On Race, Police, and Incarceration

Recently the Isthmus published an article which gave brief mention to my position on the hot issue of the Dane County Jail and my support for alternatives to incarceration such as work-sentencing programs: especially those revolving around agriculture. This report is correct; I believe that the essential function of “corrections” should be to grow individuals’ skill-sets and self confidence as well as foster improved connections to their communities. It was not mentioned that I also believe that all workers are deserving of earning a reasonable wage. That is: all who do work, whether the circumstances under which they work are freely chosen or not, deserve a reasonable wage.

When the subject of agricultural education and training programs for HUBER inmates — programs which would, as proposed, have been conducted on county land and with county-paid instructors — came up last Spring before the county board the county executive declined to pursue the idea. I believe that things will go differently next time. Work-sentencing is an excellent way to reduce the expense we pay towards a wholly unjust institution and if we can keep people in their own communities rather than removing them the positive impact will be immeasurable. Likewise, this is an opportunity to redirect Federal and State funds which should have already been going to programs which educate and provide greater economic opportunity for people…

Just a few days ago Dane Co. Supervisor John Hendrick introduced a resolution which would guarantee that inmates are paid at least the Federal minimum wage for all work that they perform. This is a laudable proposal and I applaud Mr. Hendrick for his work.

Back to the Isthmus, here are my thoughts on jails:

I don’t believe that the modern American penal system is corrective or “restorative” by any stretch of the imagination. How do we correct behaviors that stem from the traumas of physical, mental, or emotional abuse? It is childhood trauma and neglect, lack of guidance and the absence of empathetic persons in positions of authority which shape young minds into anti-social adults. It is material poverty which drives most of the activity deemed “criminal” by today’s justice system.

So how does locking someone up solve the problem? The answer is, of course, that it doesn’t. It merely quarantines them. Not only that, but it turns its victims into sources of extremely cheap labor. In America that labor is taken full advantage of…producing goods sold by major American retailers, fighting fires (in California), doing highway cleanup (everywhere) which would otherwise be performed by unionized state or city workers, and through companies like UNICOR producing attire which is worn by our military. This is the true purpose of the system, and it is working exactly how it was intended to.

Our prison system has taken on the appearance of a pre-civil war era Southern plantation. Is this by accident? Some of the earliest prisons in the country were built in order to temporarily hold enslaved Africans as their captors moved through towns, and today’s Rangers (a la Walker of Texas) can trace their origins to roving bands of slave-catchers. Slavery was the law and the Rangers, usually poor whites who would otherwise be working as share-croppers themselves, who were paid and told by the land-holding gentry that they were deserving of special distinction above blacks, were more than happy to enforce it. What better way to convince themselves things weren’t so bad despite the inequalities in wealth and ownership of resources which were part-and-parcel of their daily lives? Such delusion runs rampant in our society today, just as it did then.

How have we arrived at our current levels of racial disparity in incarceration? The answer to this question is the same answer as we may give to the question of disparities in education and employment, and it is this: Following the verdict in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 a group of 101 Southern politicians came together to put forward what they dubbed the “Southern Manifesto.” It was presented on March 12th, 1956, with the expressed purpose of reversing the results of the ruling by all available legal means. The means which they chose were the de-funding of now-desegregated public schools. Systematically-advantaged whites could enroll their children in private schools, the reasoning went, while blacks who did not enjoy the same privilege would have no choice but to continue relying on the public system. The strategy has been very successful, and over the subsequent decades the cuts to our schools have continued in an ever-more frenzied fashion. At the same time the welfare system has been dismantled. The easily foreseeable result of these cuts for historically-disadvantaged communities, especially communities of color, has been the continual increase in rates of poverty. The criminalization of activities such as trading and selling drugs, a reliable method of gaining income for those not granted legitimacy by the [white, male] power structure, closed the loop, and by redirecting funds which would otherwise have gone to education and basic support for those who most needed it into the prison system the fate of black communities was sealed. We now pay $40,000 per year for every Federal prisoner. These are individuals who would otherwise be working and raising families, who might have received an excellent education if it had not been decided that the money would be better used to lock them up. This is the new plantation and it is a stain on the fabric of our nation.

In the North, the modern system of policing evolved along a slightly different, though convergent route. As Sam Mitrani, Associate Professor of History at the College of DuPage and author of “The Rise of the Chicago Police Department: Class and Conflict 1850-1894” writes for LAWCHO.org:

“The police were not created to protect and serve the population. They were not created to stop crime, at least not as most people understand it. And they were certainly not created to promote justice. They were created to protect the new form of wage-labor capitalism that emerged in the mid to late nineteenth century from the threat posed by that system’s offspring, the working class.

Before the nineteenth century, there were no police forces that we would recognize as such anywhere in the world. In the Northern United States, there was a system of elected constables and sheriffs, much more responsible to the population in a very direct way than the police are today. In the South, the closest thing to a police force was the slave patrols. Then, as Northern cities grew and filled with mostly immigrant wage workers who were physically and socially separated from the ruling class, the wealthy elite who ran the various municipal governments hired hundreds and then thousands of armed men to impose order on the new working class neighborhoods.

Class conflict roiled late nineteenth century American cities like Chicago, which experienced major strikes and riots in 1867, 1877, 1886, and 1894. In each of these upheavals, the police attacked strikers with extreme violence, even if in 1877 and 1894 the U.S. Army played a bigger role in ultimately repressing the working class. In the aftermath of these movements, the police increasingly presented themselves as a thin blue line protecting civilization, by which they meant bourgeois civilization, from the disorder of the working class. This ideology of order that developed in the late nineteenth century echoes down to today – except that today, poor black and Latino people are the main threat, rather than immigrant workers.”

So we can see quite clearly why the Young, Gifted, and Black Coalition might propose the elimination of police contact in Madison’s communities of color. We can see why people protesting the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Dontre Hamilton, Tamir Rice, and the countless other victims of a flawed social philosophy have faced severe backlash from law enforcement in cities around the country. The concentration of power in the hands of police has increased over the past decades, and especially since America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. With surplus military weapons now being fed to local law enforcement agencies around the country it is no wonder that many of the people in whose hands the power has been concentrated have become unable to wield it responsibly. Consider also the macabre irony that weapons created to kill dark-skinned foreigners have now been turned on our own populations of color…but even this follows a well-established historical precedent.

As Steven Thrasher writes for The Guardian:
“The War Machine has always had an insatiable need for bodies of color from before the birth of this nation. The genocide of Native Americans, the Atlantic Slave trade of Africans, the conquest of Mexicans, the colonization of Filipinos and Hawaiians, the mass importation of Chinese workers subsequently denied citizenship under the Chinese Exclusion Act: the War Machine created and then expanded the size of the United States using non-white bodies, waging war against them, and making them second-class citizens (when it deigned to make them citizens at all). Though the 13th Amendment ended legal slavery, it did not end the War Machine’s assault on black people, which has simply morphed from slavery, sharecropping and Jim Crow segregation, to modern day schools which are just as segregated, police violence, economic exploitation and mass incarceration. The War Machine has so effectively decimated the black community, for example, that for the few of us who do manage to get, say, an education, it is almost meaningless as a way to move up in the world.

The Black Lives Matter movement is about more than just justice for our deaths: it’s about the depreciation of black life in the service of accumulation of stuff for white people, from slavery to “security” to shopping. This status quo is protected,often violently, by police. And now as the War on Terror (allegedly) scales down, there is an oversupply of “stuff” used to commit violence in the name of quelling it – and an undersupply of violence to quell. The “ongoing slippage between policing and war that still visibly characterizes the present”, as the historian Nikhil Pal Singh recently observed, shouldn’t be seen as mere coincidence: it’s the War Machine coming home, and coming home as hungry as ever.”

We now must start the great task of dismantling this system of oppression. It will not be easy, because almost everything we know has been built on it, but if we do not begin now then our children will be crushed under its immeasurable weight, condemned to a new and universal slavery. Orwell’s perpetual war has nearly been realized, and if we are to escape it we must turn our attention now to a totally different way of life.

In Norway they take quite a different approach than that taken in most industrial countries to solving the problems of anti-social behavior. What is their approach? They treat people like human beings. There jails are set up as small villages where inmates are given roles and responsibilities. This is not true of every jail, but the model is being employed in some areas and with great success. Inmates are provided with opportunities to learn useful skills and to situate themselves within a social network, preparing them for life on the outside as rehabilitated citizens. The recidivism rate is extremely low when compared to places such as Great Britain or the United States and there are no life sentences.

For another model we can look to the pre-Columbian period during which this land held a population roughly equal to that of today. There were no jails or structures built for the capture and detention of individuals before the arrival of the white man. So how did they deal with the social conflicts which inevitably arise during the course of human interactions? The inhabitants of Turtle Island (North America) kept what were known as Peace Villages. The Peace Villages were places, under the auspices of Peace Chiefs, where individuals who had broken the social contract could go for a period of up to one year to wash themselves of their transgressions through meditation, physical training, ceremony, and restricted diet. No blood could be spilled, neither human nor animal, in these villages, and the Peace Chief conducted different rites and rituals to maintain the space. Members of warring tribes could occupy these spaces and rest even in the midst of conflicts, and many whites who had been forced out of their communities found their way to these places. After one year, even if they had committed murder, individuals who were sent to the Peace Village would be allowed to return to their homes where they would be welcomed back with the understanding that they had performed proper penance and were prepared to rejoin communal life. It is a shameful and absurd irony that we who decimated the native way of life would dare to call ours the Land of the Free when it was only truly so before our arrival.

I believe that we can look to these models of respect and restorative justice to guide our policies here in Madison. The first step is to acknowledge that in many ways our current model of incarceration, punishment, and extraction (both of capital as fines and court costs and of labor) does not strengthen but actually weakens our communities. The second step is to begin thinking of ways by which we can build trust and equity in the application of justice. We must recognize that many of our laws are designed more around property rights and the guarantee that people of privilege may conduct their business undisturbed by the complaints of those without than around a truly equitable and pro-social model. Third, we must pursue programs which offer people the opportunity to build connections rather than relying on practices which sever them.

These are the fact, and they must be acknowledged. My personal belief is that we must strive to create a society which is free of the need for police and jails, one which offers opportunities for all people, one which is based on mutual respect and cooperation. It is class division which foments violence, which creates a need for a class of enforcers to prevent those who have been systematically denied the privileges which the few have claimed for their own from casting their oppressors away.

Despite the tones mentioned in the Isthmus; as mayor I would not dissolve the police department, because it would not be my lot to do so. It is the will of the people of Madison which I am responsible to, and only when the whole of society was ready to do so would it be a reasonable action to take. My commitment is instead to create the conditions which will lead us away from the need for these systems. It is my ambition to make ours’ a Peace City.