Sunday, November 30, 2014

Anti-Violence . . . What does Decarceration have to do with it?

Cities across the US, including New Jersey's Newark, Camden, Trenton and many others, face a daily drum beat of violence and street killings at the hands of an armed element in the communities, some of it drug and crime connected.

In various cities there are grassroots organizations that take up the clarion call to put the guns down, to stop the violence and killing:  this includes Newark Anti Violence Coalition, Anti-Violence Campaign in Elizabeth, KYSS in Plainfield, many others.

Some might ask, why is an article about the issue of street violence being offered at this decarceration site – how are these issues connected?

For me, personally, the issues are very closely connected through my own personal experience where the two issues literally intersected physically in a very real way.

On Thursday, November 6, 2014, I was in Newark on my way to attend a meeting on the issue of Decarceration hosted by Dr. Justice and the Community Life organization at the REFAL center.  I had printed off directions without checking them that unfortunately led me to the wrong part of Newark.  I incessantly called Cassandra Dock, a co-founder of Decarcerate the Garden State Committee, who repeatedly gave me the directions to the office.  I was running a half hour late to the meeting and less than a block from the meeting – on the phone with Casssandra – when I heard two bursts of 3 gun shots.  There was a red light and I was confused by what to do.  I told Cassandra about the gun shots and she told me to get out of there and confirmed I should run the light.

Two girls on the other side of the street ran as the shots rang out.  A half block down they were already walking.  Apparently they were more used to hearing shots in the community than I was.  I was wondering myself whether I should park the car and go to the meeting – I ended up doing so.

We had a nice and productive meeting that was primarily focused on building for a Decarceration panel discussion in Newark that was to occur on November 13 (but ended up getting re-scheduled to December 5).

Later that night, Cassandra had called me to see if I was ok and to tell me that she had been out to the site – two young male adults were loaded into ambulances – one or both possibly dead.

The following are articles about the shootings:

I do not spend THAT much time in Newark – that one of my few visits put me on the same corner at the same time as what turns out to be a double homicide is a demonstration of just how relentless the killing is.  The physical connection of doing decarceration work to the blood-letting leads me to examine the very real connection between the issues of mass incarceration--and other aspects of systemic failure as far as super oppressed communities are concerned--to the street violence.

The facts and factors that surround each street killing in Newark no doubt vary --with causes ranging from there being too many guns in too many hands, criminal gangs, illegal trading of banned substances -- there is no one explanation that can suffice for all of the many killings.  It can be safely said though that street violence of Newark and other NJ cities as well as cities across the country has roots in the failures of social, political and economic structures with regard to Black and impoverished people-- aka. “super oppressed” sectors of the population – and saying this is so does not excuse the actions of the perpetrators of the bloodshed.  It simply offers a larger context.

 If it is a safe assumption that the street crime including illegal substance marketing contributes to the continuous blood flow . . . then the questions of the nature of the “war on drugs”, the very illegality of the drugs as well as economic issues surrounding the lack of availability of gainful “legitimate” employment and the inability of the few jobs that are available to meet economic ends of individuals let alone of families are relevant.

There is no pause button on the individual debt meters and on the need for funds for food, to pay rent or mortgage, meet medical costs, keep a vehicle on the road – and many other aspects of survival for individuals and those trying to head up a family.  Faced with prospects of what feels like begging from one prospective employer to another, day after day with no end in sight, and when a job does come along it is barely minimum wage, maybe slightly above, maybe not, with an indefinite shifting schedule, part-time and without benefits . . . versus the prospect of a “street” job in the alternative illegal economy that has the risk of violence but pays relatively well, offers more leisure time... a tough decision is posed for the individual when faced with the alternative of not eating, not paying the rent, losing the vehicle, having hungry children.

 Making the decision to take the illegal street job might be “wrong answer” but it is easy to understand how such decisions are made. The precariousness of life for those who reside in American cities, particularly the youth, also contributes to the willingness to accept the vulnerability to violence and even the willful participation in such violence.  As mentioned from having heard the 6 shots on the corner of South 9th. on November 6, there were two young girls I saw running once the shots rang out.  They are not participants, but given their proximity to the gun fire, they could have easily fallen victim to the gunfire via ricochet or bad aim or just plain carelessness by the shooter(s).

The swirling cycle of hopelessness for youth in NJ’s cities has the likely affect to cause some to question the value of their own lives.  Another factor contributing to the hopelessness is the endemic mass incarceration that largely targets the Black youth and impoverished in the USA.  Youth look to their futures and see violence, joblessness or minimum wage exploitation, likeliness of incarceration . . . bleakness.  In those circumstances, it is easier to make the decision to embrace a life style that increases the propensity to fall victim to and even to participate in acts of violence.

All of this is not to say that there is an excuse for the violence that terrorizes not only other participants in criminal endeavors, but the entire population of NJ's cities and the country.

The perpetrators of these acts are part victim of systemic circumstances and also victimizers and oppressors in their own right.  They add to the oppressive condition in these communities. 

In so much as the biggest benefactors of the illegal trades are not the street workers but the overlords behind the operations, they are serving as minions for the profit taking enterprises that profit from the violence and the harm done by the illegal substances.  The violence being perpetrated is also creating fear in the community to speak out in opposition to the illegal operations that are providing yet another aspect of the oppression of those communities – thus reinforcing the control the criminal overlords exercise over the streets.

The related issues are layered and complicated and contribute to each other.  Like all of the issues we face, there is a peril to taking on issues singularly without recognizing interconnectedness.  A comprehensive program of action is needed to fully root out many of the injustices and oppressive conditions yet at the same time focus is needed to deliver any immediate relief for communities and members of the communities to survive from one day to the next.

I would like to see the Committee to Decarcerate the Garden State partner up with other groups that have particular focuses in other related areas in forums and discussions and in the creation of action plans that recognize the inter connectedness of the related issues.

Those who are considering picking up the guns in the neighborhood need to be firmly told to desist immediately, but I believe they also need to see that there is an effective people’s movement that is addressing their other needs – like:
* demanding decent employment for everyone at livable wages and benefits,
* an end to the war on drugs and the violence and mass incarceration that entails
* and massive prison release and relief from pending charges for low level offenses.

1 comment:

  1. The subject of violence and crime in cities is very important. There are many types of crimes: burglaries, shootings, armed robberies, illegal drug trade, that are reported in the local newspaper at any given time. Anti-violence campaigning and advocacy is a break in the cycle of violence in urban communities. It is an alternative way of expressing oneself.

    I can see why violence and criminal activities is concentrated in cities. Some were mentioned-lack of well-paying jobs and the turn to dangerous but higher paying street gigs that more effectively pay down necessities such as food, housing, transportation, medical care, etc. The decarceration movement can join the labor movement in the call for fairer wages, full-time jobs with health coverage. De-stigmatizing marijuana possession for instance can reduce number of inmates. Other minor infractions like shoplifting, vandalism, disorderly conduct, not paying court fees can be dealt with more humanely-with community service time or payment plan/waivers for those unable to pay large fines. Lengthy prison terms for small scale offenses are excessive-rehabilitation and investment in a community might help prevent repeat crimes.

    The prevalence of violence in cities is often tragic as the story accustomed to gunshots attests to. I have read stories of innocent bystanders being killed by stray bullets. Some of the victims are young men and women (teenagers to young adults in their twenties). The anti-violence organizations are an outlet for young people to discuss the impact of violence on their lives and improvements they'd like to see. Decarceration is one course of action taken to reduce violence-other suggestions are better schools, after school activities to participate in, access to clean, outdoor spaces, & apprenticeships/jobs serving the community to get young people engaged in local/neighborhood affairs.

    These are my ideas to your post connecting crime to well-being/safety in a community. Jobs are a necessity but jobs related to community enhancement can foster positive feelings about where one lives. The criminal justice system needs to change. If it changes with respect to the community and its needs, this provides work for people to do. This is work with a purpose and gets people excited about their surroundings-smooth paved roads, maintained parks, appealing schools/resources. Community involvement causes a shift in perception and perhaps a drop in criminal activity.

    --Isabel R.