Note: I woke up this morning and had some new thoughts. They’re not unique – in the sense that I’m sure any prison advocate (ie, Michelle Alexander or Prison Culture) has already outlined – and certainly informed and helped to inspire these ideas. As has living in Chicago and in some of the very landscapes I’m describing here. But they’re new to me and I wanted to share.
Since the late 1980’s/early 1990’s, the overall crime rate has been reduced tremendously. As have the murder rates in large cities, to such an effect that the 500+ people killed in Chicago was such a shock. Those numbers would have been low in the early 1990’s, though, even in the early 2000’s since the numbers were decreasing from an all-high of 943 in ’92 (source).
Why have these numbers been decreasing overall? It’s not as if the economy has improved for the working class (who are most often blamed for violent crimes. After all, white collar economic violence is neither recognized as violence nor as a crime in most cases) or the middle class overall. Nor is it that people are better off or just in any ways better than they were 30 years ago (nor, for that matter, are we getting worse as a people). And though there are always various factors that contribute to this decline, the most glaring one is the increased prison population.
And this may or may not be the case. But let’s treat it like it is. Let’s treat it as if there are less crimes because we have fewer “criminals” in the public. There are less “bad people” doing “bad things” (again, notice white collar crime is completely given a free pass here). I mean, it jibes so much with conservative law & order politics – which is a big, fat problem.
Let’s call this a preemptive strike against criminals. Or we can recall the Spielberg 9/11 tech-thriller Minority Report and refer to it as pre-crime (who are the precogs? ALEC seems to be one). It’s also known as the Broken Windows treatment, where the smallest infractions are treated as big crimes in order to clear the streets of the “criminal element.” If you make sure there are no broken windows, the logic goes, the neighborhood pride goes up and it takes better care of itself (except it can’t when its population is restricted and denied access).
Yet this pre-crime approach is not guilty-until-proven innocent. It’s presumption-of-guilt-before-act-of-guilt. And often the most damning fact that proves future guilt is class and color, especially color. Racism is the precogs.
0.7% of the US population is in prison. That may not seem too much, but consider that is 2,266,832 people – roughly the size of Chicago. And these are prisoners – not people being held in a jail. And consider that when we talk of the WHOLE population, we are including seniors and children. Take away those numbers, and the percentage point goes much higher. Nevertheless, it is the highest incarceration rate in the world, with other rich countries coming in at 1/7 – 1/10th the incarceration rate, and even poor, zero-tolerance states like Russia coming in well under the US (source).
Yet, 4.3% of the black male US population is currently in jail or prison (source). Of the nearly 2.1 million males in prison, non-Latino black males make up 841,000 of them (about 2/5 of the prison population). Non-Latino white males make up a significantly smaller 693,800 (about 1/3), although white non-hispanics make up 66% of the entire population (2/3) and black people (including Black Latinos) make up around 13% of the entire US population (1/8th). Latino numbers are also skewed in a fashion somewhat between White and Black numbers with Latinos making up 16% of the population and about 25% of the population. So the numbers are a bit off, and racially suspicious.
So this War on Crime is yet another front on the War on People Of Color. Our precogs first-strikes are built on assumptions. And while we aren’t normally honest about what those assumptions are, occasionally the truth strikes out. Occasionally, we have a George Zimmerman. Occasionally, we have a Great Northern City defend accosting young black males while turning up nothing. Occasionally, White supremacy rears its ugly head. Occasionally, we can see it for what it is clearly, out in the open.
This while upper income kids get off scot-free due to access to lawyers, “clean image,” and having the law on their side. The cogs don’t recognize upper-class white people. Meanwhile, the incarcerated (mostly people of color) are exploited for their labor, lose voting rights, and become virtually unemployable.
And while the numbers of reported crimes have diminished, is it worth it?
For all the money and effort spent locking away young men and women of color, is this a wise investment?
What will be the return-on-investment?
Death and destruction.
Even just plainly looking at the numbers – is locking all of these people up good for us in the long or short run? Sure, in the immediate, it may appear to be good for some communities, but absolutely devastating to others. And the ways this out-of-control first-strike is destroying the latter communities means it will have ripple effects on all of the other communities as well.
Prison Culture does not invest but rather divests from communities of color. When we say ‘war,’ this is what we are saying: It ravages and destroys and does not build but is only there for the taking. Only. There. To. Suck. Life. Dry.
In a year when dozens of schools were closed in Chicago and the remaining ones had their budgets cut by 15-20%, our public monies lie in not investing – but in locking up. We say there is no money to put into the small black-owned business. But there is plenty of money to bar black businessmen and women who find few options but to sell illicit materials. Meanwhile white collar businessmen/women are given golden parachutes after committing wide-spread, tumultuous violence on middle- and working-class families.
Precogs don’t recognize that violence. It doesn’t compute.
What needs to be acknowledged is that we have locked up a few possibly incorrectible career criminals at the expense of millions who made a couple mistakes. So the numbers may be down, but we have solved nothing. We are not preventing criminals but creating them.
And we may have locked up the wrong ones.