by BAR executive editor Glen Ford
Prison populations have increased more than seven-fold since 1970, when the mass Black incarceration regime was set in motion. If incarceration was rolled back to 1970 levels, 86 percent of current prisoners would be released. Let’s demand it be done – NOW! “Demands are not formulated to woo or seduce Power, or to convince the authorities of the reasonableness of your cause, but to prevent those in power from successfully changing the subject.”
A Minimal Demand: Roll Back Incarceration to 1970 Levels
by BAR executive editor Glen Ford
“Key elements of the current mobilization seem unable, or unwilling, to frame demands that are consistent with the voices of the youth who are calling for an end to the Mass Black Incarceration State.”
The current political “awakening” in Black America is essentially a long delayed resistance to the mass Black incarceration regime imposed nearly half a century ago as a national response to the Black liberation movements of the Sixties. This “New Jim Crow,” as Michelle Alexander describes it, is a "comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized control that functions in a manner strikingly similar” to the “old” Jim Crow that was defeated during the Civil Rights era. The new regime was different than Jim Crow, in that it was a national policy, whose beginnings can be traced to the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), created in 1968 to fund, train and coordinate the activities of local and state law enforcement agencies. The LEAA and its successors played the central role in militarizing and vastly expanding both urban and rural police forces. SWAT teams sprouted in virtually every city and county as shock troops of counter-insurgency, providing armor and firepower to what the Black Panther Party had already described as “armies of occupation” in Black communities – north, south, east and west.
President Richard Nixon declared his so-called War on Drugs in 1971 and created the Drug Enforcement Assistance Administration (DEA) the next year. The federal drug offensive was purposefully conceived, as Alexander and others have documented, as a War On Blacks, designed to criminalize a whole people and thus achieve Jim Crow-like levels of social control over the nation’s most despised and volatile group. “Well-disguised” or not, the mass Black incarceration regime has been remarkably successful. Incarceration rates – especially for Blacks – began their dramatic rise around 1970, after a decade of relatively flat figures. Within the space of a single generation, African Americans would comprise one out of every eight prison inmates on the planet, and Black society would be in tatters.
“SWAT teams sprouted in virtually every city and county as shock troops of counter-insurgency.”
Yet, there was still no coherent resistance from the entrenched Black political class, joined at the hip with the national Democratic Party and in constant pursuit of individual mobility or symbolic – and ultimately meaningless – tokens of group recognition. In 1986, half the Congressional Black Caucus endorsed 100-to-1 penalties for crack cocaine possession, condemning hundreds of thousands of their constituents to draconian prison terms. Twenty-eight years later, in June of 2014, just two months before a Ferguson, Missouri, cop gunned down Michael Brown and set off the current “awakening,” only eight Black members of Congress – just 20 percent of the Black Caucus – voted for a measure that would have ended the Pentagon’s role in militarizing local police departments; the rest voted “Nay” or abstained.
These “Treasonous 32,” as we wrote in these pages, “are conscious collaborators with the Mass Black Incarceration State that dehumanizes, frames, imprisons, humiliates, tortures, maims and kills Black people for a living.” Clearly, the current incipient movement must confront and defeat its internal enemies in the Black Misleadership Class, who are allies and enablers of the Mass Black Incarceration State.
The internal Black struggle is perhaps the most difficult and painful aspect of the current dilemma. What is even more troubling, however, is the toll that the passing of years has taken on the collective Black memory of “movement” politics, particularly regarding the critical nature of demands. Movements are defined by their demands, yet key elements of the current mobilization seem unable, or unwilling, to frame demands that are consistent with the voices of the youth who are calling for an end to the Mass Black Incarceration State and the armed occupation that enforces that regime. Instead, they tinker around the edges, asking minor concessions from Power that may actually make the prevailing order more palatable, and give a false impression of progress. For example: more “training” for police (as if their crimes are not the result of purposeful, nationally sanctioned training) or more Black officers (as if the cops’ color will override their mass incarceration mission), or variations on patently fraudulent “community policing” schemes (whose mission is to deepen police penetration of the community).
“The federal drug offensive was purposefully conceived as a War On Blacks, designed to criminalize a whole people.”
Demands are not mere bargaining points for dickering with Power; they define where a people intend to go, and give clarity to the vision of movement leadership and the rank and file. Demands are formulated, first and foremost, to express the yearnings of the people, and to focus their energies. They are not formulated to woo or seduce Power, or to convince the authorities of the reasonableness of your cause, but to prevent those in power from successfully changing the subject. Demands keep folks’ eyes on the prize, and discipline leadership to stick to the point.
If one goal of the incipient movement is to empower Black people to exercise their fundamental democratic and self-determinationist right to police themselves – to end the armed occupation by hostile and unaccountable forces – then we must say so. The logical demand, which is shouted in one form or another at every rally and march against police criminality, is Black Community Control of the Police. How that is to be achieved must be worked out on the ground in the various localities, but the Demand and the Goal are one and the same.
I submit another demand for consideration. Over the four-plus decades of the nationally coordinated and financed mass Black incarceration regime, police procedures and behavior have become remarkably standardized all across the country. Cops kill Black people at the bat of an eye, and throw them in jail even quicker, everywhere. Although the federal government routinely tells United Nations human rights agencies that it has limited authority over the states, that’s a lie. One out of eight of the world’s prisoners are African American because of the machinery set in motion in Washington in the late Sixties, and financed and directed by the central government ever since. Responsibility for mass Black incarceration and all its related crimes lies with the government of the United States. Therefore, demands to dismantle the system must be directed to the feds.
“The current incipient movement must confront and defeat its internal enemies in the Black Misleadership Class, who are allies and enablers of the Mass Black Incarceration State.”
It is critical to emphasize that the “New Jim Crow” was imposed on Black America to ensure that the post-Civil Rights movement – which had wrestled with questions of Black self-determination, capitalism and imperialism before it was brutally crushed by federally coordinated police action – would never rise again. The issues raised during that period – of community control of education and economic development, as well as police – are even more critical to people engaged in today’s “awakening.” The conversation that was largely silenced around 1970 must be reignited under current conditions – if only to inform young activists that many of the challenges they face have been confronted before, and that Black America looks the way it does because of governmental policies set in motion around 1970, the year the prison numbers started climbing.
Therefore, Blacks should minimally demand that incarceration rates be rolled back to 1970 levels; that is, to the prison population levels that existed before imposition of the mass Black Incarceration regime. If we demand an end to mass Black incarceration, let’s do it by the numbers.
In 1970, the combined state and federal prison and jail population was 338,209, which meant there were about 100 incarcerated persons for every 100,000 U.S. residents.
In 2013, the total state and federal prisoner population was 2,220,300, or 716 prisoners per 100,000 residents. (The other big incarcerators on the planet, Russia and South Africa, have rates of 445 and 292 prisoners per 100,000 population, respectively.)
To bring down the total U.S. prison population to 1970 levels of 100 per 100,000 would require the release of around 1.9 million prisoners – roughly six out of every seven current inmates.
That’s not abolition of prisons – which is a task for after the Revolution. It is a demand that forces those in power to explain why they can’t get along with the same level of incarceration as France (100 per 100K), Canada (106 per 100K), or even China (119 per 100K) – or that the U.S. experienced in 1970 (with even lower levels for most of the previous decade).
The demand to roll back prison populations to 1970 levels is a demand to release about 86 percent of today’s inmates – about 40 percent of them African American.
Let those in power explain why it can’t be done – NOW! It’s a righteous, minimal demand that puts today’s incarceration numbers in glaring perspective, and highlights the horrific scope of the crime in which the Black Misleadership Class is so deeply complicit.
BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at [email protected].