SLAVERY BECOMING MASS INCARCERATION IN AMERICA
Michael F. Kelley, first year writing UNC Asheville student
The Burton Street Community Peace Gardens exist to empower the neighborhood and to bring attention to various topics affecting our society from the national level down to the local. While there are a range of issues presented through the different works of art, the one that stood out to me, was that of “Sleeping Justice.” At first glance, it is abundantly clear that that the installation is an allusion to the slave trade and America’s role in it. It is a recreation of a slave ship made from discarded pallets. Visually it has a top down construction with attention drawn to the mast in its center from which a large “For Sale” banner is draped. Above hangs, ironically, an American flag. It isn’t until one makes their way around the piece to the rear when the intention of the artist is fully realized. The back of the ship contains cages with pictures of modern day prisoners behind bars. This sculpture is meant to bring attention to the idea that through the passage of time in this country slavery has morphed into the modern-day prison industrial complex. The impact of these practices was felt throughout the US and the Burton Street community was no exception.
Before the birth of our nation North America was an integral stop for slave traders. America declaring its independence did little to change the widespread use of slavery. It took America’s bloodiest war to finally abolish slavery. Lincoln’s 13th Amendment came with a rather large caveat. This new banned slavery nationwide, unless the individual has been convicted of a crime. The justice system has used this sub text ever since as a way of repackaging slavery multiple times. First came contract labor, then Jim Crow Laws and most recently the war on drugs leading to disproportionate mass incarceration of minorities. People of color have been affected by these policies at the national, state, and local levels (Alexander, 2010.)
In the podcast “Celia, A Slave: The True Crime” that Rocked the American Slave Power, we see perhaps one of the first blatant cases of the misuse of the justice system in order to reinforce and prolong slavery. The podcast tells the story of a slave who murdered her master in self-defense of repeated sexual assaults. She was found guilty of murder without any consideration given to the idea of what today would be considered self-defense. Celia had reached out to the daughters of her owner for help as well as another slave with whom she was romantically involved. She received no assistance. Feeling she was on her own with these horrors, she bludgeoned her owner to death during one of his late-night intrusions into her cabin. She tried to cover up the murder by burning the body in the fire place. She was arrested and received a well-constructed defense by a local white attorney who was sensitive to her plight. This fact made little difference when it came time for the jury to make their decision as the podcast describes, “Judge William Hall chose not to give any instructions from the defense to the jury, which centered on the motive, instead he only read the instructions that focused on reasonable doubt and questions about the legality of her confession.” (Cousins- Hadley, 2018).
This illuminates the notion that as far back as the 1850s the idea that the justice system would be tailored to suit those in power and serve to keep those at the very bottom of the society exactly where they were. The podcast goes even further to explain why this case was so important to the system of slavery remaining intact. “To admit that she had a right to self-defensive would be to admit that she had human rights. This could set a legal precedent that could potentially shake the practice of slavery to its core.” (Cousins-Hadley, 2018).
After slavery those in power didn’t have to be so creative. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 answered the question of slavery but did little to lay any positive groundwork for where the nation was to go next. The uncertainty surrounded the notion of how to live with newly freed slaves going forward. In the minds of most Americans at the time, to give individuals who were essentially considered livestock rights overnight was unthinkable.
With no direction about how to practically achieve this command, local, and state governments were left to their own devices to use existing systems to try make this transition comfortably. Most if not all southern states adopted systems of making prisoners into contract laborers. Vicky Pelaez makes this point in her article “The Prison Industry in the United States”, “From 1870 until 1910 in the state of Georgia, 88% of hired out workers were Black. In Alabama, 93% of ‘hired out’ miners were Black. In Mississippi, a huge prison farm similar to the old slave plantations replaced the system of hiring out convicts. The notorious Parchman plantation existed until 1972” (Pelaez 2018).
During this period of forced prison labor African Americans slowly began to assimilate into American culture. In order for southern states to keep their stranglehold on this population Jim Crow laws were instituted. Essentially making Blacks prisoners in their everyday lives. Michelle Alexander writes in The New Jim Crow, “Segregation laws were proposed as a part of a deliberate effort to drive a wedge between poor whites and African Americans. These discriminatory barriers were designed to encourage lower-class whites to retain a sense of superiority over blacks, making it far less likely that they would sustain interracial political alliances aimed at toppling white elites” (Alexander, 2010). Thanks to widespread organization and protests during the civil rights movement in the 1960s Jim Crow and segregation was finally over turned after more than half a century. This new-found independence represented a clear and present danger to those in power. These mostly rich white men were, yet again, left with the question of how to control the people of color. This question would be answered by Richard Nixon in the form of the war on drugs.
According to the documentary The 13th, the American prison population in 1970 was less than 250,000. By 2014 it had ballooned to 23 million inmates (Averick 2016). There are many reasons for this astronomical increase. Perhaps the most obvious was the crack epidemic of the 1980s which led to mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines in many states. These laws were typically written with much greater penalties for crack possession than that of its more upper crust cousin cocaine. These guidelines often called for decades of sentencing as well as many states adopting a three strikes sentence which equated to life in prison for many non-violent drug offenders (Averick 2016).
The political motivations for these laws can be argued but the impact on minorities is abundantly clear. In the 40 years since President Nixon declared the war on drugs, multiple generations of African American and Mexican patriarchs as well as matriarchs have been removed from their communities, crippling any chance for organization and upward mobility.
The civil rights movement brought an end to the Jim Crow Era but this brief decade of relative freedom in the 60s beget the new era of mass incarceration we now find ourselves in as a country. Surely those in power were very threatened by minorities’ ability to organize in the1960s and therefore it can’t be a coincidence that this period would bring about the most costly and longest “war” in our nation’s history (Alexander 2010).
All of these periods in American history have influenced Asheville and the Burton Street Community in one way or another. To get a better idea about how the area has been affected I spoke to Kevin Rumley coordinator of the Buncombe County Veterans Treatment Court. The VTC is a pretrial deferment program for Veterans similar to local drug courts. He is the first to admit that there is a disproportionate number of minorities arrested and convicted. He program is one of the few ways to receive a reprieve from the criminal justice system. In many cases however, individuals had to risk their lives in order to gain this status of veteran and have the benefit of pretrial deferment (personal communication, April 8, 2018).
Kevin and I also spoke about how government policy has affected Buncombe county in the past and present. I learned that prior to desegregation there were more individuals with Masters degrees and PhDs teaching in local black schools than anywhere else in the state. Most of these people were not hired into the newly desegregated schools. This served to cheat new generations of children out of what had been a quality education. He went on to explain that Urban Renewal, a program of land redevelopment in areas where there is urban decay, had played a major role in transforming many African American communities in Asheville. Many neighborhoods were left so fragmented by this policy, they never recovered their identities.
Many chose to leave the south all together leading to what became known as The Great Migration (personal communication, April 8, 2018).
Most black neighborhoods in Asheville have been battered and fractured by decades of these various policies. The Burton Street community however, has remained remarkably resistant to the changes. DeWayne Barton, creator and director of the Burton Street Community Peace Garden, explained how his neighborhood has fought this change during a walking tour of the area. Black owned businesses and a community center were an integral part of the steadfastness. Burton Street was able to pull through most of these difficult periods and wasn’t until the war on drugs that the community truly came under attack. The neighborhood saw widespread lawlessness which resulted in a number of arrests of many of the young black men in the community. The Peace Garden was created DeWayne as a response to the rampant criminality that had become a part of daily life in Burton Street. The Garden galvanized the neighborhood and it once again survived another stage of focused persecution. Some neighborhoods and Asheville as well as the rest of the nation have not been as resilient (personal communication, February 18, 2018). As tough as Burton Street has been it now faces a new threat, that of gentrification. Again, typically rich white people coming in buying property cheap and renovating the homes which in turn drives up surrounding property taxes forcing other longtime residents to move. After surviving so many government policies it seems unfair but altogether quintessentially American that free market capitalism may be lead to the ultimate dismantling of the Burton Street Community as we know it.
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