The president and the attorney general of the United States want to re-examine the nation’s “stand your ground” laws. That should have been last year’s news. As a result of the George Zimmerman verdict, the president also wants all of us to have a conversation, not necessarily a national conversation but conversations within our own families and churches and, most especially, with ourselves about our own biases.
We should all be able all do that, but not at the expense of a national conversation that leads to a change in – not simply in attitudes or biases – but in discriminatory laws, particularly laws that promote and permit the use of violence.
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The conversation we need to have has to go beyond discriminatory attitudes and practices and must consider the value we place on life itself. And that conversation needs to be national. Actually, because of the extraordinary power that the United States wields worldwide, this conversation actually has to be international in scope.
It should begin with a conversation about racial profiling. Then it needs to center on the criminal justice system – which requires we address the ever-expanding prison-industrial complex. We should also talk about the huge immigration detention system and the massive militarization of the US-Mexico border, both of which are racially based and racially biased. While we are at it, we also need to talk about drone warfare and the US policy of permanent worldwide war, including spying on the entire world. Yes, this conversation has to be about the value of life – independent of borders – and about what it means to be a full human being.
In addition to these conversations, the president has asked for each of us to do some soul-searching within ourselves. That’s not calling for too much.
Widening national rage exists precisely because the jurors in the George Zimmerman case rendered a “business as usual” verdict. The judicial system is not a place where people of color obtain justice. It never has been. Unless we turn a blind eye, we all know that the system of law on this continent was created specifically to justify and facilitate genocide, brutality, land theft, slavery and legalized segregation and discrimination. In the realm of the spirit of the law, what has changed?
There’s a reason why this nation has the most prisoners in the world, and there’s a reason why people of color fill the nation’s prisons. This country has a long tradition of falsely accusing people of color of crimes, convicting them, incarcerating them and executing them. It has a long history of vigilantes and supremacists – perpetuating violent crimes against people of color, sans justice. Worse, there is also a long history of law enforcement officers committing violent crimes (including street executions) against people of color then charging the victims with assaulting or attempting to kill the same officers. In the rarest of cases where justice is achieved, it is usually the spouse, or the parents, of someone who has been killed who subsequently obtains “justice.” And even this is extremely rare.
There are complexities to this particular case, but again they trace back to our judicial system and our prison-industrial complex. There are at least three ideas at work here: dehumanization, demonization and criminalization. These ideas go back to the era of colonization, at least to the 1500s, when Europeans debated whether people of color were human and whether they had souls.
Does it stretch the imagination to at least wonder whether this dynamic was actually remanded to the pages of history? For those that will automatically assume that no one actually thinks this way anymore, please ask yourself: At what point in US history have people of color been treated by the nation’s major institutions as both full human beings and as deserving of full human rights?
There is no need to recount the horrors of that earlier era of colonization, precisely because we don’t live there anymore. Nonetheless any conversation about race in the US has to begin with the dehumanization, demonization and criminalization of people of color in the United States. That has led to the creation of the largest prison system in history. Human Rights Watch has characterized it as a “human rights crisis.”
It would not be a stretch to characterize this massive incarceration as ethnocide and even genocide. One can quibble with the meaning of words. But what do you call it when millions of red, black and brown youths are remanded to and warehoused in dehumanized prisons, often for life, including decades in solitary confinement?
The nation’s prison system, including immigration detention centers, function as a system of moral and political control. Prisons are not simply where guilty prisoners are housed. Unrestrained violence by law enforcement on the streets, a compliant judicial system and a punishing prison system send out messages to communities of color as to how to comport oneself in public – particularly in relationship to white or mainstream society and especially law enforcement. It is a system that disempowers, emasculates, domesticates and humiliates.
And now in its modern context, the privatization of these systems also points to profit as a prime mover in skyrocketing incarceration rates, which are five times greater than anywhere else in the world.
A new report by the Washington D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute affirms that the nation’s immigration detention centers hold twice as many prisoners (more than 400,000) than the huge federal prison system, which grew from 25,000 prisoners 30 years ago to more than 200,000 today. The report also found that the US government is spending “more on immigration enforcement each year than it is on all other federal law-enforcement agencies combined.” And not coincidentally, many of those who are detained go through the kangaroo courts known as operation streamline, where they are then shipped off to private and very profitable detention centers.”
People of color have had these conversations, although perhaps not enough. But has the president had that conversation with himself? Has he asked himself why he oversees a nation that relies on ever-expanding prisons, increasingly private prisons, to control communities of color and to relegate a great proportion of youths to a lifetime of dehumanized exile from their own communities? He is not a passive or innocent bystander.
Neither can he get a pass for continuing his predecessor’s war policies. They can no longer be referred to as Bush’s policies. He has continued them and even expanded them. The notion of worldwide permanent war is his policy and the use of drone warfare is the end of “innocent until proven guilty. ” It is kill first, then ask questions later.
The policies are linked to dehumanization, demonization and criminalization of anyone the president sees fit, especially those from non-European countries.
Yes, we all need to do some soul-searching. However, it is the president who needs to conduct the longest of these searches.
But after the soul-searching, then what? The president has the inherent power to act upon the issues raised here. He can begin with a commission to examine changes to laws and changes to that prison-industrial complex, particularly the trend toward privatization.
One would think that because he could have been Trayvon Martin that he would act and act forcefully, but that is doubtful. He is complicit. One needs to look only at his role in the immigration crisis to know that it is his policies, not anyone else’s, that have led to the deportation of nearly 2 million migrants, separating and destroying families in the process. It has also led to the death of thousands all along the southern border. Obama administration war policies operate similarly. Drone warfare is the ultimate drive-by, and this administration’s fingerprints are all over the indiscriminate devastation. And as taxpayers, so are ours.
But that does not mean we give up. Change is possible. It just does not come from the top. It comes from the ground up. Witness the rage of this freedom summer. If I am not mistaken, this rage will be transformed into a permanent human rights movement that will not let up until we are all treated as full human beings.