I began this blog in May 2009 following the death of Marcia Powell at Perryville State Prison in Goodyear, Arizona. It is not intended to prescribe the path that leads to freedom from the prison industrial complex.

Rather, these are just my observations in arguably the most racist, fascist, militaristic state in the nation at a critical time in history for a number of intersecting liberation movements. From Indigenous resistance to genocidal practices, to the fight over laws like SB1070 and the ban on Ethnic Studies, Arizona is at the center of many battles for human rights, and thus the struggle for prison abolition as well - for none are free until all are. I retired the blog in APRIL 2013.

Visit me now at Arizona Prison Watch or Survivors of Prison Violence-AZ

Sunday, July 5, 2009

What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?

I take the lessons for this post primarily from the research and analyses of WEB Dubois (Black Reconstruction) and Angela Davis, with apologies if I butcher their work. No good excuse for doing so.

The heading for today is from the classic 1852 address of black abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass, to an audience in Rochester, New York, which gathered to celebrate the 4th of July. His speech was impassioned and bold - stopping just short of damning the Constitution for institutionalizing slavery (which he did several years earlier, causing quite a stir). Even this speech must have made at least a few progressives squirm.

As well they should, expecting Douglass to revel with them in celebrating as universal the freedom of privileged white men, their soil enriched by the blood of slaves and their entitlement purchased with the lives of the lower classes.

I doubt that Douglass could have forseen in his lifetime the scope of African American disfranchisement, incarceration, and enslavement that still exists at the dawn of the 21st century. Too few Americans even now realize that while the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ended slavery as we knew it, it also contained a caveat that made the "duly convicted" into slaves of the state. Given the disproportionate numbers of people of color incarcerated or under state surveillance and control in the Land of the Free today, Douglass' question still seems appropriate. The SF Bay View printed some of the best portions of his speech on today's front page, to which the heading is also linked.

It didn't take long for industrialists and southern governments to realize what a gift the 13th Amendment was to the Reconstruction and Jim Crow South. By criminalizing and levying substantial penalties against blacks for being unemployed, drinking in public, wandering the countryside (common among the newly free trying to find their family), failing to be sufficiently deferential to whites, stealing discarded food, and essentially stepping foot outside their home - if they had one - a new slave population was quickly created to supply plantations with field hands once again, as well as to build roads, lay railroad tracks, and work in the coal mines. The notorious Angola Prison was built on a mammoth working plantation, where African American prisoners were subject to worse conditions that when the land was worked by slaves.

Prisons were few and far between - and mainly occupied by white men - prior to the civil war, many of whom were released to fight for the confederacy. Convict-leasing existed in some places to a limited degree before the war, but became a booming business only with the sudden liberation and consequent criminalization of millions of slaves - many impoverished, unemployed, landless, and with limited resources for survival. All they had to do was be convicted of something, and their re-enslavement was constitutional. Young black men in particular disappeared this way from their families for years. Once their labor was maximally exploited, black women were also sentenced to hard labor, as were even their children.

Under convict-leasing - probably the most egregious of state-sanctioned slavery, businessmen and industrialists would pay the state a fixed rate for the labor of each prisoner, often chaining them together at their work site - sometimes packing them into portable cages at night - forcing them to work to exhaustion under the threat of beatings, starvation, or death at the hands of hired thugs with guns. Food could be scarce, health care was non-existent, disease was rampant, and the work itself was often quite hazardous. Prisoners were clearly disposable, regardless of the nature of their crime, or even the possibility of their innocence. Who, after all, was going to come to their defense?

The state's response to the significant numbers of prisoner deaths was simply to replace them with more. Judges were often enough bribed to deliver harsh sentences to blacks being turned over to convict-lease programs, and states became dependent on this type of exploitation for substantial portions of their operating revenue. State-run chain gangs, privatization of the power to punish, and racial and class disparities in how laws were made and enforced and what sentences were applied flourished in this early era of the Jim Crow South.

For state governments, black "criminals" not only became cash cows, speeding economic recovery and industrialization of the South: their high visibility on chain gangs and in criminal garb helped reaffirm the racism that bolstered white supremacy across classes at a time when poor whites threatened to align themselves with the new black electorate. Unfortunately, the presumed criminality of African Americans was a near universal American ideology. Even Frederick Douglass failed to challenge this sinister social transformation, except to argue that it was the lingering effects of slavery, not anything inherent in being black, that turned so many of his people into petty thieves.

Because those enslaved now were "duly convicted" criminals, a large segment of the American public - ignorant to the miscarriages of justice that condemned these individuals to servitude and sometimes death - assumed that they were "getting what they deserved". Their cause was not a popular one at a time when the innocent were being lynched at alarming rates, entire black communities were being slaughtered, women were still fighting for the right to vote, and many labor unions were blaming impoverished black men for driving down wages and taking their jobs. Employers frequently strategically imported them as "scabs".

With just about anything eligible to be considered a crime (if perpetrated by a person of color), the gravity of the potential penalties were enough to give free people pause before attempting to assert their new found rights. In this way the system of criminal justice - particularly but not exclusively in the South - complimented extra-legal lynchings, both serving to repress not only their victims but also the rest of the African American populace.

Just as states managed to deprive African Americans of their 15th Amendment rights through a mix of legislation and intimidation early on, they eventually passed laws specifically depriving prisoners and ex-felons of their civil rights - including the right to vote, a double whammy to the black community, which has continued to be criminalized by racist legislation and application of laws and penalties. With up to a third of black male babies born today likely to face prison - at least on our current trajectory - a substantial number of African American citizens will continue to be excluded from participating in democratic processes even after they've served their time.

This history is important to understand as we are faced today with our own legislature's efforts to intensify the criminalization of another minority population as well those citizens who might aid and abet them. Despite evidence that prison privatization realizes no significant saving for states - and in fact has resulted in worse conditions, more assaults and escapes, and a host of other problems born of profiting from the exploitation of a captive, powerless population - Arizona's legislative leaders have also tried to sell off our prisons - as well as Death Row. The profit in the private prison business is realized not only by being paid by the donor state for each prisoner incarcerated (leading one to be concerned about their ability to extend length of stay through internal disciplinary processes in which there is no right to legal representation), but also by utilizing prisoner labor which can be compensated for as little as pennies a day - if at all.

Furthermore, this history better informs our understanding of the racist underpinnings of Joe Arpaio's highly publicized immigrant prisoner marches in chains through town. Even though most of his immigrant prisoners are pre-trial, and thus considered innocent, his insistence on dressing them in convict stripes, pink underwear, and leg irons reinforces public perceptions that a lot of people with brown skin in this state must be criminals or are here without documentation, and deserve the most humiliating treatment we can give them. Our Sheriff gets paid more for his entertainment value than his law enforcement abilities. Didn't the legislature (the half with power) just give him another $1.4 million to keep up his racial profiling? What a bunch of dopes.

Similarly, the media circus he encourages to profile his female chain gangs helps create negative stereotypes about female prisoners and facilitates public voyeurism around their captivity and oppression. Most disturbing about this is that those selected on media days are invariably grateful to "Sheriff Joe" for the chance to be on the chain gang where they can do something productive, and for the time they've had in Tent City to get their heads together (God bless that man). From their testimony we can rest assured that the only things errant and deviant women need to get back in line are hard work (in chains), a miserable living environment, and a strong man's firm hand.

Sounds like domestic violence to me.

I suspect that those women who might offer a more scathing critique of the sheriff's sexist, paternalistic, and racist practices tend not to be selected for interviews.

So, on that note, another 4th of July passes with millions of the poor, women, and people of color in this nation still in chains - both in and out of prison - and no end in sight. If anything, Arizona legislators want to put our slaves up on the auction block, and continue to sell off our poor's life-saving resources to the lowest bidders.

Happy Birthday, America.

1 comment:

  1. Why not free the monkeywrenchers, too? They're political prisoners.