Crisis and Turning Points in the Fight for Racial Justice

05/08/2015 08:51 am ET | Updated May 03, 2016

This country has reached a turning point. The new civil rights movement that took root in the Ferguson uprising is gaining ground. Most recently, the rebellion in Baltimore has brought another wave of urgency to the crisis of racial injustice and has shifted the national discourse on mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex (PIC) in mainstream politics. (The prison industrial complex refers to the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems.) The protesting and uprising that erupted in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray is a response to long-standing and systemic violence that this particular community has experienced at the hands of law enforcement - in a context of economic disinvestment and high unemployment due to deindustrialization and globalization. This is a microcosm of a larger, systemic pattern and a moment of crisis that demands structural change. The opportunity must be seized not to "reform" aspects of the prison industrial complex, but to abolish it and build a new paradigm that facilitates viable economic, social and political solutions and utilizes restorative justice practices in historically marginalized communities and beyond.

The United States incarcerates 2.2 million people, according to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. According to The Sentencing Project, this is a rate of incarceration far higher than any other industrialized country in the world and unprecedented in U.S. history. More than 60% of people in prison are racial and ethnic minorities - trends that have been aggravated by the disproportionate impact of the "war on drugs," in which two-thirds of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color. The NAACP predicts that if trends continue, one in every three black males born today can expect to go to prison. This is one facet of the way racism manifests itself in our criminal justice system.

Police brutality in communities of color is profuse. Young black men are 21 times as likely as their white peers to be killed by police, according to ProPublica reports filed for the years 2010 to 2012. "The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police." Mother Jones reports that black people are more likely than whites or Hispanics to experience the use of force by a police officer. Evidence indicates our criminal justice system has a systemic pattern of racial inequity.

How did we get where we are today? Michelle Alexander makes the case, in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, that mass incarceration is a deeply systemic issue that functions as a racial caste system - similar to Jim Crow. The War on Drugs, explains Alexander, was a mechanism for maintaining racial segregation post-civil rights era and a catalyst for the skyrocketing rate of incarceration and discriminatory policing of communities of color. She describes how The War on Drugs was initiated during a time when urban areas were experiencing major economic disinvestment and startling unemployment rates. The New Jim Crow reveals that when the drug war was in full-force by 1987, the industrial employment of African-American men had plummeted to 28% from more than 70% around 1970. According to the ACLU, the impact of the War on Drugs on communities of color has been devastating: sentencing disparities and particular enforcement of drug laws have put more black people under the constrain of prison and corrections departments today than were ever enslaved by this country.

The Baltimore rebellion bears a notable resemblance to the Detroit rebellion in 1967. In 1967, the Orioles and Tigers had a game postponed because of "riots" in Detroit. In July of 1967, Detroit police raided a Black nightclub and ignited one of the most violent urban uprisings in American history. It was a turning point in Detroit. Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs explains, in the documentary American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs, that Detroiters called it a rebellion - a rising up and a protest of people against injustice. Boggs defines a rebellion as an outburst of anger and a revolution as "an evolution of something much grander in terms of what it means to be a human being." It is the latter we must work toward in this moment and for the long haul. "There are times when expanding our imaginations is what is required," Boggs says. How do we create a society without the prison-industrial complex, mass incarceration and military policing? How do we build an economy that includes everyone? How do we humanize our institutions and practice restorative justice? As Grace puts it, "we must shake the world with a new dream."

These protests, this rebellion and the Black Lives Matter movement is demanding the actualization of racial justice in this country and is causing a shift of the national consciousness and discourse on mass incarceration and PIC. This is a turning point. There is an opportunity to bolster this movement and work toward structural, paradigm-shifting changes rather than surface-level reforms. It is essential to get at the root of racial injustice and eliminate mechanisms that maintain it. Patrisse Cullers, co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter and Truth and Reinvestment Campaign Director at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, CA, says "Our current movement is an important window into the past and what might be possible for the future of Black folks and their allies. If this country is really interested in valuing Black lives we will see it reflected in how Black folks are treated." The work ahead is multifaceted and layered. The problem is structural as well as cultural - each reinforcing the other. It requires undoing and rebuilding on many levels - systemically, inter- and intrapersonally. There is no one solution to the current crisis we face. It must start with Black Lives Matter.