Jan 4, 2016
The following is a shortened version of the presentation made at a Spark public meeting in Detroit.
Too many people in prison – that’s what politicians of both parties have been saying.
Too many? You bet! This country holds the sorry record for the highest rate of incarceration in the world. With less than 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. holds almost 24% of the world’s prisoners.
This is the result, not of increasing crime, but of the so-called “war on drugs,” which started under Nixon and continued under every president since. It was a 40-year revamping of the “criminal justice” system, which has condemned massive numbers of people to prison. In 2013, U.S. prisons and jails held almost 2.3 million adults and juveniles – seven times as many prisoners as they held in 1970.
The “war on drugs” was started under Nixon as a way to get him re-elected, and it was bullshit. Pardon the language, but that’s how a Nixon adviser, John Dean, described it: “I was cranking out that bullshit on Nixon’s crime and drug policy before he was elected. And it was bullshit, too. We knew it.”
But it was more than just election propaganda. The war on drugs was also used against a whole generation that had gone into the streets in the urban rebellions of the 1960s.
Another Nixon adviser, John Erlichman, later on wrote: “We understood we couldn’t make it illegal to be young or poor or black in the United States, but we could criminalize their common pleasure. We understood that drugs were not the health problem we made them out to be, but it was such a perfect issue that we couldn’t resist it.”
Drug laws were rapidly changed. In 1980, 41,000 people were sent to prison for a drug offense. By 2011, the number had reached 500,000, half a million people, 12 times as many. And despite all the talk about rounding up the big drug lords, more than three quarters of the people who went to prison for drugs went for simple possession, not for the large-scale sale or manufacture of drugs.
But other laws were also changed. Minor infractions – actions that had been called misdemeanors and ignored by the police – were turned into felonies, requiring mandatory prison time. A Rutgers University study concluded that 3/4 of all Americans break one of these new felonies, often without knowing it. But most people don’t go to prison – young men do, especially, young black men.
Congress and the states wrote thousands of repressive laws. One of the worst, the 1970 RICO statute was supposedly aimed against the Mafia. In fact, up until 1980, it was used against Civil Rights and Black Power activists (Black Panthers especially), people who organized against the Viet Nam war, people who organized for Puerto Rican independence, and against communists and socialists.
That statute is also the basis of the stop-and-frisk raids cops carry out in poor urban neighborhoods – which have led to so many young men being killed by the police.
This so-called “war on crime” was, in reality, a war on people. And it was directed by Washington. The federal government gave money to states and counties to get them to step up drug arrests and increase prison time.
At first, most police departments resisted the politicians’ call for a war on drugs. In cities beset by real crime, with murder an everyday occurrence, the last thing police wanted to do was round up people for smoking marijuana.
So, in 1994 under Clinton, Congress imposed quotas for drug arrests on local police departments. They had to meet their quota to get federal money.
Arrests in poor neighborhoods shot up. Cops were ordered to use every pretext: stop everyone, search everyone. If they found drugs, arrest them. It was a bounty system that filled the prisons to overflowing.
The federal government sponsored a boom in prison construction. In the 1990s alone, 3,300 new prisons were built, costing 27 billion dollars. Some Fortune 500 companies made big profits, building and running the prisons.
There may be some vicious people who become cops, some who are blatant racists. But that’s not all of them. There are always people who join the police as a job; some who become cops because they think they can make a difference in their old neighborhoods.
But it doesn’t matter what individual cops want to do. The police are used to enforce military repression on poor neighborhoods.
This is what pushes the cops into actions in which they kill young men on the street.
Look at how Michael Brown was killed by a cop in Ferguson Missouri. The police say they suspected him of shoplifting three cigarillos. But he was actually stopped for walking down the middle of a neighborhood street, a crime in Ferguson. He could have been stopped for wearing his pants too low, or wearing a hoodie that obscures his face. Those, too, are crimes in Ferguson and many other cities, pretexts used to stop anyone and everyone. A bullshit stop like this led to the shots that killed Michael Brown.
Look at how Freddie Gray was killed. Stopped on a Baltimore street corner – loitering as the cops would put it – he was stuffed into a police van after the cops found a pocket knife on him. He was given a “rough ride.” That’s the term Baltimore cops use for what they did – letting him bounce around the back of the van, unsecured by a seat belt.
The police control poor neighborhoods by pro-actively using violence to “teach young men a lesson.” Did the cops expect Freddie Gray’s neck to snap, for him to die? Probably not. But Freddie Gray did die....
Millions of young men and some young women have been swept up and locked away for such reasons – and sometimes killed.
Out of all proportion to their numbers, the people rounded up, picked up, sent to prison or killed are black. Black people are arrested more often than whites for drugs usage, even though black people don’t use drugs more often, as the U.S. Center for Disease Control concluded.
When picked up, black people are three times as likely to be charged as whites, when the offense is the same. When charged, they are almost two times as likely to be convicted. When convicted, they get longer sentences. A black man serves almost as much time for a drug offense (59 months) as a white man does for violent crime (62 months).
It’s obvious: in a racist society, law will be imposed in wildly discriminatory fashion.
But this is also the result of conscious choices made by the political class of this country. H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, recorded this conversation in the presidential diary for April 28, 1969: “The [president] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the WHOLE problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this, while not appearing to.”
The consequences of this vile calculation have been devastating for the black population. One third of all black men born since 1970 have spent time in prison. Over two-thirds of all black men without a high school diploma have spent time in prison.
In 1980 – before the harsh changes in criminal law really took effect – only 14% of black children were raised by one parent. Today, two-thirds of black children are raised by only one parent, mostly women. Such a rapid and enormous demographic change is almost unthinkable, and it is directly tied to policies that criminalized poor black men.
This prison-house regime may have started under Nixon for his own electoral purposes, but every president since, right up to and including Barack Obama, has helped to continue it. The capitalist class, which they serve, has been unable or unwilling to provide enough jobs to absorb the new generations of people coming up. It would reduce their profit. Instead of providing jobs for young people, they had them locked up.
This last July, Bill Clinton said he had made a mistake signing laws which he admitted put people in prison who shouldn’t have been there, kept others in prison for too long. And Clinton told the NAACP convention “he was sorry.”
“Sorry”???? He presided over policies that stole years, if not decades, from people’s lives – for “bullshit” offenses, to use Nixon’s term – but Clinton now says he’s “sorry”?
Not by a long shot. He did exactly what the capitalist class wanted done. Prison sucked up the unemployed, preventing them from congregating on street corners, preventing them from revolting as people did in the 1960s.
For 40 some years, we have lived through one capitalist crisis after another. Not enough jobs for everyone, not enough money for good schools for every child, not enough medical care, not enough decent housing. The capitalists’ answer to growing destitution has been to throw away the surplus population, lock them up, prevent them from revolting.
“Hyper-criminalization” and “hyper-incarceration” were capitalism’s way to prevent an explosion by the permanently unemployed.
About 700,000 prisoners are released every year. They are sent back into their communities, given little or no training or education while in prison, and none when they get out. They are sent back to the community with no money, no arrangements for a job, and most places won’t hire them. They can’t get welfare – that was cut off for ex-prisoners in 1996. Can’t get into public housing – that was closed to ex-prisoners in 1988.
Without money or any possibility of a job, most go back to prison within three years time. That’s why someone who goes to prison the first time for simple possession of drugs can end up finally condemned to prison for life.
Some people protest that those who come out of prison are hardened criminals.
Maybe so. Prison is a hard school. Someone who went into prison for a minor offense learns to be hard while there – just to survive.
Not only are the prisons a hard school. The streets of big cities like Detroit are a hard school. A society that won’t provide enough jobs turns people hard, turns some of them into so-called “criminals.” It’s no accident that crime goes up when unemployment goes up, and down when unemployment goes down
Maybe some of these hard young men fight each other, maybe they victimize their own neighborhoods, rob others. When they do, they are attacking their own class.
But they could be fighting against the real robbers, the capitalist class that created the situation that impoverishes them. They could be pulled along with the whole working class when it fights. They could be the fighters the working class needs, its best fighters.
But there’s the problem. The working class has been quiet for decades, and these hard young men see no prospects. They see no force able to take on this society that victimizes them.
These hard young men could be used by reactionary forces to attack the rest of their class. But they can be pulled over to fight alongside their class. And this is our best hope for the future.