A modern-day example of New Afrikans building independent institutions and public opinion for socialism is the groups carrying out the Jackson-Kush Plan in Jackson, Mississippi and the surrounding area. There are a number of different organizations involved in, and evolved out of, this Plan, and its roots go back to the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika (PGRNA) in the 1960s. It is directly built on the long history of New Afrikan organizing for independence, going on since people were brought to the United $nakes from Africa as slaves. The Plan itself was formulated by the New Afrikan People's Organization and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement between 2004 – 2010. (1, p. 3)
The project has gone through many different phases, all focusing on attaining self-determination for people of African descent in Mississippi and the surrounding region. Sometimes the organizing has been more heavily focused on electoral politics,(2, 3) sometimes more on purchasing land, and currently the Cooperation Jackson project appears to be at the forefront of pushing the Plan forward.
Cooperation Jackson's mission is to develop an intimate network of worker-owned cooperatives, covering all basic humyn needs, and more: food production and distribution, recycling and waste management, energy production, commodity production, housing, etc. The main goals of Cooperation Jackson (C.J.) are to provide sustainable livelihoods for its organizing base, which includes control over land, resources, means of production, and means of distribution. Currently C.J. has a handful of cooperatives in operation, and is building the Community Land Trust to have greater control over its target geography in Jackson. This is just a snapshot of the work of Cooperation Jackson, which is explained in much more detail in the book Jackson Rising.(1)
The Jackson-Kush Plan is being carried out despite big setbacks, repression, harassment, and roadblocks from the government and racist citizens alike, for decades. This is the nature of struggle and the folks working with the Plan are facing it head-on. C.J. and the other organizations involved are doing amazing work to establish what could be dual power in the state of Mississippi.
While the MIM has congruent goals with the Jackson-Kush Plan (at least including the self-determination of New Afrikan people; control over land, economy, and resources; environmental sustainability; an end of capitalism and imperialism), there are some notable differences.(4) We're holding out hope that the Plan is being intentionally discrete in order to build dual power, but the ideological foundations of some of its structure point instead to revisionism of Marxism.
Cooperation Jackson's plan includes working with the government in some capacity. It needs to change laws in order to operate freely and legally. This itself isn't wrong – MIM(Prisons) also works on and supports some reforms that would make our work of building revolution much easier. But because of its relationship to the state, C.J.'s voice is muffled. MIM(Prisons) doesn't have this problem, so we can say what needs to be said and we hope the folks organizing for New Afrikan independence will hear it.
Cooperation Jackson's structural documents paint a picture of a peaceful transition to a socialist society, or a socialist microcosm, built on worker-owned cooperatives and the use of advanced technology. Where it aims to transform the New Afrikan "working class" (more on this below) to become actors in their own lives and struggle for self-determination of their nation, we are for it. So often we hear from ULK readers that people just don't think revolution is possible. Working in a collective and actually having an impact in the world can help people understand their own inherent power as humyn beings. Yet it seems C.J. sees this democratic transformation of the New Afrikan "working class" as an end in itself, which it believes will eventually lead to an end of capitalism.
"In the Jackson context, it is only through the mass self-organization of the working class, the construction of a new democratic culture, and the development of a movement from below to transform the social structures that shape and define our relations, particularly the state (i.e. government), that we can conceive of serving as a counter-hegemonic force with the capacity to democratically transform the economy."(1, p. 7)
This quote also alludes to C.J.'s apparent opposition to the universality of armed struggle in its struggle to transform the economy. In all the attempts that have been made to take power from the bourgeoisie, only people who have acknowledged the need to take that power by force (i.e. armed struggle) have been even remotely successful. We just need to look to the governments in the last century all across the world who have attempted to nationalize resources to see how hard the bourgeois class will fight when it really feels its interests are threatened.
Where C.J. is clearly against Black capitalism and a bourgeois-nationalist revolution that stays in the capitalist economy, we are in agreement. Yet C.J. apparently also rejects the need for a vanguard party, and the need for a party and military to protect the interests and gains of the very people it is organizing.
"As students of history, we have done our best to try and assimilate the hard lessons from the 19th and 20th century national liberation and socialist movements. We are clear that self-determination expressed as national sovereignty is a trap if the nation-state does not dislodge itself from the dictates of the capitalist system. Remaining within the capitalist world-system means that you have to submit to the domination and rule of capital, which will only empower the national bourgeoisie against the rest of the population contained within the nation-state edifice. We are just as clear that trying to impose economic democracy or socialism from above is not only very problematic as an anti-democratic endeavor, but it doesn't dislodge capitalist social relations, it only shifts the issues of labor control and capital accumulation away from the bourgeoisie and places it in the hands of the state or party bureaucrats."(1, p. 8)
As students of history, we assert that C.J. is putting the carriage before the horse here. National liberation struggles have shown the most success toward delinking populations from imperialism and capitalism. Yes, we agree with C.J. that these national liberation struggles also need to contain anti-capitalism, and revolutionary ecology, if they plan to get anywhere close to communism. But C.J. seems to be saying it can dislodge from capitalism before having national independence from imperialism.
The end of this quote also raises valid concerns about who holds the means of production, and the development of a new bourgeoisie among the party bureaucrats. This is one of the huge distinctions between the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, and China under Mao. In China, the masses of the population participated in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which attacked bureaucrats and revisionists in the party and positions of power. These criticisms were led from the bottom up, and the Cultural Revolution was a huge positive lesson on how we can build a society that is continually moving toward communism, and not getting stuck in state-capitalism.
Another significant difference between the line of the MIM and of Cooperation Jackson is our class analysis. Cooperation Jackson is organizing the "working class" in Jackson, Mississippi, which it defines as "unionized and non-unionized workers, cooperators, and the under and unemployed."(1, p. 30) So far in our exposure to C.J., we haven't yet come across an internationalist class analysis. Some pan-Africanism, yes, but nothing that says a living wage of $11 is more than double what the average wage would be if we had an equal global distribution of wealth.(5, 6) And so far nothing that says New Afrika benefits from its relationship to the United $tates over those who Amerikkka oppresses in the Third World.
We can't say what the next steps for the Jackson-Kush Plan should be. There's still opportunity for people within the project to clarify its line on the labor aristocracy/working class, the necessity of armed struggle to take power from the bourgeoisie, and the significance of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. MIM(Prisons)'s Free Books for Prisoners Program distributes many materials on these topics. Some titles we definitely recommend studying are On Trotskyism by Kostas Mavrakis, The Chinese Road to Socialism by E.L. Wheelwright and Bruce McFarlane, and Imperialism and its Class Structure in 1997 by MIM.
I read the article titled "Whites Can be Lumpen Too". I do not doubt that. But let me give you some insight on the race relations in Missouri's prisons.
The Caucasians are given job positions that allow them access to more resources, more mobility, more food and more canteen. While they turn around and make a profit off of New Afrikans and others who need what they have.
There is in particular one major racist "white" gang that functions in the Missouri Department of Correcions (MODOC) and this gang works directly with the C.O.s all the way up to the captains and case mangaers. This is not exaggeration, there is a couple pigz who have this gang's tattoo on their forearms! Yet the administration turns a blind eye to this.
So when it comes to unity how can you unite the population against the oppressors when half the population works for the oppressor and identifies with the shade of their skin over their prisoner status? They enjoy privileges like drugs, cell phones, food etc. that makes them feel closer to the staff than to the rest of the prison population.
Just last night me and six other comrades in the wing were having a discussion about Amerika, Russia and China's military bases spread throughout the Caribbean when we were constantly interrupted by a Caucasian prisoner banging on eir door. I am open to the idea of unity amongst all prisoners but the MODOC has done a thorough job of segregating us prisoners and forming a caste system.
MIM(Prisons) responds: Our response to the comrade who wrote "Whites Can be Lumpen Too" agrees with this writer. It's no coincidence that white guards have racist tattoos or that white prisoners enjoy special privileges from these guards.
This country has a long history of national oppression. It started with the European settler nation, which has always been mostly petty bourgeois, bringing in oppressed-nation slaves to build the infrastructure of this country. The history of this national oppression continues today in a slightly more subtle format. The result for whites as a group is greater wealth, better education, better housing opportunities, better jobs, and on and on. And so even poor whites who aren't currently enjoying these privileges can look around and see that their peers, people who look like them, are doing well. And they identify with these folks, aspire to their wealth, and have a realistic shot at getting there. This is in contrast with the lumpen from oppressed nations who look around and see lots of folks just like themselves in the same shitty conditions.
Whites can be revolutionaries if they choose to go against their national interests. And it makes it easier for prison staff to set up white prisoners as the privileged group, helping keep the rest of the population in check by getting in the way of organizing and unifying. Organizers need to recognize these conditions and unite those who can be united; in this case the oppressed nations.
[The following was written about the same time as we were writing Intersecting Strands of Oppression for ULK 65. This author echoes our own discussion of the Brett Kavanaugh hearing while heavily citing MIM Theory 2/3, as we did in our piece. This question of how gender and nation interact, and how revolutionaries should approach these topics in order to push things in the right direction continue to be of utmost importance. - MIM(Prisons)]
On 27 September 2018, in the United States Senate's Judiciary Committee, the nation heard riveting testimony of an attempted sexual assault, and the denial of that assault. A Crime that had occurred 37-years ago with no corroborating witnesses.
In a he-say, she-say trial, who gets the benefit of the doubt? The accused, or the accuser? In this era of #MeToo, is it guilty until you can prove yourself innocent, or innocent until proven guilty? Could due process be sacrificed at the altar of gender politics and why does it matter?
In reviewing my in-cell library on feminist theory, these matters and debates are not new, and the answers to these questions have long been addressed. The first question that has to be asked, "Who speaks for the feminist?" "Who has her girlfriend's back?" The demarcation in the feminist lines can best be exemplified by the research compiled by one feminist researcher, Ealasaid Munro:
"The emergence of 'privilege-checking,' however, reflects the reality that mainstream feminism remains dominated by straight white middle-classes. Parvan Amara interviewed self-identified working class feminists for a piece published on the internet magazine The F Word and noted that many of the women she spoke to found themselves excluded from mainstream feminism both on the internet and 'in real life.' Amara notes that many women tend to encounter feminism at university. Women who do not go on to further education face a barrier when attempting to engage with those academic debates that drive feminism."(1)
So if academia is where the debates that are driving feminist theory are occurring, what does that academic debate look like if she is not white?
"Ignoring the difference of race between women and the implications of those differences presents the most serious threat to the mobilization of women's joint power. Refusing to recognize difference makes it impossible to see the different problems and pitfalls facing us as women. Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you, we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down on the street, and you will turn your backs upon the reasons they are dying."(2)
Another theorist surmised, "Black women's own views on rape can't help being shaped by the actions of their white sisters. That is to say, that Black people cannot use a white supremacist justice system without perpetuating white supremacy."(3)
These other theorists have long been critical of weaponizing process. This was recently on display in California. There, a recall movement was taking place to remove a judge for imposing a light sentence on a Stanford University student for sexual assault. The most vocal opponents to the recall were Black women. The most visible, former California Supreme Court justice, Janice M. Brown.(4) She argued, that punishing a judge for exercising discretion will only harm defendants of color. Statistics bear this out. Per 100,000 of the Black and Brown population in 2010, 6,000 were imprisoned; while per 100,000 of the white population in 2010, 640 were imprisoned.(5) Black and Brown persons of color are in front of Criminal Court judges far more than whites.
Another theorist called this type of feminism Carceral Feminism, and rails against the federal passage of the 1999 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). "Many of the feminists who had lobbied for the passage of VAWA remained silent about countless other women whose 911 calls resulted in more violence. Often white, well-heeled feminists, their legislative accomplishment did little to stem violence against less affluent, more marginalized women."(6) And a further theorist noted, "If women do not share 'common oppression,' what then can serve as a basis for our coming together?"(7)
These other feminist theorist, the marginalized, had observed that the debate was about rational-feminism versus emotional-feminism. This feminist theorist argues that rational-feminism must prevail over emotional feminism.
"The sisterhood line as currently practiced (but not in the 1960s and early 1970s) is white, bourgeois, sexist propaganda. Women just turn around from seeking approval from men that they never got; to demanding unconditional approval from women. They put each other on a pedestal and imagine each other to be flawless goddesses."(8)
This same theorist argues, the root of emotional feminism is nothing more than a chauvinist plot to keep women marginalized and caught up in their emotions, rather than applying her faculties of reasoning.
"The root of this is the patriarchal socialization of women to restrict themselves to the sphere of feelings, while letting men develop the rational faculties necessary to wield power. Women are taught to read romantic novels, major in English, or maybe psychology, if the women seem like they are getting too many scientific ideas."(9)
Is the rallying cry, "I BELIEVE HER", the death nails to due process? Is process going to be sacrificed at the alter of gender politics? Is the new standard for America's fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons "GUILTY, UNTIL YOU CAN PROVE YOURSELF INNOCENT"?
One theorist's 1992 writings used the 1986 rape convictions of white women by the race of their rapist. 68% of their rapists were white; 22% of their rapists were Black; 5% were Other; and 2% of their rapists were Mixed. The theorist begs feminists to take a serious look at the 22% of white women raped in 1986 who were raped by Black men.
The theorist goes on to state a general proposition that all feminists can generally agree upon, "Three-quarters of all rapes are by acquaintances, and the figures on rape should reflect that women are raped by the type of people they date."
In 1986, 12% of the men available to white women were Black. However, no where near 12% of the sex white women were having were with Black men. Thus the 22% of white women's rapist being Black is disproportionately high. Furthermore, the population of white women was more than six-times the population of Black men. For every [1% of] white women who had a sexual acquaintance with a Black man, it takes [6% of] Black men to be those acquaintances. Out of those acquaintances charged with rape, the 22% figure means a very high proportion of Black men generally are convicted of rape of white women compared to white men.
The theorist takes note, up to this point, the figures have been examined from the perspective of the rape victim. But taken from the Black man's perspective, white women are a large group of the American population, while Black men are a relatively small one. For Black men, 63.3% of their rape accusers were white women. If Black men had 63.3% of their sexual interactions with white women, then the accusations might be fair, but this was far from the case.
The theorist surmised we could get an idea of how skewed the accusations were looking at "interracial dating." The theorist could not give a figure for what percentage of the dates people went on were interracial. Instead, the theorist surmised we could guess that it was similar to the figures for the percentage of people in interracial marriages. Black men married to white women accounted for 0.3% of total marriages in the United States as of 1989. In 1989, less than 4% of Black married men were married to white women, so we estimate that less than 4% of Black men's dating were with white women. Hence, less than 4% of accusations faced by Black men should come from white women. Instead, the figure was 63.3%.(10)
The history of that story is the other side of sexual politics here in America. An America where the LAPD and Oakland-PD have had 100s of convictions overturned, due to incredibly, credible, false testimony of police officers. A land where 15% of the Black population in Tulia, Texas, were incarcerated by the incredibly, credible, testimony of a single racist officer.(11) According to the San Quentin News, 139 prisoners nationwide were exonerated in 2017.(12)
Credible demeanor in testimony has never been foolproof. The National Academy of Sciences, along with the FBI, have noted eyewitness testimony is the most unreliable testimony.(13) While this would obviously be in reference to witnesses testifying against strangers, but the juries which wrongly convinced these defendants were doing so from witnesses who were credible and convincing in their testimony. In 2013, 153 of the 268 exonerations by the Innocence Project were for rape.(14) 72% of all DNA exonerations are people of color. Of the 72%, 61% are African Americans.(15)
Theorists can clearly see, "I BELIEVE HER," with its lock-in-step demands of sisterhood, is classic emotional-feminist theory. What is the emotional-feminist rationale to do away with "INNOCENT, UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY"? Nor could emotional-theorists surmise they are not doing away with this unitedly, American, idea. [...] "I BELIEVE HER" is a presumption-of-guilt, rather than the presumption-of-innocence that the rational feminist are standing for, and for years have been arguing against the emotional-feminist assault on process. While emotional-feminism, with its well-heeled, racial, social, and economic status is having the loudest voice, their marginalized sisters, whose rational-feminist approach, is the only voice of hope for fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons; a hope the other side doesn't win the debate.
While expressing full unity with MIM(Prisons), I feel compelled to also urge those who say they are engaging in the fight against imperialism to expand their reach. We are living within a time where the public is realizing that prisons and other oppressive methods are doing more harm than good. Campaigns are being launched throughout the world on behalf of the rights of prisoners and the oppressed in general.
MIM(Prisons) encourages those struggling against imperialism to be united no matter the group one may claim as long as it's against imperialism. We have a justice system that perpetuates the institution of racism in this country through its targeting of the most marginalized communities: people of color, women and the LGBT community. As one we are more than they are and it's time we realize this truth and act on it NOW!
The public generally associates torture with physical violence; they sometimes have a hard time accepting that there are equally brutal forms of mental torture. It's interesting, though. Back in the 1940s and 1950s when stories came out about communist regimes holding prisoners in isolation for very long periods of time, we had no problem calling that torture.
We all have family and friends who can be our voice as well as a way and means to destroy the system from within. If our family and friends were employees at these prisons they would expose the ill treatment we are receiving, and misconduct of the other prison officials. Shutting down prisons should be a prisoner's main focus. We must stop funding our imprisonment by buying things from these prisons.
If the state has to pay they will soon run out of money as they are doing in Louisiana, and now Louisiana is forced to release prisoners due to lack of funds and the feds refuse to give them any more money.
Many may not share my views but one can not disagree that picking up the torch after someone else or starting one's own movement will be rewarding. As I think about all of the movements and campaigns that have been launched on behalf of prisoners or other oppressed people, I wonder why these groups have not thought to get prison jobs in order to expose the system. If they are fired or harassed because of it they can bring suit over it. We must encourage this. ULK 51 ran an article about a Louisiana correctional officer who exposed Winn Correctional Center.(1) Changes were made and the private prison group lost its contract with the state. So what I am suggesting works.
We must keep our minds on decarcerating our states by educating ourselves and others of the root cause for incarceration and working with others to create the ideal community. Create opportunities for this place, get family, friends, and the community to participate and play the role of developers. Its been proven over and again that when we invest in ourselves, plan and build for ourselves, people thrive with virtually no crime. If we are true champions of human rights and mean to fulfill our constitutional guarantees of a more perfect union, then we have a moral obligation to end prison slavery, overhaul our criminal justice system and decarcerate by fighting the system from within the system.
MIM(Prisons) responds: We want to expand on this comrade's comment about educating on the root cause for incarceration. This is a critical point to understand. It's definitely not profitable to lock up so many people. In reality prisons in the United $tates are a tool of social control, used mostly to keep oppressed nation lumpen in check. We can win some critical battles against the criminal injustice system, but we aren't likely to end the mass incarceration until we take down imperialism as a whole. The prison system is too tied up in U.$. imperialist domestic policies.
This comrade brings up the interesting situation in Louisiana where prison and state officials were threatening to release a third of the prison population (10,000 prisoners) if the 2018 budget cuts were implemented. Although there was a lot of news about this potential "crisis" at the time, since then we found no follow up. Presumably the state found the money to keep people locked up. In 2017 Louisiana officials made similar threats, though on a smaller scale. Obviously funding is necessary to keep prisoners locked up, but it seems that Louisiana keeps finding enough money to keep their prison infrastructure intact. We fully support prisoner boycotts and other financial attacks on the system. But, as we explored in detail in ULK 60most of the funding is already coming from the state budget so we need to approach these battles with a clear understanding of the potential impact.(2)
We agree with this comrade's evaluation that people can thrive with no crime. It is the capitalist patriarchal system that creates the current culture of crime, and puts the biggest criminals in charge of murder, rape and large scale theft around the world in the name of the government. And so we would extend our moral obligation beyond ending the criminal injustice system and to ending the imperialist system.
Finally, we want to comment on the "communist regimes holding prisoners in isolation." This is common anti-communist propaganda but we're not sure exactly what the author is talking about here. In the 1940s and 50s over a third of the world's people embarked on the socialist road. And there is no doubt the Amerikan propaganda machine told lots of stories about those countries' evil behavior. In hindsight a lot of these stories have been proven false.
In the case of China, the prisons were actually an example of a true system of reeducation and rehabilitation. In fact, the entire country undertook a reeducation campaign to remould individuals and the society as a whole to serve the interests of the people rather than the interests of profit. One example is shown in the book Prisoners of Liberation by Allyn and Adele Rickett, where we see that their conditions of confinement were different from conditions in U.$. prisons in significant ways. They were housed with other prisoners, and not isolated. They were provided with literature and newspapers, not cut off from society. They were encouraged to expand their perspectives and grow together, not to just watch TV and withdraw into themselves. And ultimately they came out of prison praising the communist government in China.
We are caught in a system of competitiveness, manipulation, one against the other, brother against brother, family against family, people against people, gangs against gangs, ethnic groups against ethnic groups, color against color, class against class, instead of minority or lower class against the ruling class.
We focus too much on meaningless self-imposed politics that were manipulated into our minds growing up. Like ditch school, destroy your own neighborhoods, sell drugs to your own people, we gang bang, we fight our own over colors and sides only. The only way you can make it is by rapping about killing your own people or selling drugs to your own. As a Chicano I grew up not only hearing this from my peers but that's also what the music I was told to like and listen to said. The television also told me my people are only on TV as gang bangers, drug dealers, etc.
As I grew older I started to realize something is wrong here, where did I go wrong? What have I done for myself? For my family? For my people? Nothing but self-imposed distraction. I am soaking in my own blood and that of my people. I got a hunger for knowledge. Why is it things are the way they are?
The more I studied, the more I realized this is not new but a very old cycle set up by a system to manipulate my mind. A system that went after Martin L. King, a peaceful man, a pastor on his quest for civil rights. The government unlawfully wired his phones, tried to break up his family, tried to unlawfully disrupt his movement by all means to an end. We've learned how the CIA was helping Pablo Escobar flood our streets with drugs. How they dismantled and unlawfully disrupted the Brown Berets and Black Panthers because they were trying to teach and uplift the people; telling them there is a system in place to oppress you, know and understand your rights, bear arms to protect your neighborhoods from pig brutality. After both Brown Berets and Panthers fell our children were open to assault by this system, poor schools, no jobs, drugs. Then record labels signed groups who furthered the system's wishes singing and rapping, "kill your own," "sell drugs," "it's cool to go to prison."
Regardless of tribe, set, race, if you are classified as Security Threat Group (STG) you are on the same boat as me. STG is a Homeland Security term for a domestic terrorist. First rule in war, identify your enemy. We have been identified and classified as enemies of the state. What else is there to be said? Are we to continue letting our self-imposed politics disrupt reality? Such insignificant things and views like colors and sides or race hinder our lives? They can stop one arrow not a hundred. There's nothing wrong with being part of groups, families, etc. But it is wrong when those groups lose focus of the message and cause. It is not okay to soak in the blood of your own people, period.
Learn from our oppressor, they are some cold operators, they understand the power of knowledge and education. The ruling class in the United States is composed of men and their families who use ivy league universities and elite law schools as private schools for their offspring and as training grounds for their corporate livelihoods. They rule us with iron precision through the military, the CIA, the FBI, private foundations and financial institutions. Their control of all the media of education and communication comprises an extremely effective system of thought control.
We must learn from someone who defeated this system. Ho Chi Minh understood the power of education. His mandated policy for his warriors and cadres was spot on. Fighting and violence is easy. You must have balance. You must be able to read and write, be able to teach others and most importantly fully understand and be educated in your political paradigm and why you are fighting.
Chicanos in Colorado are currently in a struggle for our true history. We hunger for knowledge because that knowledge has ended all violence between tribes, shown us our common interests, not the blind mentality of colors and sides. We are currently under assault by Colorado Department of Corrections, not allowing us to receive our real education, stopping all education or history on the concept of Aztlán, Chicano unity, Mexica movement, claiming it's STG. Since when is history and education a crime? Well for us, always.
If there is to be a movement, then there must be leaders. Those leaders must be judged by their ability to give not take. Leadership must convey confidence, not egotism, one who sacrifices, not one who is an opportunist. Leadership is the act of using power to free people, not to control them. It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.
MIM(Prisons) responds: The destruction of the Black Panther Party, the flooding of cities with drugs, and the rejection of literature on [email protected] history in prison are all manifestations of the same system. This system seeks to peacefully control oppressed nations by keeping them from learning about the history of this oppression and the many examples of resistance. And when that fails it locks up the oppressed, or even targets activists for death.
What can we do about this system with so much more power and resources than we have as activists and anti-imperialists? The truth is our side has more power; we have 80% of the world's population, which is exploited and oppressed by imperialism, on our side. The imperialists are paper tigers, that appear fearsome, but in reality are propped up on a fairly fragile structure of power.
That said, dismantling that structure will take a lot of organization, trial and error. As this comrade points out, we need to focus on education and fight to get true history into the hands of the oppressed. And then we need leaders to step up and organize and educate others. There is no special qualification for this leadership. Anyone who sees the problems in the world around them can take up organizing others to fight back. United Struggle from Within is an organization for these leaders, and MIM(Prisons) supports USW organizers with literature and resources. Get in touch today to get started with a local study group or campaign against repression in your prison or elsewhere in the world.
The example(s) set down by the "People's Machine" still resonate today...within the hearts and minds of captives in particular, and conscious folk out in "minimum security" (Amerikkka!) in general.
The blood of our revolutionary martyrs still stains the ground in San Quentin, Soledad, Tracy, Attica, Angola, Jackson, Walla Walla, among others! Their spirits call out to us..."Avenge Us", they say! Can we hear them? Truly?
Today being the day, 47 years ago! that the "Dragon" spit fire and in turn, ran out of the adjustment center...to a revolutionary death! The Amerikkkans thought that killing Comrade George, they would kill the movement...WRONG!
Granted...the system of capitalism has been quite active in circumventing our quest(s) for revolutionary change! As we ourselves have internalized "gangsta" delusional fantasies...and in turn, became cannibals of our own! Between the two lives the poor and oppressed masses! The have nots! starving for freedom...starving for justice...starving for equality! Just unsure of "how" to go about obtaining it?!
The fact that every issue of ULK that i have ever read has had at least one prisoner submission that referenced Comrade George, speaks volumes! At least to those who are truly conscious...These Brothas identify with strength in these torture chambers, where broken men abound! They want to be about more than lip service...it is on those of us who know, to teach! and lead by example!
Comrade George, W.L. Nolen, Bill Christmas, Khaiari Gualden, others unnamed, sacrifice their very lives for the cause of liberation! They waged struggle in service of all of us behind the walls and we owe them, period!
Today, i am deep in thought...examining my conditions and the cats i find myself imprisoned with. And I am working...regardless of what the Amerikkkans do to me: indeterminate SHU, death row, out of state moves, even death! i shall continually strive to be the example of resistance to those around me! Way i see it, i have absolutely nothing left to lose...but my chains! Life in a cage is unacceptable...to a "Black Cat"! i salute all of you Brothas in struggle with a clenched fist held high! Thinking of the beloved Comrade G. i have blood in my eyes! Power to the People!
Reification is a term that refers to using the labor power of the people and in turn using it as a powerful force to keep them under oppression.
The only way Texas can afford to keep 150,000 people imprisoned and continue to give parole "set offs" after they are parole eligible by law is through the use of forced labor to offset operating costs. Theoretically speaking if TDCJ were forced by law to pay prisoner workers through a new supreme court precedent, or if prisoners quit participating in enslaving themselves, parole would be presumptive and automatically granted at first eligibility.
Our freedom is at stake here, friends. That is why this issue is absolutely vital. In Texas, per a 1993 law which was passed in reaction to the 90s crack-cocaine-fueled crime wave, violent or aggravated offenders must serve 1/2 their entire sentence before becoming parole eligible. And often times after decades of dreams, hope, hard labor and good behavior, alas many are given the dreaded "set off." So much time has elapsed that their momma has died, their support structures have crumbled, and they have become old men in terrible health due to poor diet, unable to gain meaningful employment, dreams are dashed. All their efforts seem totally futile.
It reminds me of the book Animal Farm by George Orwell and how they treat the work horse, Boxer. They push the old work horse to work harder and harder for the revolution, promising him great comforts and retirement benefits one day in the future. However the day comes when he becomes so old and unable to work they send him off to slaughter at the glue factory. TDCJ's treatment of its prisoners is very analogous to this. When will we wake up?
MIM(Prisons) responds: This is an interesting take on a theme that we hear about constantly from our subscribers in Texas. This writer is saying that if prisoners didn't help offset the operational costs of their own imprisonment, that TDCJ would be forced to release them because it could no longer afford to keep so many people locked up.
There is a contradiction between the high costs to keep people in prison, and the pressure applied to the criminal injustice system from citizens who want to keep oppressed nations in check. Texas is one of the most racist borderland states and has a very long history of national oppression and white supremacy.(1) The call for harsher sentences coinciding with the crack epidemic is simply a manifestation of this racism. It's not about fear of violence; it's about fear of Black violence.
TDCJ certainly would have a harder time financing its prison operations if it actually had to pay prisoners for their labor. But if it started releasing people because of these financial problems, we'd be hearing it from the citizenry. We aren't sure what lengths the state would go to to appease its white constituency.
In fact, we have also heard countless reports of what TDCJ does when it has "budget problems": it makes conditions worse for the prisoners by skipping rec time, medical call, and other duties it has to prisoners. We have yet to receive a letter from someone saying that TDCJ has started releasing prisoners due to budget problems.
The battle here isn't between the prisoners getting paid for labor, and the TDCJ not paying them. The battle is between the interests of the oppressed nations who are housed in TDCJ prisons, with their entire lives stolen from them, and the Amerikkkan nation which has a strong material, social, and cultural interest in keeping these oppressed nations locked up. If that battle manifests in a struggle for work to be paid for in TDCJ, or for TDCJ to honor good time - work time credits in releasing prisoners, then we are all for it. But we can't lose sight of this bigger contradiction, which is what the entire prisoner labor struggle rests on.
This contradiction has always existed since the beginning of the Amerikan nation, and even prior to that when it was still in development. And it has only been heightened under the Trump presidency. We aim to build our power so that we can overcome the contradiction, in unity with oppressed peoples all over the world. Any struggle for paid prisoner labor should primarily be a struggle to build our internal unity and organizing.
Throughout the numerous issues of Under Lock & Key (ULK), we have read countless articles detailing the unjust and inhumyn conditions of imprisonment across U.$. prisons and jails. Many of these stories, and the compelling analyses they entail, help shape and develop our political consciousness. From the hunger strikes in California to the rampant humyn rights' violations in Texas on to the USW-led countrywide grievance campaign, through the pages of ULK, we have shared our organizing struggles, the successes and setbacks. As a result, our clarity regarding the illegitimacy of the U.$. criminal (in)justice system has sharpened tremendously.
And yet, there are some political and economic dimensions of our imprisonment that seem to evade our critical gaze. It is not enough that we become familiar with each others' stories behind the walls. At some point, we must move toward relating our collective organizing experiences in prison to much broader struggles beyond prison. To this end, the anti-prison movement(1) is but a necessary phase of national liberation struggles that has serious implications for anti-imperialism. And in order for the anti-prison movement to advance we must analyze all sides of the mass incarceration question.
Many of us already understand that prisons function as tools of social control. We also recognize that U.$. prisons are disproportionately packed with oppressed nation lumpen, ostensibly because these groups organized and led national liberation movements during the late-1960s to mid-70s. After these movements succumbed to repression from U.$. reactionary forces (COINTELPRO), the U.$. prison population rose dramatically and then exploded, resulting in what we know today as mass incarceration.(2) Thus, we see, in a very narrow way, the basis for why U.$. prisons serve in neutralizing the existential threat posed by oppressed nation lumpen.
But understanding the hystorical basis of mass incarceration is only one part of the question. The other part is determining how the systematic imprisonment of oppressed nation lumpen has developed over time, and exploring its impact throughout that process. Because while the question of mass incarceration may seem as formulaic as "national oppression makes necessary the institutions of social control," the reality is this question is a bit more involved than mere physical imprisonment.
The latter point in no way opposes the analysis that the primary purpose of mass incarceration is to deter oppressed nation lumpen from revolutionary organizing. In fact, the political and economic dimensions of mass incarceration described and analyzed later in this article function in the same capacity as prison bars — in some instances, the bonds of poverty and systemic marginalization, or the racist and white-supremacist ideology that criminalizes and stigmatizes oppressed nation lumpen are just as strong as the physical bonds of imprisonment. If oppressed nation communities, particularly lumpen communities, are kept in a perpetual state of destabilization, disorganization, and distraction, then these groups will find it that much harder to effectively organize against a status quo that oppresses them.
The point of this article is thus to widen the panorama of our understanding, to take in those political and economic dimensions of mass incarceration that too often go unnoticed and unexamined, but are nonetheless important in determining the line and strategy necessary to advance the anti-prison movement.
Partial Integration Set the Table for Mass Incarceration
As pointed out above, mass incarceration deters oppressed nation lumpen from revolutionary organizing. But what does this analysis really mean in today's context of the national question? How does the prevention of oppressed nation lumpen from organizing for national liberation impact the national contradiction; that is, the contradiction between the Euro-Amerikan oppressor nation-state and the U.$. internal oppressed nations and semi-colonies?
The lumpen-driven liberation movements of past were, in part, strong rebukes against the integrationist Civil Rights movement (which of course was led by the bourgeoisie/petty-bourgeoisie of oppressed nations). Thus we see the partial integration agenda as an alliance and compromise between the Euro-Amerikan oppressor nation-state (its ruling class) and the comprador bourgeoisie of oppressed nations. It is meant to answer the national question set forth by the earlier protest movements (revolutionary and progressive) of oppressed nations, on one hand, and to ease tensions inherent in the national contradiction, on the other hand.
In exchange for open access to political power and persynal wealth, the comprador bourgeoisie was tasked with keeping their lumpen communities in check. To this point, it was thought that if Black and Brown faces ruled over Black and Brown places, then much of the radical protest and unrest that characterized the period between the mid-60s to mid-70s would be quelled.
This is the very premise of identity politics, and, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor aptly notes: electing leaders of oppressed nations into political office does not change the dire material and socioeconomic circumstances of the communities they represent.(3) In eir book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, Taylor goes on to describe the failure of partial integration (and identity politics) with respect to the New Afrikan nation,(4) contending:
"The pursuit of Black electoral power became one of the principal strategies that emerged from the Black Power era. Clearly it has been successful for some. But the continuing crises for Black people, from under-resourced schools to police murder, expose the extreme limitations of that strategy. The ascendance of Black electoral politics also dramatizes how class differences can lead to different political strategies in the fight for Black liberation. There have always been class differences among [New Afrikans], but this is the first time those class differences have been expressed in the form of a minority of Blacks wielding significant political power and authority over the majority of Black lives."(5)
Here we see Taylor describes the inability of partial integration to remedy the plight of the entire New Afrikan nation and its communities. Ey also articulates very precisely the internal class divisions of New Afrika brought to light by such an opportunistic agenda, which serves to enforce and maintain semi-colonialism. There is a reason why the Euro-Amerikan oppressor nation-state allied with the comprador bourgeoisie, as their interests were (and are) clearly more aligned than conflicting, given the circumstances. Where the bourgeois/petty-bourgeois integrationists wanted access to capitalist society, the lumpen and some sections of the working class of oppressed nations saw their future in their liberation from U.$. imperialist society – two very different "political strategies" reflective of somewhat contentious "class differences."
Furthermore, Taylor highlights the moral bankruptcy of partial integration (and identity politics) with the contemporary lesson of Freddie Gray's tragic murder and the Baltimore uprising that followed. Ey explains, "when a Black mayor, governing a largely Black city, aids in the mobilization of a military unit led by a Black woman to suppress a Black rebellion, we are in a new period of the Black freedom struggle."(6) This "new period" that Taylor speaks of is nothing more than good-ole neo-colonialism.
To elaborate further, an understanding of the Baltimore uprising, for example, cannot be reduced down to a single incident of police murder. Let's be clear, New Afrikan lumpen (and youth) took to the streets of Baltimore in protest and frustration of conditions that had been festering for years — conditions that have only grown worse since the end of the "Black Power era." Obviously, the political strategy of identity politics (i.e. "the pursuit of Black electoral power") has not led to "Black liberation." Instead it has resulted in an intensification of class tensions internal to the U.$. oppressed nation (in this case, New Afrika), as well as increased state repression of oppressed nation lumpen.
This latter point is evidenced by the support of policies from the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) that target, disrupt, and imprison oppressed nation communities (lumpen communities).(7) At the same time that these communities struggled under the weight of economic divestment and merciless marginalization, conditions which in many respects worsened under the political leadership of the comprador bourgeoisie, the drug trade opened up, providing a precarious means of survival. Predictably, as "crime"(8) increased so too did the creation and implementation of criminal civil legislation that fueled mass incarceration. To really get a sense of the true interests of the comprador bourgeoisie of oppressed nations, we only need to look at the positions taken by the CBC, the so-called champions of freedom, equality, and justice, which "cosponsored conservative law-and-order politics out of not political weakness but entrenchment in Beltway politics."(9) It is clear that partial integration has been "successful for some," but it is equally apparent who the victims of this opportunistic agenda have been.
What is often missed in any serious and sober analysis of the CBC (or any other political org. representative of the comprador bourgeoisie) is the legitimacy it bestows upon the prison house of nations: U.$. imperialist society. This legitimacy isn't some figment of imagination, but a material reality expressed primarily in the class-nation alliance signified by the partial integration agenda. Dialectically, while the comprador bourgeoisie is granted the privileges of "whiteness," access to political and economic power, the lumpen and some sections of the working class of oppressed nations are deemed superfluous (not necessary) for the production and reproduction of U.$. imperialist society. Of course, the election of more members of oppressed nations into office goes a long way in maintaining the facade that the United $tates is a free and open society that respects and upholds the rights and liberties of its citizenry. However, identity politics will never obscure the sacrificial zones within U.$. society -– South and Westside Chicago, Eastside Baltimore, Compton and South Central and East Los Angeles, and many more deprived urban lumpen areas –- maintained and, in many cases, made worse by partial integration.
Unfortunately, this is where we find the oppressed nation lumpen today on the national question, held hostage by a set of identity politics complicit in its further marginalization and oppression.
Politics of Mass Incarceration
In discussing the failure of partial integration to effectively improve the material and socioeconomic life of the entire oppressed nation, we can better appreciate the extreme limitations of such an anemic political strategy that is identity politics. But if the legitimacy that partial integration (and identity politics) provides U.$. society can only go so far in actually pacifying oppressed nation lumpen, then by what other means and methods are these superfluous groups controlled? In the next two sections, we will explore and analyze this question.
Racism and white supremacy are constant ideological threads woven throughout the founding and development of U.$. society. In each era, be it slavery, segregation, or mass incarceration today, the primary function of this political ideology is to rationalize and legitimate the oppression and/or exploitation of colonized peoples, which throughout these different eras invariably involved employing particular methods of social control against these peoples or specific groups thereof.
Now, of course, we cannot compare the fundamental nature of slavery with that of mass incarceration. And to be clear, this is not the point of this particular section. It should be obvious to the casual ULK reader that where the slave performed an essential economic role and was therein exploited and oppressed, oppressed nation lumpen have no role within the current socioeconomic order of U.$. society, as it is systematically denied access to it. The point, however, is to show how the ideological forces of racism and white supremacy, while they have assumed different forms depending on the historical era, are mobilized in service of the status quo. It is in this sense that political motivations underpin the system of mass incarceration. And as we will see in this section, these motivations are hystorically tied to the oppression and/or exploitation of U.$. internal oppressed nations and semi-colonies.
To be sure, the need to control oppressed nations has always been a paramount concern of the oppressor (settler) nation since settler-colonialism. During the era of slavery, slave codes were implemented to ensure that slaves were held in check, while slave patrols were formed to enforce these measures. We see here the emergence of the modern U.$. criminal (in)justice system in its nascent form, with its proto-police and proto-criminal laws. But it wasn't until after the abolition of slavery that we find express political motivations to criminalize oppressed nations. For Angela Y. Davis,
"Race [nation] has always played a central role in constructing presumptions of criminality ... former slave states passed new legislation revising the slave codes in order to regulate the behavior of free blacks in ways similar to those that had existed during slavery. The new Black Codes proscribed a range of actions ... that were criminalized only when the person charged was black."(10)
While the Black Codes were created in large part to control New Afrikan labor for continued exploitation, we are able to see the formation of policies and policing designed for the specific purpose of repressing oppressed nations. As a side note, irony doesn't begin to describe the enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment, meant to abolish slavery, to disestablish one system of oppression only to provide for the legal and political basis for another system of oppression -– convict lease labor.
Furthermore, Davis observes that, "The racialization of crime – the tendency to 'impute crime to color' ... did not wither away as the country became increasingly removed from slavery. Proof that crime continues to be imputed to color resides in the many evocations of 'racial profiling' in our time."(11) In this sense, oppressed nation lumpen criminality under conditions of mass incarceration is analogous to Afrikan "inferiority" or First Nation "savagery" under conditions of settler-colonialism. In both instances, there are narratives, informed by racism and white supremacy, which serve the continued functioning of the status quo.
Given that the criminalization of oppressed nations is not some modern phenomenon, but one that originated in the hystorical oppression and exploitation of oppressed nations, we now have a different angle from which to view mass incarceration. Part of this view involves recognizing that the criminal (in)justice system, law enforcement, and legislators are not neutral arbiters of justice or "law and order." These people and institutions are infected by racism and white supremacy and thus function to carry out ideological and political aims.
Therefore, it is important that we remain diligent in uncovering the many guises under which racism and white supremacy lurk and hide. This is no less significant today as it is in the cultural arena where reactionary ideas and ideologies are propagated and traded. To be more clear, when trying to rationalize why oppressed nation lumpen are imprisoned at disproportionate rates relative to similarly-situated Euro-Amerikans, arguments about lack of responsibility and no work ethic are tossed around as explanations. Mainstream media go even further by portraying and projecting stereotypes about oppressed nation lumpen (and youth), that is to say, stereotyping the dress, talk, and actions, which is really a subtle but sophisticated way of stigmatizing. Of course, this stigmatization goes on to construct a criminal archetype, which many of us see today in nearly every facet of U.$. media life.
All of these factors, taken into consideration together, shape the public conscience on "crime" and criminality, laying the groundwork for rationalizing the great disparities characteristic of the current criminal (in)justice system. Unsurprisingly, this propaganda has worked so effectively that even oppressed nation members find it hard to ignore. So where there should be unity on issues/incidences of national oppression, none exists, because the oppressed nation is divided, usually along class lines. Taylor strikes at the heart of the matter:
"Blaming Black culture not only deflects investigation into the systemic causes of Black inequality but has also been widely absorbed by [New Afrikans] as well. Their acceptance of the dominant narrative that blames Blacks for their own oppression is one explanation for the delay in the development of a new Black movement."(12)
This is certainly the plan of partial integration, to divide the oppressed nation against itself and thereby legitimize the marginalization and oppression of oppressed nation lumpen in the process. Naturally, this paralyzes the oppressed nation from acting on its right to self-determination, from pursuing liberation.
To frame this point another way, take a [email protected] business owner. This persyn has a business in a predominantly [email protected] lumpen community, despite residing in the suburbs. This business owner sees [email protected] youth hang out and skip school. Ey sees them engaged in questionable, possibly criminal activity. Add in the scenario that local media frames crime as a virtue of [email protected] lumpen youth on a nightly basis. And then say one day one of those [email protected] kids is killed by the police. How will the [email protected] business owner respond?
Before the era of mass incarceration, the overwhelming majority of the oppressed nation would have viewed this scenario for what it was: a police murder. Today, we cannot be so sure.
To sum up, the current criminal (in)justice system, law enforcements, etc. are unfair and unjust not because these institutions are biased against oppressed nations, but because the fundamental nature of society, the basis upon which these institutions are built and set in motion, is founded on the oppression of non-white peoples. We must remember that slavery was legal and segregation was held up as permissible by the highest courts in this stolen land. For us to view mass incarceration solely from the social control perspective undermines any appreciation for the urgency of anti-imperialism, for the need for a reinvigoration of U.$. national liberation struggles. We need to be more nuanced in our analysis because the system is nuanced in its marginalization and oppression of oppressed nation lumpen.
Economics of Mass Incarceration
This nuance mentioned above is primarily played out on an economic plane. And there are many economic dimensions and impacts of mass incarceration that maintain a strangle hold on oppressed nation lumpen and communities.
We can explore how contact with the criminal (in)justice system can leave an oppressed nation member and eir family destitute, through fees, fines, and other forms of financial obligations. We can look at the impact of prisons located in rural communities, providing employment opportunities and economic stimulus. We could even investigate prison industries and how prisoner labor is utilized to offset the costs of incarceration. However, the point here is that there are many things to analyze, all of which, taken as a whole, disadvantage oppressed nation lumpen and their communities.
The most consequential impact of mass incarceration is how it feeds the cycle of poverty and marginalization characteristic of lumpen communities. Basically, the criminalization / stigmatization of lumpen reinforces its material deprivation, which in turn nurtures conditions of criminal activity as a means of survival, further unleashing the repressive forces of the criminal (in)justice system, which proves or validates the criminalization / stigmatization of oppressed nation lumpen in the first place. Thus, oppressed nation lumpen are inarguably subjected doubly to the poverty and marginalization, on one hand, and to the relentless blows of national oppression, on the other hand.
Todd Clear, provost of Rutgers University – Newark, who specializes in the study of criminal justice, draws a stark picture of this cycle of crime and poverty that lumpen are subjected to:
"A number of the men are gone at any time; they're locked up. And then the men that are there are not able to produce income, to support families, to support children, to buy goods, to make the neighborhood have economic activity, to support businesses ... the net effect of rates of incarceration is that the neighborhood has trouble adjusting. Neighborhoods where there's limited economic activity around the legitimate market are neighborhoods where you have a ripeness to grow illegitimate markets."(13)
What Clear is depicting is not so much the fact that crimes take place in lumpen communities. Clear is emphasizing that criminogenic factors (factors that strongly tend to lead to criminal activity/inclination) are really a reflection of the lack of socioeconomic opportunities to social upward mobility. This is the essence that fuels the dynamic relationship between crime and poverty. What Clear fails to mention is that there are Euro-Amerikans who are in similarly-situated circumstances as oppressed nation lumpen but are more likely to escape them where oppressed nation lumpen are trapped. This is so for reasons already mentioned in the above sections.
Furthermore, not everyone in lumpen communities are imprisoned; in fact, most likely never see the inside of a jail or prison. But enough people do go away and stay away for a considerable period of time that the community is destabilized, and familial bonds are ruptured. When free, the imprisoned persyn from the lumpen community represented some sort of income, and not a liability weighing down a family, financially, morally, etc, already struggling to make ends meet. Enough of these families are part of the lumpen community that the cycle mentioned above seems to be unbreakable. Kids growing up in broken homes, forced to assume adult roles, only to make kid mistakes that come with adult consequences; and the cycle continues.
To be sure, this cycle has been in force with respect to oppressed nations since the end of slavery. It has just become necessary over time to enact laws and policies that now target and disrupt these communities. Both the politics and economics of mass incarceration work to keep lumpen communities from organizing for national liberation as was done during the late-60s.
Part of any strategy related to our anti-prison movement is first recognizing these dimensions of mass incarceration, and taking into account that we live in enemy society where enemy consciousness prevails, even amongst much of the oppressed nations. We have to also recognize that the interests of oppressed nation lumpen are not the same as the other classes of the oppressed nation. There are some members of the oppressed nations who have bought the bill of goods sold by partial integration. They are fully immersed in the delusions of identity politics, subtly sacrificing their true identity for the trinkets of "whiteness."
Understanding and recognizing these points means we can focus our organizing efforts on building public opinion and independent institutions, on a concrete class/nation analysis and not because someone is Black or Brown. We need to be patient with lumpen communities as they are in that day-to-day grind of survival and may not (or cannot) see the merit in our movement. Ultimately, we need to step up and be those leaders of the movement, so when we do touch we hit the ground running.
by Soso of MIM(Prisons) March 2018 permalinkLocked In: the true causes of mass incarceration - and how to achieve real reform
by John F. Pfaff
2017 Basic Books
With over 2 million people behind bars, Amerikkka locks up more people per capita than any other nation in the world. But within this system of mass imprisonment there is an even more striking story of national oppression: New Afrikans locked up at 5 times the rate of whites, and [email protected] and First Nations also locked up at disproportionately high rates. We might hope that a book about the true causes of mass incarceration (and how to achieve real reform!) would address this discrepancy. But Pfaff, like all good bourgeois scholars, is focused on how to make capitalism work better. And so ey sweeps this whole issue under the rug in a book that offers some really good science and statistics on imprisonment. Here we will pull out the useful facts and frame them in a revolutionary context.
Overall Locked In does a good job of exposing some important facts and statistics often ignored by prison researchers. Pfaff attacks what ey calls the "Standard Story." This is the name ey gives to the common arguments anti-prison activists make, which ey believes are counter-productive to their (and eir own) goals of prison reform. Ey claims these arguments either over simplify, or are straight up wrong, about why we have so many prisoners in the United $tates, and as a result target the wrong solutions.
The big picture
Pfaff sometimes gets lost in the details and fails to look at the big picture. For instance, ey argues that "we are a nation of either 50 or 3,144 distinct criminal justice systems" talking about the big differences in how each state and even each county deals with prosecution, sentencing and prisons.(p. 16) While it is true there are significant differences, this thinking evades the importance of looking at the big picture that it's no coincidence that so many distinct counties/states have such high rates of imprisonment in this country. It's a good idea to examine state and county level differences, and learn lessons from this. But using this information in the interests of the oppressed requires an understanding of the underlying role of the Amerikkkan criminal injustice system in social control and national oppression, the topic Pfaff studiously avoids.
In one of eir rare references to the role that nation plays in the criminal injustice system in the United $tates, Pfaff bemoans that "Obviously, effecting 'cultural change' is a very difficult task."(p. 228) Ey entirely misses the fundamental national oppression going on in this country. To him it's just about attitudes and cultural change.
Pfaff does raise some good big picture questions that scientific capitalists and communists alike need to consider. Discussing the importance of balancing the cost of crime against the costs of enforcement Pfaff asks "what the optimal level of crime should be." "Why is crime control inherently more important than education or medical research or public health?" "What if a reduction in prison populations would allow 100,000 children with at least one parent in prison to now have both parents at home, but at a cost of a 5 percent rise in aggravated assaults (or even some number of additional murders) – is this a fair tradeoff, even assuming no other criminal justice benefits (like lower future offending rates among these children)?" But Pfaff notes that politicians in the United $tates are not able to talk about these things. Even Bernie Sanders's discussion of investing more in schools and less in prisons was in the context of reducing crime more efficiently. It's just not okay to say education should be prioritized over crime control.(p. 119) And so Pfaff concludes that we must work on reforms that can be implemented within this severely restricted political system. We see this as evidence that the system will never allow significant change.
Another place where Pfaff frames the larger context in useful and scientific ways is around the question of why people commit crimes. While ey dances around the social causes of crime, Pfaff offers some good analysis about how people age out of crime. And this analysis leads to eir position that we shouldn't be calling people "violent offenders" but instead just saying they have committed violent crimes. Data shows that most people commit crimes when young, and as they age they are far less likely to do so again.
Crime rates and imprisonment rates
Pfaff is a professor of law at Fordham University, and like people working within the capitalist system ey accepts the capitalist definitions of crime. This means ey ignores the biggest criminals: those conducting wars of aggression and plunder against other nations in the interests of profit. For the purposes of this review we will use the term crime as Pfaff does in eir book, to refer to bourgeois-defined crime.
Crime rates in the U.$. grew in the 1970s and early 1980s. Pfaff believes that "rising incarceration helped stem the rise in crime."(p. 10) Disappointingly ey doesn't put much work in to proving this thesis. But at least ey concedes that locking up more people may not have been the best response to rising crime.(p. 10) And ey goes on to note that crime rates continued to fall while prison populations also fell in later years: "Between 2010 and 2014, state prison populations dropped by 4 percent while crime rates declined by 10 percent – with crime falling in almost every state that scaled back incarceration."(p. 12) So even if locking up people in the 70s and 80s did curtail some crime, clearly there isn't a direct correlation between imprisonment rates and crime rates.
There was a drop in the number of prisoners in the United $tates between 2010 and 2014 (4%), but this was driven by California which made up 62% of the national decline. Outside of California, total prison populations fell by 1.9% during this same period. But at the same time total admissions rose by 1.1%. Pfaff cites this statistic in particular to point out a failure of prison reform efforts using the metric of total prison population. If the goal is to reduce the prison population overall, looking at the drop in people locked up will miss the fact that the total number of prisoners is actually rising!(p. 69) This is an important point as we know that prison has lasting effects on all who are locked up, as well as on their community, even if they are only serving short sentences.
War on Drugs is not driving prison growth
Disagreeing with the common argument that locking up low-level drug offenders is driving up the prison population, Pfaff points out that "only about 16 percent of state prisoners are serving time on drug charges — and very few of them, perhaps only around 5 or 6 percent of that group, are both low level and nonviolent. At the same time, more than half of all people in state prisons have been convicted of a violent crime."(p. 5) So ey argues that targeting non-violent drug offenders is focusing on too small a population to make a significant impact.
Pfaff offers extensive data analysis to demonstrate that the number of people serving time for drug convictions just aren't enough to be a major driver of state prison growth. Ey does concede that "the single biggest driver of the decline in prison populations since 2010 has been the decrease in the number of people in prison for drug crimes. But focusing on drugs will only work in the short run. That it is working now is certainly something to celebrate. But even setting every drug offender free would cut our prison population by only 16 percent."(p. 35)
From this analysis Pfaff concludes that it is essential that prison reformers not avoid talking about violent crime. "From 1990 to 2009... about 60 percent of all additional inmates had been convicted of a violent offense."(p. 187) "[T]here are almost as many people in prison today just for murder and manslaughter as the total state prison population in 1974: about 188,000 for murder or manslaughter today, versus a total of 196,000 prisoners overall in 1974."(p. 185) And due to length of sentence, "Violent offenders take up a majority of all prison beds, even if they do not represent a majority of all admissions."(p. 188) So those serious about cutting back prisons will need to cut back on locking people up for violent crimes.
Length of sentence
Pfaff concludes that longer sentences are not the cause of rising imprisonment rates. This is the opposite of the common anti-prison activist position: "despite the nearly automatic assumption by so many that prison growth is due to ever-longer sentences, the main driver of growth, at least recently, has been steadily rising admissions for fairly short terms."(p. 74) "[M]ost people serve short stints in prison, on the order of one to three years, and there's not a lot of evidence that the amount of time spent in prison has changed that much — not just over the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, but quite possibly over almost the entire prison boom."(p. 6)
Pfaff does concede that official sentences, per statutes, have gotten longer, but ey claims time served has changed much less. At most average time served in state prisons increased by 36% between 1990 and 2009, which ey calls a small increase that can’t explain most of the prison growth over that time. (p. 58) Ey argues that tough sentencing laws are all about politics and legislator image, trying to look tough on crime. But they count on prosecutors not actually imposing the maximum punishments.
Private prisons vs public employees
We agree with Pfaff that private prisons don't play a very large role in the current Amerikan criminal injustice system. "Private spending and private lobbying ... are not the real financial and political engines behind prison growth. Public revenue and public-sector union lobbying are far more important."(p. 7) And ey correctly identifies "the real political powers behind prison growth are the public officials who benefit from large prisons: the politicians in districts with prisons, along with the prison guards who staff them and the public-sector unions who represent the guards."(p. 7)
Pfaff makes a compelling point: public prisons will act the same way private prisons act when facing the same contractual incentives. Ey goes on to argue that it might actually be better to expand private prisons but give them incentives for better performance, such as rewarding lack of recidivism.
It is public prison employees who are the strongest opponents of private prisons. This was seen in Florida where an attempt to privatize 27 prisons was killed after the public employees' union got a bunch of congresspeople to vote against the bill.(p. 87)
This strength of public prisons lobbying is also behind the fact that closing public prisons doesn't necessarily result in much savings because the unions will aggressively oppose any lost jobs. In Pennsylvania, the state closed two prisons in 2013 and laid off only three guards. In New York the prison population dropped by 25% since 1999 but they have not closed any prisons.(p. 88)
Pfaff concludes: "In other words, reformers should not really be concerned with the privateness of the PIC. They should worry that as prisons grow, the supporting bureaucracies — private and public alike — will grow as well, and they will fight against anything that jeopardizes their power and pay."(p. 91)
Pfaff is correct that private prisons are not driving incarceration rates. Actually, public employee wages are playing a much larger role. However, there are valid reasons to oppose privatization for reformers, or anyone who subscribes to a sense of humynism. In our bourgeois democracy, the law does provide for greater accountability of public institutions. Therefore, public prisons will generally allow less unnecessary suffering than private ones. Of course, neither privatization, nor the public sector can eliminate the oppression of the capitalist state that is meted out by the police and prisons. Yet, privatization of the state-sanctioned use of force only creates more problems for those working for progressive change.
Pfaff disagrees with the argument that a big driver behind the prison population is recidivism, specifically that lots of people are being sent back to prison for technical violations or small issues. Ey does find that in most states the number of parole conditions has gone up, from an average of 11 in 1982 to an average of 18 in 2008.(p. 62) But digging into recidivism more deeply, Pfaff cites a study that found that only about a third of people admitted to prison end up returning. And ey correctly notes that if the commonly cited Bureau of Justice Statistics claim of a 50% recidivism rate is wrong, this just means that even more people are ending up in prisons at some time in their lives. This is perhaps an even scarier story than the high recidivism rate because it means that even more lives are being ruined by prison.
States vs counties
Pfaff points out that the $50 billion that states spend on prisons is only about 3% of state spending. And as has been seen in examples above, the savings from decarceration are not that great if states can't actually close prisons or lay off guards. Also, releasing individual prisoners doesn't result in much savings because prisons work on an economy of scale. While we can calculate the average cost of incarceration per persyn, we can't translate that directly into savings when one persyn is released, because the entire infrastructure is still in place.(p. 99)
New York City actually did cut its prison population recently, along with a few other urban counties in New York. However, rural counties sent more people to prison so the overall impact was growth, not decreasing numbers of prisoners in New York.(p. 76) Similarly, higher crime rate areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco in California send relatively fewer people to prison compared to more rural counties which tend to be more conservative.(p. 77)
We touched on this urban vs. rural discrepancy in imprisonment rates in a recent article on national oppression in prison, suggesting that this could be the primary driver behind the (temporary?) drop in the discrepancy between incarceration rates of oppressed nations and whites. Since more whites are in the rural counties, statistically that's who is getting locked up if those counties are locking people up at a higher rate. Pfaff's data backs up our theory.
Prosecutors driving imprisonment
Pfaff argues compellingly that the primary driver behind the boom in prisoners in the past few decades is prosecutorial toughness: prosecutors are charging more people with more serious crimes. Prosecutors have a tremendous amount of latitude. They can determine the charges brought against people, which in turn drives the level of seriousness of the crime and potential sentences. They can also decide when to take a plea and what to offer in the plea.
To prove the impact of prosecutors, Pfaff cites data between 1991 and 2014 when crime rates were falling. During this period the arrest rates by police matched crime rates, which means that as violent and property crimes fell so did arrests for those offenses. In states Pfaff examined, arrests fell 10% between 1994 and 2008. But at the same time the number of felony cases rose steeply. Fewer people were entering the criminal injustice system but more were facing felony charges. Pfaff calculated a 40% increase in felony cases. Ey found this was the only thing that changed; felony charges resulted in imprisonment at the same rate as before. So Pfaff concludes: "In short, between 1994 and 2008, the number of people admitted to prison rose by about 40 percent, from 360,000 to 505,000, and almost all of that increase was due to prosecutors bringing more and more felony cases against a diminishing pool of arrestees."(p. 72) The probability that a prosecutor would file felony charges against an arrestee basically doubled during this time period.
Pfaff attributes this prosecutorial aggression to a few things. First, the number of prosecutors trying cases has increased significantly over the past forty years, unrelated to crime rates. Prosecutor discretion is not new, but they seem to be using it more and more aggressively in recent years. And it is the prosecutors who have complete control over which cases get filed and which get dismissed. Prosecutors also have a huge advantage over public defenders, whose budget is significantly less than prosecutors and who don't benefit from free investigative services from law enforcement.(p. 137)
Overall Pfaff finds very little data available on prosecutors and so finds it impossible to come to firm conclusions about why they are so aggressively increasing prosecution rates. Ey spends a lot of the book talking about potential prosecutoral reforms but also concludes that mandatory data collection around prosecution is essential to get a better handle on what's going on.
While this data on the role of prosecutors in driving imprisonment rates in recent years is interesting, revolutionaries have to ask how important this is to our understanding of the system. Whether it's more cops on the streets driving more arrests, or more aggressive prosecutors driving more sentences, the net result is the same. If we're looking to reform the system, Pfaff's data is critical to effectively targeting the most important part of the system. But for revolutionaries this information is most useful in exposing the injustice behind the curtain of the system. We want to know how it works but ultimately we know we need to dismantle the whole system to effect real and lasting change.
Even within eir general belief that prisons are necessary to stop crime, Pfaff makes some good points: "To argue that prison growth contributed to 25 percent of the drop in crime does not mean that it was an efficient use of resources: perhaps we could have achieved an equally large decline in a way that was less fiscally and socially costly."(p. 116) And ey goes on to note that studies suggest rehabilitation programs outside of prison do a much better job reducing crime.
Some of Pfaff's solutions are things we can get behind, like adequately funding public defenders. And most of them, if effective, would result in fewer prisoners and better programs to help prisoners both while locked up and once on the streets. But still these solutions are about relatively small reforms: giving prosecutors more guidance, expanding political oversight, expanding parole and providing more scientific structure to parole decisions, appointing prosecutors rather than electing them, setting up better contracts with private prisons paying based on how prisoners performed upon release.
All of these reforms make sense if you believe the Amerikan prison system has a primary goal of keeping society safe and reforming criminals. This is where we deviate from Pfaff because we can see that prisons are just a tool of a fundamentally corrupt system. And so reforms will only be implemented with sufficient belief from those in charge that the fundamental system won't be threatened. And certainly the Amerikan imperialists aren't looking to "improve" or reform the system; they will only react to significant social pressure, and only as much as they need to to take pressure off.
As a Hollywood movie based on a Marvel comic book, Black Panther stands out for overtly political themes and some honest discussion of national oppression. It features a Wakandan society of supremely advanced and peaceful Africans. A society that includes strong, empowered wimmin in roles of defense, science and serving the oppressed.
The Wakandan society is completely hidden from the world and led by a king, T'Challa, the movie's hero. Its isolation is based in a legit fear of the imperialist world which has a long history of oppression and exploitation in Africa. The Wakandan solution was to hide, and focus on building a strong and peaceful society internally. It was wildly successful, surpassing the rest of the world in all realms of science. And what's more, the movie suggests that Wakanda built, on the wealth of its natural resources, a society with no apparent exploitation or oppression. But this isolationism does have a growing opposition from within, from some who want to help the oppressed in the world.
We can compare Wakanda's isolationism to revolutionary movements that have taken power in one country, only to find themselves surrounded by enemies. In places like north Korea, Cuba, and Albania, isolation was a strategic move against outside interference, but ultimately was also a great difficulty for these nations. Wakanda does not face similar challenges due to its tremendous wealth of resources, but also because no one knows about its advanced society, so there's no severe drain of resources being spent on national self-defense. The world thinks Wakanda is just a Third World country full of farmers.
What we found most interesting about the movie was not the protagonists, but the antagonist, Eric Killmonger, who came up in Oakland in the 1990s. Killmonger's father (T'Challa's uncle) was serving as a Wakandan spy in Oakland when ey fell in love with the oppressed New Afrikan people ey was living among, and decided ey needed to take Wakandan resources to help liberate these people. For betraying Wakanda, Killmonger's father was killed by the king (eir own brother), which left Killmonger abandoned in Oakland. The king kept this betrayal, death, and Eric a secret all the way to the grave, so Killmonger's appearance came as a sudden surprise to those living an idyllic life in the capitol.
Eric Killmonger is a product of eir abandonment by Wakanda and eir upbringing on the streets of Oakland. Killmonger saw the desperate struggles of the New Afrikan nation in the United $tates and could not forgive Wakanda for not helping these people. Killmonger wasn't only seeking persynal revenge for eir father's death, ey was fighting to continue eir father's dream of helping the oppressed liberate themselves. Killmonger's education (at MIT) and training (in the U.$. military) was purposeful, focused on getting em into a position to control the Wakandan resources so that ey could use them to help the oppressed. Killmonger cultivated the passion and perseverance to bring em all the way to the hidden society of Wakanda and into a duel for the throne.
Killmonger doesn't hesitate to kill, even those ey seems to care about, to achieve eir goal. But this is war, and the lives of millions around the world are at stake. We respect Killmonger's drive and focus. Nicely asking the Wakandan king to hand over some weapons and technology to help the oppressed wasn't going to work. Even similar requests from influential people within Wakandan society were denied. So Killmonger reasonably believed that eir only option was to take what ey wanted by force.
There were many different reactions to this contradiction between peaceful isolationism vs. violent uprising, playing out in the battle for the throne. A faction of Wakandans (the civil defense force) enthusiastically joined Killmonger once ey explained eir plan to arm New Afrikans in the United $tates and Wakandan spies all over the world. Killmonger's proposal also included ensuring the sun never set on the Wakandan empire. Whether the civil defense force joined for altruistic or power-hungry reasons is up to the viewer to decide.
The royal defense force begrudgingly remained loyal to the throne when Killmonger took power, from an adherence to conservative traditionalism more than anything else. The royal defense quickly switched sides when a technical justification arose — the duel for the throne was not complete, because T'Challa was still alive. This faction of the military is made out to be heroes, but they were defending a king who upheld isolationism against a king who wanted to help free the world's oppressed.
Yet another angle is represented by T'Challa's love interest, Nakia, a spy who worked among refugees and victims of humyn trafficking. Ey stubbornly refused a chance to become queen, so ey could continue eir important work helping people outside of Wakanda. While ideologically Nakia had much in common with Killmonger, at least in opposing Wakanda's isolationism and wanting to liberate oppressed people globally, ey remained loyal to T'Challa. Nakia, like many other Wakandans, was primarily against Killmonger's strategy of sending weapons and firepower out all over the world, and persynal feelings for T'Challa were an influencing factor.
There were many strategic problems with Killmonger's solution to imperialist oppression, including the lack of leadership or liberation movements to take advantage of the military and technology resources ey was offering. It's hard to see how just delivering weapons to the oppressed would lead to liberation. In fact those weapons could easily have ended up in the hands of the imperialists, which — besides tradition and "it's not our way" — was a primary justification given by T'Challa and others for keeping Wakanda hidden from the world.
In the end, the conservative king wins, but ey learns that ey does have a duty to the world's people. A big part of T'Challa's change in perspective comes when the pedestal ey has built for tradition and blindly following eir father's path is torn down by the discovery of the family secret. The appearance of Killmonger is a huge turning point for T'Challa. T'Challa comes to see Killmonger as a monster who was created by eir own father's hands. T'Challa sees how an adherence to tradition and isolation actually alienates people, such as young Eric, who T'Challa feels should otherwise be included in the Wakandan umbrella of aid and help.
So T'Challa comes to finally agree with Nakia and Killmonger that Wakanda has a moral obligation to share its expertise. Unfortunately, in spite of all Wakanda's international spies, King T'Challa still fails to correctly assess the balance of forces, and the friends and enemies of the oppressed. The last scene of the movie shows T'Challa making a speech at the United Nations, announcing that Wakanda will begin sharing its technology and knowledge with the world. Ey also buys a few buildings in Oakland, California to open Wakanda's first youth outreach and education center.
If T'Challa really wanted to help the world's oppressed, ey could use Wakanda's technology of being able to stay hidden in plain sight, and its reputation as a nonthreatening farming nation, to build the strength of an underground army, to soon fight the oppressors for dual power, and then freedom, including an end of capitalism. Rather than going to the UN and announcing "Hey! We're organizing and doing cool shit that will threaten your power! Watch us closely!" ey could do this discretely and very successfully. It seems T'Challa moved from conservative to liberal, and didn't quite make the step to true revolutionary.