Entering the Tricentennial: Year One of dismantling Mass Incarceration (and other thoughts on the 2017 New Orleans elections)
As New Orleans enters its Tricentennial Year, the people of the city accomplished two historic firsts. One has already become national news, while the other helps explain how the first happened and what it means. LaToya Cantrell became the first woman elected mayor in New Orleans, a city first named when French traders met the Chitimacha tribe in 1718, on the crescent bend of the Mississippi River. This historic first happened in a run-off election, where, also for the first time ever, voter turnout increased between the October jungle primary and November run-off, by 3000 voters.
Voter turnout usually drops by 50% after the Primary, when many people go home and stay home. Whether they are disinterested because (a) they backed one of the other 16 mayoral candidates who did not make the final cut, or (b) whether their City Council seat had been already decided (as in Districts A, C, and D), along with the two At-Large Council seats, or (c) being uninspired by apathy, oppression, and negative campaign attacks, or (d) believing that in a city like New Orleans, the people in charge will stay in charge no matter who is elected… there are plenty of reasonable reasons to not vote.
To be clear, civic participation in New Orleans is still teetering on a crisis in democracy, with only 32% of registered voters showing up for the Run-Off. In a city of 310,000 voting age residents, only 27% of the adults participated. The number of voters (85,000) in New Orleans is similar to the number of currently disenfranchised people in Louisiana (72,000, with 10% of them being in New Orleans). For comparison, 64% of registered voters (165,000 people) showed up to vote on the 2016 headline of Trump v. Clinton, when most Louisiana Democrats likely knew their state would go Red anyways... and 25,000 New Orleanians got the President they wanted.
Adapting to New Candidates, New Entities, and New Messages
During the Primary season, many organizations hosted forums, as leading groups on affordable housing, environment, and education (to name a few) concentrated on weeding down the 18 mayoral candidates. Platforms were posted, endorsements went out, millionaires launched their own pricey campaigns against their rivals, and many people relied upon trusted experts to sort through the chatter. If people were not talking about crime, water pumps, education, or housing- they were probably wasting their breath.
Voters Organized to Educate (an organization that focuses on “criminal justice” as the main political issue), launched a campaign (“Know Your Vote”) with billboards, bus shelters, and a website (www.KnowYourVoteNola.org) simplifying election information and indicating which candidates signed on to a Ten-Point Platform, based on public safety. In a city where over two-thirds of the budget goes to arresting and incarcerating people- clearly this budget, and its long-term effectiveness, should be a main issue.
Some traditional pavement-pounders focused on tight elections that would likely be decided during the Primary. District C, which includes the economic engine French Quarter, had only two candidates. Nadine Ramsey, the incumbent, had voted to increase the size of the jail and was typically evasive on every point-blank inquiry on her criminal justice positions. Kristen Giselson Palmer was a former councilwoman for C, challenging Ramsey. Although some members of the progressive community questioned her record and intentions on affordable housing, she was clear on the jail. She voted for the 1,438 bed-cap while previously in office, and would be a consistent ally on developing alternatives to incarceration, preventative programs, and confronting the root causes of crime. It was a clear distinction, and Voters Organized to Educate endorsed Palmer, and spread this endorsement throughout their network. Palmer beat Ramsey by a mere 110 votes.
Criminal Justice and Election Advocacy
Who is this network of people focused on criminal justice issues, where did it come from, and how big is it? The core of people demanding criminal justice reform were formed by the system itself. The final line of the book Das Kapital, reads: “Capitalism builds its own gravediggers.” The analysis is that, for Capitalism to work, there are a few profiteers standing on the hard labor of many. At some point, the oppressed workers are so numerous it is an unsustainable power imbalance and they can not hire enough police, court officials, and prison guards to keep the social disruptions in line. In America, the decline of manufacturing, rise of automation, and increase in outsourcing all coincided with another major phenomenon: the birth of mass incarceration on a level that resembles slavery. But can it infinitely grow when the convicted people reach a million… ten million… a hundred million?
Control can be maintained by force, but that is tenable. Control requires compliance, whether altruistic or via manipulation. When 80,000 people leave an arena: nothing will make it go so orderly as a home team victory, such as the New Orleans Saints miraculous comeback against the Washington football team this week. Police officers on hand need only high-five the smiling, chanting masses. Keeping intergenerational discontent is much more difficult, when people are born into an economic and educational quagmire. Police are seen as protecting the haves from the have-nots, and large-scale activities must deal with each generation reaching an age of maturity. Might they have? Or have-not?
New Orleans grew steadily over a century, reaching its peak population in 1960 of 628,000 people, when over 8000 longshoreman worked the riverfront; more than the entire state prison population. Four decades later, the International Longshoreman Association Local 3000 has 353 members, while five times that number of New Orleanians are incarcerated, and as many people are under community supervision in the Crescent City as the entire state prison population as during the most population-packed days of the 1960s. “Law and Order” has become like a religion to some, with dogma beyond question, and a calling card for politicians seeking election. Donald Trump rode it into the White House, yet nationwide that religion is finally under formidable attack.
The ‘Three-Legged Consent’ to Mass Incarceration
The Declaration of Independence includes an altruism that “Governments derive their just power from the consent of the governed.” Consent to mass incarceration, a system of locking away our social problems, has only been possible due to (1) structural racism, (2) the moral taboo of drugs, and (3) a belief that there is no better alternative. It functions as a three-legged stool; yet everyone knows what happens when one leg is taken away from a three-legged stool. Someone can teeter on it for a while, or cheat and put down their own leg to prop it up. Take away two legs, and extra supports are mandatory. Take away all three and the whole thing collapses under its own weight.
An industrialist of the Gilded Age, Stephen Gould, once said publicly, “I can pay half the working class to kill the other half.” His words never became more relevant than when so many families’ livelihoods became dependent on arresting, convicting, incarcerating, and overseeing people. The overseers are predominantly white while the overseen are disproportionately Black. In Louisiana, two-thirds of people in prison come from the one-third of residents who are Black. In many other states, where the white populations hover around 80-90%, white people will make up the majority of the state prison; however, Black and Latino people will always be represented at a massively disproportionate rate. National media stories will lead people to believe even their white prisons are full of Black people. THis is structural racism, guiding our practices and perceptions.
The root causes of incarceration stem from the impacts of poverty, where children face the intergenerational challenges of living in substandard housing, attending under-resourced schools, have an incarcerated family, face unresolved trauma, and strive for some way out of the stresspool. Some may chase a ‘feel good’ way out of intoxication, the only affordable vacation from pain. Others seek an economic way out, with one of the few businesses that can be started with under $100: selling intoxication. This structural poverty (we were all born into, as the status quo) brings on the impacts of the drug taboo and the policies of structural racism. Police are not deployed to the college dorms, to fight drug use with all available resources. They are instead sent to the low-income areas, where people are desperate to rise from the situation they were born into. If white college students were stop and frisked, arrested, and convicted at rates similar to their low-income Black and Latino counterparts… the Drug War would evaporate overnight.
Today, New Orleans has over 15,000 of its native children living in penitentiaries upstate, in white communities where the primary industry is overseeing Black people. Another 1,500 residents are locked up in our local jail, at a rate that is double the next-highest city despite our crime rate being similar to other cities. This is a manufactured crisis that should be looked at no differently than if firefighters were setting houses ablaze, and calling for additional resources. The New Orleans jail population is an outgrowth of leg number three: believing there is no better alternative (when, in fact, there is).
On November 1st, much fanfare was made over Louisiana’s historic release of 1900 more people from prison than previously scheduled. It was in fact historic, as Louisiana had never passed a single measure to reduce incarceration before; however, some Chicken Little types acted like nobody had ever before been released from prison. In fact, roughly 1500 people are released every month, with about 300 of them coming to New Orleans. Despite relatively short probation and parole sentences, New Orleans Probation and Parole officers oversee 7000 people. These residents are denied voting rights, but only until the oversight ceases.
Since the advent of mass incarceration in the 1970s, and with New Orleans serving as Louisiana’s beacon of “a chance,” approximately 100,000 people in New Orleans have some form of criminal record. Each of them have families and close friends who are fully aware of how the government has dealt with people struggling, how little the government has supported people striving to do the right thing after a conviction, and how much the government has contributed to creating the culture of endless punishment upon its own people.
The Elections of 2017
In New Orleans, a city with so many strong community leaders, “race” is not as straightforward a topic as one might assume. Starting with the Free Black community during the age of slavery, New Orleans is better defined by elites, cabals, families, and networks. If electing a Black mayor solved all our ills, New Orleans would have long since become a bastion of equality and prosperity. The legs of the stool still strongly exist.
Voters Organized to Educate strived to make the elections for Mayor, seven City Council seats, and Sheriff into a referendum on the criminal justice system. One slogan, “Without Justice, it’s Just the Criminal System,” appeared on bus shelters in various parts of the city. The organization found no better race than the Mayoral election, where Desiree Charbonnet touted her backing of the District Attorney (who has incarcerated more people, per capita, than anyone in America through leveraged plea deals), the Sheriff (who continues to seek an ever-expanding jail), and promised to “fight” crime and hire 500 more police officers. Meanwhile her adversary, LaToya Cantrell, promised to staff an Office of Reentry with a formerly incarcerated person, to deal with the discrimination following convictions, and to work with community-based groups for prevention and alternatives.
With a City Council led by Jason Williams and criminal justice reformer Helena Moreno, Kristen Giselson Palmer’s prior experience in the Council, and Cyndi Nguyen’s understanding of the expertise within community organizations, and Jay Banks’ knowledge that the prison is a business decimating Black communities: The people of New Orleans have a group that should be pushing back on the budget requests of the criminal justice system. This will provide funds to be directed elsewhere, to development and improvement of lives, of reclamation and rehabilitation to restore communities.
Entering our Tricentennial Year, we can pull out the three legs that have been three hundred years in the making.