Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Tecumseh's Speech, of August 11, 1810, To Governer William Harrison


"Brother, I wish you to give me close attention, because I think you do not clearly understand. I want to speak to you about promises that the Americans have made. You recall the time when the Jesus Indians of the Delawares lived near the Americans, and had confidence in their promises of friendship, and thought they were secure, yet the Americans murdered all the men, women, and children, even as they prayed to Jesus?

The same promises were given to the Shawnee one time. It was at Fort Finney, where some of my people were forced to make a treaty. Flags were given to my people, and they were told they were now the children of the Americans. We were told, if any white people mean to harm you, hold up these flags and you will then be safe from all danger. We did this in good faith. But what happened? Our beloved chief Moluntha stood with the American flag in front of him and that very peace treaty in his hand, but his head was chopped by an American officer, and that American Officer was never punished.

Brother, after such bitter events, can you blame me for placing little confidence in the promises of Americans? That happened before the Treaty of Greenville. When they buried the tomahawk at Greenville, the Americans said they were our new fathers, not the British anymore, and would treat us well. Since that treaty, here is how the Americans have treated us well: They have killed many Shawnee, many Winnebagoes, many Miamis, many Delawares, and have taken land from them. When they killed them, no American ever was punished, not one.

It is you, the Americans, by such bad deeds, who push the men to do mischief. You do not want unity among tribes, and you destroy it. You try to make differences between them. We, their leaders, wish them to unite and consider their land the common property of all, but you try to keep them from this. You separate the tribes and deal with them that way, one by one, and advise them not to come into this union. Your states have set an example of forming a union among all the Fires, why should you censure the Indians for following that example?

But, Brother, I mean to bring all the tribes together, in spite of you, and until I have finished, I will not go to visit your President. Maybe I will when I have finished, maybe. The reason I tell you this, you want, by making your distinctions of Indian tribes and allotting to each particular tract of land, to set them against each other, and thus to weaken us. You never see an Indian come, do you, and endeavor to make the white people divide up? You are always driving the red people this way! At last you will drive them into the Great Lake, where they can neither stand nor walk.

Brother, you ought to know what you are doing to the Indians. Is it by direction of the president you make these distinctions? It is a very bad thing, and we do not like it. Since my residence at Tippecanoe, we have tried to level all distinctions, to destroy village chiefs, by whom all such mischief is done. It is they who sell our lands to the Americans. Brother, these lands that were sold and the goods that were given for them were done by only a few. The Treaty of Fort Wayne was made through the threats of Winnemac, but in the future we are going to punish those chiefs who propose to sell the land.

Tecumseh Shawnee Chieftain And William Henry Harrison

The only way to stop this evil is for all the red men to unite in claiming an equal right in the land. That is how it was at first, and should be still, for the land never was divided, but was for the use of everyone. Any tribe could go to an empty land and make a home there. No groups among us have a right to sell, even to one another, and surely not to outsiders who want all, and will not do with less. Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the clouds, and the Great Sea, as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?

Brother, I was glad to hear what you told us. You said that if we could prove that the land was sold by people who had no right to sell it, you would restore it. I will prove that those who did sell did not own it. Did they have a deed? A title? NO! You say those proves someone owns land. Those chiefs only spoke a claim, and so you pretended to believe their claim, only because you wanted the land. But the many tribes with me will not agree with those claims. They have never had a title to sell, and we agree this proves you could not buy it from them. If the land is not given back to us, you will see, when we return to our home from here, how it will be settled. It will be like this:

We shall have a great council, at which all tribes will be present. We shall show to those who sold that they had no rights to the claims they set up, and we shall see what will be done to those chiefs who did sell the land to you. I am not alone in this determination, it is the determination of all the warriors and red people who listen to me. Brother, I now wish you to listen to me. If you do not wipe out that treaty, it will seem that you wish to kill all the chiefs who sold the land! I tell you so because I am authorized by all tribes to do so! I am the head of them all! All my warriors will meet together with me in two or three moons from now. Then I will call for those chiefs who sold you this land, and we shall know what to do with them. If you do not restore the land, you will have had a hand in killing them!

I am Shawnee! I am a warrior! My forefathers were warriors. From them I took my birth into this world. From my tribe I take nothing. I am the master of my own destiny! And of that I might make the destiny of my red people, of our nation, as great as I concieve to in my mind, when I think of Weshemoneto, who rules this universe! The being within me hears the voice of the ages, which tells me that once, always, and until lately, there were no white men on all this island, that it then belonged to the red man, children of the same parents, placed on it by the Great Spirit who made them, to keep it, to traverse it, to enjoy its yield, and to people it with the same race. Once they were a happy race! Now they are made miserable by the white people, who are never contented but are always coming in! You do this always, after promising not to anyone, yet you ask us to have confidence in your promises. How can we have confidence in the white people? When Jesus Christ came upon the earth, you killed him, the son of your own God, you nailed him up!! You thought he was dead, but you were mistaken. And only after you thought you killed him did you worship him, and start killing those who would not worship him. What kind of people is this for us to trust?

Native American Tribes of Indiana

Now, Brother, everything I have said to you is the truth, as Washemoneto has inspired me to speak only truth to you. I have declared myself freely to you about my intentions. And I want to know your intentions. I want to know what you are going to do about taking our land. I want to hear you say that you understand now, and you will wipe out that pretended treaty, so that the tribes can be at peace with each other, as you pretend you want them to be. Tell me, Brother. I want to know.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Women of the Klan

From the Los Angeles Times, by Barbara Ehrenreich, on 1 September 1991|  --  I used to have a comforting image of the Ku Klux Klan as an assemblage of social misfits and genetically inbred white trash. No more. Thanks to Kathleen M. Blee's superb scholarship in "Women of the Klan," I must now live with the fact that the Klan contained "all the better people": businessmen, physicians, judges, social workers--even Quakers, political reformers and (this is the truly discomforting part) feminists. In fact, during the 1920s, the period of Blee's research, the women's branch of the Ku Klux Klan considered itself, with some justice, to be a major advocate of women's rights and interests--white, Protestant women's rights, that is.

WOMEN OF THE KLAN: Racism and Gender in the 1920s, By Kathleen M. Blee ( University of California Press)

Reading of the Klan's feminism is like discovering evidence that a beloved grandmother had a secret life as a bloodsucking ghoul. Feminism is, after all, supposed to be founded on moral principle. But so, we learn, was the Klan. In addition to its familiar ideals of white supremacy, anti-Semitism and so forth, the Ku Klux Klan of the '20s stood for "Americanism," temperance, child-welfare measures, quality public education, good citizenship, morality and militant Christianity. For male Klan members, these ideals were inspiringly symbolized by chaste white womanhood, which the Klan existed to defend against the perverted lusts of blacks, Jews and Catholics. To its female members, though, the Klan was a source of "sisterhood" (their word too, alas), an avenue for upward mobility and an enticing arena for the exercise of feminine leadership.


Consider Alma White, who joined the Klan's lecture circuit after becoming disillusioned by the sexism of the Methodist Church. White advocated the ordination of women and the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and claimed women's suffrage as a "triumph of the Cross." Daisy Barr, a Quaker preacher and charismatic figure in the national KKK, argued forcefully for women's rights and sought to recruit fellow feminists. Or there was Women's KKK Commander Robbie Gill Comer, who declared to a national KKK Klonvokation that "It has never been the purpose of God that woman should be the slave of man." All three women made careers in the Klan, and Comer's fortune--amassed through the sale of robes, helmets and regalia--included a crown valued at $30,000.

At its peak, the Women's KKK may have had as many as 3 million members, and as Blee takes pains to show, a healthy proportion of these joined on their own initiative and sometimes over their husbands' objections. Within the Klan, women happily baked for picnics and rallies, graced parade floats and sewed tiny robes for the children. But the Women's KKK also offered a parallel hierarchy, complete with its own "kleagles" (full-time organizers) "klonklaves" and opportunities for factional intrigue. Women's Klans fought for autonomy within the traditional organization, proclaiming that male domination is "contrary to our principles of women, by women and for women."

There is no great mystery, Blee argues, to the affinity between Klan values and early 20th-Century feminism. To paraphrase H. Rapp Brown, the KKK in the '20s was as American as racism itself. The Klan themes of Protestantism, Prohibition, nativism, ultranationalism and anti-Bolshevism were shared by many mainstream civic organizations and women's groups. And, for their part, feminist organizations were not above using racist and nativist arguments on behalf of (white) women's suffrage. In Blee's account, the path between the local temperance or churchwomen's club and the KKK ran down a short and slippery slope.

But it seems to me that a mystery remains. The Women's KKK was not just a more militant version of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. To join the KKK was to enter a weird, self-enclosed world in which the word for all things non-Klan was "alien." There were the robes and masks, the oaths of secrecy, the code in which even the days of the week were renamed "desperate," "dreadful," "desolate" and so on. There was, even more to the point, the violent, extralegal side to the Klan's operation. Women's KKK members did not only sew and sing and squabble, they also marched behind flaming crosses, boycotted Jewish and Catholic merchants and organized "poison squads" to disseminate hurtful gossip about people deemed less than "100% American."

Unfortunately, Blee did not press her informants (all quite elderly women of course) on the dark side of the Klan's activities. Yet not all civic-minded women of appropriate pigmentation sought sorority within the Women's Klan. Nor did the mainstream feminist organizations, whatever their shortcomings on matters of race and ethnicity, welcome the Klan's support. There is a little space, I like to think, between prejudice on the one hand and outright hate on the other, but "Women of the Klan" does not explore it.

Then there is the equally chilling mystery of feminism itself. How could feminism, even in the conservative Klannish version, keep company with the genocidal impulse expressed, for example, by the Indiana Klan speaker who proposed putting "all the Catholics, Jews and Negroes on a raft in the middle of the ocean and then sink(ing) the raft"?

Blee's answer, in an epilogue that is all too brief, is that feminism is innately narrow and amoral. Skipping ahead to the feminism of our own time, she asserts that the "assumption that women's awareness of their gender interests would lead them to progressive politics on race and social class proved empty."

Well, I beg to differ. There is a gender gap, with women weighing in on the liberal side, that did not exist before the feminist revival of the 1970s. Our major feminist organizations do campaign against class and race oppression. And today's right-wing women, the spiritual descendants of the Women's KKK, are far more overtly hostile to feminists than to any racial or ethnic "others."

Still, "Women of the Klan" stands before us as carefully garnered, irrefutable evidence that women are capable of asserting their gender rights in the most noisome settings. The only corrective, and I am sure Blee would agree, is to hew to the spirit in which feminism was reborn in the '60s: as a movement for all women, and especially the most despised and neglected.  (source: Los Angeles Times)

KKK Republicans Control Legislature in Indiana

Indiana Wedding

From Yahoo! Voices, "When the KKK Ran Indiana: The Story of D.C. Stephenson," by Elliot Feldman 2 April 2010 --  In 1924 Ed Jackson, the Ku Klux Klan's supported candidate, was elected governor of Indiana. At this time, the Hoosier Klan members numbered over 250,000. Six major Indiana cities had KKK backed mayors, including the capital city of Indianapolis. And the Klan even controlled the state legislature's lower house.

There were two reasons why the Ku Klux Klan blossomed in Indiana. First, the overall success of the 1915 D.W. Griffith film "Birth of a Nation", glorifying the KKK's emergence after the Civil War, spurred a resurgence of the long dormant Klan throughout the country. Second, Indiana Klan leader Joe Huffington met D.C. Stephenson in 1920.

D.C. Stephenson

David Curtiss Stephenson, also known as "Steve", was a former Texas coal salesman who had just moved to Indiana and was looking for a new job. Joe Huffington hired Stephenson to sell KKK memberships in Indiana. Stephenson thought that this could be lucrative. For every $10 initiation fee, he would be paid $4.

Stephenson, in fact, did so well in boosting membership that he replaced Joe Huffington as the Indiana Grand Dragon in 1922. While it was probably anybody's guess if he really believed in the Klan's tenets, D.C. Stephenson's power throughout the state grew and he became rich. He would often boast loudly, "I am the law in Indiana."

Valparaiso, Indiana

Mysteriously enough, during this period, very few ordinary Indiana citizens knew what D.C. Stephenson actually looked like, and very few knew his name. His many followers simply called him "The Old Man."
Hobart, Indiana

The Fall of D.C. Stephenson

The Old Man, however, had an Achilles Heel, his insatiable sexual appetite. He often held orgies in his private railroad car. In 1925, D.C. Stephenson kidnapped Madge Oberholtzer, an Indiana statehouse employee, took her to his railroad car, and raped her. When the KKK Grand Dragon left her go, Oberholtzer was covered with bite marks. Several days later, she committed suicide and "Steve" was arrested for murder.

Stephenson went from being the shadowy clandestine "Old Man" to a subject of public hatred, humiliated in a tabloid-like trial. The judge sentenced him to life in prison, and Indiana Klan membership hit rock bottom.

New Castle, Indiana 

The End of D.C. Stephenson

In 1950 D.C. Stephenson was paroled and immediately violated the terms of his parole. He went on the run, was captured, and sent back to prison. In 1956 he was paroled again, but was re-arrested in 1961 for sexual assault. In 1966 David Curtiss Stephenson died. (source:Yahoo! Voices )

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Sugar Barons of the West Indies

'Barbarities of the West Indias' by Gillray.  James Gillray based his 1791 anti-slavery cartoon on the report of an overseer who had thrown a slave into a boiling vat of sugar. The overseer was punished only by dismissal and a fine equal to the price of the dead man. National Portrait Gallery, London

From the Literary Review, by Leslie Mitchell, "'The Dunghill of the Universe' a review of 'The Sugar Barons: Family, Corruption, Empire and War' by Matthew Parker (Hutchinson 446pp £25)  --  In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, no one had a good word to say about the West Indies. The government of Jamaica was 'a Sweating chaos'. The inhabitants of the islands represented 'the Dunghill of the Universe, the Refuse of the whole Creation'. They lived on plantations that were 'the Receptacle of Vagabonds, the Sanctuary of Bankrupts, the Close-Stool for the Purges of our Prisons ... as Hot as Hell and as wicked as the Devil'. West Indians, with the one desire 'to patch up their Decay'd Fortune', thought of 'nothing but Money, and value not how they get it'. A reading of Matthew Parker's able and well-researched book might lead to the conclusion that these were understatements.

At the heart of it all was a genuine eldorado, expressed, not in terms of precious metals as in the Spanish Americas, but in sugar, slaves and molasses. These trades collectively were 'white gold'. In 1670, 200 acres of cane could produce a sugar harvest worth seven thousand pounds, enough to support a duke in England. A century later, the per capita income at home was twenty times less than that among whites living in Jamaica. Planters left estates that numbered them among the richest of George III's subjects. The phrase 'as wealthy as a West Indian' entered the language.

If a man survived in these societies 'beyond the line', therefore, there was a fortune to be made, but survival did not come easily. Disease was everywhere, and carried off victims from all classes and all races. Twenty per cent of Kingston's population died every year in the 1740s. One third of whites died within three years of arriving from Britain. The islands did not invite a man to linger. In the American colonies, families were committed to long-term settlement, but for most West Indians the object of the game was to make money quickly and then return 'home'. North Americans might challenge government from London, but West Indians never lost sight of the fact that they were in exile from England.

Death takes centre-stage in this book, and it arrived from every conceivable direction. Nature of course was malevolent. Swamps and rainforests harboured a myriad of illnesses, and the mosquito was always hungry. Then there were pirates like Henry Morgan and the flamboyant Bartholomew Ryder, who led his men while covered in gold and silver lace, but who nursed 'a churlish constitution' and was 'apt, when in drink, to utter some Portuguese or Moorish words'. Anyone fortunate enough to survive these perils still had a good chance of being slaughtered by French, Spanish or Dutch raiders, or in insurrections of the islands' native populations, the Caribs. Beside all this, the hurricane, the earthquake and the tsunami were simply things to be taken in one's stride.

Worst of all for whites in the West Indies was the feeling of being always under siege. Remarkably quickly, they found themselves heavily outnumbered by black slaves. Jamaica, in 1730, had around 8,000 white residents and nearly 75,000 thousand slaves. Fears about a slave uprising were the most terrifying fears of all. Any hint of insubordination was met with the greatest brutality. The planters hated Quaker and Methodist preachers, who argued that black and white were equal in the sight of God.

Yet there could be no other social structure, for there was nothing democratic about sugar production. The canes had to be grown on large estates, which also had the buildings and machinery to process the crop. All of this involved capital outlays that were beyond the reach of small farmers. As sugar ousted all other crops, so ownership became concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. The contrast with developments in North America could hardly be more clear. The production of sugar required 'masters ... of great abilities and parts'. Lesser men sold up and left.

As the white population steadily diminished, the slave population rose by leaps and bounds. Only unfree labour could be made to undertake the back-breaking work in the cane fields. Earlier experiments with white, indentured labour had been uniformly unsuccessful. Such a system produced enormous profits, but it could never guarantee long-term security. Instead, a handful of white oligarchs sat it out, intermarried, became fabulously wealthy, and took their chances.

It is largely through the lives of these people that Parker tells his tale. Surnames like Drax, Codrington, Lascelles and Beckford appear from relative obscurity and climb steadily upwards. In the West Indies, they were effectively a law unto themselves. The Beckfords could literally get away with murder. Then, sensibly repatriating profit to England, later generations entered the English Parliament and acquired titles. In the mid-eighteenth century, what was called the West Indian lobby controlled up to forty MPs. No sensible government ignored its wishes. The trade with Jamaica alone was, after all, worth more than traffic with the whole of North America. In 1783, it made sense to give up a continent in order to hold on to an island.

Empires have a habit of coming home. Very quickly, sugar crystallised into more concrete forms. Whole cities, like Liverpool, Bristol and Glasgow, prospered as the fleets returned from the west. Liberals at Holland House wined, dined and talked high principle on the profits of slavery. The Beckford palace at Fonthill was a glorious, sugar confection. When the first house was destroyed, its owner philosophically reflected that he had 'fifty thousand pounds in a drawer' and 'would build it up again'. Such ostentation, when construed as vulgarity, earned the West Indians the nickname of 'pepperpots'. Most poignantly, the Fellows of All Souls in Oxford studied in their Codrington Library, built with the proceeds of sugar and slavery. As for Christopher Codrington himself, 'no spark had walk'd up the High St bolder'.

As Matthew Parker's engaging book demonstrates, by 1750 the sugar trade, like oil and gas today, had infiltrated so many aspects of national life that it had become a power in the land in its own right. Politicians courted it, and men died in its service. It had become a national necessity. No wonder that the abolition of slavery was a long time coming.  (source: Literary Review)

The Story of Marcus Garvey

From PBS, American Experience, "People and Events: J. Edgar Hoover," -- At a time of increasing popular radicalism, Hoover quickly made his mark. He was given the responsibility of heading a new section of the Justice Department which was established to gather evidence on radical groups. According to historian Theodore Kornweibel, Hoover was chosen in part for his reputation of diligence. "He stayed up all night reading the radical pamphlets and literature," Kornweibel says, and Hoover "quickly became 'the' Justice Department expert on radicalism." As head of the new division, he was responsible for organizing the arrest and deportation of suspected Communists and radicals in the United States.

Marcus Garvey soon rose to the top of Hoover's list. Federal agents, in collaboration with the New York City police, had begun to report on Garvey's speeches as early as 1917. But as Universal Negro Improvement Association membership and the circulation of The Negro World newspaper ballooned in 1919, Hoover himself targeted Garvey. Referring to Garvey as a "notorious negro agitator," Hoover zealously set about to gather damaging evidence on Garvey and his growing movement. According to Kornweibel, "Hoover and the Justice Department were clearly hooked on a fixation on Garvey which would before long become a vendetta."

Hoover had relied on part-time black informants to track Garvey's movements and U.N.I.A. activities. But in December 1919 his determination to go after Garvey led Hoover to hire the first black agent in the Bureau's history. "By this time the Bureau had discovered that it wasn't going to learn all it needed about Garvey without someone being able to penetrate the movement," according to Kornweibel. "The white agents simply couldn't do it. They were totally conspicuous." The first black agent's name was James Wormley Jones, known as Jack Jones. He was known by the code number "800". "His job," says Kornweibel, "was to go into Harlem and to infiltrate the Garvey movement and to try and find evidence that could be used to build the legal case for ultimately getting rid of Garvey."

Over the next five years, largely under Hoover's direction, Bureau of Investigation officers would report on U.N.I.A. activities in over two dozen cities and pursuit of Garvey would broaden to seven other federal agencies. "They were going to find some way of getting rid of Garvey because they feared his influence," Kornweibel says of Hoover and his government colleagues. "They feared the hundreds of thousands, the masses of blacks under his influence. Garvey rejected America, and they could no more agree to and accept a militant rejection of America by blacks than they could accept a militant demand for full inclusion by blacks." Hoover's determination led him to take extreme measures to counter Garvey's growing influence. According to historian Winston James, "They placed spies in the U.N.I.A. They sabotaged the Black Star Line. The engines... of the ships were actually damaged by foreign matter being thrown into the fuel."

Hoover also placed his agents closer to Garvey than anyone at the time could have imagined. As he and the U.N.I.A. increasingly came under attack from internal dissenters, black critics, and the federal government, one of the few people Garvey confided in was Herbert Boulin, the owner of a Harlem-based black doll company. What Garvey didn't know is that Boulin was an informant for J. Edgar Hoover, known by the Bureau as Agent P-138. "He got closer to Garvey than anyone else working for the government and Garvey was really isolated", says Kornweibel. "Things weren't going well with [his] organization. The Black Star Line was losing money. And so, remarkably, he confesses to this informant that he'd tried suicide, that he was thinking of suicide again."

Decades later, Hoover would again use the methods he developed to counter Garvey's influence -- infiltration by agents, gathering damaging personal information -- against other black leaders such as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and the Black Panther Party. (source: PBS)

"Returning Soldiers," by W.E.B Du Bois

From Yale's Gilder Lehrman Center "Returning Soldiers," by W.E.B Du Bois  --  We are returning from war! The Crisis and tens of thousands of black men were drafted into a great struggle. For bleeding France and what she means and has meant and will mean to us and humanity and against the threat of German race arrogance, we fought gladly and to the last drop of blood; for America and her highest ideals, we fought in far-off hope; for the dominant southern oligarchy entrenched in Washington, we fought in bitter resignation. For the America that represents and gloats in lynching, disfranchisement, caste, brutality and devilish insult—for this, in the hateful upturning and mixing of things, we were forced by vindictive fate to fight also.

But today we return! We return from the slavery of uniform which the world's madness demanded us to don to the freedom of civil garb. We stand again to look America squarely in the face and call a spade a spade. We sing: This country of ours, despite all its better souls have done and dreamed, is yet a shameful land.

It lynches.

And lynching is barbarism of a degree of contemptible nastiness unparalleled in human history. Yet for fifty years we have lynched two Negroes a week, and we have kept this up right through the war.

It disfranchises its own citizens.

Disfranchisement is the deliberate theft and robbery of the only protection of poor against rich and black against white. The land that disfranchises its citizens and calls itself a democracy lies and knows it lies.

It encourages ignorance.

It has never really tried to educate the Negro. A dominant minority does not want Negroes educated. It wants servants, dogs, whores and monkeys. And when this land allows a reactionary group by its stolen political power to force as many black folk into these categories as it possibly can, it cries in contemptible hypocrisy: "They threaten us with degeneracy; they cannot be educated."

It steals from us.

It organizes industry to cheat us. It cheats us out of our land; it cheats us out of our labor. It confiscates our savings. It reduces our wages. It raises our rent. It steals our profit. It taxes us without representation. It keeps us consistently and universally poor, and then feeds us on charity and derides our poverty.


It insults us.

It has organized a nation-wide and latterly a world-wide propaganda of deliberate and continuous insult and defamation of black blood wherever found. It decrees that it shall not be possible in travel nor residence, work nor play, education nor instruction for a black man to exist without tacit or open acknowledgment of his inferiority to the dirtiest white dog. And it looks upon any attempt to question or even discuss this dogma as arrogance, unwarranted assumption and treason.

This is the country to which we Soldiers of Democracy return. This is the fatherland for which we fought! But it is our fatherland. It was right for us to fight. The faults of our country are our faults. Under similar circumstances, we would fight again. But by the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that that war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.

We return.
We return from fighting.
We return fighting.

Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why. [Citation Information: W.E.B Du Bois, "Returning Soldiers," The Crisis, XVIII (May, 1919), p. 13.]

Mass Incarceration and American Values

From Crime Report, "Tackling the Leviathan," by Glenn Loury, 19 August 2010 -- Over the past four decades, the United States has, by any measure, become a vastly more punitive society. This expansion, and transformation, of U.S. penal institutions—which has taken place at every level of government, and in all regions of the country―is without historical precedent or international parallel.

With roughly five percent of the world’s population, the U.S. currently confines about 25 percent of the world’s prison inmates. The American prison system has grown into a leviathan unmatched in human history.

This is not merely law enforcement and punishment policy. It is also social policy, writ large, and a uniquely American form of social policy at that.

The present American regime of hyper-incarceration is said to be necessary in order to secure public safety. This is not a compelling argument. First, the notion that crime can be prevented by incapacitating criminals is overly simplistic. It ignores the fact that for many crimes―selling drugs, for instance—those who are incapacitated are simply replaced by others, there being no shortage of contenders vying to enter the illicit trade.

What is more, almost everyone who goes to prison is eventually released, most after just two or three years. For these hundreds of thousands of ex-offenders released each year, time behind bars will most likely have actually diminished, not enhanced, their odds of living crime-free lives: by lowering their employability, severing their ties to communal supports, and hardening their attitudes. That is, sometimes mass imprisonment actually undermines public safety.

One reason for this anomalous outcome is that incarceration in American cities is highly concentrated spatially. The ill effects for individuals of having spent time behind bars can reduce social opportunities for others who reside in the most heavily impacted communities and who themselves have done nothing wrong.

Some urban neighborhoods have as many as one in five of their adult men locked-up on any given day. Such spatially concentrated imprisonment fosters criminality because it undermines the informal social processes of order maintenance, which are the primary means of sustaining law-abiding behavior in all communities. Families living in areas of hyper-incarceration have been rendered less effective at inculcating in their children the delinquency-resistant self controls and pro-social attitudes that typically insulate youths against law-breaking.

The impact of high incarceration rates on the sustainable level of public safety over the long term is therefore ambiguous, because what happens in San Quentin need not stay in San Quentin. (source: Crime Report)

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

William Kunstler Disturbing the Universe

February, 1970j: Transcript

And that is the terrible myth of organized society, that everything that's done through the established system is legal — and that word has a powerful psychological impact. It makes people believe that there is an order to life, and an order to a system, and that a person that goes through this order and is convicted, has gotten all that is due him. And therefore society can turn its conscience off, and look to other things and other times.

And that's the terrible thing about these past trials, is that they have this aura of legitimacy, this aura of legality. I suspect that better men than the world has known and more of them, have gone to their deaths through a legal system than through all the illegalities in the history of man.

William Kunstler

Six million people in Europe during the Third Reich? Legal.

Sacco Vanzetti? Quite legal.

The Haymarket defendants? Legal.

The hundreds of rape trials throughout the South where black men were condemned to death? All legal.

Jesus? Legal.

Socrates? Legal.

And that is the kaleidoscopic nature of what we live through here and in other places. Because all tyrants learn that it is far better to do this thing through some semblance of legality than to do it without that pretense.

Muhammad Ali, Attica Prison Riot Poem

Muhammad Ali, Attica prison riot poem!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Texas Tough Prison Industrial Complex

From the New Republic, "American Hell," by Marie Gottschalk, on 28 June 2010 -- The Great Recession has raised expectations that the United States will begin to empty its jails and prisons because it can no longer afford to be the world’s warden. Robert Perkinson’s sweeping and troubling account of the Lone Star State’s penal system from the days of slavery to the present is a sober reminder that gaping budget deficits will not necessarily reverse the prison boom. The “Texas tough” style of justice is not only deeply embedded in the state’s budget but also in its political, cultural, and social fabric.

Most accounts of the phenomenon of mass incarceration have focused on national developments to explain why the United States has the world’s highest rate of incarceration and locks up more people than any other country. Recently attention has begun to shift to the state level. While all fifty states have seen their incarceration rates explode since the 1970s, these rates still vary considerably between states, from a high of nearly 1000 per 100,000 people in Louisiana and Texas to a low of about 300 per 100,000 in Maine.

Perkinson draws much needed attention to Texas, which operates the country’s largest state prison system, and holds more people today than the prison systems of Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands combined. If you add in parolees and probationers, over 700,000 people are under the control of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, a population approximately equivalent to the size of Austin, the state’s booming capital. And Texas stands out not just for the sheer number of people under state control, but also for the persistently brutal and inhumane conditions of confinement.

In graphic and often disturbing detail, Perkinson chronicles the many ways punishment has been repeatedly used “to assert supremacy and debase prisoners” since the state began to build its first penitentiary in 1848. Drawing on an impressive trove of primary sources, including the “whipping ledgers” kept by state penal facilities, the incendiary letters of prisoners, and the exposes of crusading journalists, he describes how prisoners were forced to eat their own excrement, engage in humiliating and often sadistic public sex acts, and “fast trot” each morning to work in fields as far as five miles away. They were frequently whipped and raped, fed starvation diets, and worked to the bone.


Inmates who challenged the authorities in the earlier part of the twentieth century were sent to the “dark cells,” where they “were temporarily locked in a small, pitch-black box and sustained on bread and water.” At the time, “dark celling” was considered a progressive alternative to the widespread use of the strap. In the 1990s, Texas pioneered the extensive use of supermax prisons, where inmates are locked down nearly round-the-clock and denied any meaningful human contact for years, sometimes even decades.

Perkinson upends the conventional narrative of the rise of the American penal system with its emphasis on the northeast, notably New York and Pennsylvania. In the standard account, the foreboding penitentiaries of the nineteenth century, designed to restore errant citizens to virtue through penitent solitude, evolved by fits and starts into the correctional bureaucracies of the twentieth century, which, at least for a time, viewed rehabilitating prisoners as a central part of their mission. Perkinson suggests that the history of punishment in the United States is more a southern story than has been generally recognized. He contends that Texas developed an alternative “control model” of punishment that was unapologetically premised on officially sanctioned violence, strident exploitation of penal labor, a strong retributive urge, and stark racial stratification.

Suspicious of large state projects, the South was initially slow to embrace the penitentiary. Fearful that these large public buildings would become “vampire[s] upon the public treasury,” government officials in Texas and elsewhere sought to make their penal enterprises not just self-sustaining but also highly profitable. Over the years, state officials were obsessed with turning a profit out of penal labor. As one penal farm administrator boasted to Perkinson, “We work ‘em from can till can’t.”

Texas’s first penitentiary, a fortress erected in Huntsville that is still known as “The Walls,” was the state’s premier public institution, consuming nearly 17 percent of the state’s budget in its first year. In the 1850s, the state constructed a massive cotton mill run by penal labor inside “The Walls” that became the state’s largest factory. During the Civil War this mill was the main source of tents, uniforms, and supply bags in the trans-Mississippi West. Imperial Sugar Co., today the largest sugar refinery in the United States, was established with slave capital after the Civil War: convicts leased from the state built the refinery and supplied it with sugar grown at Sugar Land, a massive estate established outside of San Antonio after the war.

While Northern penal reformers rallied against convict-leasing in the late nineteenth century, they nonetheless could be highly sympathetic to other pillars of the Southern style of justice. They defended subjecting black convicts to the harshest punishments, the most backbreaking labor, and the worst living conditions. During a debate about whipping at a meeting of the National Prison Association in 1897 in Austin, one prominent penologist from the North rose to defend the South. “‘The negro prisoner…has not the sense of shame and degradation that the white man has,’ he declared, and is thus difficult to rehabilitate without corporal punishment.”

Perkinson identifies slavery as the progenitor of the state’s control model of punishment. For well over a century now, Texas has operated a vast archipelago of self-sustaining penal labor farms on the old plantation lands of East Texas. These farms are “probably the best example of slavery remaining in the country,” according to a national corrections expert. “Nowhere else in turn-of-the-millennium America could one witness gangs of African American men filling cotton sacks under the watchful eyes of armed whites on horseback,” remarks Perkinson after visiting one of these farms.

The evolution and the growth of Texas’s penal system “has had surprisingly little to do with crime, a great deal to do with America’s troubled history of racial conflict and social stratification,” he contends. As segregationist barriers such as slavery and Jim Crow fell, new ones such as for-profit convict leasing and later the Texas control model, its stress on maximum discipline and maximum profit, took their place. Prisons have proliferated in Texas and elsewhere despite their breathtaking human costs—and their minimal effect on crime control—because “they excel in other, generally unspoken ways, at dispensing patronage, fortifying social hierarchies, enacting public vengeance, and symbolizing government resolve.”

The failures of Texas’s penal system spurred reform movements every few decades, but these quickly sputtered out. In their wake, they often left behind different but arguably no less brutal systems of punishment and confinement. After a half-century of public agitation over the corruption and horrors associated with leasing convicts to for-profit firms, Texas outlawed this practice. State-controlled chain gangs and penal labor farms replaced convict-leasing. “Strange as it seems,” Perkinson observes, “the chain gang, in which thousands of prisoners, most of them black, were loaded onto cattle trucks and carted around the state to pound rocks and shovel dirt, was celebrated as a humanitarian advance.”

The most successful penal reform movements over the last century and a half did not act in isolation but were buoyed by other social movements, including the antebellum abolitionists, the populist and agrarian movements of the late nineteenth century, various women’s groups over the years, and of course the contemporary civil rights movement. Prisoners themselves have played a pivotal role in penal reform that has been overlooked. In his revisionist account of the demise of convict-leasing, Perkinson contends that the escapes, strikes, mutinies, and riots of leased convicts, and their angry and mournful letters and memoirs documenting their abusive living conditions helped bring about the end of this practice.

When traditional avenues of protest were blocked, prisoners would increasingly turn to self-mutilation, cutting off a limb or packing a self-inflicted wound with lye or injecting themselves with kerosene, in order to get some relief from backbreaking field labor and to protest the horrid conditions of their confinement. Initially, these self-mutilations did not have a wider political impact. After twenty-one prisoners maimed themselves in 1935 at one penal farm in Texas (two did so by chopping off their lower legs), the top administrator told the guards, “As long as they want to…chop themselves…I say give them more axes.” But as the number of self-mutilations rose into the hundreds each year in Texas in the early 1940s and the practice spread to other states, it became impossible for state officials and enterprising journalists to ignore the abhorrent conditions that provoked the bloody protests.
USA. Huntsville, Texas. 1968. Ellis is a prison farm for the convicts considered to be the most dangerous or unmanageable. Shakedown, main corridor.

Coinciding with the rise of the civil rights movement, prisoners began turning to the courts for relief. But as Perkinson shows, state and prison officials determined to maintain the core features of the control model eventually eviscerated many of the court-ordered reforms after wars of attrition played out in the legal arena. Perkinson devotes nearly two chapters to the case of David Resendez Ruíz, the lead plaintiff in a landmark federal lawsuit brought against the Texan prison system in the 1970s. Battered around in the courts for about two decades, Ruíz v. Estelle eventually brought about some significant changes in the state’s penal system. But indirectly it also “helped create an equally severe and infinitely larger prison system in its place.” As for Ruíz, he was kept in solitary confinement in a cramped, dank, dungeon-like cell for decades after the lawsuit was settled. This injustice continued until just months before he died in a prison hospital in 2005 after being denied medical parole. As Perkinson dryly notes, Ruíz “fought the law and the law [ultimately] won.”

texas tough
Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire, by Robert Perkinson, Metropolitan Books

If history is any guide, Texan prisons, already some of the toughest in the nation, could become even leaner and meaner in the future. State and prison officials in Texas and elsewhere are attempting to cut costs by privatizing more prisons and prison services, intensifying their efforts to exploit penal labor, and slashing spending for inmates’ food and other “luxuries” like vocational, substance abuse, and educational programs. Recently Texas enacted a slew of penal reforms aimed at shrinking its prison population, but its incarceration rate stubbornly remains the second highest in the country. If Perkinson’s analysis is correct, the Lone Star State will not begin shuttering its prisons without enormous political pressure. The control model pioneered by Texas and exported to other states has become a key tool to manage an increasingly diverse society ridden with many politically and economically marginalized groups. On this subject, Texas’s future looks almost as bleak as its past.

[source:New Republic --   Marie Gottschalk is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America.]


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