Aquarius, Episode 4: Spoiler Alerts

Episode 4 of Aquarius is an exposition of hypocrisies–in domestic law enforcement, in foreign policy, and in personal life.

At the forefront of the episode are two murders: the one Sam Hodiak is investigating, an intra-racial crime within the black community, and the one no one is investigating, the murder of a black teenager named Michael Younger in the hands of a white cop (“chokehold” is said to be referred to as “cop hold”.) When Hodiak comes to investigate the former, the message from the Black Panthers, on behalf of the neighborhood, is that they will not collaborate, nor will they hand him the suspect, until the other murder is solved and the culprit, a police officer well known to them, brought to justice. Among the Black Panthers is the man Hodiak falsely arrested in Episode 1, who tells him:

Bunchy: You pushed out the contradictions and gave birth to me as a black panther. It’s the dialectic.
Sam: I don’t understand what you’re saying, and moreover, you don’t understand a word you’re saying.
Bunchy: The dialectic. A conflict of opposites. As the man said, you may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you.
Sam: I think it’s way too early in the morning to quote Trotsky. Oh, look, it reads!

By “it”, does Sam refer to Bunchy or to himself? Bunchy accuses him of being “a racist cop in the most racist police force in the nation.” Perhaps moved only by the will to secure cooperation on his own investigation, or perhaps realizing a bit of the broader structural problem, Hodiak investigates Younger’s murder. He and Shafe crack it and prepare to go to internal investigations. But Cutler, promoted to lieutenant now, stops them. “You think that, after Watts,” asks Cutler, “this department going to admit a white cop killed a black teenager?” Shafe’s incredulity about the department’s decision to bury the murder, and his awakening to the bitter news about the status quo, will undoubtedly echo in many sympathetic post-Ferguson viewers’ thoughts, made more bitter because of the passage of time.

What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine?
I learned that policemen are my friends;
I learned that justice never ends;
I learned that murderers die for their crimes,
even though we make a mistake sometimes;
that’s what I learned in school today,
that’s what I learned in school.

But Hodiak has his own awakening to go through, too. His son, Walt, has gone AWOL. Having served in covert ops in Cambodia, he has realized that the plan is “saturated bombing, killing children, arming crazies, destroying that civilization.” Hodiak is not blind to the atrocities of war or to the president’s deceit about the Cambodia front, but his moral compass is elsewhere: “if you want to win a war, you got to fight ugly sometimes.” But Walt is undeterred and plans to leak what he knows to the press.

What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today, dear little boy of mine?
I learned that Washington never told a lie;
I learned that soldiers seldom die;
I learned that everybody’s free,
that’s what the teacher said to me;
that’s what I learned in school today,
that’s what I learned in school.

I learned our government must be strong; 
It’s always right and never wrong;
Our leaders are the finest men,
And we elect them again and again;
that’s what I learned in school today,
that’s what I learned in school.

Finally, the Manson girls’ care and concern for each other (if only as fellow disciples) is contrasted, again, to the hypocritical sham marriages of, well, pretty much everyone else, such as the Hodiak and Karn families.

Film Review: Fruitvale Station

What a tragic week in which to watch Fruitvale Station, a dramatization of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, shot by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle on New Year’s Eve of 2008. Still raw and thoughtful after the week of intense public commentary on George Zimmerman’s acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murder, a San Francisco audience wept tonight at the Metreon as they saw a familiar scene come to life: A brutal shooting of a handcuffed man, in grainy cellular phone footage first, and in dramatized high definition much later.

The film walks us through a day in the life of Grant, a 22-year-old man, teetering between two courses of life: Responsibility, a steady job, and a stable relationship with his young daughter’s mother, and a life of drugs in the street that led him to a stint in San Quentin the previous year. His family and friends, and especially his girlfriend, come to life, not in an idealized, canonized, haloed poster image for a demonstration, but like any of us: Living, loving, making mistakes, having fun, getting angry, trying, failing, succeeding.

We could talk about the comparison between the dramatized series of events and what actually happened. And we could remember the moving op-ed from the doctor who treated Grant, and the aftermath for BART Police, and the broader meaning of the taser defense, and about the difference between protest and riots, but we already talked about all that during the events and the trial. And now it’s time to look at the movie as what it is – a work of art that seeks to tell us something important.

Here is what I am glad the movie does not tell us: That we should canonize Oscar Grant as the saint of the struggle against police abuse of power and racialized violence. or that his life was exemplary and flawless.

The movie also does not tell us this: That Oscar Grant is nobody, his life not worth remembering except for the event of his death.

Instead, the movie tells us what we should all remember: That Oscar Grant should be canonized. As all of us should – every single one of us. Because every human life is valuable and precious and has intrinsic value. Grant’s, and Mehserle’s, and Martin’s, and Zimmerman’s. And because the measure of a life is not its death or its achievements, but the small magic it works in our loved ones and friends and family members. In the little deeds, like dropping off our kids at school, or going to the supermarket to buy ingredients for gumbo, or at the greeting cards aisle picking a silly card for a relative.

And yet–even though all lives are precious and valuable–some lives are worth less than others. David Baldus‘ study of the death penalty indicated the way prejudice operates through the race of the victim; black victims’ murderers, whether white or black, fared more leniently than their counterparts with white victims. If you will, this is where the prevalent “let them kill each other” approach comes from. And a grim reminder that underenforcement, like overenforcement, is not race blind.

Far from offering overt racial preachy monologues, the film exposes the experience of an African American working class life in a way that weaves the racial experience intrinsically into the minutiae of one’s day, in life and in death. One’s consciousness need not be raised for one to experience the subtle effects of race on one’s life. In a humorous scene, Grant’s sister asks him to buy a card on her behalf for her mother’s birthday. “Don’t buy a white card,” she asks, a reminder that even in the Hallmark aisle there are symbols and themes and that even cute pastel slogans speak to different life experiences.

And, through the fighting scene with a former fellow inmate on BART that led to Grant’s apprehension and shooting at the station,  the movie tells us one more thing: That the experience of imprisonment is toxic, poisonous, and that life on the outside is permeable to life on the inside. That animosities behind bars have a way of affecting interactions on the outside. That an imprisonment experience that offers no growth, no hope, no betterment, promises only pain and tragedy.

Many thanks to the many friends who came with me to see the film tonight for their wise words.

After Trayvon: Why a Guilty Verdict Is Not The Answer

Like many people of good conscience, I was angry and upset to hear the news last night. The acquittal of George Zimmerman, while not wholly unexpected given the trial coverage, has been a punch in the stomach for those of us who saw race relations in America dramatized yet again in this incident. It is also hard to see this as an isolated incident, and those of us who experienced frustration and rage at the verdict of Johannes Mehserle, who shot Oscar Grant in front of dozens of onlookers are even more enraged and hopeless today.

Which is why this post is a hard one for me to write. Because I have hard things to say, and they will not heal our broken hearts or silence our voices from crying out in indignation today. But maybe they are still worth saying.

Legal Truth and Factual Truth

We all know this, but it bears repeating: Criminal law doctrine–stripped of all realities and considerations and constraints and group effects–allows convicting people only if the evidence supports their guilt beyond reasonable doubt. What that means, exactly; whether it allows for majority decisions; whether jurors understand how to quantify it; and how it relates to actual innocence is a different question. But finding someone not-guilty at trial is not a factual statement that the person did not commit the crime. Also, which is less obvious, finding someone guilty at trial is not a factual statement that the person committed the crime. The legal system would have us believe that it takes legal guilt seriously. That is, that it hopes that legal guilt will approximate, as much as possible, factual guilt. And much of the premise behind the post-Warren court’s chipping away at the Bill of Rights was exactly that: No one wanted factually innocent people to go to prison, but we weren’t all that excited about the factually guilty going free. The legal system and the rule of law rely on legitimacy from the public, and to garner that legitimacy the façade of truth in convictions has to be maintained.

But deep down, the system knows it makes mistakes. Dan Simon’s In Doubt, which analyzes the causes of wrongful convictions, cites the astonishing statistic that we may be wrongfully convicting up to 5% of all people found guilty at trial. We acknowledge this to the point that habeas proceedings have an “actual innocence” exception to the cause and prejudice rule. Part of the reason for this may be that Doreen McBarnet is right, and that the system is inherently biased toward conviction. Throw in one more important factor: Six jurors is a lot less than twelve, which makes not only for cheaper trials but also for an increased tendency to come to a guilty verdict in weak cases. So, six people came to an unpopular decision, and we may disagree with them. But I certainly do not envy them. I have, perhaps, an inkling about the political culture these folks will be going back to this morning, but I still think it’s going to take a lot of guts to explain this legal decision to people who don’t believe the factual assertions behind it.

Facts and Symbolism

Do you know what happened in that Florida gated community the morning that George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin? And by “know”, I mean, are you absolutely certain of what happened? And can we be certain at all? I wasn’t there, and neither were you. And even if we were there, or saw a video, we could not be sure.

But you and I have a fairly good idea in our heads, and that idea differs from what six Florida residents decided yesterday. We listened to the tape, and we know that Martin was not armed, and we think that Zimmerman, who was motivated by hypervigilance and racial animosity, shot a defenseless man. And my fear this morning has been that we are allowing the symbolic value of this incident, as we did when Oscar Grant was shot, to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of what happened.

The much-awaited movie Fruitvale Station (trailer above) opened yesterday in Oakland theaters. I didn’t see it, but am planning to do so soon; yesterday I had a chance to talk to some people who saw it, and one of them told me that a relative who came with him wanted to know, at the end of the film, whether it was “romanticized.” Films are never an accurate description of the truth, because the truth is messy and does not make for a neat and coherent story. But the story in the film resonates very strongly with those of us who were in Oakland the night of the protests, because it epitomizes what we know and believe is true, namely, that racism is alive and well in America. This feeling would be valid whether or not Mehserle reached to the taser or Zimmerman was attacked by Martin. Because it goes to the heart of a problem, and not to the details.

I read some reviews of Fruitvale Station, which were for the most part laudatory. One of the few exceptions was this piece of drivel by the NY Post’s Kyle Smith. You don’t really need to see the movie to learn something from this review–namely, that Smith doesn’t see Oscar Grant as a human being worthy of life and dignity. To him, Grant is merely a “criminal” and a “recent San Quentin resident,” the “only remarkable aspect” of whose life “was its end.” I suppose that for Smith, as for many people (and, judging from his words to the 911 operator, for George Zimmerman), human life doesn’t have intrinsic value when the person living it has darker skin and a criminal record. I don’t think any of us needs to canonize Grant or even Martin to understand this terrible truth (even though an unarmed honor student is, perhaps, easier to canonize.) That their lives and deaths are a morality tale about the fragile concept of sanctity of life in America for black and brown men is important enough. They don’t have to be all good and flawless. No one is. Even the people we have canonized, like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., were real human beings with flaws and weaknesses. And when we wear the hoodie, we are not, perhaps, making a factual statement about an interaction we didn’t witness, but about its symbolic meaning.

A Racialized Criminal Justice System

Perhaps the resentment about Zimmerman’s verdict comes not from this place of truth and symbolism, then, but from a bitter acknowledgment that a black defendant would not have received this careful consideration, determined defense work and benefit of the doubt. It is one more data point on our chart of racial inequities in the system. When we decry the correctional binge that has bloated America’s prisons for the last four decades, we highlight the obvious racial aspect of it. Some of us go to the extent of referring to the incarceration system as the new Jim Crow.

As James Forman reminds us, however, the picture is more nuanced. A growing number of white people are criminalized, incarcerated, and their lives savaged by the meth plague, much as the not-imaginary crack epidemic savaged African American communities in the 1990s. Black and brown young men are incarcerated at much higher rates, but the white population is rising steadily as well and possibly faster. Contrary to what we believe, the prison inflation is not solely or even predominantly due to nonviolent drug crimes; violent crimes play a big role, and African Americans perpetrate more of those crimes, which are less open to interpretation. All of this does not mean that the criminal justice system is not racialized or that racism does not exist. Of course it does. But the roots of racialization may be much deeper than merely incarceration rates or stop-and-frisk practices, and go back in history to a place of coercion, slavery, torture, and the resulting deep-reaching inequities. Convicting a white man who killed a black man, no matter how enraged his particular story makes us feel, would not do anything to fix this. It would merely add one more inmate to the population.

The Empty Promise of Punitivism

Why would convicting Zimmerman not make us feel better this morning? Some of us, especially Trayvon Martin’s family, would perhaps find some comfort in a conviction. Even this is not a certainty. Tragically, a conviction will not bring Trayvon back to them, or to any of us, and the anguish and despair experienced at the loss of a loved one is a personal experience that takes its own course toward healing.

And what about the rest of us? Would a conviction make for a better tomorrow? Let’s, indeed, imagine an alternative universe, in which a guilty verdict sends Zimmerman to prison. The racialized lines formed around the trial will accompany him to prison and intensify there. There is no truce or hunger strike in Florida, and Zimmerman is embraced by the Aryan Brotherhood, fueling whatever racial ideas he has about the world and crystalizing them forever. Vilified by some and canonized by those who believe in maintaining the racial caste system in America, Zimmerman would become one more pawn in the battles fought across racial lines in the criminal justice system.

Many of the good, angry, upset, frustrated people who will be in the streets this afternoon protesting spend much of their time protesting the excesses of our prison system. If we believe, generally, that the hyperpunitive character of America’s incarceration project is destructive, dehumanizing, and ultimately counterproductive, then sending one more person, deserving as he may be, to this system is no cause for rejoice.

So, a guilty verdict would not send me frolicking in the streets. It would push me into solemn contemplation of the futility of remedying years of slavery, lynching, discrimination, with one “right” act. And mostly, into contemplation of the immense well of suffering that is to become Trayvon Martin’s family’s life for many, many days to come. Healing doesn’t come from a guilty verdict.

Where Healing Comes From

Nothing good comes from punitiveness, and it will not change what we know or think about the world. Healing comes from taking the rage and hot, burning energy we all feel this morning, and channeling it toward sentiments that produce effective change. It comes from taking a hard look at the immense resources we spend in maintaining a carceral colossus and investing them in educating a new generation of people who do not hate, suspect and judge others based on the color of their skin. That is the commitment I’d like to see renewed today, after our anger subsides and we start asking ourselves where to go from here.

Healing comes from a deeper understanding of the role of implicit biases in our own lives. From asking ourselves why one of Victor Rios’ young interviewees did not get a fast food joint job at an interview in which he refrained from shaking his prospective boss’ hand, not wanting to alarm a white woman with physical closeness. From asking why reaching out to others across skin color lines is such a frightening concept. From taking a cue from California inmates, who have realized that the unfair, torturous, abysmal incarceration conditions they face is a common enemy that transcends race and needs to be fought together.

“Sorrow is better than fear. Fear is a journey, a terrible journey, but sorrow is at least an arrival. When the storm threatens, a man is afraid for his house. But when the house is destroyed, there is something to do. About a storm he can do nothing, but he can rebuild a house.”

Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country

Cutting Food Benefits for the Formerly Incarcerated?

An amendment to a farm bill, currently debated in the senate, would permanently drop anyone ever convicted of a violent crime from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Colorlines reports:

According to Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. . . 

The amendment would bar from SNAP (food stamps), for life, anyone who was ever convicted of one of a specified list of violent crimes at any time — even if they committed the crime decades ago in their youth and have served their sentence, paid their debt to society, and been a good citizen ever since. In addition, the amendment would mean lower SNAP benefits for their children and other family members.

So, a young man who was convicted of a single crime at age 19 who then reforms and is now elderly, poor, and raising grandchildren would be thrown off SNAP, and his grandchildren’s benefits would be cut. … Democrats accepted it without trying to modify it to address its most ill-considered aspects.

Two-thirds of SNAP recipients are children, elderly or the disabled, and two-fifths of SNAP households live below half the poverty line.

Beyond the obvious implications for the income gap and the disproportionate harmful impact on the African American community, this provokes some thought about the way the financial crisis has yielded a new perception of the offender. Our focus on inmates prior to their crisis had been on their risk level, and the crisis has focused our attention on their cost. This is what has yielded some of the advances in geriatric and medical parole, but it has also led to some bitterness over the “free healthcare” that inmates receive. This seems to be a development of the same ilk. In an era of competition over resources, formerly incarcerated folks are seen as somehow less deserving of help and compassion than others, and thus their benefits, regardless of economic condition, are first to go.

This is why, even though humonetarianism has made some significant dents in the mass incarceration machine, it cannot be relied upon as an exclusive strategy for reform. We’ve seen enough developments of the tough-‘n’-cheap variety to know that savings don’t always work in the direction of penal reform. The way to frame the savings argument here would be as a  long-term concern: Poor people with nothing to eat have less opportunities and might therefore resort to crime, and one way to save is to reduce recidivism.

Pelican Bay Ordered to Cease Race-Based Punishment

Pelican Bay Prison. Image courtesy CDCR website.

The California Court of Appeal has just issued a decision in re Jose Morales. The decision prohibits Pelican Bay Prison’s practice of race-based segregation and denial of privileges. From the decision:

Pelican Bay racially segregates prisoners and, during extended periods of perceived threatened violence, denies family visits, work assignments, yard exercise, religious services and other privileges to prisoners of one race while granting those same privileges to prisoners of other races. This habeas proceeding was brought by a Hispanic prisoner alleging that the prison’s policy of disparate treatment based on race and ethnicity denies him equal protection of the laws.

This particular proceeding was tied to a 2008 incident between Hispanic inmates, which led to a segregation of all Hispanic inmates’ access to programs, which apparently remained in effect for almost three years. The result of the effective lockdown on Hispanic inmates was that only inmates classified racially as “other”, meaning, mostly Asian inmates, had to work double shifts in prison. Other inmates were denied visitation, exercise, religious services, and other privileges. In short, no one won.

The decision relies on a Supreme Court case, Johnson v. California, which held that government officials are not permitted “to use race as a proxy for gang membership and violence without demonstrating a compelling government interest and proving that their means are narrowly tailored” to advance that interest.

The decision in Morales extends that logic to race-based punishment, giving prison authorities narrow leeway to separate inmates based on ethnicity only if prison security requires it, so long as it is done “[o]n a short-term emergency basis” and not “preferentially”.

One of the notable things about the decision is the judges’ sensitivity to the chicken-and-egg nature of race-based classification. While some administrative policies are a result of gang-related racial hostilities, the classification in itself threatens not only “to stigmatize individuals by reason of their membership in a racial group” but also, importantly, “to incite racial hostility.”

Another notable thing is the court’s attentiveness to nuance. While many inmates are affiliated with a gang based on their race, not all inmates are affiliated with a gang, and to assume otherwise is to discriminate.

One hopes that the combination of this decision, and the agreement to end racial hostilities in Pelican Bay, will transform carceral practices so that racial strife, whether stemming from gang animosities or institutional unfairness, will diminish if not end.

Pelican Bay Inmates Reach Agreement to End Racial Hostilities in CA Institutions

Yeah – you read it right. What follows is the press release:


The statement calls for the cessation of all hostilities between groups to commence October 10, 2012, in all California prisons and county jails.   “This means that from this date on, all racial group hostilities need to be at an end,” the statement says. It also calls on prisoners throughout the state to set aside their differences and use diplomatic means to settle their disputes.   The Short Corridor Collective  states, “If personal issues arise between individuals, people need to do all they can to exhaust all diplomatic means to settle such disputes; do not allow personal, individual issues to escalate into racial group issues.”  In the past, California prisoners have attempted to collaborate with the Department of Corrections to bring an end to the hostilities, but CDCR has been largely unresponsive to prisoners’ requests. The statement warns prisoners that  they expect prison officials to attempt to undermine this agreement.

“My long-time experience in urban peace issues, gang truces, prevention and intervention, is that when gang leaders and prisoners take full stock of the violence, and how they can contribute to the peace, such peace will be strong, lasting, and deep. I honor this effort as expressed in this statement,” says Luis J. Rodriguez, renowned violence intervention worker and award-winning author of Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.  Rodriguez has helped broker gang truces throughout the US as well as in other parts of the world. This spring, Rodriguez was involved in a historic truce between gangs in El Salvador leading to a 70% drop in violence in that country.  According to Rodriguez, “What is needed now—and where most peace efforts fail—is the meaningful and long-lasting support of society and government, in the form of  prison reform, training, education, drug and mental health treatment and proper health care. We need an end to repressive measures that only feed into the violence and traumas.”

Azadeh Zohrabi of the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition sees the agreement as a positive development that stems from last year’s hunger strikes.  “While living through some of the worst conditions imaginable, the authors of this statement continue to work for change,” states Zohrabi. “While the prison administration drags its feet on even the most basic reforms, these guys are trying to build peace throughout the system.  That says a lot their humanity and hope.”

Advocates and the Short Corridor Collective are eager to spread the word as far and wide as possible and implement peace plans throughout California’s prisons and jails.  “We must all hold strong to our mutual agreement from this point on and focus our time, attention, and energy on mutual causes beneficial to all of us [i.e., prisoners], and our best interests,” says the Collective. “The reality is that collectively, we are an empowered, mighty force, that can positively change this entire corrupt system into a system that actually benefits prisoners, and thereby, the public as a whole.” The PBSP-SHU Short Corridor Collective has strongly requested that its statement be read and referred to in whole.  It can be found here.


If this agreement will be respected by inmates in all CA institutions, it’s a major, major breakthrough. Interracial violence is often seen as a ubiquitous fact of life within walls. It also speaks volumes about the impact that the Pelican Bay hunger strike has had on organizing inmates, who are realizing that in order to end solitary confinement and debriefing they need to fight a common enemy, rather than each other. This is huge, and might hopefully bring CDCR to discard extreme incarceration practices if they cannot be justified as gang violence prevention measures.

cross-published to PrawfsBlawg

Book Review: Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable

For years I have been assigning portions of the classic Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley, to my Theoretical Criminology students. Whenever we discussed race and crime, and the prison industrial complex, we came back to the prison as a locus of political rebirth and resistance, and the Autobiography provided a convenient literary vehicle to start the discussion. I feel deeply enriched by this new, inclusive and fascinating volume, which sheds light from multiple perspectives on Malcolm X’s life, and particuarly for illuminating corners that the Autobiography has missed.

Manning Marable, who sadly passed away from grave illness days before the biography was finished, spent years reading countless archival materials and interviewing important figures in Malcolm’s life to provide us with a complicated picture of the man and his ideology. As the title suggests, Marable’s narrative organizes Malcolm’s life around the numerous transformations of his worldview and image.

Some of the focus on the book has related to Marable’s revelations about Malcolm’s personal life, which provide much more detail and accuracy than in the Autobiography. The book lays out a rich introduction about Malcolm’s family, his father’s murder, and the ways in which his childhood experience had shaped his political thinking. Even in the years preceding his conversion to Black Islam, he was not an apolitical man living in an intellectual vacuum; rather, even his early thinking was heavily influenced by the Garveyism with which he grew up. Of special interest to readers of thsi blog will be Marable’s account of Malcolm’s career in crime, which apparently was significantly aggrandized for rhetorical purposes. Marable does not shy from details about Malcolm’s intimate life and relationships, with particular emphasis on his trouble marriage to Betty Shabazz. It is this part of the book, presumably, that led his daughter, Ilyasah, to resent the publication to the point of giving this agitated interview to NPR. But I find those details less of interest, except to the extent that they illustrate what should be obvious: that the pop culture icon is but one facet of a complicated man, with virtues and flaws, like the rest of us. To me, that does not make Malcolm’s life’s work any less revolutionary and astounding. What is more interesting, politically and ideologically, is the astounding series of transformations Malcolm went through, cut short by his tragic assassination.

Marable’s account of Malcolm’s career in the Nation of Islam highlights the complexities of working within a deeply hierarchical organization. A nuanced analysis of Malcolm’s speeches during this time, including the infamous “chickens come home to roost” comment (finally put in context) reveals his struggle between being his own person and his loyalty to Elijah Muhammad. It also reveals the inner workings of the organization, complete with power plays at the different Mosques and at the Chicago headquarters, and the ways in which Malcolm’s charisma and quick ascension to power frightened the people who initially nurtured and revered him. Similarly, the book shows the unraveling of Malcolm’s relationship with Muhammad and the process of his ousting from the Nation of Islam as a mix of ideological and ethical issues. Previous accounts of the unraveling of Malcolm’s relationship with Nation of Islam have focused on his disgust with Elijah Muhammad’s sexual escapades and his treatment of his numerous mistresses and illegitimate children, but have glossed over Malcolm’s gradual understanding of the serious flaws in a program of Black separatism and apolitical stance. Marable provides blow-by-blow accounts of Malcolm’s debates on the media with civil rights advocates, particularly Bayard Rustin, exposing the strengths and weaknesses in Malcolm’s program. Beyond the personal and ethical issues he might have had with Muhammad’s personality or with the Nation of Islam’s theology (to which he was gradually exposed as he became better acquainted with mainstream Sunni Islam), these accounts show that his parting from the Nation was a natural consequence from his growing understanding that political action was essential.

Particularly precious are Marable’s detailed accounts of Malcolm’s trips to Africa and the Middle East. Relying on numerous interviews, letters and Malcolm’s own journal, we see him go through a series of intellectual transformations, embracing racial inclusiveness, and coming to see the challenges of race in America through the prism of international human rights. This progression of ideas was too quick-paced for Haley to be able to fully capture in a book written and published in 1965, but from the vantage point of later times we are able to appreciate that Malcolm was still undergoing important ideological and spiritual changes as he was struggling to construct a platform for activism. These changes – particularly his embrace of Pan-Africanism and universal Islam as detached from skin color, and his interest in presenting the case for American Blacks on the international stage – were naturally confusing to his followers, who remained behind when he was on his trips, and who were for the most part people who remembered him well from his Nation of Islam days and still embraced, at least partly, the old ideology. This phase of confusion, which was never fully over, was enhanced by the tensions between Malcolm’s two post-Nation-of-Islam organizations: Muslim Mosque, Inc., and the secular, human-rights oriented Organization of Afro-American Unity. Marable aims at sketching some possible directions that these organizations might have taken if not for Malcolm’s death.

Finally, the book provides a prism of perspectives on the assassination, strongly suggesting that the wrong people were apprehended and pointing at some directions to reveal the full assassination plot  that have not been adequately investigated; it was Marable’s hope that the book would lead to a reopening of the murder investigation.

How does Marable’s book change the experience of reading the Autobiography? As Marable himself points out, the best way to read and appreciate the Autobiography is as a memoir rather than a work of documented truth. Readers of the Autobiography are advised to keep in mind that Haley was not without his own perspective on Malcolm, and that both he and Malcolm had important agendas when creating the Autobiography. It is also important to keep in mind the timing of the Autobiography’s publication, which explains why the fascinating transformations that followed Malcolm’s departure from Nation of Islam are left, for the most part, without serious treatment in the Autobiography. I think that reading the two books as companions provides a thoroughly rich experience, one that does justice to an important and enigmatic leader whose legacy informs many of the struggles we still face today, including the struggle near and dear to our readers’ hearts–the struggle for social and racial justice in the context of mass incarceration.

Occupy Oakland, Policing, and Secondary Deviance

Angela Davis yesterday at Occupy Oakland.
Photo courtesy Joe Feria-Galicia, RP&E Journal 

This morning’s Chronicle reports fierce encounters between  Occupy Oakland protesters and police. As was the case with the protests following Johannes Mehserle’s verdict, protests in Oakland were peaceful until the evening, and then escalated into vandalism and violent clashes.

The Chron piece documents serious debates within the protesting community regarding violence, as well as about the appropriateness of police response. We have no data yet as to the identity of the arrestees, but if this is anything like the Oscar Grant protests of yesteryear, at least some of them might be out-of-towners taking advantage of the protest to engage in vandalism.

What is going on in Oakland? The ferocious animosity between communities of color and the city police force have been long noted in literature, the latest example being Victor Rios’ recent book Punished. The book is an ethnography of Black and Latino youth in Oakland, documenting their constant criminalization by their surroundings, including police, the schools, and their own families. Rios argues that the pervasive perception that these young men are either actual or potential criminals, to be constantly monitored, addressed, and oppressed, provokes some of them to actually live up to the label and join street gangs. While Rios does not explicitly pay homage to labeling theory, his interviews and observations seem to support Edwin Lemert’s theory of secondary deviance, according to which young people who are constantly labeled as deviants eventually internalize the label:

When a person begins to employ his deviant behavior or a role based upon it as a means of defense, attack, or adjustment to the overt and covert problems created by the consequent societal reaction to him, his deviation is secondary. Objective evidences of this change will be found in the symbolic appurtenances of the new role, in clothes, speech, posture, and mannerisms, which in some cases heighten social visibility, and which in some cases serve as symbolic cues to professionalization.(1951: 76)

Lemert’s theory, and Rios’ findings among Oakland youth, may go a long way toward explaining why protest events in Oakland have such potential to deteriorate, while similar events in San Francisco go by more peacefully. Encounters between police and community in San Francisco simply do not carry the same baggage that they do in Oakland. And, while it would be absurd to argue that vandalism does not really exist and is solely the product of a label, it is important to acknowledge the role of police and government expectations in encouraging/discouraging violence. In San Francisco, supervisors urged police to treat protesters peacefully. At our District Attorney debate at Hastings, all four candidates present vehemently stated that they would never treat Occupy protesters using violent means, nor would they seek charges against them. The role of environment and charged past encounters in generating violence cannot be ignored, and the Oakland police force, constantly sitting atop a keg of resentment on the part of racialized and criminalized communities, should not be surprised at its prophecies coming true.

Hunger Strike to Resume September 26

As reported last month on KQED (click above for report), CDCR is reconsidering its isolation policy at SHU units. But according to an open letter by Pelican Bay inmate Mutope Duguma to the Bay View, plans are in place for inmates to resume their hunger strike beginning September 26.

We had our last and final meeting with Undersecretary Scott Kernan on Aug. 18, 2011. Sitawa and the rest of the negotiators were very disappointed with the outcome because the undersecretary’s horns came out for real!

All the same, we are going forward with our indefinite hunger strike, which will start on Sept. 26, 2011. We know they probably have manipulated some new attempt to deal with us, but what they fail to realize is that we were never playing. If these people think we are going to remain under this tortuous treatment, then they will get the body count that they seek or a bunch of hospitals filled up throughout the state.

This is the only way to expose to the world how racist prison guards and officials have utilized policy in order to torture us. And we have the material to expose them because many of us suffer from serious medical conditions or a lack of medical treatment, which we inherited right here in SHU.

This letter would suggest that the meeting with Kernan, held a day after the announcement about reconsidering the conditions, failed to satisfy the inmates. I wonder what piece of the puzzle we’re missing; that is, whether the inmates were told different things than suggested in the media. Do any of our readers have any information about the new strike plans?