Bermuda needs truth telling
I cannot count the times I have been stopped and asked about Dr Michelle Alexander's presentation at the CURB Racial Justice Conference at the end of March. By word of mouth her powerful message has reached far more people than attended the conference. The bookshops advise they are almost sold out and people are still asking for copies of the book. A similar reaction has occurred in the United States with over 122 cities taking on her cause and actively reviewing their criminal justice systems.
So what is all the fuss about? What is it about her message that is so powerful and compelling? As she described at the Conference, she was not on the Island to tell Bermuda what to do with our criminal justice system, but to warn against going down the path the United States has gone over the past 30 years that has resulted in an increase in the US prison population from 350,000 in the mid 1980s to over 2.5 million today — a direct result from the switch from a “War on Poverty” (Lyndon B Johnson 1964 policy) to a “War on Drugs” (Ronald Reagan 1985).
This massive increase in incarceration happened without the numbers of crimes committed per capita increasing at all, with statistics showing that drug use was actually decreasing. The largest majority of those imprisoned were people of colour — not for violent crime but for victimless crime, eg drug use. All of which has left Black communities and families in major US cities decimated.
The United States now has the dubious reputation of having the largest number of people incarcerated in the world per capita, far more than Russia, China, and all those countries known for their human rights infringements. Bermuda has the dubious reputation of having the second largest number of people incarcerated in the world per capita.
Dr Alexander was able to paint a picture of the criminal justice system as a whole, and then help the listener to see the bigger picture, and the devastating results it has had predominantly for people of colour and the poor. For the Bermuda audience the picture she painted of the US had haunting parallels to Bermuda. By using Dr Alexander's words and research, I am going to try and summarise in this article her message and also give comparisons to the Bermuda criminal justice system.
Dr Alexander made a number of key points, she talked to increasing black on black violence, which in the US had led to punitive legislation and policies that ended up primarily focusing on the poor and people of colour, effectively criminalising young black men; this while levels of crime in the US continued to stay at approximately the same rates. The black on black violence is mirrored in Bermuda where increasingly punitive legislative measures have been put in place to Stop & Search individuals without probably cause (Section 315F of the Criminal Code 2005 Amendment), resulting in thousands of Stop & Searches being carried out on people of colour, who make up 90 percent of those stopped, 85 percent male).
However, if one measures the total level of crime since early 2008 to 2011 one sees that the level of total crime continues at the same rate, ie no huge increase to warrant the massive increase in Stops and Searches (see attached chart). What is changing is not the amount of crime, but the tools those involved have chosen to use, leading to tragic outcomes and devastated families.
A major result of get tough movements against crime result in increasing stop and searches and primarily, due to implicit biases, increased focus on people of colour, which in turn leads to higher numbers of arrests and incarceration for those targeted. Even though studies have consistently shown for decades that people of colour are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites. That people of all races use drugs, i.e. in the suburbs, in the hood, privileged white families, poor communities of colour, and on college campuses. However, those who do time in prison are overwhelmingly black.
In the US Dr Alexander points to the disastrous effects of increasingly punitive measures and over-focus on poor neighbourhoods and people of colour, in that it effectively takes basic human rights away from those caught up in the system, which are analogous to the lack of rights during slavery and/or segregation, eg denial of employment, denial of housing, denial to the right to vote, denial to serve on a jury. Those who go through the criminal justice system are relegated to permanent second-class citizenship status by law.
Poignantly, with race no longer being socially permissible to use as a justification for discrimination, exclusion and social contempt, the law in the US now ensures that once you are an ex-prisoner and have served your time, the end result is a lifelong exclusion from society. A prison record effectively makes individuals second class citizens for the rest of their lives, and sanctions, both intended and unintended, make it almost impossible to return to a normal life. Yet despite this many continue to strive to overcome these difficulties.
Dr Alexander pointed out that there are a number of myths that drive society:
1. The myth that violence is driven by crime statistics;
2. The myth that punitive measures and a war on drugs is an appropriate response to violence;
3. The myth that people of colour are more likely to sell/use drugs;
4. The myth that most people are cycling in and out of prison because they don't try hard enough and have no self discipline;
5. The myth that it is possible to achieve racial justice without having genuine care, compassion and concern for those who are labelled criminals or troublemakers;
6. The myth that some of us are unworthy.
Increasing punitiveness in our society results in permanent second class status for an increasing number of people of colour, making it virtually impossible to survive and grow. Until we challenge these myths we will continue to have systems of discrimination and exclusion, which in turn define who are worthy or unworthy.
Again how does this relate to Bermuda? Once someone has gone through the criminal justice system it is known by the local community very quickly, resulting in it becoming increasingly difficult to find housing, even though the Human Rights Act 1981 prohibits discrimination on the grounds of criminal conviction in the area of the provision of goods, facilities and services.
Unfortunately, the HRA does not address the discriminatory practice of asking individuals on job applications if they have ever been arrested, imprisoned or fined for criminal activity. In a small community such as Bermuda this creates huge hardship for the individual who, although they have already paid the price to society for their mistakes, and is hopefully rehabilitated, continues to be further punished by society by the inability to obtain work and earn a livelihood in a small community such as Bermuda. This dramatically increases the likelihood of recidivism. We have to remember that 95 percent of those who are imprisoned will end up coming out again and it is critical for our society that we not only prepare them for their release, but ensure they have opportunities to rebuild their lives.
Under the Parliamentary Election Act 1978 Section 2 discrimination is legal on the grounds of imprisonment by denying a person the ability to vote if the person is in prison or is detained in a senior training school or is in preventive detention or corrective training, whether or not they are at large on probation. The Jurors Act 1971 Section 3 discriminates against individuals serving on a Jury based on whether they have been imprisoned for more than three years or during the immediately preceding seven years been convicted of a (first) offence punishable for a term of 12 months or more. Many countries have already removed these restrictions from their legislation.
Four of the most basic fundamental human rights are the ability to have housing, to work, to vote and to serve on a jury, yet one or all of these are being denied to those who have served their term to society.
As Dr Alexander says: “If we are seeking a just society, we must listen to the stories of those cycling in and out of prison. Our crime is imagining we can achieve racial justice without the stories of those trapped in the criminal justice system, without [them] ever being heard.”
We must ask why it is okay to stop, frisk, search and ‘view as suspicious' people, just because they look a certain way? Why have we allowed it to become routine to Stop and Search black males increasing from 89 stop and searches in the first quarter of 2008 to over 6,000 in the second quarter 2011? These are extraordinary statistics, which drastically increase the odds that black youth will be caught up in the criminal justice system; often for youthful indiscretions and mistakes that go ignored on the other side of town, who often get no more than a slap on the wrist because they are from a “good” family.
Who decides and what biases are implicit in the decision as to what is a good family? Dr Alexander commented that US President Barack Obama had been completely open about his youthful indiscretions as a youth. His use of marijuana and cocaine, and his acknowledgment that if he had been caught he could well be cycling in and out of prison like so many others. How many promising young men have been caught up in our criminal justice system whose potential has been crushed?
And how do those being stopped, in particular predominantly young black males, feel about this increasing invasion on their lives. Is it surprising that their thoughts might be along the line of: “No matter what we do? No matter where we are? We will continue to be viewed with suspicion and treated like a criminal. Even if I am on my way to work, just home from university, have good grades in high school, or have skittles in my pocket.”
Add to this that statistics show that young black males between the age of 18 and 35 are the major target, can only result in increasing alienation and anger. This legislation and the resultant increase exponentially of stop and searches have effectively alienated an entire generation of our young people, at a time when the Police are desperately trying to build trust and community.
Dr Alexander urged Bermuda to get serious about job opportunities, housing, and education for folks who need it, especially young people, conditions which we all need in order to thrive. She emphasised the need for quality attention for our young people who are crying out for help; the need to respond with care, compassion and concern rather than profiling them, crushing them, before they are capable of being old enough to have a choice about what they want to be or do.
As a society we must acknowledge that the racial identity of those who are being targeted, have by default been deemed the enemy. If we continue with punitive measures, we must also deal with racial identities, racial divisions, biases, and racialised fears and understand that this is all part of an entrenched system that continues to play out in our community.
We need a shift in consciousness, an awakening to what we are doing and may continue to do, or we may continue to go down the same punitive path as the United States. Dr Alexander said that in 1968 Dr Martin Luther King argued that we need to move from a civil rights movement to a human rights movement and that meaningful equality could not be achieved through civil rights alone, without basic human rights: the right to work, the right to shelter, and the right to quality education.
That we need lots of truth telling, conversations that are difficult and painful but very necessary for communities who have a legacy of injustice; and that we should not expect short cuts, quick fixes, or piecemeal fixes. That tinkering with the machine will not fix it, as the problem, the system, will remain intact. That changes to legislation, policy reforms are important, but what we truly need is a cultural transformation, not a mere rule shifting; a transformation in the way we view certain communities, certain populations, and how we understand the nature of race and class itself.
Dr Alexander left Bermuda with some crucial questions and comments. Should we be satisfied with only legislative changes which encourage and advocate equality impact for all; or should we also demand a more profound social and cultural transformation? If so, then it will be necessary to engage in advocacy and force conversations that many people would prefer not to have.
We have to define what racial justice means to us here in Bermuda. We need to break the cycle, find a way to forge a public consensus that honours the dignity and humanity of each and every one of us, no matter who we are and what we might have done.
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