On April 15, 2017, our Executive Director participated in a panel discussion of the Phoenix Theatre and Black Theatre Troupe's performance of "The Scottsboro Boys." The focus of the panel was the relevancy of the Scottsboro Boys' case to the modern era and ideas for change within the criminal punishment system.
The moderator of the panel sent a prepared set of questions to the panel beforehand. Because the panel was only 1 hour, we knew that we would not have a chance to answer every question as completely as we wanted to. Moreover, we knew the audience at the panel discussion would be limited. For those reasons, we wanted to publish our Executive Director's prepared answers to three of questions:
Question: Some people might say that shows like the Scottsboro Boys only exacerbate fears and tensions between the community and the police and the justice system, making it harder for law enforcement professionals to do their jobs. What is the need to draw attention to this case now—what does it help us to accomplish for the benefit of today’s society?
First, I would suggest a reframing of the question. Because what are we doing when we say that “shows like the Scottsboro Boys only exacerbate fears and tensions between the community and police and the justice system”? What are we saying when we say “isn’t pointing out racism the reason for racial tensions?” which is another of restating how the question was originally framed.
What are we doing? How long have we been doing it? Who is the “we” that asks these questions?
First, we’re erasing hundreds of years of unmitigated, genocidal state violence, and placing responsibility for “tensions” on the victims of that violence, rather than on the perpetrators of it. And by “genocidal,” I am referencing the definition of racism articulated by Dr. Ruth Wilson-Gilmore: “the state sanctioned and extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”
Second, we’re delegitimizing the concerns of black people and all people of color, by failing to even name the concerns, by renaming and sanitizing them at our own will, and by failing to even attempt to address or reconcile them.
Third, we’re setting up this false equivalency between black dissent and the violence of the police and punishment (not justice) system.
Because what this question starts out saying is—“isn’t it just as bad to point out brutality as it is to be brutalized?” “Aren’t those the same thing?”
No, they’re not.
But the framing of this question makes sense to some people, and if it does to you, ask yourself what you may be assuming, missing? Who else does it make sense to?
It makes sense to media pundits who want to frame Black Lives Matter as a “terrorist group.”
It makes sense to school boards who want to ban any mention or any discussion of slavery.
It makes sense to everyone who snaps and dances along to the death rhythms, to the minstrel tunes in this show.
But let’s be clear—this framing—the erasure of hundreds of years of unmitigated, genocidal state violence, the erasure and delegitimization of black concerns, the false equivalency—only makes sense in a white supremacist framework.
White supremacy cannot and does not tolerate black dissent or demands for human recognition, and it celebrates the death of black dissent.
And the original framing of this question, rather than challenging that frame, adopts it.
And there are serious consequences to reinforcing that logic. We see it played out and reproduced every day—in the streets of Ferguson, in Baltimore. It’s MLK being surveilled by the FBI. It’s Assata Shakur being placed on the 10 Most Wanted List. It’s Eric Garner telling the cops not to harass him and ending up dead for it.
It’s the Scottsboro Boys refusing to plead guilty and being placed on death row.
By framing black dissent and demands to be treated as human, as something that cannot and should not be tolerated, as something that is dangerous and illegitimate, something that “prevents cops from doing their jobs”—what we’re actually saying is that black people shouldn’t have access to dissent, shouldn’t have access to improving their lives and communities, shouldn’t have access to recognition of their own humanity—whether through art, protest, self-defense, etc.
It’s to say that black people should unquestionably submit to and accept that they are not seen as human and should not and do not even have the right to rights. It’s another way of saying “know your place.”
With all that being said, let’s talk about the relevancy of this case to the present.
I handed out a packet, it looks like this. On the second page is a full page ad, taken out in the NY Times, by our current President, calling to bring back the death penalty. Or more accurately, it’s an ad our current President took out, in a naked attempt to lynch the 5 innocent black and Latino BOYS, and I say BOYS because they were all under 16, who were part of the “Central Park 5.”
The Central Park 5 case is remarkably similar to the Scottsboro Boys. They were 5 black and Latino KIDS, charged with raping a white woman. They were exonerated after someone else confessed (the fact that the DNA didn’t match any of the kids wasn’t a reason to exonerate them beforehand, just like the white woman’s recant of her testimony didn’t matter for the Scottsboro Boys). But the Central Park 5 spent between 10-15 years in prison.
Because white supremacy needs to produce guilt, primarily black guilt, to justify itself. And this production of guilt has included the production of the stereotype of black boys and men as “criminals” and “rapists of white women.”
And you saw this immediate production of guilt in the racist way this case was covered—headline after headline referred to these boys in dehumanizing terms-- as “super predators” as a “wolf pack” as “beasts.”
Our current President can even trace his own popular ascendancy to being the head of this nationwide lynch mob.
In fact, even after the boys were exonerated, he doubled down and said he was convinced of their guilt.
So, what does this play have to do with the present?
Well, the Central Park 5 makes clear we haven’t moved past… the past. We’re repeating history every day—because as my colleague Dr. Alan Gomez, says, “people repeat history, history doesn’t repeat itself.”
We’ve elected the head of a lynch mob—someone who used, and continues to use, racist stereotypes and black/brown bodies to rise to power.
So, the society and criminal punishment system depicted in the play isn’t different than the society and the criminal punishment system of today. And we’ll get into that later, but suffice it to say that this play is just as much about the present moment as it is about the past.
Question: What should policy makers at the state and local level do to improve police and community relations, and to prevent future issues of racial bias and injustice in law enforcement? What specific criminal justice reforms are needed in Arizona today?
I actually want to go in a different direction. Rather than discussing ideas for reform, which is about tinkering with the system, I want to question whether or not this system should even exist in the first place. I want to challenge the very idea that police and prisons are necessary or that they create safety. I want to challenge the idea that some people are disposable.
I want us to have a serious conversation about abolition.
Before that, however, I wanted to briefly read a quote by Frederick Douglass, delivered to the American Anti-Slavery Society on the eve of its dissolution, shortly after the passage of the 13th Amendment. Douglass called for the Anti-Slavery Society to remain in existence because he felt that their work was not done. He predicted that without the Society, the institution of slavery would reinvent itself: "They [will] not call it slavery," Douglass said, "but some other name. Slavery has [already] been fruitful in giving itself names. It has been called 'the peculiar institution,' 'the social system,' and the 'impediment' ... It has been called by a great many names, and it will call itself by yet another name; and you and I and all of us had better wait and see what new form this old monster will assume, in what new skin this old snake will come forth."
So, should the system exist at all? No.
Because our criminal punishment system is a reproduction of the institution of slavery—the very reproduction Douglass predicted. And I’m not just referring to the forced labor aspect or the for-profit prison aspect, although those are components to the system. But the statement “the criminal punishment system is a manifestation and reproduction of the institution of slavery” goes beyond those obvious observations and comparisons.
And this idea also goes beyond and makes an analytic shift from understanding the system as “The New Jim Crow.”
So, what I’m saying when I say this, is first, that the logic of the slave system is reproduced within our carceral system, the institutions that support it and within our everyday society. And also, every element of the institution of slavery is seen mirrored in our criminal punishment system:
From the targeting and kidnapping of a particular population:
We see that right here in Phoenix. If you look at the third page of the handout, you’ll see two maps of Phoenix. The one on the top of the page maps incarceration rates, and the one on the bottom maps racial demographics. Do see a perfect overlap?
We are almost exclusively concentrating our punishment resources in black/brown communities in Arizona.
In fact, 80% of people who return to prison, that’s 80% statewide, come from just ONE, historically red-lined zip code in South Phoenix—85041.
These are geographic sites of racialized social control, and they are the sites of targeting and kidnapping.
After the kidnapping, we see the forced migration from home to the new plantation—as people from these communities are disappeared from their homes and taken to cages in largely white, rural communities.
There’s a similar dehumanization ritual—the legal stripping of people’s human and civil rights, or the refusal to recognize people as human beings within our legal institutions.
There’s the modern auction block—which is replicated in interstate prison contracts, contracts for prison labor and for-profit prison contracts, which by the way, read a lot like slave contracts because for-profit prison companies only enslave young people without significant health problems, who don’t pose a “security risk,” and that’s agreed upon in the terms of the contracts themselves.
Once on the new plantation, you see Willie Lynch’s famous strategies for “making as slave” come into play. This involves:
Family and community separation, sometimes permanently. In fact, as my colleague Lola Levesque pointed out, in AZ, after 1 year of incarceration, you are determined to have “abandoned” your child, which means your child may go into the foster care system or put up for adoption.
This involves robbing an individual of their name—in the DOC you don’t have a name, you have a number. It’s a way for the State to mark you as property. It’s a branding.
This involves constant physical violence, sexual violence and torture, or living under the constant threat of those things—both on the streets and inside prison and jail walls. And I don’t want to pass over this point, because it’s not another variable that should be buried in our list of variables. Physical violence is necessary to maintaining this system. You can’t “ensure compliance” without a gun. You can’t shackle people, ankle to wrist, you can’t put them in cages, you can’t keep them from their family and their lives, you can’t relegate whole communities to a second class status without regular, intense violence, torture and medical neglect—all of which reaffirm the enslaved person’s position within the system and society.
Along those lines, you have the hierarchies created inside—both between the overseers and enslaved people and between the enslaved people themselves. This includes rules limiting communication and contact. This includes differentiated security levels that awards people with certain privileges, and others with none. This includes conscripting individuals into doing the work of the overseer—on the yard or in the field.
These are all documented “Willie Lynch” strategies for “making a slave.”
Then, of course, we also see the forced labor and wealth extraction—in terms of labor, in terms of earnings and in terms of social investments. We see forced labor in prison. We see the theft of wealth in prison, by both the DOC—which takes a substantial chunk of the slave wages people earn—and by the dozens of corporations who overcharge people inside for basic services, such as making phone calls to their families.
We see the theft of wealth in our fines/fees system, which disproportionately burdens low-income communities of color. We see it through civil asset forfeiture. We also see theft of wealth in terms of social investments. Again, we concentrate punishment resources in particular places. It costs over $100 million per year to incarcerate people from South Phoenix and Maryvale. And yet, South Phoenix doesn’t have a hospital. Schools in South Phoenix and Maryvale are underfunded. These things happen because our punishment system leeches resources away from the social safety net in these communities.
We see the slave system reproduced in the myriad of profit incentives built into literally every aspect of our system—from incentives that police officers have to write tickets or steal property, from the fact that numerous state departments depend on the revenue stream from tickets and court fines, to “pay to play” policies, to the for-profit punishment industry and the role it plays in passing legislation.
We see the system of slavery reproduced in the fact that this system, like the system of slavery, is integral to the functioning of the US economy. Our goods are as cheap as they are not just because we use and exploit labor in previously colonized countries, what are often referred to as the “third world,” but because we use slave labor here in the US. And every major corporation participates in this system—which means they have a major stake not just in maintaining it, but in growing the system.
We see the reproduction in the 3/5 clause, which is still in existence and operates through prison gerrymandering—the fact that individuals are not allowed to vote, but are counted, on the census, as residing in the white/rural communities where they are caged. So that their bodies are literally used to boost the political power of the communities that house the new plantations.
We see the reproduction in the creation and maintenance of a racial caste system—the fact that black men make up 6% of the population, but 42% of our prison system.
The mass group disenfranchisement—the fact that 20% of the black male population in Florida can’t vote. That 30% of the black male population in Mississippi can’t vote.
The intergenerational physical, psychological and emotional trauma.
And this entire system is held up by the same fundamental logic as the slave system—fear, vengeance, punishment and the idea that some human beings (primarily POC) are not, in fact, human; that some human beings are disposable and can be used and exploited for (primarily) white, corporate profit.
And we accept this because we have accepted that logic, which says some human beings deserve, and DESERVE is the key word, that some human beings DESERVE to be enslaved and DESERVE to be mistreated.
Now, I should acknowledge that when I say the criminal punishment system is the latest manifestation of the slave system, I’m not saying it’s the EXACT same system—in the sense that the current manifestation has been tailored to meet the sensibilities and “common sense” of this generation.
The old system was nakedly about dehumanization and exploited labor for profit.
The new one masks that intention in the garb of “due process," which doesn’t actually exist.
94% of state cases, and 97% of federal cases are resolved through plea agreements, which because prosecutors have so much leverage (thanks to mandatory minimums and the ability to stack charges) are more or less one-sided and extortionate. Moreover, the system can’t provide due process. As Michelle Alexander points out in “The New Jim Crow”—if everyone in the system were to demand a trial, the system would fail, courts wouldn't be able to function answer would go into crisis. Which means that the system isn’t so much designed to provide due process as it is designed to manufacture guilt.
“Due process” is a performance, a salve to help make the new reproduction of the system palatable and digestible to the modern era. It defines who we understand of "deserving vs. undeserving" of basic human rights and dignity.
Part of the mask is also the generation of new reasons to justify its brutality, cruelty and genocidal infrastructure. And those new reasons can largely be summed up in one word: safety.
Safety. Safety. Tough on crime.
It’s a justification that is easily pierceable and easily undermined simply by looking at the statistics. “Crime” rates are disconnected from incarceration rates, and to the extent they are, it’s in a negative sense.
So, what the stats tell us is that prisons do not reduce, but produce harm (and I use the word harm as a substitute for crime). They do not reduce, but produce violence. They do not create, but rather undermine safety.
And yet, as James Foreman Jr., “our system has never treated the failure of prison as a reason not to try more prison.” It has never been a reason not to build more prisons, not to invest more and more into this failed “solution.”
Because the carceral system does not exist for the reasons we have been told.
It doesn't exist to reduce or solve "crime." It exists to manufacture and produce guilt. To manufacture and produce "criminals," that may be warehoused, enslaved, killed and exploited for state and corporate profit.
That is the logic underlying the entire system.
So, once we understand this system as the latest manifestation and reproduction of the institution of slavery—we have to ask what must be done? Should be tinker with it and reform it? Or should we take on the challenge of getting rid of it altogether?
And that’s a question I pose to this audience and to the panelists.
When you are faced with such gross immorality, with such naked barbarity, with such manifest injustice—do you work to make it only slightly less brutal and unjust, or do you work to end the brutality and injustice altogether?
And before anyone answers I want to take just a moment to imagine what these conversations looked liked hundreds of years ago, when the FIRST abolition movement started in the US (and I say “first” because there have been abolition movements since and we are in the middle of another one). When that first group of 4 or 5 enslaved people gathered together, in hushed whispers, to talk about getting rid of the slave system.
What would our country, our world, look like if they had only concerned themselves with improving conditions on the plantation? Or limiting the number of years people could be enslaved? Or placing restrictions for harm on slave patrols?
These ideas are not bad ideas. They certainly could have improved the lives of the people who were enslaved, and that means something. So, this is not a dig on reform work. Improving the quality of life for people within the system and lessening the brutality of the system is critically important and necessary work. But it is not and cannot be an end.
If the first abolitionists had never dreamed of ending the slave system, or if they had allowed their work to stop at improving the conditions on the plantation, their work would have left the inherently oppressive, violent, unjust infrastructure of the system intact.
They would have left the system intact.
Do we want to do the same? Is that what we want to truly fight for? Are those the limits of our imaginations and demands-- a world with a slightly less brutal slave system? Or do we want to demand a world in which we agree not to cage or enslave anyone? A world in which “liberation is the true status quo?”
I’ll end with this quote from Bryan Stevenson, at the end of the Documentary “The 13th: “People say all the time, 'I don't understand how people could've tolerated slavery. If I was living at that time, I would have never tolerated anything like that.'... And the truth is, we are living in that time, and we are tolerating it."
When are we going to stop tolerating it?
When are we going to start demanding and dreaming of a world without police and prisons?
Question: In Arizona today, if someone is wrongly convicted and their sentence is overturned what is done to make that person whole again? What support, assistance, compensation is provided to help them get their lives back on track?
This question will be answered by others on this panel, but I want to point out, again, the assumptions and logic and limitations of this question. Why aren’t we discussing the role criminalization plays in the mass warehousing of people and the way that process functions to produce, intentionally produce “wrongful convictions”? And because we’re ignoring criminalization—what are we assuming about innocence and guilt? What are we assuming about the system and how are we legitimizing the system in this question?
Finally, I want to ask why we would focus exclusively on those who are “innocent.” And I ask that question not just because we should be talking about how to “support and assist” both those inside and those coming out of prison, which we should—regardless of whether they’ve been labeled innocent or not—but because embedded in the question is the assumption that those who are not “innocent” are somehow deserving of the torture and mistreatment they receive inside.
Because if they’re not entitled to support and assistance, if they’re not entitled to being “made whole” which is a personal injury term—then we’re either ignoring and erasing the harm done to EVERYONE inside, or we’re framing what happens to everyone inside as somehow legitimate based on “guilt.” And I want to challenge that notion and think seriously about how even that question, and the framing of it, undermines our ability to “address past injustices” which was the subject of the last question.
I mean, one of the reasons we are failing to address past injustices is because they’re not solely “past” injustices—they are present as well. And we have yet to challenge the logic of the system that produces, intentionally produces, these results. And that’s what this question does—it legitimizes the system, rather than challenging the logic of it.
Furthermore, as my colleague Lola Levesque pointed out, how can we even presume to have the ability to give back years of someone’s life or undo the damage of being stuck in a cage and tortured?
So we should think about how even the questions we ask ourselves reflects anemic imaginaries and how that constrains our ability to create change.