*This post originally appeared on The Burner Blog.
Several years ago I entered the yard at San Quentin Prison and walked towards the basketball court with my teammates. To be honest, I had some butterflies my first time. There is something unnerving about the whole experience. Multiple security checkpoints, guards with large guns and instructions to never run off the basketball court, even to chase the ball, reminded you that this is not your normal city league. A large crowd sat on tables and lounged around the edges of the court, mostly cheering for the visiting team and against their fellow inmates.
But then it hit me. There are a lot of black men in this prison, far too many.
The next thing occurred to me was how incredibly kind and fun the inmates were. We were warmly greeted and shown hospitality. The more time I spent with these men, the more I genuinely liked them, and the more I tried to rack my brain for answers to the strange scenario I encountered.
What is going on here?
Since I moved to East Oakland the picture has come into focus a little more. I quickly picked up on the rift between the police and the young black men I know. I have heard more stories about police misconduct than I have ever wanted to hear, while also attending neighborhood meetings and chatting with some officers who I believe truly care about our neighborhood and want to simply serve and protect.
I have met far too many boys and girls and young adults growing up while their fathers live behind bars in Santa Rita or San Quentin or somewhere else. I reached a tipping point when a 17 year old working in our after school program defended himself in a fight at school and found himself in Juvenile Hall. I attended his hearing, sitting in the back like a deer in the headlights while the judge yelled at the boy, the boy’s mother and finally myself for no logical reason and quickly sentenced this kind and sensitive teenage boy to another 30 days in Juvenile Hall. The defense attorney looked like he was asleep.
So when I read Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, and heard her speak, I was primed to receive the message. We need to reform this system. The “war on drugs” coined by Nixon and carried to new heights by the Reagan administration, put a target on young men of color in neighborhoods like East Oakland. Three strikes laws and harsher and harsher minimum sentencing sounds good when a politician wants to be “tough on crime” and get elected, but the effects are problematic.
Drug use is remarkably even when compared across racial lines, but the war on drugs has targeted people of color in inner cities for decades. We have new version of a racial caste system, and more African Americans are under correctional control today than were in slavery in 1850. The war on drugs and harsh sentencing for non-violent offenders functions to relegate millions of people to second-class citizens, and former inmates can be legally discriminated against for the rest of their lives. Many of these people are locked up for nonviolent crimes. Our system is broken.
Just like the Civil Rights era decades ago, there are some churches and pastors leading the charge to bring justice to this system, but for many of us, it is easier to defend the rights of the “innocent” instead of the rights of the “guilty.” I hope and pray that the whole American Church, of every race, from the cities to the burbs to the country, would become informed and then organize to reform this broken system.
May God’s Kingdom come and God’s will be done in our criminal justice system.
Let us care. Let us pray. Let us act.