Criminalization of America’s Poor and Minorities on Trivial Beefs

9780226136714Vancouver       Over the last couple of days while traveling about I read on my Kindle a new book called, On the Run:  Fugitive Life in an American City, by budding sociologist, Alice Goffman, about a 6-year period of observation of a changing neighborhood in Philadelphia.  As the title makes clear the criminalization of this lower income, African-American neighborhood affecting men, women, the “clean” and “dirty,” as defined by their status with the police and courts, was pervasive.  Goffman argues that for many it was redefining their entire culture, social relationships, and future.

As a sidebar, having spent a good deal of time in Philly, over the years, it was fascinating to learn the argot of those streets where a “whip” is a car, an “elbow” is a driver’s license, an “AP” is an apartment, and so on.  And, not just in Philly but throughout urban America, her chapters on what constituted a “rider” and even more so a “hard rider,” women and men who would stick with someone on the run from the police even in the face of amazing pressure, brutality, and even the chance of their own arrest, was vivid.  The famous song from more than a dozen years ago about looking for a “ride and die” chick is a footnote in how long this criminalization of urban neighborhoods has been dominant.

Past the point where inevitably the reader will measure whether they in fact live with “riders,” which luckily I am absolutely sure of in my case, perhaps the most shocking overlay of this criminalization of our urban poor and minority communities is how trivial many of the so-called crimes are that are landing young men back in jail over and over again.  An overwhelming number of the beefs were for parole violations, many of them frankly ridiculously minor, like breaking curfew, having a drink, or driving a car.  Young people anywhere and everywhere are going to do those kinds of things just as part of L.I.F.E., but in these neighborhoods that gets you a back-to-jail card for months if not years.  Any experience in the criminal courts system also impresses how much the slightest trace of marijuana gets an arrest and puts you on the run as well, emphasizing even more how critical it is for our cities that there starts to be a movement for decriminalization and an end to mandatory sentencing.

As shocking though, were how many of the arrests and warrants were all about converting jails into the poor houses that we fought so hard to eliminate.   Time after time, in Goffman’s book the sword over a young man’s head was the problem of not having paid a court fine or some mandatory cost connected to the probation or parole.  With no jobs and no money, these chickenstuff fines of $50 here, $100 there, with interest and penalties building up were simply predatory and almost pushing people without income or jobs to have to go south on the law in order to satisfy the law.  People are being arrested for being poor.  An editorial in the New York Times, makes me think that perhaps they were reading Goffman’s book as well.  I hope so!

This same criminalization is what we are seeing in the deportation of immigrants where many of the so-called crimes that are being used to deport someone is the crime of having crossed the border illegally or attempting to live “on the run,” just as Goffman’s 6th street boys were doing.

This expensive, morally and political bankrupt process is a criminal injustice system tilted totally against the black, brown, and poor in our society.  We have to stop this.


Is Demographics Destiny in a Democracy?

demographicsNew Orleans   On a radio interview I conducted on Friday discussing the impact of the DOMA and Prop 8 decisions, the young man poignantly spoke about the isolation of young homosexuals in rural areas, compared to the relative freedom in the cities, even conservative cities. I then noticed a map in the Wall Street Journal looking at the estimated demographics underlying the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision on the rights of homosexuals in America. States with very small populations were, as expected, in Western and some Southern states.  What was most interesting to me was being reminded how small the numbers were in all circumstances.   The range was essentially less than 3% of the population to more than 4%, which underscores the mammoth accomplishment of the political and civil rights task for gay and lesbians in America over the last 40 or 50 years in creating social change.

The viciousness of the oppression of African-Americans and even women lay partially in the interest of white men trying to hold onto self-certified, political and cultural entitlements that required terrible tactics because the impact of voting rights for either group, only won over the last 100 years for women and more than 50 for African-Americans, made their victories destiny throughout the country because women were a significant minority everywhere and in some areas African-Americans were a decided majority.   Once the right to vote was guaranteed to women, the clock has inevitably ticked towards freedom in a democracy no matter how many hours must pass. Few could doubt that there will be a woman president, the only questions are “who” and “when.”   The somersaults the Court played with the voting rights act proves that vigilance must be eternal, but practicality also will isolate the right in more and more extreme gymnastics from voter IDs to god knows what else to postpone the inevitable.   Similarly the huge and growing Hispanic population, regardless of the relatively small number of undocumented among them, dictates the inevitability of reform as this population acquires more and more political strength in areas where it is already in the majority and in other areas, even as Karl Rove points out, in conservative Republican bunkers in places like Georgia.

In a democracy, the haters always are their own undoing when it comes to the unstoppable movement to full political participation.   Looking at the significant, even if relatively small numbers of homosexuals in the country, as hate drove people underground and then to the cities as a Mecca for a fuller life, the smaller numerical strength would eventually amalgamate into some political influence on the urban map.   If you were going to be an elected official over the last 50 years and represent the Castro District, Montrose, the French Quarter, or Greenwich Village, you had to be ready to represent your ENTIRE constituency.   Or, of course you could not do that and wait until you were kicked to the curb, because politics, as we know, is very local.

So victory is inevitable, the organizing problem is the damnably long timelines to achieve it and the daily damage that discrimination does to people and the country itself that comes from the deep, deep impact of justice delayed.   The cultural problem that infects American politics in this time of polarity is the fact that we have too many trying to wage a last stand for something that is dying  and stand in the schoolhouse door.  As organizers and progressives though, we have to do a better job of getting out our message of the inevitability of victory in order to support and spark more mass-based work to shorten the timetables. Only movements are able to accelerate these types of changes, not the slow, grinding work of politics, regardless of how important politics is in determining the inevitability of final victory.