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Corporate Capitalism Is the Foundation of Police Brutality and the Prison State

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Reprinted from Truthdig

New Yorkers protest the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in a show of solidarity at Union Square in April.
(image by (RTNJennings / MediaPunch / IPX))

Our national conversation on race and crime is based on a fiction. It is the fiction that the organs of internal security, especially the judiciary and the police, can be adjusted, modernized or professionalized to make possible a post-racial America. We discuss issues of race while ignoring the economic, bureaucratic and political systems of exploitation -- all of it legal and built into the ruling apparatus -- that are the true engines of racism and white supremacy. No discussion of race is possible without a discussion of capitalism and class. And until that discussion takes place, despite all the proposed reforms to the criminal justice system, the state will continue to murder and imprison poor people of color with impunity.

More training, body cameras, community policing, the hiring of more minorities as police officers, a better probation service and more equitable fines will not blunt the indiscriminate use of lethal force or reduce the mass incarceration that destroys the lives of the poor. Our capitalist system callously discards surplus labor, especially poor people of color, employing lethal force and the largest prison system in the world to keep them under control. This is by design. And until this predatory system of capitalism is destroyed, the poor, especially people of color, will continue to be gunned down by police in the streets, as they have for decades, and disproportionately locked in prison cages.

"The strength of 'The New Jim Crow' by Michelle Alexander is that, by equating mass incarceration with Jim Crow, it makes it rhetorically impossible to defend it," said Naomi Murakawa, author of "The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America," when we met recently in Princeton, N.J. "But, on the other hand, there is no 'new' Jim Crow, there is just capitalist white supremacy in a state of constant self-preservation."

"We should talk about what we are empowering police to do, not how they are doing it, not whether they are being nice when they carry out arrests," she said. "Reforms are oriented to making violence appear respectable and courteous. But being arrested once can devastate someone's life. This is the violence we are not talking about. It does not matter if you are arrested politely. Combating racism is not about combating bad ideas in the head or hateful feelings. This idea is the perfect formula to preserve material distributions in their exact configuration."

Murakawa, who teaches at Princeton University, laid out in her book that liberals, in the name of pity, and conservatives, in the name of law and order -- or as Richard Nixon expressed it, the right to be safe and free of fear -- equally shared in the building of our carceral state. "Liberal racial pity mirrored conservative racial contempt," she writes. These "competing constructions of black criminality, one callous, another with a tenor of sympathy and cowering paternalism," ensured that by the time these forces were done, there was from 1968 to 2010 a septupling of people locked in the prison system. "Counting probation and parole with jails and prisons is even more astonishing still," she writes. "This population grew from 780,000 in 1965 to seven million in 2010."

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Racism in America will not be solved, she writes, by "teaching tolerance and creating colorblind institutions." The refusal to confront structural racism, which in the 1930s and '40s among intellectuals "situated domestic racism and colonialism abroad in an integrated critique of global capitalism," led to a vapid racial liberalism that, as Penny Von Eschen writes, conceived of racism as "an anachronistic prejudice and a personal and psychological problem, rather than as a systemic problem rooted in specific social practices and prevailing relations of political economy and culture."

Police brutality will not be solved, Murakawa points out, by reforms that mandate an "acceptable use of force." The state may have outlawed lynching and mob violence -- largely because of international outcry and damage to the image of the United States abroad -- but insisted that capital punishment "could be fair with adequate legal defense for the poor, proper jury instructions, and clear lists of mitigating and aggravating circumstances." Racial violence was seen as an "administrative deficiency."

Murakawa goes on in the book:

"Liberal lawmakers would come to evaluate fairness through finely honed, step-by-step questions: Did legislators enact a sufficiently clear criminal statute? Did police properly Mirandize? Did prosecutors follow protocol in offering a plea bargain or filing charges? Did parole officers follow administrative rules of revocation? And, in any single step, did a specific actor deviate from the protocol or intentionally discriminate? As a methodology for 'finding racism' in the criminal justice system, liberal law-and-order reinforced the common sense that racism is a ghost in the machine, some immaterial force detached from the institutional terrain of racialized wealth inequality and the possessive investment in whiteness. At the core of liberal law-and-order was the promise to move each individual qua individual through a system of clear rules that allow little room for individual bias. In effect, a lasting legacy of liberal law-and-order is this: we evaluate the rightness of criminal justice through the administrative quality by which each individual is searched, arrested, warehoused, or put to death."

All penal reform, from President Truman's 1947 Committee on Civil Rights report to the Safe Streets Act of 1968 to the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 to contemporary calls for more professionalization, in effect only hand more power and resources to the police. It does nothing to blunt police abuse or reverse mass incarceration. It does nothing to address the bias of white supremacy.

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"Truman's version of the civil rights agenda came through lynching," Murakawa said. "It illuminates how the rule of law and white supremacy operate hand in hand. Lynching hurt U.S. credibility. It hurt its force projection abroad. The concern over lynching was not a concern for black lives. It was a concern that mob and state violence were too easily conflated. The objective became to make a sharp difference between white supremacist mob violence and white supremacist state violence. The difference is not that one is white supremacist and one is not. The difference is one [is] proceduralized, one is rights based, one is orderly, bound by rule of law with ever more elaborate procedures. That is the only thing that makes it different from the lynch mob."

The real crime -- poverty, institutional racism and capitalist exploitation -- is rarely discussed. Therefore, the blame for crime is easily shifted to the "pathology" of black families. The Moynihan report, for example, argues that black criminality results from dominant black mothers and absent black fathers.

"You can perfect due process so it operates like a machine and have perfect quality control," Murakawa said. "This is what the due-process-right revolution was. You can have full adherence to the panoply of rights. And yet you also have a machine that only grows. Everyone thought the Miranda decision would stop the rate at which police arrest people. They thought it would curtail the scale and scope of policing. Instead, Miranda rights are used to protect police officers in civil litigation. Police officers say they got the waiver. They say people were informed of their rights. Miranda is used mostly to deflect lawsuits against police departments. These little procedural interventions give the system a patina of legitimacy. If we are processing at the same scale and at the same racial concentration, then the machinery of death only gets bigger and bigger."

The more that "carceral machinery was rights-based and rule-bound, the more racial disparity was isolatable to 'real' black criminality." In other words, as liberals and conservatives became convinced that the machinery of the judiciary and the police was largely impartial and fair, the onus for punishment shifted to the victims. State-sponsored white violence remained entrenched. Institutionalized murder remained acceptable. In the minds of liberals and conservatives, those who were arrested, locked up or shot deserved to be arrested, locked up or shot. Federal mandatory minimum statutes tripled under President Bill Clinton, and this is one example Murakawa points out of how "with each administrative layer to protect African Americans from lawless racial violence, liberals propelled carceral development that, through perverse turns, expanded lawful racial violence."

By 1993, she points out, "African Americans accounted for 88.3 percent of all federal crack cocaine distribution convictions." And because the judicial system is stacked against poor people of color, it does not matter, she said, if the arresting officers are also people of color.

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

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