50 Years After March on Washington, A New Dream

Tomorrow marks the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. On Saturday, thousands marched on Washington to commemorate the anniversary. I’ll be attending the events in D.C. For me, one of the most important dreams to shine a light on is the one to end mass incarceration, what some have referred to as the “new Jim Crow.” This short video (11:52 – h/t Julie Netherland) explains more about the problem of mass incarceration and what one man in Dothan, Alabama is doing to address it:

Police Privilege and Conflict with Diversity Initiatives

On October 01, 2010 Sam Houston State University (SHSU) student Aman Abdulaziz  was stopped by campus police for a parking violation that quickly escalated into a police brutality incident as shown in the officer’s dash cam (and in the image below).


(Aman Abdulaziz image from here.
Used with permission from Isiah Carey of Fox 26 News, Houston)

Abdulaziz is battling the charges against him and suing SHSU for civil rights violations and failure to train its officers properly. Below, students from Sam Houston State University react and offer their analysis.

As a structural phenomenon resulting from racism and other biases deeply engrained  in U.S. society, we connect this incident with the larger national racialized landscape as a social issue focused on the following questions, 1: Whose interest’s does law enforcement and security serve ? And 2: Is law enforcement and security as it currently operates in everyday operations qualified to work with diverse populations and adequately serve and protect all people? Continue reading…

Ending the Institutional Racism of NYC’s Marijuana Arrests

Over the past 15 years, New York City has become the marijuana arrest capital of the world due to a policing policy that functions to institutionalize racism. More than 84 percent of those arrested were people of color – even though young whites use marijuana at higher rates. Research by CUNY Professor Harry Levine finds a systematic, racial bias (pdf) to the NYPD’s approach to policing marijuana.

While possession of a small amount of marijuana (less than 25 grams) has been decriminalized in New York State since 1977, more than 50,000 people were arrested in New York City for “possessing or burning marijuana in public view” in 2011 (largely the result of the City’s controversial stop-and-frisk practices that recorded almost 700,000 stop-and-frisks last year alone).

A large majority of these arrests are the result of illegal searches, false charges, and entrapment. Several organizations in New York City such as the Drug Policy Alliance, the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives (IJJRA) and VOCAL New York, are working to end these racially biased and illegal marijuana arrests. The main way these organizations are doing this now is through a piece of legislation currently in the NY State legislature.

Democrat Assemblyman Hakeem Jefferies and Republican State Senator Mark Grisanti have legislation that would clarify and to go back to the original intent of the 1977 law and make under 7/8 of an ounce an unarrestable offense. Since Jeffries will likely be elected to Congress in November, and the legislative session is almost over, this is the last chance to pass this bill. In this short (2:12) video, Assemblyman Hakeem Jefferies explains what’s behind this legislation:

Conservative media pundits like Bill O’Reilly argue that further decriminalizing marijuana will lead to an increase in street crime (as he did on air this morning on Fox & Friends or as ), but there’s no evidence for such a claim. In fact, a recent New York Times piece clarifies this by noting that crime has also dropped in jurisdictions that don’t use NYC’s aggressive, racist stop-and-frisk policing strategy.

If you’d like to take action to stop this form of institutional racism, you can sign this online petition.

Bryan Stevenson: We need to talk about racial injustice

Bryan Stevenson is a public-interest lawyer who recently gave an inspiring TED Talk about racial injustice. Stevenson founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based group that has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive, unfair and racist sentencing. This is a rare TED Talk for confronting issues of racial injustice, and well worth watching (23:14):
Stevenson’s talk even includes an oh-so-gentle challenge to the audience at TED to “be more courageous” and talk about issues of racial injustice with more regularity. Yet, the online comments that follow the video quickly get mired in white-framed thinking, where one person derails the conversation away from racial injustice. Still, bravo to Bryan Stevenson for his work, and good for TED for including his talk at this elite venue.

Troy Davis Case Highlights Racist Death Penalty: Take Action to Stop His Execution

Nearly twenty years ago, Troy Davis (who is black) was tried and convicted of killing a white police officer. Today, nearly all the so-called “witnesses” have said that they lied and Davis is, most likely, an innocent man. Yet, the State of Georgia has scheduled his execution for September 21. The fact is, capital punishment doesn’t work as a way to lower crime rates. And, the death penalty, both in the U.S. and around the world, is discriminatory and is used disproportionately against the poor, and black and brown people. When victims are white (as in this case, where the victim was a white police officer), those trials are much more likely to end in the death penalty. Troy Davis’ case is just the most prominent example of this egregious pattern of state-sponsored racism, a pattern that is not unique to Georgia. This short video (7:18) by Jen Marlow describes some of the discrepancies in the case and includes an interview with Mr. Davis’ sister:

If you’re moved, as I was, by this injustice, I urge you to sign the petition to stop the execution of Troy Davis, here.

Cornel West: President Obama as Puppet of Plutocrats?

In a recent probing interview with Chris Hedges, Princeton Professor Cornel West, a leading US intellectual who campaigned exhaustively for Obama, made a harsh assessment of President Obama as selling out to white elite interests. Obama is

a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it.

West then briefly painted a broad picture of U.S. imperialism and decay to back his strong critique and call for action:

And even at this moment, when the empire is in deep decline, the culture is in deep decay, the political system is broken, where nearly everyone is up for sale . . . . [What we need instead is] civil disobedience, going to jail, supporting progressive forums of social unrest.

West says he expected a President Obama to be constrained by capitalism, but also expected

some voices concerned about working people, dealing with issues of jobs and downsizing and banks, some semblance of democratic accountability for Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats who are just running amuck.

Yet, with few exceptions, Obama did not do that, but appointed members of the moderate wing of the established white elite to his administration and only pretended “intermittent progressive populist language in order to justify a centrist, neoliberalist policy” of the centrist Democratic Party politicians.

West has gotten major pushback for his bold comments from numerous white and black commentators, and some black leaders, and especially for his further comment that his “dear brother Barack Obama” was afraid of independent black men who would stand up to the white corporate elite:

As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he’s always had to fear being a white man with black skin. All he has known culturally is white. . . . When he meets an independent black brother, it is frightening. . . . He has a certain rootlessness, a deracination.

West concludes that Obama is passing up what he thinks may be the country’s last real chance to counter the corporate plutocrats and oligarchs and bring some semblance of real democracy to the United States.

Several prominent white and black analysts have been very critical of West for his personal comments, including some indicating West feels he has been snubbed by the president. Washington Post commentator, Jonathan Capehart, has accented West’s more personal comments and asserted West is espousing an ignorant perspective and trying to be one of the

self-appointed guardians of what it means to be black — a decidedly limited and ignorant perspective that has more to do with the accuser’s insecurities than the alleged transgressions of the accused.

Over at The Nation, Melissa Harris-Perry, also a Princeton professor, is very critical of West for his personalizing attack on Obama’s heritage and whitewashed background, even as a hypocritical West himself has lived in a mostly white world since adulthood, especially as a professor at elite white universities. However, like several others, her critique is almost entirely about West’s own life and personal situation, but she mostly ignores West’s on-target structural critique of Obama’s (obligatory?) selling out to corporate America.

Indeed, West is correct that working class and strong progressive, especially independent and forthright black, Americans have very few prominent voices in the top ranks of the Obama administration, including just one cabinet member not from the political or economic establishment. What the critiques of West leave unsaid is that what West is focusing most on how individual black success in U.S. politics, as for Obama, has not meant significant advances for black Americans as a group, nor for Americans of color collectively. Indeed, what is missing from West’s own critical analysis is the next obvious question: Why does the “not independent” Obama play up to the interests and issues of the dominant white elite and larger white population? This is not a character flaw, but rather about the foundational reality and continuing strength of the white racist system. That is the elephant in the room that not even West calls out.

As I and my colleagues have argued before, black candidates for state and national political offices, like President Obama, cannot adopt, even occasionally, a black counter-framed perspective (see chapter 7 here) on the action necessary to deal the extensive discrimination and severe socioeconomic problems faced by black communities and other communities of color, and expect to win. Even in part, black candidates cannot articulate what they will do to deal with extensive racial discrimination and related racial problems if they are elected, yet when white candidates tell white communities what they will do for them, almost no one accuses them of “playing the race card.”

In contrast, black candidates need only to touch on issues of developing anti-discrimination and desegregation programs for black Americans and other people of color, and they are often called out as biased or extremist. Even if the black candidates’ associates or mentors call out the white-racist system, as with Dr. Jeremiah Wright during the 2008 primary elections, they must disassociate themselves from their friends and almost all honest evaluations of a racist U.S. society.

White candidates and elected politicians regularly take action openly benefitting white communities. Although Obama has not ignored the needs of communities of color in his presidency, he has had to take modest action, and that quietly, to benefit the black community, such as on improving funding for black colleges. He has not been able, and will not be able at any point, to talk openly about the massive and systemic racism of U.S. society, including the highly racialized “Jim Crow” system of our oppressive and extensive prison-industrial complex.

Broken on All Sides: New Documentary about Race and Criminal Justice

Matthew Pillischer has just completed a new documentary about race and criminal justice in that is worth checking out. Here’s a trailer for the film (6:58):

The film includes an interview with Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, which we’ve written about here before. While most third year law students are busy studying for the bar exam, Matthew Pillischer found time to produce and direct a documentary film about this important social justice issue. I don’t know how he did that, but I’m glad he did as his film promises to bring this important issue to a much wider audience.

Retired Supreme Court Justice: Capital Punishment ‘Shot Through with Racism’

The New York Times is reporting that retired Supreme Court Justice Stevens has written an essay that offers a devastating critique of the death penalty as “shot through with racism.”  In a detailed, candid and critical essay to be published soon in The New York Review of Books, Stevens wrote that personnel changes on the court, coupled with “regrettable judicial activism,” had created a system of capital punishment that is “shot through with racism, skewed toward conviction, infected with politics and tinged with hysteria.”  While other justices (e.g. O’Connor and Souter) have offered some commentary since retiring, their rather abstract discussions of legal issues is, apparently, nothing like the blow-by-blow critique in Justice Stevens’ death penalty essay, which will be published in The New York Review’s Dec. 23 issue and will be available on its Web site on Sunday evening.

In 2008, two years before he announced his retirement, Justice Stevens reversed course and in a concurrence said that he now believed the death penalty to be unconstitutional.  But the reason for that change of heart, after more than three decades on the court and some 1,100 executions, has in many ways remained a mystery, and now Justice Stevens has provided an explanation.  He will also be on “60 Minutes” on Sunday night.

The essay is actually a review of the book Peculiar Institution: America’s Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition, by David Garland, a professor of law and sociology at New York University. The book compares American and European approaches to the death penalty, and in the essay Stevens appears to accept its major conclusions.  Garland attributes American enthusiasm for capital punishment to politics and a cultural fascination with violence and death.  According to the New York Times article, Stevens notes that the problems with the administration of capital punishment extend beyond the courthouse and into the voting booth.  Referring to the “race-based prosecutorial decisions” allowed by the 1987 McCleskey v. Kemp, ruling that even solid statistical evidence of racial disparities in the administration of the death penalty did not violate the Constitution, Stevens wrote:

“That the murder of black victims is treated as less culpable than the murder of white victims provides a haunting reminder of once-prevalent Southern lynchings.”

This bold move by a retired Supreme Court Justice is good news for those concerned with the injustice of capital punishment.

Sentence in Oscar Grant Trial: No Justice, No Surprise

Today, Judge Robert Perry sentenced former BART cop Johannes Mehserle to two years in prison, with credit for time-served, in the killing of Oscar Grant.  The killing was already ruled involuntary manslaughter (no surprise, given that there were no African Americans on the jury) but Mehserle could have received as much as 14 years for shooting Grant who was laying face down on the train platform with his hands cuffed behind his back at the time.

(Image from Flickr CC CaptainTim)

It’s unlikely that there will ever be anything approaching justice for the Grant family in this case.  They’ve lost a son, a brother, a father, a partner.  There is no justice in the fact that right now – not fifty or sixty years ago – that the shooting an unarmed black man by a white cop results in a more lenient sentence than a case of dog-fighting case.  Now, don’t get it twisted, I think cruelty to animals is wrong, but I don’t think that it makes any sense that Michael Vick should get a longer prison sentence than Johannes Mehserle (h/t to @MrDaveyD for making this point on Twitter), but I’m not surprised.   We’re living in the new Jim Crow, after all.

The call for a harsher sentence in the particular case of Mehserle, and the grave injustice to Oscar Grant and his family, should not distract us from addressing the larger issue of the systemic racism which perpetuates this injustice on a grand scale.