Welcome to our Sixth Philosophy Born of Struggle Conference and special gratitude to many of you who I recognize have been attending since our inaugural meeting in 1994.
These series of conferences arose from an acute need for a national forum for those working within the Black philosophical tradition to wrestle with issues that are of vital importance in the search for social justice. Because from the earliest period of American history race and racial discrimination have been part of the legal landscape and closely connected to the criminal justice system , I have endeavor whenever possible to invite legal scholars to participate in our proceedings. Today I am happy to report that this year’s proceeding is represented by some of the most outstanding legal minds in the US who will address the historical relationship between race and law in America.
From the birth of the nation (long before birth of the nation) lawmakers have always invoked race to define personal status, and when Jim Crow laws developed to replace slavery they were directed toward nonwhite only. The strict vagrancy laws allowed the virtual enslavement of any free black who was unwilling to work for his or her former master. The civil rights acts of 1866 which was vetoed by president Andrew Johnson did little to protect former slaves from the Mississippi Black Codes, and when Justice Joseph Bradley found the 1875 Civil Rights Acts unconstitutional because he believed that the fourteenth Amendment prohibited only state action and did not protect blacks against private discrimination, the full re-institution of southern slavery was sealed for another 100 years.
Today I am suggesting to you that with regard to the majority of African people in America we are facing the greatest civil Liberty crisis since the civil war.
In the 1940’s , 50’s and 60’s we could turn to the courts with hope for redress for social injustices today the almost total politicization of the courts has put in jeopardy the possibility of meaningful success by traditional litigation. The introduction of mandatory minimum, three strikes, reduction in habeas corpus, operation clean sweeps, racial profiling, surveillance cameras , new vagrancy laws, dramatic increase in federal crimes that meet death penalty status, Restrictions on freedom of association are all examples of a return to a period up to the 1930’s when social reformers generally feared the courts which tended to overturn progressive legislation.
For a brief moment in the 1960’s and 70’s there was a glimmer of hope that there would be a respite from Americas’ caste system as civil rights activists saw the federal judiciary as an ally in battles against discrimination, police brutality and corruption, and reactionary state legislators.
Today we are not only experiencing a reversal of fortune but a deliberate attempt by the state to reintroduce slavery in its most pernicious form. In 1997 the Sentencing Project in Washington D C published a report which stated that African American make up 51 percent of the prison population . Fourteen percent of black men are currently or permanently barred from voting either because they are in prison or because they have been convicted of a felon. Of a total voting population of 10.4 black million men (1996 figures) nationwide an estimated 1.46 million have lost the right to vote because of a felon conviction – and being a convicted felon might started out by riding your bicycle on the wrong side of the street.
With regard to the general population , the justice department announced in the spring of this year that 1.8 million Americans are in prisons , of this amount 1.2 million are non violent offenders. The growth of Americas’ prison system has become so huge that it has developed a vast array of family and advocacy groups which are unprecedented in the nation history. At the same time the prison industrial complex has become one of the commanding heights of the American economy with a company like Corrections Corporation of America ranking among the top five performing companies on the New York stock exchange for the past three years. The value of its shares has soared from $50 million when it went public in 1986 to more than $3.5 billion in October 1997. There is even better news for those in the business of ware housing prisoners – they now can have their hotels permanently booked at 125% capacity or more.- as overcrowding is the norm in many jails. On the other hand a year ago 90,000 children could not find seats in the City of New York Public Schools.
By privatizing prison management, government auction off inmates to the highest bidder. Now the bar of justice is under the control of corporate interest and the commodification of all values in essentially complete. Consequently the question being asked today is not , what is the nature of justice in the courts, but how much money can companies like CCA save the tax payer. As mental hospitals are being closed many mental patients are rounded up in some of the operation clean sweeps and other police activities to swell the ranks in both private and public prisons. In some county jails the over flow population sleep in the corridors. When Inspectors from the British Prison Officers Association visited a Corrections Corporation of America run facility in Houston Texas they pronounced it “Possibly the worst condition they have ever witnessed in terms of inmate care and supervision”. What is even more alarming is the fact that prison corporations’ executives are lobbing congress and contributing hefty sums to their favorite political candidates with the hope of securing lucrative deals in prison construction, maintenance and the privatization of state prisons.
In 1998 Correction Corporation of America with the financial backing of firms like Lehman Brothers and Pain Webber formed CCA Prison Realty Trust Whose sole responsibility is the acquisitions of prisons . The initial stock offering raised $338.5 million from investors who are interested in speculating in prison real estate.
The punitive disposition of some judges has baffled even some members of the law enforcement establishment.
In 1997 federal judge John S. Martin sentenced Luis Felipe, founder of the New York chapter of the Almighty Latin Kings and Queens Nation to life imprisonment plus 45 years for supposedly ordering murders from jail . The judge then insisted that FELIPE must serve his sentence in solitary confinement. He forbade him to write or be visited by anyone but his Lawyer and close relative. Felipe a Cuban immigrant has no close relative. Judge Martin even refused to grant him permission to submit his poems and sketches to magazine contests, write to prisoners’ rights groups and contact religious organizations. Harvard Medical school psychiatrist Dr Stuart Grassian in response to this sentence said “I could imagine a sober society living with capital punishment but I can’t imagine a civilized society living with the punishment of driving a prisoner insane”.
I submit to you that the sophistication of the emerging millennium slavery rival any kind of human bondage known in modern history in its insidious corrosion of human values and at the same time the corresponding lack of moral outrage in the general population.
As indicated already it is not only the individual prisoner that is caught up in a culture that criminalizes poverty, but studies have shown that the rapid increase in the imprisonment of the poor have contributed to the decline of many communities by increasing unemployment and undermining stable family life. As the rich gets richer and the poor gets prison the democratic process continues to be subverted by draconian drug laws, disparity in sentencing, racial profiling, police corruption, corporatization of the electoral system, and political attack on the Judiciary. On June 4th 1996 Judge Lee Sarokin of the third Circuit announced his resignation from the Federal bench stating -and I quote- “I see my life’s work and reputation being disparaged on an almost Dailey basis and I find myself unable to ignore it .. My tenure on the court has become so politicized that I do not feel that I can serve effectively”. -unquote . This resignation of Judge Sarokin an appointee of President Clinton came after a blistering attack by Senator Bob Dole during his bid for the presidency accusing Sorakin of being soft on crime. The judge said he resigned because he suddenly felt he might have to consider whether his opinion from the bench would be used politically.
People are making huge political investment on being tough on crime by imposing the death penalty and giving long mandatory sentences. Politicians are using death penalty cases to become congressional members, Governors and even president. In the high stakes of political advancement, Capital punishment is really a matter of life and death. The death penalty is not part of a criminal justice system but part of a political system. Consequently it is not without significance that we have Mumia Abu- Jamal being swept up in a political tide that celebrates execution as one of its chief drawing cards – a political culture in which the poor and the wretched of the earth are disposable.
As the saying goes; those without the capital get the punishment.
Today we are at a crossroad. Mumia correctly observed that every time our nation has come to a fork in the road with regard to race it has chosen to take the path of compromise and betrayal.
Today silence is betrayal in the recognition of the massive social dislocation that is taking place in many poor communities as a result of a race based criminal justice system. Derek C, Bok former president of Harvard speaks for many of us in saying that “there is far too much Law for those who can afford it and far too little for those who cannot”.
Today as I stand among committed scholars, educators, and community leaders who are dedicated to the protection of civil liberties and the search for social justice my despair is being transformed into a vision of hope and it is with the sense of a renewed vitality anticipating a successful outcome of our deliberations that I invite you to reflect with me on the words of Supreme Court Justice Luis Brandies in Whitney V California. Here I quote:
“Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the State was to make men free to develop their faculties : and that in its government the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary . They valued liberty both as an end and a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty. They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that without free speech and assembly discussion would be futile; that with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American Government.”
Philosophy Born of Struggle VI
Civil Liberties in the New Millennium
J. Everet Green
New School University- Swayduck Auditorium October 15 – 16, 1999.