“When the structural character of racism is ignored in discussions about crime, and the rising population of incarcerated people, the racial imbalance in jails and prisons is treated as a contingency, at best as a product of the ‘culture of poverty,’ and at worst as proof of an assumed black monopoly on criminality. The high proportion of Black people in the criminal justice system is thus normalized and neither the state nor the general public is required to talk about and act on the meaning of that racial imbalance.” (Angela Davis)
Sacred space. I am not a religious person but I do have faith in the sacred. I believe we can create, contribute to and be a part of spaces that are sacred in the energy they hold and the effect this has on those that encounter it.
When those spaces are disrupted, it feels as though someone has intruded upon some of the most intimate parts of what we believe to be safe. In 2005 when Amon Beckles was killed on the front steps of a church, it was not just his murder that left so many stunned. It was this intrusion on such a sacred space. Last month when Christopher “Chrissy” Thompson was murdered in a barbershop in Malvern, once again it felt like someone had not only abruptly and tragically ended his life, but they had also without warning disrupted a space that for so many is their comfort zone, their place of safety, their space of grounding. The barbershop is a sacred location for many of the communities I am a part of. It hurts my heart to think of this disruption.
So when my homegirl Keisha-Monique told me that when she attended the vigil for Christopher “Chrissy” Thomspon a few weeks back in Malvern and heard the community call for an “increase in police,” my heart dropped…but I was not surprised. Of course people would call for the police…these acts of violence – which are not isolated to a singular incident but are part of a larger systemic and embedded culture of violence that is seeing the death of so many young Black men and the mental health deterioration of so many communities, communities which include mothers, siblings, partners and friends who are suffering from variations of post-traumatic stress disorder – is TERRIFYING. The need to feel safe, the need to feel protected leads community to call on the one institution that claims their mandate is “to serve and protect.” I get it. I do. When there is no other evident alternative, this is what our communities will turn to. And I am not mad at them. But my heart continues to hurt because I know that this is not going to prevent or halt violence. How can an institution built by, for and through violence, prevent it? We are living in a culture of violence and the justice system which includes policing is an integral part of it.
“Even those communities that are most deeply injured by this racist logic have learned how to rely upon it, particularly when open allusions to race are not
necessary. Thus, in the absence of broad, radical grassroots movements in poor Black communities so devastated by new forms of youth-perpetrated violence, the ideological options are extremely sparse. Often there are no other ways to express collective rage and despair but to demand that police sweep the community clean of crack and Uzis, and of the people who use and sell drugs and wield weapons.” (Angela Davis)
I want to share some research that I have done over the past few years that has contributed to my belief that policing, prisons and harsh crime laws are not the solution to issues of violence within our communities. As I write this, I recognize that I am speaking from a space of relative privilege; I have not lost my father, brother, uncle, cousin, lover to violence. But I have loved men who pulled the trigger, love(d) men who have been/are incarcerated, I have loved young men who were shot…young men who were killed…young men and women who were diagnosed with schizophrenia and chronic depression and high blood pressure…young men and women who lose themselves in bottles…and this research has helped me to move through the process of what it means to love through trauma, to love through and with pain.
Who Gets Defined as Criminal?
“Aboriginal women in Australia make up 2% of the general population but 30% of the women’s prison population. In the past decade, this population has skyrocketed as a result of tough-on-crime policies and the war on drugs. At the same time, neoliberal policies have impoverished Aboriginal communities, driving women…into the streets to seek a living in the violent criminalized economies of the sex and drug trades.” (Julia Sudbury)
The criminal is the teenage Caribbean male who dresses with a Hip Hop swag and is ‘assumed to be’ selling drugs. The criminal is the woman/trans person of colour standing on a street corner who ‘inevitably’ has sex for money on their mind. The criminal is the middle-aged South Asian man who is ‘most likely’ involved in violence in his home and potential terrorism toward the state. The criminal is the First Nations man or woman who is ‘probably’ getting drunk in the alleyway downtown. The criminals are the Tamil women and men arriving by boat, crossing oceans and borders to arrive in “our” country. The criminal is the individual who is dealing with mental health issues and is a ‘threat’ to public safety. Who get’s defined as criminal is inherently rooted in intersections of race, class, gender and notions of the nation state; who does NOT fit the mould of the ‘ideal’ citizen.
“The labelling of a ‘criminal class’ serves several functions. Most notably, it acts as a rationale for control and punishment of dissident and unassimilated groups. It legitimizes imprisonment of the unemployable, a surplus labour force burdening our increasingly technological society. It also provides employment – and a degree of political control, by surveillance, patronage and other means – for ‘middle Americans’ employed in the prison industry.” (Instead of Prisons)
The definition of the criminal and crime is a definition of politics:
- “Rarely punished by imprisonment are the crimes committed by persons from the more powerful sectors of society. These include “white collar crimes” such as embezzlement, price fixing, tax evasion and consumer fraud as well as other crimes.” (Instead of Prisons)
The shaping of what is legal and illegal is a game of politics. Have you ever wondered why some things are against the law and others are not?
- “Certain crimes committed by persons from the more powerful sectors of society are not now illegal. Persons committing these crimes include: manufacturers of unsafe cars which annual cause thousands to perish in flaming highway wrecks; Absentee landlords who charge extraordinary rents for rat-infested slum apartments; Manufacturers of napalm and other genocide weapons…” (Instead of Prisons)
The most far-reaching crimes that involve the lives of vast majorities of the population are the one’s least likely to be held accountable. The politicians and multi-national corporations involved are rarely put into handcuffs, wrestled into police cars and tried in a court of law:
- “…crimes against humanity. Most of these behaviours are not now illegal; the criminal law focuses on individual acts. Crimes against humanity involve threats to human survival resulting from collective action. These include war, starvation, overpopulation, resource depletion and exploitation, poverty, the possibility of nuclear holocaust, environmental pollution, to name a few. If we hope to function under a system of law, whole systems such as multinational corporations and governments, must be held responsible.” (Instead of Prisons)
Crime Wave Statistics and Public Fear
“Fear has always been an integral component of racism. The ideological reproduction of a fear of Black people, whether economically or sexually grounded, is rapidly gravitating toward and being grounded in a fear of crime.” (Angela Davis)
Fear, fear, fear. Hmm. Manipulation through fear is as old as recess for me. I remember when I was younger that it was always the tallest girl who had at least the facade of confidence who became the leader of the crew. Even if the confidence was a facade, she held that position because the rest of us were too rooted in our insecurities, had invested too much into our fear, to challenge her words and her actions. Interesting how this follows into adulthood…the playground bully transforms into the news broadcaster or the mayor or the so called expert on crime…
“Examinations of politicians eager to present their opponents as ‘soft on crime,’ media outlets seeking headline-grabbing stories in the war of the ratings, and private corporations that build and operate prisons and detention centers for profit have shown that the global prison boom is the outcome of public policy and private greed.” (Julia Sudbury)
I am always so thankful that I chose to watch The Wire (the best television show that I have ever seen) with my mother. It helped her to understand the work that I do and (for a while) had her looking at the news and shows such as Law and Order with a more critical eye. Wanted signs for young Black men on the evening news now became untold stories of human beings who could have been Bodie or could have been Wallace and were dehumanized to the public with menacing sketches and unflattering pictures as “criminals” whose existence was based only on this singular crime to which they had not yet been convicted; these young men were not given space to have layers and narratives and humanity; in the media, they were simply criminals to be feared. I am watching The Wire (again) now with my uncle and my grandmother and we engage in family conversations about the systemic nature of crime and how media distortions disrupt our capacity to recognize the “crimes” that truly oppress us…
“What political purposes are served by increasing fear of ‘crime in the streets?’ Public attention is focused on the myth of the criminal class, reinforcing a we/they view. Attention is diverted from serious crimes committed by persons other than ‘street criminals.’ Fear of a ‘crime wave’ builds support for increased police repression of certain segments of society.“(Instead of Prisons)
“…despite media-inflated panics about rising crime, the 30-year prison boom has not been matched by an exponential increase in crime rates. In fact, during the 1990s, when reported crime rates in the United States underwent a sustained downturn, the prison population doubled…women continue to be incarcerated in the large part for nonviolent survival crimes. Even where these survival strategies – whether sex work, drug couriering, or welfare fraud – are recognized, they are stigmatized and homogenized by the label ‘offending behaviour.’ Women’s personal histories are then mined as rich sources for understanding this aberrant behaviour, and childhood abuse, domestic violence, or familial disfunction presented as the root cause. Presenting women’s experiences of abuse as the cause of incarceration individualizes and personalizes their treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system. It obscures the broader social disorder signified by mass incarceration, and it sidesteps the question of why the state responds to abused women with punishment.” (Julia Sudbury)
Follow the Money
“Fear of communism justified huge military expenditures during the Cold War, generating what Dwight Eisenhower labeled a ‘military-industrial complex,’ and this was replaced after the disintegration of the Soviet bloc by a media-inspired fear of crime. The prison boom therefore became a leading economic motor during the downsizing, layoffs, and corporate relocations of the 1980s and 1990s.” (Julia Sudbury)
“You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the fuck it’s gonna take you.” (Lester Freamon, The Wire)
Word. I think we have some idea of what we will find…
“As capital moves with ease across national borders, legitimized by recent trade agreements such as NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] and GATT [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades], corporations are allowed to close shop in the United States and transfer manufacturing operations to nations providing cheap labour pools. In fleeing organized labour in the US to avoid paying higher wages and benefits, they leave entire communities in shambles, consigning huge numbers of people to joblessness, leaving them prey to the drug trade, destroying the economic base of these communities, thus affecting the education system, social welfare – and turning the people who live in those communities into perfect candidates for prisons. At the same time, they create an economic demand for prisons, which stimulates the economy, providing jobs in the correctional industry for people who often come from the very populations that are criminalized by this process. It is a horrifying and self-reproducing cycle.” – Angela Davis
How do we develop truly sacred spaces in this context?
To be continued…
Global Lockdown: Race, Gender and the Prison Industrial Complex, Edited by Julia Sudbury
The Angela Y. Davis Reader, Edited by Joy James
Instead of Prisons: A Handbook for Abolitionists by the Prison Research Education Action Project