Tag Archive: history lesson

How White Liberals Used Civil Rights to Create More Prisons

liberalprisonIn their quest to wipe out extra-legal racial violence, white liberals created a system that continues to kill black people—legally.

From The Nation

Neither liberals nor conservatives are chomping at the bit to discuss the historical roots of the modern gun-rights movement. If asked to describe it, liberals will gesture vaguely at the eighties and nineties, blaming survivalists, school shootings, “cold, dead hands” and the National Rifle Association. Conservatives, on the other hand, will jump the historical mark by some distance, talking about the founding fathers, the Second Amendment and the right to an armed militia. Neither side wants to admit that the first modern anti-carry law was passed by California Governor Ronald Reagan in 1967. Nor would they want to mention that Reagan passed the law to disarm the twentieth century’s greatest gun-rights militia: the Black Panther Party. Political genealogies in America are more mixed than the 24/7 news cycle will allow.

In her first book, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America, historian Naomi Murakawa demonstrates how the American prison state emerged not out of race-baiting states’-rights advocates nor tough-on-crime drug warriors but rather from federal legislation written by liberals working to guarantee racial equality under the law. The prison industry, and its associated police forces, spy agencies and kangaroo courts, is perhaps the most horrific piece of a fundamentally racist and unequal American civil society. More people are under correctional supervision in the United States than were in the Gulag archipelago at the height of the Great Terror; there are more black men in prison, jail or parole than were enslaved in 1850. How did this happen?

The common-sense answer is that launching the war on drugs during the backlash against civil-rights struggles encouraged agents of the criminal-justice system to lock up black people for minor infractions. This isn’t wrong, or not exactly. Ronald Reagan’s infamous Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which established federal minimums (a k a sentencing “guidelines”) and abolished parole in the federal prison systems, did lead to an explosion in the number of federal prisoners, particularly drug offenders. It was one of the pivotal moments in the production of the prison-industrial complex (PIC)—the overlapping sphere of government and industrial activity that employs hundreds of thousands of guards, cops, judges, lawyers, bail-bondsmen, administrators and service employees and which sees millions of prisoners performing barely paid production labor to generate profit. But, as Murakawa painstakingly demonstrates, the Sentencing Reform Act has a “liberal core,” and is built on the technical and administrative logic of racial fairness that structures all federal civil-rights legislation. (more…)

The Ex-Worker #32: White Supremacy and Capitalism, From 1492 to Ferguson

cop sniperFrom Crimethinc.

#32: White Supremacy and Capitalism, from 1492 to Ferguson – Rebellion has erupted around the country in the aftermath of grand jury decisions to allow the murderers of Mike Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York to go free without legal charges. Why did this happen, when authorities knew that this would spark furious protests and international condemnation? In Episode 32 of the Ex-Worker, Clara and Alanis try to understand the persistence of racist police violence by delving into the historical roots of capitalism and white supremacy in European conquest and colonization of the Americas and the transatlantic slave trade. Along with a survey of resistance and backlash since the grand jury announcements, we share excerpts from the recent feature “The Thin Blue Line is a Burning Fuse,” tracing the role of anti-police anger in catalyzing nearly all recent major social upheavals around the globe. [Agency] http://www.anarchistagency.com), a new anarchist media project, shares an excerpt from an article analyzing the Ebola outbreak and anarchist perspectives on public health. We run through a wide range of news, discuss listener comments on transcripts and international coverage, and even offer a radical holiday song!

You can download this and all of our previous episodes online. You can also subscribe in iTunes here or just add the feed URL to your podcast player of choice. Rate us on iTunes and let us know what you think, or send us an email to podcast@crimethinc.com. You can also call us 24 hours a day at 202–59-NOWRK, that is, 202–596–6975.

Police Violence Is Not A Problem Because Of Its Invisibility


Officers wearing riot gear walk through a park in downtown St. Louis on Sunday.

From Ben Brucato

For months, in response to the killing of Michael Brown, Ferguson and Saint Louis have been sites of ongoing rebellion, with frequent actions of solidarity throughout the United States. Last week, after a grand jury declined to indict Michael Brown’s murderer, Officer Darren Wilson, protests erupted across the country.

In response, today US President Obama proposed a national program to outfit 50,000 police officers with body-worn cameras. Many, including Michael Brown’s family, advocate in favor of wearable cameras for police. Rashad Robinson of ColorOfChange.org wrote today that, “If what happened between Mike Brown and Darren Wilson had been captured on video, we would not be here today—and Michael Brown might be alive.” This advocacy is predicated on the idea that police violence is a problem because it remains hidden.

For most of a century, police studies have operated under the idea that policing’s most crucial function—the use of force in the production of social order—is something that occurs outside of the public view. In their influential book, Above The Law, Jerome Skolnick and James Fyfe explained this hidden quality of policing has historically been a defining one, but that it was changed with the video recorded beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers.

Policing’s new visibility, as John B. Thompson calls it, is a consequence of surveillance that is rapidly approaching ubiquity. An institution once defined by operating outside of public view is now on exhibition as a result of cameras. Not only are private and government security cameras capturing many spaces—public and private alike—on video, but dash-mounted cameras in police cruisers and weapon-mounted cameras have produced a kind of self-surveillance (in addition to their primary intended functions of gathering evidence to criminally implicate civilians). On-officer wearable cameras, first developed by Taser, were developed from earlier stun-gun cameras (which, captured the moments before Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr. was shot and killed by police in White Plains, NY).

If we believe police violence is a problem as a result of it being hidden from public view, we should expect to see a crisis in the police institution over the past two decades since the beating of Rodney King. As Skolnick and Fyfe wrote, “in the absence of videotapes or other objective recording of gratuitous violence, brutality rarely causes public controversy and is extremely difficult to prove.” But as I wrote last week, police violence appears to be on the rise in the presence of this new visibility. As much as we might hope for a simple, technological fix to the problem of police violence, more cameras are not the answer. (more…)

Parchman Farm and the Quelling of Black Protest

From Prison Culture

I write often on this blog about the intersections between the carceral state and the history of black protest. Today I want to continue that exploration by focusing on the history of the Mississippi State Penitentiary also known as Parchman Farm. The prison has been memorialized by the famous Bukka White song “Parchman Farm Blues.”

Parchman Penitentiary – Early 1900s

Mississippi Governor James Vardaman who was elected in 1903 was an avowed racist but also virulently against convict leasing. His critique was that the lease system enriched specific individuals at the expense of the state. He advanced a proposal to create a state-run penal farm which led to the establishment of Parchman Prison Farm in 1904. So Parchman Farm was conceived as a reform project. Instead, it became notorious as one of the most racist, violent, and brutal prisons in America.

I will focus another day on the actual history of Parchman. Today, I will underscore the prison’s role as a tool to quell the dissent and protests of the Civil Rights movement. David Oshinsky (1996) writes that: “In the 1960s, Mississippi officials used the Delta prison to house — and break down — those who challenged its racist customs and segregation laws (p.233).” (more…)

The State As “Collective Slavemaster:” Criminalizing Black People After Emancipation

From Prison Culture

As I begin to think about pulling together an exhibition about confinement and captivity in black life, I am re-reading several books and articles about slavery and emancipation.

In Alabama, even before the Civil War, prisoners were responsible for their own court and incarceration costs at the county level. After the Civil War, this continued with one day in prison costing thirty cents. If prisoners could not pay, they served extra time and labored to pay the fees. While Alabama state prisoners had always worked, the state had never made a profit off their labor. This changed in 1875 when the state began to lease out prisoners for their labor to coal mines and to railroad companies. This money was essential to Alabama as the state was broke in the 1870s and prisoner labor helped to fill its coffers.

Alabama like many other Southern states desperately needed laborers for the lease system to work and they used the criminal code as a tool of racial discrimination. One cannot understand the racial subordination of black people post Emancipation without also exploring its links to the need in the south for a cheap and stable labor supply. Adolph Reed (1996) has described the state post-Emancipation as a “collective slavemaster.” This is an important insight that underscores the link between slavery and the continued criminalization of black bodies. (more…)