How Will We End Mass Incarceration?
Everyone who took part in last month’s 21st Century Freedom Ride has been impacted by what Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, describes as an elaborate system of racial control.
Driving through the beautiful states of North Carolina and Tennessee, we were on sacred ground as we shared our experiences with each other. Latina Freedom Riders talked about the ever-present reality of being profiled, detained, and threatened with deportation and/or actually deported. Undocumented Freedom Riders provided tearful accounts of being denied equal access to education, though they have been residents of their states nearly their entire lives. With the sting of familiarity reverberating in our bones, those of us who are young, black, and male echoed our experiences of being profiled, police harassment and intimidation, and threats of incarceration. The wisdom and experience of a formerly incarcerated Freedom Rider grounded us as she described her work of resistance and support for those recently released but still under the restraints the system imposes on work, life, and the pursuit of freedom.
We talked strategy, interrogating questions like whether or not we should stick to the “acceptable struggle” framed often by those who aren’t in it, and how this struggle needs to cast us within a national narrative of “hard working, law abiding people.” No matter how true the statement, we recognize that our demands for freedom are being legitimated merely by the labor our bodies can offer.
We tried to think of ways to prevent our struggles from being divided when they are so clearly not. We wondered about how we reach our broader communities who simply “don’t want to make trouble” or who have been convinced that if we “only did everything right we’d be OK.” Or that our problems lie with our style of dress rather than the brutality of an unjust system.
We asked the ever-important question, how do we fund our movement and whose money should we and should we not accept? What does it mean that some foundations have board members who are also involved in for-profit prison companies?
In the pursuit of these and many other questions, we were accompanied by the saints. This Freedom Ride was intentional in invoking the memory of the Journey of Reconciliation and in studying the lessons learned in struggles before ours. We were also joined by veterans of those earlier struggles who are still with us. The legendary SNCC worker, Bob Zellner accompanied us every stop of the way, sharing stories of his continued work for the expansion of American Democracy. We were taught in Greensboro by veteran activists from the Beloved Community Center: Lewis Brandon and Joyce & Nelson Johnson. We left Greensboro for New Market TN, watching Brother Outsider on the bus ride and discussing Bayard Rustin’s legacy.
We rested at the Highlander Center and journeyed with the saints a little longer there. My FOR colleague Ethan Vesely-Flad was with us as we recalled the legacies of Ella Baker, Rosa Parks, Myles Horton, Septima Clark, and others who found refuge in that storied place in the hills of Tennessee. Their memories, and the continuing legacies of other veterans like Hollis Watkins, joined us in our pursuit of strategy and direction.
From Highlander, we journeyed on to Nashville. We visited Fisk University, and learned about the ongoing grassroots effort to resist the demolition of public housing. We were blessed by the lessons from the Nashville sit-in movement. Bob Zellner and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (of the School for Conversion) led us on a training exercise that enacted some of the lessons in nonviolent resistance that Jim Lawson taught a generation of emerging leaders in Nashville so many years ago. We then imagined and enacted an action addressing the denial of education access to undocumented residents of the state of Georgia.
How will we end mass incarceration? It will probably become clear only as the system is dying and we are near victory, but this is a beginning.
The New Jim Crow
When I first learned of Michelle Alexander and her book The New Jim Crow, it was during my September 2010 visit to Denver to interview Vincent Harding for Fellowship magazine. By the time I finally met her, some months later, I was already convinced in the accuracy of her assessment. The book has been read widely, awakening many minds to the systemic problem of mass incarceration and the realities of the New Jim Crow.
As Michelle has carried the message forward, appearing nationwide on television, in places of worship, and schools and universities, the momentum is growing and change is beginning. Major organizations finally have this issue on their radar. Yet, we know that the system of mass incarceration and the fear that inspires it will not be defeated by any one organization or even coalitions of organizations. It will be defeated by a massive awakening of conscience and the long-awaited revolution of values called for a half-century ago. It will take millions of ordinary people once again choosing to do extraordinary things.
FOR members Vincent Harding and Chris Moore-Backman already produced a study guide to The New Jim Crow to help us wrestle with what’s happening in our own neighborhoods and across the tracks. The study guide has been used throughout the country in both church Sunday Schools and prison schools.
The accomplished activist and trainer, Daniel Hunter, has now joined Vincent and Chris to produce a new booklet designed to help communities organize once they’ve become aware. I credit Daniel and his remarkable gift of affirmation with helping me discover my own contributions to the nonviolent struggle. He has been among my most valued teachers and mentors in organizing. With Daniel joining Vincent Harding and Chris Moore-Backman, and with Michelle Alexander’s oversight, I am confident that this will be a phenomenal guide, useful beyond what we can currently imagine. They need our help to produce it. Please join me in making a contribution to the Indiegogo campaign by January 30 to ensure its successful completion.
Working together through creative and informative initiatives such as these, we are beginning to organize for the end of mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow.
Photos: (1) Lucas Johnson, John Stean, Wesley Morris, and Irving David Allen at the Cayce Homes in Nashville, Tennessee. (2) Freedom Riders gather at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, North Carolina. (3) SNCC veteran Bob Zellner speaks to Freedom Riders in the circle at the Highlander Center in New Market, Tennessee.