Masses Against Mass Incarceration: Activists Speak out Against “The New Jim Crow” on MLK Day

Decarcerate rally

Eighty five years after the birth of civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King, Jr., a coalition of activists gathered outside New Haven City Hall to declare war on what members of the group are referring to as “the new Jim Crow”.

Is it new? Or has it merely shape shifted from the ‘whites only’ signs in the windows of restaurants and movie theaters and lynch mob violence to the prison system that incarcerates more people-disproportionately those that are black or Latino-than any other nation in the world?

Coran Ghastan, a Divinity student at Yale University, was one of those people when he was wrongfully accused of a crime in his home state Florida back in 2010.

“If Martin Luther King was alive today, he would look at the criminal justice system, and say it’s just us,” Ghastan told the crowd of around 30 demonstrators that braved the below 10 temperatures to rally for the launch of Decarcerate Connecticut, the activist campaign aimed at prison reform and the end of mass incarceration. “He would say it’s a new slave system with a sophisticated way of lynching.”

So sophisticated that it is both all-encompassing and covert, blending in with the structure and passing as mechanisms of a seemingly functional system, while each of its multiple facets march in lockstep toward a dysfunctional end.

In Connecticut, blacks make up 41 percent of the total prison population, while Hispanics account for 26 percent.

I’m sitting in the New Haven public library-weeks before the rally-with People’s Socialist Liberation Party members Chris Garaffa and Ina Staklo, and Barbara Fair of My Brother’s Keeper. My first question for them, in tackling what is essentially a systemic issue such as mass incarceration, where do you even start?

“We’re attacking all of it,” Garaffa says. “Wherever the prison industrial complex manifests itself.”

There’s the war on drugs, which has targeted non-violent offenders to the tune of more than 50 percent of the inmate population in Federal prisons, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons website. In Connecticut Department of Corrections facilities, drug-related sentences can be attributed to the second highest number of inmates-with 991 people imprisoned for the sale of hallucinogens or narcotic substances, according to the DOC website.

“This is a way to do away with a surplus labor market,” Staklo adds. “This is not a sustainable system and they know that. This is their response to our inevitable uprising.”

Staklo is referring to less obvious triggers such as gentrification and the inevitable inflation that impacts housing affordability. With that comes exacerbated poverty, a condition that-perhaps more than coincidentally-runs parallel to the phenomenon of mass incarceration as a catalyst for drug-related arrests. Take for instance, a Connecticut law tacking on an additional three years for narcotics sellers caught within 1500 feet of a housing project. While the provision includes schools and daycare centers, Decarcerate’s comprehensive community resolution refers to the housing project component as “punitive”.

“What are people gonna do?” says Barbara Fair, a member of the group My Brother’s Keeper. “They can’t get a job. They cut back on that [unemployment benefits]. What do you think is going to happen? If they can’t feed their family through legitimate work, they’ll go to the black market, and without the war on drugs, we wouldn’t even have a prison industry.”

The prison industry-namely, the for-profit incarceration sector that, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, ballooned by 1600 percent between 1990 and 2009-might be described as more of an end than a means, activists say.

Not difficult to argue, considering the fact that private prison revenue-in the form of public funds-is fed to companies based on the number of beds they fill.

“The goal of the company’s is to have contracts that require states and municipalities to provide them with bodies,” Garaffa says. “And if they don’t, they can sue them.”

A plaque that rests on the Amistad Memorial outside City Hall reads, in giant letters, “Make Us Free”. The irony of the phrase isn’t lost on Fair, who addresses her fellow demonstrators with a megaphone.

“If you look at the fact that we lock up more people than anybody else in the world, those words are meaningless,” she says. “We are not free.”

The scope of the prison industrial complex-and the factors that contribute to perpetuating the cycle-is wide, so Decarcerate has designed its community resolution in similar fashion.

It will start with a change in philosophy regarding sentencing laws-particularly when it comes to nonviolent offenders, activists say.

Of the Connecticut DOC’s 16,594 inmates, there are 597 people serving time for murder, according to the DOC website. The number of people in prison for first degree assault is 599. Those convicted of sexual assault make account for another 459 prisoners.

Since this makes up a violent offender population that encompasses about 10 percent of those in Connecticut’s prisons, the state can put an end to mass incarceration by ending the criminalization of narcotics and seeking alternative sentencing for nonviolent crimes, Decarcerate activists say.

This would help with their resolution’s next tenet-the reduction of a prison budget that, since 1968, has ballooned from $13.7 million to 2012-2013’s $635.5 million, activists say. Decarcerate wants to see whatever savings come from the expenditure reduction put into schools and other mechanisms that can prevent incarceration and help individuals overcome poverty.

“Mass incarceration is the result of a policy decision by the state and federal governments to spend money on police, courts and prisons instead of on schools, housing and jobs,” said Coalition Member Greg Williams during the rally, reading off of the community resolution document. “We are calling for the reversal of that decision.”

It will take more than rallies and resolutions to reverse the trend, and the coalition members know that. They plan to do everything from political activism to community outreach.

“One of the primary things is bringing this to people’s attention,” Fair said at the library. “A lot of people don’t even know it’s going on.”

Garaffa has a slightly different take.

“People don’t need to know they’re oppressed-people are acutely aware,” he said. “But what people need to know is who their oppressor is.”

Perhaps that makes the date of the rally and launch of Decarcerate’s campaign-Martin Luther King Day-that much more fitting. King’s struggle is more widely known as one for racial equality and civil rights, but he knew who the oppressor was on a more holistic level as well, calling attention to issues such as income disparity. This is an effort that activists such as Ghastan plan to carry on.

“Today we are fighting not only racism, extreme materialism, and militarism,” Ghastan said to the crowd at the rally. “We are fighting mass incarceration.”

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