Monday, February 28, 2011

The New Jim Crow

Michelle Alexander came to Denver and spoke at the DU law school where I heard her, at Iliff School Theology, at United Methodist Church in Park Hill, and at Manual High School, joined by Vincent Harding. Her subject was her own difficult journey, reframing her experience as a teenager and a civil rights lawyer, of the so-called war on drugs and the immensity of the American prison system. She spoke movingly of how, with the best intentions, she was no better than the racist police. She has now written a great book called The New Jim Crow: mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. I was discussing the talk afterwards with my friend and colleague Louis Esparza – both of us knowledgeable about the prison system's horrors, and he said: she made him see the issue in a new way. “The New Jim Crow” renames the prison-industrial complex for me as well.

In teaching, at Metropolitan State College, I have often asked if students know how many are in the prison system: 2 and 1/2 million (some do), and then, what percentage of the total prisoners in the world this is. A few weeks ago, someone suggested 20%. The actual percentage is twice as high: 40%. This is more than all the prisoners in Mubarak’s Egypt and throughout the Middle East including Iran and Israel (which holds a large number of Palestinians), China, Burma and so forth combined. It is probably more than the prisoners in all the existing dictatorships as well as Russia combined. As a percentage, it is exceeded only by the percentage of new weapons produced by the United States and expenditures on the military: roughly two/thirds of the world’s total, or as Chalmers Johnson tells us in Blowback, as much as the military budgets of the next 22 nations combined. The US is a militarist state externally and a prison-state, a police state for the victims of the new Jim Crow and many others, internally.

Because she has worked as a civil rights lawyer, Michelle Alexander adds many powerful additional figures to this. There are more blacks in prison in 20 states than there are blacks who are free. And this is not counting all the young black men who are awaiting trial, on probation, on parole – one-third (33%) of all such young men. What Alexander tells us especially is that once one is involved in this sytem, one can never leave. That is Jim Crow. One can’t get a job, one can’t rent a house, one can’t qualify for scholarships. Black felons can’t vote (a racist secret of continuing Republican domination, as important as “hanging chads” or computerized voting machines which leave no paper trail…).

One can’t, as the young man who finally revolutionized her thinking after too long says, “be a man” or a woman in this society (he couldn’t buy her flowers to make an apology, had to grab a dying potted plant from his grandmother’s porch, see below).

And what affects black young men (and women), also affects Chicanoes, Asian-Americans, native americans, and poor whites. According to Department of Justice statistics, a white infant boy born in 2001 has a 1 in 17 chance of going to jail; a Chicano a 1 in 6 chance, a black a 1 in 3 chance. Most are jailed for drug offenses. Whites probably commit as many drug crimes - more whites and perhaps a greater percentage of whites smoke weed - as Chicanoes or blacks, but are not often arrested. Nonetheless, more poor whites are arrested and treated worse by the "justice" system - for instance, through automatic, severe sentencing - because of the more extreme racism toward blacks. Put differently, that many of all races end up in the vast American prison system is a result of racism. We all have an interest in fighting racism (though, of course, some powerful people, including those who run private prisons, profit from racism - see Michael Reich, Racial Inequality: a Political-Economic Analysis, Princeton, 1984).

Once one falls into this system, it is years to get out, to get one's head above water again, to walk in the sunlight, if ever, and for most, permanent confinement, through racism, to an underclass. The walking unnoticed, arrested, imprisoned, denied, despised…

Alexander tells the secret of this. In the early 1970s, there was just ordinary, apartheid-scale “justice” in the United States. For crossing a street against the light, I was once arrested as an SDS organizer in downtown Los Angeles in the midst of a demonstration of fifty people supporting striking Latina garment workers. I went to the downtown LA courthouse, and was the only white there. The rest of the people were about 50% black and 49% Chicano (driving the freeways around Los Angeles, one could watch the police pull over people, usually black and Chicano, in the stopped cars…).

Los Angeles then had the second biggest courthouse in the world. I would afterwards ask my students: where is the biggest? It would take a few guesses: Johannesburg, then the capital of apartheid South Africa...

Now through the heroism of the South African people and the wisdom of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu (see No Future without Forgiveness, a centerpiece of my nonviolence classes), South Africa has no need of such a court house (I don’t think they have torn it down though). But as Michelle Alexander explains, Los Angeles now needs a far bigger one, a far more grotesque police apparatus. When the segregationists moved from the Democratic to the Republican Party (misrepresenting a part of the white American South), they wanted to restore segregation under other names or code words. They found a way to do it through legislating mandatory sentencing, particularly for victimless, i.e. drug crimes.

H.R. Haldeman, Nixon's consigliere, whom she quotes was a leader in this: "the blacks are the problem and must be resegregated by another name." But in the absence of a protest movement from below, party competition in America shifts the Democrats steadily to the Right. Thus, President Clinton denied "drug offenders" access to public housing or education. It was the new Democrats and "our first black President" as Toni Morrison once - perhaps too glowngly - called him who consolidated this system to "compete for votes" in an atmosphere where the truth could not be said.

In contrast, Michelle Alexander names the prison system. She invites, at last, the truth to set us free...

In the early 1970s, there were but 300,000 prisoners total when the US just rivaled apartheid South Africa. But today there are 2 and 1/2 million - 8 times as many. Now America's prisons dwarf all the tyrannies in the world. Over half the "convictions" are drug-related. If you are caught with or framed for marijuana or crack, you have no life. You are subjected to a system which steals your future, treats you as a nonexistent, a pariah, makes jail – increasingly privatized prisons – the only place you might survive in (they will probably even cut off the bad food in jail now as the Koch brothers and other predatory capitalists rampage). And you cannot vote. You have no voice.

In speaking, Michelle Alexander told the story of a few community radicals who put up fliers calling for a meeting about the New Jim Crow. She looked at the fliers, but didn’t believe them. She was then the leading civil rights attorney in northern California for the ACLU, a lawyer who knew how bad the treatment of individuals was, but could not see the whole picture. John Roberts really couldn’t be a stone racist and fascist. The Supreme Court couldn’t be the instrumentality for preserving a New Jim Crow…

Many very good people who fight against the drug laws also don’t see the anchor of these laws in racism. Glenn Greenwald did a wonderful report last year on how Portugal decriminalized marijuana and how both the use of marijuana and imprisonment in Portugal declined afterward. It would be smart here as he underlines. But Glenn did not see (and I did not see reading his report) the centrality of racism.

Andrew Sullivan, the adept gay Tory blogger, fights intelligently against the drug war and the criminalization of marijuana. And yet his one really retrograde view is a surviving belief in the fraud of Charles Murray and pseudoscientific racism about IQ. Andrew doesn't see how racism is the root of the vast American prison-industrial complex to which the drug laws are a feeder. He doesn't understand that exposing racism - tearing down the "mental chains," as William Blake once said - is vital to understanding the American police state, the new Jim Crow (Solzhenitsyn did not just describe Soviet gulags: Russia is now America, a prison system that dwarfs all others).

Some Democratic governors like former Governor Ritter of Colorado try to cut down the immense prison system around the edges to balance the budget. These are acts of desperation for such people, but underline a public possibility. Some of American militarism - one month of expenditures on the occupation of Afghanistan could pay the deficits of every state where Koch Brothers-financed "governors" seek to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights. Similarly, some of the money spent on jailing - warehousing - two and one-half million prisoners, many innocent of any significant crime and stigmatized for life, could go into paying such debts or putting people to work. But of course, Ritter, "tough on crime," a former Attorney-General, did not see this possibility. He could not "let my people go." He sought only to cut some costs, not to think about freedom, democracy and the misuse of "law." But in the current context, there is space to raise this issue forcefully from below.

My friend Rachel Harding sent me the interview below with Michelle Alexander. In it, she tells a story, beautiful and painful, of how she came to be who she is:

“You know, even though I was a civil rights lawyer, and I felt like I was working for racial justice and all that, I believed many of the myths of the drug war and our criminal justice system. There was one incident that kind of woke me up.”

”I was interviewing a bunch of young black men as potential plaintiffs in a racial profiling suit [the ACLU was] planning to file against the Oakland Police Department. This one kid came in — he was probably 18 or 19 — and he had this stack of papers with him and had documented his series of stops and searches over a nine-month period in his neighborhood. He had names, dates, witnesses, names of officers, badge numbers: just an incredible amount of detail and documentation. The kid was bright, well-spoken, charismatic. And I just thought, `He is our dream plaintiff.' He was talking to me and he said something that made me think, ‘Wait. Are you a drug felon?’”

Our staff — I was directing the ACLU’s Racial Justice project at the time — we were screening people for drug penalties, because we felt we couldn’t have a main plaintiff who had a criminal history. And I said, ‘Did you say you had a drug felony?’ And he just gets quiet and he’s, like, ‘Yeah, I have a drug felony, but I was framed. The police planted drugs on me and beat up my friends.’ He starts telling me this whole, long story about how he was set up by the police and all this. And I was, ‘I am so sorry, we cannot represent you if you have a drug felony. The media will be all over you.’”

“And he just keeps telling me about how he was framed and telling me this story about the officer and I just keep apologizing and trying to shut him down and really just move him along. And he becomes enraged, just enraged. And he starts yelling at me, ‘You are no better than the police. The minute I tell you I’m a felon, you just stop listening. You can’t even hear what I have to say.’ He goes, ‘What am I supposed to do? I can’t get a job now, I can’t get housing, I’m living in my grandmother’s basement, I can’t even get food stamps, I can’t take care of myself as a man. What’s to become of me? What’s to become of me?’ And he is yelling at me and he snatches all those papers out of my hand and he starts ripping them up, throwing them around the room, turns around, takes off.”

“Months later, I’m doing this public access television show in his neighborhood, trying to organize thousands of people to go to the state capitol to protest the governor’s racial profiling legislation. As soon as the show is over, he comes bursting in, carrying this dirty potted plant, thrusting it in my arm, all emotional. He says, ‘I’m here to apologize for treating you that way. I would have bought you some flowers, but I’m still living in my grandmother’s house. I snatched this plant off her front porch. I just want to give you something to say I’m sorry.’ I’m, like, ‘It’s okay.’ He turns around, I’m chasing after him, he takes off in this broke down car.”

“Several months after that, I’m in my office, open up the newspaper. What’s on the front page? Gang of officers, otherwise known as a drug task force, planting drugs on people, beating suspects. And who’s identified as the ring leader? The officer he had identified to me as having planted drugs on him and beat his friend up. And the light bulb went on: ‘Wow, he’s right about me. I’m no better than the police.’ I just started questioning myself: ‘How am I as a civil rights lawyer, just replicating all the same forms of discrimination I say I’m out here fighting against?’”

“That’s when I really started asking myself some questions about my own biases and assumptions. That was the beginning of my journey of listening more carefully, doing a ton of research, trying to get to the bottom of what was really going on and what I learned just really blew my mind. The more I dug and the more I listened, the more that I just came to see that those folks who are claiming mass incarceration is the new slavery, the new Jim Crow, they weren’t crazy. There was something going on here that people like me had been willing to just dismiss.”

Rosette Royale, the interviewer. rightly responds: “Wow.”

Alexander does not say whether she caught up to this young man (since she knew his neighborhood and his name, perhaps she did). But to how many could even she not catch up?

She recognized that he was right, that she as an ACLU civil rights lawyer was as rotten to him as the police. Yet he came and apologized to her as she spoke against racial profiling. Her book, The New Jim Crow, is her apology to him and all those others, and a call to action to anyone who would like be a citizen of a democracy, live in a decent place. She is the voice of a new movement, making it clear that black and brown and white and Asian and native american, we are all connected. We must tear down those prisons, tear down the mental walls that separate us, to fight for a free society. There will be no democracy with these segregationist drug laws and superprisons.

In addition, at Abu Ghraib, Corporal Charles Graner came from the Ameican South and brought some of the tortures he had learned in American prisons working on blacks – forcing the men to wear women’s panties on their heads, for example – to his work for Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rice predators on Arabs. The racism here in America is the secret of the racism Bush and Cheney oversaw there. Anti-Arab racism licenses crazed and self-defeating American aggressions – and the fascists (neocons), from Project for a New American Century– now rebranded like Blackwater/Xe as the "Foreign Policy Initiative" – are urging Obama to invade Libya. See here. The policies have become so destructive – even Pentagon Secretary Robert Gates warned against any invasion like Afghanistan or Inaq in future when he spoke this weekend at West Point here - that the neocons have trouble gathering elite support. To enact such self-destructive polices would take “electing” one of the Republican fools, most likely General Petraeus, or Hilary Clinton in 2012 or 2016. Unless there is a big movement from below to change things – think Wisconsin, the possibility crystallizing before our eyes – such wars would finish off America (it would become Pottersville in ”It’s a Wonderful Life” or something more desolate).

Alexander shows us that the root of the American madness is the renewed prevalence of Jim Crow in American life. She is a brilliant speaker, one whose force grows on you as she talks and then answers questions. Prison has always been moved far away from workers as a place of divide and rule (see Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish of which his chapter on these divisions and the Fourierists trying to break them down in France in the 1830s and 1840s is the most striking Marxian account).

I had to go pick up my son before the question period ended. Standing at the back, wanting to hear more, I listened as Alexander explained how it was very important to hear people’s stories. This is, of course, a great emphasis of Vincent Harding who has an exceptionally deep understanding of democracy. But it was only when I reread this interview that the story of this brave, smart and decent young man who “cannot be a man,” support himself and a family through work, whose charisma came across to Michelle Alexander but who is nameless in the story –illustrated for me what she meant.

This will be a difficult fight. The stigmization of young urban black men is the centerpiece of American racism. Attack that, and the oligarchy will crumble. White and Chicano and Asian and Native American prisoners – no one wants to hear from or hear about them either. If it was hard for Michelle Alexander to hear this young man, how hard would it be for any of the rest of us? Who gives former prisoners, black, Chicano, Asian, native American and white, a chance? Who hears their stories, is willing to listen, realizes that there but for the grace of god, go I? To paraphrase Martin Niemoller’s stories about Nazi muderousness, first I would not hear the stories of the Communists and the union leaders and the Jews...and finally they came for me and there was no one left to hear mine. If democracy and the rule of law hang by a thread in America, the prison system, the draconian, sentence specifying drug laws and the New Jim Crow are the reason.

Last Thursday, Alexander spoke with Harding at Manual High. Vincent told me later that he had asked questions and listened. She had invited the thoughts of the students there and when they talked about their own experiences and the pressures – the harassment and disregard - of the police and the law, she had told them of growing up poor. There were 10 times, she said, when she had brushes with the law, could have gotten into trouble, could have fallen into the system, and never became the civil rights attorney for the ACLU. Vincent also said to me that people had spoken of her as the Ida B. Wells of the new Jim Crow. That Vincent said this was of course enough for me. See here, here, and here.

Ida B. Wells took care of her young siblings by becoming a teacher when her parents were swept away by small pox. Prefiguring Rosa Parks 80 years before, she refused to move to the back of a segregated train when asked, bit the conductor's hand (he had to get several to remove her) and fought a court case about it. She became a fiery newspaper reporter in Memphis. Three of her friends owned the People’s Grocery which had become a competitor with white grocery stores. They were lynched. Blacks were not allowed to buy guns in Memphis to defend themselves. In the newspaper Free Speech and Headlight, Wells wrote:

"The city of Memphis has demonstrated that neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the white man or become his rival. There is nothing we can do about the lynching now, as we are out-numbered and without arms. The white mob could help itself to ammunition without pay, but the order is rigidly enforced against the selling of guns to Negroes. There is therefore only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons."

Wells founded the NAACP along with W.E.B. Dubois. She is a fiery voice in fighting the degradation of America. Vincent, I and Aljosie Knight discussed how you can fight these things and not burn up (he suggested that a certain kind of spirituality, Christianity in his and Martin Luther King’s – and perhaps the whole Southern civil rights movement’s - case helps; this makes sense to me). But the fire keeps one going, too. Wells said: if I could steal all the people away from this terror, I would. We now, after long struggle, have a possibility of an egalitarian and integrated society. We will have such a society where everyone has equal rights, everyone is human, mutual recognition exists or America will destroy itself.

If you read one book in the next few months, read Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, and do something about it. The campaign to bring this awareness widely to the American people – something that can be done swiftly in the midst of Wisconsin and similar protests (I was at a protest of 3,000 in Denver at the Capitol Saturday) – is of cardinal importance. Michelle has named this system and issued a call to fight back. Invite her to your city or go and hear her when she comes. She is a voice of this new movement. I for one am glad enough for any opportunity to join in.

Real Change Newsletter
February 9, 2011, Vol: 18 No: 06

One nation, under lock and key
by: Rosette Royale, Assistant Editor

With millions of black males incarcerated, lawyer and author Michelle Alexander says only a social movement will change the criminal justice system

Imagine you could arrest every single person in Houston, Texas, and toss them behind bars. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But maybe, in some sense, something similar has already happened. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly 2.3 million people exist in prisons and jails.
That’s how many people live in Houston, the country’s fourth-largest city.

Nearly 60 percent of those locked up were nabbed for drug related crimes. Of the more than two million who are incarcerated, 38 percent are black; in 20 states, the number of black people behind bars far exceeds the number who aren’t. And these figures don’t include people on probation or parole. What, you might be inclined to ask, is going on here?

Michelle Alexander, a lawyer who directed the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project of Northern California, set out to get some answers to this question. What she found distressed her. Our country’s mass incarceration has come as a direct result of polices that target poor people of color, policies that have national precedent. The evidence to support her claims fills the pages of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” (The New Press, $27.95), a sobering look at how we’ve become the nation with more people incarcerated than any other.

In town to give a number of talks sponsored by the Bush School’s Diversity Speaker Series, Alexander, currently an Associate Law Professor at Ohio State University, sat down at Mount Zion Baptist Church to discuss what she’s learned. She spoke not only of how and why these inequities arose, but how, in an unexpected twist, her early belief in the criminal justice system may have contributed to the problem.

So you wrote a book called “The New Jim Crow.” First, let’s start with the old Jim Crow. What’s that?

Well, the old Jim Crow is a system of rules, laws, policies and customs that served to lock a group of people defined by race into a permanent second-class status. Jim Crow laws authorized discrimination in virtually every aspect of social, political and economic life. Most people think of Jim Crow as separate schools for black children and white, but of course Jim Crow laws also authorized discrimination in access to employment, housing, education, all sorts of public benefits, all sorts of public accommodations. It created a race-based regime of social control.

And the name Jim Crow. Where does that even come from?

Actually, it came from a song-and-dance routine and the character was named Jim Crow. It was a minstrel show that was mocking of African-Americans and celebrated the worst racial stereotypes that justified discrimination during that era. So Jim Crow was a pejorative term that came to be associated with all those forms of race discrimination.

So that was the old. And now, it seems we’re in the new. How do you define the new Jim Crow?

The new Jim Crow is a system of mass incarceration that serves to sweep millions of poor people, primarily poor people of color, into a permanent second-class status by law. It operates primarily through the war on drugs, which targets people overwhelmingly on the basis of race for drug crimes that are committed with equal frequency by people of all colors, sweeps them into the criminal justice system by the police who conduct stop-and-frisk operations in poor communities of color, brands them criminals and felons and then releases them into a parallel social universe in which they’re stripped of many of the basic rights won in the Civil Rights Movement, like the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, the right to be free from discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits. So many of the old forms of discrimination that characterized the old Jim Crow are suddenly legal again once you’ve been branded a criminal or a felon.

So I refer to the system of mass incarceration as the new Jim Crow, because I believe it is the moral equivalent of Jim Crow, but also because so many of the laws, policies and practices that were alive and well in the Jim Crow era are back.

Now with the old Jim Crow: How did it happen? Did people come together and decide, “We’re not going to allow them to vote, we’re not going to allow them to come to this restaurant.” Did people come up with a plan or [were there] incremental things that created the system?

Well, interestingly, the old Jim Crow arose at a time when poor people of all colors were beginning to unite in a movement for economic justice.

And when was this?

This was during the Populist era. There was an agrarian depression in the late 1800s and there was also an enormous amount of abuse of people working for railroads and other corporations. These circumstances created an economic and political environment for poor whites to join together with former slaves and their descendents for the first time in a meaningful movement for economic justice. Plantation owners and the corporate elite felt incredibly threatened by this interracial alliance of poor people and proposed Jim Crow laws to decimate this alliance. They started out by proposing disenfranchisement laws that were aimed, initially, at black folks, but the implicit threat was that white folks too might be disenfranchised if they didn’t get on board.

So when these laws were first proposed, Populist leaders resisted them on the grounds that this was an effort to drive a wedge between poor people of all colors. But soon, poor whites were persuaded to abandon their African-American allies and politicians began competing with each other to propose ever harsher and, in many cases, absurd forms of discrimination against African Americans. It set off a chain of events, which led to a complete collapse of political resistance to the emergence of Jim Crow in the South.

Interestingly, a very similar political dynamic gave rise to the war on drugs and the “Get Tough” movement. After formal, political civil rights had been won, Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders were beginning to turn their focus to economic rights and economic justice and were developing the Poor People’s Campaign, seeking to unite poor people of all colors. Pollsters and political strategists found that by using “Get Tough” rhetoric on issues of crime and welfare, they could appeal to poor and working class whites who were feeling threatened by and anxious about the gains of African Americans and persuade them to defect from the Democratic New Deal coalition and join the Republican party in droves. It was part of what was known as the “Southern strategy,” attempting to flip the South from blue to red. In the words of H.R. Haldeman, President Richard Nixon’s former chief of staff, ‘The whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.’ It’s a direct quote from him about what they were up to and the plan worked like a charm.

So when President Reagan declared the “War on Drugs” in 1982, he did so at a time when drug crime was actually on the decline. It was a couple of years before crack became a big issue in the media and was sweeping inner cities. He declared the drug war in an attempt to make good on campaign promises and they got lucky though, because crack hit the streets. A few years later the Reagan administration seized on the development by hiring staff to feed stories to the media about crack babies that helped to fuel public hysteria, and that wave of punitiveness then swept the United States. Soon Democrats were starting to compete to win back those white swing voters — those Reagan Democrats — who had defected from the Democratic Party in droves. Bill Clinton escalated the drug war far beyond what Reagan had done, and championed laws banning offenders from food stamps, from public housing, from federal financial aid for education: All those forms of discrimination formed the basic architecture of this new caste system. Within a few short decades, this vast, new under-caste emerged that swept millions of folks for primarily non-violent and drug-related offenses, the same types of crimes that occur with roughly equal frequency in middle class communities, on college campuses and universities that get ignored. Millions of folks.

You’re breaking my heart. So when did you realize this? Was there something that you recognized?

You know, even though I was a civil rights lawyer, and I felt like I was working for racial justice and all that, I believed many of the myths of the drug war and our criminal justice system. There was one incident that kind of woke me up.

I was interviewing a bunch of young black men as potential plaintiffs in a racial profiling suit [the ACLU was] planning to file against the Oakland Police Department. This one kid came in — he was probably 18 or 19 — and he had this stack of papers with him and had documented his series of stops and searches over a nine-month period in his neighborhood. He had names, dates, witnesses, names of officers, badge numbers: just an incredible amount of detail and documentation. The kid was bright, well-spoken, charismatic. And I just thought, “He is our dream plaintiff.” He was talking to me and he said something that made me think, “Wait. Are you a drug felon?”

Our staff — I was directing the ACLU’s Racial Justice project at the time — we were screening people for drug penalties, because we felt we couldn’t have a main plaintiff who had a criminal history. And I said, “Did you say you had a drug felony?” And he just gets quiet and he’s, like, “Yeah, I have a drug felony, but I was framed. The police planted drugs on me and beat up my friends.” He starts telling me this whole, long story about how he was set up by the police and all this. And I was, “I am so sorry, we cannot represent you if you have a drug felony. The media will be all over you.”

And he just keeps telling me about how he was framed and telling me this story about the officer and I just keep apologizing and trying to shut him down and really just move him along. And he becomes enraged, just enraged. And he starts yelling at me, “You are no better than the police. The minute I tell you I’m a felon, you just stop listening. You can’t even hear what I have to say.” He goes, “What am I supposed to do? I can’t get a job now, I can’t get housing, I’m living in my grandmother’s basement, I can’t even get food stamps, I can’t take care of myself as a man. What’s to become of me? What’s to become of me?” And he is yelling at me and he snatches all those papers out of my hand and he starts ripping them up, throwing them around the room, turns around, takes off.

Months later, I’m doing this public access television show in his neighborhood, trying to organize thousands of people to go to the state capitol to protest the governor’s racial profiling legislation. As soon as the show is over, he comes bursting in, carrying this dirty potted plant, thrusting it in my arm, all emotional. He says, “I’m here to apologize for treating you that way. I would have bought you some flowers, but I’m still living in my grandmother’s house. I snatched this plant off her front porch. I just want to give you something to say I’m sorry.” I’m, like, “It’s okay.” He turns around, I’m chasing after him, he takes off in this broke down car.

Several months after that, I’m in my office, open up the newspaper. What’s on the front page? Gang of officers, otherwise known as a drug task force, planting drugs on people, beating suspects. And who’s identified as the ring leader? The officer he had identified to me as having planted drugs on him and beat his friend up. And the light bulb went on: “Wow, he’s right about me. I’m no better than the police.” I just started questioning myself: “How am I as a civil rights lawyer, just replicating all the same forms of discrimination I say I’m out here fighting against?”

That’s when I really started asking myself some questions about my own biases and assumptions. That was the beginning of my journey of listening more carefully, doing a ton of research, trying to get to the bottom of what was really going on and what I learned just really blew my mind. The more I dug and the more I listened, the more that I just came to see that those folks who are claiming mass incarceration is the new slavery, the new Jim Crow, they weren’t crazy. There was something going on here that people like me had been willing to just dismiss.

Wow. How have people responded to your book?

There’s been a wide range of responses, for sure. But I have to say I’ve been really pleasantly surprised. A lot of people who were my mentors told me don’t write it, people aren’t going to want to hear it, you’re going to ruin your career. You know: Don’t go there. I just felt like this is what I had to say. So I didn’t really know what to expect. But there’s been just a tremendous amount of support. People are more ready to hear this message today than they have been in the past.

That’s not to say everybody’s been happy with it [laughs]. And interestingly, while there have been lots of churches that have invited me to come speak, some of my most difficult moments have come from some black church leaders, who have argued real strenuously that these black men are just failing our communities, they’ve got to get their act together, you can’t be making excuses for them. Some black ministers, sometimes in poor communities, say, `We brought this all on ourselves.” It’s just not the case. So we have our work cut out for us.’

So what do we do? It’s heartbreaking to hear that we had this coalition of poor people of all races that was broken not once, but twice.

I think therein lies the answer. We have got to get serious about building a movement that bridges the gaps between poor people of all colors. There’s just no way around it. Even if mass incarceration fades away or recedes, something new will come along. Forty years ago, nobody — I mean nobody — was predicting mass incarceration. Most criminologists thought prisons, as a system of control, were going to fade away. The overwhelming evidence was that prisons created more crime then they prevented or solved. So I think even if mass incarceration begins to fade away, nobody can predict what new systems might emerge if we fail to deal with these racial divisions that give rise to these systems of control. So nothing short of a major social movement has any hope.

If we were to just go back to the rates of incarceration we had in the 1970s, before the “Get Tough” movement, we’d have to release four out of five people who are in prison. Four out of five. A million people employed by the criminal justice system would lose their jobs. Prisons across America would have to close down. Private prison companies would have to watch their earnings vanish. I mean, this system isn’t just going to go away without a major fight. And so all of these policy reform groups and civil rights organizations that are tinkering around, arguing about whether sentences should be 10 years or 25: We are going to have to do more than tinker. It’s going to take a major shift in our public consciousness, an upheaval, even to get back to those rates of incarceration that we had in the 1970s that people then were complaining about being too high.

So that’s the thing: I want this book to be a wake-up call to folks. I had my awakening. I want other people to wake up and say, “This enormous system, which is rooted in our racial divisions and anxieties, is not going away. It’s not going away unless we get organized and develop a real critical, political consciousness in the communities most affected.”

And there you have it.

And there it is.

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