Saturday, May 9, 2015

A Call to Indict America- Reflections on Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and "The New Jim Crow" by Madelyn Murphy

In many ways, the criminal stigma is far more harmful to African Americans than the slave stigma due to its lack of outright recognition of race. What Michelle Alexander in her book, The New Jim Crow, calls, “race neutral language” has, in many ways, harmed communities of color in ways slavery never could have. This is so because, unlike racial language, words like criminal, drug war, and felon do not imply a racial focus, and so their racist intents are shrouded by this rhetoric of seemingly race neutrality. However, as Alexander, Ferguson, and Baltimore argue, further analysis reveals these terms to be anything but devoid of racist intention.

The most explicit example is the War on Drugs that the Reagan administration began in the mid-late 1980’s. In truth, the term “drug war” has no mention of race, and neither did Reagan’s other favorite term, “welfare queen.” However, what both of these terms manifest in our minds are images of poor, dangerous, lazy, and undeserving black people, images fuzed into American subconscious by the media. The most harmful product to emerge from the War on Drugs was not the draconian legislations and sentences (i.e. making non-violent drug crimes have overly long and punitive sentences followed by a ripping of constitutional rights such as voting and housing). Rather, the most harmful effect of the War on Drugs has been how it has perverted American mentality concerning African Americans.
Reagan utilized the media in order to recast African Americans and other minorities as criminals rather than as citizens. The War on Drugs’ illogical emphasis on crack cocaine rather than on regular cocaine colored the movement completely. There is no difference in harm between cocaine and crack cocaine. The difference is in who uses them. Cocaine is used primarily by middle/upper class, young whites. Crack cocaine is used by poor communities of color, and in fact is used less than cocaine. More whites deal and use than those of color, but are arrested and jailed far less. Because of the heavy sentencing and policing in communities of color, those of color, rather than whites, are depicted as the true drug criminals of America.
The increased employment of police presence and stop and frisks in poor areas of color rather than in white suburbs allow for police to arrest more minorities than whites only because more people of color are stopped because they “look like criminals” rather than middle/upper class, white college kids. This is why people of color in poor areas refer to police presence in their neighborhoods as “the occupation,” making home for these people feel like colonized territory rather than their own neighborhood.
These stop and frisks are determined, according to Alexander, not by crime, but by race. It is more likely for an officer to stop and frisk a black man than a white woman simply because the media has been utilized to paint people of color out to be criminals. In today’s society, to look like a criminal is determined by the color of your skin, and further by the label “felon,” if you were unlucky enough to be charged with petty, non-violent crimes that the ruling race commits in larger proportions (but receives far less sentencing) than you do.
This “media bonanza” as Alexander calls it is seen in how the media tried to justify the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray by releasing either a video of Brown depicting him as stealing when in fact he was not, or by releasing Gray’s criminal record of petty, non-violent crimes. By releasing this information (some false) on both men, the media was telling the public that these men were criminals, and that sometimes criminals die because of cops, but they die because the cops are trying to “protect” the public from the “danger” of these “criminals.” It was an attempt to criminalize these two men, release the cops from persecution, and to ultimately justify murder. And because both of these men were black and came from black communities with high crime rates (due to the disproportionate policing in those communities as compared to white communities) it was relatively easy for the media to alter the image of someone’s dead son to the image of just another dead criminal. By labeling them “criminals,” the media is not only justifying their deaths, but negating the dignity and preciousness of each man’s life.
This use of media representation and criminalization of people of color in these two instances was not limited to Brown and Gray. Rather, it was extended to the protesters, a majority of whom were people of color. IN Ferguson, before violent protests even began, the city employed not only a large concentration of police officers to surround the peaceful protesters, but SWAT teams. The presence of a militarized police force visually suggests that these protesters are not protesters hoping for and demanding positive change, but criminals so dangerous that government forces used to deal with TERRORISTS are being used to deal with these people. The militarization of the police (thanks to the Byrne Program) has funneled thousands upon thousands of dollars and military resources into turning the police force into an untrained army, and those living in those occupied communities (usually communities of color) into, essentially, enemies of the state.
The thoroughly race-prejudiced, biased, and unreliable news source, Fox News, has played a heavy and harmful hand in painting the protesters in both Ferguson and Baltimore to be criminals rather than activists. In the past week, Fox’s favorite term, it seems, has been, “looters,” a term applied in heavy doses to the protesters in Baltimore. The same was done in Ferguson, and images of black people in fiery neighborhoods being met by SWAT teams suggests that these people are dangerous criminals, and that if they die (as many have) then America will be safer for it.
If one was to replace the black person in the photographs of the riots with a white person, the public’s response would differ entirely. Outbursts of America being a police state would ring out, likening America to places like Communist Russia and other totalitarian governments would plaster every news source. The mainstream media and public would be upset. But they’re not. The truth is, it isn’t a white person in these photographs. It isn’t a white man lying dead on the pavement. The statistic isn’t 1 in every 3 white men will serve time in prison. It isn’t a white man that comes to mind when the word, “drug dealer” is said. It’s not white people who were enslaved and further abused by the institutions of convict-leasing and Jim Crow. It isn’t an issue of “White Lives Matter,” because white lives have always mattered. It isn’t white society who bears the criminal stigma; it is white society who has MADE that stigma in order to further perpetuate this centuries old system of white supremacy and racial caste.
Alexander argues that America’s obsession with race remains in our past and not our present. It is easier to recognize racism in slavery and segregation than it is in today’s system of mass incarceration, primarily because, as Alexander cites a man saying in her work, “Felony is the new N-word.” Just as in the drug war, today’s incidents in Ferguson and Baltimore have perverted the public’s conception of black people rather than display these protesters, both violent and nonviolent, as who they truly are are: people who are suffering, desperately crying out for help and for recognition as human beings.
In Watts, Los Angeles in 1965, Martin Luther King Jr., a proponent of nonviolence, said that the “looters” were not looters, but rather social protestors, that the violence was not criminal, but a last resort cry for help from a people who felt so voiceless that only fire and violence could get somebody - anybody - to listen to them. But instead, they were painted by the media as criminals, and their cause was immediately devalued. But what else could they have done? Their voices, their actions... all devalued by a government that professes to care, but in reality could care less as long as racial caste is maintained. Race wasn’t never mentioned, but didn’t have to be. It was, has been, and is the primary factor according to Alexander that drives the American institution of law and order, and it is what keeps dead black men and women from being valued as human beings. Policing and imprisonment doe not prevent crime, but increases it, and any statistic will prove that.
Today, American crime rates have gone down, but the incarceration rate is at 2 million incarcerated, making America the leading incarceration nation in the world. The land of freedom is the land of imprisonment. And most of those incarcerated are nonviolent drug dealers and/or users, and most are black and brown men. What the media and race neutral language is doing to America, Ferguson, and Baltimore is desensitizing us as human beings. The news on these events has not shown us evidence of the continuation of racism in this nation, or the tragic endings of two human lives, but rather criminals who shouldn’t have rushed the cop or disrespected law and order. The media does not show us how crime is in essence inescapable in these communities because of a lack of funding for crime prevention institutions, such as drug rehabilitation centers or for education. Rather, this money has gone to crime punishment, to heavy policing and militarization. The public is not invited to try to understand why the rioters are rioting, to try to understand what could have caused this outburst of pain and suffering. Rather, the media labels them criminals and we (white America) are allowed to hate them for their label rather than love them for their dignity.
“Seeing race,” Alexander writes, “is not the problem. Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem.” The problem with mass incarceration, Ferguson, and Baltimore is the lack of a humanist vision, a vision that has been downcast by the media’s frenzy of depicting communities of color as communities of criminals. If we are to ever progress as a nation that actually embodies what we are supposed to stand for - life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all - we need to stop promoting an environment that perpetuates this selection of who deserves citizenship, respect, and life. No matter the skin color, socio-economic status, gender, or location, human beings should be seen as human beings and nothing less. Racism is a system that seeks to delegate who gets to be treated as human and who does not, and this has been carried on through mass incarceration and the media.
The only way to combat this is for people to stop seeing some as deserving of humanity, and to start seeing all human beings as deserving of it, and this needs to start with white people, especially white people of my generation. As the ruling race, we need to realize that the longer we show indifference and the longer we withhold understanding, the more death and injustice will persist. We must help start what Alexander sees as an essential human rights movement with the issue of mass incarceration at the forefront. We need to stop labeling, start learning our history, and end willful ignorance of the mess this country’s system of justice has become. In this country, we are all American citizens - black, white, or brown - and as one nation we will not be free until we stop treating our citizens as our enemies. Freedom cannot truly exist when only a few get it - that is NOT freedom.
Alexander closes her book with citing a passage from James Baldwin’s book, The Fire This Time. In it, he writes, “we cannot be free until they are free.” America will not truly be America until all are treated as Americans, until all are treated as human beings. It will not be America until when the word “looter” is not designated to a black protester, but rather until there is understanding and respect for their suffering. It will not be America until the word “drug dealer” brings to mind an actual drug dealer, and not a color. It will not be America until the lives of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray are treated as lives, and not as problems. It will not be America until the question posed by W.E.B. Du Bois is not “how does it feel to be a problem?”, but “how does it feel to be a human being?” When America stops turning people into criminals, and then punishing them for acting out the cruel parts they have been forcefully given, that is when America will be America, and not Jim Crow’s nation. There is unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore because America has made it an environment of unrest. If anyone is to be indicted, it is not the rioters, but America, and it is up to the privileged of my generation to start the indicting.