One year to life was the grossly indeterminate sentence given to George Jackson in 1960 for his conviction for the alleged theft of $70, a charge for which he maintained his innocence. His court-appointed lawyer convinced him to take a plea bargain, and Jackson spent the next 11 years in California State prison until his assassination in 1971. Jackson was 18 at the time of his conviction. With the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the world expected the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center to be closed, but that site of human brutality exercised in the name of life and liberty’s defense remains open. However, what is practiced at Guantanamo was learned in U.S. state and federal prisons, all of it. In Chicago, a court last year indicted former Chicago police commander Jon Burge on charges of torture, the torture of over 100 African American men by officers under Burge’s command. Those are the men who reported the abuse. Prisoners at Pelican Bay and just concluded a twenty day hunger strike that spread throughout the California penal system to raise awareness of the inhuman treatment and conditions to which they are subjected. Few U.S. Americans know of these routine practices because the treatment of prisoners in the law and order culture of United States does not merit comment in the political calculations of most politicians and mainstream media producers. The United States locks up more than 2 million of its citizens and residents, the per capita world leading incarcerator. African Americans make up more than half of those incarcerated. When one adds to their numbers the number of Latinos, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders, visiting a U.S. American prison is like visiting several Third World countries, right down to the sweatshop labor.
The criminal justice system and prison industrial complex are principal sites of the stark contradictions that continue to plague U.S. society in their most obviously racialized and class manifestations, succinctly explained by Angela Y. Davis in Are Prisons Obsolete. Beginning in the 1960s, as the Civil Rights wing of the Black Freedom Movement became codified in U.S. Law through the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act, and as the Movement evolved into various Black Power and revolutionary formations in the face of an entrenched White resistance to change, policing and criminal courts began to increase in importance as a method of repression of U.S. African communities. Law professor Michelle Alexander in her recent book The New Jim Crow: Mass Black Incarceration in the Era of Color Blindness, describes the transition as a move from an openly racist rhetoric to, “a racially sanitized rhetoric of ‘cracking down on crime’ –rhetoric that is now used freely by politicians of every stripe.” The post-Civil Rights Era has been, paradoxically, the era of the mass incarceration of U.S. Africans, one of several sites/moments of the routine abuse of the human rights of Black persons and Black communities in the United States. Article Five through Article Twelve of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights directly address the criminal justice abuses suffered by U.S. African communities:
Article 5. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Article 6. Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.
Article 7. All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.
Article 8. Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.
Article 9. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
Article 10. Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.
Article 11. (1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence. (2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.
Article 12. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
Thomas Ruffin of the Black August Coalition, speaking at the Black is Back Coalition Conference in January 2010, classified three areas in which the U.S. State continues its repression of the U.S. African communities: mass incarceration, the death penalty, and the question of political prisoners and prisoners of war. To these should be added the high rate of police killings of Black people, and the under reported coverage of these issues in the mainstream press.
Ruffin explained that United States prisons currently hold more than 1 million 300 thousand U.S. African men in adult prisons and jails, federal, state and municipal. This figure does not include imprisoned U.S. African minors and women, for several years now characterized as the imprisoned group growing at the fastest rate. Let me here take a moment to mention the recently released Scott sisters in Mississippi. Gladys and Jamie Scott, sentenced to life for the theft of $11, had spent the last 15 years in prison for a crime they did not commit. The victims of the crime admitted that the Scott sisters did not rob them, and no one was injured in the crime, confessed to by three Black teenagers who were promised lighter sentences if they implicated the Scotts, a decision they have since recanted. Mississippi continues to maintain the guilt of the Scott sisters, members of a politically active family, despite their release for “humanitarian” medical reasons, and the struggle to have them completely exonerated continues.
One out of three young Black men between the ages of 18 and 30 are in some way connected to the criminal justice and prison systems, either as an incarcerated prisoner, a parolee, or person on probation. These men live under a regime of constant surveillance, subject to drop in visits from probation or parole officers, persons of constant interest in police investigation, often disenfranchised from the vote, and restricted in their associations. This last point implies a severe limitation on their ability to organize for their own or their communities’ development. It assumes these young men are forever trapped in adolescence, unable to grow beyond the risky behaviors associated with male adolescence that are usually outgrown. In fact, U.S. Africans commit crimes at no appreciably greater rate than any other ethnic or racial community in the U.S. Rather, in keeping with the racialized schemas concerning crime in the U.S., U.S. Africans are represented in news and entertainment media as more prone to crime, resulting in more aggressive policing of U.S. African communities and more aggressive prosecution of U.S. African defendants, primarily in the context of the now 40 year old War on Drugs. Collectively, incarcerated U.S. Africans constitute 5 percent of the total U.S. African population, and run the gamut, according to Ruffin, from a nonagenarian sentenced to 8 years to a 13 year old child convicted as an adult.
As for the application of the death penalty, the U.S. Supreme Court has admitted that capital punishment in the United States, as well as other sentencing practices like the maximum-minimum sentences, has been implemented in a racist manner, based on statistical evidence presented in McCleskey v. Kemp. The Court ruled that despite clearly identifiable racial bias, unless direct racist intent can be proven, racial bias need not be considered in sentencing or appeals. “The Court’s answer was that racial bias would be tolerated –virtually to any degree- so long as no one admitted it,” writes Alexander. Troy Anthony Davis, on death row in Georgia, stands as an example of the racist uses of the death penalty. Davis has been on death row since 1991 for the murder of a white, Savannah, Georgia police officer, Mark Allen MacPhail. Seven of the nine state witnesses against Davis have changed or recanted their testimony. Davis has had his execution stayed by the Supreme Court three times since 2007. Despite the Court’s rulings for a new hearing, the State of Georgia continues to aggressively pursue execution. The race and profession of the victim, rather than the race of the defendant, matter most statistically in death penalty sentencing. In Georgia, a Black defendant accused of killing a white victim can expect the prosecution to pursue the death penalty in 7 out of 10 such cases. Then, of course, the U.S.’s most famous death row inmate resides in Pennsylvania, Mumia Abu Jamal. The issues of death penalty and of political prisoners/prisoners of war converge in Jamal’s case.
The sentencing phase of Mumia Abu Jamal’s case was currently re-argued before a 3 judge panel to determine whether the death penalty can be implemented after nearly thirty years, or whether the sentence will become life without parole. Jamal’s release, despite admitted irregularities in the original trial (I almost characterized Jamal’s first trial as racially charged. But all cases involving U.S. Africans are racially charged, despite the races or ethnicities of the officers of the court). The possibility of Jamal’s release has been taken off the table. Jamal is one of many political prisoners. The United States, unlike South Africa, has had no Truth and Reconciliation Commission – flawed as it may have been – so the complete story of the 1960s and 1970s remains untold. Most U.S. citizens have no idea what horrors their local, state and federal government agencies wreaked upon dissidents through COINTELPRO, the Counter Intelligence Program of the FBI. Few know of the political prisoners who are now being completely erased from memory in the new narrative of U.S. American triumphalism, the African American, Chicana/o, Puerto Rican, Native American, Native Hawaiian, and the radical white prisoners of conscience and prisoners of war now warehoused in U.S. federal and state prisons.
The United States, until recently, has always denied holding political prisoners. Efia Nwangaza of the Malcolm X Center for Self determination reports that at the November 5, 2010, United Nations Universal Periodic Review process held in Geneva, Switzerland, the United States was specifically cited for the existence and treatment of political prisoners for the first time. U.S. delegation leader Michael Posner, rather than denying their existence, asked for a list of their names, which Nwangaza handed to him, along with details of their cases. This is a slight but significant progressive development. Those prisoners identified by their supporters as political prisoners, those imprisoned during COINTELPRO activities of 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, endure incarceration under criminal charges. The cases of seventy-five political prisoners, mostly but exclusively U.S. Africans, have been championed for several decades now. The difficulty of breaking through a media narrative that reinforces claims to American Exceptionalism and thus remains indifferent when not hostile to the cause of U.S. African political prisoners leaves most of these prisoners suffering in obscurity and, most significantly, removed from the consciousness of the very communities with whom and for whom they have struggled for liberation.
As 2008 came to close, many in the U.S. African communities and other communities enjoyed a level of optimism associated with the election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency, despite his rather conservative views on racialized contradictions in the U.S. Three weeks before his inauguration, Oscar Grant was murdered while lying prone on a Bay Area Rapid Transit train platform. In July of 2009, Dr. Henry Louis Gates was arrested in his own home and then released within hours, having suffered a blow to his dignity and not much more. President Obama characterized the arrest as stupid and commented on the historical antagonistic relationships between U.S. police agencies and communities of color. In the subsequent news cycle, Obama was brow beaten into apologizing for his remarks, as was Gates for his behavior, and convened the infamous beer summit. For a former professor who often speaks of teachable moments, President Obama failed to open a genuine national discussion of abusive police behavior and the role of the police in the post-Civil Rights area. Officer Crowley never apologized for his behavior nor for wasting tax money by making a frivolous arrest.
Since the murder of Oscar Grant, dozens more U.S. Africans have been killed or hospitalized by U.S. police agencies. These have included Imam Luqman Abdullah of Dearborn, Michigan, accused of running guns to terrorists, but found shot in the back wearing handcuffs, James Rivera (15 years old), Tyron Lewis, Brandon McCleland, Troy Joiner, Shaquista Johnson, Deonte Rollins, James Davis, Danroy Henry, Jr., and 7 year old Aiyana Jones, killed while sleeping on her couch with her grandmother. The police raided her home and an adjoining apartment in the kind of military operation commonly used as a policing technique. The child was hit by the flash grenade shot into the room and shot in the neck. The Detroit police had the wrong apartment, but they knew that. That’s why they raided both apartments, putting innocent people at risk as a matter of policy. Consider Michelle Alexander’s description: “In countless situations in which police could easily have arrested someone a conducted a search without a military-style raid, police blast into people’s homes, typically in the middle of the night, throwing grenades, shouting, and pointing guns and rifles at anyone inside, often including young children. In recent years, dozens of people have been killed by police in the course of these raids, including elderly grandparents and those completely who are innocent of any crime.” Mehserle, Oscar Grants killer, has been released, convicted of manslaughter and given credit for time served. I believe he served less time than Michael Vick served for animal cruelty. That’s what an African life is worth in the United States.
Now it has happened again, this time in Bay View neighborhood of San Francisco Friday, July 16, less than two months after police killed a 22 year-old Black man in Miami. 19 year old Kenneth Harding, Jr. was shot while running from the police when asked to produce his ticket for the street car. Why police officers are checking commuters for tickets rather than transit employees is a measure of the depth of the police culture in California. The practice is not unique to San Francisco. The police claim that Harding fired on them as he ran from them, but they still have not found the gun he allegedly fired backwards while running. Community members on the scene deny the official story, reporting that they didn’t see any shots fired by Harding, and deeply doubt the delayed report of gunpowder residue on the victim’s hand. Indeed, the police have continued to release different versions of the official story including a claim that Harding shot himself in the neck, which has only confirmed the community’s doubts. Video from the scene shows the brother alive and bleeding on the ground. Despite having incapacitated him, rather than approach to aid the wounded man, he is allowed to bleed. The shooting took place around 5:15 pm. The young man was pronounced dead at 7:00 pm. The community erupted into a spontaneous demonstration of outrage for another brother shot down, soon to be faced with the San Francisco S.W.A.T. Despite police show of force, efforts to ameliorate the community through forums with the Chief of Police Michael Suhr, and the predictable media practice of reducing the shooting victim to a criminal record, nothing unusual for young Black men in the U.S., the Bay View/Hunter’s Point community continues to pressure the San Francisco Police Department to properly investigate this case or expose their unwillingness or inability to do so. The unnamed police shooter has been given leave with pay while the investigation continues.
The practices described in brief above occur under a regime of malign neglect in the news media. Project Censored listed “Katrina’s Hidden Race War” as one of its top twenty-five under reported stories of 2009, pointing out the suppression of information on white vigilante violence against Blacks as well as police misconduct. According to the Pew Research Center’s study “Media, Race, and Obama’s First Year,” released in during the summer of 2010, “…from February 2009 to February 2010, stories defined as significantly focused on Black Americans accounted for 1.9% of all news coverage.” The bulk of that coverage concerned Dr. Gates, Officer Crowley, and the President. With the dearth of coverage in the mainstream media, abuse of the human rights of U.S. African persons and communities remains trapped in a discussion of rogue police officers out of control or tragic misunderstandings rather than a systemic abuse of power. Lack of national coverage relegates these stories to local newspapers and broadcast news, undermining any momentum toward a national movement to protect the human rights of Black people and other colonized communities in the United States.
Moreover, efforts to sustain a movement to protect the U.S. African population from the abuses of the criminal justice and penal systems confront the mechanisms of the state to thwart or punish communities for daring to challenge the systems’ abuses. In fact, mass incarceration and police containment effectively discourage community organizing and political activism, sometimes characterized as a form of counter insurgency, a pre-emptive strike against the possibility of African resistance in the post Civil Rights period. After more than 10,000 U.S. Africans and allies marched in support of the Jena Six in Jena, Louisiana, moved to action by the ubiquity of police abuse nationally and the rallying effect of national Black radio, coverage of the activism has nearly vanished, and the national organizers shifted their energies to helping elect a centrist Black president committed to the interests of Euro-American empire. Jordan Flaherty of Left Turn Magazine, in his report following up on the wake of the march in Jena, “Jena Justice: Drug Bust or Racist Revenge?” originally posted May 18, 2010, explains what happens to the local community when national interest has waned: “In a parish that is eighty-five percent white, the sheriff’s actions have almost exclusively targeted African Americans [in a crackdown on drug crimes].” Flaherty’s report implicates the sheriff’s department in abuse of power, using the Drug War as a pretext to launch reprisals against the Black community for organizing support of the Jena Six and the national attention garnered. The report also highlights the necessity to keep struggle present in the minds of people and to expose continually the stark contradictions between U.S. society and its colonized communities. Those contradictions show most vividly in the conduct of U.S. police agencies and the judicial system. In a society that characterizes itself as a nation of laws, those laws have not only been unable to alleviate the suffering or dispossession of those culturally and symbolically outside the society, Africans and the First Nations people, including the Chicano/Mexica people, those laws have been written, re-written and interpreted in such a way as to deepen that suffering and dispossession. May we never fail to resist. Venceremos! Uhuru!
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.
Ball, Jared. “Beware of Invisible Negroes!” Black Agenda Report: www.blackagendareport.com. Originally Posted August 8, 2010.
Davis, Angela Y. “The Prison Industrial Complex.” Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003.
Flaherty, Jordan. “Jena Justice: Drug Bust or Racist Revenge?” Black Agenda Report: www.blackagendareport.com. Originally Posted May 18 2010.
Jackson, George L. Blood in My Eye. Black Classic Press: Baltimore, 1990.
Ruffin, Thomas. Public Lecture on Police Containment and Mass incarceration. The Black is Back Coalition for Social Justice, Peace and Reparations, Consolidating Conference, January 23, 2010, the Uhuru House, St. Petersburg, Florida. Viewed in real time over www.uhurunews.com feed of a http://www.Justin.tv webcast of the conference.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The. http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr
Go to www.thejerichomovement.com to find out more about these political prisoners and others, and to find out what you can do to support them in their struggles. Their struggles are our struggles! Solidarity Forever!