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Between the World and the Carceral State

In Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book, Between the World and Me, he pinpoints the plunder that has come to define Black life. In a manner reminiscent, if not blueprinted by James Baldwin, Coates’s letter to his 15-year old son poignantly invites him to a struggle at once bitter and beautiful. Coates does not hide his son from his personal frailty, vulnerability, pain, and most of all the dumb Ish nearly all of us ghetto-hued have endured and survived on our walk from sun-drenched youth to gray-templed wisdom. That is, if we ever make the full trek. In the book—which I won’t review for you here—plunder describes the antagonism between Black people and The Dreamers, i.e., a white America that comes to know itself through a dogged attachment and arm-guarded possession of the American Dream in all its suburban, powdered-up catastrophe. Think: the violinist elbowing a melody of despair while the ship sinks in the movie Titanic.

I had just finished my one-sitting look inside Coates’s window when the following morning CNN commentator Van Jones, Mark Holden, a senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries, and Shaka Senghor, a formerly incarcerated man who has remade himself into a spokesperson against mass incarceration, appeared on Democracy Now! to discuss the SAFE Justice Act. The full name of the bill is the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective Justice Act, HR 2944, and is co-sponsored by Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, and Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat. Currently, this proposed Act is being touted as a potential win-win for Democrats and Republicans, and most of all, the general American public. I guess that makes it a potential win-win-win. Not so fast. Of course there’s a long way down the Apache Line of Congress before this bill makes any dent on the current state of things. After all, it’s only a whisper at this point. But we can be certain that it’s not the glorious document that many hope it will be.

Attention to this issue is growing, however. President Obama was all about this issue in his recent NAACP sermon. Doing his best Cornel West impression, and fresh off a history-making commutation of 46 over-sentenced non-violent drug offenders, he bemoaned the on-the-go data (that the U.S. makes up 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s imprisoned, and that the U.S. incarcerates more than the top 35 European nations combined). It was more “let me tell you what we’re gonna try to fix,” than “damn, we messed this thing up.” And Adam Gelb, head of Pew’s public safety performance project coatesalso struck a particularly hopeful note about the potential of this Act. Both are pointing towards a discourse of reform, owed in part to heightened scrutiny of the War on Drugs. That is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem is that reform in America must ever be forward looking. If it addresses a past at all, it can only be a most recent one. And therein lies the rub-bing alcohol. Without the past we can only access the smallest kernel of the plunder, and with such a small sample, how might we get close to the actual damage done by a generation of anti-Black, anti-poor carceral policy and practice, underwritten in blue, red, and black ink? The answer is we won’t.

Although it should be obvious that we want the innocent exonerated, the restoration of the ability of the criminalized to engage in the political system, the elimination of prison telephone company shakedowns, and the elderly released from geriatric dungeons, the true litmus test for these self-styled reformers remains to be political prisoners, i.e. those who viewed themselves at often violent odds with the systemic plunder of America. As the Vans start guarding their campaign to save us from the carceral cobra clutch, remind them of names such as Leonard Peltier, David Gilbert, Assata Shakur, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and Oscar Lopez-Rivera. Remind them of indefinite detention, the segregated housing units, decades of solitary confinement, and wardens indifferent to a spectrum of prison-induced ailments. Remind them of Attica and San Quentin and Marion and Walpole, and that one other race-making mansion of plunder just beyond the trees over there that you had no clue existed. So before people begin fogging up their rearview mirrors, clapping their patriotic faith in the new prison reformers to “get right on crime,” we should ask ourselves how we assess the plunder, recalling that lives matter more than the data representing them. When the plunder is all told, and both guilty parties are held to account, deep structural reforms might ensue. The Dreamers are best at the cover-up, you know.

Most of all, instead of acting as if carceral policy is a loose shopping cart hurrying towards your car door in a Walmart parking lot, we would do well to recognize it as the warehoused contempt it actually is. Mass incarceration is a political construction enacted through policy, not an accident of the morally just engineers of public safety. Until our view of the depth of the problem changes, until we accept the fact of plunder, the bi-partisan SAFE Act should be viewed as capitalist penology swapping out its C.O. uniform for a Brooks Brothers three-piece.

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Chris Tinson is a professor of Africana Studies at Hampshire College. He is currently working on a book on Liberator Magazine and black activism of the 1960s, entitled Freedom on All Fronts. He tweets @Dahktin

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