Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Stanley Tookie Williams

The criminal justice system in the United States is weighted heavily against the poor and disenfranchised. Over one thousand inmates on death row have been executed since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1977: a testimonial to the savagery and brutality of this society. Even the pretext of prisons as serving to reform as well as punish inmates has been discarded. The primary function of the prison system is to contain and punish. Vengeance is the guiding principle upon which the system of justice operates.

According to Amnesty International, a total of 122 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. In 2004, 97 per cent of all known executions took place in China, Iran, Viet Nam and the USA. Again, this country seems to excel at killing abroad on a massive scale with its rapacious machines of death (witness Iraq) and encouraging killing under the guise of justice here at home.

The guilt or innocence of Mr. Williams is not, in my judgment, as significant as the use of capital punishment to exact retribution for the purported crime. After all, life imprisonment is an alternative approach. It is well known that many on death row have been shown to be innocent based on DNA evidence and subsequently freed. There is no way to bring back those proven innocent who have been executed.

The following is taken from my book entitled, American and Mythology of Greatness.

There is a current myth that has been promulgated by politicians, with the indispensable help of the media, that we have somehow become a color blind society in which all persons are treated equally and with equal justice for all. According to this myth, the goal of equality of opportunity that the civil rights movement has been involved with for so long, and with so much passion, has been successfully achieved. This rationale has been used effectively to roll back the gains made through affirmative action programs in many states, including California and Washington.

The degree to which white Americans agree with an assessment that flies in the face of reality belies the extent to which racism is woven into the fabric of our culture. Black males continue to fill the nation’s prisons in record numbers, far in excess of their representation in the general population. There are currently over two million prisoners in the United States, one of the highest per capita rates in the world. This translates to approximately one out of every 150 people in the United States living in jail.

From averages taken from twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia where these data have been released, African American males make up 48 percent of the total prison population though they are 11.6 percent of the total population, whereas non-Hispanic whites make up 38.7 percent of the prison population where they represent 74.8 percent of the total population.

In addition, non-Hispanic blacks were 42.3 percent of all local jail inmates in June 2000 whereas non-Hispanic whites were 41.9 percent of jail inmates in 2000. Most cities have black ghettoes that are invariably plagued by poverty and unemployment. Crime is strongly associated with economic conditions, and poor black and Hispanic areas are the primary focus of police action. African Americans are less likely to have adequate health care, suffer from high infant mortality rates and their children, more often than not, attend inferior schools. These statistics do not lend much credence to the idea of a color blind society. Quite to the contrary, the nation is bounded by racism. It is a direct result of the legacy of slavery, an abominable practice that the nation, to this day, fails to address. There can be no true justice for black citizens and people of color while racism, and the attitudes that it engenders, continues to play such a significant role in the wider culture.

This inequality of treatment before the law between blacks and whites is also mirrored in the disparity of treatment between the classes. Put in its simplest terms, a man in California can be given life imprisonment for the shoplifting of videotapes due to the state’s three strikes and you’re out law, while an executive from the Enron corporation who has stolen millions from his employees’ pension funds as well as the millions upon millions from the energy ratepayers of California has yet to serve any jail time. One might ask how this is possible. To answer this question, one must ask who creates and frames the laws and to whom are they held accountable. Laws designed to protect wealth are ironclad, and the victims of these laws are invariably the powerless, i.e. the poor. The poor person accused of a crime has very limited access to competent counsel, and must depend upon a public defender, poorly paid, and often entirely unmotivated. Those who break such laws find themselves in prison for long stretches of time. On the other hand, laws designed to hold the wealthy accountable are filled with ambiguities and loopholes that any competent attorney can use to effectively spare his or her client the discomfort and inconvenience of jail time.

These are not simply anecdotal examples. Not many wealthy individuals are likely to be found in the nation’s jails. If they happen to go through the entire process of indictment, trial, conviction and sentencing, they most probably will be sent to low security prisons. The system of justice is skewed in their favor. It is the height of hypocrisy to suggest otherwise.

It is the poor, regardless of race, that populate the nation’s prisons. The number of Americans behind bars increased by more than 76,000 in 2001. About two hundred new prison cells are constructed in the United States every day at a cost of about 10 million dollars a day, while spending for higher education has been cut by about 18 percent. A cut in the funding for higher education increases the likelihood of crime in those areas where a good education is most desperately needed. Laws are often crafted to protect the wealthy, and it is law enforcement agencies that are required to enforce those laws. The police often find themselves caught between these two warring classes.

The myth of equal justice is effectively portrayed by the television media time and time again with a plethora of so-called “cop shows” that show the police as diligent public servants that protect society from the lawless. The criminals in these televised dramas are depicted as deranged or sinister and always evil. The police and the justice system are shown as the purveyors of good and keepers of justice: there to capture and incarcerate wrong doers for the public good. What they fail to show is the daily harassment, surveillance, detention and prosecution that are disproportionately visited on the residence of poor neighborhoods in the inner core of many American cities. These areas have a majority of non-white individuals. They are people living under the onus of a grinding poverty with inadequate housing, health and child care and inferior education. They are somehow expected to live within the norms established by the more affluent members of society. The role of law enforcement in these areas is containment. The punishment is accordingly harsh to accomplish this goal. Why is it that the punishment for the use and sale of crack cocaine is so much higher than for the use and sale of the cocaine powder, which is, after all, the drug of choice of the affluent? Why is it that such harsh sentences are meted out for crimes such as shoplifting and many other non-violent offenses? The message is a clear one: business, corporate interests and the security and safety of the well-to-do must be protected at all costs. There are only but a few avenues for the poor to rise above their poverty. All “illicit” methods are actively discouraged.

There can be no true justice and equality of treatment before the law without economic justice and equality. If all members of society were viewed as valued and treated accordingly, they would have equal access to good quality housing, education and health care and equal justice before the law would follow. If labor was viewed as a respected and essential part of the national economy, and not just as a commodity to be exploited, the minimum wage would be a living wage. If the security and well being of all Americans were truly a goal of the culture at large, there would be no one, especially children, going hungry, there would be no homeless, there would be no one living in abject poverty, and no child would be subjected to an abysmally inferior education.

Economic justice appears to be incompatible with the American brand of capitalism. Within the current system, everything is valued only in so much as profit can be made. Health care has been commandeered by the pharmaceutical and insurance companies. There is a move to privatize public education, and even the prison system is being infiltrated by private for profit companies. Although the tobacco companies that have been selling a lethal product for many years are now subject to domestic scrutiny, no one has questioned their right to export this product overseas for the purpose of profit with the ultimate cost of millions upon millions of lives. Within such an infrastructure, the needs of people that do not engender the possibility of profit are disregarded and neglected. Within such a system, gross inequities become possible and inevitable. In this environment, a two tier system has emerged where a very small percentage of the population controls an overwhelming portion of the wealth and, therefore, power and influence, leaving everyone else struggling for the leftovers.

The organization of American society is one in which leadership comes from the top, from those few with wealth and power, and where the mass of humanity finds itself conforming to a way of living designed to accommodate the agenda of the powerful. This structure has never really worked and has been shown to be critically flawed and corrupt. The very survival of the species and the viability of the planet are at risk. A way out of this quagmire is a restructuring of the social order so that power and wealth are more equitably distributed and where people have a more meaningful and direct control of their own destinies.

The way to transform this system is not by violent insurrection led by an elitist group or faction, for, as history has demonstrated so often in the past, this will only lead to replacing one powerful minority with another. The most viable method is one accomplished by a peaceful transition brought about by a truly mass movement demanding change. There are many groups that are currently active in promoting structural change, but they are scattered and, therefore, ineffective. The needs are many: adequate housing, medical care, prison reform, education, child care, meaningful work and a living wage. These are goals that are attainable through a merging and coalescence of these activist groups and their energies.

A major obstacle to the coming together of these disparate voices is government and corporate propaganda, which enlists the reach and effectiveness of the private media. These forces must be countered with a persistent and wide ranging program designed to educate people to the realities of this system and to propose and invite solutions from all sectors of the population. It is a non-violent struggle that must be waged from many fronts, a battle fought for particular and reachable goals such as food for the hungry, housing for the homeless, health care for those without, etc. Small victories and many of them will maintain the momentum for change, and lead, in my view, to larger and more unexpected gains. The fundamental goal of these efforts should be the improvement of the human condition and the ultimate achievement of universal equal justice.

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