Monday, June 26, 2017

On Secession Part III: Crow and Incarceration

In this third installment of On Secession (Part I, Part II), I want to start with a focus on Sheriff David Clarke. For reasons that I hope will become obvious, we would not have this series without him. On the way, we’ll touch the prison system, Ferguson, and the ideas raised in Chris Hayes’ A Colony in a Nation. I’d also like to acknowledge the reporting of David Neiwart, as his article on Clarke is highly informative and was invaluable in shaping this series.

Black Lives Matter is a hate group. They stoke up rage. They stoke up anger in people in a misguided sort of way for a phantom grievance about the character of America’s law enforcement officers… There is no police brutality in America. We ended that back in the ’60s.
David Clarke
In the previous installment, I tried to understand and tease apart the philosophical foundation of the various Oath Keeper groups. Some of my commentariat have accused me of being unfair to their positions, but I will happily stand by my interpretation of “Natural Liberty” being fundamentally incompatible with government. In this case, Clarke’s own words back this up:
To be successful, this movement’s going to have to have two things: You have to have a common enemy, and you have to have a common language. And I’m not here to tell you what to do, or this group what to do, because as I said, I’m a Johnny-come-lately. But I know about movements. And in this movement, the common enemy – and let’s not make this mistake, because I think sometimes you do – this is not about Democrats and Republicans, this is not about liberals and conservatives. Because the ruling class in Washington, D.C., sees us as nothing more than subjects. We’re not citizens anymore, in their minds.

So don’t get caught up with liberals, Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, and even people. Obama – Obama will be gone in a couple years. But guess what will still be there, and this is the common enemy: It’s government. That’s the common enemy. It’s not Nancy Pelosi, it’s not Barack Obama, it’s not the faces and the names. These people come and go. The government remains. That’s what’s becoming oppressive, that’s what’s starting to become intrusive, more and more intrusive, and that’s what’s encroaching on our liberties.
But what’s most concerning isn’t the government he hates, but the government he likes: Policing and Prisons. But simply explaining how awful the prisons are in Clarke’s home of Milwaukee County robs us of important context: it’s not only that his prisons are especially bad (though they are), it’s that the U.S. Prison system is uniquely dysfunctional.

That the prison system in the United States is bad is not a contentious concept. While possibly not as bad as pop culture would have you believe (I wouldn’t know, as I have not had direct experience with it), the hellish nature of prison is, apparently, accepted and normalized.
Other times, the concept of prison rape is a "hilarious" punchline.
As for specifically why the prison system is so awful, I posit that it is because of the fundamental disconnect between its purpose. Namely, are they meant as places of punishment, or as places of rehabilitation?

I truly wish I could present a coherent history of the American penal system, but it’s excessively long and detailed and actively resists being cast in a single narrative. Despite this, I believe there are two critical developments that inform the shape of the modern prison system: the development of police systems during reconstruction as a means of racial enforcement in the South (post-Civil War), and Nixon’s “War on Drugs” (and the resultant rise of privatized prisons).
Data and Graph from The Clemency Report
It doesn’t have to be this way. Other countries have extraordinarily successful rehabilitation-based incarceration, with the express goal of giving criminals positive reinforcement in order to help re-integrate them into society as happy, productive citizens. There’s a lot of data, especially with regards to child psychology, about effective ways to reform negative behavior but I’ll one line it for you — authoritarian punishment (and specifically corporal punishment) is one of the least effective.

But as usual, it’s instructive to look at the outcome. While some degree of malice is due to incompetence, not all is. It takes a lot of dedicated work by a lot of people to keep society plugging along. For any systemic outcome, assume it is functioning as designed. Who benefits? We’ll get to that in a second, but it’s clear that the outcome of the American prison system is not to rehabilitate people; its true purpose is far more sinister.

The end of the civil war marked the end of southern society. The power structures built around slavocracy and plantations were uprooted, their society now lacking their traditional political enforcement methods. Simultaneously they, and the north, also faced a new problem: Millions of newly freed black people. While there were efforts made to help them integrate into society, such as with the Freedmen’s Bureau, the numbers made it difficult.

Of course, this in no way excuses what came next — far from it! But the scope of the change is difficult to imagine, as slaves made up about 10% of the population. Suddenly the south lost millions of workers, and the north faced an influx of low-skill workers — and suffered immediate economic repercussions as the factory owners now lacked a ready supply of cheap cotton. If America’s later responses to immigration (they took our jobs!) are any indication, the amount of political unrest generated would have been substantial. The chaos and poverty was unimaginable, especially among the newly freed slaves. As an example, 5 years after the civil war 90% of black citizens in Savannah, Georgia owned no property (and of course were excluded from all but the lowest-paid jobs). The corresponding rise in property crimes should come as no surprise, but what else were they to do? Migrating north was no answer either; it’s hard to overcome the problems of having no economic power whatsoever, not to mention the substantial discrimination faced. As for what happened next, I’ll let Wikipedia summarize:

Patterns of "mono-racial law enforcement," as Ayers refers to it, were established in Southern states almost immediately after the American Civil War. Cities that had never had police forces moved quickly to establish them,[269] and whites became far less critical of urban police forces in post-war politics, whereas in the antebellum period they had engendered major political debate.[270] Savannah, Georgia's post-war police force was made up of Confederate veterans, who patrolled the city in gray uniforms, armed with rifles, revolvers, and sabers.[270] They were led by an ex-Confederate General, Richard H. Anderson.[270] Ayers concludes that white policemen protecting white citizens became the model for law enforcement efforts across the South after the American Civil War.[270]

This was not a secret policy:

Whites made few attempts to disguise the injustice in their courts, according to historian Edward L. Ayers.[275] Blacks were uniformly excluded from juries and denied any opportunity to participate in the criminal justice process aside from being defendants.[276] Thefts by black offenders became a new focus of the Southern justice systems and began to supplant violent crimes by white offenders in court dockets. Whether they were from the city or the countryside, those accused of property crime stood the greatest chance of conviction in post-war southern courts.[277] But black defendants were convicted in the highest numbers. During the last half of the nineteenth century, three out of every five white defendants accused of property crime in Southern courts were convicted, while four out of every five black defendants were.[277] Conviction rates for whites, meanwhile, dropped substantially from antebellum levels throughout the last half of the nineteenth century.[278]
A powerful tale of injustice that resonates strongly with middle school students.
By imprisoning large numbers of black people and forcing them to work for little to no money (on chain gangs and the like), they accomplished their twin goals of removing black people from society and obtaining free labor, thus establishing slavery under another name. This was, from the perspective of the pre-guilded age plutocrats in the north and southern establishment, a real win-win situation. For the black people, not so much. By completely divorcing the justice system from the notion of rehabilitation, the prison system could be transformed into a profit-seeking enterprise.

(Also, by deliberately depriving black people from quality education, they could be kept as a low-skill labor force. This push away from teaching practical skills for the poor has had dramatic effects on the educational system in our country — as per my previous essay: Everything Wrong with College. Thus does the primary purpose of public school turn into the warehousing of children.)

Nor was this system unique to the south, as many of the northern prisons operated on a “convict lease” system, using the unpaid labor of prisoners to enrich the prison operators (notably local governmental figures). And while many limitations and protections have been placed on this over the years, it is obscenely obvious that this system and similar arrangements are continuing to this day. I’m having difficulty restraining my emotions, and bile rises to my mouth at the sight of these injustices. And if you can view these depredations impassively, then I don’t know what to say to you. While it may be legal, thanks to that important loophole in the thirteenth amendment, it is not just, and it is not good. If this is the best we can do by our citizens, our scorn is well deserved.

But I’m getting off on another emotional tangent. The stressors that led the southern prison transformation also worked inevitably in the north, as the influx of freed black people led to a self-imposed segregation (more formal segregation efforts — redlining, etc. — occurred a little later, after the first world war), as well as similar patterns of arrest and transformation for the prison system. This was especially pronounced in areas with high black population, and the history (and present day occupancy patterns) of the northern metropolitan areas clearly bears this out.

This was, with a few notable changes and reforms, the state of the prison system through the middle of the 20th century. Nixon changed that.
This is John Eherlichman, top advisor to Richard Nixon, seen here in a 1972 photograph.
I’ll let Eherlichman explain:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
The consequence of this is well known, we can just look at the graph from earlier. Beginning in the 70s with Nixon (but really kicking into gear with the minimum sentencing guidelines in the 80s), the population of prisoners swelled. Until eventually, we get this:
Sources: Bureau of Justice Statistics, International Centre for Prison Studies. Chart from The Times-Piyacune.
Now this clearly isn’t the whole story. As the following table shows, even if America only jailed murderers and rapists, we would still have an incarceration rate of over 110. Some percentage of the violent criminal behavior appears to be cultural (see part I).

The focus on the experience of the American black population has a great deal to do with the overall culture and quality of law enforcement and prison in this country. Ferguson, Missouri is in many ways typical of poor towns across America. The justice system and the police’s relation towards the citizenry is as depicted in Chris Hayes’ A Colony in a Nation: adversarial and profit-driven. It’s easy to see why terms like “Fuck the Police” become normalized, the police exist to imprison, fine, and kill members of their communities. Nor is the process localized to black cities, any poor town can fall victim to this destructive pattern.

The tragedy is that, for the most part, each individual officer, judge, and sheriff are just doing as best as they can. Very few are deliberately racist, nor do they wake up trying to put people behind bars — they're truly trying to serve and protect. Yet in perpetuating the rotten system, and being victims of their own incentive structures, you end up with a prison system that is trying its best to enforce antebellum racial and class strata. The negative treatment within the prisons ferments a criminal underclass, and the high levels of recidivism are a feature, not a bug. The rise of for-profit prisons is the ultimate expression of this, with each new criminal in the system representing one more slave for their rosters.

That’s it for now. Didn’t have time to get into the horrific situation within Clarke’s Milwaukee county jail like I intended, but we’ll get to it next week.

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