[Pnews] Mumia and Angela Davis - Alternatives to the Present System of Capitalist Injustice

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jan 21 17:22:54 EST 2014

  Alternatives to the Present System of Capitalist Injustice

January 20, 2014

*By Mumia Abu-Jamal and Angela Y. Davis*
* *

/The Feminist Wire offers an exclusive look at this new essay to be 
published in the forthcoming volume //Imagine: Living in a Socialist 
USA/ <http://harpercollins.com/books/Imagine/?isbn=9780062305572>/, 
edited by Frances Goldin, Michael Smith, and Debby Smith. Read it here 
before it hits the shelves!/

We live in an era of mega-incarceration on a scale that can scarcely be 
imagined. The United States locks up more of its people than any other 
nation in the world. About 2.3 million Americans presently call prison 
or jail cells home---almost five times as many as there were in 1980. 
More than 60 percent of these prisoners were Black or Latino, according 
to the Sentencing Project. With another 5 million people on probation or 
parole, almost one out of every 30 American adults was under some form 
of correctional supervision.

Moreover, jails and prisons in the United States have become venues of 
profit as well as of punishment. As the number of inmates has expanded, 
private prison corporations have become significant players both here 
and in the international market. State-owned and operated prisons have 
outsourced services to private companies, diminishing the difference 
between private and public prisons.

Any sober investigation into the American criminal-justice system leaves 
one struck with the inescapable conclusion that it is unfair, unjust, 
dysfunctional, unbalanced, and profoundly expensive---both in societal 
and human terms. How we got that way owes less to criminality and more 
to sociopolitical and economic factors; for who goes into prison is 
inevitably related to the role that the economic and political elites 
assign to persons in this society---by who shall exploit whom.

Any serious attempt to arrive at solutions thus has to move beyond both 
capitalism and its systems of retributive (punishment-based) justice. 
Over the last decade or so, a mass movement targeting what activists 
call the "prison-industrial complex" has taken shape. In 2011, the NAACP 
released a report, "Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate Under 
Educate," that linked the decline in the quality of education with the 
soaring prison population.

Initially, though, we must consider the terms we are using, for the 
concept of "crime," like much that we/ /today take for granted, is* *a 
sociopolitical construct.

In the 1970s, "radical criminologists called the legal definition of 
crime into question and thereby opened to doubt the very scope of the 
field of criminology," scholar David F. Greenberg wrote. Herman and 
Julia Schwendinger, he noted, "argued that to restrict research to 
violations of state-made law is to accept the definitions of harm and 
wrongfulness that the state asserts, and they urged their coworkers to 
redefine crime as a violation of human rights. These definitions are 
based on the conceptions of harm held by those who have the power to 
make law, and consequently tend to exclude from scrutiny harms caused by 
the actions of the upper class."

The American Friends Service Committee's Working Party expressed the 
spirit with which radical criminologists rejected official definitions. 
"Actions that clearly ought to be labeled 'criminal,' because they bring 
the greatest harm to the greatest number, are in fact accomplished 
officially by agencies of the government," it stated in 1971. "The 
overwhelming number of murders in* *this century has been committed by 
governments in* *wartime. Hundreds of unlawful killings by police go 
unreported each year. The largest forceful acquisitions of property in 
the United States have been the theft of lands guaranteed by treaty to 
Indian tribes, thefts sponsored by the government. The largest number of 
dislocations, tantamount to kidnapping---the evacuation and internment 
of Japanese-Americans during World War II---were carried out by the 
government with the approval of the courts. Civil-rights demonstrators, 
struggling to exercise their constitutional rights, have been repeatedly 
beaten and harassed by police and sheriffs. And in the Vietnam War, 
America has violated its Constitution and international law."

Social structures---courts, police, prisons, etc.---have within them a 
deep bias about what constitutes crime and what does not. Any social 
structure is a product of its previous historical, economic and social 
iterations, and these previous forms bear significant influence on later 
forms. The present system, in addition to being increasingly repressive, 
is the logical inheritance of its racist, hierarchical, exploitative 
past, and it is also a reactive formation to attempts to transform, 
democratize, and socialize it.

For authentic democracy to emerge, "abolition democracy" must be 
enacted---the abolition of institutions that advance the dominance of 
any one group over any other. It is the democracy that is possible if we 
continue the legacy of the great abolition movements in American 
history, those that opposed slavery, lynching, and segregation. As long 
as the prison-industrial-complex remains, American democracy will 
continue to be a false one. Such a false democracy reduces people and 
their communities to the barest biological subsistence because it pushes 
them outside the law and the polity.

The idea of abolition democracy comes from a reading of U.S. history 
where the freedom struggle is central to who Americans are and to why we 
are who we are. We are less exemplars of legendary "founding fathers" 
than we are of "founding freedom fighters"---inheritors of those who 
fought for their freedom, not from a British aristocracy, but from 
American slavocracy.

We need to prepare not only a critique of a repressive, incarceral 
status quo, but a vision of a new, enlightened, more human, more 
socialized view of a future without mass incarceration.

The rise of the prison-industrial complex and the mass incarceration of 
African-Americans is the most recent incarnation of how human bondage 
and racial repression, the American way of life for two-thirds of its 
national existence, strive to reassert themselves, albeit via different 
faces and forms.

The Union's victory over the Confederacy in the Civil War and the 
ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution 
during Reconstruction spelled slavery's doom. Within a few years, 
however, the system thought buried by war was exhumed and given new life 
under the program of leasing convicts as labor. It was slavery in every 
sense but its name. Indeed, as it was public instead of private 
"slavery," it was in some ways worse.

With a new face, to be sure, but the same bite, the same hungers, the 
same skewed consciousness, the golem of stolen labor lived again, this 
time as a fixture of the prison system, which, through notorious Black 
Codes and police targeting of Black communities, consigned generations 
of Black men and women to endless lives of toil and state terror, for 
corporate profits.

For these many, many people, freedom was but a poor and cruel joke. And 
the "peonage" system that succeeded slavery kept millions of others in 
bondage. "Under the aegis of the Freedmen's Bureau, large numbers of 
black peasants signed annual contracts with white planters," the 
esteemed Black scholars Mary Frances Berry and John W. Blassingame wrote 
in /Long Memory /in 1982. "Generally penniless, they obtained advances 
on their wages or shares of the crop. Since they were illiterate, the 
planters often overcharged and cheated them. The result was perpetual 
debt, compulsion, violence, oppression, and de facto slavery. The murder 
of black peons was a frequent occurrence in the 1940s."

In 1907, a white resident of Florida argued, "Slavery is just as much an 
'institution' now as it was before the war." The Georgia Baptist 
Convention agreed with this view in 1939: "There are more negroes held 
by these debt slavers than were actually owned as slaves before the War 
Between the States." A federal antipeonage law was passed in 1948, under 
pressure from the activism of U.S. Communists, and peonage complaints 
were filed with the Justice Department well into the 1970s.

What sociologist Loïc Wacquant has termed the "penal state" is driving 
the profound social inequality and unparalleled repression that is the 
prison-industrial complex. Economic, political, and social forces have 
converged to create a system of vested interests to ensure its continued 
expansion and wealth.

In sum, the present system drains public resources to pursue a chimera 
of public safety, when it actually is a legalized system of violence 
against unprivileged communities, who have been the historical bogeymen 
of the American body politic. It is, too, a retort against the alleged 
goal of social justice, and is a profound waste of human potential and 
social development.

With less than 5 percent of the world's population, how comes it that 
the U.S. has around 25 percent of the world's prison population? That is 
a sign of imbalance, not an exemplar of social justice.

We have stated the problems.

It is time to proffer some solutions.

*Socialist alternatives?*

How can we transform institutions such as the prison in ways that are 
inspired by visions of socialism? From whence are we to draw models or 
alternatives to the present system, especially in an era when the 
socialist community is in such disarray, if not full retreat? Russia? 
Cuba? China? Albania?

Implicit in such a question is the assumption that external models are 
the only ones available to us, and that no such internal model exists.

This is a fractured view of the nation's history, for, to quote James 
Baldwin, "American history is longer, more various, more beautiful, and 
more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.

The U.S. federal system---a kind of dual sovereignty---owes much to the 
Iroquois Confederacy, or the Six Nations Confederacy, which comprised 
the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations. The 
confederacy lasted for several centuries under enormous pressure from 
the Anglo-Americans.

The indigenous peoples of this continent, according to some historians, 
gave far better evidence of democracy, gender equality, and racism-free 
life and governance than its European invaders did. We might also 
discover important insights about justice by looking at histories of 
indigenous people. Among the Native Americans of the Northeast, criminal 
justice was a communal concern.

"No laws or ordinances, sheriffs and constables, judges and juries, or 
courts or jails---the apparatus of authority in European 
societies---were to be found in the Northeast woodlands prior to 
European arrival. Yet boundaries of acceptable behavior were firmly set. 
Though priding themselves on the autonomous individual, the Iroquois 
maintained a strict sense of right and wrong," historian Gary Nash noted 
in his groundbreaking work /Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early 
America/. "He who stole another's food or acted invalourously in war was 
'shamed' by his people and ostracized from their company until he had 
atoned for his actions and demonstrated to their satisfaction that he 
had morally purified himself."

In other words, respect for individuality did not have to lead to modes 
of punishment that separated the individual from the community both 
physically and symbolically. "The Western way is to punish you, so that 
you don't repeat the behavior," Robert Yazzie, former Chief Justice of 
the Navajo Nation Supreme Court, told the international Institute for 
Restorative Practices in 2004. "But the Navajo way is to focus on the 
individual. You separate the action from the person." This approach 
points to a form of justice that does not rely on assuming that the 
quality of the harm created by a person can be translated into 
quantitative terms, such as a specific length of prison time.

The Navajo peacemaking process, Yazzie said, brings the offender and the 
victim together to talk to each other. "The first order of business the 
relatives would do in the peacemaking process is to get to the bottom of 
a problem. In court, I would sue you for battery and the state would say 
we have to prove all the elements of a crime and use the rules or the 
law to prove that you are guilty... that's beside the point. What 
matters here is: why did this act happen in the first place? There's a 
reason why the harm has occurred. Let's deal with that. Maybe we have a 
history of problems between the two of us. If we can get to the bottom 
of a problem, all the other stuff will fall into place. The damage can 
be acknowledged by you, and I can go away happy from the process, 
knowing that you say that you're not going to do it again."

This form of justice may be unobtainable in contemporary American 
society, but it contains much less oppression and torture than the 
Anglo-American form, and it takes a profoundly different approach. It is 
not a form of justice without pain. In a traditional society, being 
ostracized would be the greatest disability, for individuals' 
self-definition relied, in great part, upon their membership and place 
within the clan and the tribe---the community. These people knew one 
another, and thus were best able to determine how to respond to 
violations of communal well-being.

They modeled the road not taken.

Yet their very existence shows us the powerful historical precedents 
that may inform our present, by fueling a bigger, broader, deeper 
definition of America, one that is centered on freedom, rather than 
domination; one that is more nation than empire.

Establishing community courts (especially, ones composed of non-lawyers) 
would utilize these insights from traditional societies, and thus 
mitigate the destructiveness inherent in the present corporate-type, 
assembly-line system that is breaking state budgets and individuals' 
bodies and spirits on the anvil of so-called "criminal justice."

Nor is this idea unthinkable within the current U.S. legal system. In 
Pennsylvania, both the state constitution and state law provide for the 
establishment of "community courts," as a section of what's termed the 
minor judiciary. One was opened in Philadelphia in 2002, becoming one of 
approximately 30 community courts in U.S. cities (and 50 outside the 
U.S.) Like its counterparts, the Philadelphia Community Court was 
empowered to use community service and other restorative sanctions to 
address "quality of life" offenses such as prostitution, drug 
possession, and theft.

When the court closed down in September 2011 due to funding cuts, it had 
enabled more than 500,000 hours of community service. It also provided 
offenders with social services such as medical care and drug counseling.

"The whole purpose of community court was to take a holistic approach 
and to kind of address the needs of the individuals as they came in, 
with the recognition that sometimes people found themselves in court 
with issues that went beyond the case that was presented to the judge," 
Municipal Court President Judge Marsha Neifield told the /Philadelphia 

"Community justice represents not a simple return to the rehabilitative 
ideal, but an approach to crime and punishment that is radically 
different from that of the traditional criminal justice process," 
Adriaan Lani wrote in the /Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law 
Review/ in 2005. "Community justice initiatives---which include 
community prosecution, community courts, sentencing circles, and citizen 
reparative boards---advocate local, decentralized crime control policies 
generated through widespread citizen participation. They emphasize 
attacking the causes of crime, rehabilitating individual offenders, and 
repairing the harm caused by crime rather than punishing offenders 
according to traditional retributive or deterrent concerns."

Community courts that have attempted to use nonretributive or 
restorative justice models implicitly resist the mechanics of capitalist 
justice. They can demonstrate that it is far more effective to try to 
transform the social relations that have been damaged by those who 
commit acts of harm against others than to rely on prison sentences. 
Thus, these courts can serve as an important fulcrum for challenging and 
providing alternatives to retributive justice---which, combined with the 
criminalization of Black and Latino communities, has led to a titanic 
increase in the numbers of people behind bars.

It is the principle that is important here, for it illustrates exactly 
how feasible this suggestion is. Freedom in one's communal life can 
bleed into the community's economic life, especially as the national 
polity forms structures that reflect its political will.

Thus a nonracist community, which is theoretically free of the 
ideological blinders and bondage of white supremacy, could create social 
policies that conform more to the innate humanity of all persons, rather 
than to the exploitation of fear that typifies the regnant structures of 
criminal justice.

What, systematically, must be changed?

If we see the present structure as problematic, then we must consider 
how to destroy, reconstruct, or ameliorate it. And if history is our 
guide, we must be vigorous, for else we will see old forms reassert 
themselves with new masks, protecting the same (or worse/) /inequalities.

What we decide to do will be open to the decisions of popular, 
democratic groupings in the future, as they seek greater humanistic and 
socialistic expressions, but a basic preliminary list would include:

    * End Mass Incarceration by Prison Abolition
    * Abolish the Death Penalty
    * Establish Communal Courts
    * Make Education a Constitutional and Human Right
    * Make Human Needs More Primary Than Property Rights.

It's also time to end the racist "war on drugs," which is as illogical 
as it is ineffective. It has been little more than a mask for massing 
state power against social movements and lower-class populations.

We cannot, at this juncture of history, pussyfoot around.

The cynical among us might well ask, "Humph! That's all fine and dandy. 
But how do you get there from here?"

Fair question.

Those of us who have lived in, worked in, and studied history know that 
social change is no short-term or ready-made process. We know that 
social movements play a decisive role in that process, for they move 
nations from one seemingly settled place to quite other places over time.

As repression continues, so too must resistance. Abolition democracy is 
one vision of how to deepen and extend that resistance. A central tenet 
of it is building (or, perhaps, rebuilding) movements of prisoners and 
against mass incarceration.

The movement to abolish slavery, which many activists cite today in the 
prison context, was a bold and daring project. Those bold men and women 
transformed America by fighting for social change---and refusing to 
submit to a slavocracy.

The great abolitionist (and ex-slave) Frederick Douglass captured this 
theme brilliantly when he said: "If there is no struggle, there is no 

*Get involved with the Free Mumia Movement *

Visit the Bring Mumia Home website <http://www.bringmumiahome.com/>

Connect with the Bring Mumia Home campaign on twitter 

Contribute to the "60 for Mumia's 60^th Birthday" Indiegogo campaign 

Sign the petition to Free Mumia on change.org 

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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