Criminal Injustice

America Needs a Radical Revolution of Values

American society suffers from a profound clash of professed values and actual practices. We profess the value of education, but criminalize our children with a school-to-prison pipeline. We profess a love of liberty, but imprison unprecedented numbers of people, most for non-violent drug offenses, and the majority of those we imprison are people of color. We profess equality and security, yet our police departments operate as judge, jury, and executioner in the most disadvantaged communities–the ones that most need police officers to serve and protect. Those communities also need social services, yet social services are routinely cut in favor of corporate profits and privatization, and so the professed rights to life and the pursuit of happiness are compromised.

Chicago activists protesting criminalization of black youth at Cook County Detention Center on January 15, 2015 (photo by @MinkuMedia)

Chicago activists protesting criminalization of black youth at Cook County Detention Center on January 15, 2015 (photo by @MinkuMedia) Click image to read “Willing to Live for Our People”, about the young students who led the Chicago action

The roots of this clash grow from a contradiction at the core of our nation. The “unalienable rights” asserted in the Declaration of Independence have been denied, in some way or another, to African-Americans for the entire history of our nation. Unalienable rights, denied: a contradiction between the professed philosophy of the nation and its lived experience, its history.

This lived contradiction is similar to the notion of cognitive dissonance, the stress experienced by an individual who holds two contradictory beliefs. America professes equality, but practices inequality; this mismatch creates stress in America’s image of itself and in our public discourse.

American practices violate American ideals in the realm of foreign intervention, as well. Throughout American history, the nation has violated the sovereign rights of other nations: Cuba, the Philippines, Vietnam, Iraq, to name a few. While many apparently find it easy to dismiss military interventions as irrelevant to the unalienable rights of U.S. citizens, the professed philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is violated by foreign interventions that aim to subjugate populations to American interests.

Speaking on April 4, 1967, about his opposition to the Vietnam War, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that America had chosen to:

make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

In 21st century America, King’s recommended revolution of values has never occurred. From the perspective of militarization and violent foreign intervention, our practices have changed little, and arguably worsened, since Vietnam. Our media is complicit. The propaganda drilled into the American people after 9/11 had a profound effect, obliterating the security that many Americans felt during the 1990s and replacing it with a climate of fear. The violation of reason, the lack of debate and a measured response perpetuated by the military-industrial complex after 9/11 created a climate hostile to democracy in America. The 21st century would be a very different time if, rather than rushing to war, the American people had been able to muster the political consciousness and will to approach the attacks with objective analysis, rather than reactionary patriotism. Questions could have been asked, foreign policy analyzed and revised; America could have wrestled with the contradictions inherent in a nation that has never been at peace with its professed values of equality and liberty.

In a country where King’s “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism” have never been conquered, and at a time when the reasons he cited for their continued tyranny are equally, if not more applicable than when he gave his speech, our ability to see the roots of our stress and discontent is obscured. In the pursuit of justice both at home and abroad, America must renounce an economics of consumption for a life of engagement. We must engage in a critical assessment of the ongoing national failure to actualize the ideals of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” that we declared on July 4th, 1776. We must undergo, as King declared, “a radical revolution of values” in order to engage in a correction of course that is long overdue.

We Must Abolish White Supremacy

“Is it racist to be proud of your own heritage? Is it racist to want to keep your own heritage pure? Racist is when you hate somebody so much that you want to destroy them.” Those are the words of Roan Garcia-Quintana, a national board member of the Council of Conservative Citizens, which the Institution for Research & Education on Human Rights describes as a “white nationalist” organization. I think most people would agree that it’s not racist to be proud of your own heritage. When you begin advocating for keeping heritage pure, and your “heritage” has consistently oppressed people for centuries, you begin to seem like a racist.

If we take his questions and their implications at face value, Garcia-Quintana may not want to “destroy” other races, but the Ku Klux Klan explicitly does, and they are recruiting, as documented in “The Fourth Wave of the Ku Klux Klan,” a three-part video series published by Vice. Steven Howard, the Imperial Wizard of the North Mississippi White Knights, who appears also to be active in the National Socialist Movement, describes his White Knights as “Christian extremists” and draws parallels between his group and “Islamic extremists”. “They’re fighting a holy war and so are we,” Howard states in his interview with Vice. The series highlights the violent, explicitly white supremacist ideology of the Mississippi chapter as well as its tactic of recruiting veterans traumatized by war.

As “The Fourth Wave” suggests, writing off the KKK as a ridiculous relic of southern American culture may be foolhardy. On April 14, 2014, Frazier Glenn Miller was arrested in Kansas City after shooting at five and killing three people. Miller, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, was instrumental in two white supremacist organizations, the Carolina KKK and the White Patriot Party.

Miller’s history with the criminal justice system highlights questions of sentencing disparities in the criminal justice system. The Sentencing Project has found “excessive imprisonment and racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system.” The New Jim Crow highlights the racially biased nature of the War on Drugs and how its policies, including mandatory minimum sentences of five or ten years for federal drug convictions, disproportionately target African-Americans. The point to be made here is that the mandatory minimum sentence of five years for first-time non-violent drug offenders contrasts starkly against the six-month sentence that Miller served for founding the White Patriot Party, his second hate group.

This illustrates more than misplaced priorities; seen in the larger context of the American criminal justice system, the disparity between Miller’s sentence and non-violent drug offenders illustrates white supremacy at work. Miller, an avowed white supremacist, later took a plea deal for “plotting to obtain stolen military weapons, and for planning robberies and the assassination of SPLC founder Morris Dees,” and served only three years of a five-year sentence. Contrast this to the systemic injustice of African-Americans being coerced into plea bargains, sometimes for crimes they did not commit. According to Human Rights Watch, “Federal drug offenders convicted after trial receive sentences on average three times as long as those who accept a plea bargain,” and “97 percent of them decide to plead guilty,” since “drug defendants rarely prevail at trial.” Human Rights Watch cites the case of Sandra Avery, one among hundreds reviewed, who refused a plea bargain. At trial, she was found guilty of “possessing 50 grams of crack with intent to deliver” and sentenced to life without parole. Writing about Avery’s case, Jamie Fellner described it as a “misuse of power.” The European court of human rights has ruled that life without parole constitutes “inhuman and degrading treatment“.

Beyond the disparity of white supremacist terror contrasted to non-violent drug offenses, the recent plea deal taken by Marissa Alexander is worth examining. She rejected the offered plea bargain of three years’ imprisonment and maintained her right to defend her life against her estranged husband, invoking Florida’s stand-your-ground law — the same law that Florida police cited as the reason for not initially charging George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin. In consequence of rejecting the plea bargain, State Prosecutor Angela Corey sought a 20 year sentence, “in part due to the state’s mandatory sentencing laws.” The jury deliberated for 12 minutes and convicted Alexander on three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon with no intent to harm. Alexander appealed that conviction and the guilty verdict was overturned. She was then presented with an amplification of the plea deal: she could accept three years of detention, including time served, plus an additional two years of probation while wearing a surveillance monitor, or face charges again, with a mandatory sentence this time of 60 years. As Michelle Alexander has documented in The New Jim Crow, coercive plea deals such as this are routinely used by prosecutors against non-violent drug offenders.

The case of Assata Shakur is also worth review in considering the role of white supremacy in the routine operation of the criminal justice system. Shakur was unsuccessfully prosecuted nine times before she was convicted of a murder charge and six assault charges in the state of New Jersey in 1977. She was sentenced to life in prison.

Angela Davis has written incisively about how the “racist state of America persists“, stating that police killings of African-Americans “represent an unbroken stream of racist violence, both official and extra-legal, from slave patrols and the Ku Klux Klan, to contemporary profiling practices and present-day vigilantes.” Like Davis, Assata Shakur was active in the 1970s in the struggle for black liberation. Like Davis, she was targeted by government agencies and imprisoned. Davis gained her release from prison through the legal system; Shakur escaped to Cuba, where she was granted political asylum.

Some may point to Shakur’s escape, which involved Black Liberation Army members holding prison guards hostage, and cite violence. Those who do are missing the larger context of the violence of America. There was a reason that Malcolm X called for freedom and justice “by any means necessary.” That reason was white supremacy.

Some may point out that in his speech, Malcolm X called for “black nationalism”, and make a fallacious argument that we must condemn black nationalism if we condemn white nationalism. But again, context; oppression is exercised by groups with power over groups without power. When a society’s history, legal system, and culture oppress a group, morality compels us to condemn the oppression; hence, white nationalism needs to be condemned. When an oppressed people struggle against oppression, morality compels us to support the struggle. Black nationalism, like other aspects of black unrest, can perhaps best be viewed as a response against oppression.

The current wave of black unrest bears striking similarities to the mass movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Many white people feel threatened by black unrest. They must realize that black unrest is a product of white supremacy, and the only way to calm black unrest is to abolish white supremacy. This is the task before America.