It’s hard to watch. Guns aimed at the dark. Loud yells. Loud salvo. Night drizzle in the tactical lights. Cops mistook his cell phone for a gun. I know already, he’s dead. I finished watching the video of Stephon Clark’s murder. Days later, White House Press Secretary, Sarah Sanders labeled it a “local matter.”
President Trump has stripped Obama’s mild federal oversight of police and left Black people even more exposed to severe state violence. At the same time, Republicans have enacted voter ID laws, purged rolls and shut polling places. Renewed governmental enthusiasm for mass incarceration and voter suppression has created a vortex in which Black citizenship, already second tier, is further ground down.
Republicans are effectively an anti-democracy party. They criminalize citizens of color while foreclosing elections to pass legislation for the wealthy. It’s why we feel rage.
We see Stephon Clark dead and know it could be any of us. The laws that protect us are being peeled away.
Rough ‘Em Up
“Please. Don’t. Be. Too. Nice,” Trump joked about slamming suspects’ heads into police cars. New cadets in crisp blue uniforms clapped and cheered. A chill went down my spine when I saw the video because I knew the probable results of this joke. Every week, I see a car brake suddenly and cops jump out to stop a young Black man. He’s scared. They pat him down, turn him and pat him again while yelling in his face.
We record it on our cellphones. The police leave. Sometimes, I ask if he is OK, but often, the young man is ashamed and scared and angry. He half-runs away. A heavy silence sits in the air, dissolved when one by one, we move on.
This scene is repeated across America. Around one million law enforcement officers — federal, state and county — form a vast pyramid that polices the 325 million citizens. The weight of the law is uneven, hitting hardest the Black poor who live in crime “hot spots” that are tightly crisscrossed by police on foot or in cars. Black neighborhoods from Ferguson to Detroit, East New York to the deep rural South are raked over by cops. Men and women are plucked off streets at five times the rate of whites. Whole families are thrown into the revolving door of jail, bail bond debt, homelessness, crime and jail again.
Our prison population swelled from 500,000 in the 1980s to nearly 2.3 million in 2015. Black people are only 12 percent of America but 33 percent of its prisoners. Generations of men and women are packed in cells where bitterness hardens them. I see it in neighbors after a week or month or year in jail. They walk, stiff. They knock fists like rocks. They sulk on the stoop, yelling in random rage at whoever goes by. Time slowly massages them back into life. Even when they regain freedom, they’ve lost the power to change the nation that hunted them down. In many places, they have lost the right to vote.
In fact, in 10 states, a felon can permanently lose voting rights. In 20 states, this right is restored after the sentence is served, including parole and probation. In four states, this right comes back after just parole. Fourteen restore it after the term is served. Only two, Main and Vermont, let prisoners vote while they serve time. In nine states, from Nevada to Alabama, Republicans have taken the right to vote from anyone who owed legal or court fees.
Here are three interlocking cycles that fuse into the vortex of second-tier citizenship for Black America: a pre-existing racialized poverty, aggressive policing and voter disenfranchisement. Race and class oppression overlap to become a barrier to being recognized as American. The hypocrisy of this does not escape the Black poor, who have a historical vision. They look back through family stories and see that they were never meant to be Americans.
Slavery by Another Name
At the end of the Civil War, Black people emerged from the thinning smoke, radiant with joy. They found lost family. They charged money for work. They built new lives. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in his 1935 Black Reconstruction, “For the first time in their life, they could travel … they could stand up and assert themselves. They need not fear the patrol; they need not even cringe before a white face and touch their hats.”
It was a brief freedom. White southerners wanted free labor and control. Slavery was illegal, but there was a loophole: The 13th amendment allowed for the enslavement of people convicted of crimes. Black Codes were passed in 1865 by state after state, specifically Vagrancy Laws. If you were Black and out of work, you went to prison. If you were Black and could not pay a tax, you went to prison.
In prison, you could be “hired” out to private businessmen — without pay — to farm, pave roads and bust rocks. The court house was the new auction block. The prison was the new plantation. It was, as Douglass Blackmon wrote, “slavery by another name.” Families who touched a loved one’s face one day saw them vanish the next. Taken by sheriffs for one violation or another, whisked off to a chain gang. Years went by. Hair grayed. Faces wrinkled. Hope faded. One by one, those who had been incarcerated returned to unrecognizable lives.
In the Compromise of 1877, federal troops left the South. Instantly, the states enacted voting poll taxes, literacy tests and property requirements. Free Black people, embittered by jail time, now stared with hardened faces at new laws that stopped them from being citizens.
They told their stories to their children, who told their stories to their children. A historical vision was passed down generations. Black people knew how to peer through America’s façade to the truth.
War on the Future
“I was in jail too. It’s cold blooded. You go down there looking for justice,” comedian and social critic Richard Pryor said. “That’s what you find. Just. Us.” We wiped tears of laughter from our eyes. Pryor’s 1975 album, …Is It Something I Said?, blasted from my boom box. In the mid-’90s in Hartford, we struggled with the fear of the war on drugs.
Crack-addicted neighbors pushed shopping carts. Police eyed everyone from passing cruisers. Gangs of young men eyed us too. The hair on our necks tingled with panic. So, we turned the volume up on Pryor or a new tape to drown our thoughts.
In the ’90s, poverty and hyper-policing were not new, but their ferocity was. We were two decades deep into Nixon’s war on drugs and families were missing people, who sat in prison and returned eager to claim a corner or lost pride or lost time.
It turned out Nixon wasn’t after narcotics; he was after us. Decades later, Nixon’s policy chief John Ehrlichman told Harper’s of the 1968 campaign that launched the war on drugs, “We couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities…. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Nixon was a salesman of law and order for Middle America. Again, blackness was criminalized not to stop real crime but to stop the push for full Black citizenship. Again, a loved one who you saw one day vanished the next, taken by the new drug raids into the interlocking network of new prisons.
Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter let the War on Drugs hum in the background. Then Reagan came along. It’s always Reagan. He promised to “Make America Great Again” and return to an idyllic past by “running up the battle flag” on drugs. He implemented steep minimum sentences for crack, forfeiture of cash and property, all of which gutted urban Black America.
The next three presidents held the line. George H.W. Bush actually pinched a bag of cocaine during his first televised speech and said drugs were “the greatest domestic threat facing our nation.” He increased regulations. He gave police military grade weapons.
Bill Clinton soothed American fears with his crime bill’s “three strikes” mandatory sentencing and massive funds for 100,000 new cops, nearly 10 billion dollars for new prisons. He also ensured that more offenses qualified for the death penalty. Thanks, Bill.
George Bush II was too busy with the War on Terror to focus on the War on Drugs. It was only with Obama that a slow dial-down began. In 2010, he decreased the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine. He did not send federal agents to close weed shops. He shifted the rhetoric on drugs, portraying drug possession as more of a health problem than a crime. (Unfortunately, most laws did not change to reflect this rhetoric.) His White House officials said, “We can’t arrest and incarcerate addiction out of people.”
Obama was a flawed president, but he also appeared as a herald of future America. It was the America of full Black citizenship, where destroying Black people wasn’t a prerequisite for political power. Conservatives hate that vision and have long used the criminal punishment system to fight it. Southern politicians fought it. Nixon and Reagan fought it.
A deeply diverse nation is our inevitable future. But for now, at the climatic turning point, Republicans are willing to destroy democracy itself in an attempt to stop it.
“People who still support Trump believe America left them,” D.L. Hughley said on his radio show. “It left them when it got a Black president. It left them when it let all these immigrants in. It left them when it gave gays the right to marry.” He quoted the Bible story of two women who fought over a baby, each claiming to be the mother. King Solomon threatened to cleave it. The false one said, cut. The real mother said no, give it to the other woman and let it live.
“That’s exactly how Trump supporters feel,” he said. “They would rather have a dead half a country than a whole that exists without them. They would rather have a dead country than an America that moves forward.”
If American democracy is under Solomon’s sword, it’s because the War on Drugs was always a proxy war on Black citizenship. Trump and the Republicans are again using mass incarceration and voter suppression to kill off the future. Trump falsely claimed there was a crime wave. Immigrants and Blacks were to blame, of course. His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, told prosecutors to throw the book at suspects in order to trigger mandatory sentences for minor drug crimes. Trump nominated Bill Otis to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a man who, like Sessions, wants hard mandatory sentences. Trump lifted the ban on sending military-grade weapons to police. Trump approves of private prisons, and rolled back federal oversight of law enforcement around the country.
The terrible, churning vortex of the criminal punishment system will suck in more Black life. It will spit us out after we serve our sentences, and in many states, we won’t be able to vote. If we can, there’ll be fewer and fewer places to vote in the South because Republicans cut polling sites. If we show up, we may not have the right ID because Republicans have enacted strict identification laws. They cut the hours to vote. They cut same-day registration. They gerrymandered districts. They have Trump, who tweets falsehoods about millions of illegal voters and encourages his followers to closely guard the voting polls from “illegals.”
American democracy is being killed by conservatives, who would rather erode — perhaps even annul — Black citizenship than lose their shrinking power base. In this way, Republicans are the part of reactionary drive that flows from its more pure and unfiltered source on the far right, in which neo-Nazis like Richard Spencer call for the US to become a white ethno-state through a “peaceful” race purge.
Democracy is dying in many sites all over the world. In Europe, in particular, anxious whites turn to nationalist, political parties to create a bulwark against immigration, diversity and the wealth gap. In France, it’s the National Front that gains more votes each election. In Germany, it’s Alternative for Germany. In Italy, the Northern League. In Austria, the ambitious Freedom Party. Nearly everywhere, there is a drive to erode the citizenship of the Other.
It’s hard to watch the walls grow higher and close inward. It’s terrifying to watch the shadows those walls cast overlap into the seemingly endless night of reactionary fear. It looks like the night when Sacramento police hunted down Stephon Clark, aiming their guns into darkness and firing blindly.
Our bodies are their targets. And none of this violence is a “local matter.”