Saturday, April 4, 2015

April 4 Bridgeton Decarceration Presentation

Faced with last minute news that our keynote invitee was not going to be able to attend our event in Bridgeton on April 4, I took the emergency step of putting something together (very quickly) based upon the presentation by Johanna Fernandez in Newark on July 30, 2014 at our first major Decarceration panel discussion.  I took notes and shaped them into a presentation that quite literally is an abridged paraphrase of her presentation.  Anything you like about this - please credit Johanna Fernandez and anything bothersome - my fault!

Media coverage of event: 

Petition explained further:

Here is her original (much better) version:



Michele Alexander wrote the The New Jim Crow which has done the math on mass incarceration and has unmasked it for what it is – the means to repress first and foremost the Black and other “of color” populations of this country as well as the impoverished.  Calling it “the New Jim Crow”  - essentially means it is “the new racism” in the post civil rights era.

Over the last 30 years, Black, Latino, indigenous and impoverished have been under full scale attack and mass incarceration is about punishing poverty and stopping people from fighting back.  Today’s event which has united sectors of Bridgeton and the state and built unity in its promotion, in the outreach, in the preparation of food, the launching of a new local petition – shows the true hope  of what can be done in poor neighborhoods throughout NJ to bring about a new day of struggle to change the equation of mass incarceration.

In the last 40 years our schools have been privatized – force feeding facts and test taking instead of the ability to think and analyze.  The only way forward for our struggle to turn these things around is for us to educate ourselves at events like the one we have here today – where we bring out the root causes of our problems so we can get to systemic solutions.  Critical thinking for our young people is key and that can only come about from our seizing educational initiatives through events like today.

The Russian novelist Doestoevsky who wrote the classic Crime and Punishment stated: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”  
This nation considers itself the land of the free but we imprison the most people in the world.  We have 6% of the world’s population but 25% of the worlds prisoners.  Yet the US is in the Middle East, Latin America and Asia deploying military might and subterfuge telling the rest of the world about freedom and democracy.  Indeed US is not the most free but one of the most repressive societies on the planet.

Until you have been behind the walls – and admittedly I have not been – we have no way of grasping the brutal genocide that mass incarceration represents.

In California when 1300 men went on a hunger strike – they were protesting the rationing of food because of slashes of budgets due to an economic crisis.  They demanded permission to form cultural associations.  The hiring of a full time doctor because medical care is also rationed and often denied to incarcerated persons.  Thousands die in prisons due to lack of adequate health care.   They were demanding the permission to smile in photographs with their visiting family members.  Imagine the emotional dehumanization of preventing an incarcerated person from smiling with their family in a photo on visitation day.  And when we dehumanize the prisoner we dehumanize ourselves.

The US has 100,000 people in solitary – being tortured as defined by the United Nations.  What this means is that the prison systems are intentionally instilling insanity in those that have been incarcerated – which is for more than just those 100,000 as prisoners are routinely rotated through that process.  Human beings are social animals and forcing that form of isolation makes the prisoner insane.
50,000 children are in detention centers across the US.  These are immigrants pushed from their home lands in Latin America by policies propagated by multinational corporations and the US to make profits for the 1 %.  Policies like NAFTA that destroys local economies and forces farmers out of business.  What kind of nation demonizes and violates the rights of 50,000 children?

Of course there is the day to day – unimaginable suffering of prisoners in the violent prison environment.  Prisons take the human being – a social being – and deploy violence on the part of guards, the lack of health care, the day to day humiliation, the random denial of rights and privileges.  That is why we need to hear directly from those who have been through this trauma to fully understand what mass incarceration is doing to those dragged through the gulags of the United States.

In 1970 – the US had about 300,000 behind walls.  Today about 2.4 million are locked away.  As mentioned, we have 6% of the world’s population but 25% of the worlds prisoners.  Here is another statistic: One in 10 of the world’s prisoners is an African American male.  Do your best to think about that and get your mind wrapped around that fact.  African American males represent a miniscule fraction of 1% of the world’s population yet 10% of the world’s prison population.  Does the word “GENOCIDE” come to mind?

 There are 7.4 million people under criminal supervision by the state apparatus of the United States which includes parole and probation.  And parolees can tell you that there is no rehabilitation involved – only the setting of traps leading to return to prison.  Your parole officer is looking for any tiny infraction to send you back.
It is up to us to become the top experts in these issues – to study, understand and be able to explain these issues to each other, to our children, to our organizations and to those that hold power.  For the last 40 years we have been lied to about crime, about who is guilty and who is not.  

The US has lots of criminals but you can find them in Wall Street and in the corporate board offices and they will never spend a day in prison.

75% of prisoners are people of color even though Blacks, Latinos and whites commit crimes in equal portions to our percentages in the population.  That statistic means that the policy of mass incarceration is racist – is the New Jim Crow per Michelle Alexander.

Mass incarceration was accelerated initially just as Black people in the USA got the right to vote.  Mass incarceration was accelerated as a punishment to Black and Latino people for standing up beginning in the 60s and 70s and saying no to racism.  Mass incarceration is about punishing those populations that dare to fight back against their super oppression.

Black people in this nation – from enslavement days and beyond – were the super oppressed labor that built the original foundations of today’s capitalist conglomerations.  In the 1950s through the 70’s US’s Black, Brown and Indiginous population said “enough.” – Nada – Basta – we are no longer open for your super exploitation beat down.

70% of those in prison are there for victimless crimes.  It was in the 70’s that the US began to mass incarcerate those not engaged in violence – mostly people of color involved in drug use or drug selling. 

In most states- including NJ – a felony means that you can not vote.  So on a very basic level, mass incarceration is intentionally designed to disenfranchise the Black and Brown population from voting – after so many years of civil rights struggle to gain the right.

Many are starting to use the term for it – to switch it from “mass” incarceration – to hyper incarceration – to highlight that it is certain sectors of the population that are targeted – not everybody – and certainly not the wealthy.

The underlying beneath the surface government message of “tough on crime” is that white people in this country need to be protected from the crimes committed by people of color.  There is a repetitious message in media, in movies and tv shows, on the internet. In radio commentary that people of color are lazy, refuse to work, that they are undeserving freeloaders.  That is what we are sold – that Black people have a criminal nature and need to be punished and contained.  The story that is told is that crime is growing and that we need more people in prison, more cops, more laws to protect mainstream – read “white” America.  But the reality is that throughout US history crime rates have remained the same.  

The acceleration of mass incarceration was a response to the joblessness that resulted in our cities when the crisis of deindustrialization and resulting joblessness hit our cities 40 years ago.  Of the 2.4 million people in prison – half of them were unemployed upon their arrest.  The other half reported an annual income of under $10,000 – obviously not enough to survive in the USA.

The bottom line is that mass incarceration does not address the issue of crime but is more about the inability of the system to meet the needs of people and especially of impoverished and people of color.

Diuring this period of acceleration we have seen the elimination of social welfare programs and the increasing of class stratification on the one hand, and on the other the build up of prisons and mass incarceration.

According to a Harvard economist – between 1973 and 1978, the United States saw the largest wealth transfer ever in the history of the world – from the bottom of society to the top.  That usually happens in other countries due to a war or a military coup but here it happened quietly.  At that time the New York Times was reporting that an American is 5 times as likely to be the victim of a lay off from their job than from a violent crime.  So the war on crime is more about scapegoating people of color and impoverished – to confuse the white working class about the real issues in the USA – the end of the American dream.

Imprisonment and incarceration industry is the 3rd largest employer – including judges, clerks, guards, the people that feed the prisoners, the police.  What kind of nation is it that employs so many millions in the business of encaging human beings and dehumanizing them.  It is a society that is doomed to fail.  So now we have mass incarceration serving as a jobs program for communities like Bridgeton and others that house these huge encaged cities like South Woods.

On this date that Martin Luther King was assassinated – April 4 – remember Dr. King’s words when he said “America you must be reborn again.”  

While people of color have felt the brunt of this issue of mass incarceration, the massive surveillance of the prison population has now been mainstreamed to the point that everything you do on the phone, on the internet, in your car, even in your home in front of the television is electronically monitored and captured for analysis by government agency.  Those of us who thought that we have escaped the plight of the incarcerated are now subject to the scrutiny of living in an open air prison society. 

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