The Un-Othering of Crime: The Kinzey Chronicles

Yesterday brought about a turn of events that puts Sons of Anarchy and Breaking Bad to shame. The newspapers yesterday and this morning were full of news about Cal State San Bernardino professor Stephen Kinzey, who is wanted in connection with meth drug dealing. The L.A. Times reports:

Photo courtesy Phil Willon, L.A. Times

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department on Thursday said Stephen J. Kinzey, a 43-year-old kinesiology professor, allegedly led a local chapter of the Devils Diciples Outlaw motorcycle gang and a methamphetamine drug operation that brought in tens of thousands of dollars.

Authorities arrested nine suspected mid- and street-level dealers involved in the drug ring shortly after raiding Kinzey’s home, where they allegedly found more than a pound of methamphetamine, rifles, handguns, body armor, leather biker vests and other biker paraphernalia.

Kinzey remains a fugitive and is considered armed and dangerous, officials said.

This news story elicited quite a bit of witty commentary on my Facebook page, and after the laughs subsided a bit I started thinking about why this story piqued so much interest. I think the key to this is in Kinzey’s father’s words, quoted in the LA Weekly:

“My son is a Christian. He’s a good father of a good little girl. My son doesn’t drink. My son doesn’t smoke. I don’t get it. He’s a Ph.D.

What the Kinzey story reveals is how culturally entrenched the stereotype of a black, urban drug dealer is;  when encountering a white one with advanced degrees and privilege we respond with incredulity. So, what do we rely on to reinforce our confirmation bias about the way the world works? Alternative markers of crime. The story, for example, emphasizes Kinzey’s motorcycle club activities, seizing (perfectly legal) leather vests with the meth and guns. It also hints at the fact that Kinzey’s “live-in girlfriend” (as if cohabitation were uncommon) is a Cal State San Bernardino 2005 grad, so as to imply academic improprieties as well as criminal ones (who knows what the story there is? For all we know, they could have met after she graduated, and she might not even have taken a class with him; and anyway, it’s 2011 and Robinson is 33 years old.) What these details do is provide us with some information that will trigger our culturally shared notion of the gang biker, to explain why our criminal, a university professor, doesn’t fit our default mode.

Where does the connection between motorcycling and organized crime come from? For those interested in background, this 1992 CNN story provides some information, but if you’re pressed for time you’re better off with this excellent 2005 article by William Dulaney, which provides plenty of information on the history of outlaw clubs. The “one percenters” (a term incorrectly derived from a supposed quote after a rally, implying that only “one percent” of motorcyclists were also involved in crime) have become an iconic image in American culture. Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters’ historical meeting with the Hells Angels (and their apprehension of the latter, documented by Tom Wolfe in his classic The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test) is best understood on a background of violent, sexist biker culture, reinforced by a genre of biker films. Now, reality is not entirely socially constructed, of course. Motorcycle clubs have been conduits for organized crime, and their members have engaged in real violence that has caused real suffering to real victims. But make no mistake; white people commit crime not only on Harleys, but also in SUVs and Honda Civics and bicycles and public transportation. And organized crime occurs not only in clubs and gangs, but in corporations as well.

This is not to say, of course, that Kinzey is being framed, or that he is not involved in meth trafficking. At this point, he is a fugitive and we have not heard his side of the story; moreover, the evidence found so far would tend to support that. I merely try to point out the ways in which a newspaper story tries to paint an etiology of criminality that might explain the discrepancy between the cultural image of the young, black, urban drug dealer, by fleshing out the image of an alternative white drug dealer using less powerful, but still effective, ways to convey nonconformism, impropriety, and propensity.

Book Review: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

A couple of months ago I attended a dinner fundraiser by the American Friends Service Committee and had the pleasure of hearing Michelle Alexander speak about her book (full video of the speech, as well as an interview with Alexander, available here.) I immediately bought a copy of the book and was very much looking forward to reading it. It did not disappoint, and while its basic argument is not novel, the book presents it in a compelling, engaged way.

The New Jim Crow is an attempt to take the prison-slavery comparison, often made as hyperbole, seriously. In order to do so, the book begins by providing a basic and concise introduction to race relations in the United States before, during, and after slavery. Readers unfamiliar with the post-reconstruction nadir of American race relations would do well to examine the particulars of life at the time, because, as Alexander demonstrates, much of the racial discrimination we see today through the correctional system has its roots in the disenfranchisement and separation of those days. Simply put, in the aftermath of the Civil War, the seeds were planted for a thriving system of discrimination and segregation that would utilize very similar methods to create a caste system, originally based on the color of one’s skin, and now using one’s status as a felon as proxy for said color.

The following two chapters provide a basic summary of the criminal process, relying for the most part on Supreme Court cases, and demonstrating how racial biases permeate the process from policing till release from prison. Readers with legal and socio-legal backgrounds may find these chapters somewhat oversimplified and spot some inaccuracies, but for a general audience this overview clearly communicates the message: A seemingly colorblind system is loaded with opportunities for discretion that generates the overrepresentation of African American men in the criminal process, and by exposing them in vast disproportion to this horrifying experience, generates an underclass deprived of a share in American conformity.

Alexander sets out to show that the role of race in the criminal process and in mass incarceration is not accidental. This argument, in itself, is not new. In her 1999 book Making Crime Pay, Katherine Beckett provides a full analysis of the political campaigns of the late 1960s and clearly shows how Nixon, and other candidates, relied on fear of crime and rising crime rates to confront, head on, the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The Warren Court’s lenient approach to defendants, and its tendency to generate bright-line rules limiting the discretionary powers of the police and prosecution, became the enemy, and was a thinly-veiled foil for the ‘real’ enemy, race inequality. Alexander’s book, however, makes this argument more accessible to the general public. By substituting crime for race, Nixonian politics succeeded in combating their real enemy, while maintaining a façade of race-neutrality.

My favorite chapters of the book are the last ones, in which Alexander takes on the broader implications for society of a caste system driven by crime control. She discusses the impact of criminal record and inmate disenfranchisement on a complete alienation of the African-American community from the political process and from access to basic necessities and rights. And, she sounds a loud wake-up alarm to those who have basic sympathy to the idea of criminal justice reform and race equality but who may not have made the connection explicitly. The ideal audience for this book, whom Alexander mentions in her introduction, would be folks who think that the comparison between Jim Crow and mass incarceration is merely rhetorical hyperbole. Upon reading this book, they may be convinced otherwise.

Pelican Bay Inmates to Begin Hunger Strike on July 1st

Prisoners to Begin Hunger Strike on July 1st in Pelican Bay State Prison (from

Prisoners in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, California announced that they are beginning an indefinite hunger strike on July 1st to protest the conditions of their imprisonment, which they say are cruel and inhumane. An online petition has been started by supporters of the strikers. While noting that the hunger strike is being “organized by prisoners in an unusual show of racial unity,” five key demands are listed by California Prison Focus: (

1) Eliminate group punishments; 2) Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria; 3) Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to long term solitary confinement; 4) Provide adequate food; 5) Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.

The CA Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation prides itself on Pelican Bay being “the end of the line,” and is part of a continuation since the 1960s of prisons using solitary confinement as a main tactic to crush rebellion and resistance.

Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity states, “As anti-authoritarians and anarchists, this is a crucial moment to show our solidarity with those on the inside who are ready to die in their fight for dignity and the most basic necessities of life that the state continues to deny. This will be the third major hunger strike in a US prison in the past year and those of us fighting on the outside need to make a visible show of support for this wave of prisoner-led organizing.”

A Black Agenda Radio commentary by Glen Ford

Vowing to die, if necessary, inmates at the dreaded “SHU” section of California’s Pelican Bay prison begin a hunger strike on July 1. “Like the strike by inmates in Georgia’s prison system late last year, the Pelican Bay protest cuts across racial lines.” The core issue: a brutal, soul-killing policy of solitary confinement and other deprivations aimed at turning every inmate into a snitch on everyone else.

Pelican Bay: Hunger Strike in Super-Max

A Black Agenda Radio commentary by Glen Ford

Inmate organizers say prisoners have been subjected to solitary and a whole range of deprivations for ten, twenty, even forty years.”

On Friday, July 1st, between 50 and 100 men at the Security Housing Unit of California’s infamous Pelican Bay prison go on hunger strike to protest cruel and unusual punishment. It is a punishment inflicted, primarily, on their minds. At the heart of the protest is solitary confinement, the barbaric torture that deprives prisoners of contact with fellow human beings, condemning them to a kind of “social death” – some for decades.

This is the “dark side” of the American repressive arsenal that Vice President Dick Cheney was so happy to unleash as a weapon in the so-called War on Terror: the stripping down of captive people through methodical deprivation of everything that makes them human. Yet these excruciating mind-destruction techniques are routinely deployed on the domestic front, in the American prison gulag, at places like Pelican Bay.

Inmate organizers say prisoners have been subjected to solitary and a whole range of deprivations for ten, twenty, even forty years. They are most incensed at the policy euphemistically called “debriefing,” in which inmates are pressured to confess to every crime they have ever committed in life. They are then expected to inform on other prisoners, their crimes, conversations and gang affiliations. This information – whether true or false – is then used to throw fellow inmates into the special Hell of solitary confinement. It is a brutal, sadistic cycle of degradation, a bizarre world in which everyone is compelled to “snitch” on everyone else. Prisoners are routinely given indeterminate solitary on the mere word of an informer. The worst section of the SHU is called the “short corridor,” where 200 men languish in the deepest isolation. These are the men at the center of the hunger strike.

It is a brutal, sadistic cycle of degradation, a bizarre world in which everyone is compelled to ‘snitch’ on everyone else.”

One of them is named Mutope Duguma, formerly known as James Crawford. The “call” for the hunger strike was put out under Duguma’s signature. It asks that “all prisoners throughout the State of California who have been suffering injustices in General Population, Administrative Segregation and solitary confinement…join in our peaceful strike to put a stop to the blatant violations of prisoners’ civil/human rights.” Like the strike by inmates in Georgia’s prison system late last year, the Pelican Bay protest cuts across racial lines, involving, in the prisoners’ words, “united New Afrikans, Whites, Northern and Southern Mexicans, and others.” The organizers warn inmates to “beware of agitators, provocateurs, and obstructionists” among the prisoner population.

The Pelican Bay hunger strikers vow to die, if necessary, in a struggle against dehumanization. In the San Francisco Bay area, supporters from the outside have formed Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (, to let the inmates know that they are not alone, and “to make sure their voices are heard outside of prison.”

From the inside, inmate Gabriel Huerta reminds us that “Using indeterminate total lock down to extract confessions is torture by international standards as is the use of prolonged solitary confinement.” This is a global, human rights issue.

For Black Agenda Radio, I’m Glen Ford. On the web, go to

BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at

Roundup: CDCR Budget Cuts, Prison and Slavery

As many of you probably noticed, we’re posting with less frequency than usual these days; CCC will be on a mini-hiatus until late July due to an immense workload. We will, however, provide short updates on criminal justice policy and sentencing.

First, the Sacramento Bee reports that most of the personnel cuts in the Brown budget will be in corrections (a full list of cuts is available here.)

Also, recently, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, surprised the audience at a public talk with the sad fact that more Black men are currently imprisoned than were originally enslaved.

Props to Eric Chase and Leslie Davis for the links.

Is There a Death Penalty Religious Divide? Jesus on Trial

Things are a’changing for the death penalty. After the good news from Illinois, we recently learned that Ohio is discussing an abolition bill. Thinking of the prospect of such developments in California brings on some reflection on the hearts that could be won for the cause, and how that might be achieved.

A common misperception is that, in the American context, public opinion about the death penalty tends to follow the political republican/democrat divide. With regard to politics, this is inaccurate, albeit not completely untrue, as data from a Gallup Poll show. The death penalty is supported by a majority of both Republicans and Democrats, but while it is endorsed by 80% of Republicans, support rates for Independents and Democrats are 65% and 58%, respectively. Similar patterns hold for conservatives, moderates and liberals. Moreover, the common perception that religious Americans support the death penalty – brought about by lumping the death penalty with social conservatism – is a blanket statement that requires some nuancing. People who attend religious services are slightly less likely to support the death penalty. Support for the death penalty is more pronounced among Protestants than among Catholics or those without preference. It is important not to go into generalizations: Many religious organizations oppose the death penalty, or at least offer a nuanced view of it. And several religious leaders are actively involved in anti-death-penalty activism; here’s a recent example from Georgia.

These findings disprove a common assumption among progressive seculars that the “blame” for the death penalty can be squarely placed upon the shoulders of religious conservatives, and that their collaboration in abolishing it can only be bought using arguments of cost or technology. People’s intellect and moral judgment should be respected and appealed to; it is a mistake to settle for technical arguments, like costs or the machinery of death, just to ensure a broader coalition. I agree with Justice Blackmun that doing so cheapens us all.

Which is why I love what the Church of the Holy Comforter in Virginia did this Easter weekend. The church held a modern-day trial for Jesus, with participation of real DAs and PDs, and included a death penalty phase.

There is much to like about the enterprise. Of course, setting what was essentially a political trial in a Roman colony in the context of the American criminal justice system does not do justice to historical context; however, the trial was used as an educational device not only with regard to the Passion story, but to modern American criminal justice. Jesus qualified for a public defender, as would many indigent clients; his role was played by a young African American man, depicting the overrepresentation of minorities in the criminal process. I find this particularly evocative because of the persistent whitewashing of Jesus’ image in art and culture. It’s also interesting that the jury chose to convict; I think there are good arguments of Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendment violations that could be made, including the use of an informant (though new archeological findings may shed new light on such arguments.)

I particularly appreciated the perspective of Mark Osler, the prosecutor who organized the trial. Osler’s personal conviction against the death penalty was formed through a religious experience:

“They read John 8, about stoning the adulteress, and I’m like everyone else – when I hear a story like that, I put myself in the role of Jesus. A lot of prosecutors who are Christians who talk about that will say, ‘Jesus said go and sin no more.’ And what I came to eventually is, ‘I’m not Jesus. I’m part of the mob. I’m somebody with a stone in my hand.’

“I think that story is very direct that we don’t have the moral authority” to execute prisoners, Osler said.

These nuanced and important understandings of empathy and morality, rather than arguments of cost and chemical availability, will eventually be those that win more hearts to the abolition cause.