Land of the Unfree

When I was a child, I learned to believe that Americans valued freedom and equality more than any other place on the planet. I learned that, in our criminal justice system, we were innocent until proven guilty.

It’s hard to still believe that now.

Call me a cynic, but as Independence Day approaches, I can’t help but think about how unfree America truly is, particularly for people of color.

Police are choking us to death on camera like George Floyd, and shooting us to death in our sleep like Breonna Taylor. And when we’re not being killed by police, we’re locked in cages guarded by correctional officers.

One out of five incarcerated people in the world is locked up here in the land of the free.

That’s more than 2.3 million people — greater than the population of 16 U.S. states. And the $190 billion we spend each year on mass incarceration is higher than the GDP of 22 states.

This obsession with criminalization is driven by structural racism.

Around 60 percent of America’s incarcerated people are Black or Latinx, despite those two groups making up just 30 percent of the country’s population. Black and Latinx folks consistently receive longer, harsher penalties for the same crimes white folks commit.

So much for equality. But “innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t hold up so well, either.

Roughly two-thirds of the 740,000 people in local jails right now are locked up in pretrial detention. That means they haven’t been convicted of the crime they were arrested for. And again, a disproportionate number of them are Black and Latinx.

Being held pretrial wasn’t always so common. But over the last 15 years, 99 percent of the total growth in jails has come in the detention of people who haven’t been tried, but can’t afford bail.

Karen Dolan, director of the Criminalization of Race and Poverty Project at the Institute for Policy Studies and author of the report The Poor Get Prison, wrote, “If you are poor in America, you are criminalized at every turn.”

Even when Black and Latinx folks are busy not committing crimes — just walking the streets of our cities — we still manage to be on the receiving end of a disproportionate share of police brutality and killings.

Getting tossed in the slammer, having police stop and frisk you, or being shot and killed because you’re poor or officers are racist doesn’t sound like we’re living in the “land of the free.”

But the good news is we’re in the middle of a cognitive shift.

Millions of people have had it with being criminalized because they’re poor or have melanin in their skin. And millions of white people, including many in so-called Trump country, are now standing up to say that has to end, too.

Many are calling to demilitarize or defund the police as a step toward eventually abolishing them. Others want to remove police officers from schools, where they funnel kids into the system at an early age. And the movement to end cash bail, which makes pretrial detention a condition of poverty, not justice, is also picking up steam.

This year, let’s celebrate Independence Day by reorienting our institutions away from mass incarceration and radically re-imagining our criminal justice system. Maybe then we can lay claim to the freedom and equality we’ve celebrated for centuries, but seldom practiced.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
July 10, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Lynnette Grey Bull
Trump’s Postcard to America From the Shrine of Hypocrisy
Anthony DiMaggio
Free Speech Fantasies: the Harper’s Letter and the Myth of American Liberalism
David Yearsley
Morricone: Maestro of Music and Image
Jeffrey St. Clair
“I Could Live With That”: How the CIA Made Afghanistan Safe for the Opium Trade
Rob Urie
Democracy and the Illusion of Choice
Paul Street
Imperial Blind Spots and a Question for Obama
Vijay Prashad
The U.S. and UK are a Wrecking Ball Crew Against the Pillars of Internationalism
Melvin Goodman
The Washington Post and Its Cold War Drums
Richard C. Gross
Trump: Reopen Schools (or Else)
Chris Krupp
Public Lands Under Widespread Attack During Pandemic 
Alda Facio
What Coronavirus Teaches Us About Inequality, Discrimination and the Importance of Caring
Eve Ottenberg
Bounty Tales
Andrew Levine
Silver Linings Ahead?
John Kendall Hawkins
FrankenBob: The Self-Made Dylan
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Deutsche Bank Fined $150 Million for Enabling Jeffrey Epstein; Where’s the Fine Against JPMorgan Chase?
David Rosen
Inequality and the End of the American Dream
Louis Proyect
Harper’s and the Great Cancel Culture Panic
Thom Hartmann
How Billionaires Get Away With Their Big Con
Your 19th COVID Breakdown
Danny Sjursen
Undercover Patriots: Trump, Tulsa, and the Rise of Military Dissent
Charles McKelvey
The Limitations of the New Antiracist Movement
Binoy Kampmark
Netanyahu’s Annexation Drive
Joseph G. Ramsey
An Empire in Points
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
COVID-19 Denialism is Rooted in the Settler Colonial Mindset
Ramzy Baroud
On Israel’s Bizarre Definitions: The West Bank is Already Annexed
Judith Deutsch
Handling Emergency: A Tale of Two Males
Michael Welton
Getting Back to Socialist Principles: Honneth’s Recipe
Dean Baker
Combating the Political Power of the Rich: Wealth Taxes and Seattle Election Vouchers
Jonah Raskin
Edward Sanders: Poetic Pacifist Up Next
Manuel García, Jr.
Carbon Dioxide Uptake by Vegetation After Emissions Shutoff “Now”
Heidi Peltier
The Camo Economy: How Military Contracting Hides Human Costs and Increases Inequality
Ron Jacobs
Strike!, Fifty Years and Counting
Ellen Taylor
The Dark Side of Science: Shooting Barred Owls as Scapegoats for the Ravages of Big Timber
Sarah Anderson
Shrink Wall Street to Guarantee Good Jobs
Graham Peebles
Prison: Therapeutic Centers Or Academies of Crime?
Zhivko Illeieff
Can We Escape Our Addiction to Social Media?
Clark T. Scott
The Democrat’s Normal Keeps Their (Supposed) Enemies Closer and Closer
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
In 2020 Elections: Will Real-Life “Fighting Dems” Prove Irresistible?
David Swanson
Mommy, Where Do Peace Activists Come From?
Christopher Brauchli
Trump the Orator
Gary Leupp
Columbus and the Beginning of the American Way of Life: A Message to Indoctrinate Our Children
John Stanton
Donald J. Trump, Stone Cold Racist
Nicky Reid
The Stonewall Blues (Still Dreaming of a Queer Nation)
Stephen Cooper
A Kingston Reasoning with Legendary Guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith (The Interview: Part 2)
Hugh Iglarsh
COVID-19’s Coming to Town