Silence of “we the people” is deadly

“We the people” absolutely cannot be silent and be unaware of what is going on around us.

When I was young, living in Detroit, I and my friends were told how to survive “out there.” We were never to be unaware; we were never to be so trusting that we didn’t, at all times, inspect our surroundings before we got out of our cars. We were never to appear to be sitting ducks. We had to be aware.

“We the people” are too often “unaware,” and it costs us.

Bernard Kerik, the former New York City Police Chief who spent three years in jail for tax evasion, was appalled by what he saw while in prison. One of the things that he said in an interview with Matt Lauer of “The Today Show” was that “if people knew what was going on, they’d be angry. They’d want to change things.”

I read tonight a story about three young African-American youth – males – who were arrested as they waited for a school bus that was to take them to a scrimmage. Police officers showed up and told them to move. They politely declined, explaining that they were waiting for a school bus. According to the story, they were asked to disperse – to go home – several times, and when they refused, they were arrested!

When their coach showed up moments later, and saw three of his players in handcuffs, he asked officers what was going on. The officers said that the young men had been arrested because they had refused to go home, as had been asked. The coach said that they were waiting for a bus to go to a basketball scrimmage – but the officers did not care and threatened to arrest him if he did not back off.

These are law-abiding young men, who were minding their business. They were waiting for a bus. And for that, they were demonized and arrested.

I saw the story on Roland Martin’s site ( and I was enraged. Perhaps I got as angry as I got because I had just watched the remaining segments of Henry Gates’ “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” and I was reminded of how much work has gone into getting rights and dignity for African-Americans, but whatever the reason, I was enraged because what was described in the story about the young men was nothing but sheer harassment and an abuse of power.

“We the people” don’t know how common that sort of thing is. “We the people” are too ready to accept media accounts of “crime” on the streets and buy into and contribute to the demonization of young black kids.

My son, thankfully, got through his teen years without being arrested for being young and stupid, or young, black, and in the wrong place at the wrong time. He got through his teens  without being harassed by police officers. But so many young black kids, especially young black males, are not so lucky …and many times, they are guilty of nothing other than being …young and black.

If Kerik is right – that if people see the injustice that goes on they will be angry and will want things to change, then “we the people” need to make sure that these tragic stories of injustice are not ignored. More than that, we ought to look for them and chronicle them so that the American public knows more of what is true instead of relying on the myth of “black badness.”

When the American people saw television reports on how black people in Alabama were being treated, when they saw how victims of Hurricane Katrina – primarily poor and black – were being treated, their backs went up. They didn’t like what they saw. They pressed for justice.

They saw and they reacted …and if that’s what it takes to get popular support for justice, then we need to make sure that the stories of the rampant injustice which is so common for black people – gets notice.  After facts are checked, when we come across stories of this type of injustice, we ought to, we need to , farm it out to journalists, programs and organizations who have the capacity to “spread the word” and garner attention to what is still going on.

Unless we cry for justice, there will be none. Politicians, lawmakers, and others in power count on our being ignorant, complacent, and/or silent. We can’t afford to do that. Too many young black people are being picked off and demonized by a power structure which has much to lose if its political strategy backfires. They need black people to be demonized in order to woo the fearful and fretful numbers of Americans who need to believe that their perception of “the bad Negro” are correct.

Their perceptions are wrong, and “we the people” need to do all we can to shatter the myths.

A candid observation …

Kerik Now Sees Issues with American Prison System

In an interview with Today Show host Matt Lauer, ex-New York Police Chief Bernard Kerik said that America‘s prison system is broken.

“It’s okay  to punish individuals for doing wrong,” he said, “but it’s not okay destroy them for doing something wrong,” he said. As he talked, he gave Matt Lauer a nickel to hold.  Asking Matt to take note of the weight of the nickel, Kerik said that young men are being locked up for having five grams of cocaine”…an amount of cocaine that has the weight of a nickel.  ( “That’s insane.”

I n his first interview since his release from prison where he served time for tax evasion and lying to federal authorities, Kerik spoke with TODAY’s Matt Lauer about lessons learned. He said the plunge from police chief to prisoner allowed him to see numerous examples of why imposing mandatory minimum sentences doesn’t work. Instead of discouraging criminal behavior, it sets up inmates for failure, he said.

“The system is supposed to help them, not destroy them,” he said.

What Kerik is saying isn’t new, but I wonder if because a white man, a former law enforcement officer who admits he “threw people in jail and threw away the key,” more people will listen.

The issue of mass incarceration was brilliantly brought to light in Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, and the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference, Inc, conducted a series of hearings in several states recently to hear about the problem and its collateral consequences, but due to the criminalization and objectification of  those who are incarcerated, which tend to disproportionately be young black men, few people, especially those in positions to help do something about it, listen.

Mandatory minimum sentencing, the “war on drugs,” and the “southern strategy” have all contributed to the huge numbers of people incarcerated today.  The privatization of prisons is also a huge factor in the vast numbers of people being thrown into jail. The object or purpose of the justice system, it seems, is not to “correct” but to control people and make a profit while doing it. In that respect, modern day prisons are little different than old-style plantations.  It is a new form of slavery, inmates and their families say.

Kerik was adamant in his new perspective gained from having been locked up. “If the American people and members of Congress saw what I saw, there would be anger, there would be outrage, and there would be change, because nobody would stand for it,” he said in the interview.

Prison and the need for prison reform is not a favorite subject for Americans.  The “tough on crime”  and “law and order” mantras that are a part of American political  discourse are responsible for the willingness of people to look away from the serious problems that have come with mass incarceration.  The fact that one in three African-American males are in prison is no issue for Americans who have been infected and affected by the criminalization of black males. The prevalent feeling seems to be that those who commit crimes lose their rights, including the right to be treated with respect and dignity.

Nobody really seems to care or be concerned about the fact that America imprisons more people than any of the other modern nations in the world. The conditions inside prisons is leading the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference to call the issue one of human rights violations, citing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as justification and citing violations of the same.

Kerik said that it is impossible for a young man to be in a prison for 10 years for having five grams of cocaine and come out, ready to be integrated into society. Prison doesn’t prepare inmates for re-entry and society makes it difficult if not impossible for them to survive once they are released.

Had he not been thrown into prison, Kerik said, his perspective would never have changed.

It’s not a new thing in America that, until an issue affects white people is really isn’t an issue.  The “war on drugs” was okay and needed as long as everyone knew that it was “those people” who did drugs and therefore needed to be locked up. With the explosion, however, of prescription drug abuse, and the large numbers of white people being adversely affected by it, the conversation began to shift. Drug addiction began to be talked of as an “illness.”

With Kerik’s interview, coupled with Alexander’s book and the findings of the testimonies gathered by the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference, Inc., perhaps more people will look at the issue of mass incarceration, and work to change not only it, but the collateral consequences it has caused and continues to cause.

America cannot run all over the world trying to address human rights violations without addressing its own shortcomings.  America’s justice system has wreaked havoc on society, not improved it. Destroying the lives of people who make mistakes is not a good thing, not on any level. Black people have been saying that for a while; maybe now that Kerik is saying it, someone will begin to listen.

A candid observation …