The Roots of Mass Incarceration
Two hundred young Black and brown men hauled into Southern District of New York Federal District Court in Manhattan on federal conspiracy charges, 70 brought into Eastern District of New York Federal District Court in Brooklyn, 60 indicted in Federal District Court in Detroit. This is what happens today in federal and state courts across America to young Black men.
Just visit any local federal or state prosecutor’s website and you will most likely read a press release reporting a multi-defendant gang conspiracy takedown. Long gone are the days of multiple-defendant mobster prosecutions, when the targets were organized criminal organizations that had lots of resources, structure and clout. They have been replaced with young Black and brown alleged gang members and their associates.
In many of these indictments, the young men are charged with low-level drug possession and sales, and in many instances, there are no allegations of violence. The indictments all have the same elements: Title 3 wiretaps, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts, rap videos as motive or gang affiliation, and so on and so on. What’s missing in many of these cases are large sums of money, property and the recovery of large amounts of narcotics.
The results, however, are the same — multiple young men removed from the community, privileged Ivy League prosecutors and judges all too willing to prosecute and sentence another Black and brown person to an amount of time that most Americans simply can’t fathom.
It’s very clear though that federal money will continue to trickle down to police and prosecutors for the continued policing and apprehension of these young men. There will be no similar initiatives for the illicit drugs sold to white males through electronic and digital means in areas like Wall Street. Indictments in the Black community will keep coming as they did under the Obama administration and now under the Trump administration. In fact, rumor has it that the new Attorney General and the DOJ have already sent memos to all the U.S. Attorney General Offices across the country instructing federal prosecutors how to identify gangs and prosecute them more zealously and aggressively.
Throughout American political history, both political parties have toed a “tough on crime” line as a way to get elected. “Tough on crime” is the dog whistle to continue incarcerating and policing Black and brown people. That is the American narrative. No matter who is in office, somehow the Black community suffers job losses and unemployment, defunding of schools and cutting of social programs at a much higher rate than the rest of America. At the same time, police presence and funding increase and opportunity decreases. Our communities are left without the resources and structure necessary to sustain a community and are left to rely on the government and corporations for everything, much like colonial times.
Look at the current progressive attitude held by law enforcement, politicians and media toward the opioid epidemic, which seems to be disproportionately affecting white communities. Compare it to the attitude held by the same entities when Black and Brown neighborhoods and their children were being destroyed by heroin and crack cocaine. White people as criminals does not fit the American narrative.
The Law Enforcement Assistance Act of 1965 and the Safe Streets Act of 1968 represented how the federal government would respond to any civil unrest in Black communities. Programs like this provided federal resources and funding for local law enforcement in their efforts to address the unrest that in their view was caused by civil rights agitators. These programs failed to address segregation, economics, and poverty but focused on the Black communities as individuals.
One need look no further than Daniel Moynihan’s 1965 report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” better known as the “Moynihan Report” for the rationale behind many of these programs. His report, adhered to by liberals and conservatives alike, ultimately blamed the victim for conditions created by government structure. It promoted the ideology that the condition in the Black community was the result of individualism and “Black pathology,” not America’s racist foundation, society, policies and legislation. The report and those who supported it ignored America’s established caste system, a social order that alienated an entire race of people.
Programs like the Law Enforcement Assistance Act and the Safe Streets Act increased police personnel, militarized the police, allowed the use of electronic surveillance and promoted the use of undercover officers. These programs also allowed law enforcement to work hand in hand with domestic and social programs like truancy and welfare programs to share data and information. The data collected was used to justify more over-policing in Black neighborhoods and the paramilitary stance of law enforcement that continues today.
The phenomenon of the urban ghetto began with the Great Migration from the South by millions of Black people. The migration was born out of survival, hope, fear and the search for progress in America. Millions left their homes to escape domestic terrorism and a callous, indifferent system. These new urban cities came with the close attention of the federal government and local police. To prevent independence and any form of Black nationalism in the Black community, the federal government instituted programs like COINTELPRO. Black people were not only put under a microscope out of fear of uprisings, but the community was set upon by its own government. By way of politics, propaganda, media and economics, America made Black men public enemy No. 1, while systematically continuing to alienate the community politically, socially, economically and academically. It was a study in hypocrisy as America ignored its own behavior and said the cause of our condition was our propensity for poverty and crime.
America’s biggest threat during the 1960s and 1970s were 15-to-30-year-old Black men influenced by Malcolm, Martin and the Black Panthers. According to programs like COINTELPRO, these young men were a threat and needed to be monitored. This is the toxic ideology that is in the DNA of America. It follows her in all of her dealings when it relates to the descendants of those who were the cogs in the wheels of American capitalism and wealth, the cogs that helped solidify and secure white America’s privilege.
There will be no worthwhile or substantive efforts by the American government to create jobs or fix the broken school-to-prison pipeline in our communities. History tells us that education and social programs will continue to be cut and more policing will continue, particularly in an age where crime is continuing to decline and gentrification and development is increasing.
Today, we “COINTELPRO” ourselves in the name of entertainment, music, culture and social media. We fail to realize that unless we are entertaining America, America simply want’s us to vanish. Social media is simply social control for law enforcement and corporations. Black street and prison culture are a part of American capitalism. This only changes if the community becomes nationalistic, critical minded and committed to action and self-determination.
Those principles, which are essential for community building, simply can’t come from external forces. Think about the amount of music, fashion, entertainment, sports, and corporate products that are sold through Black men. Those platforms serve to entertain and distract, and they function as inculpatory evidence for law enforcement. Corporations and entertainers increase their profit at the expense and exploitation of Black and brown young men whose circumstances are commodified and sold. Everyone plays their part, including us.
Just yesterday, I was in the Eastern District Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn to represent a client charged in one of these multiple-defendant gang indictments. If one wants to study race and power in America, federal criminal court is a great place to start. All of the federal marshalls and court staff except the deputy clerk were white. The judge and the judge’s law clerks and interns were all white. The federal prosecutors were all white. All of the defense attorneys except me were white. As the defendants — all of them Black and shackled by hands and feet — shuffled toward the cells, one of them, with a smile on his face, loudly yelled out to a loved one present in the courtroom to support him, “What up, ya black ass nigga?” Instances like this are a common occurrence in the courthouse and display just how broken we have become.
Taking control of the educational and cultural process of our young men is a matter of survival and evolution. Education has always been the key to true liberation and freedom. Our young men are inundated with imagery and content that convinces them that criminality is a viable option, while still being alienated in America. Our education should include a curriculum unique to our presence and contribution to the world. Mentoring, academic and apprenticeship programs should be a staple in our community. Coding and writing academies. Film and legal academies. Engineering and architecture academies. Domestic and international exchange programs. Stem and Steam programs. The list goes on.
As a community, we have to introduce our young men to this early and often to wean them off of the toxicity of American culture. The young men on all of these indictments are doing their best impression of making it in America at all costs, unable to realize that they are simply presenting white nationalistic and capitalistic principles. They are totally unaware that they are prey to a predatory system.