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Criminalizing the Struggle: Incarceration and the Rise of the Neoliberal State

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Photo by DonkeyHotey | CC BY 2.0

Photo by DonkeyHotey | CC BY 2.0

In a memorable documentary film about his life and work, an aging but feisty Harry Belafonte expressed something near exhaustion on one issue: incarceration. The realities of what had happened—under the political leadership of liberals as well as conservatives, although he did not say so—had obviously set back some of the grandest achievements of the civil rights movement, achievements that scarcely anyone had done more, in the world of entertainment or beyond, to make real. What was incarceration? Belafonte (a hero of mine since my childhood) explained:  “The New Slavery.”

As a society with claims upon great advancement into multicultural democracy, we seem, as a culture, in denial when it comes to this painful subject. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, of the “Superpredators” rhetoric more than twenty years ago, is heard to say that “unintended consequences” followed well-intended legislation that she so ardently supported, and husband Bill guided into law. This comes a bit late and contains not a syllable of sincerity, which is typical not only for (either) Clinton but most of American political life emphatically including what is now ludicrously called the “Center-Left,” aka Hawks With a Heart.

Incarcerating the Crisis: Freedom Struggles and the Rise of the Neoliberal State is a brilliant first book by Jordan T. Camp, a fast-rising young scholar and public intellectual. Camp recites the statistics and we gasp again at the one thousand percent rise in the prison population of the US from the 1960s until today. We have trouble believing that, back then, a majority of prisoners were white!  But less trouble concluding, with Camp, that the “policing of law and order” that both followed the rise of the civil rights movement and preceded it. Those of us old enough, and in the right geographical locations, to remember the jalopies coming up from the South in the late 1950s on weekends (these particular ones bound for Chicago), could have been told by racist grown-ups that the “new” population had to be kept firmly under control.

This re-periodization is a master stroke on the part of Camp, and he makes the most of it. We learn that the struggles set loose in the postwar period and articulated by W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson among so many others, seriously threatened to dislodge the Cold War narrative of America’s defending freedom in incarceratingcrisisthe world (from Communists, who else). The rationalization heard now and then that anticommunism compelled American leaders to accept black equality neatly reverses truth into lies. When Martin Luther King., Jr.,  moved to “break the silence” on the role of the US in Vietnam, the liberal howl could be heard from coast to coast. How could he be so ungrateful (the same language used against Muhammed Ali for refusing the draft, and the brave Olympians who raised their fists at the Mexico City Games)?

The victories of the Movement could not overcome the divisions of wealth and poverty, in part because the political leadership of the nation showed only an occasional impulse in that direction, and at least as many impulses against. As Daniel Moynihan described the children of black welfare mothers as a new race of subhumans (in his race-rancid mind, created through “speciation”), the pattern was set for achieving Order, and not only in the US but wherever an emerging post-colonial society received US and IMF funds.

These days, as new scholarship emerges on the thirtieth anniversary of the Attica uprising (and is cursed, in the pages of the liberal New Yorker, for not understanding the fundamental kindly nature of an erring Governor Nelson Rockefeller and… how the hotheads of the uprising set back prison reform already planned), we are keenly reminded that the issues have not gone away and will not go away.

Camp tells us at the outset that he is seeking to explore a Gramscian sort of hegemony, in the challenge and counter-challenge to corporate-and-government authority. The League of Black Revolutionary Workers in Detroit, peaking around 1970, offers a splendid example because of the challenge from the shop floor and the prison cell to the State but also to the United Auto Workers leaders, who bussed in (white) retirees to maintain control of locals, a few years before the plants shut down. A doubly unhappy ending for the burst of idealism that was the League.

We have a number of heroes as the story goes along, Angela Y. Davis naturally among them, naturally also Mumia Abu-Jamal, but also many lesser political figures, like Public Enemy’s Chuck D, who helped lead the struggle following the acquittal of Rodney King’s political attackers. The Los Angeles Rebellion of 1992, which seems almost forgotten now, was the largest in the nation’s history, an event that Camp neatly links with the election of Bill Clinton and the rise of  Clintonianism as the neoliberal “solution.”

Camp presses on to such events as police actions during Hurricane Katrina, around New Orleans, exploring ways in which one site after another is declared a “war zone,” treated with something very much resembling a US military invasion of some impoverished land populated largely by unruly non-whites. Criminalization fits the ideology of the rulers, perhaps because they cannot credibly fit a charge of subversion–the work of dangerous foreigners–into the narrative.

Then again, amidst a hard fought presidential campaign, the most serious charge that Democrats can throw against the known racist, Donald Trump, seems to be his “trading with the enemy,” i.e., planning something like more Trump Towers…in Havana! If this were not delivered in stentorian tones by haggard hawk Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC (the night of Sept.28), as proof of the urgent need for Hillary Clinton to emerge victorious….we could laugh ourselves into a nervous collapse.

Camp closes on a high note or several high notes, insisting that the Black Lives Matter movement has pressed the case that British militant and scholar, the late and great Stuart Hall, made long ago. “Challenging, not adapting to, neoliberalism’s reality” is our way forward, with moments when “imaginations have been fired by the possibility or an alternative way of making life with other people.”

Onward, Jordan Camp!

Paul Buhle is the authorized biographer of C.L.R. James.

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Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.

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