Let's Talk About the Over Policing of America
First the good news:
As protests sparked by George Floyd’s death entered their chaotic fifth day, social media filled with images and video of police officers using batons, tear gas and rubber bullets to quell crowds—but some squads joined in with Saturday protesters to express their stance against police brutality, and to show solidarity with the anti-racism movement.
“We want to be with y’all, for real. I took my helmet off, laid the batons down. I want to make this a parade, not a protest,” Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson was seen telling protesters in Flint, Michigan, before he joined the assembled crowd to march, eliciting cheers.
Officers in Camden, New Jersey, helped carry a banner reading “Standing in Solidarity,” and seemed to join in with the crowd chanting “no justice, no peace.”
In Santa Cruz, California, Police Chief Andy Mills took a knee with protesters in the pose made famous by Colin Kaepernick, with the department tweeting it was “in memory of George Floyd & bringing attention to police violence against Black people.”
Two Kansas City, Missouri, police officers—one white man, one black man—were photographed holding aloft a sign reading “end police brutality.”
In Fargo, North Dakota, an officer was seen clasping hands with protest organizers while holding up a sign reading “We are one race... The HUMAN race.”
Officers in Ferguson, Missouri, participated in a nine and-a-half minute kneel in Floyd’s memory, with cheers erupting from the crowd.
Some people die for honor
Some people die for love
Some people die while singing
To the heavens above
Some people die believing
In the cross on Calvarys’ hill
And some people die In the blink of an eye
For a $20 bill
Some people go out in glory
(Yeah) with the wind at their back
Some get to tell their own story
Write their own epitaph
Sometimes you see it coming
Sometimes you don’t know until
You run out of breath
With a knee on your neck
For a $20 bill
Brother, I never knew you
And now I never will
But I make this promise to you
I’ll remember you still
Take, eat - let this be our communion
It’s time to break the bread
Do this in remembrance
Just like the good book said
Sometimes the wine is a sacrament
Sometimes the blood is just spilled
Sometimes the law Is the devils’ last straw
The future unfulfilled
Like the dream they killed
For a $20 bill
What would we do without the police? The question sounds rhetorical, but sociologist Alex S. Vitale wants us to try to answer it. He believes that an unprecedented expansion and intensification of police work over the last forty years has resulted in “overpolicing.” The job of police officers has grown beyond keeping the peace and responding to emergencies and now includes addressing addiction, mental illness, homelessness, prostitution, juvenile misbehavior, and more. What would happen if the police played little or no role in these issues? What if, instead of criminalizing drug users, sex workers, and homeless people, our city and state governments treated them as citizens with needs to be met and rights to be protected?
Vitale says that poor people and people of color, in particular, are targeted as criminals on the streets and in their homes, schools, and places of employment. Routine traffic stops may end in fatalities, and protests against police brutality sometimes turn into confrontations between a highly militarized police force and angry activists. Few officers are ever charged, let alone convicted, for misconduct. Some cities are experimenting with reforms, but Vitale argues that these efforts won’t change the fundamental, unspoken mission of the police: maintaining an unequal status quo. “This is how the system is designed to operate,” he says.
A native of Houston, Texas, Vitale is a professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, which is part of the City University of New York (CUNY). He consults for police departments and human-rights organizations, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, and The Nation. He is the author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics and The End of Policing (alex-vitale.info). As a frequent guest speaker at college campuses, criminology conferences, and community meetings, he discusses policing in the context of U.S. history and social policies. Vitale tells audiences that, when we believe inequality is a result of some people working harder or being smarter than others, “we erase the history of exploitation and the ways the game is rigged to prevent economic and social mobility. When people complain about these realities, they are told it’s their own fault, that they didn’t try hard enough to be part of the glorious ‘one percent.’ ”
I met Vitale at his home in Brooklyn on a cold winter day. As I walked up the single flight to his apartment, I passed some students coming down, who cheerfully announced, “Your turn!” During our time together there was little levity. Vitale struck me as a no-nonsense guy who judges people on their behavior rather than on big talk and promises. After two hours together he had no time to linger, and was quickly on his way to participate in a workshop at the CUNY Graduate Center.
Christian Parenti: I teach creative writing inside a prison. My employers have told me that I am not to represent myself as a spokesperson for the prison, nor may I comment in print on subjects on which I am not an 'expert'
I can, however, talk about those things I have experienced directly, such as my classes. So, though I cannot tell you the entire judicial-and-penal system is racist, I can tell you that nearly all of my minimum-security students have been white, and nearly all of my maximum-security students have been black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, or “other.”
And I cannot tell you about conditions inside the Security Housing Units, but I can tell you that these windowless concrete buildings sit in the middle of a graveled dead zone, and that I have taught prisoners who lived there in solitary confinement for up to sixteen years. (One student told me he did not see another living creature — save his guards — for years. Then one day, while he was being led in shackles to the infirmary, a dragonfly hovered next to him and followed him as he walked.)
I cannot tell you whether guards set prisoners against one another, but I can tell you of a conversation I had with a prison counselor who was trying to convince me to take a full-time job at the prison teaching remedial English. I told him it would cut too much into my writing time.
“Write when they’re locked down,” he said.
“And when they’re not?”
“Easy,” he said. “Tell Hartley that Johnson is talking shit about him, then say the same to Johnson. Next time they’re on the yard, one sticks the other, and you’ve got instant lockdown.”
He laughed as he said this.
I also cannot tell you whether a disrespect for human life pervades the prison system, but I can tell you this story: Several months ago, I arrived to teach my class and was told there would be no class that day because of an incident on the yard. “Shots were fired,” a guard said.
“My God,” I said. “Is everything all right?”
He assured me no one had been hurt.
I later found out nine inmates had been shot, one killed. No staff had been injured.
Christian Parenti can tell you much more than I. He is an expert on the prison system, having researched and studied it as a journalist, scholar, and student for the past decade. His first book, Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (Verso Books), is an articulate critique of what he calls the “incipient American police state.” We’ve become a country where, in some states, prison budgets exceed spending on higher learning; where companies like Starbucks, Jansport, and Microsoft use prison labor in their packaging departments; where Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest private prison operator, was dubbed a “theme stock for the nineties.” In addition to documenting the absurd reality of modern incarceration, Parenti relates the history of the current prison buildup in accessible and engaging prose — perhaps too accessible: Lockdown America was banned from Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana because it “promotes gang violence and homosexuality.” The British Independent had a more favorable view: “In the best tradition of investigative journalism, paced like a fine novel, it carries the authority of meticulous academic research.”
Born and raised in rural New England, Parenti first became interested in criminal justice while an undergraduate at the New School for Social Research in New York City. But it was the police activity he witnessed living in both New York City and San Francisco that brought home to him the central role of law enforcement and incarceration in American politics. He currently teaches at the New College of California in San Francisco and has a second book in the works. I’ve long been a fan of his articles in the Nation, the Progressive, In These Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and Z magazine. He has also worked as a radio journalist in Central America, New York, and California.
Parenti and I met for this interview on a beautiful spring day at his home in the Mission District. His warm and articulate manner made me feel immediately welcome and allowed me to get right to the point, which was to discuss the American prison-industrial complex.
Connie Rice Lays Down The Law To Cops And Gangs
In 1974, at the age of eighteen, Constance “Connie” Rice offered to do all the family ironing in front of the television just so she could stay home from school and watch the Senate hearings about the Watergate scandal, which was tearing apart the presidency of Richard Nixon. She became so engrossed that she burned her father’s shirt. That July, the House Judiciary Committee considered articles of impeachment, and Rice was again transfixed as Barbara Jordan, a lawyer and the only African American woman on the committee, talked eloquently about the Constitution before she cast her vote to impeach. Rice knew then that she would study law.
She graduated from Harvard College in 1978 and won a scholarship to attend New York University School of Law, where she filed petitions on behalf of death-row prisoners, including a notorious white supremacist. Rice, an African American who considers capital punishment an “obscenity,” was determined to save his life in spite of his racist beliefs. But her efforts were not enough. Before he was electrocuted, the Klansman sent Rice a thank-you note for her attempts to help.
Early in her career, Rice’s male colleagues didn’t know how to interact with this young feminist law clerk. Some tried to relegate her to fetching coffee and affixing index tabs. Rice, who already had a black belt in tae kwon do, didn’t hesitate to assert herself. After she discovered their practice of making important decisions in the men’s room, she and another female law clerk followed them in there and took part in the urinal-side meeting.
In 1991 Rice moved to Los Angeles to work with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She represented the grass-roots Bus Riders Union in a class-action suit against the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Her case was that the authority had discriminated against low-income, mostly minority bus riders by channeling funds into light-rail systems that benefited middle-class, mostly white commuters. Critics scoffed and said allocation of transit funds was not a civil-rights issue. Her own boss called to point out that the transit-authority board included two prominent NAACP members. (Rice reenacts the phone call: “Now, Connie, I’m sitting here with a Jack Daniels and three aspirin. Please tell me you did not file a lawsuit.”) She proceeded anyway. The 1996 consent decree put more than $2 billion back into the bus system.
Despite this victory and others, Rice concluded that litigation was a limited tool for promoting social change. In 1998 she joined with law partners Stephen R. English and Molly Munger to found the LA branch of the Advancement Project (www.advanceproj.org) a nonprofit committed to making public-sector institutions — such as schools, transit, and law enforcement — equitable for low-income residents. She remains codirector today.
The Los Angeles Times has called Rice one of the “most experienced, civic-minded, and thoughtful people on the subject of Los Angeles,” and California Law Business named her among the ten most influential lawyers in the state. She is known as an irreverent commentator on PBS and National Public Radio and says she wants to “unparalyze the debate” on race rather than make everyone hold hands: “I want to change your behavior, not your soul.”
Although Rice has helped clients sue the Los Angeles Police Department [LAPD] for brutality many times over the years, her relationship with the LAPD has grown less adversarial within the past decade. When a scandal emerged in 1999 over misconduct in the LAPD’s Rampart division — including charges of cocaine theft, manipulation of evidence, physical abuse of suspects, and perjury — Rice headed a panel that studied the division and recommended reforms. She now works with the police to move LA law enforcement away from paramilitary-style operations and toward community policing.
She is currently writing a book titled Power Concedes Nothing. “Many of my friends are in office,” she says. “I’ve been suing my friends for twenty years. But even when you know the people in power, you still have to be a burr under their saddle and demand change, because power concedes nothing without a demand.”
In August 2007 Rice took the time to talk with me at her office near downtown LA. Her speech was animated, her outrage tempered by bursts of laughter at society’s absurdities. As the interview wound down, I couldn’t help asking about Rice’s famous relative, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Their fathers are first cousins, but the two women didn’t meet until they were adults. “Our politics are completely different,” Connie Rice said. “I’m trying to close the gap between the underclass and the working class, and she’s trying to close the gap between the millionaires and the billionaires.” That didn’t stop former California governor Pete Wilson’s secretary for judicial appointments from confusing them: She once called Connie on behalf of her Republican boss to ask for recommendations on judges. (“How bipartisan! I thought,” Rice said.) Connie was making suggestions for the Supreme Court when it became evident the secretary thought she was speaking to Condoleezza. The cousins met soon after and had a laugh about the mix-up.
Ijeoma Oluo On Privilege, Power, And Race
Race has always been a prominent part of my life,” Ijeoma Oluo writes in her new book So You Want to Talk about Race. “I have never been able to escape the fact that I am a black woman in a white-supremacist country.”
Oluo was born in 1980 in Denton, Texas. Her father, a Nigerian college professor and politician, returned to his native country when she was three and never came back to the U.S. She and her brother, Ahamefule (often called Aham), had no contact with him growing up. Their mother, a white woman from the Midwest, raised them by herself in Seattle.
After earning a degree in political science from Western Washington University, Oluo worked in technology and digital marketing and started a blog about food. Then, in 2012, black teenager Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman in an infamous “stand your ground” case in Florida. Trayvon was the same age as Oluo’s older son, Malcolm, and the tragedy inspired her to transform her blog into a vehicle for social activism. Her writing began to appear in The Stranger, Jezebel, and The Guardian, and her pieces often went viral. But the Internet has not always been welcoming to her. Once, while on vacation with her children, she went to a Cracker Barrel and joked on Twitter about “looking at the sea of white folk in cowboy hats & wondering ‘will they let my black ass walk out of here?’ ” Afterward she received hundreds of threats and racist messages.
Oluo is an editor-at-large for the online magazine The Establishment. In her blog on Medium.com she often covers serious subject matter — white supremacy, representations of race in the media, the U.S. crisis of mass incarceration and police violence — but her approach is personal and down-to-earth; she’s rarely without a rueful joke or a post about what her two sons said at breakfast. In 2015 she self-published The Badass Feminist Coloring Book, a project that developed from her habit of sketching famous feminists to relieve stress. She hit the New York Times best-seller list earlier this year with So You Want to Talk about Race. Though she realizes that most of her readers will be white, she says she wrote the book to help people of color make themselves heard. Her website is ijeomaoluo.com.
I met with Oluo at her favorite independent Seattle coffeehouse, which also serves as an informal community center and work space. We sat at a small table and struggled to talk over the sound of the coffee grinder and the not-so-quiet background music before moving to a bench across the street. It was a beautiful spring day, and despite her sometimes dire message, Oluo’s energy and humor never flagged.
If you're still with me at this point, please accept my cordial invitation to join in our third Caucus99% video chat on (Sunday) June 7th ... at 1PM Louisville (Eastern time).
Cornel West gets to have the last word; pay attention to him, please.