Putting a human face on the negative consequences of racially biased laws.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Gerry Lauzon
By Melissa Valentine
Last week on my commute home from work I saw a black girl, she must have been about twelve, by herself on the shore of Oakland’s Lake Merritt, holding up a sign that read “Black men, I value you.” This image shook me. I looked around. Was she with a group? Did her parents put her up to this? She seemed to be alone. From behind the glass in my moving vehicle, I honked for lack of a better response; the image stayed with me, went somewhere deep. She nodded at me and raised her sign higher in acknowledgement.
This election season has been historic in many ways. Not even in my wildest dreams could I imagine that after our first black president, we would see a woman, an openly racist billionaire, and a Jewish socialist running against each other. Also historic is the presence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the election. No other candidate has been held accountable to such specific questions about policy that affects black people. In no other election have candidates been asked on national stages: do black lives matter?
America has always been committed to incarcerating black bodies, but under the Crime Act, that commitment became federally backed.
The Clinton legacy has been under fire recently. Namely, for the Violent Crime Control Act of 1994 that introduced the Three Strikes Law, more severe punishments for minor offenses, and more police presence in certain neighborhoods. I was quite young when this bill was introduced, but the Violent Crime Control Act would affect my life no less. I remember protesting the Three Strikes Law in elementary school. We understood that the law meant that our peers would be criminalized; we knew very well what the school-to-prison pipeline looked like: we were inside it. What I didn’t know was that six years later, I would come to know the Violent Crime Control Act personally.
My brother is what I consider to be a victim of the Three Strikes Law and later, a victim of intercommunity violence—the lie we know as black-on-black violence. The former, a result of laws intended to fill prisons with black and brown male bodies, the latter, a direct result of redlining and numerous other policies instituted to protect white supremacy.
The Violent Crime Control Act was wildly successful. In a recent interview, Bill Clinton said, “we wound up putting so many people in prison that there wasn’t enough money left to educate them, train them for new jobs and increase the chances when they came out so they could live productive lives.” The number of incarcerated Americans grew under the Crime Act by sixty percent. Researchers say 1 in 3 of all black babies born today will spend time in prison. This statistic is higher than any other ethnicity in America. America has always been committed to incarcerating black bodies, but under the Crime Act, that commitment became federally backed.
These numbers feel so abstract, so empty. As a sister of someone who was incarcerated during his first year of adult life and murdered soon after his release, I feel it’s my duty to point out what these statistics do to families, give them a story.
The mental health of my entire family was affected. I suffer from symptoms of PTSD for which I depend on therapy. Many live with untreated trauma. My brother conceived a child upon his release from prison. His daughter never met him; she’s grown up fatherless. He was first incarcerated in a nearby prison in Marin County, where our family could easily visit him on the weekends, but later in his sentence, he was moved to Susanville, CA, a six-hour drive away. We were isolated from each other and making the trip was emotionally and physically disruptive to our lives. Phone calls cost money. Prisoners need money to buy basic necessities in prison; cash must be sent. Households must survive with one income where there were two; children must be raised alone. The damage of one prison sentence can last for generations.
Where do the families of these super predators live? Where do the super predators themselves come from? What neighborhoods breed such monsters? The ghetto, as we know it—historically segregated and resource deprived neighborhoods. Redlining has everything to do with creating the conditions for the intercommunity violence we see in these neighborhoods. It is another federally backed method of preventing black mobility.
As part of the New Deal, a set of laws were created in response to the Great Depression with the intention of fueling the economy. HOLC, for example—the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, was introduced in order to encourage home ownership and refinancing in 1933—but only for some. In cities all over America, HOLC used maps with color-coding to distinguish the safety and investment potential of certain neighborhoods for the issuing of loans by banks. Using an A-D system, neighborhoods were marked: “A” being optimal, “D” being highly risky red zones. These marks would last generations later.
The flats of West and East Oakland would make up the redlined portions of the map of Oakland. These historically black neighborhoods, full of migrants from the South who came to work at Oakland’s bustling port and on the Southern Pacific Railroad, would be denied home ownership opportunities that other Oakland residents were afforded. Their neighborhoods were the bright red portions of the map, the “D” list neighborhoods—the highly risky and in decline (code for black). These redlined neighborhoods were essentially marked as “do not invest” zones across America.
What black people know that many politicians don’t, is this radical, paradigm shifting notion that black people are human—all of them.
The HOLC maps show that Oakland’s segregated flats have been so since the 1930s. The redlining has held up it seems; this initial lack of investment led to deprivation of other essential resources and is one of the reasons our modern cities continue to be marked in red. A 2014 map of homicides in Oakland, shows a similar picture—the very same “do not invest” neighborhoods of the New Deal are lined with a new meaning for red—homicide.
In her popular book, Michelle Alexander deftly argues that the Violent Crime Control ACT and other policies post emancipation are essentially the New Jim Crow, mimicking Reconstuction era policy designed to prevent mobility among blacks. Slavery left us with the myth of white supremacy and a serious fear of anything or anyone that threatens it. This fear attempts to run the country and run the law with the implicit intention that certain people are not valuable and should disappear via ghetto, prison, or casket.
I want to make it clear that I do not love violence. I do not condone violence. I do not love criminals. I believe in justice. However, in a justice landscape where police officers are not indicted for the murder of innocent black bodies, can I truly believe in that system? When my brother was murdered I would have liked for his killer to be found and punished, but the murder was unsolved, like most homicides in this city. In what kind of justice can I believe? In a kind I create myself, in a kind painted with history and humanity.
I realize I am asserting a provocative notion when I ask to see the human face of the super predator. In a way I am defending them, but in that defense is not a denial of facts or naïveté politicians like the Clintons accuse. In my defense is a humanization, a need to see a face and a story.
I can’t help but see my brother’s face in the racialized language used around this debate. He is the super predator, the no conscience having, no empathy feeling monster Hillary describes. So is the man (child?) that killed him. And so is the one that later killed him. And so on and so forth, the cycle continues. This simply is not acceptable nor is it complete.
Inherent in a society that upholds a penal system the way ours does, is a valuation system—whose life is of value and whose is not? Who can be a citizen and who cannot? There must be laws to help us make these determinations.
Conditions and laws work together to uphold white supremacy, whose goal it is to assist in the perishing of the undesired, the feared.
For me, the heart of the problem with the Violent Crime Control Act, and the reason behind the tension we’re seeing at Clinton rallies, is this: what black people know that many politicians don’t, is this radical, paradigm shifting notion that black people are human—all of them. This remains a secret to many. What is scarier than a free black man (person)? America has avoided this question and built policies to protect itself from it since 1863.
There are unequivocally state sanctioned murders of black people by police as we’ve seen recently in the murders of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Oscar Grant, and then there are the state sanctioned policies that create the conditions for intercommunity black violence—what we know as black-on-black crime. I find it necessary to discuss them together because one cannot occur without the other. Conditions and laws work together to uphold white supremacy, whose goal it is to assist in the perishing of the undesired, the feared.
Do not invest.
Oakland is known for many great things: a history of activism, including the Black Panther Party and now Black Lives Matter; among cities of its size across America, Oakland is the most diverse. We even have a lake, the beautiful, historic Lake Merritt. Often diminishing all the great things, Oakland is known universally for one thing: violence.
The other night I looked up how many shootings took place within a one-block radius of my apartment. Seven in the last year, one fatal. I remember the fatal one. My street was blocked off and I had to park a few blocks out of my way because my normal route was obstructed by yellow caution tape. I asked the police officer near the tape what had happened and if I should be concerned. He looked at me sternly and said I didn’t have anything to worry about.
“Did the victim make it?”
“No,” he responded curtly, providing no other details and a hard look that said leave me alone, why are you so nosey?
But I am concerned. I always think of the victims. I see them as people. Though I don’t know their stories, I know they’re worth knowing. Someone was killed in the street a block from my home. That is significant. My brother died on a similar street in West Oakland fifteen years ago and as soon as the caution tape was put away, everyone’s concern went with it. You have nothing to worry about.
When my brother died, I had a vision of painting a mural with all the names on it. It would be massive, endless, with overlapping letters. I wanted to see every single name written of the people who’d died this way. It felt important that they not be erased. What could justice possibly look like? For one thing, the injustice must be seen, it must be named.
When my brother was murdered at the age of nineteen in West Oakland, my entire family went to the site where he’d been slain and we created a version of the mural I’d envisioned. We decorated the freeway wall he’d fallen before with poetry and bible verses, personal letters; we taped up color copies of our most treasured photos of him, we drew pictures. This wall was massive, probably 20×40 feet or more and we covered it, grief-stricken. We needed people to know what had happened and that the boy who died was loved, was human, had a story.
Soon the cops showed up, multiple cars, angry. What the hell did we think we were doing? What is scarier than free black people? We would be cited for defacing state property. The wall was quickly cleaned, leaving no trace of what had happened. People drove by, millions of them, without ever knowing. You have nothing to worry about.
If freedom is our biggest fear, we have plenty to worry about and we should be concerned. I feel like the girl on the shore of Lake Merritt, holding up my sign: black men, I value you.