Barry’s Blog # 274: Well, Don’t You Know? Part One

June 2019. Netflix releases When They See Us, Ava DuVerney’s superb miniseries on the Central Park Five case.

In the first two weeks of the month, the seventh African-American transgender woman is murdered this year. Another, Layleen Polanco, is found dead at Rikers Island Prison. A study reveals that twenty percent of cops post racist comments on Facebook. A Vallejo, California investigation concludes that cops who shot a black man 55 times in 3.5 seconds “acted reasonably.” A new book describes long-term torture policies of the Chicago police. At several high school graduations across the country, principals and superintendents shut off the microphones of black valedictorians who try to speak about racial issues.

A sixth immigrant child dies in U.S. custody, and the Trump Administration decides to hold such victims in a former World War II concentration camp for Japanese-Americans. Yes, let’s stop using the phrase “detention camp” to describe the current insanity and, like the Los Angeles Times, use the more appropriate term “concentration camp.” It’s more accurate in terms of the cruel and unusual conditions, and it reminds us of how the prison-industrial complex has contributed to the concentration of wealth in America.

The U.S., with 5% of the world’s population, holds 25% of all inmates, over 2 ½ million, of which 56% are black or brown. It has the largest incarceration rate in the world: 762 per 100,000 residents (as opposed to 152 in the U.K. and 102 in Canada). Fifty percent are incarcerated for mostly non-violent drug convictions. State prisons hold African Americans at more than five times the rate of whites, and at least ten times the white rate in five states. Large numbers of them, like Layleen Polanco, are dying there.

Conditions in private, for-profit prisons are worse. Most states have signed agreements with them guaranteeing to fill a certain number of beds in jail at any given point. The most common rate is 90%, though some prisons have extracted 100% promises. Because of these contracts, states are often obligated to keep prisons almost full at all times or pay for the beds anyway, so the incentive is to incarcerate more people and for longer in order to fill the quotas. The profits of the largest such company, Corrections Corporation of America, have increased by more than 500% in the past 20 years. The three largest such corporations have spent more than $45 million on campaign donations and lobbyists.

Yes, there has been some good news. Bill De Blasio became mayor of New York City partially by promising to end its notorious “Stop-and-Frisk” program. The NYPD now reports about 10,000 stops per year, down from 700,000 (2,000 per day) in 2011, and crime in New York City has dropped significantly. 2018 recorded the lowest number of homicides in nearly 70 years. Still, young black and Latino males (five percent of the city’s population) make up 38% of reported stops, even though 93% result in no weapon being found. But let’s not quibble about good news.

The reforms, however, came too late for the millions (literally) of black and brown youth caught up over twenty years in the city’s brutal, wasteful, unconstitutional and quite useless program. It certainly came too late for the Central Park Five (who now call themselves the Exonerated Five).

…one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain. – James Baldwin

Thirty years ago, the NYPD forced (some say tortured) these boys aged 14 to16 into confessing to the rape of a white, female jogger. None had legal representation. The city had a weak case against them, but the political climate dictated their fate as scapegoats for a blood-thirsty public egged on by Donald Trump, who had taken out full-page ads in several newspapers calling for their execution even before they were convicted.

They served between 7 and 13 years in prison under hideous conditions before the actual rapist confessed. They entered prison as children and left it as traumatized adults. Rochaun Meadows Fernandez writes:

There is immense power in DuVernay’s ability to tell a story that takes place during the period of boyhood…An obvious reason to tell the story that way is that they were young boys who were robbed of many of youth’s experiences by an anti-black and inherently corrupt criminal justice system. The other reason is to challenge the criminal justice dialogue. Black men are former black boys, and all too often they have that period of innocence stolen.

For me, that’s where much of the power of DuVernay’s depiction comes from. Each episode forces us to stop thinking of the abuses of the system as a black man’s problem, since doing so both desensitizes us and enables us to make excuses and place responsibility on the actions of an adult victim…Instead, we see a story told through the tear-filled eyes of five young black boys who were abused, coerced, and manipulated in a way that is unacceptable. They were children.

What exactly has changed in New York City? Lauren Cook writes:

While police are not allowed to use physical force during an interrogation, it is legal to deceive a person about the investigation. And if the tactic leads to a confession, it could be used as evidence in court…The use of deception during interrogations was a key factor in the Central Park Five… Since 1989, 365 people in the country have been exonerated through DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project. Of those cases, 70 % involved eyewitness misidentification and 42 percent of those cases included errors of cross-racial misidentification. Twenty-eight percent of the cases included false confessions, 33 percent of which were made by a person 18 years old or younger.

These children were used to propel certain powerful white people into positions of greater power, writes Margaret Kimberley:

 Trump was part of a very large and influential lynch mob. The tabloid media invented the phrase “wilding” and attached it to every black teenager in the country…the City of New York did not compensate the men until 2014, twelve years after they were exonerated…for the simple reason that mayor Michael Bloomberg…directed the city to delay and appeal and it was left to his successor to bring some measure of justice with a $41 million settlement. Bloomberg is as much a villain as Trump…Another unsung perpetrator is Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau (who was) lead prosecutor Linda Fairstein’s boss (and who) could have stopped the process at any time.

If Beale Street Could Talk, last year’s excellent film version of the James Baldwin novel, tells a similar story.

In Chapters Six and Ten of my book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence, I place our historical contempt for our own children into a broader, mythological context. Going all the way back to the story of Abraham and Isaac, the myth of the Sacrifice of the Children is the basic narrative underlying all of Western – and especially American – history and culture.

…this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime. – James Baldwin

I suggest that, at some level, we are all aware of this historical trauma, because none of us have escaped its consequences. I submit further that almost all of our addictive, neurotic, distracting, self-serving, self-sabotaging and profoundly unsatisfying lifestyles, behavior patterns, religious views and political choices are nothing more than increasingly desperate attempts to remain innocent of what we all know. Don’t you know?

Read Part Two here.

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1 Response to Barry’s Blog # 274: Well, Don’t You Know? Part One

  1. Pingback: Barry’s Blog # 37: Well, Don’t You Know? | madnessatthegates

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