by: James Vrettos and Douglas Thompkins on August 13th, 2013 | 2 Comments »
Two decisions on Monday August 12th have offered possible game-changing and historic opportunities to begin a swing away from the tough-on-crime policies that have dominated the American criminal justice system since at least the late 1960s. One was by a federal judge ruling that The New York City Police Department (NYPD) has been carrying on unconstitutional and systematic racial profiling in its stop and frisk policies and the other was Attorney General Holder’s unveiling that federal prosecutors would no longer invoke mandatory minimum sentence laws for low-level drug offenses.
But we should not expect these rulings and decisions to magically transform America’s political, economic and spiritual culture overnight to a non-racist world of caring, love and a society free of want and violence. For that to occur we need to sustain the momentum and begin a broad-based movement at least partly rooted in electoral politics led by the people most affected by the policies now being questioned. Our strategy begins with the realization that America’s political, economic and moral elites will be of limited use in this struggle and will have to be cajoled, pushed, educated and pressured to see and act beyond their privileged and entitled positions.
In a July 22, 2013 interview on Democracy Now, Cornel West responded to an Amy Goodman question concerning President Obama’s first public remarks following the George Zimmerman acquittal by acknowledging that they were moving, sentimental stories. Relating the case to his own life experience as an Afro-American male–”Trayvon Martin could have been me”–West commented that our president certainly made a beautiful identification with the fallen young man.
West then directed his comments to the central question concerning progressives and those interested in transforming the criminal justice system. “Will that identification hide and conceal the fact there’s a criminal justice system in place that has nearly destroyed two generations of very precious, poor black and brown brothers?” He hasn’t said a mumbling word until now. Five years in office and can’t say a word about the new Jim Crow.”
For those of us interested in raising the level of dialogue concerning criminal justice polices such as stopping stop and frisk, ending mass incarceration, the new Jim Crow, and the dependency created and perpetuated by the re-entry industry, West’s questions and revelations are not new. We are not holding our breath for any major transformation to occur from the top political and economic elites of the country. Obama’s own words speak directly to that as he carefully prefaced his remarks about the Zimmerman acquittal with assurance that he was not talking about some “new Federal program.”
The disregard for the concerns, injustices, and humanity of the poor in general and the poor of color in particular are famously documented and well-known–if not, at the same time, ignored. There are nearly 150 million poor and near poor people in America–nearly one-third of the American middle class–mostly families with children–have fallen into poverty. When issues of poverty intersect with the policies of the criminal justice system (as they often do), the levels of denial to the “other” and the humanity of those affected by the system seem to increase exponentially.
How then can the level of debate be raised in a political world of massive resistance to that dialogue? Some prisoners are doing their part. In a July 17, 2013 New York Times op-ed piece, Wilbert Rideau, who served nearly 44 years for manslaughter at the Louisiana State Penitentiary points out that “there aren’t many protests in prison. In a world where authorities exercise absolute power and demand abject obedience, prisoners are almost always going to be on the losing side, and they know it … And yet, sometimes things get so bad that prisoners feel compelled to protest, with work stoppages, riots or hunger strikes. On July 8, some 30,000 inmates in the custody of the California Department of Corrections went on a hunger strike to demand improvements in prison conditions.” Their biggest complaint was the runaway use of solitary confinement, the fact that thousands of prisoners are consigned to this cruelty indefinitely, some for decades.”
The question remains as to how best to bring this debate to even greater public attention. As we come to the last three months of what has been a rather lackadaisical New York City mayoral campaign–devoid of emotional, moral and intellectual depth and structural analysis, a thrust of moral and political energy can be interjected into the process by organizing and mobilizing the families of the formerly incarcerated. They could serve as the new “freedom fighters” and beacons of conscience and education for us all concerning the demeaning, cruel and inhumane system they have witnessed through their loved ones and precious family members.
If planned strategically, they could act as a powerful and significant voting bloc to aid some of the secondary and tertiary Democratic candidates who could significantly improve their chances of becoming the Democratic Party candidate and probable eventual winner in the campaign if they incorporated the message that this bloc of voters could authentically articulate.
Piven and Cloward, in their 1989 book Why Americans Don’t Vote, address our major strategic concerns. They argue that “although movements and voting are sometimes treated simply as conflicting alternatives, the bearing of each on the other is in fact multifaceted; each form of political action both undermines and supports the other … Some aspects of the electoral environment nurture rather than suppress movements… True electoral politics usually absorbs political activism so that people do not turn to protest.
Nevertheless (emphasis mine) the idea of popular rights associated with democratic electoral arrangements encourages the belief that change is possible, and by the efforts of ordinary people. This is the implication of the core democratic idea, the idea that ordinary people have the right to participate in governance by choosing their rulers.”
Finally, Piven and Cloward give credence to our core concern of how progressive criminal justice concerns can gain a wider audience in this years’ New York City mayoral contest through mobilizing the families of the formerly incarcerated. They argue that: “Movements also win what they win largely as a result of their impact on electoral politics. The issues raised when masses of people become defiant sometimes break the grip of ruling groups on political interpretations so that new definitions of social reality and new definitions of the possible and just, can be advanced… When political leaders make policy concessions, it is to cope with threats of electoral cleavage, or to rebuild coalitions in the aftermath of electoral defections. In this way, the electoral system not only nourishes and protects movements, but in addition gives them some leverage with state leaders. The influence of voters is also enhanced, for movements activate electoral constituencies and make their allegiance conditional on policy responses. (emphasis mine)
The families of the formerly incarcerated could make the difference in any one of the Democratic Party candidates (presently running second or third) getting elected and, more importantly, a much more “genuine” debate would be achieved about the criminal justice/poverty issues so desperately needed to be brought to the fore in the battle for America’s cultural soul.
We go into this strategy with eyes wide open, fully realizing that politicians of whatever ideological stripe and party usually have one basic interest and one interest only–to get elected and reelected if running for a subsequent term. In the world of contemporary American Real Politic and specifically in the present New York City Mayoral campaign, the strategic infusion of a mass bloc of concerned, committed and idealistic voters–the families of the formerly incarcerated–could make the difference in whether or not we have the sort of profound debate on our humanity that they would bring to the public forum. They could give whatever politician they aligned with the moral and political courage to carry out the progressive political and “spiritual” decisions so desperately needed by us all and supported by the great majority of us all.
On Sunday July 29 The New York Times reported that William Thompson, the sole African-American in this year’s New York City mayoral contest went before a mostly black congregation in a storefront church in Brooklyn and issued a fierce denunciation of the policies of the New York Police Department, saying they are drawn from the same racial suspicions that drove George Zimmerman to hunt down Trayvon Martin. The article goes on to further indicate that “with Mr. Weiner’s campaign now reeling from new revelations about his online sexual encounters with women, Mr. Thompson needs to win over those African-Americans and turn them out in large numbers to prevail in the race to succeed Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Advisors to Mr. Thompson have suggested that voters in minority neighborhoods may make up their minds late in a campaign, and, in the final stretch of the race, he will make a major push to secure their embrace.”
Mr. Thompson understands very well the political strategy we are promoting. The formerly incarcerated, their families and the entire re-entry community including agencies, organizations and individuals such as Fortune, Osborne, and 111st Group, who are dependent on the re-entry industry for their livelihood, need to understand it too and “politicize” their just grievances and righteous indignation by supporting the candidate who most represents and articulates their positions.
To understand the possible power of this voting bloc, you only have to consider that 65%of those on parole in the state of New York are currently unemployed and that only 14% of those on parole are employed full-time and making more than a minimum wage. Consider the 10′s of thousands of formerly incarcerated who have returned to their New York City communities in the last 20 years, their family members who total in the 100′s of thousands and residents effected by their presence in the community and you’re talking easily of upwards of a million people.
Taking New York state criminal justice statistics over the last twenty years and using them to reflect on possible voting blocs of the re-entry community and the formerly incarcerated and their families, even a “conservative” use of the data indicates a possible major impact on local and state elections. When we include the data of the number of people arrested pleading guilty and convicted of a felony serving time; the recent shutting down of several prisons; releases from re-entry/parole; arrest and conviction rates from stop and frisk policy; and the accompanying homelessness of such policies; these data project to a “low-ball” estimate of 250,000 people. When family members are included (brothers, sisters, uncles, cousins, fathers, mothers etc.) that figure easily goes up to a million and probably considerably more. Possible adult eligible voting members from this aggregate would easily total 500,000.
Most studies in recent years indicate a 60-65% national level of voter registration. Numerous studies show that blacks are particularly likely to over report being registered and it would be fair to assume that even this national registration rate would be considerably lower in the population groups we are interested in reaching. The bottom line is that there is a massive pool of potential voters that could be mobilized and registered to vote that would make a crucial difference in many local (city council, mayoral etc.) and state wide (legislative, gubernatorial, etc.) contests. In many of these races a switch or an infusion of a few hundred or a few thousand votes to a particular candidate would make the difference between victory and defeat for that candidate.
Of all the dozen or so New York City mayoral candidates Randy Credico stands out as the true and “natural” progressive alternative and most able to authentically speak for and with the movement we are advocating. As director of the respected William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, a long-time activist and political satirist honored by the NAACP and Drug Policy Alliance for his battle against racism, police brutality and government corruption and through his numerous arrests protesting stop and frisk polices Mr. Credico has shown and earned his progressive credentials and deserves our support.
But our strategy goes beyond any particular activist, candidate or politician and realizes that to build the sort of movement we are talking about support is about mobilizing community pressure as a voting bloc to effect the greatest possible change at the most opportune “political” moment. We realize the opportunistic nature of the political process in America today and those who go into the political arena who more often than not represent and play out that reality. But that doesn’t preclude our working with some of them who show a proclivity or varying levels of understanding toward moving the country, city, state or locality toward a progressive vision that underlies our strategy. William Thompson and Bill de Blasio are two possible New York City mayoral candidates, capable of winning the election, who might understand our strategy and become articulate spokespeople for the voices of those who have been up to now ignored or used by the political process. There could be others.
We feel strongly that this is one of those politically “opportune” moments–certainly in New York City and in other parts of the country as well as the pendulum of justice perhaps and hopefully begins to swing toward a more progressive vision of criminal justice. The two August 12th decisions are certainly indications that there are more openings now than perhaps any time since the late 1960s. Any politician ignoring the issues of this potential voting support would and should do so only with the understanding that they are committing political suicide–their chances of winning severely restricted. If the formerly incarcerated, their families and the entire re-entry community don’t see this as a possible winning strategy for finally getting their interests on the political map and if the rest of us don’t support their struggle as our own, we will have squandered yet another opportunity to make substantial, real and needed change in the country.
It is the sort of strategy the Right in this country has understood all too well in recent years–it’s time for the Progressive Left to get on board the strategy and fight for their vision of a more humane reality.
James Vrettos and Douglas Thompkins are professors at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.