By: Dé Bryant
Editors note: The following piece was delivered at protest outside of Wells Fargo in South Bend, Indiana calling for divestment from a carceral system that targets black and brown people at a very early age and generates profit off of the destruction of black, brown, and indigenous communities.
The statistics are startling. The US has 5% of the world's population and 25% of the world's prisoners. Worse, that number has grown from 300,000 prisoners in 1972 to 2.3 million in 2016.
That means that one out of every four human beings in the world are locked up here in the land of the free. The US incarcerates at a rate 4 to 7 times higher than other western nations. The US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
But the things you should be outraged about don't stop with the statistics. You should connect the dots, from history, back, then moving up to this present moment.
Go back to 1865 when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. Supposedly this formally granted freedom to all Americans. You will find out there were exceptions. That loop hole in the Constitution was a clause that said criminals could still be forced to do labor.
That loop was exploited back then to rebuild post-Civil War southern economies. The nation's first prison boom was the result. African Americans were arrested for minimal crimes like loitering and vagrancy. The prisons were packed with Black bodies and their labor helped rebuild the nation.
But was that enough? No. It did not stop there. The outrages continued because it wasn't just about making the economy strong again—at least for the class of people with money and land. It was also about re-establishing a social system where Black people were at the bottom and white people were on top.
You know the names of the groups that made that happen. If you are here today you are one of those people of conscience who abhor what those systems stood for: the KKK, segregation, Jim Crow, Richard Nixon's Law & Order campaign, Ronald Reagan's War on Drugs.
We, the people, took a stand with the Civil Rights Movement. We said no, alright. We said No to the media images of Black men as rapacious beasts and menacing criminals. We said No to separate but equal. We said No.
Change happened. Yes it did. It cost the lives of great leaders, some whose names we know and others we may have forgotten: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Huey Newton; James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, & Michael ; Viola Liuzzo.
And what happened next? Three Strikes & Out laws. Mandatory Minimums, Truth in Sentencing. Together these laws devastated poor communities, black communities, places where people had barely enough money and fewer choices. We started hearing words like "superpredators" and "mass incarceration" and "prison-industrial complex."
The clause written into the Constitution that allows prisoners to be used as forced labor, set the stage for prisons to be money-makers. The Corrections Corporation of America turned the rapid increase in criminalization into shareholder profits. They supported laws like mandatory sentencing that guaranteed a steady influx of bodies.
So here we are today, standing in front of this bank. Why? Because of another set of words: school to prison pipeline. Social scientists have told us what parents and educators already know. When students are given detention or expelled from school they don't learn. When students don't learn they don't graduate high school. When students don't graduate high school, the chances they will end up jobless and incarcerated increases dramatically.
Very real, very bad things are happening right here in South Bend schools. African American students—only 37% of the school population—make up 82% of the suspensions and expulsions. This calamity has to be taken as the crisis that it is.
We must continue to press for an immediate end to out-of-school suspensions and expulsions except for the most egregious behaviors. We must continue to have honest discussions on how racism in American society manifests itself in the schools. The school board and superintendent must continue to make stopping the school to prison pipeline the NUMBER 1 PRIORITY.
No pipelines!! No prisons!!
Dr. Dé Bryant is a community psychologist and professor whose areas of expertise areinternational service-learning; interfaith studies; community development and consciousness-raising; and qualitative, arts-based research methodologies. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in psychological theory, social justice and civil rights, world religions, and gender and ethnicity. She is the Director of the Social Action Project (SOCACT) which operates in northern Indiana and southwest Michigan, with international sites in South Africa. Through SOCACT, and in collaboration with community partners, she develops and launches community-wide initiatives using the arts, exhibits, spoken word poetry, dance, films, workshops, and demonstrations.
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