On Friday March 6th, hundreds of people packed Lerner Hall at Columbia University for the opening kick off event for the school’s fifth annual Beyond the Bars conference on mass incarceration. The conference lasts three days and this year’s theme is Transforming (In)justice. Organized by the Criminal Justice Caucus and the Center for Justice at Columbia University, this year’s conference was seen as a special opportunity to build a mass movement given the attention shed on this issue in the past months.
Speakers ranged from student activists and Reverends to a formerly incarcerated Black Panther with the keynote address delivered by renowned civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander. The most remarkable take-away from the whole event is that every single speaker advocated for prison abolition rather than mere reforms. A movement once just relegated to Angela Davis and few black feminists has now garnered mainstream attention foreshadowing a new era of left-wing protest politics.
The night began with remarks from an activist with Columbia University Students Against Mass Incarceration, Asha Rosa. As she made clear from the start, “I believe in the abolition of police and prisons.” She delved into what transformative change could actually look like using Ella Baker’s definition of radical, meaning to examine the root cause of oppression. Rosa encouraged the audience to ask what the role of the police is in society. It not out of a concern safety or a solution to violence because policing and prisons have created broken unsafe communities and are in fact the primary instigators of violence. Nor is the role to prevent crime. As Rosa explained, the history of the United States is built on the legacy of controlling black bodies through violence. Criminality was socially constructed in tandem with the oppression of black people. The idea of ‘criminal’ became associated with the idea of ‘black’ resulting in the creation of a permanent caste system where black people were always seen as the feared ‘Other.’
She has hope in the new movement against police brutality. She critiqued those who advocated #AllLivesMatter noting that universalist discourse has always been used to hide the structural inequality that exists. Remember, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution both operate off the mantra of #AllLivesMatter even though the values espoused in these documents only applied to rich white land-owning men.
Developing a Youth Network
Later in the night, formerly incarcerated Black Panther Eddie Conway spoke about the role of organizing today. Conway spent the past 44 years behind bars on trumped up murder charges where he organized a prisoner’s labor union and established social programs for prisoner self-coping practices. Upon his release in March 2014, he joined the Baltimore based Real News Network. When asked of his opinion on the recently released Justice Department report on Ferguson police racism, Conway responded that those reports have been coming out for the past 100 years and the outcome is always the same. The killing of black people by security forces has been happening since slavery and it won’t stop until people take control of their communities, he noted.
Like Asha Rosa, Conway expressed hope with the youth whom he noted are committed to abandoning the old organizing model in favor of something more radical.
“Don’t listen to leadership that’s past their time,” he advised. “Fifty years ago when we started we didn’t trust anybody!” He stressed that young activists need to construct a new apparatus because the network the New Left created failed. Today’s activists need to examine the sectarianism and COINTELPRO infiltration that befell the old movement and learn how to not repeat the same mistakes.
Conway closed saying that people need to reach into the prisons, shed light on the atrocities occurring, and build real networks between the incarcerated and their allies outside of the walls.
Toward Permanent Abolition of the Caste System
The audience erupted in a standing ovation as the keynote speaker, Michelle Alexander, took the stage. Her book, The New Jim Crow, has become the Bible of Black Lives Matter intricately detailing the rise of the current prison-industrial complex. Like the other speakers, she made her conclusions clear: The system will not die with reforms, it must be radically restructured. She noted that the current rate of police killings is equivalent to the rate of lynchings at the height of Jim Crow. If her data is correct, that means the Age of Obama can be understood as a Second Nadir.
The civil right lawyer tore apart apologists, asking “How do we as a society measure progress?”
Revisionists cite the number of black CEOs, black politicians, and the President as well as the material gains of a small black elite. Yet, these are measures of progress in a capitalist society, in the white man’s world.
Instead, Alexander offered a new measure of progress, saying a society must be judged by how it treats the most vulnerable especially its prisoners. This era of colorblindness has disempowered so many blacks who turn to the white man’s tools for liberation. The country’s racial caste system constantly adapts overtime since it is a foundational feature of American capitalism. With the abolition of slavery came the implementation of Jim Crow and the legal victories of the Civil Rights Movement led to another reaction in the form of mass incarceration. It should be noted that the War on Drugs began the same time as the neoliberal project took off. This war is part of a new era of capitalism, designed to deal with “excess Americans” left homeless and jobless by outsourcing and downsizing.
“The White’s Only signs have come down but [the parole bureaucracy] has taken their place,” she informed. “Don’t look up at the top of the pyramid at Barack Obama for progress but down and ask how do we as a society treat our most vulnerable.” Alexander tore the veil of colorblindness off Obama’s America reminding attendees that current system was created through bipartisan support.
The audience cheered and hollered when she attacked the delusion that the Democrats are allies in the struggle explaining that it was Bill Clinton who escalated the war to its current state pushing through tough-on-crime legislation while masterfully using #AllLivesMatter dialogue to create the illusion of racial progress. Likewise, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio champions broken windows policing, which has been a key factor in filling the prison system with nonviolent offenders. It should also be noted that the Missouri Governor, the Mayor of Ferguson and the prosecutor were all Democrats. The enthusiasm with which the crowd cheered the denunciation of the Democratic Party shows how frustrated the black community has become with the two-party system. They recognize that these political leaders don’t want to uproot the system since the assimilation of the Civil Rights non-profit industry into the Democratic Coalition afforded some elite blacks privileges. They rely on the maintenance of the status quo for their positions to exist and as long as they refuse to rock the boat, they will continue to benefit from structural inequality.
Alexander views the current reforms taking place from the release of eight incarcerated people to marijuana legalization as “doing the right things for the wrong reasons.” She believes the current civil rights advocacy model is broken and misguided, designed to preserve the underlying caste system. The root cause of mass incarceration is white supremacy and thus requires a revolutionary strategy to confront. Preserving the system is not the goal. Alexander makes clear that the entire prison network must be abolished.
As part of reforms pending revolution, she suggests adopting a drug policy similar to that of Portugal where all drugs have been decriminalized and drug use is treated as a public health issue. But Alexander understands that none of these reforms will solve the core problem until the underlying racism and the criminalization of the ‘Other’ are dismantled.
Check out the full event including all speakers here