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Response to Bill Keller: America Is Not "On Probation"— The System's Time Is UP!


Revolution #330 Extra, February 17, 2014

On January 26, 2014, a major opinion piece appeared in the New York Times titled, "America on Probation" by Bill Keller. It begins by saying, "In recent years Americans have begun to wise up to the idea that our overstuffed prisons are a shameful waste of lives and money. Lawmakers have recoiled from the high price of mass incarceration ... and some have recognized that our prisons feed a pathological cycle of poverty, community dysfunction, crime and hopelessness."

Many people reading this may have thought: "Finally, someone in the mainstream press is addressing this big problem." Because in the last few years there's not only been increasing awareness of the problem of mass incarceration in the U.S., but a struggle has been growing against it, including heroic hunger strikes by prisoners in California.

The New York Times, read nationally and internationally, is a major outlet for liberal U.S. ruling class voices. In this piece Keller, who was its executive editor from July 2003 until September 2011 and then became a full-time writer, is representing the concerns and views of a growing section of the ruling class about the current situation of mass incarceration.

After Keller gets everyone's attention by bringing up a problem many are concerned about, he quickly moves on to propose some "broad strategies" he says "seem promising." But before looking at these, a few points on Keller's method—the way of thinking he uses to make his arguments and draw his conclusions. Because if we want to understand the world in order to change it—then it's important how we think about it.

If our method of thinking is flawed, then we're not going to be able to understand not only the problem, but also the solution. But while Keller throws "the problem" out there in broad strokes he actually doesn't talk about what the REAL problem is. And he doesn't talk about what led to this whole situation of mass incarceration in the U.S.

If you want to solve a problem you have to not only correctly identify it, but also analyze and get to the root of the problem. Keller doesn't do this. In fact even in the ways he briefly characterizes the situation he embeds a wrong understanding of this problem.

First, he doesn't even mention that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world; that there are some 2.3 million people behind bars, many for non-violent crimes. He doesn't talk about the fact that some 80,000 are held in solitary confinement, in conditions that fit the international definition of torture. And it is incredible that anyone could write a serious piece about prisons in the U.S. and not even mention the fact that around 60% of those incarcerated are Black and Latino; or acknowledge the many other indicators of racism in the U.S. judicial system (except for one small mention of the effect of mandatory minimum sentences on Black men).

Keller does point out that "our prisons are an international scandal" and here he's speaking some truth. From the viewpoint of the U.S. ruling class, there is real concern about how this is impacting America's "image" in the world and this is a big part of why, as Keller points out, there is "an emerging consensus" among different forces—including different bourgeois forces—that some things need to be done about mass incarceration.

Here we have the United States, going all around the world, invading and occupying countries, bragging about how "we are the leaders of the free world." We have a Black U.S. president and people are being told that "racism is finally becoming a thing of the past in America." But then there is the ugly reality of mass incarceration, undermining the legitimacy of the system in the eyes of many in the U.S. as well as internationally. This is a problem for the ruling class.

But more than just leaving out some basic truths about the situation, more importantly, Keller actually insinuates a wrong view of what has caused mass incarceration in the United States.

He says:

"As crime rates have dropped, the public has registered support for reforms that would have fewer nonviolent offenders languishing in prison." Then, referring to support for reforms, Keller says, "we can only hope the new attitude doesn't evaporate with the next Willie Horton-style rampage or spike in the crime rate."

Here, Keller feeds into a wrong view many people have that the main reason there's a lot of people in prison is because there's a lot of crime.

Later on Keller comes back at this again, saying: "America has long been more inclined than other developed countries to treat crime as a disposal problem; 'trail 'em, nail 'em and jail 'em,' is our tough-on-crime slogan. Beginning in the '70's, rising crime rates, compounded by the crack epidemic and the public fear it aroused, set off a binge of punitive sentencing laws."

But the problem with Keller's premise is that a rise in crime is NOT the main cause of the rise in incarceration. Over the last several decades there has been no correlation between crime rates and the tremendous increase in the number of people being sent to prison.

The mass incarceration of people in the U.S. rose to an all-time high of nearly 2.4 million people in a relatively short period of time. In 1970 there were fewer than 340,000 prisoners in federal and state prisons and local jails. By 2010, in just 40 years, the United States had more than 2.2 million people locked up—with Black and Latino people making up about 60 percent.

But violent crime, which had increased in the 1960s, experienced a sustained decline over the next three decades. For 40 years before this, the prison population had been stable, at around 200,000. Then came the explosion in the U.S. mass incarceration, beginning around 1973—the year President Nixon declared a "war on drugs." Use of illicit drugs has actually been on the decline for about three decades, but arrests for drugs offenses have never been higher. Over the next several decades the number of people in U.S. prisons and jails increased by 800 percent.

Keller's insinuation that mass incarceration in the U.S. is a response to "crime" is false. And to the extent there is public support for "tough on crime" measures to lock people up, this has a lot to do with the fact that people are given a false perception that crime rates are rising and that this is the reason the U.S. puts so many people in prison.

What Is the Problem? How Did We Get Here?

So what is the REAL root cause of the problem of mass incarceration in the United States and what led to this whole situation?

First of all, the incarceration of Black people has developed as a major part of the overall oppression of the masses of Black people in the United States. It has become the leading edge of what Michelle Alexander has called "The New Jim Crow."

Today, you don't have "colored only" signs or men in white sheets running around with nooses. But Black people are still systematically denied equal rights in all kinds of spheres—from health care, to education, to housing, etc. You have the brutalizing and murdering police who especially target the youth.

This mass incarceration involves not only those in prison, but affects tens of millions of Black people. There are the families of those in prison. There are all those who have been in prison—who because of this have an even harder time getting jobs, housing, education, etc. There are all those who on a daily basis live with the threat hanging over them that at any moment they could quickly be targeted, racially profiled, brutalized, and end up in one of the many "pipelines to prison," whether it's gang databases, stop-and-frisk, juvenile detention centers, etc.

How did this whole repressive situation come about? Revolution wrote:

"In 1969, H.R. Haldeman, Nixon's top assistant, wrote in his diary that '[President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.' Thus was born the 'war on drugs.'

"Launched by Nixon, this 'war on drugs' was taken to a whole other level by Reagan, who became president in 1980. It marked a strategic decision by the ruling class to maintain inner-city Black youth in desolate hyper-segregated neighborhoods which lacked jobs, and where education and health care resources had been severely cut. Even with the jobs that remained, discrimination was stepped up, as employers sought to avoid the 'defiance' of Black youth who, in the words of Bob Avakian, were 'not so pliant for capitalist exploitation.' Instead of providing better education and the promise of new opportunities for these youth, drugs would be allowed to flood the inner city (including with the connivance of the CIA), and many inner-city youth would be funneled into the drug trade—where they would then be vulnerable to constant harassment, arrest, imprisonment and social isolation. The rate of imprisonment exploded drastically to the point where shuttling between the hard hustle of the streets and the harder times in prison became the dominant mode of life in many oppressed inner-city communities—a lifetime of lockdowns. Beginning at that time and continuing and intensifying up through today, whenever jobs open up in a major city, people will line up for blocks to even get a chance to apply. But for most of the time—and, in some areas, for most of the people—there is little choice other than the illegal economy." ("The Oppression of Black People, The Crimes of This System and the Revolution We Need")

This was a conscious policy on the part of the U.S. ruling class, that had very conscious aims, responding to two intersecting things during these decades.

As Carl Dix has pointed out about the 1960s:

"The revolutionary upheaval of that period rocked the ruling class back on its heels, but it didn't seize power from them. Having ridden those storms out, and conscious of the role the uprisings of Black people played in spearheading that and their potential for sparking future upheaval, the ruling class has moved to viciously suppress that potential before it can manifest itself—counter-insurgency before the insurgency. ... Going in and out of jail will remain a rite of passage for millions of oppressed youth, many of whom already look to their immediate future and can see nothing more than prison or death. This is slow genocide and, given the sharp divisions in the ruling class and the building up and unleashing of outright fascist forces, it could easily become fast genocide." ("Taking the Movement of Resistance to Mass Incarceration to a Higher Level Thru Unleashing Determined Mass Resistance")

During the decades since the '60s, there has also been the further globalization of U.S. imperialism. This means factories that had existed in cities like Detroit, Chicago, L.A., and New York moved to other countries where capitalists could make greater profits by more savagely exploiting people. For example, we see what happened to Detroit—a city where tens of thousands of Black people could get relatively decent jobs in the auto industry, but is now bankrupt with a sky-high unemployment rate, especially for Black youth. This has created a situation where, even more so than before, this system cannot provide any kind of future for millions and millions of Black and Latino youth. Through the workings of capitalism, generations of youth have become "useless" to the system—and also at the same time, in the eyes of the system, a potentially dangerous and unstable section of society.

Increasingly, the only future this system has to offer millions of inner-city youth is to be a part of their killing machine, to fight in their wars of empire, or to end up in prison.

Mass incarceration is part of a whole strategy of the capitalist-imperialists to both control these youth in general AND to prevent any resistance or, indeed the emergence of a movement for revolution among them. It is a counter-insurgency before an actual insurgency.

Keller's Reforms

So now let's look at Keller's proposals for reforms.

He starts with the question of SENTENCING and how there has been a "binge of punitive sentencing laws." He points to things like three-strikes laws, mandatory minimum sentences, and requirements that felons serve a minimum portion (often 85 percent) of their sentence. He says because of these draconian laws "we are paying to imprison criminals long past the time they present any danger to society" and he quotes the president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice who says, "If we're really seeing something deep going on here, the proof will be whether legislators have the political will to roll back sentencing."

So here we have a situation with many tens of thousands of prisoners—including people sentenced for crimes they committed when they were juveniles—serving unjust, long sentences. Some are doing decades, even life without parole, for non-violent crimes. And Keller's "solution" to this? He says, "Restoring common sense to sentencing is the obvious first step in downsizing prisons." But he doesn't say anything about the thousands and thousands of prisoners already serving outrageously unjust sentences. Those who have been given life without parole sentences for non-violent crimes? Those unjustly sentenced under things like "three strikes" mandatory sentencing—including people who got decades for relatively small crimes. The victims of what he correctly calls draconian laws. The only thing Keller says about those already in prison is that some older prisoners should be let out—in other words, let people languish for decades, then let them out after they turn 65.

Keller also talks about SUPERVISION of those who get out of prison:

"A few jurisdictions have tried to make parole and probation less of a revolving door back to prison, with some encouraging results. They focus attention on offenders considered most likely to commit crimes. They send caseworkers out of the office and into the community. They use technology (ankle bracelets with GPS, A.T.M.-style check-in stations, Breathalyzer ignition locks to keep drinkers from driving) to enhance supervision. They employ a disciplinary approach called 'swift and certain,' which responds promptly with a punishment for missing an interview or failing a drug test. The punishments start small, then escalate until the offender gets the message and changes his behavior—preferably before he has to be sent back to prison."

Here, Keller is basically saying that when we do let some prisoners out—we're gonna treat them on the outside like they're still in prison! A lot of people may be unfamiliar with what it's like to be on parole. But ex-prisoners are systematically subjected to constant invasion into their lives, with capricious parole officers deciding their fate; with the tiniest infraction landing them back in prison. Keller is talking about tightening this up even more with a high tech sheen.

When it comes to reforms in POLICING, Keller says that instead of the wholesale policing of "bad neighborhoods" and indiscriminately stopping and frisking residents, what should be done is the targeting of "micro hot spots, such as drug corners, and small groups of violent actors, such as gang members."

Again, what's the actual program here really about? It's about making some changes, perhaps in the breadth of who is targeted, while keeping the essence of things in place—and going more ruthlessly after some sections of the youth. For example, now after all the outrage against stop-and-frisk, the NYPD won't stop so many millions of innocent people. But they have already talked about plans to target in on certain neighborhoods, sections of people—with even more stepped-up repression. And as for Keller's example of targeting "small groups of violent actors"? One only need look at what current NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton did when he was head of the LAPD. He was the one to preside over the gang injunctions where youth could be arrested for simply congregating in groups of two or three on the corner. And in the name of building "community relations" between the police and people in the neighborhoods, he set up networks of informants.

Who Are the Real Criminals and What's Really Needed

But, people ask, "What about the problem of crime?"

This is a real problem. But again, we have to ask—what is the root cause here?

Youth do crimes and end up in prison. And then they and everyone in society are constantly told it's their fault because they made "bad choices." We are all told that if the youth had only made the right choices—to stay in school, pull up their pants and stop hanging out on the corner, they would have had opportunities.

But seriously, are these youth the ones who made the "choice" to move factories out of the cities to other countries because it was more profitable, so there are no jobs? Are the youth the ones who have a system in financial crisis, who are cutting back social services and funds to inner city schools so poor kids can't get a decent education? Are they the ones who came up with conscious policies like the gang injunction in LA or stop-and-frisk in NYC where youth are systematically criminalized, racially targeted and brutalized? No, it is the very workings of the system that led to these things—that created a situation where as one conservative economist put it, for youth in the inner cities, "crime is a rational choice."

The system is the real criminal here. This is what's at the root of these problems. And this is why Keller's whole program is a dangerous one. Whatever program people like Keller propose—and he also talks about things like diverting nonviolent drug abusers to treatment instead of prison or banning the box on employment applications that ask people if they've ever been in prison—all this will become part of the already highly repressive justice system.

And even more than this is the bigger FACT that no matter what kind of reforms are carried out to America's mass incarceration, such incremental changes leave intact the WHOLE situation of the New Jim Crow where millions of Black and Latino people, most especially the youth, will continue to be criminalized, hounded, brutalized, and imprisoned. It leaves people passive in terms of fighting against all this. And let's remember that from the very beginnings of this country, the oppression of Black people, from slavery up to today, has been integral to the whole way this system operates.

There are many people who want to fight mass incarceration. There are millions of people of all nationalities, outraged at the conditions Black and Latino people face in this society—just look at the tens of thousands who poured into the streets after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin. And it is very harmful if such people get sucked onto a path of fighting with the illusion that we can "reform" mass incarceration and other outrages of this system. Instead, the fight against mass incarceration must be taken up as part of building a movement for revolution.

Mass incarceration in the U.S. is rooted in the white supremacy that has been built into the fabric of U.S. society from the very beginning. As Bob Avakian so aptly put it:

The book by Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, has shined a bright and much needed light on the reality of profound injustice at the very core of this country.

And this brings me back to a very basic point:

This system, in this country, in the whole history of its treatment of Black people, what has it been?

First, Slavery... Then, Jim Crow—segregation and Ku Klux Klan terror... And now, The New Jim Crow—police brutality and murder, wholesale criminalization and mass incarceration, and legalized discrimination yet again.

That's it for this system: Three strikes and you're out!

Yes! America doesn't need to "Be on Probation." This system's time is UP! We need revolution, nothing less to be able to get rid of this system and be able to address the problems we're talking about here—and all the other problems the people face.

We need to build mass struggle against the attacks coming down on the people, against mass incarceration, widespread torture in prisons, the discrimination against former prisoners, and the criminalization of Black and Latino youth. We need a determined fight that can lay bare the illegitimacy of this system. And as we build this struggle, we must bring to people the need for, and possibility of, revolution aimed at bringing a totally different, liberating world into being and bring to them ways to join the fight for that world right now.

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