† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
Metaphysics, Imagination, and Police/Prison “Reform”: A Criminal Injustice Op-Ed
by Kay Whitlock
That reform trap door can open awfully fast under unsuspecting feet.
Recently it opened up under Black youth leadership in the Windy City when the ACLU of Illinois announced the results of its secret negotiations with the City of Chicago regarding the Chicago Police Department’s “stop and frisk” practices.
In this case, that agreement wasn’t simply a breach of good faith with Black youth who have been organizing with relentless persistence against structural racism and police violence in their many forms. This was an outright betrayal that literally undermined the efforts of We Charge Genocide (WCG) – a grassroots organization comprised of people who are most heavily impacted by that violence – to address “stop and frisk” in some fundamentally different ways.
An open letter from We Charge Genocide details the nature and effects of that betrayal.
The ACLU-negotiated agreement calls for police data to be released confidentially to the ACLU and a designated consultant; the public can only try to gain access through the cumbersome processes of the Freedom of Information Act. There is no certainty it will be provided at all, much less in a timely way or without legal intervention.
By contrast, the We Charge Genocide-initiated Stops, Transparency, Oversight, and Protection (STOP) Act would require data collection for all stops, including demographic information for those stopped, but it goes much further. It also would record the badge numbers of officers involved as well as more detailed information about the stop: location, reason, result. And the law would require that all those stopped be given receipts so that they have demonstrable proof that this interaction occurred.
Knowing the STOP Act was moving forward, ACLU nonetheless went ahead with secret negotiations with city officials; community partners who had long been exposing and organizing against “stop and frisk” and other forms of police violence, abuse, and misconduct were left out in the cold.
With the release of the open letter, the ACLU pronounced itself “confused” by the WCG response and, in effect, attempted to explain how Black youth organizers were wrong in their assessment. ACLU also declared its support for continuing efforts to pass the STOP (Stops, Transparency, Oversight and Protection) Act with its stronger transparency and accountability provisions. But the damage had been done; Mayor Rahm Emmanuel sought a filing delay from City Council members who were sponsors of the STOP ACT.
ACLU provided cover to and brokered a deal with the Mayor who could now sidestep any more dealings with grassroots advocates and activists who created momentum for change in the first place and played an important role in forcing the City’s hand on a landmark reparations package for police torture survivors and their families.
Thankfully, We Charge Genocide and other grassroots Chicago organizations representing the communities bearing the brunt of structural racism in its multiple forms, including police violence, will not be deterred; we applaud and support them.
But this is a cautionary lesson for those on the trembling and rapidly shifting ground of criminal legal system/policing/prison reform.
How do we begin to understand it? Why would the American Civil Liberties Union do such a thing? Yet the question isn’t really just about ACLU. And the answer won’t be found in narrow discussions about issues, policies, and tactics.
This problem is structural and – to use an unusual word in debates about the criminal legal system, its methods, and its reach – metaphysical. If we’re not talking about the vision and principles underlying our proposals, we end up with a reformed version of essentially the same civic catastrophe.
Deep Structural Change
When we fail to address entire structures of violence, their metaphysics, and the worldview that produces them – the ways in which a society or nation-state dreams itself into existence and creates the necessary machinery to animate its dream – the best we can hope for is different permutations of that dream.
Proposed “repairs” and tweaks to the system give the appearance of change, but cannot, in themselves, produce that deep change that is really needed. In fact, when we choose only procedural reforms over structural transformation, we ensure that the result will be a kind of “regressive progression” – that is to say, we will produce change, but only the kind of change that leaves the fundamental problems in place.
That’s the road chosen by the ACLU of Illinois.
We Charge Genocide and other groups – Project NIA, Southerners on New Ground, Sylvia Rivera Law Project, Women With a Vision, Justice Now, Audre Lorde Project, and more – are emblematic of a very different way forward: practical steps taken toward a much larger goal of structural transformation inspired by a very different metaphysics and movement imagination. An imagination that simultaneously challenges the white supremacy, ethos of antiblackness, and violence required by a dominant power structure that utilizes fear, enemy formation, resentment, and the rubric of safety to solidify its power. And that prefers to broker its deals in back rooms, away from any meaningful form of public scrutiny and accountability.
An imagination that is unafraid to reject the current, stingy and cramped terms of debate and finds real joy in dreaming much bolder, life-giving dreams.
We can’t begin to dismantle structural forms of violence until we release our imaginations from the dominant straightjackets that confine them, until we tell the stories that help us move into some dynamic and vibrant vision of “what could be.” Otherwise, we’re stuck in the quicksand of what we’re against, with no place to go beyond “don’t do that.” Ultimately, that’s dispiriting and deadening; it’s not enough to sustain structural change.
Any deep change must arise from a shift in consciousness, from compelling new images, connections, perspectives, and stories that begin to capture the public imagination even as they help to dismantle the race-, class-, and gender-based mechanics of domination.
And it must arise from recognition of the interdependence and intricate connections among different systems: political, economic, social, religious, cultural. There is, for example, no deep way to address police/prison reforms without also talking about economics and the exploitation and structural poverty required by the imperatives of capitalism. And about the race-, gender-, and disability-related distribution of poverty. No way to talk about meaningful reform without simultaneously talking about tax structure, public education and civic infrastructure, health care, housing, and jobs. And no way to talk about it without analysis of how racial and class tensions/conflict are intentionally encouraged in order to serve the interests of the dominant power structure.
But many of us, with the best of intentions, are being suckered into exactly the kind of seductive and reductive discussions and proposals for reform that ignore these matters. And when we ignore them, we get “reform” that simply props up existing symptoms and guarantees that the same violent symptoms that created original demands for reform will reappear.
That is how, for example, decades-earlier calls for sentencing reform in order to remedy terribly abusive uses of indeterminate sentencing morphed quickly into the nightmare of three-strikes, “truth in sentencing,” and mandatory minimums.
Co-Opting and Corrupting Momentum for Change
From the 1970s to the present moment, the analysis, education, and grassroots organizing to expose the violence of policing and prisons, call attention to the race-, class-, and gender-based nature of mass incarceration, and offer a vision of community well-being that does not rely on policing and prisons to produce either justice or safety has come primarily from communities of color: from activists, grassroots organizations, and scholars.
But the “bipartisan” reforms being offered are not the result of progressive mass movements for change. They are astroturfed proposals from Right on Crime, Koch Brothers Industries, ALEC, and a host of liberal and neoliberal supporters, some of whom appear to be taking a lot of money that is suddenly available to support reform. In the process, many liberals are helping the Koch Brothers rehabilitate their political image and so expand their already substantial influence.
These “reformers” have co-opted and distorted the original messages, analysis, and demands, refashioning them to serve the status quo. And they’ve managed to do it while removing race from the center of the analysis and debate – sometimes even from the margins.
We now have Anthony Romero of the national ACLU and Van Jones of CNN explaining that the Koch Brothers and ALEC really do have the interests of justice at heart. And that they can be trusted to bankroll and dominate efforts for change. Money is literally flooding in to support reform. Like Minerva emergent from the head of Jupiter, we have brand new organizations springing forward, fully formed and funded with dazzling websites, led by charismatic figures anointed by the media. The effect is to overshadow, even displace, the voices and visions grassroots movement building organizations. Lost in space is the original tough-minded and accurate analysis of Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Joy James, and others. Even the origins, vision, and intentions of #BlackLivesMatter are subject to infuriating forms of media revisionism.
The reforms being offered up include greater deployment of body cams, improved reporting on deaths in police custody, certain kinds of sentencing reforms, greater reliance on “community corrections” and “alternatives to incarceration,” tweaks in the administration of extended solitary confinement, and greater use of “data-driven” assessments to guide sentencing, parole, and probation decisions.
There is nothing in here about the well being of communities devastated by mass incarceration. These reforms do not challenge prisons and policing as structures of social control that must be dismantled in favor of wholesale transformation. And they do not challenge the intimate relationship between state power and big business that has always existed, in different combinations and iterations over time. That relationship continues to determine the structures and metaphysics of the administration of justice.
It’s not as if there haven’t been many warnings issued along the way. But the tendency is often to see what we want to see rather than what is really there. And the desire to see any kind of change often take precedence over asking the harder questions about what kind of change, and how? What are the implications of change?
“Reform” is Carrying Us Toward a Neoliberal Future
Unencumbered, the new wave of “bipartisan reform” helps carry us seamlessly into a neoliberal future. Many of us tend to think of neoliberalism as just an engine for privatization; that, in turn, has led too many of us to envision the prison problem as only one of prison privatization. Not so.
Prisons and policing are, first and foremost, systems of social control. But they have always operated and evolved hand in hand with capitalist economic imperatives. Both public and private players have, throughout U.S. history, profited in multiple ways from their operations.
Today, because too many of us aren’t asking tougher questions and organizing around structural change, the new wave of reform won’t so much “reduce mass incarceration” as widen the net of surveillance and carceral control and expand lucrative markets in community corrections and mandatory treatment-based programs. It’s a field rife with scandal and corruption, and it’s already expanding.
We are told the money saved via these reforms can be reinvested in human needs and social spending. But it’s a hollow, even cynical, promise. The conservative/libertarian/neoliberal vision is austerity and the wholesale dismantling of social programs in favor of a society in which the captains of industry and unfettered, unregulated free markets determine all of our futures.
We’re already seeing the ways in which “education reform” – embraced by conservatives, libertarians, and neoliberals alike – is dismantling public education and the mechanisms by which it is provided.
Something similar is happening through police/prison reform.
It’s happening in other areas, too, including the realms of energy and environmental regulation and policy.
If we don’t think these things are all related, then we’re just not paying attention.
Together, they dismantle what remains of the public sphere, and the ability of ordinary people to hold the state and corporations accountable for their actions. These maneuvers not only leave white supremacy intact, but strengthen it through aggressive pursuit of “colorblindness” in public policy so that it becomes not only impossible but unethical to name and challenge “disparate racial impact,” which is the polite term for structural racism.
In 1980, Bertram Gross wrote a useful book, Friendly Fascism, that describes an accelerating fusion of state and corporate power. The book discusses the ways in which consumer culture, media manipulation. and slick public relations campaigns promoted by genial, reassuring figureheads aid the destruction of democracy. His work was prophetic. It’s worth reading again – or perhaps for the first time.
Another useful – I would say indispensable – book is Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? in which she challenges us to envision new terrains of justice that are not anchored in or in any way defined by or dependent upon the prison. She points a way toward a metaphysics and a public imagination that can produce transformation.
We need them desperately today.
We need to dream much bolder dreams.