“The Drug War was indeed the New Jim Crow”
This is a transcript of Dennis Loo’s prepared remarks at a Cal Poly Pomona Symposium on Stop Mass Incarceration, Police Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation on the evening of October 21, 2014.
Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, recounts at the beginning of her book that when she first began working as a civil rights attorney over a decade ago, the prevailing view was that the battle for civil rights had essentially been won and that the main battlefront in defending those gains was in affirmative action cases and so on, a view that matched her own attitude at the time.
One day she spotted a flyer stuck on a post that said in big letters: “The Drug War is the New Jim Crow.” Her response at the time was that this was a gross overstatement that would turn people off who would think that it was “crazy.” It took her years, even after leaving her work at the ACLU, to realize that the criminalization of millions of people of color was going on right in front of her nose and that the slogan was not an exaggeration at all. The Drug War was indeed the New Jim Crow, a way of rendering black and brown people to a permanent second-class caste status, robbed of their rights, deprived of any housing assistance, the right to vote and serve on a jury, condemned to filling out job apps that asked the inevitable question that ruled you out of employment “have you ever been convicted of a felony?” all without being blatantly racist.
Why did it take her so long to see something that was now so painfully obvious to her? She describes it as due to her using the wrong paradigm to see the world. She had to change the paradigm with which she saw the world and then she could see that which had been so hidden. For those of you have taken other science classes, you know well what I’m talking about: paradigms are very powerful. They can either help you see or block your view, all without your awareness of such, like wearing a pair of blackout glasses without knowing that you’re even wearing glasses.
Today 2.2 million in the US are behind bars, another approximately 5 million in some other form of state supervision, probation, parole, ankle bracelet, etc. This adds up to some 7 million in a population of some 318 million, or more than two out of every hundred men, women, and children. The US’s incarceration rate is the highest in the world. The US has less than 5% of the world’s population but the US incarcerates 25% of all those behind bars in the world. Think about that: every fourth prisoner in the world is being held by the US!
Even when South Africa was under apartheid rule where blacks were officially and legally held in subordinated status, the US held more blacks in its jails and prisons both in absolute numbers and shockingly, in per capita terms, than Apartheid S. Africa! In NY under the “Stop and Frisk” policies the NYPD has since the 1990s stopped hundreds of thousands – nearly 680k in 2011 alone, for example – on the basis of police suspicion, which translates into in the vast majority of cases, you’re young, and black or brown, you’re guilty by virtue of your skin color.
You can be searched based on police’s say so alone and the Supreme Court has said that this is ok. An NYPD officer named Adrian Schoolcraft secretly taped NYPD officers ordering cops to stop and frisk blacks in Bedford-Stuyvesant in 2008-9. When he went public with this he was demoted to a desk job and then involuntarily committed to an insane asylum.
The logic behind these policies is the same logic that led George Zimmerman to murder Trayvon Martin, for jurors to find Zimmerman not guilty of murder, and to Michael Brown’s assassination by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who has still not been charged or disciplined in any way, and on and on, with black and brown people being suspicious on sight and subject to harassment, beatings, and murder. At least twice a week another black person is shot and killed by police in this nation, and yet, the President of the US is black, so hasn’t racism ended?
How can this be? Why does this continue to exist?
Let me give a very brief and concentrated overview of why I believe this is the case. It begins with the continuity between what goes on in torture camps abroad such as GTMO and torture camps here at home, otherwise known as US Correctional Facilities, where prisoners have been subjected to years of solitary confinement, a form of torture. This is no coincidence. It is the concrete implementation of a policy and a logic that is inescapable and inevitable under the current set of conditions that exist in the US and in the world.
In essence it is this: when the Cold War ended and the West, led by the US, declared its victory in the hot and cold war with communism and socialism, and when capitalist counter-revolutions under the signboard of a fake socialism occurred prior to this in the two main bastions of socialism, the USSR and China, the capitalist world no longer had any rivals that it had to contend with. This meant that the capitalist world no longer had to make any concessions to speak of to racial and ethnic minorities, to women, and to workers and others demanding better conditions and pay.
When the former socialist camp, that had had at one time more than 1/3 of the world’s population under its leadership, came apart, this meant that not only would the capitalist world not have to take into consideration that there was a genuine alternative to their way of organizing society so that they had to make concessions lest those under its rule decided in favor of a different form of society, but the formerly socialist countries’ population of more than a billion people could now be directly targeted for capitalist exploitation of their labor and their resources. The result of that? In one fell swoop, tens of millions of US workers became so much surplus labor from the standpoint of capital.
As Michelle Alexander further points out in her book, even when slavery was the law of the land in the US, there were some blacks who were free and some blacks who were even rich. The presence then of earlier generations’ versions of the Bill Cosby’s, Oprah Winfrey’s and Barack Obama’s did not contradict the existence of racism. Racism does not continue just because some southern whites can’t think straight bouncing around in their pickup trucks. Racism, sexism, class oppression and the plundering of the environment are indispensible to the existence of capitalism as a system of economic exploitation because it’s based on profit as the unassailable god.
What are you going to do with people who number in the tens of millions alone in this country if you have no real future for them in the workforce? If you can’t offer them a decent future and present, then what are these people going to be likely to do? They are likely to be rebellious and demand change on a fundamental level. How do you cope with that when you know, as the policymakers and big businesspeople know very clearly, that things are only going to get worse for the vast majority and most especially these disenfranchised sections of the population as the wealth continues to stream to the already obscenely rich and in particular the 85 individual richest people in the world, who have more than the bottom half of the world’s population? You treat these people like you’re an occupying army, which is exactly how the cops in St. Louis are acting, and you jack people among the most oppressed up on charges such as drug possession and distribution so that you can lock them up behind bars and you can without any consequences torture, shoot, or suffocate them to death.
This is a very simple logic and as I said, inescapable, because unless you do this, the people who catch the worst hell will demand a radical change in the economic system so that the relentless extraction of surplus value off of ever diminishing numbers of workers has to end. (See postscript below).
The reason why Obama hasn’t shut down GTMO yet, despite his promise to do so when he ran for office, and his continuing promises to do it – even though aside from a literal handful of those held there who actually are terrorists, the rest are guilty of nothing, even by the government’s own admission – is that this campaign of repression isn’t just in this country but it’s all over the world, a great deal of it directly under US leadership. GTMO is a symbol of the fact that the US government will do anything to anyone – including especially if you’re in fact innocent and the US government knows that you’re innocent – who poses any actual or potential resistance to US dominance. The logic of terror only works if it operates to repress or harm not just those who are actually guilty of crimes, but also against innocents. The nature of terrorism, whether anti-state or state, is that it is supposed to be indiscriminate so that whole populations will be terrified by it. You are supposed to think that you and yours could be the next arbitrarily chosen victims so that you are terrified to do anything but comply with what the terrorists want.
I will end on this note: the US is the most powerful empire ever next to possibly the other great empire, Rome. Empires do not become empires by being nice and being popular. They become empires because they massively exploit other countries and whole populations. They cannot continue to be empires without the use of terror. The question for those of us in this room and beyond these doors throughout the nation is whether or not those in power who govern this system will be able to continue to commit these atrocities in our names or not.
Postscript: The problem here, in other words, isn’t drugs or crime. These are merely scapegoats for the underlying problem, with minorities the prime targets of this scapegoating. The problem is that capitalist exploitation of labor (and the environment) will not and cannot provide for people’s needs and rights to work, a fundamental human right, so that everyone who can work would have useful work to do at decent pay. Instead, capitalism’s relentless drive for profits dictates that ever growing numbers of people will be laid off or never employed in any consistent way in the first place because exploitation of labor and rendering labor as powerless as possible relative to capital is the organizing principle. This is also why the earth itself is being systematically destroyed because protecting the environment is an “externality” as far as capitalism is concerned.
Dennis Loo is a member of the Steering Committee of World Can’t Wait.