[Pnews] Rethinking White Men Behind Bars: Incorrigible Supremacists or Allies in Waiting?
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Apr 4 12:25:34 EDT 2016
**Rethinking White Men Behind Bars: Incorrigible Supremacists or Allies
James Kilgore - April 1, 2016
Moments after I arrived in the living unit at the federal penitentiary
in Lompoc, California, a young white man named Carl approached me. He
seemed to be in charge of rolling out the welcome mat to all the white
"new fish." He wore standard day room fare -- black work boots, white
boxer shorts and no shirt. But the only thing I really noticed, while
trying not to, was the six-inch, high ink portrait of Adolf Hitler on
his upper arm. He asked me if I needed anything -- toothpaste, shower
shoes, soap, Top Ramen Chili Beef. I politely declined the offers, shook
his hand and thanked him for his hospitality. I did my best to keep my
game face. People wearing Hitler on their arm was a new experience for
me, but over the course of the next six years in prison, I would meet
many Carls. Their tattoos came in many flavors: SS lightning bolts on
the calf (a badge indicating a successful mission completed), "Skinhead"
or "Peckerwood" in bold face across the chest, "thank God I'm white" on
the back of the neck.
The most popular was the back arm tattoo in Old English letters, "white"
down the left back arm, "pride," down the right. On one occasion, I
would even receive an invitation to attend a party to celebrate the
birthday of Martin Luther King Junior's assassin, James Earl Ray.
Encounters with race hate became a significant part of my prison life.
To survive, I had to acquire the skill of respectful conversation with
people who sported a swastika on their forehead without indicating the
slightest support for their ideology. In a moment when Donald Trump is
opening the door to further public displays of white supremacy, I spend
a lot of time thinking about the Carls of this world and their heirs,
like young Dylann Roof. How do we halt the spread of their ideas of
violent race hate?
For the most part, opponents of mass incarceration tend to ignore the
presence of Carl and the hundreds of thousands of white men in our
nation's prisons and jails. Doubtless large numbers of these
incarcerated men back "The Donald." The complications of why some of the
poorest sections of the white working class cast their lot with a
bigoted billionaire instead of Black freedom movements or choose race
war against fellow prisoners, rather than join forces to fight for
better conditions, defy easy explanations. But it is time to again
unpack the race-class paradox that at various key moments in US history
has placed the racism of not very well-to-do white folks squarely in the
path of societal transformation.
Rethinking White Men Behind Bars
A logical starting point in this analysis is recognizing that in the era
of mass incarceration, the ranks of whites in prison have escalated
enormously, from about 90,000 in 1980 to nearly half a million today. At
about 450 per 100,000, white men are incarcerated at roughly three times
the rate of the general population in the United Kingdom, the most
prolific incarcerator in the G7. This is far less than the figure for
Black (2,306) or "Hispanic" men (831). Yet, if considered as a nation,
whites in the US would have a higher incarceration rate than every
country in the world except for Thailand and Cuba, with more than 10
million people. The reasons for rising white incarceration in many ways
parallel what has happened to inner city communities of color. Situated
at the bottom end of the white economic spectrum, the most vulnerable
sectors of the white working class have lost their jobs to
de-industrialization, lost access to welfare benefits, and been
subjected to the vagaries of mandatory minimums and a secondary war on
drugs -- attacks on methamphetamine use in small rural towns. While the
scale of the activity of the militarized police in trailer parks and
areas that elite Republicans are now calling "downscale communities" is
not equivalent to what happens in the Black and Brown inner city, poor
whites do not reside in police-free suburbs or university towns where
cops turn a blind eye.
Delving deeper into this this issue necessitates eroding a few
stereotypes. First of all, while white supremacy has a strong presence
within certain prison populations, not all white men in prison are
Carls. The strength and character of white supremacist organizations
varies from state to state, from prison to prison. California has the
most storied legion of white supremacist organizations and historically
the most segregated prison system in the country. I will take a minute
to describe this in detail, because while California may be an
exception, it is important to understand the depths to which racial
politics can descend in US prisons. Furthermore, as someone who lived in
those California prisons from 2006-09, I feel an obligation to the men I
left behind in those racist hellholes to keep telling their/our story.
California's "Old" Jim Crow
For the last three-plus decades, the California Department of
Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has presided over an essentially
"old" Jim Crow situation. During my time of incarceration, virtually all
space was segregated. The institution set the tone by controlling all
cell-sharing arrangements, making sure that no people of "different
races" shared a cell. The leaders of the racialized prison
organizations, referred to as "shot callers," went along with this and
divided the space in the yard according to "race." There were Black
pull-up bars and white pull-up bars, Black showers and white showers.
One end of the basketball court was for Black men, the other for whites.
Latinos divided their allegiance. Those who identified as "Northern
Mexicans" aligned themselves with the Black population, while the
"Southern Mexicans" sided with the whites, as did the Native Americans.
Any violation of these spatial or social boundaries would result in
discipline from the shot callers which, depending on the prison, could
range from getting "checked" (maybe a punch in the face) to a fatal
stabbing. The white shot callers talked about maintaining segregation as
essential to advancing the "white race." Whites who deviated were
labeled "race traitors." As revolting as I and some of the other whites
on the yard found this segregation, we played mostly by the rules,
opting to push the envelope in other ways rather than commit suicidal
acts in defiance of the spatial status quo.
In 2005, a Federal court order mandated the CDCR to desegregate cell
assignments, but officials dragged their feet. While they have managed
to break down segregation on the lower security level yards, in the
medium and high security facilities, much of the old ways still
dominate. The authorities have argued that integration would precipitate
too much violence. Because the anti-Black racism of white supremacists
and of some Latino communities has such deep roots, there has been some
truth to their claims, though authorities haven't tried very hard
either. The CDCR created a segregationist monster that revives the days
of the old South and, in political terms, fulfills the mandate to divide
and conquer. In the past couple years, however, it has started to break
down -- more on this later.
The California prison system represents an extreme. In other states
different dynamics appear. After the 1954 Brown v. the Board of
Education decision, which aimed to desegregate public schools, a sea of
litigation arose concerning segregation in prisons. From the 1960s to
the 1990s the federal courts heard more than 40 cases addressing prison
segregation, consistently deeming it unconstitutional. Most state prison
systems have moved, albeit very slowly, toward some form of
desegregation. Texas likely implemented the most systematic
desegregation of cell assignments. Beginning in 1991, Texas corrections
officials began placing people in the first available and appropriate
cell, eliminating race as a criterion for such assignments.
Other states have taken different paths to curb segregation, often
leaving it to the dynamics of the population itself. Ultimately, the
influence of racist ideology varies depending on both the demographics
of the state prison system and the political evolution of prison
organizations. In Illinois prisons, for example, white supremacists have
less sway because two main organizations, popularly known as "Folks" and
"People" exercise considerable influence, according to a number of men
who served multiple terms in prison. Both of these grew out of an
amalgamation of a range of predominantly Black street organizations.
The best known of these are the "Gangster Disciples," the "Black P.
Stones" and the "Vice Lords." However, unlike their California
counterparts, in Illinois these organizations have merged with Latino
and white organizations. Race is not a primary factor in membership or
in how daily life is organized. Prison organizations have considerable
power to control cell assignment. Jobs and other benefits are also
largely dispensed through networks controlled by the organizations, not
allocated by race. With a state prison population that is 58 percent
Black, white supremacists have very little influence in Illinois
prisons. While a white supremacist group known as the "Northsiders"
exercised some muscle in the 1980s, in more recent years their power has
According to Cory Greene, who served time in New York prisons in the
early 2000s, racial dynamics in New York prisons are much like those in
Illinois, with Black street organizations occupying such a dominant
position that white supremacists are largely pushed to the side.
Staff and White Supremacy
White supremacy doesn't only find expression in prison among the
incarcerated. In many facilities, white supremacy also has strong
footholds among guards. A recent case in Florida is instructive. In
April 2015 the FBI arrested three white former state prison guards and
charged them with conspiracy to murder a Black man who was previously
incarcerated at a facility where the three worked. The media release for
the arrest described the three as members of the "Traditionalist
American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan."
Florida is not alone. A 2012 New York Correctional Association
investigation of Clinton Correctional Facility, the institution from
which David Sweat and the late Richard Matt escaped last year, reported
"that racist attitudes play a significant role in the physical violence
at Clinton." One survey respondent reported, "murder, assault,
harassment, threats, intimidation, etc. is all motivated by race. For
every time an officer or officers assault, kill, or maim an
[incarcerated person], racial slurs are always hurled all over the
place, and all this criminal behavior goes on directly under the eyes of
an administration that looks the other way."
Similar sympathies surfaced during a 2015 investigation of guards in
Camden, New Jersey, jails. An information act request for text messages
between guards unearthed many containing racial epithets: "To me a
really good high is stomping the shit out of a n----- for no reason" and
"no matter how they look at things, no matter how dressed up they get…
When they wake up tomorrow morning they're still just N------s,"
(original in caps).
All the men I interviewed for this article noted the presence of white
supremacist attitudes among prison staff. Greene related that he once
received a death threat if he got out of line from a guard who
identified as a Ku Klux Klan member. Brian Nelson, who spent 28 years in
state prisons in Illinois and other states, reported receiving his
property from a guard who had "KKK" tattooed on his fingers. In both
California and Illinois interviewees reported that racist attitudes were
most prevalent in prisons located in rural, predominantly white towns.
According to Gregory Koger, one such prison in Illinois, Vandalia, had
such a reputation for white supremacy that Black men renamed it
"Klandalia." Manuel Lafontaine, who spent several years in CDCR
institutions, recalled a form of white privilege where guards
consistently favored whites in work assignments visiting access and
dispensing of other favors.
Despite the strong presence of white supremacy, a number of white men
described how they confronted racist practices in the prison. Mike Fore,
who did time in Illinois, Indiana and Nevada, stressed that a lot of
white men who affiliate to supremacist groups are far more the victims
of "peer pressure" and "fear mongering" than dedicated racists. To Fore,
the white supremacists were "just another class of citizen to avoid."
Nelson came into prison after having spent many years on the outside as
part of Black and Latino street organizations. When white supremacists
in New Mexico tried to recruit him, he rejected their offers. "I knew
who had my back," he said, "and it wasn't the white boys." Koger, who
spent 11 years incarcerated in Illinois, told a similar tale. For him,
white supremacists held no attraction. While most of his cellmates were
Black, on one occasion he shared a cell with a Nazi sympathizer. Koger
took the trouble to research the history of the swastika, noting the
origins of the word and symbol in Sanskrit and Asian religious
traditions. His cellmate didn't appreciate the history lesson and the
two ended up in a physical fight.
Solidarity in the Movement Against Mass Incarceration
In a period during which criticism of the prison-industrial complex is
gaining increasing traction, a key question becomes how can a movement
against mass incarceration gain adherents among incarcerated white
people and their loved ones. One important example comes from the hunger
strikes at Pelican Bay Prison in California in 2011 and 2013. The third
hunger strike entailed the participation of some 30,000 incarcerated
people in California (nearly one-fourth of the California prison
population at the time) and hundreds nationwide. The catalyzing force
for this mass action was the "Agreement to End Hostilities," a document
circulated by the leadership of the strike.
This leadership, known as the Short Corridor Human Rights Collective,
was a group held in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison.
The document declared: "Now is the time for us to collectively seize
this moment in time and put an end to more than 20-30 years of
hostilities between our racial groups." The agreement went on to urge
all people in the state prison system to "focus our time, attention and
energy on mutual causes beneficial to all of us (i.e. prisoners) and our
best interests. We can no longer allow CDCR to use us against each other
for their benefit."
LaFontaine, who is now an organizer for All of Us or None, a group that
fights for the rights of the formerly incarcerated, called the agreement
"monumental." He explained to Truthout how it has reduced racial
violence and changed the nature of the dialog among people in the
prisons. The first signatory on the agreement was Todd Ashker, labeled
by prison authorities as a former leader of the Aryan Brotherhood.
Ashker has spent more than a quarter-century in solitary. He was joined
in signing the agreement by one Black man and two Latino men: Sitawa
Nantambu Jamaa, Arturo Castellanos and Antonio Guillen.
Ashker described his path to solidarity to Democracy Now! in 2013. After
reading the works of Che Guevara, Howard Zinn and Thomas Paine, Ashker
said he "became more class-conscious of the prisoner class as a
microcosm of the working-class poor in this country, and that it was in
our best interest to evolve our strategies and come together and utilize
peaceful civil disobedience-type actions, in tandem with litigation, to
try to force the changes that were long overdue."
While Ashker's example as a transformed racist is inspiring, individual
converts to revolutionary ideology are not enough to consolidate a
movement. According to LaFontaine, conversations should shift toward
considering some kind of truth and reconciliation process where white
groups not only "make a stance," but work toward "repairing the harm
they have done." That would require not only individual changes of
consciousness, but reaching into marginalized white working-class
communities, the waters where Donald Trump is currently fishing.
To forsake anti-Black, anti-immigrant and homophobic/transphobic
ideologies for such a process involves imagining a different form of
democracy and equality than what we have seen to date. However, in
moments where social justice movements are active, the possibilities for
new forms of unity open up rapidly. Moreover, in a time of escalating
poverty and inequality overall, the imperatives of bonding together key
elements of the bottom tiers of the 99% make building unity across
racial lines, without capitulating to white supremacy, imperative to a
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