January 11, 2016

Roll back incarceration to 1970s levels

Glen Ford, Black Agenda Report - 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.

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 , 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 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.

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.

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