In the weeks since the verdict surrounding Trayvon Martin, I've heard a lot about so-called “black crime.” Now, given that I flagrantly write about populist themes and occasionally even bring up criminality, I felt challenged by some of the truly strange arguments I heard even those I respect making. So I thought: what the fuck, right?
Time for another entry in Dark Corners of the Earth: a series of blog entries linked by location and the sprawling twilight life of evil in the world we try our best to forget about. But forget about it, we cannot. For we find in the nascent history of our country and predecessors the blue-prints for the world we now live in. And we cannot understand the flow of certain arguments, nor how they continue affect us and the arguments today, without placing them in the context of what happened before we arrived.
Following the destruction reaped in the South following the Civil War, and the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution, a curious anomaly began to take shape within America with long-ranging and historically curious continuity. It is something I find fascinating, because it remains with us even today – although we shall not get directly into how until later.
While the 13th and 14th amendment 'officially' freed formerly owned slaves, and 'officially' gave them rights, unofficially another trajectory began to emerge in legal circles in both the South and North during the period known as 'Reconstruction'. In Southern States, “Black Codes” and Vagrancy codes made certain 'conduct' by black men and women in America illegal, effectively being used as instruments which reduced free men and women back to the status of slaves.
Of particular note is how the Vagrancy Codes were enforced both in the South and the North: they made it illegal for certain individuals, due to pervasive fears of “black criminality,” to be jobless in the areas in which they were enforced. In the South, Vagrancy codes were used by corrupt Southerners against ripped-off black share-croppers so that if they happened to decide to cut ties with individuals little better than what we would today term “slum lords,” those same individuals could to declare the black folks leaving to be “vagrants,” have them arrested, their rights taken from them, and a form of indentured slavery – now with the tacit power of the State behind it – come into being. This is especially onerous to contemplate... But the situation becomes even more complicated as we follow it along.
What I want you to keep in mind is that the above is happening simultaneously with something else, which Thomas Storck writes about in Crisis Magazine:
“In the period during and after the Civil War corporations were beginning their successful attempts to influence state legislatures to grant them privileges unknown to ante bellum corporations. These included the right of a corporation to own stock in other corporations, thus allowing the creation of holding companies, and the passage of general incorporation laws. In the ante bellum era corporations were generally chartered by state legislatures for specific purposes, for example, to operate a steamship or a bridge, for a certain number of years, and usually with other restrictions as well. Of course, in some cases, this grant of state authority was tantamount to a temporary grant of monopoly rights. General incorporation laws, which gradually came into existence in the second half of the 19th century, allowed corporations much more flexibility than they previously had. In such a climate of opinion, it was not surprising that corporations, especially the then powerful railroads, would use their political influence to obtain the ultimate prize, corporate personhood rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.The odd thing is that the U.S. Supreme Court never really gave such a grant of personhood in any of its decisions. Rather, the statement that the Court considered corporations as persons under the Fourteenth Amendment was inserted into the headnote, or prefatory material, of an 1886 case by the man responsible for compiling and printing the Court’s decisions, Bancroft Davis, the court reporter. In the case of Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad (118 U.S. 394), Davis, with the concurrence of the Chief Justice, inserted the following into the headnote:One of the points made and discussed at length in the brief of counsel for defendants in error was that “Corporations are persons within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.” Before argument Mr. Chief Justice Waite said: The Court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are of opinion that it does.”
So at the same time that 'black crime' was being historically used as a topic to discredit and disenfranchise blacks in both the North and the South, the Supreme Court and its Justices was being used to grant power and the status of “personhood” to corporations both Northern and Southern. This understanding is absolutely central to what we are seeing today.
The Black Criminal
Khalil Gibran Muhammad addresses this issue in an amazing way on the Bill Moyers show. Later in the show, Moyers quotes a prominent intellectual, named Nathaniel Southgate Shaler:
“There can be no sort've doubt, that judged by the light of experience, these people (black folk) are a danger to America greater and more insuperable than any of those that menace the great civilized states of the world.” (The Atlantic, 1884.)
Moyers goes on to quote other “intellectuals” from the same era; these arguments were consistent and used to consistently keep our fellow Americans from joining civil society as we knew it. Today we know that one of the greatest social instigators for crime is poverty; and with laws such as Vagrancy Codes and Black Codes on the books, black Americans were not only isolated in terms of resources but also pushed in a direction where one of the only potentially viable options for survival is crime. To deny that crime happens is foolish; but to analyze it on the basis of race rather than the factors that reinforce it is part of what created the problems we have today.
But let's jump ahead by eighty years, because if I continue to harp on events from 100 years ago, some of my readers are likely to fail to see the links that I want them to see based on the presumption of irrelevance. The point we arrive at is the civil unrest of the 1960s, and the emergence of the Black Panthers. While today portrayed as dangerous radicals (and a “new” Black Panther party has emerged that the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as a Hate Group; and in they very much appear to be correct in this assesment), the original Black Panther Party was certainly radical; it also, however, engaged in social experiments such as attempting to build up the infrastructure of black communities. The Black Panther Party, like the Puerto Rican Young Lords, found some of its strongest adherents in the emerging gang-culture that had begun in LA, Chicago, and other places and sought to politicize members so that they would take action rather self-destruct. In the years following race riots in major cities across the US (like the Watts riot in L.A.), the Black Panther Party was an absolutely necessary coalition that brought the disparities between black and white rights to light.
Subsequently, it was also a target of Government interest:
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who was hardly a man on the side of individual liberty or civil rights, described the Black Panther Party as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” COINTELPRO – a secret Counterintelligence Program launched by the FBI – began a campaign of disinformation and madness that ended with the arrests of the charismatic leaders of the party, and in other cases outright assassinations that lead to the death of Black Panther Party leaders like Fred Hampton.
In 1971, the Citizen's Comission to Investigate the FBI illegally burglarized over 1,000 documents – many of which shed light on COINTELPRO – and gave those documents to NBC and other news outlets. This lead to the revelation that COINTELPRO had been investigating, discrediting, committing perjury, and even assassinating Civil Rights leaders during the 1960s. Targets included the Weathermen (or Weather Underground), the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), the Black Panthers... and even Martin Luther King, Jr.
The aftermath of these events left plenty of black leaders dead, or in prison, and an already at-risk population without the leadership that had shown some of the greatest possible hope for those sectors of society seen in 100 years. It also directly contributed to the dramatic rise in what had been previously demolished: black gang violence.
Black Gangs, Drugs, and Private Prisons.
Between the 1970s and 1980s the gangs that had been more or less dismantled by forces like the Panthers and the civil rights movement came back with a vengeance. They emerged in areas – such as LA – where segregation may not have been a law but was still enforced and where poverty had always been rampant. While many Americans think that the fights over Civil Rights 'officially' (in the same way that the 13th and 14th amendments had 'officially' ended slavery, I suppose) gave black men and women their rights, the old boogie-man came back: the pervasive fear regarding the black criminal. In the earlier linked interview with Khalil Gibran Muhammad, he notes:
“Right after that moment, even under Lyndon Johnson, there is an expansion of Federal support for local law-enforcement on the basis that 'black people's crime' is a danger to civil society. And again, all of this may make sense to a viewer and to a listener if they didn't know that those same threats to civil society posed by European immigrants were treated in a fundamentally different way. That's the point.”
What many people don't realize is that money is flowing from the Federal government at this point into what is quickly – and by the 1980s will be – a privatized prison industry. Meanwhile, the War on Drugs and subsequently the influx of drugs into the United States, had also begun with a vengeance. During the 1980s, criminals also realized that cocaine – a drug much beloved by the white populace of America – could be combined with baking soda to produce crack cocaine. Crack was introduced in cities across America and subsequently proved a killing blow to black communities that had already been pushed to the point of desperation.
What happened was this: international drug cartels, occasionally supported by our own CIA*, began importing cocaine in massive amounts. The cartels subsequently struck up arrangements with gangs in cities – a situation that exists even today – to peddle their illicit wares to their communities. The resulting chaos created a climate of terror as the gangs fought over turf (which they always had), as well as customers and areas of the black market. However, the increased funds from narcotic traffic (which during the 1980s eclipsed even the weed and LSD dealing of previous decades) also gave those same gangs access to better and more expensive weaponry, which they put to use as they had before: on each other, and on their own communities.
Meanwhile, in suburbs across the country, laws were passed criminalizing crack cocaine even more harshly than cocaine itself. While Hollywood was overrun with coke sniffing morons, laws against selling or buying crack cocaine were almost 10 times as harsh as laws for buying cocaine. This continued – as Vagrancy and Black codes had before – the trend of creating a disproportionately higher rate of black incarceration than that of other minorities.**
Meanwhile, desperately needed social help for these same poverty stricken communities was shunned, including – and this is something many people need to understand – mental health. The results of drug policy, criminal policy, and continued lack of support for these communities has directly lead to both the massive increase in drug use and subsequent incarceration while also there has been a finding that the results of all of this is a dramatic rise in PTSD in African American communities and children.
As a blacklash against the civil rights and leftist movements of the 1960s, a number of other odd pieces of information have also fallen into place. The neo-conservative moment is one of those pieces; although, today they have been subsumed into the Right-Wing and Tea Party frameworks. Chief amongst such odd interconnections is ALEC: a group which co-mingles absolutely massive corporations and Right Wing politicians. It is “officially” a non-profit “educational” outfit for elements of the Democrats and Republicans. But that is just the rhetoric that the group uses to justify its abuse of American policy.
ALEC, and its attendant State-based representatives for the Republicans and Tea Party, has been finding ways to short-change our views of how the Social Contract ought to work as well as continuing the trend I noted beginning in the late Civil War and reconstruction: the continued rise of corporate power at the expense of that of the people. ALEC has been behind both the Three Strikes laws that have created our massive prison population, and laws in the South like Stand Your Grand. They are also behind the voter ID shenanigans that could place students, the poor, and a disproportionate number of African Americans in a situation where they cannot even vote on their own laws. Here's Paul Weyrich, one of the Neocons that would today be targeted by ALEC (assuming he wasn't a member; Moyers indicates he was), discussing how he doesn't want you to vote:
They have also been behind getting public (i.e. taxpayer) funding for private schools while those funds should be going to our public school system, and I would not be surprised if they also had a hand in our privatized prison industry.
So, why is ALEC a big deal? The first reason is that they are not officially lobbyists, but what they do is more or less the same as lobbying. However, because they claim to be “educational,” they don't have to disclose either reports of their get-togethers nor how they have influenced the various representatives that join them. Thus ALEC “educational proposals” have made their way into our legal system – often almost verbatim from the draft stage they provide at their seminars – and subsequently often benefited the private industries that sponsored those very bills from behind the scenes, with absolutely no accountability.
ALEC and the NRA were the two forces behind the Stand Your Ground laws that ended up taking the life of Trayvon Martin. Subsequently, it has been found that white individuals shooting others under SYG laws are 354% more likely to be found “not guilty” versus black individuals. And since Trayvon's death, ALEC has officially backed off supporting those laws. Both that neither fixes the problem, nor creates the change necessary to put an end to all this bullshit.
That requires those of us that believe in social justice – even if it is only an ideal – actually discussing this situation and being clear about both the historical precedent behind these events, and how our own internal dialogues as a society have contributed to the problem.
There is such a thing as crime: but it is not racially influenced in the sense that we've heard, with “white-on-black” crime or “black-on-black” crime. Crime is crime, and if our desire is to actually eliminate it then we absolutely have to address it as a factor involved with poverty, amongst other things.
Game. Set. Match.
Recently, following all of these discussions, Travis Smiley told Bill O'Reilly that “all black people” should arm themselves:
O'Reilly's response, that Smiley is being “extreme” is somewhat hilarious given the climate of horror regarding gun violence and gun control has often lead to certain white Americans claiming that the “only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” I've heard it so many times in the last two years that it makes me want to cry laughing, as the idea that either individual gunning someone down regardless of the reason is good makes me... well... feel somewhat ill.
I am further purplexed by O'Reilly's inclusion of Chigaco/Chiraq, given that the situation and escalations of gang-violence that have happened there have been linked to the destruction of critical infrastructure (i.e. schools), and the dispersion of gangs into new territories (thus creation new gangs and MORE violence). I imagine actually considering those factors is beyond such a person, however.
Thus, I want to leave you with a positive message, if any, about what side is worth falling on. It comes from the murdered, but no less amazing, mouth of Fred Hampton:
EDIT: Here's Democracy Now discussing Hampton's murder.
And here's Daily KOS on COINTELPRO and how it was the predecessor of some of our current 'terrorist watch' policies.
Finally, some of the information in this entry came from Crips and Bloods: Made in America.
[x3] Here's some Stop and Frisk bullshit at work.
Be seeing you,
* I may return to this subject, along with Operation: Condor and the failures of the so-called “Drug War” in future DCOTE entries.
** Today, there is also a significant chunk of Latino/Latina prisoners that is disproportionate to other trends.