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[NY] Conference re AfriAm incarceration

Conference spotlights African American incarceration
Special to the AmNews
Originally posted 4/28/2005

One hundred forty years after the end of slavery, African-Americans are once again being enslaved, Black academic and community leaders said in a conference at Columbia University last week. This neo-slavery is being facilitated through what panelists described as the mass incarceration of African-American youth.

“This is the new racial domain,” said Manning Marable, the prominent Black Columbia University professor who founded the department that sponsored the conference. Marable said this phenomenon, which profoundly affects millions of African-Americans, is a clear indication of where racism is taking Blacks in the 21st century.
The mass incarceration of Black youth is relatively recent, occurring within the last 30 years. In 1970, the prison population was 200,000. Since then, it has exploded to over 2 million. In the mid 1980’s, non-white youth—a minority of the population—became the majority of the incarcerated. In the 1990’s all of the states passed laws that made it easier to try juveniles as adults. Policies and practices implemented in the last several years, such as mandatory minimum sentencing laws, loss of discretion in sentencing for judges, and zero tolerance, have further exacerbated the situation, resulting in a crisis.

Panelists called this situation unjust. “It targets youth,” said Marable, explaining that it allows young people to receive long sentences for a single mistake. Those young people are both predominately and disproportionately Black. Panelists attribute this fact to the racial profiling and preemptive policing that takes place both in Black and Latino schools and on the streets.

They criticized a program instituted by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg last year that brings police officers into some schools in an effort to maintain order, saying that this has had a devastating effect on students, criminalizing disorderly behavior that should be handled by the school or the community instead of the criminal justice system.
In some schools, students are routinely handcuffed, and made to “walk through the halls with [police monitor] bracelets on their ankles – like shackles,” said Ras Baraka, deputy mayor of Newark and a high school vice principal.

There is also a correlation between the number of people unemployed and the number imprisoned. “Mass unemployment inevitably feeds mass incarceration. One third were unemployed at the time of their arrest,” said Marable. “There’s an unholy trinity: mass unemployment, mass incarceration, and mass disenfranchisement.”

This injustice is perpetuated because it is profitable, the experts maintained. They said it revitalizes economically stagnant communities in rural areas by creating prisons, which in turn, create jobs. Also, it utilizes prisoners as a source of cheap labor for private companies.

However, Marable said that the crisis is not only crippling Black lives, but it is also part of a larger agenda: to restructure the wealth and power in our society and put African-Americans in cages, rendering them quasi or sub-citizens. By stripping prisoners of their right to vote, either permanently or temporarily, democracy is destroyed. This becomes a critical factor in close elections. Simultaneously, services such as welfare, Medicare, and affordable housing are being cut, and social security is under attack. The absence of both jobs and social programs could have dire consequences for Blacks.

“It’s about the haves and the have-nots.” Marable said, adding that the divide was taking place across the globe – the global north versus the global south (the latter made up of Black and brown people).
Yet despite the problem’s large scope, Marable said that few Black studies departments have addressed the issue, and elected officials are only just beginning to talk about it.

“Councilman [Bill] Perkins is one of the few who is progressive on this issue,” he told the Amsterdam News.
At the conference, Perkins, who is running for Manhattan Borough President, spoke on the 1989 case of the Central Park Five, who were wrongly convicted.

“This case exemplifies a lot of what is happening today because they ultimately turned out to be innocent,” he said. “They were convicted under the basis of false, coerced confessions, and despite the fact that Matias Reyes came forward and had DNA evidence … a long struggle took place,” he said.

“Unjust incarcerations in our community happen time and time again,” Perkins said, adding, “I resurrected this [case] because it’s important that we never forget what is happening with our young people as it relates to the police.”
Perkins has advocated for legislation to videotape confessions at the time of arrest, not at the time of the confession, and for reparations for slavery.

It is, perhaps, due to this type of resolve that Marable says he feels optimistic that the crisis can be overcome, despite its enormity.
“We have had small victories in Alabama, a republican state where we won discretionary privileges for judges, and we have had a modest success with the Rockefeller Drug Laws, not that I’m completely happy with that.” But he said it was a start.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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