In a 1996 routine that makes prolific use of a potent racial epithet – and not in a way that can be called endearing – comedian Chris Rock excoriates those who boast that they’ve never been to jail. Rock fumes. “What you want, a cookie?! You’re not supposedto go to jail, you low-expectation-having (blankity-blanker)!”
Rock later told 60 Minutes’ Ed Bradley he’d retired the routine because racists thought it gave them cover to say a word they shouldn’t. That’s a good enough reason.
But there’s a more significant reason that should be plain to someone who was raised in Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood during the advent of the drug war.Given the inordinate attention police focus on men and boys in the poor neighborhoods, some Black men are rightly pleased they haven’t been swept up, too.
At Wednesday night’s Revius Ortique Lecture on Law and Society, Michelle Alexander told an overflow audience of the confrontation that made her wake up and write a book called “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness.”
While interviewing potential plaintiffs for a racial profiling case against the Oakland Police Department, she was ecstatic to find a 19-year-old Black man who, over a nine month period, had documented in near lawyerly detail each of his many humiliating interactions with the police. But she was crestfallen when he said he had a felony record. She was looking for a perfect poster child for police misconduct, and a felon wouldn’t do.
The teenager said the drugs had been planted on him and that he’d pleaded because prosecutors threatened him with years in prison if he didn’t, but she was unmoved. He yelled at her: “You’re no better than the police! Once I say I’m a felon, you stop listening.” Then he said, “Good luck finding one man in my neighborhood they haven’t gotten yet. They’ve gotten to us all already.”
Federal prosecutors later indicted The Riders, four Oakland police officers who gave themselves that nickname and, according to a 49-count indictment, kidnapped, assaulted and planted drugs on suspects in that teenager’s neighborhood. Alexander recognized the names of one of the cops because the teenager had said he’d framed him. There were a couple of mistrials and an acquittal in those cases, and the fourth cop took it on the lam to Mexico. The Oakland Police Department entered into a federal consent decree with the federal government.
The War On Drugs a War On Black Men
Last year when a Brooklyn judge found a New York police detective guilty of planting drugs on suspects, The New York Times quoted him, “I thought I was not naïve. But even this court was shocked by the seeming pervasive scope of misconduct but even more distressingly by the seeming casualness by which such conduct is employed.” Decrying what he called “cowboy culture,” Justice Gustin L. Reichbach said, “Anything goes in the never-ending war on drugs,” and police officers can be punished if they don’t embrace its “questionable practices.”
The war on drugs is obviously bad when police officers are breaking the law, but that doesn’t mean it’s good when they aren’t. The Supreme Court has repeatedly given its blessing to fishing expeditions for drugs, and police departments over-fish Black neighborhoods.
They do so even though drug usage and drug dealing is fairly consistent across racial categories. So a Black boy with the same predilection for drugs as his White counterpart is a lot more likely to go to jail. “In some states,” Alexander writes, “Black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of White men.”
The United States leads the world in incarceration, and Louisiana leads the United States. The Rev. Patrick Keen of Bethlehem Lutheran in Central City calls the area between Dryades Street and LaSalle Street, 2nd Street and Washington Avenue “a million dollar block” for the amount of money the state spends annually locking up that neighborhood’s men. Not only has this war on drugs removed most Black men from the area, Keen said, the ones who’ve returned are “marginalized.” Employers will not hire them.
What’s happening in Central City is happening all over. Alexander said Wednesday, “My great crime was to imagine there was a path to racial justice that leaves out those who’ve been imprisoned.” In that, most of us stand accused. After all, the ones who’ve been to jail for drugs aren’t necessarily worse than we are. They just got caught.
By; Jarvis DeBerry