Prisoners of War

Article excerpt

For you are prisoners of war, in an enemy's country--of a war, too, that is unrivaled for its injustice, cruelty, meanness... --Frederick Douglass(1850) [1]

While the revered creator and abolitionist was doubtless addressing the barbaric treatment of four million of his people held in thralldom in the U.S. slave states, his voice resonates down through the corridors of time, touching and informing us as a new century dawns. At first blush, it may seem that Douglass was making reference to the horrific Civil War, but the dating sets his trenchant observation at fully a decade before the Confederates fired upon Fort Sumter, South Carolina, considered the opening salvo in the ensuing four years of armed conflict. What the astute Douglass was referring to, then, was an unofficial, undeclared, yet "unrivaled" conflict: a war against a people. His people. Black people.

Though undeclared, it was nonetheless as real, as unrelenting, indeed, as "unrivaled" as death itself. Douglass was using his considerable skills as journalist, as orator, and as agitator, to reveal a deeply hidden, yet painful truth: the war against Africa's children. It is in this historical context then, that one must consider, and examine the work of contemporary radical journalists, activists and agitators who point to the so-called war on drugs, or the broader so-called war on crime, that, in effect and impact amounts to an undeclared war on African Americans.

The celebrated scholar-activist, Angela Y Davis, has done brilliant and incisive work on the U.S. prison-industrial-complex for decades. She has done so from the varied perspectives of political prisoner (ostensibly free), radical political activist, and scholar-professor. In her "From the Convict Lease System to the Supermax," Professor Dav0is explains that Anglo-American prisons did not begin as institutions designed to achieve African containment. Indeed, their origin lies in European notions of the Enlightenment:

The birth of the English and American penitentiaries, whose most ardent advocates were passionately opposed to harsh corporal punishment, had little impact on the punishment regimes to which slaves were subjected. Neither did they effectively alter the ways in which white women were punished. As such they were implicitly racialized and gendered as new and less cruel modes of white male punishment. The most widely publicized penitentiary design was the panopticon engineered for total observation and proposed by utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Although few prisons actually were constructed according to its strict standards, its discursive impact was such that it was linked closely to the project of prison rehabilitation. [2]

Drawing from such diverse sources as French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) and African-American scholar-activist and journalist W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963), Davis illustrates well the political and social limits of eighteenth century ideas of the Enlightenment.

The waging of the U.S. Civil War and its aftermath proved that Enlightenment ideals could be bent beyond recognition in an era of upheaval. In the U.S. South, penitentiaries were emptied as convicts were recruited into the armies of the Confederacy. The role of prisons in Southern society was thus re-conceptualized, and found its footing in the post-war years as a tool of social and economic control of a people said to be liberated by the rigors of battle. In this utilitarianism of the surviving white supremacist state the prison came to be a massive exploiter of black labor. In his now classic work, Black Reconstruction, Du Bois notes, "The whole criminal system came to be used as a method of keeping Negroes at work and intimidating them. Consequently there began to be a demand for jails and penitentiaries beyond the natural demand due to the rise of crime." [3] Nor need one waste too much anxiety over the vexing issue of crime, for the various states replaced the nefarious Slave Codes with similar Black Cod es, which made acts criminal, that were not criminal if performed by whites. …