Behind Bars

Play Jail in the Land of Stop and Search

By Bonnie Weinstein

In a March 24, 2010 article that appeared in the New York Tmes by Cara Buckley and Mick Meenan titled, “A ‘Jail’ for Children Stirs a Ruckus in Brooklyn,” it was reported:

“Playground controversies usually involve bickering parents, unruly dogs or bullies. One exception is at the Tompkins Houses, a city housing project in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where an orange jungle gym adorned with the word ‘Jail,’ a cell door and prison bars has…set off outrage in the neighborhood. …The prison look, including the offending word, was part of the original design of the playground, which was made by a company called Landscape Structures……The jungle gym, tucked behind a building near Throop and Park Avenues, sits across from a handball court adorned with paintings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. …The Web site Black and Brown News1 published a photo of the jungle gym…accompanying a critical article about it. There is no kind, gentle, diplomatic way to describe the offense against a community by this ‘Jail Playground’ on a New York City Housing Authority property.”

In an earlier New York Times Op-Ed piece that appeared March 2, 2010 by Bob Herbert titled, “Watching Certain People,” Herbert reported:

“From 2004 through 2009, in a policy that has gotten completely out of control, New York City police officers stopped people on the street and checked them out nearly three million times, frisking and otherwise humiliating many of them…. Not only are most of the people innocent, but a vast majority are either black or Hispanic…. Police Department statistics show that 2,798,461 stops were made in that six-year period. In 2,467,150 of those instances, the people stopped had done nothing wrong. That’s 88.2 percent of all stops over six years. Black people were stopped during that period a staggering 1,444,559 times. Hispanics accounted for 843,817 of the stops and whites 287,218. While crime has been going down, the number of people getting stopped by the police is going up. Last year, more than 575,000 stops were made—a record. But 504,594 of those stops were of people who had done nothing wrong. They had committed no crime, were issued no summonses and were carrying no weapons or illegal substances.”

Herbert also points out, “Upward of 90 percent of the people stopped are completely innocent of any wrongdoing. And yet the New York Police Department is compounding this intolerable indignity by compiling an enormous and permanent computerized database of these encounters between innocent New Yorkers and the police.”

One must ask, then, just what is the purpose for these massive stop and searches? Certainly the police throughout the country are carrying out the same thing. I know they routinely do it in San Francisco. So if they don’t even “catch criminals,” then why do they do it?

The answer to this question was covered in detail in a “Bill Moyers Journal”2 broadcast interview with attorneys Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness; and Bryan Stevenson, who has won wide recognition, including the MacArthur “genius” award, for his efforts to end the death penalty.

Basically, the two attorneys outline not only the effects that slavery, segregation and Jim Crow had on generations of African Americans—of being told they are inferior and not quite human—but that mass incarceration actually dehumanizes convicted felons (a disproportionate number of whom are Black) by stripping them of their basic human rights. They can’t vote, get welfare, food stamps, take out student loans, get grants, or live in public housing. And, for the rest of their lives they must answer that question on every job application, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”

Alexander and Stevenson give convincing evidence that stop and search is a psychological terror campaign to nip in the bud any tendency toward resistance. The “War on Drugs” and the resulting massive incarceration of the poor—mostly Black and Brown but also poor whites—promotes division within communities while degrading the community as a whole.

In the interview led by Bill Moyers, Michelle Alexander reminds us that,

“The Reagan Administration actually hired staff whose job it was to publicize crack babies, crack dealers in inner city communities, in the hope that these images would build public support for the drug war and persuade Congress to devote millions of more dollars to the war.”

And Bryan Stevenson relates his experiences,

“You know, people say to me, older people come up to me, and they say, ‘Mr. Stevenson, I’m tired of hearing how we’re talking about—we’re dealing with terrorism for the first time in our nation’s history.’ They were antagonized by the rhetoric around 9/11. They would come up to me and they’d say, ‘Mr. Stevenson, I grew up with terrorism. We had to worry about being bombed. We had to worry about being lynched. We had to live in communities close to each other, because the threat of violence was constant. My uncle was nearly lynched. My aunt had to leave Alabama and go to Kentucky or Ohio or the North, because they were afraid she was going to be lynched after doing something or saying something.’ And that reality still lingers with them. So that they experience the things that we talk about on TV very differently. There is, I think, a quite powerful psychic injury that comes with being told day in and day out, ‘You’re not as good. You’re not as worthy. You’re less than. You’re subordinate.’”

Stevenson points out, later in the interview,

“Our system treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.”

Clearly, there’s a pattern here. It’s part of a massive, conscious program of psychological terrorism to diminish the capacity of people to stand up for themselves. And to demonize the poor—even the sick—and blame them for their own predicament or condition. The goal is to instill self-blame and self-hatred in order to blind people to the systemically malignant capitalist system of slave labor that ensures the continuation of poverty among the masses of people, while funneling massive sums into the private coffers of those at the commanding heights of the capitalist world.

Capitalism is a system of economic slavery fortified through mental slavery. It is not a natural, but a forced condition, dictated by the commanders of capital, and defended by the weapons of mass destruction and brainwashing under their command.

While their WMDs are the most powerful in the world, more powerful still is their imposition of mental slavery.

This is not a recent invention in our society. In her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, in a chapter on indentured servitude and the advent of chattel slavery—which included children, Michelle Alexander quotes James Madison’s opinions on the content of the Constitution. He says the nation ought to be constituted “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”3 Mass incarceration is the modus operandi of today’s capitalist need to “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority” literally, as Malcolm X said, “by turning the victim into the criminal and the criminal into the victim.”

The purpose of this conscious and massive manipulation of thought and beliefs among the poor is to encouraging them to blame each other while building a wall of impunity around the “opulent minority.”

At the end of the program Bill Moyers asked:

“So, what would a commitment to economic justice, economic equality of opportunity for all look like?”

Bryan Stevenson answers:

“Well, I think we can take the incarceration question and turn it on its head. We’re spending in some states $45 thousand a year to keep a 19-year-old in prison for the next 30 years for drug possession—$45 thousand a year. What could we do if we spent half that amount of money on that 19-year-old when he’s five or six or seven or eight? …What kind of America we can create if we invest in deconstructing the systems that have created poverty?”

Michelle Alexander concludes the interview with:

“I believe that the mass incarceration of people of color in the United States is the most pressing racial justice issue of our time. And that it is a tragedy of as great proportions as Jim Crow was, in its time. …But I do have great hope. And I devote the last chapter of the book to talking about why we must and we can build a new movement not just to end mass incarceration, but the history of racial caste in America.”

This mass movement must take on more than the issue of mass incarceration—although this is a central issue. This movement must take on the issue of class oppression since it is the one thing that cuts across all racial, sexual, religious and ethnic lines.

The criminalization of the poor—the New Jim Crow—is the latest, and most effective divide and conquer tool capitalism has at its disposal to date. In fact, capitalism does all it can to inhibit any tendencies working people have for kindness, brotherhood, and empathy for one another.

That’s why they put play jails in children’s playgrounds in housing projects. That’s why the police have a massive stop and search programs designed to make people feel like criminals when they have done nothing at all. That’s why they’ve turned our poorest schools into mini-prisons with armed police and metal detectors at the doors.

A new movement to end mass incarceration and to, as Martin Luther King Jr. advocated, fight for good-paying jobs, housing, healthcare, education—a “Poor People’s Campaign” for basic human rights and justice for all—will cut across all the insignificant differences that have been designed to stand in the way of finally bringing an end to the tyrannical rule of the “opulent minority” over the majority.

1 ‘Jail Playground’ at NYC Public Housing Property.

By BBN (Black and Brown News) Editors,

March 21, 2010

2, April 2, 2010

3 The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Page 25

4Six-year-old handcuffed, sent to mental facility after tantrums at Port St. Lucie school, February 11th, 2010 by

Kindergartener Handcuffed, Arrested

Saturday, March 31, 2007 5:08:33 PM