the present, while over one million black men and women are imprisoned and millions more live cribbed, encumbered half-lives because they have a criminal conviction on their records.
What such a record means is that a person, even when "free," may not vote, can't live in public housing, can't receive a government grant for college studies and is barred from a growing range of the professions. In other words, as in the past, "free" doesn't mean free.
And as federal government grants to states in fields like education, transport and housing is driven by population, and most US prisons are situated in distant, rural and predominantly white districts, those areas acquire the benefits of their large black prison populations counted in the US census as "residents" of these regions, and urban districts lose such federal resources respectively.
Thus ghettos are not just depopulated but they are concomitantly deprived of resources to help make communities whole and healthy.
As discussed above, criminal convictions in most US states work to disqualify millions of people from voting for life.
What does such a disqualification mean in reality? In the pivotal US presidential election of 2000, George W Bush reportedly won Florida by fewer than 500 votes.
Without a win in Florida, Bush would've lost the presidential election. At least some 50,000 former felons in Florida were disqualified from voting and, as many of them were African-American, it's certainly a safe assumption that the vast majority of them, if able to vote, would have voted for the Democratic candidate.
If so, US history would've been dramatically transformed, and perhaps world history as well. Prof Alexander, writing of the impact of the mass incarceration project on black communities, notes: "The collapse of inner-city economies coincided with a conservative backlash against the civil rights movement, resulting in the perfect storm.
"Almost overnight, black men found themselves unnecessary to the American economy and demonised by the mainstream media.
"No longer needed to pick cotton in the fields or labour in factories, lower-class black men were hauled off to prison in droves. They were vilified in the media and condemned for their condition as part of a well-orchestrated political campaign to build a new white, Republican majority in the south.
"Decades later, curious onlookers in the grips of denial would wonder aloud: 'Where have all the Black men gone'?
"The prison industrial complex was the capitalisation of the incarceration nation. It marked the continuation of the grim era known as Jim Crow."
This article was written by Mumia Abu-Jamal exclusively for the German socialist youth paper Junge Welt and is reproduced here by its kind permission and that of the originating reporter Jurgen Heiser.
About Mumia Abu-Jamal
He was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a Philadelphia police officer in 1981. His trial was a farce and he was clearly framed because of his political activities. He has been described as "perhaps the best-known death row prisoner in the world" and his sentence is one of the most debated today.
Before his arrest he was a member of the Black Panther Party (BPP), an activist, part-time cab driver, journalist and broadcaster and became president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists.
Since his conviction, his case has received international attention and he has become a controversial cultural icon. During his imprisonment he has published several books and other commentaries, notably Live From Death Row.
In his own writings, Abu-Jamal describes his adolescent experience of being "kicked ... into the Black Panther Party" after suffering a beating from "white racists" and a policeman for his efforts to disrupt a 1968 presidential campaign rally for segregationist George Wallace.
Abu-Jamal lived in New York City and in Oakland, living and working with his BPP comrades. He was subject to FBI Contelpro surveillance during the '70s.
After leaving the Panthers he returned to his old high school, but he was suspended for distributing literature calling for "black revolutionary student power."
He also led protests to change the school name to Malcolm X High.
In 1999 Arnold Beverly claimed that he and an unnamed assailant, not Abu-Jamal, had shot Daniel Faulkner as part of a contract killing because Faulkner had been interfering with graft and pay-offs to corrupt police.
While in prison Abu-Jamal was engaged by National Public Radio to deliver a series of monthly three-minute commentaries on crime and punishment. The broadcast plans were cancelled following condemnations from the police force and right-wing senators. The commentaries later appeared in print in May 1995 as part of Live From Death Row.
With occasional interruptions due to prison disciplinary actions, Abu-Jamal has for many years been a regular commentator on an online broadcast, sponsored by Prison Radio, as well as a regular columnist for the German youth socialist paper Junge Welt.
In litigation before the US Court of Appeals in 1998 he successfully established his right to write for financial gain in prison. The same litigation also established that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections had illegally opened his mail in an attempt to establish whether he was writing for financial gain. When, for a brief time in August 1999, he began delivering his radio commentaries live on the Pacifica network's Democracy Now! weekday radio news magazine, prison staff severed the connecting wires of his telephone from their mounting in mid-performance.
His publications include Death Blossoms: Reflections From A Prisoner Of Conscience, in which he explores religious themes, All Things Censored, a political critique examining issues of crime and punishment, and We Want Freedom: A Life In The Black Panther Party, which is a history of the Black Panthers drawing on autobiographical material.

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