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The Incarceration of Consciousness

The real oppression is that which is heaped on them by the upper class, the profound burden which has been shared by the vast majority of humankind throughout history: Class-induced poverty.

You are a thirteen-year-old, African-American boy buried deep in the ghettos of the notorious Compton projects in Los Angeles, California. The year is 1967, it is a warm, sticky June afternoon, and the mood is anxious. You are worried about where you will get food for dinner, you are worried about your mother’s health and her daily commute from the factory, you are worried about getting beaten or arrested by the gangs of roving police officers who regularly patrol your neighborhood, and you worry that you might never live to see your 18th birthday. Your daily worrying is interrupted by a low, rumbling sound coming from down the block. Your ever-alert ears tune in to the sound of… human voices… lots of them. Chanting, marching, and coming this way. Before you have time to react, the source of the noise rounds the end of your block and you are stunned to see a platoon of young black men in full uniforms, black berets, and M-16’s come marching up your street, yelling a thrillingly defiant and compelling chant: ” Hold your head up high, Panthers marching by. We don’t take no jive, got a loaded .45.” You don’t believe it, but it’s true. Openly armed members of the Black Panther Party are patrolling your streets, defending your home, and inspiring you to fight for a better world. They are organizing, they are educating, they are liberating. The FBI calls them, “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country, [1]” but to you and every other poor Black child growing up in America, they are your heroes, your idols, your own personal super-heroes who are coming to rescue you from a lifetime of oppression and misery. Together with Dr. King’s burgeoning civil rights movement in the south and the late Malcolm X’s rallying cry of religious and cultural identity outside of the confines of “White, Christian America,” they form a comprehensive picture and outline for the liberation of African-American people.

Or maybe you are a young Lakota girl, living on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota in 1973, and your heroes take the form of Dennis Banks, Russell Means, and Carter Camp. The “Red Power” movement is sweeping Native communities across North America, as activists are occupying Alcatraz Island, Mayflower II, the Bureau for Indian Affairs building in Washington D.C., and eventually the historic site of the Wounded Knee Incident in South Dakota. For the first time in over a century, your people are collectively resisting the occupation and genocide enacted on them from the migrant hordes that swept across the lands of your ancestors. Native Americans all over the country are uniting, educating, and resisting, while reclaiming their culture and heritage. [2]

You could also be a migrant farm-worker in Southern California in 1968, working for twelve hours a day under deplorable conditions, all for $1.20 an hour and a life expectancy of 30 years. You have no prospects of education, citizenship, healthcare, or any form of security, yet you and your family work harder and longer than most people in the great country you are serving. When community leaders like Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez begin uniting the workers and organizing strikes and demonstrations for better working conditions with the United Farm Workers movement and young revolutionaries like Carlos Montes and Don Williams create the “Brown Berets” organization, you decide to join the movement of Latino communities and people who are fighting for their rights, identity, and welfare in the land of the rich white man.[3] [4]

Unfortunately, we all know how these stories ended. The Black Panthers, The Brown Berets, The United Farm Workers, The Red Power movement, The Environmental Movement, The Women’s Liberation movement, and the rest of the revolutionary parties of the 1960’s and 70’s never did complete their mission of organizing and mobilizing. Their leaders were systematically assassinated, jailed, defamed, or exiled, and their messages were skewed and perverted to the whims of the State media-empire. They were labeled “terrorists”, “violent criminals” and “white-killers” to scare decent upper-class people, and their motives were generally portrayed as “inciting race-war” in America. The Federal Government created and mobilized entire branches of urban police forces to deal with the rising tide of consciousness and to wage war in the streets and sidewalks of our cities and suburbs. [5] Massive revisions and alterations were made to privacy and judicial laws, allowing the Government unfettered and unprecedented power to destroy the lives of anyone who might challenge the status quo, an act conveniently defined as “Terrorism.”[6] This was all done in the name of “safety and security” for the people of America, the “good of the nation,” the “welfare of the people.”

Contrary to the neatly sanitized history which you learned in Mr. Scholtz’s history class, the Black Panther Party (BPP) was not “a Black revolutionary militia intent on destroying and killing white people and organizations in the US.”[7] There were a few members who did engage in violent rhetoric and actions, but they were the minority when compared to the overall picture and message of the BPP. Within five years of its existence, the BPP had expanded its mission from organizing black people to organizing all lower-class people, regardless of skin color, in a movement towards class-mobility. Likewise, publicly-educated school children in America will probably never hear that the famed 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” led by civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was not just about civil rights, but about funding for public resources, raising the minimum wage, and broadening the Fair Labor Standards to include unemployed citizens. His march was the largest ever unification of the lower-class in America – uniting over 300,000 people from all over the nation, bringing together Appalachian coal-miners, Native Americans, Migrant farm workers, Labor Unions, Women, and ethnic minorities together for the first time to march under one banner: “Lower-Class Unity.” [8] You will have to look long and hard to find any references to the “Rainbow Coalition”- an organization founded by BPP Fred Hampton that united various ethnic gangs, radical political groups, and the American Indian Movement in Chicago, effectively ending gang-violence and drug trafficking in the affected areas and seeking to educate and empower young men and women to enact real and effective change in their communities.[9] These stories and the narratives they suggest do not fit the image of the “violent, ignorant, whitey-killer” that is the chosen image of the mass-media, therefore they have been erased from the popular history that is presented to the masses.

These revolutionaries and idealists were beginning to understand that although race and gender play a major role in oppression in America, the real oppression is that which is heaped on them by the upper class, the profound burden which has been shared by the vast majority of humankind throughout history: Class-induced poverty. This class-consciousness spread rapidly through the ranks of the activists as the lower-class realized who their enemy was and how weak their enemy is. With that consciousness came an unprecedented level of cooperation, as the various organizations realized they collectively had the power to dismantle the systems of oppression that enslaved them all; and that very consciousness sent jolts of fear through the ranks of power all the way to the top.

The men on top had seen what could happen if the people united, and were terrified of what they saw. True to its form, these movements and their leaders were stopped by the Empire by all means possible, and with them went the last true movement towards class-consciousness in America.

Not only was the movement stopped, but the Empire retaliated for the attempted insurrection by clamping down ever tighter on social organizing, stepping up police brutality and autonomy, and declaring a thinly veiled “War on Drugs” which was rigorously applied to the lower-class (more specifically lower-class men of color) across the nation.[10] Hundreds of thousands of potential revolutionaries were efficiently, quietly, and ruthlessly escorted from their homes to Federal Prisons, as the prison population soared from 260,000 in 1970 to over 2,500,000 today.[11] Lest one think that these individuals are violent offenders who are in prison for the good of the community, know that over 67% of those currently serving time in Federal Prisons are doing so for nonviolent drug charges, and over half of those are serving time for their first offense. [12] And lest one think that our prisons are free of racial bias or discrimination, know that although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses are Latino or black.[13]

But aren’t drugs a bad thing? Shouldn’t those who use, sell, and make them be punished for their actions? Isn’t the only reason the prison population is expanding is because more people are committing crimes? A thorough exploration of the philosophy, methodology, and execution of the drug war is not pertinent here, yet I will attempt to provide some perspective on the way that America has chosen to engage it’s “drug problem” by contrasting it with a country who faced the same problems, yet did something very different with them.

Roughly the same time that America faced its first wave of the destructive power of crack-cocaine in the early 1970s, Portugal was facing a similar crisis. Portugal immediately responded by redirecting the money that would have gone towards putting drug users in cages into drug treatment and prevention programs. Instead of drastically increasing police and military presence and response, they decriminalized most drugs and created a system that allowed drug users to immediately get support and treatment for their addiction. Instead of creating more and more prisons to house offenders, they put money into education and awareness programs to educate citizens on the dangers of drugs and how to support family or community members who have fallen under its influence. Instead of treating drug users like violent criminals, they treated them like sick people who needed help. The results? Drug abuse and addiction plummeted, and drug-related crime became virtually non-existent.[14] By contrast, America has never seen higher rates of drug addiction or drug-related crime, and they are showing no signs of going away anytime soon. As a nation, we collectively chose how to deal with the problem of drug addiction in our communities by spending an enormous amount of time, energy, and money punishing individuals who were caught in the net of addiction, rather than seeking to heal and restore them to their communities and families.

In order to hold increasingly massive amounts of prisoners, the Empire shrewdly decided that they would need to find a way to profit off of incarceration- thus creating the Prison Industrial Complex. By creating privately owned prisons and press-ganging the inmates into doing manual labor for 12 cents an hour, “The land of the free” solved many of its problems with one horribly efficient solution. Within a span of 15 years, America created the world’s largest prison labor-source and cleaned up the streets of any potential dissidents. [15] Today, America incarcerates more of its own population (per capita) than any other nation in the world: 1 in every 31 adults is either behind bars, on probation, or on parole. Over two and a half million individuals are currently behind bars in our country, and another five million, having served their time, are now faced with the social stigma, minimal job/housing/educational prospects, and everyday challenges of being labeled a felon for the rest of their life. [16]

But what of the rest of this grand nation who populates the “Home of the Brave?” Are they not indignant at this horribly discriminatory and destructive regime which is imprisoning their brothers and sisters at historically unprecedented rates? Are they not currently planning and organizing to overthrow this imperialist machine through any means necessary? Nay, they are either adequately pacified with the buzzing and chirping of their electronic gadgets, the thrill of their sports teams impending loss or win and the comforting glow of their television, or burdened down with debt, sickness, and poverty. Indeed, it would seem that America has never been farther from class-consciousness or mobility. It would appear that the men on top have won, and that there is little to nothing we can do to halt our nation’s inevitable descent into self-destruction and annihilation.

Aren’t we supposed to be a classless society? Just look at the host of “rags to riches” stories we are all familiar with- the migrant worker who eventually owns his own business, the street kid from the ghetto who becomes a famous basketball player, or the hard-working inner-city youth who ends up at Harvard. We love these stories, and we choose to believe these stories because they salve our seared conscience- they are the seductive whisper in our ear that “There is nothing to worry about. This is a free country: anyone can make it, if they just work hard enough. You don’t need to worry about those on top or those on bottom – they probably deserve to be there.” These stories and their accompanying political accoutrements serve to perpetuate the myth that America is indeed a classless society, and there is nothing that needs to change.

But what if something does need to change? What if the country that has given you so much has done so on the backs of slaves, supported by the cleverly disguised but strangely familiar fiends of racism and classism? What if the key to a real and lasting social movement is right under our noses, and we have simply been too distracted and self-absorbed to notice it? What if I told you that there exists in the belly of the most powerful empire in the world an army of over six million revolutionaries who have nothing to lose and everything to gain from challenging the Empire? What if all these revolutionaries need is some organization, education, and encouragement? What if you could play a major role in making this happen?

The reality is that for every dollar spent on rehabilitation, education, prevention, and other drug treatment options, $7.48 is saved on the incarceration and criminal justice budget.[17] Why aren’t we putting our time, money, and intention into drug prevention or rehabilitation? Why are we choosing instead to put individuals in prison for up to 21 years for a first-time nonviolent drug offence?[18] Maybe it’s because as a nation, we are cowards who are unable to face our dark history and destructive patterns, and so we choose to relegate those that represent our past to the furthest reaches of our society; locked up behind concrete walls, barbed wire fences, and apathetic attitudes.

I believe that my brothers and sisters who are currently enslaved in the lowest caste of the American industrial machine are the ones who are most prepared to enact real and lasting change in this system. They have lived under the heavy yoke of slavery and injustice for far too long, and are slowly realizing that the American dream was never meant for them. I believe that the over 2,520,000 inmates who woke up behinds bars this morning are slowly becoming disenchanted with the petty rewards that our system has to offer them for “behaving” and are realizing that the power to change is in their hands. If these people could somehow once again put aside their differences and unite under the banner of justice and equality, they would be the most powerful revolutionary group to ever have a shot at restoring this country to the ideals of democracy, equality, and freedom which it was supposedly founded on.

If this group of people were somehow to gain the education and awareness to question this system and the courage to imagine a new one, it would be all over… which is precisely why they are never given that opportunity.

I believe it is time to give them that opportunity.

What the incarcerated populations of the 21st century are learning, and what they believe about themselves and their role in humanity, will greatly affect this country’s future. The lessons we teach those enrolled in the schools of poverty, violence, oppression, and incarceration will eventually be taught to us. Prisons are indeed schools – schools that are mostly filled with young men of color who have been written out of the story of their people and who need a new story. The current teachers are the U.S. “Justice” system, the abusive and corrupt police-forces, the subtly racist politicians and policy-makers, the ruthless gang culture, and the stark reality of life behind bars.

Unless a new system – a new set of teachers and ideas enters this picture, not much is likely to change. Young men will continue being incarcerated by the thousands, violence and ignorance will continue to be taught and propagated in the streets and in the prisons, and we will have to face the reality that not much has changed in our country since 1876. The Jim Crow laws have simply changed their mask, and now masquerade under the banner of the “Drug War.” [19]

Where will this new system come from? Who will lead it? Where will we find these new teachers of new ideas – ones of class-consciousness, education, mobilization, and unity? How can we mobilize and inspire people to care about this massive cadre of slaves and their families?

I will not even pretend to have the answers to such questions, yet I do know that there are many, many people who are not incarcerated or subject to socialized oppression, yet who know about and care for their enslaved brothers and sisters. There is a growing number of young people in America who are becoming concerned and aware of the issues of race and class in our country, yet aren’t really sure what to do about it.

I propose a decentralized Penpal mentorship program that pairs incarcerated individuals up with their concerned, educated, class-conscious brothers and sisters outside the bars. It is my experience that real, lasting relationships and community is one of, if not the most effective, tools for creating change in individuals or systems. The men on top have invested much into keeping the middle-class separate and even scared of the lower-class for many, many years. It is time to begin destroying those belief-sets and building relationships and community with our supposed “enemies,” as we learn that we are all really on the same side, and our enemy is not each other, or even the ruling parties or individuals, but it is against ideas. It is these ideas we must attack with relentless aggression and passion, until the walls of racism, classism, sexism, and any other -isms are the ails of a long-forgotten age.

If you really care about these ideas and social ills, if you actually want to create a better world for tomorrow, then do it. There are a few organizations and people who are working towards prisoner mobility and education, and they desperately need more help and resources. One way you can help is by joining with the Hampton Institute in creating a community of individuals who are concerned with the issues at hand, and who are committed to doing what they can to help, even if it is only one person at a time.

No matter what course of action you choose to engage in, know that the course of human history tends to arc towards equality and human rights only when individuals of great dedication and conviction choose to act upon it, despite the great powers and forces that will press back with every weapon in their arsenal. The words of the great poet of peace, Martin Luther King, seem appropriate here:

“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

For more information on the Hampton Institute’s Prisoner Mentorship program, Bridging the Gap: Reaching out to our Incarcerated Allies, click here.


[1] “Hoover and the F.B.I.” . Luna Ray Films, LLC. Retrieved January 24, 2013.

[5] “Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement” – Ward Churchill (1988)

[6] “Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement” – Ward Churchill (1988)

[8] “The Last Crusade: Martin Luther King, Jr., the FBI, and the Poor Peoples Campaign” – Gerald McKnight (1998)

[9] “Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times” -Amy Sonnie and James Tracy (2011)

[10] “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” – Michelle Alexander (2010)

[11] “The Politics of Injustice: Crime and Punishment in America” – Katherine Beckett and Theodore Sasson (2004)

[12] “Race to Incarcerate” – Marc Mauer (2006)

[13] “Schools and Prisons: Fifty Years After Brown v. Board of Education” – Marc Mauer and Ryan S. King (2004)

[15] “Race to Incarcerate” – Marc Mauer (2006)

[16] “Race to Incarcerate” – Marc Mauer (2006)

[19] “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” – Michelle Alexander (2010)

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