Revolution #242, August 14, 2011
Taking the Movement of Resistance to Mass Incarceration to a Higher Level Thru Unleashing Determined Mass Resistance
Posted August 9, 2011
The decades-long massive incarceration of Black people, along with other people of color, is an outrage that should shock the conscience of the world. It shows the utter illegitimacy of the system. 2.4+ million people are in prisons across the country, the overwhelming majority of them Black or Latino, because the system has criminalized large sections of people and not because these people are criminals. As a revolutionary communist, I stand with Bob Avakian, the leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) who has said, "There will never be a revolutionary movement in this country that doesn't fully unleash and give expression to the sometimes openly expressed, sometimes expressed in partial ways, sometimes expressed in wrong ways, but deeply, deeply felt desire to be rid of these long centuries of oppression [of Black people]. There's never gonna be a revolution in this country, and there never should be, that doesn't make that one key foundation of what it's all about." (Quoted from Basics, 3:19)
This injustice is accepted by society because it is carried out under the appearance of color blindness, and that must stop.
A whole lot is at stake in whether we succeed to build a determined movement of resistance to this incarceration. Mass incarceration is a huge attack on the masses, especially on oppressed nationality masses. 100,000's are jailed for simple possession of banned drugs. People in prison are subjected to horrible conditions. The pipeline leading to this warehousing in prison includes inner-city educational systems that are geared to drive millions of youth to drop out and a criminal justice system that treats a whole generation of youth like potential criminals, guilty until proven innocent, if they can survive to prove that innocence. It includes racial profiling by police, gang injunctions and discrimination in the courts.
And after release, millions of people are stamped with a badge of deprivation and shame. Denied job opportunities, access to public housing, food stamps, government loans for education, the right to vote, and more. All this is the result of conscious policies adopted by the ruling class.
This horrific racially targeted massive incarceration is a consequence of not having made revolution in the '60s. The revolutionary upheaval of that period rocked the ruling class back on its heels, but it didn't seize power from them. Having ridden those storms out, and conscious of the role the uprisings of Black people played in spearheading that and their potential for sparking future upheaval, the ruling class has moved to viciously suppress that potential before it can manifest itself—counter-insurgency before the insurgency.
If things are allowed to continue on this trajectory, the reality of millions of the oppressed penned up in the ghettos and barrios without opportunity or hope will intensify. Going in and out of jail will remain a rite of passage for millions of oppressed youth, many of whom already look to their immediate future and can see nothing more than prison or death. This is slow genocide and, given the sharp divisions in the ruling class and the building up and unleashing of outright fascist forces, it could easily become fast genocide.
This massive incarceration is accepted by most of society as just, as the result of criminal activity by those who end up in jail. Those who are aware of the racial disparity in who gets incarcerated mostly accept that as well, seeing it as reflecting that "those people" commit more crimes. Even those masses who are most directly hit by this incarceration are affected by the chorus of "it's your own damn fault" that comes at them from every sector of society. This is because this extreme oppression is being perpetrated under a cloak of apparent equality. There are no longer laws on the books that say it's illegal for Black people to do this or that. The forms thru which the Black masses were held down under the old Jim Crow have been largely done away with. It appears that Black people have a certain equality of opportunity, so those who don't make it and end up being ground down by the system are thought to be responsible for their fate. This appearance/essence contradiction needs to be broken thru on.
If the rationalizations for this mass incarceration could be broken thru, a determined movement of resistance to this horrific injustice could be brought forward. This could dramatically transform the political terrain. Those who do suffer this could throw off the 'blame the victim' justification and stand up and resist. People who don't directly face this could see it for the injustice that it is and join in the resistance. The way in which being saddled with convictions, parole and probation, or the threat of them, holds many of the youth back from even considering joining in resistance could be busted thru. The feeling on the part of the oppressed that they're alone in the struggle could be addressed by both building resistance among the basic masses and rallying youth and others from the middle strata to join in.
What is key to bringing a determined movement of resistance to mass incarceration into existence? People have to change their thinking about incarceration—millions no longer accepting the justifications for this and millions of the oppressed also breaking with thinking there's nothing to be done about it and/or it's really their own fault. In particular, some big transformation on the matter of the appearance of equality and the related fact that most people, including many of the oppressed, feel incarceration is driven by crime. And because of this, accept it as justified. But this can't be accomplished by exposure alone, or by a focus on exposure around how unjust this is. Much more exposure is needed, and the work done by Michelle Alexander and others remains important. But the key to changing people's thinking about incarceration comes down to unleashing and guiding a mass movement that engages in determined resistance to the outrage of mass incarceration. This movement needs to be aimed at making this a dividing line question in society, one that everybody has to look at, re-evaluate and develop an opinion and a stand on.
Here the experience of the Freedom Riders in the 1960's is instructive. The brutality and indignity of Jim Crow segregation had been in effect for decades. Although there had been important outbreaks of resistance to it, most Black people accepted its horrors as foul shit you just had to put up with. The reality of what Black people were forced to endure was under the radar screen for many whites, and those who were aware of them either eagerly supported them, or were taken in by the rationalizations given for enforcing these conditions on Black people. It took the dramatic actions of a relative handful of courageous resisters to put this situation onto society's front burners and force people take a stand on it. The same will be needed today in relation to mass incarceration and all that it entails.
In this light, the importance of the hunger strike now being waged by prisoners in California must be emphasized. This hunger strike has pushed the outrages of what is done to prisoners into the minds of millions who formerly either never knew about it or gave it a thought, and it has inspired thousands of others to rally to their support. This strike must be supported and used as a springboard for further struggle.
This is the way to get people to think about this deeply and begin to think differently about it. (There's also a global aspect to this. The US still goes around the world, lecturing other countries on freedom and democracy and crowing about the freedoms it affords to its people. A determined movement of resistance targeting the massive and racially disproportionate incarceration the US enforces would lay bare the injustice suffered by so many of the oppressed in this so-called leader of the free world.)
There is a real basis to bring this mass movement of resistance into existence! Something significant is happening right now that needs to, and can, be tapped into. 100's are coming out to hear Michelle Alexander speak about this issue, large numbers of people are reading her book and some of them are recommending it to others and forming study groups around it. The 100's who've come to the dialogues between Cornel West and myself on the theme of "What Future For Our Youth?" include many, many people who gasp when they hear of what's being done to basic masses by the criminal injustice system and who respond positively to the call for people to stand up and resist all this. Something is afoot here. Not that the majority of people have changed their thinking on this, or are even all thinking about this. But a critical mass of people are changing their thinking, and many are ready to be part of doing something about this horrific injustice. This critical mass needs to be forged and unleashed into a movement resisting this outrage in a determined way. Thru doing this, the political terrain can be dramatically affected.
The social base for such a movement has several components: those who suffer this directly—those in prison, former prisoners, their family and friends. Such people are largely basic masses, but many middle strata Blacks also fit into this category, having family and friends who are in and out of prison. (John Edgar Wideman wrote on this in both his Pittsburgh-based fiction and in a memoir.) The same is true for other oppressed nationalities. There are significant numbers of white youth who are already horrified by what they know about the warehousing of so many people in prison and can be won to join in resisting it. And many more from all sections of society could be won to oppose this if they could see thru the justifications to the underlying horrific reality. There are many professionals whose work puts them in contact with masses who suffer this—teachers, social workers, attorneys, others—who see the humanity in these masses and could be won to join in the resistance. Several of the panelists at Michelle Alexander's Riverside event were people who worked on re-entry of formerly incarcerated people. Sometimes people involved in this work are themselves former prisoners.
Students and prisoners can play important roles in breaking this resistance movement loose—both are important, and there's a potential synergy here. Historically, students have been the first section of society to step out and fight injustice, and they will need to play this role in this effort. If things are left to the basic masses to shoulder the responsibility of kicking this movement off, it won't happen because these masses already feel alone in this fight and think they have no chance of winning.
At the same time, there are many, many prisoners who want to be a part of changing the direction of things in society. The prisoners who have engaged in significant resistance in recent months—the California prison hunger strikers, prisoners in Georgia and Ohio—number in the 1000's. There are 100's of prisoners who receive Revolution newspaper regularly and many write to the paper about the influence that reading the writings of Bob Avakian and other articles in the paper have had on them. These prisoners can play an important role in reaching out to other masses, both others on the bottom of society and many in the middle class, and awake them to this injustice and inspire them to join in the resistance. These prisoners are among the many, many people this system has classed as subhuman and not worthy of consideration. The letters some of these prisoners write to Revolution Newspaper and the Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund can put the lie to this and make real the potential for people criminalized by this society to transform themselves and get with the emancipators of humanity. Their examples can reach the hearts of students who are disturbed by the state of the world today and draw them into the fight on this front.
There need to be points where this new movement comes together for action—like supporting the heroic hunger strike of the prisoners in California and taking to the streets to mark 40 years since the Attica Rebellion. And then to join in the effort to unleash powerful determined resistance to mass incarceration in the lead-up to the October 22nd National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation. As an example, in New York the Network to Stop Mass Incarceration has called for a day of No Stop & Frisk in the days leading up to October 22nd. These must not be the usual, routine actions; the situation is too urgent for that. The Network to Stop Mass Incarceration is also working on a statement of conscience condemning racially targeted mass incarceration that will be signed by prominent people in the arts and sciences, the clergy, etc. from all over the world. The aim of this statement will be to contribute to dramatically changing the way people look at the way so many people are warehoused in US prisons.
Demands need to be drawn up that can both rally people to stand with this effort because they can see the justness of what's being called for and serve as focal points for fighting to stop the shit the powers-that-be are doing. The overall theme of this movement needs to be calling for an End to Mass Incarceration. We should develop a theme for it that calls it out as a racially targeted method of social control. Forces involved in taking on the various aspects of racially targeted mass incarceration have developed demands that get at much of the reality of mass incarceration. Here is my contribution to what the demands need to be:
- releasing people convicted or arrested for drug possession.
- ending mandatory minimum sentences.
- ending entirely the crack/powder cocaine disparity.
- ending the way parole is restricted for many in prison and denied in punitive ways.
Other demands could focus in on the way the criminal justice system targets the oppressed:
- ending racial profiling.
- Stop Stop & Frisk. (This demand is specific to New York city where the police enforce this illegal unconstitutional policy, but as an important focal point of resistance, it has national significance.)
- Ending the practice of getting convictions and violations on youth before they're teens as part of criminalizing a whole generation.
Other demands would focus on the stigma and denial of rights people face when they're released:
- ending discrimination in employment. (There is already an effort called "Drop the box," which targets the box on employment applications which asks have you been convicted, etc.)
- Abolishing the one-strike laws and other laws and policies that deny public housing to those formerly incarcerated.
- abolishing laws and policies that deny those formerly incarcerated access to govt assistance like food stamps and education loans.
- restoring the right to vote, etc.
Coming out of the Session, it may be necessary to assemble a commission to sort thru the demands raised by various forces to develop a focused list of demands that can broadly characterize and concretize the reality of mass incarceration in an overall way. Then these demands can be promoted thru the various initiatives taken up to focus the attention of society broadly on the injustice of racially targeted mass incarceration; at actions of mass resistance, at forums and teach-ins, etc.
I will close with a quote from a statement issued two years ago by the RCP titled, "The Revolution We Need... The Leadership We Have:" "The days when this system can just keep on doing what it does to people here and all over the world...when people are not inspired and organized to stand up against these outrages and to build up the strength to put an end to this madness...those days must be GONE. And they CAN be." What we do coming out of the Stop Mass Incarceration Strategy Session needs to be approached as contributing to taking concrete steps to end those days!
If you know someone who would want to get involved in this effort to unleash determined mass resistance to racially targeted mass incarceration, or if you'd like to get involved yourself, contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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