by Natalia Burdyńska-Schuurman
A nationwide uprising of unprecedented proportions triggered by the police murder of George Floyd has swept the U.S. in thousands of cities and towns, large and small, across all 50 states. This surge of mass resistance around issues of racial injustice, occurring against the backdrop of a major public health crisis and increasingly deteriorating economic conditions, has laid bare the failure of our capitalist system to protect working class communities of color. In addition to facing a much higher possibility of being killed by an encounter with law enforcement, these communities are also coping with disproportionately high rates of unemployment and COVID-19 related death.
Instead of providing just social and economic solutions, our political institutions have mobilized the National Guard to militarize our streets in at least 24 states in order to help police quell the unrest. So far, police have arrested tens of thousands nationwide on “protest-related” charges. A handful of protestors are now facing lifelong prison sentences for various charges associated with their attacking of police vehicles while law enforcement continues to use “less than lethal” deadly force against protestors, medics, journalists, and bystanders alike.
This most recent wave of state-sanctioned violence against the civilian population has made very clear how the repressive U.S. state apparatus working under the political domination of a capitalist oligarchy continues to internally intervene in mass civil unrest when material conditions create explosive socioeconomic inequities and breed widespread public insecurity.
Less evident is the significance of the national lockdown swiftly put in place by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) for the first time in 25 years in response to the eruption of nationwide civil unrest, as word has gotten out that the brutal repression of anti-racist protests by law enforcement officials on the streets is drawing solidarity from the incarcerated population within our federal prisons and detention centers.
On June 1, the BOP announced that its facilities would begin operating under an “enhanced modified operating model” through the enforcement of “additional, temporary security measures” to “ensure the safety of staff and inmates.” This is an extension of what staff and union officials have called a federal “modified lockdown” already put in place to promote social distancing and prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Unsurprisingly, these “modified operations” have failed to implement basic precautionary measures needed to trace and contain the spread of the virus. Prisoners — the disproportionate majority of which are poor people of color — continue to be confined in overcrowded and extremely unsanitary facilities. Meanwhile, arrests, imprisonments and releases without testing have continued throughout the pandemic and have undoubtedly contributed to the spread of the disease to their communities.
This criminal mistreatment of prisoners throughout the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating unlivable conditions and fueling unrest already taking place within federal prisons for months now — most notably in Kansas, Ohio, and Mississippi. The full-fledged national lockdown currently in place (as of the time this was written) — which restricts inmate internal movement, suspends social and legal visits, and is encouraging a massive rise in solitary confinement of prisoners — speaks to the BOP’s concern that a nationwide uprising against racial injustice could be making its way into one of the most foundational institutions of racial and class oppression: the prison system.
Prison rebellions have historically coincided with uprisings against resistance to racial injustice in wider society. The last time the BOP imposed a national prison lockdown was 25 years ago, when a series of rebellions from within four widely separated federal prisons known as the “October Rebellion” erupted. Prisoners were unified against the racial injustice evident in the imposition and execution of prison sentences related to drug possession charges. The trigger was the U.S. Congress’ refusal to reduce crack cocaine sentences to parity with sentences for the more expensive powder cocaine. This decision enabled a skyrocketing in “zero tolerance” policing, arrests, and mass incarceration of poor people of color in possession of the cheaper form of the drug who faced prison sentences 100 times longer than wealthy white people in possession of powder cocaine.
The strength of solidarity between protestors and prisoners during this historical moment sheds light on how the struggle to end police brutality continues to intersect with the struggle to end mass incarceration. “Tough on crime” policing and mass incarceration go hand-in-hand as functions of a racist criminal justice system designed to uphold the social order at any cost.
The police brutality we’re seeing today is a legacy of the racist “zero-tolerance” policing introduced by the Clinton Administration, which has enabled the skyrocketing in policing, arrests, and mass incarceration of disproportionately people of color from poor inner-city communities. Working class people of color are more likely to be targeted by police, not only for subversive actions but also for commonplace behaviors deemed undesirable by the state (such as possession of narcotics, drunkenness, petty thefts, or begging). Before Derek Chauvin put George Floyd in a chokehold and murdered him, he had planned to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes illegally on the streets and using a counterfeit $20 bill to buy the pack of cigarettes. Floyd’s murder is emblematic of the risk people of color face when they are forced to interact with law enforcement, particularly within urban working class communities. It follows that they’re also more likely to be convicted by the justice system and incarcerated by the state as the penalization for having allegedly wronged society as a whole.
Who’s actually wronged society at large? The ultimate responsibility falls on the ruling economic class that’s capitalized on yet another business opportunity created by mass incarceration: the industrial-scale production of maximum security prisons, the provision of prison services and forced prison labor for the profit of private prison contractors.
The established punitive approach to “criminal justice” deliberately falls short of tackling root problems of social rupture and public insecurity within and outside of U.S. borders: the systemic dismantling of the welfare state, reduction of social benefits and continued impoverishment and dispossession — all harmful byproducts of the expansion of neoliberal economic policies pushing sectors of the poor to the margins of society.
Just as police brutality and mass incarceration go hand-in-hand as functions of the repressive U.S. state apparatus designed to secure systemic oppression, so too does resistance to police brutality and mass incarceration in the struggle for liberation. As Marxist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said in his preface to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, “the colonist has but one recourse: force or whatever is left of it.” The defunding of our law enforcement institutions is an important first step for depriving those who reap the benefits of oppression of their monopoly over political repression, as well as the dismantling of the most foundational institution for the systematic perpetuation of race and class-based oppression: our prison-industrial complex.