As the eyes of the social justice world turn to the UN climate summit this week, those of us involved in the struggle against mass incarceration would do well to examine the history of the campaign for climate justice. A starting point to connect the histories of the two movements might be illusions of progress. For the past four years, anti-mass incarceration activists have celebrated the first annual declines in the nation’s prison population since the late 1970s. The message about the US criminal legal system seemed to be spreading far and wide. Eric Holder was calling for releasing people with drug offense convictions. A New York Times editorial in May stated: “The American experiment in mass incarceration has been a moral, legal, social and economic disaster. It cannot end soon enough.”
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Even conservatives like Newt Gingrich and Rand Paul came on board to denounce the excessive use of imprisonment. The success stories of states like Texas in cutting prison populations made the rounds to appreciative audiences who increasingly became convinced a new “convergence” of agendas would be sufficient to reverse a disgraceful social policy episode.
Last week, the movement got a wake-up call. The steady decline in prison numbers suddenly went the other way. The Bureau of Justice’s annual statistical analysis of prisoner populations for 2013 showed that total numbers were up, by a mere 0.3 percent, but up nonetheless. To make matters worse for carceral optimists, poster child Texas showed an increase in prison population, with its nation-leading incarcerated cohort climbing from 157,900 to 160,295. So what does this mean for the convergence of agendas that was supposed to take us past the tipping point in ending mass incarceration?
The Rio Moment
In climate change terms, perhaps this represents the “Rio moment” for the movement against mass incarceration. In 1992, 172 government representatives along with thousands of environmental activists flocked to Rio de Janeiro to the first “Earth Summit.” People from across the political spectrum put their stamp on the Rio Declaration. This comprehensive document, eventually passed by the UN General Assembly, laid out clear-cut principles for sustainable development, seemingly compelling national governments, corporations and consumers to head down a new road. With smiles and handshakes all around, a new era was born. A few years later, the Kyoto agreement limiting emissions seemed to seal the deal.
Profiteers and their political allies don’t give up the ship without mobilizing all their resources for the fight. They will grant small concessions, window dress their past practice, even invite their most intransigent enemies into the tent, but they will not change unless a political force emerges that compels them to do so.
Yet, in the long run, climate change has not been reversed, maybe not even slowed down. The Rio Declaration and its successors didn’t stick. Instead of adhering to promises and principles, too many political leaders did very little while corporate powers re-grouped. The corporations cherry-picked their token changes while mounting marketing campaigns about how self-regulation, carbon trading, a few windmills and abundant rhetoric on sustainable development were going to turn climate change around. Now 22 years after Rio, the outcomes are dire. While the Energy Information Administration reports that only 10 percent of US energy comes from renewables, companies continue to frack and promote the Keystone XL pipeline. President Obama proudly proclaimed in 2012 that: “We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high.” Growing fossil fuel production, not saving the planet, remains the focal point of national pride.
At the global level, the National Climatic Data Center reports that August 2014 was the warmest on record. Global emissions have kept rising and, according to a report this month from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere hit a new record high in 2013. Climatic-related disasters such as Katrina, Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan, which displaced 4 million people in the Philippines in November 2013, continue to abound.
Throughout this process, climate change activists have learned the hard way that the profiteers and their political allies don’t give up the ship without mobilizing all their resources for the fight. They will grant small concessions, window dress their past practice, even invite their most intransigent enemies into the tent, but they will not change unless a political force emerges that compels them to do so.
Naomi Klein and the Climate Change Movement
In her recently released book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, author Naomi Klein chronicles much of the troubled history of the climate change movement. Several key points offer useful lessons for those fighting against mass incarceration. First, the problems we face are systemic. They are not about changing a few laws or regulating a few bad apple corporations, be they oil companies or private corrections firms. The system has to change from top to bottom.
A movement to drive this kind of change requires leaders and organizations with a vision of the world 30, 40, 50 years down the road, not CEOs focused on share prices and annual bottom lines – much less politicians dancing to the tune of public opinion polls. In the criminal legal world, movement leaders must be driven by a notion of a system that sits within the context of a just society, one that values all peoples equally and will tackle the race, class and gender issues that lay at the heart of mass incarceration. Like pollution, mass incarceration has damaged communities from the bottom up. Only a massive shift of resources can reverse that damage. Letting a few thousand people out of prison or slashing corrections budgets, while definitely desirable, will not solve this problem any more than recycling and scrapping incandescent light bulbs will halt climate change.
Secondly, certain sectors of the climate change movement equated victory with being invited into the big policy circles – UN Summits, the World Economic Forum, global habitat conferences. They spent the bulk of their lives crafting and tweaking resolutions and counter-resolutions which in the end yielded little or no substantive change, apart from opening better-paying career paths for nonprofit “superstars.” Perhaps South African Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu spelled this out most clearly: “People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change.” In this regard, the movement against mass incarceration in the United States remains in its infancy. But inevitably a number of activists will (maybe already are) measure success solely by the volume of Congressional hearing invitations and the number of foundation grants scored rather than the extent of genuine movement building.
Thirdly, for many years, as Klein also points out, the climate change movement was labelled “tree-huggers,” cast as the spoiled children of the global North caught up in a fit of zeal among the young and privileged which would disappear faster than the spotted owl. For a long time, perhaps there was a certain truth to this characterization. No more. The vagaries of global climate change have hit the poor, especially from the global South. Spokespeople from African countries such as the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, a coalition of over a thousand civil society organizations, are stepping up. Post-Haiyan, nurses unions from the Philippines are joining the fray. Women have also raised the gender dimensions of global climate justice. In its call on members to join the September 21 climate march in Manhattan, the International Alliance of Women stressed, “there can be no climate justice without gender justice.” They pointed out the importance of “acknowledging that women, particularly in the global South, have contributed the least to global warming and degradation of the planet and yet they suffer the most from environmental destruction and unsustainable consumption and production.”
In North America, similar processes in climate justice circles are at work. Indigenous people are playing a key role in halting the exploitation of the Canadian tar sands. Organizations like the NAACP and black church leaders are taking up environmental issues, developing their own climate justice initiatives focusing on people of color hit by Sandy, Katrina and Rita and bringing African-American hip-hop artists to the table. Those critically impacted at the ground level are becoming active.
Empowering the Critically Impacted
Similarly, during its brief lifetime, too much of the movement against mass incarceration has been led, both politically and ideologically, by a small core of dedicated activists and academics with no direct experience of mass incarceration and little genuine connection to the communities, which mass incarceration impacts. While many of these activists have done admirable work, the voice of those directly impacted – those who have been locked up, their loved ones, their communities – must step to the fore. At the moment, their voice remains a whisper. Moreover, the movement against mass incarceration is only beginning to recognize the gender dimensions of mass incarceration. While men may constitute roughly 90 percent of those behind bars, women and children shoulder the other half of the burdens of mass incarceration – sustaining family and community with ever-dwindling resources in the absence of those captured by the world of corrections.
Like climate justice, ending mass incarceration links to a broad spectrum of social change. Ending mass incarceration is about racial and gender justice, but also about economic justice – an economy that generates jobs with a living wage, a public sector that delivers public housing programs, not prison building booms, an education system that channels youth of color onto the road to success, not into the prison pipeline, a social welfare system that offers support and respect to women heads of households, not an impoverished pigeon hole of wife, sister or mother of a prisoner.
Wake Up Call
The release of the Bureau of Justice statistics for 2013 is perhaps the Rio moment for the movement against mass incarceration. This may be the time for the movement to seriously reflect on the limitations of cherry picking “non-violent offenders” and diverting a few people into drug courts or community service. Ending mass incarceration requires a different kind of movement, one with the active participation and leadership of millions of poor people of color.
While policy reports and legislative lobbying can play an important role, as the Blockadia activists in North America are emphasizing, direct action from the critically impacted also needs to be added to the agenda. Let us hope that long before 20 years after this “Rio moment,” the movement against mass incarceration will not be lamenting the miniscule impact our actions have had on this systemic problem and still be wondering why a piecemeal, expert-driven approach has not changed the world. And let us also hope that by that time, the vagaries of climate change have not rendered our efforts too late.