The era of mass incarceration is only the most recent iteration of an attempt to socially control the movements of Black bodies. Before prisons, Jim Crow worked to repress the spirit and self-determination of Black folk. Before Jim Crow, Africans were stolen from their ancestral lands, voided of family rights and lineage and forced into a capitalistic colonization project. That project continues today, and black bodies are still on the market. From the inception of the American colonies to today and from deep in the bowels of capitalist governments, laws, policies, practices and attitudes have been created to regulate the positionality of Black folk.
The rise of the carceral state has only continued to take the hopes, futures and lives of many amongst us. The United States warehouses 25 percent of the world’s prison population and the silhouettes in those cages are disproportionately Black women, Black trans folk and Black men.
Crime and criminality must be understood as a system meant to reproduce the status quo – racism.
Prisons and jails have long made the living conditions of Black folk barely livable. As many Black scholars, activists and artists have shown, the current system of mass incarceration has its origins in one of America’s oldest sins – slavery. From literary works like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow to Ava DuVernay’s documentary film 13th, we have learned that the legacy of mass incarceration is etched in the words of the U.S. Constitution. State government, both national and local, has continued and reinforced much of the viciousness of slavery through the legal means of mass incarceration, mandatory minimum sentencing and racist sentencing disparities. As we see more of our fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers behind bars, it is time that we question not only the legal precedent that grants the state the ability to take our loved ones, we must also challenge the notion of criminality itself, as well as the entire criminal justice system as a legitimate institution.
Crime and criminality must be understood not as a set of rules and regulations meant to enforce law and order, but rather as a system meant to reproduce the status quo – racism. “Law and order” is not universal in the way it is enforced and criminality is reserved for some, but not others. Historically, America has shown us that the term crime is always punitive for Black people, meaning ill intent, but for others, the same word is a call for help. For example, the 70s ushered in a political and social climate that waged war on Black folk under the guise of protecting the public from illegal narcotics; the so-called “War on Drugs” was actually a war on Black people, and after thirty years we still have family serving time in prison cells because of this onslaught.
More recently, white Americans are being increasingly storied as the new victims of drug use. But rather than using incarceration to deal with this population, as we saw happen with Black folk, the new drug crisis has been repackaged as a health concern rather than a criminal one. Why? Because criminality is a social construct based largely on color of skin.
Prison abolition and investment in Black communities is key for Black folk to realize that which we seek.
In the age of Black Lives Matter, police brutality has been a focal point. While exposing the pig culture of police departments around the nation is important, we must also recognize the entire American criminal justice system as illegitimate. In a nation where violence, marginalization and oppression is commonplace for Black folk, the state is in no legal or moral position to determine when its victims are guilty of wrongdoing.
We must call for abolition.
We must call for an end of state abusers continuing to abuse and assault and claim moral ground in doing so.
We must call for the complete end of the current and historic police, as well as all prisons.
We must abolish and do away with the final remnants of slavery.
Abolition is more than just an immediate end to prisons. It is a call for the restructuring of our communities and a demand for the resources being used for our captivity to be used to build programs and institutions that build us up rather than tear us down.
Think of Black futures without the use of cages to disrupt them. Prison abolition and investment in Black and poor communities is key for Black folk to realize that which we seek – self-determination, human dignity and liberation.
This post is part of the Black Futures Month blog series brought to you by The Huffington Post and the Black Lives Matter Network. Each day in February, look for a new post exploring cultural and political issues affecting the Black community and examining the impact it will have going forward. For more Black History Month content, check out Black Voices’ ‘We, Too, Are America’ coverage.