On Complicity: Following Up on the New Jim Crow First Readings

This text is an excerpt of a panel presentation by Cherise Morris, B’16, September 10th, 2015 at Brown University. Morris joined Elizabeth Hinton, Harvard Professor of History and African and African American Studies, and Flint Taylor, Civil Rights lawyer and unding partner of the People’s Law Office in Chicago, for a panel discussion about mass incarceration, policing, and race in the 21 century. 

To quote bell hooks, I write about myself because that is what I know most and what I’d like to know the most. So often, in my experiences as a student, I have been told that my personal experiences were not relevant to the conversation, they weren’t unbiased, or quantifiable enough, or “pulled from the reading.” So often that is the experience of so many people from marginalized communities when speaking from personal center, when bringing their lives into the discussion, when attempting to narrate their realities, to self-determine. So I’m going to start with an anecdote.

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It is August, a morning, and it is hot. I am walking. A young black male is walking in front of me. We walk along the same stretch of street for two or three blocks, steps in tandem. We are both wearing large headphones.

Whenever I walk up this street, I stay on the right side—where there’s the most shade from large trees. It’s the small things like that one notices in the summer, where the harshest light falls and how to avoid it for as long as possible.

There is a police station on the left hand side of Brook Street. Another reason to avoid walking over there. It’s the small things like this that mark the experiences of so many Black and brown people in this country. Constantly aware of our ever-present carceral state of being, an existence that is marked by fear and threat enacted by state institutions.

On this day, at the top of the hill, on the other side across from the police station, I notice two officers, a white man and white woman, standing by a vehicle giving out what seemed like a minor traffic citation. In an instant, my body is reacting and I am crossing the street. Almost unconsciously. Caught between these two arms of the police state—a squadron of parked police cars on one end and two armed officers on the other—I leave behind the much welcomed cool breeze and shade of the trees. A few steps ahead, the young Black man is crossing with me steps in tandem.

The driver of the car, a white woman, is speaking calmly with the officers, even joking. She accepts her ticket and drives off to greet the rest of her day. I keep walking. My pace quickens, as Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” begins to play.

“…and we hate po-po, wanna kill us dead in street for sure…”

With that lyric, I am reminded of the traffic incidents that made headlines weeks before, both of which culminated in the loss of Black life. Both incidents caught on camera and looped on my Facebook newsfeed. Samuel Dubose, shot in the head by a University of Cincinnati police officer. Sandra Bland, assaulted and arrested for asserting her rights and refusing to put out her cigarette, found dead three days later in her jail cell.

I am smoking a cigarette.

It is three days before the one year anniversary of Michael Brown’s slaughter. I wonder if the young man in front of me knows that date. Maybe, and if not the exact date, he definitely knows it is August.

Moments like these are part of my daily existence, and I can surmise that they are part of that young man’s as well.

On this day in August, the tally is 699. 699 people killed by the police in 2015. Today, it is 821.

However, the terror of the police cannot be restricted, it cannot be wholly quantified, it cannot be fully measured by such a rigid metric, tallying immutable deaths. It must, instead, be qualified. This terror cuts much deeper than the 699 people whose deaths have been catalogued on this index. Deeper than the Black person who is slain every 28 hours. What that young man and I experienced on our morning walk, a small glitch in our daily routine, was terror enacted by the institution of the police.

None of us have yet lost our lives at the hands of this institution, however, we are continually in the process of losing life because of it and the constant state of terror it represents and reproduces—even when it is not terrorizing us individually.

This recognition was the coming to consciousness that I had the spring semester of my freshman year here, when I first read The New Jim Crow. That semester I read Michelle Alexander’s seminal work, alongside Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White, and Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete. Alexander’s book was one of the first texts I read in college that woke me up to the fact that mass incarceration is not a flaw of the system, it is the system. It is a set of policies and institutions working exactly the way they were intended to work. The criminal (in)“justice” system is doing exactly what it was engineered to do: hide, exploit, and silence the “others” i.e. Black and brown people, queer, trans(*) and/or gender nonconforming people, low-income people, people living with (dis)abilities and especially people at the intersections multiple marginalized identities.

I began to critically interrogate the ways in which our society reproduces not only prisons, themselves, but also the conditions of imprisonment. I began thinking about the ways in which this carceral state of being characterized by constant racialized existential plight was manifested beyond the walls of prisons in our communities.  I, first, began to connect gratuitous police brutality in the urban areas that I studied in my classes to the anti-black violences happening in poor, rural communities of color like my own hometown.

And soon, I began connecting the ways in which the institutions that we are a part of reproduce these same things. And that led me to thinking about the place where I spent most of my year, my college campus. How did I see these things being played out on Brown’s campus? Why was it that I had been stopped and questioned by the university police officers several times, and none of my white or white-presenting friends had been? Why is Ray Kelly, the NYPD commissioner being given a platform to applaud his blatantly racist stop-and-frisk policies in front of three rows of uniformed white police officers at my university?

Last fall, in the midst of the Columbia prison divestment campaign, my best friend approached me with the idea of getting a group of students together to critically examine the ways in which our own university, Brown, could also be explicitly and implicitly invested in the prison-industrial complex and the ideas that constitute it. This group would eventually become known as SAPIC or Students Against the Prison-Industrial Complex. As an organizer with SAPIC, I’m constantly questioning Brown. How are we, as a university community, invested in these ideas of gate-keeping and exclusivity in ways that parallel those mechanisms of the prison-industrial complex? Why are University police officers armed? In fact, why do we even have University police officers? How is Brown is invested in barring certain people and communities out of our campus similar to the ways prisons and jails that are invested in barring certain people and communities into incarceration? How is Brown prioritizing privilege by asking about prior convictions for prospective students and staff members, but not for professors? Especially since, as Alexander points out, laws and their enforcement target Black and brown bodies. In the same way that the school-to-prison pipeline operates by shutting folks out of k-12 education, how are we shutting people out of the Van Wickle gates by asking about racist school disciplinary measures? Why is my university invested in, therefore profiting from, a prison phone company when the prison phone business is one of the most nefarious industries operating inside prisons? Why are four members of the Brown Corporation high-ranking executives at companies in the Million Shares Club? The Million Shares Club refers to the 36 U.S.-based major investors in the private prison industry, that collectively own over one million shares of CCA and GEO, the two largest private prison contactors. And furthermore why is our university run by system called the Corporation?

Ivy League schools are some of the foremost gate-keeping institutions in this country, and that is true, I believe, regardless of a given school’s quantification of diversity. They revel in their exclusivity and even compete to be the most exclusive. And I am complicit in this exclusivity. We all are. That might mean that I don’t have the right to critique Brown in the same ways as someone with no affiliation to the Ivy League; but I can still use my position within this gated institution to criticize the system, to push the system, and to make this system face all the ways in which it is complicit in upholding in the larger structure of white supremacist capitalist hetero-patriarchy that constitutes our contemporary moment.

Last fall, SAPIC members launched a campaign to get the New Jim Crow selected as this year’s first reading. The petition stated:

“We hope that students, faculty, and staff will recognize when they themselves are complicit in the perpetuation of oppressive and destructive systems. We hope to begin redefining an engaged member of the Brown community as a person who actively identifies and confronts oppressive structures, wherever they witness or experience them, whenever they are able. We feel that assigning The New Jim Crow is a necessary first step towards beginning these conversations.”

While the assigned book was a first step, it is extremely important that I say: Don’t congratulate yourselves. Don’t feel good about reading a free book that your Ivy League University mailed to you. Because materially, you reading that book means nothing. You reading that book does not absolve from your complicity in our institution’s perpetuation of these oppressive and destructive systems. And it certainly does not absolve Brown from its continued wrongdoings. To the administration especially: Don’t congratulate yourselves either. As long as you continue “building on distinction” by stealing land and resources from the greater Providence community, you assigning this book means nothing. As long as you are invested in the prison phone industry, you assigning this book means nothing. In fact it is rather hypocritical. As long as this campus remains unsafe for people of color, low-income people, people surviving mental illness, etc. assigning that book means nothing. As long as the Ivy League-Industrial-Complex and the Prison-Industrial Complex are two parts of the same system that works to undermine and control self-determination for marginalized communities, assigning that book means nothing. That is to say, that, yes, we’ve started the conversation but it does not and cannot end here. Take that for what you will. But I’m saying it’s time to act.

 

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