TRNN Town Hall: In Conversation with Michelle Alexander
Discussing the school to prison pipeline
TAYA GRAHAM, TRNN: Welcome to a special live edition of The Real News Town Hall. I’m your host, Taya Graham at The Real News Media Center. For those of you joining us for the first time, welcome. We’re a nonprofit, viewer-supported news network. With us is legal scholar, civil rights litigator, and author of The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander. [Applause] She’s made it her mission to shed light on racial disparities, epic inequalities in the justice system, and what she says is the legalized discrimination that black people in America face every day.
In the first half of our show, we’ll talk to her about her award-winning book. And in the second half we’ll do a deep dive into an issue she’s passionate about: the school to prison pipeline and how it directly affects members of our community. And we’ll hear from you.
And now for the first time on The Real News Network, we welcome Michelle Alexander. [Applause] Thank you so much for being with us.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, I’m thrilled to be here, and I’m thrilled by the work that you and The Real News Network are doing, bringing critically important issues to the community.
GRAHAM: We appreciate it. What I’d like to do is start off with a question, it deals with the beginning of your book. You mention a moment when you’re walking down the street and you see a poster that says, “The drug war is the new Jim Crow.” And you think to yourself, well that’s just crazy. You’ve been working at the ACLU for years, and that that sort of thinking is sort of conspiratorial. It’s a distraction from important civil rights issues. When was the moment when you changed your mind?
ALEXANDER: Well actually, I saw that sign when I was headed to my brand-new job at the ACLU.
GRAHAM: Oh, okay. Okay.
ALEXANDER: I actually hadn’t started working at the ACLU at that time. I had been working for years as a civil rights lawyer and advocate, primarily representing victims of employment discrimination and suing large Fortune 500 companies for discrimination in employment. And I cared. You know, at the time I saw that sign I was someone who cared about racial and social justice. That’s why I had decided to become a civil rights lawyer. But like many people I had been raised on kind of this myth, this story, that we as a nation are overcoming that ugly, racial history of caste and that we’re on the right path. And that my job as a civil rights lawyer was to kind of keep marching in that direction and to do what I could to remove what barriers and forms of discrimination might still remain.
But once I began working at the ACLU and representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality, and investigating patterns of drug law enforcement in poor communities of color, and attempting to assist people who had been released from prison as they faced one closed door after another to their supposed re-entry into a society that had never shown much use for them in the first place, I had a series of experiences that began, what I now call my awakening.
You know, I began to awaken to the reality that our criminal justice system now functions much more like a system of racial and social control than a system of crime prevention and control.
GRAHAM: Absolutely. There are many popular myths of racial progress, and they seem to have even infected the black community. In some ways our leaders really ignore the issue of mass incarceration, and it’s the elephant in the room. And you wrote specifically, you wrote: “Criminalization and stigmatization and shame is worse than Jim Crow in that it turns the black community against itself.” I’ve even heard some of the old guard here in Baltimore say that we were better off under segregation because at least then we had racial solidarity. What do you say to that?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. Well I mean, I think the reality is, is that in the era of mass incarceration many poor people, particularly people of color, who have been targets of the war on drugs which has really been a war on poor communities of color, and have been targets of the wars on crimes which really have not been an effort to address the root causes of crime, or to provide meaningful security in communities but instead to punish unrelentingly people in communities defined by race and class.
Because this new system is officially colorblind, and we’re told that you can just avoid the system by not committing crimes, those who find themselves trapped within it often blame themselves, and the community heaps blame and shame upon them. And this blame and shame creates an enormous amount of division, even within the African-American community. And it sort of gives white communities or more privileged communities that are not directly impacted the excuse to shrug their shoulders and turn away, and say oh, it’s a shame. You know, it’s a shame all those black kids are cycling in and out of prison, but if only they would pull up their pants and stay in school and stop dealing those drugs. Well, then none of this would happen. They’re bringing all of this on themselves.
And that myth, that mass incarceration is something that we in the black community have just brought on ourselves, that myth is the one that I really aim to challenge in the book, and to show that it’s just false. It’s just not true.
GRAHAM: When thinking–a lot of people say, well, we have a black president. How is it possible that we have a system of mass incarceration that is racist in its very inception and execution, and yet we have a black president? How are those things not–how can they possibly be mutually exclusive?
ALEXANDER: Well you know, what we have today is black exceptionalism. We have people of color who have achieved great wealth, power, fame and fortune. You know, people will often say to me, how can you say something like a racial caste system exists? Just look at Oprah Winfrey, just look at Barack Obama, look at Colin Powell, you know, the list goes on and on of people who have made it. Achieved incredible power, wealth, or fame. And this is offered as proof that nothing like a caste system could possibly exist in the United States today.
But the reality is is that this system in many ways depends on the success of a relative few. Because in the age of colorblindness, in this time when we’ve all been seduced by this rhetoric of colorblindness, and we’ve finally overcome, that the ages of slavery and Jim Crow are long gone, we must have examples of black success.
And those examples of black success then give us permission to blame those at the bottom for their own fate. And we, many people of all colors can say to themselves, well I’m not racist. I wish people of color no harm. It’s unfortunate that they can’t get their lives together and are still cycling in and out of prisons and jails. But that’s not–have anything to do with race, because I’m not racist and I don’t know any racist people. This has got to be about something else.
GRAHAM: You actually mention that it will be not racism but racial indifference that will doom us. Could you speak to that a little bit?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. Well, I think in many ways when people use the word racism, they have an old Jim Crow idea of what that is in mind. I don’t even use the word racism much at all in the book. Instead I describe a system of racial and social control that functions in a manner eerily reminiscent of–.
GRAHAM: Yes. A racial caste system, really. Yeah.
ALEXANDER: Yes. Of systems we supposedly left behind. When you use the word racism, people immediately think Bull Connor, hoses, you know, the ugly bigots uttering racial epithets. They don’t think about the ways in which people just value some folks more than others. And if you are indifferent to the suffering of people in communities of a different race, of a different color, that’s racism. You are indifferent–if you would care if it was happening to your suburban neighbor, if you would care if it were happening to someone of your own race, but you just don’t care that much because it’s happening to them, that’s a form of racism.
And that form of racism sustained slavery. That form of racism sustained Jim Crow, and it is that same form of racism that continues to sustain the system of mass incarceration.
GRAHAM: Well, I’m going to take you a little bit off track. I know your research primarily focuses on African-American men being incarcerated. But when it comes to women, since 1980, women have been incarcerated, it’s been an increase of 400%. For African-American women the increase has been almost 700% percent. So in a time period where there are more black women in college than ever before, and yet there’s been this staggering increase of women being incarcerated, what does this say about our penal system? Why are they targeting young women and girls?
ALEXANDER: Yes. Well, there has been an explosion in incarceration of women, and the recent explosion is driven in large part by the same factors that drove the explosion in men, which is the war on drugs. You know, the war on drugs has been a primary engine of mass incarceration for decades. Even though studies have consistently shown now year after year after year that people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites, people of color have been targeted at grossly disproportionate rates.
And women, particularly women of color in recent years, have become targets in the drug war as well. And often women are treated even more harshly than men in the system because they’re trying to get women to snitch on their husbands or partners or sons or their uncle. And often because women will not the book is thrown at them, whereas the person that they were originally trying to go after winds up negotiating some plea deal for a lesser sentence.
And I find the growing incarceration of women to be especially troubling given that so many poor communities of color have families that are already so fragile. You know, after decades of incarceration that has taken huge majorities of black men out of communities and families, now coming after the women really threatens, I think, these very fragile families even more. And we have to ask ourselves, who is really being punished? Ultimately it’s the kids who are left behind and who have to grow up often without either parent available to care for them.
GRAHAM: Well, you mention kids. Zero tolerance is a policy where there is no mitigation. Everyone gets the exact same punishment. It doesn’t matter what the other circumstances are. But zero tolerance is used in our community with adults, but now it’s being used in our schools with children. So zero tolerance is being applied to our children in the same biased ways. Black students are more disproportionately targeted, they receive harsher punishments. I mean, what is zero tolerance doing in our schools? Are we preparing our kids for the prison system?
ALEXANDER: That’s what we’re doing in fact. With our zero tolerance policies. I think it’s important for people to remember that zero tolerance, the language of zero tolerance, originated with the drug war. Zero tolerance referred to zones that were created around schools that were meant to be drug-free zones, and where there would be harsh mandatory minimum sentences applied to anyone caught with drugs or caught dealing drugs within a certain zone around a school. In the early days of the drug war, this was heralded as one of the great attempts to get tough and crack down on any kind of drugs anywhere near a school. And it meant that even if you’re caught with a really small amount of drugs, a little bit of weed near a school, you could be facing really harsh prison sentences.
The zero tolerance language surfaced in DEA, Drug Enforcement Agency training manuals, and that language, language that was born of a war, has now infiltrated our schools. And we now think that this war-like approach is appropriate in dealing with our children. And so I think when we talk about zero tolerance it’s important to remember where this came from, and it came from a war mentality. Of a search-and-destroy war mentality. And that is what is playing out now in our schools.
There was a time when we seemed to understand that young people screw up. That’s what we—right?
GRAHAM: And make mistakes.
ALEXANDER: Adults do. I mean, we’re all infallible. That’s what makes us humans. If we weren’t all infallible, we’d all be gods. We’re all fallible.
GRAHAM: We have to be allowed to make mistakes.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, we’re all fallible.
GRAHAM: And to learn from them.
ALEXANDER: Yeah. That’s what I mean. And we’re all fallible. We’re not infallible. We’re all fallible. If we’re–and we all make mistakes. And young people in particular make mistakes over and over. That’s what it means to be young. And we ought to be responding to young people who are struggling, particularly in schools, where their parents may be incarcerated, where they’re struggling with poverty, maybe living in communities where they’re fearful on a daily basis. Kids who are traumatized. Dealing with trauma in their daily lives, and who predictably and understandably may act out.
We should be responding with care, compassion, and concern. With treatment and support, rather than zero tolerance, you’re out. Because once you shut those kids out and onto the street, we know where they’re going. And we can’t pretend to care about these children while we express zero sympathy and zero empathy for their well-being.
GRAHAM: You know, it’s interesting that you said that we’re not giving the type of care and treatment that we should be to our youth. As a matter of fact, you and Special Rapporteur Mendez just did a report on our juvenile justice system. It turns out that the UN says that we are literally torturing our youth. We’re putting them in solitary confinement. What they euphemistically call room confinement. And this solitary confinement, one young person in Baltimore, he was confined for 153 days in solitary confinement. Another was confined for 50 days.
Now, what do you think the rest of the world thinks when they look at our penal system, and what can we possibly do to reverse this horrible trend?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. I mean, I think so much of the punitiveness that has become part of American culture is viewed with horror and disdain around the world, but it’s been normalized within our own culture. I mean, we have become the most punitive nation in the world. We have constructed a penal system unprecedented in world history. It’s unlike anything the world has ever seen. It’s a system that targets kids at early ages, often before they’re old enough to vote. Stopping, frisking, searching them, throwing to the pavement, have them spread out spread-eagle, you know, following them, targeting when they may be doing nothing more than walking home with some Skittles in their pocket.
Targeting them at really young ages. Catching them eventually for something, or making something up to catch them for. Sweeping them into the system. Saddling them with criminal records. Placing them in literal cages, and then upon their release stripping them of the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement, like the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and basic public benefits.
So many of the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind in the Jim Crow era are suddenly legal again once you’ve been branded a criminal or a felon. And this is like, unlike anything that is going on anywhere else in the world. In other Western democracies, people in prison have the right to vote. Here in the United States we’re having a big fight about felon disenfranchisement, whether people who have been branded felons should ever have the right to vote again. In some states they’re stripped of the right to vote for life. But in some other Western democracies there’s voting drives in prisons. But here in the United States we seem to take democracy a little less seriously. And yet it’s become normalized to such an extent that even torture, holding a young kid in solitary confinement indefinitely is viewed with a shrug of the shoulders.
GRAHAM: You know, in Baltimore we had $100 million set aside for a youth jail, and fortunately student protesters, groups like LBS came forward and said, we’re not going to have this. You’re taking money away from our recreation centers, from our schools, and you’re building a youth jail.
Well, they fought against this. And I wanted to know what other things do you think young people can do to organize, to protect themselves, to keep them–to protect their rights? To keep them from being shunted into the system of criminal justice?
ALEXANDER: Well, I have to say I am so proud of young people all over this country who have in recent months been waking up, standing up, taking to the streets and saying no more. I mean, the reality is is that the wave of media coverage that we’ve seen of these police killings of unarmed black men, that media coverage wouldn’t even be happening today if it hadn’t been for the young people in Ferguson who stood up and stayed in the streets for months. For months.
It’s because of the courage of young people today that we’re even having a national conversation about excessive force by the police. And so I hope that young people all over the country will continue to be inspired by the rebelliousness of the young folks in Ferguson. Their courage, their willingness to risk their lives, to refuse to remain silent. To stay in the streets and to organize long-term for the dismantling of the system as a whole.
We can’t just engage in protest politics, going out in the streets when predictably bad things happen. When tragedies occur. We have to invest in the long-term work of organizing and movement-building if we’re ever going to dismantle the system of mass incarceration as a whole.
GRAHAM: As a matter of fact, you say that piecemeal policy changes, litigation, that can’t work. That in essence you have to have a change in consciousness on a level–just like seen in the civil rights movement. Where mainstream media, people in this country say you know what, we don’t want this anymore. We don’t want the system of mass incarceration.
ALEXANDER: Yes. You know–I mean obviously, certain reforms need to take place. Right? But if we think that we’re going to end this system of mass incarceration just by tinkering with the machine here and there, fixing this little policy over here, fixing that policy–let’s give some diversity training to policy officers and hope that makes things better. If we think we can just tinker with this machine and get our–we’re deeply misguided.
I mean, to get a sense of what it will take to end this system, consider the sheer scale of it. I mean, this system is so deeply entrenched today that if we were to return to the incarceration rates that we had in the 1970s–and by the way, in the 1970s civil rights activists thought that incarceration rates were way too high. But if we were going to return to the bad old days of the 1970s, those incarceration rates, before the war on drugs and the get-tough movement really kicked off, we would have to release four out of five people who are in prison today. Four out of of five. More than a million people currently employed by our criminal justice system would need to find a new line of work.
Most new prison construction has occurred in predominantly white, rural communities. You know, communities that have come to believe that prisons are a source of jobs and economic growth. And very often prisons are advertised as providing way more benefits to these communities than they actually deliver. But nonetheless, so many communities have come to believe that their economies depend on prisons. Those prisons across America have to close down. Private prison companies now list on the New York Stock Exchange. Doing quite well. They would have to go into bankruptcy.
This system is so deeply rooted in our political and social, economic structure, it’s not going to just fade away without a major upheaval. A fairly radical shift in our public consciousness.
GRAHAM: And it sounds like the system is going to put up a fight.
ALEXANDER: It will.
GRAHAM: There’s too–sounds like there’s too much money invested for them to go quietly.
ALEXANDER: It will. And that’s why we need to think about movement-building. And our ultimate goal isn’t simply to change policies here and there. It’s to shift our culture. Engage in cultural transformation. So that we as a nation, as a community, will no longer respond in a purely punitive fashion to poor people and people of color. That we will come to see the necessity of honoring basic human rights. Honoring the dignity and humanity of each and every one of us, no matter who you are, what color you are, what country you came from or what you may have done. We all have basic human rights. To quality education. We have the right to work at a fair and living wage. And we have the right to be treated with dignity and respect, and with an appreciation for our basic humanity even when we have done wrong.
And that is going to require a cultural transformation. Because as I said, our nation has become so thoroughly punitive in recent decades, in large part as a backlash against the civil rights movement, and an unwillingness to do what is necessary to address the real economic crises of joblessness and homelessness that continue to exist in so many communities.
GRAHAM: Well, I can only hope that this the beginning of a larger movement. Now let’s open it up for a conversation with the audience and you about an issue Michelle’s passionate about: the school to prison pipeline.
Before we get into the discussion, our audience and you, online, Real News investigative producer Stephen Janis takes a look at the effects of the school to prison pipeline and what they have on the community. Let’s take a look.
GERARD MUNGO: I have anger. I still have anger.
STEPHEN JANIS, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, TRNN: It was an arrest heard around the world that speaks volumes about the consequences of putting juveniles in jail, and how an increasingly aggressive juvenile justice system amid failing schools fuels what appears to be a cycle of incarceration from an early age in Baltimore and beyond.
A boy just turned seven named Gerard Mungo was handcuffed and hauled off to juvenile booking for allegedly riding a dirt bike in 2007.
LAKISHA DINKINS, GERARD’S MOTHER: I can say that it affected him in a way where he’ll always have questions. Like when he see a light going on outside, he asked questions like, “Well Mom, what do you think going to happen? Is he going to be arrested? Will he get a fair trial if he go to court?” You know, he have a lot of questions from this.
JANIS: Police said the arrest was justified, arguing it was illegal to ride a dirt bike in the city. But during a lawsuit a judge ruled that arrest illegal, even though a jury refused to award damages.
But beyond the controversy over the arrest of a boy who just turned seven is the toll of the arrest itself and what it represents about the long-term consequences of encounters between police and juveniles. Gerard thus far has beaten the odds, a rising young basketball star and successful student. But in a recent interview, he had trouble discussing it at all, the pain from his arrest still evident.
MUNGO: I have anger. I still have anger.
JANIS: And what specifically are you angry about?
MUNGO: That they arrested a seven-year-old. And that I got slammed off my bike.
JANIS: And he is not alone. Studies show that interactions between police and juveniles often lead to bad outcomes, particularly when they mix inside already-troubled schools. For example, schools which use a dedicated police force like Baltimore result in more juveniles in the system in total. And a study in Chicago found that students arrested in the 9th or 10th grade were eight times more likely to drop out before graduating.
And it’s not just crackdowns on police which cause problems. The common practice of subjecting inner-city students to endless testing has unforeseen consequences. One study found students who attended schools overly reliant on standardized tests were 12% more likely to be arrested.
It’s a combination of a failure to educate and an overly-aggressive justice system that leads to bad outcomes.
MARC SCHINDLER, EXEC. DIRECTOR, JUSTICE POLICY INSTITUTE: Part of the problem that we see in our juvenile system is we’ve seen over time what we would refer to as a widening of the net. So a lot of behavior for young people that never would have ended up in the juvenile system years ago is now being criminalized.
JANIS: The bottom line, says people who have studied it, is that the heavy-handed policing of children ultimately fuels the country’s voracious appetite to feed its ever-expansive prison system.
Reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore, Stephen Janis.
GRAHAM: Thank you. What does it say about our society when we’re willing to arrest a seven-year-old boy? What does it say about the state of justice in this country?
What I’d like to do is open up the conversation. First though–I apologize. First though, I have a student named that would like to ask a question for Ms. Alexander. Please feel free to stand up and introduce yourself.
I’m sorry, she needs her microphone. Thank you.
LASHANDA DIXON: Hello. I’m Lashanda Dixon, I go to ConneXions School for the Arts here. I wanted to know, what role do you think race played in the school systems after the civil rights movement?
GRAHAM: Thank you.
ALEXANDER: In the school systems after the civil rights movement? Well, you know, I mean what we’ve seen I think after the civil rights movement is that some schools have officially desegregated while others have not. But I think more importantly is that many of the biases that helped to sustain the old Jim Crow system of segregation, the belief that black people weren’t as smart, weren’t as intelligent, couldn’t learn, many of those biases continued to persist within our schools, often even on an unconscious level. Among teachers and administrators.
And we see in schools across the country kids of color not only being treated more harshly and in a more punitive fashion through racially biased school discipline but also treated as though they can’t learn. And with lower expectations for them, and predictably not receiving the supports that they need, particularly in the era of mass incarceration, to cope with the trauma and disruption in their lives so that they can receive the quality education they deserve.
So I think it’s not simply a matter of kind of the old kind of Jim Crow forms of discrimination lingering, although you can still find evidence of them in our schools. I think it’s part of a mindset that exists in too many schools today. And a lack of commitment and belief that kids of all colors have as much to contribute to America as the relatively privileged.
DIXON: Thank you.
GRAHAM: I think we also have a question from a young person named Adonis? Is that correct? Do I have an Adonis? Thank you so much. Would you please stand up and tell us what school you’re from?
ADONIS: My name is Adonis and I’m from ConneXions School of the Arts. And my question is, what role do you think the war on drugs played in the school to prison pipeline?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. That’s a great question. Thank you. And you know, the war on drugs has played an important role in the school to prison pipeline in a number of ways. One is as I mentioned before, the fact that the language of the drug war, the zero tolerance language itself, has infiltrated our schools. And the mentality of punishment rather than care and concern that was born in the drug war now is part of standard administrative procedure in schools across the country.
But beyond that, the drug war has swept in so many young people, particularly young black men, into the system. You know, the racial disparities in arrests for marijuana are off the charts. The ACLU released a report, I believe it was last year, showing enormous racial disparities all across the country in simple marijuana arrests.
Now, most politicians today kind of laugh. Oh yeah, I smoked some weed in my youth, you know. President Obama has written in his memoir about the fact that he used illegal drugs quite a bit in his youth. Marijuana, as well as cocaine. And you know, if President Obama had not been raised by white grandparents in Hawaii, if he had not done much of his drug use on predominantly white college campuses, if he had been raised in the hood, the chances are very, very good that far from being President of the United States today he might not even have the right to vote, depending on the state he was living in.
And yet when it comes to kids of color in poor communities, we maintain this attitude that we ought to be punishing those kids and teaching them a lesson by putting them in literal cages simply because they’re what? Caught with weed? Committing the very same crime that people of all races and classes and backgrounds commit with relatively equal frequency, and yet other folks get to go on to college and grad school and on with their lives, even on to President of the United States. But no, for you, you were raised in the hood, no. You’re going to jail and you’re going to be locked in a second-class status for the rest of your life. It’s just unacceptable.
I mean, the reality is is that drug use and drug addiction are real problems in our society. There’s no doubt about it. But after 40 years, 40 years of declaring a literal war, rates of drug abuse and drug addiction are largely unchanged. The only thing that has been accomplished by this war has been locking up millions of people and creating a virtual caste system in poor communities of color.
And I think enough is enough. I support the legalization of marijuana, and I personally believe that we should shift to a model much like they have in Portugal. I believe public–that drug addiction and drug abuse should be treated as a public health problem, not as a crime. And in Portugal they have decriminalized the simple possession of all drugs across the board. I mean heroin, crack, you name it, as well as marijuana. If you’re caught with a small amount of drugs consistent with personal use, any kind of drugs, you are not going to jail in Portugal. And after ten years of their experiment with decriminalizing all drugs across the board, Portugal reported that rates of drug addiction and drug abuse had declined. And the number of people seeking help for drug-related problems rose dramatically as they shifted all of the resources they had spent putting people in cages, who may have been at risk for a public health problem, into drug treatment and drug prevention.
And so I think we’ve got to stop criminalizing what may be a public health problem for some people. And when it comes to young people in particular we should stop using drugs as an excuse to stop, frisk, search, target young folks and usher them into a criminal justice system from which they have little hope of escape.
GRAHAM: Absolutely. And I would just add that President Obama was not the only president that used drugs. Just want to–I just need to mention that. Thank you.
ALEXANDER: He was perhaps the most honest about his drug use. But certainly not the first.
GRAHAM: You know, actually, we have Neil Franklin here from LEAP, which is Law Enforcement Officers Against Prohibition, correct? I think this might be an area you have something to add.
NEIL FRANKLIN, EXEC. DIRECTOR, LEAP: Uh, yeah. I guess I need–
GRAHAM: Please introduce yourself to the audience, and I think you might need a microphone. Thank you.
FRANKLIN: Well, I’m Neil Franklin, retired Major from the Maryland State Police, and the executive director for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. Thanks, Michelle, for coming to my hometown of Baltimore. It’s been a long time, but–anyway. To add to this issue, I want to address the part of the war on drugs and what it’s done regarding our school to prison pipeline. And you talked about some very important points. How this language of the drug war has migrated into our schools, and with our young people.
One of the things that attracted me to this issue was the violence in our communities. Predominantly in our communities when I started to make my transformation, when I had my awakening. And seeing that, how our young people were put literally in battle with each other as they struggle, you know, to take control of street corners, to move these products, these drugs within our communities. And it is these policies that make drug use and distribution more prevalent in our communities because of what it is.
But seeing that violence, and just knowing that not were our young people just in battle with each other, now the police come in. And again, so the police are at war with our young people. And as it was portrayed in The Wire, everybody is everyone’s enemy because of this. And the attraction and the recruitment of our young people to the streets from the schools, especially when they are kicked out of the schools, and they will go to the streets and then end up in our criminal justice system.
So that’s what I saw. And that was the reason for me doing this work. Until in 2010, Michelle, when you were being interviewed by Amy Goodman, and I saw you being, talking about the new Jim Crow, this caste of people and mass incarceration. And I had not taken a look at that. And what that says is that the average police officer has not taken a look at that. The average police officer doesn’t think that far out. They see what’s within their own little circles. They don’t see this systemic problem until someone educates them on this entire on this bigger picture. And I think we have to do more of that, and I thank you for your book which is doing more of that. So those are my comments regarding.
GRAHAM: Thank you very much. Now, I want you to know that this is your time to ask her questions. So what we’ll do is if you want to ask her a question, please raise your hand. We’ll pass you a microphone, and then also please introduce yourself as well. Since the microphone’s right there, please go ahead, Shorty.
SHORTY: My name is Shorty. I’m a prisoner’s rights advocate. And I was arrested for talking about the things that you were doing. I used the [incompr.] to systemically tell a program about racism in America. This is 2015. in the year 1915 it was a movie called Birth of a Nation. In Birth of a Nation it was legal to kill, capture and abuse black people in America. In 2015, in your opinion, what has changed in that racist society?
GRAHAM: Thank you. What a question.
ALEXANDER: You know, I think as we’ve seen, particularly in recent months as we’ve had one police killing of an unarmed black man after another with few legal repercussions, that we still are a society that allows the killing and abuse of black people with near impunity. And in many ways, my book was an effort to document how our legal system has actually made it possible to round up millions of people and to deny them basic civil and human rights and allow, today, the evisceration of 4th Amendment rights and 14th Amendment rights that many people take for granted.
And so this is a legal system. People often will come to me when they would report an incident of police brutality or racial profiling and say, we got to sue the police. We’ve got to sue, you know, somebody. And often they were horrified to find out that no, actually, there’s nobody to sue. The courts have closed the courthouse doors to racial bias in our criminal justice system at every stage of the legal process, from stops and searches to plea bargaining and sentencing. Unless you have proof of conscious racial bias tantamount to an admission of racial bias, you know, the use of a slur or racial epithet in the commission of some act, it’s nearly impossible to state a claim of race discrimination in our criminal justice system today, and the U.S. Supreme Court has eviscerated 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
You know, the U.S. Supreme Court has effectively immunized the system of mass incarceration from judicial scrutiny for racial bias much in the same way that it once rallied to the defense of slavery, and then rallied to the defense of Jim Crow in their day.
And so I think it’s critically important, again, that we think in terms of movement-building, building a movement that will transform this system, a radical movement that will overturn the mentality that gave rise to the system as well as dismantle the system of mass incarceration itself. Because we’re not going to win it in the courts alone, and we can’t change a policy here and policy there to fix it. It’s much bigger and deeper than that.
GRAHAM: Thank you. Please go ahead, and please introduce yourself.
RAY WINBUSH, MORGAN STATE UNIV.: Yeah, Ray Winbush, Morgan State University. Hi, Michelle.
ALEXANDER: [Inaud.] again.
WINBUSH: Always. You know, I know officially the United States doesn’t recognize people as being political prisoners. But we know that this country does have political prisoners. They’re slowly killing Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier’s been under for many, many years. Eddie Conway’s in the audience right now. Would you just comment on the issue of political prisoners as being not a part of the drug war per se, but as part of that whole mass incarceration system you describe?
GRAHAM: Yes, that’s a good question.
ALEXANDER: Yes, thank you so much for that question. I think it’s a critically important issue, and one that hasn’t received the attention it deserves. I think one of the regrets actually in my own book and work is that I didn’t talk as much as I could have about the backlash against the Panthers and the Black Power movement and the rise of COINTELPRO, and how so much of the repression of the black community by law enforcement in those days was politically motivated.
And it’s something that we don’t talk about, and there’s many, many people from that period of time who are still languishing behind bars and who have been largely forgotten. And I think it is important. I’m grateful that you have raised it, and I think we can’t forget those who have been targeted for political reasons, and who have been abused.
And I think we also, without diluting the meaning of the term political prisoners, also have to recognize that so many of the people who are behind bars today are in many ways political prisoners who are being held hostage by a political process and a political system that has made it okay to demonize certain groups based on race and class. So thank you.
GRAHAM: Thank you. Okay, before we leave the front row, can you pass the mic down? Thank you.
ADAM JACKSON, LEADERS OF A BEAUTIFUL STRUGGLE: Adam Jackson, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. Actually wanted to touch on the part you said about movement-building, you know, it’s not about tinkering with different parts of the system. I know here in Baltimore in particular we’ve been dealing with the issue of police brutality for quite some time, and Freddie Gray recently, his spine was severed and he died I think two days ago.
And so in Baltimore we’ve been trying to deal–and in Maryland writ large, we’ve been trying to deal with the issue of police brutality. And so the issue that we’ve run into, along with other, several black grassroots organizations, we’ve kind of run into, I guess the impediment of the, you know, of a racist legislature. Not racist individuals, but a structure, a system, an infrastructure that’s racist in and of itself.
And so I guess, just to ask you a question about–what is your advice in terms of trying to movement-build around stuff like, around legislation? Because around the country, that’s what folks are trying to do. But in Maryland that’s the issue we’ve come across. And just kind of maybe getting support from folks like yourself to support legislation that reforms stuff. Because we were talking about, like, reforming the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights, and how it protects police officers and it keeps them from being held accountable to the community.
And so I’m just curious, like, what is some of your advice and some of your offering on that part?
ALEXANDER: Yes. Well, a couple of things. I strongly believe that we need to be engaging in campaigns to change laws and policy. So when I say we shouldn’t be thinking of this simply in terms of tinkering with the machine, it’s not to say that we don’t need to change existing laws and policies.
But in my view, the real issue is how do we go about achieving those changes? What are we saying about what we’re doing, and what are the tactics we’re using in organizing and mobilizing? And these days I find it very popular, especially now that there’s a lot of bipartisan talk about prison downsizing and all that for people to say, well, we should downsize our prisons because it’s cheaper to put a GPS monitoring system on someone for 12 years rather than keep them locked up for 5. So let’s talk about what’s cheaper so that states can save money and not impose higher taxes on the predominantly white middle class.
That kind of talk, which may win at the polls, which may achieve a quicker result in terms of moving legislation, I think is counterproductive. And so when we’re working for reform I think we have got to be arguing publicly and saying publicly that the reform we’re demanding is necessary because black lives matter. Because poor people of color matter. Because poor people of all colors matter, and because we have created a penal system that functions more like a caste system than a system of crime prevention and control.
We’ve got to be open. [Applause] We’ve got to come out of the closet with it, right? Because if we don’t, then we have no hope of changing the mentality that brought us to this place. We’ve actually got to have that big fight. The conversation that everybody wants to avoid.
So I would say challenging legislation, seeking to overturn the police officer’s bill of rights and help to challenge police unions that refuse to snitch on each other while they insist everyone else snitch on their brother, cousin, neighbor, and friend, right. That as we’re doing that, we have got to be speaking our truth courageously and boldly. Telling unpopular, difficult truths, and organizing with a long-term view towards movement-building, rather than figuring out, well, how can we get the quickest, easiest fix to this particular policy problem.
GRAHAM: I was wondering, Mr. Conway, we were discussing people that were held in prison unjustly, people that were political prisoners. By any chance would you want to address that?
EDDIE CONWAY, PRODUCER, TRNN: Yes, of course there’s–you know, there’s still dozens of political prisoners from the Black Panther party era in the prison system. But there’s also other people from other movements and for other struggles, from environmentalists and so on, that’s in prison directly as a result of them trying to change the system and trying to improve conditions. All of those people need to be supported. People need to write letters, find out who they are. Go on the Internet, see what they can do to help their support systems, and so on.
But to move away from that, like you say, it’s a tremendous amount of people in the prison system as a result of the way the structure is created that are in there because of the politics of racism, institutional racism, whether it’s the war on drugs or war on poverty or war on–it’s an international war on people, poor people. Not just people of color but poor people across the world.
So I really appreciate the fact that you did that book, and that you’re doing another book that’s going to be inclusive of some of those things that you also raised. Because I see that it’s created an interest across America among young people, among scholars, and among people that’s organizing. And so toward that end, it’s a very good thing.
GRAHAM: Thank you. And I just want to mention for the audience, Eddie is our executive producer here at The Real News. He was incarcerated unjustly for 44 years, and he’s a former Black Panther. Just wanted you to know. [Applause] And I think we have [Seema] here from the ACLU that perhaps wants to speak about a study? I’m sorry, Sonia. Oh, I’m sorry. Sonia Kumar, hi, how are you doing?
SONIA KUMAR, ACLU-MD: Hi. Which study, we’ve done–
GRAHAM: Well, you can choose your study, if you’d like.
KUMAR: I think–I really appreciate you being here. I’m a staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland, and I think as a lawyer looking to work on these issues, it’s been very frustrating to not be able to take on structural issues. And I think that what’s been really powerful about The New Jim Crow is a way of taking things that feel isolated and putting them in a structural lens. And I think it, we–similarly, we just released a report about deaths and police encounters in Maryland. And it was really shocking to us that we had to do the counting. We’re, you know, this data-driven age and no one is tracking officially people who die in police encounters, that it’s not an accident that, you know–
When we did the counting, when we went through news reports, we found at least 109 people died in Maryland over the last five years. 70% of them were African-American. 40% of them were unarmed, with any weapon of any kind. That’s crediting–even crediting the police narrative of what happened, which was a compromise in and of itself. So this is a very conservative estimate. More unarmed black people died in Maryland than the total number of white people who died in police encounters.
And one of the things that I think is really important, what was for us really important about this project, which started actually I think really with the death of Chris Brown and Tyrone West and Anthony Anderson, all names that are familiar to folks here in Baltimore, and also other names in other parts of our state, was that every time a Freddie Gray happens, it’s viewed in isolation.
And the pushback that we get when we talk about what’s wrong with each scenario is what else could the officers have done? It was a heat of the moment–it was a split-second decision. But we’re not talking about all of the moments that led up to that moment. All of the structural issues that created that confrontation. And part of what we wanted to do was to try to connect the dots and show that these cases aren’t isolated, they’re all connected. And that there are common threads that we should be looking for and we should be demanding that our public officials look for.
And so I really appreciate–just for whatever issue it is that we are talking about, stepping back and looking for that structural thing that allows us to get, so that we’re not repeating the mistakes in a different way or just telling, doing the same thing with a different narrative about what we’re doing.
GRAHAM: Yes, thank you. And just as a note on that ACLU study, they used what the FBI database gave. They used that information. So honestly, the number that she’s giving could be very conservative. Just as a note.
So who would like to ask a question next? Well, please, go ahead Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Michelle, given you’re a lawyer, and historically since the civil rights movement there’s been other moments like Ferguson in our history,–I remember the Rodney King decision. There’s ebbs and flows in terms of events that take place in our historical record that gives impetus for movements to begin and organize and try to make a huge cultural shift.
But at the same time, during the Rodney King era we were experiencing the same thing in Canada. And I headed up a commission on systemic racism in the criminal justice system that did almost $10 million worth of research into everything. Into cultural points of arrest, incarceration, what happens in incarceration, what happens when marginalized communities incarcerated gets out, and in Canada it was, besides African-Canadians, it was also Aboriginal people, it was also Chinese immigrants who got stereotyped as gangsters and so on, at that time.
So we go through periods. So my question is, real reform of the criminal justice system has to have some really intense leadership from the legal community to bring that about. It’s good for us to organize as movements and have the cultural shift taking place as ordinary citizens, but legal community has to also take some leadership to bring about systemic change.
So my question is, having had Eric Holder, having potentially Loretta Lynch also confirmed, I don’t see leadership coming from the Attorney General’s office on these issues. Is there a leadership in the legal community that you have worked with that–you know, you’re one woman. And thank God we have you, but is there a support system within the legal system that could help us elevate this issue to another level?
ALEXANDER: That’s a great question. You know, I first want to acknowledge that there are some lawyers who are doing heroic work today. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, doing phenomenal work. Connie Rice out in LA, heading the Advancement Project, has been doing great work for a long, long time. I could go on, you know, and list lawyers who have been doing remarkable work for many, many years. Challenging this system quite heroically.
But I do find that often–and I’ve been traveling all over the country, that over and over again I hear the question, where are the lawyers? You know, how is it the legal community could be so silent at a time when our 4th Amendment rights are being eviscerated, or being shredded, at a time when race discrimination is allowed to run amok in our criminal justice system and beyond. Where are the lawyers? Where’s the outrage?
And I think that eventually one day lawyers are going to be very ashamed of the silence and complicity of so many of us during this period. But I think that I prefer to view lawyers not so much as leaders but as folks who can help translate community needs, desires, and demands into language that is enforceable by law. And that lawyers could help to get activists out of jail, they could help draft legislation, they could help be a bridge between the halls of power and communities, as well.
But I would not look to lawyers necessarily to be the leaders of the movement. I would look to them to show up with much, in much greater numbers, and with much more force and courage to support the emerging movement, rather than looking to them to lead it. The folks who I am most hopeful will emerge as real leaders that already have begun are people who know best the system from the inside. People who have been formally incarcerated. [Applause] People who know the system well, have been directly impacted by it.
You know, my own views–we’re never going to end the system of mass incarceration until we as a nation come to care about, in a very human way, care about those we demonized. And we will continue to believe the worst possible stereotypes about the felons, the criminals, until we meet them. Hear from them. And so there are all sorts of wonderful, amazing people all over the country who have done time and who are now not only finding ways to survive despite all the legal forms of discrimination against them and denial of basic human rights, but are helping to lead movements for–to end felon disenfranchisement and to ban the box, and are doing phenomenal organizing work.
And so I encourage people to check out the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement, All of Us or None, Just Leadership USA. There’s many organizations that have been formed in recent years by formerly incarcerated people who are, aren’t just now telling their stories of victimization, but are actually speaking up, speaking out, and organizing, and helping to define what a new system of justice might look like.
GRAHAM: Excellent. Excellent. Okay. I’ve seen you back there raising your hand. Please let me get some–have, get the mic for him, please. And don’t forget to introduce yourself.
J. C. FALK: J.C. Falk–can you hear me okay? J.C. Falk. Just had a conversation about ending the ignorance around racism over the weekend. And I tell you, a fear that I have is that–I was alive when Martin Luther King was shot. The day that he was shot was the day that I found out I was black. And it had a tremendous impact on me as a little kid. I was six and a half years old. And I saw–I lived in D.C. I saw the city burning around me. Like, I can still see the smoke and the people, all of the stuff that was happening that day was horrible.
My fear is that we will not–people won’t continue to get, to be murdered, and watch their loved ones imprisoned, and sit back and do nothing about that. Like, my fear is that we’re headed back there again. And I would like to get your thoughts about that, if you, if that resonates with you in any kind of way.
ALEXANDER: When you say back there, where–
FALK: Back to riots. Back to people claiming their lives, back to people deciding if the system is not going to take care of me, I got to take care of myself.
ALEXANDER: Yes. Yeah.
GRAHAM: Did you–did you have a question? Okay. Could we pass it towards the gentleman up here?
ALEXANDER: Did you want me to wait?
GRAHAM: No, no. Please, please go ahead.
ALEXANDER: Okay. You know, couple of things. I feel like there’s so much hurt and rage and frustration in communities today, and so little meaningful leadership. And I think that can create a dangerous situation. Dr. King kind of famously said that riots are the language of the unheard. And there’s a lot of truth in that.
I think the challenge for us is how do we channel constructively the earned, justified rage and pain and shame that exists in our communities into really meaningful, radical, what I believe ought to be revolutionary change? Right, so how do we do that? And that’s why I keep using the term movement-building, but there’s other words that we can talk about. How do we be freedom fighters in our own community? Non-violent freedom fighters in my view, because in my view, you know, the master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house. The tools of violence and division and fear and terror and all of that, those are the master’s tools. And I, I’m not touching those. I would like to build communities of peace, I would like to find ways of engaging in radical, courageous, transformational change that do not use the tools that the master has used to keep us divided and oppressed.
But we have got to be able to show that there is, there is a path. There is leadership in our communities. That there is change afoot. Because if it isn’t, then that kind of hopelessness can easily give way to what you fear we may see again.
GRAHAM: Thank you. That was–and thank you for such a wonderful question. I know you’ve been patient. Please go ahead.
EDWARD JONES, ABFE: Good afternoon. My name is Edward Jones, with ABFE, A Philanthropic Partnership for Black Communities, and again, applauding you on this work and calling attention to it.
We have a conference that’s coming up in the Bay Area in a couple of days, and we’re going to talk about the issue of getting funders, the philanthropic community, to support black organizing. Get to a space that is often overlooked and definitely under-resourced. We’ve been to Ferguson, we’ve seen where people are just really just pulling together the old-fashioned, old-fashioned supports that had definitely been more grassroots and just people reaching out to one another to help each other get out there and stand up and stand their ground against this kind of oppression.
We know we’re going to have about a couple billion dollars involved in this upcoming political process. And those are dollars, big dollars that will bring people into offices that are going to then in turn either continue to support the current system, or really start moving us in a different direction. Could you talk about how you would, if you could wave a magic wand and get philanthropic dollars and individual dollars in the right hands, how would you recommend those dollars go? To go towards dismantling the system, as opposed to supporting the current system?
GRAHAM: Interesting question.
ALEXANDER: If I–somebody gave me a lot of money to give away, it would–I would probably invest every dollar into building the capacity for grassroots organizing nationwide. Back—during the old Jim Crow, you know, the civil rights movement was taking off, if you wanted to join the movement to end mass incarceration, you knew what to do. There were organizations that you could just sign up with and join, and you knew you were part of the movement. I mean, back then the NAACP was actually a radical organization. You know, you’d be, you could be risking your life. You could be risking your life if the membership rolls of the NAACP became public in some states. You could join the NAACP and you were part of the movement to dismantle a prevailing system of racial and social control.
There was CORE, Congress on Racial Equality, had chapters all over the country. On college campuses, and in communities. There was SNCC, Southern Christian Leadership Conference. There were organizations you could join, and you knew you were part of a national movement to end a legal system of racial segregation in this country.
Well today, you know, there’s amazing work going on all over the country, but over and over again no matter where I go, what city I’m in, people say, well, what can I do? What can I join? How do I get connected? And today in this age of the Internet where everybody feels connected, somehow we are not connected. And we need to develop the infrastructure, the capacity, the commitment and the organizing capacity to really build a large-scale national movement to dismantle the system. So that’s how I would invest the money.
And you mentioned that billions of dollars are going to be spent in this election cycle, and I just want to–I just have to pause and say, we have to ask some hard questions of Hillary Clinton. Okay? [Applause] Some hard questions of Hillary Clinton. Because President Bill Clinton presided over the largest expansion in black incarceration that we have seen in our history. He escalated the drug war far beyond what his Republican predecessors had. It was the Clinton administration that championed laws banning drug offenders from public housing, authorizing discrimination based even on arrests. Denying people access to housing. It was the Clinton administration that championed the federal law denying food stamps–food stamps–to people convicted of federal drug felonies. Okay?
In recent weeks, Hillary Clinton has announced that she’s changed her mind about a number of things. Gay marriage, driver’s license for immigrants, you know, a number of issues she’s changed her mind since the last time she ran for president. I think we should be asking Hillary Clinton, have you changed your mind? What did you believe back then? And very often I think the black community in particular lines up behind the Democratic party. Well, the Democratic party is as much to blame for mass incarceration in America as any other. [Applause] And I think it’s time that we hold their feet to the fire.
GRAHAM: I would just simply add to that that our Democratic governor, Martin O’Malley, presided over zero tolerance policies in Baltimore that incarcerated hundreds of thousands of our people.
So I wanted to ask if there’s anyone in the audience that actually has experienced the prison-industrial complex that would like to ask a question. Would you like to ask a question?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: My question is, you refer to a caste system a couple of times. And when I think of that I’m thinking of feudal Japan as a more vivid representation. So if you could explain that to people exactly what you mean by that, and again, tie in the intended impact of felony disenfranchisement. When those laws were applied in this country, just prior to the ratification of the 13th Amendment. The purpose of the exception in the 13th Amendment. Exactly what it is to be profiled as a felon that then leads to police brutality. We need to focus this a little bit, as you’ve done so well in your book. Thank you.
ALEXANDER: Thanks. Yes, well, I use the term caste, or racial caste, in the book, because I am trying to challenge people to think about the system of mass incarceration and what is happening in poor communities of color today as being much more analogous to slavery and Jim Crow than to just the inevitable consequence of being poor and undereducated in America.
I think in America people will sometimes talk about class. You know, we talk about the middle class, the upper-middle class, the upper class. Sometimes we’ll talk about the lower class, or even the underclass. But whenever these conversations arise, there’s always this kind of implicit assumption that well, in America, if you work hard enough, if you try hard enough, pull yourself up by the bootstraps, you can move from a lower class to a higher one. And by using the term caste system, I wanted to underscore that no, today in America we have a system of rules, laws, policies and practices that trap you in a permanent second-class status by law. And that many folks, millions of folks are virtually born into this caste system.
They’re born into communities where their parents probably already are subject to legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education. Denied food stamps thanks to President Clinton. They’re born into that system, and then from early ages they’re targeted, stopped, frisked, ushered in, and then officially stripped of their basic civil and human rights, and are part of this under-caste for the rest of their lives. And I think that is what escapes most people today, is that we have a legal system in place that is designed to trap people in a permanent second-class status.
And felon disenfranchisement I think acts as a key component of this, because then once you’ve been branded a criminal felon, you have no voice in the political system to change the system that got you in in the first place. You’re stripped of your right to vote, and are removed from mainstream politics. And those felon disenfranchisement laws can be traced back to a period of time when we were adopting poll taxes and literacy tests as a method of keeping black folks from the polls. And felon disenfranchisement laws were adopted right along with those other tools of racial discrimination as a means of keeping black folks from the polls.
But today we seem to think poll taxes and literacy tests should be done away with, but felon disenfranchisement laws are just fine, despite the racially discriminatory impact.
GRAHAM: Okay. You’ve been very patient. Do you think we could get the microphone to–. We need to hear some women’s voices, I think.
SARAH: How are you doing. My name is Sarah. I’m 23. I consider myself a radical activist. And when I think about activism, I think about direct services, but also legislative reform. And I really started at, through the labor movement, when I joined a union at BWI. And I’ve realized how all these issues of homelessness and joblessness and everything is just interconnected under capitalism, how it’s a lot of imperialist stuff, structures in the community that keep us oppressed and hopeless. You used that word, I’ve been using it a lot.
One of my frustrations as an organizer and an activist and a parent myself, and a black woman, is how do I get past–and we talk about movement-building, how do we get past, it takes a lot of different things and a lot of different people and a lot of different leaders from all aspects, and entities. But how do we get past that sense of hopelessness to even get a community formed, to the people that really need to be there?
You know, I feel like a lot of us, we’re very progressive. We’ve done work, and there’s a lot of people that do work. But how do we tap into that community of people that really need to be here? That really need to awaken and have that moment, that aha moment? And that’s frustrating. Because a lot of people they don’t want to, oh well, you know, it was black-on-black crime, it’s people getting killed, but I don’t want to hear about Michael Brown. It’s not a–like you said, it’s not a separate entity.
How do we get to that point where we can just get past the hopelessness and just be able to see people as humans and not just, oh, I don’t care? Thank you.
GRAHAM: Thank you