Malcolm X, Morpheus and Mos Def: Postindustrial Prison Politics

The following essay is adapted from Exile Nation: Drugs, Prisons, Politics & Spirituality (2009, Reality Sandwich), Charles Shaw's riveting memoir of the drug war, running weekly on Reality Sandwich.

Before I left for prison, in the months I was languishing on house-arrest, many of my friends and colleagues in the activist community had been telling me that I had before me "such a unique opportunity" to help reach out to, connect with, educate, and organize one of the nation's largest disenfranchised populations, namely convicts.

It stood to reason, they argued (and I would eventually internalize) that if only these men could become aware of the larger circumstances of their situation, they would endeavor to change those circumstances, and cease allowing themselves to be manipulated by the system. I thought that if only they could see the "War on Drugs" for the sham that it is, how it is used to control and disrupt their communities and fill the prison system to reap huge profits and perpetuate a "correctional economy," then maybe a spontaneous movement might emerge, and finally the proverbial "winds of change" might begin to blow.

Good luck.

Although I have been guilty of naïveté on a few occasions in my life, I never considered how utterly naïve I was in thinking that some white guy raised in the upper-middle class could foment a sea change of opinion inside one of the most dangerous and tightly controlled constructs of our society. Not only was I not from their world, but I very soon came to realize that I had terribly miscalculated the actual level of interest and receptiveness of the inmate population to these circumstances. Yes, I had a far greater familiarity with their world than most, if not all, of the white people I knew, because I spent so much time in the ghetto buying and consuming drugs or living in halfway houses, but that hardly translates to the trust needed to change a people's reality. I was dead wrong about what I now see were highly romantic and idealistic notions of how much could be accomplished in this regard.

First of all, these guys already know the game is rigged. The young ones may not know how the 1960's riots their fathers and grandfathers participated in led to the situation they and their communities are in now, but they do know that the cops are dirty, and they know no one in their neighborhoods owns planes, ships, trains, and cargo trucks to be moving "weight" [large amounts of drugs] into their neighborhoods. In other words, they know the drugs are funneled into their communities by outsiders. They aint stupid.

What they are, young and old alike, is beat down. For some of them, prison is the only rest they get. The minute the gate swings open for them, they gotta hit the ground running or else they starve. They don't have a lot of time to read and attend meetings. And if they ever wanted to try and go protest something while on parole, they can get sent back in a heartbeat. These guys are concerned about staying alive. They don't give a rat's ass about politics. Ultimately, they are kept in line by fear, desperation, and exhaustion. And anyway, who would they redress? Who would listen to them? They've been ignored for three generations under these policies, and there is little hope of a mass re-enfranchisement of so many forsaken souls.

Mine eyes have seen the gory coming of the overlord.

There is a passage in 1984, part of The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, (the "book within the book") written by the "traitor to the State," Emmanuel Goldstein, that goes like this:

"Throughout recorded time there have been three kinds of people in the world, the High, the Middle, and the Low. The aims of these three groups are entirely irreconcilable. The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High. The aim of the Low, when they have an aim--for it is an abiding characteristic of the Low that they are too crushed by drudgery to be more than intermittently conscious of anything outside their daily lives--is to abolish all distinctions and create a society in which all men shall be equal. Thus, throughout history a struggle which is the same in its main outlines recurs over and over again. For long periods the High seem to be securely in power, but sooner or later there always comes a moment when they lose either their belief in themselves, or their capacity to govern efficiently, or both. They are then overthrown by the Middle, who enlist the Low on their side by pretending to them that they are fighting for liberty and justice. As soon as they have reached their objective, the Middle thrust the Low back into their old position of servitude, and themselves become the High. Presently, a new Middle group splits off from one of the other groups, or from both of them, and the struggle begins all over again."

This passage perfectly characterizes the situation I find myself in. By and large those sent into the prisons are disproportionately culled from the ranks of the Low. And although it is clear to at least the black segment of the Low that the drug war is a scam, it is not so clear to the whites. The whites have internalized the moral mandate of the High, by virtue of the first degree of separation imposed on the Low, known as "divide and rule," which is preferential separation by race. Whites who break the social contract established by the ruling order--who are also white--are derided and judged to have moral failings, which the poor whites then internalize. If you use drugs, you are a criminal, if you sell drugs, you're even worse. Hate yourself, for you are irredeemable, but not nearly as irredeemable as those darker than you, is the basic subtext.

Poor blacks, on the other hand, are far less likely to care what the ruling white order thinks of them, and are much more apt to view selling drugs as a legitimate economic means to an end, without nearly as much moral condemnation. Although it certainly does exist, they do it without internalizing the white moral framework, despite the overwhelming prevalence and influence of Christianity in most of their communities. But drug dealing more often than not serves to divide them against their community.

In this way--uniquely American--race is substituted for class, so that claims of a "classless society" can somewhat plausibly be made in a nation whose rep was built on the marketing campaign "all men are created equal," even though what they really meant was "all land owning white men" since they didn't actually view blacks as people. Today, if you don't own property, you aren't viewed as a person either. Conversely, the corporation that does own property is considered by the courts to be a legal person, so it is bestowed all the constitutional protections which we living people supposedly have "endowed by our Creator."

Substituting race for class keeps members of the black, white, Latino, Asian, or Muslim Low class from seeing affinities and common struggles and uniting to change their situation. Instead they remained balkanized and mired in the (literally) superficial differences they see between themselves: no white inmate will ever admit that he is in the same empirical situation as a black inmate, because even if the economics are the same, there are the reinforced social and cultural differentiations and privileges their skin color gives them which they violently cling to and defend.

The subdivision of the underclass continues. The whites in prison--out of necessity borne out of being the minority--are a much more monolithic community than the blacks, who are sub-divided against each other by age, and again by gang affiliation or lack thereof. The young boys who are active in gang culture prize money and material goods first and foremost, and their genuine cultural history has been replaced by the pop culture of Hip Hop, which serves to essentially rob them of whatever wealth they do generate by compelling them to spend it all on consumer shit. They gotta have the right clothes, music, shoes, car, hats, drinks, blunts. They don't want to hear about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. They don't give a shit about the civil rights movement, and they think people like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are a joke (well...ok...sometimes they are). They don't see how they have essentially backed themselves into a social classification from which they very rarely escape. For them, life becomes a vicious cycle of hustling, prison, violence, and for some, death.

In my attempts to reach greater levels of understanding between us, I've been trying to drop this historical example on the young brothers in the hope that they see how the same energy got channeled in different directions. I talk about the cultural and generational differences between rapper Tupac Shakur and his mother, Afeni, who was a Black Panther. On the surface, they appear to be standing on opposite sides of the African-American cultural spectrum. Fundamentally, one represents the struggle to empower and end the exploitation of her people and to improve their social conditions, while the other represents the divisive exploitation of those same social conditions for his own gain, namely the "I gotta gets mines" ethos of Gangster Rap culture, which supplants cultural unity. But underneath, both Shakurs loved and fought for the rights of their people on the larger meta-stage, and eventually both fell prey to the internecine struggles of the respective militant communities to whom they served. This does not take away from the fact that both Shakurs went on to symbolize their respective zeitgeists in Black history.

I may be guilty of mythologizing Afeni and the nobility of the Black Panthers, but it seems self-evident that the Panthers taught that the most important thing for African-Americans was to be part of a united, self-supporting community. Tupac--whether by design, or as a consequence of the influences around him--represented the most devastating and divisive product of Black America, the violent and self-serving street Machiavellianism of gang culture. Tupac glamorized and gave powerful cred to being violent, self-obsessed and materialistic; all he talked about was gettin' paid, while he gave lip service to ending gang violence in California through his much ballyhooed "truce" campaign.

Although both were embroiled in legal struggles throughout their lives, the nature of those legal struggles were entirely different. Afeni was fighting the illegal activity of the US Government, who we now know went to great lengths to eliminate the Panthers through the COINTELPRO [1] program. Tupac was in court fighting legitimate, often true, criminal charges. Although we did eventually learn that in fact the FBI was keeping close ties on the Hip Hop world, and did try to use any opportunity to divide and disrupt, on those few occasions when Tupac did speak out against gun violence and sexual assault charges, these entirely orchestrated efforts were more aimed at reducing time in prison than creating any kind of awareness or change.

Of course, Tupac's greatest crime against his own people was using his celebrity to ignite the East Coast-West Coast war. This is his legacy, which may have cost him his life, depending on who you want to believe killed him. No matter how much talk there is about Tupac being a "prophet" who rapped about the reality of life in the ghetto, who wanted to lift up his brother, history will remember him as an opportunistic pop artist and violent thug who was constantly fighting with his own people, not loving them, and that he was eventually killed by them.

Nowadays, the "thug life" persona has been so mass-adopted by black youth that it's a mainstay of Hip Hop culture, even ten years after Tupac's death. Certainly curious how the violent meme of Gangster Rap supplanted the peaceful meme of Consciousness Rap that the preceding generation of Hip Hop artists like Arrested Development, De La Soul, and a Tribe Called Quest were creating. Even though most rappers today, and the gang kids who emulate them, can only manage tired clichés, so long as black youth continue to idolize the Tupacs and 50 Cents and the literal cavalcade of copycat artists that have ridden their coattails, they won't be able to escape the consequences that come along with worshiping the dark side. If you mess around with guns and drugs, eventually you gonna either get shot or locked up.

So, the subtext to all this is to say that political concerns, particularly those that Afeni Shakur held concerning the welfare of black communities, are not even registering on the radar of these young men. Worse still, the core of the Panthers' militancy--protecting their communities, even if it meant taking up arms with their brothers--has given way to taking up arms against their brothers. The enemy has shifted from "the Man" that oppressed them to the "nigger down the block" who might kill them. Prestige is now doled out Mafia style, based upon successful hits and how much weight you move. What the gang kids don't see is that they are doing the white establishment's job for them, which is to say, neutralizing or eliminating each other, and by proxy, the black community writ large, as a unified force for social and political change.

The small percentage of African-Americans who were able to move up into the Middle got wise and distanced themselves from their Low brethren so that they could prosper under the dominant system, where there are places for them. There are no places for poor blacks in our culture any longer, callously dismissed as "surplus population." And so long as the "surplus" continues slangin' dope and shooting each other, they will continue to alienate themselves from decent, hard-working, law-abiding black families, perpetuating the most basic form of divide and rule. The single most powerful symbol of the disempowerment and destruction of the African-American community is the image of former revolutionary Afeni Shakur sucking on a crack pipe, begging for the oppressors poison while abandoning her child to the streets.

We've had twenty-five years of this kind of divide and rule. Drug and gang violence has cemented public opinion to such a degree that it is next to impossible to try and argue for ending prohibition when little kids are still getting gunned down in the crossfire and sucked into the machine of the drug trade. Our cultural views about drugs and crime are so entrenched, and so monolithic, I think, because addiction, in one form or another, touches almost everyone's life, and addiction is a deeply emotional issue.

Compounding the divide is the disillusionment held by the Civil Rights generation who largely see their leaders--those who survived, that is--as having sold out their dreams for fame, money, power, or continued relevance. It's interesting to look at the difference, after the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, between how the Weathermen were treated versus the Black Panthers. Even though the two organizations worked together as allies, most of the Panther leadership is now dead or locked up, while the Weathermen, who were avowed users of terrorism to achieve their goals, were given amnesty and their leaders now hold lofty positions at Universities.

When all is said and done about the "revolution," it's pretty quickly apparent that whites pulled out their "redeemable privilege coupons" and were allowed to walk away unscathed into consumer America, so long as they stopped slumming in the slums. Black America however, unbeknownst to them at the time, were about to have visited upon them the worst scourge yet in the form of the crack epidemic. Today, these wounds are old and scarred, and none of these men have the strength or desire to reopen them. This is made easy for them, because no one wants to hear what they have to say, least of all their children and grandchildren.

But getting back to a much more fundamental point about the malleability of the convict mentality, whether it is Malcolm X or Morpheus or Mos Def saying it, most of these minds are not yet ready to be freed. Most are hopelessly dependent upon the system, their worldview so tragically narrow, that they know nothing else and will defend it to their deaths, symbolized by Tupac gunned down in a hail of bullets -- some speculate by the head of a label who thought it easier to kill him than pay him the $10 million he was owed. It's almost as if the more ignorant they choose to remain, the less culpability they feel for the way things are.

In my experience, maybe 1 in 20 inmates are curious or receptive enough to challenge their constructed reality with a piece of alternate history. Fewer seem to want to expand their worldview. Most ridicule or resist violently.

You would think that in the "criminal" world there would be a preponderance of fierce individuality, but in prison it's the exact opposite. This place is a paradigm of conformity. There's a particularly virulent form of groupthink here that is part ignorance, part omerta, and part institutionalization. But when your options are so limited, and you're in a closed society, it's easy to see how that can occur.

Mumia Abu Jamal calls prisons "repositories of rage, islands of socially accepted hatreds where worlds collide like sub-atomic particles seeking psychic release." And like the solitary spark it would take to ignite a massive prairie fire, he warns, it takes little to set the whole thing off.

But looking around here, you'd never know that.

"Remember the fairy tale about the Emperor's New Clothes, how a kid blurts out, 'he's naked!' as the Emperor struts past decked out in his illusory splendor? Whatever happened to the kid who spoiled the Emperor's show? Consider what has happened to Black Men--Martin, Malcolm, Mandela--who have shouted 'he's naked!' If the fairy tale were set in an American city today and the child cast as a black boy, we know he'd be shot or locked up or both. Nobody wants to hear the bad news, the truth exposing the Emperor's self-delusions, especially those who profit most from the delusions."

--John Edgar Weidman

What is I think most tragic and disheartening about the predicament of the young brothers caught in this cycle of gangs and drugs is that so many of them are decent, intelligent, funny, talented young men with such amazing creative potential. I know I sound like the typical bourgeois reformist, but it's true. Much salvation lay in creation.

It's their complex sense of humor that is the most amazing. Despite their present surroundings (could I have handled prison at 18, 19, 21?) and the worlds they inhabit outside the razor wire (likewise, could I have handled the ghetto?) they are somehow still able to be incredibly goofy. Many of them have good hearts. I only give the "victim of circumstance" argument nominal credence, because I do believe choice and will play a significant role in our predicaments. It isn't that these young men aren't products of their environment, it's that I reject the "victim" label. It's a psychological prison, one I know well, and one that the Illinois Department of Corrections takes full advantage of in order to regulate, in every conceivable manner, the inmate population. Be they victims of the system, or victims of the victims, it all perpetuates chronic helplessness and recidivism.

But the fact that they have so few options in life, and are subjected to such an elevated risk in their daily lives is as much a crime against them as the crimes they commit against each other. It is a tragedy on such a profound level that our society must eventually hold itself accountable if we are ever to change it. Yet, we remain remarkably adept at evading the issue, choosing instead to throw more police and prisons at it.

Many are still children when they first get into the life...we're talking grade schoolers who, often bereft of one or both parents and positive community role models, turn to the only people they perceive as getting "respect." When "respect" is interpreted in gang culture to mean power, and power is obtained through money and through force, then naturally they will equate force with respect. Rarely does it seem that they question the validity of respect gained through fear, or forced respect. This is not a world where there is a great deal of opportunity or acknowledgment for respect gained by accomplishment or service.

These young men are screaming for healthy challenges. They're dying for someone to listen to them, to take them seriously, to acknowledge them when they say, in their own way, godammit my life has value! And they have every right to want that, because their lives are hard and have made them wiser than their years.

The bigger drag is thinking about the millions who have nothing and no one, two generations of black men who have grown up with this as their reality. Mumia Abu Jamal said this about it in 1992:

"The children of the Civil Rights generation--born into sobering poverty amid shimmering opulence, their minds weaned on...TV excess while locked in want, watching while sinister politicians spit on their very existence--are the Hip Hop/Rap generation. Locked out of the legal means of material survival, looked down upon by predatory politicians and police, left with the least relevant educational opportunities, talked at with contempt and not talked to with love--is there any question why such youth are alienated? Why the surprise? They look at the lives they live and see not "civil rights progress" but a drumbeat of civil repression by a state at war with their dreams. Why the surprise? This is not the Lost Generation...far from lost, they are probably the most aware generation since Nat Turners.' They are not so much lost as they are mislaid, discarded by this increasingly racist system that undermines their inherent worth."

He closes the thought by stating, optimistically, "they are all potential revolutionaries, with the historic power to transform our dull realities."

A lot changed in the years since he wrote those words. Like what happened to the Sixties generation before him, the market stepped in and co-opted the revolution. Gangster Rap may have been an economic boom, but it seriously undermined whatever revolutionary potential might have existed in an exile nation of disenfranchised black youth, while giving the State all the pretext it needed to push for more and more infiltration, disruption, and repression.

Divorced from the awareness Mumia talks about, and mired in the vicious cycles of internecine violence and the miasma of consumer culture, the gang youth of today and those mired in poverty fall farther and farther afield from the necessary consciousness of their situation and the knowledge of how to change it. They are, in many respects, the front lines of change, a more potent microcosm of an American culture that seems to have lost any real meaning or knowledge of itself.

That I can escape this world upon my release, that I still have opportunities available to me, and that I still can maintain the pretense of class privilege, is both my blessing and my shame. I cannot and will not lie and say I don't appreciate or at times take full advantage of my station in life. But this experience has, at the very least, shown me what that privileged state has been built upon, whose backs have been broken to shore up the few, who has gone without so that I could have more than my fair share. It has also given me a greater sense of obligation to do something about it, somehow, someway. If I make nothing of this experience, then I have no right commenting on the state of anything.

But I know myself. When I am gone from here, and it is late at night and I hear the distant crackle of gunfire, I will wonder if it is one of them, one of my homies from the joint, finally falling in this fallacious war against his brother, his people, and himself.


To read more of Exile Nation visit the home page on Reality Sandwich.

  1. COINTELPRO was an FBI counter-intelligence program initiated under the Nixon Administration to infiltrate, disrupt, and ultimately neutralize the anti-war and militant black movements. COINTELPRO had a particularly devastating impact on the Black Panthers, imprisoning, murdering, or forcing into exile most of the leadership. Nixon's tapes reveal the extent to which he considered these two groups Public Enemy #1. The tapes also reveal how he first concocts the idea to use federal drug laws to attack these two groups, since drug use was considered a part of the "revolution." That template continued in force once Reagan took office in the 1980s and cocaine flooded the inner cities.