2018 Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon #BAT2018


On Sunday, June 10th, my daughter Kay (a.k.a. “The Toothless Wonder”) and I rode in the Bikes Not Bombs 31st Annual Bike-A-Thon.  The ride helps raise funds for Bikes Not Bombs’ social justice programs in Boston and abroad.

We met our goal for fundraising (including for my son Peter who was not able to participate), but Bikes Not Bombs is still accepting donations if you wish to contribute.

It was a beautiful day to ride, and except for the steep uphills right at the beginning, it was a terrific ride.

 

Read about our previous Bike-A-Thons in 2011, 201320152016, and 2017.

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Sponsor Us for the 2018 Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon #BAT2018


It’s once again time to get back in the saddle for one of my favorite events of the year, the Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon.

Bikes Not Bombs is a social justice organization based in Jamaica Plain, MA not far from where I live. Their goal is to use the bicycle as a vehicle for social change.  The accomplish this mission by:

  • collecting and renovating bicycles to ship to developing communities in Central America, the Caribbean and Africa. These bicycles help people meet crucial transportation needs with an easily maintained and environmentally friendly vehicle.
  • help Boston youth develop confidence and leadership skills through programs focusing on urban bicycle riding and bicycle repair.

I routinely get my bike repaired and by bicycle supplies at the Bikes Not Bombs shop in Jamaica Plain, and I’m always impressed by the positive impact they have in the community.  Especially when I see young people out on their Boston By Foot group rides.

Here’s how you can help:

This is our sixth time participating.  Read about our previous Bike-A-Thons in 2011, 201320152016, and 2017.

Book Review: This is an Uprisingby Mark Engler


AuthorMark Engler
TitleThis is an uprising : how nonviolent revolt is shaping the twenty-first century
Publication Info: New York : Nation Books, [2016]
Summary/Review:

This book is a comprehensive evaluation of the tools and strategies used in nonviolent movements, whether they be to overthrow dictators or to advance social change in representative democracies.  Much of this book is based on the work of Gene Sharp (who actually passed away during the time I was reading this), who published his theories on nonviolence in 1973’s The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Engler illustrates nonviolent movements in action through cases of the satyagraha movement that lead to India’s independence from Great Britain, and the tactics and campaigns of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Congress of Racial Equality, and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the American Civil Rights Movement.

Two other figures are also examined for their contributions to the theory and strategy of nonviolent movements.  The first is Saul Alinsky, whose book Rules for Radicals (1971), served as a guidebook for organizing community organizations along nonpartisan and ideologically diverse lines towards pragmatic results achieved over the long term.  A countering theory comes from France Fox Piven, who along with Richard A. Cloward published Poor People’s Movements (1977), which argues that the most vulnerable communities lack the resources to manage long-term campaigns or gain political influence without using disruptive tactics such as boycotts, sit-ins, traffic tie-ups, and strikes. From Piven’s point of view, the organizations created by Alinsky’s organizing can become too complacent or risk averse once they’ve established themselves and made ties with political leaders.  From Alinsky’s point of view, the disruptive movements championed by Piven often fail to make lasting social change and run out of steam.

There are obvious beneficial ideas and strategies that can be drawn from each theory, and Engler argues that a hybrid approach was successful in India, the Civil Rights Movement, and more recently by Otpor!, the Serbian resistance to the tyranny of Slobodan Milošević.  Otpor! was a decentralized movement which made it more difficult for the Milošević regime to target leaders for retribution, or for leaders to become too comfortably entangled in the government to the point that would not want to risk taking action.  Despite the decentralized approach, Otpor! maintained strict guidelines on action known as frontloading that helped maintain consistency on message and strategy.  Many Otpor! actions came in the form of satirical street theater performances which doubled as recruitment by inviting interested passersby to attend intensive training on nonviolence.

Engler also relates cases of how nonviolent movements are working in the contemporary United States.  Marriage equality became reality in the United States not because of a Supreme Court decision, but because an organized movement worked for decades to shift public opinion.  Movements can be divisive by design with ACT UP presented an example of a group who used provocative and polarizing  direct actions that brought attention to people suffering from AIDS that could not be achieved by more pragmatic organizations who feared losing the few gains already achieved by the LGBT community.

This is an important book that summarizes the history of nonviolent movements, breaks down key tactics and strategy, and serves as a blueprint for future nonviolent revolutions.  I think massive nonviolent movements will be vital to address the severe social and political issues we’re facing in the 21st century and recommend that everyone read this book to get a sense of what needs to be done.

Favorite Passages:

This book is concerned with a specific phenomenon: momentum-driven mass mobilization. It contends that those who have most carefully studied these mobilizations—examining how to construct and sustain scenarios of widespread protest—come out of a tradition of strategic nonviolence. It argues that political observers watching the democratic upheavals of the twenty-first century should incorporate this tradition’s insights into their understanding of how social transformation happens. Those wishing to bring such upheavals into existence, meanwhile, do well to marry these insights with their existing approaches to leveraging change. – p. 3

Nonviolence is often written off as obsolete, an idea that has been mostly forgotten and is largely irrelevant in global affairs. Yet, every time it is cast aside, strategic nonviolent action seems to reassert itself as a historic force. Without taking up weapons, and with little money and few traditional resources, people forming nonviolent movements succeed in upending the terms of public debate and shifting the direction of their countries’ politics. Nonviolence in this form is not passive. It is a strategy for confrontation. – p. 3

Gene Sharp documented how unarmed uprisings could produce remarkable and sometimes counterintuitive results. Whereas violent rebellions play to the strengths of dictatorships—which are deft at suppressing armed attacks and using security challenges to justify the creation of a police state—nonviolent action often catches these regimes off guard. Through what Sharp calls “political jiu-jitsu,” social movements can turn repression into a weakness for those in power. Violent crackdowns against unarmed protests end up exposing the brutality of a ruling force, undermining its legitimacy, and, in many cases, creating wider public unwillingness to cooperate with its mandates. – p. 6

Walker and Cotton were not trivializing the violence of the police dogs. They took the risks of the campaign very seriously. As King had contended, the point of creating a public crisis in Birmingham was not to introduce Connor or other authorities to violence. Rather, it was to expose the violence routinely inflicted upon the black community under Jim Crow segregation. “We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive,” King wrote. “We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.”54 Walker and Cotton knew that the attacking police dogs would serve as a choice representation of the much more pervasive violence that flourished in the city. In his tactical foolishness, Bull Connor had become an ally in exposing the brutality of white supremacy. And he was just beginning. – p. 22

But in democratic countries with representative institutions, the conventional wisdom is that the process of altering the status quo looks very different. It means working through officials in high office. It requires prolonged and often painstaking back-room negotiations between various interest groups. And when reforms are achieved, they are never so stark or dramatic as a dictator’s fall. Or are they? As it turns out, this accepted vision of how political change occurs has serious flaws. At best, it presents an incomplete picture of how progress in our society is won. At worst, it is a wrong-headed story that stubbornly conceals the way in which many of the most significant gains of the past century have been secured, from women’s suffrage, to labor laws, to civil rights. It misses how people with few material resources and little access to conventional powerbrokers have sometimes been able to bring about transformations that mainstream politicians consider to be absurd and impractical—right up until the moment when these changes become common sense. – p. 87

In a democratic nation, monolithic thinking likewise trains citizens to focus on the top. The vast majority of people are taught early on to hold this view. Most history books chart the rise and fall of business tycoons and ambitious politicians. The message is further reinforced when the bulk of our political reporters spend their time writing about the activities of these same actors. Legislative victories are credited to the policymakers who sign the final bills into law rather than to any movements that might have made passage of the bills possible in the first place. The public absorbs this bias, conflating the process of democratic reform with the decisions of charismatic leaders who manipulate the course of the nation’s affairs. – p. 95

If there is a common trait in the most prominent movements of the past century—whether they involved efforts to end child labor, redefine the role of women in political life, or bring down an apartheid regime—it is that they took up causes that established powerbrokers regarded as sure losers and won them by creating possibilities that had not previously existed. As the pillars give way, barriers long seen as too daunting to be overcome suddenly appear surmountable. – p. 114

Momentum-driven organizing necessarily places a greater focus on the symbolic. In their mass mobilizations, activists in this tradition need not abandon a push for concrete gains entirely. But instead of measuring their results only by incremental wins at the bargaining table, they use other metrics as well: movement in opinion polls, growing numbers of active participants, the ability to generate resources through grassroots channels, and the responsiveness of different pillars of support to their mobilizations. Organizers of civil resistance cannot be content with empty declarations of victory or with merely “speaking truth to power.” They must be hard headed in assessing their progress in winning over advocates and sympathizers from outside their immediate networks, always guarding against tendencies to become insular “voices in the wilderness.” – p. 140

Practitioners of nonviolent conflict have regularly shown themselves willing to be intentionally divisive, making use of a complex yet critical phenomenon known as “polarization.” In doing this, they grapple with an undeniable tension: broad-based support is vital if campaigns of civil resistance are to prevail. And yet many of the tactics of nonviolent disruption tend to be unpopular. People prefer calm speech and reasoned dialogue to the ruckus of confrontational protest. In many cases, creating a galvanizing crisis around an issue involves inconveniencing members of the general public, potentially alienating the very people that advocates want to win over. Moreover, when a vocal minority speaks out, it can inspire its most ardent enemies to begin organizing in response. Notwithstanding these dangers, the experience of social movements—from the civil rights movement in the 1960s, to ACT UP in the 1980s and 1990s, to the immigrant rights movement in the new millennium—shows that polarization can also be a powerful friend. By taking an issue that is hidden from common view and putting it at the center of public debate, disruptive protest forces observers to decide which side they are on. This has three effects: First, it builds the base of a movement by creating an opportunity for large numbers of latent sympathizers to become dedicated activists. Second, even as it turns passive supporters into active ones, it engages members of the public who were previously uninformed, creating greater awareness even among those who do not care for activists’ confrontational approach. And third, it agitates the most extreme elements of the opposition, fueling a short-term backlash but isolating reactionaries from the public in the long run. – p. 199

With the passage of time, successful movements are often celebrated as heroic and noble. But, while they are still active, their tactics are never beloved by all. Accepting that reality is part of using conflict and disruption as tools for change. – p. 224

The need for disruptive movements to reignite on a persistent basis raises the question of how even very committed people can sustain their efforts over the course of decades and generations. One way to do this is to build communities that reach beyond the realm of traditional political struggle. Although the building of alternative communities and institutions can be a potent force in social movements, it can also present challenges. Activists have long debated the question: Should we fight the system or “be the change we wish to see”? Should we push for transformation within existing societal structures, or should we model in our own lives a different set of social and political relationships that might someday form the basis of a new society? Going back centuries, different movements have incorporated elements of each approach, sometimes in harmonious ways and other times in ways that create conflicts between groups. – p. 271

Recommended booksNobody by Marc Lamont Hill, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Do It Anyway by Courtney E. Martin, A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, and Becoming a Citizen Activist by Nick Licata
Rating: *****

Podcasts of the Week Ending July 14


Late, but still worth listening to.  There’s a lot of terrific material this week, although to be fair several of my recommendations are repackaging previously released content, so think of this as a greatest hits package of greatest hits!

Best of the Left – The inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men

Several stories debunk the myths of poverty and ask why economists don’t ask the right questions about poverty.

Have You Heard – ‘I Quit’ – Teachers Are Leaving and They Want to Tell You Why

The stress and inequity of teaching in defunded and underesourced public schools is causing teachers to quit teaching, but some of them are prominently telling the world why they’re leaving in hopes of bringing positive change for future teachers, students, and schools.

StoryCorpsBetween June and September

Stories of Coney Island from people who kept the fun in the sun destination alive during its lowest points in the early 1990s.

Politically Re-Active – Street Heat w/ Congresswoman Barbara Lee & Linda Sarsour

Interviews with two amazing progressive leaders, both women of color, and their work fighting for social, racial, and economic justice.  I seriously had no idea that Linda Sarsour was so very Brooklyn.

BackStorySkin Deep: Whiteness in America

Slavery and segregation not only meant discriminating against black people, but also defining what it means to be white.  Three stories detail how the idea of whiteness played out in different periods of American history.

Re:SoundThe Smash the Binary Show

Three stories of the experiences of transgender persons, as well as an exploration of the “feminine” qualities of straight cis men.  I was particularly touched by the story of “The Accidental Gay Parents.”

 

 

 

Sponsor Us for the 2017 Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon


On Sunday, June 4,  I will be riding with my kids Kay and Peter in the Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon!   The Bike-A-Thon is always a fun event and it raise money for a terrific cause. This will be our fifth time participating.

Based in Boston not far from where we live, Bikes Not Bombs serves two great purposes. First they collect and renovate bicycles to ship to developing communities in Central America, the Carribean and Africa. These bicycles help people meet crucial transportation needs with an easily maintained and environmentally friendly vehicle. Secondly, they help youth right here in Boston learn skills such as urban bike riding and bicycle repair that contributes to building their confidence and leadership skills. Please help us in our efforts by making a generous donation!

Here’s how you can help:

Read about our previous Bike-A-Thons in 2011, 20132015, and 2016.

 

Book Review: God and Empire: Jesus against Rome, Then and Now by John Crossan


Author: John Crossan
TitleGod and empire : Jesus against Rome, then and now
Publication Info: [San Francisco] : HarperSanFrancisco, c2007.
Previously Read by the Same Author: Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography
Summary/Review:

This is a complex but fascinating book that I muddled through over the course of Lent this year.  The basic thesis of this book is that Jesus Christ taught a radical message contrary to the idea of empire, whether the Roman empire of Christ’s time or the American empire today.  Pax Romana created peace through the enforcement of Roman military strength but the Kingdom of God is a true peace built on justice and equality.  Thus the violence of “civilized” humanity if challenged by Christ’s non-violence.  This is a book worthy of a contemplative reread.
Favorite Passages:

As the greatest pre-industrial and territorial empire—just as we are the greatest post-industrial and commercial empire—Rome was the expression, no more and no less, of the normalcy of civilization’s violence, first-century style. Usually we use the term “civilization” for everything that is good about our humanity—for example, poetry and drama, music and dance, art and architecture, image and narrative. Correspondingly, to call individuals or groups, places or actions, “uncivilized” is normally a calculated insult. So I need to explain very clearly what I mean in this book by the “brutal normalcy of civilization.” The point I wish to emphasize is that imperialism is not just a here-and-there, now-and-then, sporadic event in human history, but that civilization itself, as I am using that term, has always been imperial—that is, empire is the normalcy of civilization’s violence. It is, of course, always possible to oppose this empire in favor of that one, to oppose yours in favor of ours. But if you oppose empire-as-such, you are taking on what has been the normalcy of civilization’s brutality for at least the last six thousand years.

As everyone knows, civilization began immediately with fratricide: the murder of one brother by another. But the story is more detailed than that. “Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground” (4:2), and “when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him” (4:8). That inaugural fratricide was the murder of a shepherd by a farmer on his own farm. That is the first act in the invention of human civilization—the farmer displacing the shepherd—and God does not punish the farmer but only marks him forever as the future of a lost past. There is no counterviolence from God—not even the appropriate divine vengeance when, as God says, “your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (4:10).

I think that Jesus started by accepting John’s theology of God’s imminence but, precisely because of what happened to John, changed from that to a theology of God’s presence. John expected God’s advent, but Antipas’s cavalry came instead. John was executed, and God still did not come as an avenging presence. Maybe, thought Jesus, that was not how God acted because that is not how God is. Jesus’s own proclamation therefore insisted that the Kingdom of God was not imminent but present; it was already here below upon this earth, and however it was to be consummated in the future, it was a present-already and not just an imminent-future reality. Jesus could hardly have made such a spectacular claim without immediately appending another one to it. You can speak forever about the future-imminence of the Kingdom, but unless you are foolish enough to give a precise date, you can hardly be proved right or wrong. We are but waiting for God to act; apart from preparatory faith, hope, and prayer, there is no more we can do. When God acts, it will be, presumably, like a flash of divine lightning beyond all categories of time and place. But to claim an already-present Kingdom demands some evidence, and the only such that Jesus could have offered is this: it is not that we are waiting for God, but that God is waiting for us. The present Kingdom is a collaborative eschaton between the human and divine worlds. The Great Divine Cleanup is an interactive process with a present beginning in time and a future (short or long?) consummation. Would it happen without God? No. Would it happen without believers? No. To see the presence of the Kingdom of God, said Jesus, come, see how we live, and then live likewise.

It is certainly correct, therefore, to call Jesus’s death—or in fact the death of any martyr—a sacrifice, but substitution and suffering are not the point of sacrifice. Substitutionary atonement is bad as theoretical Christian theology just as suicidal terrorism is bad as practical Islamic theology. Jesus died because of our sins, or from our sins, but that should never be misread as for our sins. In Jesus, the radicality of God became incarnate, and the normalcy of civilization’s brutal violence (our sins, or better, Our Sin) executed him. Jesus’s execution asks us to face the truth that, across human evolution, injustice has been created and maintained by violence while justice has been opposed and avoided by violence. That warning, if heeded, can be salvation.

It is the age-old normalcy of civilization’s violent injustice that is weakness and foolishness with God, and it is God’s nonviolent justice that is weakness and foolishness for civilization’s violent normalcy.

To turn the nonviolent resistance of the slaughtered Jesus into the violent warfare of the slaughtering Jesus is, for me as a Christian, to libel the body of Jesus and to blaspheme the soul of Christ.

Recommended books:

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan , The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation by Barbara R. Rossing, Hell’s Abyss, Heaven’s Grace: War and Christian Spirituality by Lawrence Hart, and Quest for the living God : mapping frontiers in the theology of God by Elizabeth A. Johnson
Rating: ****

2016 Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon is Sunday, June 19th!


So, the Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon was rained out on June 5th so we’ll be riding on the rain date of June 19th instead.  This means I have one more chance to encourage you to sign up and ride or to support the ride of me and my son Peter.  So far we’ve received $463 in donations for Bikes Not Bombs.  It would be awesome if we could get to $500 or more!

Here’s my original appeal:

On Sunday, June 5,  I will be riding with my 8-year-old son Peter in the Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon!   The Bike-A-Thon is always a fun event and it raise money for a terrific cause. This will be our fourth time participating.

Peter with his 2015 Bike-A-Thon finisher’s medal.

Based in Boston not far from where we live, Bikes Not Bombs serves two great purposes. First they collect and renovate bicycles to ship to developing communities in Central America, the Carribean and Africa. These bicycles help people meet crucial transportation needs with an easily maintained and environmentally friendly vehicle. Secondly, they help youth right here in Boston learn skills such as urban bike riding and bicycle repair that contributes to building their confidence and leadership skills. Please help us in our efforts by making a generous donation!

Here’s how you can help:

Read about our previous Bike-A-Thons in 2011, 2013, and 2015.

Sponsor Us for the 2016 Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon


Hey!  Just want to share this again since the Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon is this Sunday!  You still have time to sponsor us and/or sign up to ride yourself!

On Sunday, June 5,  I will be riding with my 8-year-old son Peter in the Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon!   The Bike-A-Thon is always a fun event and it raise money for a terrific cause. This will be o…

Source: Sponsor Us for the 2016 Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon

Book Review: The new Jim Crow : mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness by Michelle Alexander


Author: Michelle Alexander
Title:The new Jim Crow : mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness
Publication Info: New York : [Jackson, Tenn.] : New Press ; Distributed by Perseus Distribution, 2010.
Summary/Review:

Alexander’s book demonstrates how mass incarceration  in the United States has succeeded slavery and Jim Crow segregation in creating inequality and an undercaste black and brown people in the country.  While notionally colorblind, policing, trials, sentencing and imprisonment disproportionately affect black Americans even though statistically they are no more likely than any other race to commit crimes.  The tool with which mass incarceration works is the War on Drugs, introduced in the 1980s at a time when the Civil Rights movement had ended legal segregation and made open racism culturally unacceptable and a time when economic downturns had ravaged urban black communities and removed manufacturing jobs the community depended on.  At the time the War on Drugs began, illegal drug use was dropping and police were so unconcerned with enforcing drug laws that the federal government basically had to bribe them with grants and military-style equipment.  While statistically white people are more likely to use and sell illegal drugs, enforcement focused almost entirely within black communities and the Supreme Court repeatedly allowed that  police searches and seizures in the drug war did not violate the 4th amendment.  With the punishment of drug crimes so severe, even people innocent of crimes are encouraged to take plea deals for shorter sentences without being informed that they will be labeled criminals for life.  Alexander asserts that the real effect of mass incarceration blacks in America goes beyond prison time as those with a criminal record lose access to welfare and public housing, are not hired for jobs, lose their right to vote and serve on juries, and often have any income garnished to pay for their imprisonment.  Under these circumstances it’s understandable that people denied the ability to make a living may turn to crime, the War on Drugs in effect creating what it’s supposed to prevent.  This is a powerful and important book that everyone should read.
Favorite Passages:

The impact of the drug war has been astounding. In less than thirty years, the U.S penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase. The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran. In Germany, 93 people are in prison for every 100,000 adults and children. In the United States, the rate is roughly eight times that, or 750 per 100,000. The racial dimension of mass incarceration is its most striking feature. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington, D.C., our nation’s capitol, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison. Similar rates of incarceration can be found in black communities across America.  These stark racial disparities cannot be explained by rates of drug crime. Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color.

What is completely missed in the rare public debates today about the plight of African Americans is that a huge percentage of them are not free to move up at all. It is not just that they lack opportunity, attend poor schools, or are plagued by poverty. They are barred by law from doing so. And the major institutions with which they come into contact are designed to prevent their mobility. To put the matter starkly: The current system of control permanently locks a huge percentage of the African American community out of the mainstream society and economy. The system operates through our criminal justice institutions, but it functions more like a caste system than a system of crime control. Viewed from this perspective, the so-called underclass is better understood as an undercaste—a lower caste of individuals who are permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society. Although this new system of racialized social control purports to be colorblind, it creates and maintains racial hierarchy much as earlier systems of control did. Like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.

One senator insisted that crack had become a scapegoat distracting the public’s attention from the true causes of our social ills, arguing: “If we blame crime on crack, our politicians are off the hook. Forgotten are the failed schools, the malign welfare programs, the desolate neighborhoods, the wasted years. Only crack is to blame. One is tempted to think that if crack did not exist, someone somewhere would have received a Federal grant to develop it.”

Clinton eventually moved beyond crime and capitulated to the conservative racial agenda on welfare. This move, like his “get tough” rhetoric and policies, was part of a grand strategy articulated by the “new Democrats” to appeal to the elusive white swing voters. In so doing, Clinton—more than any other president—created the current racial undercaste. He signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which “ended welfare as we know it,” replacing Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with a block grant to states called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). TANF imposed a five-year lifetime limit on welfare assistance, as well as a permanent, lifetime ban on eligibility for welfare and food stamps for anyone convicted of a felony drug offense—including simple possession of marijuana. Despite claims that these radical policy changes were driven by fiscal conservatism—i.e., the desire to end big government and slash budget deficits—the reality is that government was not reducing the amount of money devoted to the management of the urban poor. It was radically altering what the funds would be used for. The dramatic shift toward punitiveness resulted in a massive reallocation of public resources. By 1996, the penal budget doubled the amount that had been allocated to AFDC or food stamps.100 Similarly, funding that had once been used for public housing was being redirected to prison construction. During Clinton’s tenure, Washington slashed funding for public housing by $17 billion (a reduction of 61 percent) and boosted corrections by $19 billion (an increase of 171 percent), “effectively making the construction of prisons the nation’s main housing program for the urban poor.”

So-called consent searches have made it possible for the police to stop and search just about anybody walking down the street for drugs. All a police officer has to do in order to conduct a baseless drug investigation is ask to speak with someone and then get their “consent” to be searched. So long as orders are phrased as a question, compliance is interpreted as consent. “May I speak to you?” thunders an officer. “Will you put your arms up and stand against the wall for a search?” Because almost no one refuses, drug sweeps on the sidewalk (and on buses and trains) are easy. People are easily intimidated when the police confront them, hands on their revolvers, and most have no idea the question can be answered, “No.”

The resistance within law enforcement to the drug war created something of a dilemma for the Reagan administration. In order for the war to actually work—that is, in order for it to succeed in achieving its political goals—it was necessary to build a consensus among state and local law enforcement agencies that the drug war should be a top priority in their hometowns. The solution: cash. Huge cash grants were made to those law enforcement agencies that were willing to make drug-law enforcement a top priority. The new system of control is traceable, to a significant degree, to a massive bribe offered to state and local law enforcement by the federal government.

It is impossible to know for certain how many innocent drug defendants convict themselves every year by accepting a plea bargain out of fear of mandatory sentences, or how many are convicted due to lying informants and paid witnesses, but reliable estimates of the number of innocent people currently in prison tend to range from 2 percent to 5 percent. While those numbers may sound small (and probably are underestimates), they translate into thousands of innocent people who are locked up, some of whom will die in prison. In fact, if only 1 percent of America’s prisoners are actually innocent of the crimes for which they have been convicted, that would mean tens of thousands of innocent people are currently languishing behind bars in the United States. The real point here, however, is not that innocent people are locked up. That has been true since penitentiaries first opened in America. The critical point is that thousands of people are swept into the criminal justice system every year pursuant to the drug war without much regard for their guilt or innocence. The police are allowed by the courts to conduct fishing expeditions for drugs on streets and freeways based on nothing more than a hunch. Homes may be searched for drugs based on a tip from an unreliable, confidential informant who is trading the information for money or to escape prison time. And once swept inside the system, people are often denied attorneys or meaningful representation and pressured into plea bargains by the threat of unbelievably harsh sentences—sentences for minor drug crimes that are higher than many countries impose on convicted murderers. This is the way the roundup works, and it works this way in virtually every major city in the United States.

The central question, then, is how exactly does a formally colorblind criminal justice system achieve such racially discriminatory results? Rather easily, it turns out. The process occurs in two stages. The first step is to grant law enforcement officials extraordinary discretion regarding whom to stop, search, arrest, and charge for drug offenses, thus ensuring that conscious and unconscious racial beliefs and stereotypes will be given free rein. Unbridled discretion inevitably creates huge racial disparities. Then, the damning step: Close the courthouse doors to all claims by defendants and private litigants that the criminal justice system operates in racially discriminatory fashion. Demand that anyone who wants to challenge racial bias in the system offer, in advance, clear proof that the racial disparities are the product of intentional racial discrimination—i.e., the work of a bigot. This evidence will almost never be available in the era of colorblindness, because everyone knows—but does not say—that the enemy in the War on Drugs can be identified by race. This simple design has helped to produce one of the most extraordinary systems of racialized social control the world has ever seen.

Despite the brutal, debilitating impact of these “collateral consequences” on ex-offenders’ lives, courts have generally declined to find that such sanctions are actually “punishment” for constitutional purposes. As a result, judges are not required to inform criminal defendants of some of the most important rights they are forfeiting when they plead guilty to a felony. In fact, judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys may not even be aware of the full range of collateral consequences for a felony conviction. Yet these civil penalties, although not considered punishment by our courts, often make it virtually impossible for ex-offenders to integrate into the mainstream society and economy upon release. Far from collateral, these sanctions can be the most damaging and painful aspect of a criminal conviction. Collectively, these sanctions send the strong message that, now that you have been labeled, you are no longer wanted. You are no longer part of “us,” the deserving. Unable to drive, get a job, find housing, or even qualify for public benefits, many ex-offenders lose their children, their dignity, and eventually their freedom—landing back in jail after failing to play by rules that seem hopelessly stacked against them.

The entrapment occurs in three distinct phases, each of which has been explored earlier, but a brief review is useful here. The first stage is the roundup. Vast numbers of people are swept into the criminal justice system by the police, who conduct drug operations primarily in poor communities of color. They are rewarded in cash—through drug forfeiture laws and federal grant programs—for rounding up as many people as possible, and they operate unconstrained by constitutional rules of procedure that once were considered inviolate. Police can stop, interrogate, and search anyone they choose for drug investigations, provided they get “consent.” Because there is no meaningful check on the exercise of police discretion, racial biases are granted free rein. In fact, police are allowed to rely on race as a factor in selecting whom to stop and search (even though people of color are no more likely to be guilty of drug crimes than whites)—effectively guaranteeing that those who are swept into the system are primarily black and brown. The conviction marks the beginning of the second phase: the period of formal control. Once arrested, defendants are generally denied meaningful legal representation and pressured to plead guilty whether they are or not. Prosecutors are free to “load up” defendants with extra charges, and their decisions cannot be challenged for racial bias. Once convicted, due to the drug war’s harsh sentencing laws, drug offenders in the United States spend more time under the criminal justice system’s formal control—in jail or prison, on probation or parole—than drug offenders anywhere else in the world. While under formal control, virtually every aspect of one’s life is regulated and monitored by the system, and any form of resistance or disobedience is subject to swift sanction. This period of control may last a lifetime, even for those convicted of extremely minor, nonviolent offenses, but the vast majority of those swept into the system are eventually released. They are transferred from their prison cells to a much larger, invisible cage. The final stage has been dubbed by some advocates as the period of invisible punishment.13 This term, first coined by Jeremy Travis, is meant to describe the unique set of criminal sanctions that are imposed on individuals after they step outside the prison gates, a form of punishment that operates largely outside of public view and takes effect outside the traditional sentencing framework. These sanctions are imposed by operation of law rather than decisions of a sentencing judge, yet they often have a greater impact on one’s life course than the months or years one actually spends behind bars. These laws operate collectively to ensure that the vast majority of convicted offenders will never integrate into mainstream, white society. They will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives—denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Unable to surmount these obstacles, most will eventually return to prison and then be released again, caught in a closed circuit of perpetual marginality.

The vastly different sentences afforded drunk drivers and drug offenders speaks volumes regarding who is viewed as disposable—someone to be purged from the body politic—and who is not. Drunk drivers are predominantly white and male. White men comprised 78 percent of the arrests for this offense in 1990 when new mandatory minimums governing drunk driving were being adopted. They are generally charged with misdemeanors and typically receive sentences involving fines, license suspension, and community service. Although drunk driving carries a far greater risk of violent death than the use or sale of illegal drugs, the societal response to drunk drivers has generally emphasized keeping the person functional and in society, while attempting to respond to the dangerous behavior through treatment and counseling. People charged with drug offenses, though, are disproportionately poor people of color. They are typically charged with felonies and sentenced to prison.

The genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary. People choose to commit crimes, and that’s why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the system can be avoided with good behavior. But herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.

The colorblindness ideal is premised on the notion that we, as a society, can never be trusted to see race and treat each other fairly or with genuine compassion. A commitment to color consciousness, by contrast, places faith in our capacity as humans to show care and concern for others, even as we are fully cognizant of race and possible racial differences.

 

Recommended BooksBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Culture of Fear by Barry Glassner

Rating: ****1/2

Support Bikes Not Bombs!


This weekend I will be riding in the Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon with my 18-month daughter Kay as my co-pilot.

Bikes Not Bombs is one of my favorite charitable  social justice organization because it uses the bicycle as a vehicle for social change. This includes shipping restored bikes to International Programs in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean where sustainable transportation is vital for economic development. Closer to home, Youth Programs in the Boston area teach bicycle safety and mechanical skills to local teens building self-confidence and personal responsibility. Please make a donation to help the world-changing activities of Bikes Not Bombs. Better yet, come join us for the ride and/or for the post-ride festival at Stony Brook.

Book Review: Do It Anyway by Courtney E. Martin


Author: Courtney E. Martin
Title: Do it anyway : the next generation of activists
Publication Info: Boston : Beacon Press, c2010.
ISBN:

Summary/Review:

Martin (who I didn’t discover until after reading the book is an editor for one of my favorite blogs Feministing.com) interviews and tells the stories of 8 people under the age of 35 who are contributing to their communities as activists.  Martin takes the approach that this generation has been told from generation that they need to “save the world” but are often criticized for being aloof and narcissistic.  Through these essays Martin shows that while they can’t “save the world” there are in fact many young people who are far from self-centered.

These include:

  • Rachel Corrie, a peace activist killed by a bulldozer as she attempted to prevent the Israelis  from destroying a Palestinian home.  Martin goes beyond the sensationalist headlines to tell the story of Corrie’s hopes for transformation through peace.
  • Raul Diaz, a  social worker who helps young men reenter society after prison sentence as part of his work with Homeboy Industries.  Diaz lives a life shattered by gang violence and persists despite the deaths of many friends and mentees.
  • Maricela Guzman is an activist for veterans and against the military culture that contributed to her being raped by an officer and failing to get the support she needed after the attack.  A highlight of this chapter is when Martin brings together Diaz and Guzman together to share common experiences of trauma and violence.
  • Emily Abt who found her voice as an activist through making documentary and dramatic films through Pureland Pictures.
  • Nia Martin-Robinson, an environmental justice advocate, who carries on her family’s activist tradition by fighting pollution’s inordinate damage on communities of poor and people of color (as well as giving a minority voice often shunned by the green movement).
  • Tyrone Boucher, who chose to establish a philanthropy to give away his trust fund and fight for social justice outside the confines of the capitalist system.
  • Rosario Dawson, an actress who dedicates much of her time away from the set to various charities and social causes.
  • Dena Simmons, a teacher who grew up in the Bronx and remains as an inspirational teacher to her middle school students.

These are all inspiring stories of people doing good in their communities tied together by their common respect for humanity, perseverance, and big dreams with strategic visions.  This is a good book to read if you want to read something positive about people in our world today.

Recommended books: Respect: An Exploration by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot and From the pews in the back : young women and Catholicism by Kate Dugan.
Rating: