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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.

Revelations: I Shot a Man in Reno…

January 25, 2015 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Arts and Culture, Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex

Legal Debate on Using Boastful Rap Lyrics as a Smoking Gun

 Meet Tiny Doo, the rapper facing life in prison for making an album

As rappers go, Brandon Duncan’s approach is not unusual: his lyrics reflect the violent reality of the streets. But in the pantheon of rappers who have had run-ins with the courts, Tiny Doo looms large. Despite his lack of a criminal record, Duncan stands accused of nine counts of participating in a “criminal street gang conspiracy”, charges that could land him in prison for life.

But Duncan is not charged with participating in any of the crimes underlying the conspiracy, or even agreeing to them. Rather, he’s effectively on trial for making a rap album…

Putting a musician on trial for his lyrics is antithetical to Americans’ free speech rights, and quite possibly unconstitutional. What’s more, the “criminal street gang conspiracy” law that Duncan is charged with violating – part of an anti-gang initiative package passed by California voters in 2000 – stands in marked contrast to conspiracy as California has traditionally defined it.

Ordinarily, to be guilty of conspiracy in California an individual must agree with another person to commit a crime, then at least one of them must take action to further that conspiracy. The charge Duncan faces requires no such agreement: so long as prosecutors can show that Duncan is an active member of the gang and knows about its general criminal activity, past or present, he can be convicted for benefiting from its acts…

black line Capture

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: Undercurrents of #Pointergate

November 12, 2014 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: 2014 Mid-term Elections, Anti-Racism, Criminal Injustice Series, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex, Voting 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.

Undercurrents of #Pointergate ~ White Supremacist Policing and Racialized Voter Disenfranchisement
by nancy a heitzeg

Unless you have been in a media blackout, then surely the news of #Pointergate has come your way. It began with this inflammatory story last Thursday night on KSTP news. The provocative headline read: Mpls. Mayor Flashes Gang Sign with Convicted Felon; Law Enforcement Outraged.”

Old White Men Stoke Racialized Fears on KSTP TV

The photo of Mayor Betsy Hodges and Navell Gordon was taken at a get- out-the- vote event with Neighborhoods Organizing for Change  (more on NOC later).  Once everyone realized this was real and not some ludicrous Onion-esque parody, the reaction from Minneapolis residents was immediate; the hashtag #pointergate was created and trending within the hour. Since then the story has gone national with coverage that is focused on the blatant racism including the equation of the pointing with “gang signs”, and the smearing of Gordon as a “twice convicted felon.” The KSTP story was a textbook example of the racist conflation of Blackness with both criminality and gangs that pervades media and public perceptions. (For the best discussion of this dimension of these aspects of the story, please see the response from Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party (DFL) Chair Ken Martin, Professor Nekima Levy -Pounds, “Dear White People: Mayor Betsy Hodges is Not in a Gang” and Melissa Pestroyrry-Harris’ interview with both Navell Gordon and Anthony Newby, Executive Director of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change.)

Questions also emerged with regard to the timing of the piece. The following day, the City of Minneapolis was about to introduce a pilot program that required Minneapolis Police to wear body cameras. This requirement has long been part of Mayor Hodges’ platform and one source of conflict between the Mayor and the police union over growing community demands for accountability. The other98 blog offers a timeline of the evolving tensions and a closer look into the events preceding the body cam announcement:

Battle of the Open Letters

… late September of 2014. Councilwoman Hodges was now Mayor Hodges, and as such was facing higher expectations from the community. On September 26, a coalition of local professors, religious leaders, community groups and others penned “An Open Letter to Mayor Betsy Hodges,” which was later published in the Star Tribune, a local paper. The letter laid out serious concerns about the conduct of the Minneapolis Police Department, particularly residents’ frustration with the behavior of Chief Harteau, who had abruptly dropped out of a listening session intended to address these very concerns. The letter urges Mayor Hodges to break her “silence” on the growing tension and start working to regain public trust of both the police department and local government.

Mayor Hodges responded on October 8 with an Open Letter of her own, emphasizing her commitment to “eliminating gaps based in race and place, growing inclusively, and running the city well for everyone.” The letter goes on to lay out, in exhaustive detail, the plans and goals Hodges had for improving relations between police and the community at large. Early in the letter, this passage appears:

Hundreds of police officers serve respectfully and collaboratively every day to keep people safe and make neighborhoods across our city stronger. But not all do: some officers abuse the trust that is afforded to them, and take advantage of their roles to do harm rather than prevent it. Minneapolis has, and has had, officers like that. These officers do not represent a majority of the department, but their behavior disrupts community trust for all officers in the community… This is why it is so important to check bad behavior and end it, once and for all.

Well. Minneapolis Police were pissed, to put it lightly. In the third and final entry of the Battle of Open Letters, the President of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, John Delmonico, wrote a blistering reply to the Mayor, calling her words “repeated and personal slaps in the face to every member of the Minneapolis Police Department.” He accused her of painting all officers with the same unfair brush, and expressed anger that all of her plans for improving community relations involved changes in the department (Delmonico did not offer alternative plans, nor clarify as to what it would look like to reform the community rather than the police).

Certainly the KSTP story was a distraction from (and perhaps retaliation for) the announcement of the new body camera requirement. What has not yet been fully explicated in the #pointergate story, however, is a deeper discussion of the role of race in policing, including a new Minnesota ACLU Report on racial disparities in low level arrests, and the targeting of efforts to enfranchise Black voters.

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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: No Justice, Still, for Us

August 13, 2014 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Intersectionality, Military Industrial Complex, 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.

Peace, Finally, for Rodney King/No Justice, Still, for Us
by nancy a heitzeg

For Mike Brown, For Ferguson. For the Unnamed.

Editors Note: In light of the extra-legal police execution of Mike Brown and the ensuing events in Ferguson, Missouri, CI is republishing this piece written two years ago on the occasion of the death of Rodney King.

It is with unsurprised sorrow that we note how little has changed, save for the addition of many names: Jordan Davis, Kimani Gray, Cary Ball, Jr., Jonathan Ferrell, Renisha McBride, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford. More.

How many times must families grieve, communities explode? How many times must journalists re-write the same tired pieces, must we pretend that there is something called “justice” to be had for the Dead?

Wherever you are, please join us tomorrow in a National Moment of Silence #NMOS14. Please join us every day in saying this “ends today” ,  in saying the systemic siege of community by police state tactics is over. And we must find another way.

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