Feeding the Beast: Black Labor, Public Executions, and the Criminal Justice Economy
Police murder is not just a social or criminal justice problem; it’s an economic one.
Yesterday, in the wake of the most recent murders of black men by police, a friend of mine who is very brilliant lawyer echoed a familiar refrain. Police aren’t killing us more, we’re just seeing more police shootings because of social media. That notion — we are not suffering from greater risk, just greater awareness — while comforting, is simply not true.
Killings were up in 2014. They were up in 2015. And they rose again during the first 6 months of this year. As it stands, African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than whites, and young black men are nine times more likely to be killed by police than other Americans. About one in every 65 deaths of an African American man in the US is a killing by police. The reality is that police are killing us more.
As scholars, activists, and politicians try to put a stop to this violent epidemic, there is something they should all consider. Police murder is not just a social or criminal justice problem; it’s an economic one.
The Nature of the Beast
It is important to remember that lynching was not just a method of social control; it was also a method of economic control.
The American economy is built and dependent on a subservient and socially segregated black class. It is predicated on the mining of cheap labor and wealth from a large, dehumanized, and isolated segment of our population. From slavery to Jim Crow to red-lining, black wealth has been unfairly and forcibly extracted from our bodies and our communities. Only now, it is done under the guise of our criminal justice system.
Of course, the thing about systems of deprivation and exploitation is that people have to be forced to participate. You need something to instill fear that keeps whoever feeds that system in line. For the majority of our history lynching — the extrajudicial killings of black people — served that purpose.
It is important to remember that lynching was not just a method of social control; it was also a method of economic control. According to The Nation, lynchings “ were often used against black people who emerged as economic competitors to local whites, and overall, the lynching rate was correlated with regional economic performance.” The economic hierarchy then was not just enforced by state and local law, but also by unpredictable violence by “individuals” acting with the tacit support of the state.
Today, public and extrajudicial execution of black people at the hands of law enforcement and vigilantes serves the same function — to keep them in line. However, rather than feed the exploitative economic machine of the Jim Crow South, black bodies and black labor must now feed the one built around our criminal justice system.
Who Benefits in the Criminal Justice Economy?
AT&T, Bank of America, Chevron, Eli Lilly, GEICO, McDonald’s, Walmart, Verizon, Microsoft, and Starbucks all use prison labor.
Public Municipalities — As tax revenue shrinks, African Americans are filling public coffers and subsidizing cash strapped municipalities. It is no coincidence that one of 2015’s highest profile killings took place in a municipality highly dependent on excessive ticketing and fining of its black residents for revenue. In Ferguson, Missouri where Mike Brown was killed, fines and court fees have become the city’s second largest revenue source. Black people were disproportionately stopped, searched, and arrested for traffic violations. Half of all St Louis county courts were found to have engaged in illegal or harmful practices. In 2013 alone, the Ferguson Municipal Court issued on average 3 arrest warrants and 1.5 cases per household.
Police Departments — Police departments benefit from the criminal justice economy primarily through the war on drugs. It is widely recognized that the war on drugs was devised under the Nixon administration as a tool to destabilize black communities. The war on drugs continues to disproportionately target African -Americans and policies have been put in place to encourage its continuation through the provision of economic reward. Federal grants for police departments are awarded based on arrest numbers, not crime reduction. Asset forfeiture, by which property seized can be kept or sold, further incentivizes the drug war effort, subsidizing departments across the country. In some states like Oklahoma, police disproportionately target minorities for seizures. In Tulsa County, where Terence Crutcher was murdered because of suspicion of drug possession, 35% of forfeiture cases were against African Americans. Nationwide, police departments have seized $2.6 billion in cash from people who neither went to jail nor had to appear in court.
Private Prisons and Prison Services — Today, for-profit prisons house almost 6% of state prisoners, 16% of federal prisoners, and inmates in local jails in states such as Texas and Louisiana. The two largest private prison companies in the US, GEO and Corrections Corporation of America, combined earn more than $3 billion in annual revenue. In August, the Department of Justice announced that they would stop housing inmates in private facilities. However, that does nothing for prisoners housed in state facilities. Often, private prisons require that state and local government officials keep their facilities full, regardless of the crime rate. Almost two thirds of private prison contracts operating at the local and state level require that they maintain a curtail occupancy rate usually between 80 to 90 percent or require tax payers to pay for the empty beds.
Prison fees also put inmates in debt. At least 43 states have authorized authorities to charge inmates of room and board. Inmates can be charged for everything from high commissary costs, to medical services, to visits from friends and family. An estimated 10 million people now owe more than $50 billion because of their incarceration. Families spend on average $13,607 on conviction-related charges. Most, of course, cannot afford to pay. Those who don’t pay risk facing a warrant for their arrest or losing access public housing and other government benefits.
Beyond the prices the individual inmates and their families pay, private companies which service prisons manage to secure incredibly lucrative contracts regardless of the quality of services they provide. One such example of this is Aramark, a food service company which supplies around 600 prisons in America. In December 2013, they signed a $145 million contract with the state of Michigan. Less than a year later, the state fined them hundreds of thousands of dollars for a multitude of infractions including food shortages, unsanitary conditions, and smuggling contraband.
Corporate Industry — The median wages for state and federal prisoners are $0.20 and $0.31 respectively. Not so fun fact: The 13th Amendment did not abolish slavery — at least not totally. It allows for an exception where someone has been convicted of a crime. Because of this exception, prison labor has blossomed into a huge industry — one that generates more than $2 billion a year and employs nearly 900,000 prisoners for little to no compensation. The federal prison produces all of our military uniforms and supplies. According to some, it also supplies 98% of the entire market for equipment assembly services, 93% of paints and paint brushes, 36% of home appliances, and 21% of office furniture. AT&T, Bank of America, Chevron, Eli Lilly, GEICO, McDonald’s, Walmart, Verizon, Microsoft, and Starbucks all use prison labor. As crackdowns on undocumented immigrants intensifies, in what can only be thought of as a sick irony, some states such as Georgia, Louisiana, and Arizona have turned to using prisoners as source of farm labor — forcing their majority black populations under threat of punishment to literally return to the fields.
How is the Criminal Justice Economy Sustained?
Fear keeps oppressed classes in line, and fear of those classes also deters intervention from society’s more privileged. Paint the innocent black body as monstrous and threatening, as something that must be put down immediately, without fair hearing or trial; you accomplish both goals simultaneously.
All in all, the criminal justice economy generates tens of billions of dollars for the public and private sectors. This economy needs us to keep feeding it. As black labor and black bodies fueled slavery and Jim Crow era economies, so too must they now fuel an economy driven and sustained by our criminal justice system. To do so, requires our compliance not only with the law, but with our assigned status in this economic order — one as a source of money and labor who receive a minimal share of its benefit.
Of course once the beast has you, it does not want to let you go. That’s why prisoners are released with massive debt they can’t ever hope to repay. That’s why felons are denied the right to vote, access to public housing, and opportunities for decent employment. It’s why we don’t take a rehabilitative approach to incarceration. Kept on the margins, former inmates will likely find themselves caught up again in the criminal justice system — after all, the 5-year recidivism rate in the US 76.6%. This is the way the system is designed to work.
Today’s police officers are tasked with keeping this fragile order intact and providing enough fuel to keep this economy going. As in the days of the overseer or zealous white-sheet wearer, their most potent weapon is fear. Fear keeps oppressed classes in line, and fear of those classes also deters intervention from society’s more privileged. Paint the innocent black body as monstrous and threatening, as something that must be put down immediately, without fair hearing or trial; you accomplish both goals simultaneously. Black people comply even in the situations where there most basic rights are violated, and they enter the system. Others who want to believe in law enforcement must then believe in their narrative of black monstrosity — that this injustice is somehow deserved.
How do we change the system?
Let’s starve the beast.
Since Kaepernick first took a knee, 15 black people have been killed by police. Awareness alone is not enough. The only way to change the system is by starving the beast, in order to destroy it — not the entire criminal justice system, but the entire economy that relies on it. To starve the beast, we must completely deny it of its food supply — black wealth, black labor, and black consumer dollars.
Some of our greatest civil rights victories have come as the result of economic deprivation — the Montgomery bus boycott, the Great Migration. In the wake of these police, killings several high profile African-Americans have come out in support of a black boycott. I would like to echo that call. Let’s starve the beast.
We are entering the third week of the largest prison labor strike in history. Imagine if we supported that strike by withholding our consumer dollars from all of those companies that use prison labor. AT&T, Bank of America, Chevron, Eli Lilly, GEICO, McDonald’s, Walmart, Verizon, Microsoft, and Starbucks — let’s start with them.
Further, imagine if we coupled that boycott with a work stoppage of our own. Imagine if, as in the days of the bus boycott, we as a community raised money to support those who stood to suffer the most from a missed day of work. Imagine if instead of feeding the beast, we spent the day nourishing ourselves, our families, and our communities. Imagine, if only for a day, the beast learned what it was to feel hunger.