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CI: The Supreme Court and the Shape of Social Movements

February 04, 2015 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: 2012 Election, 2014 Mid-term Elections, 2016 Election, Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Corrupt Judiciary, Criminal Injustice Series, Government for Good, Intersectionality, Police State, Prison Industrial Complex, What People are Doing to Change the World

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.

 

The Supreme Court and the Shape of Social Movements
by nancy a heitzeg

I spend too much time thinking about the Supreme Court (although one could argue that others do not do so enough), and more now too, in light of recent events. There is a lot that i could say about the insanely unchecked power of nine robed people, their shadowy grip over the entirety of all our legal endeavors,  and the insidious death star that is the Roberts Court – about to knee-cap Obamacare, rule Gay Marriage a state’s right issue, destroy the legal protections against discrimination afforded by  “disparate impact,”  allow states to torture condemned prisoners to death with any old randomly mixed drug cocktail, additionally constrict women’s protections against discrimination in employment and reproductive matters, and ensconce, even further, the flow of corporate “persons” $$$ into all arenas of politics, while simultaneously diluting the votes of real flesh and blood people.

But I won’t.

Instead, a word about the impact of the Supreme Court on social movements. In the midst of Black History Month, screenings of Selma, and current movements against racialized police state violence, we must remember the significance of Brown v the Board of Education, Topeka Kansas (1954). Despite the practical limits of Brown in effecting desegregation or the failure to implement the directives of Brown II, there can be no denying that the ruling – “separate but equal is inherently unequal” – created a over-arching legal framework that emboldened the Civil Rights Movement.

The repudiation, at the Federal last word level, of the Jim Crow machinery set up in Plessy freed the Civil Rights Movement to pursue direct action civil disobedience with the confidence of victory. Certainly, there was the omnipresent risk/reality of brutal police response, extra-legal violence and death. But segregation could now be challenged at the local and state levels — the buses in Montgomery, the lunch counters in Greensboro, the beaches in Florida, everything in Birmingham – with the assurance that should the cases wend their way through the Federal Courts, the protesters would prevail. The highest Court in the land was 9 – 0, unanimously, on their side.

There are no such assurances today. To the contrary. The Roberts Court, in a series of heavily partisan 5-4 decisions, has largely undone the major legislative and judicial achievements of the Civil Rights Era, and dragged us back towards an Ante-Bellum landscape of extreme state’s rights. Read: state’s right to discriminate.

At the inspiring, poignant end of Selma, the teletype across the screen updates us as to the fate of protagonists. But missing is the fate of the signature legislation which resulted from the many bloody sundays, mondays, tuesdays. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 too lies dead – disemboweled by the Roberts Court in Shelby County v Holder (2013). The victory and sacrifice of so many, undone, by mere paper.

All of this is not to discourage the movements of this moment, but rather to say, Know the Terrain. The Supreme Court offers now no umbrella of support for demands of equality, inclusion, protection from State violence. We will not be saved. Our tactics, our strategies, our protests must take account of the current legal landscape. They must be bold imaginative, community-centered, and untethered to any expectation of sanctuary in the courts. They must operate outside the frame.

This is to say too, even to those who eschew electoral politics, keep a close eye on those nine robed judges and to the possibility of who may appoint them. It matters; their decisions shape the space for movements for decades, for generations not yet born, and mean the difference between raw repression and a small bit of breathing room.

And finally, this is to say that progress is not an uninterrupted forward motion, that no victory is guaranteed forever, Whatever we win today, we must be prepared to defend and re-defend without tire. For the long haul.

Onward.

CI: #FreeMLK

January 21, 2015 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Economic Development, Economic Terrorism, Housing, Intersectionality, What People are Doing to Change the World

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.

 

#FreeMLK
by nancy a heitzeg

In anticipation of the National Holiday bearing his name,  Ferguson Action announced their intention to #ReclaimMLK; “Unfortunately, Dr. King’s legacy has been clouded by efforts to soften, sanitize, and commercialize it. Impulses to remove Dr. King from the movement that elevated him must end. We resist efforts to reduce a long history marred with the blood of countless women and men into iconic images of men in suits behind pulpits .”

The Radical King was a tactical genius in the implementation of targeted direct action campaigns, a civil disobedient – a breaker of unjust laws who expected – no wanted – to go to jail, and at times,  as Joy James reminds us, a political prisoner. Often lost in the discussion is this: that famous letter from Birmingham was written from jailThe Radical King was a democratic socialist, an intersectional analyst who linked white supremacy and capitalism, a critic of war and U.S. imperialism, and a proponent of a revolution of values. Who knows — had he lived long enough, he may well have found himself an advocate too for prison abolition.

But what does it mean to #ReclaimKing at this moment? 2015 is not 1965. Ferguson is not Birmingham; Staten Island is not Selma. The Radical King must be fully embraced with a complete and nuanced understanding of his time and context as well as our own.

No, the legacy of King and the Civil Rights Movement can no longer be sanitized, but it cannot be uncritically, causally reclaimed either. In embracing the full complexity, we must not adhere only to the metaphor, but also the hard realities.  Protest is essential, but it cannot be mere performance and it is never, by itself, enough.  We must develop the long-haul strategies that make for success; that take into account the systems of power which we are engaging.  We must not be naive; if power is confronted, it will strike back. This is part of the turf, however vengeful and unjust it may seem.  This was the brilliance of King and the CRM:  the strategies anticipated and, in fact, relied on excessive responses that revealed the contradictions between legal “justice” and the violence that is inflicted by the state.

The radical vision demands so much more of us. It demands a lifetime commitment and a willingness to risk – everything if need be – with the expectation of the powerful backlash.  This must be factored into our work – not because we are martyrs, but because we are savvy and delusion free.  The test will be how we can walk into the center of the storms in our own era, stand through them, and see our way to the other side.

Last week I was in downtown Oakland, in the midst of 96 hours of MLK Weekend Action, and as usual, the movement there said it/did best. A coterie of marchers appeared and delivered this chant – not a call to reclaim and then repossess – but this:

“#FreeMLK!”

Read that Letter again with this in mind.

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CI: In the Long Shadow…

November 26, 2014 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Economic Terrorism, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex

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.

 

In the Long Shadow…
by nancy a heitzeg

This is a version of a piece that will appear soon in the Hamline Journal of Public Law and Policy. It will be featured in an issue devoted to a discussion of the impact, 50 years later, of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. At a related conference last Spring, there was some celebration  with regard to how far we had ostensibly come and the alleged “successes” of the law. But how can we say so in the short shadow of Ferguson/Everywhere, under still the long shadow of slavery, called by any of its’ newer names?

And so, here this is –  in the aftermath of the expected non-indictment, on the eve of that thankful celebration of settler colonialism – a look at the legal contours that still shape the terrain.  And perhaps, a thought of what is required then for change.

ON THE OCCASION OF THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1964: PERSISTENT WHITE SUPREMACY, RELENTLESS ANTI-BLACKNESS, AND THE LIMITS OF THE LAW [1]

PART I INTRODUCTION

         White supremacy – once writ large in the law via slavery and Jim Crow segregation – was removed from its’ legalized pedestal with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and finally, The Fair Housing Act of 1968.[2] The law became “race-neutral” and it now suddenly was illegal to discriminate on the basis on race – in housing, employment, public accommodations and access to the franchise. It was hoped that this legislation would finally bring to fruition the long overdue promise of the Civil War Amendments, long subverted via both legislation and judicial interpretation.[3]

These strokes of the pen, of course, could not remove bigotry long steeped in racist archetypes; nor could this legislation remove the structural barriers of nearly 400 years of white racial preference and cumulative advantage in the accumulation of wealth and property, access to education and housing, health and well-being, and all matter of social opportunities.[4] Racism, as both white supremacist/anti-Black [5] ideology and institutionalized arrangement, remains merely transformed with its’ systemic foundations intact. Segregation in housing and education persists at levels beyond that noted in Brown v. Board of Education, racial wealth gaps grow, and racial disparities in criminal injustice proliferate at a pace that has led to the label “The New Jim Crow”. [6]

Detail from Silouette by Kara Walker

Detail from Silouette by Kara Walker

In tragic irony, the Civil Rights Act’s requirement of race-neutrality has perhaps ushered in an era of more insidious de facto discrimination, that is now denied through “:color-blind” rhetoric. A large body of research documents the paradigmatic shift from overt essentialist racism to color-blindness.[7] This style of racism relies heavily on ideological frames and linguistic shifts which allow whites to assert they “do not see race”, deny structural racism, claim a level playing field that in fact now victimizes them with “reverse discrimination” and appeals to the “race card”, and argue that any discussion of race/racism is on fact racist and only serves to foment divisions rather than reflect/redress societal realities. “Color-blind racism” also creates a set of code terms that implicitly indict people of color without ever mentioning race.[8]

In the Post -Civil Rights Era, the color-blind paradigm has become deeply ensconced in law and politics. Continued movement towards “race-neutrality” is the hallmark of a series of Supreme Court decisions that deny the role of institutionalized racism and increasingly limit the role of race in constitutional remedies for inequality in matters of affirmative action and educational access, voting rights, and all matters of criminal injustice. [9]Criminal justice – as it did post- Reconstruction – continues to play a central role in the continued subjugation of Blacks in particular and will serve as the central example of both past and current patterns of discrimination.

On the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, questions again must be raised about its’ ultimate impact on racial justice. While this legislation made a substantial contribution to effectively dislodging white supremacy from overt expression in the law, the call instead to race-neutrality left anti-blackness unchallenged. The result, buttressed by judicial interpretations that further limit the consideration of race and the proliferation of color-blind rhetoric throughout popular and political discourse, has resulted in a situation of continued subjugation, particularly through the criminal justice system. One must ask – given Constitutional history, Supreme Court rulings that grind at a snail’s pace from the legitimation of slavery and exclusion to segregation to no consideration, and legislative lethargy – what are the pathways towards racial redress and equal protection of the law?

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CI: On Birmingham, #Ferguson and the Meaning of Movement

October 15, 2014 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Arts and Culture, Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Intersectionality, Media Conglomeration, Voting Rights, What People are Doing to Change the World

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.

 

On Birmingham, #Ferguson and the Meaning of Movement
by nancy a heitzeg

From the earliest days of unrest after the murder of Mike Brown, comparisons have been made to the Civil Rights Movement. Certainly Mike Brown himself evoked thoughts again of Emmett Till, as for 4 and one half hours, the whole watched as his body lay in the street. We saw what they had done to Leslie McSpadden’s boy. Then came the Ferguson Police Department with the dogs, reminiscent of Birmingham, the Bloody Sunday-like excesses of official response to non-violent protesters. And, in the 68 days since Mike Brown’s death from August 9th through #FergusonOctober, there have been unrelenting marches, protests, sit-ins, shut-downs, flash mobs,  and more.

The comparisons to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s have been furthered by both activists and media. 1964 = 2014. Ferguson = Birmingham. But does it ?

Although there are many points of comparison there are questions too. What has changed? What does that mean for movement vision and tactics today? There are many questions to consider– no concrete answers to had. Movements of course are organic – by their very nature , they evolve to address the issues of the time, and past movements are never a perfect template for present or future. Movements emerge and take on a life of their own that no amount of planning  or calculated questions can ever fully account for. But ask we must. And since History is a Weapon, Eyes on the Prize can serve as one of our guides.*

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Revelations: “blood river run”

August 24, 2014 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Arts and Culture, Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex

Wanda Coleman, Emmett Till

CI: Justice As Theft

June 11, 2014 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Corrupt Legislature, Criminal Injustice Series, Economic Terrorism, Education, Housing, Immigration, Intersectionality, LGBTQ, Poverty, Voting Rights, Workers' Rights

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.

Justice As Theft: Into the Twilight Zone
by Kay Whitlock

In 2011, Tonya McDowell, a homeless woman from Bridgeport, Connecticut, was charged with first degree (felony) larceny  and conspiracy to commit larceny for enrolling her 6-year-old son in Brookside Elementary School in the community of Norwalk.  Because McDowell and her son did not legally reside in Norwalk, the rationale for the charges was theft of $15,686 in educational costs from the Norwalk public school system. She faced a possible sentence of 20 years in prison. Moreover, McDowell’s babysitter was evicted from public housing because she apparently assisted by providing  false documents necessary for enrolling the young boy.

McDowell and her son are black; the Norwalk public school system is predominantly white – and therefore better funded than the Bridgeport system, in which people of color predominate. Essentially, she was charged with “stealing” a good public education for her son, who is entitled to public education, but not, presumably, a good one.

This prosecution was outrageous, right?  Yes – by any reasonable standard of human decency, anyway. But we live in a societal Twilight Zone in which the often-subterranean currents of the dominant U.S. public imagination respond to virtually all claims to social and economic justice as some form of theft, with all of the dissonance, danger, anxiety, emotional vulnerability, defensiveness, and fury associated with its evocation.

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CI: The Time Has Come

May 21, 2014 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Arts and Culture, Civil Rights, Corrupt Judiciary, Corrupt Legislature, Criminal Injustice Series, Economic Terrorism, Education, Housing, Intersectionality, Poverty, Prison Industrial Complex

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.

The Time Has Come
Editor’s Note from nancy a heitzeg

It is a week where there is too much to say, so instead we will say very little. We stand in the shadows of the anniversaries of the never-implemented Brown decision, and the day Philadelphia Police Department said “Let the Fire Burn!”We note the occasion of the birthday’s of Malcolm X, Lorraine Hansbury, and Ho Chi Minh, as we still demand an end to mass youth incarceration, brace ourselves for a “debate” about reparations,  and await word as to whether a Black Woman has any Ground to Stand.

Let us reflect on this recent history, not on what has been won, but what is left to be done. A History, that is neither some disregarded dustbin, nor a mausoleum/museum filled with past relics of partial victories.

History is Alive. And History is A Weapon.

Use it.

Eyes on the Prize: The Time Has Come (1964-66)
After a decade-long cry for justice, a new sound is heard in the civil rights movement: the insistent call for power. Malcolm X takes an eloquent nationalism to urban streets as a younger generation of black leaders listens. In the South, Stokely Carmichael and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) move from “Freedom Now!” to “Black Power!” as the fabric of the traditional movement changes.

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Brown at 60: “Great Progress, a Long Retreat and an Uncertain Future”

May 17, 2014 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Civil Rights, Education, Government for Good, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex

index

Brown at 60: Great Progress, a Long Retreat and an Uncertain Future

Authors: Gary Orfield and Erica Frankenberg, with Jongyeon Ee and John Kuscera
UCLA’s Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles,  May 15, 2014

“Brown was a major accomplishment and we should rightfully be proud. But a real celebration should also involve thinking seriously about why the country has turned away from the goal of Brown and accepted deepening polarization and inequality in our schools.  It is time to stop celebrating a version of history that ignores our last quarter century of retreat and begin to make new history by finding ways to apply the vision of Brown in a transformed, multiracial society in another century.”

On This Day

Michelle Obama Cites View of Growing Segregation